The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was one of the first to bring new media to its curriculum, adding a "Cyberspace Reporting" class in 1994 -- back when most journalists still hadn't seen the Internet.
Since then, many have helped build Columbia's online journalism program, but one person stands out: Sreenath Sreenivasan.
A fulltime faculty member with what he describes on Sree.net as "the simple title" of associate professor of professional practice, Sreenivasan functions as the school's new media guru and goodwill ambassador.
Every graduate since 1996-97 with a concentration in new media has gone through Sreenivasan's New Media Workshop, an intense production class. He's a visiting professor of new media at the Poynter Institute, he teaches "Smarter Surfing: Better Use of Your Web Time" in newsrooms, is the Tech Guru for WABC in New York and is the founding administrator of the Online Journalism Awards.
Columbia first offered the intensive new media production class in 1995. That year, "we had 45 students in a class designed for 16," he said.
Today, fewer people sign up for the class because students now get new media training in other ways -- online journalism is no longer taught in just one, specialized class, but is woven throughout the curriculum.
Sreenivasan recently spoke with OJR about the history of Columbia's online curriculum, and where the program is headed. The following is an edited excerpt of that interview. For more on where Columbia is going with online journalism education, see a companion Q&A with Nick Lemann, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Online Journalism Review: How did the online media program get started?
Sreenath Sreenivasan: Online media and the word "new media" came to Columbia in the fall of '94 with the appearance of a class taught by Josh Quittner, now at Business 2.0. … He was one of the first mainstream reporters to do this kind of stuff and he came on board to teach a class in cyberspace reporting. That spring we had our first production class [taught by Pamela O'Connell and Vernon Church]. We were working with Mosaic, and during the course of the class we heard of a great new product and we launched with version 0.9 of Netscape. There we were teaching this stuff when most journalists didn't have it or know what to do with it. It was a blast. …
What really took the J-school into the cyberspace age and made it far ahead of not only the industry but what journalism education was doing for the most part was the arrival at Columbia that year of Andrew Lih -- who was not a journalist, but an engineer. [In 1995, Lih founded "The Paperless Guide to New York," the first Web site about the city.] He was a geek who loved writing and journalism and media stuff and he dragged us all together into the Internet age.
I was teaching in the broadcast department. I've always been what I consider a print journalist who happens to like some aspect of television and radio. I was doing multimedia when it was nothing to do with the Internet. I sat in on Josh's class … and I got involved with the program because of my friendship with Andrew. I continued to teach in the broadcasting department. In the fall of '96, I started teaching full time in new media.
OJR: Was there a new media department?
SS: It was an area of interest. We had our first new media masters project in '95. … Having done this now for more than 10 years, we've seen things that aren't commonplace or weren't commonplace. For example, when people talk about the dotcom bust of 2000, we saw what we consider an earlier boom and bust in media journalism. For example, in '96 when MSNBC was launched, and in '95, Delphi -- they hired everybody. If you could spell HTML you could get a job. We had 45 students in a class designed for 16 in that first class. We had seen all these students get hired and in '97 interest stopped and … then things picked up again '98-99.
OJR: Talking to you, I'm reminded of how rare that kind of thing was 10 years ago. Columbia, with this venerable journalism school -- how were you able to tap into something that new that fast?
SS: It wasn't easy. It took people like Andrew Lih and Joshua Schroeter [founding director of the Center for New Media] who had worked for Time Warner. Time Warner was one of these companies that very early tried new media -- interactive television and Pathfinder. In those days, some professors didn't care about new media and were actually openly hostile to new media becoming a concentration, while others were very gung-ho about it and made it happen. There was also a feeling in early '95, late '94, that print was doomed. That's why all these people signed up. They thought: 'My God, we won't have a job.'
Now, fast forward: We have eight students in this year's class. Does that mean people aren't interested? In fact, what has happened is in those days the only way to scratch your new-media itch was to take this hard-core production class where we produced stories in depth. We always had students who might have been interested but weren't as committed as they would have been if they could have taken a light version.
Now, you have the same percentage of hard-core interested students -- these are just the people who really want to do it -- while we have dozens learning this stuff in skills class. More people are doing it, but fewer are doing it in depth.
Now new media's part of everything we do. It's part of the way students get their information, do their reporting in addition to going out in the streets. The magazines the students produce are online, their newspaper's online. So in a way, new media has sort of permeated the school -- and been a victim of its own success. Everybody's doing it. It's no longer that different. It's like talking about telephone journalism -- you don't talk about the telephone any more in class.
OJR: Are you also getting more people on the front end who know what they're doing?
SS: Absolutely. In the very early days we were all learning together because this stuff was just being invented -- which was fun. But we didn't know that much more than the students, so it was important for us to ramp up and learn as much as we could. … Now many of them come in with blogs. Our average age is 28, but we do have a lot of 21 year olds who their whole conscious lives, their whole student lives they've been online.
Columbia's philosophy has been very much to focus on the reporting side of the production … we spend most of our time producing journalism. There are other programs that do a fantastic job of doing real new media in a different way, where they think about new media including things, games and movies, and different ways of communicating. We focus exclusively on the reporting and writing for the Web. That sometimes makes us not as sexy as these other programs, which are programs I admire. Some of our students who might be interested in new media, when they see that what we're doing might be basic in their eyes -- then they go ahead and do other courses. We encourage that.
The other thing that really helped this all take off was a course set up in '95 called "Tools of the Modern Journalist," now called "Skills of the Modern Journalist" -- three weeks of television, three weeks of Web pages, new media, three weeks of computer-assisted reporting. … You might come in as a die-hard, ink-stained wretch, where you might never look at radio -- but you had three weeks where you were forced to do it, and that opened your eyes.
OJR: Today, when you build a Web page as a student are you still hard-coding from scratch?
SS: No. We are using Dreamweaver and Photoshop. This is partly my philosophy -- it's important to know only if you're really going to be doing this stuff. In my lab classes we do HTML. But it helps me break down the barriers of my students, who are not undergrads. … It's often a hard sell. We want to remove the mystery right away, and the best way to do that is with one of the WYSIWYG programs. … We do look under the hood. The first time I take a die-hard newspaper reporter and have him build a simple page, the constant reaction we get is: "We had no idea it would be this easy."
The other thing I've been a big fan of is multilingual journalism, with the different languages of media -- print, broadcast, radio, new media. I think you can do a better job -- even if you're not going to be running the camera -- if you're a print person who has done some television or done a photography class. You learn so much about how that stuff works, it helps you be a better journalist.
OJR: This came up during the interview with Nick Lemann, who said talking about broadcast would probably bore me because it isn't about online media. I said it had a lot more to do with online than he might think.
SS: It does. … I think you're going to see more and more of those barriers come down, because it's very important as we do that to go forward. Also, from a practical point of view, I introduced a course at the school called "TV for Print Majors." I've seen students out of that who have gone on to do television on air and behind the scenes.
I think it's really important because the economics of this business are changing, and we're now being looked at by people who are saying, "If I can get somebody who can do three things for the price of one and not have to pay them any more, I'd rather do that." It's unfortunate, but it really helps to have multiple skills.
These companies are going to see a generation of younger journalists coming up who can cut their own video, write really well, take photos -- and they'll say, "Jeez, this person can do six things and this other person can do two things. Let's go with the guy who can do six." That's the problem with the industry. … Almost inevitably, the student who takes the new media class is a student who gets it, that to say, "I'm only going to write great stories that the world is going to see in print, I'm not interested in other media" is not going to work.
The world is changing around us, has already changed. … We also have students who are doing new media now and don't go back to it, but know that when the change hits them they'll be prepared for it.
The eight students in the new media workshop now are the ones who are committed to this … as opposed to being forced to this kind of thing.
OJR: Do you like the idea of being able to offer a second year so that people can both get this intense level of skills and work on other concentrations?
SS: I definitely think the optional two-year program is a good idea, because often students don't have the time. Every year starting in March, I have students come up to me and say they wish they could have taken the course. I have students who have paid money elsewhere or hired a tutor -- after spending $40,000 -- because they didn't think of doing new media until it was too late or didn't have time.