In assessing the scope and status of innovation activities at JMC schools and colleges, the JMC Innovation Project sought to gauge progress made in developing cultures of innovation.
Interviews with deans and directors showed that progress is underway with millions of dollars and considerable time and energy being invested in innovation activities. Yet, in some cases, the initiatives and experiments cited by JMC leaders – however exceptional in their own right – don’t necessarily add up to cultures of innovation that create synergistic energy throughout the school around shared beliefs, values and goals. Innovation efforts frequently are limited in scale, reaching only a select group of students rather than students in all disciplines.
Overall, while some JMC schools are ahead of the pack in innovating, others are struggling to keep up.
In fact, JMC leaders said just that.
When asked to rate the innovation they see going on in JMC schools and colleges across the country on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being poor and 5 being outstanding, they responded with ratings from 1.5 to 5, with most in the middle. The mean rating was 3.19, with deans and directors from private institutions perceiving a slightly higher level of innovation.
According to Alan Stavisky from the University of Nevada Reno, “If we are ranking things overall, I’m seeing some terrific ideas but then other places that are really kind of stuck in doing it the way they’ve been doing it for the past ten years. The pioneers are offset by the programs that aren’t there.”
Ann Brill from the University of Kansas said, “I’m optimistic. There are some that I would say are a 5, but I don’t think it’s across the board. Some of it is quite discouraging. I see some 2s.”
Raul Reis from Emerson College who ranked JMC programs “a solid 3” said, “Some are striving to have an impact and innovate. Some are playing by the same rules and not pushing.”
The reason we are all getting 3s is that it is bloody impossible to get a 5. . . We are living through a time of absolute upheaval and to be giving a 3 is not so bad considering how hard it is.
JMC leaders identified a long list of obstacles to innovating, including the fast pace of technological change and industry transformations; lack of funding and other resources; inability to identify and/or hire faculty and staff with special expertise in emerging areas; foundation support limited to a select group of programs; inadequate university level support; faculty resistance to change; bureaucratic roadblocks; shifting enrollments; and outdated tenure and promotion policies.
These are serious challenges, both individually and collectively, that slow processes of change.
Another factor that has stymied the development of cultures of innovation is a reactive mindset that distracts from long-range planning.
Evan Cornog of Hofstra observed, “To a large extent in the last 20 years in journalism schools and schools of mass communication, the innovation we have been doing is more reactive than proactive.”
David Culliers of Arizona expressed a similar view, “I think we follow more than we lead,“ while David Perlmutter of Texas Tech doubted the ability of JMC schools and colleges to inspire innovative thinking: “We are ten times worse than business in suppressing at all costs innovation.”
Hong Cheng of Virginia Commonwealth said that “JMC and higher education, in general, should be a leader rather than a follower in this changing world, in terms of technology and innovations. Right now, we are more responsive rather than proactive. We are always feeling like we are behind in the game.”
The interviews also revealed a lack of strategic focus that has slowed the creation of cultures of innovation in many schools.
David Boardman of Temple observed, for example, “There has been a value of late on newness and innovation simply for its novelty and not necessarily for any definable goal. It needs to move toward a definable goal.”
Bey-Ling Sha of San Diego State said that innovation “should be contextual and strategic in the sense of being purposeful for what you are trying to accomplish . . . we should be doing something new but be strategic.”
Jay Bernhardt of Texas noted the importance of “elevating innovation to a strategic goal and having specific actions and being transparent around that.”
We are trying to be very strategic about what’s next for us. Right now, we are trying to assess what we are doing and where we are going so that we don’t get overwhelmed by change for the sake of change.
Some JMC schools and colleges have made innovation a priority in strategic planning.
Marie Hardin of Penn State observed, for example, that schools need “to embrace our responsibility to innovate. Innovation is not something extra, not an add-on. It should be part of our mission . . . embraced as a core part of our mission. If you do that, it automatically leads to strategic plans that seriously embrace it.”
Although only one indicator, a school’s mission statement provides insight into a school’s identity and strategic priorities. Notably, a program governed by ACEJMC is required to have a mission statement and a strategic or long-range plan “that provides vision and direction for its future.”
A number of JMC leaders couldn’t recall whether innovation was part of their schools’ stated missions and/or strategic plans. Others said that the published mission statements were out of date; some said they were in the process of revising their statements.
A few explained that although innovation was not explicitly part of their mission statements, it was wired into the DNA of their schools or reflected in other ways. For example, Sandra Duhe of Loyola New Orleans, said, “We don’t use the word innovation. But we talk about enhancing academic excellence and that would include innovation.”
With a few exceptions, the majority of deans and directors said there are no formal measures in place at their schools and colleges to track the impact of innovation.
According to Mark Nelson of Alabama, “Sometimes we forge ahead into these areas without thinking about how we are going to show the impact of it.”
Many JMC leaders reported that the impact of innovation was reflected through student retention, internship feedback from employers, student satisfaction, job placement, graduation rates, event attendance, school rankings, number and quality of student applications, learning outcomes, grant funding, publication quality and institutional support.
Measuring is a tricky word. As an accredited program, we do a lot of assessment of student learning . . . surveys of alumni, student portfolios. I don’t know that we are effectively measuring innovation. You hope you implement innovation in a way that helps students and I guess when our student work is evaluated well, perhaps that is an indication we are doing it correctly. But I don’t know that we ask a question that gets at the heart of it.
When asked whether they believed their schools were advancing innovative thinking and practices in industry, the majority of JMC leaders said the biggest impact was through providing graduates with technological skills and innovative mindsets.
Lorraine Branham of Syracuse said, “We are pushing and encouraging students to think about innovation—turning out students who understand its value and recognize its importance. . . . Any company they work for will have this expectation of them.”
Maryanne Reed of West Virginia similarly noted, “Our main impact is our students who go out into industry and help industry change. We are helping to advance practice in newsrooms through our innovators.”
We are [having an impact] . . . but institutionally not doing as good a job as we could be . . . in terms of being a thought leader for industry.
If schools of journalism, media and communication are to play leadership roles in driving innovation, then research will play a critical role in creating new knowledge that helps to advance industry thinking and practices. The JMC Innovation Project identified a significant gap in this area.
While acknowledging the creative work of individual faculty in such areas as science and health communication, social media and data analytics, the majority of JMC leaders reported a lack of cohesive efforts to marshal resources around innovation research.
According to Maria Marron of Nebraska, “We are producing reams and reams of research that is largely irrelevant to most of us but it gets people tenured and it certainly is not really relevant to industry.”
We need to offer research that is informed by practice and that in turn can inform practice. I see entirely too much research that is disconnected from practice.
Only a very small number of deans and directors cited examples of how JMC research is affecting industry.
For instance, Willow Bay of Southern California pointed to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, which, in collaboration with corporate partners, is addressing social and technological issues in industry.
Bradley Hamm cited the Knight Lab, which produces open-source, technological tools for media at Northwestern. He said, “The Knight Lab has incredible records of adoption by media companies . . . our technology has been used by more than 300, 000 storytellers around the world.”
Steve Coll of Columbia described the Tow Center for Digital Journalism as a place where research is “meant to engage with the intersection of emerging technology and journalism practice and try to illuminate ethical, legal and professional conundrums arising in this disruption.”
Finally, the interviews revealed that many deans and directors hold outdated views reflective of traditional J-school models. Journalism was top of mind for many in thinking about efforts to innovate, suggesting a narrow view inconsistent with the growth and impact of other areas of media and communication (noting that for the handful of journalism-specific schools, of course, journalism should be top of mind!).
Very few JMC leaders mentioned innovative activities in strategic communication, for example, until specifically asked about innovation in this area. This despite a spike in strategic communication enrollments (reaching 60-70 percent in some programs) and surging market demand in this field.
James Shanahan, for example, noted that public relations and advertising is the fastest growing area at Indiana. He said, “We are in the position in those areas of responding to student demand.”
Innovation in strategic communication is a real opportunity that we have not yet exploited.