When John Lavine, the new dean of the Medill School, offered his strategic plan for the school, he called it “Medill 2020” — a reference to the future and a commitment to align the overlap between the journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications programs.
The realities of today’s media environment require an education that incorporates elements of both traditions, Lavine says. In a world of abundant choice for consumers and fierce competition for their time, journalists need to learn how to reach their audience with compelling stories and presentation, while marketers and communications students must understand how to think and write with the clarity of journalists, according to Lavine.
“Our students need to understand the experiences that motivate and inhibit media usage,” Lavine says. “How do you involve and engage an audience?”
Lavine’s goal: Train all Medill students to create “relevant, differentiated storytelling and messages that engage the audience.” That’s the key, Lavine says, to capturing the attention of very busy people — and to stemming the tides of circulation loss for newspapers and declining viewership for broadcasters.
To achieve this vision, Northwestern University President Henry S. Bienen and Provost Lawrence Dumas have given Lavine free rein to transform the school. They suspended formal faculty oversight at Medill for the 3 1⁄2-year transition period in which Lavine will shepherd the integration and revamping of the IMC and journalism programs and faculty, but this is not Lavine’s initiative alone. Prior to his becoming dean, Medill’s two faculties spent 15 months focusing on what the school’s strategic goals should be. Audience understanding led the list.
Changing the school and its culture will not be easy, and nothing is being spared from review. The academic curriculum will be overhauled. Experiential learning activities, such as study abroad programs and the potential for establishing new Medill newsrooms in storefront offices in diverse Chicago neighborhoods, are being evaluated. Every professor is taking a 10-week course on producing multimedia content with laptops and camcorders, and a string of outside media experts have been invited to share their latest research and thinking with the faculty. In a way, the entire faculty is going back to school.
The use of technology is another area that will be beefed up. Lavine says students must be equipped for a world in which consumers want multiple ways to experience a story, whether by watching a video clip or looking at graphics and photographs or listening to a podcast or reading the text of an article.
“Every student needs proficiency in producing audio, video and text stories,” Lavine says. “But we recognize that most will be a master of one or two, and not likely all three.”
Not all alumni and students share his excitement about a new curriculum that more tightly weaves the marketing and journalism programs together, Lavine acknowledges. Some have been skeptical, others upset. Lavine has revealed few specifics about new classes or academic requirements, in part because the details are being ironed out over the summer and with faculty and students in the fall, he says.
The Daily Northwestern student newspaper published an opinion piece in January that said: “In the process of teaching students how to market their news, Lavine has to assert the importance of investigating, reporting and writing solid news.”
Lavine insists that reporting and writing will always be the heart of the journalism program, but the marketplace and employers are demanding that graduates understand much more than just how to submit an acceptable article on deadline.
Jeff Jarvis (J75), founder of Entertainment Weekly and now a media consultant, says he “enthusiastically” supports the dean. Understanding what an audience wants and then giving it to them — an anathema to some traditionalists — is exactly the kind of education Medill should be providing, according to Jarvis. “I think market pressure is a very good thing,” Jarvis says. “It is telling us what (consumers) want, and we are here to serve them.”
Some of Lavine’s biggest fans reside in the highest offices in the news industry. “We’re encouraged by the developments at Medill, where John Lavine is leading the kind of innovation in journalism that we believe is vital for journalism to continue to prosper,” says Scott Smith (KSM76), president of the $4 billion publishing unit at Tribune Co. — J.K.