In a digital age, SMPA looks to hire the web-savvy

Correction appended

The School of Media and Public Affairs is looking to hire professors who can tweet, blog and code to prepare students for careers that increasingly demand digital skills.

The journalism and political communication school will bring in two professors specializing in the practice and study of digital media, director Frank Sesno said. The focus falls in line with a years-long effort to hire faculty who specialize in creating and analyzing web content.

“Both [hires] will have to be connected to digital, social media,” Sesno said. “We need to be about innovation and creativity.”

When the two faculty searches end this spring, the SMPA will have brought in four professors with backgrounds in digital media. Five SMPA professors have stepped aside or retired in the last two years. Recent hires, including David Karpf, Nikki Usher and Matt Hindman, all boast research specialties in topics like business models for news outlets, online campaigning and political blogs.

The two new faculty members – a Ph.D. researcher who studies how digital media impacts political communication and a hands-on journalism teacher specializing in multimedia reporting, Sesno said – will be officially announced at the start of the spring semester.

“We recognize that we need to do more to prepare students for the new media environment both in its theoretical and practical applications,” professor Al May, who is running one of the new faculty searches, said.

Sesno, a former broadcast journalist, said the school must continue to adapt to the rapid-fire shifts in the industry toward online reporting and social media.

“We’re inventors here – I’d like to think of it that way,” Sesno said. “Other journalism schools across the country are doing traditional newscasts and putting them on public television stations. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in working with students to create new media, the cutting-edge stuff.”

The digital focus continues an SMPA evolution that tries to stay in sync with media trends. The school phased out its electronic media major in 2006, ditching the degree that studied radio and television history and production. A curriculum overhaul that made Introduction to Digital Media a required course took effect that year. The school has since added courses like the Online Journalism Workshop, Multimedia Reporting to Inform and Convergence and Future of Digital Media.

Sesno also pointed to the school’s growing Center for Innovative Media, which houses the multimedia-focused Planet Forward, Face the Facts and The Documentary Center as proof that SMPA is keeping pace.

“Bringing new faculty into the school is the single most important thing we do, save for the work we do with students on a daily basis here,” he said.

The hires this spring will replace longtime professors Jarol Manheim and Christopher Sterling, who each taught at GW for almost three decades. While Manheim and Sterling helped shape SMPA and their respective research fields of political communication and telecommunication, SMPA director of administration and special projects Samara Sit said, the turnover has helped the school bring in more digitally focused hires.

“You’re still talking to networks and newspapers, but now you’re talking to social media. That might not be something [a past professor] researched, but [it] will be something new professors will,” Sit said.

While the school does not consider itself exclusively a journalism school because of its in-house political communication major, it is still under pressure with other journalism schools around the country to innovate with its education, Sesno said.

In early August, a group of foundations that fund journalism education criticized schools for not moving fast enough in digital media. A letter signed by six journalism education benefactors, including a senior adviser for the Knight Foundation, called on schools to build “teaching hospitals,” and connect students with professors to create dynamic local news organizations.

“We believe journalism and communications schools must be willing to recreate themselves if they are to succeed in playing their vital roles as news creators and innovators. Some leading schools are doing this but most are not,” the letter read.

SMPA has shied away from instituting the “teaching hospital” model the letter recommends. The model, similar to ones used at Arizona State and Harvard universities, teams students up with professors to cover local news.

Sesno said the school is still trying to adapt to an “iPad world” of journalism, and added that the next step would be hiring professors to teach data visualization and animation.

This article was updated Sept. 6, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that both newly hired professors would take tenure track positions. The political communication hire will be tenure track, but the journalism hire will be in a renewable contract position.

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