SMPA director’s high-profile book could boost school’s image

Media Credit: Samuel Klein | Senior Photo Editor

Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, has turned the school's focus toward data-driven storytelling.

Frank Sesno has interviewed high-profile policymakers and celebrities from Ronald Reagan to Bill Gates, who have all taught him that every subject is different.

The four-year director of the School of Media and Public Affairs came back to campus this year after a spring sabbatical to interview some of the best interviewers in the world. His question for them: How do you ask the tough questions?

His book, which will be released in early 2016, has chapters featuring big names like Colin Powell and Sandra Day O’Connor. Each chapter centers on a different kind of question, from questions about the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman’s strategy to existential questions that a rabbi who works at a hospice faces from his patients.

“My experience is that different interviews call for different kinds of questioning,” he said, detailing the finer points of the text in his office adorned with signed photos of some of the famous figures he’s interviewed.

With the writing complete and a book deal signed with AMACOM Books, which specializes in management books, he and his team are planning a massive book tour and extensive marketing campaign, including television spots and speaking engagements.

Ellen Kadin, an executive editor with AMACOM who helped sign Sesno to a publication deal, said the company believed his book would help people ask the right questions in any situation.

“So far, our experience with Mr. Sesno has been limited, but from his book proposal and our small sample of communications, I would say that Mr. Sesno is passionate about the potential good his book can do, and that he is both authentic and grounded,” Kadin said in a statement.

That high-profile publicity tour will help the school, which many call one of GW’s crown jewels, boost its profile amid the changing landscape of modern-day journalism. SMPA, which is the second-largest department within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, has seen its graduate program enrollment increase as other schools at GW have faced declines.

Sesno, who once served as D.C. bureau chief at CNN, said the school’s clear goals help it succeed and stand out from other programs at GW.

“How [is the public] going to stay informed, how are we going to engage in our politics, how will this new media change the landscape – that is a mission that everybody at this University, I think, will feel is important,” he said.

Associate Director Kim Gross said while she was acting as the interim director and taking over many tasks of the position, it became clear that Sesno was key to the school’s success.

“Nobody can really replace him and the work he can do in terms of fundraising and profile raising,” she said.

Other top journalism schools, including the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University boast faculty with widely-read publications.

Even though the book is not yet published, professors at SMPA are eager to see what Sesno has to offer readers.

“It’s not going to be a scholarly book, but it’s going to be an interesting and important book having to do with prospective journalists understanding the craft of being a journalist,” said Steven Livingston, a SMPA professor and former director of the school.

The book will be the first for the broadcast journalist, but publications are not uncommon among his faculty members.

Some of SMPA’s top faculty, including Matthew Hindman and Nikki Usher, have either recently published books or are in the writing stages. Usher spoke to a sold-out audience this summer at the National Press Club in D.C. about her most recent book, “Making News at The New York Times.”

Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said when a professor with years of practical experience writes a book, it reflects on the school.

“When journalism faculty or administration publish books, they are able to bring prestige to their programs. They are able to share their leadership and vision with the larger profession. They are able to help shape public conversations surrounding news,” Jenkins said. “And they are able to open up new opportunities for their students and [alumni].”

SMPA was the ranked the fifth-best journalism program in the country in a report by College Factual, and College Media Matters, a blog that collaborates with the Associated Collegiate Press, <a href="included the school on its list of the top 50 journalism schools.

Gabriel Kahn, who teaches with Jenkins at the Annenberg School and is head of the school’s Future of Journalism project, said leaders at journalism schools in particular need to think creatively to boost their institution’s reputations.

“I think that traditionally at journalism schools, the director’s place is a journalist who had illustrious careers that go to die,” he said. “Journalism schools need something completely different. They need somebody to take a fresh look at it and do away with complacency.”

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