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Patt Morrison asks: USC Annenberg's new dean, Willow Bay, on leading a university journalism program in the age of Trump

The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, once assured a reporter: “The press has no better friend than I am — no one who is more ready to acknowledge … its tremendous power for both good and evil.” The current Republican president has more than once named a number of well-regarded news outlets as “the enemy of the American people.” At this fraught moment for journalism, Willow Bay is about to become the dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The former broadcast network and CNN anchor and correspondent, and Huffington Post senior editor, moves up from the job of head of USC’s journalism school. Communications have perhaps never been as important, or as complicated, as they are now, but the business of journalism has rarely been so precarious.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THIS INTERVIEW ON THE 'PATT MORRISON ASKS' PODCAST »

How would you assess the health of journalism now?

How would I assess the health of journalism? Well, I’m in the business of educating journalism students, so I have a very optimistic outlook about the future of journalism. And its current state is troubled, but filled with possibilities, is how I would characterize it.

It’s clear that the rule book has been thrown out. It’s clear that business models in legacy media are challenged, if not disrupted entirely. It’s also clear that we have, with the birth of new mass media, mainly social media, opportunities to tell stories in different ways and to reach audiences, new audiences, in different ways. So it’s a time of great opportunity, great uncertainty and deep concern all at once.

A year ago, we hadn’t really heard the term “fake news. “ The label “liberal media” had been applied some years before, but “fake news” is different. How does that alter the journalism landscape?

We have had fake news — I would call that extreme propaganda or hoaxes — since the beginning of distributed media. What makes it different today is social media with a reach and a velocity that’s unprecedented — that, combined with the political climate in which the designation “fake” is your basic multipurpose epithet lobbed at journalism.

As an industry, we have to confront the erosion of trust and faith in the press as an institution at a time when faith in virtually all institutions has been shaken. But also, again putting on my hat as the director of the Annenberg school of journalism and, in the fall, dean of the school, I think about how we educate students in the land of “fake media.” We get right back to the fundamentals. One of the things that we think is fundamental core competency today is media and news literacy. But you also can’t be a fully educated consumer or a fully participatory citizen if you’re not educated firmly, grounded firmly, in media literacy.

After the Watergate scandal, we saw a lot of students coming into journalism schools thinking, this is what I want to do — really impassioned about journalism as public service. Are you seeing any impact now?

We haven’t had enough time to see necessarily a change or reaction in terms of our applications or admission numbers. What we are seeing across our student population is a hunger to learn more, a hunger to confront some of the issues that we’re facing now, and a growing appreciation and realization that journalism is a calling as much as it’s a job. Students in some ways are energized by that and motivated by doing, learning the skills and the values of something that is of significant importance to a healthy and vital society.

When we say that something is a calling, it usually means the pay is lousy. That certainly hasn’t changed. On the individual end, you see reporter and newspaper jobs disappearing. On the larger level, you also see cuts in overseas bureaus, cuts in investigative reporting.

There’s no question that this is an industry in the midst of a right-sizing —

Right-sizing?

I say right-sizing because I’m an optimist, but I also say right-sizing because as certain parts of the business are contracting, other parts are growing. I’m not in any way suggesting — I’m not that optimistic to suggest that it’s a net gain. But I do think that it’s very much in flux. And our students, when they go out into the world, they’re really equipped to work anywhere in the industry. We changed our curriculum recently so that our students learn how to write and report stories across multiple platforms. They have a real fluency with current technology and the critical thinking skills to be able to evaluate emerging technologies for use in covering stories. That’s one of the things we’re doing to prepare students. That’s true, by the way, for our pub relations and our communications students.

I want to ask about that right-sizing phrase, because small-town papers have been disappearing, there’s nobody to —

There’s no question about that, which is why I did not in any way mean to suggest that it was not a net loss. I recognize that particularly in the newspaper business, and particularly in local news coverage, it is a significant loss. I think it has contributed mightily to criticism of the press in a larger sense for not listening in the right ways and not listening to all Americans. There’s no coincidence that that phenomenon has happened at the same time you see local newspapers decimated.

As we both know, people may say, I get my news from Yahoo, I get my news from Google. But most of that comes from newspapers — and all of it from real shoe-leather reporting.

Absolutely . I say it all the time: Six out of 10 Americans [who use Facebook] get their news on Facebook. Often that’s an L.A. Times story or a New York Times story or a Washington Post or Des Moines Register story.

What kind of myths have you heard students bringing to Annenberg with them?

I don’t know that I’ve heard myths. But often students will come here and want to be on TV — television journalists. Or be on the radio. It is part of their education here to develop an appreciation of what that means, and it doesn’t mean being “on TV” or “on the radio.” It means covering stories with intellectual and ethical rigor in a timely and accurate way, and holding people and institutions accountable, and being there and witnessing, what is required to be a journalist, whether you’re a television journalist or a radio host.

One of the significant changes for me as I move into the dean’s role in July is that I have to look beyond the journalism students and think in a much more inclusive way about journalism, public relations and communications, all of which are converging, and the question of who gets to shape the public conversation is an open one. We do and should be equipping all of our students with the critical thinking skills, the foundational media literacy skills and the tools to be able to go out and shape the public conversation.

Kids have a great command of technology, but at the heart of it, the medium is not the message. The “platform” has to have something to put on it.

Our students are so passionate about covering stories that I see them developing those skills, and then pairing those. They’re out there reporting stories. They’re out on the border telling stories from the border They’re in Texas with their VR gear working on a Texas Tribune story about environmental changes and the risk of another [Hurricane] Katrina. I see them blending the hands-on skills they’re gaining in the program with these new and emerging technologies in ways that are potentially impactful.

The debate for nearly a hundred years in journalism is whether or not you need journalism school.

I would argue that you need journalism school more than ever, but it should not be the exclusive province of journalists. I don’t have a — do you have a journalism degree?

Nope. I started writing my first professional stories when I was, like, 16 years old, after school. And at my junior high and high school newspapers, too.

So, journalism experience, not a degree. I have an English degree and an MBA. And that was very much the way of a different generation; it was more rare to have a journalism degree, and if you had one, it was more likely to be a graduate degree.

When I look at our journalism degree, I would send everybody to get it. Think about the skills that you learn when you study journalism: You learn how to research effectively and quickly. You learn how to assimilate facts. You learn how to situate facts within a context. You learn how to kind of develop cultural competency, because that’s your job — going into a community and get a real sense of it, to make your way through it so you can identify and connect with sources.

To me, that trains you to be a very effective communicator at a moment where communication is the order of the day. As somebody with an English major, I think I would have been better served with a journalism degree, never mind becoming a journalist. It’s an extraordinarily practical degree in this day and age.

I presume you’re going to have to be doing more fundraising. What is your pitch to people who say, why put money in a journalism and communication program?

Can you imagine a time when communication was more front and center? Or, frankly, when those changes were cutting to the heart of our values? Or when freedom of the press was more in jeopardy? This is the moment to be investing in students’ education in communication, public relations and journalism.

One of the biggest innovations for journalism has been how to handle masses of data that technology has made available. You’ve been working with, of all things, with the engineering school there to collaborate with student reporters.

This is an exciting project called Crosstown Traffic. We felt that journalists and technologists, programmers and engineers, need to be sitting at the same table working on things together. And the Viterbi School of Engineering happened to be sitting on this extraordinary database of transportation data from all the sensors that are embedded in bus stops and street corners and freeways around the city. When paired with our [student] journalists, we were able to work with them to create meaningful pictures of the data. Then Gabe Kahn, our journalism professor, worked with students on their storytelling skills so they could, as they call it now, interview the data and tell stories around the data.

You don’t sound like the leader of a dying business.

No! I refuse to be the leader of a dying business. We are the future of not just this business, but these industries.

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