Jeremy Littau has 10 years of experience in journalism after working at newspapers of different sizes, specializing in editing and writing both in print and online. He got his start at the Daily Democrat in Woodland, CA, and did the typical “move up the ladder” part of his career, landing at the Los Angeles Daily News in 2000. He spent four years at the Daily News before returning to school at Missouri. He earned his M.A. from Missouri in 2007 and is now in his final year in the Ph.D. program.
Jeremy’s research interests are found in new media trends in journalism and he is the author of several publications on the subject. He is currently an assistant professor at Lehigh University, specializing in multiplatform storytelling that makes use of audience conversation in the news process.
How do you define mass communication?
My answer probably won’t pop up in any textbooks, but I would define mass communication as the creation and transmission of messages for broad dissemination to an audience whose motives for consumption are imagined. I think that last part, the imagined audience receiving a broadly disseminated message, is the heart of mass communication. People working in the discipline are gathering information, constructing it into a message, and then sending it out to a faceless group of consumers. As a journalist, for example, I always tried to imagine who my readers were and what their needs were, and that led to a different style of communication than I would have with a friend, family member, or even a source I was interviewing.
Whether we’ve understood that audience as well as we should is a whole other can of worms, but that’s why we need research.
How do you keep your students excited about working in the field of communications in light of shrinking job opportunities?
The good news is they are still coming to journalism programs in strong numbers, so I would say I focus more on not killing that excitement while still being honest about the challenges they face. These students are growing up so media saturated that they are coming to us sensing that they like the media product and want to be involved in it somehow, so my goal in the classroom or in mentoring students is to try and find a way to channel that energy. A fair number of my students have told me they find journalism programs to be too constraining for the things they want to do. I try to be flexible in the classroom and let them know they have plenty of options beyond the traditional curriculum, and then I try to model it by working with them to achieve their goals.
Basically I try to stay out of the way of them achieving their goals but try to focus on helping them build skills and a sense of how to achieve those goals. Along the way, I try to help them hone their sense of critical thinking and ethical decision-making while being flexible to the changing media landscape. I think these two things are something they can’t get anywhere else but the academic environment.
The other thing I tell them is that they’re the generation remaking all of this, and so in some ways the world is their oyster. This probably scares some of the ones just looking to do the traditional “get a job and work your way up” career path, but for others it can be an exciting chance to make your own way.
What changes do journalism and mass communication programs need to make in order to stay relevant today?
That’s probably a difficult one to answer without coming off as a know-it-all junior scholar. I prefer to think about it in terms of what my students have told me they need. They want to learn more than the nut graf and inverted pyramid. They want to learn how to tell stories across multiple platforms, but they also want us to be able to adapt and teach them how to tell stories on new platforms we might not yet be familiar with. They want us to be training them for jobs that don’t yet exist (such as telling stories with databases or developing iPhone applications for news distribution) not training them to do jobs that won’t exist in five years.
The reason I answer it that way is because we need to listen to the students coming to us if we want to stay relevant.
If you could save one journalism and mass communication course from extinction, what would it be and why?
Journalism and/or mass media history, without a doubt. I find this to be a fascinating time to be reading journalism history, because I’m reminded that this age of user-generated media is both new and old. The reason I’m not overly concerned about journalism is that I’ve read my history, and that history tells me that we’ll be fine in the long run. History gives us a sense of perspective that this new era is really a replaying of things we’ve been through before, and right now the industry could use a lot of perspective.
What new media tools or applications do you incorporate in your teaching? Why these in particular?
I experimented with Twitter a bit the past year, and I’m planning on making that a formal part of what I do in the classroom. I’ve seen a lot of hype about using “clickers” in the classroom, but the ability to get real-time feed back in classes that goes beyond a vote is where it’s at for me. Also, in smaller classes, I always make them blog, even if it’s not a writing class. I just want them getting used to the technology and learning to always think about writing down their thoughts, but I also do it because I want them to emerge from my courses understanding that the media world is a social world and that they play a part in this framework. Of course, it’s always been a social enterprise in the big picture, but those social links are more immediate.
Blogs vs. a microblogging service like Twitter present such grand opportunities. Blogging can be long or short form, but I find Twitter focuses the mind because of the 140-character limit. I want my students to learn to think about how to express themselves in long pieces and short bursts.
I’m also teaching an online masters course this summer at MU and using Blackboard, but I’m doing some “value added” things like video lectures to add image and voice to the instruction. The students, who are learning by distance (and often internationally) have responded with excitement to this, and it’s really nothing much more difficult than recording a 10-minute chat on webcam and uploading it to YouTube.
I also find that using tech tools in the teaching process tends to keep me current on the things I need to know in order to better teach students how to use it as part of their journalistic routines.
If you could offer a piece of advice to both your fellow educators and media professionals in the field, what would it be?
Don’t be passive and wait for the industry to figure out technology change. Clyde Bentley, my mentor here at MU, has helped me see that you need to view technology change through the eyes of a journalist. What can I do with the iPhone, or more specifically, with iPhone applications? What about some of the newer advances, like GPS watermarks embedded into photos taken on your digital cameras? So I like to scan tech sites or fun tech blogs like Gizmodo and try to imagine journalism applications for new things.
Most of those ideas I wouldn’t use, but I think it’s helpful to get in that mindset (and get our students in that mindset) so that we don’t face change with fear. One of the most wonderful attributes I have experienced with my journalistic peers is that we tend to share a sense of curiosity about new or unknown things; this is just another application of that.
What do you see for the future of journalism and mass communication both in general and in higher education?
The future is bright, but what we’re producing isn’t all that different than it has been. We have more ways to tell stories than ever before, and we have more platforms for publishing. But the heart of what we do is still storytelling. It’s still taking information and packaging it in ways that are meaningful for people trying to cut through the noise of information explosion. I love what Matt Thompson of EPIC 2015 fame (his blog is at http://newsless.org) says when he talks about the journalist’s role as providing context in the era of information overload. If there’s one thing that journalism should be right now, it has to be that. To be honest, I don’t know what else we do that has any value in the age of the citizen publisher.
What I do think we need to do is redefine what it means to do that work. At times we’ve sold journalists as experts on our community and that our news is “complete coverage” or other such nonsense that is more a marketing slogan than it is a reality. The beauty of the Web is that it has exposed this as a myth, and so we can go about doing the real work that matters, such as providing context to the day’s events and being guides to our community that helps create community.
As far as higher education goes, the times are challenging as well but it’s a good opportunity to focus on the core of what we do well and all these changes have given all of us a license to create. As I said before, I don’t think we have the luxury of being passive while the industry is changing so much because once you become irrelevant then that damages your j-school’s brand. I also think this is a wonderful opportunity for smaller programs to take the lead on some of the enormous changes happening in our field by experimenting with new ideas for teaching and training students.
I also think we need to be training students how to be entrepreneurs. Media change is forcing people to dream some of this up on their own, and so skills in marketing and the business side as well as how to create advertising opportunity are going to be vital to the new breed of journalist. It’s certainly something I never learned in journalism school.