The University as a New Media superpower

Mainstream media institutions, which traditionally dominate the communication channels, often need to solicit and buy “content”, whether it is news or analysis. On the other hand, universities, which sit on, and constantly generate, a wealth of information and “content” must struggle to “earn media”. As I’ve written before, new media technology is capable of resolving this paradox in favor of universities. It will require universities to change their mindset, define their own media space, and be ready to own it. But if they want to do all this, they have to organize themselves accordingly.

The consensus out there is that universities have been unable to persuade the wider public of the merits of what they do and of the quality of their achievements, because they have failed at communicating in the context of traditional 20th-century media. I have argued before that citizen journalism, empowered by social media technology, has the potential to allow universities to address these shortcomings. Here is how I think universities can successfully exploit this new context in a way that would allow them to lead a medium from which they have been essentially absent.

Let’s step back for a minute and think about it. Universities are intellectual powerhouses, supposedly filled with the best of the best, in domains from politics to cell biology, chemical engineering to human geography, journalism to mathematics. They almost have a monopoly on contributions towards societal issues such as literacy, advocacy, credibility, ethics, etc. They delve into issues of economic, fiscal and business policy, and they are major drivers of the so-called innovation agenda. They constantly generate a wealth of information and “content”. They are not only leaders in knowledge creation and knowledge transfer, but are also “knowledge brokers”, and “knowledge translators.”

So what stops them from managing their own media outlets (on a professional level) to communicate an already enormously rich academic life? “Globe Campus” and “Maclean’s on Campus” think it’s a worthwhile enterprise; how did we let them beat us to the punch? Actually, the very idea for this post first came to mind when a university student told me that Maclean’s on Campus” pays him $200 a month to blog for them.

Social media creates the potential for every individual to be a thought-leader (a thought-activist?) and a reporter. If a university, where thousands of such individuals come together every day, could take advantage of this opportunity, then its potential for creating a seriously competitive media outlet (conglomerate?) is real. Enough to put to journalistic shame the Globe & Mail and MacLean’s  organizations, whose claim to fame is hiring a few dozen journalists and student bloggers.

There are three intertwined aspects to media delivery. First, there is the duty of collecting and communicating news and events as they happen, then there is the analysis and synthesis of the news, and last but not least there is the propaganda aspect. How do universities compare to mainstream media outlets in each of these aspects?

•    The old model where traditional media outlets are first to collect and distribute news items is already outdated. Most of them rely now on very few global news-gathering  networks such as Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse. We shall see below that universities have other options to gather credible global news. In any case, with the advent of the Internet and the new media, the model is becoming obsolete. Established newspapers such as the G&M, and MacLean’s are already under threat as they can’t get news out in real-time, so they are switching to … analysis.

•    But who are these people doing their analysis? Often, political pundits, but not necessarily those who have a deep understanding of socio-geo-political realities around the world. Universities are teeming with such expertise, and it must be obvious that they could dominate hands-down in this domain. Professional media outlets have a hard time drawing together the analysis of disparate stories. How can they understand the ramifications of the latest techniques in encoding theory for cell signals and its connection with espionage work halfway around the world? Universities are exactly the place where such analysis can happen and thoughtful expositions can be generated.

•    Then there is the propaganda aspect of the news. One advantage of certain traditional media outlets (say, CBS in the Cronkite tradition) is the perception that they are “independent” news brokers and therefore deliver truthful, unbiased, fair and balanced coverage. Very few people know, for example, that MacLean’s is owned by Rogers and that Bell Canada’s stake in the Globe & Mail  exceeds 70%. In contrast, University-based media outlets might be perceived as propaganda instruments for their base institution.

One can,  of course,  use similar “corporate schemes” to project a perception of independence, but there is an easier way towards  gaining the required  credibility. Simply let the university media function like the university itself, where the diversity and divergence of views are not only tolerated. but encouraged. Let’s face it, there is no such thing as absolute truth in news. When the G&M writes a story, they do so from the viewpoint of the writer and editor, and if the NYTimes and the G&M project a more independent image than say Fox News or the National Post, it is because they allow –sometimes– a variety of points of view to be expressed on their editorial pages (Think of the Jeffrey Simpson – Gwyn Morgan, or the David Brooks – Frank Rich pairings). Readership trust can be earned this way, and the universities, with their openness to different points of view, can easily win that challenge.

So, what are the necessary steps that need to be taken by universities in order to muster and unify all these individual media voices into something of a universal message board?

1.    First, universities need to encourage,  and incentivize faculty, staff, and students to participate in the emerging new models for creation, dissemination and communication. This might be the toughest challenge, as it will require a major rethinking of our concept of academic publishing. What is remarkable is that universities and academics might have to face these new realities anyway, whether they are contemplating becoming media outlets or not.

Indeed, blogging can already be seen as a natural evolution of open publishing applied to news, and there is already blow-back from academics regarding blogging. “Blogs can’t possibly have intellectual value because the posts are too short or written too quickly or aren’t peer-reviewed …”

Blogging and/or other means of digital/networked communication may not become a replacement for other forms of scholarship anytime soon,  but they are already establishing themselves as important mechanisms for sharing academic work, and for connecting to a new, and likely larger, audience. This said, one could argue that blogging is peer-reviewed, and in real-time. First, if no one reads a blog it doesn’t need to be peer-reviewed (the same could be said for academic papers). Second, your “peers” in a blog are your fellow-readers. And when you get a fact wrong or someone has a diverse opinion, they let you know. What better peer-review could you hope for?

2.    As with mainstream media, the university needs to develop one centrally accessible space, a digital media outlet where faculty, staff and students alike could share their research, analysis and opinions, and where audiences could link in, in a systematic and intuitive way. The organization of such a space according to themes (Science, Education, Culture, etc…) and functions (News, Op-eds, Editorials, Blogs, Commentary, etc …)  is of course important, but not much different from those online resources that are currently used by mainstream media.

3.    Every Faculty (resp., Administrative unit) should appoint an Associate Dean (resp., liaison officer) for communication and dissemination. I can see many roles for such officers, not the least of which would be to coordinate, evaluate, alert, streamline, and enforce integrity and ethical guidelines among other things. As analogy, remember that 20 years ago, many Canadian universities did not even have a VP-Research. Now, every Dean has an Associate for research, and every department has a research committee. The advent and the emerging importance of citizen journalism are not much different of the appearance and the prominence of the citizen researcher as a resource for the university.

4.    Finally, the media outlet needs to cover all what is expected from such an organization, and it is therefore  important to not neglect the part that deals with news-gathering and delivery in real-time, which is still the remaining distinguishing feature of mainstream media.  One can of course connect to one of the world’s major networks such as Reuters. But even here, universities may have a clear advantage, by developing and linking into a network of like-minded universities around the world, that is those who are also interested in the communication aspect of their mission. What is more natural and powerful than a global network of universities that can share both news and analysis of what’s happening in their part of the world in real-time?

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3 Responses to The University as a New Media superpower

  1. Pingback: Universities’ Soviet style PR will be saved by social media – Part II | Piece of Mind

  2. Rob Annan says:

    Very thought-provoking.

    I think there’s a lot here. My initial feeling is that blogging and other forms of social media allow academics to be”thought-leaders”, as you say. Whereas most academics may be intimidated by the thought of submitting an op-ed to the National Post or pitching an idea to Maclean’s, many academics already maintain blogs and twitter accounts. For instance, on twitter I follow the economist Stephen Gordon (ULaval) and computer scientist Robert Lemire (UQAM) who have taught me more about their respective fields than I ever might have expected. This is also no doubt true for their 650 followers and 1,600 followers, respectively.

    The universities want outreach and knowledge translation/mobilization? Hard to beat those numbers.

    I’m not sure how the universities might encourage this – don’t know whether the university as “publisher” will necessarily work. But I would love to see credit for knowledge translation/mobilization, benefits to Canada, etc. from granting councils.

    Certainly, universities should be encouraging faculty to participate with new media and could perhaps lower barriers to entry by setting up university blog templates, etc. Engaging with the public and demonstrating the value of the scholarship that resides in our universities is its own reward – one might even argue that it’s an academic responsibility.

  3. Anne Brackenbury says:

    Thanks for this post – definitely lots to ponder!

    As an Editor at a University Press, I see scholarly presses as potentially playing an important role in the world you imagine. Presses used to be closer to communications arms of their host universities but then expanded their role in the heyday of academic publishing. In these days of the dying monograph, some suggest the future of scholarly publishing is in returning to that communications role.

    Most academics still believe in a rigorous peer review process, and in providing effective editorial support whether it’s for a journal article or book publication. Shouldn’t these elements be adapted to the blogging/social media/communications strategies of the future? University Presses have the people/skills and knowledge – what they need is support from their institutions (financial and otherwise, especially if everything is to move to an “open” model) and a mandate to adapt to a new and potentially exciting role.

    Anne Brackenbury

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