Two-Minute Interview: Tom Yulsman

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Tom Yulsman runs the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, which last year caused a stir by discontinuing its School of Journalism and Mass Communication and turning it, at least temporarily, into an entity within the Graduate School.

The university has since convened eight “discussion groups” to make initial recommendations about the program’s future, which could eventually include becoming part of a new school or institute.

Meanwhile, little has changed in the day-to-day: The same staff still teaches the same courses to the same students. Yulsman is optimistic about future iterations of the j-school, and particularly about the CEJ. I wondered about his broader vision.

[Disclosure: Yulsman was my graduate advisor when I did my MS in environmental studies at CU.]

Q: What should the future of journalism education look like?

A: I’ll start by saying what it should not look like: what many journalism schools have looked like, and that is a walled fortress, cut off from the rest of the university. My journalism program at Columbia was pretty much like that. It’s only now that I’m hearing all the wonderful things that are available at Columbia, because my son goes there, that I’m realizing how much I missed by just being within the walls of the j-school.

That, to a greater or lesser extent, has been a problem. Engineering schools are the same way. There are all these self-contained schools.

I think going forward journalism schools need to connect more with the campuses on which they sit. In the changing media environment, to be successful as a journalist it really helps to know something about a specific area, so that you can play multiple roles. With a more entrepreneurial journalistic mindset, with more people being freelancers, we are called on to play more and different roles. Maybe that includes blogging, maybe that includes a certain element of being a public intellectual. In order to do that, to give yourself that in-depth knowledge, I think you need to have knowledge about something specific—like environment, science, business.

I also think because journalism schools have been walled off, it meant that people in the university who might have benefitted from what we have to offer have had a hard time of it. We have only so many seats in our classes. But I think we have a lot to offer. Especially here at the Center for Environmental Journalism. There’s a huge demand among science PhD students to know how to communicate better. They’re not going to be journalists, but they don’t want to take traditional academic research communication classes. They want to make videos and blog and write about their research and communicate it to general audiences. So to the extent that we can facilitate cross-fertilization, that’s going to benefit communication on issues like environment in a lot of ways.

That’s the big picture. Overall, the campus needs to be more open to this sort of thing.

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