U of Montana Journalism course syllabus, “J494: Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption”

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By Ron Reason
University of Montana School of Journalism
Spring 2015 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor 

WELCOME TO THE LANDING PAGE for “J494: Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” The Spring 2015 Pollner Seminar I taught at the University of Montana School of Journalism. In a nut shell, this course covers innovation, experimentation, transformation and upheaval rocking the news media today, across all platforms.

Here I have posted summaries of the focus of each week of class, with links to relevant blog entries, assignments, required reading, outcomes and more. (RelatedHow I developed this course, and its intentions. Basically, it’s a leadership and management course, disguised as a design course, which I proposed to prepare grads to navigate and lead in the disruptive workforce they are entering. Here’s some background on the generous Pollner family endowment that funds two journalism professorships at UM each year.)

PLEASE NOTE: In addition to assignments and readings I required or suggested, the syllabus below has been amended to include numerous articles suggested by students. Look for entries in bold and blue, below, with credit to the student who posted the item to our private class Facebook page.


Week One, Jan. 27-29, 2015: What’s Design? What’s disruption?
Let’s discuss in detail what we mean by design (it’s not just visual – we design products, organizations, leadership techniques, marketing campaigns, and more) and disruption (it’s not just contraction or death – think startups, reinventions, redesigns, partnerships, innovation and experimentation).

Assignment 1: Ramp up your Twitter presence (or get on it!) by following four new change instigators (individuals) and four brands or organizations that are stirring things up, and discuss in class on Thursday what you’ve learned by following or engaging with them. Assignment 2: Connect with a recent alum and report back on how he or she has experienced, or caused, disruption in the news media. Deliver 1,200 words plus supporting visuals by next Tuesday. Recommended reading: Scan “Crowdsourcing the future of news: Predictions for Journalism 2015,” a massive roundup of provocative thoughts by news media innovators and rethinkers, via Nieman Lab. Student suggested reading: (Nik Dumroese): “The web’s grain: A view on designing for the web,” via FrankChimero.com. Plus (Ric Sanchez):Why digital natives prefer reading in print,” via WashingtonPost.com.

RESULTS: Over just two class periods, my students produced 18 interviews with recent alums, which we compiled into the eBook “We ARE the Disruptors.” Check it out more on the project, and download the PDF, here. Turns out UM J-grads are finding jobs they (often) love, handling disruption with aplomb, and actually creating a lot of change as well. They had lots of tips for our class on how to hit the ground running. Happy accident: On the day of our publication’s release, #AdviceForYoungJournalists was the top trending topic on Twitter?

(Read the class report, “We ARE the Disruptors, at issuu.com)

Week Two, Feb. 3-5: Alternative Media, Unconventional Innovations
Let’s go deep inside the state of alternative news media, particularly the Chicago Reader, which hired me to help rethink design, editorial and advertising strategy with one eye on revenue generation, the other on audience development. Three years later, the results: an increase and stabilization in print ad revenue, which still provides 85% of the brand’s income, and a robust and growing slate of web, social media, event and partnership endeavors, which we dissected in class. Assignment: Review my blog entries about the Reader’s reinvention as preparation for a more scholarly dissection of the brand in class. (Well, scholarly to a point – we’ll look at Reader editorial innovations such as Beer and Metal, a mash-up of craft beer reviews and heavy, or other, metal music videos or audio clips. Don’t laugh – in 2013, Beer and Metal landed two of the Reader’s top five most viewed blog posts for the year, and readers and advertisers are taking notice.) Required readings: Study the Reader’s website, its lively daily blog, The Bleader, and brush up on how it’s been expanding with partnerships and promotions. Also visit: “More alt than ever: Alt weeklies 2014 year in review,” via AAN. Student suggested reading (Jess Neary): Google’s first physical store is very Google-y,” via Slate.com. Plus (Nik Dumroese):NPR Social Media Desk Blog: Sharing what we learn in the digital space,” via NPR.

Week Three, Feb. 10-12: The NCAA shoots, scores with disruption
Disrupting a nonprofit sports magazine. My client Champion: The Magazine of the NCAA drops its first revamped issue this month, and my class is among the first to see it. Assignment: Review the copy provided of an older issue of Champion, study how they used to do things, and report back on strengths and shortcomings. In the next class you’ll all get copies of the new mag, with freshly stinkin’ ink, hot off the presses, so you can dissect what’s new and improved. Study the brand’s Facebook page. We discuss the important role social media now play in the brand’s strategic expansion of audience. Required reading: In addition to thoroughly reading the magazine samples provided, read the entry from this blog about what works well in the Champion redesign, with many visuals from the new magazine. Be prepared to discuss use of infographics, photography, headline writing, segmented storytelling, and social media.

Week Four, Feb. 17-19: Explaining, and selling, disruptive change
What good is reinventing if no one knows about it? Time to switch gears to marketing, and look at campaigns I created within the last year for print and multiplatform digital relaunches of Modern Healthcare magazine, one of the most robust brands in the Crain Communications platform of niche business weeklies. (Next month, more from Crain’s, as we investigate the real-time relaunch, across platforms, of Crain’s Detroit Business, which I’ve been working on since July.) Required reading, from this blog: A year-later checkup on the Modern Healthcare redesign. Assignment: You be the marketer. Break into teams of three and create concepts, and designs, for an ad campaign and web presence for the School of Journalism. As its centennial celebration winds down, it will need a new message. What will that be? Student suggested reading (Paul Nocchi):What millennials want from native advertising content,” via AdWeek.

Design solutions for our J-school rebranding include this banner web ad leading to a possible new landing page for the school's website.

Design solutions for our J-school rebranding assignment include this banner web ad leading to a possible new landing page for the school’s website.

RESULTS: These students have lived the J School experience, and are as poised as anyone to create a message that will inspire applicants to consider coming to Missoula. Above, an example of a variety of promising campaigns, one of which may actually be adopted by the school for its promotions.

Week Four, Feb. 24-26: A big, fat, juicy Sunday Magazine disruption
The New York Times Magazine unveiled a major revamp of its print product on Sunday, and previewed the same for its digital offerings as well. We analyze strategies for  content, design, advertising, marketing, and efforts to expand audience and affinity via social media. Assignment: Select one NYT Magazine story from the launch edition and discussion detail how it resonated with you, and how it was promoted via social media. Study the copy of the magazine provided. (Big thanks to NYT Magazine Design Director Gail Bichler, who came to the rescue and shipped us 18 copies of the launch edition for classroom use!) Required reading: “NYTMag redesign: For students, it’s textbook design and disruption,” via Design With Reason. Student suggested reading (Braelynn Luedtke):What to consider when launching a magazine in the digital era,” via ItsThatNice.com.

Note: This week begins our semester-long deep dive into change and innovation at The New York Times, culminating in a visit by its executive editor to our classroom in April. We will be using select pages from the Times Innovation Report, released/leaked a year ago, but still very relevant to our conversations of disruption, particularly mobile publishing strategies. Plan to scan the report and prepare for key sections to be assigned in the coming weeks. (Source: NiemanLab)

Week Six, March 3-5: Typographic disruption! Plus: A multimedia business title reinvents
This week we get disruptive with typography. Students get a crash course in how type works, and how to create meaning, emotion, drama and surprise by proper use of type contrasts chosen to amplify content. Building out of this, we look at the instructor’s current work revamping brand identity and design strategy for Crain’s Detroit Business, relaunching at the end of the month. Assignment: Study the copy of the “old look” of Crain’s Detroit provided, and consider strengths and shortcomings of design, editorial strategy, and what you can tell of their ad presence. Suggested reading: “A star player accused, and a flawed rape investigation,” multimedia investigation, via NYTimes. A great model for learning how to present complex information clearly, in text and visuals, via responsive design, and good prep for upcoming community debate on the Jon Krakauer book, “Missoula,” which will cover similar territory.

Plus, work begins on our final project: Identify a news media organization for your final thesis, which we will call the Big Disruption Project. The goal: to detail how one news organization is changing, experimenting, contracting, innovating, and otherwise living in a world of disruption. Establish contact with a key disruptor inside, and receive a commitment within two weeks for their cooperation. The BDP will be broken into five chapters, due roughly every two weeks, in order to make your research, writing and the procurement of visuals manageable. The final three weeks of the course will be spent editing, and then presenting, your work.

Week Seven, March 10-12: A news brand stays ahead of a revitalized Detroit
Live, from Detroit: Creative Director Pierette Dagg, who is working closely with your instructor on the revamp of Crain’s Detroit Business across platforms, joins us via Skype, revealing how to manage the change process across platforms and across departments in a large organization. Assignment: Study your copy of the prototype issue provided – a sample copy of design, content and advertising ideas prepared for reader and advertiser focus groups – and be prepared to critique what works, and what you think might not, and be prepared to articulate why. (There’s still time for us to make changes!) Required reading: This blog post provides a Crain’s Detroit case study with more background, and samples of pages from the March 30 launch issue.   Student suggested reading (Ashley Roness):Twitter: Making the People’s House more accessible,” via Montana Kaimin. Plus: (Suzie Chiem):Twitter unveils new home page to attract tuned-out users,” via Mashable. Plus (Paul Nocchi):Sports Illustrated’s major web redesign: 4 takeaways,” via FastCompany.com.

Week Eight, March 17-19: Thinking about, and rethinking, The Upshot
The Upshot is receiving a lot of attention for The New York Times. It presents a platform for experimentation in writing styles, as well as data visualization. Assignment: Dive in to The Upshot, read a variety of stories, including visuals, and get a feel for its mission, structure and tone. Required reading: “The Upshot as a potentially lucrative advertising franchise at the Times,” via Advertising Age. There will be a quiz. Assignment: The media landscape, and the Times, are rife with experimental, disruptive thinking. Think: “Why not extend our brand? What if we launch it on a new platform?” Let’s imagine the Times might want to increase affinity among millennials, by experimenting with a monthly Upshot magazine, which might be inserted into the growing number of college newspapers converting to weeklies nationwide (including our own, the Montana Kaimin). You create the prototypes. Select a story and a visual, write a headline and identify an advertiser that would be appropriate for testing this idea. Meet in the design lab DAH 306 to bring your ideas to life. Student suggested reading (Ric Sanchez):The Upshot celebrates its one-year anniversary. What have we learned?,” via NYTimes.com.

Samples of student solutions for design, cover story concept, headline and art direction for prototypes for an imagined magazine version of The Upshot.

Samples of student solutions for design, cover story concept, headline and art direction for prototypes for an imagined magazine version of The Upshot.

RESULTS: A wide variety of solutions and a rich discussion ensued about the pros and cons of the Times considering such a test product. Could an advertiser be identify that would subsidize production and distribution? Would it be worth it for the Times to produce, even at a loss as they do with their Sunday Magazine, in order to boost awareness and affinity of their brand?

Week Nine, March 24-26: Nonprofit news can be healthy, and thriving
A nonprofit news brand, thriving? Making a difference? And having its best year for circulation, readership and fundraising in 40 years? This week we study High Country News, studying its growing presence across platforms, including a beautifully revamped website and social media presence, and its communications and courtship of audience and donors. Assignment: Read the issues of High Country News provided, and study its digital presence. Prepare smart questions for Thursday’s Skype chat with several on the HCN leadership team, including Executive Director Paul Larmer, Art Director Cindy Wheling and Online Editor Tay Wiles. Related reading:  From Pew Research Center, it’s a year of partnerships for nonprofit news outlets.

Note: Spring Break is March 27-April 4. I’ll visit the University of Oregon Eugene campus, speaking to classes and reviewing portfolios, and otherwise, photographing waterfalls. See you next week! 

Week Ten, April 7-9: It’s time to get interactive, and graphic
It’s back to The New York Times again, with a fascinating look inside its innovation and experimentation with multimedia storytelling and interactive graphics. Assignment: Do your homework on guest speaker Larry Buchanan, Times multimedia journalist and all around great guy who will inspire us and show his work Thursday via Google Video Hangout. Post two focused, smart questions for him on our private Facebook page by noon on Thursday. Required reading: Larry’s personal website. A curated sampling of his team’s very cool and impactful work from the Times. Review 2014: The year in interactive storytelling, graphics and multimedia, via The New York Times.

Live, from New York: Larry Buchanan shares life and work lessons with our class on April 9, via Google Hangouts.

Live, from New York: Larry Buchanan shares life and work lessons with our class on April 9, via Google Hangouts.

Week Eleven, April  14-16: We welcome one of the world’s most powerful journalists
This week we welcome Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times, to our campus and our classroom. We begin Tuesday with a rich discussion of what’s working, and what’s not, in the Times‘ critical push to mobile. Required readings:Times CIO Marc Frons: What we are doing to be a mobile first company,” via The Enterprisers Project. “New York Times shifting resources from ‘every division’ to mobile,” via Advertising Age. Visit my extensive Times/Baquet primer to learn more about the man, the institution, their innovations and challengesAssignment: Come up with three tough questions to throw at one of the world’s most powerful journalists, leading his staff through the most critical period in its history. Post them to our private Facebook page no later than Tuesday at noon. We’ll vet them in class, and brainstorm ways to make them sharper. Mandatory: Attend Thursday night’s public lecture by Baquet, “Quality Journalism in the Digital Age,” in the University Center Ballroom at 7 pm. Arrive early for seating. You must Tweet one smart statement by Baquet, an observation or a question to show me you attended. Tag the following in your Tweet: #MTbaquet, @UMJSchool and @deanbaquet. Student suggested reading (Delaney Kutsal):  “Inside The New York Times’ Instagram strategy,” via Digiday.

RESULTS: See this blog post for a summary of some of Baquet’s most notable comments to our classes, as well as video from his lecture to the public.

Note: A quiz will be administered on this week’s required readings. Plus: Drafts are due this week for your final thesis, the Big Disruption Project (BDP), 3-4,000 words plus supporting visuals and citations, due May 7. 

Week Twelve, April 21-23,  For the remaining weeks, we focus almost entirely on the writing, editing and multimedia production for your final thesis, the Big Disruption Project (BDP). Each student must schedule at least 20 minutes during office hours to get editing feedback in detail.  This week we adapt your research from text in Microsoft Word into a tightly edited multimedia report to be published on Medium.com. Professor suggested reading: “Gail Bichler discusses the exhilarating, high pressure world of art directing the NYTimes Magazine,” from Gym Class Magazine, via Medium. (Gail provided our class with the inaugural copies of the Times Magazine relaunch edition in February.) Student suggested reading (Evan Frost):How The Atlantic is reinventing its website and brand,” via TheAtlantic.com. 

Week Thirteen, April 28-30: Lab time continuing work on text, visuals and navigation for your BDP, learning responsive multimedia publishing on Medium.com. Professor suggested reading:Editing while female: Top women journalists roundtable on leadership and opportunity,” from Politico. Student suggested download (Evan Frost): “If you like NYTnow, check out NatGeo view. The design feels cleaner and a bit more smooth with lots of colorful visuals.”

Week Fourteen, May 5-7: Last week of regular classes. Additional lab time, including time in class for you to edit each other’s work (in draft form at Medium.com) and offer up comments and questions. Also special this week: A concluding lecture, “Life Lessons in Designing a Disruptive Career, Courtesy of Burning Man.” 

Week Fifteen, May 12-14: Final exams are scheduled for this week. You won’t have an exam per se (well, not in the traditional sense) but instead will meet at the Top Hat for concluding food, drinks and conversation. Congrats to graduates and good luck to the rest!  Student suggested reading (Ric Sanchez): “NYT to begin publishing articles tomorrow, directly within Facebook,” from New York magazine.  Plus (Delaney Kutsal): How tech has led the evolution of media, and what’s to come,” via Huffington Post.  Plus (Evan Frost): Columbia University grad students vote on the best experimenting happening today,” via Columbia Journalism Review. 

RESULTS: Our final research reports are published here at Medium.com.

No designing and disrupting tonight - just great food and drinks at the Top Hat Lounge in Missoula, for our class going away celebration! May 13, 2015. Photo by Carol Van Valkenburg.

No designing and disrupting tonight – just great food and drinks at the Top Hat Lounge in Missoula, for our class going away celebration! May 13, 2015. Photo by Carol Van Valkenburg.

 * * * 


When I was told UM was adding a second new Pollner professorship, one that would focus on the visual, digital and or business challenges of journalism, I thought: How can I combine all three in my pitch? Then I thought: What is the course that the industry needs now? What’s the kind of instruction students need in order to enter the job market and be better prepared to tackle, and enjoy, change? My application included a much distilled description of the course outlined above. After my selection, I came up with this pitch to prospective students:

Your first or next job or internship in the news industry will be with an employer engaged in serious conversations about change. (If they aren’t, you don’t want to be there.) Reinvention, redesign, innovation. Product expansion or contraction. Newsroom reorganization. Revenue generation or fundraising. Audience retention and expansion. Marketing, partnerships, alliances and events. This conversation may be organic and ongoing … or it may be urgent.

A solid journalism education empowers you to CREATE journalism, but not necessarily to RECREATE it, or reinvent, reimagine, redesign. It’s a different skill set, more management and leadership than anything, and it’s a tricky conversation for newcomers. You have to know how to take something apart before you can put it back together and improve it. You have to understand more about where the money, and audience, comes from.

That’s where this course comes in. “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption” will empower you to step up on Day 1 of your next gig, volunteer for (or even lead) that task force or committee exploring change, help brainstorm meaningful ideas about growth or survival, and do so with clarity and confidence.

Whether you intend to be a reporter, editor, photographer, designer, or digital producer, it will be to your advantage to be prepared for this kind of thought, conversation, and work.

My goal was to give students a real-world, global view of change, innovation, and tumult, critically dissecting case studies of news publication reinvention and expansion in which I’ve actively participated, recently or currently. (For example: these.) We would also discuss examples of change elsewhere in the media landscape during Spring 2015, with a few guest speakers who are leading the (r)evolution in their workplace. (Such as, hmmm, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, who would visit campus April 16.) Class discussions analyze how design, editorial, organizational and management strategies are applied across platforms. We examine prototypes and process before, during and after reinvention.

In short, I pitched it as a media management course: We would look at how successful news orgs connect with readers and advertisers; create an effective editorial strategy and voice; innovate in revenue generation and marketing; and undertake leadership and organizational realignment.

But, yes, it’s also a design course: Each week we would examine how brand strategies are expressed and stories are told via typography, photography, illustration, infographics, color, page architecture, navigation, branding, and editorial voice, including powerful headline writing and construction. We’ll think hard about how visual elements contribute to the success of news brands across platforms.

For the final project, which came to be called the Big Disruption Project (BDP), students would identify and report back on, in detail, a recent or current case study of serious transformation throughout one news media organization. They would communicate with reinvention leaders in the field, and examine and report back on the change process, including: strategies and goals, design ideas and solutions, teamwork, timetables, audience outreach, and internal and external communications regarding change. Final reports must show how students think critically about design and disruption.

Prerequisites: Students had to show they were intensely curious about change. (If not, I told them, you’re in the wrong business.) They had to follow at least three news organizations passionately, and three others with some interest. They had to have some prior awareness of how and why specific news organizations have reinvented in recent years, months or days.

Among the runners-up for my course title? “Think Like a Publisher.” After completion, it remains my hope, they should be confident enough to do just that.


Link here to learn more about me, and here to learn more about news organizations I’ve worked with around the world.

Not enrolled in the course, but have questions about the topics we cover? Email me at ron (at) ronreason.com. Here’s to (thoughtful and intelligent) disruption!

* * *

From January through July, 2015, I lived in Missoula and serving as the Spring 2015 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Read more about the appointment here. For many years, the family of Anthony Pollner has endowed a fall semester professorship focused on writing, awarded to a reporter or editor with a national reputation, and this new spring position expands the family’s commitment into other important areas of journalism, including visual, digital, and the business side of the news. Learn more about the Pollner endowment here. 

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