Future of Journalism- 2018: GWU Honors Program Edition

Nikki Usher, PhD

nusher at gwu dot edu

Course details: M, 7:10–9:40 pm, Phillips Hall RM 640

Office hours: W, 2:30–4:30, Honors Suite office S, MVC

Course Purpose:

This class is intended to spur debate and critical thinking about the future of journalism. The goal of this course is to educate you about the biggest issues facing journalism today as well as to introduce you to some of the most exciting new developments in the field. Our focus is largely in the US, though other Western democracies (particularly Canada and the UK) will be considered, if only referentially. By the end of this class, you should be able to speak knowledgeably about a variety of traditional and non-traditional forms of news, understand the political economy of digital content, and be able to address journalism’s role in the quality and the future of public discourse. You will not learn any specific resume/bullet point practical skills, but you will learn about a social institution critical to a sound democracy.

The 2016 election and the first year of the Trump administration highlighted the tumultuous nature of our current news environment. There have been national conversations about media polarization, fake news, presidential/press communication, the power of social media to set the agenda, and the validity and ability of mainstream journalism to present factual information. If we existed in some sort of naive bubble that objective journalism would save the day, and that traditional news institutions could indeed be a bulwark of authority and accountability, that bubble has now popped. With limited exceptions, the fallible nature of mainstream media has been laid bare — from deeply ingrained professional norms that prevented critical coverage to the deep distrust and even outright hatred some Americans (and their leaders) have of mainstream media to the dangerous potential of social media to spread misinformation. Post-election, the promise and peril of data-driven reporting has been unveiled, cable news is having a heightened moment of influence, the power of AI to distort and manipulate, and the costs of a hyper-competitive political news cycle are now clear.

Moreover, the complexities of digital economics for content, the significance of scale, and the power of social media platforms to spread and share content have become increasingly visible. There is no one business model that will “save” news. Digital economics don’t make sense without deep scrutiny: How might we reconcile the fact that for a mainstream news site, it takes over 531 MILLION mobile banner ads to pay a single journalists’ salary while creators of content farm fake news sites can make $10,000 a month with almost no overhead costs? What are the implications of media consolidation on local news? What does it mean for legacy news outlets to abandon their material forms, from print publications to control over distribution? What is the fate of metropolitan journalism? Is there actually a reasonable way to do good journalism in a time where web traffic is a significant key to survival?

The crisis of trust in journalism is notable — fed in part by a disconnect between the beltway and the heartland, or coastal elite who tell stories of people whose voices are misconstrued and stereotyped. Closer to your home, local news outlets face challenges that may well be insurmountable; even in large cities, digital news outlets have been shut down while alternative weeklies are fighting for survival. Declines in regional reporting and state house reporting mean that congressional delegations and state legislators receive little scrutiny. Free speech faces challenges not just abroad, but also here in the US. Diversity and representation in the news are problematic issues facing journalism, not to mention journalists’ treatment of each other.

On a more positive note, niche newsletters and websites, podcasts (especially true crime), and product innovations show promise for the news consumer. The Washington Post may well be having its great moment in the digital era, while The New York Times is facing new levels of uncertainty, experiencing unprecedented critique as well as a new generation of its old publishing family in charge. Digital-first news outlets are providing new hope, but the question, though, is whether this is a viable long term plan. Buzzfeed has had to cut its profit expectations, while other outlets have made the “pivot to video” to avoid producing costly original reporting.

The expansion of journalism as a profession has become quite clear — and is also perhaps much needed. New technologies from AI to 360 video provide new ways of telling stories, while new ways of thinking and new skills such as journalists with programming skills and product managers are essential to any newsroom. And ordinary people via their digital communications can be enabled (or taken advantage of) when they act as citizen journalists, or at the very least, can engage directly with journalists.

One of the key features of the class that I hope to achieve will be to bring working professionals into the discussion. Their conversations will orient our conversation in the realities of journalism today and take advantage of DC’s position as a media center. I see my role in some ways as a facilitator of your learning and as a guide to Washington and the news industry, blending my own experience as an authority on journalism with the best that this town has to offer you.

Now has never been a better time to learn about journalism. Journalism may be in crisis, at least in the popular imagination, but a vast number of scholars do dispute this idea. And most important — if you want to be an informed, engaged, and literate member of the populace, understanding how journalism works in society is critical.


  1. You are a student in one of GW’s most exemplary undergraduate divisions. Conduct yourself like one: do your work, come to class prepared, be ready to not just sit back and engage. Balance can often be difficult given the myriad of opportunities you have here at GW and in Washington, but I expect you to make your academics your first priority.

2. This is a discussion-centered class. The reading averages around 50–70 pages of text a week (as is appropriate for an honors undergraduate seminar that lasts 2.5 hours and meets once weekly). The reading is generally from popular press commentary or written with the intention of reaching non-academic audiences. My expectation is that you will come to class prepared so we can move beyond the readings to engage in more sophisticated discussions based on our collective knowledge. Not every reading will be addressed directly in every class, but you will be expected to show knowledge of assigned readings in written assignments.

3. Though this is not a formal requirement, you are expected to say abreast of developments in the news industry. I suggest subscribing to at least one of the following newsletters and/or visiting these sites frequently: Nieman Journalism Lab, Columbia Journalism Review (Media Today), Digiday, the American Press Institute, CNN’s Reliable Sources, and Axios (Sara Fischer). For a recommended Twitter list of who to follow — both people and outlets — see here. I also like What’s Going on In the World Wide Web via Buzzfeed, but that is slightly tangential to this course.

4. Communication: you are expected to read your email as it relates to this class and craft and answer email when appropriate/as instructed. I will get back to you no later than 48 hours after your email, pending travel. The majority of your readings will be found on this syllabus, but additional readings may be sent out over email as well as any pertinent class announcements.

5. Guest lectures and special opportunities: Please note that this course builds off the experts we have in Washington. You are expected to be a model for GW students for these guests, which includes your course preparation, respect for their accomplishments, and active engagement in their work and presentation. Please note that some of our special opportunities fall outside course times, generally early on Friday mornings. Please do your best to accommodate these and I am happy to communicate to any employers about this class obligation. Chatham House rules apply to any of our guests (participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed to the public in subsequent conversation).

6. Maintain a civil course environment respectful of diversity and difference. As a professor, I will try to do the same, and please alert me if I can do better or if you have particular preferences and or needs as far as pronouns, terminology, etc. My personal and research ethics mean that I aspire to keep my politics out of this course as best possible to create an equitable learning environment for diverse perspectives (including political ideology) and experiences, but we will be having conversations about politics and news at a time when polarization is at its highest point in US history. Critique of a public figure or a strategy founded in reasoned argument is not the same as an unsubstantiated or generalized critique of an ideology or collective community as a whole.

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this class, you will have the ability to:

  1. Understand the economic, social, and cultural pressures of the news industry in the existing information economy.
  2. Speak knowledgeably about professional journalism norms and their strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Discuss issues with polarization in the US and the impact on our information environment.
  4. Identify the new actors and new innovations in the journalism ecosystem and explain their potential upsides and downsides.
  5. Be able to discuss the problems with the news business model.
  6. Be an expert resource for your respective field on the future of the news media.
  7. If asked to talk about the news industry, you could give a key word for every letter of the alphabet and define it. (The A to Z of news innovation, for example).


1. Short weekly reading responses — 25%

2. Participation — 10%

3. Local Event report-back — 10%

3. Project 1–25%

4. Project 2–30%

Cell Phones and Laptops

For this class, I’m not sure why you’d need anything other than a notebook, so I’d encourage you just to use that, but do what you need to do.

Academic Integrity

Neither cheating nor plagiarism will be tolerated.

I personally support the GW Code of Academic Integrity. It states: “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one’s own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.”

Cheating on an exam includes, but is not limited to, looking on another student’s exam, allowing another student to use your exam, and bringing a “crib sheet” of answers. Plagiarism involves representing someone else’s work as your own — whether another person’s work (e.g. you purchase a paper off the internet) or a published source (e.g. using others’ material without giving that source credit including copies of other’s tweets/social media passed as your own w/o proper attribution). For more information on what constitutes a violation, please refer to GW’s code of academic integrity.

Anyone caught cheating or plagiarizing in ANY way will receive a ZERO for the course and will be turned over to the Department and be reported to the university. Note that the university policy provides the option for an F on the assignment; as honors students, you are held to a higher standard and will get an F for the course regardless of this policy. Note I have zero tolerance for this. It’s really not worth risking it. If you are having trouble in the class, see me about it.

Required Texts

Everything you need for class can be found here on this syllabus.

University Boilerplate:

Students with DisabilitiesDISABILITY SUPPORT SERVICES (DSS): Any student who may need an accommodation based on the potential impact of a disability should contact the Disability Support Services office at 202–994–8250 in the Marvin Center, Suite 242, to establish eligibility and to coordinate reasonable accommodations. For additional information please refer to: http://gwired.gwu.edu/dss/

In Case of Crisis: The GW Community cares, more than you know! If you or someone you know is in trouble — either in severe crisis, or simply having difficulty, please contact GWCARE. You can fill out an anonymous request form for someone you know or ask for help yourself. Please let me know sooner rather than later if appropriate if there is something interfering with course performance. I don’t care about the details, but I do care about your success.

UNIVERSITY COUNSELING CENTER (UCC): The University Counseling Center (UCC) offers 24/7 assistance and referral to address students’ personal, social, career, and study skills problems. Contact the office at 202–994–5300 or visit http://gwired.gwu.edu/counsel/CounselingServices/AcademicSupportServices

Services for students include: Crisis and emergency mental health consultations, confidential assessment, counseling services (individual and small group), and referrals.

Religious Holidays: Please see GW’s official policy here.

Security: In the case of an emergency, if at all possible, the class should shelter in place. If the building that the class is in is affected, follow the evacuation procedures for the building. After evacuation, seek shelter at a predetermined rendezvous location.

How long you might expect to spend on this course: The federal government now requires that I suggest to you how much time you might spend on coursework. We all work differently and read and write at different paces; per credit hour, per federal guidelines, for one credit hour, 37.5 hours of class is required. You should not spend more than 9 hours a week on this course in an average week (e.g. no major assignment due) inclusive of course time. If you do, let me know — that’s too much.

Communication and Office Hours: You can expect to hear back from me within 48 hours, unless there’s a school vacation or I am traveling. I will provide my specific details to you in an email. Office hours on MVC, W 2:30–4:30.

Spring 2018’s Weird Schedule

We meet on Mondays. First Monday of the term is not until Jan 22; there is President’s Day, Spring Break, and assorted other ways that Monday gets forgotten.

About Me: I study how journalism is changing in the digital age. I am the author of two books on media transition: Making News at The New York Times and Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data and Code. My academic research looks at everything from social media to new business models to workflow to journalism and tech collision to web analytics to values. My Times book won a book of the year award from our major academic association and I was named the outstanding junior scholar of the year in 2015 by this same association. I have written over two dozen peer reviewed journal articles and 11 book chapters, and have done extensive field research in major newsrooms across the country and the world including The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, The BBC, The Seattle Times, The Miami Herald, The Star-Telegram, The Des Moines Register, The AP, and others. I talk to the news media frequently and am also an occasional journalist — currently, I am a freelance correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and Nieman Lab and was a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer with additional newspaper experience. I am a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication’s PhD and MA program, and have my BA in History (magna cum laude) from Harvard.


Each week, unless otherwise specified, you are to provide:

a) one to two thoughts on how issues raised by readings are challenging for the future of journalism

b) one to two possible solutions you see in response to these challenges and an idea for how to implement the solution.

c) one question to ask our guest lecturer (if one is coming) reflecting their expertise in the assigned reading/week subject.

The readings must be engaged with directly (e.g. direct references to an article read and/or concepts discussed) with the exception of the guest lecture question. These are due Sunday, 5 p.m. before your Monday class (you should have more than ample time to complete this assignment).

Local Event Report-Back

  • Over the course of the semester, I will ask you to go to one panel or event/location of your choosing related to the future of journalism and report back on what you learned/found. I will send you information about ones that catch my eye, but those may not suit your schedule. To better anticipate these events and find one that interests you, I recommend you scan SMPA event offerings, join or scan ONADC’s Meetup Group, and sign up for The Washington Post Live Events newsletter. Off campus events are strongly preferred. This assignment is due no later than 4/9 at 5 pm. Proof of attendance required (signed/stamped ticket stub, etc.)


Jan 22: The State of Journalism in the US & The State of Washington Reporting

No come to class challenge due. This is not to be thought of as syllabus day. Lecture will focus on the state of the news industry, primarily from an economic outlook. Lecture drawn from sources below — no need to read prior to first class.

Possible event report-back: Jan 23, 9 am, Washington Post Live: Americas and the Media-Sorting Fact from Fiction.

PART 1: Journalism’s Changing Norms

Week 2, Jan 29: Unpacking Press Performance: Problems with US National Political Reporting

(don’t forget to do your come to class challenge — see syllabus above).

Guest: Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute

Rosenstiel: What the post-Trump debate over journalism gets wrong.

Rosen: Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of mainstream press

Pope: What we miss when we obsess over Trump’s Tweets

Searles et. al: The polls aren’t skewed, media coverage is

WATCH: Chuck Todd on NBC

optional but highly recommended- De Vreese: Political Journalism in a Populist Age

Possible event report-back: Will local journalism in DC Survive? —Tuesday, Jan. 30, 7pm, WeWork White House, event says it is paid, but I am speaking so comped tickets are available.

Week 3, Feb. 5: The crisis of trust in journalism

possible guest: Molly Ball, Time. Note, we may continue this discussion on trust next week.

What is trust, briefly? (must be logged on via GW network to read): Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

Ladd: Why do Americans hate the news media?

Rosen — from 2012 — What explains falling trust in the media?

Pew — Trust problems are partisan; Vice — Journalists and Trump Voters live in different online bubbles

Ball: On Safari in Trump’s America

A-M read: Vernon: Journalism’s Horrible No Good Very Bad week

N-Z read: Sullivan: Polls show Americans distrust the media….but…

Week 4, Feb. 12: The Future of Fake News and Facts

First project assigned.

Come to class challenge — specific questions:

1) How do you define fake news? Why do you define it this way? Provide support from the readings for your interpretation. 2) Share from your own experience an example of fake news you came across (and were better yet, fooled by) — using your definition of fake news to guide this answer.

Guest: Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post media columnist and former New York Times Ombudsman (public editor).

Sullivan: Why I started saying Reality Based Press; It’s time to retire the term Fake News

First Draft News: Read executive summary and introduction; stop at “conceptual framework”; Overview of fake news and fact-checking studies

Silverman: I helped popularize the term fake news and now I cringe every time I hear it.

Greenemeier: Could AI be the future of fake news?

Week 5, Feb. 19. President’s Day, HBD George Washington!

No class.

Week 6, Feb. 26.: The Future of Partisan Media

Possible Guest: Geoffrey Ingersoll, The Daily Caller

Edkins: US Media Among the Most Polarized in the World (brief article w/ grafs)

Zengerle: The Voices in Blue America’s Head

Hemmer: Why David Brock’s attempt to create a Breitbart of the left is destined to fail

Hemmer: How Conservative Media Learned to Play Politics

Hylton: Down the Breitbart Hole

Shaer: How far will Sean Hannity Go?

Fischer (*GW): Mapping growth in the digital right wing media system (graphic)

PART II: Looking Further Into The Future

This next section of the class is a deep dive into the difficult and thorny questions facing all sorts of news media today thanks to the complicated digital environment they find themselves in.

Week 7, Mar 5: Platforms, New Technology, and Distributed Content

Leave time for this: C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky. Post-Industrial Journalism http://towcenter.org/research/post-industrial-journalism-adapting-to-the-present-2/

Franklin Foer: When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism

Joshua Benton: A Wave of Distributed Content is Coming

Week 8, March 19: Stickiness and Web Traffic

King — My Year of Ripping off the Web with The Daily Mail, Online;

Hindman (GW): Stickier News

Petre — The Traffic Factories (but only Executive Summary and Gawker section)

Kilgo and Sinta — Six things you didn’t know about headline writing

Guest: Josh Sacco, Purdue University

Week 9, March 26: The Death of Digital Advertising (and its programmatic future)

Possible Guest: Sara Fischer (*GW), Axios

Felix Salmon — Utter Irrelevance of Online Ads

Ingram — How Facebook and Google have taken over the digital advertising industry (sorry, Fortune’s pre-roll ads are awful, ironically)

Digiday- WTF is programmatic advertising?; The State of Programmatic Advertising

Maheshwari: Advertising’s Moral Struggle: Is online reach worth the hurt?

Goel: Russian Cyberforgers Steal Millions a Day with Fake Ad Sites

Rosenwald -The digital media industry needs to deal with ad blockers

Bonus: But, if advertising is so broken, how do fake news writers make money? Ohiheiser: This is How; Traffic Magazine: How many ads does it take to pay a writer?

Week 10, 4/2: But if not ads and Web traffic, then how do we fund the news?

possible guest: Paul Young, Washington Post, digital retention

There is honestly too much on here for you to read — You are ok to reading one article about each type & Rosen’s below. And one of mine, maybe :)

Rosen — Subsidies of the News

Non-Profit Journalism: News You Can Endow (the promise); Usher & Hindman: Gaining Ground or Just Treading Water? (not required, but take a look if you’d like: Knight Foundation — Gaining Ground http://knightfoundation.org/publications/gaining-ground-how-nonprofit-news-ventures-seek-su)

Paywalls: How they’re supposed to work, and six years of boring content and debate about them, we realize they don’t, finally (Except at fancy places), from Paul Young, our guest — The LA Times offers 2 cent subscriptions

Startups → Usher — News Companies as Tech Companies; Michael Sebastian — Reality Check — Sizing up Venture-Backed Publisher’s Prospects; The absurd whiteness and maleness-

Crowdfunding? Micropayments? De Correspondent;

Branded Content: Major whitepaper here: Understanding the role of sponsored content (Sonderman and Tran), but just read for class the definition of sponsored content and the four business models. Then, check out NYT’s T-Brand Studio and a good overview of growth and content of branded content (Moses) and why people are obsessed with Buzzfeed is doing (Via Media Post).

Events & Membership: Ellis — What Makes The Texas Tribune’s Event Business So Successful?; Kramer- Rethinking Public Media Memberships;

Product and B-to-B: Bassan — How product thinking can help the newsroom. Usher- On News and Merch. Alpert — Washington Post Looks to Publishing Platform as Growing Revenue Stream.

PART III: Case Studies in the Future of News

Week 11, 4/9: Future of Local Media

Event report-back assignment is due at 5 pm.

possible visit: Scott Brodbeck (GW), ArlNow

Pew (old but good): How News Happens

Bucay et. al: America’s Growing News Deserts (map)

Farhi: What happens to local news when there is no local media to cover it?

Knibbs: The Fight for the Future of Local News

Edge: Demystifying the Future of Local News

Local online journalism models. LION Publishers, local news trade group (link: https://www.lionpublishers.com/). For-profit (hyper) local digital news? (check out Billy Penn for context); GW SMPA Alum’s ArlNow

Week 12, 4/16: The Future of Video and Audio News

possible guests: Frank Sesno, GW, SMPA director, and Sandra Moynihan (GW), USO;

Van Zuylen-Wood: Oy, The Traffic

Sambrook and Nielsen: What is Happening to the Future of TV News? (Scan, esp. intro and pg. 17–23).

Shouten: Behind Cheddar’s wager on the future of TV news

Curtis: What pivoting to video really means.

Quah: The future of podcasting is Strong, but the Present Needs to Catch Up; These are the most important developments in the future of podcasting so far

Krosgaard: What introducing 360 video taught me about the future of VR in journalism

Smith: Yes, VR and 360 Video are relevant, here’s why.

Week 13, 4/23: The Future of National Security Journalism

Watch (on your own): The Post. Update on streaming availability coming.

Sullivan: On what an anonymous source is…. and how an anonymous source should be used

Keller: (2013) Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of Journalism?

Rutenberg: Panama Papers Leak Signals a Shift in Mainstream Journalism

On information security and journalism…Byrne; on journalists and new tech for information security…Usher and Nover

4/27 (FRIDAY): Visit to the National Press Club — Non-class hours, 9:00–10:00 AM

Breakfast on Dr. Usher at The National Press Club. Hear about the history of one of the coolest institutional gems in Washington that can only be visited in the way you will be visiting with a member invitation.

Week 14, 4/30: Engagement and Equity in Journalism

Free Press: What is Community Engagement?

Stearns: How Journalists Can Use Transparency as a Tool to Deepen Engagement

Stearns: Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities

Spayd: Want to Attract More Readers? Try Listening To Them

And on Equity

The Status of US Women in the News Media 2017; Newsrooms are still very male and very white, and that’s a problem;

Vega: How Newsrooms Can Stop Being so White (a 10 point plan)

related: how reporting on gender asymmetry in journalism isn’t enough/helpful…Usher

Week 15, 5/1: AI, Automation, and Algorithmic Accountability Journalism (Designated Monday)

Grafe — Guide to Automated Journalism

AP Study: Automated Financial News increases trading velocity

Diakopolous: Algorithmic Accountability (scan)

Associate Prof at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Studies news, politics, technology, and power with a humanistic social science take.

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