The Graduate School of Journalism

The City University of New York

Proposal for a Master of Arts Degree in Social Journalism [excerpts]

I. Purposes and Goals

The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism proposes to establish a Master of Arts degree in Social Journalism — the practice and study of informed and engaged communities — to offer alongside its existing MA in Journalism and MA and Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism. Our plan is to enroll a first cohort of 10 students in 2015, with enrollment projected to increase gradually to 40 students over the next five years.

We see the need and opportunity to meet journalism’s mission of informing communities in new ways using the new tools afforded by the internet, resetting the profession’s relationship with the public and shifting its focus from content toward service. We will teach the eternal verities of journalism that are a hallmark of our school alongside new skills for which we have found demand in the market. We also hope to have an impact on the culture and economics of the news industry, helping companies recognize the value of stronger relationships with members of the public.

The proposed, 33-credit master’s program will offer two semesters of classes and workshops, outlined below, and an intense practicum in which students work in their chosen communities, building services and business around them.

The new masters is highly complementary to the journalism school’s existing programs. Indeed, we believe this degree meets a need not being met by any journalism school in the country, including our own. We hope the program will have a positive impact on the curricula of journalism schools, bringing public engagement into the discussion about the field’s future.

Our thinking behind this degree begins with the belief that news must reach past the limitations of mass media and the notion that we are in the business principally of manufacturing content. Journalism is properly conceived of as a service that helps people organize their knowledge and their communities. As a service, journalism can and must build relationships with members of the public, understanding their needs and wants and measuring success based on the outcomes they are able to achieve.

To perform that service, journalists must come to know people as individuals, not as a mass — and that has been made possible, at last, by the internet. Journalists must give people reasons to reveal themselves so that news organizations may deliver relevance and value in return. They must understand how to listen to the public before speaking. They need to recognize that people will use the tools the internet has brought them to share information and make connections on their own, without mediators — that is, without media as gatekeepers. Journalists will add value to that flow by asking the questions and getting the answers not already there — that is, by reporting — and by confirming facts, correcting errors, defusing rumors, and adding context and explanation through narrative; these are classic roles of journalism now made possible with new tools, in new forms.

Journalists have the opportunity to explore other new roles enabled by technology:

These are the skills we will concentrate on in this new degree program, organized according to four pillars:

In addition, the program provides students with basic business training and is capped with an intense practicum in which students find, listen to, and serve and then measure their impact on a specific community.

The school’s current journalism curriculum includes many of these skills, but not at depth because teaching journalism today emphasizes the skills of reporting and writing narrative. The current curriculum is also burdened with the task of teaching a constant flow of new media tools and skills. The journalism degree starts with content. The engagement degree will start with the public and with the skills of interaction and service. They will overlap somewhat, with the engagement curriculum including the skills of reporting and imparting information and the journalism curriculum teaching social skills. Indeed, the presence of each program will enhance and influence the other, bringing new skills and levels of expertise to the faculty and creating more elective opportunities for students in each program. But we have decided to create a separate degree and curriculum because the skills needed today are distinct and require greater depth than what we can teach in a single program.

The social journalism degree will bring in new disciplines to the school. Some of the pioneers in social media in news organizations such as the Guardian and in technology companies such as Google come from social anthropology. The new program’s faculty will include expertise in data gathering and analysis. We will call upon the experience of community organizers, especially their ability to listen to and serve communities’ needs. We will bring in technology experts and programmers to teach some skills. We will call upon and, where needed, augment the journalism program’s resources in teaching reporting, media tools, and the business of media. The program will hire a full-time director who has demonstrated expertise in engaging and serving communities. Some courses will be taught by our current journalism faculty. The rest will be drawn from the extraordinary pool of potential adjuncts who are practicing different aspects of social journalism in the New York metropolitan region, as we will require a wide range of fast-evolving skills. We will also call upon expertise from an advisory board to be established across disciplines and related industries.

It should be noted that the program will not include instruction in public relations and brand marketing, though some of the skills outlined above are also used in those fields today. This program is designed to produce social journalists whose mission is to help communities discern and fulfill their own needs and meet their own goals, not to serve the economic interests of brands and marketers. The work of these journalists will continue to be supported in great measure by advertising revenue as well as income from commerce, events, data analysis, membership, and in some cases philanthropy, and so our students must understand the economic underpinnings of the field and be qualified to manage their enterprises as entrepreneurs. But we will make clear that this is not a marketing communications degree.

This new program will work closely with the journalism school’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and will follow its model in providing research and leadership alongside education. As this is a new and constantly changing field, it will be beneficial to the program to use research to stay current and to inform ongoing curriculum development and the work of faculty and students. As a pioneer in the field, it will also be important for the school to provide leadership in the industry, helping news organizations new and old to understand and see the value of building new relationships with the public and grappling with questions such as the ethics of engagement in news and the business sustainability of informing and engaging communities.

The program will build strong ties with Silicon Valley but also has a great advantage in being based in New York, where many startups — such as Tumblr — are crossing the line between content and engagement and where many California technology companies — including LinkedIn, Google, Twitter, Word Press, and Yahoo — now have large outposts to enable connections with the media industry. The City now boasts the second-largest pool of technology venture investment after Northern California and so we will have a ready supply of experts, teachers, and mentors. The new program will build upon the strong ties the entrepreneurial journalism program has established with New York’s startup scene. The program will also take advantage of the work already being done by the Tow-Knight Center in fostering sustainable news ecosystems in communities in the City and New Jersey, using some of those communities as classrooms.

II. Need and  Justification for the Program

In our preliminary feasibility research, we have found strong endorsement of the need for such a degree and of the hiring potential for its graduates. Meg Pickard, a social anthropologist who established the Guardian’s leadership in interactivity and social media and now consults to the industry, called the degree “immensely exciting,” observing that existing programs are “well-established in teaching the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of journalism with not much emphasis on the ‘why.’” That is, Pickard believes this program will address communities’ own motives and needs. She noted that the industry needs journalists skilled in serving communities, creating relationships, and adapting tools that communities use, such as Guardian Witness, a crowdsourcing platform; Storify, a means of capturing conversations as content; and Kinja, a comment-cum-creation tool for the public. She applauded our plans to include an intense practicum in the field as in her seven years of hiring, she found that experience working directly with communities is missing in the talent pool. She endorsed coverage of the ethics of community engagement as well as business and legal considerations.

Kate Day, who was engagement and social media editor of London’s Telegraph before taking on responsibility for all digital content, said this program would fill a “gap that is still enormous” in the field, producing journalists who understand communities and platforms and how to speak in a voice that is appropriate to various communities. Prof. Jeff Jarvis, who heads the Tow-Knight Center and is acting director of this program, worked with the Telegraph in the formulation of a new business strategy built around serving the news organization’s distinct communities, or “tribes,” in their wording, with not only content but also tools, including ones communities already use, such as Facebook and Twitter. Rather than making content the starting point, she said, this program makes the public the starting point: “The audience is much more central.” She endorsed this plan’s emphasis on analysis of data signals and behavior from the audience. She also said there would be a robust market for graduates of such a program and emphasized that newsrooms will need to hire students such as ours to transfer social skills to all the journalists and editors there. She reported finding little success in her efforts to hire staff from journalism schools as they prefer to create content; thus, she has had to go to other sources, such as blogging, to find her employees, and she has been frustrated finding that marketers often apply for her jobs though they do not bring appropriate skills.

In a series of meetings in Silicon Valley, Dean Sarah Bartlett and Prof. Jarvis found considerable enthusiasm for the proposed program, with executives at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, and Medium saying they would be in the market to hire graduates trained in engagement skills. We have also found many job descriptions at major media companies, old and new — the Washington Post, Condé Nast, Business Insider — seeking social media editors with the skills addressed in this proposal. We believe our graduates will succeed at making news organizations more responsive to, accountable to, and collaborative with the publics they serve.

Our external reviewer, Professor Owen Youngman, the Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, also voiced strong support for our proposed new MA. Citing his 30 years of participation in online communities and more than 20 years of creation of digital products and services, he wrote: “I believe that the craft of journalism and the discipline of journalism education will be well served by the creation of such a degree, and from my own observation of the jobs that my best students are getting – some in social media companies, some using social media on behalf of their employers in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, some in data-focused startups – I can see clear reasons for CUNY to aggressively pursue the creation of this program.”

Finally, our most tangible endorsement came from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, a prominent early investor in Facebook, and a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock, who is funding development of the program. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the primary funder of journalism education in the nation, has matched Hoffman’s grant to support the program.

In keeping with CUNY’s and the journalism school’s mission as public institutions, the new program will make it a priority to increase diversity in the field by attracting and training more women and minorities and people from cultures around the world for news organizations and for technology companies; both industries are in desperate need of diversity and the new perspectives it provides. In addition, we hope the program will produce graduates who will endeavor to serve communities that are ever-more underserved by shrinking traditional media, in the long run increasing the diversity of voices in the public sphere.  

III. Students

We envision multiple recruiting pools for students. The first and most obvious group is prospective journalism students who are ever-more savvy about social media and technology and who want to be more involved in the side of the industry that is growing and attracting innovation and investment. We believe the engagement degree will make our school even more competitive, attracting a larger proportion of the existing journalism student market. We believe the engagement degree will make our school even more competitive, attracting a larger proportion of the existing journalism student market. By being one of the first to market with such a cutting-edge program, our new degree will help raise the profile of the school overall, increasing the number of applicants to our other two masters programs and thus helping the school’s general growth trajectory.

We also anticipate drawing students from other pools: students interested in social media as a career who are looking for a way to gain expertise in this new discipline; students who want to become community organizers but for whom there is no specific graduate program; students disillusioned with law and politics as paths to having an impact on their communities; cultural anthropologists who want to gain tangible skills and experience; midcareer journalists looking to find a new but related career and holding close to their professional missions; former marketers who would prefer to turn their skills from selling to the public to serving the public; and journalists as well as bloggers already serving their communities who want to professionalize their skills and learn ways to better sustain their work.

This variety presents us with a marketing challenge to find students. We will need to reach out to more undergraduate programs and to new communities of prospective students. But we also have a distinct marketing advantage: The best place to find people interested in social media is in social media. This is where our research and events will help spread the word of our work and program and attract prospective applicants.

In the school’s entrepreneurial journalism certificate program, we have seen a preview of the variety of students likely to seek out and succeed in a specialty such as the one we propose here. A few examples: Mark Winston Griffith is a community organizer who came to the entrepreneurial program so he could build a news site to serve his community in central Brooklyn; he is the bridge between content and engagement. Justin Auciello is a city planner who almost by accident started a hugely popular service called Jersey Shore Hurricane News built entirely on Facebook as a platform that enabled members of his communities to share news; he successfully engaged the public but needs help in providing reporting and earning revenue. Kevin Coughlin is a former metropolitan news reporter who started Morristown Green to serve his town in New Jersey but who needs help in better engaging his community and in earning revenue. The entrepreneurial program attracted these students by offering a program uniquely suited to their needs. We anticipate a similar pool of ideal students for the program.

Another recruiting advantage for this degree is its duration: a calendar year instead of the journalism degree’s year-and-a-half (including a summer internship). By reducing the time commitment, we believe we will expand the pool of potential applicants.

The program will develop a series of high-profile events to draw attention, interest, and applications. By capitalizing on our connections with technology companies and startups that themselves attract considerable interest and curiosity — for example, inviting some of the major executives we have consulted about this program, celebrities in the field, to come speak at the journalism school and holding such events in California and elsewhere — we anticipate being able to get publicity and draw large audiences of people interested in our program.

We will market these events specifically to students at other CUNY campuses and in addition will hold a series of workshops in social media for them, in an effort to increase CUNY enrollment to the journalism school and this program and thus strengthen our diversity and ties to New York’s communities.

The program will also work with the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the South Asian Journalists Association, and other such organizations to get their help in recruiting qualified candidates.

We anticipate considerable demand from out of the state and country. About 55 percent of the students in our two masters programs and certificate come from out-of-state or overseas; we anticipate a similar national and international footprint for this new degree.  

Admission Requirements

Applicants will be expected to demonstrate active participation in social media with impressive profiles and portfolios using various tools in communities. They will be asked to write a personal mission statement about the communities they wish to serve and why. We have found in the entrepreneurial program that successful students come to the program with a specific goal in mind; even though their business ideas often change as they research their markets, without that initial drive, they are less likely to do well. Other requirements for engagement students include a 3.0 grade point average in college and three letters of recommendation from undergraduate faculty or employers. A personal interview will provide invaluable insight into applicants’ social aptitude and goals.

Students will not be required to have prior journalism or technical experience. They will be expected to exhibit ease and familiarity with various platforms and tools of the internet.

IV. Curriculum

At the start, all students in the program will take the same courses, as is the case in the entrepreneurial program. Thus they develop strong esprit. And thus the program will require fewer teaching and classroom resources. As the program expands enrollment, we will consider some specialization and electives, opening up courses to students in the other journalism programs. We anticipate that a large proportion of the program will continue to be made up of core and shared courses.

Classes in the first semester connect to classes in the second in the four key areas outlined above: Two courses together make up the core of journalistic skills and perspective; two courses are devoted to listening and community outreach; two to technology skills and tools; and two to data skills. The last segment of the program is then made up of intense work in a community as well as in business. Students will work toward their own intense practicums, in which they will select and serve specific communities, developing services and in some cases business plans around them.


Semester 1

Information-Gathering and Reporting        3 credit hours                        journalism

Community Engagement                        3 credit hours                        listening skills

Data Skills                                        3 credit hours                        data skills

Social-Media Tools                                3 credit hours                        technology skills

Semester 2

Reporting and Presentation                        3 credit hours                        journalism skills

Design and Development                        3 credit hours                        technology skills

Ethical and Legal Considerations                3 credit hours                        listening skills

Metrics and Outcomes                        3 credit hours                        data skills


Beat-Business Training                        3 credit hours                        business skills

Community Practicum                        6 credit hours                        experience

Total                                                33 credit hours

Course descriptions

First semester:

Data Skills

This course will present the fundamentals of data gathering, analysis, and presentation. Data skills will be critical across many aspects of public engagement work — analyzing signals (such as location, demographic, interest, behavior) to discern information about communities; analyzing audience behavioral data to inform the design and offerings of one’s service; gathering and presenting credible and trustworthy information for a community; and assessing outcomes of an enterprise’s efforts. The course will also address proper analytical skills and common pitfalls in misinterpreting data. The course will be taught by an experienced data professional who will, in turn, bring in specialists in such topics as data-base tools and data visualization in the journalistic context.

Community Engagement

This is a course in listening to a community: understanding and empathizing with its needs and learning how to help a community share its own knowledge. It is also an opportunity to expose students to a wide array of communities and perspectives. The instructor will engage ambassadors to communities of various definitions — geographic (neighborhoods, towns), demographic (ethnic groups, age groups), interest (topics such as cancer, parenting, or sports), and business (organized around an industry or a job description. These ambassadors can be journalists, community organizers, topic experts, and business proprietors who serve communities and who will, in turn, introduce the students to members of these communities so the students will develop skills in listening and discerning communities’ needs. Through this course, students will begin to identify the communities they plan to serve in the practicum and begin to interact with those communities where they gather online and in person.

Information-Gathering and Reporting

This course studies the information that communities need to know and how to get it up to them. Students will start by identifying the information that exists in communities: What do members of a community know and how can they be helped to share that information? Students will examine external sources of information — especially from journalism that already serves communities. In this course, they will begin by profiling New York neighborhoods and will gather information for them. In coordinated work with the Community Engagement course above, they will venture into the community to meet the people there. Students will learn how to present information to the community, whether through articles or tools or visualization, and so on. The course will be taught by a journalism professor.

Social-Media Tools

Students will gain an understanding of many popular and some obscure tools that communities already use — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, NextDoor, SeeClickFix, etc. — focusing on their capabilities, on how their use affects interactivity and the quality of information, and how they could be used to better inform communities. They will learn the skills of verifying information that comes from social media. They will then identify information needs and design specifications for adaptations of these tools that could be used by a community to connect with information and each other. This course will be taught by a developer and a journalist as a team.

Second semester:

Reporting and Presentation

In the prior semester’s journalistic course, students dealt with the information that exists in and around a community. Now they will deal more with the information that does not exist and needs to be gathered via reporting — questions that aren’t being asked in a community’s flow of information; answers that are not forthcoming from officials; corrections to errors and misperceptions; perspective and explanation that are needed in discussions. They will learn how to identify and fulfill information needs and how to find and interact with sources, also working collaboratively with a community to gather accurate and trustworthy information (for example, by helping them file freedom-of-information requests). They will learn how to interview and fact-check. They will then determine the optimal form and means for presentation of this information, whether as a text story or a visual story or an event, whether on a web site or through a social network or alternative media tool. They will learn how to create that content, appropriate for the community, the need, and the medium. This course will be taught by a journalism professor.

Design and Development

Students will delve into what is known as design thinking, a discipline developed at the Stanford Design School and Ideo to watch community members’ behavior, listen to their needs, brainstorm solutions, then build or adapt tools. Students will work with developers to better understand what is possible and how to express their goals to developers. As in the journalism program at the school, our goal is not to produce coders but to produce journalists who are fluent — in this case, highly fluent — in technology so they may better communicate with technology partners and produce better and more effective products and services for communities. The course will be taught by an experienced developer who will be provided with a budget to hire additional developers to work individually with students.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

As engagement expert Meg Pickard told us, it is vital that students understand the ethical implications of working with communities. They cannot barge in uninvited with their own presumptions about a community’s needs, nor can they arrive one day and then the next desert a community that comes to depend upon them. To succeed, it is vital that they develop a relationship of mutual trust and understanding. In this seminar, students will examine these considerations and will anticipate pitfalls to avoid. They will also receive instruction in legal issues such as libel and copyright as well as freedom of speech and information rights. Students will receive guidance and mentorship as they begin to work with and inside the communities they have identified for their practicums, upcoming. The teaching will be split by an engagement professional and a law instructor.

Metrics and Outcomes

In the second data course, students will learn how to gather and analyze behavioral data and other signals to understand what does and does not succeed with a community. They will learn that metrics can be corrupting — for example, that striving for more and more “unique users” and “pageviews,” as much of many in media have, can lead to crass sensationalism and degraded value, credibility, and reputation. Thus they will need to select the metrics by which they will judge success and impact carefully devise plans to measure their effectiveness with their communities. We will work with existing media outlets and metrics companies to evaluate their data and lessons. This course will be taught by a practitioner of media metrics.

Third semester work:

Business Skills

The program will provide students with brief and intensive training in running a community service as a business, with focus on content, revenue (primarily advertising but also events and other revenue streams, including grants), marketing of their services, and technology (in this case, primarily blogs). This intense program — an adaptation of similar training to be offered by the entrepreneurial journalism program for journalists running beats as businesses — is designed to give students related to business and sustainability. The program is taught by a team of business mentors.


Every student will have selected an existing community — whether defined by geography, demography, interest, or business — to serve using the skills and tools he or she has learned in the prior semesters. As a capstone experience, students will assess the unmet information needs of the community and find ways to help serve those needs. Each student will be assigned a mentor to monitor and improve the quality of students’ work, helping to identify and solve problems and evaluate success. Students then graduate already doing work in their fields. They may then start their own enterprises or seek related jobs in media, technology or other companies.