Professor Nikki Usher

I am always happy to be engaged on Twitter @nikkiusher

Course Purpose:

This class is designed to give the strategic communication student in Washington, DC a sense of how journalism works. There are two components to this class: the theory and the practice. The theoretical aspect of the class is not absent practice, though. Every single reading that you will be assigned has current relevance to the strategic communication environment in this city — either from the perspective of what makes Washington tick to what concerns are motivating journalism. This is a course that gives the journalist’ side of strategic communication.

You will learn from classics old and new how news is made from the perspective of journalists — the factors and the considerations that journalists take into account as they go about making decisions about what to cover and how to cover it. The theory is very applied — it’s theory only in that it is not applied to a very specific case happening at a specific moment, and it’s theory in that the explanation for social phenomena and their conclusions have stood the test of time.

There are two key entry points to these discussions: Washington and the “future of the news industry.” We will spend half the semester looking at how news is created in a political environment using media sociology to guide our understanding of who the players and what the processes are for making news inside the Beltway. This section of the course is focused most explicitly on political process of governance, but the lessons can be applied to any kind of strategic communication — from NGOs to government agencies to brands. We are looking at strategic communication backwards.

The second entry point is the conversation about the future of journalism. We absolutely cannot have a discussion about what shapes news without understanding the current predicament facing journalism. We will look at some of the issues and the innovations that are happening in the journalism industry. My goal is to give you some sense of the current pressures news organizations are experiencing economically and in terms of work flow so as to possibly explain why news organizations are making the decisions that they do in terms of coverage. The media company — the news organization — becomes your brand, your strategic campaign, your company — that you will look at to understand the issues and concerns facing its transformations in the digital age. When you understand how journalism is innovating, ultimately you will be better prepared to guide your specific strategies and tactics through today’s media environment.

The practical aspect of this class is anchored in two key ways. The first will be our perspective. With each unit, we will approach the readings as if we were indeed real professionals working in the field. With our section on Washington, we will think about what the implications are for our candidates and our organizations and how we might apply what we know. For our section on the Future of Journalism, we will think about a practical approach to journalism in two ways: what we would do if these were our media companies that we had to advise and what we might do to adjust our strategic communication campaigns in light of our knowledge about the pressures facing journalism.

One of the key features of the class that I hope to achieve will be to bring together working professionals into the discussion. Their conversations will help guide the practical orientation of our conversation. I will use my networks to bring some of the best and brightest into our classroom so that we can see how the lessons we are learning are being applied in real life. 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.


1. You are a graduate student. Conduct yourself like one: do your work, come to class prepared, be ready to not just sit back and engage. I know many of you are working during the day, and I also know you are trying to balance a life with your school and work. That said, a lot of you are paying a lot of money to be here, and you will get the most out of it if you are prepared. I am not going to treat you like undergraduates: there will be no reading quizzes, there will be no attendance, there will be no formal “participation” grades. The class is very much intended to be student-directed.

2. You have a very short assignment each week —thank me for being reasonable and student focused. But do the reading.

3. 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.

Learning Outcomes:

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

1. Understand the ways that journalists gather, collect, decide and distribute news about Washington

2. Know about the pressures and considerations that guide news decision-making, moving away from a simplistic discussion of “bias”

3. Understand the pressures of the news industry in the existing information economy

4. Be able to see how the current news environment can be used advantageously by organizations and political clients

5. Be able to advise media organizations about how to do a better job given the pressures they face today.


1. Short weekly reading responses — 25% — will regigger this according to other assignments

2. Participation — 5%

3. Project 1–30%

4. Project 2–30%

5. Business Models Presentation– 10%

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

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.” For the remainder of the code, see:

Support for Students Outside the Classroom


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. Please let me know ahead of time if you require additional time for exams, quizzes, etc. For additional information please refer to:


The University Counseling Center (UCC) offers 24/7 assistance and referral to address students’ personal, social, career, and study skills problems. Services for students include:

- crisis and emergency mental health consultations

- confidential assessment, counseling services (individual and small group), and referrals


If you know someone who needs help, if you don’t know how to get them to help– you can fill out an anonymous request form for counselors to reach out after your friends and try to get them to connect with therapists. See here:


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.


If you see something, say something.

About Me

I study how journalism is changing in the digital age. I am the author of Making News at The New York Times and have a second book in progress, Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data and Code. My academic research looks at everything from 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 20 peer reviewed journal articles and 8 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 am also a 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 at The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Times-Picayune, and The Boston Globe, in addition to other freelance work. 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.


Note: I can check Slideshare analytics J


Jan 11: The State of Journalism in the US & The State of Washington Reporting

lecture drawn from critical sources here:

(no need for reading assignment for first class)

Jan 25: Working in a Newsroom: Usher — 3,4,&5 (you are welcome to buy my book on Amazon, but it is also available here….)

Feb 1: Getting Out of Simplistic Conversations About Bias — Gans & The Paraideology of News; Tuchman — Objectivity as Strategic Ritual; Schudson (very short excerpt) on the invention of objectivity. (both can be found here); Frank Sesno visit.



Feb. 22: Spin and Framing: The Spin Cycle — Kurtz; Entman — Political Communication after Sept. 11.; Finishing Gans, Tuchman, Schudson

Feb 29: Fact Checking


Guest: Jane Elizabeth, — 6:10–6:50

American Press Institute: Report (overview) (5 pages); also how fact-checking is changing politics (7 pages)

Brendan Nyhan, “Why the ‘Death Panel’ Myth Wouldn’t Die: Misinformation in the Health Care Re­form Debate,” The Forum, 2010. (26 pages)— (*theory-heavy)

Shirky, “We are Less Wiling to Agree on What Constitutes Truth,” (6 pages)

March 7 : Sourcing

Gatekeeping reading coming stay tuned Monday ( — I added this Weds PM 3/2), but if you can get to it:

Continued from last week: Journalists Messing Up

Eva Ruth Moravec, “The death of Antonin Scalia: Chaos, Confision, and Conflicting Reports.” The Washington Post, Feb. 2016. (5 p double spaced)

Robert Mackey, “U.S. Media Mocked Abroad for Reporting False Name of California Shooting Suspect,” New York Times, Dec. 2015. — (2 pgs)

Sources Reading

Margaret Sullivan, “The Disconnect on Anonymous Sources,” New York Times, Oct. 2013. (4)

David Barstow, Robin Stein, “Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News,” New York Times, March 2005. —(18)

Bill Grueskin, “In Defense of Scoops,” Columbia Journalism Review, (8)


Franklin Foer, “The Source of the Trouble,” New York Magazine, May 2005 (~20)

Edward Schumacher-Matos, “Getting It Right: Sandy Hook And The Giffords Legacy At NPR,”org, Jan. 2013. (~8)

March 21: Journalism & Social Media (& ETHICS) (43)

Hamby, on Twitter & Politics (just) p. 22–29

Holton → “Branding Health Journalism”(literature review, not that important, findings, yes) (15)

“What Audiences Think of Journalists’ Social Media Use,” Journalist’s Resource, 2015. — (3)

Social Media Ethics Guidelines (just review) (6) (7)

Social Media & User Generated Content/Verification

Brian Stetler, “News Media and Social Media Become Part of a Real-Time Manhunt Drama,” New York Times, April 2013. (3)

Check out: (2)

Scan for numbers of use of user-generated content (just look at bars/charts)



March 28: What’s Happening to The News Industry & Where is it Going

~60, but with pictures

Anderson, Bell and Shirky. Post-Industrial Journalism — Read “Introduction: The Transformation of Journalism is Unavoidable” and “Conclusion: Tectonic Shifts” (2014) (1–19); (103–119)

Paul Farhi, “Has Prime Time Faded for Cable News?” The Washington Post (May 2015) (6)

Michael Wolff, USA Today, Print’s Dead but So Is Digital: 2–15–2016 (2)

Joshua Benton, “A Wave of Distributed Content is Coming,” Nieman Lab, Mar. 2015 (8, but pictures)

Nikki Usher, “Why Study Venture-Backed News Startups?” Reynolds Journalism Institute, June 2014. (4, but picture)

optional, but helpful

Nikki Usher, “Four Main Types of News Start-ups” RJI Online Sept. 2014

Hindman: Stickier News

Benton: A Wave of Distributed Content is Coming

April 4: NO CLASS

The order of these topics might change based on guest speaker availability, this is being ironed out this week (note 3/17).

April 11: New Business Models

All read: Rosen — Subsidies of the News

Non-Profit Journalism: News You Can Endow: Knight Foundation — Gaining Ground;

Paywalls: Pickard & Williams; Shirky: Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkable: The New York Times and Digital Subscriptions:

Advertising: Zuckerman — The Internet’s Original Sin

Salmon — Utter Irrelevance of Online Ads

Rice — Does BuzzFeed know the Secret

Ad Blocking

Personalization: Huff Po and Personalization; Aggregation and Personalization; Apple News

News Start-ups:

Usher — News Companies as Tech Companies -

Sebastian — Reality Check — Sizing up Venture-Backed Publisher’s Prospects -

Events & Membership:

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

possible guest: Jesse Holcomb, assistant director of Pew Research Center

April 18:

How old and new newsrooms are innovating

The New York Times

The New York Times Innovation Report (it was never supposed to be leaked). The 2015 response to the innovation report. Grading it , and The NYT: “Our Path Forward.” Please also see this incredible resource,, which details all the current NYT efforts at rebranding and refashioning the newspaper for the digital age.

The Washington Post


If you don’t know what vox is — go straight to

Vox is the news site, Vox Media is the venture-funded umbrella company. But the approach is significant.

What is Vox and Why is it different?

April 25: News, Analytics and Clickbait

Petre — The Traffic Factories; Haile — What you think you know about the Web is wrong: Somiya: Where Clicks Reign, the Audience Is King

Possible guest: Ari Isaacman Astles, growth editor for The New York Times.

April 27: Brief Wrap-Up/Course Surveys about Media Use and Class discussion

Like what you read? Give Nikki Usher a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.