The Future of Journalism Class

Nikki Usher, PhD

I am (mostly) always happy to be engaged on Twitter @nikkiusher

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. By the end of this class, you should be able to speak knowledgeably about a variety of traditional and non-traditional forms 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, nor will I teach you directly about strategic communication. But you will learn about the most important social institution you’ll have to deal with as a communication professional.

The 2016 election 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. Post-election, the promise and peril of data-driven reporting has been unveiled. Consideration of what it means to have fruitful public deliberation online and offline is needed with a particular focus on how journalism might enable this process.

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 retrenchment in Washington reporting has become quite clear, as have declines in local state reporting. Yet digital outlets are providing new hope. The question, though, is whether this is a viable long term plan. What do we make of huge investments in news startups from venture capitalists and traditional media companies that quickly go belly up, from apps (NBC’s purchase of the Breaking News app) to entire publications? (Fusion, Univision’s millennial-focused digital site, laid of 250 journalists in November 2016). Buzzfeed has recently separated its news division from its entertainment division and bold-name journalists quickly left. Nonprofits and hyperlocal for-profit and non-profit sites have varying degrees of success, but it has become clear that economic and social capital have more to do with their ultimate success than the journalism they produce.

The expansion of journalism as a profession has become quite clear — and is also perhaps much needed. Now, technologists with programming skills are essential to any newsroom that wants to tell compelling digital stories. Product manager is an actual title at news organizations. Non-traditional journalism actors, like NGOs, can do serious investigative journalism. And ordinary people via their digital communications can be enabled (or taken advantage of) when they act as citizen journalists.

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.

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. Nonetheless, if you are going to participate in any form of communication-related work, knowing what’s going on in journalism will help you understand a) how to do your job better and b) how to be a better consumer of news and information. Let’s dig in.


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.

2. 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.

3. Though there is no formal social media requirement, I expect you to stay engaged on Twitter in conversations about the future of journalism. For a recommended Twitter list of who to follow — both people and outlets — see here.

4. This is a discussion-centered class. The reading averages around 50–70 pages of text a week (standard for an MA class) and 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.

Learning Outcomes:

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

  1. Understand the 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 and the impact on our information environment. Relatedly, you should be able to be conversant about the pressures and considerations that guide news decision-making, moving away from a simplistic discussion of “bias.”
  4. Assess the influence of social media on journalism from the perspective of both content and distribution
  5. Identify the new actors in the journalism ecosystem and explain their potential upsides and downsides.
  6. Be able to see how the current news environment can be used advantageously by organizations and political clients
  7. Be able to advise media organizations about how to do a better job given the pressures they face today.


1. Short weekly reading responses — 30%

2. Participation — 10%

3. Project 1–30%

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 political communicators and journalists 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 Disabilities — DISABILITY 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:

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, whether it is your physical or emotional health, or some other difficulty. 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 office at 202–994–5300 or visit

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, you should not spend more than 12 hours a week on this course in an average week (e.g. no major assignment due). If you do, let me know — that’s too much.

Communication and Office Hours: By appointment. Big fan of early morning meetings (8 am). You can expect to hear back from me within 48 hours, unless there’s a school vacation. I will provide my specific details to you in an email.

Spring 2017’s Weird Schedule

We meet on Mondays. First Monday of the term is not until Jan 23; there is President’s Day, Spring Break, and assorted other ways that Monday gets forgotten. And your first class will not be taught by me….

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 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 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.


Come to class challenge: You have a weekly assignment called the “come to class challenge” which works as a writing response to the readings. You will share your responses (approximately 200 words or about 3/4 of a page double-spaced, bullet points are OK) via email to me-no attachments, just text. The specifics of each challenge are listed with the readings. These are due Sunday, 11:59 p.m. before your Monday class.


Note: I can check Slideshare analytics …


Jan 23: The State of Journalism in the US & The State of Washington Reporting

Jesse Holcomb, associate director at Pew Research Center, an SMPA MA grad, and occasional SMPA adjunct, will give you a first lecture and lead our first class. He will give you a “State of the News” breakdown, setting the stage for everything that will come. And he’ll do it better than I would.

lecture drawn from critical sources here:

State of the News Media

(no need for reading assignment for first class)

PART 1: Journalism’s Changing Norms

In this first section of the course, we’ll reflect on journalism as professional practice. Our inquiry will not be about economics or innovation but the practice of producing journalism, what’s wrong with it, what’s good about it, how it’s changing, and why all this matters. I am resisting spending more than two course sessions on a post-election framing of these questions, but should more appetite exist, we can adjust the syllabus.

Week 2, Jan 30: Unpacking the election: The (predictable) failure of objectivity & Problems with the horse race

Come to class challenge: Before class, email me 1–2 good examples of false equivalence in mainstream news. Bonus points if not politically-focused.

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

Alterman: How False Equivalence is distorting the 2016 election

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

Shafer: In defense of he-said/she-said journalism

Usher: In which I called this issue, in November 2015

Frankovic: On Polling & Public Opinion

Tentative Visit: Tom Rosenstiel, API

Week 3, Feb. 6: Why don’t most Americans trust the media?

Come to class challenge: Ask your parents/trusted elder what they think of mainstream journalism, and briefly report back via email their replies (and whether you agree with them).

Context: Gallup Poll on American distrust of news

Rosen: What Explains Falling Confidence in the Media?

Hemmer: Messengers of the Right

The Intercept: Media executives are salivating over big money this election cycle (left-wing critique)

Ladd: Why Americans Hate the Media

MIT Analysis: Journalists and Trump live in Separate online bubbles (blog post)

Guest: Tom Rosensteil (Tom Rosenstiel, API)

Project 1 assigned. See here for details:

Due Monday March 6 by email and printed copy at class time.

Feb 13, Week 4: Do Facts Matter? Wither Fake News?

Come to class challenge: 1) Have you ever been fooled by fake news? Know someone who has? Recall a specific instance 2) Do you look at fact-checking efforts? Do you trust them?

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

Silverman: Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content (report); Hyperpartisan Facebook Content & The Election; Teens in the Balkans; Fake Election News Outperforms Real News

Fascinating overview of how fake news begins with the left, particularly conspiracy health news

Possible guest: Jane Elizabeth, API

Feb 20, Week 5: HBD Georgie.


Course Part II:

We’re going to shift now to talking about the specific challenges of journalism as a profession (you can get that in SMPA’s undergrad class) and think more broadly about the state of the news industry as an industry more generally — thinking about the pressures journalists face, the tactics they must use, the issues with business models, and beyond.

Week 6, Feb. 27: What’s Happening to The Mainstream News Industry & Where is it Going

This is a decent bit of reading, so be prepared. But it may be some of the most important you do in this class.

Come to class challenge: Identify what you think as the three biggest structural challenges facing journalism, specifically drawing on examples from the readings.

C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky. Post-Industrial Journalism

Michael Wolff: Print’s Dead but So Is Digital

Joshua Benton: A Wave of Distributed Content is Coming

First project due

Week 7, March 6: Business Models of Journalism → Why Advertising is Broken, and What Analytics Really Mean

Project 2: Case study assignment discussed.

Come to class challenge: If not advertising, how should journalists fund the news?

Jay Rosen — Subsidies of the News

Matt Hindman: Stickier News

Memo, by Buzzfeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, on how The Internet always Wins

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

But, if advertising is so broken, how do fake news writers make money? Ohiheiser: This is How

And is advertising the only metric to judge influence? Consider the impact perspective (scan)

Strongly Recommended:

Felix Salmon — Utter Irrelevance of Online Ads

Traffic Magazine: How many ads does it take to pay a writer?

Possible Guest: Ari Issacman-Bevaqua

Week 8, March 13: Spring Break

Week 9, March 20: Business Models for Journalism in a Digital Age

Come to class challenge: Spend a moment looking at your hometown’s local news ecology (if you are from a small place, consider moving up one step in geographic consideration). Identify any new digital outlets specific to your community and whether they are for-profit or non-profit.

Nonprofit Journalism: Myth or Hope?

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

The Texas Tribune Exception (and a few others, scan this tag)

Local (newspaper and digital journalism):

Local journalism models. LION Publishers, local news trade group. For-profit (hyper) local digital news? (check out Billy Penn for context); strategies? Local nonprofit publishing; GW SMPA Alum’s ArlNow

Tim Lee: Why Local Newspapers, in particular, are dying

Possible visit: Jan Schaffer, J-Lab

Week 10, March 27: Vaguely (More?) Creative Models for Raising Revenue

Challenge before class: Come to class with one news startup that you would invest in (cannot be Vox or Buzzfeed), can be app or product (see reading before you choose). In class, we’ll talk about what the threshold is for you to pay for news.

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)

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; Spot.US (RIP)

Branded Content: Major whitepaper: Understanding the role of sponsored content (Sonderman and Tran). Especially read 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). Trivia: Summeranne Burton used to be the viral fuzzy animals editor at Buzzfeed…

Adblocking — Johnston: Ad Blocking: Timm: What Ads leaves on your computers!; Rosenwald: Is it an existential threat? and, also, news organizations are getting cheated by fake sites taking ad money:

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

April 3, Week 11: How old and new newsrooms are innovating

Come to class challenge: Being specific, analyze how one to three of the innovation strategies proposed here might hurt or help a newsroom.

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?

Bonus: Inside baseball at The Globe (a memo)

Possible visit: Alex Remington

Part III: And Now, The Journalist and The News Consumer

So, now that you know what’s going on in the industry and the types of strategies that are being put forward by the news industry, what’s the impact on the actual people who create the news and the people who consume it? What changes as far as news quality and as far as news product? What’s the impact of social media on both news distribution and news consumption? What innovations stand to help and might make a difference?

April 10, Week 11: And wither the journalist?

Come to class challenge: If you were working in a newsroom, how would you cope with the issues below? If you were in strategic comms, how would you advise a client to deal with some of these issues?

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

Dean Starkman — Hamster Wheel Journalism

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

Nikki Usher — The Constancy of Immediacy — as you can, here Or, permanent related piece possibly easier to read: (my apologies, may ask you to join, but I cannot reupload to slideshare w/o copyright).

Stats of the 2016 Newsroom (from Parsely)

Possible Guest: Josh Gardner, formerly of The Daily Mail US

April 17, Week 12: Social Media and Journalists, Social Media and News Consumers (or on Facebook and Journalism)

Come to class challenge: What’s worse: journalists constantly engaged on social media a la Hamby or Facebook as the distribution source for much of the news people read?

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

Nikki Usher, Chapter 5, Making News at The New York Times

Bell: Facebook is eating the World

Ingram: Does Facebook have any duty to Journalism; The Facebook Curation Controversy

Gershgorn and Murphy: A Glimpse into FB’s Trending Algorithm

April 24, Week 13: New Journalists: The Rise of the Tech Geeks, The Rise of Tech

Come to class challenge: Which of the new tech innovations presented here promise to change journalism the most?

Nikki Usher — Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and News (selections)

Andreas Grafe — Guide to Automated Journalism

AP Study: Automated Financial News increases trading velocity

Nick Diakopolous: Algorithmic Accountability (scan)

Sub-thought: Product as Solution? On Content Management Systems

Lee Simpson: How to Design a CMS for the Modern Newsroom

David Cohn: The CMS is Your First Editor

May 1, Week 14: Public Engagement

Come to class challenge: Have you ever tried to engage with a news organization? If so, how? And did it work?

Free Press: What is Community Engagement?

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

Josh Stearns: Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities

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

Related: Thinking about the myths/promise of citizen journalism → First Draft News; Nikki Usher: The Appropriation/Amplification of Citizen Journalism

Possible Guest: Josh Stearns

May 3, Week 15: Maybe Journalism Is Getting Better? (Designated Monday)

Come to class challenge: Find an example of truly bad, click-driven metropolitan journalism story (e.g. my favorite of 2016: Omaha man finds pot brownies, eats four of them, says mean things to cats, double bonus if it’s from a newspaper and not local TV). Now, find an example of journalism that you’re in awe of — either writing, reporting, digital storytelling, etc from 2015–2017. Compare/contrast briefly what you think led to each. GOOD LEGACY MAGAZINE WRITING DOES NOT COUNT!

Taylor Owen: Can Journalism Be Virtual?

Matt Waite explains what sensor journalism can do in How Sensor Journalism Can Help Us Create Data, Improve Our Storytelling

Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson — The Rise of Contextual Journalism

Nate Silver: What the Fox Knows , My post-election response via CNN

Some of my favorite stories (you don’t have to read them): The Lonely Death of George Bell; A running list of people Trump insulted on Twitter (my nomination for innovation in digital presentation); Intake (but, actually Buzzfeed killed it in 2016!)

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.