In mid-August, after returning from the AEJMC annual conference in Boston, Cindy Royal, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University shared her recommendation of five books she has used to improve her teaching about media in the digital age. These books provide a way for faculty and students to connect in news ways with the digital environment affecting so much of what is happening in journalism today. Royal’s own studies have focused on the Internet’s effect on communication and culture, and she—and AEJMC—gave Nieman Reports permission to publish a revised version of her piece on Professor’s Corner as a guide to recommended reading for j-school students. Royal writes a tech blog at and she can be followed on Twitter at

At this year’s AEJMC conference, much discussion, online and off, was about j-school faculty being out of touch with the realities of digital media—with its practices and its economic challenges. Among the concerns raised were these: questions and issues in sessions were outdated; research topics were tedious and mired in minutia; some social media applications, like Twitter, were viewed with disdain and condescension; and there was a general lack of understanding of the challenges and needs of the industries we support. On MediaShift, Guy Berger captured some of this worrisome disconnect in an article he wrote entitled, “Two Recent J-Education Conferences Show Resistance to Change.”

As educators, we have huge questions to consider and we do so at a critical time, and so it behooves us to be as engaged as we can in the search for innovative solutions. For our students’ sake, we should be driving the conversation about digital media, not lagging behind. Yet, too often, we get too wrapped up in thinking about the skills we think we need to teach. Should students learn HTML? Video editing and Flash? Should they use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as part of their course work?

To figure out what skills to teach means that we must first gain a good understanding of journalism’s digital environment. Only then will we be able to figure out what skills are relevant and how they can best be used, how various tools and platforms promote good storytelling, and what business models support good journalism.

In talking with educators at the AEJMC conference, several books came to mind. These are books that have made me think about media as a conversation, not a lecture, about emerging business models and the digital logic behind “free” content, about the value of motivating people to engage in a powerful user experience, and about new ways to think about copyright. So I want to recommend these five books to you and encourage faculty and students to read them. I am also passing along online resources to continue exploring what these authors have to say. For some, these titles and authors will be familiar; for others, they will be new, and for all of us they offer engaging reads about aspects of our digital culture. Taken as a whole, the books offer an excellent introduction to new ways of thinking about the future of media and the power and opportunities of a participatory culture.

1. Chris Anderson

Anderson has written two books I’d recommend. He’s the editor of Wired magazine and is the author of “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More” and more recently “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” In “The Long Tail,” Anderson describes the power to motivate the part of the sales curve that includes the many items sold in small quantities. It applies to just about any industry, and he effectively explains the role that digital technology plays in making this model efficient. Whether it is recommendations on that help drive sales of a book that was previously out of print, or a music company that can distribute MP3’s of a larger range of artists, Anderson explains that it is no longer about only the “hits.” Business models can develop around “misses.” This is relevant in news reporting as we consider entire news offerings in aggregate rather than fixating on hits of individual pieces. This thinking allows news sites to cater to valuable niches, which may ultimately lead to the ability to sell higher value, targeted ads (and, in turn, support more journalism).

In “Free, Anderson makes the controversial claim that in the digital economy, one can give items away for free; actually quite a bit of a business can be supported with a free model. Anderson identifies several different free business models, not all of which are new. Media companies are intimately familiar with the advertising model, the original use of “free,” in which advertisers pay and consumers enjoy the resulting content for no charge. Advertisers are buying the attention of consumers on sites that aggregate them. Other free models include what Anderson calls “freemium,” in which most business is free, while a small percent of paid activity supports the entire company. Take Facebook, for example. Most of the activity on the site is free. Facebook continues to build a large community because it opened up its doors and let everyone in for no charge. It does, however, charge for things like virtual gifts. Twitter, which is a completely free service at the moment, is considering charging for higher-end business services that could validate authenticity of accounts or provide advanced analytics. [Neither has yet developed a sustainable business model, but understanding the logic behind “free” is valuable.]

Probably the most important message in “Free, is the one that explains the importance of attention. There is value, albeit not always immediately and directly monetary, in creating a large community, generating excitement about your company and motivating consumers to engage with your brand. The challenge is generating business models that capitalize on these aspects once developed and thriving.

Online Resources

2. Henry Jenkins

Jenkins teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, and before going there he was at MIT. He’s written several books; the one most relevant to understanding of the value of online communities is “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. In it, he explains the value of participatory digital culture and highlights several case studies in which brands, whether on purpose or by accident, have engendered a fan following so passionate that its members were motivated to some level of participation. Whether it is the way that “American Idol” encourages fans to vote for their favorite contestant or how a distributed group of “Survivor” fans, using crowd-sourced techniques and advanced technologies, seeks to spoil upcoming episodes with information about locations and winners, Jenkins emphasizes the value of a passionate fan base. Jenkins holds participatory culture in high regard and encourages digital media to embrace fanatical behavior rather than deride or squelch it.

Online Resources

3. Jeff Jarvis

Jarvis is a former journalist turned media consultant who took a close look at arguably the most successful company in the digital economy, Google. In “What Would Google Do?, Jarvis describes a company that practices a new way of thinking about media, audiences, content and advertising and whose primary mission is to provide “elegant organization.” He provides 40 clear rules of the new economy, including “the link changes everything“ and “do what you do best and link to the rest.” Many of these rules seem counterintuitive, but Jarvis’s descriptions make practical sense, particularly in the context of Google’s growth and success. He offers examples of how several industries, including media, would look if they applied “Googley” practices. Google’s lesson is clear, at least how Jarvis reads it: “Make innovation your business.”

Online Resources

4. Lawrence Lessig

Lessig, who is an attorney, directs the Safra Foundation Center of Ethics at Harvard University, where he also teaches at Harvard Law School. He argued (unsuccessfully) the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act before the Supreme Court in Eldred vs. Ashcroft and has written numerous, seminal books on intellectual property in the digital age, including “Code and other Laws of Cyberspace,“ The Future of Ideas, and “Free Culture). I tell any student doing research about copyright to read every word Lessig’s ever written. His recent book, “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, examines the ways in which the current copyright system suppresses creativity in a “read-write” culture in which users contribute as well as consume. Our legal system now turns artists into felons and children into pirates as they use digital tools to create and communicate. Lessig describes a hybrid economy, one that embraces the realities of the business culture with that of the new sharing economy.

Online Resources

Want additional books and resources to read or recommend to students? I’ve used these, below, in my teaching and they increase our understanding of digital media.

  • “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky
  • “The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
  • “The Cluetrain Manifesto, by Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger
  • “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, by Yochai Benkler
  • “Being Digital, by Nicolas Negroponte
  • “Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee
  • “Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, by Katie Hafner
  • “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, by Dan Gillmor
  • Video: “The Internet: Behind the Web” – History Channel
  • DVD: “Download: “The True Story of the Internet” – Discovery Channel

Read these authors’ books—or, at least, engage with them online—and the concepts they explore will broaden your teaching experience and help us, as educators, to better address the challenges and opportunities our students’ face in these digital times.

Read what Royal wrote for AEJMC.

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