In August, Marie Shanahan ’94 (CLAS), an award-winning print and online journalist who has taught at UConn since 2011, became just the third department head in the program’s nearly 60-year history.
Shanahan – who in 2022 will conduct research in the Philippines as a Fulbright US Scholar – recently spoke with UConn Today about the state of the news industry, the opportunities for experimentation that exist at UConn, and why the skills that make good journalists are more valuable now than ever.
Now she shares what UConn’s journalism program looked like in the past, and how it is uniquely prepared to equip students to succeed in the digital age.
What’s changed in UConn Journalism since you were a student?
The program I went through as an undergraduate was very rigorous, as it still is today. We did not have internet and mobile phones then. There were fewer sources of media, only the newspaper, TV and radio, but my UConn professors emphasized critical thinking, how to do research, and how to recognize a good news story.
I started my journalism career at the Hartford Courant as a reporter right after I graduated. That’s when AOL first gained popularity – in 1995 – and the general public got access to the World Wide Web. Because I had a strong grounding in journalistic skills like research and critical thinking, I was able to apply those practices to the internet.
When the Courant launched its website, I was one of the first journalists in the newsroom to start working on the digital side. It was an overnight shift, and we had to hand-code everything. I loved it, and my interest in the possibilities of digital journalism only grew from there.
What are your priorities as UConn Journalism’s Department Head?
As head of the journalism department at UConn, where we’re educating the next generation of journalists, there are several things we need to do. We need to look at the challenges faced by local news organizations in the digital age, including how newsrooms are finally coming to grips with the need to improve diversity. We can play a role in finding solutions, while also opening up opportunities for our students and our graduates.
Our faculty and students are already accomplishing a lot, and I want to amplify their outstanding work in more places, including on social media. I also want to introduce more students to journalism as a major or a double major. For instance, I’m interested in hosting interdisciplinary, university-wide events to feature more of our journalism experts and engage students from broad backgrounds. Another goal is connecting with news leaders in Connecticut and beyond to learn what their newsrooms need and how our faculty and students can help them out.
How is UConn Journalism uniquely positioned to keep up with changes in the news industry?
We have extremely talented faculty including two Pulitzer Prize winners, and I’m excited that we’re welcoming Martine Granby, a documentarian, to our department. Documentary journalism will be another way for our students to reach new audiences in an engaging and creative format.
There are certain communities who feel like they’re left behind or misrepresented in the news. Diversity has always been something that guides us in our department, so recognizing diversity in all its forms makes a difference. If the perspective is always from one gaze, you’re missing stories and alienating audiences. We want UConn’s journalism program to attract a curious and diverse student body who can report accurately on all kinds of stories.
Several of our journalism faculty members exemplify this already with joint appointments in other programs. For instance, Scott Wallace, associate professor of journalism, has a courtesy appointment with El Instituto and works with the Anthropology Department because of his work with the Indigenous people of the Amazon. And Martine Granby, our incoming documentary journalism professor, has a joint appointment in Africana Studies.
What are some successful past or ongoing partnerships between journalism students or faculty and other programs?
Journalism by nature is interdisciplinary. Journalism goes wonderfully with basically any other major, and we’re always looking for opportunities to reach out and take advantage of the university’s many resources.
One example of interdisciplinary partnerships with journalism is the Science of Science Communication Training, which was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant. It’s a collaboration among faculty in journalism, communication, and ecology and evolutionary biology that aims to teach scientists how to communicate with the general public, and train journalists in understanding and writing about science.
What is the benefit of combining a humanities program like journalism with another discipline?
We’re a nationally accredited professional program within CLAS and our curriculum is very practical. However, it’s advantageous for journalists to also have a body of knowledge in some other subject matter – topical expertise that will help them generate timely and interesting stories to better inform the general public.
Journalism is a skill and an expertise that is in demand. Think about how much communication is going on all the time with the internet and social media. You have to be able to write well and communicate visually and be aware of the best practices to get content in front of the right audience. Our journalism students learn to be clear communicators in all forms of media.
Because we’re in a learning environment, UConn journalism students have the ability to practice and innovate the field of journalism by combining it with a business or entrepreneurship class, or a digital media and design course. If what they try fails, that’s okay. The experience counts. It will prepare them for when they’re employed, churning out content professionally.
How is journalism relevant in the digital age?
Digital is not going away. We’re seeing how the online world affects the offline world. Journalism has long existed in the service of informed democracy. News plays a critical role. But what’s true now more than ever is that the news is part of an information ecosystem controlled largely by technology, devices and social media companies. If Google or Facebook change their algorithm or Apple changes the design of a device, that can impact how news is found, consumed and shared.
Every student at UConn needs to be news literate. We all need to be critical thinkers and more mindful of what we’re sharing, too. Journalists are trained to slow down, be skeptical, to double- and triple-check information before sharing it. Because if you amplify something on social media, for example, and it’s not true, you can do damage. I want all UConn students to fight for the facts.
I am hopeful that whether it’s faculty or students, in collaboration with others at UConn, we can figure out the future of news.