What It's Like to Learn Journalism from Jeff Jarvis

The self-promoting, media-savvy, Twitter-oversharer also happens to be in charge of shaping budding minds, including, for a semester, mine

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Jeff Jarvis is already bragging about his new book, Public Parts, out today on Kindles, iPads, Nooks and whatever's left of bookshelves. It's the latest topic for his self-built hype machine that goes at his dislike of Washington (first the government, then the city), his play-by-play of 9/11, or his fight with prostate cancer with the same overcaffeinated zeal of a guy who must have the last word. Nothing seems to be off-limits in his world, which he shares with 81,000 Twitter followers (at least) hourly, nor too low-stakes to tussle over, which has earned him a reputation as a shameless self-promoter to some and a savvy media mogul and thinker to others. He also happens to be in charge of shaping the minds of America's budding journalists, including, for a semester, mine.

It’s late in the day of orientation when first-semester graduate students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism meet Jeff Jarvis, the head of the school’s Interactive Journalism department. Their backs are crooked and slumped from sitting in a plastic chair for the last six hours, their wills broken down by the realization that their social lives will be non-existent for the next year. And along comes this lanky guy who barely fills out his suit, who resembles the “Good Wizard” from a Lego toy set, selling you sexy journalism at a slap-dash pace in a Keith Olbermann-like voice. He tells you that Facebook is your friend, that print is dying, and that Twitter is unadulterated, raw, unctuous journalism, and for a second, maybe it's because it's the middle of August or perhaps it's the mere mention of Facebook, students seem to catch their second wind.

"A lot of people who have thoughts as big as Jeff's, and who proclaim them as loudly, widely and vehemently as he does, don't take kindly to criticism and non-believers," said Annaliese Griffin, the collaborative editor for The New York Times: Local in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and part of the CUNY Journalism's inaugural 2007 class. "As professor, at least, he was always eager for us to point out all the ways in which he was wrong, if only to get us to take a stab at saying what we thought was right."

She recalled a time when he tried convincing her class to create jobs instead of jockeying for the existing (and endangered) jobs at mainstream outlets. At a certain point in the discussion she says that Jarvis was trying to get students to give up attachments to books, CDs, steady paychecks and other outmoded devices,  Griffin interrupted and asked, "Well, don't you pay your mortgage with checks signed by The New York Times and CUNY? I mean, aren't those two institutions pretty much the definition of old media?"

"Jeff totally started laughing and just said, 'Touché.' which enraged the class because he was admitting that he has a pretty sweet deal getting paid by big institutions to talk about how outdated they are," she said. "So the class started saying, 'Yeah, why are you telling us this from your cushy spot?' He, in a matter of words, said, ‘I figured out how to get here in this market. I'm trying to help you figure out how to find your own job or build your own company in any market.'" Touché.

Griffin ended up taking two classes with Jarvis and chose him to be her advisor during her time in the program.

Jarvis isn't at CUNY to teach about ledes, nut graphs, or getting published the in The New Yorker. Some students dream of changing the world with their stories.  Jarvis, I'd argue, dreams of changing your profitability (and journalism too) first and philanthropy later. Stewardship is a word Jarvis throws around often when describing journalism. "It means paying for something," he says. "Responsibility for something. To care for it. I like that word when it comes to journalism. What we did when we said 'business is corrupting' is we left all the decisions of the future of journalism to the business people. We didn't care for it. We didn't nurture it. That's why I teach entrepreneurial journalism."

"There's a syllabus, it's loose but there is one," says Collin Orcutt a 2009 graduate. "You practice your 'elevator pitch' every day and we talked about business models every day... And how to make yourself and your business sustainable."

Each week the class had a speaker. They would run the gamut of media heads--from Steve Newhouse talking about Reddit to Rafat Ali of PaidContent asking us how our businesses would scale. And each time a speaker came, Jarvis would have you introduce yourself to the speaker, and throw them your "elevator pitch"--an 8-second or so explanation of your business idea. Jarvis's teaching style is a Socratic, open-conversation approach. "Amicable" and "animated" are thrown around when describing his class persona. Orcutt recalls around 20 students took it in his year. Around 10 took it in 2010, along with two working journalists outside of the CUNY program.

The gist of the class is simple: have a journalism tech idea--app, Web site, blogging tool, etc.--and convince the jury (a group of media types, like The New York Times's Brian Stelter and David Carr, along with startup founders have made appearances on it) to award you grant money from a pool of about $50,000. Orcutt won $20,000 during his year to start a sports app for smartphones. The homework, Orcutt adds, "would never be reading a book. It's more research, and it's on you if you don't keep up because you look like a fool at the end."  While other students were braving the elements in the city, reporting on say, the lack of heating for residents in NYCHA housing, we were asked to look at Twitter, Facebook, HuffPost, Gawker, Foursquare and how they were making money. We weren't supposed to idolize and were never asked to read "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."  The idolization was saved for the Dentons, Huffingtons, and Zuckerbergs who monetized their ideas, disrupted the market, and made themselves profitable.

One class early in the semester revolved around his speed bumps and eventual demise as the founder of Entertainment Weekly. He preached how we'd never get back to the golden age where people would dump loads of money into creating magazines as his bosses did with EW. He's also the only teacher at the school who taught me about CPM, advertising, freemium vs. premium, disruption, business models, overhead, monetizing and promoting myself and creating my brand.  Looking back, the little touches like coming to each class in a jacket and suit (when some professors opted for Dockers or polos), convince me more and more that the man really does practice what he preaches--market yourself at every opportunity.

Brianne Garcia and thirteen other students are taking his entrepreneurial class this year.  "I might be the wrong person to ask because I don't really feel like I am a journalist in the truest sense of the word, so this might be part of the reason why I dig JJ," she said. "I think I'm more a person with startup ideas who wants to make money and write in the process, and so his ideas fit into that model." She adds, "I think he's a fast talker. He's a shameless self-promoter, but I can only respect that because so am I... He's a huge nerd and I think that's part of why he's so successful. He's old but still so much more 'in-the-know' about social networking than most people my age. He's smart and has made a living talking to people about ideas, and he's constantly looking forward."

What started as a class has since been parlayed into the $6-million Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and a semester-long subject concentration. "What Stanford and MIT do for Technology, we hope to do for Journalism," says Jarvis, to the chagrin of some members of the school--student and faculty alike.

"I questioned whether some of the 'business ideas' we were creating were related to journalism," said Joe Tacopino, a 2010 graduate of the program. "He said that journalism could be defined as anything that allows people to communicate with each other."

Tacopino and I were a part of Jarvis' class when Thomas Frank's "Bright Frenetic Mills" piece was published in Harper's, which also coincided with the creation of the Tow-Knight Center. Frank's bemoaning of journalism school, comparisons to a "hamster-training facility" and tweaks to Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen was passed around the school (one paper version, since Harper's still requires a digital subscription to their content, and graduate students, especially journalism graduate students, are poor).  I remember seeing at least one smiley student-to-teacher exchange of Harper's. I also remember asking Jarvis and him scoffing at the unavailability of the piece because of its pay wall. And I also remember him lauding Jay Rosen's reaction. If Jarvis was CUNY's good wizard, Dumbledore or Gandalf, NYU's Rosen was his nemesis. Maybe not Voldemort, but perhaps Snape? So, their agreement on taking down a common enemy wasn't lost on me (and yes, I'm not sure what that makes Columbia's Emily Bell. Legolas? Ravenclaw?)

"He's [Jarvis] a very frenetic guy, and I think it's great that he's trying to find a way to sustain journalism, because things need to change," said Katie Honan, a 2010 graduate. "But I feel sometimes it's a lot of hot air."

Each year, the student body elects student representatives to oversee and take part in faculty meetings on curriculum, technology, and student activities. Honan was elected to the curriculum committee when Jarvis's Entrepreneurial curriculum was proposed. "I found his proposal for the entrepreneurial program at CUNY to be half-finished and didn't seem to show what the students would be doing, exactly, except listening to him... like a TED talk except you pay for it," she said. "His book was on the syllabus, and that's always a red flag for me. He talked a lot about the 'distruptor of the mainstream media' but it all just seemed like bad marketing speak. I voted against the program because I didn't see how it could add anything to our school or for the students."  Honan adds, "I don't know why the program was being rushed through." Honan was the sole vote against Jarvis's curriculum proposal.

The faculty at CUNY trusts Jarvis. One of Jarvis's favorite stories is about convincing a dean at CUNY that the curriculum needed to teach Twitter. At the time of the school's creation, Twitter was a fledgling social media platform and said dean didn't understand why they should have paid it attention. Jarvis argued that it would be the next form of journalism. Now he looks like a soothsayer.

Honan and fellow 2010 graduate Dale Eisinger even created a playful meme (can you call it a meme if it didn't reach heavy saturation?) comparing Jarvis to Doc from Back to the Future. "10,000 googlewatts," says Eisinger. "We also made a fake twitter for him... but it didn't take off."

A former student of Jarvis's wasn't so playful (and in no surprise, wishes to remain anonymous). "I'll try and think. I mostly avoided him and eye-rolled, and squatted in the 'innovating journalism room.'" she said, with particular vehemence toward what, during my time at the school, Jarvis referred to as the "incubation" room for Tow-Knight ideas. "It's a room on the 2nd floor... it was fucking stupid. I think there's actually stuff in there now... but I mean, the whole notion we needed a special room to innovate journalism. Wasn't that the whole point of school? But Jarvis gets a special room?"

Another student added, "My overall opinion of him is that he is more of a media guy than a journalism guy. I think he's spending too much time trying to create hashtags and find new online technologies and not enough time trying to figure out how to keep journalism, newspapers, etc. solvent."

"People kinda hated the self-PR," Orcutt said.

Jarvis isn't fazed by those criticisms, though. "That's for you to judge," he said. "I'm not here to lead anyone by the hand. It's graduate school. There are choices here. If you don't like it, don't believe in it, don't take the class." He adds, "Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur."

"I think people weren't able to separate the knowledge from the person," said Orcutt. "He's actually quite erudite in person," Eisinger, of the failed Doc meme, adds. "On Twitter, he's got to manage his brand. Though no one wants to admit it, I mean we all do, but the way you get people to perceive you to have important opinions is to: a) always have them and b) shove them down people's throats with vehemence, both of which he's quite capable at."

"Guilty," Jarvis says to critics of self-promotion and his Twitter/Buzzmachine/public persona. He says his new book, Public Parts, is about living in a public digital age. "But is writing about my prostate cancer promoting my malfunctioning penis? I certainly do not want to be known as having a defective dick. To say that I'm promoting that is ludicrous. Being public is just a way to live. Do I promote things? Yes I do. I will happily sell people the book. But, I also promote ideas about the future of journalism: that news organizations must update, that journalists must be responsible for the business for journalism."

Jarvis points out that even his haters have to see the beauty of "living in public."

"If you don't like me, it's simple: Don't follow me."

Alex Abad-Santos took Jarvis's fall 2010 Entrepreneurial Journalism class, got a pretty good grade, and still has his entrepreneurial idea if you're interested.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.