Leading Through Innovation

How the Hubbard School is shaping tomorrow’s storytellers through new initiatives.

In an effort to raise $4 billion, this fall the University embarked on the largest philanthropic initiative in its history: Driven: The University of Minnesota Campaign. The campaign’s priorities reflect the University’s values, such as retaining an inclusive climate, supporting health and well-being, fostering innovation and providing a world-class student experience. These campaign goals reflect initiatives the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, within the College of Liberal Arts, can strongly support. The School shares these University of Minnesota values and priorities.

In the last decade, we’ve seen historic transformation in the way people tell stories. Journalists turn to digital media to break stories on Twitter every day. Large corporations seek out thoughtful media planners to keep them honest and respected in a tumultuous political environment. Major advertisers choose to pull their creative executions from TV shows that may conflict with their corporate sponsors’ brand identity or alienate consumers. Scientists strive to communicate their research to the masses in digestible ways. In the last year, we’ve also seen tried-and-true, investigative reporting break some of the biggest stories of our time.

Thoughtful, engaged, media-literate professionals have never been in more demand and, frankly, in greater need. Schools of journalism and mass communication hold a great responsibility to not only train graduates for success, but to give the world the next generation of trustworthy storytellers.

The School’s mission has always been to prepare students for a wide variety of journalism and mass communication careers. e desire now is to raise the level of commitment and support for its mission in a few different ways.

“We’re confident that tomorrow’s graduates will be successful, grounded not only in a solid skill base, but also in the qualities that lie at the heart of a liberal arts education: inventive thinking, nimble work habits and the ability to synthesize different perspectives,” said Elisia Cohen, director. “But the world of our future graduates will be different—more diverse, endlessly interactive and intellectually challenging. We’re committed to giving them a head start in becoming forward-thinking media professionals, no matter what corporate, non-profit, or media industry career they choose.”

When she meets with donors, alumni, faculty, students and staff, Cohen emphasizes that the role of journalism and mass communication has never been so vital, especially when developing student skills in communicating facts, shaping policy and holding leaders accountable. The School hopes to stand apart as a place that not only turns out sought-after storytellers, but also as a place that is a state, national and international leader in helping the media industry tell better stories. To do so, over the next few years, the School will launch new initiatives to support growing areas of expertise within the school.


Our alumni have become leading media entrepreneurs and leaders in digital strategy. The rapidly changing media environment has resulted in changes to our curriculum, and requires our students and alumni be nimble and entrepreneurial when imagining and managing their careers. Our alumni are leaders in corporate communications, political campaign management, brand strategy, data journalism, account management, financial communications and so much more. But the school also sees a need for more specialized training in strategy and entrepreneurship.

“Journalism students interested in working in these fields need to gain skills in writing effective business plans, analyzing audiences, pitching stories, developing portfolios, identifying brand strategies for digital media and broadly strategizing social media and marketing communications,” Cohen said. The School hopes to partner with other departments and colleges at the U, as well as local alumni, like Jorg Pierach of Fast Horse or an entrepreneurial corporate consulting pioneer like Carol Pine, who have built these types of careers, to offer co-curricular training programs for students to learn and perfect these entrepreneurship skills before they graduate.

No other university is better positioned to train future strategic health communication professionals. As a top-20 research university that includes an academic medical center, the possibilities for students to be broadly trained in health, medicine and the liberal arts, while becoming well- skilled in health and science writing and strategic communication, is unparalleled.

The Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication was the first journalism school in the nation to offer a dual B.A./ M.A. program in strategic health communication. Because of this initiative, the School has significant faculty expertise in this area and has the potential to be internationally recognized for its work in an urban environment ripe with industry leaders in healthcare, medical device manufacturing and health insurance. In collaboration with the other units on campus, one way the School can share this expertise is through a center for health communication.

“Amidst a confusing landscape of health information, the world needs people who improve the health and well-being of individuals, organizations and communities by developing messages and data to improve health behavior change and policies,” said Cohen, who during her time at Kentucky, acted as the director of the Health Communication Research Collaborative (HCRC), which encourages faculty members across disciplines to work together to solve health communication challenges. A center could create programming that would draw people in with events that feature community strategic health communication experts, people who create policies or other researchers.

What would the Center for Health Communication look like? The hope would be that it would focus on three pillars, said Rebekah Nagler, assistant professor in health communication. The three pillars—research, teaching and outreach—would not only foster collaboration with others, but would help create a self-sustaining service center for health communication needs. For example, accurate and engaging messaging is extremely important for health professionals and industry leaders. The Center for Health Communication would be a one-stop shop with dedicated staff for message development and pre-testing, usability testing, graphic design and creative vision development.

“An organized structure like a center for health communication will give funding agencies greater confidence in the infrastructure for research,” Nagler said. A center could not only help University of Minnesota health professionals develop and disseminate their messaging, but also could be a resource for the greater medical com- munity, which is an important part of the Minnesota economy.

A center for health communication would also be a strong recruitment tool for both undergraduate and graduate students because it would give them hands-on, real-world experience right inside their school and community, Nagler said. It would be a pipeline for graduates to careers in the health care, medical device and insurance industry in Minnesota. Companies could look to the School first for finding broadly trained, well-skilled health communication professionals.

Another area where the School sees great leadership potential is in big data analytics, or more generally, computational social science research. The job market for journalists and communication professionals who know how to analyze and
interpret big data and communicate findings accurately is growing. Likewise,
data scientists need help from social science scholars to effectively draw information from big data and to decipher the data patterns they have. “Everything we do, purchase, say, read, like or share is stored in bits of data, generating massive datasets,” said Professor Jisu Huh, Mithun Chair in Advertising and the director of graduate studies. “Thus, the problem is not a lack of data, but not knowing what to do with abundance of data.”

Data-driven, computational social science research is a fast-growing interdisciplinary research field. People with a computer science or statistics background and expertise know how to mine and model data, but it’s the conceptual part that’s missing in most cases. “We understand communication functions and processes and the way communication effects happen,” Huh said. “Bringing in the expertise, we can ask good questions and develop sound conceptual frameworks for data mining and modeling, and help computer scientists develop better algorithms and interpret the meaning of data patterns.”

A center in data-driven communication research could not only support big data research conducted by the School’s faculty and students, but also provide an avenue for industry and academic collaboration. “Today’s organizations have more data than they know what to do with,” Huh said. “If data patterns are misread or miscommunicated, it can lead to incorrect storytelling or bad business decisions. As mass communication experts, we can offer the theoretical understanding and conceptual framework for analyzing and interpreting big data and help organizations make the best decisions with their data.”

Learning how to analyze big data and draw useful information from data patterns is extremely relevant to all kinds of organizations in an era of social media, electronic word-of-mouth, rumors, misinformed citizens and fake news. “For example, there are great opportunities for mass communication scholars to work with computer scientists to analyze social network data to discover patterns to see who is spreading fake news or rumors about a company,” said Huh. The application possibilities of data-driven computational social science research in the journalism and strategic communication fields are unlimited. “We really need to get into that game,” she said, “and a center devoted to data-driven computational communication research could set the School apart.”


Finally, faculty, students, staff and alumni share a deep concern for a free and independent press and 
informed electorate. As the University 
considers its liberal education reforms,
 Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teacher
Gayle (G.G.) Golden will be a strong voice
 on the planning committee advocating 
for the importance in training undergraduate students broadly to understand the importance of a free press and the First Amendment to our democracy. It is the position of the faculty that graduates across all fields of study need media literacy training. The School is well-poised to provide this training, with its long-standing research expertise featured in Professor Jane Kirtley’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, which focuses on the concepts and values that define the highest ideals of American journalism: freedom and fairness.

“The current political moment seems to have reawakened interest in students’ learning about the First Amendment, freedom of the press, media, law and ethics, and media literacy,” Cohen wrote in an op-ed for MinnPost titled, “The dog whistle of ‘fake news’ requires more conversation about professional journalism.”

The School not only offers many separate courses that cover these ideas, but also is examining how it can focus its e orts to reach the greatest audience.

“It is the role of professional schools of journalism to train students in ethical journalistic conduct and to prepare students for professional practice,” Cohen wrote in the op-ed. “And it is the job of citizens, with the support of schools of journalism, to support and defend it in public conversation.” The School wants to take the lead in this conversation.

In addition to these four initiatives, the School plans to hire more faculty to lead interdisciplinary and innovative projects, improve the reach and effectiveness of outreach events, and continue to connect and partner with community leaders and industries. Advancing knowledge creation and innovation in journalism, mass communication, advertising and strategic communication fields by supporting student and graduate success remains the school’s core mission. Over the next three years, the School expects to report on outcomes associated with these efforts.

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