Meet R.B. Brenner, UT’s Next J-School Director

UT’s School of Journalism is celebrating its centennial this year, and this week it kicked off its next 100 years by announcing a key hire: R.B. Brenner, a former Washington Post editor, will be the school’s next director.

Studio J Photo - Jay Kelly Photo - Jay Kelly SF CA 94107

Brenner, who now serves as deputy director of journalism at Stanford, is an Oberlin College grad and newspaperman who started his reporting career at the Winston-Salem Journal. At the Post, he helped plan the paper’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. He served as journalism consultant for—and scored a walk-on role in—the 2009 political thriller State of Play. Brenner isn’t a total newcomer to the Forty Acres: in spring 2009, he taught on campus as a visiting lecturer in journalism.

He’ll take the reins of the School of Journalism in August, when Glenn Frankel will step down to write full-time after four years leading the school. We spoke with Brenner about the future of the industry and his plans for the J-School.

Glenn Frankel changed up the curriculum pretty substantially when he came into this position. Do you foresee doing something similar?

I need to learn a lot more, but my sense from afar is that there’s a really solid foundation in place. I like the metaphor of the house is well-built, and now you want to keep looking inside the rooms to make sure they’re as strong. One thing I’m really excited about is collaborating across the university. There have never been more opportunities to collaborate with computer science, engineering, the social sciences. When the new medical school opens in Austin, I’d like to have conversations about medical reporting.

A few years ago, journalism was all doom and gloom–everyone was talking about the death of print, layoffs, and so on. Now there’s a sense we may be moving past that. What’s next?

There was a collision of factors a few years ago—the recession, the digital disruption and the impact it had on the bottom line of so-called legacy media, and a lot of very painful layoffs and buyouts in newsrooms. Now I think we’ve found an equilibrium and we’re starting to see more innovation.

Such as?

One that’s been cited and imitated a lot is the New York Times’Snowfall.” It represents teamwork among a reporter, digital journalists, web developers and programmers, and designers. I also think we’re going to see more personalization, which is something news sites haven’t been great at. Places like Amazon already seem to know what we’re thinking before we even think it. I expect to see more of that in the news world.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the J-School?

When I started out, to be a good journalist you needed shoe-leather skills—how to write well, how to manage sources, and of course you still do need those. Today the amount of things students also have to be good at is pretty amazing. You need to know how to shoot and edit video, acquire and tell stories with sound, take good photographs, be adept at data analysis and data visualization, and know how to use social media for reporting and telling stories. Frankly, not many people in the world are experts at this whole new suite of skills.

And as journalism moves at a kinetic pace and is in this mode of experimenting, you need people who are experts in being able to research and analyze and bring critical thinking skills to make sure journalism has watchdogs from the academy to say, ‘Is what’s going on in journalism to the benefit of democracy and society? What’s being left behind?’

I’m sure you’re aware of the problems facing the Daily Texan [which is considering moving to a weekly schedule].

I really do feel I need to learn more before I say much on that. I’m someone who literally lived at my college paper during my four years. So I feel that thriving student media is so central, so important. I got a lot of experience at a professional level struggling with some of these issues, print and digital, financial issues. I’m going to do everything I can to get myself up to speed on that issue and offer myself as a resource.

Tell us about something you’re reading.

I’m reading a book right now called Creative Confidence. It’s about this concept of design thinking, and one of its elements is that it’s absolutely crucial to have empathetic design. You need to understand the wants and needs of people who are going to use whatever you create, and make choices based on that. Early in my career, I think that journalism could be pretty paternalistic—we know what’s best for you and here’s the news that you should know. And we’re way past that now.

Photo by Jay Kelly, courtesy Laura Byerley.


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