At the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, Heidi Glenn covered music and movies for the campus newspaper. She also DJ’d for fun. “In retrospect,” she muses, “I was building up to a multimedia job at NPR.”
First came a single-media job on Capitol Hill. Upon moving to D.C., she became a proofreader of tax-related news stories and toyed with the idea of grad school. Two years later she moved up to reporter at a magazine called Tax Notes — “the bible in its field but obscure to everyone else,” as she puts it — and spent a decade interviewing lawmakers, covering hearings, pushing a microphone at presidential contenders.
It was a heady life even if “the topics could make people’s eyes glaze over,” Glenn says. “I found that the tiny provisions that most people didn’t care about were where the juicy stories were — like, who got the goodies here?”
Still, by 2003-04, her expertise in print was looking anachronistic. She enjoyed amateur photography; was that an avenue? Her news judgment was good; what else might she do with it? More and more, jobs that sounded appealing wanted digital skills. In 2005, Glenn found the answer to her old grad-school question at an American University School of Communication open house.
“The coolest thing about this program is our ability to be nimble about what’s needed right now,” says Amy Eisman, director of AU’s master’s program in interactive journalism (202-885-2040; American.edu/soc/journalism).
Instructors “are at the top of their field,” she says, with backgrounds as varied as USA Today, the Sunlight Foundation, the F, PBS, NPR and cutting-edge blogs. The program’s 10 courses cover “everything needed to be a contemporary journalist,” from building a website and Web writing to photography, legal aspects, multimedia and video journalism. There’s a seminar in public affairs, and the last class culminates in an online newsmagazine.
Designed for working adults, the IJ program meets from 9 to 5 most Saturdays for 20 months. Class structure varies: lectures, Q&As, speakers via Skype, assignments such as “go report a story, then come back and make a video about it.” Glenn fell in love with audio slideshows and wrote a paper on their emergence. For her Flash class, she created a show on an H Street upholsterer.
Though most students, like Glenn, live around Washington, some commute from Pennsylvania, New York or the Eastern Shore. About 40 percent have no journalism background; students include White House correspondents, tech workers, researchers, photographers and some who do advocacy work. Tuition is $40,440. The program’s next open house is May 14.
“Ours is the only master’s program that brings digital and journalism together,” Eisman says. Most graduates do some sort of Web journalism. Some teach; some start in journalism or advocacy or advance their careers; some move into leadership. Entry-level work at a news site can fetch a salary in the $30,000s; with experience, the $60,000s. With experience, a Web developer or designer can start at $75,000 to $80,000.
Glenn left reporting only upon taking a job at NPR as national producer for digital news in fall 2007. Her boss found her news experience an asset, but “the AU degree made my resume stand out from the pack,” Glenn says. Plus, “it’s beneficial to be submerged in the academic world of your profession — it gives you a new perspective and contacts.”
Her new role is to build a multimedia experience to complement certain stories that listeners hear. For instance, in early 2010, journalist Susan Stamberg aired a report on 1,100 young women who flew military aircraft stateside during World War II. The report, on the occasion of some survivors receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, included “remarkable stories of heroism and dedication,” Glenn says. To accompany it, Glenn helped compile photos and essays on 21 pilots, a six-decade timeline and an audio slideshow with one pilot’s color photos from the era.
The eight-month effort just won a White House News Photographers Association award and a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media. “This shows how far the NPR newsroom has come in melding the Web part with the traditional radio part,” she says.
It also shows how far Glenn has come from her traditional scribbling in a reporter’s notebook. Just since she was hired, NPR has more original content online. “With a mandate to be creative with stories people want to read and see,” she says, “the sky’s the limit here.”
Written by Express contributor Ellen Ryan