AJR relaunches with new look, new purpose

The day before American Journalism Review’s new site debuted, with a story about robot writers, a welcome video and a look at drone journalism, Leslie Walker added a line in to the third paragraph of the editor’s note.

“We have a new look,” she wrote, “and a new mission – to promote excellence and inspire innovation in journalism.”

A lot has changed in both journalism and the life of AJR in recent years.

“Really, everything about news reporting, gathering and presentation is in flux,” said Walker, visiting professor of digital innovation at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism and a co-editor at AJR, in a phone interview.

That flux, and what people are doing with it, will be a big part of what AJR now covers.

“We are pivoting into innovation,” she said.

AJR’s always focused on excellence, Walker said. The core of what’s new with the site is inspiring, and exploring, that innovation. And they’re doing so with the work of students who, in writing about these changes, can learn from them, too.

This spring, thinking about the future of AJR, Walker asked herself, what could AJR do that isn’t already being done?

“We looked around and thought, where is there an opportunity,” said Lucy Dalglish, AJR’s publisher and dean of the journalism school, in a phone interview.

“In a way, the blogosphere has usurped the function of the journalism reviews of old, in my opinion,” Walker said.

They could, instead, look at the changes impacting the industry and offer a place for others to explore, share and look forward, too. Walker said she and fellow editors chose the words “inspire innovation” carefully.

“Because we believe that journalism has a positive future,” she said, “if journalists and the business people supporting them change and develop new models for all of the above.”

Out with the old

American Journalism Review first launched in in 1977 as The Washington Journalism Review. Former managing editor Lori Robertson wrote about the publication’s early days, which include the sale of a VW bug to get funding and working above The Threepenny Bit, an Irish clothing store. Rem Rieder became editor in 1992, and one year later, the publication was renamed American Journalism Review.

In 2011, Phillip Merrill College of Journalism took over ownership of AJR from the University of Maryland Foundation. AJR originally published 11 times a year and, over time, cut down to just three. In June, Rieder left to work as a media editor and columnist for USA Today. In July, AJR announced they’d end production of their printed product and go online only.

“I’ve had a fantastic run at AJR,” Rieder said in an email to Poynter in June. “It’s been extremely gratifying. But after 21-and-a-half years, I’m excited about the idea of another adventure, particularly this one.”

And AJR set out on their own new adventure, too. They knew that readers’ eyeballs were shifting online, Walker said, and everything industry-wide was changing. And that’s where they found the opportunity.

The relaunched AJR will look at emerging business models, visualize new methods for telling stories, explore new advertising models, subscription payments, pay walls and how people interact with their news.

Sean Mussenden, a co-editor who’s focusing on design and development of the new site, said in a phone interview that there will still be coverage of what’s happening in the news industry, and it will come from a range of voices, from professionals to academics to students. The new site will be easier to navigate, he said, and will allow for comments, which the old site didn’t.

But interactions will go beyond comments, Mussenden said. In 2014, AJR will roll out a database it’s developing to bring together examples of innovations, from story projects to data visualization to novel uses of crowdsourcing. Staff and students will add to the database, but AJR will ask for readers to do so, too.

Students will follow up, he said, interviewing writers or editors to find out how they did what they did. And they’re looking beyond the obvious.

“Everybody and their brother in the industry knows about projects like Snow Fall,” he said, referring to the 2012 New York Times multimedia piece. “We think there are a lot of smaller publications that are not The New York Times that are doing cool stuff.”

“AJR Relaunching in 3…2…1…”

So reads a student-written headline from this summer. And a master’s student made a video about AJR’s changes. Expect to see a lot more from them.

Students have contributed to AJR over the years, Walker said, including through a class during the past three years.

What’s different, she said, is that the school’s expanding that relationship. Walker said the school has more than 500 journalism majors, “and they’re all excited about this.”

Faculty is, too, Dalglish said.

She asked professors with classes that produced content if they could include one assignment for AJR.

“And they all said yes,” Dalglish said. “They all thought that this was a fantastic opportunity for their students to be published.”

And that’s going to mean a younger voice for AJR, Walker said.

“These student look at the world differently,” Dalglish agreed. “They’re digital natives, they gather and use information differently.”

The school will be using students in a way that’s different, too. Most journalism schools with “teaching hospital” models cover hyperlocal news, Walker said. AJR’s applying that model to a vertical — covering the media itself.

In the process of interviewing entrepreneurs, innovators and people doing big things in journalism, Walker and Dalglish both said students will learn more about the industry themselves.

“The idea is that our students will learn about changes and innovations in the news industry by reporting on it,” Walker said.

It also prepares them for an industry that will continue to change, Dalglish said, and teaches them to innovate, create and change along with it. The core values of journalism still matter and are a focus, she said, but AJR itself is stepping into the kind of change they plan to cover, no longer depending on professional writers or philanthropic funding.

“This is by far the most fearless enterprise I’ve ever been involved with,” Dalglish said. “This is, let’s just blow things up and see what we can come up with.”

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