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So What Do You Do, Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia Journalism School Dean?

The new media expert's ushering in a new class of ambitious 'tra-digital' journalists

- April 7, 2010

-Photo by Joseph Lin
"When I go to events with existing journalists, it feels like a wake," says Sree Sreenivasan. "But when I'm on campus, students are much more optimistic. And they should be."

As Columbia Journalism School's dean of student affairs, Sreenivasan has watched first-hand as waves of students flock to J-school despite a bleak outlook for the business. His advice? Work smarter and harder. He urges everyone in his popular social media classes to at least be knowledgeable about all forms of new media, (yes, even Foursquare), even if they're not interested in Tweeting every detail of their lives.

"It's fascinating the way journalists have used and struggled with technology. They're both the savviest and the most skeptical. That's fine. But they have to know what's going on."

With 10,000 Twitter followers of his own, a pragmatic approach ("I'm an evangelist and a skeptic," he likes to say), and a schedule more transparent than the president's, this in-demand speaker and TV commentator is now embarking on a different experiment. He's scouring the globe for people who, like him, are turning 40 in 2010. How on Earth does he have time for all this? Check out his guilty pleasure…


Name: Sree Sreenivasan
Position: Professor and dean of student affairs, Columbia Journalism School
Resume: Earned his first byline in The Fiji Sun at age 15; Began lecturing at Columbia after graduating with a M.S. in journalism. Promoted to professor of professional practice in 2007. Served as dean of students from 2005-2007 and later appointed to a newly created position, dean of student affairs. Former freelance tech reporter for WNBC and WABC. Co-founder and former president of the South Asian Journalists Association. Contributing editor for DNAinfo.com, a Manhattan hyperlocal news startup he helped launch with Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.
Birthdate: October 28, 1970
Hometown: New York, NY
Education: M.S. in Journalism, Columbia; B.A. in History, St. Stephen's College, Delhi; Marist Brothers High School, Suva, Fiji; also: P.S. 6 in Manhattan and kindergarten in Moscow, in the former USSR
Marital status: Married with twin children.
First section of the Sunday Times: "I try to read the Magazine, Book Review and Real Estate sections on Saturday."
Favorite TV show: Pardon The Interruption, Psych, Monk, and NCIS
Guilty pleasure: Starbucks Frappuccino in the glass bottle. "My wife says the last thing I need is caffeine, but the Starbucks bottled drink reminds me of the iced coffee my grandmother made in India."
Last book read: Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist's Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland by Basharat Peer.
Twitter handle: @sreenet

When it comes to technology, you call yourself both an evangelist and a skeptic. What have you been skeptical about?
Things like Second Life; I have too much trouble organizing my first life to play that game. I'm not a user of Foursquare, Google Wave or Google Buzz, I have given them a test run but I just don't have the bandwidth to add them to my media diet right now. But I still have to be knowledgeable. Today I had to teach three people how to turn off Google Buzz. So even the things I don't use, I need to be able to understand them.

What are you evangelical about?
I use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Those are the three that work for my lifestyle and my work style. Now, if you're a music journalist, you must use MySpace. But those are the three things that work for me.

"A lot of people spend all their time hiding on the Internet. You don't have to give away information the way I do. But you don't have to hide either. A good journalist is reachable."

Your daily calendar, beginning with taking your children to school, is available for anyone to access on your Web site. Do you have concerns about having your entire day publicly available?
Am I concerned, yes -- but I can't keep that concern from using technology to make my life easier. Having my calendar out there means I have eliminated the voicemail and email phone tag I used to play: Can you meet Friday at 2? How's Thursday at 6? Monday at noon? I know very few people who would do something like this. Besides, it can raise awkward questions at home. "Lunch with Kathy? Who's Kathy?"

I believe journalists should be open and available and engaged. I've also had the same phone number and email address for 17 years. A lot of people spend all their time hiding on the Internet. You don't have to give away information the way I do. But you don't have to hide either. A good journalist is reachable.

You have more than 10,000 followers on Twitter. What kind of advice do you give to people attempting to amass followers on Twitter?
I Tweet very carefully. I very rarely Tweet what I'm doing at the moment. I try to bring something into the conversation. No one wants to know who I am hanging out with or what I am eating -- unless I can find a way to make it relevant to as wide an audience as possible. I've had dinner with celebrities and sorta-celebrities, but I don't Tweet about it. That doesn't engage anyone. It's self-serving and I'm hyper-conscious of it. If I'm at a bar, I'm not Tweeting that. But if I'm at a bar offering a discount on the weekend or has a new recipe, I'll Tweet about that, or the two-for-one drinks. I want my Tweets to be interesting/informative/relevant/timely/generous/fun or funny. I don't always manage to meet that criterion all the time, but I try. That takes time and effort. Oh, and I never try to Tweet more than 120 characters, allowing people to easily retweet my stuff with comments.

Is it true that although the media is experiencing a tidal wave, numbers are actually up at Columbia University's Journalism School?
The numbers are up, it's true. We haven't done [an] exact number. But generally we're seeing apps from 60 countries and across the countries. There is a level of optimism that is exciting and palpable.

What do you attribute that to? Is it because they're younger?
It's that, yes. But also, we have a large international population of students. The media across the world is not fragmented or mature the way it is here. And the young people in general are more optimistic. They have entrepreneurial spirit that serves journalists well.

"Social media is just one optional credit out of 30-plus in the Journalism School. What you really need is to be a good, trusted reporter, editor, and storyteller."

But the fact is, the jobs are not there the way they once were. Are you being direct with students about this?
Of course. That's always a worry. Part of my job is to have a teaching role and an administration role. I have a direct stake in making sure our students get suitable, satisfying work. We have invested heavily in a four-person career service office that does an incredible amount of work connecting our students with hiring editors and others around the globe. In fact, on March 27, we [hosted] one of the largest journalism job fairs in the country with more than 80 media companies -- large and small, old and new.

What are you telling your students about how to prepare for landing a media job in this market?
You need to be able to do multiple things. My colleague Sig Gissler, who runs the Pulitzer Prizes and teaches digital media here, coined the perfect term: the tra-digital journalist. Someone who has all the skills and values of a traditional journalist, but who also has a digital overlay, understanding the tools and techniques of the current Internet. The media still needs people to report, write and tell stories -- and do it fast and well. A small part of what they need to know is things like social media. I want to be clear: social media is just one optional credit out of 30-plus in the Journalism School. What you really need is to be a good, trusted reporter, editor, and storyteller. If you are, you can make your way in this changing media landscape.

There's been some discussion about the president's Twitter account. It's updated in the first person. But he says he doesn't Tweet. Does it matter if he's using a ghost Tweeter?
Twitter rewards authenticity -- why not just have his staff Tweet in the third-person? In any case, I would rather have the president concentrate on other issues. Like how the economy is affecting our country. Why should he be on Twitter? He had to struggle mightily just to get a Blackberry. Mistakes you make on Twitter are much bigger than mistakes you can make on email.

When you have 10,000 followers, do you care about losing a few here and there?
Yes! I care about the people I lose, because these are folks voting with their feet. I can get obsessed about that. I use a program called TWunfollow.com. But I beg you, don't use it unless you're ready. You might need psychotherapy. They will email you when people unfollow you with the Twitter handles and how long they've followed you. I get those emails and I obsess over them. It's pretty sad. You're better off using Chirpstats.com, which gives you aggregate numbers, telling you the total number of people you've gained and lost.

Even though you're an obvious technophile, you still want to see print journalism remain available.
I love print. There's something magical about it. No technology can ever completely replace all forms of print (I hope). I subscribe to two daily papers, the NYT and the WSJ, and to five magazines/weeklies. And as long as there's a print edition of The New York Times, I'll be a subscriber.

On a more personal note, you're married to a former sports rifle sharpshooter…What's that like?
It's true. My wife, Roopa, who has a terrific food blog at RoopaOnline.com and is a Pfizer exec, used to be one of the world's top women rifle shooters. Her father was a cop in India and her mother won a state pistol-shooting championship when Roopa was still in her belly. She can shoot a dime off your shoulder from 50 yards away, without a scope. We are always looking for volunteers.

So, is it safe to assume that you generally stay out of trouble?
Well, yes. But I also make sure we don't have rifles in the house.


Aliya S. King is an author of two works of nonfiction and an upcoming novel. She also blogs at www.aliyasking.com and Tweets even more @aliyasking.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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