Start Spreading the News: Media Studies Students Take Manhattan

Students from Vaidhyanathan’s 2014 J-term class meet with Stephen Colbert in his final year with the “Colbert Report” before taking over “The Late Show.”

In a world in which the Internet rules supreme and anyone with an amusing cat video can go viral, it would seem that New York City’s claim to being the center of the media universe is slipping.

Siva Vaidhyanathan says otherwise. In his January term class, “New Media in New York,” the University of Virginia’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies takes 20 students to the Big Apple to explore how the city continues to be a major player in the modern media world.

“When I started planning this as an academic course, I wanted to make it about the question, ‘Why does New York still matter in the media landscape?’” Vaidhyanathan said.

The first half of the two-week course, which started Monday, entails five days of digital learning and engagement in Charlottesville. During that time, students post reflections on the course reading and video materials on a shared class website.

The course materials cover everything from serious reflections on the rise of the Huffington Post and classic New York cinema like “On the Waterfront” to the caricatures of the magazine world in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“I want to get students thinking about the frenetic pace of the work life, the questions of how to stay true to editorial sensibility, and how the city’s unique identity plays out in the creation of media,” Vaidhyanathan said.

On Sunday, the class will arrive in midtown Manhattan. Vaidhyanathan has coordinated with a vast network of UVA alumni and friends in New York to create a diverse lineup of media visits while his class is in town.

Students will have the opportunity to meet with alumna Katie Couric and go behind the scenes with Stephen Colbert at “The Late Show.” Both have remained frequent staples on the trip even as they’ve moved among different media outlets.

“I thought it was so interesting learning about Katie Couric’s transition to Yahoo!,” said fourth-year media studies major Caroline Blank, who took the course in 2015. “It really showed us that there isn’t one set path in the media world. Katie knows that and has taken her career to all kinds of outlets.”

Since taking the class, Blank has begun contemplating new approaches to media as part of her future career plans. An art history minor, she hopes to find work incorporating digital media as a teaching tool in museum education.

She’s not the only one to use the course as a starting point for post-graduation plans.

“In the past, Stephen Colbert has spent over an hour of face-to-face time talking to us, and he’s even ended up hiring a number of our students as interns later on,” Vaidhyanathan said. “To be a Colbert intern is to receive a really strong invitation to a fascinating career in media.”

In addition to meeting Couric and Colbert, the students also tour NBC studios and visit the offices of Slate, the Huffington Post, Viacom and Bloomberg News. Prominent alumni like Edward Swindler, president of NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution and NBC Broadcast Operations, often help organize these visits and arrange for high-profile guest speakers.

As they visit, Vaidhyanathan encourages students to pay attention to each organization’s communications priorities and how they adapt their strategies to match the ever-changing social media landscape.

“Every year that I’ve done this course, Facebook has played a larger role in how people consume information, and it’s not just because it’s growing in user numbers,” he said. “It’s because Facebook has established itself as either the most or second-most-important filter for information. The other is Google. Five years ago, I would have said Google is absolutely No. 1. I could argue otherwise now.”

He added that nearly every organization they visit is obsessed with monitoring their Facebook metrics and staying on top of the next big trend, whether that’s simply a trending topic or the next breakout social media platform.

“In the class, I saw how quickly the industry is changing and even now it’s tough,” 2013 alumna Asia Johnson said. “UVA really prepared me to work hard, adapt, and network. I’m constantly reading and meeting with people to stay on top of what’s next.”

Johnson took “New Media in New York” in the January of her fourth year at UVA and was determined to return to the city afterward. She eventually landed a coveted position as an NBC page and now works for Scratch, a new creative division of Viacom.

“By the end of the week, students see why New York matters in media and why it will matter for many decades, despite the fact that digital technology should allow us to do the same work from Kansas City, Portland or Tokyo,” Vaidhyanathan said. “Here, employees are always in the mix for the next big thing and employers have access to a constant flow of raw talent.”

For Vaidhyanathan, who lived in New York for eight years prior to joining UVA’s faculty, the class is also an opportunity to share one of his favorite places with his students.

“I usually teach large courses with between 80 and 300 people. This is one of my few opportunities to meet students informally and walk through the Museum of Modern Art or go get a bagel together,” he said. “I get to understand what students want out of their degrees and to talk to them about their hopes and dreams.”

Media Contact

Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications