66 Sree Sreenivasan on the future of journalism, j-school and more! PODCAST INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, Columbia University

Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, Columbia University in the City of New York, Mr. Media Interview
Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, Columbia University in the City of New York

I don’t know about you, but I could spend hours on end doing stuff on the Internet, some of it productive, some of it, well, not.

And some days, it’s hard separating the two because one is generally just as distracting as the other.

I’m hoping that today’s guest, Sree Sreenivasan, can help all of us sort out the time-wasters from the time-benefitters. And no, I don’t think that’s a real word.

Sree is one of journalism’s last great multi-taskers. He’s a New Media professor and dean of students in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. But he’s also a technology reporter for WNBC television in New York City and a regular columnist for Poynter Online. Among other things, we’ll talk about the future of journalism and journalism schools.

Sree Sreenivasan WebsiteSreeTipsFacebookTwitter LinkedIn Google+

BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Sree, Facebook was recently featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine, basically alerting the general public that there was a new cultural phenomenon upon us or there had been for a while for college kids, I guess. I know you use Facebook, and I wondered if you could start by talking a little bit about how you use it and what the pros and cons of the service might be.

SREE SREENIVASAN: Facebook is one of the sites that you think you don’t need it until you start using it and then you get so addicted very fast. I got a note the other day from a friend I’ve been trying to get on Facebook for a while, and he said, “I have no use for this, I have no use for this.” And then the other day, he wrote me a note saying, “Oh my God, I love this site.”

The way I look at Facebook is, it’s an example of how you can use technology as a great way to reconnect with friends and family and make some new friends. But also it shows you how much of a time thing it can be if you let it get to be that way. And we’re seeing people, including me, who can go on and an hour later, you’re emerging from it, sometimes two hours later from it.

What you do is you go on to Facebook, you create an account, and you start by finding your friends. And you say, “I already have email, why do I need this? I might even be using instant messaging and a cell phone and text messages. Isn’t it just one more thing?” And, in fact, it is one more thing, but it has its own kind of style and its own attractiveness about it that is sort of hard to explain. But it’s very easy to use, and I’ve been reconnecting with friends who I have an email relationship with, but now I see them and talk to them more often on my computer screen than when I just did with email itself.

ANDELMAN: One of the things I find when I’m trying to explain it to people or how to use it is — and the step that most people seem to miss, I think, is — uploading your email contacts from whatever email program you use. That seems to be the best way to get people started and finding people.

SREENIVASAN: I think that’s a great way to do it. And whenever you write to someone, make sure you put in a little note explaining why you’re writing and why you’re using this because there are also some other services, including Friendster and Plaxo and all these things, that are just sending out, using your email contacts and connecting you to people sometimes even when you didn’t mean to connect with them. So indicate in some fashion that this is something you are serious about as opposed to some of the other services that you accidentally tried once or just tested out. But, if you’re really into this, let them know, and then your friends will follow you there.

ANDELMAN: Do you have any personal stories of people you’ve reconnected with through Facebook, in particular?

SREENIVASAN: Yes. I reconnected with some of my younger cousins through Facebook. Sometimes — and this is also an example of how you can be careful about it — there’s one particular cousin who I connected with, and we’re now emailing a lot more than I did before or Facebooking a lot more than we did before. But I also noticed that, as everyone in her generation, she’s putting up photographs and putting up details of her life that no older cousin should know about, mainly so that I have a kind of plausible deniability from my uncle and aunt. If they ever ask me, “So how is so and so doing, what is she up to?” I can say I don’t know. So I have often gone into people’s photographs which they’ve put and then I suddenly back out and try to erase it from mind’s hard drive.

That’s just one of the ways I’ve been using it, but I’ve also been using it as a great way to communicate with former classmates and also my current students. You can form what are called groups on Facebook, and then you can set up a group, and people will find you, and they’ll populate your pages. And it’s sort of connecting with friends of friends and sharing photographs, and you wonder what did people do before they had this. Well, the answer is they had something else and before that, something else, and before that, something else. And we’ll see if Facebook becomes something that lingers on for a long time or is just a momentary thing the way some other websites were.

Another one I like is linkedin.com. I used to call it “Facebook for Adults,” but that sounds too weird so I call it “Facebook for Professionals.” But like Facebook, which itself has now opened itself out, it was only for college students, but in the last year, it has opened itself out. LinkedIn is very good for business contacts.

ANDELMAN: I wanted to ask you about both, and even before I do that, I want to share with you a Facebook story, about the first time I heard from someone recently who wanted to be added or add me to their Facebook friend list. Usually when you do that, you indicate how you know someone, whether it’s through professional contact or college or you were roommates or, as they put it, “hooked up” or something. And this fella sent me an email saying, “We used to work together at CBS,” which I thought, “Wow, I don’t remember working at CBS,” and then it occurred to me he was thinking of David Andelman who’s a well-known journalist, has worked at CBS and the New York Times, and I think is at Fortune now. And so I wrote back to him, and I said, “I think you probably mean David.” And the funny thing is David and I have never actually spoken or met, but we get confused for each other so much that we now refer to each other, we’re LinkedIn with each other, and we’re on Facebook together, and we refer to each other as cousin just because everyone seems to think we are. I told you that story to get to LinkedIn. LinkedIn does seem to be the professional version of Facebook. It’s more of a professional networking site than Facebook, which is more fun. Is that a fair assessment?

SREENIVASAN: I think that is a fair assessment. It isn’t as Web 2.0, if you will. It doesn’t feel as kind of new and constantly being updated, and there aren’t photographs. And that’s one of the things I like about LinkedIn is it’s kind of more professional compared to Facebook.

ANDELMAN: Now, your starting point is the same for both of them. As a matter of fact, for a lot of these services is that, if you want to really get into it, you upload your email contacts from your email program. And then once you get in there, it’s fascinating the way these programs do this. They can actually tell you who know who’s already in their network so you can instantly have a network.

SREENIVASAN: Exactly. And that makes a big difference so that you’re not having to start from scratch every time.

SREE SREENIVASAN podcast excerpt: “Journalism is still a viable, important career. You will have a wonderful time. You will be able to do a lot for society. Almost no other career will give you the kind of wide canvas that journalism does. But you have to go into it with your eyes open and know that we’ve seen layoffs, we’re seeing market forces putting great pressure on traditional journalism. But I believe that there will always be a market for reporting and writing and production, and good writing, in the end, is the key to all of this, whether it’s on the web or whether it’s on the radio or audio or video. It will always be part of what we’re doing.” 

ANDELMAN: The thing that I get asked a lot by, like I’ve got 4,000 contacts in my address book, and I’m kinda working my way through them, inviting them on or seeing if they’re already on. But the people who aren’t on, they worry about a couple things. They worry about, “If I upload my address book is that public knowledge?” They wonder, “Am I giving out private information?” And then what they really want to know is, “How on earth can this benefit me?” How can just having a bunch of people in my network be of benefit? And that’s the question. I guess that’s the first one that I really wanted to ask you about that.

SREENIVASAN: Well, I guess there’s sort of two separate questions there. The first, about whether these services will have access to your email or anything else like that. I wouldn’t use the uploads or contacts feature on some brand new site that I know nothing about, but LinkedIn and Facebook are now two real companies and have business models and have privacy policies in terms of service where they promise not to do things like that. And you kind of end up trusting those people in a way you may not trust someone else.

The other thing is that it’s very hard to explain exactly how it’ll benefit, but being in a network is always helpful. And many of us are already in networks, and we just don’t realize it. We’re okay, well, I’m not a social networker online, but we use it for all kinds of things. You’re part of your high school alumni network, you’re part of your college alumni network. If you’re a season ticket holder and you go to the same seats, you’re in a network of people who sit next to you at every game for whatever team you follow. And being part of networks like that has tremendous benefits offline, and those benefits are amplified and some of the problems are amplified online. So you still have to have a good way of using it, a systematic way of using it, but the easiest way is just to try and keep in touch with your friends and family and your closest friends first. Many people say to me, “I don’t want this because I can barely deal with the friends I already have. I don’t want to make any new friends.” And I tell people, “You don’t have to look at it that way. Look at keeping better touch with the friends you already have.”

My wife and I are an example of this. She and I talk on the cell phone a couple of times a day. We text message each other. We email each other. But we’ve now worked Facebook into our routine. And they have this funny little feature called “Poke Somebody,” and what she’ll do is, instead of sending me an email, she’ll go on Facebook and she’ll poke me. What that does is it’s kind of a nudge or an alert. If I’m available and online, I’ll respond, and then we’ll either have an email, phone, or Facebook conversation. If I’m not there, it’ll alert me that she was looking for me. So it’s a very subtle way of using Facebook. It’s not for everybody. But, as we’ve seen, young people are on this and also older people are on. There are Facebook groups for people over fifty, and it’s not an age thing at all.

ANDELMAN: Maybe you could speak to this. Both of these services, I guess most of these services, have kind of a cascading effect in that you and I connect, for example, and then I can see all of your contacts on LinkedIn, or I can see all of your friends on Facebook. And that opens up a whole new world to me. We both do freelance writing, for example. If I’m curious and looking for other contacts, I may see you have a contact at Forbes magazine or BusinessWeek, and I can go through LinkedIn, and I can say Sree, can you give me an introduction to this person? I can’t just directly contact them on LinkedIn, but I could ask you if you would do an introduction if you feel confident about me and confident about the other person, you might open up a door.

SREENIVASAN: Yes, and that’s one of the best things about LinkedIn. I have now taken to using LinkedIn exactly in that fashion. In the old days, that is before a couple years ago, if someone said to me, “I’d like to talk to Bob Andelman,” I would just email you and that person, cc: you and say, “Bob, meet Jim.” You’re stuck because, you’re a decent guy, you will feel some kind of obligation to respond to Jim and partly Jim also has your email address now. So now you’re in this kind of loop with Jim even if you didn’t want to be. So instead Jim says, “I’d like to meet Bob.” What I tell him is go to LinkedIn, find Bob on there, and then connect through me. Jim goes home, sets up a LinkedIn account, and then he emails, using the system, he emails a note to you, but it stops at my desk first. I then decide whether it’s worth connecting Jim to you, and I forward it to you. You then see this note, and you have the option of whether you want to respond or not. And if you decide not to respond, no problem. Jim never got your address. And that’s one of the most basic ways in which this works, and that’s what makes it so useful because your email address has not been compromised by me. You are choosing to respond to him or not. And I know many, many cases where I’ve done this with very busy, very important people, and many of them have appreciated this kind of new way of connecting. And it’s different from yet another email in your inbox so that’s why people are looking into things like this.

ANDELMAN: Now, the way we’re talking about these, people might think that we’re thinking of MySpace as yesterday’s news. Personally, to me, it is yesterday’s news. I find it to be very sloppy, very messy, just way too wild for my taste professionally and personally. Is there a backlash going on for MySpace, or am I just too particular about my friends?

SREENIVASAN: Well, MySpace was bought for $800 million, I believe, by Murdoch and the folks over at News Corp, something in that range. And that was because it was one of the biggest sites on the planet at that time, and it’s still very, very big. But I do find it kind of yesterday’s news, partly because it was never meant for people in my age group. It was aimed at much younger folks even though there are people older than me on it. It didn’t have a sense of aesthetics, design, or a kind of welcoming environment.

When I teach technology to my students, I tell them that I can teach you two of the three T’s, the letter T, T for tools, T for technology. I cannot teach you the third T, which is taste. And when you go to a lot of MySpace pages, they look like they’ve been made in fingerpainting class. And so I never felt comfortable. You go to Facebook, there’s a certain, what we call user interface. It’s got a good user interface. The information architecture is nice. But mainly, it’s intuitive and easy to understand.

One other point I’ll make is when we talk about money and the hundreds of millions of dollars that were offered for MySpace. One of the first of these social networking websites was Friendster. And the founder of Friendster turned down a billion dollar buyout a few years ago, and I believe he’s come to regret it since. And Friendster is nowhere near where Facebook is, but in recent weeks, Facebook has turned down or reportedly turned down a $6 billion buyout offer itself. So it will be interesting to see if Facebook ends up like Friendster or ends up like Google. No one knows where it’s gonna go.

I’d also say that we in America tend to be very eccentric about these things. And something like Friendster is very popular outside of America but not used as much in America. Even Google has a product which has not done well in America called Orkut, which almost no American I know of is on but is huge in Brazil. Literally, if you were trying to have the equivalent of a Super Bowl ad in Brazil, you would get it on Orkut, not on Facebook or Friendster or MySpace. So culturally and for other reasons, some other groups are on other services and not necessarily the ones we’re on today. And that might change again in a couple years.

Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, Columbia University in the City of New York
Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer, Columbia University in the City of New York

ANDELMAN: One of the things that most of these sites we talked about have in common is that they kind of originated out of college campuses or, at the least, they were popularized there. LinkedIn, of course, was more developed out of Palo Alto and the Silicon Valley area, but MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook all really grew out of college just as before them, Napster was a big college phenomenon. You’re on campus, Sree. I hate to say it, but what are the kids buzzing about these days? What’s coming up ahead of us?

SREENIVASAN: Well, my students, I hate to call them “kids” because their average age is 27, and some of them are amazed how much we are using Facebook because, when they were in college, Facebook wasn’t there, or they just missed Facebook if they’re 23, 24. Like I said, it’s not necessarily a function of age as much as what your friends were using or if they were using anything at all. And I think on campus it would be fair to say that Facebook is a big thing. But I was at a dinner party where a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old with their father. The 14-year-old is complaining to the father that, “Dad, all you oldies are ruining Facebook. We’re looking for something else. We’re trying to find our own new Facebook where all these old people aren’t hanging out,” so that if he’s searching for Mary Jane, who he saw across the college campus the other day, rather than Mary Jane who is in her 50s. So that’s what he meant by that. There are too many adults on there.

ANDELMAN: I can understand that. I feel sometimes like a very old, creepy old man looking through Facebook, and some of the kids are like 12 and 13, 14, 17 — 17 even just doesn’t feel right to me at times so I can get that. Now, let me move away from the web apps for a minute and in your role as a technology reporter, what kind of hardware has excited you in recent months?

SREENIVASAN: What has excited the world, of course, is the iPhone. I myself don’t have one because I can’t afford one. And I see that one of the things that is also happening is we’re all in kind of back-to-school mode, and we’re seeing prices on all the computers are falling. Prices are falling, but more importantly, they’re getting faster and better and more horsepower.

I haven’t actually seen any new gadget that I can talk about except one. One just occurred to me. There’s something that I’ve been using, and I like very much called Flip Video, there’s a website, theflip.com. It’s a very cheap digital camera that has a built-in USB connector so that you shoot your video, and you upload it to YouTube right away or share it via email. And it works very well so I’ve been excited about that. You can get it at theflip.com. It shows you how the technology is changing, that the cell phones and cell phone cameras are going to get better and at the same time, these other gadgets that allow you to take decent quality video and audio in something that used to be a brick a few years ago are now becoming right in the palm of your hand.

ANDELMAN: Now, you bridged two worlds. I want to make sure we talk a little bit about journalism as well. I’m curious, how do you balance the twin demands on your life? That is, how do you split your time between teaching journalism and practicing it?

SREENIVASAN: Well, you used a key word in there that you didn’t realize. The word twin. I have four-year-old twins.

ANDELMAN: I know that, yeah.

SREENIVASAN: And the two of them are a very big demand on my time. I like to say that my day starts when I go home. The other stuff is all very easy. As dean of students at the J school, I have 400 babies, and having toddler twins trains you well to deal with adult students because some of them, it’d be fair to say, are needy also. But, quite frankly, how I’m able to do this is because I have a great support system at home. My wife is very generous with her time and allowing me to do things, but I also find that I have had to turn around my body clock in a way to deal with the newer demands. For example, I get up early because I have television work I do a couple of days a week on the air, but as a life-long all-nighter puller and someone who would not go to bed before one o’clock and two o’clock, I now go to bed at 10:30 and wake up at five just in order for me to do a couple of hours of work before my kids get up. It’s amazing how much work you can get done between five and seven. But it took decades of my body clock going in one direction, and having to turn it was not easy. The other thing I’d say is also making use of as many technology tools as possible to make your life more productive, and maybe we can talk about a couple of examples.


SREENIVASAN: But I do want to point out something funny. Well, one of my favorite blogs, something called lifehacker.com, and lifehacker is a site that gives tips on productivity, and the word “hacking,” in this case, doesn’t refer to computer hacking but kind of hacking a workaround for your life. Getting things done idea. And it’s a very good blog, lots of productivity tips, lots of things you can do to speed up your life for using computers and things like that. But I recently saw a posting on another website about the top 50 productivity blogs. Now if you think about that for a second, the fact that there could be top 50 productivity blogs, that means how many other productivity blogs are out there, and if you spend your life at 50 productivity blogs, are you, in fact, productive?

ANDELMAN: I think we both know the answer to that question.

SREENIVASAN: And the answer is “No.” So I read lifehacker.com and irritatingly, one with a similar name called lifehack.org, and both have very good tips.

A couple of other ideas that I use to kind of keep track of things electronically: My wife and I are now on what’s called Google Docs. Have you seen Google Docs & Spreadsheets? These are kind of online versions of Office of both Excel and Word. And it’s a simple thing. How we use it is we put our expenses online, but only the two of us can see it. We have passwords. In the old days, if we had to reconcile our checkbooks or keep track of expenses, it would be on one computer at home, and you’d have to get on the computer and put it in. Now, during the day whenever there’s a lull, we’ll go online, and we’ll just put in our expenses, and we’re sharing and working off of one document rather than working off of one computer at home. That’s one of the ways in which I’m using that. It’s been very, very helpful.

Another quick tip, which I’m sure your listeners know, is to use both Yahoo’s and Google’s alert systems, which will alert you every time something you’re interested in is added to their index. So google.com/alerts and yahoo.com/alerts will let you know when something you’re interested in is added because, as you know, when things are added to Google or Yahoo, they’re added kind of to the back of the line, and most of us don’t go past the first three or four links on the results page, let alone the fifth page or the 50th page or the 500th page. Those are ways I use to keep track of things.

One funny story about Google Alerts: One of my good friends moved to D.C. and was writing for the Washington Post, and I would drop her a note every time she had a piece in the paper. And she was so touched that here I was taking the time to track down her story on B17 or C12 or whatever and dropping her a note. Of course, when she found out I was using Google Alerts to alert me every time she had a byline, she was not amused.

ANDELMAN: You know what, I use Plaxo that way for birthdays. My friends and family have become so impressed that I’m suddenly keeping up on that stuff, but what you have to understand is that I have a Mac and I have Address Book, and Plaxo automatically reads my address book and updates birthdays from that so I don’t miss birthdays or anniversaries anymore, either. I guess I just let the cat out of the bag. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

SREENIVASAN: Yeah, I know. But you can edit this, right?

ANDELMAN: Let’s talk about journalism in the little bit of time we have left. Are kids still going into journalism? Five or ten years ago, the definition of that would be they want to go into newspapers or radio or television. Today, I had a newspaper editor who does some recruiting for his paper tell me a few weeks ago that, when he goes to the big journalism schools and talks to the kids, he’s really not as impressed as he once was in the sense that he’s surprised that there are still kids who want to go into newspapers because he, himself, thinks that it’s kind of a dying industry and that they should be thinking about those skills in another way.

SREENIVASAN: Well, we could have a whole hour-long conversation on this. I’m someone who gets two daily newspapers delivered to his house and five magazines that we pay for by subscription. I would say that yes, it is an issue I think reporters of all ages need to understand, that the business has changed. It isn’t just changing, it has changed, and you have to pick up as many new media skills as you can. It isn’t just the skill set, however. It’s also the mindset, and there are ways in which you can pick up some of these things without actually going to college and taking a class. Just reading up more on these changes and keeping up with them is important.

I also find that, at our school as with a lot of journalism schools, when the economy is in trouble, we kind of benefit, unfortunately, in the sense that when people are being laid off, and the journalism economy is tough, people go back to journalism school or look to re-train themselves. So we benefit a little bit from that. And this year, we have the largest starting class ever at the journalism school because, with so many people that are coming this fall, the school is already kind of bursting at the seams. Now that doesn’t mean that we ourselves aren’t trying to re-tool the curriculum, adjust, because we cannot sit on our laurels, either. One of the examples I give is that, last year, the Washington Post won an Emmy Award for video. That tells you two things have changed. One is that the Washington Post has changed and is doing video and is doing it very well. And the second is that the Emmy awards have changed, that they realize that some of the most compelling and interesting video is on newspaper websites. So if those two institutions can change, everyone and every institution can change.

ANDELMAN: So what would be the best single advice you would give someone thinking about a career in journalism?

SREENIVASAN: I would say that journalism is still a viable, important career. You will have a wonderful time. You will be able to do a lot for society. Almost no other career will give you the kind of wide canvas that journalism does. But you have to go into it with your eyes open and know that we’ve seen layoffs, we’re seeing market forces putting great pressure on traditional journalism. But I believe that there will always be a market for reporting and writing and production, and good writing, in the end, is the key to all of this, whether it’s on the web or whether it’s on the radio or audio or video. It will always be part of what we’re doing.

I remain bullish. Otherwise, I wouldn’t work in a business and at a university where we’re charging people money to come and learn the stuff. So I remain optimistic.

ANDELMAN: I guess the journalism skill sets will probably always be in demand, but that the application that the students use it for might be different from the day they start as a student; by the time that they graduate, it will be something completely different.

SREENIVASAN: And that, of course, happens all the time. That change is happening right before us.

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