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Downey chosen to lead School of Journalism and Mass Communication

July 16, 2009 By Dennis Chaptman

Greg Downey is convinced the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is poised for continued success even as the communications industry confronts unparalleled change and turmoil.

As he takes over the school’s directorship from James L. Baughman, a journalism professor who led the school for the past six years, Downey is upbeat about the school’s role even as newspapers founder and the advertising industry confronts economic and structural challenges.

“Although the industry is facing an underlying upheaval, it will find ways to survive and adapt as the many emerging opportunities in social networking come into focus,” says Downey. “Both corporations and nonprofits depend on quality reporting and good communication.”

In 2000, well before the media industry faced today’s grave economic challenges and seismic technological changes, the school changed its curriculum to encompass more Web-based and new media skills. The curriculum also aimed to make students — not just those in the school, but throughout the university — better, more knowledgeable consumers of information.

“Students recognize that having expertise in communications can serve you well in political science, business, economics or plant biology,” says Downey. “This field has always been interdisciplinary, and it continues to be drawn to this tradition.”

A historian and geographer of communication technology and labor, Downey also holds a faculty appointment in the School of Library and Information Studies.

He earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and wrote his thesis on telegraph messengers, which was the basis of a 2002 book titled “Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography.”

His most recent book, “Closed Captioning: Subtitling, Stenography and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television,” was published last year.

Downey, who was elected to the director’s post by his faculty peers, says that despite changes in technology, the importance of journalism will endure and grow.

“We’re getting students to appreciate that, no matter how big blogging gets, there will need to be some original, thoughtful, ethical journalism to provide the basis of content,” he says.

The directorship is limited to two three-year terms, and Baughman had reached the end of that maximum term.

During his tenure, Baughman presided over the school’s centennial events in 2005, oversaw the redesign of a professional master’s degree program and hired Stephen J.A. Ward, the school’s Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics, who created the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics.

Baughman is also upbeat about the school’s future.

“It’s been fascinating, and occasionally depressing, these past six years, to witness the struggles of the newspaper and other industries. Yet there are few long faces in my department,” says Baughman.

“My colleagues and our students continue to possess a passion for learning and research. The future does not intimidate them,” he adds. “At my last commencement in May, I was teased by one parent, whose daughter had majored in social work, about journalism being a dying field. ‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘My students are going to save journalism.'”

Downey, whom Baughman called “unusually smart about the many technological challenges and opportunities facing the media industries,” says the school’s role in a media-rich world is more important than ever.

“We need to continue to convince students of the need for journalism itself,” Downey says. “There is a true social need for an informed citizenry and a society with a diversity of voices present. By the time students finish a degree here or just a couple of classes, that’s the message we hope they take home.”