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Leading Innovation in the 21st Century: College of Media Trailblazers Transform the Culture

We use the word “innovation” often. When you repeat a word over and over again, it starts to lose meaning. So, what are we really trying to accomplish through innovation?

Mezera and Greenglass

“We weren’t afraid to walk into any market and promote our program to the working marketing communications practitioners it was designed to serve. It took off.”
CHAD MEZERA, assistant dean of online programs

Faculty and leadership who land at Martin Hall are passionate about providing better solutions for our communities and the media industry. And whether or not they hail from Appalachia, many are struck by both the state pride and the challenges and opportunities that this region presents. In its 80-plus years, the School of Journalism-turned-College of Media has garnered a reputation for being the kind of place where purpose and passion are ignited and pursued.  

Online Education: Mountaineers go first

In summer 2000, Chad Mezera had just graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Advertising from the WVU P.I. Reed School of Journalism and was awaiting a response from Northwestern University’s Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) graduate program. At the time, the School of Journalism had only one master’s degree program – an M.S. in Journalism – but a large majority of undergraduate students were in the advertising and public relations programs.

“The MSJ program in the early 2000s was large, with 30, 40, 50 students, most of whom had come out of the public relations or advertising programs,” Mezera recalled. “Just like me, most of these students weren’t planning a career in the journalism profession. The College needed a way to serve those students and offer a master’s option that would lead to careers better suited to them.”

Mezera got a call that summer from Kurt Schimmel, then director of graduate Studies, that changed the course of his education and career.

“Dr. Schimmel called my house and said ‘Hey, I know you’re waiting on Northwestern, but we’re starting the IMC program here. Why don’t you consider staying?’ That’s how I wound up in a Journalism master’s program and in the first online IMC class,” Mezera said.

There were only a handful of online courses at WVU at the time. Under the leadership of Dean Chris Martin, those first experimental online IMC classes in fall 2000 turned into the nation’s first online IMC graduate certificate in 2001 and then, in 2003, the nation’s first fully online IMC master’s degree.

As a graduate teaching assistant in his second year of graduate school, Mezera helped work out some of the kinks of the IMC class he had taken the previous year. He rebuilt and helped run the courses under professor Archie Sader, who followed Schimmel as director of the program. Upon graduation, Mezera left academia to work at a think tank focused on government best practices, then led internal corporate communications for a global technology solutions provider. But he kept in touch with Sader, who invited him to teach an IMC course in 2004. And in 2005, Mezera returned to Morgantown to become the IMC program director.

Since then, Mezera has been the driving force behind online courses offered by the college, including the award-winning IMC master’s program, which now offers more than 30 elective courses. In 2011, he began overseeing all undergraduate online courses, including the College’s existing online minors in Advertising, Health Promotion, Public Relations and Sport Communications. In 2014, he led the development of new undergraduate minors in Event Planning, Entertainment Media and Strategic Social Media. In 2016, he led the creation of the Data Marketing Communications online master’s program. In 2017, the same year he was promoted to assistant dean of online programs for the College of Media, he spearheaded the creation of six new graduate certificates and specializations for IMC students in Creative Strategy, Data Marketing Communications, Digital and Social Media, Healthcare Communication, Higher Education Marketing and Public Relations Leadership. But all of these programs weren’t immediate successes.

Faculty Group Photo

2001 The nation's first online IMC Graduate Certificate is launched.
2003 The nation's first online IMC master's degree program is launched.
2005 Chad Mezera becomes the IMC program director.
2009 Dana Coester joins the College as an associate professor of journalism.
2010 IMC is the largest graduate program at WVU with more than 500 students.
2014 A new M.S. in Media Solutions and Innovation is approved.
2015 IMC is once again the largest graduate program at WVU with more than 500 students. 
IMC is named the "Outstanding Online Program" by the Online Learning Consortium.
2016 The Media Innovation Center, designed and created by Coester, is completed.
 The IMC program is a finalist for "Education Program of the Year" in PRWeek US Awards.
The nation's first online Data Marketing Communications master's degree program is launched.
 Coester launches 100 Days in Appalachia
2017 Mezera is promoted to assistant dean of online programs for the College.
6 new IMC grad certificates and specializations are developed.
2019 The Media Solutions and Innovation program gets a boost with the creation of NewStart, a news ownership initiative.
2020 The new online M.S. in Digital Marketing Communications launches.
The new online B.S. in IMC is launched.
IMC is named a "Program of Excellence" by the WVU Board of Governors
Funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation support the first five fellows for the online Media Solutions and Innovation master's program

“In those early years, we had a lot of challenges and lacked a clear strategy for overcoming them,” Mezera recalls. “Our most important transformation as a fledgling program was the design of a somewhat unconventional, scalable online program management model that would focus time and energy not just on growing enrollment, but on ensuring that coursework could be consistently updated as the industry evolved, while maintaining high academic standards and a student-centric philosophy. These early decisions in online program design were specific to the challenges and opportunities facing our College and allowed us to develop specialized coursework more rapidly, generate profit and keep class sizes small and highly engaging.  

“We grew the IMC program with the support of academic practitioner instructors from all around the country that were recognized leaders in the field,” he continued. “And we weren’t afraid to walk into any market and promote our program to the working marketing communications practitioners it was designed to serve. It took off.”

That connection with industry leaders and the invaluable learning experience that positions program graduates to become industry leaders has created a constant pipeline of contacts who help inform the future of online education at the College.

“We’re always watching the job market and what competitors are talking about,” Mezera said. “But most of our ‘Aha!’ moments happen in conversations with our College’s exceptional alumni network, people we trust.”

Most recently, this approach resulted in the development of a new master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communications and a B.S. in Integrated Marketing Communications, the College’s first fully online bachelor’s degree. Both launched in fall 2020. The new undergraduate IMC program provides an option for young practitioners who didn’t complete a bachelor’s program to do so from anywhere in the world in coursework that continues to expand on the College’s successful online model.

In August 2020, 42 students started coursework in the first Digital Marketing Communications cohort. “Digital marketing communications as a subset to the overall marketing communications practice is evolving at light speed,” Mezera said. “This new program became a reality because of the continued support of our professional network, as well as the efficiency of our online program management model."

Through conversations with alumni, students, faculty and other industry contacts and extensive market research to determine both where the industry is headed and what other institutions are offering, Mezera has been able to evolve and create new programs that have kept the College competitive and profitable. Revenue generated by the online master’s programs has helped to fund many College initiatives, including the Media Innovation Center, the brainchild of Dean Maryanne Reed and Associate Professor Dana Coester.

Creativity Fuels New Storytelling Forms

Coester is to media innovation as Mezera is to online program administration. In 2005, when Mezera was returning to WVU to grow online programs, Coester was working for Time, Inc. as the art director and a contributing editor for Southern Living. At that time, Coester and her colleagues were experimenting with creating teams of writers, photographers and designers who worked together on visual storytelling through a variety of mediums. The following year, she began her career at West Virginia University, bringing that team storytelling concept to her role as the assistant vice president for creative direction for University Relations. Then, in 2009, she accepted a position as an associate professor with the then School of Journalism.

Coester earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia in the 1980s, when photographers were starting to use digital cameras.

“I was enthralled by the technological advances that were happening, even in the 1980s,” Coester said. “I could feel the industry shifting, and envisioning journalism’s future in a new technology landscape became my primary obsession.” 

Since Coester joined the College of Media, she has been a driver of media innovation, creating programs and initiatives that not only respond to changes in the industry but anticipate and lead those changes. As the creative director of the Media Innovation Center, she led design and planning of the nearly 10,000-square-foot space that was completed in 2016 and embraces co-innovation and innovation for social change. In 2016, she also launched 100 Days in Appalachia and currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the independent, nonprofit news outlet, which has an open-source, co-publishing model and shares content from Appalachia’s diverse communities with regional, national and international media organizations. And, most recently, she helped develop the new online master’s degree in Media Solutions and Innovation (MESO).

“Early in the Media Innovation Center planning, we knew that we wanted to have a signature academic program that would capture a lot of what we were doing within the center,” Coester said. “It would be flexible and be able to evolve as industry needs/challenges and tech evolved - and be solutions oriented.”

Indeed, the new MESO program has been a long time coming. In 2014, a hybrid model was approved with two paths — a Maker Path to address the creative exploration happening on the content production side of media enterprise, and a Publisher Path to support emerging challenges on the publishing, distribution and economic model side of media making.

The Maker Path involves everything from immersive storytelling including 360-degree video, augmented reality and virtual reality to artificial intelligence, such as brain-computer interfaces, digital forensic skills, voice interfaces, bot building and sensors. In addition to practical skills for immediate application in a digital newsroom, there’s an experimental storytelling model that arose from the College’s multi-year Innovator-in-Residence program. Under the umbrella of the Media Innovation Center, students have the opportunity to take on a real-world project that allows them to focus on an emerging pre-mass market technology.

“We teach journalists to have a seat at the tech table so that they are equipped not just to 'use' technology, but also to create, shape and inform its ethical practice,” Coester said.  

100 Days“We teach journalists to have a seat at the tech table so that they are equipped not just to ‘use’ technology, but also to create, shape and inform its ethical practice.”
DANA COESTER, associate professor

The Publisher Path got a boost in 2019 with the creation of NewStart, a local news ownership initiative created by Reed, dean of the College at the time, and Don Smith, director of the West Virginia Press Association. NewStart works with state press associations to identify small-market, independently owned newspapers that are ready for transition and located in areas with economic growth potential. Coester helped write the grant that provided a $200,000 investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to fund NewStart fellows in the MESO program.

“We knew there was a deficit in our own program and across the country in true audience-first digital publishing curriculum that addressed the rapidly evolving challenges of the industry,” Coester said. “We saw an opportunity to build and launch our publishing path around the living lab of community news outlets. We initially thought we'd launch with a regional cohort, but the needs nationally were just as urgent as they are in Appalachia, so we launched with a national cohort of diverse news organizations from all across the country.”

In July 2020, five inaugural NewStart fellows started the MESO program. They hail from a variety of backgrounds, organizations and locations from across the country, including Iowa, West Virginia, Washington, North Carolina and Arizona.

“That we launched in the middle of a pandemic with increasing threats to local journalism is a testament to everyone involved, especially the NewStart fellows who are pioneering this program,” Coester said.

One of the benefits of online degree programs is that they’re largely pandemic-proof. Enrollment in the online IMC, Data and Digital programs has increased in the last several months as learners look for ways to continue their educations while avoiding in-person classroom settings. But the success of all of the College’s online degree programs can be attributed to the engaged faculty, forward-thinking curriculum development, a dedicated technology support team and College leadership that has always had a commitment to students and effecting positive change in the communications and journalism fields.

“Dean Reed and now Dean [Diana] Martinelli have always supported what we do in online programs in such a way that we’ve been able to use the resources we generate to continually improve the programs,” Mezera said. “There is a level of trust and support from our administration. And fundamentally, it’s not the dean or the provost or the president that we’re working for — it’s the students.”