Jane Singer, PhD '96

Jane B.Singer

Associate Professor

at University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Degree(s):
PhD '96
Whereabouts:
Iowa City, Iowa, United States

More than a decade before the first Web browser emerged from research and development, Jane B. Singer, PhD ’96, was working as a digital journalist.

As one of the original editorial staff members of a pilot “videotex” project way back in 1982, Singer planned, created and updated news and feature stories for CBS Venture One. The prototypical service delivered digital text and computer graphics by dial-up modem to dedicated receivers in 100 homes in Ridgewood, N.J., a New York suburb.

“It was painfully slow and seems laughably primitive now,” says Singer, whose office is decorated with framed screen prints of those early graphics. “But it worked!”

Over the next few years, that test project evolved into the Prodigy Interactive Services Company, a digital information and shopping service jointly owned by IBM and Sears after CBS pulled out of the partnership. Singer was Prodigy’s first news manager, staffing and supervising a newsroom that was the first national 24/7 digital news operation in the United States.

“Actually, it was more like 21/7,” Singer says. “Prodigy was a proprietary service and not connected to the Internet. Our servers had to be shut down for maintenance for three hours every night, but the editors on our early shift were hard at work long before dawn to be sure there was fresh stuff available when they powered back up. The whole newsroom team was fantastic – true digital pioneers!”

From Newspapers to Computers to Academia

After graduating from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Singer began her journalism career as a newspaper reporter, copy editor and city desk editor. She spent five years at three East Coast papers, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, Norfolk (Va.) Virginian-Pilot, and Delaware County (Pa.) Daily Times. But when the last newspaper, in suburban Philadelphia, veered off in what seemed to her the wrong direction, she decided to try something different.

“They went from being a boring but respectable little suburban newspaper to a cheesy tabloid overnight,” she says. “That’s when I decided to call it quits.”

An ad in Editor & Publisher for a “videotex editor” at CBS caught her eye. She had no idea what videotex was or what an editor of it might do, but was attracted by the idea of working just outside New York City on something innovative. During her interview, her future boss told her the job was only guaranteed for one year; after that, he said, CBS would evaluate the project’s success and decide whether there was a future for computer-delivered information.

Turns out there was.

Singer stayed with the project for another 10 years, through multiple iterations and in multiple roles, including editor, product designer, news manager and writer/consultant. Throughout that time, she continually fielded questions from her old newspaper buddies about why she had left journalism.

“I kept trying to explain that I hadn’t left journalism, I had only left newspapers,” she says. “Finally, I gave up trying to convince them that it didn’t have to be in print to count as ‘real’ journalism. But young people, I figured, would be far more likely to get it.”

“I kept trying to explain that I hadn’t left journalism, I had only left newspapers,” she says. “Finally, I gave up trying to convince them that it didn’t have to be in print to count as ‘real’ journalism. But young people, I figured, would be far more likely to get it.”

Besides, working in the corporate environment that IBM and Sears created was wearing thin by the early 1990s, and Prodigy seemed mired in a dubious business model – one that, in fact, subsequently led to its decline and eventual demise as a news service. Singer, who had earned a master’s degree in liberal studies from New York University while working at Prodigy – “my ‘mental health’ degree, because it got me away from the corporate life and down to Greenwich Village once a week for four years, until they told me I had to stop taking classes and graduate” – decided to look into teaching journalism.

She sent out query letters to PhD programs around the country and heard back from several. But one response was unique.

“I was at home one day when the phone rang,” she says. “The man on the other end introduced himself as ‘Dean Mills, from Mizzou-rah.’”

Before she knew it, she was on a plane heading west for a campus visit. Amid the usual whirlwind tour was one particularly memorable Thai lunch in downtown Columbia.

“They asked me the level of spiciness I wanted, and I wanted to look like a sophisticated New Yorker, not a total wimp. So I said 4 or 5, thinking that would be safe,” she says. “It was so hot! I had tears pouring down my face. Dean Mills was trying his best not to laugh, but my recollection is that he couldn’t quite control himself.”

Columbia and Beyond

A lifelong East Coast resident, Singer found living west of the Mississippi required some adjustments beyond learning the bearable spiciness level at local restaurants. Although she sometimes missed the edge and the buzz of New York, she appreciated the laid-back friendliness of Columbia.

“I remember the day I went to get my Missouri driver’s license,” she says. “In New York and New Jersey, this is a nasty, daylong ordeal of long lines and rude people. In Columbia, there was zero line, and the DMV people were like, ‘Oh, how great, you’re moving to Missouri, welcome, we hope you love it here!’ I was in shock.”

Graduate school held other culture shocks and plenty of stress. Singer says running a newsroom was a piece of cake compared to the long hours and mental energy required of her as a grad student – “I just worked all the time,” she says. But she loved the campus environment, the unique value that Missouri places on journalism, and the kindred souls among students, staff and faculty who remain among her most treasured friends 20 years down the road.

While at Missouri, Singer taught intro reporting and editing classes, and eventually had the opportunity to co-teach a more advanced writing class with Professor Emeritus Don Ranly. Inspired by Professor Emeritus Keith Sanders and others, she also learned how to do research – something that was not really on her radar when she entered graduate school, with the goal of getting students fired up about “journalism by computer,” but that she grew to relish during her time in Columbia. She also became involved in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication – at her first AEJMC convention, the organization voted to grant division status to a motley collection of scholars interested in “communication technology” – and has since held various roles in the organization, currently serving as vice chair of the standing committee on Professional Freedom and Responsibility.

In 1996, Singer successfully defended her dissertation, under the direction of Professor Emeritus Won Ho Chang. Her research involved a set of case studies using Q method and interviews to explore journalists’ attitudes about the Internet, a medium few had used extensively – and some had never actually seen – at the time.

Seventeen years later, she still feels passionate about journalism and its many adaptations to the digital media environment that was so novel when she first dipped her toe into it in the early 1980s. Among the first scholars to study “digital journalism,” she has since co-authored two books on the subject along with dozens of academic articles, and she continues to be fascinated by the effects of change on journalists and on news content.

After leaving Columbia, Singer joined the faculty of what is now the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University. She worked there until 1999, when the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication lured her away from the gorgeous Rocky Mountains to the vibrant college community of Iowa City.

“When I was deciding whether to accept the job, I got in touch with my faculty friends in Columbia to ask their advice,” she says. All of my doctoral committee members enthusiastically said I should go to Iowa. It was only later that I realized, well, of course, they did – every one of them was an Iowa alum, except my outside member, and he was from Iowa State!”

At Iowa, Singer continues her research and teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in subjects including digital journalism, ethics, political journalism and communication theory. A few years ago, her work opened the doors to another adventure. This one involved crossing not only a big river but also a big ocean.

“I was contacted by someone in England asking if I might be interested in taking a three-year position over there, working at a university but funded by a newspaper company looking for help in making the transition to a digital future,” she says. “At first, I said, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly just pick up and move to England for three whole years!’ Then I thought about it for a day and realized, sure, I could. Why not?”

“I was contacted by someone in England asking if I might be interested in taking a three-year position over there, working at a university but funded by a newspaper company looking for help in making the transition to a digital future,” she says. “At first, I said, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly just pick up and move to England for three whole years!’ Then I thought about it for a day and realized, sure, I could. Why not?”

From 2007 to 2010, as the Johnston Press Chair in Digital Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, Singer split her time between working with newspaper publisher Johnston Press and doing other research around the UK. She loved living in England, working hard all week but then hopping on a train nearly every weekend to explore the British cities and countryside – and every few months, hopping instead on a plane to somewhere on the European continent. Paris was (and still is) her favorite destination, but she spent time in lots of other places, as well.

“It was a fabulous experience,” she says. “I learned so much – about the newspaper business, about university life in Britain and just generally about living overseas. And I got to work with so many cool people. The only thing I regret is that I missed Obama’s historic 2008 campaign – but I still got to vote for him, plus I got to go to an inaugural ball hosted by Democrats Abroad in London. That would never have happened if I’d been in Iowa City!”

Back home since 2010, Singer has settled back into her faculty role on an American campus. She carves out time for research when she can and keeps busy with classes and related activities, including a recently completed two-year term as president of Kappa Tau Alpha, the national journalism honor society housed at the Missouri School of Journalism. Her students today were born right around the time that first Web browser appeared, ushering in the Internet age, and she left Prodigy to head for Columbia and a new career in academia.

“My students today are digital natives,” she says. “I don’t have to convince them that real journalism can be published on a computer. They can’t imagine journalism without the computer!”

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