Eisman Discovers Journalism By Accident, Becomes Industry Leader

By Ethan Klapper

Amy Eisman discovered journalism by accident.

As a senior urban planning major at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1974, Eisman, now an authority on new media, took an internship at Philadelphia Magazine “to learn about how a city operates.”

“I got the bug because in working at the magazine I found out it was so much more fun to write about things than it was to be an urban planner,” she said.

The director of writing programs at American University’s School of Communication since 2005, Eisman jokes that her career “has pretty much reflected mainstream mass media.” She started out in traditional print journalism but has become known for her expertise on new forms of media, including online journalism, citizen journalism and the convergence of print, broadcast and digital media on the Internet.

Eisman is an AU School of Communication alumnus, having graduated with a master’s degree in communication in 1976. Her career afterward is a reflection of a volatile news industry history.

She was a writer, columnist and features editor for the Montgomery County Sentinel in Maryland. Later, she became a reporter and assistant city editor for the Baltimore News American and a general assignment editor for the Dallas Times Herald, both of which have gone out of business.

Eisman was looking for a new job after working in Texas, so she called a former colleague of hers. She signed onto the launch of USA Today and called the experience of working for “the nation’s newspaper” at its launch “spectacular.” Eisman said that everyone should work on a launch project if given the opportunity.

Eisman worked for USA Today as a cover story editor. She also worked on the paper's sports desk.

After four years at USA Today, Eisman transferred within Gannett to work for USA Weekend, a magazine that now has a circulation of 23 million. The weekly magazine is distributed inside the Sunday paper. In 1996, Eisman became the magazine’s executive editor, a position that she held until she left Gannet in 1999 after 17 years with the company.

Eisman then did consulting work with a New York Web site and The Arizona Republic. She saw that news was going online – and wanted to move quickly into the Web world, so she went to work for a dot-com, the dot-com of the era – America Online. She was there on Sept. 11, 2001, serving as managing editor of the welcome screen, where she worked on keeping the information updated and the headlines fresh.

“That’s when I learned about the power of the Web,” she said, sitting in her tiny office on the third floor of Mary Graydon Center, with its huge window overlooking the McKinley building. “Because everyone went to the welcome screen on Sept. 11.”

Still, Eisman considers herself a latecomer to Web journalism. She says she was one of the last people hired in the industry who did not have any previous Web background.

“My timing was fabulous,” she said. “I’ve been lucky my whole career.”

Some would say it was more than luck.

SOC Associate Dean Rose Ann Robertson said Eisman is an industry leader.

“She absolutely loves it,” said Robertson. “She loves the citizen journalism. She loves the blogging. She loves the openness and she’s become a leader not only for SOC but for the industry.”

“She keeps up with all the technological changes that have occurred in journalism,” said Christine Lawrence, an adjunct SOC journalism professor. “She’s an expert in online journalism and writing for the Web. She’s very good in keeping up with all the changes that have been going on.”

Eisman is a self-trained expert in Web journalism, teaching innovative online courses such as Media @ the Millennium and developing training modules for Gannett’s own journalists and editors.

Eisman joined the SOC faculty in the fall of 2002 and became the director of writing programs in September 2005, overseeing all nine of the Writing for Mass Communication sections this semester, which includes a total of 177 beginning students who are mostly in SOC.

“Teaching is the culmination of all of my professional experiences,” she said. “I couldn't have done it earlier because I hadn't had the newspaper, magazine, management and Web background all together.

“Now I would not do anything else. It is such a great job — you get to learn as much as you get to teach.”

Eisman’s colleagues have nothing but praise for her work.

“She is extraordinarily energetic,” Robertson said. “She is the ideal employee. She’s always ready to lend a hand.”

“She’s very clever in the way she teaches,” Lawrence said, citing Eisman’s sense of humor. “Students really respond to that.”

“She is one of those people who has one foot firmly affixed in what’s happening in the professional world,” said John Watson, associate professor of journalism at SOC. “She’s particularly up to date in the technical machinery and devices that are becoming more and more popular among professionals.”

Watson said his students have praise for Eisman.

“I’ve never heard a student say anything bad about her,” he said. “The worst thing I’ve heard someone say is that ‘she wants us to know too much.’ To some students, that’s a criticism. To me, that’s praise.”

This semester, Eisman is teaching Journalism Ethics and Writing for Convergent Media, according to the University Registrar’s Web site.

Elena Isella, a 2008 SOC graduate, took Writing for Convergent Media with Eisman in the spring of 2008.

“That writing class is recommended,” she said. “[Convergence] is definitely the wave of the future. It was [mostly] about being aware of the trends and what we needed to know, and new ways of telling the story.”

Eisman brought in speakers from USA Today, Gannett and the Poynter Institute, Isella said.

“She’s caring as a professor and as a person,” Isella said of Eisman. “She really wants students to succeed and to do their very best.”

Eisman has an optimistic outlook for the future of journalism.

“So the Web has changed journalism forever,” she said. “It will shake out. It will come back. The good things that have come out of it are more people have more access to information than ever before globally. The good things are more people are taking part in the process.”


Video: Amy Eisman on her career


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