Cox Institute adds new directors, initiatives to benefit students and industry

A new organizational and leadership structure will expand the training mission of the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership.

The Cox Institute, which operates as a unit of the Journalism Department at the University of Georgia’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication, will offer expanded skills development and training opportunities programs for students and professionals through the newly-restructured Journalism Innovation Lab and Journalism Writing Lab.

The Cox Institute’s Journalism Innovation Lab will assume operation of the Digital Natives program, which brings UGA journalism students with digital news expertise into Georgia newsrooms to help local journalists and news organizations accomplish specific digital goals.  This program was launched by Dr. Amanda Bright, a member of the journalism faculty, who will continue to manage this project along with other digital innovation initiatives to develop the products, practices and people of journalism’s future in a new role as Director of the Journalism Innovation Lab.

“I’m thrilled to be able to create a space where students and professionals can collaborate and innovate toward the next iteration of journalism,” Bright said. “The Journalism Innovation Lab will be committed to encouraging students to think boldly about where our industry should go next, while meeting specific needs in the field to serve our audiences and a functioning democracy.”

The Cox Institute’s Journalism Writing Lab will expand its scope by operating the Covering Poverty project, which was relaunched earlier this year by students funded through a Scripps Howard Foundation grant. This fall, the project will recruit a new group of students and alumni to work in partnership with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Athens Banner-Herald.  Lori Johnston (ABJ ’95, MFA ’17), a lecturer in the Journalism Department who oversaw the relaunch of Covering Poverty, will become Director of the Journalism Writing Lab. She will continue to manage the Covering Poverty project along with other content initiatives.

“I am thankful to the Cox Institute for being forward-thinking and for the relationships we have established with these important media outlets, and others to come,” Johnston said. “I look forward to guiding students as they report, write and produce meaningful stories about issues, people and places. They will deepen their reporting abilities and delve into the craft of storytelling and service journalism to help newsrooms tell these stories now, and then take those newfound skills into their careers.”

In addition to the new structure and projects housed in the Journalism Innovation Lab and the Journalism Writing Lab, the Cox Institute will continue to provide students with leadership training opportunities through initiatives such as the Levin Leaders Program and skills development opportunities through a variety of fellowship programs.

“We are enhancing the core of what the Cox Institute has built over three decades to make our programs an even more integral part of the journalism education our students receive,” said Dr. Keith Herndon (ABJ ’82), whose title will change from director to executive director of the Cox Institute as part of the new leadership structure. “Adding two respected colleagues in Amanda Bright and Lori Johnston to our leadership is a win for the Cox Institute and for the students we serve.”

The Cox Institute was established in 1990 by the late Conrad Fink, a legendary journalism professor, as the Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies. Its current name was adopted in 2014 to reflect the news media’s digital transformation. The Institute honors the late James M. Cox Jr., who headed Cox Enterprises and Cox Broadcasting Corporation from 1957 until 1974. Its primary funding is from the Jim Cox Jr. Foundation.

MFA in Narrative Media Writing

More information about the MFA Narrative Media Writing Program, including the screenwriting program and narrative nonfiction program, can be found by visiting Applications for the next MFA class are due May 1, 2019 (special alumni extension).

By Lori Johnston (BA ’95, MFA ’17)

I waited for the Grady College’s Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Media Writing program, and it was worth it.

I was enjoying a successful journalism career covering crime, celebrities, politics, business, and home design and architecture. I published freelance stories with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,, American City Business Journals, Wall Street Journal and many others, following full-time work as a reporter for The Associated Press and an editor for magazines and websites.

Lori Johnston (second from left) joins other MFA graduates Max Blau (MFA ’18), KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18) and Mark Shavin (ABJ ’79, MFA ’18) in a panel discussion about preparing for the last semester of the narrative nonfiction program.

As I approached my career midpoint, about 20 years after I earned my bachelor’s degree from Grady in 1995, I desired to move to the next level in my writing and deepen my ability to tell true stories. As with other times in my life, Grady played a key role in my career goals.

When I heard that Grady was launching an MFA program that was the first of its kind in a journalism school and directed by Valerie Boyd, associate professor and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence, I decided almost immediately that I would be part of the first cohort, the class of 2017.

The program appealed to me for its low-residency format. I didn’t have to shut down or take a break from my freelance writing. Each semester, I was paired with one of the faculty mentors, who are accomplished writers. They embraced the experience I bought to the program. They challenged me by providing rigorous feedback throughout the semester. I relished the monthly one-on-one discussions with my mentor and monthly meetings, sometimes virtually, sometimes in person, with peers to discuss books and our writing projects.

The two-year program was a huge investment in my future. It required me to carve out time — early mornings, nights and weekends — for reading, researching, reporting and writing. At the start of every semester, I immersed myself in the MFA residency in Athens — an invigorating, yet intense week of on-campus lectures, seminars, panel discussions and readings by faculty mentors and visiting writers, agents and editors. Our days and nights were filled with intimate and sometimes relentless discussions about the craft of writing with published authors and classmates, who ranged from their 20s to 60s.

The professional and personal relationships I formed exceeded my expectations. My peers from across the country challenged my thinking and gave me confidence to find my voice as a writer.

The MFA program gave me a way to “steal time,” as faculty mentor John T. Edge told us, from our busy lives. For me, that was the life of mother, wife, journalist, entrepreneur, mentor and friend. I finished with three long-form narrative stories and a burgeoning book proposal, all focused on the intersection of faith, race and culture. Since earning my degree, my pieces on faith have been published in The Washington Post.

Hadjii Hand (seated on left in hand), an instructor in the screenwriting program, discusses a scene with current student Wendy Eley Jackson.

The program broadened my writing abilities, honed my leadership skills and gave me the academic qualifications, with a terminal degree, to pursue teaching full time on the collegiate level.

Recently, I joined fellow MFA graduates to read our work during a night of factual, creative storytelling in Athens. When I looked around the room, I saw the same array of ages, including several Grady undergraduate students. One of them told me the next day, “It was like art.”

Hearing that was worth the wait.

Johnston is a part-time journalism instructor at Grady College and co-owner of Fast Copy News Service.