Looking Forward

Published: January 18th, 2013

Category: Highlight, Winter 2013

Diane McFarlin

On June 11, 2012, Diane H. McFarlin was named the sixth dean of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Named an Alumna of Distinction by the College in 1999, McFarlin is thrilled to be returning to her alma mater.

Diane H. McFarlin, JM 1976, publisher of the Herald-Tribune Media Group in Sarasota, was named dean of College of Journalism and Communications on June 11. She assumed the new position Jan. 1.

“Diane has a comprehensive view of the rapidly changing media industry and the challenges it faces,” UF President Bernie Machen said. “As the publisher of a major media operation, she understands not just journalism but also advertising, broadcast media, online media, public relations – everything represented in the College of Journalism and Communications. I’m confident that knowledge will translate into giving its graduates all the tools they need to compete with the best.”

McFarlin, who was named an Alumna of Distinction by the College in 1999, is a fourth-generation Floridian who began her journalism career in high school and took a reporting job in Sarasota after earning her degree at UF. She rose through the ranks to become managing editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at 31. She left the newspaper in 1987 to serve as the executive editor of The Gainesville Sun. She returned to the Herald-Tribune in 1990, serving as executive editor for a decade and as publisher since 1999.

Under her leadership, the Herald-Tribune Media Group, the largest media company in southwest Florida, has been touted as an industry leader in media convergence. The group launched a 24-hour cable news channel, SNN, in 1995 as a fully integrated part of the Herald-Tribune’s news and advertising departments. SNN was sold in 2009 and continues to operate out of the Herald-Tribune newsroom.

McFarlin has been active in state and national media organizations. She is a past president of the American Society of News Editors and has served six times as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes. She has taught at the Centers for Independent Journalism in the Czech Republic and Romania, and addressed the World Editors Forum in Amsterdam on the subject of multimedia newsrooms. She was an officer of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and currently serves on the board of the Florida Press Association.

McFarlin has worked on behalf of numerous nonprofit organizations. She launched the Season of Sharing charitable fund in 2000 in partnership with the Community foundation of Sarasota County. It has raised more than $7 million to rescue families from the brink of homelessness. She recently ended her term as chair of the foundation’s board of directors.

McFarlin talked to the Communigator recently about her decision and what it means to her to become the sixth dean of the College.

Q&A with Diane McFarlin

What are your favorite movies?“Godfather I,” “Godfather II,” “Tender Mercies,” “Forrest Gump,” “Wizard of Oz,” just to name a few.

Music you enjoy? I have very eclectic tastes. The playlist on my most recent cross-country flight included Maroon 5, Kenny Chesney, Renee Fleming, and the Bee Gees. In my car at the moment I am leaning heavily on Rascal Flatts and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

What publications do you read (and are they printed copies or online)?Sarasota Herald-Tribune (eEdition), NYTimes (online), WSJ (online), The New Yorker (print, although I also have their iPad app), Newsweek/Daily Beast (online), Editor & Publisher (print), Columbia Journalism Review (print), Architectural Digest (app), House & Garden (print), Neiman Reports (online), Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education (online, a recent addition).

Dream vacation? Living like a local in Paris. A week in a hotel isn’t enough to soak up the culture.

Italian, Mexican, or sushi? My dining partners get to choose because I like everything.

Fun personal tidbit? I retired my pilot’s license early in my flying career after nearly clipping the roof of a mobile home.

Communigator: You have spent your entire career on the professional side of this industry. Why the interest to move into the academic side at this point of your career?

DM: I enjoyed my life as a newspaper publisher and wasn’t looking to make a career change. But when I received the call that I had been nominated for the dean’s role, I felt an undeniable stirring. It didn’t take long for me to realize that, although I hadn’t aspired to be a dean per se, the opportunity to be dean at my alma mater was irresistible. It would enable me to take what I know in new directions, to be a part of something with overarching importance, and to give back to an institution that has given me so much.

Communigator: You’ve spent the six months since your appointment was announced visiting some of the leading journalism and communications programs in the country. What have you learned during your travels?

DM: I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so these visits – along with innumerable phone conversations with deans and scholars – have helped me gain a firmer grounding in the world of communications education. I have developed an ear for the language of academia. I have learned what would be good to do, and what would be wise to avoid. It also has affirmed for me that our CJC continues to lead the way in so many respects, but we must continue to adapt and anticipate as media undergo a dizzying transformation.

Communigator: You’re coming into the College at an opportune time. Dean John Wright has made significant inroads improving the facilities; strengthening the College’s radio stations, television stations and multimedia presence; and advancing the importance of an integrated curriculum. This gives you the opportunity to now use these changes to improve the education the College offers its students. Talk about a little about this.

We have unparalleled venues for innovation and immersion, thanks to John’s leadership. Now we must fully capitalize on those venues. I would like to see us expand on the opportunities we provide students for real-world experience. Every student we graduate should leave with hands-on experience producing products for commercial audiences and customers. We also must continue to innovate, by ensuring that new ventures include elements of research and discovery, as well as practical application.

Please discuss the importance of research and graduate education in journalism and communications education today.

The caliber of our research and graduate programs are among the discerning qualities of our College. Our graduate division, under the leadership of Associate Dean Debbie Treise, was recently cited among the top 10 at UF, and was the only program among those recognized that was not tied to the physical sciences. That is an extraordinary accomplishment. Our doctoral program is among the premier producers of future educators in journalism and communications. Our research is highly regarded, and some of the most exciting work is being done in collaboration with other colleges within the UF family, such as the College of Medicine.

Communigator: While it’s important for the College to stay ahead of the curve on understanding, using and teaching emerging technologies, can you talk about the importance of continuing to teach the basic skills: writing, grammar, ethics – the values of this profession?

There has been a great deal of focus on the fate of traditional media in a digital world, and a tendency to surmise that the basic skills and values of our crafts are becoming passé. In truth, the need for gifted writers and critical thinkers is even greater today. That’s why I firmly believe that the basics are more important than ever, and we should reinforce our emphasis on storytelling, fact-finding and ethics.

When a student graduates, they should be fluent in all media. This will enable them to thrive in a digital world. At the same time, it is my belief that we should be guiding our students toward some sort of specialization – whether it is subject matter (sports journalism, health writing, public interest communications, etc.) or means of presentation (TV production, social media marketing, digital development, etc).

“The best colleges of journalism and communications can serve as beacons. My goal as dean will be to help elevate that role.”

Communigator: What do you see as the major challenges faced by the College today?

Diminished resources. Period. There has been a great deal of hemorrhaging over the last few years, due to state funding cutbacks and the reduced funding capacity of corporations and foundations. I will be focused on finding new means of building our capacity.

That’s the only challenge I see. Everything else represents opportunity.

Communigator: The past few years have been marked by significant changes in the journalism and communications industry. You’ve been at the forefront of these industry changes and the Herald-Tribune is considered a leader in convergence media. Can you discuss how these changes in the industry impact the College and the education it offers its students?

Traditional media companies aren’t hiring as many people as they were when I graduated UF and waltzed right into a newspaper reporting job. On the other hand, there are as many – if not more – opportunities for gifted communicators. Media are becoming more ubiquitous, not less, which means the need for skilled communicators is greater than ever. We will serve our students well if we help them build their basic skills, find a specialization that is highly marketable, and become more adept at collaboration and model agility in the context of constant change.

Communigator: Our College is one of the few in the country with undergraduate programs in all four disciplines: advertising, journalism, public relations and telecommunication. Does this allow for more opportunities in this age of converged media and integrated strategic communications?

This is another of our unique value propositions. We have an extraordinary degree of expertise on our faculty, and that is due to the ambitions of the individual divisions. At the same time, the divisions are increasingly taking advantage of the points of intersection that media transformation is providing. One of the topics I am eager to discuss with faculty – because I know they have already been exploring this – is the extent to which we should accelerate certain opportunities for integration in order to better prepare our graduates for the most promising careers.

Communigator: In accepting the dean’s position, you said “the best colleges of journalism and communications can serve as beacons to an ever-changing industry and that your role as dean is to elevate that role.” How do you intend to advance the College’s role in that arena?

Collaboration is key, through partnerships with other colleges and deeper engagement with our stakeholders. Our CJC should be a mecca for thought leaders, and I have some specific strategies in mind to get us there. At the most fundamental level, though, what will make us a beacon is how we capitalize on the intellect of our scholars by leading conversations around the future of communications.

Communigator: This will be your third time moving to Gainesville. You came first as a student, returned in 1987 as executive editor of the Gainesville Sun, and now in 2013 you’re back as dean of the College. Tell us about your relationship with Gainesville?

DM:I joke that my adult life has been spent going back and forth between Gainesville and Sarasota. I have loved my time in Sarasota and it will always be a special place for me, but returning to Gainesville feels in many respects like a homecoming.