BROOKINGS – “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel,” an Indiana attorney advised in 1962.
The thought was those in the media could make life miserable for those who picked a fight with them. Professor Lyle Olson has spent 45 years in the field of journalism, but the unassuming school director at South Dakota State University has spent the vast majority of that near half-century in journalism as an encouraging voice for journalists-in-training rather than being a pugilist for his own views.
After June 21, he will put down his “teaching” pen to focus on grandchildren, travel and projects at home.
The 66 ½-year-old Brookings man is retiring from the school he began work at 32 years ago and earned his bachelor’s degree from in 1976.
Olson was a quiet, 17-year-old senior at Bristol High School that first time he stepped on the campus of South Dakota State – and that was in a rather roundabout way.
His cross country team had come to Brookings for the Class B state championship in 1971. The course was on the Brookings golf course, which had sand greens and was located where Chittick Community Garden is now. Olson was the third-best scorer for the Pirates, finishing 21st overall, strong enough to help Bristol win the state crown.
Afterward, the team showered at The Barn, which then was the university gym.
Now “when I park by Yeager Hall, I can see the north door of The Barn and I think ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m in this position, teaching here all those years later.’ When I go in the main west door (to Yeager Hall), I still smell the ink and I can’t believe I am in charge of this place.
“It’s been a great place to be. When I was first hired at SDSU, I thought to myself, I have a doctorate, but only five years of experience (the minimum in the job call). Am I going to survive?’ I guess I did,” Olson reflected in an interview after his final semester of teaching.
Early leader in online ed at State
Even after becoming founding director of the School of Communication and Journalism in 2018, he continued to teach at least one class per semester. For the last year, the classes were online: nonprofit public relations in the fall and international media in the spring. Part of that was because of COVID-19. Part was because online gives flexibility needed in his administrative post.
But also because online teaching fits his teaching style. “I’m a learning facilitator versus a knowledge disseminator, i.e., lecturer, and I’m good at writing detailed directions,” Olson said.
Olson began teaching online in 1999, well before most people had heard of www. Computer Assisted Information Gathering was a 400-level class to introduce students to terms (URL, etc.), list serves, search engines and other resources. Its origin was a seminar given to South Dakota news reporters during Newspaper Day on campus. Department staff thought it also would be a good class for its students, Olson recalled.
At the time, students thought it quite valuable because they hadn’t learned about the World Wide Web in high school. As the web became more familiar, the offering became a 100-level course and within seven years dropped because freshmen were well-versed by the time they came to SDSU, Olson said.
Led move to Dakota Digital Network
His pioneering pedagogy continued in 2004, when he taught the department’s first DDN (Dakota Digital Network) class. That was like teaching via Zoom to a remote classroom. In this case, Olson taught International Media to students at a classroom in Pugsley Hall, but which had a hardware connection that allowed students to communicate verbally and visually from other locations across the state.
Olson taught that class from 2004 to 2008 before being fully replaced by individual online connections.
In August 2009, he co-founded SDSU’s first fully online graduate program. The accredited 32-credit Masters in Mass Communication provides an opportunity for mid-career professionals to earn an advanced degree in just under two years while continuing to hold down their day (or night) job. In fall 2020, 24 students were enrolled.
That compares with a program high of 41 students in 2016 and is reflective of an overall drop in students entering journalism in the past decade.
Total enrollment in the School of Communication and Journalism was 241 in fall 2020 (293 if counting ag communication students, who take most of their classes within journalism, but receive their degree from the ag college). The peak was 326 (350 with ag comm) in 2014. Communication studies enrollment has been steady in the mid- to upper 60s.
Foundational writing skills still valuable
“I have always maintained that foundational journalism skills – writing concisely and objectively, editing, interviewing and discernment on what’s important – are valuable in any career,” Olson said. “I’m saddened by the demise of newspapers, but I also see the opportunity for graduates with journalistic training to use their skills in a much broader range of communication-related positions, while at the same time having a knowledge of press freedom and being media savvy.”
With fewer newspapers in homes and fewer high schools offering newspaper and yearbook classes, many new college students aren’t exposed to the field, Olson said.
When Olson was taking journalism classes, about 85% of students took their summer internship with a traditional media outlet. Starting a number of years ago, that percentage was around 15. “This summer, we have 46 internships set up and again 85% are not at what some call legacy media – but rather at ad agencies and private companies, everything from handling social media for a bar to public relations for a tree farm. Everybody has a story to tell. We help graduates tell stories regardless of who it is for,” Olson said.
Encouraged students to see beyond South Dakota
Melisa Goss Farke, a 2018 master’s graduate and now a content writer at Paulsen Marketing Communications in Sioux Falls, had an international fellowship in Cambodia through the Pulitzer Center in Crisis Reporting. The opportunity came because of Olson’s International Media class, international connections and his encouragement of Goss Farke to pursue the fellowship.
She focused on human trafficking, a world away from the more mundane topics she deals with now like farming, rural electricity and South Dakota higher education.
She said her delve into human trafficking has equipped her to “tell a story no one wants to hear,” which is the title of a lecture she once gave.
Also, international travel has helped her as a professional by making her comfortable in meeting people of all different backgrounds.
China assignment changed Olson
Olson’s interest in international journalism was stoked by a five-month SDSU exchange program assignment with the Department of Foreign Languages at Yunnan Normal University in Kunming, China, in 2002. He taught English and learned a “huge amount about another totally different culture and myself,” later publishing an academic article titled “A ‘Rich’ American Teaches in China.”
When he got back to SDSU, he learned how “clueless” his students were about the world outside of America.
“I asked them to identify a foreign publication, journalist or athlete. Most had no answer for any category.”
Hence, he created International Media, his favorite class.
“It’s fun to teach because there is so much to learn, and though I may be the leading expert in international media in South Dakota, I still know very little. And, students know even less. So, it’s really fun to introduce students to so much interesting content,” he said. A weekly assignment is to monitor and comment on an international publication.
He has taught both International Media and Intro to the Master’s in Mass Communications 12 times and they’re ranked one-two on his favorite class list.
Also on that list (ranked in order) are journalism typography (taught 21 times), health journalism (four times) and magazine writing (22 times). No. 6 – “All of the rest. I love teaching!”
Westwick takes reins June 22
Olson said he is willing to teach a class or two in retirement, if needed. Administrative responsibilities will be assumed June 22 by Joshua Westwick, an associate professor in the communication studies program and associate director of the School of Communication and Journalism. Olson expects a smooth transition to the veteran understudy.
Retirement comes at a time when the university newspaper and radio station are transitioning from extracurricular to co-curricular.
The transition has been in discussion for several years and with steps taken in the past school year, Olson is comfortable with the procedures in place. Collegian adviser Susan Smith left in September 2020 for a position in Sioux Falls. Faculty member Jim Helland stepped in then and will take a larger role in 2021-22, Olson said.
While the weekly paper and the FM station will remain independent student voices, “they will more closely be tied to our classes,” Olson said.
He cut journalistic teeth on the Collegian as a reporter during his junior and senior years after transferring from Oklahoma Wesleyan. He then worked two years at the Ortonville (Minnesota) Independent before returning to Oklahoma Wesleyan to work in public relations. While there, he also got his first chance to teach – a profession he found to be a calling.
“I can call my career good. No major regrets that I didn’t get done what I wanted to get done,” said Olson, who now looks forward to more grandkid time and pursuing various hobbies and interests.
Retirement gathering on Facebook live
Olson’s retirement program will be available via Facebook live at 3:30 p.m. Friday, June 18. To view it, go to the South Dakota State University School of Communication and Journalism Facebook page (@sdsucojo).