The Innovator of the Journalism School Talks Games, Drones, Empathy and Play
If there is one word that describes what Larry Dailey is all about, it would be play.
You could see it in his office, in his desks made of whiteboards and desk chair of an abdominal ball. An office of cartoons and dry erase markers on the window overlooking the Reynolds’ school lobby; bookshelves filled with technical manuals of every electronic program below book after book of play and empathy and games below shelves of video games like Star Craft and Lego mugs. Two drones, one carrying a GoPro payload, waiting to be powered-up, sitting still and silent on the corner of the room, shackled by FAA regulations against innovation.
You could see it in his teaching materials, boxes of games and equipment geared towards inducing creativity in any means possible. One crate— marked “Paper Prototyping Kit” — contains pipe cleaners, cardboard, toothpicks and straws and tape, intended to have classrooms of student journalists attempt to replicate the frantic brainstorming scene from Apollo 13, modified to the needs of the class he teaches.
And, as anyone who has taken one of his classes— or even held a conversation with him— would undoubtedly attest, you would certainly see it in his classrooms; between a class which sees to teach journalists how to make and understand “serious games,” and classes on Human-Centered innovation, Dailey has committed his teaching methodology squarely in the pro-play camp.
“I could say that there are somethings that you really don’t wanna grow up about,” Dailey said. “Actually, play is incredibly important for your brain for processing important information. For thinking new thoughts. To learn socialization. So while we grow up and learn people skills in the office, we also need to learn play. Or to maybe just kick back a little bit. Maybe not grow up sometimes.”
The emphasis on play— and the synthesis of information it allows the human mind— is the cornerstone of Dailey’s classroom experience. Dailey points to Einstein, who conceived many of his ideas not in his office but outside walking as an example of how confinement in the classroom can often lead to confinement of ideas.
Dailey believes that play is not only an advantage towards education, but a necessity. “The more evolved an animal is, the more it needs play later in its life,” Dailey said. “So if you argue humans are pretty far up the chain, then we ought to be playing a lot. So that raises the question, ‘why do our classrooms and offices look so dang boring?’”
Dailey’s work at innovating the issues of the classroom have already began in the Journalism building: the “Google Room” —inspired by the titular tech titan— is a studio nested in the heart of the Reynold’s school and serves as a great case in point. Dubbed the “Crazy Room” by Dailey and his students, the room serves as a break from the typical confines and constrictions of the creative process; reflected in its layout and design, the Crazy Room contains dangling paper lantern orb lights, comf cubes in place of chairs or desks, and white boards covering every available and conceivable surface.
There’s only one rule in the Crazy Room: “you can’t say ‘yeah, but...,’ Dailey said. “You have to say, ‘yeah, and?”
The education system is in serious need of disruption, Dailey believes. “You need to be disrupted,” he said. “Lots of organizations don’t survive disruption. Someone with a new idea comes along and makes the old idea obsolete.”
His work in innovating the Journalism school is testament to this. A pioneer of design and innovation, Dailey has been working with other like-minded, forward thinking professors and educators and administrators within the school of Journalism to further develop the school towards the changing world of journalism— a move Dailey says is essential to the longevity and survivability of the school.
Dailey sees the future of the J-School as a synchrony of its various component fields together in “diffusions of innovations.” It’s a challenge that Dailey sees as necessary and imminent. “There are a thousand good ideas in this building alone. How do we identify the few that are worth working on and then how do we help the right people understand what they might do with them?” He’s glad that marketing and advertising and PR share the building with Journalists.
“You could argue that PR and marketing and advertising specialize in engagement. Well, what have traditional journalists not done particularly well? Engage people. But we have information that we think they need. So why not put chocolate with the peanut butter and help people get the information they need in a way that engages them?”
A Career of Innovation
“I always knew I wanted to teach, and I always knew I wanted to do journalism,” Dailey said. “My high school journalism teacher set the fire for me. We had photojournalism and so I always knew I wanted to get a degree in that and do it.”
Dailey grew up in Kansas City and received his degree from the University of Missouri. After graduation, Dailey didn’t have the money necessary for the sort of internships his friends were landing. “All my friends who had internships got really good jobs,” Dailey said. “I ended up taking whatever I could.”
Dailey worked for lots of small dailies and weeklies, and did freelance. “It wasn’t a lot of fun. A lot of times, I thought about getting out of journalism altogether. But there’s so much magic. So I stayed with it.” When Dailey was “really down in the dumps,” a friend of his told him about a small local paper in Warrington, Virginia.
“I got an interview with them and I ended up packing everything I owned into a Mazda GLC, with my little parakeet Typo riding on the steering wheel.”
“It was a little bitty paper in Warrington, Virginia. The best news organization that I’ll ever work for,” he said with fondness. Dailey fell in love at the job— literally. He met his wife at a newspaper; he was on the photo staff and she was on the business staff. “My wife and I got married at a justice of the peace,” he said.
“We actually went in to find out what the process was to get the license. And the justice of the peace said he could marry us while we were there. He had ten minutes. So we said ‘oh what the heck, why not?’ But I didn’t have a ring to give her. So our real rings are twist ties.”
Dailey’s real wedding ring twist tie is in a box at home “being kept nicely.” “But I’ve gained a bit of weight and my other ring doesn’t fit as well anymore,” he said. “So I’ve got something like the real thing that I’m wearing now.” Dailey notes that the paper twist ties don’t last as long as the plastic ones. He and his wife will celebrate 25 years of marriage in May.
After his time in Warrington, Dailey worked for United Press International as a Washington photo editor. “That was an experience. I’ll never forget the first caption I wrote for a picture.” The first photo and caption in question is a picture Dailey took in D.C. of former Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North as he testified to congress about the Iran Contra affair.
Dailey’s photography encompasses pictures of at least two presidents: Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Clinton’s photo was taken at a campaign event, but Carter’s was taken in a more intimate setting. “It was so cool— we went to his house,” Dailey said. “And Rosalyn, in her kimono, answered the door. And you could hear her cleaning up while we’re sitting in the living room talking with Jimmy Carter. It was surreal.”
“I knew I wanted to teach,” Dailey said. “I had a job at Ball State in Muncie. It was a contract job, and the contract was ending. And there was a job for a chair position here [in Reno] and it was very attractive.” Dailey took the job— the Donald W. Reynolds Chair of Media Technologies, a position he’s held for ten years. “Actually, this job is kind of a dream job,” he said.
“We had a sense of what we wanted to be, and we care about each other as people. Cole helped us understand that journalists had to start thinking differently. And we were on a mission. We wouldn’t settle for anything less.
Looking back on a career of students who became leaders of innovation, Dailey has come to believe that being a teacher is like being an editor. “You don’t get to experience much of the final product firsthand,” Dailey said. “I don’t get to see or participate in what the students will be once they leave here. But there is a great deal of fondness for knowing you were part of it. And it’s really cool when people call back. The ones I like the best are ‘I didn’t get it in the class. But I get it now, and it changed my life.”
For all the problems facing the field, Dailey believes that journalism will— and must— survive, albeit in an altered form. “I argue with the prostitutes. I think the story-teller is the oldest profession,” he said. Moreover, Dailey believes that the ideals of play in and out of the classroom, coupled with the technical skills of journalism and a deep-seated devotion to empathy is what makes good journalism.
“I don’t teach,” he said. “I’m only a facilitator. What you will be is up to you. I can just help point. And if I can nudge a little bit, I can feel good about that. But if someone chooses to go another path, that’s up to them.”
“I think nudging the world is a high standard to live for.”
Beyond all else, beyond play and innovation, Dailey wants his students to see the value in going out and truly gaining insight to what people are feeling. “I starts with that, with deep empathy,” Dailey said. “Then we come back, and then, how do we have a brainstorming process in both classes that’s a kind of game. That’s fun.” Empathy is what powers his classes on serious games, when journalists are encouraged to explore serious topics and create games that educate, inform, and inspire those who play them on the subject at hand. Even when his classes involve touring the Google Campus, the Stanford Design Institute, IDEO, and the Institute for the Future, it is empathy that makes the magic in his field.
“This job is the ticket,” Dailey said. “You have the ability to see in one week what many people don’t see in a lifetime. And that’s magic.”
“I’ve seen people be born. I’ve seen people die. I have been down in the sewers, and I have touched the space shuttle. All as part of my job. I’ve stood on top of launch pads. So the job is amazing. And that is actually the magic that could be journalism.”
Perhaps the word that best summarizes what Larry Dailey isn’t play after all, but empathy.