Syracuse University Magazine


Tom Kennedy

Digital Storytelling

People who worry that the declining reach of daily newspapers signals an end to the art of effective journalism ought to talk to Tom Kennedy, the Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at the Newhouse School. Kennedy, who began his career as a staff photographer for the Orlando Sentinel Star during the 1970s, has managed to survive the techno-tsunamis of the digital era with a pair of Pulitzer prizes sharing space on his mantel with an Emmy, a Peabody, and an Edward R. Murrow award. He arrived on campus last fall, after more than a decade as chief architect and managing editor of the multimedia section of, a web site that attracts some 16 million news junkies each month. Kennedy does not count himself among those who believe the fate of journalism is bound up with yesterday’s papers. “I’m more concerned about preserving and building upon the basic core principles of journalism than about the platforms on which stories are delivered,” he says. “In the past we had print and photography to work with. Now we are enlarging the storytelling canvas with video, audio, and other digital techniques.”

Kennedy is teaching a new generation of journalists to collaborate as multimedia storytellers, creating text, informational graphics, still photographs, sound, and moving images that become resources for an editor, whose job is to synthesize them into cogent stories that capture and keep audience attention. “I think ‘film director’ is a good analogy to the job of a multimedia editor,” Kennedy says. “My job at the Post was to figure out what a story demanded and what kind of assets needed to be deployed to make a really effective package for the audience.” In some cases, lone reporters go out in the field, set up cameras tethered to their laptops, and report from a scene via wireless Internet connection. But Kennedy is not sold on what he calls the “one-person band” concept of multimedia reporting. “That’s not a realistic recipe for the best kind of storytelling,” he says. “It’s the rare person who can master the various skills at that level, and an even rarer person who can do them equally well. I feel the more practical approach is to continue to have people develop skills in a particular area and to try to foster a highly developed organizational dynamic so they can operate as a team.”   

Since beginning his career back in the day when images emerged from chemical soup in a darkroom, Kennedy has continually expanded his horizons. As director of photography for the National Geographic Society, he won nine Picture of the Year International awards for his work in National Geographic magazine during a 12-year period.  No newcomer to the classroom, he began teaching on an adjunct basis at his alma mater, the University of Florida, in 1979, and he has traveled the world on the lecture circuit, from Moscow to Berkeley. “We’ve experienced an extraordinary period of technical disruption—or destruction—of existing business models,” he says. “I think you have to assume that this will continue at the same pace—that is, if it doesn’t accelerate. So it does make sense to be cognizant of what every tool can do, and to try to utilize those tools in public service journalism, however one wants to define that. That’s what I’m hoping to help my students come to grips with.” —David Marc

Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography

Recipient: Tom Kennedy, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

Background: Peter and Aphrodite Thevos Tsairis established the Alexia Foundation for World Peace and Cultural Understanding in 1991 to honor their daughter, Alexia, an SU photojournalism student who was among those killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The Alexia chair was endowed with a $3 million gift from the foundation to the Newhouse School.