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Journalism professor Len Sellers was one of first to offer digital-media classes

Leonard Sellers, a San Francisco State University professor who pioneered journalism-school curriculum by offering one of the earliest multimedia-journalism classes in the U.S., died of pulmonary ailments at his home in Tiburon on March 10. He was 79.

 

Sellers, a professor at the university for a quarter-century, taught the multimedia-laboratory class that in the mid 1990s put out NewsPort, one of the earliest websites to integrate video, audio, photos and graphics with text to deliver storytelling to a nascent World Wide Web. Among the published stories were one on sound trademarks told using a clip of Brother Bones’ rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” videos and GIFs for accidents on the Golden Gate Bridge and visuals of flags and country outlines in the background for stories about immigrants in America.

 

“There were plenty of students who came to me and said, ‘I want to be in this NewsPort class because Len Sellers is involved in it, and I’ve been told that if you really want to learn and test yourself, the toughest guy in the department is Len Sellers,’” said longtime friend, colleague and journalist Roland De Wolk, with whom Sellers co-created the class, adding he’s heard the same sentiment expressed by students “a hundred times since that time.”



Leonard Leslie Sellers was born Sept. 4, 1944, in New Orleans to author and Korean War veteran Connie “Con” Sellers and Mari Raineri-Sellers. He had one younger brother, Shannon.

 

Sellers was raised in a military family that moved frequently to U.S. Army bases or for Army-related work. He lived at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Fort Lewis in Washington, Camp Zama in Japan and in Monterey after his dad began work at the Defense Language Institute.

 

Sellers graduated in 1962 from Grants Pass High School in Oregon, where he was the school newspaper’s sports editor.

 

Six years later, he enrolled at San Francisco State as a journalism major and began writing for The Phoenix, one of the university’s two student-run newspapers. He became its managing editor in 1969.

 

During his time as an undergrad, Sellers co-wrote an article about the validity of grades awarded from 1964 to 1968, when more A’s were awarded than any other grade, leading to an interview with former U.S. Senator and then-college President S.I. Hayakawa, according to Sellers’ obituary from the university.

 

He graduated in 1970 and went on to Stanford University, where he received master’s and doctoral degrees in communications. Sellers wrote “the world’s first” doctoral thesis on investigative reporting, he said on his Linked­In profile.

 

Sellers then returned to his undergraduate alma mater in 1975 as a faculty member in the journalism department.

 

“He was brutal,” Tiburon resident and Sellers’ life partner, Connie Kirwin, said of Seller’s academic career. “If you weren’t on time, the door was locked.”

 


In the 1990s, De Wolk was looking to teach an online-journalism class after testing out Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers. After securing a grant from Apple, he pitched the class to SF State.

 

Sellers was in the back of the room, fierce-looking and gray-haired, with a bemused expression “when he wasn’t shooting darts out of his eyes,” De Wolk said of seeing him for the first time, noting he knew of Sellers and associated his name “with a mixture of fear and respect.”

 

“He had a well-earned reputation for being the toughest but maybe the most effective teacher in the department by a length,” he said.

 

De Wolk said his colleague had a keen eye for news judgment and would tell students bluntly when their pitches fell short.

 

“He would tell you, ‘Topic. Not story. Next,’” De Wolk said.

 

“(Sellers) scared the students that way, but … I would be laughing about it and put my arm around the student and go, ‘Dude, he’s not making fun of you, he respects you enough to be straight-ahead with you,’” De Wolk said. “And it made our little newsroom a really lively, fun, interesting, healthy place to work for the many years that we did that together.”

 

Kirwin and Sellers were together since 1994, first meeting at the Corinthian Yacht Club while they were going through divorces and “everybody felt sorry for us,” she said. At the time, Sellers lived in Sausalito, but he moved in with Kirwin in Tiburon in 2004.

 

Kirwin said Sellers was “very complex,” “extremely intelligent” and loyal to those in his life.

 


He enjoyed being on the water, she said, and took part in the 1992 Pacific Cup from San Francisco to Hawaii.

 

In addition, Sellers had success in the digital consulting world, leading a firm with a student that got bought out by brand-agency giant Razorfish in 1998. He continued in that realm after he retired from teaching in 2001.

 

De Wolk said Sellers was a pioneer in being able to see the potential in using the internet for journalistic storytelling, adding there was “nobody in the department” or “anybody at the university” at the time who saw that potential in the same way.

 

Sellers was also an energetic, fun, humorous and irreverent guy, De Wolk said.

 

“I couldn’t have asked for a better partner,” he said. “How could I have not become friends with somebody like that?”

 

Sellers is survived by Kirwin and was preceded in death by his brother, Shannon, who died in 2019, and his parents.

 

A celebration of life is planned for Aug. 18 at the Corinthian Yacht Club.

 

Reach Tiburon reporter Francisco Martinez at 415-944-4634.

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