Ask Kim Olson, who graduated last year from Western Kentucky University, if she felt totally prepared for her first job and she laughs. “I felt adequately prepared,” she says. Kim anchors morning newscasts at WLAC-AM in Nashville, TN, a bigger market than she expected to start in. “The hardest thing was news judgment,” she says. “I had to learn that, in a big town, a house fire is not news.”
News judgment. Writing skills. Willingness to work hard. General knowledge. News directors expect all that and more in journalism graduates, and they say they don’t always get it. Yet according to the 1997 Pauley Report, they overwhelmingly choose to hire graduates with journalism or communication degrees-91 percent in television news, 77 percent in radio. So are the schools doing something right?
START WITH HANDS-ON TRAINING
Despite the frequent criticism of journalism education, there’s a surprising amount of agreement among professionals and educators about what schools should be doing. “A lot of practical, hands-on stuff,” says Gary Brown, news director at WTOV-TV in Steubenville, OH. “That’s what’s most important.” “Hands-on, hands-on, hands-on,” says Bill Knowles of the University of Montana. “This is how we believe it should be done.”
Many schools do give students experience in reporting, producing, shooting and editing television and radio news. “It needs to be real, on deadline, and I’d prefer that it be on the air,” says Hubert Brown at Syracuse University, whose students produce a weekly newscast for closed-circuit television. Perhaps the best-known hands-on school is Missouri, where students work at KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate owned by the university. But many other schools offer variations on that theme, producing student newscasts on public stations or cable, and most either require or strongly encourage internships.
Alan Heymann, who graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School two years ago, says even that prestigious program “isn’t nearly enough preparation for a job as a reporter.” He credits his quick advancement to state capitol bureau chief for WCIA-TV in Champaign, IL, to the three internships he took. “There’s no way I’d be in the position I’m in right now if I hadn’t taken advantage of every extra-curricular opportunity I had.” Indiana University professor Dan Drew pushes internships on all his students. “It’s sad that students have to do unpaid internships,” he says, “but I tell them they can’t get a job without it.”
“I would encourage a student to knock our door down and get a part time job,” says Jon Stepanek, news director at KTVQ-TV in Billings, MT, who offers paid interships. “They come out head and shoulders above those who haven’t had experience.”
Students also need to learn what it really means to be in broadcast journalism, and internships can help. “Schools need to make them aware that they’ve chosen a lifestyle, not a job,” says Stuart Zanger, former news director at WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, OH. “If you choose this, it should almost be an obsession.” That’s a quality some news directors find lacking in their new hires. “Dedication and sacrifice aren’t stressed enough,” says Jerry Bohnen, news director at KTOK-AM in Oklahoma City, OK, who has found himself explaining to recent graduates that when a tornado hits, you don’t go home after eight hours.
To get that message across, a program needs teachers with professional experience. “The faculty should include people who were recently in the business,” says Kent Harrell, news director of Bay News 9 in Tampa, FL. “Students respect that.” And they profit from not just from the knowledge and experience of those teachers, but from their contacts in the profession. Successful schools build strong partnerships with local newsrooms, bringing professionals into their classrooms and sending their students into those newsrooms. Building these connections is one mission of the Radio-TV divison of AEJMC, the association for education in journalism and mass communication. Division head Jim Upshaw of the University of Oregon says, “One of our most important roles is putting students in contact with the harder aspects of the business,” so they know what they are getting into.
But a recent trend among journalism schools has some educators concerned. “Large programs are moving toward requiring a PhD,” says Lillian Dunlap of Missouri. “I think that’s kind of ridiculous. A program is best served if there is some way to have people come in fresh from the industry.”
FOCUS ON WRITING
Writing-and lots of it-is another key to a quality program. Angela Robbins, news director at WJBF-TV in Augusta, GA, says the schools that impress her like the University of Georgia have a commitment to good writing skills. “Not just spelling and grammar,” she says, “but good conversational writing, ready for broadcast.” Educators like Joe Foote at Southern Illinois University agree that’s important but say it’s hard to find enough time in the curriculum to really teach students how to write. “They learn a little bit, a few rules, but there’s not enough practice and in-depth tutoring.” Some young journalists wish there had been more. Marya Jones has a graduate degree from Northwestern and is now in her first reporting job at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, VA. She says she didn’t get enough critical feedback on her writing while in school. “I needed tough love and I didn’t get it.”
Some recent graduates also say they weren’t quite prepared to deal with two realities of daily broadcast news: unforgiving deadlines and newsroom politics. “I wasn’t used to doing two and three stories in a day,” says Patrick Sher, a ’98 Ohio University graduate who now reports for WVVA-TV in Beckley, WV. “The deadline issue wasn’t stressed enough.” News director Peter Landis at New York 1 News says he sees the consequences of that all the time. Students may be able to write one package a week, he says, but they can’t handle a stack of on-camera anchor reads and vo’s. “Faced with a half-dozen AP wire stories and an hour to transform them into broadcast copy, most candidates melt under the ‘pressure.'”
For Jennifer Pascua, who graduated from Northern Illinois University last year, the biggest adjustment has been dealing with the atmosphere in the newsroom. Now a reporter at WREX-TV in Rockford, IL, she says she wasn’t ready for the competition and stress. “It wouldn’t hurt for schools to require a management class,” says Andrea Clenney, news director at WWAY-TV in Wilmington, NC. “There are a lot of peculiar personalities and big egos in a newsroom, and students could learn how to deal with that.”
What radio news executives have to deal with is a dearth of radio experience. “I don’t know of any school that goes out of its way to produce radio graduates,” says Bill Richardson, executive producer of Metro Networks. John Dinges, former managing editor of NPR who now teaches at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, says in most schools radio is “a stepping-stone [to TV] not a capstone.” Steve Butler, news director at KYW-AM in Philadelphia, PA, says that’s nothing new. “You got prepared to do radio by having an active campus radio station.” And students who decide they love radio can find a way to pursue it. Mike Loizzo, a ’99 graduate of Southern Illinois University, designed his own independent study so he could concentrate on radio.
NEWSROOMS AS TRAINING GROUNDS
Most news directors who hire people right out of school expect to have to do some training. What surprises Butler is the kind of training. “We’ve had to retro-train people who come in knowing only digital editing,” he says. “I find myself saying, ‘This is a cart and here’s how you erase it.'” John McCall, news director at WVII in Bangor, ME, equates a stop at his station with post-graduate education. “At the slave wages we pay,” he says frankly, “I consider it an extension of school.” But Lawton Dodd, news director at KSBW in Salinas, CA, says he finds too many journalism majors who think they don’t need more training. “Ours is a business in which we’re always learning,” he says. “But people with the degree think they know all they need to know.” Dodd is particularly critical of what he sees as a lack of common knowledge. “They’re not as up to speed as we’d like on current events or how government works.”
It isn’t that educators aren’t trying to instill that knowledge in their students. “I give news quizzes and they act like I’m the meanest person on earth,” says American University’s Alison Schafer. “They supposedly want to be reporters so it’s troubling that they aren’t interested in current events.” That interest may kick in later, however. As a student at Arizona State University in the early 90s, Tracy Johnson says she failed a few current events quizzes because she didn’t take them seriously. “When I got my first job in the business I realized how important they were,” she says. Now a producer at WTVT-TV in Tampa, Tracy says she still gets quizzed-by the news director-and she’s ready. “Believe me, that was a very valuable lesson.”
Other lessons need to be taught in journalism law and ethics. “I learned media law in a courtroom as a defendant,” says former CBS bureau chief Travis Linn, now dean of the school of journalism at the University of Nevada-Reno. “I recommend you learn it in a classroom instead.” Not all schools require a course in journalism ethics, which worries some news directors. “I get asked questions it seems to me they ought to know the answers to,” says Julie Akins of KDRV-TV in Medford, OR. “Questions about invasion of privacy and what they can shoot from where.” Still, news directors acknowledge the difficult job facing journalism educators. “They can never get them fully prepared to step in and go to work,” says Andrea Clenney of WWAY-TV. “There’s always going to be a learning curve.”
“There are definitely things you can’t teach,” agrees Micah Gelman, a ’98 Syracuse graduate who is now a morning producer at WBNS in Columbus, OH. “No matter how good a school is, you learn from day to day experience.” But quality programs manage to send students into the profession who are ready to work, and eager to learn more. Those are the graduates news directors are happy to hire.
(This article was originally published in RTNDA Communicator magazine, August 1999)