commentary (2006-38)

Kindling the fire in local journalism students’ bellies

J-School Confidential

by Leslie Wylie

I taught the journalism segment of a young writer’s workshop at UT earlier this year and felt like Superman for at least a week afterwards. The students, a cross-section of local high-schoolers, walked into the classroom with asterisks in their eyes and complicated plots to go after Lois Lane’s day-job festering in their brains. When I asked them what it meant to be a journalist, hands shot into the air. “A journalist is the world’s storyteller,” suggested a young man wearing thick, possibly rose-colored glasses. “Journalists tell the truth,” another quipped. “They find out what’s really going on and let the public know.”

Their comments, each more precious than the last, were nonetheless Visine to my bloodshot soul. Blindsided by their idealism, I temporarily forgot that I hadn’t slept in two days and had a 5,000-word cover story to finish after the workshop. But the students sent me downtown with a spring in my stumble, the squeak of their pencils scribbling notes still reverberating in my ears. 

Fast-forward to this summer, when a staff writer position came open here at MP . We solicited for writers in the paper and on the Association of Alt-Newsweeklies website, but as the lumpy Fed-Ex envelopes began to roll in, a curious pattern emerged: sender zip codes that were about as local as wooden shoes.

This struck me as odd. I thought back to my experience with the high-school students and wondered if their borderline-creepy enthusiasm had been staged. Because high-school students grow up to be college students, and college students grow up to be unemployed graduates whom, when the ramen noodles lose their charm, generally set out to find a job. So shouldn’t there be a line of aspiring journalists outside my office door, clutching Daily Beacon clips and reeking of instant noodles?

I suspect a reasonable percentage of UT’s j-school grads hit I-40 upon receipt of diploma. A handful of them get jobs in town, and an armload, I suppose, graduate and decide that journalism’s not their cup of tea after all, or lose interest somewhere along the way. It’s not easy to keep students’ attention over the span of four-plus years laced with stoner roommates and football games.

But UT’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media, we hear, is fine-tuning a game plan to keep students engaged and well-prepared for the real world. The school has a fancy new director, Dr. Peter Gross, and a faculty that seems to be oozing innovative ideas at the gills and implementing them as well. A new curriculum catering to a fast-changing media industry ensures that graduates have the skills and experience they need to land that job at the Daily Planet , or wherever it is that kids want to work these days.

To start with, the faculty is owning up to the fact that we’re living in an increasingly virtual world, one in which it takes more than a working knowledge of Microsoft Word to impress employers. In acknowledgement, the school offers a veritable slew of web-based media course offerings. Even professors are getting into the game: For a good example, check out professor Bob Stepno’s insightful blogging on the media industry at bobstepno.com.

In addition, a new program to be phased in over the next few semesters gives students the opportunity to gear their skills toward particular markets. Concentrations include a news track, a magazine track, a sports-journalism track, and a science-communication track.

There are also growing opportunities for hands-on experience, which is arguably the best teacher of all. The Daily Beacon , with its full-color front page, looks more professional than it ever has, and still welcomes inexperienced writers looking to get their hands dirty with open arms. Dr. Lyn Lepre oversaw the launch of a slick, informative magazine called Scoop earlier this year, an ambitious idea UT publications advisor Jane Pope has been talking about since my days in the Beacon newsroom. If that’s not enough for the resume, there’s always the yearbook, or the Phoenix literary magazine.

In addition, Dr. Sam Swan is the director of a new college-sponsored Internationalization and Outreach Program, through which students may complete required journalism internships at publications more exotic than MP and the News Sentinel . I can vouch for this one personally: I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks working for a music magazine in Dublin, Ire., last summer for graduate credit, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for all the Guinness in the world. Really.

Why should you personally care about Johnny’s internship at The Economist , or about any of the other exciting things that are going on at the j-school? Because we should all care about the quality of journalism that’s getting handed to us, and because great journalists aren’t born—they’re made. Today’s journalism students will be writing tomorrow’s headlines, so we’d better be certain that they’re getting the most out of their education they can.

UT’s journalism school deserves a pat on the back for the good work it’s doing toward that end.