FEBRUARY 22, 2021

Making the Media S1E04: Examining Education

Jill Mitchell on the Making the Media podcast

While the fundamentals of journalism are pretty consistent, the only constant in the news business is the pace of change. Today’s business models, content types, delivery methods, and more are so starkly different from even a few decades ago as to be nearly unrecognizable—and future promises more evolution. How can colleges and universities keep up and produce the talent this industry needs?

In this episode, we ask: How can academia keep pace with industry changes and prepare entry-level talent for the industry? How can academic institutions tighten ties with industry groups to better prepare students for success? And how can they prepare students for future needs that we can’t even anticipate today?

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Listen to Hear:

  • How broadcast journalism faculty and staff at Syracuse University kept the lights on throughout the pandemic
  • Why an education in broadcast journalism must look beyond broadcast alone
  • How educators keep close ties to the industry to prepare their students for success


Our Guest This Episode

Jill Mitchell is a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she teaches Avid Media Composer and is the OverDrive operator and newscast director for the Broadcast and Digital Journalism program. Before teaching, she worked in local TV news as a newscast director. She holds a Master of Arts in Television, Radio, and Film from Syracuse and a Bachelor of Science in Television and Radio from Ithaca College.

It's incumbent upon the faculty and staff to keep up to date and keep relevant, and also keep thinking of new ways to do things. And sometimes it's driven by students. They'll ask, can we do it this way? Can we do the newscast this way? But other times, it's the faculty pushing, and they really push being a disruptor.

Jill Mitchell, Professor, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Mentioned in this Episode

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, I’m Craig Wilson, and thanks for joining me on the Making the Media podcast.

Jill Mitchell from Syracuse University in New York state in the USA is our latest guest. Jill teaches at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, preparing students to enter the world of journalism and passing on the skills she learned while working in the industry as a newscast director.

It’s been a tough time for students and staff everywhere, and schools face the constant challenge of keeping up to date with an industry that’s in a perpetual state of change. So I began asking what other mediums beyond just TV that they focus on.

Jill Mitchell: We, as a school, have incorporated live streaming on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We've also incorporated tweeting. When you come in, there's a lot of—I mean, I could tweet, you know, and no one would see it. But how do you get to those audiences? How do you structure your tweet? Who do you tag? What are the keywords that you're looking for to get to the audience that you want?

So, it’s incorporating stuff like that that I think is really important because you will see that there are, you know, required like tweets, there's required online posting—all this stuff. And if there's a breaking news situation and you're there and there's no photographer, how do you film and live stream so that people know what's going on? And some of it is driven by the students.

You know, someone will come in and go, “I have this idea—I want to do this. I want to go live here; I want to structure a social media reaction story." And we incorporate touch screen with tweets and Facebook posts. So, if things are trending, they look at what's trending. If it's something local, they'll get local reaction to it. So, it's definitely evolved from just television.

CW: Do you think that has changed the type of people that want to get into journalism from perhaps people before who maybe wanted a behind-the-scenes role, or people wanted to go and present, whereas now there are other avenues into the industry for them that isn't just broadcast television?

JM: There definitely are. It even surprises me, and I feel like I've seen or heard most of it. But there are people who, like me, don't want to be in front of a camera and will come in and that's their focus. And there are some that want to be on camera. And there are some sports people that want to do sports reporting, and they'll really focus on that. But then there's some that want to do—there was a girl in class that wants to work with athletic departments and make content for them as marketing.

So there are so many more avenues than just TV. And we have a lot of students that come in and do that, but it's more and more like there are these other opportunities. And it's so funny to see someone—I don't usually meet them until they’re juniors or seniors when they get into the control room in the newsroom—but occasionally, I'll meet a sophomore and they have one idea of what they want to do and then as they progress through, it sort of morphs and changes into something else that they never even considered before, which I think is incredible.

CW: So you mentioned there about other opportunities that come in, but I guess from the school’s perspective that's also a challenge. It's a challenge to constantly stay up to date. So how do you go about trying to do that?

JM: Well, it's a lot on the faculty and staff, I think, to sort of recognize trends. And we're lucky that we have professionals who are professors and then people like me who have worked in the business and who still pay attention and who kind of see trends and stuff like that. But we've got plenty of faculty that are incredible who are still working—some of them are still working—some of them still have really close contacts and they're living it. So, it's not like someone just sitting back and, “Oh well, I think, you know, we're doing this. I think the trends going this way.” They're living it, and they're seeing it for real in their newsrooms, or in their sports productions.

So, it's incumbent upon the faculty and staff to keep up to date and keep relevant. And also keep thinking of new ways to do things. And sometimes it's driven by students. You know, they'll ask, “Can we do it this way? Can we do the newscast this way?” But other times, it's the faculty pushing, and they really push being a disruptor. And that's not only for broadcast students, but it also for me as a television and film major was, “What's the next thing? What are we working towards? You know, what's going to be hot next?” And so, it's identifying these trends. And so, I think it's helpful, not only while you're in school to learn the different trends, but to be able to recognize where things are going, where technology is going, and then think about how you can use that to your advantage.

CW: Is that something that you see, as well, that the students who come through and then graduate can actually take that and then influence the companies that they go to work for? Because to an extent, you know, the companies—in terms of television—a very big challenge isn't so much broadcast because they know how to do broadcast. Their challenge is actually trying to address the audience of the people who are actually coming in to join them. So, do you think there is a kind of synergy, if you like, that people come through the school and they move on and then have that ability to then influence the industry they’re actually going into—perhaps in ways that weren't seen 10 or 15 years ago?

JM: Yeah, definitely. I think the students who graduate and go on to work in broadcast news bring fresh eyes, they bring new ideas, and it's good because a lot of the times, like you said, it's trying to get broadcast to not just television audiences. It's, how do you get to the Internet audience? How do you get to the younger people who are just checking their phones? How do you get to these different audiences? And they do have that—they have that ability. They know how to reach them because they are them.

CW: And I wanted to ask a little bit about the people that are joining the school that are motivated to go into journalism.

You know, I think, for all of us it's been a pretty extraordinary year for one reason or another. And we will talk about the pandemic's impacts in a little while. But particularly in the US—not just this year—but over the last few years there has been a description of journalists as the enemy of the people. So, the people that are joining and coming into the school, are they motivated and almost see themselves as public servants coming into it? Or do you think they're motivated by political reasons? What's the sense that you get?

JW: I think they're just motivated to tell the truth. And that's something that I think is refreshing to know as, not only a citizen, but as someone who's teaching them, that they’re interested in telling the truth, and that's what they strive for. And, you know, it is tough because they see the reaction that you get online and on the street. It's tough, but the people who come in who want to work in news want to tell stories. They want to report on things that are important to the people in their community, and they want to do it the right way.

So, I think the conversation is happening more about journalism rather than just, you know, “I'm here to report. I'm here to anchor. I'm here to call the sports game.” The conversation is a little deeper. Let's dig for the truth. Let's cultivate sources. If we're going to talk about a subject, let's make sure we have both sides of the story, and we give them equal runtime.

CW: And how do students get the kind of practical opportunity of doing that? Do you have relations with, say, local stations? Or with, say, technology companies to get them some more practical experience? Because it's one thing to sit in the classroom. It's something else to then see how the news is actually done in reality.

JM: It really is, and we try. They sort of move up through the classes and they go from just live reporting to anchoring and reporting in the newsroom, doing an actual newscast. And we try to keep it as real as possible. So, we've got deadlines. We've got the studio space. And we strive to make it as real as possible.

I got asked—especially this year—“Is this studio and classroom space and what we're doing here—is that, in any way, close to what you're doing in newsrooms?” And I was like, “Absolutely. Absolutely.” So, we'll have them go out and do stories and stuff like that, and they'll use live remote technology and sometimes even their phones to go live to do stories from the field.

It's important to have that sort of real-world experience, and to be able to experience that in a teachable manner is especially helpful. But they also have internships with local stations, and they’ve gotten jobs out of it. So it's really a steppingstone for them.

CW: Yeah, and that's a great feeling, I guess, to see people come from working as a student and then moving into the industry. I guess there's nothing better than seeing that.

So, a couple of things I wanted to ask about, Jill, is about the pandemic and the impact that that's had, particularly on things like in-person teaching and moving to remote teaching. So what has been the impact over the course of this year?

JM: Well, it was really abrupt. Back in March we went on spring break and then we didn't come back, so there was a lot of scrambling to get things to have the same experience for the students. Because that's—you have a broadcast class, and you can't meet in person to do a newscast.

So we put our heads together and we did some recordings on Zoom. We had the two anchors next to each other in a split screen and they read the news and the sports, and weather recorded their own stuff. And then we finished out the semester that way, and we still had meetings with the producers, as directors, as if the show was actually going to go on as normal. And so we would act as if it was going on air and we would still give them the experience of having that producer meeting with the directors and still give them the experience of: These are our limitations. How do we fix it? How do we get around it?

And then in the summer, the graduate students do a six-week newscast class. And so, for the last week, we used Skype and we used Zoom and we used Dejero for our live hits. And we had a return feed on Zoom, so they would call into Zoom and they could see the program, they could see the prompter. And that's how we did the newscast for four days.

It was something that the first day that we did it, the faculty and staff, we'd done it already. We’d used it, but this was all new technology for the students and so we had guides and we were walking them through on Zoom, and they picked it up really quickly and ran with it. And we did really good shows on LiveU, totally remote. And some of these students were home—they weren't even in Syracuse anymore—they were back home in their own state, in their own city. So it was incredible to have these students spread around so far.

And it wasn't just the newscast classes that were affected. There was also live reporting. The “How do you get these students who are in Florida, who are in California, who are remote learning, how do you get them the same experience?” And they edited all their stuff remote, and then file transferred it over. And a lot of our instructional associates, our IAs, worked hard to get that for them to transfer, make sure everything worked. And then we went live, just like anything else, and they read their report.

It was interesting at the beginning because it was so quick and it was so, sort of, last minute, and nobody really knew what to do. And then I think we really turned it around and did things that major networks are doing, where they're reporting from home, they’re recording their stuff and sending it in. So it was sort of trial by fire. And now these students have that same experience for when they go into the field. And some of it might change forever. I mean, I don't know. The techniques and the things that we've learned over the past year on how to get things done remote, or how to do things without being all together in a newsroom that might continue. And they have those skills though.

CW: Yeah, I was going to say that the kind of experience that you've described is so similar to what the networks all had to do back in March, where they suddenly had to find a way to move away from all the existing workflows, but to stay on air and to deliver things by working remotely, whether it was doing stuff through Zoom—how many people’s houses have you seen through Zoom these days that you would never normally be sitting next to somebody else on a sofa—to enable them to do that?

And so, I guess that practical experience that you've given the students in the course of this year, I think will really stand up in good stead when they go into it. Because the other thing I was going to ask around was—the other thing that I think has happened this year is that people have had to accept different workflows that, had you suggested them, say, a year ago, they would’ve said, “Well, you know, that's just not really feasible or practical.” So, do you find that the students were very open to new ideas, to trying things differently to get things done?

JM: They were, and they rose to the challenge. It's not easy to ask college juniors and seniors to suddenly change how they've been doing it for three or four years, and they really succeeded. They definitely came up with creative ways to get things done, and you had to—and they bought into it, which was great, because if you don't buy into it, then you're like, “Oh, this is silly. Is it really worth it?” But they bought into it. And really sometimes took it and ran with it.

CW:  A couple of final things I was going to ask about, Jill. One was in terms of your relationship with the industry—how do you stay current and keep in touch with the industry around different things that you have to think about adapting and delivering in the future?

JM: Well, it's interesting because it's sort of this symbiotic thing, where students that I've had and I've worked with go on to work everywhere across the country. And they invite me to like their reporter page, or their anchor page, or their sports page. And I do that. And so, I keep up with what they're doing, what they're reporting on, and so that's helpful for me to then say, “Oh well, this is happening in more newsrooms than just the places that I have contacts."

I mean, that's mostly what my Facebook is, is other students, like former students’ station pages. And so, I also keep up with people that I worked at Channel 9 with. They have spread all over the country and to Washington, DC and all of these places, and so it's important to keep up with what's going on and not just this bubble. But like you said, you consume news in ways that you don't even recognize sometimes, and so, when I'm scrolling on Twitter, it's, “Look at that,” or, “This is a former student of mine.” And it just sort of will click. But it's keeping myself immersed in the media and trying to stay up that way.

CW: And then the final question, and this is actually a question I'm asking everyone who's taking part in the podcast, Jill. What is it that keeps you up at night? Is there something that you sit around thinking about we could do more of this or more of that? Or do you sleep really well? But what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

JM: So, I said to a producer once at Channel 9, who, after a kind of rough newscast asked me, “When are you not going to have notes for me?” And I said never. Because we're constantly learning, and if you're not constantly learning, I said, I don't get it anymore. You know, if you're not trying to move forward and trying to learn more and consume more, then, I mean, that's just how I am. I'm always striving to learn. I mean, I can't sit here and say I know everything. Even about the stuff that I'm knowledgeable in. I don't know if it keeps me up at night, but it's definitely something that I think about it.

It’s, “How do I not only teach these students, but how do I get them to want to continue learning? How do I get them to want to continue to expand their knowledge, their world view?” And for some of them, it's super easy to do. They come in already wanting to do that. And then there's others that you sort of have to cultivate it, and say “Let's look at it a different way. Let's take another approach. I know this is what you really wanted, but here's where I'm coming from. Here's where, you know, the status of our newsroom is, I've got ten other recordings I’ve got to do today. Maybe you want to do it this way.” So that's something that I think is super important: just continuing to learn and figure stuff out, and just get better.

CW: Thanks to Jill, there, for taking the time to talk to us—I really love her thoughts on constantly learning.

Now some of the themes that she spoke about, about working remotely, are things we’re going to explore in detail on the next episode of Making the Media. Then, I’ll be joined by Bobby Hain, Managing Director of Broadcast at STV in Scotland, to talk about how they’ve had to adopt to the new reality of remote collaboration. Let’s hear a little bit of what he had to say.

Bobby Hain: It’s been an amazing learning curve to assure yourself that you are adaptable as an organization, that you can rise to the challenge, and you can get things done and keep things going. And I think the question in my head is, how sustainable is that? Because I think for a lot of businesses, ourselves included, as we look for the medium and long term, will our business look the same, with the same kind of buildings and the same technology as we’ve known for decades? Or will it be different, informed by how we work now and what is safe for people and the mix of working at home, or working out of home, versus going to the office—because going to the office has just been such a taken-for-granted element of what everyone’s done for so long.

CW: Bobby really has got some great insights, so make sure you subscribe to get notified when the next episode is out. Please leave a review, or feel free to contact us. You can email us, we are [email protected], or you can find me on Twitter or Instagram, I’m @craigaw1969.

For more on some of the topics Jill and I discussed, take a look at our show notes, where we have a look at how younger audiences are engaging with the news, as well as a discussion of the emerging skills being asked of broadcast journalists. We’ll also include a link to learn more about the Avid Learning Partner program, which Syracuse participates in.

Thanks again to our producer, Rachel Haberman, and thanks to you for listening. I’m Craig Wilson, and I look forward to you joining us next time for more in-depth chat about making the media.

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