Making the jump from J-School to a TV job
By Simon Perez
Despite the technological disruption that is transforming the television news business, there are still some tried and true basics many broadcast journalism schools teach their students so they are prepared to transition from the classroom to the newsroom. At the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, we define prepared as ready for “Day 1” on the job. For us in the Broadcast and Digital Journalism Department, the basics we teach include: reporting on deadline, interviewing, videography, video editing, presenting stories live, ethics, writing for the web and connecting with audiences via social media. But is that enough?
For the third consecutive year, I surveyed recent Newhouse graduates about how well prepared they were – or weren’t – for their jobs as Multi-Media Journalists (MMJs). Before graduation, I asked what responsibilities they expected to fulfill on the job, and then, after they were employed, whether those expectations proved accurate. Here’s what I found from three students from the class of May 2016:
Satisfyingly for us, and for other schools that follow the same “Ready on Day 1” formula, our recent graduates found they did need to be well-rounded MMJs who shoot, write, edit and present their stories. Only on rare occasions, do they enjoy the luxury of working with a videographer.
Before graduation, these three students predicted the most difficult parts of the job would be coming up with story ideas and dealing with the stress of a daily deadline – they were right. Moving to a new city with no connections and no contacts makes coming up with a daily story idea difficult. Even after several weeks on the job, one reporter said: “I’m still developing resources and trying to figure out the best places to get new ideas.”
But being familiar with the basics doesn’t eliminate the stress. One student explained: “You have so many different things to think about, therefore making you more prone to forget something. It could be forgetting to check your audio levels or white balance, or something such as not listening as closely in the interview, making you ask questions that aren’t necessarily as strong.”
Lastly, their wish to be taken more seriously as a professional reporter than as a student reporter came true. All three young MMJs found it so much easier to line up interviews as a professional. On the pre-job survey, one student wrote: “Sometimes you don’t get the time of day as a student reporter.” The same student wrote on the post-job survey: “People want to talk to you!”
Many students obsess over their classroom work and corresponding grades, but these three predicted the expectations to perform would be even higher in a professional newsroom; they said that would be one demand for which they were not prepared. One student described the difference this way: “As a student you sometimes get a pass for a less than subpar story or attempt at a story, as long as you gave it the ole' college try. Obviously, in a professional newsroom there will be no such pat on the back.” But, it turns out, the pressure to perform for real, and not just for a grade, wasn’t the biggest hurdle to overcome in the transition from student to professional. There were specific parts of the job for which they felt unprepared. One student was caught off guard by the web and social media requirements. Another student found tense or dangerous reporting situations difficult to navigate.
A pleasant surprise came with using professional equipment, specifically marked station vehicles. “Not saying I can park illegally, but I can enter some zones regular vehicles can’t, thus making life a bit easier,” one student confided.
Before graduation, the students feared they hadn’t spent enough time in school mastering non-linear video editing. They wished they’d learned some advanced techniques and shortcuts – something beyond the basics of A roll, B roll and audio. But when they got on the jobs, they found that wasn’t the biggest gap in their skillsets. Instead, they realized they’d spent a lot of time as students writing package scripts and weren’t adept at writing in different formats, such as VOSOT scripts and web stories. Another student realized more time should have been spent on learning to speak extemporaneously, with the viewer in mind, instead of simply memorizing live-shot lines. The student wrote: “Believe me, that went out the window my first day when I did four [live shots] in a row, but it finally clicked!”
Two of the three students found their professors had accurately described what the job and life of an MMJ is like. But one student felt we at Newhouse had left out a big part – social media and the web. Not necessarily what it is, but how much of it there is to do. The student had some advice for what professors should be telling their students: “Tell them to take 5 photos and email them back, send back a 30-45 second teaser video or portion of an interview on their phone so we can tease online, tweet 3-5 times, post to Facebook on how their story is coming along, and have a web story done… All by 6:15.”
So it seems focusing on the basics is still a good plan of action for broadcast journalism schools. This year’s survey shows we may need to also pay a little more attention to live performance, writing in a variety of TV formats and how to handle confrontational situations. But more than anything, the technological disruptions in the industry seem to be adding to the expectations of what an MMJ can (must?) produce during a single shift.
Rigorous programs push students hard – we want them prepared for “Day 1” on the job. Perhaps it’s time to push students even harder.
Simon Perez is an assistant professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In the summers of 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 he returned to his former job as reporter for KPIX TV in San Francisco. He has chronicled his newsroom experiences and the lessons he hopes to bring back to the classroom at http://www.simonperez.com/blog.