Today, the 2021 cohort of the Study of the United States Institutes (SUSI) Capstone program in Journalism, Technology and Democracy hosted by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, started with mixed reactions but ended with something we never bargained for.
First, we all–participants and program staff, led by Academic Director Dr. Dawn Gilpin–were excited and grateful to have Euriahs Togar of Liberia back in the fold, after his nightmare experience with multiple flight cancellations, re-bookings and delays that made him to arrive two days later than everyone else. Then, we sadly learned that one of us, had tested positive for COVID-19 following the compulsory PCR test taken by us all that morning. It was a relief that she was doing fine and had only mild symptoms. We all continued to support her with comforting words, moral and logistical support since she was isolated from her roommate as well as from all program activities, in compliance with the COVID epidemic control guidelines.
Teaching hospital news operations
Our introduction to the innovative teaching hospital model of journalism pedagogy and learning, as explained by Cronkite News Executive Editor Christina Leonard, revealed that student recruitment into news teams is not selective, but based solely on the criteria of passing pre-requisite courses in relation to students’ interests. “So, if a student wants to be a broadcast producer, they would have taken and passed broadcast producing courses. Semesters go really fast, just 15 weeks… if they don’t know anything about broadcast producing, we can’t teach them,” she explained. Ms. Leonard came to Cronkite News after 17 years’ experience as a reporter and editor at the Arizona Republic.
As a Nigerian and African journalism educator, this was uniquely interesting. I was not alone; my peers from other countries, with different situational contexts, also found this approach quite unique, even those who have access to similar facilities. They concurred that this was their dream in teaching broadcast and digital journalism. Andy Ortiz Castillo from Peru has over 30 years’ expertise as a Peruvian and international broadcast journalist, including for CNN. He admitted that while his journalism school has some standard equipment, it comes nowhere near what is available at Cronkite. Nick Zhang from Hong Kong pointed out that their institution’s challenge was not about facilities or expertise, but low enrollment, which makes it impossible to undertake the kind of daily round-the-clock news operation seen at Cronkite News.
The latter also benefits from the American reality that TV is still a major source of news, despite the breakthroughs of digital platforms. (This is a global reality and further confirmed during our subsequent visits to the Arizona Republic, Channel 12 and the Phoenix Suns). The point is that the U.S. job market is still favorable to the broadcast journalists the Cronkite School produces each year, and this crop of journalists have the privilege of acquiring some of the best journalism education and training in the world, which they can use to improve lives across communities.
Back to my reality at home, I must admit that the practice in Nigerian journalism schools of imparting theoretical knowledge first, before engaging students through production assignments and internship with news organizations, needs a paradigm shift. Our students do go on internships–in the case of mine at the University of Maiduguri Department of Mass Communication, they also engage in intense internships with our campus radio station from years one through four, and will soon also have access to our TV station once it becomes fully operational. However, these are not synchronously integrated to allow role explainers (faculty members) and role takers (students) to practically do the job, on the job, with students running the real show until they produce and broadcast professional grade content.
It was exhilarating when we witnessed firsthand how the Cronkite School flipped their program, which we learned was done for at least a minimum of four weeks out of their 15-week semester. Students produce and transmit, on a daily basis, about 30 minutes professional standard broadcast news over multi platforms of TV, radio, and digital news that is mandatorily broadcast on Arizona PBS via a collaborative arrangement. Cronkite News is a subsidiary of Arizona PBS. Interestingly, we visited Arizona PBS, housed within the Cronkite School building, and the studio production director confirmed this collaboration. This demonstrates an understanding that the strategic location of institutions can provide value in the public interest.
This stands in contrast with what happens in Nigeria since our journalism education begins with a theoretical training format, combined with individual or group production assignments, and student internships. Our students are expected to reflect what they have learnt in class in the assignments and during internships, and also learn on the field while serving as interns. This is the direct opposite of Cronkite’s teaching hospital model, where students have the opportunity to first of all engage in practical work between journalism roles in school and be guided by their instructors to produce content that goes on air and is published by highly rated and commercial media outlets daily. there are lessons to learn from the Cronkite News for us all, even though not all journalism training institutions can be lucky enough to have over 300 cameras and high-end digital equipment and facilities, at an outlet that covers Arizona and the entire U.S. Southwest region and enjoys an excellent integrated collaboration (in terms of equipment, facilities and human resources) with Arizona PBS , a highly rated U.S. public broadcaster.
Ms. Leonard corroborated further that “time spent across different newsrooms is dependent on the number of credits that a student requires. So, If students are seeking three credits, they will be here for two full days weekly, not hop in and hop out whenever the student deems it fit. It really goes the whole day long until around 4 p.m. We pretty much try to replicate what happens in a commercial news medium,” she said.
Huddles and niches
The scholars observed the day’s meeting of directors from the conference room, one of their daily huddles. The meeting, which takes place via Zoom, showed that Cronkite students are assigned platform specializations and/or beats under faculty directors. Each morning the students also meet in teams for a planning discussion. Scholars later broke into small groups to separately experience what goes on with the directors and the students respectively in broadcast production, broadcast reporting, digital production/social media/photography, health reporting as well as audio/sustainability reporting. Their news gathering is supplemented with content from wire services and major news organizations, but most of the time it is original content. Students have received training on what to do in dangerous situations, are not allowed to cover riots but are attached to faculty members to cover student demonstrations to guide them on safety measures during coverage.
There are also challenges with social media because as a new generation of journalists, students find it difficult to differentiate between the realities of their journalism roles and rights as citizens. So, when they report public issues, they also get caught in the web with their social media comments on such issues. The school faces the challenge of guiding students to understand that such digital footprints of their activities can affect their professional career opportunities, since reputable media outlets have a strong social media presence and will think twice before recruiting a “controversial” journalist.
Responding to a scholar’s question on whether students can move around between roles, Ms. Leonard explained that this is not easy for undergraduates, who are only doing two days weekly and require about four weeks to get up and running, to understand what they want as a news organization and its systems. So, they stick to one role at a time until they get it dialed in. Master’s students can split and choose to be both a reporter and a producer on different days. But she quickly added that this was because they want their students to get that reputation of working with the faculty directors, who are experts in different fields, insisting that “everything that they do has to reach a bar that is of professional quality, because our newscast airs on Arizona PBS, which broadcasts to up to 1.9 million households in Arizona.”
That is a huge audience, but not surprising because Cronkite News also functions like a wire service. “We put together a digest of various news every day with an agreement that any use is credited to the student and Cronkite News as the original publisher. We have a Slack channel to document only pickups from our stories so that our students can see the professional and other outlets using their news,” revealed Ms. Leonard. This niche also leads to pushback from some students who want to be paid for the content they generate and produce that is used by other outlets who benefit financially from clicks on their stories. In response, Cronkite News argues that publication-ready productions are a combination of the brainpower and efforts of faculty directors and students and as such are not the full intellectual property of the students.
This argument resonated with the scholars since of course on the flip side we appreciate that students gain grades and credits as well as experience. The latter is also recognised by the U.S. media industry as employment, and not in-training experience. This is quite unique and very unusual, but considering the integrated working relationship and collaborative efforts on equipment, facility and human resources between Arizona PBS and Cronkite News, it was easy for the scholars to appreciate the mutual opportunities that this unique teaching hospital model offers to media, journalism practice and training with the caliber of capable, versatile and well-skilled human resources, especially since Cronkite School graduates are among the most highly sought out for employment in the industry.
‘Celebrating’ mistakes in style
The scholars were amazed while observing the production process during the rehearsal and news taping sessions. The students prepare and report the news, including using live feeds that are enabled using mobile phones and apps. The rehearsals were repeated several times until it was perfectly delivered with a professional touch. Before the newscast, students rehearsed scripts on tablets and teleprompters; and get prepped on camera angles, warmth towards the camera, confidence, pronunciation, composure, positioning, talk back and microphone, among others. Faculty directors monitor and guide students, who also get support from their peers in different professional news gathering and production roles. The faculty, staff and students bonded so smoothly in the process that it was often hard to distinguish between a student and a faculty member. It was a great show of team spirit and equality in the newsroom that is often lacking in many journalism schools across cultures.
Sports news coverage is also a niche market in Arizona and the Cronkite News team are doing a great job. Different student demographics join the sports stream for different reasons. Lindsey Selzer, a female graduate student, said she joined the Cronkite News sports stream to encourage more female sports journalists. This was encouraging because we learnt that about 40 percent of the sports crew at Cronkite News are female. Another male master’s student, Conor B., said he joined the sports crew because he did not have the kind of experience that undergrad students at Cronkite have and so became totally engrossed with carving a niche for himself. Notably, such a sports journalism niche preference resonates with the place of sports in Arizona, the home of a number of major league sports teams in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football and more.
At the debriefing session of the Cronkite News daily business, scholars watched from the side-lines as each team, guided by the directors, shared notes on lessons learned and highlights of the day, expressed gratitude to their colleagues and shouted out outstanding student performances. The student presenters, directors, reporters cameramen and their faculty directors and producers operated with confidence, rapport and smooth coordination.
Wrapping up, the SUSI scholars appreciated and commended the students’ performance and faculty mentorship. On behalf of the 2021 cohort, Mohamed Nasih from Maldives and Yasmeen Hanafy from Egypt took turns praising the amazing talent on display and led us in giving the Cronkite team a rousing applause. Andy, the versatile Peruvian broadcast journalist, summarized how the show at Cronkite News was being run by enthusing, “Wonderful program. This is an incredible academic and professional experience. Thanks to the academic and administrative directors and the Walter Cronkite team!”
Truly, as we conversed among ourselves, it became even more resoundingly clear how the experience had and would continue to have multiple trickle-down effects across the board, although disparities in our prevailing country contexts mean these effects will vary.