By Kevin Finch, RTDNA Contributor
For the last five Septembers, some former colleagues and acquaintances have asked me about how I snagged my “nice, easy retirement gig”—teaching journalism in college.
They tell me they want in too. And they tell me that when they get in front of their classes, they’re going to “let truth hit the fan and straighten out those kids about what’s really involved in journalism these days.”
Let me share this news flash with jaded journalists: These days, college students know the starting pay in journalism isn’t good, the hours are long, holidays are spent in the newsroom and the profession is often looked down on by their parents’ friends.
That’s why so many of them choose strategic communications (PR) and other allied fields. For the sake of the republic, though, we might want to encourage some of the best and brightest to embrace the only industry mentioned in the Constitution.
And one way to do that may be to limit how much you regale students with tales from your glory days in TV news. So says Lydia Timmins, a former large market TV news producer who now teaches full-time at the University of Delaware.
In a previous article for RTDNA, she noted that it’s good to establish your expertise as a journalist who now teaches the craft. Yet, she said, “I also need to actually TEACH the students something, too.”
I would add that you can’t get by on just sharing war stories because you’ll run out of them and still have 44 class periods to go. Students want to learn how the business is NOW.
My former department head, Pam Luecke, was the executive editor of the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader and also helped lead the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Hartford Courant.
She provided a jolt to this brand new full-time teacher in 2013 when she pointed out that I was no longer current; I was a former journalist now. I processed this lightning strike and realized that my self-image, as a very recent former news director and a guy who covered many major news stories, would not square with my students’ view of me. To them, I’m just their professor.
Lydia’s perspective and Pam’s description are just two of many issues I would like you to ponder if you are seriously considering joining me in the land of long gowns and funny hats. If you read the rest of this article and still want the job, our next hiring committee may be happy to talk to you someday.
Hiring by Committee
Yep, that’s right. Committee.
As a manager, I hired many people on my own. Often, I consulted a trusted colleague, and some senior hires might have required a general manager sign-off.
But at most colleges and universities, hiring a permanent, full-time faculty position requires a committee. And then, full department approval. And then, administrative sign-off.
You may be used to moving from one station to another on two weeks’ notice. In academia, think six months.
This is the time of year hiring committees are formed. Soon after, jobs get posted in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed and maybe local publications and trade journals related to the discipline involved.
You may try to stretch your one or two-page resume into a curriculum vitae by mid-fall, whenever the application deadline occurs. You’ll also need to request a transcript from your schools.
It may be the first time you have seen that transcript since you left college. If you’ve spent the last 10-20 years of your news career bragging about your C-student status, and how you succeeded despite college, that could be a problem in this career.
And, yes, I said schools. Plural. Because at most colleges, they expect a master’s degree at minimum. Many won’t even consider you without at least all of the course work completed toward a Ph.D.
Then comes the committee review of all the applications. Often, after narrowing the field, a multi-stage interview process begins after the New Year. The job offer may come by March or April, and you won’t get on the payroll until July or August.
The end of the hiring road is just the stepping-off point for a process of up to six years of reviews (more committees) before you are granted tenure. Along the way, there are articles and books (or documentaries) to publish, committees on which you must serve and evaluation of your teaching—by your students and your senior colleagues.
Still interested? Consider the daily routine.
Taking it to the classroom
You don’t just show up in class and share those war stories or have a “rap session.” (If you know what a rap session was, you may be pretty close to retirement already.) You have to prepare.
For this part of teaching, news producers are at a decided advantage. It’s like laying out a newscast—with a tease (material we’ll cover today), a beginning, middle and end. And you have to prepare two or three of those lectures each week. For each class.
And you need to be “on” all the time. Anchors, particularly those on the set for 90 minutes or longer, know what I mean. People who say there is no performance art in teaching probably are lying to themselves. You have to get and keep the attention of this multi-media generation.
[And remember this about college students: They’re good at being … students. They’ve been at it for 14, even 17 years. When they reach their junior year, they’ve pretty much seen it all in a classroom. While you’re still fumbling with the PowerPoint, they are already making judgments on your classroom style and maybe determining if you know what you’re talking about. And how hard of a test designer and grader you’ll be.]
Make sure to set aside time for meeting with your advisees, especially at class registration time. Yes, you can hand out sage advice then, but you also have to know your university rules and listen. Mostly listen.
Don’t forget that committee meeting—both those standing, university-wide committees (including self-governance) and ad hoc committees for hiring, studying an issue, maybe even preparing for the re-accreditation of your department.
You’ve heard the term “publish or perish.” Sounds punitive. But didn’t you like learning from professors who still kept a hand in the business? Or studied some important part of it? The school administration wants you to be an expert—benefiting students AND the broader community.
Long-time RTDNA Communicator contributor Bob Papper's excellent research on industry salaries, staff size and other issues is the kind of thing that universities like to see. So you have to set aside time for that kind of work, too—in addition to committees, classroom prep and student face time.
Enjoying the bennies
So what do you get for all that work?
A salary that’s more than you make in most shops as a photographer, about the same as what you make as a large (but not major) market producer and decidedly less than what you make as a news director.
You also don’t have to sweat wondering if you’ll get New Year’s Day off this year. And you can plan family vacations without waiting for Nielsen to release next year’s book dates.
But much more importantly, you can help guide and form the next generation of journalists at such a crucial time in the American Experiment. (We in academia can write like that without blushing.)
There’s nothing quite like meeting with a student after her first time in the chair producing a live TV newscast, even if it’s only on a local cable access channel. In the classroom, you get to see the light go on when a student starts to speak up for the first time.
You can also help students get their first jobs, cheer their first successes, enjoy their first alumni reunion weekend.
For me, I get to scratch an itch that has bothered me for years and send into the world well-informed, highly ethical journalists They know my old maxim: If you produce news, you must consume news and other information. And they know that maybe it’s not a good idea to have sponsor logos on the news set.
Maybe the positives excite you but the commitment to a tenure-track career is more than you can make right now. There are alternatives.
Some major journalism schools have two tracks: a tenure track for scholars and a “clinical professor” track for practitioners. In that case, a Ph.D. is not always required.
As a proud community college graduate, I recommend that you consider teaching freshmen and sophomores only. They often transfer to four-year schools and would benefit from your wisdom.
Finally, there’s part-time. “Adjunct” instructors teach only one or two courses per term. You could maintain a freelance career or even a different shift at a TV station while also keeping a hand in higher education. That’s how I started.
Teaching college journalism was my planned second act, something for which I’d been preparing since the 1990s. It can be rewarding in many ways, and you’ll be surprised at the effect you can have on young lives and careers. But stay away, please, if you don’t believe in journalism or how college can prepare you for it.
If you believe, maybe you can hear your former students parrot your wisdom or even just a silly old saying they heard in your college newsroom. Right now, there are students in several states blurting out, “Tick-tock goes the broadcast clock.”
Kevin Finch is about half-way down the tenure track at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. After 26 years in TV news, Kevin still continues to produce documentaries.