Make the Grade in Teaching

By: Randy Dotinga

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about making the switch from the newsroom to the classroom.

So you want to be a journalism professor.

If you’ve worked in a newsroom for longer than a few years, the idea has surely crossed your mind. Why not heed the clarion call of academia and say goodbye to the world of deadlines and deadwood?

Countless journalists have made the leap, but the smart ones don’t jump without plenty of planning. Here are the top four things you should do if you’re thinking about changing careers:

1. Look Within: Is teaching for you? “You have to have a predisposition,” said Susan Rasky, senior lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and former reporter for The New York Times. “It probably shows in your resume. Are you the person in the newsroom who mentors interns or new reporters? Are you a lede doctor, someone who helps other reporters figure stuff out?”

If you’ve always been a reporter, consider moving into management before becoming a professor, if only to get experience being responsible for people other than yourself. Teaching “is easier for someone who has been on a desk in some capacity,” said John Dinges, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York and former reporter and assistant editor for The Washington Post. “Whether you’ve been managing a lot of people or not is the operative thing, whether you have been dealing with people’s copy and making decisions about their stories as opposed to just writing your own stories.”

2. Start schmoozing: Just as in newsrooms, connections are key at colleges and universities. It’s possible to get a job by just sending in a resume, but not very likely.

Consider Rita Reed. She made an impression at the Missouri School of Journalism by pitching in at several of its photojournalism workshops while working as a photographer at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Now she’s an associate professor.

Reed recommends that aspiring professors sit on panels, judge journalism contests, speak at symposiums and attend conferences. “When institutions ask you to donate your time, you should do so,” she said.

Other good places to make connections are newspaper job fairs, especially the ones held on campus. The American Society of Newspaper Editors provides a good list on its Web site:

Once you have made connections, start offering even more of your time. Ask about guest lecturing or teaching a single class, even if it’s a junior college or university extension course. The experience will boost your confidence and your resume.

3. Think beyond Journalism 101: Not every college has a journalism program, and not every journalism program has space for you. But newsroom denizens can find potential teaching gigs in plenty of other subject areas, from English to communications. Even within journalism, there are opportunities to get creative and convince a department head to make room for another class.

“If you’re a political reporter, maybe there’s a role in the political science department for you. If you’ve been covering cops and courts, volunteer a specialized class in law enforcement reporting,” Rasky suggested.

And nearly every college and university has a school newspaper that could use some professional guidance, even if you do it for free.

4. Get a new degree: In an ideal world, every single person who teaches journalism would have spent time in a newsroom. If you ever find yourself in such a world, call 911. You’re hallucinating.

“Many schools of journalism establish a wall between themselves and actual journalists,” said Michael Skube, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer who now works as an assistant professor of journalism at North Carolina’s Elon University. Professors say many journalism departments are more impressed by a Ph.D. than by 30 years spent on a city desk

But there are exceptions to the rule, and aspiring professors should seek them out, said Judy Bolch, a chair at the Missouri School of Journalism and former managing editor at The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. “You want to go to a school where they’d give you opportunities to use your professional skills, where you’d be an equal member of the faculty” with research-oriented professors.

Maybe it’s best to imagine yourself being a college student. Would you want to prepare for a career in journalism at this school? If the answer is yes, you may have found a good home.

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