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I must profess: Journalism pros turn ‘prof’ after years in the industry

By Billy O'Keefe

By Michelle Phillips
Tired of crashing on deadline? Thinking of leaving journalism? Ever consider teaching?

Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, was a panelist at Monday’s program on the ethical dilemmas associated with social media. (NIKKI VILLORIA	/ The Working Press)

Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, was a panelist at Monday’s program on the ethical dilemmas associated with social media. (NIKKI VILLORIA / The Working Press)

Three journalists who traded the newsroom for a classroom offer some advice.
Jerry Ceppos, dean of the journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he served on the accreditation boards for so many journalism schools that he felt as though he was “on the outside looking in.”
At the same time, he had helped many young journalists at his paper, the San Jose Mercury News, where he was executive editor.
“I had a lot of fun doing it at the paper, so I thought I could try doing it full time,” he said. So Ceppos slowly eased into an academic career, beginning in 1996 with part-time teaching positions.
Academia came with its own challenges. Ceppos said the politics of campus life, such as promotions and tenure, took some getting used to.
However, Ceppos said he found the transition relatively easy and was excited to be doing something different. He added that teaching gives him a chance to learn about social media from his students, “the one part of journalism that the younger generation knows more about.”
Ceppos recommended starting an academic career slowly, such as teaching part time; he said most search committees are looking for candidates who are committed to teaching.
Deb Wenger, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, said she ran into “a case of newsroom burnout.”
“I got to a crisis point in my life when I had to ask, ‘What else is there?’” she said. After working in TV news for 17 years, she took the opportunity to teach multimedia journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002.
During her transition, though, Wenger struggled with boredom. She often sat in her office with nothing to do – no emails to answer, no phones to pick up and no stories to crank out.
“I didn’t have to juggle things around,” she said, and that was her biggest adjustment.
Wenger added that many journalism programs lack a clear direction for students and that that can put a strain on the faculty. But she said the stress can also be energizing.
“You can’t be innovative unless it gets messy,” she said. She tries to “embrace the chaos.”
Neil Ralston, vice president for campus chapter affairs at the Society of Professional Journalists, said he got to a point in his career when he thought he had to make a choice: become an editor, go into academia or leave journalism altogether.
“I saw the editors at my paper, and realized that they didn’t get much reward for what they were doing,” said Ralston, an assistant journalism professor at Western Kentucky University. That realization, he said, convinced him to avoid that route.
And it was around that time that his alma mater, Truman State University (then Northeast Missouri State University), asked him to apply for a teaching position. The rest just seemed to fall into place, he said, and he moved into academia in 1989 from the San Antonio Light.
The transition was not necessarily easy, though.
“Journalists should remember that they need to grade all the assignments,” Ralston said. He said he had made the mistake of assigning his students so much work that he could barely keep up with grading his own classes.
He said journalists should be prepared to work hard for the first few years.
Wenger said the opportunities for journalists in academia are increasing, especially in the realm of multimedia and online content. She encouraged journalists to get a master’s degree and some experience in online production.
Strangely, Ralston said the thing he missed most about professional journalism was also what he hated most: the deadline pressure. Although he said it used to kill him as a reporter, he missed the adrenaline rush that came with it.
That rush doesn’t exist much in academia, he said.
Other journalists turned teachers agree.
“If there’s a big story, it kills me to not be directing the coverage,” Ceppos said.
The rewards of academia also tend to come in unexpected places.
Wenger said that because she had to find a way to teach the secrets of the trade, she felt as though she was constantly learning. As a result, she thinks she would be a better journalist if she went back into the field.
Ralston compared the rewards of teaching to that of practicing journalism. He said he likes to see his students put into practice what he teaches them in class.