Alumni return ‘back from the front’ to discuss job strategies

By Chris Shores

 

"Back from the Front" event poster

As many underclassmen finalize their summer internship plans and graduation draws near for seniors, the University of Massachusetts Journalism Program hosted an event last Thursday night featuring a panel of alumni who have found jobs in the field.

The event, which was held in the Bernie Dallas Room of Goodell Hall, featured six alumni of the department. All panel members graduated within the last 10 years and four of the alumni were part of last year’s graduating class. The group members were involved in student media during their time at UMass, with at least five serving in some capacity on the Massachusetts Daily Collegian staff.

Throughout the night, the journalism graduates stressed the need to be proactive, to find opportunities, to go beyond expected roles, and to learn and adapt to the changing shape of media.

“Journalists have to always be students,” said Eric Athas, a 2008 graduate who currently serves as a producer for WashingtonPost.com. “The ways stories are evolving so rapidly, you can’t learn a trade and use that for the rest of your career. [You have to] learn as much as possible and be a student of the profession.”

Athas noted that he had to learn on the job while covering a story last June about leishmaniasis, a disease carried by sand flies that was afflicting U.S. soldiers overseas. He described the challenges of the story: the technical and scientific nature of a disease he previously knew little about, the reluctance of a subject to be interviewed and a desire to accompany the written piece with multimedia.

Julie Robenhymer, a 2003 graduate and the oldest member of the panel, went through another form of the learning process after graduation. After a friend told her about the website HockeyBuzz.com, Robenhymer disagreed with the nature of one of its stories and expressed her opinion on the site. This led the editor of HockeyBuzz.com to take an interest in Robenhymer and offer her a job. She was skeptical at first, but eventually was won over by the job proposal.

“They wanted me to blog about anything and everything that I wanted. How could I say no to that?” she said. “I go to hockey games and I write about them… [and] I write features. It took me a while to figure out what to do with a blog. A blog can be anything you want it to be.”

Mike LaCrosse and Mary Kate Alfieri, both members of the class of 2010, stressed the need to partake in internships during school. LaCrosse interned twice with WGGB, ABC40/FOX6 in Springfield. Now he is a reporter and producer for the network. He explained how during his internships, he would show up on days he wasn’t supposed to work or extend his shift beyond the normal hours.

“Get internships and don’t just sit there,” advised LaCrosse. “Bug the crap out of them.”

Alfieri said that internships led her to a job in public relations with the Boston-based advertising and public relations agency Loomis Group.

“Internships are so important,” she said. “I had four different internships and they were all different… but it helped me land exactly where I wanted to be.”

The panelists fielded questions posed to them by journalism lecturer David Perkins, and were straightforward in their answers about the future of media.

“The problems are really on the business side,” said Michael Phillis, a staff writer for the Lexington Minuteman newspaper and a 2010 graduate of the program. “We’ve developed new tools and new ways to tell stories. We’re hoping that the business side will pick up.”

MassLive.com producer Sean Sullivan, who is also a 2010 graduate, said that the journalism department should change its approach of teaching multimedia in the classroom, suggesting that faculty focus more on theory and journalism principles rather than specific technology which is constantly changing.

“I think the most valuable class I took was Ethics… the stuff I could use every day,” he said. “At the same time, I feel like there wasn’t a big emphasis on what I could do. I think you’d be better served seeking out multimedia journalism and showing how it is made rather than spending an inordinate amount of time on Final Cut Pro.”

Sullivan added that students should be learning the programs on their own time and agreed with his fellow panelists about the need for constant adaptation and education.

A question was posed from the audience about whether the journalism department should require students to become involved in student media organizations. The panel responded that involvement should be on the impetus of the students, not the faculty.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]