September 3, 2019

Christina Leonard is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and executive editor of Cronkite News, the student-produced news division of Arizona PBS.

I’m not a worrier – at least, not generally. It’s one of the many things that drives my husband crazy.

So when The Arizona Republic announced yet another “restructuring and reorganization” in 2014, I wasn’t all that anxious. My husband, who also worked for the paper, wanted to have extensive discussions about what might happen, where else we could work and how we would pay our mortgage if one of us lost our job. But to be honest, I wasn’t interested in dissecting every possibility.

I had survived a number of newsroom shakeups, and things always turned out fine. I had been with my company for about 17 years, and I felt safe.

But the paper did something different during this reorganizational effort: Leadership made all the employees reapply for their jobs. We dusted off our résumés, prepared for interview panels, the whole bit.

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As part of the exercise, newsroom leadership asked us to think hard about our career goals. Where did we see ourselves in the years to come? What brought us joy? Where did we excel? 

When I looked at the open editing positions at The Republic, I wasn’t interested in most of them. I also knew the position I really wanted – the one that would test my skills and make me stretch – wasn’t in the cards for me. (A talented, more experienced editor held that position and wanted to keep it.) So that meant applying for a job I already had done. 

I loved the journalists there, and I respected the positions. But it was comfortable. Too comfortable. 

And I always need a challenge. 

During this introspection exercise, I kept thinking about how much I loved developing talent. And then it hit me: Why don’t I just focus on that and teach journalism?

So I applied for a professor of practice position at Arizona State University’s journalism school. All of a sudden, I couldn’t sleep at night because I kept thinking about the possibilities with this new opportunity. By a stroke of luck, I got the job. And I haven’t once regretted my decision to make the move into academia.  

Making the transition

I’ve worked at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for nearly five years now. I started as a content editor in Cronkite News, a newsroom that uses the teaching hospital model to train students – similar to medical students who gain experience actually doing the work. About 130 students go through our program each semester, and we have bureaus in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

My transition wasn’t exactly seamless. 

It probably took me a full year to adjust to the differences between working with professionals and working with students. Our students work full days, but they typically don’t come in five days a week, so we don’t have as much continuity. They often have other responsibilities – jobs, internships, other classes. And most don’t have a ton of experience doing this. (By “this,” you can pretty much fill in the blank: day turns, investigative stories, explainer videos, etc.)

I also had to learn to explain my actions – why I made the edits I did, why I rejected story pitches, why I made certain ethical decisions. The experience made me much more deliberate and much more patient. 

On top of that, I had to navigate all the new intricacies involved in academia. We operate off a syllabus. Our students change each semester. And our faculty have expectations professional journalists don’t generally have. For example, we do a lot of tours and speaking engagements, and we must do “service” by giving back to the community, institution or profession. 

But I loved the challenge. And that challenge only escalated when I became executive editor of Cronkite News last year. 

Working in a new environment

We’re all about innovation at ASU, so I’m surrounded by people who want to try new things. The Cronkite School has the reputation as having the gold standard in journalism education, which means we strive for excellence in everything we do. I also get to work with some of the most renowned journalists in the industry in a state-of-the-art facility. Trust me, I feel the pressure to provide our students an unparalleled experience!

But hands down, the best part of my job is working with our students. It’s an honor to teach them and play such an important role in their lives. They’re curious. They’re passionate. They’re creative. I soak up their energy each and every day. 

The students also teach us. They understand younger audiences and how to reach them. They introduce us to new social media tools, new apps, new vocabulary. They aren’t afraid to break the mold. 

They do, however, come with their own challenges. Research shows this generation is less independent than previous generations, and they have more anxiety and depression as well. 

Because this new generation hasn’t quite hit the workforce, who knows what they’ll need when they get there. We’re trying to prepare them as best we can, but you’ll need to figure out how to connect with them once they’re out of school and on your payroll. 

But don’t let that scare you. 

I’m confident in these students. In fact, moving to Cronkite school has changed my outlook on journalism. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t incredibly optimistic about our industry by when I left The Republic. I had let some of the negativity and noise get to me. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t the doom and gloom character in the newsroom, but I wasn’t exactly Pollyanna, either. 

The Cronkite students made me realize that we’re going to be OK. Journalism won’t look like it did 20 years ago, but these students will respond to our changing audiences with new, innovative ways to tell stories and share information. They’re going to change the world. 

Is academia right for you?

I love my job, and I’m happy I made the move. But it’s not for everyone. 

If you’re thinking about making the switch, take a hard look first. I’m incredibly lucky I ended up at the Cronkite school – a place that values excellence, innovation, diversity and inclusion. Our dean is a visionary who has transformed our school into one of the best in the country. We’ve seen tremendous growth in our programs. 

But I’m at a special place. I’ve spoken to faculty from other j-schools who face challenges I don’t: They worry about funding; they deal with intense internal competition; their enrollment has dropped. You really have to do your homework to make sure it’s a good fit.

I also recognize my role is unique. I’m fortunate to practice journalism in a working newsroom – so I still get my daily adrenaline rush – while teaching at the same time. I’m not sure if I’d be as happy if I only got to lecture students. At least, not right now.

And some working journalists have a misperception about what teaching entails. I can promise you we don’t sit around in tweed jackets in our private offices, thinking big thoughts and chillin’ during the summers. I’ve also met journalists who haven’t considered teaching because they think they need a master’s degree or doctorate. Many schools require tenure-track professors to have advanced degrees, but others welcome professors of practice, who come straight from the field. I didn’t have my master’s degree when I joined ASU, but I earned it while working here. 

If you get a kick out of mentoring and developing journalists, want to continue to learn new skills and love a challenge, teaching might be right for you. 

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