The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday March 7th

Q&A with John Robinson, newspaper editor turned professor

 At the School of Media and Journalism, many budding journalists study in hopes of landing a spot in the world of media. Professors in the "J-school" help guide students toward a job in the turbulent world of journalism.

John Robinson is a professor in the School of Media and Journalism after serving as editor of the Greensboro News & Record for 13 years. Staff Writer Charlie McGee spoke to John Robinson about his life and career change. 

The Daily Tar Heel: How long have you been a professor at the School of Media and Journalism and what are your duties in that role? 

Professor John Robinson: This is my fifth year, my tenth semester. Is that right? Eleventh semester. Is that right? Yeah, that’s right. And I teach two classes right now, they’ve changed over the years. Right now I teach Feature Writing and Media Hub. I’m an adjunct, and I’m also the director of the adjuncts in the journalism school.

DTH:  Before joining the School of Media and Journalism, you were an editor for the Greensboro News and Record. How long did you work at the News and Record?

JR: I was at the News and Record for 27 years. I started as an assistant city editor and rose up through the ranks to become the editor which is what I did for 13 years. 

DTH: What kind of things does working in that role in the industry for so long do in helping you teach your students today?

JR: It certainly gave me a different perspective than if I had gone through academia and had a doctorate. I don’t have a doctorate, I don’t have a masters, I barely have a bachelor’s degree. Because it gave me that real-life experience on what it takes to make a story, what news judgment is, what readers may or may not want from news stories. That kind of thing.

DTH: So do you think that that’s something that is still relevant today, in terms of real-world experience for young journalists being almost more valuable for rising in the ranks of the industry than actual education or degrees?

JR: (laughs) Yeah, like I’m gonna answer that question. But because I haven’t been to grad school and been through that process, I’m not going to compare and contrast grad school vs. real world. What I will say is that if you want to be a print reporter, well, let me back up, if you want to work in professional journalism as a reporter or editor or broadcaster, having a teacher who has spent a lot of their life in those fields doing those things certainly gives those students a different perspective than they might get otherwise. Someone else can decide if it’s better or not better. But my assumption is, based on the people I know in the journalism school, that students take a mix of classes from tenured professors to adjuncts with a lot of experience, and the tenured professors have a lot of experience doing the sorts of jobs they got their doctorates in to teach students. So you can graduate from the journalism school with a degree in journalism having been taught by (people with) Ph.D.s and taught by people who are working as adjuncts who have worked in the real world. So I think it’s a pretty good balance, would be my guess.

DTH: Right. So what kind of things do you miss about working for a paper and what are the things you’re happy to have seen changed in terms of your life and work since becoming a professor?

JR: You know, people expect me to miss a lot about the news business, and I don’t. I did it for a long time, I’ve seen just about every good news story and every bad news story that you can imagine. I miss the same thing that, and if you talk to most journalists, they also miss, and that is the people. Working with just the smartest, most creative, most curious, most resourceful, people that you can find. In a newsroom, I miss that. I don’t miss the financial constraints the business is going through right now, I don’t miss that at all as someone who has had to lay people off. 

DTH:  What are some of the things you’re happy have changed?

JR:  I like dealing with students. I think they’re exceptionally smart and a lot of fun and they are looking to change the profession, which I think the profession needs. I like getting recharged by their enthusiasm. And, you know, if you read about most journalism, it’s really kind of a sad story. We’ve got a president who is demonizing journalists. You can barely pick up a newspaper without seeing that it’s being sold or downsized or people are being laid off. TV stations are consolidating and diluting some of their news judgment I think. So I like to give journalists in my classes hope and the joy of really doing what it is they want to do because I do think there’s a lot of hope and optimism out there. It’s just, you don’t see it that much if all you read about are lay-offs and declining news feeds. The whole business of digital journalism I think is exciting and it’s fun to talk about that with students as opposed to talking about that with reporters at my newspaper who might be laid off in six months. 

DTH: So you mentioned kind of how the industry is in a bit of a dark place, looking at past years, but also how the industry is constantly changing. How do you feel the outlook is for journalism in the coming future, being that you’ve seen many new, upcoming journalists over your years as a professor, in terms of people’s trust in the media and the digital vs. paper argument? What are some of the things that you see, in the coming years, changing that either will be good for the industry or maybe not so good?

JR: I’m gonna say these in no particular order, just as I think of them. One the things is that there needs to be a new generation of leadership across all of the media organizations, and it’s happening slowly. For one thing, I’m out. I don’t know that anyone younger or more resourceful took my place at the News and Record, but there needs to be fewer middle-aged and white guys running newsrooms, and more diversity that just kind of reflects the general public. And of course, with them, they bring new ideas and new ways of doing things. I mean, just across the board, better leadership. So I think that’s something that needs to happen and is happening, as one of the hopeful signs. I think it is that you get more people who are in leadership positions in reporting positions and media positions that, they understand what journalism is. It’s more than a newspaper and it’s more than a TV station. It’s done in lots of different ways by lots of different people and it doesn’t have to be print or on television, it can be on a website and on a graphic of some sort and it can be shared on social media. I mean, I think that the world is actually pretty bright for journalists if they can figure out how to make money doing it. It’s a tough road ahead on money but, I like to tell my journalists, my first I job I was paid $100 a week as a reporter for a small town newspaper, and it was the best job I ever had. I could do anything, I could write anything and I didn’t have a whole lot of expenses to take care of. You can do that if you’re passionate about what you do. So I’m actually pretty optimistic about what it is that we in the journalism school are training people to do. One of things I try to is, I try to bring academic rigor to each of my writing classes, to the dismay of students. I also try to bring the idea that, or communicate, we ought to have joy in what we do. Well, I say “we,” I’m not really one of them anymore. But the students ought to have joy, they need to understand the joy, whether it’s editing, reporting, broadcasting or PR. The ability to go out there and really change the world with what you produce is something pretty unique. There aren’t many professions that can do that.

DTH:  What advice do you have to provide for any young journalists that are reading this article right now?

JR: Well, the advice that I have is the advice that I’ve given probably a hundred times since I’ve been here. First, you don’t have to decide on what your career is today. You don’t have to decide on what it is before you graduate and, in fact, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you’ll change after your first couple jobs. I did, a lot of people I know in the journalism world did. I graduated college with one degree and went into an entirely different field. The second I’d say to the journalists that do it, you don’t have to go to New York City! It seems like everyone from the J-school wants to graduate and go to New York City. You don’t have to go there now. My advice, to at least print reporters, is take a job at a smaller paper. You’re not going to stay there forever. I know it’s not what you want to do, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and it will teach you real-life skills in reporting. I’d say the same about broadcast. You’ve got to start somewhere and it may not be at the best town or the best paper or the best station, but you don’t have to stay there forever. The last thing I’d probably say is, don’t give up. I know a lot of people who are wonderful writers and graduated from journalism (schools) but their first job was just rough. So they got out of journalism altogether. They end up teaching or doing something else and that makes me sad. Everybody’s first job kind of sucks. I know mine did and a lot of people I know did. You’ve got to suffer through the hard part and move on. 


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