You are hereGraduate School Blog
Graduate School Blog
CONNOR WALTERS '13 (Journalism; Minors in English and Spanish; Teacher Leadership Certificate)
First-year student in the graduate journalism program (2013-2014)
at Northwestern University in Chicago.
POST #8: A Defining Quarter
As of this writing, I have just three months remaining in my graduate program, with a little more than a quarter of schooling left.
Third quarter has been fantastic.
For the first five weeks I was one of nine students in a class called "Producing a News Website." We were responsible for conceptualizing and building a website from a minimalistic Wordpress template on a news topic of our choosing. We selected Chicago’s burgeoning entrepreneurship scene as our area of focus, and while we rotated roles for each of the four editions of our site, I was tapped as the week’s first managing editor. This was a big role, as I had to make sure our site had all of the things you might not think about: color scheme, logos, About and Information pages, in addition to great multimedia content. However, while I held that title for week one, it was entirely a group effort to make those things happen during that week and the ones that followed. I had the chance to report and present my stories using Scrollkit and videos, in addition to developing a robust social media strategy that helped our fledgling site pick up more than 1,000 views over five days. This class was a lot of fun and helped me realize that I am very interested in so much more than writing.
During the second five weeks of the quarter I am in a class called "Developmental Editing," which focuses on reading and editing magazine features. In addition to writing fake letters to editors and freelance writers, repurposing stories for different magazines and copyediting, we also discuss critically some truly outstanding feature stories. It’s a real joy when my homework involves settling down with some coffee to read and re-read some 10,000-words stories that were reported extensively and written beautifully—it gives my classmates and me a lot to aspire to write like that some day.
For the full duration of the quarter, I have taken two other classes: "Sports Journalism" and "Magazine Writing." My professor for the first class is LZ Granderson, a senior writer at ESPN and freelancer for CNN. Much of the class is discussion about sports reporting and writing, but we have also Skyped with some big-name sports journalists like Wright Thompson, Dave Zirin, Jeff Pearlman and Jay Williams; it’s inspiring to be able to talk with them about their journalism paths and how they wrote some of the great pieces they’ve compiled. Furthermore, our class work for the quarter has involved reporting and featuring a Northwestern University athlete. The athlete I’m covering is on the baseball team, and our reporting has included photo slideshows, video diaries and culminates in a 2,500-word feature. It’s been a very interesting look at reporting and working with a student-athlete who has a busy schedule (it takes me back to undergrad…), but I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed getting to do the work that leads to the story.
In "Magazine Writing," my professor is Chicago magazine’s senior writer Bryan Smith. He brings a wealth of award-winning reporting and storytelling experience to our class, as well as a critical eye for the elements that yield riveting magazine writing. Our class work has focused on scene-setting, description-writing, in-depth reporting and also culminates in a 2,500-word feature. Again, the lessons are intangible really until I am out reporting and writing, so it’s great to have assignments where I can try out the things we discuss in class and a professor who really knows the craft.
This has been a longer post, so I’ll end things here, but I look forward to perhaps a couple more blogs before I graduate in late August, when I finish my fourth quarter innovation project. Stay tuned!
POST #7: Learning By Doing
If I was not aware of this before, I certainly have been clued into the notion that a lot of journalism is learning by doing.
Take this past week as an example.
Last weekend I spent three days covering the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago. I sat in on three separate presentations and panel discussions relating to food growing, engineering and overpopulation issues. I listened to big name experts like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote the 1968 book The Population Bomb, talk about areas of science they are passionate about. I turned four stories in three days, did some web production for our class site and was totally wiped out by the end of it. But I learned so much about the different topics and about my ability to handle reporting in this setting.
Two days later, I trekked down to central Illinois to spend two days at a family-owned and operated organic dairy farm. I was warmly welcomed by the couple that runs the farm, and was put to work for the majority of the experience. I milked cows, fed pigs, prepared animal feed, plowed snow, cleaned up barns and even observed some minor surgical procedures on animals. Throughout my visit I was educated about the advantages and rationale behind raising free-range, organic and non-antibiotic animals, and the policies and procedures that complicate their popular use and distribution. The husband and wife generously hosted me in their home, shared their food and information, and made an impact on my knowledge of these areas of food, science and policy that are becoming hot topics.
Coming up this week, I am the leader of a group moot court project that involves debating about the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Working with some students who I did not know before this class reminded me distinctly of my first Make a Difference Day project, and I am confident in our presentation, despite my lack of any legal or debate background. This is the first instance in my grad school term where I have been able to apply leadership lessons from undergrad in a group setting; I feel well prepared for this.
All of this has been going on while I have been covering food science as a reporter for the Medill News Service. I have taken on study stories, features and consumer product alerts, and had to work the phone and email lines to find expert sources to talk with. Additionally, I am learning how to be a magazine editor and design a website using HTML, CSS and PHP. There seem to be new things for me to learn every day, so I definitely feel that I’m getting my money’s worth!
Getting to write this blog gives me the chance to reflect on what I am doing and gaining from this year of amped up journalism education. The lessons and experiences are countless, and I am sure they will continue to be as such during my remaining two quarters.
POST #6: Methods That Matter
In December I finished my first quarter of grad school, a time in which our journalism professors harped on us to build a strong lede, find and emphasize what makes a story newsworthy, and develop photo, audio and video skills. Among insiders, this quarter is known as "Methods."
Embarking now on my second quarter, I can really see how the fundamentals--the methods--that my first-quarter professors grilled us on really make a difference. What's more, I am finding concrete ways that my liberal arts foundation has prepared me for the work that lies ahead. During our introductory class we had to list what sort of science classes we had taken in undergrad. I had as many or more than nearly every other student. Our professor was adamant about how important this background information might become as we report, and I whispered a quiet word of thanks to Drs. Jeitler, Tschunko, Barnas, and Rocky Freeman.
In this quarter the focus is on beat reporting, which we all do from our downtown newsroom three days each week. My beat is food science, a topic I was first introduced to in Dr. Joan Price's Food, Media and Society class as a junior. I anticipate my coverage will include GMOs, food safety policy, flavor labs in Chicago, fast food, modern agriculture and perhaps even food for space. Some of my stories will be localization of national movements or events. Others will be features. Still others will be breaking news. I've already spent several hours developing source ideas that will be able to provide expert opinions or share the latest developments in their industry. Furthermore, in seeking out stories, I've constantly been asking myself: "Is this newsworthy?" Clearly the methods I learned last quarter are becoming second-nature.
My classes outside of beat reporting are called How 21st Century Media Work and Magazine/Interactive Techniques. The first class focuses on the changing world of journalism, from reporting to delivery of information. You mention anything related to what's happening in the digital world of mass communication and we are probably covering it. The second class serves two purposes: to familiarize us with how magazines are written, put together and operate; and to teach us the digital basics behind building a website, including HTML and CSS. By the end of the quarter, www.connordwalters.com will be a fully functional personal website that I plan to use as an online portfolio, of sorts.
On top of my school work I am also freelance writing for Rowing Magazine, which is very exciting. I often pitch story ideas to the editor, who picks the one or two he wants me to cover. Then I do some research, conduct my phone interviews, write, edit, review and send my work off to the magazine. When I finally receive the completed magazine in the mail each month, the sight of my name in print really gets my adrenaline going.
The pace of this program is quick, and by the end of the quarter it will be halfway over. It is starting to hit me that once I am done I can take my career in any number of directions. I am becoming convinced that sharing news and information that matters to people is very important, and I enjoy having the responsibility fall on me to deliver. Often I also find myself thinking about ways to change the industry, develop a new way of doing something, or bringing a new element to a news organization. If I can say one thing about journalism right now, it's that it has plenty of room for students to take it to new places. I'm ready to explore.
POST #5: Cruising Through the Quarter
As I write this post tonight, I am finishing up my sixth week of the first quarter of my program, which means I am already 1/8 of the way through grad school. I have settled in nicely into my classes. I am enjoying the work we are doing and am learning a lot.
Throughout the last three weeks we have had the responsibility of going out to some neighborhoods on the northwest side of the city and covering our beats. Since my beat is sports and recreation, I have previewed the grand opening of a new rowing boathouse, completed a feature on a men’s novice hockey program, and tomorrow will cover a high school football playoff game that includes a team making its first appearance in 21 years.
Working a beat is fun and challenging. It forces you to go out and talk with people, take some risks and race against a deadline. So far, all of the people I have interacted with have been nice and helpful, although some have been difficult to get a hold of. From this I have learned to be polite but persistent as I reach out to sources.
Finding story ideas can be difficult since we are limited to our neighborhoods, but we have learned a great deal about localizing larger stories and how sometimes a good story might fall into one’s lap. One of my roommates was at a local town hall meeting and ended up sitting next to a lady whose house foundation was cracking; a couple of interviews later proved that this was a problem for a number of people on her street and a story was born.
The professors I have are more than willing to help us find stories and push us to find out for ourselves if something will work. They also have been drilling us with in-class exercises to hone our writing skills and prepare us for a wide range of story types.
Although our stories are not published this quarter, all the students in the program can see what each other wrote, helping us to see the work that everyone is doing and support them.
For the next six weeks we are shifting gears somewhat as we learn a lot more about video, audio and photography. As a sign of the changing nature of journalism skills, we will learn how to capture these media using an iPod. This, connected with lessons on various Adobe programs, will advance our skills in what is rapidly becoming a digital field.
The hard work I am putting in and the connections I am making with peers, professors and sources have really helped me to start feeling more comfortable in my journalism shoes. And almost without my noticing it, the quarter is already half over!
POST #4: The First Week!
Wow. A lot took place in my first four days at Medill. I will attempt to keep things brief, but things have really taken off!
Tuesday afternoon was our first class: Editing Methods. This four-hour class meets every Tuesday afternoon to discuss grammar, AP style and the finer points of writing that I know I need to ingrain in myself. We are divided into “sections,” which are four classes of roughly 16 students that also attend our News writing and Multimedia Methods classes together.
In that first class a number of familiar elements were present. These included a grammar and AP style exam, a news quiz and an overview of the many grammar rules that are oft forgotten by many people (yours truly included). I felt fortunate that many of the things we discussed were familiar and they served as good reminders to me. Additionally, the AP style exam and news quiz were measures used by Dr. Joan Price in MASS 207 and MASS 360 while I was at Marietta College.
Wednesday was the first day of our 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. classes for News Writing Methods. Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday we follow this schedule, which begins with a lecture from a guest professor or professional. Throughout the week we had lectures covering the basics of our methods classes, how to find story seeds and how to begin understanding our audiences. So far I enjoy these lectures and always have a lot to take away from them.
The remainder of the week in News Writing we discussed story structure, including the inverted pyramid, reviewed how to write effective leads and wrote a crime story. This last part was very similar to the style that Professor Gi Smith used in my Article Writing class during senior year. We were provided with a police report and were able to “phone in” and ask questions of a police official (played by the professor). Although the assignment was a little complex it was nice having some familiarity with this exercise.
On Friday, I received my beat for the quarter—Sports and Recreation—and spent the day with my beat partner researching many areas of this subject. Our section is responsible for reporting about the Northwest side of Chicago and is starting to gel into a cohesive newsroom team. We learned a lot through our research and now have some great story ideas that we will start working on next week.
To conclude the week, our professor encouraged us to get together at a local pub to relax after a long first four days. A couple of the faculty joined us, and it was great to talk with them about their journalism experience, pick their brains and just have casual conversations about journalism.
If I had any doubts about whether this program is right for me, they are certainly gone now. Time for a restful and productive weekend, followed by week two!
POST #3: A New Adventure on the Horizon
It is now two days before I move to Chicago and I could not be more excited.
A lot has happened since I submitted my enrollment deposit in April, from meeting potential roommates, to apartment hunting, filling out financial aid and loan applications, and now preparing to move. Just last week I finally received my course syllabi, schedule and book list. It was a nice reality check about what I am actually about to enter.
Back tracking a little bit, I am about to move into an apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, which is the northernmost part of the city before you arrive at Evanston, which is where main campus is located. I will be living with two other guys in my program who I met and communicated regularly with through Facebook.
When we were admitted, we were also invited to a class Facebook page for us to all meet and interact on; a few postings later we started talking about living together and filled out a mutual survey about our own interests, living habits, lifestyles, etc. Call it your less-extensive grad school freshman roommate questionnaire. Since that point, we all agree to live together and began the housing search…in May, four months before any of us was actually planning on moving.
We quickly found out that no property manager wants to sign out any residence so far in advance, so our search was postponed until early July when we scoured Craigslist, HotPads, places referred to us through Facebook and a wide range of other apartment search databases. Ultimately we found a good one that had just opened up and were the first people to submit all of our paperwork and applications (there was a lot more than I had ever anticipated). We sent a friend to scope it out, who confirmed that it was a good place, and by late July it was a done deal.
From that point on, it’s just like college in that we talked about who was bringing what to furnish our place; however, we did have to discuss who got which bedrooms (they were all different), if we would get cable (no) and other independent rental-related decisions. Things are now ready for me to arrive on Friday.
As I mentioned before, I received a lot of my course information last Friday, and it was a reality check about the rigors and respect of my program. Wednesday through Friday I am in class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; I have half-days on Monday and Tuesday, but will be spending parts of the “free time” gathering news information, reading newspapers, brushing up on editing and AP style, and maybe sleeping for a few seconds.
My classes in many ways resemble some of those I took at Marietta, but I am reminded that they call first quarter at Medill “Journalism Boot Camp,” so I expect it to be much more rigorous and demanding. I’ll take three “methods” courses (Editing, News writing, and Multimedia) and an Ethics & Law of Journalism course. For that last course, my professor actually wrote our textbook, and for another class I am using the most recent edition of a text I used in Dr. Joan Price’s MASS 207 class; these and a few other books, of course, are in addition to the “AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law” that is the lifeblood reference material for any journalist.
Perhaps one of the most exciting and yet intimidating elements of my program are the professors. They are renowned in journalism, media, law and other fields, with Pulitzer Prizes and other recognition to boot. I am thrilled to be around these people who I am sure will teach me tons about the field, but who also have the highest of expectations for me and my peers.
Speaking of high expectations…the “Medill ‘F’” comes to mind.
I had only heard about it as a rumor, but my syllabi confirmed that, yes, certain mistakes in news story assignments will automatically result in a failing grade. Misspell a name or word in a headline, introduce an error into a story, and include numbers or figures that do not add up and expect to receive an ‘F’ as your grade in some classes. This practice, while a little unnerving at first, is important for me to practice my accuracy as a journalist; when I am out on the job after graduation, such mistakes could cost me credibility, readers, or in certain cases, my job.
So a lot has happened and continues to happen as I embark on the journey out to the Windy City. I am already looking forward to meeting my roommates in person, attending our Orientation Day, going to our new graduate student boat cruise dinner (!) and just living in Chicago. My excitement builds with each day.
Yet I think that the thing I am most excited about is actually getting to live my dream, at the ripe age of 22-23. I have hoped for this opportunity since the summer before my senior year of high school and feel very privileged to get to experience Medill, Northwestern, Chicago, etc., after having thought about it and worked towards it for so long. I understand that not all people get such a unique opportunity, especially when they are as young as I am. For that, I look forward to being completely open and engaged with everything that awaits me for the next 10-12 months.
I get to wake up on Friday and live a real dream.
POST #2: From McDonough to Medill (Part Two)
Each school that I had picked had a significant amount of appeal to me. All had sound reputations for their MSJ programs. Notably, Missouri and Kansas were state schools (and in some ways were cheaper), but both were two-year programs, whereas Northwestern was only one. Also, Northwestern’s program holds much more prestige and notoriety, with its laundry list of notable alumni, innovative programs and practices, as well as location in a major American city like Chicago, where opportunities are plentiful. Lastly, Northwestern was the dream school; it had been where I wanted to go for undergrad, so it still had some extra allure.
Applying was an extensive process. The first thing that anyone considering applying to grad school should really do is take the GRE (or whichever standardized test applies to your program of interest). I ended up taking the GRE after the Northwestern application deadline and sat on pins and needles as I wondered if this would hamper my odds at being accepted. So, what are you waiting for? Schedule it now!
The GRE is just one element of the equation. There is no “Common App” for grad schools; each has its own application, its own essays, its own online system that can be finicky to navigate, etc. I familiarized myself with all three applications early and put out feelers to potential letter of recommendation writers. I began taking notes of deadlines (very important!), jotting down essay ideas, ordering transcripts to be sent and budgeting the application fees. For Northwestern I also set up a video interview because I figured it might help my chances.
The struggle in applying for grad school really occurs when you consider that you are also still in school, preparing for finals, doing extracurriculars and trying to enjoy your senior year. Being on top of what I needed to do (for the most part…) helped me complete everything on time.
Fast forward to late January and February when these programs start to send you admissions decisions. It was just like hearing back from undergrad programs: equal parts nerve-wracking and exciting. I was confident about Kansas and Missouri, but it was Medill, which had waitlisted me for undergrad, that I was most anxious about hearing back from.
Friday, February 22nd rolled around. I was already into Kansas. Sitting at dinner with my teammates, a phone call from a number I did not recognize provided me with some of the most exciting news of my life.
“Hello, is Connor that I am speaking with?”
“Hi, yes.” (Look of complete confusion on my face)
“Hi Connor! This is Anne Penway from Medill at Northwestern University. How are you today?”
Excitement starts to build…they don’t call you to tell you that you’ve been rejected, right?
“I’m fine, thank you.” (Nervously shaking)
“Well Connor, I just wanted to call and congratulate you on being admitted to our program for this fall.”
“Wait. Are you serious?”
The rest is history.
After that phone call, I knew where I wanted to go. Still, I visited Northwestern and waited until I received all my financial aid information before making any decision.
I was fortunate enough to be graduating Marietta without any debt, and the cost difference between one year at Northwestern and two years at Kansas and Missouri was comparable. Grad school is not cheap, so this was an important factor in deciding to enroll anywhere.
Within a month or so my deposit was submitted and I attended Medill’s enrollment days so I could meet people and get a better feel for what I would be doing during my four quarters of grad school. It reinforced everything I thought about what would be the best for me and my career.
As I sit a month away from moving to Chicago, I realize what an extensive, expensive and time-consuming process getting to this decision was for me. But I believe that it was entirely worth it, and I am excited for this next stage, just as I would hope to be if I had gone the job route right after graduation.
I believe that it was because I gave myself options and planned ahead that I was able to choose from several options about what I was going to do after graduating from Marietta College. Whatever avenues you are considering pursuing after graduation, I encourage you to take the same steps I did. At times it will be stressful and exhausting, but it will allow you to approach graduation with an eagerness for what is next that will be both rewarding and comforting.
Please stay tuned.
POST #1: From McDonough to Medill (Part One)
As I set out into the less-frequently chartered waters of grad school, Dr. Perruci approached me to blog for McDonough about my experiences in this area. How did I come to choose this post-undergrad option? What was it like applying? Then getting started? Did I feel prepared? How different was it from Marietta?
These are all important questions for any student considering what he or she is doing once they leave the brick mall, the moving bookshelves and close-knit community of Marietta College. Allow me, first, to introduce myself.
My name is Connor Walters and I am a 2013 graduate of “time honored Marietta” with a journalism major, English and Spanish minors and a Teacher Leadership Certificate. My resume of extracurricular undergrad activities included serving as President of Student Senate, coordinating the McDonough EXCEL Workshop, rowing for the Pioneer Navy and writing for the Marcolian. I also had an internship with the H.J. Heinz Company the summer before my senior year, and one with Phillips Exeter Academy immediately after graduation.
In September I am heading to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to receive my master’s degree in journalism (MSJ). Enrolling at Medill has been a long-time dream of mine, especially because it consistently ranked as one of the top journalism programs in the country.
A first element of deciding to take this route included understanding my field, what jobs are out there and my preparation for such jobs. Journalism is a rapidly changing field, and it seems that it is more common to hear about news or media publications dropping writers instead of adding them. Although I learned and experienced a lot in my undergrad years, part of me felt as though I would still be facing an uphill battle in finding a job that would suit me.
Naturally, this led me to consider what lessons or skills I would need to learn in order to obtain a job that I wanted to do, or at least one that would help me develop professionally. My knowledge of all elements of digital media was limited, and I also felt as though my interviewing and reporting skills could use some more work. There were two routes to go to try and develop these important skills: a job or grad school.
So, wanting to set myself up to choose a route, I sought out both. And I’ll keep the job portion of things short: I only heard back from one out of the 20 or so that I applied to over winter break of senior year.
Beginning in the summer prior to my senior year I began researching graduate journalism programs after I had spoken with my advisor about them. I exchanged messages with a recent graduate (Alison Matas ’11) who was finishing up her MSJ program at the University of Missouri to find out how she liked her program, what she was learning, how helpful she found it and what sort of prospects she was looking at as she entered the job market. Everything she said was encouraging, so I went forward with my search. Ultimately, I settled on three schools: Missouri, the University of Kansas, and Northwestern University.