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The liberal arts media

  • Young alumni making headlines
    Young alumni making headlines
    Todd Corillo '11 works for WTKR NewsChannel 3 in Hampton Roads, Va.
    Photo courtesy of Todd Corrillo '11

The following story originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the William & Mary Alumni Magazine. - Ed.

While graduates of the College have always made headlines, these days, they’re often writing them, too.

Even though William & Mary doesn’t have a journalism program and doesn’t offer reporting classes, a significant number of recent grads are applying their liberal arts educations to careers in news. Politico, Atlantic Media, U.S. News, Kiplinger and ESPN all employ young Tribe alumni, as do new digital darlings Vox and FiveThirtyEight. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of reporters and broadcasters to decline 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, but the uncertainty of the industry hasn’t deterred these 20-somethings from diving headfirst into media’s murky waters, where they work behind content management systems and in front of cameras to beat deadlines and break stories.

Many of these rising reporters got their start at student publications, scribbling away in the Campus Center late into the night. Budding journalists at The Flat Hat, The Virginia Informer and other outlets developed news judgment by covering the Wren Cross controversy and the election of a student to the Williamsburg city council.

“I’ve always believed it’s the best experience,” Max Fisher ’08 said of writing for a college newspaper. Now content director of Vox, he credits a column he penned for The Flat Hat about then-president Gene Nichol with setting him on his career path, which has included jobs at The Atlantic and The Washington Post. “I’ve done things at the college paper I’m nowhere close to being able to do in the real, grown-up media world. Anyone can walk in freshman or sophomore year and have a decent shot.”

There’s more to the phenomenon than impressive college clips. Rather than hindering their progress, the reporters believe having liberal arts, instead of journalism, degrees contributed to their success. Walter Hickey ’12 was inspired to apply his math major toward a media career when data journalist Nate Silver made a splash predicting 2008 presidential election results. Assistant Professor Tanujit Dey recruited Hickey to contribute to a data visualization project about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the type of timely, analytical work a journalist might undertake.

“The math department is really, really good at identifying skills,” Hickey said. “They definitely steered me in that direction once they realized I could be good there.” He now works with Silver as lead lifestyle writer at FiveThirtyEight.

For Jeff Dooley ’09, general editor at ESPN Insider, the writing training he received as an English and government student was invaluable. “I didn’t take a class where good writing wasn’t essential to doing well in the course,” Dooley said. “In government classes, it was structuring an argument, backing it up. I took several creative writing courses focusing on the craft of writing, and I draw on that every day.”

There’s no escaping the fact that the media job market is competitive. While interning without pay at The New Republic after graduation, Fisher applied to every job opening he spotted. He finally snagged a phone interview with a newspaper in rural Idaho, only to find the editor, dissatisfied with his own job, was interested in pursuing Fisher’s unpaid internship himself. “He asked, ‘Do you think they’d hire someone with a little more experience at that internship?’” Fisher recalled. “That was when I started to try to get more aggressive, making myself into something more hireable.”

Some alumni broke into the market by way of graduate school. The optimism Dooley felt at the end of his internship with ESPN Magazine the summer before senior year was punctured when the company issued a hiring freeze in response to the recession. So Dooley applied to Teach For America and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was accepted into both programs.

“It was a dream of mine to get my graduate degree in journalism, but I viewed it as a later-in-life sort of thing,” Dooley said. “But friends and family all advised me to do the Columbia admission.”

Receiving the Sizemore Fellowship for Graduate Study in Journalism, a generous scholarship funded by Mason ’63 and Connie Sizemore ’62, made his decision to attend Columbia easier.

“It was a fantastic experience for me,” Dooley said. “Having not had technical instruction in journalism previously, that was really valuable to have professors who were experts in each of their fields. It made me a much better journalist.”

Other grads seized ill-timed opportunities. Vanessa Remmers ’13, now a local government reporter for the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, wrote articles for the Petersburg Progress-Index during her senior year and graduated a semester early to take a full-time job with the daily Virginia paper. Hired as a reporter at an ABC station in Staunton, Va., Todd Corillo ’11 also graduated a semester early.

“Saturday night [after graduation], I walked out of the Sadler Center, got in the car and drove to the Shenandoah Valley, then started on Monday,” he said. “I finished my Hispanic studies major capstone during my first week on the job.”

He now works for WTKR NewsChannel 3 in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

And some alums bucked tradition altogether. Cristina Marcos ’13 interned at The Hill during her sophomore spring while participating in the William & Mary in Washington program, and when one of her editors offered to introduce her to Fox News Capitol Hill producer Chad Pergram, she jumped at the chance.

“Twenty minutes into our conversation, [Pergram] asked, ‘How would you feel about interning at Fox with me?’” Marcos recalled. “It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with someone I really admire and respect.”

Surprising her classmates, she took a semester off to take advantage of the opportunity.

“It was definitely an unusual thing to do, but it was an extremely good career move for me,” she said. “You learn so much more in the field, getting to know lawmakers, seeing what they do every day.” Marcos then graduated a semester early to take an internship at CQ Roll Call and now works for The Hill.

Regardless of how they got their first gigs, these journalists don’t stay put for long. Half of the alums interviewed were transitioning to new positions at different media outlets, all after less than two years at their current jobs. The tenuousness of the business makes some young reporters eager to job hop if they sense a chance to advance their careers.

“There’s still a great deal of uncertainty,” said Kristin Coyner ’09, staff writer for CQ Roll Call. “I’ve seen rounds of layoffs already.”  Yet the breakdown of traditional barriers has benefited those willing to take risks. “I don’t think you’ve ever really had a time when there’s been so much opportunity,” Hickey said. “If you’re someone new to the business, it’s an exciting time.”

Although none of the reporters viewed William & Mary as a journalism incubator when they enrolled, in hindsight, they’re not surprised the school attracts future media mavens.

“W&M has a culture where they really teach us to question everything, challenge the status quo, look at things in an intellectual way,” Marcos said.

Corillo agreed: “I think that curiosity that makes you a good W&M student makes you a really good journalist.”