November 25, 2007

Teaching a lesson

an interview with…

Barry University

After 25 years of reporting on riots, hurricanes, and public corruption in Miami, Cuba, and Haiti, Connie Hicks McMahon decided to teach broadcast journalism instead of living it.

So for the past three years, she’s been a professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, lecturing on not only broadcasting but also muddling through an intro class called “Writing for the Media.”

If the two jobs have one thing in common, it’s the begging.

In professional broadcasting, McMahon says, “we perfect begging – from a source for information, a producer for more time, and a news director to do a story he/she isn't wild about.”

At Barry, McMahon has perfected another kind of begging: convincing her students to learn how to write.

McMahon credits her success in front of the camera – which includes a couple of Emmy Awards, breaking the Florida connection to 9-11, and becoming the first female anchor at Miami’s WSVN – to her writing and reporting.

And even with stellar journalism skills, McMahon has to convince her students that a broadcasting career doesn’t begin glamorously. She regales them with stories about the “terrible, awful hours in the beginning – weekends, early mornings, and all holidays.”

“I couldn't count the times the New Year began with me driving home from the 11 p.m. newscast,” she says. “You can't say no to working a double shift when you're the rookie. And even when I wasn't a rookie, I spent more holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries with a photographer than I did with my family. Nothing like Valentine's Day driving to Gainesville to cover a trial – or to be in Starke for your birthday, covering an execution.”

What's the biggest difference between practicing journalism and teaching it?

One is doing it, the other is talking about it. The challenge is to convey the immediacy, the stress, the needed tools, the challenges, and excitement in a classroom setting – especially because this generation gets most of its news from the Internet. Few are dedicated newspaper readers or news viewers.

What's one part of your teaching job that most folks don't realize you do?

How much time I spend one-on-one with students who need help with their writing. And I mean basic writing sometimes, as well as broadcast writing.

How has broadcast news changed from the days you were winning awards doing it?

Technology – with the ability to go "live" almost anywhere, anytime – leaves you with less time to prepare. You can get background information and videotape sooner and faster, and satellite phones have helped broadcasting in cases where it would be near impossible – for example, reporting from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit. But at the same time, less money is being spent on the product – less travel and less time to work on "quality" stories.

You like those changes?

Not so much. I think the biggest disappointment is the lack of investigative reporting. Most television networks and stations don’t like having their reporters off air working on a special report. And there is, of course, the "big chill" factor of lawsuits. The faster something is done, the less you can expect good writing, good editing and substance.

The future of broadcast news as you see it?

Local news is here to stay, but there might well come the day when there’s no evening network news, at least as we see it now.

How did you get into broadcasting?

I became intrigued with "60 Minutes" in college – and I still am. It was my plan to work for a local news station, then go on to "60 Minutes." Having made my name there, I would sail around the world and write the next great American novel. To see the least, I fell a bit short of those goals.

A career highlight that sticks in your mind?

When I broke the story of the terrorists who had tried to learn how to fly and buy crop dusting planes in central and South Florida.

Any amusing professional gaffes?

Too many to recount. One that vividly stands out in mind is covering some hurricane on the beach, in the rain, with a slicker on, wind howling, can't see or hear a thing. I keep yelling to an intern by the live truck to find out when I'm on – only to discover I have been on air, yelling and screaming. By some fluke, I had not uttered a profanity, which surprised all who knew me.

If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students and young professionals, what would it be?

Be resourceful and curious. You don't have to be smart, but to do this job well, you have to want all the elements to craft a great story. To do that, you'll need those first two attributes.