For several years, Montclair State University Journalism and Television and Digital Media students have spent their spring break or summer vacations gaining the ultimate hands-on experience in news gathering while working under challenging conditions. Aside from the logistical difficulties of parachuting into a faraway city to report on important issues of the day, students from the School of Communication and Media often have to overcome other hurdles while getting their stories.
This year, while reporting on climate change and racial injustice in New Orleans, the student journalists faced the toughest challenges yet. First, one of two professors on the trip was sidelined by COVID-19 (and had to isolate so they were short a driver) and then a fellow student got sick and had to quarantine and test for COVID-19. Along the way, equipment broke as did a window in the hostel where they were staying – and a rental van was towed. As a result, these intrepid reporters had to jump in to cover a classmate’s story, figure out how to get to and from assignments and in short, get the job done. Just like professionals do.
“They really rose to the occasion,” says Instructor Steve McCarthy, the news producer for the School of Communication and Media, says. “I’ve done a lot of trips; this was one of the hardest ones.”
McCarthy, who, along with Professor David Sanders, has taken journalism students to Puerto Rico, Malawi, Tunisia and elsewhere says the New Orleans trip, which was initially planned for 2020 but was postponed because of COVID, was stressful because the pandemic still presents unique challenges. “I thought we were all going to get sick, so it was very trying.”
However, the students, all participants in McCarthy’s On The Road: Reporting from the Field class, didn’t miss a beat. “Their attitude was tremendous,” he says.
Sanders agrees: “Both the students and my colleague Steve McCarthy really went above and beyond in my absence. They worked together as a selfless team to support each other and the production work when they were ‘one man down.’”
The result of their hard work was a half-hour Montclair News Lab special titled “New Orleans | The Raging Storms” that is getting recognition from partner NBCU Academy, a journalism training and development program for professional and future journalists. NBCU Academy has featured the Montclair students’ work in Head of the Class, a new series of work by student journalists, which it is promoting on its social media platforms. The students, who worked 10- to 12-hour days, also produced work for The Montclarion and WMSC. In 2019, a special News Lab produced by Montclair Journalism and Television and Digital Media students on hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria won many prestigious awards, including a national student RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Video Reporting and two national collegiate Emmy® awards. In Montclair News Lab, taught by professors Mark Effron and Vernard Gantt with an assist from McCarthy, students produce a weekly 15-minute show.
This year’s News Lab stories range from New Orleans’ fight against climate change and environmental racism to an oyster recycling program and feature stories on a musician’s village and a local band. Some students working on a crime story saw a dead body, the victim of a homicide, for the first time; they also interviewed grieving mothers.
“This wasn’t my first time talking to a grieving mother, and it won’t be the last, but I don’t think it will get any easier. Maybe, that’s a good thing,” Drew Mumich, who teamed up with Michelle Coneo Fernandez on the story, shared in an NBCU Academy essay. Fernandez added that the trip changed them as people. “This no longer seemed just a school project; we saw New Orleans’ reality,” Fernandez wrote in an NBCU essay. “We were professionals in the field, and for the most part, we came back different individuals.”
The lessons learned during their week in New Orleans were many, the students say. “It was a lot of us trying to problem-solve constantly,” says Gabby Taylor ’22, who served as a senior producer on the show. “It was just an incredible learning experience in that regard. It was a lot of production management, managing people and managing resources. I think it really prepared me for a career in news and in production.”
Louis Biondolillo ’22, who graduated in May with a BA in Television and Digital Media and now works as a producer at News 12 New Jersey, adds: “I learned that while having a plan is great, you can’t be married to that plan. If something changes, you have to roll with the punches. That’s what we do as student journalists. That’s what we’ll be expected to do in the industry.”
Taylor says that despite the many complications, all of the students, who worked in teams, came back with good stories.
Keyshawn Reese ’22 wasn’t sure he was going to have a story at all; three fell through before the trip, leaving him to question why he was going to New Orleans. He says he spent half the trip helping other students produce their stories, including operating a camera, helping with lighting and setting up and tearing down equipment. It all worked out in the end, however, and he produced a two-minute segment on the Lake Borgne surge barrier, which was built to help protect New Orleans from future flooding. It was also his first time in front of the camera, which he enjoyed.
He’s grateful for the experience. “It really taught me the whole process of producing a show, from pre-production, to production to post-production,” Reese said. “All those different phases make or break the production as a whole.”
McCarthy, a network TV news veteran and Emmy® Award-winning producer, says the field reporting trips used to be taught on an ad hoc basis but that School of Communication and Media Director Keith Strudler suggested turning the program into a three-credit course. The class now provides students time to research, develop stories and contacts, all important parts of the pre-production process, which McCarthy hammered home to students. “Pre-production is really important. You do all your producing, your reporting beforehand,” McCarthy says, adding that Sanders and Effron worked with the students on the final production. “You go there, you film it. You come back, you edit it. You write it, you rewrite it and you rewrite it. So, the kids got a tremendous, real professional experience … and they did very well.”
Bernice Ndegwa, a junior Digital Media major who served as the show’s host, says the preparation paid off. “When it came to creating stories outside of our comfort zone all the way in New Orleans, all of that pre-production, all of the planning that we did, it turned out great because we all got stories, and we came up with an amazing show. But the biggest thing was we all learned the art of adaptability. When things go wrong, you figure a way to make it right.”
Pre-production work especially paid off when Kaya Maciak fell ill and had to quarantine, losing two days of reporting. Because of her preparedness, the other students were able to pick up her story and conduct vital interviews for her. She returned to the field after testing negative for COVID-19.
Reese says one particular aspect of pre-production was new to him and his classmates, making cold calls. “It taught a lot of us how to pick up the phone and talk to people. Maybe it’s just this generation but we’re just not used to picking up the phone and calling someone just to have a conversation with them. It definitely taught us how to really effectively communicate with other people that we’re not familiar with as a journalist.”
Reese, who graduated in May with a BA in Communication and Media Arts, is wrapping up two internships, one with Cry Baby Media, which develops and casts reality TV shows, and Hometowne TV, a cable access station and video production company in Summit. He hopes to work in production in the entertainment industry but for now, “My goal and what I’m doing is trying to essentially get all of the skills that I can when it comes to TV – from producing to writing to casting to editing – to help me become well-rounded and the best producer that I can be.”
For Taylor, the trip solidified a career switch. Taylor transferred from Raritan Community College to Montclair in 2020 with an associate degree in film. She’d hoped to work in the film industry, however, working on Montclair News Lab made her reconsider that decision. “I was thinking maybe I do want to go into news, but it wasn’t until that New Orleans trip where I was like, ‘Yes, this is what I need to do.’” she says. “Seeing the people that live there, and the problems that they’re facing, that really solidified my love for news. That was my drive and passion for telling those stories.”
Today, Taylor, who graduated in May with a BA in Television and Digital Media, is working fulltime as a temporary production assistant and training to become a producer at News 12, where she works alongside fellow News Lab alum Biondolillo.
The 14 students bonded, collaborated and came back with high praise for the work of their fellow classmates.
Taylor praised Fernandez and Mumich for their story. “They were interviewing mothers who lost their children to gun violence. Even though I wasn’t in the driver’s seat for that piece, that’s one of the pieces that I’m most proud of in the show because it really shows the reporters not only asking important but emotional questions. They were keeping their composure and they were being empathetic with those families. It was a really great piece, and they did an amazing job.”
Biondolillo says: “My proudest moment of this trip was seeing the success of the entire team. I am proud of the team for all of our accomplishments and the stories that we told. I am even prouder that many of the seniors who graduated this May are already in the industry.”
McCarthy says he returned to campus worried the many challenges faced by the students may impact the final production but he encouraged his students, telling them: “Well, guys, nothing speaks like success, so let’s get this reporting down, let’s get a great show, and we did. Now it’s being recognized as one of the best things we’ve ever done. So, it was really a happy ending.”
For more on Montclair News Lab, visit Student Productions.
Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos by Drew Mumich, Michelle Coneo Fernandez, Gabby Taylor and Steve McCarthy.