‘60 Minutes’ master class introduces students to influential figures in journalism
A dozen School of Communications students traded part of their spring break to visit New York City and meet with several high-level broadcast news professionals, including Michael Radutzky, chair of Elon’s Communications Advisory Board.
When recounting his class’ March visit to the offices of “60 Minutes,” which included a critique of the students’ recent work, Associate Professor Rich Landesberg knew the outcome in advance.
“They ripped our pieces to shreds,” he said, pausing between each word for emphasis. But what impressed Landesberg was the students’ collective response – gratitude, mixed with pleas for more advice.
“The students reacted with, ‘Thank you! Don’t you have anything more to add?’” the professor recalled. “And, of course, the students later asked if the executives might autograph their copy of the script.”
As part of Landesberg’s “60 Minutes” master class, 12 students traded the first part of their spring break to meet with high-level broadcast news professionals in New York City, visiting the studios and staff members of Al Jazeera America, “NBC Nightly News,” “CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes.”
The last stop yielded unparalleled access to “60 Minutes” Senior Producer Michael Radutzky, chair of Elon’s Communications Advisory Board, and Executive Editor Bill Owens. The duo spent more than an hour with the Elon contingent reviewing and critiquing the students’ investigative television pieces, produced as part of their coursework.
Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of outreach at Al Jazeera America, Pat Burkey, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News,” and many others were equally welcoming during the students’ visits, added Landesberg.
“They were amazingly generous to us,” the professor said. “These are some of the most important people in journalism in the world, and that’s no exaggeration. And here they are giving us hours of their time – at every place we visited.”
Among the trip’s highlights were visiting the control rooms for “CBS This Morning” and “NBC Nightly News,” said Brian Mezerski ’15, who serves as a teaching assistant for the course with Al Drago ’15. Both seniors completed the class last year and returned this spring to facilitate the course for no credit.
“As someone who is very much invested in entering the television world as a career, the trip was so inspiring,” Mezerski said. “Being in NBC’s control room, Al Jazeera’s studios, at “60 Minutes,” it was exciting to see the practical workflow of how everything came together. Just to be in that environment was encouraging.”
Mezerski admitted that while sitting in NBC’s control room, he found himself drawn to the action. “From the dark corner of the room, I kept inching forward toward the director,” he recalled.
Landesberg said the trip was motivating for his students, which he called a “phenomenal group.” “You can tell they were fired up for our visits,” he added. “They are so hungry and they so want to do well in this business.”
The lessons learned in the studio and in the control room during the New York trip are a perfect extension of the instructions provided in the McEwen Communications Building.
“You can only go so far with students in a classroom,” Landesberg explained. “At some point, they have to be out in the field and see how it’s done. And see the way it’s done at the very highest levels of not just technical excellence but ethical excellence. It’s just so enriching and so important for the students. It’s that other piece of the puzzle that you can’t get sitting in the classroom.”
This marked the fifth year of the class’ New York City trip, and “60 Minutes” executives have always allowed time to review student-produced pieces. Recently, they have insisted on watching all three stories that will comprise the course’s final show.
This year’s trip culminated in the newsmagazine’s screening room with Radutzky and Owens, and the students’ work was put under the same scrutiny as the CBS program’s projects.
During the screenings, the students’ nervous energy was apparent, Mezerski noted. “Sitting in the room, I could see the look on everyone’s faces and see the trepidation of what the executives might say next,” he said. “We were expecting to get shredded apart, and that is exactly what happened. But Michael and Bill were extremely kind to us and recognized that these pieces are still a work in progress.”
While the critiques were stringent, Mezerski explained that the environment was collaborative, not combative. “What was so great about this experience was that the “60 Minutes” executives were open to having a discussion, asking us questions,” he said.
With feedback in hand, the students returned to campus to apply the executives’ advice, incorporate their notes, and improve their pieces. This year’s class topics include stories on post-cancer breast reconstruction, American-Muslim culture in the 21st century, and revitalizing downtown Burlington.
“Now that they have had their scripts torn apart, our students are going to spend the rest of the semester putting them back together, but with feedback from the top experts in the industry,” Landesberg said.
Students who traveled to New York City included Jonathan Black ’15, Libby Gormley ’15, Ryan Greene ’15, Eric Halperin ’15, Jennie Hook ’16, Brennan McGovern ’15, Matt Mintzer ’15, Amory Parks ’16, Jasmine Turner ’15 and Preston Willett ’15. Also accompanying the group was Landesberg’s wife, Ginette Archinal, medical director of student health and university physician at Elon.