New York-based alumni
offer advice to students


School of Communications alumni play an active role in the life of current Elon University students. Former students such as Allison Deiboldt, a research analyst for ABC Kids in New York, and Samiha Khanna, the Durham police beat reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, return to campus at regular intervals to speak in classes. They also offer to serve as long-distance advisers, answering e-mail queries and hosting student visits.

Four communications alums recently met with seven Elon student journalists in a special session during the Spring National College Media Convention in New York City. Jo Craven McGinty of Newsday, Suzanne George Duffy of M Booth & Associates, and Emily Coons and Summur Shaikh of ABC's "The View" discussed their lives in big-city communications and offered students career tips during a visit at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan.

"You have to start somewhere, and communications is notorious for low pay for starting jobs," said McGinty. "One of my co-workers at my first job at the Times-News in Burlington figured out we qualified for food stamps. But you do work your way up. Know the business you're entering; study the publications and join the groups associated with it so you can meet professionals. When you decide what you're going to do and where you want to go, you need to study the place and the people there in advance. Know it before going to any job interview."

McGinty was a member of the reporting team that won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The team's series for The Washington Post exposed the use of deadly force by the D.C. Police Department, and it brought about changes in the system that probably saved lives. She is a former academic adviser to IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) and NICAR (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting), and she taught computer-assisted reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is also the author of the IRE Beat Book "Home Mortgage Lending: How to Detect Disparities." Her husband, Tom McGinty, is a staff writer for Newsday.

"I worked for the Times-News, then worked at both Durham newspapers," McGinty said. "When I quit to go earn my master's, I found my niche - computer-assisted reporting. I earned the master's because I wanted to move up to another level of reporting. It allowed me to acquire an extra set of skills. My boss used to call me the poster child of computer-assisted reporting because when I went to grad school I didn't know how to use computers or e-mail and two years later I was in a group that won a Pulitzer due to database reporting."

McGinty encouraged the student journalists to learn how to investigate documents and databases. "The most basic level of reporting is talking to people," she said. "The next level involves checking documents, mining paper records to see if there is truth in what those people you are interviewing say. The next level up is C-A-R - going through databases to get information. You have to know how to use a spreadsheet, how to read a budget. You have to know how to sift through information to see how the numbers convert to useful facts. It pays to figure out basic document reporting.

"The best reporters get the paper records to back up the facts the report. Computer-assisted reporting lets you sift through a million records really quickly. You don't have to just look at a sampling and make an estimate; you can look at all of them."

Duffy is an account executive for one of New York's major corporate communications firms, M Booth & Associates. She recently helped open the $1.2 billion Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City.

"In corporate communications, you need to understand media and clients; you put them together," she said. "I'm working in New York, the media capital of the world, but I live in New Jersey - I have to have some grass and trees. You shouldn't think you can just move to New York and have a great life, because the truth is you'll have no money and everything is expensive. You'll say to yourself, 'At least I have $5 for a beer,' and they'll say, 'That'll be $10.'"

Duffy said being in the big city is an exciting challenge she's enjoying while she's young. "You start off at the bottom no matter where you go," she advised the students. "Accept the fact that you have to establish yourself wherever you are. Build up from there, and be sure to cultivate the people who can help you move up."

Coons, associate audience coordinator at the popular ABC-TV talk show, "The View," said she's become accustomed to working around stars like Barbara Walters, Star Jones and Meredith Viera. "Smaller places give you more opportunities, but it's fun here," she said. "I knew I wanted to work in Manhattan before I have a family and settle down."

Shaikh, a production assistant with "The View," says Elon University is a quality recruiting ground for the program. Both she and Coons served high-quality internships with the program, and they were hired by the show just prior to their graduation days in 2003 and 2002, respectively.

"The responsibility I have at age 22 is amazing," Shaikh said. "I am working and striving to learn so I can produce my own show. One day when I'm a producer I will really appreciate the way people below me should be treated. There are days I get home at 1 o'clock in the morning. I don't make enough money to save any, but I'm doing this only for a while, and it will get better. I'm moving up."

Shaikh said her work can be so demanding that she forgets who she's rubbing shoulders with each day. "The first time you walk into Barbara Walters' dressing room, it's like 'Wow!'" she said. "I'm not going to lie though, the job is so stressful, you get so the stars are sort of routine because you have so much to do. I have to admit that when Tom Cruise came on it was awesome, and then we had a Christmas party where we were dancing with Barbara Walters. I don't want to sound like my life is negative. It's wonderful and high-energy, and there are so many perks."

The four women offered the following tips for Elon students:

Internships often turn into full-time job offers. Find a great internship at a place at which you would like to work as a professional, then work like crazy and prove they should hire you when you graduate. "Get your foot in the door, and you never know where it will take you," Coons said.

A journalism degree can be useful for anyone in any line of work - trained journalists know how to write well, speak well, ask good questions and think critically. "In corporate communications, you have to be able to write and you have to know media, and a journalism degree is also important to be serious in television news," Duffy said.

Study the market in your profession and pick the best company for which to work. "Pick a place," said McGinty. "You'll want a place with people who continue to help you grow, because you'll be surprised how much you learn after you graduate and get out there. Go to a place that helps develop your skills."

While you are still in school, get good at a specialty within your area. "Expertise in a niche can put you ahead of the rest of the pack," Duffy said. "Realize a key area of interest and cultivate it as a minor or an area of study."

While you are still in school, take advantage of opportunities to develop your leadership skills. "They will be something you count on later as a professional," Duffy said.

Teamwork is key in communications, so it's a very good thing to practice. "If you can't do teamwork, forget about it," said Duffy. "You'll have to do it as a pro, so when you're in school you should practice. Don't always group yourself with the people you like. You'll have to work someday with people you don't like - start rehearsing now."

Network with Elon alumni and School of Communications Advisory Board members to give yourself an extra edge. "I don't know what I would have done without the guidance and suggestions offered by board member Jill Neff Watson," Coons said. "And we alumni encourage current students to cultivate us as resources in their preparation to get out and work in the industry."

The communications panel also offered the following one-liners of advice-in-a-nutshell:

Duffy: "Dive into your chosen line of work head-first; get as much information and experience as you can while you are in school and working internships."

Shaikh: "Always have a positive attitude."

Coons: "Network, network, network!"

McGinty: "Read anything and everything; it will lead you so many good places."

While they were in Manhattan, Elon students attended dozens of sessions conducted by some of the nation's top media professionals. To read more about it, click here.



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Last Modified:  3/23/04
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