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Morrow Fellows attend SABEW Conference in NYC

Posted Nov. 14, 2017
By Carolyn Click, instructor in the journalism sequence
Photo: Larissa Johnson and Michael Woodel.

A journalism conference is just a journalism conference until you travel with two students who absorb the world around them with the laser-like focus reserved for the young and the ambitious.

I had the privilege of accompanying USC journalism students Larissa Johnson and Michael Woodel to New York City in mid-October for the annual Society of American Business Editors and Writers Conference. The pair were selected as Morrow Fellows to attend.

The conference at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is a high-powered gathering of New York business media who dig deeply into political and business issues of the day. Not surprisingly, coverage of the Trump administration was high on the agenda.

Upon their return to USC, the students reflected on their experience:

Michael Woodel, senior journalism major

My hometown is not yours. It isn’t up-and-coming or nearly as glitzy as Greenville. It isn’t as peaceful or tight-knit or rich as Hilton Head.

My hometown is a concrete maze, fodder for little more than the occasional think piece on what happens to American manufacturing towns when the mill shutters. To put it lightly, Erie, Pennsylvania, is a million and ten miles from Manhattan.

That’s exactly what I thought as I shook Gerard Baker’s hand. The Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief had just spent an hour reminding a room full of journalists that people where I’m from do not care about sub-tweets.

While what the president says merits a headline for the mere fact that he speaks from the Oval Office, his soundbites should not block out coverage of the opioid crisis. Or the slow death of work. Or outsourcing, or any of the many problems ravaging the part of America we might see as lesser for its lack of high culture.

I thought this as I listened to Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani. In seven years, Ulukaya went from buying his first yogurt plant to building one of the largest ones in the world. Like mine, his hometown is not yours. He did not let his geography sway him. Now he is the proud owner of $1.9 billion.

Most of all I knew I was a million miles from home sitting on a guardrail outside the CVS in Times Square, downing a Gatorade and marveling at all the lights. Erie’s skyline holds a fraction of the lights necessary to keep lighted the dot-matrix ribbons strung around the foot of the building I sat across from.

What did I learn at SABEW? While I may want to work a million and ten miles from home, someone still needs to cover my hometown and others like it. Maybe me.

Larissa Johnson, senior journalism major

It’s slightly intimidating to even be in the same room as the panelists: Josh Tyrangiel, executive VP of Vice Media; Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the AP; Gerry Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal; and Alan Murray, chief content officer of Time, Inc.

They’ve been brought together by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism to kick off the 2017 Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference, and the topic is “From Fake News to Virtual Reality – Journalism in the Age of Trump.”

The combination of journalists couldn’t be more diverse. Vice is known for its edginess and youth, while the others are decidedly old-guard organizations. WSJ has been criticized for not being hard enough on President Trump, while Vice would certainly be considered part of the “fake news.”

Audiences vary across the panel as well, from a wire service for other news organizations at AP to just about anyone on the planet at Time.

And as the conversation kicked off, the divisions showed. Tyrangiel and Baker both consistently were opposed to the rest of the group, although on entirely different topics.

When asked about the declining trust in media, Tyrangiel essentially said that the question was beside the point – this came after the other three panelists had each spoken extensively on the topic. Baker seemed to claim that his organization was the only one trusted across the country anymore.

One aspect of the discussion that resonated particularly with me, as someone who grew up in Ohio and now goes to school in South Carolina, is the lack of geographic diversity in the top newsrooms, both in terms of staff and in terms of coverage.

Buzbee said the media treats coverage of the Midwest and central U.S. like an anthropological mission. I found it ironic that we were sitting in a room just blocks from Times Square, surrounded by journalists who live and work in New York City, and they were all nodding along.

The entire trip to NYC felt almost anthropological to me, coming from my decidedly non-New Yorker upbringing. I wanted to experience the city, mingle in the crowds, see how the people there lived – especially the journalists, which I hope to be able to call myself in a few short months.

As we touched down in LaGuardia, I still wasn’t sure what to expect beyond bad traffic. I admittedly hadn’t prepared much for the trip and didn’t really know what was in store. What I found was an incredible experience – panels like the “From Fake News to Virtual Reality” but also interesting one-on-one interviews with people like the founder and CEO of Chobani.

Talks on retirement and health care expanded my interests and were surprisingly engaging for a student who considers retirement entirely too far off and is still on her parent’s health care. Beyond the information, though, I also got to meet notable journalists, from talking with Bloomberg writers to shaking Baker’s hand (with only a little bit of prodding from Click and Woodel).

And entirely aside from the journalism conference was the city itself, which didn’t disappoint. Times Square at night overloads the senses, but in an entirely pleasurable and metropolitan way. At one point I just bought a bag of chips and sat on some sort of road block, watching the streams of people and cars. I can imagine myself as one of them someday. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.