College Media Geeks: Bobby Blanchard, journalism student, University of Texas

University of Texas at Austin senior Bobby Blanchard has a secret to student journalism success: “Jump around a lot and try a little bit of everything.”

Blanchard’s experiences with The Daily Texan are a testament to the potential effectiveness of that maxim. During his time at UT, he has served as the student newspaper’s special ventures co-editor, special ventures reporter, online news editor, associate news editor, podcast host, senior reporter, life and arts staff writer, copy editor, general reporter and senior page designer.

1As Blanchard, 21, a journalism major from Pearland, Texas, tells me, “I got to practice and refine coding skills, data visualization skills and massive open records requests. At a student paper, I think there is more room and time to experiment and try completely new things than elsewhere, and I like to think I got to do that for a little bit at the Daily Texan.”

Come fall, Blanchard is segueing from the Texan to an internship with the top-notch Texas Tribune.

But before embarking on that new adventure, he graciously agreed to take part in the latest installment of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series. In a spirited back-and-forth, Blanchard further discusses his journalism jump-around philosophy, offers advice to aspiring j-students and outlines why he believes “this is the best time in history to be entering journalism.”

To start, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a j-student in a city like Austin and at a school like UT?

Well, to start with, there is a plethora of events and happenings to report on. If you want to learn about covering government, the state capitol is within walking distance of campus. If you’re into music and entertainment, there is SXSW, ACL and many other music events. If you’re into sports, the Longhorns have a well-established collegiate athletic program. Whether your interest is covering government, sports or entertainment, Austin pretty much has it all. The storytelling opportunities are endless.

The Lone Star State also has a habit of elbowing its way into the center of national conversations. Just in my time at UT, eyes everywhere have looked to Austin to watch the debates over race-conscious admissions, abortion policies and an ideological fight in higher education. As a reporter, this is a great place to be.

There are downsides though. The most obvious one that comes to mind is the massive and competitive media market in Austin, which I understand has been a factor in the Daily Texan’s declining advertising sales. The flip side to that, of course, is it presents countless internship possibilities.

What do you tell people who wonder why anyone would study or pursue a career in journalism nowadays?

I was once interviewing a business professor and he told me outright to change career paths, or at least get a back-up plan. He then demonstrated how bad he thought the media market was by gesturing downwards in a dramatic swoop as if to indicate falling stock prices. Of course, the Texan had once given him a lot of grief, so I like to think he was a little biased.

So I’ve faced these doubters. But I’m an eternal optimist, so I like to tell people this is the best time in history to be entering journalism. Yes, the boom of the Internet has hurt advertising sales and it’s made the job market tough. But today we have access to storytelling tools and information that we never have had before, and journalists are getting a little better at [harnessing the tools and info] all the time. If you make yourself a journalist of the 21st century then you’re going to succeed and have a lot of fun doing it.

For incoming freshmen everywhere, what are a few secrets to succeeding as a j-student?

The most important thing I tell every journalism student is to get involved in student media on day one. Too many journalism students do not do that, and yet almost every reporter I speak to tells me they got their start at their student paper. If you’re not working at a student paper, or radio or TV station or satire paper or other variant, then you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.

The second most important piece of advice I have is to get to know your journalism professors. I know this is a cliche given to every student in every field, but I like to think journalism professors are a bit cooler than everyone else. [Note: I agree.] A journalism professor is often instrumental in landing you that first job or that internship you really want but might be out of your immediate reach. They also make great friends for life.

Lastly, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received has been, “Get a life.” It’s too easy to become burnt out in this profession. Get a hobby, exercise once or twice a week and allow yourself some non-work pleasures. Even if you’re working full-time and going to school full-time, find a way to do this. Your work will benefit from it. No matter how much you love journalism, you have to get away from it once in a while.

“I like to tell people this is the best time in history to be entering journalism. Yes, the boom of the Internet has hurt advertising sales and it’s made the job market tough. But today we have access to storytelling tools and information that we never have had before. … If you make yourself a journalist of the 21st century then you’re going to succeed and have a lot of fun doing it.”

Why has it been helpful for you to jump around a bit in respect to the positions and types of journalism you have practiced so far?

1I wasn’t completely sure what part of the newsroom I was interested in when I first started college. I initially thought I wanted to be a page designer, and that was actually my first job for the Daily Texan. I really enjoyed that, but after experimenting a bit I feel like I’m more happy reporting than designing or editing. I’m glad I had time to figure that out.

Working on the design and copy editing desks has given me a different perspective from the reporting side of things as well. I share any data I gather or documents I have with those desks as soon as possible to make their jobs easier. When reporters know what designers and copy editors are going through, it makes for better newsroom synergy.

Also, a lot of college students will land their first job post-college at a small-town paper, where they may have to do a little bit of everything. Having the opportunity to jump around a bit helps prepare for that.

Fun question alert: You are given a gazillion dollars to start a journalism school from scratch, no restrictions. What are a few things you would invest in or build first?

I would have to seriously consider heavily investing and funding student media. There are a lot of complicating views at student media outlets regarding maintaining financial independence and editorial independence from the schools they cover, so it would have to be handled incredibly delicately. But I don’t know if college papers at big universities can continue to pay its student staff much longer while printing multiple times a week without getting dramatic financial backing from their institutions.

At the same time, I’m not sure if it should be the responsibility of the journalism schools to fund these important enterprises, as they serve the entire campus. But student media is such an important part of a j-student’s education. It’s crucial that there is some stability in these college papers.

I would also look at investing and building partnerships with professional media outlets to give students an additional and exclusive opportunity to get some really solid clips. I think it is great when a journalism program can repeatedly and regularly land students short stints or fellowships in professional newsrooms or bureaus, or even just provide the opportunity to freelance. Not to plug too much, but UT has several professional partnerships set up with The Dallas Morning News, and while I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in one yet, I think the model works really well and is genius.

One last thing I would explore is creating a curriculum track that merges journalism and computer programming. I always tell my friends and other students they should learn to code just a little. … I think it might be interesting to explore what a curriculum that teaches both intensely would look like. It would be incredibly experimental and it might not work out, but if we’re talking a gazillion dollars then why the heck not?

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