College Media Geeks: Brandon Zenner, Editor-in-Chief, Northwest Missourian, Northwest Missouri State University
Brandon Zenner is a mass media major with a multimedia journalism concentration at Northwest Missouri State University. The senior from Platte City, Mo., a small town north of Kansas City, is also editor-in-chief of the Northwest Missourian.
Prior to his EIC stint, he served the paper as a reporter and news editor and earned an award in 2014 as the pub’s staffer of the year. He also freelances for the Kansas City Star and previously interned with The Platte County Citizen. Outside the journalism sphere, Zenner is a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
Bottom line, Zenner’s press love knows no bounds. His words: “I am passionate about journalism in any form: sports, news, videography, photography, copy editing, social media, managing and everything in between.”
In the exclusive Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Zenner reflects on his reporting and editing work so far and offers advice for j-students attempting to pick the right school and succeed in the field.
How have you worked to make the most of your time and opportunities at NWMSU to study and practice journalism?
At first, I did not realize the advantages that come with being a journalism student. Unlike other majors where the experience comes from lectures and studying countless hours for tests, journalism requires hands-on and real-world learning. I’ve had the opportunity to work with peers and produce packages about real issues and be critiqued by professionals. The access I have to professors is greater than just about every major and it prepares you for the field more than any other major could.
Beginning with the end of my sophomore year, I took the opportunity to get involved with student media through our practicum course, which is an introductory course to how the newspaper works while also requiring you to produce real content for the paper. After spending my junior year as the Missourian’s news editor, I took the leap to EIC to give myself an opportunity to leave my mark on our university’s student media. I went through a real interview process and followed my promotion by having the chance to hire my own staff of reporters, designers, photographers, etc., whom I am working with my adviser to mold into multimedia journalists and better prepare them, along with myself, for life after college.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a j-student in a city like Maryville and at a school like NWMSU?
While many may think there are not many advantages of studying journalism at a division-II school in a small town tucked away in a corner of Missouri, it is the absolute perfect situation. We have four student-led, student-run organizations — newspaper, yearbook, television and radio — which have the chance to collaborate and work as if we are a major-market operation. Our advisers and professors urge us to be the voice of the campus and city, which we are able to cover daily because of its connection to campus — the university almost doubles the population of Maryville. Also, our department realizes how journalism is advancing and has moved in the direction of molding students into multimedia journalists, requiring everything from video production to reporting to photography in most degrees. Besides yearbook, the Missourian is the only other outlet which has a paid staff, also. We run our website and social media pages. It is as hands-on as you could ask for.
I will also say that Steven Chappell is a one-of-a-kind advisor. He gives us input on a regular basis and is one of the guys to know in the sport of finding an internship in journalism. Without his help, it would be difficult to grow as a staff and editor, personally, each week.
One disadvantage is the fact that we publish in print only once a week because of our size and revenue sourcing. We run completely off advertising and subscriptions. We produce a 12-to-14-page publication each week with a paid staff of 20 to 25, which can cause a major workload for some staff members at a university where the communications department is continuing to grow and develop better journalists each year. Turning a negative into a positive, it does give us a chance to become extremely focused in our online story development. We also only produce content during the school year, which can make it tough and disheartening seeing other local papers pick up your stories over the summer. Again, it gives us the chance to be super-creative and find ways to interpret the stories to interest readers when we get ready for the fall semester.
A recent issue of the Northwest Missourian.
What are a few secrets to succeeding as a j-student?
First, please get involved in student media as soon as you can. I didn’t realize I absolutely wanted to do journalism until halfway through my sophomore year. I was lucky enough to become EIC with only one year of staff experience, but not everyone can be that lucky.
Second, start finding internships as soon as you can. If you haven’t realized, most of my points indicate getting a head start. I’m going into my senior year and have not had a single internship. I won’t make excuses because I simply can’t accept an unpaid internship in my circumstances, but get as many under your belt as you can.
Also, realize the opportunity you have. You are going into a field which has changed drastically over the past decade. You have the chance to learn video, photography and writing. You will be expected to do it all at the next level — it’s inevitable. Take the time to learn it and master it and I believe it will help you stand out as a job candidate. From the moment you step on campus, you should strive to be the best journalist you can.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There will not be any professors or journalists you talk to who have not faced any problem you face, whether it’s finding a source or developing an above-the-fold story idea. The sooner you realize that your elders are actually human and not robots who force you to write notes in the dark to a PowerPoint with cheesy transitions, the more you’ll develop as a journalist and a student.
What’s your advice to high schoolers searching for the best j-school or program?
You do not have to go to the biggest school to become the best journalist. Schools like Syracuse and Mizzou have historic journalism and broadcasting programs, but you should really focus on looking for schools that are trying to rewrite history. Go to a place where you can see yourself fitting in as a student and not being just another number. When you feel you are a part of something, you will get the most out of it. Look for schools focused on moving forward and that can help transform you into the ultimate multimedia journalist. Though we all would love to work for the biggest news corporations in the country, only a small portion of us will actually do that. Find a place you feel you will get the most out of and can be involved with and then ride with it.
“You do not have to go to the biggest school to become the best journalist. … [Y]ou should really focus on looking for schools that are trying to rewrite history. Go to a place where you can see yourself fitting in as a student and not being just another number.”
What has been an especially memorable reporting assignment or journalism class experience?
In spring 2014, in my Advanced Reporting class, we were put into groups with a few weeks left in school and became a mini news organization. Each group had to report on a topic relevant to Maryville at that time and provide full coverage of the issue. For example, our group focused on the redevelopment of dangerous structures throughout the city. Each group was required to produce a broadcast package, a feature story, an inverted pyramid story and a photo slideshow to be uploaded online. As captain, I also led our group in the establishment of a Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram account where we provided on-the-scene video and photos and promoted links to our content.
At the end of the all-in reporting efforts, each group gave a presentation of their content and website to three outside professionals. They critiqued and provided real-world-style feedback. To see professionals take time from their own work to interact with 18 student journalists for a few hours was extremely inspiring and showed how much everyone in the field is there to help each other. The project gave us real-world experience, and the professionals — from the local Fox station and the Minneapolis Star Tribune — commended us by saying all our content was of a quality which would be published at their respective organizations. These kinds of assignments do more than any test or lecture ever could.
The #firstworldproblems and College Problems phenomena have been crazy popular in recent semesters. Building on those, what are a few short entries you would offer to a list of Journalism Student Problems?
1) Half the contacts in your phone aren’t friends, but sources you’ve had to use for a story. #journalismstudentproblems
2) Pondering if you should stop paying rent and instead sleep on the couch in the newsroom. #journalismstudentproblems
3) Texting your friends in AP style. #journalismstudentproblems
4) Turning in a story after deadline because you have yet to come up with the most clever lede in the history of ledes. #journalismstudentproblems