By RACHEL WHITTAKER
Joanne Gerstner jumped into the world of sports journalism academia completely by accident.
Now Gerstner, a former Association for Women in Sports Media president and the inaugural Ann Miller Service Award winner, has a new role on her résumé this year – Michigan State University Sports Journalist in Residence. Gerstner mentors and helps develop MSU’s sports journalism curriculum and is also the faculty mentor for AWSM’s student chapter at MSU.
“About 10 years ago, a co-worker at the Detroit News asked if I could fill in for him at a journalism class,” Gerstner said. “I said yes, and went to the class with the hopes of not boring them out of their minds. After the class was over, the professor asked if I had ever considered teaching.
“I said no, mostly because I was so busy helping cover the Pistons at the time. About a year later, I was offered a feature writing class, co-taught by that professor. I said yes, loved it, and the rest is history.”
Gerstner said she emphasizes journalistic ethics the most in her academic role. Those ‘aha!’ moments when students leap forward in their skill sets make the challenges all worthwhile, she added.
“It is really interesting to be around the students in school, as I am constantly surprised by what they know, and what they don’t know,” said Gerstner, who in 2012-13 won a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and researched concussions in athletes with the NeuroSport clinic. “I didn’t have any female sports journalism professors, outside of the mentors I gained by joining AWSM as a college student, in undergrad or grad school to help shape my career. I feel like I am giving back a little.”
Gerstner is also writing her fifth non-fiction book called “Concussion: Real talk for coaches, parents and athletes,” set to be published in fall 2015.
Another longtime AWSM member and former president, Vicki Michaelis, made an unexpected transition to sports journalism academia in 2012. The former lead Olympics reporter at USA TODAY is the Carmical Distinguished Professor in Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College.
Michaelis said the search committee for the position reached out to her on LinkedIn about applying.
Encountering new challenges at the midpoint of her career – and spending summers with her family – ultimately made the change attractive. She also works with Georgia’s AWSM student chapter.
“I think I have learned more than my students in my first two years here,” Michaelis said. “My multimedia skills are much sharper now than they were when I left USA TODAY. I have a much deeper understanding of how social media affects sports coverage and audience interest.
“That said, my guiding principle is that the tools will change, but the building blocks of a good journalistic foundation – sound ethics, accuracy, reporting, storytelling – will not. So we focus on the building blocks and teach our students to adapt to new tools as they come.”
The same is true for Kelly Whiteside, a sports journalism professor at Montclair State in New Jersey. Her career in academia began as an adjunct professor at Columbia and Rutgers, and she’s an integral faculty member of Montclair State’s new journalism major.
Whiteside said she teaches her students to be multi-platform journalists, but like Gerstner and Michaelis, she doesn’t let them forget the “fundamentals” of thorough reporting and clear writing.
“I teach a lot of first-generation Americans and first-generation college students, so the diversity is wonderful,” Whiteside said. “I just sent my first class out to cover a New Jersey Devils game. They did great and had fun. At the end of the night, they sent me a group selfie. The ice was in the background, there were press passes around their necks and they were smiling. I can’t ask for much more than that.”
Not all AWSM members in journalism academia currently have sports programs in their curriculum.
Instructor Lori Shontz was hired this year at Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication to revamp basic writing and reporting classes.
After more than two decades as an award-winning sports writer and editor, Shontz said she’s always known some type of academia was in her future.
“I have a three-ring binder that is bursting with stories and tip sheets dating back to the mid-1990s that I thought would be fun to use in a class one day,” Shontz said. “The best part of my job comes about three-quarters of the way through every term, when students who were so frustrated with the difficulty of writing ledes and structuring stories suddenly get it. It is, truly and to my initial surprise, more rewarding than nailing a lede myself.”
Shontz previously worked at The Penn Stater alumni magazine and worked with Penn State to start its AWSM student chapter. While there is not a student chapter at Oregon, that may change soon.
“After only five weeks at Oregon, I’ve already been approached by students about starting a chapter here, as well,” Shontz said. “I can’t wait!”