Northwestern’s non-Medill media makers value experiential learning


Photo courtesy of Giovana Gelhoren

A spread of three STITCH magazine issues lay on a table. Although Northwestern is home to the best undergraduate journalism program in the country, some of the driving forces involved in campus media outlets aren’t in Medill.

Alex Perry, Print Managing Editor

NU has almost 20 recognized student publications with over hundreds of staff members, so it’s easy to assume Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications students dominate the field. 

But non-Medill students bring different experiences and knowledge to their respective staff. From producers to directors to editors, the case for non-j-school journalism remains strong on the campus of the number one undergraduate journalism program in the country. 

Weinberg sophomore Emma Chiu, North By Northwestern’s senior features editor, entered NU as a journalism major. She completed Medill’s freshman year sequence before transferring to Weinberg to major in math and economics. 

When Chiu joined NBN as a freshman, she started off as an assistant editor of the publication’s print section. She said she intended to explore business journalism, but soon realized her career aspirations lied in researching economic policy. 

“Journalism is a very hands-on field,” Chiu said. “Even if I’m not doing the classes themselves, I can still learn a lot from being in one of the publications. And just the skills they’re learning — to read, learn to write, edit, organize thoughts are just really important, regardless of what you do as a career.”

Chiu said while most people on NBN’s staff recognize her as an ex-Medill student, her change in majors hasn’t affected her relationship to the publication. If anything, when topics specific to Medill arise, she said she sometimes jumps in to suggest the best way to clarify terms for non-Medill readers.

Communication senior Jay Towns, STITCH Magazine’s former photography editor, joined the fashion magazine as a freshman. He worked his way up to multimedia editor, a position where he can vet applications. He said the ratio of non-Medill to Medill staffers in STITCH depends on the team. From this position, he’s noticed the Medill, non-Medill disparity in STITCH can partly be attributed to a self-selecting talent pool. 

“​​It’s people who are in Medill who usually have better portfolios than people from other schools coming in because I think they know what to expect,” Towns said. “It reminds me about how anybody can audition for a show on campus at any time, but it usually ends up being theatre majors that make them because they know how to audition, and sing and dance.”

Communication junior Zach McCrary, WNUR News’s communications chair, entered NU as a Radio, Television, Film major. But he said he considered trying a journalism dual degree, until he realized the path to do so wasn’t offered at NU. 

Medill also did not offer adequate classes in the type of live production McCrary was interested in. He joined WNUR as a freshman, and said he enjoys the environment, even though he’s one of only a handful of non-Medill students at the radio station. 

“I don’t feel really left out by that,” McCrary said. “Because literally, I’m like, the only one in the room that doesn’t know what it means, I’ll ask. There’s no shame in that if I have no idea what that is.” 

Even with the formal academics gap, McCrary said anyone can have experiential knowledge regardless of their major. He said WNUR is a beginner-friendly, collaborative environment where people have the ability to work on almost any project. He said it’s a place where people don’t have to stick to a beat, where they “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.” 

McCrary said he has a penchant for pacing, editing and sound mixing and enjoys sharing that knowledge with all WNUR staffers, regardless of major. He often teaches people how to use editing software, and in return, gains knowledge about media ethics from journalism majors. 

“Me and the Medill folk in WNUR definitely have different knowledge bases, but we still come together and we both learn from each other,” McCrary said. 

McCrary said some of his favorite stories, like the first time he rode Amtrak, or the implications of Facebook going offline, were successful because of the self-determined, exploratory atmosphere at WNUR. All new reporters start off by creating audio packages, and have opportunities to explore producing and anchoring as they progress, learn and “have fun with it.” 

Although McCrary won’t pursue news as a career, he said he’s exploring live broadcasting and production, and has found WNUR helpful. 

While the atmosphere at each publication varies depending on structure and purpose, a welcoming atmosphere focused on experiential background rather than home school is a common thread.

As the creative director of BlackBoard Magazine, Towns manages a team of photographers and designers and uses InDesign to lay out the quarterly issues. He said the process of designing the magazine for the first time was a learning curve, but as an aspiring freelance creative director, Towns said it was rewarding to bring a non-Medill lens into his work. 

“It was interesting, because I feel like coming into something without the knowledge of the structure of a magazine … how it usually works, it kind of opens up questions for people who are used to the form,” Towns said. “And it kind of makes them question, ‘Why do we do that? Is that convention or is this actually serving our product?’” 

Towns said in the past he’s considered joining Medill, as he loves pursuing journalism extracurricularly. However, once something becomes a part of his education, it occupies a different space in his brain.

“I have Medill tendencies in my work, but I don’t think I could really handle being Medill,” Towns said. 

Towns said not being a Medill student doesn’t affect BlackBoard’s production as much because its structure is different from other campus publications. As a theatre major, he’s seen how skills from one discipline can translate to another. 

For Towns, the pitching and developing processes he’s learned from entrepreneurship classes have come into play at BlackBoard. 

“The vision for (Blackboard) is taking from all over Black experience on campus, not just for people who are writers,” Towns said. “It’s somebody who has an interesting experience or thing that they want to share with the rest of campus for that quarter. And that can be anybody at any time.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @WhoIsAlexPerry

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