Bye-bye Grady, from a student, staffer and teacher

After 11 years, two months and 16 days, I said goodbye to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Georgia.

It was a bittersweet farewell. Sweet, because I am starting a new path on my professional career that allows me to focus on what I love most: teaching. Bitter, because Grady is where my new professional aspirations took root, and because the halls of Grady are filled with some of the most influential people in my life. I was perhaps the only person in history to have the fortune of simultaneously fulfilling three roles at Grady: full-time staff member, student and teacher. Each role allowed me a different viewpoint of Grady. And combining all those viewpoints showed me that Grady is truly a special place.

The highly functional, dysfunctional family. From left, Dean Charles Davis, Cecil Bentley, Diane Murray, Stephanie Moreno, Karen Andrews, Joe Dennis, Sarah Freeman, Ryan Cary, Clare Wall and Hannah Bause.

Joe: The staff member

The Grady College has been an incredible place to work. In the past decade, I can’t think of one person that willingly left Grady for a lateral move somewhere else. And it’s certainly not because Grady pays well. It’s the people. The term family is often used lightly to describe cultural environments, but at Grady, there truly is a sense of family. If you’re willing to invest in the Grady family, the Grady family will invest back in you.

Of course, within the Grady family tree there are several smaller families. I was fortunate to work with the external relations team. We were a highly-functional, dysfunctional family. We all had such unique personalities and jobs that often didn’t relate to each other, but we were always there for each other: definitely in work, but also in life. And when we all got in the same room, fireworks happened — sometimes bad, but usually good. My years at Grady will likely be the only time in my life I looked forward to staff meetings.

For most of my years, Cecil Bentley served as our team leader and supervisor. Always level-headed, Cecil was the calming voice when tempers flared, the voice of encouragement when egos were hurt, and the voice of silence when one needed just to vent. Forward focus. Positive attitude. And a wicked move to the basket (though he rarely makes the shot).

With a strong institutional knowledge and a strong grasp of reality, Diane Murray is the devil’s advocate. Diane has a passion for Grady that many share, but this passion is balanced with a healthy dose of common sense. This can be quite frustrating when you’re aiming for the moon, only for Diane to tell you that you have no rocket ship. But in the end, you know she is just keeping it real.

Karen Andrews is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. Whether it’s a $150/plate gala or a picnic for high school students, Karen knows how to make every person feel special. Seemingly always smiling and a laugh that echoes throughout the building, Karen embodies the “Southern Hospitality” mentality I heard so much about when I moved South. Don’t get me wrong, Karen is human and has another side, but you’ll have to get real close to her to see it. I consider myself lucky that my “sister-from-another-mister” felt comfortable enough with me to show me that side.

The four of us were the mainstays of the external team for several years, through some lean budget times. But when we finally had the opportunity to grow, Sarah Freeman was brought on board. The ultimate professional, Sarah somehow maintains her professionalism while navigating the rocky waters of the external team, dishing out ideas and compliments when needed. She is definitely the sane member of the family. But just when you’re about to feel sorry for her, she unloads a joke that cracks everyone up. And you remember, she’s one of us.

Stephanie Moreno joined the team next. Sweet, sweet Stephanie — one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. A journalist at heart, her passion for learning is evident in her work. I’ve never met another professional who continuously seeks criticism for her work. She was the baby of the family (in age and newness) for about a year, and perhaps because of this, or more likely because of her sweetness, made a concerted effort to get to know every member of the team.

Ryan Carty took the rattle from Stephanie, and certain members of the family consistently rattled their new little brother (sorry, Ryan!). But it’s his passion for Grady and incredible work ethic that define him, even if he gets a little star-struck by Ryan Cameron and forgets to take back my parking tag from the radio star. When the door locks are activated and the hallway lights shut off, Ryan is still in the building, planning new opportunities for our students.

The most recent member of the family is Clare Wall. Knowing I was leaving, I vowed on the first day I met her not to get to know her, but you can’t escape family. And dammit, I like her too. Although new to the team, Clare is not afraid to bring out the snark that has so defined our family.

There have been multiple interns that have come and gone, but Hannah Bause seemingly worked full-time during the Centennial months and became a de facto family member. Please be warned Hannah, our staff meetings are not typical. Don’t crack jokes while your boss is talking.

Speaking of boss, the functional dysfunction is certainly top-down, starting with the “My Dean is cooler than your Dean” Charles Davis. He lives and breathes Grady, and his passion is infectious. And his relaxed nature creates an environment for creativity to thrive, and maybe a little mischief to occur.

That’s my dysfunctional Grady family. But when we all get together, it works. For instance, last April in a torrential downpour after a highly successful farm party to kick off the Centennial, it was this team that went literally ankle-deep in the mud to load six cars with various items ranging from kegs to centerpieces. We were all angry, cranky, smelly and disgusting. But instead of bowing out leaving the job to another person, we stuck with it, together. Because that’s what families do.

Joe: The student

As a student, both at the master’s and doctoral level, so many faculty members have enriched and inspired me.

I had the fortune — or misfortune — of taking two theory courses with Dr. Jay Hamilton. Although I blame his courses for the doubling of my vision prescription (three course-packs … seriously?), it was his classes that showed me how to take control of my brain and grasp complex ideas.

Dr. Joe Dominick taught statistics to a group of numbers-challenged students, including myself, kicking off the semester by making us repeat the phrase: “Numbers are our friends.”

Dr. Lou Benjamin and later Dean Dr. Cully Clark showed me how to critically study, appreciate and recognize the importance of history.

Dr. Carolina Acosta-Alzuru taught me how to parlay my interviewing and reporting skills into critical and cultural analysis … even though I still don’t understand telenovelas.

Dr. Kent Middleton stoked my fascination in law and government and how it applies to the media, while helping me understand a second language: legalese.

Dr. Leara Rhodes helped me understand other cultures and how mass communication plays different roles around the world.

The late Professor Conrad Fink lifted the layer of journalism that was always foreign to me — the business side — teaching me the fundamentals of the industry, and also how to read an annual report to investors.

Picking up where Fink left off, Dr. Keith Herndon uncovered the incredible potential for journalism’s future in an age of digital and social media.

Mark Johnson taught me the critical role visual plays in journalistic storytelling, and he also stoked my interest in all things Apple.

And just when I felt confident in my journalistic writing abilities, Professor Pat Thomas taught me that there is always room for improvement, and reinforced in me the importance of using journalism to positively impact social change.

The danger in any list is leaving off people. For a complete list of every faculty member who influenced me, visit

Yes, that’s the directory of ALL Grady faculty. Whether in a class, a conversation or a presentation, every single Grady faculty member has shaped who I am. They taught me to think critically, the importance of research, how to teach and of course, a lot about mass communication.

Joe: The teacher

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to teach at Grady, home to the best students on campus (literally … check the GPAs). I never thought I would feel pride in the accomplishments of someone who is not a family member or friend, but over the years, several students have proved otherwise.

I’m in a unique position at Grady, because I meet many students when they are in high school, and get to see them through graduation. Also, as adviser of UGAzine, I’ve worked with some of the “best of the best” at Grady. Finally, as director of GSPA, I’ve worked with many students at our annual events. Nothing impacts me more than when a student offers words of appreciation long after graduation, or seeks you out for a visit or cup of coffee when in town.

Thanks for reinforcing in me my desire to teach, and for making me feel special.

I started to make a list, but then kept realizing I forgot someone. You know who you are …


The Weekly Wednesday: An Unexpected Passion

Originally published Sept. 16, 2015 on

I was unsure if I should be eager or anxious, but I definitely knew I was overwhelmed by his words and intimidated by the passion coming from the journalism adviser at Decatur High School.

It was in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the NSPA/JEA 2004 Fall Convention where Jon Reese introduced himself to me. “We could be doing so much more with GSPA,” he told me, then listed off numerous things that would make GSPA more beneficial to students and advisers. “GSPA can be a premier organization for the high school press.”

I had been in my position for barely a month, already having been thrust into “hosting” NSPA, a national convention with roughly 5,000 high school journalists and teachers in attendance. I knew GSPA had already been through numerous directors in its recent history — I was the fourth in six years. Admittedly, I anticipated my tenure to be short as well — get my master’s degree within three years, then get back in the professional world writing for a publication somewhere in the Midwest. At 28 and with a newly born baby, GSPA was the de facto “reset” button for my professional career.

But then I kept talking to Jon Reese. And then to Debbie Smelley of Starr’s Mill High School. And Coni Grebel of Lee County High School. And Kristy Cates of Lowndes High School. And Brian Holt of Effingham High School. And Sonya Boyd of Shaw High School. And David Ragsdale of Clarke Central High School. And Cal Powell of First Presbyterian School. And Elisha Boggs of Chestatee High School. And these people — who at one point were on or are still on the GSPA Advisory Board — changed my career.

The passion each of them had for high school journalism and more importantly, journalism students is contagious. I caught the disease. They came to me with idea after idea on things GSPA could be doing better, and for the most part we implemented them. Because after multiple conversations with members of the board, I recognized that not only were they full of good ideas, but they were willing to step up and help institute the ideas they espoused. From hosting student workshops, creating and developing an adviser training seminar, teaching multiple sessions at conferences, and mentoring new teachers, these individuals served as the core of GSPA over the past decade … without getting any of the credit (or pay).

Almost immediately, I embodied their passion for high school journalism. My 3-year plan became a 5-year plan, then 10-year plan, and then a life plan. While knowing I had a tremendous backbone of support at the state level, I merged my academic goals with my new professional passion and began to conduct statewide and national research on scholastic journalism, presenting my results at national academic conferences. I began to critique papers for publications in various states around the country. I became involved in SIPA to reach young journalists in the Southeast. And back home, we continuously reshaped GSPA’s offerings, continuously taking feedback from not just the board, but all advisers who offered input.

After 11 years, I figured this was my lot in life. And I was OK with that. Family-wise we are settled in Athens. And professionally, as my passion for fostering journalism among high school students continued, I developed another passion — teaching college students. As my position evolved at Grady to a faculty role, I had the best of both worlds. But then an opportunity came to me that I just couldn’t turn down — the chance to teach at the collegiate level full time. Starting Jan. 1, 2016, I will be an assistant professor of mass communications at Piedmont College, splitting my time on both their Demorest and Athens campuses while advising the college newspaper.

It’s a new chapter in my life, as well as for GSPA. It’s a chance for the organization to get a new perspective, and continue to grow the organization into one of the most respected scholastic press associations in the country. And I’m confident that whoever takes over GSPA — despite his or her initial motives — will develop the same passion and care for high school journalism that I did. Jon Reese — and every other teacher who is part of GSPA — will make sure of it.

The Weekly Wednesday: Do as I say … AND as I do

Originally published on on Aug. 26, 2015.

An odd number of students in my editing class forced me into action for the first in-class writing exercise: write a short profile of a classmate following my “Anatomy of a Journalism Story” format.

The “Anatomy” format is formulaic:

  • Open story with a one-sentence lead, focusing on the who and what.
  • The second paragraph is a quote from your main source, reinforcing the lead.
  • The third paragraph is the nut graf, filling in the essential details not covered in the lead.
  • The rest of the story comprises transition/new information, quote. Transition/new information, quote.
  • The story always ends with a quote, ideally tying the back to the lead.

The idea is to introduce students to a journalistic format that is simple to follow and flows well for the reader. It is the only time I confine students to a specific format. Admittedly, this was the first time I subjected myself to simultaneously work on the same exercise I gave my students. The pressure was on: if I couldn’t pull this off, how could I expect my students to do the same? After interviewing my subject for 10 minutes, I started writing. It was a flashback to being a student in school, complicated by the inevitable self-evaluating of my teaching methods. I told students I wouldn’t even read their stories if the lead didn’t capture my attention, so I spent most of my time — definitely too much — trying to get my lead perfect. Did I overemphasize the lead to students? As caught myself straying from my format, I wondered why in the world am I so stringent on following this format for this exercise? I had the perfect ending to my story, but it wasn’t a quote as I required. So I was forced to change my ending. Was I stifling my students’ creativity?

As I put the finishing touches on my story, the student in me was very proud, and the teacher in me was relieved. I pulled it off (story below).

It was truly educational for me, as a teacher, to force myself to do what I was asking my students to do. In this particular case, it reinforced in me the benefits of this exercise. But would that be the case if I forced myself to do everything I asked of my students?

It’s tails: VanMeter flips to journalism

A flip of the coin led Chenault VanMeter to journalism.

“I was torn between advertising and journalism,” said VanMeter, a Grady College senior. “So I flipped a coin. And that was it.”

Her unconventional decision-making methods matches her unique first name, Chenault. Named after her grandmother, VanMeter was raised on a 120-acre horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky. With four brothers, including her twin, carving out her own identity has always been a challenge.

“It was always really hectic, really loud,” VanMeter said. “It helped me become an outgoing person.”

Standing in the shadows of her brothers is difficult enough, but she also has lived under a strong VanMeter family legacy in her hometown, where the VanMeter name is plastered on roads, buildings and professional practices across town.

“Our family stretches back 12 generations (in Lexington),” VanMeter said. “I’m constantly learning new things about my family.”

With an entrenched family legacy in the land of Wildcats, it’s no surprise VanMeter — fueled by her desire to be adventurous — moved to the Bulldog nation to pursue her education. Although her family is extremely important to her, VanMeter is eager to gain new experiences on her own.

“It’s really important for people to get away,” she said. “There’s so much to see and do. If you don’t leave home, you can easily get stuck.”

With her heart set on Nashville, Tennessee, or Washington, D.C., VanMeter aims to tell people’s stories while building her own life story — with the chapter on her career opening with that fateful coin flip.

“It was tails,” she said. “So I picked journalism.”

GSPA Weekly Wednesday: Adrenaline Rush

The Weekly Wednesday: Adrenaline Rush
by Joe Dennis, GSPA Director

As a former journalist who worked in a newsroom, I miss the adrenaline rush of doing the interviews, writing the story and getting it published all in one day. Sure it was stressful — and one of the reasons I left the newsroom for academia — but I rarely find something that matches that feeling of accomplishment that I sensed seeing the paper, filled with a day of my work, come off the press.

On Tuesday night, that feeling came back. With another Grady professor we served as editors of a six-person Election Day newsroom. Our team of student reporters were dispatched at 7 a.m. to various polling locations across Athens. Their mission was to get the “stories behind the story” — talking to voters, poll workers and election managers as to why they are there, why they vote, who inspired them to vote, etc. By 8 p.m. we had several written stories, photos and videos posted on a website we created — — and eight student-written stories or videos also posted on the Athens Banner-Herald website.

At the end of the day, that feeling came back to me, but more importantly the six students felt it as well. Working together for almost 13 hours we put together a pretty solid body of work. Of course there were challenges — at times we argued, sniped at each other and had periods of grumpiness. But we also laughed a whole lot, high-fived, shared humorous personal stories and bonded in a way we never could through a typical classroom environment. And we learned, again in a way that we could never learn in a standard classroom.

For example, in teaching video shooting I consistently emphasize the importance of good audio. But still, with every video assignment I have students turning in good clips with horrible audio. Typically, they can just go out and shoot again. In our deadline-driven Election Day newsroom, though, there were no “redos.” So when a student came in with a video piece with horrible audio, we just couldn’t do anything with it. Her hard work was essentially wasted — a tough lesson to learn. But I bet she gets good audio from now on.

This experience got me thinking how a same-day deadline newsroom scenario could be replicated in high school journalism. Perhaps you can open your classroom after hours to have team coverage of a home football game, school event or “High School After Hours,” dispatching students to various events happening on a particularly busy day after school. The focus of stories would be on people — and why they are there — not your standard news story of the event.

Finding a scenario that would allow willing students to get that newsroom rush would be great for staff bonding and morale. And who knows, you might get that rush of adrenaline too.

New Peabody Director Jones: Popular programming can foster political discussion

New Peabody Director Dr. Jeffrey Jones.

Originally published on on July 16, 2013.

ATHENS — While traditional forms of journalism continue to be shuttered by economic pressures and partisan slants, Dr. Jeffrey Jones sees a way of bringing political discussion to the kitchen table – entertainment media.

“Citizens are less interested in traditional storytelling about politics such as news,” he said. “They now often engage in popular forms that are more pleasurable, interesting and exciting.”

Jones cited satirical programming such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and popular dramas such as Homeland andThe Wire that have fostered discussions of politics and society, in more depth than traditional news ever could. In addition to promoting political discussion, those shows have another element in common – they all have won Peabody Awards.

On July 1, Jones became the Lambdin Kay Chair and the fifth director of the Peabody Awards, internationally recognized as one of the most prestigious awards in electronic media. An oft-published media scholar for the past two decades, Jones said the American trend of fusing entertainment and politics took off in the 1990s.

“Traditionally as a society we’ve looked at news and documentary to be our central source for political information,” he said. “But what happened in the 1990s was a new array of actors came onto the scene – Michael Moore, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Ali G., Chris Rock – who were all doing political material. It became a moment where I thought we should look at the ways in which entertainment programming became a more popular venue for engaging and understanding politics.”

The new cultural phenomena became the heart of Jones’ scholarly work, which includes five published books and dozens of published academic studies. After a decade of teaching media courses and, most recently, serving as director of the Institute of Humanities at Old Dominion University, what drew Jones to the Peabody Awards is the positive recognition the award gives to these new forms of political communication.

“As media scholars, our job is to offer a critical view of how media affects society,” he said. “Often that is seen and done negatively, with the conclusion that media fails to support democracy. The Peabodys offer the same kind of critical assessment, but in a positive way. These are the best media practices in journalism, documentary and entertainment, and we are better citizens by attending to these stories.”

As director, Jones said one of his goals is to utilize and publicize the Peabody Collection, an archive of more than 50,000 titles consisting of all the entries to the Peabody Awards since its inception in 1941. Housed in the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Library, it is the third largest repository of radio and television programming in the United States, outranked only by the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

“We need to find ways to exploit this collection,” Jones said, citing the importance of preserving the older materials, making popular entries digitally available and using the works in scholarly symposia and workshops. “We sit on a treasure trove and it’s my job to raise the money to preserve it and to share it more widely.”

Another top goal of Jones is to further promote the Peabody Awards and what it represents. “The Peabody Awards have always highlighted quality storytelling in entertainment, news and documentary – the best in media practices and the best in American narratives,” he said. “My job as Peabody director is to help the Peabody become more nationally recognized as doing that.”

In addition to those two goals, Jones said he would like to maintain, and perhaps expand the role of students in the Peabody Awards, from assisting in the office, serving on pre-screening judging committees and helping at the annual New York ceremony.

“Students are vital to how this program is run,” he said. “This is a unique experience that students cannot get anywhere else in the country, and thus, a wonderful contribution to the education Georgia students get at Grady.”