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“LT. JOE” – Joe Patterson (MSJ72) Shares His Journey To Medill

Well, I never thought of the military as an option. But somehow, because I signed up for ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) as a freshman at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, I found myself in olive drab military gear and boots with a rife on Thursday afternoons… marching around the college’s football field. It doubled as where we learned how to march in formation, and to a cadence. None of us were particularly good at it. After all, we were liberal arts students studying to become businessmen (no girls at Wofford in the 1960s), lawyers, doctors, educators and even some clergy. Wofford had its roots in the Methodist church.

After four years of marching and receiving a monthly ROTC check of about $50, those of us in the class of 1969 were given an option of which part of the U. S. Army we wanted to join. We all would begin active duty after graduation as second lieutenants, better than being drafted as an enlisted man… or so we were told. All of us seemed destined for Vietnam – President Lyndon Johnson’s unpopular war in Southeast Asia.

I chose the transportation corps. Infantry was nowhere near my list. I think signal corps was my second choice. My brief encounter with infantry training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during the summer of my junior year left me underwhelmed. Actually, more than underwhelmed. Can’t find the word to describe my experience. Negative probably is best. One encounter that I will always remember is the 40-yard low crawl – an exercise that requires you to crawl on your belly without raising your butt. I “got” to do it three times in a row because I could not keep my butt down. On the third attempt, I was the only one crawling and exhausted. The rest of the camp – hundreds of ROTC types – watched. When I finally finished successfully, on the third try, the entire camp erupted into a resounding cheer and applause. I was dead tired, and a bit embarrassed. So much for the infantry.

Graduation from Wofford took place in May 1969. I received my degree – a Bachelor of Arts – in English. Had no idea what to do with it. I’d think about it while serving my required two years on active duty. At graduation, in addition to my diploma, I received my gold-color second lieutenant bars.

I did get assigned to the transportation corps and received my orders for Fort Eustis in Virginia. That is the headquarters for the transportation corps. There, in addition to rolling out of bed every morning at 6 o’clock, calisthenics in shorts and T-shirts were required rain or shine, hot or freezing cold. Then, after jumping jacks, pushups and a quarter mile run, you had to do several pullups before being admitted to the mess hall for breakfast. I think that was the coldest I have ever been.

While completing my transportation corps officers training, I got my orders to report to Fort Polk in Louisiana. Yes, some place warm. I was assigned to – of all things – an infantry battalion. Our mission was to train troops headed to Vietnam. Being an English major, our unit commander gave me the job of developing lesson plans for those giving combat instructions.

A desk job, which wasn’t bad until the unit commander – a major – told me, to go serve as an attorney to prosecute a soldier who had gone AWOL (absent without leave). I had no benefit of training to do this, but in the army if you are an officer – even a second lieutenant — you can serve as an attorney. I did some quick study, asked questions and took on the assignment. Everything went smoothly, until the military judge asked me for the day book. No one had said anything about having the day book with me. That is the book that logs soldiers out to go off post. When I tried to explain that I did not have it, the judge went ballistic. He told me that the case was being dismissed and that my unit commander should never ever appoint another officer to prosecute an AWOL case without providing him with the day book. He made an example out of me. I never served as a military attorney again, and was glad about that.

I eventually got my orders for Vietnam. I was somewhat relieved since Fort Polk was – and probably still is — the arm pit of army bases. It is stuck in the middle of nowhere Louisiana. However, on a couple of occasions I did venture down about 200 miles to New Orleans where I learned about crawfish – a Cajun delicacy. To this day, I will choose crawfish over shrimp.

Before being shipped overseas, I was given a few days leave at home in Laurens, South Carolina, where my parents and brothers lived. I was there for maybe a week before going to Charleston where my first flight was from the Charleston Air Force Base to Washington, D. C. Then it was Flying Tiger Airlines to Alaska to Japan and on to Vietnam. It was well over 20 hours flying time. On the final decent, I felt like we were dive-bombing into the ground – standard procedure to avoid enemy fire. We landed safely.

I reported in at Long Binh – the major command headquarters for the United States Army Vietnam. I am sure I spent the night in barracks there, but I am fuzzy on most details except for when I actually reported for duty. Still wearing my summer kakis and in one of the headquarters buildings, I waited for the officer who was going to give me my in-country assignment. To my surprise a female colonel entered the room. I stood at attention. Saluted.

She said I was being assigned to a truck company supporting an infantry battalion. Not having much military bearing, I – without hesitation – asked her what else she had. Looking surprised, she said she was not normally asked that question. However, since this was her last day in country and she was going back to the states the next day, she asked how much I knew about boats. Again, without hesitation, I told her I knew as much about boats as I knew about trucks.

In actuality, I did not know much about either. My preference, though, was to be with one of the army’s two boat battalions instead of in a jeep heading an infantry platoon into Cambodia.

She said, okay. I was told to report to the 159th Boat Battalion at Cat Lai, outside of Saigon. Cat Lai was an old French seaplane port on the Dong Nai River. The French fought the Vietnamese in the late 1940s and early 1950s before leaving.

The two-story stucco buildings in the Cat Lai compound were surrounded by a walled enclosure with guard stations spaced all the way around. I was told that from time to time there had been attacks by North Vietnamese. The major danger, though, was having one of the ships in the Cat Lai harbor blown up by enemy sappers. These ships, often on their last voyage, carried ammunition for our troops. Needless to say, if one of these was ever blown, it would have taken out Cat Lai and part of Saigon. That actually happened after I got back to the states in 1971.

I reported to the 5th Boat Company where I was issued army fatigues, a flak jacket, boots, weapons, a helmet and told that I would be the company’s supply officer. Again, something I knew noting about, but I was all for on-the-job training. It certainly beat riding shotgun in a jeep. The 5th Boat

Joe Patterson in uniform.

Company’s mission was to patrol rivers in heavily armed landing craft for combat and logistical purposes. My post was on shore, except for occasions when I was called upon to go on the river to a freighter to inspect its cargo.

My first several days at Cat Lai were spent in bed. I had come down with something that gave me a fever, dysentery and achiness. Since I rarely got sick, this was unusual. I was on my back on a cot in the open air of the building where I had been assigned officer quarters – a room with a door and window, not bad by Vietnam standards. We all shared a communal bath. There were probably two dozen of us on the second floor of the building – all lieutenants and captains.

I was able to start my supply officer duties. Fortunately for me, the supply sergeant – an army veteran — knew all about supply, and we got along terrifically. He liked my lack of military bearing. I just told him and others to call me Lt. Joe. They did when we were among ourselves. Also, it was nice to have at Cat Lai two other Wofford graduates from my class. Not expected since there were only 275 in our class. And here we were, three Wofford men together halfway around the world fighting a war.

The biggest challenge at this stage of the Vietnamese conflict was keeping troops busy. Everything within our control – rations, maintenance materials, clothing and daily supplies – were kept in CONEX containers. We had dozens of them. To keep the six men assigned to supply occupied, we were constantly organizing and reorganizing and reorganizing and reorganizing the containers. It was something constructive to do.

This, however, did not keep all troops content, especially those assigned to river duty. Drugs – the most destructive element of serving in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 – had many enlisted men hooked. The primary reason was the drugs over there were dirt cheap… pennies compared to what they would cost in the states. We actually had enlisted men “reup” – volunteering for another tour in Vietnam – just so they could afford their drug habits.

In addition to being the supply officer, I was named the battalion’s drug officer and battalion historian. Being historian was interesting. I enjoyed it. Being drug officer was disturbing, especially when we took addicts to the Long Binh hospital strapped down in a jeep to keep them from hurting themselves or attacking me and two other soldiers. I did not enjoy this, but it had to be done. By now, I was a first lieutenant.

I did think about life after military service and thought advertising would be the path to take. A friend of mine at Wofford had entered Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism’s advertising program, and recommended it. It was considered by many to be the best. He edited the Wofford College yearbook before I did. I was editor in 1968. So, I mailed an application and introductory letter to Northwestern.

Some time went by, but I did – to my surprise — get an acceptance letter from the chairman of the Medill School of Journalism Graduate Admissions Committee, Dr. Albert Sutton. There was a stipulation, though. I would have to enter the Medill program in June or wait another full year to begin. I was not scheduled to get out of the army until August. However, I knew the 159th battalion or at least a major part of it was being deactivated in the fall. It appeared the war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down.

Thus, I began writing letters. A lot of letters. I had purchased a Smith Corona typewriter at the PX (post exchange) at Long Binh. I used the old hunt and peck method. Still do.

First, I explained the situation to the 159th command, a colonel and some majors. While empathetic, they said an early out in June rather than the fall was out of the question. It would have exceeded the military’s 90-day early out policy.

Not deterred, I moved my inquiry on up the chain of command… getting the same negative response. I then had the bright idea of contacting my U. S. Senators – Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings.

My inquiries required some prodding but eventually I got a positive reply from Senator Thurmond who understood that it made no sense for me to stay with a unit that was being deactivated at a time when I needed to be at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I informed the Medill School of Journalism that I would be enrolling in June, but instead of entering the advertising program I wanted to enter the journalism program. The chairman of graduate admissions said okay, and they looked forward to me being there on June 18. This was still months away from when I was to enroll.

Joe Patterson at desk in VietnamDuties as the 5th Transportation Company supply officer were pretty much routine, not a lot of excitement. It was not like we were in an active combat zone, even though agent orange was dropped outside our compound on a regular basis to kill the foliage. We did keep our guards up since we were vulnerable to attacks on the ammunition ships in our harbor.

One day, though, an enlisted man came running to me near the officers’ barracks. Almost out of breath, he told me I had to go the enlisted men’s barracks because one of the privates had taken a loaded weapon – against all rules – back to his bunk. He told everyone that he was going to shoot the company commander, a first lieutenant who was not well liked, especially by the enlisted men because he – the lieutenant – carried his rank on his sleeve. In other words, he thought he was better than others. The private with the loaded weapon told those concerned that he would only give the weapon to Lt. Joe. I really did not know him, but I had a positive rapport with most at Cat Lai. He said he would only give it to me and no one else. So, I went to the barracks. I was told the soldier had no prior behavior problems. The door was closed. I called out the soldier’s name, and he told me to come in. Of course, he could have shot me. He did not. He gave me the weapon, and I promptly walked it over to the company commander. Slamming it down on his desk, I told him this was a close call but that if he did not change his ways he could become a statistic. I left, and heard no more about the incident. The soldier that took the weapon was not charged with an offense. This was, after all, Vietnam.

Two other hair-raising experiences were later at Cat Lai and then at Vung Tau.

Vung Tau, first. This is a coastal town about 80 miles from Cat Lai. I agreed to accompany a delivery there since an officer was needed for the job. It was a beautiful day. In the states, it would have been a called a beach day, and Vung Tau is a beach. As we got closer to our destination, the driver and I noticed a large crowd gathering between us and the gates of our destination. They were holding signs and sticks. Guards at the gates where we were headed hurried us in. Unbeknownst to us, we had driven into an anti-government demonstration. We made our delivery, had a nice lunch of prawns (very large shrimp) and saw the beach where a freighter had been beached. Our trip back to Cat Lai was uneventful even though we were locked and loaded, just in case.

Speaking of being locked and loaded, the Cat Lai incident required this. One night, actually about 3 am, all of us were roused out of bed, told to put on our flak jackets, helmets, boots and get loaded weapons from the armory. That is where weapons were kept since Cat Lai was not an active combat area. I got my 45 and M-16 and headed, as directed, to the front gate of the Cat Lai compound. Flares were going off everywhere. The company commander about whom I spoke earlier ordered me to take three men and hold down the main entrance.  Sounded like a suicide mission to me, but orders were orders. The 5th Transportation Company supply sergeant was next to me, thankfully. He was a calming and reassuring influence. He had been in combat before. I had not. Hours went by. No attack, but the adrenaline was pumping. False alarm, and the only one I experienced while in Vietnam.

As my tour in Vietnam came to a close, a dinner was held at the officers’ mess hall. We had these occasionally. The battalion commander at the end of the meal got up and made a few announcements, some related to the downsizing of the battalion. He then turned the program over to the battalion’s executive officer who called me up front. I was baffled. He then proceeded to hand me two medicine balls, each measuring about a foot in diameter and weighing several pounds. He then began recanting how I had, against all odds, gotten the army to grant me an early out to go to graduate school. Because of my persistence and indefatigability, the battalion senior staff voted to give me its first – and, as far as I know, only –“you really got a set of balls” award. I was speechless but said something stupid like I had enjoyed being at Cat Lai.

When the day arrived on June 11 for me to head back to the states, I dressed in my summer kakis and was told not to wear my fatigues in the states. I packed some things in my duffle bag, grabbed my typewriter and camera and headed to Emma – the jeep that was assigned to me at Cat Lai. As the driver was beginning to leave the compound, a soldier began running – sprinting – after us yelling at the top of his voice. “Lt. Joe, stop. STOP! STOP!” We did. He, after catching his breath, told me the battalion commander had hoped to personally give me what he was handing me. What he was carrying had literally just come in. I opened the package. It was a bronze star for meritorious service. To this day, I am humbled.

I did make it back to the states. When asked if I wanted to serve in the U. S. Army Reserves, I declined thinking to myself “I have enjoyed as much as I can stand.”

Weighing 128 pounds, I had a week to get from my parent’s home in Laurens, South Carolina, to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I made it. Not long after arriving in Evanston, I was sitting on the steps of the Northwestern Student Center on Sheridan Road and a student anti-Vietnam war demonstration came marching by. I thought, I was just there.

I graduated from Medill in 1972. I was able to afford it thanks to the GI Bill and several of my economy measures such as living rent free in the basement of a mansion on Sheridan Ave. in exchange for shoveling snow and mowing grass. My mode of transportation was a Sears & Roebuck bicycle which I rode everywhere, even in snow, wind, rain and ice. The Medill librarian noticed that even on the coldest days I wore only a sweater and a jacket. She gave me a heavy coat that someone had left in the library, and I gladly accepted it. I hung on to that coat until a few years ago.

Lessons learned at Medill, especially from Professor Ben Baldwin, and at Cat Lai laid the groundwork for the successful career that I enjoyed in journalism, corporate communications and investor relations. I am happily retired now in Aiken, South Carolina, at age 77. I did recover from an Agent Orange linked heart attack in 2011.

ABOUT THE AUTHORJoe Patterson in polo shirt.
Joseph F. Patterson has created and managed proactive communications and investor relations programs for financial services companies (First Atlanta Corporation, Wachovia Corporation and Sterling Financial Corporation), utility services (Westinghouse Electric Corporation, PJM Interconnection and GridSouth), telecommunications providers (Powertel and D&E Communications) and real estate/resort developments (Sea Pines Company and Kiawah Island Company) as well as major nationally televised sporting events – the Heritage Golf Classic, the LPGA Championship, the World Invitational Tennis Classic and the Family Circle Tennis Cup. He began his career as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. Joe graduated from Northwestern University with a Master of Science degree in journalism and from Wofford College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. While serving as a lieutenant in Vietnam, he received a Bronze Star for meritorious service. He is an Eagle Scout.

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Mariana Alfaro (BSJ18, MSJ18): Politics Breaking News Reporter at The Washington Post

What is your current role and what are your main responsibilities?

I’m currently a politics breaking news reporter at The Washington Post. My main responsibility is covering all the breaking news in politics, whether it’s in the White House, Congress, or campaign events. I work with a team of four reporters, and we are constantly monitoring lawmakers and events. We also send alerts when significant events like Biden signing a bill occur.

Did you always want to go into breaking news and political reporting, or did your interests change during your time at Medill?

No, I didn’t initially plan to pursue breaking news reporting. It was something I discovered when I landed this job. I always knew I enjoyed fast-paced work, and my attention span is well-suited for breaking news. However, I didn’t anticipate becoming a political reporter. Growing up in El Salvador, I wasn’t exposed to U.S. politics beyond knowing that Obama was the president. But during my time at Medill, I participated in the Medill On the Hill program and fell in love with American politics, especially during the 2016 election. I ended up doing internships in politics in Texas and covering the city hall in New York, however, I realized that I wanted to come back to DC because of the strong Salvadoran community and the opportunities it offered.

How did you envision your career path when you started at Medill, and how did it change once you graduated?

When I first started at Medill, I thought I was going to spend four years in the U.S. and then go back to Latin America and work as a foreign correspondent for an American outlet. I already had the idea that I wouldn’t be able to stay here. But the more I learned about American politics, the more I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I realized my passions aligned with covering this topic, and every day at work felt exciting because I was so invested in what I was doing. At that point, I knew I had to do my best to stay. I took a class with Professor Whitaker, who is now the Dean of Medill, about the specific visa I’m on. I researched it, spoke to experts, and realized that it was possible for me to stay. I’m glad I had the opportunity to delve into that visa topic because it allowed me to remain in the country. My experiences at Medill changed the path I wanted to take for the rest of my life. It only took one quarter when I got the opportunity to take classes in DC for the Medill On the Hill program, where I  tried something new and broadened my horizons. I don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t gone to Medill and tried to succeed.

How did your experience at Medill shape your approach to reporting?

One professor who greatly influenced my reporting approach is Professor Peter Slevin. He taught me to look beyond the surface and consider the bigger picture when covering politics. Instead of focusing solely on the immediate news, he encouraged us to understand the underlying factors that led to a particular event. This perspective has stuck with me, even in breaking news situations, I aim to provide readers with context and let them form their own opinions. Many other professors at Medill emphasized this approach, and I’m grateful for the valuable lessons I learned. Additionally, my time at The Daily Northwestern, where I started my journalism career, taught me important skills in managing a newsroom and covering breaking news. 

How has the Medill network supported you throughout your career?

My Medill network has been invaluable to me. When I applied for my first job at The Washington Post, I reached out to a friend who had been my RA during the Cherubs summer program in 2013. She is a Medill alumni and was on the team I was applying to at The Post. She provided me with insights into the job, interview tips, and helped me prepare in ways that made me become a good candidate for the position. We still talk regularly, and I’m grateful for her guidance. There are also many Northwestern alumni at The Post, and having that common bond has created a sense of community. I rely on my Medill connections for advice, support, and professional opportunities. They are like family to me.

Can you share an experience that stands out from your time at Medill?

With Medill courses, I got the opportunity to travel to France and South Africa, where we reported on immigration. At some moment, it dawned on me that we always talk about immigration as if it’s this big crisis going on in the world. As an immigrant myself, these two trips made me realize that there’s so much more context to immigration than what the media portrays. There’s so much more that we don’t take into consideration when we’re writing these articles. Being in South Africa gave me insights into the stories of these Zimbabwean immigrants trying to rebuild their lives. It made me think a lot about Central American immigrants in the United States and made me realize that at some point, I want to work in some sort of field that lets me cover immigration patterns worldwide. To get there, I have to cover a wide variety of things to understand where people are coming from and their positions, and it’s something I’m still pursuing. 

From your experiences, do you have any advice you would give to someone who’s currently attending or choosing to attend Medill? 

Growing up in El Salvador, when I said I wanted to go to journalism school, everyone was like, “Oh, good luck with that. There’s no job,” especially as a non-American. We’re often told that there’s no path to success. But I’ve clearly seen it happen to me and many other international students. So my advice is not to let the doubters get in your way of succeeding. There are many ways to have a successful and happy career. As an international student, you just have to put your best work forward, put in the effort, try your best, keep the connections going, talk to editors, send your resume to everyone, and sell your story and your experience. Don’t think that there’s no spot for you in American journalism because there really is. So my main message is don’t give up, but also understand that it takes a lot of work. If you already have the idea of being a journalist in America, it’s definitely doable. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

My best advice to journalism students right now is to seize as many opportunities as you can to experiment with digital and online journalism. The traditional ways we’ve been taught are evolving, and we’re moving away from print as the main product. So it’s important to gain skills in audio journalism, TV and radio hits, and even platforms like TikTok. You might not use all of these skills, but it’s better to have them when you enter the real world and realize that newsrooms are diversifying how they deliver news. 

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Investigative reporter Kristin Thorne brings her Medill skills to another level: making a true crime series come to life

“Can you imagine waking up every day and not knowing where someone you loved is, even if they’re dead?” Thorne asked.

Kristin Thorne, an investigative reporter for WABC-TV Eyewitness News (MSJ05), has made a name for herself in the journalism industry with her in-depth reporting on local and national issues. Kristin’s latest project, a true-crime series called “Missing”, has gained attention and critical acclaim since its debut in December 2021.

Thorne joined the Eyewitness News team in January 2012, after working as a reporter at News 12 Westchester and WHTM-TV ABC 27 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was promoted to the 7 On Your Side Investigates team in January 2022 after serving 10 years as the station’s Long Island Correspondent.

Thorne was initially inspired to shine a light on the stories of missing people after covering the disappearance of Gabby Petito. As the lead reporter for all of ABC News on this case, Thorne put her investigative skills to work, following the investigation to Florida to cover the search. At one of the press conferences, Joe Petito, Gabby’s father, looked over at the media and said, as Thorne recounted, “You need to do a better job of covering missing people, because more people should be getting the attention as my daughter did.”

“I remember having this lightning bolt moment where I thought, he’s absolutely right,” Thorne said.

Today, Thorne creates, writes, and produces “Missing”, which investigates the disappearances of people from the New York City area. Each episode explores the story of a person who has gone missing. 

As a journalist, Thorne has utilized the skills she has learned over the years, such as investigation and research, and describes herself as a detective and journalist.

“I am working as a detective for these families,” she said. “I search, investigate, knock on doors, doing anything a detective would do.”

For each case, Thorne puts together clues that lead to the missing person, and although she hasn’t found anybody yet, she believes in many of these cases, people have been killed, and she assumes that their bodies have been hidden, so she is tracking down murderers. 

“That’s what I’m doing, I’m putting together clues that are going to lead me to the person who disposed of this person’s body,” Thorne said. 

The alleged murderers from these cases have gotten away with their actions for many years, yet Thorne still has hope.

“Do I expect the person who killed these individuals to come forward? No, I don’t,” she said. “They’ve gotten away with it for this many years. What I’m hoping is that the people around them, after this amount of time, may have a piece of heart left in them that they can come forward and say, ‘I didn’t tell the truth back then.’”

While working on the next episodes of “Missing”, Thorne is still investigating and providing updates on past cases. 

“These investigations keep going,” Thorne said. “It’s very challenging, but they’re always in my head.”

Thorne struggled to find the first case that she worked on. She called private investigators throughout New York City and ended up finding a private investigator on Long Island who got her in touch with the family of Leanne Marie Hausberg, a 14-year-old girl who went missing in 1999. She is the first episode of “Missing” and the youngest victim that Thorne has ever worked on. This family took a chance with Thorne without even knowing who she was, but because of this, the Hausberg family led her to the next cases she worked on. 

“I always tell people I had no idea how easy it is to disappear,” Thorne said. “Even with cameras and phones, women have disappeared into thin air in New York City. And it’s not crazy, it happens all the time.”

Thorne’s passion for journalism began at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Medill. Thorne now shares her expertise with aspiring journalists as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, teaching journalism at the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication.

“Medill formed me, it gave me the foundation that I needed to be in this line of work, and I still go back to concepts and techniques that I learned from my professors at Medill,” Thorne said. 

When Thorne first got to Medill, she thought about doing production, but she was not sure if she wanted to be on air. Thorne refers back to former faculty member Anne Johnsos, who told her to try being on air, and if not, she could go back to production. After giving it a try, she decided that was exactly what she wanted to do. 

“That’s why I love the series,” Thorne said. “It allows me to do everything, I’m in the series, and I produce it, so it allows me to use all those skills.”

Thorne’s dedication to her work has not gone unnoticed, as “Missing” was recently nominated for Best Local TV News Series by the New York City Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and won a New York Emmy Award in 2022 for best crime program. She has also earned an Emmy Award and numerous Emmy nominations, as well as two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and several Folio awards, which honor the best of Long Island journalism. With her commitment to investigative reporting and compelling storytelling, Thorne has established herself as one of the most respected journalists in the industry today.

You can watch Missing on Hulu, on the ABC7 New York app on Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Google TV and at Missing’s third season will premiere in May.


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Bertha González Nieves (MSJ97): CEO & Co-Founder of Tequila Casa Dragones

What is your current role?

I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Tequila Casa Dragones. As Chief Executive Officer, my main responsibilities are to create, develop and manage a portfolio of sipping tequilas, and lead our entire team in the U.S. and Mexico.

What led you to start a tequila company? Did you always have that interest in the food or alcohol business, or was it a sudden inspiration?

While completing my undergraduate program in Mexico City, I was studying business administration and was selected by the Japanese government to represent Mexico in a program in Japan. As part of my training for this program, I was invited to travel all over Mexico, visiting many different, top industries of the country in order to learn about them and be able to speak eloquently about Mexico’s economy.

As part of those trips, I was invited to go to Tequila, Jalisco, for three days to visit agave fields and different distilleries. At the end of the trip, I called my parents and told them, “I know what I want to do. I want to go into the tequila industry.” I was really taken by the beauty of the plant and the whole process.

When I had the chance to go to Japan, I began to truly understand how tequila serves as a window into Mexican culture. Meaning, when you ask people from around the world about Mexico and you ask them to name five things that represent Mexico, tequila is almost always part of that answer. The idea that tequila is truly a part of the social fabric of Mexico really captivated me. So I began to prepare for a career in the industry. 

I worked in management consulting after finishing my undergraduate in Mexico, and then I did the Medill IMC program. I also took as many courses as I could at Kellogg, to complement my experience. When I graduated, I went and knocked on the doors of the tequila industry thinking that with my background I could get a pretty good job. And that’s how I got started.

After working for a decade for the oldest and most established tequila producer in the world, I realized that I have the heart of an entrepreneur.  I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and when I was younger I embarked on many small entrepreneurial ventures. So, after a decade of working for someone else’s company, I realized that I wanted to run my own business.

I started obsessing about the opportunity of becoming an entrepreneur in the tequila category, producing my own tequila, and really having the opportunity to deliver the best possible product. That’s where my journey to build my own company started.

How did your experience at Medill shape your approach to entrepreneurship and to the whole marketing aspect while building your company?

I can’t just attribute it to one thing or another specifically.  However, I definitely think that having the opportunity to go through the IMC program and take other important classes as well, such as entrepreneurship, gave me more ammunition for my career. The opportunity to go to the top marketing school in the U.S. really gave me a very wide perspective of not only marketing, but also of public relations, advertising, direct marketing statistics, consumer behavior, and entrepreneurship, which completely opened my perspective. I would say it’s really a combination of factors. I believe that having had the opportunity to go to Northwestern was and will forever be a turning point in my career.

When you came to Medill, did you envision a future plan, and once you graduated, did you still have that same vision in mind or did Medill change your perspective?

Medill confirmed my interest in going into brand management. When I graduated, I began looking for a role in brand management in the tequila category. I think the classes that I took and how I approached what I was learning helped, and as my career progressed, I was able to keep many of these learnings   as real anchors and real support for my own experience.

I didn’t know that I was going to be able to become a successful entrepreneur. Coming from Mexico City, having had  the opportunity to go to Medill, and to receive a scholarship, was in a way very entrepreneurial for me, and gave me valuable experience to become an entrepreneur. 

How has the Medill network helped you throughout building your career?

I did an internship in an advertising agency, and that was really interesting because it was a window into the world of advertising and marketing, and ultimately brand building. Then, when I graduated, it was very helpful to be able to leverage many of the different companies that had come to Medill. I knew I wanted to go into the tequila industry, and I had to use my own network to accomplish that. However, I tried to stay close to the university because I believe that the impact that it had on my career was truly important.

Can you speak of a time that stands out to you from your time at Medill?

When I graduated, they gave me the Arthur E. Tatham award, which is given to a student with a standing promise in marketing communications. That was a pretty big moment for me. Plus, it was a monetary award that enabled me to actually have a little bit more money to be able to wait for the right job, which was incredibly helpful.

Other things stand out as well, such as the impact from some of Medill’s excellent roster of professors, such as Stanley Tannenbaum, who is no longer with us. His role in the advertising world was really incredible, the way that he taught us and the way that he inspired us was a great experience. We also had the chance to work with the speech writers that had worked with Bill Clinton, for example. It was always so exciting to be able to be sitting in front of such experienced professors, whether in media, writing, journalism, or in advertising.

Finally, what still stands out to me were the people that I met there, the richness of the program, the beauty of Chicago and Evanston, and the high academic level of Northwestern. Since then, I’ve been back to both Medill and Kellogg for different invitations. It’s really an extraordinary school and I feel very proud and grateful to have a connection to it.

How has your work at Medill made a difference in your career?

I immediately went into brand management and it helped me find my passion. Of course, tequila is my passion, but in the end, it’s all about building a brand, a successful product, and a very high-quality product. So, I think that my experience at Medill helped me understand that there was a real passion for me in this field, and it gave me the tools to get there and actually do it.

If you could give advice to someone who’s entering Medill or thinking about joining Medill, what would you tell them?

The university has so much to offer that it is up to the student to make that really work for you. You need to be truly curious about what you’re learning and be proactive and interactive with your professors and accept the challenge. If you do, you’re going to get so much out of the experience and gain valuable skills for your life.

For me personally, Northwestern also awakened an interest in academia; it infused me with the idea of constantly looking for new courses. It’s up to you to really stay curious.

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Kelsey Ogletree(MSJ10): Founder, Pitchcraft, and Independent Journalist

1. What inspired you to go to Medill?

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, but my true love was in magazines. After researching Medill’s magazine journalism program, I told myself I was going no matter what, if I got in. I moved to Evanston to start the MSJ program a few months later not knowing a soul, and it was the best decision I ever made.

2. What did you specialize in at Medill, if anything?

Magazine journalism.

3.What is your favorite Medill moment(s)?

Two stick out to me. The first was doing man-on-the-street interviews during Methods class at the start of the program. Hitting the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter and trying to convince strangers walking by to do an interview with us, while getting our equipment set up and functioning in single-digit
temperatures, was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It was a turning point for me not only in my career, but in my life. I’d always been considered shy and one to stay in my lane, but that exercise helped me to gain the experience and confidence I needed to break out of that shell.

The innovation project was a highlight of my time at Medill. Our class, which graduated in December 2010, chose to create the first digital magazine designed for the iPad, which had come out that spring. Building this product from the ground up —for a medium that had not been done before — provided me with a breadth of new skills that I use to this day, more than a decade later. That included navigating through tough challenges with a team, delegating, managing technology failures, understanding design
and UX, defining your audience, negotiating, business planning and even pitching to venture capital firms.

4. What did you do right after Medill?

I started my first post-grad job as an assistant editor with McKinsey & Company, working on the firm’s McKinsey Quarterly business journal, in downtown Chicago a month after graduation. I spent several years there before moving to Atlanta to become managing editor for Jezebel, a print magazine published
by Modern Luxury. Next, I moved through a series of editorial roles at Connect, overseeing print and digital magazines for four individual segments of the meetings and events industry, before being laid off unexpectedly from my role as editor-in-chief there in fall 2017.

5. How did you go about launching your freelance career?

I’d always viewed becoming a freelancer as my ultimate goal, dreaming of working for myself but imagining it would happen further into my career than it did. Jobless overnight after my layoff, I decided to try freelancing for a while to get me through the holidays, after which I figured I’d apply for new jobs.
The first person I reached out to was a friend who’d graduated from the magazine program with me at Medill, who was then working as an editor with Real Simple. She gave me the opportunity to write a couple digital stories for her (I still recall, it was best holiday gifts for parents, and for brothers), and I
earned my first national media clips because of her generosity. It gave me the confidence to begin pitching other national publications, and within a few months I was writing for Shape, Cooking Light, Reader’s Digest and others. At the start of my freelance career, I would write about anything, for any publication I could. Over the past five years, however, I’ve worked to develop a strong personal brand as a writer covering topics I enjoy. Now, I’m known for my writing about travel, food and golf, and my top outlets include Travel + Leisure, AARP The Magazine and Southern Living, among others. To this day, I find how strong a Medill connection goes. Before pitching a new editor, I always check their LinkedIn page to see where they went to school. I’ve found that when I reach out to a fellow Medill alum and mention it in the first sentence, the response rate is nearly 100 percent.

6. How did you then launch your own business, Pitchcraft? Can you summarize what it is in a few

Pitchcraft is a technology platform connecting independent PR professionals and small PR agencies to freelance journalists and editors in the national consumer lifestyle space. We put the “relations” back in public relations through a series of resources designed to foster relationships among writers, editors and
PR — including weekly personal interviews with freelance journalists, weekly calls for members only, monthly workshops with freelancers and editors. Our business model includes paying all our journalists and editors, showing we value their time and expertise.

It began in March 2020, when I decided to host a Zoom meeting to bring together writers and PR pros to discuss pitching during the pandemic. It evolved into monthly paid workshops that regularly sold out. I decided to roll it into an ongoing membership with resources our members could access at any time, and that would build community. My husband, Derrick, left his corporate job in May 2021, and together we built Pitchcraft and launched in December 2021. Together with our growing cohort of members and network of journalists, we are working to shift the transactional nature of the media industry into one that’s relationship based. Being journalist-led sets us apart from any other PR software company. We have big things planned for 2023 to continue to grow and spark foundational change.

7. How did your Medill training help you in your career, either as a writer or business owner, now? 

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the skills and connections I developed through my time at Medill. One thing I’ve come back to time and time again is the program’s journalism ethics course. We live in a time where anyone can call themselves a freelance writer if they’re able to pitch and get an assignment from an editor, but not everyone has the foundation of what being a journalist means, from an ethical standpoint. That’s of increasing importance in a world of fake news and much noise in the content space

The connections I established through Medill have been invaluable. It’s amazing to see where my fellow classmates have ended up in their careers, and to keep in touch with them and turn to each other as resources years later. There’s also an unspoken bond among alumni, even if we didn’t go to school together, that establishes trust and camaraderie from the start. For instance, I’ve had many writers and editors who are Medill alums join Pitchcraft as guests, who’ve immediately said yes after learning of our Medill connection.

8. What advice do you have for incoming MSJers? 

When you start your MSJ program, clear out any extraneous noise or distractions in your life so you can focus 100 percent on the work. You get out of it what you put into it. Yes, it’s going to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Yes, you’re going to be forced into situations that make you uncomfortable. You’ll learn from them. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes (I once wrote a headline that was read aloud to the class that was so embarrassing, I can’t bear to think of it do this day). You’ll get through them and never make them again. Also, spend time getting to know your classmates personally. These will be your lifelong friends, colleagues and peers whom you can always turn to for advice and support.

My Medill Story

Michael Raphael (BSJ93): How I Turned A Passion for Listening Into a Veterinary Staffing Startup

Investigative journalism takes you to lots of unexpected places—everyone who enters the field is prepared to meet adventure. What I did not imagine is that my particular journey would lead to the boardroom of a startup, focusing on improving the lives of veterinary healthcare professionals.

After graduating from Medill in 1993, I returned to my hometown and worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Associated Press and The Star-Ledger. I had many different beats, but my favorite work always involved listening to people who were unheard and giving voice to their stories. One of my proudest moments came when I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series exposing racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

It was while working at The Star-Ledger that an old friend and I began talking about starting a company. It was the height of the dotcom era, and the startup didn’t last. But the experience proved to be an important one because it showed me that I enjoyed the process of building a company from the ground up. 

I knew enough to know I needed more training, though, so I went back to school to get my MBA at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. While I pursued the degree at night, I interned at a private equity firm called CMS Companies. I worked my way up to managing partner while investing in small companies in a variety of industries. One of those businesses was a group of veterinary hospitals. It was the idea of working in an industry that helped animals that ultimately led me to leave CMS and co-found a company to buy veterinary hospitals and help them operate better.

At the time a nationwide veterinary staffing shortage was just beginning to impact animal hospitals. Vets were leaving in droves because the hours were long and brutal. They came into the profession with high rates of student debt but got very little support from managers at their clinics and hospitals. Add to that a highly emotional job with lots of stressors. For those that stayed, there were high rates of burnout, anxiety, depression, and increased suicide risk. 

It was clear to me that If we wanted to continue to value the health of our animals, we needed to place a higher value on the wellness and happiness of the doctors that treated them. Thus, the idea for IndeVets—a relief (locum) veterinary staffing company that made working conditions better for vets—was born.

What made IndeVets different from my previous startups is that from the very beginning I was guided not just by a problem that needed solving—the labor crisis in the veterinary industry—but also by a sense of social purpose: to improve the experience of practicing veterinary medicine, and by extension, uplift the lives of veterinary professionals. 

If I could bring veterinary medicine more in line with the way today’s vets wanted to work, I knew I could help build a better future for the embattled industry. But as IndeVets grew from a hopeful concept into a full-fledged operation, the biggest challenge was convincing veterinarians that this new model wasn’t too good to be true. 

Today, IndeVets serves a nationwide network of veterinarians and hospitals and my Medill background continues to provide me with critical tools for success. Editing, writing, and asking questions – I use these foundational skills every day. Storytelling is an important part of being an entrepreneur – you have to convince people to see the potential where you see it, and you have to gain their empathy, trust, and loyalty. It’s also a critical part of running a business. Hearing the stories our doctors talk about their challenges – the long days in the clinic, the inability to manage their own lives – drives new ideas for the company. 

At Medill, I set out to write stories that would move the needle in some way and open up dialogue about important issues. Entrepreneurship hasn’t changed that ambition—it’s simply given this journalist-at-heart a new way to work toward change.

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Christine Brennan (BSJ80, MSJ81): An Industry Trailblazer Dedicated to Serving the Next Generation of Female Sports Reporters

By Myles Gilbert

When Christine Brennan was 10, her father would often find her in their living room, school books pushed aside, intently listening to the Toledo Mud Hens broadcast on public radio. Brennan followed the entire 1968 season of the Detroit Tigers Triple-A affiliate in a scorebook she received for her birthday.

“Not only were many 10-year-old girls in America not doing that,” Brennan said. “I dare to say very few 10-year-old boys were doing that.”

That’s who Christine was, and is. Infatuated with scores, stat sheets, and storylines.

Now, at age 64, Brennan has spent more than 40 years covering professional sports and the Olympics for the Miami Herald, The Washington Post and now USA Today. She is also a commentator for ABC News and CNN. Brennan became the Miami Herald’s first female sports reporter in 1981, the Post’s first woman assigned to the Washington Football Team beat in 1985, and the first president of the Association for Women in Sports Media in 1988. A trailblazer in the industry, Brennan is dedicated to help blaze a trail for the next generation of female sports reporters.

“I would be mad at myself if I didn’t give back,” Brennan said.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, sports surrounded Brennan, and it became her passion. She and her father dedicated fall Saturdays to college football, attending University of Toledo games just across the street from their home.

Brennan was enthralled by the action. Growing up, she wrote game previews for NBC’s nationally televised baseball games with information she gathered from her own bank of baseball knowledge and her hometown newspaper, the Toledo Blade. She scanned the headlines and box scores of the night before, craving the scoop.

On April 6, 1981, after receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Brennan became the first female sports reporter at the Miami Herald and covered the University of Florida Gators football program, a coveted beat in South Florida.

Brennan attributes her early success in a male-dominated profession to her editors at the Herald and coaches in South Florida, including legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, because they brought her into the newsroom and locker room and allowed her to thrive.

In 1984, Brennan moved to The Washington Post, where then-sports editor George Solomon was inspired by her presence on his team.

“I was impressed with her professionalism and how she cultivated sources,” Solomon said. “She knew it wasn’t easy, but she was respected.”

Grateful for the opportunities she was given to live out her dream, Brennan was inspired to give back, recalling a saying her father often quoted from the New Testament: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

In 1988, Brennan was elected president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, beginning her mentorship and support of female journalists. She helped found a scholarship-internship program, which has impacted almost 200 women, according to Brennan.

Michele Himmelberg, one of the organization’s founders, commends Brennan for championing women’s rights in her reporting.

“She is a strong, fair and righteous voice on important issues that need to be called out,” Himmelberg said. “She forces all of us to think about how wrong these issues are outside sports.”

For 13 years, beginning in 1999, Brennan pressed officials at the Masters Tournament, hosted at the Augusta National Golf Club, about the club’s lack of female members, returning every spring to ask the same question.

“I was public enemy number one of Augusta National,” she said. “But you can ask tough questions and still admire the event.”

Finally, in 2012, Brennan broke the news that Augusta National had admitted its first two female members, a scoop she credited to her friendly relationship with Billy Payne, then chairman of Augusta National, dating back to his days as the head of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“You treat people right and they treat you right,” she said.

Brennan said she wants to be remembered for looking to the future and helping others, especially those without the same opportunities she had.

“Christine is incredibly generous with her time,” said Charles Whitaker, who was a classmate of Brennan’s at Medill and now serves as dean. “Whether it’s for career advice or just to find a mentor, I always direct students to Christine.”

Himmelberg recalled crowds of young female reporters huddled around Brennan at Association for Women in Sports Media conventions to introduce themselves.

“They flock around Christine because she’s so positive and they soak it all in,” Himmelberg said. “She’s always ready to actively mentor young women and give them hope, direction and guidance.”

What has been most gratifying for Brennan is her activism and compassionate reporting.

“If I were remembered at all,” she said, “I would want to be remembered as someone who gave back, and someone who had an unquenchable thirst to motivate and encourage those coming after me.”

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Telling George Floyd’s full story

By Marc Zarefsky (BSJ07) for Spotlight on Storytelling

Robert Samuels watched footage of George Floyd’s murder like millions of people around the world, but when Samuels, a journalist for the Washington Post, first traveled to Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, he wasn’t interested in Floyd’s death. He wanted to write about Floyd’s life.

“As much as I read about him, I had no sense of his soul,” Samuels told me. “That’s what I wanted to show the world.”

Samuels earned the trust of Floyd’s family and closest friends — many who previously refused interview requests — and crafted a powerful tale of hope and horror as part of the Post’s six-part series on “George Floyd’s America.” But Samuels knew there was a far bigger story to tell, a story of systemic racism that ultimately left Floyd gasping to breathe.

“As time went on, his humanity risked being reduced into simply a face that was associated with pain,” Samuels said. “Fellow Post reporter Toluse Olorunnipa and I thought we could help restore it.”

Now, nearly two years to the day since Floyd was killed, the two are trying to do just that. Samuels and Olorunnipa co-authored “His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” which is available for purchase today.

Samuels talked with me about the challenges of crafting such a complex story involving a person most people know of, but few know about.

As you were writing the book, who was the audience you were writing for?

The first person is my mom. Because she immigrated from Jamaica to this country, she had to learn about racism in America. She came to this country in 1973, the same year Floyd was born, and she wondered how her life would be different if her family experienced what Floyd’s had. So in my mom, I think of the person who might not have the complete depth of understanding of the issues, but enough of a baseline that you can’t take certain thoughts or feelings for granted.

Honestly, a part of me wrote it for the 16-year-old version of myself — the skinny, somewhat self-effacing kid who could not fully articulate why teachers underestimated him or why he could sometimes feel so out of place in the country he loved. I imagined him picking up this book in an airport and being empowered with the vocabulary and the historical knowledge about race and racism that he did not previously have. And I thought of how empowering it would be for him.

How, if at all, did your approach to interviews change depending on who you were attempting to speak with?

The pitch we made wasn’t that different for anyone — from any of Floyd’s loved ones to President Biden himself, who also answered our questions. We thought we had a great opportunity to help open people’s eyes to the invasive force of systemic racism, and we told everyone how humbling it would be if they could help join us on the journey. And so many people, including people who were with Floyd on the day he died who have not spoken publicly about the incident, said “yes.” More than 400 did. And every “yes” we received felt monumental.

Profile stories can sometimes have a formulaic pattern to them, yet the story you tell weaves George Floyd’s story into the larger story of systemic racism in this country. How challenging was it to piece those stories together?

Floyd’s presence actually helped us focus the story. We knew any issue we discussed had to relate to him and the movement that followed his death. The tentacles of systemic racism in this country are wide-ranging, so embedding these ideas inside the narrative allowed us to introduce them to the reader in a way that feels organic. A lot of biographies tell the “what happened” part; We wanted to put his life in the proper context and answer the “why” questions, too, because his death became such a symbol of how racism operates in America. But we wanted the reader to understand that systemic racism did not come pressing on Floyd solely because of his last interaction on earth.

What did you learn about storytelling from this project?

The benefit of planning ahead. We wrote a pretty big book — twice as many words as our publisher asked — that had many different threads and characters, so it had the potential to be a train wreck. There was no way we could have done the book and finished on time if we did not build the architecture for chapters before we started writing. We had to have a sense of building up to important scenes, make conscious decisions about when the narrative should begin to speed up and pray, pray, that we could get characters developed over the chapters. There was little about the structure that was happenstance.

What advice would you give someone looking to become a better storyteller?

Listen and learn. I think a lot of journalists go into stories with the wrong attitude that you are doing a community or a person a huge favor. No. They are giving you the privilege of trust and candor. So, listen to them. Let their answers breathe and try to interrupt them as little as possible. Ask smart follow-ups. And then, at the end, mirror back what you thought you heard them say.

What do you hope readers learn from your book?

That George Floyd’s battle to breathe in America started long before he met Derek Chauvin. He spent his life trying to navigate systems that carried the legacy of racist laws that rarely showed him any grace. I want readers to see how systemic racism works and how consuming it can be.

But ultimately, this story is about the persistence and optimism of black people in this country. Floyd, for example, never stopped trying to be a more productive member of society — and always believed it was possible. The activists who take up the fight for justice protest because they believe the country can have a better tomorrow. And even when legislation fails and their tactics get maligned, they seem to hold a brighter outlook for the country’s future than so many of the lawmakers who represent them. It is the black people of the country who are the holders of American hope in the book — and I found it to be a profound response to the structural issues in this country. When I asked why they refused to think things don’t get better, the answer was always the same: If we lose hope, the alternative is far too bleak.


That’s it for this storytelling spotlight. If you know someone who might enjoy this newsletter, please pass it along. If you want to know more about “His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” don’t miss these reviews:

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Centennial Remembrance: Medill Network Led to New Career Path

by Dr. Norma Fay Green (MSJ72)

Seven years after earning my MSJ turning an internship recommended by Ray C. Nelson (MSJ55) into full time Crain Communications editorships and becoming president of the Women in Communications Inc. Chicago Professional Chapter, Dr. Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita (MSJ59, Ph.D.69) recruited me to return to campus to teach an undergraduate Basic Writing course. She saw something in me that I hadn’t considered.

I thought I would spend my career writing for invisible readers. I didn’t appreciate the visceral and immediate challenge that attempting to share information with a live (and lively) audience would elicit in me and those Medill students in Spring 1979 at Fisk Hall. Despite encouragement from course supervisor Emily Soloff, teaching initially felt like “trial and terror.”

When I told my father, who taught night school business classes at Wayne State University and University of Detroit that I’d be teaching an evening section, he said. “Oh, you’ll be teaching people in their sleep.” Actually the class was alert, eager and sometimes knew more than I did– apparently having memorized Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” in high school! They kept me on my toes and most recovered nicely from my evaluations of their narrative, descriptive and expository writing assignments. I surprised myself by discovering I enjoyed the face to face feedback and decided to commit to a full-time career in academia.

So I commuted to Michigan State University, for an interdisciplinary communication program, where future Medill faculty Donald E. Schultz and Martin P. Block were among the first graduates of its new doctoral program in Mass Media. In 1995. Peter Jacobi (BSJ52, MSJ53), one of my Medill professors in the magazine sequence, became my instructor (again) in a week-long Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication/Freedom Forum Teaching Workshop at Indiana University.

Eventually I was hired full time at Columbia College Chicago and soon became its second Graduate Journalism Director succeeding former Medill faculty member and alum Eric Lund (BSJ49) who retired. I became the journalism department’s first full time Ph.D., first faculty member to successfully complete a newly-established tenure process and later became its first Full Professor. Along the way I continued to publish (more scholarship, less journalism) and garnered teaching, curriculum and research awards from Lilly Endowment, Ford Foundation, Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Poynter Institute, National Endowment for the Humanities, and, in 2000, my first Fulbright. That latter award attracted the attention of my fellow WICI member and Medill alum Marilyn Moats Kennedy (BSJ65, MSJ66) who recruited me for NU’s alumnae mentors, The Council of One Hundred.

In 2017 I took a buyout from Columbia after 29 years of teaching 24 different courses but have continued my academic research including chapters in “Political Pioneer of the Press: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Transnational Crusade for Social Justice” (2018), “Curating Culture: How Twentieth Century Magazines Influenced America” (2021), co-edited by Medill Dean Charles Whitaker (BSJ80, MSJ81) and my Columbia colleague Sharon Bloyd Peshkin and the forthcoming “Gandhi, Advocacy Journalism and The Media” (2022).

Years ago at a party someone asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a college teacher and they quipped, “Oh, so you’re an idealist.” I laughed and said “Yes, I am and proud of each student courageous enough to pursue their dream to go into journalism. After all, I learned from the best.”

Photo: Dr. Green’s 1979 Basic Writing students

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Congressional correspondent Nikole Killion brings a Medill mentality to Washington

As a congressional correspondent for CBS News, Nikole Killion (BSJ99, MSJ99) spends her days following stories on Capitol Hill and keeping viewers up-to-date with the latest in Washington. But her current role with CBS News, which she started in 2021, isn’t the first time she has covered the nation’s capital. 

Killion’s history covering news in Washington dates back to her time as a Medill student, first in summer internship programs with the Institute on Political Journalism and CNN and later through the politics specialization in Medill’s Accelerated Master’s Program. Decades later, she says the skills and experiences central to her time at Northwestern have been pivotal in establishing her career.

“Having those experiences made me very interested in politics,” Killion said. “While I didn’t set out to be a political journalist at the time, those are experiences that help give me that foundation to be able to see things up close for myself in terms of being able to cover the Capitol at such an early stage, to now say I’m a Congressional correspondent for CBS News.”

Killion’s interest in journalism blossomed during high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. through a program at a local community cable station. At first an occasional guest, Killion eventually became a co-host and used her platform to tell the stories of difference makers in her community. 

“Once a week, we would get to interview different teens in the area, so I had the chance to interview people, talk to people, and it really piqued my interest,” she said. “I decided, hey, this journalism thing isn’t too bad, maybe I should do a little bit more of it.”

With its Midwest location and strong reputation for journalism, Northwestern became one of Killion’s top choices when it came time to pursue her new interest as a profession. 

The fit turned out to be a strong one and essential to launching a career in journalism. Killion refers to professors Ava Greenwell and Charles Whitaker as two mentors that made a difference in her career and highlighted Medill’s emphasis on the fundamentals of journalism as a focus that still pays dividends years later.

“It comes back to the fundamentals, the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why,” Killion said. “That attention to detail, that attention to accuracy, that attention to getting both sides of the story are fundamental journalism practices that have been ingrained in me in my journalism career.”

Along with her experiences in D.C., Killion fondly remembers her Teaching Television residency, which she spent in Lexington, Ky. with the local CBS affiliate. The residency gave her the opportunity to develop her reel and build on-air skills at a top TV market. Living in Kentucky during a Kentucky Wildcats championship run and the Kentucky Derby was an added bonus, showing Killion the best of the Bluegrass State.

Killion found her way back to a professional newsroom after graduation, though she initially started out helping behind the scenes in news coverage. She covered 9/11 and other major events as an assignment editor and field producer at NBC News, then decided to pursue her on-air aspirations and moved to a station in Hagerstown, Md. in 2002. After stops in local television and as a Hearst regional correspondent, Killion took on a role at CBS News covering Washington, D.C. for its various platforms.

While Killion considers her own path to be traditional, she sees the journalism industry today as full of opportunity for young journalists. 

“Every path is different, it’s just a matter of utilizing your skills, honing your skills because it comes back to those foundational things from strong writing to storytelling to accuracy,” she said. “If you can do all those things well and on a platform of choice where you can get that attention and exposure, it provides so many more opportunities than the more traditional paths that I had coming out.”

Washington has rarely been easy terrain to navigate. Killion points to two recent events, the coronavirus and the January 6 attacks, as changing the dynamic of how the broadcast journalism industry operates and how she approaches her own role. 

“It makes it an even more challenging environment to cover than in years past, so that is something that I’ve tried to be mindful of in my coverage,” she said. “There’s always that desire and nostalgia to get back to the days of old and truth and bipartisanship, but it feels over to a certain extent in terms of journalism because things have gotten so partisan.”

From her time at the Lexington CBS affiliate to programs in Washington to the groundwork of journalism fundamentals, Killion’s time as a Medill student has a wealth of connections and “full-circle moments” to her current role as an on-air correspondent for a national news outlet. 

Even with her prominent platform, Killion’s motivation to report the news remains the same.

“Being able to witness history up close, whether it’s a positive part of our history or a negative part of our history, has been the fire that is in my belly and that drives me to keep doing what we do every day. You always have to be ready and willing to cover that next event because it could turn out to be something monumental.”