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A Few Words with Neil Henry

September 29, 2009
by Rachel Stern
Neil Henry

After 16 years on the faculty of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Neil Henry was named dean in May. The seasoned reporter and professor sat down to talk with California about how the school is evolving along with the media industry itself.

California magazine: I read that the students you’re admitting have an average of two years of journalism experience prior to entering the program. Why should someone who’s already working as a journalist go to J-school?

Neil Henry: A program like ours offers instruction in areas that the industry is not able to offer. That includes cutting-edge skills in digital and multimedia storytelling. Students are coming to learn how to make themselves marketable in this environment, and those kinds of skills, coupled with the background training that they’re getting in journalism, will provide them with a stronger foundation for their careers going forward.

The school is touting something called “hyperlocal” news. What does that mean?

What it means is immersion by students in local communities. It means giving communities greater knowledge of what’s going on in their neighborhoods—not just with schools and city governments, butalso with small businesses and neighborhood planning meetings, with what’s happening at the local cafes, what’s happening in the playgrounds, what’s happening in the churches.

Are people utilizing the news that your students provide?

Absolutely. Last year we had a few students immersed in Oakland’s Chinatown, and while doing some work at a community center, a student who was conversant in Mandarin heard that a woman had been mugged but was afraid to go to the police because her background was, “you don’t go to police, you don’t trust police.” And the student had a good story there. The police followed the site, heard about this, and used it to get in touch with the woman and eventually helped this woman in her judicial struggle. Those kinds of things are really incredibly gratifying.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give a freshly minted J-school grad who is searching for, but hasn’t yet found, meaningful work?

The advice is to keep at it. Journalism, to some extent, is its own reward. But if you have the dream, and you have the commitment, and you have those skills to be able to tell those stories in as many platforms as possible, you’re going to find audiences. And audiences will translate into support for your endeavor.

How do you get your news?

I’m very old-school, but I’m also very new-school. I am an avid subscriber to The New York Times, and have been since I was a sophomore in college. Wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve always gotten my New York Times. I listen to National Public Radio. I am a subscriber to the San Francisco Chronicle. I read Harper’s, The Atlantic, and other magazines when I have time. For breaking news, it’s CNN often, or MSNBC, or the Web. I pay attention to newspapers and television, and frankly I also pay attention to TMZ. I pay attention to the sensationalist sites as well, just to know what’s going on there.

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