Employee Q&A: Journalism Professor of Practice Bill Schmidt

Employee Q&A: Journalism Professor of Practice Bill Schmidt

By Amanda BallardUniversity Communications
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Name: Bill Schmidt
Position: Professor of Practice, School of Journalism
Number of years at the UA: 3 months
Favorite thing about working at the UA: It's always renewing to be around young people. The kind of freshness of vision that you find every day in conversations. It's a personal test for me to move from the professional world of journalism into the academic world of journalism. And it's just wonderful to be out in the West. I love the West. I love these mountains outside of my window and these great big skies. It's fabulous.
You've lived in 11 different cities. Which was your favorite? The assignment I really enjoyed the most was Denver. To live in London is amazing … to cover the Middle East, it's the greatest story. The great thing about Denver from the standpoint of a journalist is there's no editor in New York who wakes up in the morning and says, "I wonder what's happening in Idaho today." I was in complete control in Denver. I decided what stories I wanted to do.

Bill Schmidt, professor of practice in the UA's School of Journalism, was behind the scenes of some of history's most memorable moments.

From a young age, he knew he wanted to be a journalist. He secured his first reporting internship with a newspaper in Flint, Mich. at age 17.

"My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but I was really more interested in journalism," Schmidt said. "My first assignment was to cover a beauty pageant in a little tiny town in central Michigan, and I was told not only was I covering it, but I was a judge."

He's come a long way since that first story. He worked at Newsweek for eight years before joining The New York Times staff in 1981. His work as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek and The New York Times had him traveling across the globe – from Miami to Moscow.

Along the way, he met with Anwar Sadat, former president of Egypt and the first Arab leader to lead peace attempts with Israel. He also interviewed the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, twice before he was overthrown. In London, he also spent a morning with Prince Charles.

"I was very fortunate to share a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for the Times' coverage of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger," Schmidt said. "There were so many things. I covered the shootings at Kent State. I covered Sadat's trip to Israel. This is the great thing about being a journalist. I've been very lucky to be the person who was there at many of these great moments in history."

After a 32-year career at The New York Times, Schmidt retired in April from his position as deputy managing editor to join the UA's journalism faculty and is working to find ways to translate his career experiences into relevant tools for a new generation of journalists.

"There's always been a fairly close connection between the UA School of Journalism and The New York Times," he said. "There's always been a real alignment between the UA School of Journalism and the kind of values set at The New York Times. This is a program that has always tried to stick to the basics about the importance of journalism."

When he's not in the classroom, Schmidt is busy planning his wedding in March and making frequent trips to visit his fiancee in New York, where she's currently working.

He's also helping to develop a global journalism program for the UA to help address the rapidly occurring changes in the journalism industry.

"Our industry has gone through so many changes; the nation is so polarized, the world is so complex and dangerous," Schmidt said. "But to me, the role of the journalist is as essential and is as vital now as it ever was."

Schmidt recently took time to talk with LQP about his career.

Describe what you do.

I hope I'm teaching. I hope I'm sharing my experiences and my knowledge about the role of journalism and the way journalism is practiced in a way that it will be of utility to these young people who share an interest in becoming journalists. I'm also going to be trying to help the department build a program in global journalism. The world has become very small, and very dangerous. Information moves at the speed of light. We're trying to do whatever we can do to prepare the students to take on this role, and whatever we can do for our profession to identify the critical issues that are part of practicing journalism in a world that is a lot smaller. ... I think the UA is a very good place to develop a kind of template for frontier and global journalism.

What was your first job?

I sold shoes when I was in high school. I did that on and off, part time, for a couple of years. But I was really lucky because when I was 17, I was working as a reporter for a summer job at a newspaper. I really began working as a reporter from the time I was in college and on.

If you didn't have this job, what career would you have?

Outside of a small part of me that really wants to be a stand-up comedian, I think the thing in my fantasies and dreams I would like to be would be the starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings when they were in the Stanley Cup. I used to play hockey when I was a boy growing up in Michigan. I was a goalie. I've always harbored a secret ambition to play at another level. It's funny. I don't know if there is something genetic, but I was an ice hockey goalie, and both of my daughters played soccer and they were both goalies. So, there's obviously some very defensive gene in our family.

Who have been your best mentors and why?

I think of one person in particular. There have probably been different mentors at different times and stages during my career. But the editor who hired me for my first job in Detroit – Kurt Luedtke – went on to become a very good friend. He went on to become much more famous as a screenwriter rather than as a journalist. He wrote the movies "Out of Africa" and "Absence of Malice." He's really one of my best friends now. But in the beginning, he realized something about who I was and what I was interested in. It's not so much that he gave me a leg up; it's the way he continually challenged me to be better. I think that's maybe the essence of being a mentor. Yes, it's to be a friend, counselor and supporter, but really it's also to expect the person who you are mentoring to strive to be the best possible they can be, not to be comfortable for what they've achieved.

What career advice would you offer to someone just starting out?

I always tell students that there are many things that make up a good journalist. You have to have a level of critical intelligence. You ought to be relatively well-read. You should be a good writer. But the thing that is most important is to have a really sharp and aggressive sense of curiosity. You have to be curious about the world around us and what makes it work. That's the heart of it. When my children were growing up, I used to always say to them that the journey is just as important as the destination. As a person who has lived in 11 cities, obviously I'm going to say that. But the great thing about journalism is there's this wonderful sense of possibility almost every day. To live life with a sustained sense of the possible, that's pretty good.

How would you like to spend your retirement?

When I finally completely retire? I'd like to play tennis better. I'd like to read more because I pick up book reviews all the time. That would be great – to get to read more. And to travel more. It's funny, I've traveled so much in my life that for a number of years, I was worn out. I didn't really want to go anywhere. But now, I think I could be a little more discriminating about where I would like to go rather than where I'm being sent. It would be nice to do some traveling where there's no fighting, or they're not having an election or some government has just been overthrown.

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