USF students enrolled in the Florida Focus broadcast news class hoped to spend this fall producing daily news segments in the university’s on-campus studio, but COVID-19 changed those plans. Instead, they’ve been reporting from makeshift mini studios in their homes as they prepare to enter the workforce.
The Florida Focus newsbreaks air on WEDU, the PBS-affiliate in Tampa, which is the 12th largest media market in the country. Before the pandemic, students produced Florida Focus from a professional studio setting, similar to those found at television stations around the country.
“Most of the students wanted the class to be in-person at some point this fall, and they wanted to be in the beautiful studio we have on campus,” said Jeanette Abrahamsen, an instructor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. “Even though it didn’t work out that way, I think they love the fact that they’ve been able to take so much more ownership of their work than they would have in person.”
To prepare for working remotely this fall, Abrahamsen organized a two-week virtual boot camp with the help of student-volunteers to work out details for delivering the course fully online. That involved ensuring each of the 25 students had access to equipment that would support high-definition video production and providing them with computer and software training. Using Microsoft Teams and a private Facebook group, they created platforms for sharing ideas, tech tips, workflow updates and schedule changes.
Those efforts have enabled students to produce broadcast-quality newscasts from their bedrooms, living rooms and apartments, with reporters going out into the field for interviews and standups.
Students rotate through roles as anchors and field reporters. They are supported by a news production team, along with digital media content producers and editors from the Advanced Reporting and News Editing classes taught by Wayne Garcia, a master instructor of journalism in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications.
“It’s enabled us to converge our classes in a virtual newsroom to produce journalistic stories, interact and work with each other in ways that weren’t really possible before,” said Garcia, whose classes include 36 students who work on Florida Focus.
Abrahamsen said the remote setting has provided other benefits. Without the support they would have in the studio, anchors are required to pay closer attention to their hair, clothing and makeup, and learn details about setup and lighting. She said the students have become better trained as “backpack journalists” prepared to report and produce the news outside of a traditional setting.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” Abrahamsen said. “They’ve learned so much this semester that will make them more competitive in the job market.”
Students apply for the Florida Focus class in much the same way they would apply for a job. Those selected are, in many cases, on the verge of graduating and pursuing professional careers in television.
“Putting together a newscast remotely is kind of a hidden gem of an opportunity,” said anchor/reporter Caylee Cottrell, who is in her last semester at USF. “I think it’s super cool that all of us, even if we’re on opposite sides of the state, can come together at the end of the day to produce something that we’re proud of.”
Florida Focus airs Monday through Friday at 6:57 p.m. on WEDU.