Filmed by Alexis Simmons. Edited by André Rowe, Jr.
Rich Beckman is the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism and a professor and director of the graduate program for journalism and media management at the University of Miami’s School of Communication. An online producer and multimedia storytelling pioneer, he taught at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism for 30 years, where he also served as the director of visual communication. He has won numerous awards for excellence in teaching, including Tanner and David Brinkley Awards, among many others. In this interview, conducted by email with NCSMA Assistant Katie Schanze, he discusses his time as director of NCSMA.
To what do you attribute NCSMA’s longevity?
There is no doubt that the commitment of the University of North Carolina to scholastic media is almost wholly responsible for the longevity of NCSMA. The vision of my predecessors and the administrators of the School of Journalism to fund a full-time director was the turning point. That said, a position is merely a placeholder, and the leadership provided by Monica Hill changed everything. She built relationships across the state and across the country that continue to benefit high school teachers and journalism students throughout the state, most of whom have no idea how fortunate they are to have such a great leader and such a staunch ally.
How did historical events/events of the day shape your tenure as director?
The late 1980s and early 1990s provided us with many relevant topics to discuss. George Bush was elected President and Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas were appointed to the Supreme Court. We had the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the U.S. Invasion of Panama and the falling of the Berlin Wall. We had the beginnings of our decades long engagement with Iraq when they invaded Kuwait and we had the beginning of an economic recession. These were in many ways the last great heydays of traditional journalism and the beginnings of the digital age. Change was on the horizon and journalism education was staring at massive changes driven by both technology, war and terrorism. These were all topics that we tried to incorporate into our workshops and try to make sense of for students who would grow up into this changing world.
How did your high school experience affect your role as director?
I had been a high school journalist in Illinois and we didn’t have a statewide association, or if we did, we didn’t have an annual summer event. One year, our adviser, Richard Turner, took us to the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Conference in New York City and it was one of the highlights of my time in high school. The experience provided me with a broad perspective about the practice of journalism, allowed me to meet fellow student journalists from around the country and motivated me to major in journalism in college. The conference broadened my perspectives, gave me confidence and educated me personally and professionally about diversity. These were all things that I strived to do for all of the student journalists in North Carolina when I became director.
What is one lesson or memory from the job that has always stayed with you?
When I became director, I was still relatively new to North Carolina. I had taught photojournalism and design at the workshop a few times, but that had not provided me the opportunity to meet the teachers from around the state. When I became director, I learned very quickly of the challenges they faced, of the dedication and tireless commitment that it took to be a successful journalism educator and I learned how much they cared about their students. They cared deeply about press freedom and they fought for the rights of a free press. I still recall their resolve when things seem difficult in my job as a privileged college professor and recall how much they had to do with so little.
Why did you accept the job, and what were you expecting going into it?
I accepted the position because I had loved my time as a high school journalist and wanted to continue the amazing work done by my predecessors. They were my role models as a young educator and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I had no idea what do expect, but no fear either. I was the first visual journalist to direct the Association and I wanted that to be an emphasis during my term. I tried to strengthen the design and photojournalism aspects of the annual workshop as well as travel around to schools and do visual journalism workshops on location. I also wanted to assure that the best and brightest of the high school students ended up at the University, so I saw my job as a recruiter as well as an educator.
What were some of the challenges you faced on the job? What did you learn from them?
These were the days of small budgets and limited resources, but I learned what a great community of journalists and journalism educators we had in the state and at the University. Everyone cared enough about our students to make sacrifices and to help us out. It was really rewarding to see how much everyone cared, how hard everyone worked and how much professionals were willing to give back to make the workshop a great experience for the students.
Please describe the community you found in scholastic media when you were director.
The community of educators, judges and journalists was by far the best part of the job. They loved coming together every year and working together throughout the year. They were dedicated, totally committed and also knew how to have a good time. I learned a lot from them and learned a lot about the challenges of secondary education throughout the state.
Please share your thoughts on the value of scholastic journalism in North Carolina.
Scholastic journalism in North Carolina, as well as in every other state, is the foundation of our industry. This is where students learn the guiding principles of journalism, where they learn the great traditions and history of journalism and where they learn of the critical importance of a free and fair press to democracy. This is the breeding and nurturing ground for our profession and without it, journalism will fail. Especially today, a strong high school journalism program is a critical component of a student’s high school education and something that is worth fighting for. Students drive change in society and the press should be their voice.