Mentoring the Next Generation of Journalists

Published: Jul 26, 2006

Mentoring the Next Generation of Journalists

“There are some very bright students at UMBC – our best could compete anywhere.”

Christopher Corbett, who recently became acting chair of the English department, knows of whom he speaks.

For 16 years, he’s offered his quarter century experience as a professional reporter and editor to a growing list of former Retriever Weekly student newspaper staffers who have gone on to begin promising journalism careers.

“I tell them you are only of value to someone if you’ve had a job,” Corbett said. “It’s like baseball, there’s a farm system. You go work for a smaller paper for a few years, and once you have that experience, you have a much better shot at making your way back to a major metro area daily.”

The list of former Retriever staffers who now represent UMBC in the media world includes:

Vikki Valentine ‘96 is a staff writer at National Public Radio in Washington who writes about science and medicine and just returned from a year off getting her masters in the history of medicine at University College, London.

Jamie Smith-Hopkins ’98 was a President’s Scholar and valedictorian. She now works as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.  She was recently awarded best overall individual entry and best serial in any medium along with best journalist under 30 prize by the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

Anna Kaplan ’03 works as a staff writer at the Stockton Record in California (a Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal affiliate).

Scott Daugherty ’02 and Pat Furgurson ’99 are general assignment reporters at the Annapolis Capital.

Amanda Krotki ’95 works at the Baltimore Sun’s Web site as senior producer of

Grant Huang ‘06, a winner of the 2005 Cleghorn Fellowship offered by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, just joined the staff of the Maryland Gazette as a reporter.

Richard McNey ’03 works for Chesapeake Publishing Corporation as the editor of the Chesapeake Business Ledger, a monthly business publication that covers business much of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

A former news editor and reporter with the Associated Press, Corbett wrote for many of the nation’s largest newspapers including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is also the award-winning writer of Style magazine in Baltimore’s Back Page column and two books: Vacationland (Viking/Penguin), a novel about his home state of Maine, and Orphans Preferred (Random House/Broadway Books), which chronicles the legendary Pony Express.

Corbett’s next book will return to the American Wild West for a look at the role Chinese immigrants played in the making of that mythical era.

“Although I am a native of Maine, I like the open space out there,” he said. “I like the idea that you can drive all day and still be in Nevada. I like seeing signs that say ‘No Gas, No Water – 100 miles.’ The Pony Express is the story of a wonderful American tall tale, like Paul Revere’s ride. It’s anchored in fact but layered with 150 years of embellishment.”

Corbett’s wry style fits his affection for classic American satirists like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. He loves a good yarn, preferably about a true local eccentric, that is well told in person or in print. Thus, he is concerned about the steady decline of quality, hometown newspapers in the modern media business.

“A lot of things said to be journalism today aren’t,” said Corbett. “It’s mostly infotainment, insults and mentally disturbed people yowling on the radio. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not journalism.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Journalism isn’t as pure as the driven snow. It’s gone through good and bad cycles in history. What’s really disturbing to me is the homogenization of the news product and the rise of newspaper chains. It’s two all-beef patties and special sauce that are the same in Spokane as Sarasota.”

Beyond advice to be wary of these trends, Corbett instructs his students to hone their news writing fundamentals by becoming involved with The Retriever Weekly.

“My teaching methods are simple,” he said. “I encourage them to read a newspaper – I’m often amazed by how few young people read newspapers today. You learn by doing, it’s like cake baking. The first few are inedible, but eventually, you get better. Employers usually prefer that you’ve made your rookie mistakes at a student paper before you go out and look for a job.”

Corbett is highly optimistic about the future of the English department and UMBC as the University gets ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary this fall.

“When I came to Baltimore, UMBC was only 14 years old,” Corbett said. “It was regarded as little more than a community college and not a very big one. I am amazed at how fast UMBC has taken off and how our faculty and students continue to prove naysayers wrong.”










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