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Cronkite graduate finds passion in cutting-edge journalism


December 08, 2010

Jennifer Gaie Hellum had her “ah ha!” moment in the driveway last year as she was talking on the phone to her sister. “You’re a writer. You’re a journalist,” said her sister, Martha, as they discussed Jennifer’s career aspirations.

“In that moment, it was like the skies cleared,” said Hellum, who had earned her undergraduate degree in journalism years earlier and went on to a career in advertising.

Rushing into the house, she went online and started researching the graduate program at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She signed up and found the work she had been searching for, something she hadn’t been able to discover in the advertising world after working for years before leaving to be a full-time mom and raise her two sons.

“I wasn’t passionate about advertising,” she said.

Hellum found her passion when she came to ASU as a graduate student.  “The more I learned about the Cronkite School, the more I wanted to be there. I wanted to be around people who cared about what was going on in the world,” she said.

Hellum, 43, transitioned from being a full-time mom who was there 24/7 for her kids to working around the clock on her master’s degree in journalism. Her husband, Erik, and her sons were encouraging, although it was “definitely an adjustment for them,” Hellum said.

The family rallied around Hellum, celebrating  triumphs such as a clipping she brought home – a full-page story in the Arizona Capitol Times about an endangered frog. Hellum’s 10-year-old son, Noah, saw the story, ran across the room and threw his arms around her, declaring that he wanted to buy “20 copies of this to give to your friends!”

“It was really fun to see them embrace my academic success the way I always had for them,” she said.

Part of her success has come from embracing new media and the shift in journalism as it transitions from the print to the digital age. Hellum was grateful to join the Cronkite School’s graduate boot-camp program, which teaches the craft by instilling basic journalism tenets with cutting-edge technology.

“I threw myself into social media and new media,” she said. “I was pleased to see that I could keep up with younger students.”

Tweeting and blogging became part of her everyday life, and she’s learning to use these tools to their best advantage. One of her areas of interest is branding for journalists and how that has changed in a time when the potential for commenting on stories and social media outlets  adds more weight to a byline. Reporters can build a following by engaging readers through social media outlets, and they are increasingly using social media as a tool for sources.

“That’s where journalism is going,” Hellum said. “Many of the traditional barriers to accessing people are completely gone.”

Hellum authors two blogs – “Brand Me a Journalist” and “Bifocals on Campus.” She discussed her branding blog as a guest speaker in Professor Tim McGuire’s 21st Century Media class this semester.

“I told the students that you need to establish your personal brand. It’s about understanding that every contact that you have with the community establishes yourself as a credible source of information,” she said. “Through blogs, I can connect with people throughout industry and academics in journalism. Blogging is powerful.”

“Bifocals on Campus” focused on making transitions such as going back to school and being a non-traditional student. Hellum recalled one professor telling her, ‘The story isn’t that you’re an older student. The story is that you went back to school and you tore the place apart.’ That meant a lot because it had been 20 years since I had been a student.”  

Hellum found she could still survive late nights and marathon study sessions while in the program’s “boot camp,” which immerses students in the basics of multimedia journalism.  The boot-camp class created a “Street of Dreams” multimedia project about downtown Phoenix neighborhoods and people, to which Hellum contributed.  And working as a reporter and multimedia reporter for Cronkite News Service gave her the opportunity to write stories, take photos, format content for the Web and put packages online.

“I really like telling stories and I really like going out and meeting people. I always tell my kids that everyone has a story to tell,” she said.

Hellum graduates with a 4.0 grade-point average and hopes to translate her new skills into a position as a social media or community engagement editor.

But, she said, she will miss working in a state-of-the-art facility with the world-class journalists who make up the Cronkite School faculty.

“Every day that I walk into that building, it’s just such an energized place to be,” she said.