Journalism professors by day, Gatepost advisors by night: A question-and-answer session with Desmond McCarthy and Liz Banks

Emma Lyons / THE GATEPOST

By Donald Halsing

Associate Editor

After earning his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University, Desmond McCarthy returned to his undergraduate alma mater as a professor of literature and journalism. McCarthy has advised The Gatepost since 1992, and was named National 4-year College Newspaper Advisor of the Year in 1997 by the College Media Association. 

Following his six-year tenure as English Department Chair, McCarthy is currently the department’s graduate coordinator as well as assistant director of the Mancuso Humanities Workforce Preparation Center.

Elizabeth “Liz” Banks earned her master’s in journalism from Northeastern University. While serving in a variety of editorial roles for local newspapers, Banks taught part time at FSU, sharing her expertise as a working journalist. 

She has earned numerous awards, including the Judith Vance Weld Brown Spirit of Journalism Award from the New England Newspaper Society of Newspaper Editors, given to women in journalism who “have mastered their craft.” 

In 2015, she retired from being a managing editor at The MetroWest Daily News to focus exclusively on teaching and become The Gatepost’s assistant advisor. 

Tell me about the history of the journalism program during your time at FSU.

McCarthy: I was hired by then English department chair Helen Heineman in the fall of 1991 to resuscitate the journalism program, which was floundering. One of the reasons for that was a disconnect between the program and the student newspaper. I made it a mission to streamline our course offerings to make the program as practical as possible and to ensure that the skills students were learning not only made it possible for them to obtain entry-level jobs in journalism, but in related fields such as marketing, public relations, and so on. The strength of our program is its practicality – its emphasis on the basics, the timeless skills journalists need, the ability to write clearly, concisely, and well, to report accurately, to follow codes of professional ethics. 

After a few years, I asked then English department chair and now Professor Emeritus Alan Feldman if we could bring in a top-level regional journalist to teach some of the courses because I believed it was very important to have a working journalist with extensive experience as my partner – and I knew exactly who I wanted that person to be. Liz and I have known each other for more than three decades. She has had an incredible career as a journalist, as an editor, as a distinguished newspaper manager in New England. I’m so grateful that she has been my professional colleague teaching our journalism courses since 1998. We joke that we’re Team Journalism, but it’s remarkable that the academic support for this successful undertaking is provided by two people. In many journalism programs, there’s a whole department, but here, it’s Liz and myself. I’m really thankful to Alan Feldman for agreeing to hire Liz on a part-time basis to teach our courses. 

Banks: I started spring semester 1998 after Desmond asked me if I’d be interested in teaching Feature Writing. I believe I said, “Yes” immediately because teaching was always something I wanted to do. I interviewed with Alan [Feldman] and was hired. My memory is I had just broken my wrist, so my first day, I was trying to maneuver with a broken wrist. And since then, I’ve taught Feature Writing and Intro to Journalism. I did one course a semester while I was working full time at the newspaper. In 2015, I left the newspaper and picked up more courses here, and picked up serving as assistant advisor of The Gatepost.

Do you have a shared philosophy or pedagogy about teaching journalism?

Banks: The short answer is yes. We both believe in solid writing skills, ethical journalism – the basics – so students could really step into any job and be confident they will succeed.

What marketable skills do students obtain from journalism courses?

McCarthy: The ability to write clearly, accurately, and persuasively on deadline is never going to go out of style. It’s always going to be necessary and marketable for a whole range of jobs. To be responsible for your words and work, and to publish on deadline for an audience that includes not only the Framingham State community, but innumerable people reading The Gatepost on the web, is an invaluable experience for students as they prepare to enter the job market.

Banks: Journalists are taught to write in the inverted pyramid style – short sentences, short paragraphs. This is an invaluable skill because it’s the style preferred for online and social media writing. Every company, nonprofit, and educational institution has an online presence, and they need journalists to fill those roles.

Why is journalism a relevant field of study for today’s students?

McCarthy: Journalism is more important than ever in an era where we are all fighting an onslaught of “fake news,” inaccurate information, and cynicism. Journalists tell the truth, and they are some of the most civic-minded people in our society.

Banks: Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I use it in my syllabus. The press is known as the Fourth Estate, the fourth branch of government. We can’t have an effective democracy without a free press, and journalism provides citizens with truthful information needed for self government.

Why do you advise The Gatepost?

McCarthy: I have advised The Gatepost for 30 years, which is a third of its existence and half my life. I do so because The Gatepost plays a central role in fostering a sense of community at Framingham State. It’s the most durable institution at Framingham State. It not only informs and entertains the campus community every week, but it provides a sense of cohesion for the community itself. Gatepost editors are some of our most gifted, talented, selfless, and civic-minded students, and it’s an honor to accompany them on their journeys of personal and professional self discovery as their advisor.

Banks: Skills can be taught in the classroom, but there’s no better way to learn than producing a product – to take those skills, apply them to real situations, and see the result in print. It’s very rewarding watching students do it and do it successfully.

Is there a benefit for students who participate in their college newspapers?

McCarthy: The leadership skills students build working at this newspaper will stay with them for the rest of their lives. This is a monumental undertaking. A professional-quality newspaper must be produced 12 times a semester. It doesn’t matter who has the flu, who has a paper due the next day, or who’s had a bad week – on Thursday night, a newspaper is being laid out one way or another, and then it’s available for the perusal of the entire campus community – your parents, your friends, local state legislators. It’s very daunting. I keep in touch with all of the Gatepost alums I’ve advised for three decades. What I hear from many of them is that the stress and responsibility they experience in an entry-level job is not as challenging as what they dealt with volunteering to produce a weekly newspaper while being full-time students and often holding down part time jobs to pay for their educations.

Banks: It’s invaluable to show a future employer that a student has had writing published and to be able to show clips of the original work that has been published. Also, it demonstrates that you’re able to work in a team situation because journalism is teamwork.