June 14, 2020

SJI Boot Camp 2020 embraces move to virtual world

Nick Alvarez

Weeks before COVID-19 had wracked the globe, Leon Carter, Sandy Rosenbush, David Squires and Greg Lee were making plans. Carter and Rosenbush, Sports Journalism Institute co-directors, had read news reports of the novel virus spreading and then in February they came across a news item about a member of the Arizona State University community testing positive.

But most sport leagues wouldn’t be canceled for another month. The Olympics were still scheduled for July. Schools were all open and classrooms were full. But Carter, Rosenbush, Squires and Lee started talking about what 2020 summer boot camp–schedule to be held at ASU’s Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix–might look like if it lived only in the virtual world.

“We were thinking,” Carter, a vice president at ESPN, said, “Well, if this thing blows up, where would that leave us?”

As the industry, and world, adjusts to life in a pandemic, SJI’s 2020 class is doing the same. The program’s annual boot camp—designed to prepare students for the real-world demands of internships—will be held virtually for the first time in the institute’s 28-year history. Instead of flying to Phoenix for classes, students will teleconference via Zoom from May 31 to June 6.

The status of students’ internships varies: Some have been postponed to fall or winter, a handful were canceled, and a few will go on remotely. But students are still eager for the opportunities the boot camp will afford, such as learning directly from industry leaders. Editors have revamped the program, with a few surprises planned, aiming to recreate the camaraderie the in-person week typically offers.

“[The Class of 2020] will be just as much a part of the SJI family as any of the more than two dozen classes that came before,” said Rosenbush, an ESPN news editor/producer.

Lee, a member of SJI’s board of directors, is leading the transition online. Lee uses Zoom regularly in his work as senior managing editor for The Athletic DC. Well-versed in using the platform, he offered to host the calls the first week of June.

Program leaders say the move to online will not affect the rigorous schedules SJI is known for. Everyone still will be logged on for roughly seven and a half hours a day. Carter’s infamous sports checks—daily (and more frequent) pop quizzes—will continue. Deadline writing exercises will feature students watching game replays on YouTube, and there will be mock press conferences to cover with real world sports figures Zooming in.

Brett Kurland, director of sports programs and a professor at the Cronkite School, said he had a couple of conversations with Carter, Rosenbush and Lee about using Zoom for instruction, based on his own experience this spring. “Whatever the delivery method, you still teach those same fundamentals and same skills,” Kurland said.

SJI leaders wanted a platform where students could see and interact with one another, Rosenbush said. SJI leaders and alum like to call the boot camp’s classroom the most diverse newsroom students will ever be in. This time around, it will be their most diverse Zoom call.

Aside from the six-day remote conference, bookended with an orientation and graduation, students face a variety of situations regarding internships because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Joseph Salvador was supposed to work this summer for USA TODAY Sports, and the internship would have served as his final credits before graduating. The internship, however, has been postponed indefinitely, so graduation will not be on the planned schedule, making Salvador thankful that boot camp will go on as scheduled. “I guess it’s the best of a bad situation,” he said.

Others have also adjusted.

Andrew Golden, a junior at Northwestern, coordinated with Kansas City Star sports editor Jeff Rosen to do his internship remotely.

Kennedi Landry, a senior at Louisiana State University, was reporting on a story about LSU’s top-ranked beach volleyball team on March 12. As she left the interview, she found out the season was canceled. A few days later came word that her internship with MLB.com in New York wouldn’t happen.

She’s taken solace in her impending week with SJI. The week’s curriculum includes social media tips and networking advice. But the feeling of looking around and seeing a diverse group is an invaluable experience, alumni say. Landry and other students are eager for that sense of normalcy.

“It’s a good opportunity to practice your journalism skills,” Landry said, “…and kind of feel like things are returning to normal, even though they’re probably not.”

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