Teaching Spotlight: Justin Catanoso

Justin Catanoso

Justin Catanoso is the Director of the Journalism Program and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department. Before joining the College faculty full-time, he helped found The Business Journal, a weekly business and economics newspaper covering the Piedmont Triad region, in 1998 and became the executive editor. In 1992, while at the Greensboro News & Record, his investigative reporting into fraud in the tobacco industry earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a Science in Society Journalism Award, and Medical Writer of the Year Award in North Carolina.


Why did you decide to leave your position at the Business Journal and become a full-time professor?

I have loved being a working journalist since I wrote my first newspaper story in the eighth grade. In 1993, after getting a master’s degree from Wake Forest, I was lucky enough to pursue another passion — teaching reporting and editing at a place dedicated to educational excellence; Wake Forest. For 18 years, I was able to do both: be a full-time reporter and editor, and a part-time teacher. As founding executive editor of The Business Journal, I had a job that was ideally suited to my skills and experience. I loved it. But the better I got at teaching (it took a while to figure it out!), the more I came to understand the unique opportunities available to full-time faculty at a great university, Then came the opportunity to make the transition. There was a lot to consider. Prior to my hiring, Wake Forest has had exactly three directors of journalism education — in more than 60 years! This was not an opportunity that came up very often. Then I considered the following: I could follow in some historic footsteps; I could revise the curriculum for a new generation of journalists; I could work more closely with a remarkable group of students; I could interact with journalists nationally and internationally; I could lead programs in reporting at one of Wake Forest’s study-abroad houses; I could remain a working journalist by maintaining ties to The Business Journal and continuing my freelance work. Once I realized all that, a very difficult career decision got a lot easier.

What is the role/value of Journalism within the Liberal Arts context?

The role and values of both go hand in hand. A Liberal Arts education — through the study of literature, arts and sciences — centers on sparking a student’s curiosity to better understand and appreciate the world in which he or she lives. The study and practice of journalism is so much the same. Through reporting and writing, the student journalist follows his or her curiosity to ask the kinds of questions, and seek the kinds of answers, that illuminate the world in which they live. They then have the great privilege, as well as the constitutionally protected responsibility, to communicate to others what they’ve learned.

How are you expanding and developing the Journalism program?

For years, journalism education at Wake Forest has been very general. That worked well when general-interest publications like daily newspapers and magazines had lots of opportunities for generalists. That’s no longer the case. The opportunities for young journalists today are largely in the niches. So while we still stress the fundamentals of thorough reporting, clear writing and fair and accurate editing, we also encourage students to specialize and develop niches of expertise. Thus we are offering more specialized courses: sports writing, feature writing, health and science writing, interactive digital media and (soon) business writing.

What is the value of a Journalism course for a Wake student?

Journalism education not only offers the study and practice of the skills I just described, it enables students to become better informed about their campus, their community, their nation and their world. Reading and discussing current events — and being able to distinguish high-quality journalism from Internet junk — is crucial to understanding the important role that professional journalists play in our society. Plus, better informed students not only make better journalists, they make better citizens.

What is one aspect of the editing course (or other course) that you view to be important for its success? 

In all of my classes, but particularly in editing, I stress that students must understand and appreciate the power they can wield as journalists — for good or ill. A poorly or unfairly reported story can be just as devastating to a person or institution when published in the Old Gold and Black as it would be in The New York Times. Journalistic objectivity is often unrealistic. Thus the focus of what we report, write and publish — whether in print, broadcast or online — must be on fairness and accuracy. And the best way to get to fairness and accuracy is through thorough reporting, clear writing and stringent editing. This enables the reporter and editor to vigorously defend his or her work, especially when it’s controversial, critical of others or seeking to hold the powerful accountable.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Balancing the need to teach and master the fundamentals of news reporting, writing and editing while figuring out how to layer in the additional digital skills that are rapidly becoming joining the ranks of fundamentals: writing for the Web, being on camera, shooting, editing and posting audio and video, using a host of web-based tools to enhance or replace traditional reporting.

What was the last lesson that you learned from your students?

They can learn fast and rise to challenges. In my Intro to Journalism class recently, students — in teams of four — produced a multimedia package in less than an hour, something they had never tried before. It went like this: each team had a news-question prompt (one example: what’s your reaction to the new campus housing policy?) At the top of class, three members of the team went out to report on that question: a reporter interview students and write a blog post, a photographer who would take photos of interviewees and prepare a slideshow; and a videographer who would shoot the interviews and upload clips to YouTube. Back in class, the “editor” on the team did online research for web links to put in the blog post. Once the three team members returned from reporting, they produced their content and emailed it to the editor. He or she then edited and posted the story on the class blog, wrote a headline and added links to photos, video and related stories. This was largely accomplished with the technology in their pockets — smartphones. Within 60 minutes, we had four multimedia packages to review. That’s how fast they learned.