Jane Slater has a bit more time on her hands than usual this year. Stuck at home like the rest of society, the NFL Network reporter was searching for a way to do something productive as the challenges of the journalism industry grow even larger and more daunting in the wake of a global pandemic and quarantine.
What she came up with was Slater Zoom, a pop-up series that's part-classroom and part-networking event. After putting out a call on social media gauging public interest in learning about the media from those in it, she was overwhelmed by the response, yet charged full steam ahead.
"Admittedly, it's in its infancy," Slater told The Big Lead. "I have a bunch of reporters who are in journalism school right now and about to go out into the market or even current journalists in different markets feeling the same nervousness. My idea was to get them all in one room."
And that she's done for three weeks in a row, with plans to do at least two more. The first class had 11 participants. Now her Excel spreadsheet, which includes links to the reels, has close to 75 people listed. Her inbox also overflowed with offers from colleagues to help as hosts.
"I'm sharing [the participants'] information with the hosts that are joining the class," Slater said. "My hope is that in our down time we can look at their stuff, give them feedback and stay in touch with them. I'm passionate about it. I think about how much that would have helped. I think of the small lifelines I got along the way. Those are people who left a footprint on me."
With colleges on the shelf indefinitely, Slater is aiming to fill the void with information from herself and others in the business. Guests like Kaylee Hartung, MJ Acosta, Chantel McCabe, Gerry Matalon, Dianna Russini, Lindsay Rhodes, and Aditi Kinkhabwala have logged on to share their insights with the knowledge-hungry group.
This project comes as no surprise to her NFL Network colleagues.
"Jane has always been open and willing to help people for as long as I've known her," Kinkhabwala said.
Acosta agreed that it's very on-brand. She told Slater she didn't have the bandwidth to do all the organizing herself, but was happy to lend her voice to the project.
Slater has created a theme for each session, which usually lasts around 90 minutes and includes a Q&A. She stressed the importance of those learning the craft to learn it from people with a diversity of experience. As is the case with reporting a story, the more sources, the better.
It is a highly competitive and often isolating business. Finding a group to root for you helps.
Connectivity is something society is trying to maintain right now. In this specific case, in this specific area, the formation of a direct line to those in high-profile positions is relatively new. There's a great opportunity for younger reporters to pick the brains of those who have come before them, should they choose to take it.
Both Slater and guests have leaned in to sharing their mistakes of the past.
"They see the flower, not the roots," Slater said. "They didn't see me in Tyler, Texas, or hustling to sell advertising behind the scenes. I've always admired people who make their messes their messages."
"It's important for them to see the climb and hear what it was like, what some of the challenges will be when you get out there," Acosta added. "It's important for them to know that we figured it out as we went along, we did fall on our faces. The final product is not how it's always been. You need the battle scars because it changes so rapidly. Those mistakes are necessary because you learn from them."
There are big lessons and small ones. Like treating photographers well. Being mindful of the message you're sending on social media. Fostering an authentic human connection with sources. Setting reasonable career expectations. Carving out your own path.
While all J-School grads can agree that professors are essential and the salt of the Earth, there's something about hearing from recognizable names that can help the information become al dente and stick. Face-to-face interaction -- even through a computer -- is a powerful thing.
"All of the stuff from the textbook is great, but this is how it actually applies when you're out there and you're in it," Acosta said." So much has changed in terms of technology but a lot remains the same. You have to grind, you have to network and have tenacity more than anything else."
In this unprecedented time, even those who are relatively secure in their media roles don't know what the future holds. But looking at the future of the industry in the faces of these hopeful students provides a needed lift.
Said Kinkhabwala: "It's really rewarding to get to talk to young journalists who still believe in the nobility of the profession. It's great to see all these kids who are fascinated and want to tell stories after the beating we've taken the last several years. It revives my energy. It's a tough time to be a football reporter. We're in this crazy limbo with a lot of uncertainty. And when you talk to someone about what you do for a living and are passionate about it, it reinvigorates you."
Slater points out that she and those on the dais get a ton out of the experience as well.
"I had a mentor tell me that you will get so much more out of a mentorship than the person you're mentoring ever will and that's so true."
These Zoom sessions are an organic endeavor that started small but could have a big impact. Slater makes the important observation that those participating will get what they put in. Same as it ever was, same as it always will be.
Times are tough. But hands are reaching out to help and those willing to roll up their sleeves, grab it, and ride the momentum hopefully find a bit more hope.