A Lifetime of Education in Journalism
Steve Fidel discusses how his career path led him to The Universe
Written by Sarah Ostler Hill[image lightbox=”true” width=”one_half” height=”300″]/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/steve_full.jpg[/image]
“Journalism is about what everyone else does,” laughs Steve Fidel, director of The Universe, BYU’s online and print news publication. With a professional career in journalism spanning 30 years before he began teaching, he has covered everything from researching investigative projects, to interviewing Gulf War veterans, to traveling with President Hinckley. He has made what everyone else does his life’s passion.
“People have good ideas, but they don’t always have the skills to communicate them,” Fidel says, explaining why communications is an important field. “People might not share it if they feel they can’t share it well. They self-censor. In effect, lack of communication skills silences the people.”
Fidel points to the First Amendment and how people died for the ability to have a voice. Teaching communications is important, he says, because you need a population skilled in protecting that right.
From Car Design to Spot News
Fidel speaks with the wisdom of one who has had a lengthy career in the field he now teaches. But his original dreams weren’t about tight deadlines or breaking news.
“I came to BYU, fully intending to become a car designer,” he says, explaining that he’d had a body shop in high school. “I needed a job, and there was a position available working on the night crew at the Universe. In that environment, I just got infected with journalism.”
Fidel soon changed his major, while never losing his original interest. He enjoyed the photography side of news and worked as the photo editor at BYU’s newspaper. When he graduated, he learned that a medium-sized newspaper like The Deseret News doesn’t always have the manpower to send a reporter and a photographer to every story. With both writing and photography skills, Fidel found himself in demand.
One of Fidel’s first big projects involved the seemingly stale water development beat. His investigation, however, ultimately led to recovering about $400 million in mismanaged Utah taxpayer money.
Fidel covered the military sporadically for 25 years, often focusing on how recently returned soldiers were fitting back into the community after being away at war. He spent hours with families hearing how they’d lost a loved one. It was a tough assignment, he says, but he needed to help them tell their story so their sacrifice would have meaning.
His most rewarding assignment was traveling with President Gordon B. Hinckley. Fidel would spend hours on airplanes and following President Hinckley from one speaking assignment to the next.
“Journalistically, I didn’t change anything, but, personally, it was an unbeatable experience,” he says. “President Hinckley’s whole background was public affairs. He had a keen awareness of having a voice and a message.”
Training the Next Generation of Journalists
A voice and a message – that’s where journalism is going, Fidel says. He believes his job is to instill that in his students. He’s been a part of the newsroom evolution, from independent media to integrated newsrooms. Where once the stories were dictated by the newspaper owner’s bias, today the branding is shifting from the publication to the individual journalist.
“Building an audience is all about the journalist, rather than who they’re working for,” Fidel says. “There’s a larger freelance base and a smaller newsroom. We’re helping students recognize how to really identify themselves as a brand.”
Fidel tells students to pay constant attention and to get in the mindset that they are pioneers. A journalist, he says, has no routine. Every day is new.
“Make sure you have the creative ability and flexibility to be part of this new generation of journalism,” he says.
With the 24-hour news cycle available in more formats, Fidel says that finding and recognizing the truth takes training.
“The truth is more than just a collection of facts,” he explains. “People think if they have more facts, then they have the truth, but that’s not necessarily the case. Quantity doesn’t create truth.”
Success, he says, depends on how genuinely they can interact with the people around them.
“Have an honest relationship and a great affection for the people for whom you’re writing,” he says. “Understand that often what you’re reporting will affect people’s livelihoods and pocketbooks. This makes a huge difference in the ability to do a job.”
Fidel uses his beginning news writing and news research classes to train the next generation of journalists. He tells of his first semester, teaching in the fall of 2001.
“I was teaching a class when the second plane hit the World Trade Center,” he remembers. “For two hours in class, we watched the major news cover what was unfolding. Individually, we were absorbing the shock, but we were also looking at that from the perspective of the newsroom.”
Such real-life examples, with news and Fidel’s experience, have led the Universe to consistently win awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. While he notes individual student achievement, he particularly highlights the awards for ongoing coverage.
“As a student news organization, some students are only here for a couple months,” he says. “Turnover is incredible. To get an award for persistent continuity speaks to the pride in our identity.”
The Universe, a daily digital and weekly print production, has an end-to-end business model. It employs about 30 students while another 50 students use it as their lab. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, given today’s world of shrinking revenues, the Universe is self-funded and operates in the black.
“We do it with three adults, and the rest are all students,” he says, justifiably proud.
The Other 20 Percent
A student can take the classes, work at the Universe and know the material, but Fidel says that’s only 80 percent. The other 20 percent is about pure innovation.
“That’s where the success will be,” Fidel says. “What they bring to the table, their intellect, the hustle. Unless they bring their 20, they won’t be competitive.”
Be curious, he says. Take an interest in things outside of work. He points back to his love of cars and how he never lost that. Even today, as a self-proclaimed “garage inventor,” he works on a hot rod with his son.
“Journalism is a lifetime of exploration,” he says, talking about both his professional and personal life. “Journalism gave me a meaning to my inquiry. I didn’t lose an interest in cars, I just added to it.”
When Fidel was a student at BYU, he was impressed with the instructors who were working professionals. It created a nice compliment to the professorial instruction when they brought that day’s work into the classroom. At the time, he made a mental note that he would like to have a career and then return to BYU to share that experience with other students. Thirty years later, he accomplished that goal.
“In our culture, as Latter-day Saints, a lot of what we do in life is to discover who we are and our divine potential,” he says. “Choosing a career is part of that.”
Fidel encourages his students to make sure they feel like journalism is their path. The LDS church has had a history of encouraging writing and sharing a message, whether in the form of keeping journals or through missionary work.
“My career has been a process of discovering who I am and what I’m supposed to do when I’m not at home with my family,” Fidel says.
His family has been a great beneficiary of that discovery. Fidel shares that dinnertime was spent discussing the diverse subjects he reported on, and he believes this is a big factor in his four children’s wide range of interests in political science, music, interior design and the military.
“Journalism has been an amazing opportunity for a lifetime of education,” Fidel says. “You’re always dealing with something new and innovative; otherwise it’s just history.”
Fidel can be found, looking into “what everyone else does,” in The Universe lab of the Brimhall Building. Otherwise, he’s probably working on applying a red coat to his latest hot rod, named Bella.