Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: Medill’s Desiree Hanford

May 10, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Desiree Hanford

It’s time for a new guard at SABEW, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the nation’s largest group of business writers. This year’s president is Desiree Hanford, assistant professor and director of academic integrity and appeals at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

For those not in the know, Medill is one of the nation’s top trainers of business journalists, so I consider it an honor to hear from Desiree, who earned her chops at Dow Jones before focusing on training the next generation. These days, she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses that include news reporting and business and money reporting, and she is the co-faculty adviser for the Northwestern Business Review.

We chatted about what’s next for SABEW, why so many journalists pursue advanced degrees and what it takes to succeed in a digital-first world.

Dawn Wotapka: Congrats on your recent appointment with SABEW! What got you involved with the organization?

Desiree Hanford: Thank you. It’s truly an honor to be president of SABEW. We have amazing members who work for various media outlets, and I feel fortunate to be part of an organization whose mission is to support those members. I was actually drawn to SABEW for that very reason. I saw what SABEW offered business journalists and editors – everything from training seminars to the Goldschmidt Fellowship data immersion workshop to skills sessions – and it was hard not to want to be involved.

Dawn: What do you see in SABEW’s future?

Desiree: I see an organization that is more diverse and inclusive in its membership, its board of governors and in thought. Our members don’t just cover what’s happening on Wall Street. They cover what’s happening in towns of all sizes in urban and rural areas. As an organization, we need a membership that better mirrors who we cover as journalists. Having that diversity should lead to more voices being heard, which impacts how SABEW can best support its members.

Dawn: I’m involved in a number of professional organizations, and many of the members are older professionals. Why do so many young people avoid what is essentially the best networking opportunity you can get?

Desiree: I think sometimes we don’t give them a reason to join professional organizations. What will they learn that they wouldn’t have learned had they not joined the organization? Who will they meet that they would not have otherwise met? Are we offering the programming that they need at the point they are in their career? How much is a membership for younger individuals, who often aren’t earning as much as journalists with more experience? We have to do a better job of listening to what they need for them to want to join. We have to meet them where they are, not meet them where we – older professionals – are.

Dawn: Can content creators be SABEW members if they report into, say, marketing?

Desiree: SABEW has associate memberships for individuals who don’t meet the requirements for regular membership but who demonstrate a desire to support the mission and goals of SABEW.

Dawn: Let’s rewind. What got you interested in journalism?

Desiree: I’d love to tell you it was something very altruistic, but it wasn’t. A local newspaper reporter came to my English class my junior year in high school and discussed what his job entailed: writing, talking with people, trying to avoid his boss/editor, not sitting behind a desk, having people read what he wrote. For someone who, ironically, didn’t like math, it sounded like the perfect job. I loved to write, I read the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times almost every day in high school, including columnists like Mike Royko, and it sounded like a lot of fun. I had no idea how much work it would be, but journalism is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Dawn: You spent time in a newsroom. What did that teach you?

Desiree: That words are like eggs. You can’t just be throwing them around or you’ll have a mess. You have to be honest, accurate and ethical, and you have to verify information. And you often have to do all that on a tight deadline, so have you to be able to train yourself to think clearly, act intentionally and shut out distractions.

Dawn: You also taught while still working. What was that juggle like?

Desiree: I did. I was an adjunct instructor for several quarters. I would leave the Chicago bureau of Dow Jones on Friday mornings and teach a graduate business reporting seminar at Medill’s then-downtown campus. Then I’d be back in the office by around lunchtime. Unfortunately, it meant my colleagues would sometimes have to write the earnings stories and breaking news stories for companies on my beat while I was teaching, so I only did it a few quarters.

Dawn: You then moved full-time into education. What prompted that?

Desiree: I really enjoyed being an adjunct instructor, and I knew I wanted to teach journalism at some point. It was the reason I earned my master’s degree at Medill; I knew I would need it if I wanted to teach full-time at a university. I love journalism, and I hoped to spread that passion to students who were interested in journalism. Also, I didn’t take any business reporting classes as an undergrad or grad student, so I had a very steep learning curve when I was hired at Dow Jones. I wanted to help others be better prepared for covering business, money and the markets than I was.

Dawn: What advice would you give working journalists who are interested in becoming professors?

Desiree: Be prepared for the heavy workload. The actual class time is just one piece. You’re writing the syllabus, writing the assignments, grading the assignments, writing learning objectives, determining assessments, serving on committees and much, much more. But the students make it worth every moment. The conversations I’ve had with students in and out of the classroom about journalism and life in general and seeing them succeed in whatever they do are the best parts of my job because everything we do should somehow tie back to them. How will they benefit from whatever we are doing? That’s the driving force. It’s about them, not us.

Dawn: I often hear that a master’s degree isn’t needed to succeed in journalism. Yet, so many accomplished journalists – particularly top-tier ones –  have attended to graduate school. What gives?

Desiree: I can’t speak for those journalists, but what I can say is that students at Medill take more courses in Northwestern’s college of arts and sciences than they do in Medill and that’s by design. We want them to have a broad liberal arts background, which can help them be well-rounded individuals and that can help them be better journalists.

Our graduate program, by contrast, is four quarters of journalism in critical thinking and skills courses. Graduate school gives you the opportunity to narrowly focus your studies and do a very deep dive into journalism. That can be particularly helpful for those who majored as an undergraduate in a field other than journalism.

Dawn: What are you teaching students today to succeed in a digital-first world?

Desiree: At a very basic level, it’s not that different from a non digital-first world. You have to be truthful, honest, accurate and ethical. You have to be humble and realize you don’t know what you don’t know. Interviews aren’t interrogations or transactions. You’re talking with human beings who, quite frankly, don’t have to talk with you, especially if they aren’t public officials or figures. You have to think about who you’re interviewing and who you’re not and why not. Who you don’t interview is just as important as who you do interview. You have to verify information. You have to be there; you have to observe to get the details. You should be writing for quality, not for clicks.

Dawn: What, in particular, can we teach women to prevent the claws from coming out in the workplace?

Desiree: I tell all my students that you need to play nice in the sandbox. You can’t throw sand – don’t undermine people – and you have to share your sandbox toys – your knowledge and experience. This is not a zero-sum game. Just because one person gets ahead doesn’t mean you won’t get ahead, too. And some point in your career, you are going to need the support of your colleagues and if you’ve done nothing to nurture those relationships, that support won’t be there. I enjoy teaching at Medill because of the students, but my colleagues are a very close second. I’m a better instructor and better person because of them.

Dawn: What fulfills you outside of the classroom?

Desiree: Being with family and friends, particularly when we’re just sitting around talking about whatever is on our minds. I love poking around our garden and pulling weeds. I enjoy reading non-fiction, running, riding my bike, baseball games at any level, hanging out around the fire pit in our backyard and going to Door County in Wisconsin.


Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at dwotapka@gmail.com

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