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New reporting prof brings real-world standards to the classroom

September 11th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

Story & Photos by Cassidee J. Cline

LOGAN—Some see him as a loud, in-your-face, reporter. In fact, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly called him “an ideologue who’s out to hurt you.” To Matthew LaPlante, this review from the conservative commentator is nothing to be ashamed of.

LaPlante, who until last spring was national security reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, is a new assistant professor in the Department of Journalism & Communication, tasked with anchoring the basic news writing course.

With a three-page résumé and over 10 years of newspaper experience, LaPlante seems more than qualified for the job.

Ted Pease, head of the JCOM department, says he’s excited to have LaPlante on board.

“Matthew is here to kick news writing’s butt,” said Pease, who calls the beginning writing class “the most important skills class we offer.”

The news writing “boot camp” is premajor foundation class required of all students wishing to enter the JCOM major, whether in journalism or in public relations. It’s a crash course in finding news worthy stories, gathering information, interviewing and packaging the information to tell a story.

LaPlante says his course is designed to be tough. “We are going to start treating it like boot camp because we need to knock some heads around here,” says the California-born LaPlante, 33, whose shaved head and clipped speech heightens his drill sergeant resemblance.

Not only are LaPlante’s students learning news values and newswriting style, but they’re getting a real-world look at professional expectations.

As a journalist and now a professor, LaPlante says his career choices were influenced by his family.

“My father was a journalist,” he said. “He was a sports reporter and columnist, and right after high school he was the editor of our community paper.”

When LaPlante was younger, the newspaper his father worked for shut down. “He had this horrible sad look in his eyes,” LaPlante said. “I didn’t actually think that affected me until I saw that look again when the Rocky Mountain News closed.”

When the Denver daily shut down in 2010, LaPlante saw a photo of one of the junior editors with his daughter. “He had that look on his face,” he said. “That was the look my dad gave me when he lost his job at the paper, and that really affected my dad for a long time.”

When LaPlante was 18, he said his father told him, “You can do anything you want in life son, just don’t join the military.” So right after high school, LaPlante spent two years as an enlisted intelligence analyst for the Navy.

Later, when he decided to leave the military and choose a profession, “My dad said ‘Son, I’m proud of everything you have done in the military, you can do anything in life, son, just don’t be a journalist,’” he said, “and that seemed like pretty good advice.”

As a student at Oregon State, LaPlante started working at the campus paper. “I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with the people,” he said. “I fell in love with the ability to ask people questions in power and stand my ground.”

As a student, LaPlante also began working for The Lebanon Express, a tiny newspaper in a farming community in Oregon.

He multi-tasked at the paper, writing columns, covering the city council, laying out pages and writing editorials, among other things. “I covered anything that moved,” he said.

He still loved journalism when he moved to Salt Lake City in 2003 and started covering “cops and courts” at the Tribune, moving into a job covering military issues, including wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and the U.S. troops when they came home.

In recent years, LaPlante said, he decided it was time to find something new.

“There are going to be fewer and fewer opportunities to do the journalism I like doing and get paid for it,” he said. “I looked at the Salt Lake Tribune and other newspapers. Are these newspapers still going to be around for 30 years? If they are, I can’t guarantee that they’ll be doing the same kind of service-oriented journalism that I like doing.”

Over the last couple of years, LaPlante says he’s started thinking about making the switch from the newsroom to the classroom.

“I love teaching, and I’ve always considered journalism as a teaching profession,” he said.

He comes by it naturally: Both LaPlante’s wife and mother are teachers, his brother teaches music and his father is now an education administrator. “I come from a family of teachers,” he said.

So LaPlante went back to school to get a master’s degree in education from California State University—East Bay, and began looking for adjunct work at Salt Lake-area colleges.

So when the JCOM department advertised for a writing teacher last year, it was an obvious choice.

“I have always considered reporting and teaching to be sister disciplines,” he said. “So I said I would love to teach and be a journalist.”

When his Tribune co-workers found out about LaPlante’s new career opportunity, they were somewhat in shock, but also supportive of his decision.

Thomas Burr, the Tribune’s Washington, D.C., correspondent, said he thought the job was perfect for LaPlante. “I thought it would be a great move for him,” Burr said.

Burr was one of two Tribune staffers who told USU faculty checking LaPlante’s references that he “would be perfectly OK if he didn’t get the job,” which Pease says was a “great endorsement.”

Rick Egan has been a photographer at the Tribune for 26 years. When LaPlante was reporting for the Trib from Iraq, Egan was his photographer. In the time he has worked with Laplante, Egan said, he has come to find that LaPlante a very hard worker who is very focused on his stories.

Even though it has only been a few months since LaPlante’s move, Egan said the Tribune misses him already. “He is one of the best reporters we have,” Egan said.

LaPlante appreciates his former coworkers’ support. “I had a great job at the Tribune,” he said, “but I think it was time for a change for me, so I am very excited to be here.”

This summer, LaPlante and Egan traveled to Ethiopia to report on infanticide. Their reporting trip will be the topic of the first JCOM Department Morris Media & Society Lecture this Fall.

Even though he is now a professor, LaPlante says, he will always be a journalist.

TP

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  1. One Response to “New reporting prof brings real-world standards to the classroom”

  2. By Corlyss on Sep 16, 2011

    Oy veh. Big fish, little pond.

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