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TV news professor pushes student journalists to real-world standards

March 25th, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

By Allie Jeppson

LOGAN—As a police scanner quietly fizzes and mutters in the background, students roll in and the Aggie TV News class begins. But the discussion lasts only a moment as the instructor suddenly stops in mid-sentence to listen to the scanner. The class quiets and does the same.

After a moment, he resumes talking to the TV news staff as if nothing had happened.

“Just seeing if we’ll be taking a field trip,” he says.

Such is the life of USU Journalism and Communication (JCOM) Professor Brian Champagne, who heads the department’s broadcast news and multimedia program.

“The police scanner is that man’s best friend,” broadcast journalism major Kelsey Weller says. “When it comes on during class, we all know to be silent so Champagne can hear.”

Mostly, it’s nothing. But sometimes it’s a fire, an ambulance dispatched to an accident—as when a motorcycle skidded under a BMW on 400 North last September and burst into flames—or when a dump truck loses its brakes and careens into the center of Logan, as occurred in November.

This is just one of many ways that Champagne, a veteran TV newsman, shows his dedication to teaching and to the craft of broadcast journalism. “In newscast,” Champagne said, “my goal is to make the class as close to a real newsroom as possible.”

Joining the JCOM faculty in 2010, Champagne came straight from the broadcast journalism field as a professional photographer with 22 years of experience. Though he now works fulltime as a USU professor, teaching multimedia, broadcast news and the Aggie TV Newscast, he still freelances as a videographer for Salt Lake City stations Fox13, ABC 4, and KSL.

“My original goal was to do 10 years in the business, get a master’s, and then teach,” Champagne said. “I’ve always wanted to do both. I planned on leaving [professional work] behind when I quit, but I just can’t.”

This hybrid existence as both a professor and a TV news professional has proved beneficial for JCOM students. It’s this kind of dedication to the profession that helps take USU’s journalism program to the next level, said JCOM department head Ted Pease.

“One of the things that Brian has done for us and our students is making that connection, because he’s still working for the stations in Salt Lake,” Pease said, pointing out that more and more student video from USU and northern Utah is making its way onto Salt Lake City newscasts. “TV stations are thinking more and more about USU as a resource, so their consciousness level is rising. Brian is certainly an important part of that.”

Champagne began his career as a news production assistant for NBC (KGET-TV) in Bakersfield, Calif., where he became a full-time TV news photographer.

From there he worked for several other stations, including KEYT-TV, the ABC affiliate in Santa Barbara, Calif., Fox KTXL-TV in Sacramento, and KUTV-TV2, the Salt Lake CBS affiliate, holding positions like chief photographer and producer for an automotive segment. His work also has appeared nationally, including on CNN, Oxygen, and the Mtn—the MountainWest Sports Network.

Aggie JCOM alum Janelle Hanson graduated before Champagne joined the USU faculty, but she values the continued connection. “Brian has been a really great person to work with,” said Hanson, KSL’s assignment manager. “He’s there to get the job done . . . not just because that’s what he’s supposed to do, but because that’s what he loves. He’s passionate in his dedication.”

Champagne’s work has won two Emmys, a UBEE award from the Utah Broadcasters Association, and a National Press Photographers Association contest.

“It helps to have a professor who has actually done it and who continues to do it,” said Tania Mashburn of the Utah Department of Transportation, a USU alumna and former TV broadcaster who worked with Champagne at KUTV.

“He has the real-world experience that is so beneficial to students,” she said.

On top of his professional experience and a master’s degree in communication from the University of the Pacific, Champagne has other qualities that make him a successful professional and an invaluable teacher.

“I think Brian has a good sense of the flexibility of what you need in the field, and knows how quickly you need to react,” Fox13 chief photographer Matt Lee said.

Which explains the constant buzz from the police scanner in the JCOM TV newsroom—Champagne also has a police scanner app on his iPhone, so he can stay connected in case of breaking news.

Students like Weller have witnessed Champagne’s quick reaction to breaking news on a regular basis.

Weller talked about how one of her stories fell through as the Aggie TV News staff was preparing for the weekly newscast.

“I wanted to have an emotional breakdown,” Weller said. “So I talked to Champagne about it.”

Right after the two talked, the police scanner announced a car had crashed into the river in Logan Canyon, Weller said.

“Champagne pushed me to get the story,” Weller said. “He allowed me to come late to his class and the whole time I was out he was texting me and calling.”

Not only did Weller get the footage she needed, but Champagne also contacted news stations in Salt Lake City and sold Weller’s story to KSL, Weller said.

Shannon Ballard, who graduated in 2010, is now a TV news reporter in Grand Junction, Colo. “Now I have a job working in the field, and I’m a one-man-band reporter,” she said. “It’s all the things I learned in [Champagne’s] classroom. Now being able to use all these things in the field—it’s great to have a job in what I love doing.”

Low-key and soft-spoken in most of his interactions, Champagne’s one competitive weakness is breaking news.

“I love being there—Bam!—when it’s going down, just in the middle of it,” Champagne says. “I will do what it takes, I will listen to this scanner so I can get there before you. I will drive more aggressively, I don’t care who you are.”

And that commitment to competitiveness shows in his teaching.

“I was coming into class early and he threw a tripod at me and told me to follow him,” remembers senior Jessica Black.

Champagne and Black then ran across campus to the LDS institute building to be the first to catch the news a January fire, Black said.

“It’s never predictable,” Black said, “which is what I love about it.”

And it’s this kind of real-world competitive learning that will help set USU broadcast news students apart in the job market, Champagne said.

“Because of the industry, with the layoffs and how flat everything is, they’ve got to set themselves apart,” Champagne said.

But Champagne’s students don’t always find this easy. Senior broadcast journalism major Bailey McMurdie struggled in Champagne’s class for a while.

“One of the things that I hated most about Champagne when I first started taking [classes] from him was that he basically treats you as if you were actually working in broadcast,” she said. “He treats you as if you were going to do this for a living.”

That’s the assumption behind the JCOM department’s approach, says department head Pease. “This is a professional program, and we owe it to our students to help them get to the level that they can walk the walk, and compete with anyone,” he said.

Champagne’s approach ended up benefiting McMurdie, who landed an internship with WTNH in New Haven, Conn., last summer.

“I want to create the best stuff I can, and Brian Champagne inspires that,” she said. “He nitpicks everything—because he knows the industry standard.”

“He makes you work harder than you ever thought you could,” McMurdie said. “He pushes you to the edge, which is good.”


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