If you watch local newscasts in Fort Myers, you’re bound to hear reporters on one station end their stories with the phrase, “WINK News … Now.” For the first time, a graduate fresh out of Florida Gulf Coast University’s journalism program is uttering those words. Her name is Emma Heaton.
“A lot of people are surprised that I started my career in Southwest Florida,” the 2021 alumna said. “I thought I was going to go to North Dakota. I almost accepted a job offer there before I went to WINK.”
That’s because most journalists start their on-air television careers in significantly smaller places. Heaton jumped ahead in the line. “She started as a production assistant and worked her way into actually producing a newscast while she was going to college,” said Tom Doerr, news director for WINK News.
Heaton’s journey into journalism is rooted in her moxie. Years before joining WINK, the then-journalism student was interviewed by another station’s reporter. She asked if he would help her get an internship. He did, and she got her start.
That same determination re-emerged earlier this year. With encouragement from assistant journalism professor Judd Cribbs, Heaton attended a news-focused roundtable. There, Doerr said something that changed the course of Emma’s life.
“I remember him saying, ‘I will hire people out of college as long as they are hardworking, determined and willing to learn.’ I’m all those things, but I was so nervous to call him,” Heaton said.
Nonetheless, she did and following multiple discussions, she got a verbal offer. “She sat here, and she said, ‘I want to be a reporter,’” Doerr recalled. “So, there was no risk in hiring Emma. She already had so many great qualities that made her a really excellent candidate.”
Heaton’s gig began in late May. She turned her first story by the fifth week on the job. She’s excelling, but it hasn’t been easy. “It’s been more difficult than I imagined, but in a good way,” said Heaton.
“It’s really hard starting in a middle-sized market right out of school, especially when you’ve never been a reporter.” It’s not just Heaton who has experienced this phenomenon. FGCU’s journalism program has become a pipeline for local TV news, which is impressive given the size of the market.
Big market, big responsibility
For television journalists, market size matters. According to Nielsen, a company that measures audience size by “designated market areas” or DMAs, there are 210 markets, ranked by the area’s population. So, suppose you are working for a TV station in New York City (market No. 1). In that case, you’re speaking to a lot more people than those in Glendive, Montana (market No. 210).
The Fort Myers-Naples DMA is ranked No. 54. Starting in a bigger market is exciting for new reporters, but it also brings some challenges, which Doerr addresses with mentoring.
“We’ve established a way of having a manager mentor for the various disciplines within the newsroom. The idea is that people come in, and they may be at the very beginning of their development as a professional. We want to help accelerate that process. The faster we can develop strong journalists, the faster our product is going to improve,” said Doerr, who has led newsrooms in places like Miami, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
That approach to mentorship has benefited other FGCU graduates. Mike Danielewski grew up watching WINK News. He earned his journalism degree in 2018 from FGCU, and his professor, Cribbs, recommended him for a photojournalist job at WINK. Now chief photographer, Danielewski is one of WINK’s newsroom leaders.
“We have a family mentality here,” Danielewski said. “Everybody helps each other. Everybody hangs out with each other outside of work. There’s no animosity between people here, so it’s really about everybody building each other up, everyone mentoring each other.”
Bryan Ellison is a 2018 graduate from Naples who made his way to television after a stint in public relations. He produces WINK’s 10 p.m. show, helping write stories and create and execute the plan for each show. In other words, if you’re watching the 10 p.m. newscast, Ellison determines what you see and when.
“I started on mornings,” Ellison said. “I was able to form bonds with executive producers and other people who were given a chance out of college. They showed me the ropes. I also had the willingness to learn.”
Ellison credits the writing experience he gained in his FGCU public relations classes with helping him excel at WINK. In fact, FGCU alums working at WINK frequently mention writing skills – particularly the journalism program’s rigorous grammar test.
A grammarian factory
The upper-level courses require students to pass a 100-question test proving their grammar proficiency.
“It is a challenging test,” Cribbs said. “I always tell students, ‘If you can pass that test, you know grammar better than probably 99% of the population.’ It’s a pretty comprehensive test.”
In 2014, Jack Lowenstein was wrapping up his sophomore year at FGCU. Journalism was not part of his plan – until he took a news literacy course with Cribbs.
“He pretty much attracted me to the field and the program,” Lowenstein said. “It wasn’t until the beginning of my junior year that I declared journalism as my major. I went immediately into grammar and realized that was not going to be a cakewalk.”
Students have the opportunity to pass the test three times. Joseph Lyshon, ’17, is quick to point out that he passed the test on the first try. That wasn’t the case for some of his WINK colleagues who also went through the FGCU journalism program.
“I did take the course seriously, but I didn’t realize how bad my parts of speech were when it came to the written language,”
Lowenstein said. “Those of us who didn’t get off easy and pass it the first time really ended up hunkering down on a weekly basis. We helped each other pass the test. Some of us passed the second time. Some of us passed the third time. It didn’t matter because we became a team at that point. It was a really amazing experience.”
After a sojourn to print journalism just outside West Palm Beach, Lowenstein was recommended by Danielewski for a job. Many of the people Lowenstein worked with in the journalism program were his colleagues at WINK. For three years, he was a digital content producer, writing web stories, managing social media and supporting many other aspects of WINK’s online presence. In October, Lowenstein made the leap to a bigger market. He is now a digital content producer and assignment manager for CBS Denver.
Lowenstein’s fellow FGCU graduates agree with his assessment of the journalism program.
Lyshon, a WINK photojournalist, said the journalism program offered a balance of print-based journalism skills and photography and videography.
“Judd Cribbs put a decent amount of emphasis on the fact that visuals play a separate and vital role in journalism,” Lyshon said. “It was something that I enjoyed a lot. I’m not the kind of guy to get in front of the camera, and Judd’s class led me to visual storytelling.”
“You learn how to be self-sufficient,” said Danielewski. “In the program, you’re learning how to do everything from the ground up, whether it’s writing, reporting, shooting, editing, it was kind of like an all-encompassing program that put me in line to step in the door at WINK.”
That mix is essential to Doerr. “Journalism, it’s a hard profession,” he said. “It’s fast-paced. It changes on a dime. People who are good at it have to be quick to be able to adapt. We have unforgiving deadlines, and we’re asking journalists to parachute into situations where they’re asked to understand as many aspects of a story as they possibly can. At the same time, they must try to understand the human condition.”
Part of exclusive club
Even before Heaton’s hiring, WINK was known for employing on-air reporters right out of college. The first-time journalists within the station’s ranks have recently come from the University of Florida, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Virginia Tech and the University of Miami. Now, FGCU is part of that prestigious list just 10 years after launching its journalism program.
“It’s been really rewarding,” Cribbs said. “Personally, I just enjoy watching our students’ success. I’ve been watching their development throughout the four years they’re here. You hope, as a professor, that you prepare them for the rigors of the industry. To see them go out there and thrive, I get much more reward out of their success than I ever did from any of my own achievements.”
More and more FGCU students and graduates are working or have worked for WINK, primarily in the production department.
“We’re really just beginning to explore the potential of recruiting FGCU students for other roles,” Doerr said.
Such was the case for Michelle Alvarez, who minored in journalism. Graduating alongside Heaton, Alvarez spent a good part of her collegiate career producing radio and television newscasts in English and Spanish and reporting for WGCU Public Media, a Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio affiliate in Fort Myers. FGCU owns the station.
“Ever since I started, I knew my goal was to report,” said Alvarez, who started at WINK in May as a production assistant. “I love to tell stories, and I’m also bilingual. So, they took a look at my reel. We eventually got to talk, and they opened the opportunity.”
Fort Myers Broadcasting, which owns WINK News, purchased the Univision Southwest Florida affiliate a few years ago. The station produces newscasts, known as Noticias WINK, in the same newsroom as WINK. That means a bilingual employee has multiple tracks to becoming an on-air reporter. Alvarez will continue as a WINK News reporter and will contribute content to the Univision affiliate.
Being raised in Collier County and interacting with the Immokalee community for most of her life, Alvarez sees an opportunity to improve the news coverage for an underserved population. WINK agrees with this perspective, and its on-air product is set to expand.
“There are so many stories that can be covered in that area, but usually it’s when something bad happens. One of my main goals is to get out there and make those [other] stories heard,” she said.
Alvarez’ achievements bring pride to her family.
“I’m the first to go to college in the United States. This [career] is just a great accomplishment. They’re incredibly proud of me, and I’m super proud to use both languages in what I’m going to do. That’s a big part of me,” she said.
Getting the opportunity to start her post-collegiate on-air career at WINK was a bit of a surprise, like it was to Heaton’s friends.
“If you told me a year ago I would have gotten the job that I’ve been dreaming about, I would have not believed you. Honestly, I still can’t believe I got it. I just want to make sure I stay humble and thankful because I know it takes so much hard work to get here,” Alvarez said.
A different track
Justin Kase, ’17, earned a communication degree with a concentration in communication studies. Kase started his career at a television station in Hazard, Kentucky. He wanted to anchor, and that station gave him the opportunity right out of college. Two years later, he got a job at WINK.
“Growing up in Southwest Florida, I actually used to watch WINK,” Kase said. “I remembered Chris Cifatte, Lois Thome and Jim Farrell. When I was at FGCU, I had Chris Cifatte as an adjunct instructor, who I now work with, and he tosses to me when I’m in the field doing live reports. The other exciting thing was getting to meet people like Jim, who was kind of a childhood idol, in a way.”
Kase credits the communication studies track with helping him polish his public speaking capabilities. He was able to produce public service announcements in the major. It also helped him secure an internship with ESPN3 through FGCU Athletics.
“One of the things that helped me the most was doing play-by-play for men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball. There’s actually a lot of similarity between doing color and play-by-play to reporting live in the field, especially on breaking news. When you are reporting on a breaking story with limited details, you are heavily describing what you’re sensing, perceiving and seeing. That’s kind of what you’re doing when you’re calling a soccer game, for example.”
Kase just hit his second anniversary as WINK’s weekend anchor.
“I did not anticipate my second stop in news being in Southwest Florida,” he said. “The stars kind of aligned. I ended my contract in Kentucky, and I posted a picture from the beach at the Naples Beach Club. A woman who used to work at the same station I did in Kentucky now works at WINK. She asked if I was back in the area, and I sent her my materials. Within days, I got a call from the assistant news director to come in for an interview.”
He got the job he wanted and is now an anchor on the station he watched as a child.
The future is bright
While Kase didn’t graduate from the FGCU journalism program, many WINK employees did. Beyond hiring, the connection between WINK and the journalism program is growing. Lyn Millner, who founded the program and teaches news literacy, works closely with Doerr and his team.
“She is becoming more and more of a trusted adviser just from the standpoint of someone to discuss the issue of the erosion of public confidence in our institutions like academics, science, government or journalism, in particular,” Doerr said. “We’re all concerned about those in the public who don’t have as much confidence in the traditional journalism outlets that we once enjoyed.”
Doerr looks forward to working with the journalism program in other ways. He wants the opportunity to share with students what the career tracks are in news. He looks forward to talking with undergraduates about the pros and cons of getting into the business. Finally, he hopes to get to know FGCU students before they apply to WINK and, perhaps, offer his brand of mentorship while they’re still earning a degree.
“Our business has needs, and there are some really important needs and jobs. A lot of universities are not offering much in the way of introducing students to producing, but the demand for producers is really, really high. Most often the pathway to newsroom leadership and editorial leadership is through the avenue of producing. We really want to find people who are interested in that job,” Doerr said.
Cribbs believes the journalism program is ready for the challenge.
“Anecdotally, many more students get into behind-the-scenes work – production, photography, videography,” Cribbs said.
“We teach them the fundamentals so they can do everything. We teach them about ethics, how to think like journalists and how to be good writers and storytellers. We also cover audio and video graphics. That way, when they graduate, they can take those skills and go off in whatever direction they think they want their career to go.” Perhaps Cribbs’ former student, Jack Lowenstein, put it best.
“The FGCU journalism program creates journalists.”