Director of USC School of Journalism: Willow Bay

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Today marks the grand opening of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s new state-of-the-art Wallis Annenberg Hall. The 88,000-square-foot media facility cost $59.3 million to build including $8.1 million in technology.

In addition to the new facility, Willow Bay recently took over as USC’s new director of the School of Journalism. She is a force to be reckoned with in the media world. Willow Bay brings extensive experience as a journalist, author, producer, digital news editor and national broadcast and global cable television news anchor.

I had the chance to sit down and talk with Willow Bay about her professional experiences that have led to the lofty task of leading the next generation of media professionals. Her experience across multiple media platforms combined with USC’s cutting-edge media technology offer USC students an exciting learning opportunity. Not many cities are fortunate enough to have someone of her journalistic talent so I took advantage of the opportunity.

Power Point (PP): Congratulations on your new position as director of the School of Journalism. What inspired you to take this on? What do you hope to add to the School of Journalism?

Willow Bay (WB): Journalism is evolving in new and incredible ways and there is enormous opportunity for this generation of journalist to shape journalism in the century ahead. I think the opportunity to come to what is already a world-class institution and how Dean Wilson here at Annenberg teaches, trains, and inspires the next generation of journalist was an extraordinary gift that presented itself.

One of the things that I bring to the school, that’s a little bit different, is a broad base of experience in both legacy media and new media. I’ve been a television broadcaster, [for both] network and cable. I’ve worked for information and entertainment outlets, and I’ve spent the past seven years helping Arianna Huffington expand content at the Huffington Post. And that entrepreneurial experience in the online space just adds another lens to how I view the industry and to my experience within different facets of the industry.

So I think I bring this broad base kind of external view and in some ways a fresh set of eyes, but I also bring connections to the media industry both in LA and, more than that, New York because most of the places I’ve worked have been in New York. So I’m excited about the opportunity of building broader, deeper relationships with the news business outside of Southern California where Annenberg’s ties are so strong and so deep.

Given the lens that I just described of the combination of legacy media and new media, I can also potentially bring a fresh set of eyes to the curriculum to work with the faculty who are so experienced and has such a depth of knowledge about how to educate students. I can help make sure that the curriculum is rigorous and challenging and prepares students not just for the jobs of today but also for jobs of the future. We don’t know what those future jobs are going to look like yet but we know that we have to prepare our students to be able to lead and embrace all the changes going forward and not just react to the current environment of today.

PP: What was your first major break in journalism? What events led to that opportunity?

WB: I graduated from Penn and went on to get an MBA. And after I got my MBA, I thought, “I don’t really want to work on Wall Street. And I have a marketing degree so I’m not sure I want to become a product manager at P&G or work in a corporate environment.” I’ve always wanted to be a reporter. I had an agent at the time so I said, “I know what I’m going to do, I’ll be a business reporter.” It was in the days before CNBC, Bloomberg, and before Maria Bartiromo was a star. And he kind of laughed at me and said, “I don’t think anyone is going to take a newly minted MBA seriously as a broadcast journalist however impressive that degree might be.” So I started scrounging around for jobs. I was modeling at the time so I got jobs covering fashion, which I hated. But people hired me because it made sense that somebody who had a career in this industry cover the industry. So those were my first jobs. I won’t call them my break, but it was a really effective way of getting particularly live experience.

But what I would call my first break, without question, was NBA Inside Stuff. It was a sports show that viewed on NBC and it was a hybrid sports/entertainment show and I knew a fair amount of sports but I was not an expert on basketball. So to prepare for this, this is going to date me, I went to the New York Public Library and I read a year’s worth of back issues of Sports Illustrated. They were hiring me because I was a good interviewer and [for] my broadcasting skills, however overarching they may have been, but they appreciated the effort. I was hired by then NBA commissioner David Stern. Besides being journalistically a great assignment, the opportunity to work along side David Stern, who was an extraordinary NBA commissioner, who created such a better league for the NBA, was really a once in the lifetime opportunity. I started at the same time that Adam Silver, the current NBA commissioner, started so I also got to work alongside Adam, who is doing such an incredible job in his early days of leading the league.

My first week on the job there was the week Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive. And that was one of my first big interviews was interviewing Irvin Johnson (Magic Johnson). I was one of his first interviews. I have to this day a one of kind relationship with my co-anchor Ahmad Rashad just an extraordinary partnership and I have never had so much fun at work.

PP: It sounds like NBA Inside Stuff opened a lot of doors for you. From there did things just fall into place?

WB: I don’t think careers anymore just fall into place. It’s a life long journey of twists and turns. And some people use the analogy of “It’s not climbing the ladder, it’s the lattice.” And my career was certainly that of a lattice.

I have had tremendous opportunities but they’ve been different. They have been really diverse. So I knew I didn’t want to stay in sports journalism, I really wanted to be in news. So from there, by covering sports, I started working part time for the Today Show then I was hired by Good Morning America where I substituted for Joan London. I was a reporter and I was a co-anchor of Good Morning America Sunday. Then I went to CNN to start a series of new programs there called Newsstand, which were collaborations with magazines, Fortune and Entertainment Weekly. It was a business show and a show on the business of entertainment. And then I was enlisted to help out at CNN Moneyline and that was my CNN career. Fortune and Moneyline were when I got a taste of business news, which I really love.

PP: You’ve transitioned from broadcast journalism to digital journalism and now you’re transitioning into a role where you’re leading the next generation of journalists. Although these roles are all part of the same media industry, they are significantly different. How were you able to transition into each role? What did you learn in the process?

WB: So much of career growth comes from tackling new challenges taking them one by one as they come up, but I see them as opportunities. I have had very few jobs that I feel truly equipped or prepared for when I first arrive. That’s part of the journey I think. And that’s part of what makes them exciting.

As I’ve gotten older I find it easier to admit what I don’t know. That’s liberating and really helpful. And that’s helpful in a career because it makes you more open to twist and turns and opportunities.

And I listen carefully and I observe closely which really helps with transitions.

I also believe in building strong teams. That’s extremely important. It makes the job more fun when you have a great team in place.

PP: You have had the opportunity to interview a number of highly successful leaders in all different industries from business to politics to entertainment, both female and male. Who have been some of the most fascinating and why? Have any of them influenced how you are as a leader?

WB: I think much of leadership is personal, is shaped by a combination of skills, experience and personality and authenticity. Owning the things about yourself and using them to shape your strategy and to shape your philosophy of leadership. And when I cover people who are leaders in their field, I see very clearly how their distinctiveness shapes their leadership style. You can take all the elements of leadership that you can study and then you add that personal distinctiveness to it. Then you begin to understand how strategies are created and implemented.

One of the people I see this most clearly in to be honest is my husband [Robert “Bob” Iger, CEO of Disney]. To be able to watch his career journey and to watch the way he manages and leads his company. He’s very candid, he’s very clear and very direct. That’s how he is as a person. On the job he articulates his strategy and communicates it effectively and consistently. He’s also able to take the 30,000-foot perspective and think big and think bold. It’s interesting because he’s encouraged me to do that. Sometimes more than I’m inclined because I’m often more tactical. He’s really encouraged me, in whatever job I’ve been in, to want to embrace the challenges and to think boldly.

I jotted down some notes about people that I’ve interviewed that have stood out. Not necessarily all business leaders but when you think about Michael Jordan who was a superstar. He came alive on camera and was a real performer in addition to being a gifted athlete.

Magic Johnson who I had mentioned earlier is someone who has weathered true crisis but has also managed an incredibly successful career transitions intelligently and gracefully.

Warren Buffet for his carefully crafted down to earth manor and his freely shared words of wisdom. He now enjoys sharing his experience.

I love talking to entrepreneurs. I just find their personal stories and also embrace of change fascinating. People like Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com or Jessica Herrin of Stella and Dot, particularly entrepreneurs who often want to do more than start a business. They often want to do something that provides value to others or that provides value or empowers their employees. Whether it’s empowering them to have successful careers to be entrepreneurs of their own right or simply to lead successful productive lives. I find people like that really inspiring.

I got to interview Sheryl Sandberg [COO of Facebook] recently. [I appreciate] her combination of vision and candor.

Arianna Huffington who has always challenged the status quo and is now challenging people to think differently about success, differently about their world and their daily lives.

So those are just some of the people that came to mind that were both fantastic and fascinating interviews and inspiring.

PP: Knowing what you know today, what would you tell your college self about journalism?

WB: I would have told my college self to find and develop a voice right away. That too is a journey.

PP: Is there anyone who you think has found their voice?

WB: I think there are. I’m a bit reserved. I’m not commentary, for example. I’m not a prolific blogger. I don’t share that much in a public forums, plenty in one-on-one forums, personal forums so, for me, personality shapes these things. That’s how my personality shaped how I’ve come to discover my voice and use it. There are plenty of people out there. I think of Arianna [Huffington]. She has a very clear, distinct point of view. She uses her voice so effectively. Sheryl Sandberg uses her voice loudly and powerfully. There are plenty of people who do it. There are great journalist who do it all the time. I think about Donald Freedman who has been incredible in his role as a columnist to shed light on issues and lend his voice to them.

PP: What’s a typical day look like for you?

WB: Bit of a new routine being back in school and my kids being back in school. Get up around 4:45am to do a combination of reading up on the news, doing email, check-in at the office and exercise. I have to be dressed and ready to go at about 5 of 7, because I have to make breakfast, pack lunches, and get my boys in the car. (Boys are age 12 and 15) I have really learned to value that time in the morning with them. It’s a nice connection point in our day. Then I’m at the office on campus all day. Every day is different here [on campus] which is fun. Talk with students, spent time at media center, talk with faculty, reviewing circular initiatives, working with Dean Wilson and his staff on development issues and cross school initiatives, and collaborate with new director of School of Communications Sara Lee Wilson.

Then head home. Nights we don’t have commitments is family dinner which gets interesting now that the kids are a little bit older because they are in and out, up and down, and homework and tutors and sports and all of that. The night that we’re home, it’s family dinner, then on with our homework including my husband and I getting on with our homework. So that’s pretty much our daily routine.

WBay at Media Ctr_small      Willow Bay, director of the School of Journalism

14538822306_e5279d5e4c_h_small      Wallis Annenberg Hall

15146414088_60c6259f0a_k_small14558517191_ad6923a023_h_small15146412468_bd7a099464_k_small14375465457_21f65054cb_h_small14561912925_62dfee3dc5_h_small      Photos courtesy of USC Wallis Annenberg Hall flickr page

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