Sue Carter on the state and future of journalism and intercollegiate athletics

Feb 25, 2019

“Well, it's been wonderful and I confess, and you can figure out the age if I give the year, I came here 50 years ago as a student as a freshman living in Phillips Hall,” says Sue Carter. “So I have seen this university evolve over the course of a number of years. It is a wonderfully respected university. 


“We've hit a snag, we all acknowledge that. Things for which we are genuinely remorseful, and I give great credit to acting president Satish Udpa, who made that statement recently at the Board of Trustees meeting offering regret and sorrow for what we've done. But institutions go forward, and there are a lot of good people associated here. We'll be OK.”

The Most Reverend Dr. Sue Carter is working her way toward retirement as a professor in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University where she joined the faculty in 1991 after a 17-year career as a news broadcaster and talk show host at radio and television stations in Michigan, Connecticut, and Ontario, Canada.

Carter has seen students change over her years of teaching.

“They're focused in a different way. They're very attuned to things that we didn't care about. When I was a student here a half century ago, I didn't worry about things like healthcare or getting a job or those sorts of things. They understand it's a different world and a different market, so they make sure that they measure their studies along that line.

“They don't interact socially the way that we did. They do have their social components, but remember Russ, when you and I were students, we'd sit around on a Saturday night have pizza in the dorm and just have what we'd call a bull session. It happens in different ways now, so that piece has changed.

“I find that students don't read as much as we did, and that does concern me. They gather information, but I don't think they go as deeply as we did. Those are some of the changes.”

Journalism is under siege from the highest office in the land at times, and companies are trying to - the word we hear is monetize - figure out how to replace the revenue that's decreasing in the print product while people interact more online, but those ads don't fetch as much.
 

Sue Carter, MSU Vice President for Auxiliary Enterprises Vennie Gore, Spartans Athletic Director Bill Beekman
Credit Russ White

“I do share your concern when our national leaders are treating journalists as enemies. Presidents routinely don't like the press because whether it was President Obama or the Presidents Bush, they're not terribly fond of us, and I understand that. That concerns me that we are so targeted, quite literally as journalists, as being the enemy.

“The other piece about the status of news, and this is a question that I've often answered for parents who come and say, ‘Why should my child study journalism? Isn't it a dying industry?’ I say, ‘There are three things that happen with regard to journalism. One is the gathering of news, one is the editing or the processing, and the third is the distribution model.’ That model, the third part, has been a difficult one for us to figure out, whether it's a pay wall for a newspaper or more ads or click bait, that kind of thing. We obviously need even more information than we did 50 years ago, and we need people who can process it and edit it with a thoughtful mind.

“I get discouraged when I see the editing function sort of jobbed out, when the editors are gone from, for example, newspapers. As a journalist and professor, I can look at those newspapers and say, ‘Hmm, that wasn't edited the best way.’ So I get concerned there.

“Monetizing, as you pointed out, is a real problem.”

What skills do today’s journalism students need to hone in order to be successful?

“Formerly, a student was in a print curriculum or broadcast curriculum, and now we recognize that students will need to hone a broad range of skills. They will have to retool and retrain as they go forward as journalists because the technology will change over the course of the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. At least entering the workforce, they need to understand this, and they do. And we teach across these platforms so that someone who really wants to be a newspaper reporter has all of the other skills, the visual and the audio skills, that are critical these days.”

One of Carter’s roles during her MSU career was as faculty athletic representative to the Big Ten and NCAA.

“As faculty athletic representative, that role means being the interface between the institution, in this case Michigan State, and as you pointed out, the Conference, the Big Ten, and the NCAA. In some ways, it's what the individual makes of it. My focus was primarily on students. I felt that was really important. Legislation, of course, is important. The other faculty representatives in the Big Ten I thought were great resources; we were resources for each other. The life of the student athlete mattered to me. It still matters to me, and that was the area that I really cared the most about.”

So what about the challenges for the sustainability of inter-collegiate athletics?

“Well, you've probably seen the discussions about Zion Williamson, the magnificent Duke player.
 

In 2001, Carter organized and led the first all-women ski expedition to the reach the North Pole as a team.
Credit Sue Carter

“He probably will be the number one pick in this year’s NBA draft, and the Nike shoe that he was wearing just blew apart on him in the first 30 seconds of the game against North Carolina. It brought to light a couple of things. One, that he is playing without compensation right now. He's a student athlete, so he gets room, board, tuition, books, and a very modest fee. So his career could have gone down the tubes right away. Fortunately, it looks to be just a sprained knee. It also suggests that the money that comes in - Couch K apparently makes $300,000 a year in a shoe contract from Nike while Zion doesn't get anything – may need to be rebalanced. We need to rethink how we deal with athletics, with sports, and with inter-collegiate sports in this country.”

And who's going to be sitting in the stands in 20 or 30 years? How will the TV model shake out? Really, the vast majority of the money comes from TV, right?

“Certainly it does. TV money is critical. Just to drop a little footnote, as we see fewer kids playing football, what might that mean for the pipeline for intercollegiate sports and ultimately for the NFL? A separate topic but something to think about.

“It's a challenge. Former athletic director Mark Hollis pointed out the challenge of trying to keep people in the stadiums when they can sit at home, have huge televisions screens, and have a refrigerator right there with whatever they want to put in it. So how do you get them into the stands on a cold game in November against Minnesota?”

What’s next for the most Reverend Dr. Sue Carter?

“The life of the mind is important to me, Russ, as it is to many of us here at the University, you as well certainly. I'm finishing academic work for a doctorate in history. My focus is medieval history. I like castles. Game of Thrones is really cool. I really do care about that.

“It's humbling and it's important for those of us who are professors, or have been, to be students because then we see the teacher/student dynamic from a different viewpoint. I think it's made me more understanding and compassionate over the years of what students have to go through.

“I like the energy that I see in the young people who are coming through right now. Their issues are somewhat different from the ones that I had as a young student. The Vietnam War was critical to us then. Their thoughts about the value of the earth, their interest in climate change, that's really important. They are entrepreneurial. In part, they have to be, so I think this is a great group going forward.”

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