Linda Prout: The Inspiration Behind 219West

  • By Vanessa Botelho
Cole Zerboni
Prof. Linda Prout in the control room Photo: Cole Zerboni

What surprises Professor Linda Prout most about 219West, the student television news magazine show that airs on CUNY TV, is that it has lasted so long. The show is celebrating its 10th anniversary this fall, and in that time, it has been a spawning ground for many successful alumni careers, from producers and on-air reporters at local television stations to journalists across the media spectrum.

Prout has been a constant at 219West since the very beginning. Broadcast Journalist-in-Residence Vanessa Botelho sat down with her recently to learn some history about the show and hear her thoughts about its future.

How did 219West come about?

Before 219West was born, the school had a TV news magazine, but there wasn’t a public outlet for it. It was a semester-long course that required students to work on assignments in pairs and produce 10-minute pieces that would then be placed on their individual websites or demo reels.

The school’s founding dean Steve Shepard had been asking why we didn’t have a TV newscast, and I suggested a news magazine course where students could dedicate the time they needed for more in-depth reporting. I had a longstanding relationship with CUNY TV, so we partnered with the station to develop the show.  219West launched in the fall of 2009.

What type of students gravitate to 219West?

There’s this myth that 219West is for people who want to be on air. And it’s true, you do get to be on air. You can be an anchor, a reporter, or a correspondent.  But I would say that half of the students who’ve taken the course have no inclination to be on air. They also want to be field producers, show producers, editors, and writers.  That makes for a good mix because not everyone is fighting for that airtime. 

How is the show structured?

The course began with three professors, then it was reduced to two, and now there’s only one. It runs for two semesters, and you can take it in both semesters if you want. 

The challenge is that it’s a class, and the students still have a lot to learn. But we also have a really, really tight production deadline internally and from CUNY TV. So it’s a type of on-the-job training. There is this sense of urgency, which is a good thing because I think that’s something students often don’t experience…seeing what they will face in the real world of deadlines.

How has changing technology come into play?

There are more multimedia elements than there used to be. Things that people would say “oh you don’t see that on television.” Well, you do see it on television because that’s just the mode of delivery. We do a lot more graphics and interactive things. 

We also don’t just use pieces that are produced by the students taking the class. We may take non-narrated pieces from Video Storytelling for the Web. There used to be this thought that non-narrated pieces are not on TV.  But they are.  

The look in the technology definitely has changed. But I think reporting a good story and taking your time to flesh it out and tell the viewer what they need to know – that is still the basis of the show.

What lessons do students learn?

People know that they need to improve their digital skills. The other thing they get out of it is they learn a different approach to writing than they do in print. A lot of students will say, “I thought this was going to be easy because it’s just TV and you just look at pictures and that’s it. But this is really hard.” 

One thing that has changed since the show’s inception is how it’s edited.  Originally, students edited their packages but the show was assembled by (Broadcast Associate) Sebastian Bednarski.  He still puts the polish on it at the end, but now the primary editing is done by the students. 

What are some of your favorite segments?

One of them is a series we did called “Vanishing Languages.” We did an overview of which languages were vanishing and why, and then we focused on some individual languages. The one I liked the most was where students traveled to Connecticut to interview a woman who was trying to preserve a Native American language. 

 We’ve done so many stories. When we first aired 219West, we were just coming out of a recession, so we did a lot of business stories around that. It was also a mayoral election year. We’ve done some quirky stories, on what is happiness and sound therapy. We have a student who just did a piece on a guy who makes his living by playing soccer and what’s called the Spanish soccer league which is not a professional league. But he gets paid a little bit of money, so to support himself, he plays four or five soccer games every day on the weekend. These are the type of stories you may not see anywhere else.

Where are some of the 219West alums now?

Esther Shittu, ‘18, is a news show producer at Hearst-owned WMUR in Manchester, NH; Anais Morales, ‘11, is a producer for WCBS in New York; Amy Yensi, ‘10, works as a Bronx reporter for NY1; Walter Smith-Randolph, ‘10, is a reporter for CBS affiliate WKRC in Cincinnati. Many former students say they would not have learned some of the skills they needed to know if they didn’t take 219 West, because it’s the only class in which you’re doing a show.

What have you taken away from this experience?

Doing 219West has made me become, I hope, a better teacher. It has taught me that the most effective way to teach is through a hands-on workshop type course, not a lecture. Everybody is pulling together and learning professionalism. They are students, but I try to treat them like they’re colleagues. I think everyone has fun.

What’s next for 219West?

Using the NYCity News Service as the model, I’d like to see 219West move beyond a specific class to a show where we would pull pieces from different classes that are doing video. I could work with them and get them airworthy, so we could have a monthly or a weekly show using resources that would come across well on TV from many classes.  

Photo at top: Jazmin Goodwin, ’19; Professor Linda Prout; Stephanie Chukwuma, ’19, on the set of 219West (Photo: Cole Zerboni, ’19)