Meet the Press

Andrea Rangno
Aug 31, 2020
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photo of jeremy shermak in front of brick building with letters spelling journalism behind him

OCC's newest journalism professor Jeremy Shermak shares his vision for student journalism at Coast and beyond..


Welcome to OCC! As the College’s new journalism professor and advisor for our student-run newspaper, The Coast Report, you have a big job ahead of you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background in journalism, and what experience you’re bringing with you to share with OCC’s students?  

Sure! I’ve always had a passion for journalism and news — I've kind of been a news junkie my entire life. I started off my career as a newspaper reporter, working at a small newspaper near my hometown in Michigan. Because it was a small paper with a small staff, we did a little bit of everything ... I was even a photographer. Eventually, I was hired at a midsize newspaper in South Bend, Indiana, where I covered sports and general news.   

Altogether, I have probably about seven or eight years of experience as a working journalist. But I also have studied  journalism a great deal. I went to Indiana University for my undergrad where I majored in Information Technology and Journalism; it’s kind of a hybrid degree there. I went on to get my master’s degree in Writing at DePaul University in Chicago, and then I decided to go for another master’s at the University of Missouri, in Journalism. And because that wasn’t enough school, I decided to go back and get my doctorate in Journalism at the University of Texas, at Austin.  

I’ve had the chance to not only practice journalism and work professionally as a journalist, but also research it and, of course, teach it. And I’ve had a lot of stops in between all that schooling. I was an English and journalism instructor at a community college just outside of Chicago for eight years before I decided to return to school to earn my doctorate.  

A year ago I was offered a full-time position teaching journalism at Cal State Fullerton, and I'll be leaving Fullerton to join OCC. Coming to OCC is — for me — a return to the community college environment that I really love. I was a community college student myself, my first year of college. I’m a first generation student, and I feel at home in the community college environment.  


Community colleges aren’t really known for research, however many of your students will be looking to transfer to four-year universities and possibly continue their post-graduate education. In all of your studies, were there any specific areas that you focused your research on? Any aspects of journalism that you are passionate about?  

I did a lot of research about journalistic practices — how the news is made, the ethical choices that journalists face. I also looked at how journalists correspond or interact with the public on social media. My dissertation was on broadcast meteorologists and how they interact on social media. In addition to being a news junkie, I've always been kind of a weather nerd, too. I chose the topic because I’ve always been really interested in science communication, which is fascinating now, given what’s happening with the pandemic and questions about masks, etc. For my dissertation, I interviewed 29 meteorologists, and I analyzed approximately 5,000 social media posts. And, in some ways, I could see [the response to the COVID-19 pandemic] coming. Many people believe that meteorologists are politically driven and these conspiracy theories about the weather. That somehow journalists and even meteorologists have some ulterior motives when they do something as seemingly mundane as forecasting the weather. It's really wild.   

The polarization in this country, and the anti-science bias of many citizens, has been challenging for the science and journalism communities alike. I’ve been very fortunate not only to practice journalism and be a journalist, but also to conduct research because it has allowed me to look at the theory and talk to journalists to get their ideas about what it's like to really be in this position. 


You mentioned that you really like the community college atmosphere. Can you talk a little about what appeals to you about this type of educational setting?   

Community Colleges are very unique and, not to sound cheesy, but I really like the community aspect of it. I feel like it's a closer, tighter-knit community. Even though journalism is part of a huge department at OCC, I think I'll have more opportunity to interact with my colleagues. But, the main reason I came back is because the primary focus at community colleges is the teaching and the pedagogy, and I love teaching and working with students. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to make a difference and work on curriculum. Sometimes at a four-year [university] that stuff kind of escapes you and is a little bit out of your grasp.  


Orange Coast College has a long and storied history of exceptional student journalism. The College is investing in building a contemporary newsroom that will open next year, and you will be leading the charge in preparing our students for a rapidly evolving industry. What are your thoughts on that?  

My thoughts are: I really couldn't be coming into a better situation. You mentioned the new building, which, to me, is much more than this amazing, dynamic space. It is a physical representation of the College’s and the District’s investment in journalism. Because once that building is done, I can't imagine there being a better community college newsroom in this country. It’s going to be the nicest, most state-of-the-art, beautiful newsroom in the country.  

While it’s a tremendous honor to be able to come in and continue the College’s tradition of turning out good journalism that is some of the best in the country, it can’t just be the bells and whistles and the nice new building -- we've got to make good journalism in that room. 


This is an interesting year to start a new position leading student journalists at OCC, because not only are we dealing with the effects of COVID-19, it’s an election year! Some might even say that you’re getting thrown into the deep end of this pool. During the last general election, the Coast Report journalists were incredible, and won awards for their coverage. How do you plan to prepare your students to hit the ground running when school starts this fall and the election is only two months away?   

I don't think it’s a stretch to say that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes. And I mean that speaking for myself, and I’m 41. But, I also think that’s very true for the students. So one of the things that I want to do immediately, day one, is say, ‘Look, our attention from this point forward until election day and thereafter, of course, is going to be talking about the election.’   

Of course, all eyes are going to be on the presidential election, but because I consider the newspaper, our newspaper, to be a local news source, I want to focus on the local issues too. We'll have coverage of the presidential election, to be sure, but my take will be, people aren't going to come to The Coast Report to get the results of the presidential election. I really want to have my students get the experience of covering local politics, because it’s a different beast. And, we can try to fill in some of the gaps we might have in our community by covering these very local elections. 


That’s a very worthy goal, especially in Orange County, where we have seen so many small local papers struggle, and close, in recent years. Oftentimes, we see Orange County getting news coverage from Los Angeles media sources, even though we could not be more different! How do you think OCC can best prepare students who want to stay local to be journalists in a place like Orange County?   

I think number one is understanding the community of Orange County. This would be true of any student journalist anywhere, but it is absolutely critical that our students become experts on their community. That means really, really learning the community and learning who the players are in the community, introducing themselves to people and talking to people.  

Orange County has 3 million residents and yet it has become a bit of a news desert, and that’s sad. But I think it’s also a moment for us, for OCC’s student journalists, to have some exclusivity, to have an opportunity to tell the story of our area. I want students to look at their job at the Coast Report as not just covering our campus — which we will, front to back — but also going out and reporting news in the community. Because what happens in the community has an effect on our College and our students, and I think sometimes students don't see this. For example, we're getting these awesome new buildings because our community voted for that, right? The community is so vital to the success of a place like OCC.  


Let’s talk technology, because you do have a background in IT and digital media, which is a great experience to share with your students. As more and more journalism goes digital, we have to prepare our students for careers that are becoming more technical and technology driven. What do you see in terms of future opportunities for the Coast Report to explore different digital platforms?   

Something that I've researched and studied a lot, is actually the evolution of the New York Times. And when I say that, people might think that I'm going back to the late 1800s, but I’m actually going back to 2009; there were people who strongly believed in 2009 that there wouldn't be a New York Times in five or six years. It forced the NYT to undergo this complete digital renovation. They kind of looked at themselves as, ‘we're a digital content producer that, oh by the way, happens to make a newspaper.’ And I kind of see The Coast Report going in that direction. In other words: I think that we're going to be able to produce good journalistic content, it all starts there. If the reporting and the writing isn't good, you're not going to have much, that's where we have to start. But through that, I'd love to see us produce more multimedia, do more video. I’d love to see us do some podcasting, whether that's more long form storytelling, or just something like The Daily, or a news report, or both. 


With the College being mostly online in Fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, going digital will become more of a necessity. Is there a sense you have that this could ultimately be a good thing for the Coast Report? How might the students benefit from being forced to publish a 100 percent digital paper?   

This semester is going to be unique ... I mean, that's the understatement of the year, right? We won't have a printed paper and that's going to change the dynamic of our news operations pretty drastically. But quite honestly, I am really excited about it. I love newspapers — I have a coffee mug that says, ‘I love the smell of newsprint in the morning.’  But, I think that this is a moment where, maybe, we get away from the pressure of the print and focus our energy entirely on the digital. This moment with the pandemic and being online will give us an opportunity to see what that's like, to do it as a digital only outfit, and how that makes us feel, and how the students adapt to it.  


You bring up an interesting point, which is this kind of tug of war between traditional journalism, and delivering news and storytelling through newer types of digital media, like social media or podcasts. It seems like a community college is an ideal place to explore newer technology, because our ultimate goal is to prepare students for their future careers. At the same time, we want students to have a solid educational foundation in journalistic practices, so they can responsibly contribute to the field. How do you balance those two objectives?  

It’s a tremendous challenge and I’m not going to sit here and say that I have perfected the way to do that. But I think one thing that I’m going to emphasize and something that I will tell my students is, it used to be in traditional journalism, whatever that may be, that someone would come in and they’d say ‘I’m a columnist, I write opinion.’ Or they’d come in and say, ‘I cover lifestyle’ or, ‘I cover politics.’ And it just isn't that way anymore. The industry financially doesn't really allow for that anymore. 

Everyone in journalism has to wear multiple hats. But the good part about that is the evolution of the technology has made it much easier for journalists to pick up multiple skills. The way I describe it to my students is, ‘Think about your skills almost like the letter T, where across the top you have writing, maybe photography, something multimedia, design, whatever. And then take one of those and form the vertical part of the T and really go deep into that. If you want to be a writer, get really good at writing, but have some of those other skills that you can use.’  

And the same is true for students looking to transfer to a four-year university — they’ll have clips and experience, and they’ll be able to hit the ground running at a four-year newspaper. Training students to work is one of the reasons I came back to a community college. I want my students to be like the Swiss army knife of reporters, where they will have so many different skill sets they’ll be able to find a job instantly.