The many talents of James Schiffman: Getting today’s journalism students ready for tomorrow’s newsroom

D r. James Schiffman’s life is a fascinating tale of traveling and taking chances—a journey that ultimately took him to Asia and remote U.S. regions, then to jobs at the Wall Street Journal and CNN. 

With Georgia College’s multi-media, digital-first, collaborative newsroom set to open this year in renovated Terrell Hall—the associate professor of communication now steers a new generation of young journalists into a brave if uncertain future. 

“The change just continues, good and bad,” Schiffman said. “Journalism is in a lot of turmoil. We’re in the middle of a revolution with the collapse of newspapers and the collapse of classified advertising. Newspapers, as we know them, are failing all over the place.”

I remain optimistic that journalism will reinvent itself. I’m really excited to get back into Terrell. We have an opportunity to transform student media here into something that it hasn’t been before.
– Dr. James Schiffman

“I remain optimistic that journalism will reinvent itself,” he said. “I’m really excited to get back into Terrell. We have an opportunity to transform student media here into something that it hasn’t been before.” 

Schiffman went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, majoring first in engineering, then getting a degree in economics. He started a master’s program in economics at the University of Colorado, but dropped out. He was drifting; looking for an interest. Then U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China—sparking a passion in Schiffman for news, history and Asian affairs. 

“I remember picking up the newspaper and reading the newspaper and thinking I can at least do this. I want to be the first American correspondent in China,” he said. “Imagine telling people that in 1973? They thought I was crazy. Kind of a lunatic.”

Nixon’s China trip spurred Schiffman back to the University of Colorado for a master’s in Chinese history. While there, he wrote for the school newspaper and spent time in Taiwan, learning the language and writing for the Hong Kong Standard. He arrived home in the mid-1970s, during a deep recession. News jobs were scarce. 

“It was right after Watergate,” Schiffman said. “Everyone in the world wanted to be a journalist. I was competing with all these journalism school graduates, and I’d never taken a journalism course in my life.”

Dr. James Schiffman
Dr. James Schiffman

He found a job in the advertising department of a small newspaper in Centralia, Washington. Then, Schiffman landed a position at another small daily in Sterling, Colorado. In the mornings, he’d shoot and develop pictures and, in the afternoons, report the news.

That job quickly led to a staff reporting position with United Press International (UPI) in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Most bureaus reprinted news from daily newspapers, but Schiffman’s did original reporting. He covered the entire state, plus capitol legislation and court news. He even covered U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s first run for the House in 1978.

But Schiffman’s heart yearned for Asia. He accepted a journalism fellowship with Gannett Foundation at the University of Hawaii, then went back to UPI as a reporter in their Hong Kong bureau, covering commodities and shipping. From there, Schiffman worked for the Asian Wall Street Journal as a reporter and bureau chief, spending four years in South Korea.

All this experience finally put Schiffman right where he originally wanted to be: in China.

For two years, he worked as a correspondent in Beijing, but it proved to be “a really tough place to work” in the late 1980s. Journalists lived in guarded, diplomatic compounds under surveillance. Schiffman returned to the United States a year before the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

He worked for the Wall Street Journal in Atlanta, then went to CNN in 1990 as a writer during the Gulf War. Schiffman moved quickly from writer/editor and copy editor to editor. When Ted Turner expanded CNN’s International Network, Schiffman worked there as a copy editor, senior copy editor and chief copy editor. He was with CNN 21 years.

Not wanting to “be the old guy in the newsroom,” Schiffman decided to go back to school. He earned a Ph.D. in communication at Georgia State University and came to Georgia College in 2012. 

Schiffman now tells stories of travel and reporting to a new wave of journalists. He teaches a newscast class every semester, along with shooting for news, international media systems, history of broadcasting and interviewing/listening.

When he arrived, the university already had a student television station, called GCTV. Schiffman changed the format to live news. Students renamed the program GC360. 

We do everything live and that’s tricky. There’s no fixing anything. Once you start, you’re live until you’re not live and, if something goes wrong, you just have to handle it. You have to think fast on your feet.
– Dr. James Schiffman

Dr. Schiffman in the student media control room.
Dr. Schiffman in the student media control room.

It’s not easy preparing workers for a changing industry. The Internet is causing many newspapers to fold and others to rethink how news is packaged. Attention spans are shortening, and popular apps like Tic Tok sport ever-shorter videos. 

Despite these challenges, Schiffman sees an uptick in the numbers of students pursuing journalism. A writer is a writer, he said. They’ll always adjust to the medium. Students have the advantage of youth. The young go out and do whatever it takes to realize their dreams, regardless of obstacles. 

Dr. Schiffman overseeing student work.
Dr. Schiffman overseeing student work.
Basic principles of journalism don’t change, he said, and students must continue to work hard. But, now, they must also adapt and be multi-skilled entrepreneurs. 

Terrell Hall’s state-of-the-art newsroom includes a production studio and radio station, where students have the tools to practice modern, digital-first journalism. Student media organizations will be able to collaborate and publish news first to online platforms. They’ll also be able to produce a newspaper, television and radio newscasts and experiment with innovative news delivery. 

Schiffman hopes the Terrell newsroom will make Georgia College ‘the’ place to go for journalism in Georgia. He believes the collaborative learning environment will give journalists a leg-up in today’s unpredictable landscape.

“I tell my students I’m a living example of the idea that you may be doing a job you never conceived of when you started out,” Schiffman said. “Nobody could conceive of CNN when I started journalism. Nobody.”