Mike Reilley, a seasoned reporter and journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago has crafted his career around teaching the value of digital technology in journalism.
By Julia Kindelin
Mike Reilley strives to educate his students about the importance of understanding digital concepts and platforms, something he learned from Neil Chase, one of his journalism professors while obtaining his master’s at Northwestern University. Chase taught Reilley how to code and how to think about how the web works and use that to his advantage.
“Digital tools come and go,” he said. “But if you understand the concepts and how the platforms work, you’ll understand them and what tools will work as they come and go. And things evolve, being able to develop a digital workflow and manage a project over a period of time; which is what everybody in our classes do, that is everlasting.”
Reilley acknowledges that his students learn differently and makes that philosophy central to his teaching. He incorporates readings, step-by-step instruction, and visual elements in his instruction. He is quick to find new platforms that can help his students understand concepts or learn new storytelling techniques.
“The tools are a hook for students,” he said. “But the concepts are embedded into teaching that in the ethical lessons, that’s what we’re really trying to get across in there.”
Reilley has worked for the Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times and taught at Arizona State, DePaul University, Northwestern University, and The University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Digital Trainer for The Society of Professional Journalists. Also, he founded The Red Line Project, a website that hosts content written by UIC communication students. He founded and is the editor of The Journalists Toolbox, an online resource guide for students and journalists.
Success in his career came as a result of taking several risks, something he encourages aspiring journalists to do.
“My big risk was leaving the LA Times, my dream job, to go to work at the Tribune because I saw this fundamental change in journalism with digital. I took a risk there, a big risk. I left my safety net to try something new. Going to grad school was a risk; moving to Chicago. I quit a job in Nebraska to come move to Chicago.
“So you know, all those things kind of paid off. Going to Arizona to teach for a couple years was a risk,” he said. “So don’t be afraid to take risks with your career. I mean, later on, it might not be as easy to take those risks. So take risks early in your career.”
Reilly remains confident that the career is still viable and encourages young journalists to enter the field regardless of some of the negative discourse about journalism taking place online.
“The business model is struggling. The journalism itself is persevering. I think we’ve seen that, with coverage of the election of the current presidency, things like that, the importance of that watchdog role journalism plays on government, on business, on anything. So they need us now more than ever. So don’t believe people when they discourage you to go into journalism, it’s still a great field. It’s tough. Not as many jobs, but you can make a go of it.”
The biggest influences on Reilley’s career came during high school. His initial plans to study engineering in college changed after his math teacher (with who Reilly would talk about their mutual love of sports) introduced him to Daryl Blue, the advisor for the school paper. The now late Blue shortly became his mentor and one of the most significant influences on Reilly’s life. Reilly became the sports editor at his school’s paper at the age of 16 and eventually decided to pursue journalism in college.
Blue helped Reilley transition to The University of Nebraska where he became the editor for The Daily Nebraskan. While in college he interned at smaller newspapers and eventually worked his way up to the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. When staffers at the Los Angeles Times resigned, Reilley had his chance to get into the big leagues.
“I was in way over my head,” he said. “But it really got my career started off on the right path.”
Reilly continues to write between teaching and training. He believes in doing what he loves while maintaining his presence in traditional journalism.
“I always got my toes in both worlds, so to speak. I like teaching because of pace. I like working with students. It’s what I’m happiest doing,” he said. “The trainings on the side that I do for Google and for FPGA on the site are great, it’s good money, but really, my heart soul is teaching courses. It’s been important to have your feet in both worlds, as opposed to just committing to one or the other.”