‘I’ve never seen anyone do a better job’: Longtime VCU journalism professor Jeff South to retire
Right: Journalism professor Jeff South, shown here teaching a Data Journalism and Visualization course last fall, announced that he will retire after 23 years at VCU. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)
South came to VCU in 1997 to teach journalism in what was then the School of Mass Communications and will depart after the current semester, leaving a remarkable footprint on the school’s curriculum and a lasting impact on his students’ careers.
“I just turned 66, and that sounds like a good time to hit the ejection button,” South said. “I had been working as a journalist for 20-plus years before I moved into teaching, and I've been teaching for 23 years, so it seemed like a good time to turn the page and start a new chapter.”
For this new chapter, South’s priority is to finish writing a book about data journalism, one of his expertise areas, and to focus on freelance writing. He plans to stay involved with journalism through the International Center for Journalists in Washington and the Society of Professional Journalists. South is president of the Virginia Professional Chapter of SPJ.
“Professor South is leaving an incredible legacy at the Robertson School,” said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., interim director of the Robertson School, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “The list of his teaching, mentoring, scholarship and service activities is long and impressive. It takes a special kind of person to be as dedicated to aspiring journalists as he has been.”
During his time at the Robertson School, South served as director of undergraduate studies from 2010-18 and coordinator of the journalism sequence from 2008-10. In 2014-16, he also was co-director of VCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan, a universitywide effort to improve student success.
South helped instill in students an appreciation for the freedom of the press and a focus on getting their work published. He was closely involved with the school’s Capital News Service program, in which students cover state government and other news and their stories are sent to news outlets across Virginia for publication.
South noted that professor Wilma Wirt created the program in 1994. He said it is an important platform to help students build their portfolio, as well as help news organizations.
"Professor South is leaving an incredible legacy at the Robertson School. The list of his teaching, mentoring, scholarship and service activities is long and impressive. It takes a special kind of person to be as dedicated to aspiring journalists as he has been."
South, who was the director of Capital News Service for 17 years, remembers when the program distributed its stories via fax or mail. Advances in technology, and his firm guidance, helped expand the program’s reach. South was fundamental in developing the news service as a digital channel for the mass distribution of students’ stories.
Now Capital News Service has more than 100 clients, including The Associated Press. Yearly, dozens of students report and write hundreds of stories that can be featured in local and nationwide outlets such as The Washington Post.
“CNS would not be what it is without Jeff South, hands down,” said former news service instructor Karen McIntyre, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the Robertson School. “I know in his dedication to students of the CNS, he lives and breathes CNS when he's teaching it.”
McIntyre said that South leaves “huge shoes to fill” and that his commitment to students, faculty and the Robertson School will be missed. South is McIntyre’s formal mentor in the school, and she said he was always available to guide her with teaching and journalistic advice.
McIntyre admires South’s persistence in motivating students, even after decades of service. He also loves to follow their careers and continue helping them after graduation.
“Jeff's really good at connecting students with the industry and with each other,” McIntyre said. “He's so good at keeping track of alumni, even after their first job out of college. He can keep track of them when they've moved on, and it just speaks to his dedication and his real genuine caring for his students.”
South said students have taught him valuable lessons as well, from being open-minded and humble to various ways of using technology. He said students have taught him that there are many different ways to think about and solve problems. He admires students’ drive and enthusiasm.
“I enjoy the vibrancy and the energy students bring to VCU, and that inspires me,” South said. “If I have students who are doing a 40-hour-a-week job and then also take classes, that inspires me to do my best. I don’t want to let them down.”
Robertson School students appreciate his many efforts.
“My favorite thing about professor South is how excited he is about journalism and teaching,” said senior Emma North. Last fall, she took South’s course in data journalism and visualization. “His love for the field really shows in class.”
North said South is always willing to help students with job recommendations and to help make connections with professionals.
Georgia Geen, a senior and executive editor of The Commonwealth Times, VCU’s independent student newspaper, said South is fully invested in his students. She said he motivated her to write stories that otherwise might not have been written and the results were always positive.
“Jeff South’s classes have been some of my best experiences in the Robertson School,” Geen said. “I’m lucky to have been able to take two classes with him, CNS and data journalism.”
Hannah Eason, a junior in the broadcast journalism sequence and news editor of The Commonwealth Times, said she carries South’s lessons to her professional work and is appreciative of the attention to detail he taught her. She said his data journalism lesson taught her a new and effective way to write articles and combine them with graphics. Eason said South’s impact on students is remarkable — not only while they are in school, but also once they graduate.
“Jeff was a huge help during the story-writing process, but even more importantly, he helped us score the opportunity to teach our process to other journos,” Eason said. “While I'm sad to hear that Jeff is retiring, he should know that he has made such an impact on the lives of future journalists at VCU.”
This week, Eason and North learned that stories they produced in South’s data journalism course had won awards in SPJ’s 2019 Mark of Excellence competition for the mid-Atlantic region. During his career at VCU, South’s students have won more than 50 national, regional and state awards.
"My favorite thing about professor South is how excited he is about journalism and teaching. His love for the field really shows in class."
Besides teaching at VCU, South has taught journalism abroad in China, Ukraine, Vietnam and other countries. He taught data journalism and social media journalism at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China, in 2014 through the Fulbright Scholar Program. During the summers of 2015, 2016 and 2019, South also taught at Fudan University in Shanghai and at Xiamen University in southern China.
“He loves to travel,” said Robertson School instructor Mary Ann Owens. “He has mixed this travel with spreading freedom of information around the world. I've never seen anyone do a better job.”
Owens has worked with South for more than 14 years. She said they have always been on the same page regarding journalism standards and dedication to the Fourth Estate.
“When I came to academia, I saw my job as turning out the best possible journalists for the future; he takes it a step beyond that,” Owens said. “He not only teaches quality journalism and quality ethics here within the Robertson School in the print sequence, but he has also taken it around the commonwealth and around the world.”
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a journalism degree, South worked as a reporter and editor for five news outlets in Texas, including the Dallas Times Herald (1987-89) and the Austin American-Statesman (1989-97). He also worked in Arizona for the Phoenix Gazette (1979-81 and 1986-87) and in Virginia for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk (1981-83).
As a volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps, South traveled to Morocco in 1983-85 to teach English and coach sports teams.
South described the Robertson School as a family. He said the support among faculty, staff and students is very strong and he will miss that connection. Although he doesn’t close the door to future guest speaker visits or even to teach as an adjunct instructor, he believes it is time to enjoy his retirement.
“It will be nice to have every day as Sunday — to be able to decide what I want to do,” South said. “It might be productive, or it might just be fun.”