Faculty spotlight – Melissa Isaacson

Faculty spotlight – Melissa Isaacson

One of the highlights of Medill’s Graduate Sports Media specialization are the esteemed faculty, many of who are practicing professional sports reporters. They’ve spent decades covering the world’s largest sporting events and they bring those experiences to the classroom.

In this recurring Q&A series, we introduce you to our sports faculty.

In this post, meet adjunct lecturer Melissa Isaacson, who is a writer for ESPN.com and previously worked at the Chicago Tribune. In her 30-plus year career, Isaacson has covered virtually every major sporting event, including the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, more than a dozen Super Bowls, the Final Four, college bowl games, Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis and the British Open. She also covered championship runs by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, Stanley Cup titles by the Chicago Blackhawks, and World Series victories by the Chicago White Sox and, most recently, the Chicago Cubs.

What was the most memorable part your Olympic experience in Rio reporting for ESPN? 

As with previous Olympics I have covered, any inconvenience we may encounter as reporters — and Rio was far less troublesome for me than widely anticipated — pale in comparison to the stories you are able to do on athletes that are truly remarkable. For someone who has covered professional athletes for most of my career — including some really terrific people — it is still such a different experience getting to tell the stories of young athletes whose entire existence for most of their lives lead up to this one two-week period. I was so moved by the water polo team, and both the men’s and the women’s gymnasts, to just name some of the people I covered there.   

Looking back on your career, what story or project are you most proud of, and why?

Wow, that is so hard to say. I was lucky enough to be able to cover the Chicago Bulls as the Chicago Tribune’s beat writer for their second and third NBA titles, and beyond that as a feature writer and columnist, for all six, and to go on that ride covering Michael Jordan in his prime would probably be atop the list. As a single story, the Chicago Tribune Magazine story I wrote on my parents’ battle with Alzheimer’s, though a non-sports story, received the most feedback I have ever experienced as a writer. As painful as it was to write, it was truly fulfilling to plunge so personally into a subject and I’m proud of the impact it had.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you broke into the sports journalism industry?  

I have been very lucky in terms of challenges. I faced minor obstacles as a woman early on in my career in terms of locker room access, but in terms of acceptance, I again was very fortunate that I covered teams and athletes who allowed me to do my job the same way they would any professional, and that’s all any of us can ask. Other than that, though the travel can be a grind and a regular challenge to negotiate crazy air travel in this country, it is also one of the exciting aspects of our job, and I try not to complain about it because no one wants to hear that!

What is it about teaching that you enjoy the most?

I absolutely love teaching — more and more each year that I do it. Working with young journalists at every stage of development, hopefully igniting and encouraging their passion and then seeing them progress and take off is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable things I do. I love sharing my work experiences as a way to impart hopefully helpful lessons, and I love getting students’ valuable input in our discussions. We joke that maybe one of our students will hire us (faculty) some day, but it really is no joke at Medill, where many students go on to great heights in our business. So hopefully some will remember me fondly!

What piece of advice would you give to young sports reporters hoping to break into the industry? 

It sounds cliche, particularly since my instructors preached this to me 30-plus years ago, but it is still so true in our business that experience is everything. So putting together a body of work, which is so much easier today with the ability to create your own content, is so important to show to prospective employers, but much more importantly, to continue to progress and improve. There is just no substitute. As talented as you may be, you will be better six month from now, a year from now, five years from now.

What do you believe sets Medill’s sports media specialization apart?

From what I have heard and seen, I can say with confidence that Northwestern’s program is excellent and continues to get better because Medill is so dedicated to making it the best. Hiring adjunct instructors who are working sports journalists and have so much pride in conveying our experience and love of the business certainly helps, including the one heading up the program! But growing each quarter to stay current, to hear students’ input and continue to be willing to do whatever it takes to fully prepare students to work in our industry, really defines the program from my perspective.  

Q&A conducted by Sierra Krebsbach