Journalism grad covers Milwaukee during COVID

Tony Atkins

It’s no newsroom, but Tony Atkins’ living room has been serving as a fine replacement for the bright lights of the TMJ4 television studio.

Like all news reporters, Atkins, a news correspondent for channel TMJ4, has had to adapt to the changing landscape of Milwaukee during the COVID-19 pandemic. That means wearing masks while he’s out on assignments, working from home when he’s putting together news packages, and, yes, shooting segments from his living room.

This new way of doing news is a challenge, but it’s one Atkins has embraced. He loves covering his hometown.

From Milwaukee and back again

Atkins was born and raised on Milwaukee’s northwest side. He attended UWM and chose journalism as his major.

“I had so many interests – marine biology, sociology, politics, sports,” he recalled. “I wanted a career path that would allow me to do a little bit of everything. Journalism drew me in.”

And, he added, UWM made it easy. Atkins remembers walking into the offices of the UWM Post, the campus newspaper, and asking for a job. The editors let him take his pick – Atkins chose to cover sports – and he became the paper’s sports editor shortly thereafter.

“I didn’t know anything about it, but it allowed me to gain life skills,” Atkins said. “Outside of the classes, the resources that the university had are the starting point of some of my best memories there.”

Those experiences also gave him the skills he needed to land a job right after he graduated in 2013. Atkins accepted a fellowship with the Cox Media Group working on an app for a Texas newspaper called the Austin American Statesman. Atkins worked on marketing, sales, and development, but something was missing.

So, “I started writing for the paper in their features section, and I also picked up a camera and tailed their video team and shot my own videos to learn that trade, which got me to my next job in Pittsburgh,” Atkins said.

In Pennsylvania, he wrote, shot, and edited his own stories for the digital platforms of WXPI, Pittsburgh’s NBC-affiliate channel. From there, he accepted an on-air role at Fox 13 in Memphis, Tennessee.

“But after five years on the road, I wanted to come home,” he said. “And then I got the job at TMJ4 (in 2019), so it all worked.”

Adapting to a pandemic

In a normal year, Atkins’ day starts with an editorial meeting where he and his colleagues share the stories they’re working on and pitch new ideas. They receive their assignments, and then it’s off to the newsroom and then the field to put together their stories. If there’s time, Atkins returns to the station to piece together his footage and interviews, and then the day is done.

But 2020 is not a normal year.

“We’re all on Zoom in the editorial meeting. You can see everybody except for me because I hide behind my picture,” Atkins joked. “You get on Zoom and then you make your calls. You never go to the station; we stay out of the newsroom at all times now, which I kind of like because it gives you more time to connect with the community and more time to get a feel for what’s going on in the city.”

He often conducts his interviews over the phone or on Zoom, but in some cases, you need boots on the ground. Over the summer, for instance, Atkins grabbed his mask and helped cover the nightly protests that rocked the city in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

But the pandemic isn’t the only thing driving change in the world of journalism.

Looking to the future

The face of journalism is changing. Digital content has usurped print newspapers and regular television news has to compete for viewers with streaming services and social media.

Atkins thinks it’s a perfect time for newsrooms to adapt.

“I think this is a wake-up call not to rest on our laurels and expect the legacy of our brand to carry us. I think that people are starting to resonate with new forms of media, like videos on Facebook,” he said.

But, he added, the fundamentals of news remain the same. People still need to know what’s happening in their city, and that informs his advice for budding journalists.

“I think the one thing that will allow you to survive and succeed will be a mindset of helping people. This isn’t about you; it’s about informing the public,” he said. “You have to take that mindset right out of the gate. When you graduate and flip your tassel, the first thing you should think of is, ‘How can I help people?’”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science