‘Hoos in Media’ Make Their Mark in Charlottesville

Left to right: Professor Hector Amaya, Jenna Dagenhart, and Blake Sirach - Photo: Pat Cuadros

Left to right: Professor Hector Amaya, Jenna Dagenhart, and Blake Sirach discuss the growing impact of media in Charlottesville and at large under the helm of UVa alumni. Photo: Pat Cuadros

Reunions Weekend was in full swing recently as hundreds of alumni descended upon UVa Grounds to reconnect with classmates. It was also a wonderful opportunity to learn about changes that have occurred in the city of Charlottesville, home to Mr. Jefferson’s University. How do local Wahoos continue to serve the community as well as national and international clients at large?

Professor Hector Amaya, chair of the Department of Media Studies at UVa, endeavored to address that very question at the “Hoos in Media” seminar on Saturday morning. He brought on Jenna Dagenhart of NBC29 and Blake Sirach of WillowTree Apps to explore their expertise in media. Dagenhart debunked the “misconception that broadcasting is dead,” pointing to gains through technology, social media, and continuing collaboration across stations. Technology has also been instrumental in the building of cutting edge mobile apps, utilizing information from Sirach’s research and meetings as VP of User Experience at WillowTree.

Broadcasting Considerations

Media vehicles are fairly recognizable with their large and obtrusive satellite dishes on top, but you may be surprised to find that there’s an alternative. As Dagenhart shared, there’s a TVU, a backpack sized device that’s so practical for broadcasting from locations that are difficult to access or assignments on short notice. “National journalism is still healthy,” she insisted. “The biggest challenges are in print.” Reporters can communicate not only with other stations but within as newer web teams focus on getting stories out across multiple platforms: TV, social media, and the website.

Dagenhart’s experiences are also illuminating given her activity in recent stories that broke nationally, such as the now-discredited Rolling Stone article. She recounted her steps to interview people on this highly charged topic in the days that followed, all the while staying mindful of challenges in verbal economy, accuracy on short notice, and concerns about neutrality. “You have to think about what your job is,” Dagenhart reiterated. “Get people’s perspectives out there and let that tell the story.”

Homegrown Apps for a Dynamic (and International) Client Base

Sirach has been with WillowTree Apps since its humble beginnings in Downtown Charlottesville several years ago. Since then, the award-winning company has expanded its staff from four to ninety and operates a satellite office in New York. Sirach listed off some large clients (UVa, Johnson & Johnson, AOL), but more importantly, he was equally excited about the WillowTree staff makeup. “We try to hire a lot of UVa students,” Blake told the audience in the full classroom, as he highlighted efforts to recruit from other schools in the Commonwealth.

Do companies enjoy utilizing the services of WillowTree as opposed to a firm from the app producing centers in Austin, San Francisco, New York, and other cities? Unsurprisingly as Blake points out, “They like working with Charlottesville,” attributing the longer retention of staff as an element that attracts companies. There’s some additional travel required because this industry thrives on face-to-face meetings; but it’s a reality that Blake readily accepts as a trade-off for living in one of the top cities in the country.

A number of alumni left this area following graduation through the years, but Dagenhart and Sirach have shown through their contributions that one doesn’t have to venture far from Charlottesville to execute amazing projects with a widespread reach.

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