Tom Jacobs '71

Tom Jacobs '71
First Person - Tom Jacobs '71 - Summer 2007

When Tom Jacobs came to Denison in the late ’60s, he was one of 13 African Americans on campus. But he wasn’t about to accept the status quo. Instead, he confronted prejudice head-on, leading protests and helping to form the Black Student Union. All this proved ideal preparation for an Emmy Award-winning career in broadcast journalism. During stints at stations in Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, he often took difficult subjects others were afraid to touch. Later, he produced Color Bars: Rants, Race, and Ratings, a 30-minute documentary about race in journalism. Along the way, Jacobs married Kent State University professor Vilma Seeberg, a native of Germany and a widely respected authority on the Chinese educational system. In 1998, the couple adopted Zöe, their Chinese-born daughter, and Jacobs has been absorbed with the Asian world ever since. His latest project is The China Chronicles (, a series of video vignettes and blogs showcasing China’s countless wonders.  

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN THINGS OF A GLOBAL nature. We Americans are so arrogant. We don’t understand here that we are part of a much larger world. As an African American, I’ve always moved between two worlds. I think I’ve been pretty successful, but if you look at things differently, you just become more aware. There’s so much more going on in the world.

I’VE BEEN TO PARTS OF CHINA THAT ARE PRETTY REMOTE. I don’t think they’d ever seen any Westerners in those places. They’re still using yaks to power everything and plow the fields. Those are the stories you don’t see. In many ways, what you do see is just a small part of China. There are some wonderful stories that need to be told.

THE TERM “AWESOME” IS NOT OVERUSED WHEN IT COMES to the Great Wall of China. How many people died building that? And just look at how much of it is still there.

IT’S BEEN INTERESTING TO HAVE A DAUGHTER AT MY AGE. I thought I’d been there, done that, having raised my wonderful daughter, Brandi, who’s now 30. But it has been a remarkable experience. I certainly have more patience this time around, or maybe I’m just tired.

I MET MY WIFE AT A NEW YEAR’S EVE PARTY. SHE DIDN’T know anybody and I didn’t know anybody, and we talked until four in the morning…She’s been very good for me. She has a different view that dovetails nicely with mine…She has that European sensibility and worldview that there are other peoples and places. When we got Zöe, that just sealed the deal.

WHEN I GOT TO DENISON, THERE WAS A GRAND TOTAL OF 13 African American students. That was a challenge. Things were changing…It was the late ’60s. The first time my mother saw me on television, she saw me in a protest. She was not happy. ‘That’s not what I’m sending you there for,’ she said. But I think she understood, deep down.

IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DIFFICULT FOR ME TO GO BACK. I definitely appreciate what I got from Denison, and I made friends there that I still have to this day. But it was a tough four years. I’ve never been to a reunion.

LIVING ABROAD OPENS YOUR EYES. I’LL WALK INTO A newsroom and say ‘I know you’ve done it this way, but there are other ways of doing things, and that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It just means they’re different.’

TO MANY JOURNALISTS NOW, IT’S ABOUT THEM AND what they think. There’s a place for that, but too many folks who fashion themselves journalists are really in the opinion business…My job is to report and cover and try to teach it using the best way possible. It’s not about me.

IN OUR INDUSTRY, WE HAVE TO FIND WAYS TO KEEP reinventing ourselves to stay relevant. The advantage I have is, I know how to tell a story. I learn from [young techies] and they learn from me. If you get to the point where you don’t want to do that, you should go sell shoes or something.

IT’S BEEN INTERESTING TO LEARN HOW TO ADDRESS A computer audience. I’m going back to the basics. We’ve gotten so production-oriented in film today, but when you’re looking at a small window, that subtlety gets lost. You need to be direct. People will pay attention for three to five minutes.

THE INTERNET HAS BEEN INCREDIBLY DESTRUCTIVE, IN many ways. And I say that as someone who uses the Internet to make a living. You have to know what you’re doing, but a whole lot of people on the web don’t have a clue. People believe what they read on the Web, and it can be incredibly damaging.

WE’RE ALL DEALING WITH THE PRESSURES AND CHALLENGES of a changing world, but I don’t think that’s a reason for the mainstream media to lower our standards and make excuses, and not do what we’re supposed to do. I want to compete at a high level…but I think a lot of outlets don’t have the connection with the history of the industry, or the caring.

Published August 2007