The evolution of media

It's all relative for the Alharts
Michael Hanlon
Don, Jon, and Valerie Alhart

When I sit down to chat with beloved local news anchor Don Alhart, he mentions that he started at Channel 13 WHAM exactly 18,043 days ago. “Not that I’m counting,” he jokes. Upon graduating from Ithaca College, Alhart applied for an open news position at the station, and the rest is award-winning–newscaster history. With an initial inclination to be a game show host or a disc jockey, he found his way into the public eye at a time when the concept of a half-hour news program was at its inception. Almost fifty years later, he shows no sign of stopping.

“I’m blessed to be riding the wave,” Alhart says, “The industry changes so much that there’s always something new.” New tactics he has embraced are the use of social media and getting news onto digital platforms—something Alhart’s son, Jon, is very much involved with as the vice president of social media and digital strategy at Dixon Schwabl. 

“Social media is similar to journalism,” says Jon Alhart. “Ad agencies and newsrooms are now meeting in the middle.” Like his father, he began his career in news as a sports anchor after graduating from Ithaca. He made the shift into public relations and transitioned into social media three years later. Initially, he was the only person running Dixon Schwabl’s social media department. His team has since expanded to seven.

The media landscape has evolved over the past five years and become more personalized than ever, leaving marketers in a position where they need to create quality content to engage their following and tell the stories of the brands they represent. The primary question being asked is: will my audience care? Much of Alhart’s work involves educating clients about the importance of telling a good story—much like good journalism. “Ad agencies are always working to stay on top of the latest trends—our industry is changing every day,” he says. “In the future, there will be less room for mass advertising. Audiences will eventually have the power to select what they want to see when they want to see it, blocking content that doesn’t interest them.” 

Valerie Alhart, Jon’s wife and a press officer and broadcast media manager at University of Rochester, agrees. “When I started six years ago at U of R, we were telling stories through press releases,” she says. “Now we have a full-time, dedicated videographer and social media team to help us tell stories through other avenues.” She also began her career in broadcast news as a producer after graduating from Binghamton University with a degree in English. Her current role touches a variety of audiences: internal, local, and national, so the ability to repurpose content in different ways to different people is paramount to her success. “We’ve also learned how to proactively respond to news and research from around the world, which gives us an edge. So more and more people are calling us for stories versus the other way around.”

The three clearly share a lot of similarities but filter their information through different media lenses, which allows them great discussions and the ability to bounce ideas off of each other at family dinners. “We like to test the waters but never divulge any secret info,” says Valerie. When asked if Jon had wanted to follow in Don’s footsteps, he says, “I think my whole life is on video.” The senior Alhart laughingly agreed but also says that he never pushed Jon or any of his children into the industry. Interestingly, they all managed to find their way into the public arena: the other two children are in corporate public relations and the performing arts. Alhart also jokes with the kids about their two-year old daughter’s potential media career: “Emerson likely has the gene.” 

While the toddler has a long time before she’ll need to figure that out, Valerie admits that it’s an exciting time for young professionals to be in communications and media. She also encourages students to acquire life skills, study broadly, and learn about many subjects. “You need to be a good writer, and you need to know how to listen.” All three Alharts agree that ever-changing technology and consumer demand for good, fast content affects the industry and how young people can prepare for a media career. Don, who is apparently in the lead out of the three for most apps on his smartphone, sums it up best with a quote he remembers from the dean of the Park School at Ithaca College, “We are preparing young people for careers that don’t even exist yet.”  


Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer based in Rochester.

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