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Gail Baker
Gail Baker displays the Emmy she received for her collaborative efforts on "Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender." photo by Tim Fitzgerald

A Job Well Done

by Beverly Newsam

Recognition is often shown in a variety of ways - from a pat on the back, to a high-five or just a simple "way to go."  Gail Baker's kudos are in the form of a golden statuette known as an Emmy.

Often presented for exceptional work in the production of weekly television programs such as "Grey's Anatomy" or "CSI: Miami," Emmys also recognize the efforts of those who may appeal to a smaller audience.  "Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender," an hour-long documentary Baker collaborated on, recently placed first in the category for "Outstanding Achievement for Individual Excellence Off Camera: Writing: Non News" at the 48th Annual Chicago/Midwest Emmy Awards.

Though she was unable to attend the awards ceremony Nov. 19 in Chicago, Baker does not take the honor lightly.  "It feels fabulous," she said.  "We didn't do it [the project] for others or for recognition.  It is definitely a professional validation." 

Baker - dean of the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media (CCFAM) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) - is a Chicago native.  During college, she interned at the Chicago Defender, a century-old publication serving the Chicago African-American community and beyond.  She later became a full-time employee of the newspaper upon graduation, an experience that has been invaluable to her and the recently completed Emmy-winning project.

"As a young person, you sometimes don't see the significance," she said.  "Working on the documentary, I gained more of a global perspective on the Chicago Defender and what it means to Chicago, to journalism and to African Americans."

Barbara E. Allen, an editor and producer with WTTW-TV (Channel 11) in Chicago, and Chris Benson, an associate professor of African American Studies and journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, partnered with Baker on the "Paper Trail" documentary.  Allen, especially, is held in high esteem by Baker.  "Barbara is visionary and a wonderful producer," Baker said.  "We have a mutual admiration."

The film, which took four months to produce, traces the history of the publication from its 1905 founding by Robert Sengstacke Abbott and has aired on WTTW-TV.  In June, paperwork was completed for Emmy consideration, and the team was notified of its finalist status in September.

"It took a Herculian effort to get the show finished in such a short time frame," Baker said.  "It generally takes a year to bring a project of this scope to fruition."

"Paper Trail" also won the prestigious Peter Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Before joining UNO in July, Baker was employed by the University of Florida (UF).  She said it was quite challenging to piece together a documentary from Florida when she was physically located more than 1,000 miles from her co-collaborators. 

The solution to the distance factor is one that would not have been an option in the early years of the Chicago Defender's existence - electronic communication.  "The rest of the team was based in Chicago, so we often worked across e-mail," she said.

Whether she is working on a documentary like "Paper Trail" or involved with numerous projects at UNO, Baker has always had the drive required to go the distance.  Immersed in education at a young age - her mother was an elementary school teacher - Baker said she has always been fascinated with education and the field of communication.  "I can't remember wanting to do anything else," she said. 

Working on her high school yearbook and holding mock newscasts were early outlets of Baker's communicative endeavors.  Telling real-life stories and helping others understand people's stories is what sealed the deal for her on a career path.  "You get hooked," she said.

The UNO campus is a welcome change of environment for Baker, who also was an academic at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU).  UNO's student body (approximately 15,000 students) is about a third of the size of the population of UF and a little more than half the size of MU, where Baker received her doctorate. 

"It's much more intimate at UNO, and you have more contact with students," she said.  "There's a private school feel, very inviting."

The CCFAM - in its second year of operation at UNO - is an inspiration to Baker, who is also new to campus and is embracing the opportunity to grow alongside the college she directs.  "I envision a day when all the college units bring their respective strengths into an interdisciplinary environment," she said.  "The result will be an outstanding educational experience for our students.  After all, we all share the common thread of human communication."

The campus outlook is another key reason why Baker chose to pursue UNO as a career interest.  "I was attracted by the overall metropolitan mission," she said.  "And it's an exciting professional opportunity with the new college."

In addition to her duties as a dean at UNO, Baker is an active member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and is involved with the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Community Playhouse and Opera Omaha.  An author, as well, she has written Advertising and Marketing to the New Majority and Exploding Stereotypes: Milestones in Black Newspaper Research

Along with the Emmy, Baker has compiled a collection of other notable achievements, including becoming a member of the PRSA College of Fellows in 2003 (only presented to the top two percent of PRSA professionals) and receiving the William T. Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching at MU.  Her family would likely add "master cookie baker" to the list, as well, as she can often be found preparing tasty treats.

With an Emmy win and a brand-new position in a growing college at UNO, it seems that Christmas has arrived early this year for Baker.  She better get those cookies started.

Beverly Newsam is a public relations staff member at UNO.  She can be reached at bnewsam@mail.unomaha.edu.

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