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Home > Publications > Quill > Preparing students for the newsroom


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Preparing students for the newsroom

by Bonnie Stewart

At Camp Dawson, W.Va., and again in New Orleans, my journalism students convinced me that they deserved a shot at real-world reporting and publication before applying for internships or jobs.

So, I agreed to make it possible.

The goal: Take students outside campus comfort zones and give them the freedom to practice what they have learned.

I’m certainly not the only professor to do this, and a few examples of what others have done are below.

But first, I’ll recap my first field adventure with students.

From the classroom to ABC

When 300 Hurricane Katrina evacuees were temporarily relocated to Camp Dawson, West Virginia University broadcast, photography and news-editorial professors took their students out of the classroom and into the lives of people who had just survived the country’s worst natural disaster.

My students were a bit nervous on the hourlong ride. They rehearsed questions to ask and reviewed names of evacuees gathered from media reports. I reminded them to have people spell their names and provide birth dates and contact information.

I worried that my students might not be ready, but they were. They sat at picnic tables and cross-legged on the floor, holding conversations about walking through waist-deep waters, leaving behind beloved pets, boarding airplanes for unknown destinations.

We made mistakes. But we learned from them.

Months later, on a trip to Louisiana to follow up with the evacuees who had returned home, three of my students put all they had learned to the test.

Embedded with a family in Pointe Coupe, they heard that the local government council had voted to keep FEMA trailers out of its community. One of the council members planned to discuss race relations at the next meeting, which the students decided to cover.

They also heard the council was going to vote us out of the meeting, so we took a trip to the local library, copied the state’s open-meeting law and went to the meeting. It got us in.

There, the students videotaped the proceedings, interviewed people in the audience, got a one-on-one interview with the council president and produced stories about race and poverty for our Web site, katrinaproject.journalism.wvu.edu.

That experience helped two students gain invaluable experience. Not long after Katrina, they produced content for ABC during the Sago mine disaster and a smaller mine explosion that followed. One student parlayed those experiences into a semester-long internship with ABC in New York City and a full-time job with the network after he graduated in May.

As a new professor sometimes suffering from newsroom withdrawal, I felt like a reporter again. Later, seeing our students pick up regional and national honors, I felt like a teacher.

Horizonlines.org – Minnesota

State University Moorhead

Assistant Professor Regene Radniecki developed an online magazine in 2002 to give her students a place to publish.

The school has a weekly newspaper, but few students got the opportunity to write for it, Radniecki said. So she began sending her students out to find stories in their community — stories that could be found in any town or city in the country.

Then one of them wanted to report in Las Vegas.

“I thought, why not drop them in a place they’ve never been and see how they do?” she said. “Everybody wanted to go.”

So everyone had to prepare a proposal. The five students with the best ideas took the trip. This gave them ownership of the project.

Radniecki felt so strongly about giving her students the out-of-class experience that she paid for their plane tickets and hotel rooms. Later, she sponsored two students who went to Portland, Ore., to report on homelessness. Their stories appear in the magazine’s sixth edition, which won numerous awards, including an Editor & Publisher EPpy for best college newspaper online service.

Students grow as reporters when they go into the field. They learn to see stories, ask good questions and watch for photos that tell the story. And, for some, it helps them overcome their resistance to talk to people in person, Radniecki said.

“One student wanted to do all the interviews by e-mail,” she said.

To get him through the panic, another student set up the interviews by phone and went along on the interview.

“Everyone who has gone out has grown,” Radniecki said. “And it tells the prospective employer that they can go out and tell people’s stories.”

The West End Journal,

The University of Alabama

and Stillman College

Some of Amanda Brozana’s students were apprehensive about covering the West End communities of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“I’ve never done reporting. ... I don’t know if I can design something that will be interesting,” they told her.

Brozana, who teaches for the University of Alabama and Stillman College, and other faculty members brought students from both schools together for a weekend workshop. They brainstormed for reporting ideas and began gathering stories in West End, a predominately black area where stories often go untold.

They discovered stories about a new church breaking ground, the local government’s vote to demolish a junk yard, University of Alabama dancers who visited West End schools and a 17-year-old female soccer player with osteoporosis.

Other students managed the newsroom operation.

“Most people don’t get that structured experience,” Brozana said. “If they miss their deadlines, they just get a lower grade. Now it leaves a hole on the page.”

The newspaper, distributed free of charge to churches, businesses and other locations in the West End, gives students a chance to examine issues of race, economics and community building. To break into the community, they cleaned up a park as a service project.

The project is funded by the University of Alabama and the Alabama Press Association. By 2008, Bronzana wants the newspaper to support itself with a good business plan.

“The biggest thing for me to recognize was that I wanted to teach the craft of journalism, the fundamentals of being in the field reporting. I didn’t want to be an English teacher,” Brozana said.

The paper’s Web site is: westendjournal.com

Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, Temple University

Philadelphia communities that attract little media attention have become the reporting fields for Temple University students. They began their work in 2004 in a small conference room that measures 15 feet by 15 feet. Now they cover the local news in a high-tech mini newsroom that is triple that size.

The operation has high-end video cameras, several dozen digital cameras and audio recorders, said Tom Petner, the faculty director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

“This is kind of a halfway house between the university and the newsroom,” he said of the program, which is now the capstone experience for journalism students.

Students enter the course with a level of anticipation and trepidation, Petner said.

“We live in this kind of keyboard society,” he said. “You have to push them out of the classrooms and into the neighborhoods.”

When students finish their reporting, many leave with cross-cultural experience. They know they have made sources who are people they never would have met, Petner said.

They’ve photographed an urban cowboy sitting atop his horse against a backdrop of graffiti. They’ve talked to people who experienced the killing fields in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

“They are not going into the community to change things; they are going into the community to report,” Petner said.

Two students photographed a hospice house, where people were helping terminally ill patients.

“You could see it did something to them personally, but also professionally. Their vision of the rest of the world was broadened,” he said.

People in the community access the stories via computers in community centers. The project is sponsored by the university and a by a grant from the journalism lab at the University of Maryland.

Find the reporting lab Web site at www.temple.edu/murl.

Visit the project’s blogspot at

murlbuildingblocks.blogspot.com.

The Monroe Radio Project,

West Virginia University

Another program takes West Virginia University students into Monroe County, a rural community in the southern part of West Virginia. There, students show high school students and local volunteers how to create regular programming for WHFI-FM, a radio station licensed to the Monroe County School Board.

WVU student Kate Bennett walked her “students” through an ethics lesson when a citizen reporter who volunteered at the local library wanted to do a story about the library’s closing.

“It was hard to get the news director (a citizen) and her to understand that it was a conflict, that she was way too involved to write the story,” Bennett said.

Bennett also produced a story about Monroe County history.

Watching the students work has been rewarding, especially when they see the connection between what they learned in class and what they were doing in the field, said Maryanne Reed, dean of WVU’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism and head of the radio project.

“Several of the students said to me that this was the most rewarding experience they had had,” Reed said. “They felt they had made a difference. …They learned first-hand the value of journalism in a community that didn’t have its own voice.

“I can say to you, this has been my proudest teaching moment,” she said. “I learned that we as teachers do have a tremendous impact on our students. When we are teaching, we don’t always see the results. We aren’t sure we are getting through to our students. But I was able to see first-hand that we are getting through to our students, and that was rewarding.”

Bonnie Stewart is an assistant professor at West Virginia University. Her e-mail address is bonnie.stewart@mail.wvu.edu.

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