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Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Education Toolbox

Academic lessons in context

By Elissa Sonnenberg

When I first heard about a grant for college courses focusing on community collaborations — a grant that would give students the chance to award a non-profit of their choice with $2,000 — I didn’t see an immediate connection with journalism.

But after a nudge and some encouragement from the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Community Engagement, I proposed that upper-class journalism majors in my seminar class undertake a community documentary project, with funding going to a non-profit of their choice after a quarter of immersion in a local inner-city neighborhood.

We would focus on Lower Price Hill and East Price Hill, connected neighborhoods that longtime reporters call the city’s Petri dish — places where stories of environmental justice mix with cultural clashes, drug busts and the educational challenges of an ever-changing, sometimes homeless population.

Resources were plenty. Non-profits jumped at the opportunity to work with journalists when not facing a crisis situation. And I carefully explained that we were not involved with public relations. Our goal was to create an online space for context-filled journalistic packages that told the true stories of the neighborhoods, warts and all.

Without hesitation, non-profit staff exceeded all of my expectations. They connected students with homeless families and illegal immigrants, with convicted felons and neighborhood matriarchs. We benefitted from the years of trust many workers had developed within the community to open doors that otherwise would never have been visible to us.

The results taught my students not only about places within a few miles of campus that they had never seen but also about how communities value journalism and journalists. As they awarded a check to one umbrella non-profit with the request that the funding be used for children’s summer programs, they got what few journalists experience: a chance to see the impact of their stories.

Find the final products of UC journalism students’ journey into Price Hill at tinyurl.com/yjhrh7c.

If you’re contemplating a similar project, whether as an instructor or a student, consider these tips:

INVEST UPFRONT TIME TO BUILD COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS

In-depth reporting takes time and trust. Whether you have one or 10 weeks, you need to contact a variety of organizations and companies to help define the scope and feasibility of your community-based project.

SET CLEAR GROUND RULES

Community partners need to know that when they work with journalists, they are not nabbing “free press.” Telling the full story involves more than surface reporting, and a community’s willingness to work openly and honestly with you is essential to success.

MAP IT OUT

Before you start a community-based project, get a clear sense of where the best or least-told stories are hidden. Plot a roadmap to uncover them with a list of key sources.

STAY FLEXIBLE

Understand that your plan may need to change based on unexpected changes and news events. As long as your overall project goal is to find and tell great stories, you will be able to work through updates when necessary.

EXPAND YOUR MEDIA TOOLBOX

Maybe some of the community stories are best expressed via video. Others might be ideal podcasts. Don’t neglect photography, either.

Online slideshows remain powerful and popular means of storytelling. Any community-based project should harness the power of online extras that make the coverage memorable.

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