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Taking a Real Road into the Community


Annemarie is an Assistant Professor in the Communication Department
of Buffalo State College in northwestern upstate New York.

BuffaloMost students interested in journalism get started by covering people, things and issues familiar or important to them personally. It can be an uncomfortable leap for them to consider the bigger issues in the world around them. But if they become professional journalists, it's that world around them in which they will be working. There's no time like school time to get budding journalists to think beyond their realm and provide a valuable service to others. Here's an idea that introduces students to real-world journalism, particularly the new wave of "hyper local" media that at the same time gives them engagement in a community's pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems. I do this at the college level, but I believe kids can get started at an earlier age, in high school.

Expect Epiphanies

My online news reporting class at Buffalo State College requires students to develop original story ideas, research them thoroughly and produce news packages of written, audio and visual components for publication on the class blog site, The course further challenges the students to focus their coverage in a nearby neighborhood. The Communication Department designed the course to show students how to best use all their news-producing skills in a multi-media environment "the kind they will find to be in demand in today's journalism industry. To me, it's a crescendo at the end of their four years. To the students, it' s the course for which "they make you go to the West Side."

The city's West Side is immediately adjacent to Buffalo State, but unfamiliar to most students, who commute to or live on the college's largely self-contained campus.  Further, the neighborhood hasn't been the most inviting place for students to venture. Like many urban settings, the West Side in its heyday had a strong fabric of homeowners and small businesses. But when the lure of the suburbs pulled at the West Side, housing stock fell to absentee landlords or was abandoned, small businesses moved or closed and crime increased. Tremendous strides have been made in recent years to improve the neighborhood but seemingly not enough to erase its long-standing reputation from the minds of many, students included.

BuffaloBuffalo State has been reaching out to the West Side through an impressive number of diverse service-learning initiatives, and it is in this spirit that my online reporting students have been assigned the West Side as their beat. I assure them that it makes sense journalistically for a couple reasons. One, reporters go where the news is, and often that is to unfamiliar, uncomfortable places. And two, the professional media are shifting toward hyper-local approaches to the news.

"Hyper local" is a relatively recent buzzword in journalistic circles that describes what community newspapers have been up to for decades: producing neighborhood news. It's the itsy-bitsy, geographic-relevant coverage that is usually of little interest to the general population, but of intense interest to neighborhood residents: public works projects, crime statistics, community theater reviews, local events, elected officials' initiatives, school honor rolls, and the like.

Instilling sound journalistic values is a hallmark of the class. As a full-time journalism professor, I teach objective reporting and a part-time journalist, I practice what I teach. A journalist who is objective has integrity and integrity earns the respect of viewers, listeners and readers. Students in my classes learn that if they want to become respected reporters, they should consider themselves responsible to their audience, only. "What does the audience need to know about this story?" I ask them. I assure them that, just like professional reporters, they are not to worry about pleasing a source or an advertiser.

Given that, I was uncomfortable with the fact that this course was folded into the service-learning environment at Buffalo State.  The way I understood it, service-learning classes contract with a community partner for a project that has immediate and tangible benefits for the students and the partner.  And I have a very un-service-learning philosophy when it comes to teaching journalism. My class isn't beholden to any group, my class doesn't perform an agreed-upon service, my class isn't under contract and my class doesn't expect reciprocity.


And yet, my colleagues at Buffalo State encouraged me to recognize the ways my class was meeting service-learning objectives. After all, I was sending my students to the West Side where they were making contact with community organizations, policy makers, small business owners and residents. That I was, but does that make a service-learning course? I was willing to consider consider service-learning concepts but I was still stuck on the antithetical "service" and "contracts." I wasn't about to surrender the journalism for the sake of a service-learning designation.

BuffaloThen I was confronted with an argument for service learning that completely changed my outlook:

"The academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems, a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and creatively" (Ernest Boyer, 1996, The Journal of Public Service)

That was meant to encourage greater university involvement in service learning, but it seemed to apply directly to journalism as a seeker of answers to society's problems and my course as a "special climate" of communication and creativity.  So, I began to think that direct service is not the only form of service learning. My course indeed provides a service by replacing the community newspaper that left a few years ago and has a contract with the community as a whole to produce solid journalism. It's what I needed: a service-learning definition to fit my class, and not a class to fit the definition.  As a result, the students got a clearer understanding of their responsibility to the West Side, that the goals of the class extend beyond academic exercises of developing story ideas, interviewing, photographing, recording, writing and meeting deadlines. 

The course itself is a merger of a news-editing course and a news-reporting course that puts copyeditors and news writers in the room at the same time. One group produces the news and the other edits it, all in an environment that mimics a professional newsroom where reporters and editors interact.  The reporters are paired into teams and are required over a semester's time to produce six news packages inclusive of text and visual and audio components.  The teams are responsible for developing their own story ideas specific to the West Side and based on news values common to all of journalism: prominence, currency, timeliness, conflict, impact and uniqueness.

BuffaloThe course has its challenges, including getting students out of their comfort zones by requiring the reporting teams to prepare stories on the themes of business, education, government, health, neighborhood culture and community organizations.  Without insisting the students delve into these areas, they would tend to cling to what it is comfortable – human interest stories and sports, for example -- and cover that over and over again. The cleverest among them will ferret out stories that interest them personally while satisfying the requirement. For example, one reporting team compiled a news package on the neighborhood's adoption of the high school's basketball team. While the story ostensibly was about sports, it became coverage on neighborhood culture. Forced to do so, students discover that they indeed can understand a topic that's foreign or complicated -- the implications of a school district budget, for example -- find the newsworthiness and produce darned-good news packages.

Another challenge is mostly linked to the fact that much of the students' work is self-directed. An early success can give them the motivation they need, but an early failure can be brutal in terms of keeping up with the work. The slightest lapse in motivation can put a student behind in terms of copy flow, idea development and meeting deadlines. To help the teams keep on target, I let them work on their stories during class time and check with each team in each class to discuss progress since the last meeting. In addition, I hold "editorial meetings" during which each reporting team proposes its next story package to the group. The proposal must be well developed and identify the news values and theme, sources, ideas for photos or video and a reporting plan.

Another challenge has to do with the students being treated as "just students" and not taken seriously by sources. It's an appreciable and understandable hurdle but there is one way around it: Act professionally. That means a combination of being armed with good research, having thoughtful questions prepared, showing up on time for appointments and dressing the part. That last one can be tough for this very informal generation. Once, a team showed up at my office door in the usual uniform of flip flops, tank tops and backwards baseball caps, full of excitement for just having landed an interview with a public official.  The man was gracious enough to have let them interview him, take his photograph and record his responses, but what kind of impression was he left with? "Just students?"

BuffaloBut that excitement over the "get" of the interview or developing a unique story idea are the victories that I celebrate because they indicate that the issues have become of paramount concern, surpassing the students' apprehension about the neighborhood. Another example: a student came to my office a full semester before taking the class, expressing with a lot of anxiety about the West Side. Going there. The semester inevitably started and she and her partner latched on to a story that had a lot of "impact“ around parent/teacher/student objections to a proposed school closing. On their own, they went to the school as classes were letting out and talked to some parents, they went to a school board meeting and talked to school board members and more parents. The same student returned to my office, this time anxious to tell the story. "I can't believe how many people this will affect," she said. She was animated and eager and tried to get me to agree to give them more space for their news package. 

Another student defended patronizing a West Side business to a friend who said she would never go there. "Why not?" she asked her friend. "I go there all the time." Her comment was a clear signal that she acknowledged the West Side as a place to be, and not one to be avoided. By mid semester, her attitude had shifted from apprehension to acceptance and she had become more open minded, which is expected of journalists. Judging from the others who were nodding in agreement, I realized that my students were sharing an experience often described by service-learning professors. Qualitative evaluations offered similar assessments. One student wrote: "I really enjoyed this course. It's an eye-opener to the West Side and a great learning experience for journalism majors."

At the college level, much of the work is expected to be self-directed. Students get around in their own cars, use their own phones and make calls and contacts mostly on their own time. That might not be practical at the high school level, but a high school journalism class could still pursue something along the same lines:

Getting Started with Community Journalism

1. Select a neighborhood to cover.  Find one that is foreign to the students, where none of them lives, that has a special history or new story to tell. Establish a coverage area by drawing boundary lines on a map.

2. Research the neighborhood. Who lives there? U.S. census information is a good place to start. Make a list of organizations serving the neighborhood. Add to the list local, state and federal elected officials who represent it. Mark on your map neighborhood landmarks, parks and schools.

3. Monitor the media. Collect news affecting the neighborhood and mark on your map where the news stories are happening. Think about what else you would like to know.  Brainstorm ideas for stories. Determine whom you need to interview and what further research needs to be done.

4. Invite sources from the neighborhood to participate in press conferences in front of the class. They could be an elected leader, a director of a service organization or even a student body president from a neighborhood school. Students could make a video of the Q&A or make an audio recording and take photographs.

5. Create a class blog through or a similar easy-to-use site. Your press conferences could be the first uploads in your coverage of the neighborhood. 

6. Create reporting teams and assign stories from the class brainstorming session. Perhaps more stories ideas came out of the press conferences.

7. Plan a reporting trip or two to the neighborhood. Make sure sources know you're coming and confirm events and meeting times. Take pictures, videos, audio and write notes. Tweet from the field.

8. Have each team compile a story package complete with text and video or audio with photographs. Upload the packages to the site. Invite your sources to your blog and leave comments on the coverage.

By the end of the end of the project, particularly when all the stories are compiled and published on the class blog site, the students will be surprised at the extent of their real-world, hyper-local journalism. They will have come to an understanding about another community's pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems. The world around them might have become smaller, and those bridges to other communities, shorter.

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