Quill’s annual education issue (August 2005) reflected a familiar lament of newspaper editors — namely, that new J-school graduates are not prepared for real-world journalism.
Editors, professors and students could argue about the merits of that claim for a long time. But if new hires indeed lack what Quill editor Joe Skeel called “basic journalism skills,” perhaps universities and their local newspapers should start thinking more about how they can close the gap between the classroom and the newsroom.
That’s what we’ve been trying to do at Anderson University in Central Indiana the past several years. I’m not sure that our model of journalism education is particularly ambitious, unique or innovative; other schools may have employed this approach longer and more effectively than we have.
But for the benefit of journalism instructors who haven’t tried using the resources of a local newspaper in their teaching, here’s a sketch of how we’ve been structuring our undergraduate advanced newswriting course.
We began with the goal of simulating professional newspaper work as much as possible. Over the course of the semester, we wanted the students to learn something about how a city operates; to have the experience of interviewing a mayor, economic development director or school administrator; to spend some time in a real newsroom; and to get a couple of good clips for their portfolios.
We’ve been able to meet those objectives largely because of a partnership we arranged with our local daily newspaper, The Herald Bulletin.
The collaboration began in fall 2002 when I asked then-Editor Patrick Sanders if he and his staff would consider working with my journalism and public relations students the following semester. He said they’d be willing to give it a try, so we brainstormed a while and came up with the concept of a special report on the city’s future.
This was a timely and important topic because Anderson had lost roughly 25,000 high-paying factory jobs in the previous three decades and was confronting some urgent questions about how to sustain its economy and vitality in the wake of so many layoffs. The city’s tough times gave us a worthy story to investigate when the semester began in January 2003.
Of course, as every editor knows, the tenderfoot journalism students hadn’t done much of this kind of work before, which meant that we had to get them oriented to the city and its major issues. So we ventured off campus for a crash course in government, economics, education and sociology.
Our road trips took us to the local chamber of commerce, where a panel of business and government leaders told us about the city’s labor history and the challenge of replacing lost manufacturing jobs. The school superintendent, a middle-school principal, a board member and the president of the teachers’ union brought us up to speed on the daunting issues facing public education. We carpooled to a downtown “rescue mission” for what turned out to be an eye-opening survey of social problems that exist virtually within the shadow of the university. And we made other stops as well.
As the students acquired this kind of background about the city, they set out to cover the story assignments they had helped suggest and refine with The Herald Bulletin staff.
One of the students wrote about new economic strategies that the city might pursue. Others focused on issues pertaining to quality of life, the school system and the city’s changing racial composition.
The Herald Bulletin then did a great job of packaging the stories — some of which appeared on Page 1 — and giving the students fantastic portfolio pieces.
When we next offered the course in the spring of 2005, we again turned to our partners at The Herald Bulletin. We all agreed that we didn’t want to duplicate our previous package on the city’s future, so we came up with a new approach — asking each student to write an article for the newspaper’s Spirit tab as well as an enterprise piece for the regular editions.
This time our principal Herald-Bulletin contacts were Lisa Allen, Ron Wilkins and Mike Krokos, who visited our classroom and hosted us on visits to the newspaper, helped the students develop story ideas and angles, edited copy, and saw to it that the finished product looked good in print. The newspaper’s entire reporting staff also got involved, with each reporter being assigned to work with two or three class members.
The students — who ended up publishing local-angle stories on topics such as military recruiting, school dress codes and wireless-Internet access points — seemed to appreciate the system we used.
“The most valuable thing about the class for me was walking away with two articles in print,” said Leslie Nigh, an Anderson University junior. “Not only did I get the thrill of seeing my article on Page 1, but I also have two solid pieces of writing that will go in my portfolio.”
Amanda Young Voegele, a 2005 graduate, had a similar take on the course.
“I gained experience in a real-world environment and created great pieces for my portfolio,” she said. “At my recent job interviews, the employers have all commented on how most entry-level employees, and even applicants with several years of experience, don’t have as much good published work as I do, thanks in large part to (this) class.”
The Herald Bulletin’s Mike Krokos said the arrangement was good for the newspaper, too.
“The older reporters enjoyed being able to mentor the students, and the young people seemed to appreciate the guidance,” he said. “It’s amazing what positive energy eager young reporters bring to the table. Their enthusiasm is contagious at times — even for old fogies like me.”
The model we’ve been using certainly isn’t the only way to do journalism education, and it doesn’t instantly turn journalism majors into all-star reporters. But it does have some advantages. I’ve found that students benefit from:
* Spending time in a real newsroom
* Learning what a newspaper’s editorial processes and expectations are like
* Having to take greater responsibility for their work
* Getting bylined articles published in a professional newspaper
* Meeting editors who eventually might want to offer them an internship or job.
However, there’s also a major drawback that any professor considering this model should be warned about: the time commitment.
It’s one thing to grade a story that isn’t going to appear in print. It’s something else to vet perhaps several dozen stories and serve as the first line of defense against published errors. The reputations of both the newspaper and the university are on the line, so the professor needs to be prepared to do some serious fact-checking and editing.
Still, the model can work well for instructors who don’t mind long(er) hours — and who want to make cranky newspaper editors a little happier about the journalism grads they interview.
David Baird has been teaching journalism and mass communication at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind., since 1990. He can be reached at email@example.com.