Detroit Free Press reporter Jim Schaefer is well known for winning a Pulitzer after uncovering the scandals of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. At the April SPJ Region 4 conference, Schaefer shared those reporting experiences and many others with a roomful of aspiring journalists.
He also cleared up the “journalism is dying” rumor that still manages to frequent conversations on the fate of our profession.
“I can’t tell you if newspapers or local TV will survive, but journalism will. … People need journalists to seek the truth. Society can’t survive without us,” he said.
Among his audience was a team from Central Michigan University — the students I mentored during many long days of reporting last semester. They juggled class work, finals and more, all while working on a project to inform a community about the organic industry.
As the clapping from Schaefer’s speech began to dissipate, one of my students, Anna Palm, smiled, beaming with a sense of satisfaction. “Very inspiring,” she said, with the same confidence I watched evolve during the project. My other students covered their program guides with notes and tips from Schaefer and many other speakers.
They were on fire. After all, it was their first SPJ conference experience. So how did this team of students end up in the middle of such great company?
‘LEARNING BY DOING’
It all began with a service-learning partnership with the Midland Daily News, a local paper about 40 minutes east of our campus. We met with the Daily News staff and pitched a plan that would allow us to explore organic farming, costs and the industry as a whole.
We traveled to organic stores, met with local organic farmers, learned about farming practices and regulations, and delved into everything from Michigan’s fastest-growing organic dairy farm to a large organic meat processing plant. Students also interviewed state and national experts on the outbreak of food recalls, organic certification and the high price we pay to eat healthier.
“The collaboration between Central Michigan University journalism students and the Daily News was much more successful than I anticipated,” said Daily News editor Jack Telfer. “The students gained significant reporting and writing experience, while also learning how to organize and display a large package of material — all for the benefit of our readers.”
Telfer plans to see this partnership grow.
“It was a huge undertaking, spanning several pages in two editions of the newspaper, but in the end it also was a huge success and an example of what media companies should be doing with journalism programs throughout the nation,” Telfer added. “We can’t wait for our next collaborative effort with CMU.”
The project wasn’t part of a class, an internship or any other required program fulfillment. It was about me presenting an idea to my students, and them responding to the challenge. I am a firm believer in experiential learning — or learning by doing. Over the course of the semester, I watched these students troubleshoot as a team, pick up detail after detail and ask tough questions — all qualities that will serve them well in the future.
“First, real-world, dirt-under-the-fingernails work sets people ahead of their competitors,” said Joe Grimm, a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism and former newsroom recruiter and staff development editor at the Detroit Free Press. “Second, even though I teach in the classroom, I know that experience is the best teacher. I try to provide that. If you read what the Central students did, you can immediately see that they know how to report and how to write. This reporting project was not a drill or an exercise.”
Grimm said these experiences help students showcase what they are capable of in a job.
“We often tell reporters to show, rather than just tell. Usually, we are talking about their stories. But the same is true of stating their qualifications,” he said. “The organic farming project does just that. It does not tell us these journalists can do the job. It shows us.”
Walter Middlebrook, assistant managing editor for The Detroit News, said every experience helps.
“Participation in these service-learning projects is factored into our hiring decisions, as is previous internships, clips and foreign languages to name a few,” Middlebrook said.
But none of these is the end-all to a job offer, he added.
“These programs add another layer to the dimensions of a job candidate. The more layers, the better the candidate’s chances.”
So back to how we made it to SPJ Region 4 conference: The team was named a finalist for the Mark of Excellence Award, in-depth reporting category.
The students left with certificates, new ideas, inspiration and, more importantly, one more journalism experience.
Tracy Burton, a faculty member in the Department of Journalism at Central Michigan University, serves on the SPJ Education Committee. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @tracyburton.