What does it take to help students develop a greater understanding of the needs in their communities, and create journalism that helps address those needs? Those two questions have taken a lot of my time and attention this semester, both in a research project I am helping to direct and in an advanced journalism class focused on community coverage.
Teaching that course has helped clarify those questions by seeing what types of stories students can tackle successfully when challenged to do so.
Partnering with a local news organization
In the class, each student was required to complete three enterprise news stories that involved reporting on community activities. Before the semester started, we worked out a cooperative agreement with the local public broadcasting organization, WXXI, to consider the students’ work for publication on its website. Student work that wasn’t picked up by WXXI was published on a class website.
In the process of creating these stories, students interviewed community members, traveling into the neighborhoods where community-building work is going on and documenting various projects that seek to make the Rochester community better and stronger. The stories they have developed are impressive, and include:
- How one local community agency works to provide after-school activities, and why those activities are so important.
- How a local program helps develop community leadership among executives from area businesses and non-profit agencies.
- How a community art project is enhancing a run-down city neighborhood, and how a community exercise program centered on bicycling is improving the health of another neighborhood. (Both of those were done by the same student).
- How a mentoring program — Big Brothers/Big Sisters — can stabilize the lives of young people who have older matches.
A number of projects took on educational themes, including:
- How area colleges are building awareness about local poverty and taking steps to alleviate it.
- What area colleges are doing to support students who are military veterans.
- How community activism can improve student success in Rochester City Schools; this was covered in different stories examining the programs Great Schools 4 All, ROC the Future and Summer Leap.
- Growth of Montessori programs in the Rochester area.
- Expansion of the HEOP program for disadvantaged college students.
- Local colleges’ implementation of a new state law designed to curb college-campus sexual misconduct.
Other students examined community economic development impacts including :
- State changes in the minimum wage.
- How area artists and authors are seeking to monetize their work.
- The status of the local comedy scene.
- How independent bookstores are surviving in the face of online and superstore competition.
- How a local art organization helps artists and non-profit groups build interest in their work.
- The growth of a “shop local” movement promoted with social media and other online tools.
- A project that in “Shark Tank”-like fashion awarded donated space to the winner of a business-plan competition for entrepreneurs.
Through this course and the reporting projects that the students have engaged in, all of them have unquestionably developed a greater sense of what Rochester is doing at the grassroots level to build a stronger community.
Through producing content for a community partner they have experienced professional editing from someone other than their teacher, and learned about creating professional-grade work in ways that exercises limited to the classroom or even just the campus could not have taught.
Here were some of the students said about the experience in a wrap-up reflection assignment:
My favorite thing about this class was learning so much about the city of Rochester. I have lived in Rochester my entire life and this class made me realize how little I really knew about it. In a way, this class pushed me to get into the city, which I think was really eye-opening. It definitely helped me to get outside my comfort zone and see the ups and downs of a city that I have lived in my whole life.
I feel like I was able to gain a better sense of what Rochester is like as a community through many aspects that my story brought me to. … I was able to expose myself to small businesses in Rochester and then also to the struggles that some families in the communities go through and the organizations that strive to alleviate some of those struggles. I feel that through all of this, I was able to gain a much better knowledge and appreciation for the Rochester area.
Everyone I interviewed … seemed to have pride in what they do and in Rochester in general and how they were helping the community as a whole. Most of my articles were about how places in Rochester were working on or helping the community in one form or another, so it was a good insight for me to see how many resources there are in Rochester for those who are in need of them.
For my second article, I had to go to a part of Rochester that has been historically dangerous and witness a community effort to improve a neighborhood. It gave me way more insight of the different issues going on in Rochester and the types of solutions that are taking place.
I hope some of these students have an opportunity to work as community journalists, or in other community-building capacities. I think their work in this course leaves them better prepared for that, and that any who end up in those roles will do a brilliant job at it.
Note: Updated Dec. 28, 2015 to add links to some stories that had not been published when the post was first made.