Farm Fresh Journalism: Bringing Diversity into the Newsroom

I first heard about ThreeSixty Journalism, a high school program based at the University of St. Thomas that aims to cultivate diversity in the media, from a friend of a relative. As editor of my high school’s small newspaper, I developed an interest in journalism as a possible career and thought the camp would further…

I first heard about ThreeSixty Journalism, a high school program based at the University of St. Thomas that aims to cultivate diversity in the media, from a friend of a relative. As editor of my high school’s small newspaper, I developed an interest in journalism as a possible career and thought the camp would further my ambitions. My South Dakota high school, which enrolled just 94 students, contained no diversity. Most of us had never lived anywhere else. I grew up in the house my great-grandfather built in 1924, and my dad continues to plant corn, soybeans and wheat on land that has been in our family for generations. What did I, a farm girl from South Dakota, know about diversity?

Looking out my window at home, I can see for miles. I can sometimes make the entire 20-mile drive to my high school without seeing another car. At home, quiet surrounds me when I step outside, except for the sounds of the wind blowing through the wheat in the field next to our house or the sounds of pheasants flying out of the brush. I had spent time in cities, but never for as long as two weeks and never on my own before. How could I even survive in the Twin Cities for the duration of the camp?

These questions crowded my mind, but I decided to apply for ThreeSixty camp anyway. My parents actually suggested I might be able to bring some diversity to the other students attending the camp, not because of my ethnicity or my religion, but because of the environment in which I grew up. My experiences as a South Dakota farm girl gave me a different perspective than those who grew up in a city. I still had doubts about whether I would be accepted into the program when I walked down my long graveled driveway and put my application packet in the mailbox more than four years ago.

The Beginning of ThreeSixty Journalism

The nonprofit Urban Journalism Workshop began in 1971 at the University of Minnesota in the wake of the urban unrest of the 1960s. At that time, news organizations were criticized for their failure to report on the poverty, discrimination and anger among black Americans and the small number of minorities they employed in their newsrooms. St. Paul Pioneer Press editor Jack Finnegan saw this lack of diversity as a serious problem for the accuracy and quality of news reporting and decided to create UJW.

UJW combined the talents of university faculty and journalists from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press to teach a two-week summer camp for minority high school students interested in journalism. From UJW’s beginning, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press collaborated to provide funding, volunteer staff and space on their pages in which to publish students’ work.

Then, in 2001, the UJW moved to the University of St. Thomas under the guidance of Dave Nimmer, a well-known Twin Cities reporter who had become a St. Thomas professor; Bob Craig, a journalism professor; and Kathleen Stauffer, former managing editor of the Catholic Digest. The trio envisioned a year-round outreach program that could attract a more diverse group of students to St. Thomas.

Duchesne Drew, Star Tribune managing editor of operations and chair of the ThreeSixty board of advisers, has helped with the program since its U of M days and was instrumental in its transfer to St. Thomas.

“We had a two-week program that wasn’t having the kind of impact we had hoped for,” Drew said. “Creating a year-round program with a director and the other resources that came along with getting established at St. Thomas made it possible to work with more young people and to have more of an impact on them and to spend more time getting them prepared for the field.”

With grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Star Tribune Foundation, the program hired Pioneer Press political editor Lynda McDonnell as its full-time executive director and charged her to develop year-round programming. She continues to direct the program.

“I saw it as a great intersection of three things I really care about: journalism, young people and greater diversity in my profession,” McDonnell said. “When I arrived, there was funding for just my salary and Dave Nimmer’s and a two-week camp for three years. We had a blank piece of paper and the instruction to try to figure out what a year-round journalism program would look like.”

The Power of ThreeSixty Journalism Camp One day, after repeatedly walking down that long driveway to check the mail, I received a letter from ThreeSixty Journalism. Inserting my index finger under the flap, I expected the worst. Instead, triumph: I was accepted!

When my parents dropped me off at St. Thomas in June 2007 for the camp, I had no idea what to expect. I knew none of the other students attending, and experienced the grade school “What if no one likes me?” butterflies in my stomach.

At the opening reception, I looked around at the other campers. Only four of us were white. In that room was more diversity than I had ever experienced back in South Dakota.

Throughout the two weeks, my fellow campers called me “South Dakota” and were interested to hear about growing up on a farm. One of the first nights, we played an icebreaker that required us to name something unique to us. Most campers were surprised when I mentioned my horse and pet goat or that my class only had 19 students. When I told them my school had 94 students, most said, “That’s less than I have in just my class!”None of them could believe that my family drives 35 miles just to buy our groceries each week.

One night in the hallway of our dorm, an impromptu dance party started. Accustomed to mainly country music, I did not know how to dance to the rap and hip-hop music my fellow campers favored, so we all laughed at my “white-girl” moves. Another evening, a ThreeSixty alumna brought in a traditional Somalian meal, including goat meat, from a local restaurant and talked with us about her culture.

Our differences even appeared in the story ideas that we brought to the camp. I struggled for weeks beforehand trying to think of what I would like to write about. I decided my topic would be about how rising gas prices were affecting teens. This topic especially affected me because my family drives so much. The other students chose more urban topics, such as teenage homelessness or the struggles of teen immigrants in Minneapolis. The interaction with my fellow campers opened my eyes. I learned about the different cultures of my new friends. This diversity demonstrates the core of the ThreeSixty Journalism program and why it was established. The experience taught me more about the world around me, which is so important for a journalist. I also taught my fellow campers about a different way of life by sharing my own experiences.

The Expansion of ThreeSixty Journalism Since moving to St. Thomas in 2001, the UJW has changed significantly, including changing its name to ThreeSixty Journalism to reflect a bigger, broader program that trains teens to use multiple media. It serves nearly 200 teens each year. In the 1970s, most students in UJW camps were black. Now they are a rainbow reflecting the growing diversity of the Twin Cities over the past four decades. Students in last summer’s camps were Somali, Hmong, Latino, black, white, Indian, urban and suburban. About half of the students served come from low-income homes and about 60 percent from communities of color. The need to attract diverse young people into journalism and communication is greater than ever, McDonnell said. While the U.S. Census finds that people of color comprise 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms fail to reflect that diversity. The percentage of people of color in newsrooms is 12.79 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors, and is slightly declining as news staffs shrink. This makes ThreeSixty Journalism more relevant than ever.

“It’s really important that the program’s core piece of admission is trying to identify young people of color who can help professionals do a better job connecting with communities that are often marginalized or misunderstood or ignored, and to do it in a way that’s authentic, in a way that has impact,” Drew said. “I think we need to have a good diverse mix of people coming out of school learning our profession, and the best way to do that is connect with them when they are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. There is a wide range of perspectives you need in a newsroom to be able to capture and explain what is going on in the world.”

Along with the residential summer camp, ThreeSixty Journalism now has a two-week-long day camp every summer, after-school programs around the Twin Cities throughout the year, a website that presents student work, and 10,000 copies of a printed quarterly magazine distributed to area schools and youth programs. Each semester during the school year, high school students can enroll in the ThreeSixty News Team, a 10-week after-school program that guides teens through the reporting and writing process to complete one story for publication. If they want, they can then join ThreeSixty Journalism’s teen editorial board, which works with volunteers and the program’s two-person staff to produce content for the website and magazine.

Many teachers use the magazine to promote reading in their classrooms because their students are interested in stories that apply to them and are written by their peers. Articles range from practical tips on finding summer jobs to essays exploring the challenges of intercultural relationships. Patience Zalanga wrote about the range of reactions to her decision to let her hair go “natural” instead of chemically straightening it. Joe, a teen from Elko, Minn., described the tough decision about whether to take medication for attention deficit disorder, which helped him focus on school work but made it harder to eat, sleep and play football.

“We offer a really unique opportunity for the teen journalist in that we have much higher expectations than many high school journalism programs,” said Annie Nelson, ThreeSixty’s youth publications editor. “We are all professional journalists so we have the experience to really give them the guidance of what they need to include in a story to get it to a nearly professional level. We have the same goals as any other news organization, such as strict deadlines and enough content to fill our magazine and our website.”

This fall, ThreeSixty Journalism will celebrate its 10th year at St. Thomas with a reception and fundraising dinner in November at the School of Law on the Minneapolis campus. The featured speaker will be Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of nearly six million African-Americans’ migration from the South to the cities of the North and West. For tickets, go to

St. Thomas' Commitment to ThreeSixty In my case, ThreeSixty Journalism introduced me to the University of St. Thomas, where I am a junior majoring in communication and journalism, and graphic design. Growing up in South Dakota, I had never even heard of St. Thomas, but during camp I fell in love with the university and the Twin Cities. From St. Thomas, ThreeSixty Journalism receives space and equipment, faculty to help teach camps and workshops, a scholarship for one student each year and $25,000 of funding. The program raises the rest of its $225,000 budget through grants and donations. Like me, nearly 30 ThreeSixty Journalism students have chosen to attend St. Thomas for college, bringing their rich diversity of experience and backgrounds to campus.

Communication and Journalism Department faculty volunteer their time and talent to ThreeSixty Journalism in various ways, and after meeting several of them throughout my time at the camp, I knew the COJO department at St. Thomas would be a good fit for me. Professors such as Greg Vandegrift, Mike O’Donnell, Wendy Wyatt, Mark Neuzil, Dina Gavrilos and Kris Bunton help the program in both teaching and advising students.

The support system also led to my choice of attending St. Thomas. McDonnell and Nimmer are on campus and always willing to help ThreeSixty alumni like me in any way possible. The ThreeSixty community provides its alumni with a network of some of the best contacts in the business. McDonnell and Nimmer know many people in the Twin Cities’ journalism circle, an important asset for any aspiring journalist.

“There’s this community cheering me on through college, through my internships, through post grad and now my first job at a big paper,” Emma Carew, a ThreeSixty alumna, said to describe this support system. “They have seen hundreds of kids since 2002, and they still make time to see me for lunch or make time to have a cup of coffee. They have rooted me on for four years and then four more years after that. They always believed that it was possible, and I honestly think they believe that of every student they have.”

After I applied to St. Thomas, I knew I would not be able to pay tuition at a private university, but once again, ThreeSixty affected my life dramatically. I applied for and was awarded the ThreeSixty Journalism Scholarship, which St. Thomas provides –paying full tuition for one camp alumnus each year to attend St. Thomas for four years. For this support, I will forever be grateful to the program and the University of St. Thomas. To continue that support system, I was asked to help mentor a new ThreeSixty scholar who is a freshman at St. Thomas. I enjoy mentoring another student whose life has been as dramatically changed by ThreeSixty as mine has been.

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