Urban Journalism

Collaboration among Twin Cities journalists trains high school minorities

I remember the moment with crisp clarity: The 15 students in my Broadcast Reporting class were talking about people getting welfare and one self-assured senior, a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes, said he didn’t have much regard for mothers who “laid around and collected government handouts.”

Other heads nodded in agreement but Angela’s did not. The senior from Minneapolis, now a producer of a television news show in a top 10 market, sat up in her chair and stared at the young man across the table. “My mother was one of the women you’re talking about,” she shot back. Angela explained that her mother wasn’t lying around but was trying to raise a family and needed help while she trained for a job. Without welfare assistance, Angela added, she wouldn’t be at St. Thomas.

Oops. The room got quiet: Maybe the judgments about “those people” ought not to be made so hastily. My colleagues call that a teachable moment and it happened because not every student in my class came from the same circumstance.

Diversity. It’s enlightening in a classroom, essential in a newsroom.

Increasing diversity, among both St. Thomas’ journalism undergraduates and Twin Cities’ newsrooms, is the aim of the Minnesota Media Collab-orative/Urban Journalism Work-shop now housed on St. Thomas’ St. Paul campus.

Minnesota has a 12 percent minority population; the United States has 26 percent. If news organizations are to do a good job of covering increasingly diverse communities, they must reflect that range of background and experience in their newsrooms – and news reports.

The mission of the collaborative workshop is to attract more high school students of color to careers in journalism and then to train, mentor and support them. The collaborative is the umbrella organization and the workshop is the training arm. That training began in 1970 with support and encouragement of editors at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Several years later, volunteers from the Twin Cities Black Journalists became the driving force behind the summer workshop held on the University of Minnesota campus.

In 2000, Kathleen Stauffer, then managing editor of the Catholic Digest, made a pitch to bring the program to St. Thomas, arguing that it would be more involved in the planning, teaching and fund raising. The editors and the black journalists said “yes.”

For the past two summers, 30 high school students, mostly minorities, spent two weeks at St. Thomas studying reporting, writing and editing with two dozen news professionals and five St. Thomas journalism faculty members. More students will be back this summer.

Since I retired from the faculty in 2000, working for the collaborative shot to the top of my list of passions and priorities. I get to stay in touch with teenagers who want to ask questions and write stories. I get to hang around with some of my former newsroom and St. Thomas colleagues who serve as teachers and mentors. And I get to work with Lynda McDonnell, the former political editor of the Pioneer Press and the program’s full-time director since February 2002.

McDonnell is a jolt of caffeine in the morning: energized, organized, but definitely not subsidized. She took a leave of absence and a cut in pay to do this job. In a year, she’s put on a half dozen Saturday seminars at St. Thomas – from sports writing to broadcast writing – for high school journalists and advisers. In addition to organizing and supporting the two-week summer workshop, she and I also are publishing a quarterly newsletter, preparing grant requests, operating a writers’ circle for students to get stories published in community newspapers, and coaching students in a journalism class at Roosevelt High School, where 37 percent of the students speak English as a second language.

Renee DeLong, who teaches the class, had asked for help in getting out the second edition of the Roosevelt Standard, the school paper. She managed to publish a first edition, but the paper had too much white space and too few stories. So, Lynda and I, along with St. Thomas sophomore Tanya Siedow, began twice-a-week visits last November. The students had good story ideas but needed advice on how to go about finding facts and interviewing sources.

The stories were meaty and substantial: school buses that are late, fights that are common and wrestlers who are winning. A team of two to five students was assigned a story and we played the role of traffic cop and editor. Interview the assistant principal, we advised. Go to the wrestling practice, we suggested. Talk to some students other than your friends, we said.

Bit by bit, paragraph by paragraph, the stories came together. Sometimes the advising sessions felt chaotic. Sometimes they were exhilarating. In the end, they were satisfying because the paper looked “newsy” and the stories were clear and crisp:

“The Minneapolis Police Department is now being notified every time a fight breaks out at Roosevelt High School. Police from all over the city will now come to RHS to assist the three officers already assigned to the school.”

That’s a good lead – on any paper’s story. Faiza Said was one of the reporters and writers who talked with students, an assistant principal and one of the school’s police liaison officers. The students had four sources and half of a notebook full of quotes. Faiza was proud of the story.

“Thank you,” she said, “for making this seem important.” We told her it was important – that her high school paper was protected by the same First Amendment that guarantees press freedom to the downtown dailies. On the day the paper was distributed at Roosevelt, we were there. It felt good, as it did months before at the final banquet and official close to the two-week summer workshop.

I got to meet the parents of the 15 kids I was with for 10 hours a day. Some were dressed in work clothes – jeans and a sweat-stained shirt – coming straight from a job.

Their sons and daughters had just spent two weeks learning grammar, listening to reporters, talking with anchors, visiting newsrooms and writing their own stories that would be published in the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. The parents were proud – and grateful – for the attention, training and inspiration provided by the working journalists and St. Thomas journalism faculty who donated their time.

Abdulle Elmi wrote a story about the struggle of Somali youth to adapt to American culture without offending their elders. Anjelica Rosales reported a story about her school, Guadalupe Alternative Programs (GAP), and the “family” approach to education.

Terrance Adams did a story about underage drinking and how authorities are trying to cope with the problem. When he started his reporting, the student at North High School in Minneapolis was shy and wary of asking questions of strangers. In the second week of the workshop, Terrance was going door-to-door with a notebook in a college neighborhood asking residents for their attitudes about drinking and the programs to curtail it.

In his story, Terrance quoted a St. Paul police official, an assistant college dean and a couple of college students. Not bad for a kid who never carried a reporter’s notebook before.

David Nimmer is a retired journalism professor at St. Thomas and a former reporter and editor at the Minneapolis Star and WCCO-TV.