Journalism educators, it’s time to put on your capes and tights

Plus positioning students now for later job success and how remembering the basics can result in incredible story presentations

July 19, 2020

Alma Matters is a Poynter newsletter designed to provide ideas, news and insight to those in the journalism education community. Subscribe here to get Alma Matters delivered to you.

As the saying goes, don’t let a crisis go to waste.

In next week’s newsletter, I’m going to round up every single bit of helpful advice that I can to help you construct a fall you can live with — resources for online teaching, best practices for engagement in this strange new world, equipment hacks, etc. From basic to sophisticated, old to new, I’ll have it in this space. (And yes, that’s a solicitation for your best, most helpful material that saved you in spring 2020 or that you unearthed this summer. Send it my way.)

Today, however, I want you to sit back on your couch, sip that coffee, take a deep breath, and consider sliding into some spandex. Maybe a cape is your thing? In any case, it’s time for journalism educators to embrace their roles as superheroes. Because despite the chaos and fear this next season is bringing, there’s never been a more interesting time to be a student journalist. And you can be the hero leading the brigade of intrepid young minds on the front lines, holding a mirror to society and giving voice to the voiceless. You can be the Batman to their Robin, showing them the joys of crimefighting journalism.

Over the next few days, allow yourself a little pleasure and pride around the fact that you’re doing one of the most important jobs in the country. While the journalism industry is battered and seemingly losing its fight for a successful business model, you’ve got a fresh reserve of troops headed your way, ready to absorb skills —  learning to listen, observe, apply skepticism, hold the powerful to account, tell stories, help people — that will stick with them for the rest of their lives, even if they don’t end up in a traditional newsroom.

This week, I challenge you to take a few minutes every day to really focus on why you got into the business of bringing the wonders of journalism to young people. Find that joyful place. Sit in it for a while. Let it infuse your mind, your syllabus planning, your lessons. For a few moments, put aside your fear and fatigue and focus on the riches before us this fall in terms of potential stories and student journalism experiences. Yes, it’s going to be very hard to teach this stuff. Yes, there are some seemingly impossible challenges in front of us.* But teachers are heroes, and heroes often have to dig deep to stay inspired and focus on good over evil. All I ask is that you give yourself a chance to recenter your core values, cinch up those tights and heed the bat signal this fall.

* Your mental health is not funny, nor is it a sign of weakness to recognize the need that you’re overwhelmed. Please take care of yourselves and your students. Also take this week to consider what resources your university/employer offers for mental health, like an Employee Assistance Plan, and take a look at some of the offering at the Dart Center.

Thinking ahead for job placement

Report for America, a nonprofit that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities, opened applications this week for newsrooms looking to hire come June.

Applications for journalists open up in December, so if you have students who might be interested, check out the Reporter FAQ and consider the kind of work you can do over the next six months to make a more attractive portfolio. For example: “We’re looking for a combination of gritty, aggressive realism — and a bit of idealism. You are, after all, going to be trying to save democracy. In other words — great reporting skills plus a strong commitment to public service.”

My read says they’ll look favorably on reporting with a commitment to under-represented people and/or their previously unknown issues. COVID-19 will be huge in fall 2020, but don’t forget that great portfolios need a variety of types and kinds of content — where can you look beyond the daily churn to impact communities that need journalism while benefiting your students’ experiences and portfolios now?

Fair warning: The competition is stiff. In the past, about 1,800 applicants were whittled down to “a few hundred” who were chosen and placed. The current corps of 225 is 70 percent women and 42% people of color.

Photo inspiration

Drones are so useful for a variety of news gathering, but do we often think about beauty when we consider their footage? Here’s some inspo for your photographers who are into drones, from The New York Times: “Behold Vermont, From Above.” That first photo — wow. I wonder what kind of campus beauty there is to behold above it all?

More visual thinking

Here’s some information I grabbed from Poynter’s Try This! Tools for Journalism newsletter that I thought might be helpful to you classroom teachers looking to polish up your PowerPoints.

“I love Canva for creating all sorts of graphics, from YouTube thumbnails to social posts. A new alternative I posted about recently is Projector, a slick resource for non-designers. Another fantastic one for slides specifically is beautiful.ai, which has a gorgeous array of graphics you can include in your slide decks.

How to make it relevant

One of my pet peeves is putting incredible work in front of students without connecting the dots for them — in other words, how can this work inform what they’re doing with fewer resources and less time (that is, of course, assuming your student newspaper isn’t as well-funded, staffed and resourced as The Washington Post). Here’s the key takeaway from this inspiring journalism from the Post about people blinded by police force, taken directly from the video itself: “The Post interviewed witnesses and reviewed 911 calls … In each instance, video appears to undermine official accounts of the incidents.” Request the records. Talk to witnesses. Ask to see their video. This proves that Reporting 101 skills can have a massive impact on storytelling, and possibly even reform.

Reading roundup

One last thing

If you’re looking for a sure bet to fill some class holes, either synchronously or asynchronously, here are a couple of options.

  1. I work with a group of college students who deliver live, virtual in-class training to help first-time voters tell fact from fiction online. It’s a lively 45-minute presentation with visuals, videos and audience participation. And it’s free! Learn more and sign up here.
  2. Poynter is hard at work on a fact-checking course and certification program to launch this fall. More information is coming soon, so watch this space!

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming. She can be reached at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_