How this j-school brought real-world reporting into the classroom

October 1, 2019

What do Instagram, digital archives and person-on-the-street interviews have in common? All three are key components of a project underway at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism to help strengthen the quality of the community news our students produce.

Like many journalism educators, my colleagues and I are constantly looking for ways to infuse real-world reporting into the classes we teach. That’s one reason we launched the Scope — a digital magazine dedicated to telling stories of justice, hope and resilience in Boston’s neighborhoods.

It’s staffed by a mix of graduate and undergraduate students and advised by me. (Since last month, it will also have a full-time professional editor thanks to a new partnership with the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship.) Although hands-on experience has long been a part of journalism training, school-sponsored publications like the Scope — often called teaching hospitals or practicums— have become more common over the last decade both in response to a decline in the availability of traditional internships and, in some cases, an attempt to fill gaps left by shrinking local newsrooms.

These kinds of news outlets have plenty of benefits for students — Clips! Problem solving! Collaboration! Experiential learning! — but they also present a host of challenges. One of the biggest is a lack of institutional memory. Student staffers will cover their beats for, at most, a few semesters. And because they are often newcomers to the communities they serve, even the most diligent reporters may inadvertently overlook marginalized voices and important historical context.

In an effort to compensate for these knowledge gaps, I created #MissionHill100, an Instagram-based storytelling project that pairs mini-profiles of residents of Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood with relevant digital archives from the Northeastern library’s new Boston Research Center.

Our goal is to find story ideas, diversify the types of people student reporters interview and better understand the relationship between the present and the past.

Before I dive into more details about the Mission Hill project, I want to stress that Boston has long been home to many great community news organizations including the Bay State Banner, the Fenway News, the Dorchester Reporter, DigBoston and the Mission Hill Gazette. We encourage our students to get involved with these news outlets, and many of them do. The Scope isn’t designed to compete with other publications; rather, we hope to supplement the existing information ecosystem.

The #MissionHill100 project is helping us do just that. Good journalism requires deep, careful listening— a skill our students have been able to practice by creating these mini-profiles. Starting in the fall of 2017, we gave students a list of questions and sent them out into the community to interview and photograph people in parks and on playgrounds, at community centers and schools, and in businesses and housing complexes around Mission Hill.

We picked that neighborhood for a couple of reasons. Its demographics make it, in many ways, a microcosm of Boston. It’s also close to campus and an area where many Northeastern students live. That made the project more convenient, but it also forced students to reconsider their assumptions about an area they viewed as populated only by their peers.

Once each batch of profiles were written, workshopped and edited, we published them on the Scope’s Instagram account. About halfway through the project, we partnered with our colleagues at Northeastern’s Boston Research Center which, as its website explains, was created by the university’s library as “a model research center, focused on the city of Boston, for deeply integrative study of urban history, communities, systems, and culture.”

Our goal is to eventually link all 100 profiles to relevant archival materials so each one serves as a flashlight beam into the past, illuminating the historical roots of current issues like gentrification, immigration, education and more. Developing prototypes has been a team effort. Scroll down a bit here to see one created by grad student Siyuan Sun under the direction of my colleague Dan Zedek. And here’s the version created by the library’s Steven Braun.

Completing this kind of interface will take time, but the short-term success of the #MissionHill100 project is already clear.

From a pedagogical standpoint, this kind of structured interviewing was useful for instructors and students alike. It was a perfect early semester assignment that helped us gauge students’ existing skills when it came to writing, photography and following directions. We spent time talking about leads and quotes and narrative focus, but we were also able to discuss the awkwardness and anxiety that many students grapple with when learning to conduct interviews. And, because we published the profiles fairly quickly, students felt the excitement of seeing their work published, too — something a few told me kept them motivated while working on longer-term projects later in the term.

They also learned the importance of being present in the communities they cover, even when news isn’t breaking and began to understand why it’s important to seek information from people from diverse backgrounds, which is something many professional local journalists neglect. The project will also help incoming Scope staffers get started on their new beats this fall. When they arrive, we’ll have story ideas, suggested sources, public records and a bit of historical context inspired by the #MissionHill100 project.

Although our work was focused on a neighborhood in a major city, this kind of structured, large-scale interviewing project could easily be adapted to document other communities. If you decide to try something similar, here are some tips:

  • Keep the questions simple and open-ended. We provided students with a one-page assignment memo that described the project and listed the questions they should ask. We also included instructions on how to submit copy and photos, plus a reminder about the importance of good workflow hygiene. File names and formats may not be fun, but students quickly learned that getting those kinds of details right is crucial to the success of this kind of collaborative project.
  • Start early in the semester. I used this as the first assignment for students in several of my classes. As I said earlier, it was a great tool to gauge skills and start to build working relationships with students. Students also told me it helped them understand how long it takes to find willing, credible sources, something they said helped them with time management later in the term.
  • Look for patterns … and silences. As our collection of profiles grew, we began to notice common themes such as frustration with housing costs and pride in the neighborhood’s diversity. We also considered who wasn’t represented. When, for instance, we noticed that many of our early interview subjects were younger than 70, I suggested students visit community centers and senior housing complexes. The resulting profiles (including this one) were fantastic.
  • Seek partnerships, both on campus and off. Libraries and historical associations are a good place to start, especially if you decide to add an archival component like we did with the Mission Hill project. Building relationships with these kinds of organizations can help students understand that even though news reflects current events,  many stories have deep roots in the past that may be worth exploring.

Meg Heckman is an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. She can be reached at m.heckman@northeastern.edu or on Twitter at @meg_heckman.

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