May 23, 2017

You can read any story about the future of libraries and substitute the word “newsroom” for “library” and many of the stories are still applicable. The same is true in reverse: substitute the word library in thought pieces about the evolution of news in our digital age, and many of them still make a lot of sense.

That may be because libraries and news organizations tend to have a lot in common — they provide information, they’re a vital community resource — but also because both institutions are in the process of completely reinventing themselves.

Sometimes, the overlap between news and libraries is even more apparent, as is the case in an ongoing collaboration between The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Public Library. The goal of their joint program is to turn high school students from across Dallas into budding community journalists, while also helping them realize the importance of local news organizations and libraries at the same time.

This past February, 33 high school students from across Dallas joined the first cohort of “Storytellers Without Borders,” a Knight-funded, eight-week bootcamp designed to get them intimately familiar with both their local library and their local newsroom — while giving them the skills they’d need to research and report just about any news or feature story.

Related Training: High School Journalism Program

The students were taught by both journalists from The Dallas Morning News and librarians from across the library system in classes held at the library, where they learned how to do background research, conduct interviews and file news and feature stories on topics that mattered to them and their fellow community members. The stories that met the criteria for acceptance were posted online earlier this month.

“We encouraged the students to come up with their own ideas,” said Tom Huang, the Sunday and enterprise editor of The Dallas Morning News who co-led the project. “They ended up writing about serious topics like gender expectations, immigrants and refugees, homelessness, food deserts and military veterans issues.”

Huang worked alongside program director Lauren Smart, an arts journalist and adjunct professor who has written about the Dallas Public Library’s struggle to stay relevant and afloat amidst ongoing budget and staff cuts — another overlap that should sound familiar to many of us in journalism.

Before the project launched, she told Dallas Magazine that introducing students directly to the newspaper and library would not only made them savvier media consumers, but also help them see the value of their local community-driven institutions.

“If you understand how it works, maybe you’ll read the newspaper, and know the library is a place you can spend time,” she said.

Working with journalists from The Dallas Morning News, Smart developed the curriculum, which explained why journalism is important, how to generate ideas, how to pitch stories and interview people, how to write articles, how to use social media for journalism and how to write headlines. The next step was recruiting journalists from the newsroom to teach and mentor students.

“It wasn’t that hard to make the case,” Huang said. “Lauren and I held an introductory session in the newsroom, and more than 40 journalists showed up. Most of them ended up working with the Spring 2017 class.”

One of those journalists was Hannah Wise, the engagement editor at The Dallas Morning News. She mentored two young women throughout the program, and also taught the session about how journalists use social media to share and find news.

“At first I struggled with what students might need to know about social media that they don’t already know,” Wise told me. “I theorized that students would know what the social platforms are and how to use them, but might not be clear on some of the ethical quandaries that come with using them in a professional journalistic setting.”

Wise talked to students about the power of live broadcasting, and helped them understand when to use various social platforms. She also noted that it was important to use their real names and bios when they were in reporter mode.

“Many students had pseudonyms on their accounts so they could better hide online from parents and teachers, but that leads to a lack of credibility if you’re trying to use social news gathering techniques,” she said.

Students in the program also met with photographers and editors from across the newsroom, and even got to attend a press conference with the mayor, where they made it clear they were there as reporters.

“While the students still had a lot to learn about how to ask questions in that setting, they didn’t back down,” Huang said. “I was surprised at how engaged they were with the news. The topics they wanted to report on were incredibly serious.”

The collaboration has taught his newsroom about the importance of partnering with the library system, Huang said.

“We have common interests, including increasing literacy, strengthening citizens’ understanding of what’s accurate news and information, and helping residents get engaged in civic issues,” he said. “It’s a natural fit.”

The program has additional benefits. It not only introduces younger audiences to the work of the newspaper, Wise said, but people in the newsroom to the work of younger audiences.

“The students taught me how important it is for young people their age to be included in the conversation,” Wise said. “They all have unique ways of looking at the world and frankly they all have the ability to be publishers from their phones. Harnessing that passion and focusing it on covering communities could be a changing force in local journalism.”

The newsroom plans to harness the talent of the student journalists who worked with them in the initial cohort. At least one of them will be joining The Dallas Morning News’ summer internship program for high school students, and several will return for a journalism workshop Huang and Smart plan to run later this summer.

“As we develop what this program will look like beyond the Knight grant, which gets us through spring, I’d love to build a small army of high school journalists who cover stories that matter to them throughout the year,” Smart said. “I don’t know how realistic that is, but it’s something I want to explore.”

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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