People (often former journalists) frequently ask me what on earth my journalism students are going to do out in the world. “Newspapers are dying,” they say, which is true. I cited the most recent statistics for a lecture I gave in my mass media class this semester.
Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have shut down, according to an ongoing study at the University of North Carolina. (And how depressing it must be to work on that study, I didn’t say to my students.) Then I get on my journalistic soapbox and tell the students that this is a bad thing because, in the words of Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive, “In the absence of a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things. Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”
I pop back with some variation on this theme: Newspapers may be dying, but news is not. Some of the best reporting I’ve seen in my lifetime is happening right now as journalists diligently cover the current administration, climate change, fires and floods, wars, sexual misconduct—even as the major daily in my town has shrunk to a skeleton of its former self. But even as that happens, my most talented community college students—those who would’ve never had a shot at so much as an internship at the mighty Bee two to three decades ago because the paper was hiring people with much bigger credentials—are being hired, at admittedly very low wages, and are producing kick-ass journalism, as are their more experienced colleagues there.
Take, for example, my former student Jason Pierce, who plopped himself in my office Thursday before he was going out on the quad to shoot B-roll video for a Sacramento Bee story he and a reporter were working on about the City College president. Jason’s been through hell and back fighting depression, and at more than one point when he was our student, he was more or less homeless and often hungry. My co-adviser and I fed him and found him work and encouraged him as, despite his challenges, Jason shot terrific stills and video. He delivered not only as a photographer but also as a writer and editor of both the Express newspaper (saccityexpress.com) and Mainline magazine, our journalistic magazine. He’s spent this semester as a photo intern at The Bee, and through the peculiarities of circumstance has covered wildfires and major sporting events, plus the usual small assignments that every newspaper photographer shoots.
He is doing so well, in fact, that The Bee is keeping him on past his internship. It’s just a part-time job, and I wish they’d pay him better, but it’s enough that Jason can survive as he and his son live with a friend in Roseville. This is a huge win for him, and he’s worked hard for it.
Jason, a burly, red-bearded guy, beamed ear to ear as he sat in my office, this man who wants to do a documentary about the five first-line jazz bands in town he’s befriended. And I beamed back at him. Because it was so clear to me that the guy sitting in front of me is the future of journalism. He will find a way to tell stories in pictures and words (because he’s also a good writer and also had three front page writing bylines in recent months) through whatever channels he can find.
I also saw the future of journalism yesterday in a small history classroom in an old middle school in Del Paso Heights where Jordan McGowan teaches. After school is over, Jordan migrates to City College where he coaches the wide receivers of the Panthers football team. I’d never met him before, but my current student photo editor, Sara Nevis, loves to shoot football and, in fact, is shooting the 49ers tomorrow for the Stockton Record. She practically danced into my office Thursday to tell me that. She’s been covering the Panthers this season and has gotten to know Jordan, who, it turns out, started an elective journalism class at Rio Tierra Middle School this semester.
“You want to come with me?” Sara asked, knowing that I don’t teach on Fridays.
I thought of all the grading I have to do, the set up for next semester that needs doing by the end of the month. “Yes,” I said. “I’d love to.”
So we gathered up pens that I had made that say, “Sacramento City College Express: Covering the campus since 1922” with the website url. And stickers that one of my former students (thanks, Jackson!) put together at a nifty campus spot called The Makerspace where people make stuff. Then Sara and I headed out on a drizzly Friday afternoon to show up in Jordan’s Rio Tierra classroom for their final class period of the week.
Jordan is a lanky, 30-something guy with a ‘fro that sticks straight up from his head and a beard that’s spotty in places. He’s got a 100-watt smile and was coaching his journalism students on their social media posts. “They’ve just come from a rally,” he explained. “Now they’re putting out social media about it.” He had organized the students into teams to cover the rally, and just before we got there, the teams were working together on words and images for the posts. These were not casual, slapped-together things.
Neither was the video reporting Jordan put up on the screen linked to his laptop. The students took turns reading news stories they’d written based on national and local news, a lot of them about school shootings. All with quotes and sources and even some video pulled from other news sources.
I stood there as Sara talked to the middle schoolers, almost all of them kids of color, which is, I know, what our next generation of journalists will look like. I see this in my own students, and this is a good thing. They more accurately reflect who we are nowadays. These seventh and eighth graders cared deeply about what is happening in the world, and Jordan, who mostly teaches history and knows very little about journalism, has obviously trained them well. I told him so. How has he learned how to do that?
Jordan, whom the students call Mr. Mac, blushed. “I’m a big consumer of media, and I knew I wanted them to give them experience with different media,” he said. “I’ve been watching closely to see what I should be teaching the kids.”
That’s why he and his students did a radio segment, aka podcasting, earlier in the semester, followed by their TV news section. They also put together an online paper using a Google platform (“it wasn’t the best,” Jordan told me, “but now I know how to do it better next time.”)
That’s the kicker—next time. Though Jordan’s principal is behind him, he’s not sure if the district will let him do the class again. It made me want to write to the district, urging them to let Jordan continue.
“You’ve got great news instincts,” I told him, as Jordan looked a bit embarrassed.
Sara nodded. She’s been coaching Jordan a bit about how to talk to his students about writing accurate captions, which she emphasized to the students. When it was my turn to talk, I bragged about Sara to the students and told them she was going to cover a 49ers game Saturday.
“Against who?” one kid asked.
“The Falcons,” Sara said, and I made a mental note to look up where the Falcons are from.
I looked out at the class. One girl had an Express sticker plastered across her nose. I wondered what she’d do with it after class. Others were clicking the Express pens we’d given them. Two or three kids asked most of the spontaneous questions, and I congratulated them for thinking on their feet, which is what good reporters do.
All too soon it was over. Jordan thanked us for coming. We got a round of applause, and Sara and I left after the final bell rang. We found ourselves in a hallway swarming with kids, some of whom we’d just seen in Mr. Mac’s classroom. “Thanks for coming to talk to us!” one of them sang out as she zoomed by, her bright red backpack blazing a trail for those who followed.
I tell my former journalist friends that kids like these help me have great faith in what’s coming from these future professional communicators. They won’t need newsprint; news and photos and video and podcasts will find a way into the world. That doesn’t guarantee that everyone will see them; people will always be able to opt out or seek out points of view that only agree with their own.
But look at these kids—reading their news on video, trying on newspapering and radio, tweeting the rally out to the world, interested and searching. Their mascot is a pioneer, and there they are, these young pioneers on the frontier of digital journalism, doing a respectable job of it, too. The kids are all right.
(Oh, and the Falcons are from Atlanta. I just looked it up on a trusted news website.)