EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED
The busyness of learning The room teemed with activity. A group of students sat on the floor, bent over layouts, arguing about the way a photo was cropped. Another group worked on survey questions while an editor sat with a shy staffer, helping her formulate the right questions to ask about the volleyball season. “You have to talk to them conversationally,” he said. “People aren’t going to just ‘give you a quote’,” he coached. Copy editors poured over stories, writing questions in the margins. Design editors debated how a design allowed for more coverage although the story looked shorter. “We’re using a font with a smaller xheight and we’re decreasing the point size
to 9 points. We’ll get the same amount of story in less space,” she argued. “Well, I do like the subheads in the story. You’re right. It will reduce the need for as much transition and increase readership,” he finally agreed. Photographers stood over the light table examining a contact sheet. “This one’s perfect. It tells the essence of the story. You can see the tears running down the coach’s face as he hugs Jennifer. It is the perfect picture for saying ‘we won state’,” he said. Lesson one: Learning doesn’t take place in nice neat little rows. Journalism rooms look like chaos. Everyone, or at least every group, is working on a different project although all of them are working toward the same goal: a great publication. They want one that will reflect their school, their lives, their goals. They want one that reflects their
personalities, their strengths. But out of that chaos, if one listens, comes brilliance. Molds get broken. New thoughts are formed. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” gives way to “let’s look at it from another angle.” Sometimes it’s scary because journalism students question and look for answers—the truth and new ways of doing things. ■
By Judy Babb ■ Artwork by Kevin Necessary 8 • Communication: Journalism Education Today
Time to brainstorm for story ideas My job is to play stupid. “Let’s do a story on Deep Ellum. Everyone goes there on Friday or Saturday night” one young man says. “Everyone?” I say. “Okay, lot’s of people,” he answers. Looking around the room filled with freshmen through seniors, I ask, “How many of you have gone down to Deep Ellum at night?” Over half the hands go up. Still . . . “Okay, most of the juniors and seniors have gone there,” he says. “Do you think we need to survey? Find out who goes, why, why not?” another student asks. “Sure, let’s do a survey,” the first answers. “What other ways could you cover it?” I ask.
Silence for a few seconds and then a cacophony of sound as voices yell out: “Sights and sounds.” “A time line.” “Interview the people who work down there.” “Interview the people who go down there.” “Talk to the police about problems and find out how safe it is.” “What about the people who don’t go?” I query. “Sure, find out why they don’t go. Find out what they do instead.” It all starts coming together as ideas formulate and the duties are divided up. Photographers begin to pose ideas for photographic coverage. A designer begins to work on sketching out the ideas and how they might go into a page or spread.
Lesson two: Plant seeds and water them. Encourage independent thought. Make them the decision makers. The adviser’s job is to help the student journalists see stories from all sides and to develop a plan to give answers and information to the reader. The job requires a soft touch, posing questions rather than answers. Let the students draw the conclusions and make the decisions. ■
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Coaching, not doing From asking the initial questions about coverage to devising a plan and interviewing to finally putting the story in writing, the room boils with activity. The adviser’s job is to direct that activity and help with decision making. “Mrs. Babb? Will you read my story?” he asks. “I think it’s a pretty good rough draft.” “Sure, let’s look it over,” I answer. The story starts with the trite and true. Students stream into the fieldhouse gym to the sound of beating drums. Cheerleaders do flips across the floor. The football players enter through the arch, each handed an apple by the coaches as celebration of last week’s win. “Nice images,” I say. “But . . ,” he responds. “Have you told the reader anything he didn’t already know?” “Well, no. But I wanted to start it with
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a visual everyone is familiar with.” “You did that—but would you read on if you thought it was something you already knew about? What’s your point?” I coax. “I wanted to tell the behind-the-scenes story of pep rallies.” “And?” “There’s lots of them. For example, did you know that the cheerleaders got black lights from the Dallas Summer Musicals for the Glow-in-the-Dark pep rally?” he asks. “They broke one doing a stunt while they were practicing.” “Cool. What else?” I ask. “There are several real estate agencies and banks that pay for the little footballs the cheerleaders throw and the victory bandanas and stuff.” “You are on track now. Why not start out with one of those? You’ve buried all that down in the story and those are the things the readers don’t know,” I say. “Let’s read on.” Further reading brings questions
about specific words, about facts that might play better in a stat or information box, allowing a more human and real approach to the story itself. Lesson three: Show, don’t tell. It’s true in both how one tells a story and how a coach gets the writer to make decisions. A good adviser isn’t going to re-write the story for the writer but rather, help him find the answers himself. This process also helps them learn how to help other writers, and in the process, become a coach of writing as well. ■
Saying no— without saying no I’ve never told a student that he couldn’t do a story. But there have been a number of stories that have never run. Student journalists should be open to what is going on in the world around them and looking for ways to localize the story, to make it meaningful for the readership of the publication. Students have proposed ideas that clearly carry a personal vendetta. “Let’s do a story on why old Mrs. Soand-So should be fired. She’s awful and picks on everyone.” Discussion ensues. Is there anyway to prove what you say? What happened? Finally, the story is floored with a “Sounds like a personal problem to me.” Someone suggests a column on pet peeves or about
the way some people treat teenagers, no names but with specific examples. Idea passes; he’ll do the column. Some stories have no relevancy or no way of getting a source that makes what the student publication prints more meaningful than what has already been done in other publications. “Let’s do a story on the children in Bosnia.” “Do you know someone? Have you been there?” “No but Newsweek …” The story dies for lack of a local angle. It needed someone’s father or uncle or someone who could tell an inside story, provide a local angle. Still, one doesn’t want to discourage outside reading and continual vigilance as they look for story ideas. Lesson four: Encourage rather than discourage but set standards.
The word “no” has a killer effect on creativity. I try not to use it. I’ll be the first to say, I’m not totally successful. If the student who had the vendetta on Mrs. So-and-So had continued, I would have asked him to interview, survey, talk to the teacher, talk to the principal and more. If it turned out to be a non-story, “No” would be the only answer. If it turned out to have some validity, it still could be better handled in other ways. ■
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I love my job. It allows me to continue to grow and learn. It allows me to help students become independent thinkers who will stand up for what they believe. I love my job. It’s never the same. Sometimes it’s scary. Always, it’s fulfilling. The facts The fact is journalism is about curiosity, learning how to find out, looking at ALL sides of a story, evaluating and reporting things that the reader needs or wants to know. It’s not about making news or pushing controversy. It’s not about pleasing everybody all the time. Journalism is a lifetime skill—even if one has no intention of becoming a journalist—because it is about thinking and finding out the answers. It’s about not taking things at face value but rather, looking below the surface and finding out. I love my job because it allows me
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to work with young people. I don’t and won’t always agree with them and we can agree to disagree. An editorial or column may contain views I abhor. A yearbook spread may contain activities that I don’t condone. It may also contain valid reasons and beliefs for showing why the writer feels the way he does or at least show the way he sees real life to be. Sometimes he may make me change my mind or at least will show me that there are other ways of looking at something. Sometimes it makes me want to go home and lock my own children up to protect them from the world around them. More often, it makes me have discussions with my own children that help them understand me and my desires for them.
I love my job. It allows me to continue to grow and learn. It allows me to help students become thinkers and writers, designers and photographers. It allows me to help students become independent thinkers who will stand up for what they believe. I love my job. It’s never the same. Sometimes it’s scary. Always, it’s fulfilling. ■