Alex Harring (A.B. ’22) is having a busy summer.
During the school year, Harring worked as an assistant news editor at the Michigan Daily. There, he wrote around 2,000 words of copy a week, covering issues as diverse as museum openings, academic lectures on technology and privacy, and financial aid issues facing undocumented students.
Now that summer is here, he is serving as the Daily’s summer news editor and interning with the Detroit Metro Times, working to develop his skills as a writer, editor, and collaborator—all while navigating the world of professional journalism with an eye toward what he’ll do when he graduates. He’s glad that he has his experiences at the Daily to help him be successful, and he’s glad for his curricular work—including a new community journalism class he took last spring.
“At the Daily, there’s a big focus on learning to do the content by doing the content,” Harring says. “But in the community journalism class, I got to create the criteria myself for doing a much longer, 5,000-word article. And you have to learn how to do that and how to think about that to avoid getting stuck going down the wrong path on a big project, to filter out the things that aren’t really relevant to your articles.”
The class, offered by LSA’s Department of English Language and Literature, was split into two portions. The first was a more traditional read-and-discuss lecture class, with lecturer Mike Hinken, a former journalist himself, leading conversations around the challenges of longform writing and the ethics of journalistic practice.
Above: Anna Clark (left), Ron French (middle), and Jennifer Guerra (right)
For the other portion, students were split into groups of three or four, and each group was paired with a partner journalist working in the region. Partner journalists included Knight-Wallace Fellow Anna Clark (A.B. ’03), Bridge Magazine senior writer Ron French, Peabody Award–winning podcast and radio producer Jennifer Guerra (A.B. ’00), and Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial editor and radio host Stephen Henderson (A.B. 1992).The class put students in a position where they could make professional connections and hear about the challenges and rewards of making a career in journalism from industry veterans.
“I wanted the students to come in and shape the story according to their interests,” Hinken says. “And our partner journalists had the autonomy—and it’s really important that they had this autonomy—to run their groups and do what they thought would help students the most. With that kind of flexibility, students could tackle issues from all over the map.”
Numbers + People
For Hinken, putting students in a position to work closely with experienced journalists lets them immediately test the ideas that they were encountering in their classwork, amplifying the power of those ideas and helping to refine their real-world impact.
“My role is to set the parameters,” Hinken says. “But the hope in a class like this is that the individual projects are developing their own momentum. My approach was to trust the journalists and to trust the students, and the quality of the work showed that the trust really paid off.”
Some of the partner journalists focused on making sure their groups had resources to take the work they were doing for the class and try to get it published. Others focused on craft, asking for multiple drafts of stories so that students had experience working with a professional editor so they wouldn’t be intimidated or caught off guard when they encountered the process again.
French asked his students to spend a lot of time early on in the semester thinking about the questions they were asking and examining their research for clues to potential stories.
“The students were very creative, very motivated,” French says. “They really embraced the challenge. We didn’t rush to put together our stories as much as we tried to explore a topic, collect the data, and see where the data wanted to take the story.”
French encouraged students to split up the work into various elements—doing research, for example, and finding interview subjects—and assign those elements out to the person who was most interested in doing them. Then, at the end of the semester, students put it all together into the kind of story, French says, that wouldn’t be out of place in places like Bridge Magazine.
The community journalism class is part of an effort by LSA’s Department of English Language and Literature to develop a new minor in narrative arts. The minor will include coursework on the history and practice of a range of nonfiction storytelling genres including long-form journalism, ethnography, memoir, and travel writing. French hopes that classes like this one can happen again in the future, and that they help students understand how to conduct effective research and how to make that research legible, accessible, and compelling to readers.
“My hope is that students see the connections between data and narrative,” French says. “A feature story is a lot better if you have numbers to back up the point you’re trying to make, but a story that’s based on an Excel spreadsheet isn’t going to move anyone. You have to find a way to meld numbers with storytelling. It’s a long process, but if the students understand that it’s important to have both of these elements in their stories, then they’ll be in much better shape than I was when I was their age.”