Budding journalists report successful experience
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- It was three weeks before the first game of the season for the Princeton men's soccer team, and three young reporters were huddled in coach Jim Barlow's office, peppering him with questions.
The three reporters are not on the staff of The Daily Princetonian. They are high school students who were invited to campus for a week of intensive journalism instruction in the inaugural year of a new program. The Daily Princetonian Class of 2001 Summer Journalism Program was started by former members of The Prince's editorial board to offer training and mentoring to minority students who are interested in journalism. Twenty current and former members of The Prince staff came to campus to run the program.
The idea for the summer session developed when members of the class of 2001 realized that few minority students were interested in writing for The Prince. "I think for a newspaper, it really helps if its staff looks like its readership," said Richard Just '01, a former editor-in-chief of The Prince and the founder and director of the program. "We talked to editors at other college papers, and they had the same problems."
So the Princeton alumni selected 21 aspiring journalists from 13 urban public high schools in the Northeast and invited them to spend a week at Princeton. They also invited several Princeton alumni who are now reporters to talk to the students about every aspect of journalism. The program is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life and the Office of the President.
The seminars and hands-on lessons paid off for the young reporters, who are mainly seniors in high school. "I've learned how to focus my ideas and how to write better," said Johnson, a senior at William Penn High in Philadelphia, as he prepared his questions for the soccer coach. He is the editorial editor of his school's student newspaper and hopes to one day write for The Philadelphia Inquirer or The New York Times. Johnson said the Princeton students and alumni running the program taught him the importance of persistence in journalism.
"We're still young journalists. We may face hard times, so we need encouragement, and we need to learn how not to give up," he said.
The crash course in journalism included a trip to the statehouse in Trenton, where students spent an hour posing questions to New Jersey Secretary of State Regena Thomas.
"Most people would have been star struck, but they asked probing questions," said Ramesh Nagarajan '03, who is a sports editor at The Prince. "And they didn't take no for an answer."
The group traveled to New York City to tour the offices of The New York Times and to cover a Yankees game. On campus, they attended workshops on college admissions and on topics such as how to lay out a newspaper and how to write a personal narrative.
Theola Labbé, who graduated from Princeton in 1996, was on hand to talk to the students about writing feature stories. Labbé, who is an education reporter for The Washington Post, recounted how writing her college thesis in the religion department convinced her that she wanted to become a journalist. Her paper dissected how the mainstream media missed the religious aspect of the story of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, who were killed after a 51-day standoff in 1993.
"While writing my thesis, I thought, 'I want a lot of people to know about this,'" she said. "Then I thought, 'Well, that's what journalists do.'"
The students had plenty of questions for Labbé. One asked how she got the subjects of her stories to open up to her. ("Sometimes you have to ask the same questions over and over.") Another wanted to know if she kept all her stories in a scrapbook. ("No.")
Labbé was impressed with their inquisitiveness. "They're so far ahead of where I was at their age," she said.
After Labbé's talk, the students split up into small groups to do interviews for feature stories. One group headed off to talk about Iraq with Paul Miles, the Norman Tomlinson Postdoctoral Fellow in War and Society, who is in the history department. Another went to work on a story about the culinary offerings at student hangout Hoagie Haven. Those stories and a look at the upcoming season for the men's soccer team appeared in the 12-page mock issue of The Princetonian produced on the program's last day. The students wrote the stories and the headlines, cropped photos, penned photo captions and laid out the text, with assistance from the Princeton alumni.
Each student was paired with a Princeton graduate or current student who will act as their mentor during the coming year, helping the high school students decide where to apply to college, offering advice on filling out applications and financial aid forms, and working on getting them internships in journalism. And the program will hold another session next summer for a new group of students.
"We're going to keep an eye on these kids for the next few years," said Just, who is the online editor for The American Prospect. "In some ways the most important part of the program starts when it ends."
Editor: Ruth Stevens