Saturday, June 13, 2009

News veteran coaches students in Liberal Arts program

The second semester of A&M's Student Reporter Project has wrapped, and the program is changing along with its students.

This fall, the College of Liberal Arts project will kick off with writing workshops that the students themselves requested. The project now also extends over two semesters instead of operating one semester at a time.

Students accepted into the program get an experience that's designed by a 35-year newspaper veteran to feel like the way a newspaper works.

Coordinator Dale Rice has divided the project into beats -- Arts, Family, GA, Health, Justice, Media, Politics and Religion/Culture. "I wanted to give the students a sense of the way an actual newsroom operates and an understanding of beats," he says.

Liberal Arts' director of college relations, Leanne South, says, "The students who apply don't get college credit, but we do pay them for their stories. They apply because they want to develop their skills as a journalist, so they come in motivated and ready to learn from Dale."

Once reporters are assigned to their beats, the work begins.

Rice says, "The students are involved in what I see as a 'real-world' relationship with an editor. As a group, we brainstorm ideas for all the beats and then the reporters pursue those they feel have a good peg."

Most reporters are asked to generate three stories per semester about Liberal Arts faculty research that falls under their beat; they are paid $50 per story. Senior reporters earn more for stories that dig deeper.

"I'm there during the reporting process to help them formulate or test questions prior to their interviews if they want that assistance (and many of them do)," Rice says.

"Then, they submit the completed stories, which I treat as first drafts. I comment on them, raise questions, suggest ways to improve ledes or restructure the pieces and then -- and this is the critical learning part -- send them back to the reporters for rework and rewriting."

Working with their editor

Rice's reporting and editing experience comes directly into play as he helps the students prepare for interviews.

"I sometimes help them figure out how to approach difficult subjects through a series of questions. Other times I help them figure out how to pace an interview so they can get comfortable with a professor who may be an intimidating figure to them. Occasionally, I help them phrase a question on a subject they consider controversial or sensitive," he says.

"It's important to remember that some of these students have had no journalism training, so the first serious interviews of their academic careers may take place for the SRP. Consequently, I also see my role as one of confidence building in that regard."

The results are rewarding, he says.

"The students have reacted very positively to the experience and I've been very pleased with their work."

Students' stories are published online as the In Depth news journal and pitched to outside media through Texas A&M’s News and Information Services. "Satara Williams' story on a professor's advice for relationships was picked up by UPI and Times of the Internet and run by both on Feb. 10 -- just in advance of Valentine's Day," Rice says. (Read the article here.)

Changing to fit students' needs

South says, "This project is what I call an organic project in that we started it from scratch and are allowing student feedback and progress to guide how we should proceed."

The most recent change allows students to spend two semesters in the project, rather than one. "When Dale asked if they would be interested in continuing on for another semester, they jumped at the opportunity," South says.

Another student-driven change is the writing workshops Rice will teach at the start of the fall semester. "The students wanted them to focus on key story elements," Rice says. "There will be three: one on ledes, one on nut grafs and one on the use of quotes to advance a story."

Rice recently was awarded a $3,000 grant for audio and video digital equipment; he plans to incorporate video and podcasting first into his classroom teaching and then into the Student Reporter Project.

An early effort is the following video filmed by a reporter from the program, in which Rice and two of his students appear:

Any liberal arts major, as well as any student minoring in journalism, can apply for the program. "We have journalism minors, Batt staffers and some who have not elected to take a minor in journalism (perhaps this experience will change their minds and offer them an enticing peek into another educational possibility)," Rice says.

South says she is interested to see Battalion reporters applying for the program. "Part of that might be because they are taking one or more of Dale's classes," she says. "We take that as a good sign that they believe the Student Reporter Project is an activity worth their time."

But for now, the program is at capacity. "The slots are full for the fall," Rice says. "We will open applications for the spring mid-way through the fall semester."