Blogs > Fresh Ink

Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brushing up for another semester in Journalism 200

This weekend I will be preparing for the introduction to reporting and news writing class that I have been teaching for seven years to journalism majors at University at Albany. I revise the syllabus every semester to keep up with what’s new in the media and to keep me and the material fresh.
My first journalism class as a student was an elective at Binghamton University taught by Dick Thien, then editor of the city’s morning paper. He had us lug our typewriters to the lecture hall, where we interviewed his city editor and wrote a story on the spot. I was hooked. And I use the same basic techniques today – lots of practice interviewing, writing, re-writing and writing some more.
An exercise that an experienced prof shared with me when I started teaching has been gold on the first day of class. The students are members of the press and I am a fire department dispatcher holding a press conference about a string of arsons and a missing boy. The students have to tweet the news, write a version for immediate online publication, and come up with ideas for follow-up stories.
The press conference gets the students thinking and interacting right away. Their on-deadline stories give me a good idea of their raw talent. The exercise has lots of teachable spin-offs – about asking questions, getting the 5 w’s and more, making assumptions (did the boy die in the fire?), weighing the reliability of second-hand information, accuracy (Smyth with a Y), crafting a lead, deciding what doesn’t belong in the story at all (is the homeowner’s race relevant?), and how 20 people at the same press conference can come up with different versions of the same allegedly direct quote.
I like to use timely issues and real news. For instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push for medicinal marijuana will be the hook this coming semester for exercises on critically analyzing and reporting on surveys, localizing stories and interviewing.
The textbook I use is “Inside Reporting” by Tim Harrower. The UAlbany journalism teachers have agreed to spread the book over two consecutive semesters, for intro and intermediate reporting. It’s relevant, appealing to read, easy to digest and full of good examples and exercises.
I have a game plan for each class, though it is invariably modified during the semester depending on the abilities and interests of the class, guest speakers, and breaking news. Each class is almost three hours long, so I also prepare a rough timeline for what I want to tackle that night, striving to mix up critique, discussion, interviewing and writing. I can barely sit through a 15-minute meeting, even when I’m running it, so I try to shake things up, get students off their butts, sending them out for “instant interviews” on campus.
I have a few rules, such as no using phones or computers in class except when researching or writing, 10 points off for every error of fact in a story, and no late assignments (though I will entertain requests for extensions made well in advance). Absences are excused only if I am notified before class starts, same as with a job.
I put a lot of effort into marking up writing assignments, and it pays off, judging from the improvement I see in their work as well as anonymous student critiques of my classes. However, I’ve had to learn it’s too much to copy edit every assignment in depth. Hit the main points. Easier said than done for a compulsive editor. I pick and choose examples to share with the entire class, to highlight good work and show various ways of approaching the same story. I usually write and share my own version, too.

Being an adjunct is a time-consuming, low-paying second job. I teach the class because it’s energizing and fun – and I hope the students feel the same way.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home