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.