December 11, 2009
La Salle University Program in “Community Journalism” Has Students Covering A Different Type of Beat
La Salle University Senior Michelle Sundberg covered programs for children and others at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.
Pen and pad in hand, Michelle Sundberg stood in the gymnasium of the parish hall at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia’s Germantown section as several dozen neighborhood children raced up and down the basketball court during an after-school program.
Sundberg, a senior at La Salle University, wasn’t there to babysit. She was there as a reporter covering the work of faith organizations in Germantown as part of a new class at La Salle called Community Journalism.
“Community Journalism has forced me to explore the neighborhood,” said Sundberg, who commutes to La Salle’s campus in East Germantown from her home in South Jersey.
The new class is the capstone course in the journalism track of La Salle’s Communication Department. Students cover stories in the Germantown neighborhood for two locally owned weekly newspapers and a non-profit Internet radio station. All senior communication majors concentrating in journalism are required to take the class.
“The new buzz word for this kind of journalism is ‘hyper-local,’’ said Huntly Collins, assistant professor of communication, who designed the course. “But we see it as a return to journalism’s roots. Journalism has always been rooted in local communities to give citizens the information they require to participate in the democratic process.”
Collins said it was no accident that Germantown was chosen as the site for the course. She said Germantown made sense because it is the urban neighborhood in which La Salle is located and because it is a predominantly poor, black community that has been underserved by the mainstream media.
“We teach our students that one of the central roles of journalism in a democratic society is to give a voice to the voiceless,” Collins said. “That also happens to be in line with Lasallian values. By covering Germantown, our students are helping to lift up the stories of people who are too often ignored in our society.”
Collins has been invited present about La Salle's Community Journalism class at the national conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Denver this August
To offer the course, the Communication Department has partnered with two Germantown media outlets -- Gtown Radio, a 24-hour Internet radio station run out of a small studio on Maplewood Mall in the heart of Germantown, and Germantown Newspapers, which publishes two weeklies, the Mt. Airy Independent and the Germantown Chronicle.
The papers, which are distributed free to about 36,000 households and businesses in Germantown and Mt. Airy, rose from the ashes of two long-time weeklies that shut down last February when their parent company, the Journal Register Co., filed for bankruptcy.
The new papers are owned by Jim Foster, a La Salle graduate and Germantown resident and businessman, who got $100,000 in financing from the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, which considered the investment to be a part of its social mission. The church, located near the corner of Germantown and Chelten Avenues, has been in the neighborhood for 200 years.
Students produce stories for the newspapers and for Gtown Radio in multi-media format – print, audio and video. Among their stories this fall have been a news story on new fees to be charged at the city’s Health Center 9, which serves low-income people in Germantown; a feature story on seniors at Center in the Park who remembered Michael Jackson by learning to dance to “Thriller”; and a profile of Captain Winton Singletary, who is in charge of the 14th Police Precinct in Germantown.
Working in small groups, the students are assigned to cover various beats in Germantown including crime and safety, education and youth, business and economic development, public health, Germantown history and faith organizations.
Sundberg is working with two other students on stories related to the social service programs run by Face to Face, a non-profit social service agency that operates out of St. Vincent’s near the corner of Germantown Avenue and Price Street. The agency’s programs include a soup kitchen, a washeteria where low-income people can bathe and wash their clothes, an art program for the mentally ill, a writing class, a health clinic and a legal aid program.
Sundberg, who recently completed a profile of the agency’s new director, said her reporting about the organization’s programs has had a powerful impact on her. “I have been continuously moved by the selfless people I have met at Face to Face,” she said. “I have seen suffering first hand; yet I have also seen compassion and love beyond what I have ever witnessed.”
Prior to beginning their beats, the students went through eight hours of diversity training offered by educators from the Anti-Defamation League. They also explored Germantown by foot and through an electronic database of neighborhoods run by the University of Pennsylvania. During one session, the students worked with archivists at the Germantown Historical Society to learn about the history of Germantown through primary documents, some of them more than 200 years old.
“I wanted them to learn that Google is not the fount of all knowledge,” said Collins.
To inform the reporting they are doing in the community, the students are required to read and blog about scholarly articles drawn from the fields of sociology, history, and urban studies. The readings include Code of the Street, an ethnography by Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, a former University of Pennsylvania professor who based his book on the African-American street culture along Germantown Avenue.
“I think the academic component we have built into this class distinguishes it from more traditional community journalism classes offered by other universities,” said Collins. “Rather than just turning students loose in the community and telling them to go do journalism, we are giving students a foundation in the social, economic, and political issues that have influenced the community and that can provide important context and background for the stories they write.”
Sandra Joseph, another senior in the Community Journalism class, has been assigned to cover education and youth. Much of her time has been spent at Germantown High School, a troubled neighborhood school where about 50 percent of the students fail to graduate.
But Joseph, who grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of Haitian parents, has come to know and appreciate many of the students. “These are not bad kids!” Joseph said. “Their rugged attitude and behavior may scare you at first, but once you get to know them, you find out that some of them are actually quite funny, smart, and have really interesting backgrounds and stuff to say.”
Collins, a former reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, will teach the class every fall semester. John Kennedy, also an assistant professor in the Communication Department and a former reporter at the Boston Globe, will teach the class every spring semester.
Before taking Community Journalism, the students are required to take beginning reporting, advanced reporting, electronic journalism, media production, and other courses.