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October 23, 2014

Bob Davis: Students' first-hand view of our community

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Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2014 3:15 am

The Star’s newsroom will be a little quieter on Monday. The energy level will drop in a way that everyone will feel. Savvy readers will notice that bylines that have become familiar over the past three months will slowly disappear.

The Star’s latest crop of graduate students wrapped up their yearlong program last week. Come Saturday, they will don caps and gowns and lay their hands on the prize they have been working toward for the past 12 months — a master’s degree in community journalism. It will mark a milestone for the program. We will have produced 54 graduates.

At the end of every July since 2007, we’ve faced the same scenario. A class of Community Journalism (ComJ) Fellows completes its course work and newspaper internships. With big smiles and even bigger ambitions, the graduates say goodbye to their friends at The Star and head out the door.

Some don’t stray too far. ComJ graduates currently on staff here at the paper include reporter Brian Anderson, assistant metro editor Daniel Gaddy and Deirdre Long, who recently joined our advertising department as social media consultant. The rest are scattered across the country, working in journalism, academics and other professional fields.

I’m confident that each former ComJ Fellow carries a deeper sense of community journalism than those grad students whose experience was mainly limited to the classroom. In the decades before the grad school’s creation, talented young journalists came to The Star to learn the ropes before heading on to larger newspapers. (I run into some of those alumni occasionally, and one of the most common questions is, “Is Mata’s still around?” Never underestimate the power of good pizza.)

The ComJ project, a partnership between the University of Alabama and The Anniston Star (with some valuable start-up help from the Knight Foundation), was created as a way to formalize The Star’s reputation as a place to train young, aspiring journalists.

We’ve seen first-hand that experience is a great teacher. Yes, there’s benefit in learning the basics of journalism and its more difficult questions inside the four walls of a classroom. Yet, more can be gained by putting it to practical application. Said differently, it’s one thing to discuss a journalist’s responsibility to fairness with a professor standing in front of a lectern. It’s quite another to practice it when there are living, breathing people on various sides of a controversial news story.

From its start, the program was envisioned as a teaching hospital, which treats sick people and trains others to do the same. Our aim was to help students learn about the practice of journalism and then apply it at The Anniston Star.

On Thursday, members of the class of 2013-14 gathered in The Star’s library to discuss their year. It was a delightful experience, something that ought to make even the most hard-case journalist feel optimistic for the future.

Over a couple of hours, Zac Al-Khateeb, Elizabeth Lowder, Elizabeth Manning, Taylor Manning, Laura Monroe, Ryan Phillips and Tim Steere summed up their experiences. All spoke fondly of their time in the program and of their time in Anniston. Most confirmed that The Star’s editors pushed them out of their comfort zones.

The interns produced substantial news stories dealing with topics such as the state’s treatment of people with AIDS, the drive to create a health registry of former soldiers posted to Fort McClellan, Alabama’s troubling rail-safety record and an update on Gov. Robert Bentley’s unfinished storm-preparation checklist. There are more stories to come, including a massive project examining Alabamians’ lack of access to public records.

Along with the Serious Journalism, the grad students recounted the fun they had with other slice-of-life projects — covering high school graduations and blogging on the comings-and-goings of the Sunny King Charity Classic, to cite a couple of examples.

H. Brandt Ayers, publisher of The Star, told the grad students they had discovered a useful notion that we value at the newspaper — normality. It’s in high school graduations, beautification awards ceremonies, club meetings, local sports and the like that we find the typical comings and goings of a community. People read such coverage and see themselves, Ayers said. We don’t neglect the aberrations — the crime, the corruption, the controversial — but we serve our community better when we mix in those slices of normal life.

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