A ‘Liberating’ Experience: J-students Cover Tough Liberty City for Black Weekly

By: Mark Fitzgerald

When Florida International University journalism Professor Neil Reisner teaches about the importance of diversity in reporting, he likes to send students outside their comfort zone. He’ll assign an African-American student to report from Little Havana in Miami, for instance, or send a white student to Little Haiti.

Now, in an unusual partnership with a black-interest Miami weekly, Reisner is sending an entire reporting class to cover Liberty City, an almost-entirely black neighborhood that’s best known nationally for the riots that followed a not-guilty verdict in a police shooting.

But while the journalists may be out of their demographic group ? just one of the 17 students is African-American ? they are by all accounts having the time of their life.

“One of the really exciting aspects of this partnership is that an opportunity for young journalists to be exposed to hard-core journalism, real-life journalism in the real world, and to go through the editing process as if they were actually working for a newspaper, with all the rigors that entails,” says Robert Beatty, publisher and owner of the South Florida Times. “The opportunity to cover a community that we believe has not gotten the kind of attention it deserves is an equally exciting thing for our newspaper. This is one of those partnerships you dream about.”

Liberty City is the sort of rough neighborhood ignored by mainstream news media unless a particularly violent episode occurs. Its residents feel so marginalized, Reisner says, that in the last census just 10% of households bothered to return their mail form.

In the “Liberty City Link” project, students cover all aspects of the neighborhood, with four or five articles picked each week to run in the South Florida Times. And while they are still students, these young journalists see The Miami Herald and other news outlets as their competition, Reisner says.

“We know we don’t have the resources of a Miami Herald, so we try to hit them where they ain’t,” Reisner says. That suits Beatty fine. A former general counsel for the Herald, Beatty bought the South Florida Times and chose a Herald veteran, Bradley C. Bennett, as executive editor.

“It’s a very serious paper,” Reisner says. “They approach the news as newsmen, covering the good, the bad and the indifferent. It’s unlike a lot of ethnic papers that promote the community as opposed to covering it.”

The partnership between FIU and the paper will last beyond the academic year, Beatty says: “It’s ongoing ? we hope forever. The quality is really superb. The editing has been minimal, although, of course Neil is their primary editor.”

And for the j-students, Liberty City has become an unlikely comfort zone.

“The kids have just dived into it,” adds Reisner . “They’re down there all the time ? and I haven’t heard a word of trepidation from them.”

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