Vanderbilt Program Trains Minorities To Be Journalists

By: Nat Hentoff

Getting It Right Column

We did not have a union at The Village Voice until Rupert Murdoch in 1976 bought the New York alternative weekly newspaper, which he owned until 1985. Knowing his dour views on unions, we swiftly organized ourselves and joined the catchall District 65 (since absorbed by the United Auto Workers). District 65’s rank and file included clerical and factory workers, and the union asked me to teach a writing course for members who had never thought of themselves as writers.

Some of these evening-course students — to their surprise — turned out to be compellingly expressive chroniclers of their own experiences, on and off the job. I was reminded of the most satisfying teaching I’ve ever done by Michael Cass’ June 24 story, “New program at VU [Vanderbilt University] trains minorities to be journalists” in The Tennessean of Nashville.

Cass told of Margaret Bailey, a pipe fitter for 20 years, whose article on an exercise class she was taking came to the attention of an editor at the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News. The editor asked her to participate in a program training local residents to write for a neighborhood news section.

Bailey went on to become a graduate of the inaugural class (June 2-Aug. 23) of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt. She is now a full-time staff writer at the Savannah Morning News.

As described in a brochure introducing its pioneer graduates and teaching staff, the Diversity Institute “is a professional fellowship for people of color who want to become daily newspaper journalists, but have not had journalism training.” Institute fellows — in the 12-week program in reporting, writing, editing, ethics, journalism history, and visual journalism — “may be people seeking a midcareer change or recent college graduates who did not attend a school with a journalism program.”

The Tennessean story also told of Roxye Arellano, 32, who went from homeless mother of three to editorial assistant and office manager for the Greeley (Colo.) Daily Tribune. After her Diversity Institute graduation last month, she was to become a community news reporter/editor for the Tribune.

Wanda S. Lloyd, executive director of the institute, was managing editor of USA Today and The Greenville (S.C.) News. She also worked at The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, the Atlanta Journal, and the Providence (R.I.) Evening Bulletin. The rest of the teaching staff also has intimate knowledge of newsrooms around the country.

Lloyd, a director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, emphasized the advantages of recruiting reporters from minority communities in the May/June issue of the Columbia Journalism Review: “Local talent enhances the ability to be more inclusive in coverage. Long-term residents often get tips that may escape transplants from other parts of the country. People of color who grew up locally often have a keen sense of community and can bring those insights to their reporting.”

My guess is that these Diversity Institute graduates — having had extensive experience in workplaces that are not often the subject of newspaper stories — will be more focused on real-world reporting, writing, and editing. It may be less festooned with the ideological identity politics that some journalists of color have manifested in their newsroom agendas, as when first-class black journalists have been rebuked by their colleagues of color for writing “negative,” however factual, stories about crime in minority neighborhoods.

The institute’s second session will start Sept. 22. Its third and fourth are scheduled for next year. “Applicants nominated by a local daily newspaper should have the written support of the editor or publisher,” according to the “Newsroom Diversity” section of the Freedom Forum’s Web site (http://www.freedomforum.org). As Lloyd suggests, “Human-resource managers and directors of other newspaper departments may know of someone in circulation, advertising, or marketing who might be a fit in the newsroom.”

My-Ly Nguyen, another member of the Diversity Institute’s inaugural graduating class, already had a master’s degree in business administration. But, as noted on the institute’s Web site, “rather than work on the business side” at the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, N.Y., she went to the institute to study journalism. “Nguyen was a city-desk news clerk while completing her MBA at Binghamton University [and] will become a suburban news reporter when she returns to the Press & Sun-Bulletin,” according to the site.

Bailey, the former pipe fitter, told The Tennessean that when she gets back to the Savannah Morning News, “I don’t hope to be an editor. All I want to be is a reporter. There are stories out there that I want to see in the paper, and, as a reporter, I have control over that. I don’t want to sit behind a desk.”

After listening to a talk on the First Amendment at the Diversity Institute, Bailey is eager to take an introductory U.S. history class when she gets home. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for some publishers to also learn what newspapers are for, and their pivotal role in American history.

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