2004 Academy Fellows Gain an Alternative Outlook

Newly educated in the ways of alt-weeklies, this year’s Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows are prepared to put the program’s lessons in action.

The Academy — at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism — was founded in 2000 with seed money from the Chicago Reader and the New Times Group, and has since been funded by grants from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and AAN member papers. The program’s chief aims are the promotion of diversity in alt-weekly newsrooms and the grooming of young talent for the industry.

“Diversity is an industry-wide problem and needs an industry-wide solution,” says Mike Lenehan, executive editor of the Chicago Reader, a key player in the Academy’s formation and the Diversity Chair on AAN’s board of directors. With media outlets competing for the best minority prospects, the program pools resources to put “alts on the table with big players who might have the inside track because of internships and so forth.”

Increasing diversity is difficult, he admits, “like emptying the ocean with a soup spoon,” and the final stages of the Academy’s admissions process are colorblind. But Lenehan is cautiously optimistic. “We have to hope for results over a period of time,” he says.

Already, he notes, the Academy is attracting nationwide attention, evidenced by this year’s 420 applicants. “Word of mouth is pretty good.”

Ryan Nave of University City, Mo., one of this year’s fellows, knew two people who had participated in the program. Both, he says, spoke highly of it.

Other applicants stumbled upon the Academy nearly by accident. David Downs, another of this year’s participants, was temping at a property management firm when he read about the program in an alt-weekly classified ad. “The opportunity just seemed incredibly choice,” he says.

Fellows arrive with distinct talents, ambition

Before the program commenced, Downs says, he and other fellows contacted each other via Friendster, an online chat site. “I remember thinking this was going to be a heavy-hitting crew.”

He was right.

Charles Whitaker, director of the Academy, says, “At the risk of insulting past classes, this one was the most hardworking — uniformly hardworking — I’ve had.” Upon arrival, he says, students, “took on very challenging assignments. They took the [program] very seriously.”

Mosi Secret of Brooklyn, N.Y., who interned at the Nation and the Village Voice before attending the Academy this year, says, “Most of us put pressure on ourselves in the first two weeks. Many of us went in with a competitive attitude. As we settled in, it became much more collegial.”

Living on the same floor of a hotel on Chicago’s Miracle Mile expedited the bonding experience. Jennifer Derilo, an Academy fellow from San Diego, Calif., says, “We would have our differences and our dysfunctional moments since we lived and worked together. But we bonded. And if we hadn’t had those ups and downs, we wouldn’t have been as tight as we were.”

Whitaker saw the students mesh and begin helping one another. “Those who didn’t have journalism experience got tips from those who did,” he says.

Nave puts it simply: “I fed off other people.”

Program promotes self-sufficiency, offers a guiding hand

Fellows learned the nuts-and-bolts of reporting: establishing sources, performing research, and honing their investigative and interview techniques. For many, the most valuable lesson learned was how to find and shape a story independently.

“I didn’t expect [the instructors at the Academy] to give us such a long leash,” says Downs. Dropping into a new town — with no sources and no connections — and having to get a story, he says, forced him to wonder, “Do I have what it takes?” He answered in the affirmative, writing a story examining the U.S. Postal Service’s role in Chicago’s drug trade.

Students weren’t completely abandoned to their own devices. Explains Derilo, “I didn’t expect to have the best of both worlds — independence and support. Charles always provided just enough guidance to get you going. But if you were in trouble, real or imagined, he was there.”

Students are effusive in their praise for Whitaker. According to Secret, “Charles is just a very good mentor. I’ve never run into people before this who are driven to help young writers. It was refreshing to meet a guy who cared so much.”

Whitaker modestly says that after five years, he’s simply grown into the job.

Academy opens eyes to alt-weeklies

During the summer, fellows were visited by four editors from New Times papers: John Mecklin of SF Weekly, Stephen Buel of East Bay Express, Tony Ortega of The Pitch and Margaret Downing of Houston Press. Hearing from those with extensive knowledge of the alt-weekly industry’s inner workings proved illuminating.

Downs credits the speakers with demystifying the alt-weeklies. “The editorial choices [made by alt-weeklies] made me scratch my head sometimes. It was a primer on how to deal with these papers,” from pitching articles to establishing editorial contacts.

Says Secret, “As a freelancer, my editors were always hands-off. [The guest speakers] gave me a sense of how great an editor could be.” Secret was so impressed by Downing that he accepted a six-month fellowship at Houston Press. “She gave such a great talk that I felt I could really grow under her.”

Secret isn’t the only fellow among this year’s class who has signed on with an AAN member paper. Vrinda Normand of San Francisco, Calif., has been hired as a staff writer for Metro Silicon Valley.

Whitaker notes that the Academy has always forged connections between writers and editors. At times, however, other commitments prevent students from taking offers from alt-weeklies immediately after the program concludes.

Downs will be writing for Wired magazine, but says his number one priority is to freelance for the East Bay Express. “Alt-weeklies take risks,” he says, a tendency he finds appealing.

Nave points out that the Academy has equipped him to write features in papers and magazines. But he’s quick to add, “If anything, [the experience] solidified my desire to work for alt-weeklies.”

Secret admits that he used to think that alt-weekly articles were too ideologically driven for his tastes — that is, until the Academy gave him a compilation of 2003 Alternative Newsweekly Award-winning articles. He read it, and came away impressed by the consistently high quality of character-driven storytelling. “I’ve always had creative urges that weren’t satisfied [writing] hard news,” he says. He feels no such frustration with the style favored by alt-weeklies, saying, “I feel right at home.”