Two AltWeekly Award winners this year have something in common — both Ayana Taylor and Michael Marsh attended the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago.
The academy, funded by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and its Alternative Newsweekly Foundation, is a six-week summer program that sends 10 people a year to the streets of Chicago, each one assigned to write a well-researched feature story. The academy teaches students how to pick story ideas, structure stories, and tighten writing, and it apparently teaches skills necessary for award-winning writing.
“The main thing they taught me was what an interesting story is, not just to myself but to whatever my target audience would be,” Taylor said.
Taylor won first place in the News Story–Short Form category for her stories that appeared in Jackson Free Press. She was an AAN Diversity Intern at the Free Press before going to the academy. (Abraham Mahshie, who was part of a team at the San Antonio Current that won first place in the Media Reporting/Criticism category, was also a diversity intern.) Taylor attended the academy in Summer 2004 shortly after graduating from Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
“The pieces that were chosen all had at least one twist to them, and that’s also something you learn from the academy — how to find that interesting, quirky, different element,” Taylor said.
Marsh, an editorial assistant at the Chicago Reader, echoed that idea, and said the academy taught students to find good stories, not “puffy human interest stories.”
“There had to be some sort of compelling narrative,” he said.
Marsh also said the rigorous research and interviewing involved in the story he did at the academy helped him prepare for his part in the group project “15 Candidates! We Can Help: The Reader’s Guide to the Big Showdown,” which won second place in the Format Buster category.
Though his academy story — about decreased CTA bus service to a Chicago high school — never ran, the sources he developed led him to three other stories he helped write for the Reader. The project also gave him the opportunity to spend hours in the public library doing research and interviewing politicians, great practice for the interviewing done for the award-winning story.
“That was a bit of a challenge because everyone has an agenda, so it was sort of a challenge to ask intelligent questions as well as sort out who is being sincere and who isn’t,” Marsh said about the interviewing he did for his academy story.
Marsh was working at the Chicago Reader prior to attending the academy in 2001 but said his writing really improved afterward. He said the academy classes taught him a lot about story structure and story choice.
“It was pretty intense, but I gained a great deal,” he said.
Lindsay Kishter is a junior at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and is interning at AAN for the summer.