Academy Grad’s Real Trial Begins

AAJ student hired by Pittsburgh City Paper

[Updated 8/29/02 2 p.m., clarifying topic and placement of Reader story by Ernesto Lon Dono.]

In the current incredible shrinking economy, Brentin Mock found a gem — an employer who not only offered the recent college graduate a job tailored to suit his experience level, but was willing to hold it for two months while Mock polished his skills halfway across the country.

Mock, 24, is this year’s first success story of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, an intensive eight-week course for minority journalism students taught by editors and educators at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.

An April graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a B.A. in English, Mock now occupies a desk in the newsroom of the Pittsburgh City Paper, to which he contributed as a freelance writer for several months before attending the Academy.

“We were really hoping he would get in,” says Editor Andy Newman, who also provided Mock a letter of recommendation when he applied to the Academy earlier this year. “He’s a great young writer for us to have on our staff.”

In 1998, the Chicago Reader, with Executive Editor Mike Lenehan’s guidance, began a summer program at Medill to recruit minority students from the Chicago area for a five-week basic journalism course, followed by an equal amount of time interning for print and broadcast media outlets. In 2000, after lobbying from the Reader and Medill faculty member Abe Peck, the university recrafted the Academy to more narrowly focus on writing for alternative print media and New Times made its first contribution to the academy’s funding.

From a local Chicago focus and a $35,000 annual Reader budget, the Academy has grown to a $100,000 summer budget, including $50,000 from AAN. Roughly 750 students and freelancers applied from around the country for 10 fellowship seats in this year’s class, which wrapped up earlier this month. Only 50 candidates applied last year.

“It does a little something for your confidence” to know you’ve been chosen for such an exclusive education, says Mock.

In the six months he freelanced for the City Paper, Mock pitched many of his own story ideas.

“I really try to comb through the black communities to see what stories are being overlooked by the other black press in Pittsburgh,” he says.

The Academy taught him to tailor his stories into the narrative, magazine-style format used for cover stories at many alternative papers. His new job, which he started last week, is teaching him how to work on a weekly deadline.

“He attended his first editorial meeting and he stayed awake, so he’s ahead of the game already,” Newman says.

Lenehan hopes that each year Academy grads will be snapped up by alt-weeklies.

“If we got two landed at AAN publications, I’d consider that pretty good.”

Last year, two graduates went on to alties — one to the Reader as an editorial assistant, and one to the San Antonio Current on an AAN diversity internship grant.

“I think it’s an embarrassment and a scandal, the lack of [minority] representation that we have at our papers,” says Newman. “The papers should try to look like the cities they’re covering. We’re trying to look a little more like the city we represent and trying to be as interesting as the city we represent.”

Newman says Pittsburgh is 25 percent black, while the surrounding county is roughly 12 percent. By contrast, his staff of nine includes one African-American and one Indian-American, as well as four women.

Another of this year’s graduates, Ernesto Lon Dono, a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Miami, had a story in last week’s Chicago Reader, a piece on “a Social Security ‘matching’ program that’s causing major problems for undocumented workers and businesses that employ them,” Lenehan says.

One of the 2001 graduates had a Reader cover story last year, and for months following graduation, Lenehan says the Reader tries to publish as many of the student articles as possible.

Lenehan says the entire Academy team, including Director Charles Whitaker and the other editors who lecture and edit student papers are “all basically preaching the same things” regarding what is important in alternative journalism, Lenehan adds.

“We don’t really expect to produce finished feature writers, or even finished feature articles — though we use those as goals and sometimes we succeed,” Lenehan says. “Instead we feel like we’re planting seeds — creating a small army of future writers who will use the tools we teach them and, we hope, make significant contributions to the alternative press years from now.”

For the past three years, each student has used the eight weeks to write a multi-thousand-word feature story on a particular issue. Next year, Academy staff are pondering whether to instead assign profiles. For example, instead of writing about health care, a student might research a topic and use the stories of one or a few people to highlight the issue in question.

“If we ever get (the curriculum) down to a set course, … it’ll be time for me to retire,” Lenehan says.

Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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