Academy Recruits Minority Journalists

Training ground for the alternative press

Gypsy culture, hip-hop and the safety records of post-deregulation nuclear power plants were just some of the subjects investigated by students enrolled in this summer’s Medill Academy for Alternative Journalism.

Through classroom instruction by Medill faculty and guest lectures by professionals from the alternative press, Academy students focused on long-form journalism and literary techniques that are signature traits of most alternative weeklies.

This year’s participants included six African Americans, two Hispanics, one Caucasian and one Asian American. The four men and six women, who ranged in age from 20 to 36, hailed from places such as Louisiana, Texas, California and Hawaii.

“Everyone got along beautifully,” said Stephan Garnett, a Medill adjunct lecturer who served as the Academy’s lead instructor. “These people are outstanding.”

Garnett believes the lack of minorities working for the alternative press can be attributed, in part, to a lack of familiarity. “I don’t think many minorities are aware of the alternative press,” he said, adding many editors and publishers of alternative weeklies say they would hire more minorities if they could find qualified candidates.

“They need to hire these people and put them to work,” Garnett said of this year’s class.

Each student was required to complete a 5,000-word feature story on the topic of his or her choice. Articles included an investigative piece by Shelley Smithson, a 29-year-old University of Illinois graduate student, on the safety of nuclear power plants after deregulation. Catharine Lo, a 27-year-old freelance writer from Hawaii, wrote a piece on fortune telling and Gypsy culture. Robert Waddell, a 36-year-old New York journalist, profiled a photographer who has documented two changing Puerto Rican communities, and Kamilah Duggins, a 23-year-old staff writer for a Houston-based magazine, wrote an article examining death and faith through the eyes of a hospital chaplain.

Students receive $3,000 stipends, adding to the program’s diversity by allowing participants of varying economic backgrounds to come to Medill and hone their skills. Financial assistance for travel and housing is also provided for qualified students.

The Academy for Alternative Journalism was launched in 1998 by the Chicago Reader to recruit minority journalists into the alternative press. In 2000, New Times made a major donation to the program, and at this summer’s AAN convention, the board voted to contribute $50,000 to the Academy for next year’s program.

Keith Pandolfi is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.

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