Alternative Academy Deemed a Success

Minorities educated on investigative reporting and alternative newspaper industry.

The first-ever Academy of Alternative Journalism has come to a close and those most intimately involved in the infant program are declaring it a success.

The Academy, hosted at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism, was designed to introduce minority journalists to the alternative press. It was funded by a $55,000 donation from the Chicago Reader. The money was used to pay a $2,500 stipend to each of the 11 students accepted to the intensive, nine-week program, which included classroom instruction, seminars hosted by accomplished writers and an assignment of one in-depth, alternative-style feature story.

The student’s features were a huge success, according to the Academy’s Director and Medill instructor Stephan Garnett. Most of the students selected their own topics, ranging from an investigative piece on illegal Chinese immigrants to a profile on a day in the life of a group of standup comedians. One of Garnett’s favorites was turned in by a graduate student with an interest in the adult entertainment industry and nagging doubts about her ability to work for several weeks on one story.

Cindy Barrymore, who is studying journalism at Roosevelt University in Chicago, said recently she’d been waiting for the opportunity to become “a long-form writer so I could show my chops.” Still, she said she wondered how far she could stretch one topic.

By the end of the nine-week program, Barrymore had composed a 6,600-word story about Chicago’s underground Dominatrix scene.

“She was able to get putting herself right there on the scene,” Garnett said. “This revealed to her that she can do a really in-depth story.”

This new program follows the similar Academy for Future Journalists, which was launched in the mid-90s with financial support from the Reader. That program was offered to high school students and did not place emphasis on minority recruiting. Garnett said the new formula is more productive, allowing students interested in a journalism career to refine their investigative and composition skills.

While Reader Executive Editor Mike Lenehan thinks the Academy will help the alternative newspaper industry eventually accomplish its long-term goal of attracting minorities into its newsrooms, he admitted that the program still needs work.

For example, Lenehan said he wants the Academy to rely more on guest speakers than classroom instruction to teach the touchstones of alternative reporting: arts and entertainment coverage, personal voice, investigative reporting and narrative journalism. Lenehan said that he believes those talents are difficult to teach and are more apt to be transferred in a “mystical” fashion, like a flash of inspiration ignited by a dedicated journalist.

“I think we learned a lot about the years ahead,” Lenehan said. ” I’m more convinced than ever that the biggest difference between a newspaper writer and an alternative paper writer is a mastery of story structure.”

Where the program did succeed, Lenehan said, was in educating talented, minority journalists about what it means to write for alternative papers.

“I think what we did best this year was identify promising people coming out of j-school and planting the idea of the alternative press in their minds as a career option,” Lenehan said. “We… as an industry, we were the first to come up to [minority students] and make them feel like they are wanted.”

But the ultimate benefit, according to both Lenehan and Garnett, is to make the industry and the university more diverse. Both men would like to see additional donations from the pockets of AAN-members to accomplish that goal.

At this year’s annual AAN convention, New Times Inc. made a sizable contribution for next year’s Academy and the Reader plans to continue its annual donation. Garnett wants the amount of funding doubled from this year, allowing the school to pay for room and board and to recruit top prospects from around the country.

This year’s batch was almost exclusively from Chicago and each student was required to find his own housing.

“We want more elaborate recruiting. More money for travel and living expenses,” Lenehan said. ” We want it to be national in scope.”

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