Not long after the Jackson Free Press won an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ Diversity Internship grant, Ayana Taylor found herself at the paper immersed in researching and composing articles on a wide array of issues affecting the black community in Mississippi. She wrote about AIDS, proposed voter ID laws that could intimidate elderly citizens, and legislative activities at the State Capitol, and she did investigative stories about lynchings in the South.
The Free Press was one of two winners of the winter/spring 2004 Diversity Internship grants. The internship program allows AAN member papers to hire and train promising young minority journalists with the hope they will choose a career path in the alternative press. Twice a year, two winning publications receive a $2,500 grant, which they use to help support a selected intern.
During her five-month internship, Taylor even reported on the national election, covering Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s visit to the state. Free Press Editor Donna Ladd says that while the dailies and other news organizations fixated on only five minutes of Kerry’s speech that dealt with the topic of gay marriage, Taylor not only reported on the entirety of his speech but also pointed out slanted coverage in the other media outlets. As a result, many of the news organizations later received complaints that pointed to the young Taylor’s work as an example of fair and balanced reporting. According to Ladd, as Taylor was given more opportunities to report on serious topics for the Free Press, her confidence and initiative grew tremendously, “especially in asking the more difficult questions.”
A year ago, Taylor had just completed her junior year as a journalism major at Tougaloo College, a historically black university in Tougaloo, Miss. While she had already been editor of the student paper at school, she was ready to start earning real-world experience, so she signed on as an unpaid intern for the Free Press. Originally, she was more interested in covering fashion and nightlife, but when the paper decided it wanted to set up a political blog to cover candidates during the state election, Taylor found herself taking the lead in developing the project.
In the process, she discovered that she had not only a knack but a sincere interest in covering local issues. Ladd remembers that Taylor was immediately interested in covering the political beat and, more importantly, “she was doing her homework” when it came to very complex issues. Taylor herself remembers the excitement of interviewing political figures for that blog. “We were able to ask the candidates questions important to our age group. Questions no one was asking in the mainstream media.”
Taylor’s internship has helped the Free Press, a very new publication and Jackson’s only alternative newspaper, to reach out to the black community and expand its coverage of the culture and issues that are an integral part of living in the South. In addition, says Ladd, “it helped a young student to step up and get the clips she needed to get going.”
In May, Taylor graduated from college and this month she travels to Chicago, Ill., to take part in the Academy for Alternative Journalism, an eight-week fellowship program at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The program is funded by AAN and several of its member papers through the Alternative Newsweekly Foundation. When she is done there, Taylor plans to return to Mississippi and continue covering social issues in her community. “I’ve lived in Jackson pretty much all my life,” she says. “After this experience, I feel very strongly about sticking around and covering the things that really matter to the people down here.”
Abraham C. Mahshie is the other writer who obtained a position through a winter/spring 2004 Diversity Internship grant. A 2001 graduate of Dartmouth College, he says he didn’t know much about alternative newsweeklies until he started to work for one. Now, he can’t imagine working in any other environment. “I have heard the benefits of experience with a daily,” he writes in an email to AAN News. But working at an alt-weekly allowed him to explore stories deeply, “seeing how issues and policies… on the macroeconomic and international level, are changing individual lives and affecting families.”
Mahshie, who has a Cuban mother and Palestinian-Arab father, came to the attention of San Antonio Current editor Lisa Sorg after he had penned a freelance piece about a group of homeless people in San Antonio. When Sorg learned that he was of two distinct ethnic backgrounds, she felt he would be a perfect candidate for the Diversity Internship program. After the Current received the grant for a six-month internship for Mahshie, she says he “hit the ground running.”
Coming from a multi-cultural background, Mahshie has acquired working knowledge of more than a couple languages. At the Current, he was quickly able to put his multilingual skills to work. “Providing a Mexican-American, or Mexican living in a border town with the comfort level of speaking in their own language,” he writes, “and giving them a sense that you come from where they come from, allows you to get to the root of their lives and problems.” Knowing Spanish also gave Mahshie better access and insight for covering NAFTA and other U.S. trade issues south of the border, not to mention covering the predominantly Latino population in San Antonio. Having family based in Cuba also helped Mahshie get past typical visa hassles in traveling to Havana to cover trade conferences there.
Sorg says endeavors like the Diversity Internship program are important — even in towns like San Antonio, where Latinos make up the majority of the population. Noting that the pay scale at alt-weeklies is somewhat less than at larger media organizations and daily newspapers, she says the internships encourage young minority journalists to sample the unique benefits of working closer to the community and covering cultural issues the way only local alternative weeklies can.
When asked which experiences working for the Current had the greatest impact on him, Mahshie says, “I can recall two now, one where I spoke to a former convict about his tattoos made in prison. I had developed a rapport with him prior to the interview and was invited to his family’s house on Easter Sunday where we spoke for several hours about life in prison and the meaning and respect of tattoos. Another time I met former maquila workers in Reynosa, Mexico, and heard about the oppression and poor wages and working conditions they endured as a result of NAFTA trade.” These experiences “reaffirmed to me my desire to be a journalist,” Mahshie says.
Mahshie is currently applying for a variety of jobs and grants that will allow him to continue reporting out of South America. For the near future, he has received a fellowship to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he will be attending a two-year master’s program beginning in August. “I think the letter of recommendation from Lisa and my first published clip from the Current really helped with this.” Mahshie says, “But first I’m spending the summer in Argentina and Ecuador.”
Ayana Taylor Articles for the Jackson Free Press:
Kerry Heralds Education and Good Deeds in Jackson
Voter Fraud … Wink, Wink
Silent No More
Abraham Mahshie Articles for the San Antonio Current:
Rites of Spring
Scarred for Life
Romancing the Sandwich