Out of the classroom and into the newsroom
Students become community journalists and an SJMC legacy grows with Brovald and Sim Community Journalism course.
by Kristen Anderson
I started my senior year in Murphy Hall without any practical experience to my name. I had many goals for my final year, but at the top of my list was to get some kind of experience to take with me into the "real world." I decided to take the Brovald and Sim Community Newspaper Practicum in order to fulfill this goal. Through this class, I was placed in a semester-long internship at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, an exclusively online publication that covers the core Minneapolis/St. Paul areas.
My first assignment was--to say the least--nerve-racking. Really, for the first time, I was leading strangers in conversation to obtain information for a story. Over the course of the semester, the calls for interviews became easier, the questions became more in depth and I began to take an ownership that I hadn't felt before in the work I was doing.
The Brovald and Sim Community Newspaper course offers a unique opportunity for students to get practical experience while receiving school credit. Students may start by shadowing a reporter or get placed on their own assignments, resulting in published clips. Clips are critical for the job search and future career opportunities. The class combines this practical internship with classroom time and guest speakers, providing students with the chance to start creating their own network in the journalism field.
The class is one of a few at the University of Minnesota to be named after someone, or in this case two people. Walter H. Brovald and John Cameron Sim both were professors at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. After their deaths, the School received numerous memorial gifts and with those contributions started an endowment to help fund the class and ensure that community journalism would have a place in the curriculum. Because of this endowment, students enrolled in the course receive a stipend. Some students drive as far as Forest Lake or Stillwater several times a week to cover news in their assigned communities. The stipend is available to help cover transportation costs.
Journalism at the community level is the fundamental building block of the trade. It tells people what is going on in their own backyards. "Storytelling is what it's all about," says Joni Berg, co-instructor for the practicum.
Berg and Lee Ann Schutz teamed up five years ago to share the practicum teaching position. Schutz, a former editor of several community newspapers, and Berg, a visual editor concerned with page design, layout and news presentation online and in print, each bring a different perspective to the class. "We work well together because we're like a newsroom. We don't always agree, but that's good," Berg says. Together, they teach students a strong work ethic, the importance of meeting deadlines, how to create a quality product and also simple principles such as arriving on time for an interview and dressing professionally. "When students walk out of this class they are ready to work," Berg says.
In the changing world of newspapers, journalists are expected to do a lot more with their time than they used to. Besides writing the same number of stories as before, today's business model may ask reporters to shoot their own photographs, blog several times a day and even edit their own stories as they go, which can then be upIn the changing world of newspapers, journalists are expected to do a lot more with their time than they used to. Besides writing the same number of stories as before, today's business model may ask reporters to shoot their own photographs, blog several times a day and even edit their own stories as they go, which can then be uploaded online immediately. These are the responsibilities that Berg and Schutz aim to prepare students for through a variety of classroom speakers and an ever-changing curriculum that adapts to whatever topics are relevant at the time. Because journalism is a constantly changing field, the class and its focus must change too.
"So many students come into the class with this preconceived notion about what community journalism is," Schutz says. People seem to look down on the idea of working at a community paper, thinking that a major daily paper is the place to be. "At first they don't know about the community, but by the third class students start saying 'my editor,' 'my paper,' 'my town,' " Schutz says.
Such was the case with Jake Weyer, assistant editor at the Southwest and Downtown Journals. "I never thought that I would be at a community newspaper," says Weyer, who worked at a large daily before taking his current position. "Community journalism is available and vital."
Weyer has been involved in working with an intern from the class for the past three years. Because the staff is so small at the two papers he edits (there is a total of four reporters for the journals), interns basically do the same job as staff reporters. The interns are "not getting coffee" for people, but are instead "working their butts off writing and filling up the newspaper," Weyer says.
"In reality, many students won't work for large daily newspapers," he says. "I get to share what I've learned over the years with up-and-coming journalists who will hopefully be able to make a difference in the communities they work for."
Schutz recognizes this community involvement from her own background. She describes going to events, such as graduation parties, and later seeing stories that she had written presented on picture boards and in scrapbooks. People use community papers as tools to document their own lives. They are both thrilled with the good coverage and equally upset with the bad coverage. Through situations like these, reporters can feel "the essence of a community and what that can bring--a sense of belonging," Schutz says. "You are invisible at a big daily paper, but when you're in a community paper you're held accountable for your work."
It is clear from the ease with which stories flow from both Berg and Schutz that they are passionate about what they do. They feed off of each other's energy as they talk about their experiences in journalism and they bring that energy to class to share with students. But what is one way to upset them? To not have a grasp of the written language or to be careless in the construction of it: to use "there" or "their" instead of "they're." "It's like going into our church and throwing mud at God," Berg says.
Aside from the leadership of the two dedicated journalists who teach the practicum, the course could not function without the contributions of time and effort on the part of local editors. "The editors are so patient. They want to see (students) succeed because they love journalism so much," Schutz says.
Longtime editor of the Shakopee Valley News, Pat Minelli, has mentored interns from the class for many years. "I enjoy explaining my craft--my profession--to someone. It is a pleasure to direct them. I certainly hope that they learn we really produce some great journalism and that we can still be very proud of the work we do," Minelli says. He has never had a bad experience with an intern from the class.
An internship is a sure way to produce writing clips that are essential to career development. But getting that first experience can seem a bit elusive. So the question is: How do I get my first internship? The community newspaper practicum provides this opportunity. Most students come out of the class as better writers and more prepared for future employment. I know I did.
"I think that is the most satisfying thing--to see people grow and change," Schutz says.
About the community newspaper course
The Brovald and Sim Community Newspaper Practicum is a reality thanks to Walter H. Brovald and John Cameron "Cam" Sim, who understood the important role of community-based journalism.
Walter H. Brovald died of a heart attack on Jan. 25, 1991, at the age of 62. Brovald joined the SJMC faculty in 1968. Not only did he teach and act as adviser to student publications, but he was well-respected for his work as editor and publisher of the Cadott Sentinel, a rural Wisconsin weekly. Sim, a leading authority on the community press and author of "Grass Roots Press: America's Weekly Newspapers," taught in Murphy Hall for 25 years before retiring in 1981. He died Sept. 25, 1990.
In 1991, families and friends of these two longtime journalism school professors established the Brovald-Sim Fund, which provides financial support for students in the community newspaper course.
The goal of this class, from its inception through today, is to help students understand the benefits and importance of local newspapers, and to help create a bond between students and community journalism. Grassroots journalism in our communities is more important than ever in a society that is increasingly news hungry and seeks reliable and ethical reporting of news at a local level.
The SJMC is grateful to the local newspapers listed below that support our students with internships as part of the course:
- Asian American Press
- The Bridge
- The Catholic Spirit
- Downtown Journal
- Eden Prairie News
- Forum Publications
- Insight News
- Jordan Independent
- Lakeshore Weekly News
- Lillie Suburban Newspapers
- Minnesota Women's Press
- La Prensa
- Press Publications: White Bear Press
- Shakopee Valley News
- South Washington County Bulletin
- Southwest Journal
- Stillwater Courier
- Sun Newspapers
- Thisweek Newspapers
- Twin Cities Daily Planet
- Woodbury Bulletin
Kristen Anderson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota's journalism program. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, downhill skiing, rock climbing and enjoying time with family and friends.