Pioneer Press practicum celebrates 10 years of real-life journalism lessons
A decade ago, six SJMC students walked into the offices of the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn. to begin an advanced reporting class with an innovative approach: Assign the students to reporting teams, and teach the class right in the newsroom.
Devin Henry, a junior in the professional journalism track, discusses a story with Pioneer Press political editor Maria Reeve.
Photo: Tim Rummelhoff
Today, the "Pioneer Press class," as it is called, has expanded to a yearly crop of 16 students, who step into assignments as reporters or photographers for local news, features, business, politics, entertainment, sports and online. Since that first semester, SJMC lecturer Gayle "G.G." Golden has been the instructor, and the class has become a model for other Jour 4992, Field-Based Practicum, course offerings. And by now, the Pioneer Press' editors have no doubts about its value.
"Each year, it has seemed, the students have gotten smarter, more ambitious, more productive and more valuable to the Pioneer Press," says the paper's editor, Thom Fladung, who underscores the mutual benefits of young talent entering a newsroom thinned by the profound changes affecting the industry.
"Our intent is to coach, teach and help," Fladung says. "but we in turn expect them to gather information, do interviews, take pictures, work online and, ultimately, do journalism. That's exactly what they do."
Many of the students step into stories within days of getting their building IDs. Editors acknowledge that it does take extra time to work with the students, both on the front end and in editing. Some editors and reporters join the weekly class sessions to discuss journalism topics. The payoff comes with the number of stories the students generate for the newspaper and its online site. Last year's group produced 255 stories with bylines and 145 with credit lines, as well as 25 published photographs and 39 multimedia projects.
"The Pioneer Press class is giving me a chance to get the feel for local reporting at a real newspaper," says senior Alex Ebert, who is covering north suburban news for this year's class, with stories ranging from crime to city council budget actions.
Over the past decade, the students have witnessed and helped report on major stories, including the Sept. 11 attacks (which struck during the second week of the semester), the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone and the protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul.
Sue Campbell, the paper's senior editor for local news, recalls organizing "a mini-army" from last year's class to cover the RNC, sending them out on the streets, where they faced confrontations, tear gas and destruction because of the protests. "They all did exactly what they were supposed to, calling in quotes and reporting what they were seeing," she says. "All that was fed into an online report that was constantly updated throughout the day, and much of it also ended up in the paper."
As news platforms have expanded, so have the students' skills. They have produced video and audio slideshows for the paper's Web site and have applied social networking savvy to reporting projects.
"The students really are coming to us better prepared for 'real life' in the newsroom," says Campbell, who has participated in the program since its beginning. In turn, the paper has helped launch students into journalism careers locally and nationally.
SJMC graduate Bao Ong, who took the class in 2003, was eventually hired by the Pioneer Press as a full-time education reporter. Last year, he moved to New York to study cuisine and food writing. He is also reporting for The New York Times' City Room blog. "It wasn't until I got into the Pioneer Press class that I discovered a passion for journalism." Ong says. "I probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for the class."
Fladung says that despite the constrictions in the newspaper industry the practicum class is about teaching "real-life journalism lessons" that will apply no matter where the students end up. For now, he adds, "we know they bring an energy, curiosity and sense of wonder that is energizing for our newsroom."