'Like Working in a True Newsroom'

By Amy Olson and Peggy J. Rader

Magazine Production Class Gives Writers and Editors Hands-On Experience

Misplaced commas, beware: Ellen Burkhardt's eagle eye will find you.

"I take great satisfaction in seeing a sentence go from dysfunctional to functional with the right punctuation," says Burkhardt, who began her job as an assistant editor at Minnesota Monthly magazine in November.

The Burnsville, Minn., native and spring 2010 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication credits the experience she gained serving as editor in the SJMC's magazine editing and production course, Journalism 5174, in spring 2010. Under her leadership, the class produced a magazine titled refuge {shelter from the storm}.

"As editor-in-chief of refuge, I got the opportunity to put everything I'd been taught in classrooms and internships into use. The chance to build a publication from scratch was priceless," Burkhardt says.

Every spring and fall, the students in the class choose a theme and build a magazine and website around it. Both provide valuable additions to student portfolios. Adjunct instructors Jeanne Schacht and Elizabeth Larsen teach the course.

This is not a class exercise. It's the real deal.

Students apply for roles in the class in much the same way they would apply for a job. They list their skills, talents and experiences. Larsen and Schacht name editors and art directors. Students debate, reject and finally accept themes by votes.

Sometimes those themes arise through class conversations. In spring semester 2010 as classmates tossed around theme ideas including examining how people live richly in tough times, one student made an impassioned pitch that swayed the group to explore the concept of sanctuary.

Yuridia Ramirez, Larry Gandy, Matt Carlson and Ken Nelson proof the cover of Blur magazine. The four students said the process of producing a magazine from concept to finished product was invaluable to building experience and portfolios.

Refuge is about finding shelter of all kinds. The stories ranged from a profile of a young woman who decided to become a Catholic nun to a piece about efforts to make rooms at a local children's hospital more welcoming.

"Our only rules about the theme is that it should be a topic that matters, that allows for a diverse set of stories -- humorous, serious, that make a difference," Larsen says. The Milton L. Kaplan Memorial Fund provides money to pay for printing.

The concept for the fall 2010 semester's magazine, Blur: the art of undefining, focuses on the "culture of global ambiguity," according to its website.

Reporting on an enterprising couple who opened La Loma Tamales in the Midtown Global Market and how soccer helped recent immigrants to the United States from Myanmar find senses of self and community was eye-opening for staff writer Yuridia Ramirez. Ramirez herself is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

"I got to step back a little bit from the reality that is our... college experience in this little microcosm we have here and look at the real world and what people outside the United States are exper-iencing," she said in the video posted on Blur's website.

Ellen Burkhardt, B.A., spring 2010, examines a proof of Blur, produced by students in the fall 2010 magazine editing and production course. Burkhardt served as editor of the publication, refuge {shelter from the storm}, produced during the spring 2010 semester. She spoke to students taking the class during the fall 2010 term about how she's applied what she learned.

That ability to examine issues through in-depth reporting and writing is what drew Burkhardt to magazines in the first place, she told students in the fall 2010 class during a visit. It was something she appreciated more after working at The Minnesota Daily and interning with WCCO-TV, where time and space constraints limited in-depth storytelling.

Magazines lend themselves well to examining stereotypes and less mainstream topics that otherwise go unexplored, Burkhardt adds. Consider refuge's piece on role playing games, such as "World of Warcraft." People in mainstream culture might perceive the online role-playing game as the violent pastime of choice among social misfits.

For players, however, it serves as an escape from the pressures of work or school, and it connects them with new friends across town or across the globe. One couple featured in refuge's article married after meeting through playing the game.

"They're regular people with regular lives. This is their outlet," Burkardt says.

The class usually is made up of second-semester seniors preparing to graduate and find jobs. It offers students chances to experience all the angst of putting out a real magazine in a relatively safe environment.

"We swoop in when needed," Larsen says, "but our goal is for them to actually put the magazine together themselves. They learn a lot of practical skills, but they also learn a lot of soft skills about getting along, learning to take criticism, learning how to offer criticism. It can be really hard to take an edit and it's better to experience it first here."

The class also teaches creative problem solving to work around typical snafus that occur before publication. Rewrit-ing a cutline can salvage a photograph that otherwise would poorly illustrate a story, for instance.

"What they get is working on a team that is hierarchical. Managing is a tough skill to learn, and being managed by people who are learning to manage isn't always easy," Larsen says. "Plus, Jeanne and I are not academics. We work in our fields. And we don't budge on expectations."

Those real-world expectations and experiences such as working on the website are what made the class valuable for senior Larry Gandy.

"It was like working in a true newsroom," says Gandy, whose dream job is working for the New York Times or Rolling Stone. Plus, the printed magazine and website will give him and his classmates important contributions to their print and online portfolios. "It's something to show them my experience... that I'm not just a greenhorn."

Burkhardt agrees.

"There were a lot of long nights when Elizabeth had to rip the copy out of my hands... It hit home when it was my magazine going to press that errors would reflect badly on me and my staff."

The attention to detail -- innate and learned -- helped Burkhardt land her job as assistant editor at Minnesota Monthly, where she edits stories at all phases of production.

"I literally have my fingerprints on everything" in each edition, says the self-described writer at heart, adding that experience combined with shepherding refuge's publication will help her write those in-depth features some day.

Many SJMC graduates who took the course now work at local, regional and national publications.

"We're always so impressed at how competent and skilled they are," Schacht says.

Burkhardt urges students who take the class to treat their work for the course just like they would treat a real job.

"It really is your chance to put into use what you're learning," Burkhardt says. "If you treat yourself like a professional, the people you interview will treat you like a professional."

Find Refuge or Blur the Lines

Want to read the students' work? Log onto blurmagazine.sjmc.umn.edu to read Blur or check out Refuge {shelter from the storm.}



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This page contains a single entry by cla published on April 5, 2011 10:26 AM.

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