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Plugged In

Black College Wire provides HBCU students an outlet to display their journalism talents and gain real-world experience

By Michelle Nealy

Five years ago, Pearl Stewart, then a roving journalist for Freedom Forum, scoured the southern region of the United States to assess student newspapers at historically Black colleges and universities to help them improve. To her dismay, Stewart found many student newspapers floundering under administrative red tape and budget cuts. In a February 2000 edition of Black Issues, Stewart wrote an article titled, “All News Doesn’t Make it to Print,” revealing the inadequate conditions under which many HBCU student newspapers were produced.

The story highlighted journalism students at Shaw University in North Carolina that had never written a story for a student newspaper and students at Lincoln University in Missouri who were producing the student newspaper on their personal computers.

“School administrations were not supporting student newspapers,” recalls Stewart. “There was a lack of funding, staff and commitment.”
The most alarming problem concerning the  newspapers, Stewart says, is the irregularity of their publishing schedules. “Some newspapers only come out once a semester.”

According to Ronald Spielberger, executive director of College Media Advisers, there are 102 predominantly White institutions that produce daily college papers. Less than 10 student newspapers at HBCUs are published weekly and only one newspaper, Howard University’s The Hilltop, goes to press daily.

Stewart recognized that another drawback for student journalists at Black institutions was the lack of communication among HBCUs. “I heard students talking about how they did not know what was going on at other schools less than 50 miles away. Students expressed the desire to somehow be linked together,” Stewart says.
So she began brainstorming a solution to address these problems. She wanted to create an online forum where HBCU students could discuss the issues that were unique to them. Conversations with Eric Newton, director of Journalism Initiatives for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, led to a $200,000 grant that created Black College Wire <>, the first online news exchange designed to showcase the journalistic contributions of students from Black colleges. The National Association of Black Journalists serves as the financial administrator of the grant.
Founded in 2002, BCW is a platform for students to display their work on a credible Web site as well as the opportunity to receive professional editing. On BCW, readers find news stories, editorials, features and interactive audio streams. The site links 22 HBCU newspapers and serves as a free wire service exclusively dedicated to the happenings on Black college campuses. Students at Hampton University provide content for the First Amendment Watch, which monitors administrative censorships asserted by school officials at HBCUs.

Journalism 101
After BCW’s first year, Stewart realized the implementation of a Web site alone was not enough to cure the ills of many HBCU journalism programs.

“These schools needed help from professionals in the industry,” says Stewart, who in company with Dr. Reginald Owens, a former professor at Grambling State University, decided that an internship component was necessary to give HBCU students an opportunity to produce professional-level copy frequently. Stewart, who’d been metro editor at the Oakland Tribune, and Owens, holder of the F. Jay Taylor Endowed Chair in Journalism at Louisiana Technical University, recognized that for students entering the professional arena of journalism, experience working at a weekly or daily newspaper was key.

“I have spent most of my life as an individual and as a teacher trying to create journalism opportunities for students. Therefore, I have a pretty good idea of what is there and what is needed. Too many African-Americans don’t have enough of the professional, academic or social skills to excel in this field. It is a matter of a professional setting,” says Owens, who now serves as BCW’s internship coordinator.

The summer program offers paid internships to college sophomores, juniors, seniors and recent graduates. Students work as reporters, copy editors, photographers and page designers at participating Black newspapers. Prior to formally starting work at their publications, they attend an all-expense paid four-day training and orientation session.

This year’s orientation workshop was sponsored by a $22,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and held at the Freedom Forum (Diversity) Institute in Nashville, Tenn. Interns got the opportunity to interact with some of the industry’s top journalists such as Jean Thompson, former editorial board member of the Baltimore Sun and Gethan Ward, business writer for The Tennessean.

Owens describes the training as Journalism 101. Over the course of four days, interns performed exercises in fact checking, lead writing and AP style. To simulate a typical daily newspaper’s newsroom environment, interns were given an assignment and asked to turn it around in four hours or less.

“The training was like journalism boot camp,” says Roberta Dooms, a junior broadcast journalism major at Howard University and a BCW reporter. Dooms, who has written three stories this summer, says that with the training she has received on her internship thus far, she has the confidence to do anything journalism related. “We are learning everything,” she says.

Joi Gilliam, a senior print journalism major also at Howard, says, “Working with BCW has made me a better and more aggressive reporter.” Gilliam will serve as the copy chief for The Hilltop during the upcoming academic year and believes that her experience with BCW has made her a more efficient journalist. “I want to make sure that [information] is accurate and that the newspaper is mistake free.”

Dooms and Gilliam work under the tutelage of Richard Prince, columnist for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. A veteran journalist, Prince says the purpose of the BCW program is to shape Black journalists at their student newspapers by improving the quality and the frequency of these publications. He says that BCW internships do the things schools are unable to accomplish as a result of overburdened faculty and antiquated equipment.

BCW receives more than 18,000 hits a month. Sections like “Voices,” “Culture” and “Student Life” delve into the interests and concerns of HBCU students. Stories from contributors have been featured on AOL’s “Black Voices,” the Sacramento Observer and the Chicago Defender.
Stewart, who most recently served as the internship director at Florida A&M University’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, says that BCW is planning to move into convergence and multimedia. The site will soon feature video streams to complement the current audio options.

“We are the only people using newspaper material from Black colleges as content for our Web site,” Stewart says. “We’re the definitive online news service for HBCUs.”

According to Owens, “There are several news services for mainstream college newspapers, but before Black College Wire, there were none for HBCU newspapers and college students. Black students, alums and supporters now have a central place to go. Black College Wire was instituted to help provide experience opportunities for Black students. They have certainly gotten that.”

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