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Engineering A Grand Plan

Engineering A Grand Plan

With a new home and plans to unveil an award for journalistic excellence, the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina A&T State University aims to be a one-stop shop for Black journalists

By Tracie Powell

C olumbia has the Pulitzer Prize, Harvard has the Nieman and the University of Georgia has the Peabody award. Now North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University has the lofty goal of joining the ranks of the elite with a prestigious journalism institute and prize all its own.

The Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies housed at A&T will unveil a rendering of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Atlanta in August.
 The medal is named for one of NABJ’s founding members and arguably one of the foremost media commentators on race relations, politics, urban affairs and African-American history. The Vernon Jarrett Medal will recognize outstanding coverage of the issues that impact the lives of African descendants and will be the centerpiece of the school’s new institute.

“I can’t think of a better way to remember Vernon Jarrett than to celebrate the excellence of Black journalists,” institute director DeWayne Wickham says. “He combined not only the best of journalism but what it means to be the best race man. He was an unabashed advocate for the interests of Black people and he was an aggressive practitioner of the craft of journalism. He saw journalism as a way to advocate for Black people.”

The medal will be attached to a monetary award and will be bestowed in much the same way as the Pulitzer Prize, says Wickham. The medal is also part of a grand plan to nurture future and current Black journalists and help increase their numbers in U.S. newsrooms.

In addition, the institute offers mid-career journalists opportunities to cover issues and events they may not get the chance to cover in their own newsrooms. It also sponsors on-campus conferences featuring seasoned journalists and offers hands-on news gathering experience to student journalists, complementing the university’s newly accredited journalism program.

It costs New York’s Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, for example, $150,000 to run its smallest prize program, which includes gold medals with a $1,000 honorariums for winners and a dinner. The budget for the Pulitzer Prize is significantly larger and isn’t included in the regular budget, says Sheila Thimba, associate dean for administrative affairs at the journalism school. The school recently discontinued one of its continuing education programs for mid-career journalists due to a lack of funding, but another program for mid-career journalists seeking master’s degrees produces revenue for the school.

Columbia’s journalism school offers limited workshops through  its continuing education program, costing approximately $190,000 annually to produce, Thimba says.

North Carolina A&T officials declined to say how much its new institute costs, but Wickham says that it won’t be a burden to the school. Eighty percent of the expenses, he says, is expected to be covered by
charitable donations.

Finding a new home
It was a chance meeting at an HBCU conference in Washington, D.C., between Wickham and A&T chancellor James Renick that initiated the institute’s move from Delaware State University. Later, during a golf outing in North Carolina with Wickham, Renick broached the subject of bringing the institute to A&T.

“It was a perfect fit,” Wickham says. “I went there with no other expectation than to play golf. We discussed the whole thing during that time and at the end, we had a handshake agreement.”

The journalism institute has found a strong supporter in Renick who views it as an opportunity to provide the highest-quality education to students, which is consistent with the university’s strategy to raise its profile.

“We think the institute will have an impact beyond an individual school, college or department,” Renick says. “In addition to the department of journalism and mass communication, there will be opportunities for political scientists, sociologists and for people in the global studies area to have an impact and to benefit from what the institute is doing. DeWayne Wickham has big dreams for the institute and so do I. We have very high aspirations for the institute, and quite frankly, we all believe it’s possible.”

Much work has already been accomplished in the seven months that the institute has been on campus. In March, Christopher Darden, one of the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson case, reflected on the trial before a standing-room only crowd of students, faculty and local Greensboro residents. That same month the institute invited a roundtable of Black reporters who cover the White House to campus for an afternoon chat, and actor/director Tim Reid discussed Black images in film to a packed room on a Friday night.

In addition, the institute sent a group of journalists to Yanga and Guerrero State, Mexico, to write about Black Mexicans in March, while another group of journalists traveled to Canada the following month to document the contributions of African Canadians. The institute will send journalists, as well as faculty representatives, to Cuba in September, followed by a trip to Ghana in October. Wickham has visited Cuba 11 times and has sponsored trips to Grenada and Haiti in the past through the institute.

An expanded mission
While the trips serve to re-ignite the fire in the bellies of journalists and remind them why they got into the business in the first place, more importantly they serve to help keep Black journalists working in the industry while inspiring others.

“What we found is that we can recruit young journalists on the front end out of high school and college, but nearly as many leave out the back door as come in through the front door,” says Wickham, who is also a syndicated columnist with USA Today. “We want to staunch the outflow by giving mid-career journalists a chance to do things here that they haven’t had a chance to do in the newsroom.”

The American Society of Newspaper Editors released a report in April showing that journalists of color represent only 13.4 percent of the newsroom work force in 2005, up slightly from 13 percent the year before. More startling among the survey’s findings is that the ominous trend of Black journalists leaving the business has worsened. Over the past five years, Black journalists have only increased their presence in newsrooms by 34. Several journalism schools and associations have made commitments to increase the number of Blacks in U.S. newsrooms in the past, but those schools and associations have been predominantly White. By placing the institute at a historically Black college, it helps focus efforts to bring about change, Wickham says.

“As a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, I know all too well that the industry has said that they cannot find Black journalists to meet their demands,” he says. “I have always felt that the problem is more one of demand, not supply. Rather than stand on the sidelines complaining and criticizing the industry, I’m placing myself and the institute squarely on the field, helping to bring more Black journalists through the front door and helping to keep mid-career journalists from leaving through the back door out of frustration.”

While the core goals of the institute are the same as they were at Delaware State, its mission has been expanded, says Tonyaa Weathersbee, a columnist for The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and a member of the institute’s advisory board. In the past, the institute focused on established journalists employed by large media companies. Now it’s doing more outreach to younger and mid-career journalists at smaller news organizations, Weathersbee says.

“When it started out, we worked a lot with people who were already established and working for big newspapers,” she says. “Later on Wickham learned that those folks aren’t necessarily the people who appreciate the opportunity. The people who appreciate the opportunity are the people who work in areas where they don’t get to go out of the office much. There’s more of a focus on people who aren’t necessarily celebrity journalists.”

As a beneficiary of the institute, Weathersbee has written about African-inspired religions in Haiti and Cuba and photographed Black Mexican families and workers in San Nicolas, Mexico. She says her travels with the institute have broadened her perspective of the world and have made her a better columnist.

While other journalism institutes focus on developing craft and skill, the institute goes beyond training.

“We do a little bit of that, but most of our focus is on taking Black journalists to places they wouldn’t normally get to go and having them write about it in a way that other journalists wouldn’t write about it,” Weathersbee says. “Poynter [Institute] and other places like that focus more on improving your craft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but once you improve your craft you need the opportunity to use it. You learn craft and you learn how to be a good journalist, but then you go back into the newsroom and write police briefs. This institute allows people to use their skills and their craft through this kind of exposure.”

Vernon Jarrett died May 22, 2004, after losing a battle with cancer. But his legacy lives on through the institute and the medal named in his honor. Jarrett began his career in 1940 at the Chicago Defender and later became the first African-American columnist at the Chicago Tribune before moving to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he remained until 1994. He was described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson “as a journalist in the tradition of Frederick Douglass who used his pen to affect public opinion and public policy,” and was called a race man who wasn’t afraid to talk “Black.”

It’s this vision that inspired Wickham to both name the medal in Jarrett’s honor and persevere in achieving his own goals with the institute.
“The vision for me is that the institute will be one-stop shopping for Black journalists,” Wickham says. “It will be in one setting what the Nieman is to Harvard, the Pulitzer is to Columbia and what the Peabody is to the University of Georgia. We’re going to encourage the nurturing of mid-career Black journalists, we’re going to recognize their excellence and we’ll tie into that the nurturing of future career journalists. We want to fill the void that the industry has been grappling with for years.”
Just as Jarrett would have wanted.

For more information on the journalism institute, visit <>. 
Editor’s Note: Tracie Powell traveled to Canada and Mexico where she reported and wrote about African influences on these two countries for the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies.

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