The New York Times Student Journalism Institute helps to train a new generation of minority newsroom professionals.
Nigel Chiwaya’s pulse raced with adrenaline. He was careful not to miss a single detail. It was the first time Chiwaya, a 2008 graduate of the New York Institute of Technology, had ever covered a professional baseball game from a press box.
The rookie sports reporter’s excitement covering the minor league baseball game between the New Orleans Zephyrs and the Albuquerque Isotopes was later eclipsed by a trip to the Zephyrs’ locker room where he interviewed the team’s general manager Mike Schline and former New York Mets pitcher Tony Armas Jr.
“Access,” Chiwaya concludes, is one of the best perks of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute.
When Chiwaya participated earlier this summer in the institute at Dillard University in New Orleans, he and 23 other Black students from across the country had access to in some cases professional athletes and highranking public officials. They even got the opportunity to meet First Lady Laura Bush.
During the intensive two-week internship offered every summer, the students cover local New Orleans news. Student journalists, photographers and graphic designers develop an interactive Web site under the instruction of journalists from The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Times Company’s regional newspapers. Their work is posted on the institute’s Web site, (http://www.nytimes-institute.com) which is updated daily. The best work is published in a single-edition newspaper at the end of the program.
Averaging about 30 students a year, the institute has graduated nearly 150 Black students, mostly from historically Black colleges and universities, in its five-year existence.
Alumni of the program have gone on to hold jobs at newspapers around the country, including many major metropolitan dailies — The New York Times and The Boston Globe among them.
Launched in 2003, the institute began as a collaborative venture with the Black College Communication Association, an organization committed to developing strong journalism programs at HBCUs.
Historically, media companies have struggled with identifying minority talent at HBCUs, says Derick Hackett, vice chair of the BCCA and director of media services at Southern University at Baton Rouge. “The institute was a way to counteract that. One of the purposes of a program like this is to give HBCU students exposure.”
Less than six months after the first institute, The New York Times hired Howard University graduate Simone Bridges, who currently works as a Web producer for the fashion section of NYTimes.com.
Bridges notes, “Those were the two most intensive weeks of my life. In terms of preparation, I learned what journalists do and how much of a collaborative process putting together a newspaper really is.”
Students work closely with journalism professionals during the institute to develop their individualized talents. They also get to hobnob with industry heavyweights such as Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times, and award-winning broadcast journalist Craig Duff.
These journalism professionals identify what Hackett describes as “the best minority student journalists in the country.”
“Our collaborative efforts with the Black College Communication Association and historically Black colleges and universities have made this program essential in bringing promising journalists to news organizations across the country,” Abramson says. What was once an experimental initiative, the institute, is now producing a pipeline of diverse newsroom professionals.
“After the first institute, we had no idea if we were going to continue,” says Don Hecker, program director and editor for staff editor training at The New York Times. “We were making contact with all of these incredibly talented people. We realized immediately that this was a huge benefit to us.”
A New Day in Journalism
Rarely during his tour in the army did 25- year-old photographer Leroy V. Mikell III capture anything on film as tragic as the fatal car accident he covered on his first assignment at the institute. A New Orleans police officer died after he drove off a bridge when warning gates failed to lower.
Mikell, a senior at North Carolina A&T State University, photographed the officer’s vehicle as it was lifted out of the Industrial Canal in the Ninth Ward. He later captured an image of the victim’s sister as she clutched the casket during the funeral.
“Those types of images you do not forget,” says Mikell, whose primary goal while attending the institute was simply to become a better photographer. “What I’m learning here is the importance of the full shot.”
While working as a photographer in the army, Mikell was always encouraged to capture scenes close up. During the institute, however, Mikell was advised to retreat.
“I’m taking in the whole picture instead of focusing on the most significant person,” Mikell says. “Focusing on the most interesting person doesn’t always tell the whole story.”
Sha’Day Jackson, a 2008 Tuskegee University graduate, spent the bulk of her two weeks learning how to capture a different picture.
As editor-in-chief of the Campus Digest, TU’s student newspaper, Jackson had little experience with videography. While TU is known for its agriculture and mechanics programs, it offers little in the way of print journalism courses. But Jackson seized the opportunity to learn more.
“I’m interested in the visual side of journalism. I really like the satisfaction I get from asking questions on camera or learning how to edit video,” Jackson says.
At the dawn of the 21st century, ‘convergence’ has become a ubiquitous buzzword in newsrooms nationwide. As newspaper organizations scramble to incorporate photos, audio sound and video into their online editorial content, Hecker and a team prepare institute students for the rigors of these novel newsroom responsibilities.
“[At] the first institute we had a Web site. That site had nothing but stories posted. Today, we have slide shows, streaming video and audio and two full-time video journalists,” Hecker says.
With the help of Mark Raymond, a videographer and Dillard University instructor of mass communications, Jackson produced three video projects, one of which landed on the homepage of The New York Times.
“I feel like I’ve overcome my fear to even try videos,” says Jackson, who was heading to the Spartanburg Herald newspaper in South Carolina for an internship armed with multimedia skills. “Coming here and conquering my fear lets me know that I can be really good [at this] one day.”
Increasing Newsroom Diversity
The success of the institute, which recruits student members of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), inspired a companion program for student members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). That program, held each January, has graduated 48 students during its two years of operation.
Linking minority student journalists with professional role models of color is a key component of the institute, Hecker says. An ethnically diverse group of newsroom staffers work side by side with students, forging relationships that extend far beyond the two weeks of the institute.
Because of recent layoffs and hiring freezes, the percentage of minority journalists in daily newsrooms grew by only a tiny margin, from 13.4 percent to 13.5 percent, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 2008 newsroom survey.
At the institute’s inception, former Dillard University President Michael Lomax insisted that students be given role models of color. Hecker recalls that Lomax said, “Show students Black journalists at The New York Times that started out just like them. Show people that there is access to a top newspaper.”
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