This course is an introduction to the basics of news gathering and news writing, as well as the principles underlying high-quality journalism. Students will come away from it with a clear sense of how news is covered: how to collect facts, find sources, conduct interviews, cover beats, make choices about daily coverage and conceive and execute longer projects. We will also look at the role of the professional journalist in an age when almost anyone can produce and disseminate “news.”
Students will learn how to write a conventional news story and get the chance to experiment with different forms – narratives, profiles, non-deadline features, explanatory writing, trend stories and point-of-view writing. Students will edit and critique each other. We’ll read some of the best examples of these and hear from prominent practitioners and stellar writers. Throughout, we’ll discuss ethical issues, such as weighing the right to privacy against the public’s right to know, and discuss – and debate – journalistic values and practices including fairness, accuracy, balance, and objectivity. We will pay special attention to what these values mean, and what responsibilities of journalists are, particularly in this unusual election year.
My plan is for the election to play a big part in the course this year. Pennsylvania is a crucial battleground state, and the outcome here depends on large part on what happens in the Philadelphia suburbs. I am hoping that students have the interest and availability to do some reporting in the communities around the college to mine voter sentiment. Ideally, students will cover events, trends, and voters on and off campus. Grist for the reporting mill will include the college itself, Chester and Philadelphia.
We will also discuss the future of news in a changing media environment and the news gatherer’s ever-changing role in the world of online, blogs, social media, and 24-hour news cycles. But the ultimate goal is to produce better writers. Good storytelling and concise writing are important in every communications medium and in most careers.
After the first several weeks of class, during which we will cover the basics of news writing and explore the history of journalism and current trends, students will choose beats, or specialties. A beat can be a group (the Asian community, pre-med at Swarthmore, international students, women in science), a topic (arts, food, politics, sustainability), a geographic area (Chester). We will introduce the beat concept by having students pair up and report from Chester.
Students will produce between five to seven stories from this beat, starting with a profile and ending with a final project. This will give students a focus and a chance to explore a subject in which they have a particular interest or passion. (Students will be welcome to use multimedia in preparing their stories but the core of the final project must be a 1500-2000-word story.
Beats can be on campus or off, or, preferably, something that can produce stories in both settings. We will discuss the development of beats more deeply during the first several weeks of class and work on choosing something that is neither too broad nor too narrow. Each student will present two beat proposals and three story ideas from each beat. Before break we will finalize the decision after peer feedback and a conference with me.
As much as practicable, we will look to have student work published in campus publications and, depending on student interest, create a class website to showcase the work. As you know, there is lots of news happening at Swarthmore now, and, ideally, we will contribute to covering it.
Several guest speakers will visit the class, including George Anastasia, who has spent a career covering crime and the mob; former Inquirer feature writer and columnist Melissa Dribben; Arlene Morgan, a former Inquirer editor who has been associate dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is now at Temple; and Charlotte Hall, former editor of several newspapers including Newsday and the Orlando Sentinel, who will focus on ethics. At least one political reporter/editor/columnist will help us analyze what drives campaign coverage.
In addition to these veterans, Avi Wolfman-Arent and Kevin McCorry of WHYY will also visit. Avi, a recent Haverford grad, produced a series on first-generation college students including someone from Swarthmore. Kevin will talk about using and analyzing data to find and develop stories. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky will talk about being a freelancer in Bolivia and Vietnam, social justice reporting, and the movement towards Solutions Journalism.
The final class will be a tour of the Inquirer at which you will be able to connect with top editors and attend a news meeting as they prepare the next day’s newspaper.
English 005 has been approved as a “writing” course. It does not count toward the English major.