In June of 2020, I received an email from the Syracuse Press Club requesting my assistance on an initiative their members had decided to launch. The idea was to pilot a program supporting high school students of color. They wanted to know: Would my nonprofit media outlet serve as the fiscal sponsor for this new initiative?
The SPC was aiming to increase diversity among local journalists and hoped such a program would spark a new interest within student participants. The students would attend weekly sessions, building their skills to earn a published clip or assist with a larger project. A journalism educator, hired and paid by SPC, would teach the sessions. This would require grant funding, which SPC couldn’t apply for because it is not incorporated as a nonprofit.
SPC asked if I would be interested in teaching the program and allowing my nonprofit, The Stand, to serve as the fiscal sponsor for what would be called the Syracuse Journalism Lab. The partnership would benefit both organizations by fulfilling our shared missions of training students and expanding the voices represented in local media.
The Stand would also have access to students interested in media, allowing us to grow our contributor base and broaden the views published in our paper. Our publication was founded in 2009 to serve Syracuse’s South Side neighborhood. We’ve previously worked with students by holding community workshops that are open to all residents and visiting classrooms at the request of local teachers. But working with SJL would allow our staff to interact with students on a consistent basis.
We decided to pursue the partnership. Fiscal sponsors often keep a small percentage of grants to cover administrative costs. The board of The Stand unanimously voted not to do so, however, because the projects’ missions aligned so closely and the opportunity to publish student work was an added benefit.
For public media stations, pursuing such opportunities can add new voices to local coverage. Having access to youth offers instant insights into their daily lives — at school, on social media, and their challenges with identity, social growth and mental well-being. Funding can be pursued to cover costs to pay an educator or coordinator, or station leadership can give a staff member the flexibility to fill the role. Creating the space for such an effort can enrich both the station and the students’ professional development.
Teaching the basics
The SJL pilot launched at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central during the 2021–22 school year. It was part of an existing media class, requiring the 30 or so students enrolled in the junior-level course to attend. Engagement suffered due to the pandemic, which required that guest speakers — both local and national media professionals — participate via Zoom. Yet a handful of students pursued opportunities outside the classroom to work with mentors, participate in The Stand’s annual Photo Walk and independently pursue getting their stories published.
Thanks to community donations, a grant from the John Ben Snow Foundation and corporate sponsorship from Advance Media New York, SPC’s SLJ committee is able to pay a local journalist each year to lead the initiative. The lead educator worked an average of eight hours a week while the program was active and was paid $35 an hour. I met with the educator weekly to provide guidance and review plans for each upcoming lesson. Additionally, I assisted with feedback throughout the week via email, phone calls and Zoom. My efforts in this capacity were now considered part of my regular work week for The Stand, and I contributed two to four hours each week. The SPC committee also felt it was important to compensate guest speakers and mentors for their time. They each received a $200 stipend.
For the 2022–23 school year, I served as lead educator, assisted by a volunteer who is also a Report for America corps member. During the 12-week program, we taught about a dozen students journalism basics such as story structure, newsgathering techniques, interviewing skills, photography, multimedia production and media literacy. Some students achieved publication of their first clips in The Stand, the Post-Standard and Syracuse University’s student newspaper.
This year, I also received a stipend for my time in person with students during the two-hour after-school sessions. I also contributed an average of four to six hours to prepare for each session, to coordinate guest speakers and field trips. My work time covered four hours each week, and the rest I volunteered.
Moving forward, the Newhouse School at SU, which employs me to run The Stand, no longer wants my work hours spent toward community endeavors. With the support of the SPC and success of the initiative’s first two years, we are hopeful additional grants can be obtained to sustain the effort and compensate the dedicated mentors and organizers.
‘I didn’t know I could get published’
The SJL’s long-term vision is to cultivate an educational and career pipeline that supports and creates opportunities for Syracuse students and local newsrooms for years to come by exposing students to media who otherwise might not consider careers in the profession. A more immediate benefit for us, as well as others considering such an effort, is to work with new contributors who can also become our strongest recruiters and new trainers. For example, students from the second cohort who went on to complete media internships over the summer can return and provide their own lessons to incoming SJL students. They can share key takeaways, help to explain the SJL process and discuss how they applied for, secured and completed their internships. This will help more students complete internships the following summer and move up to leadership roles within the SJL.
An additional goal is for the SJL to help expand diversity among media outlets. Though newsrooms have increased their attention to DEI issues in recent years, a June 2022 Pew Research Center study found that most journalists believe more should be done. “By a considerable margin, more journalists say their organization does not have enough racial and ethnic diversity (52%) than say it does (32%),” Pew reported.
SPC hopes SJL will improve the quality of news coverage in Central New York by publishing under-told stories from the perspectives of burgeoning journalists. Published pieces can be achieved by connecting these promising young people with minority media professionals at a pivotal time in their lives. Guiding students through lessons as well as arranging shadowing opportunities to work with current journalists will help to remove existing barriers, exposing students to the varied careers in journalism.
The assignments helped high-school junior Angelina Grevi learn how to share her perspective as a student. After a lesson about writing op-eds, she chose to write about school lockdown drills, sharing why she feels her high school’s practice is ineffective. The lesson featured guest speakers from The Washington Post and an SU college student serving as the student newspaper’s opinions editor. “SJL propelled me to a direction I didn’t know existed,” Grevi said at a celebration for the conclusion of the SJL. “I didn’t know I could get published at 16.”
Jeffrey Newell, district media teacher at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, says SJL is a game-changer for his students. “Each session reinforced the content students are learning in class,” Newell says, “but coming from industry professionals who can share their stories and perspectives makes all the difference in enabling and inspiring my students.”
Ashley Kang is a content producer for Syracuse University, contributing stories to the South Side Newspaper Project and WAER 88.3 FM. She additionally serves as the lead educator for the Syracuse Journalism Lab. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.