A pandemic as the unexpected teacher

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Finding news in new places during an isolating time

By Susan Coleman Goldstein
Mount Wachusett Community College

“I don’t have any ideas for my next beat.”

This is a common lament, particularly at my school, a small, rural Massachusetts community college, where most of the students enroll in my basic news reporting course to check off an elective. They usually have no desire to enter the journalism field or to even write professionally, unless it’s creative writing.

In the old pre-pandemic days, I relied on our campus for beat ideas. I stood in the classroom and talked about the importance of covering the Student Government Association, for example— “follow the money,” I’d say passionately into faces that usually showed no reaction. But that was okay because then I could take them on a forced field trip, down three flights of stairs to the Student Life Office, where they met Kathy, the woman who gave them the agenda and minutes for the next SGA meeting, the woman who provided contacts to campus clubs, and the woman who supplied background and details about upcoming events.

What about a beat focused on the library? Tutoring services? Advising? The Student Lounge? “Line up! Let’s take a stroll around campus and get to know these people.” Along the way, we often practiced short impromptu interviews in the hallways with passing students. There would be embarrassed laughs, shaky hands taking notes, or the occasional bravado of someone comfortable with talking to strangers, but the lesson was learned: story ideas were everywhere on campus.

And I wondered, back in March, when we were suddenly off campus and in quarantine, and I wondered again, over the summer, as I prepped for September, “How do I replicate this kind of magic as I move my course completely online for the entire semester?”

When a mandatory quarantine took effect in Massachusetts in the middle of March, I started following this account on my personal Instagram called Off Assignment. Followers submitted mini-stories, one or two paragraphs, of people or sights they saw in their neighborhoods during this momentous time. The stories were often sentimental but rang true for the experiences many of us were living, such as getting to know neighbors again, finding previously unknown and beautiful places to explore just down the street, and appreciating small human connections during this isolating time.

Eureka!

This worked well as a first practice assignment in my news reporting class. Students, new to Journalism, took my assignment to heart and practiced close observation, developing story ideas and writing short, tight pieces just by walking out their front doors. One student wrote poignantly about her elderly neighbor who never had visitors, and who sat outside at the same hour in her yard, lifting her face to the sun. Another student described the kid on his street practicing his drums and how he habitually listened every morning. He wrote, “Your music makes me smile…I sit outside and just enjoy this performance.” Another student described satisfaction in watching the neighbor’s daily car washing ritual, just before the sun sets, and she described in detail the green hose, the soapy scrub, the wet streaks lovingly wiped dry with a towel.

For the first time in my 15 years of teaching news writing, I gave students more freedom in choosing the geographic location of their stories (pre-pandemic, I strongly urged them to cover stories related to campus). I decided this semester would be different. See how successful this practice assignment was? I was determined to encourage them, in this pandemic setting, to cover the communities around us, and I knew these stories would be rich in detail and insight.

Well, not quite.

One student pitched a profile story about the new pastor at her church, the same church Martin Luther King visited once, located 60 miles away. Another student randomly wrote about the COVID impact on small businesses but interviewed two restaurants in his hometown…in another state, about 40 miles from campus. A third student wrote a profile about a single mother who earned her doctorate and who offered inspiring quotes about the importance of education and perseverance….she lives 30 miles away, in another state, and she also never went to school anywhere near around us.

Interesting ideas, all of them, but perhaps I gave too much leeway with these assignments. Could a few local restaurant owners near one of our campuses be interviewed instead? Could the writer find an alum from our college who persevered in her educational pursuits?  My initial invitation for them to “just walk outside their front door and find stories around them” seemed to backfire. Then again, we are living in the midst of a pandemic, with a group of students who have no interest in newswriting, with a classroom that is completely online. Given these factors, I did something that I never would have done before: I accepted the small business story and I accepted the inspiring single mother story (the pastor profile seemed too disconnected) because they contained a universal relevancy that is still applicable to the newspaper’s audience.

There were also stories submitted that were pleasantly quirky and definitely newsworthy, regardless of having no connection to students. Who wouldn’t want to read a profile story about the 20-year-old snake catcher two towns away who’s been catching snakes since he was 5 and who spoke at length about the snakes he finds in this area and what he learns from them? Who wouldn’t want to read a news story about professional musicians in Massachusetts, who no longer have indoor venues as we enter the cold months of winter, and who have lost money, opportunities, and the chance to do what they love? Who wouldn’t want to read the perspective of a harried town clerk three towns away, who spoke about ballot counting and harassment at the polls over the mandatory mask policy?

This is what I have learned in my years of teaching: I am always learning. I consistently tweak my courses, omitting assignments that seemed to flop, exploring new ideas, and adding different material. The pandemic is the unexpected teacher and I am the unprepared student. Could I have assigned clearer assignments? Could I have ushered students more to the campus for story ideas? Yes and Yes.

Still, I remain determined to allow more flexibility with beat ideas next semester. I might regret this decision when I read the pitches, but I’ll take that chance because, hidden within the pile of ideas, there just might be another snake catcher.


Susan Goldstein

Susan Goldstein worked for 10 years for daily and weekly newspapers in North Central Massachusetts as a beat reporter and then as a freelance columnist, publishing personal essays in the local daily newspapers on a weekly basis, for over 10 years. She re-introduced the student newspaper to the Mount Wachusett Community College community college 15 years ago. She is the adviser and teaches basic newswriting courses and literature and English Composition courses.

 

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