Sláinte! Learning community journalism in rural Ireland

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(Credit: Lindsey Wotanis/Marywood University): Batt Burns leads students on a tour through the beautiful grounds of Parknasilla in Sneem, Ireland.

Sneem Community Journalism Project
At A Glance

  • Location:        Sneem, Ireland (pop. ~400)
  • Duration:        Two weeks

Deliverables:

  • Articles/images for local magazine;
  • Blogs/v-blogs for university websites;
  • Images for Blurb photo book

Universities:

  • Robert Morris University (Moon Twp, PA)
  • Marywood University (Scranton, PA)
  • Buena Vista University (Storm Lake, IA)

Cost:    Varies per year and number of students ~$3,500-$4,500

Included in cost:

  • Hotel accommodations
  • Two meals per day
  • Flight
  • Entry fees/tickets to attractions
  • All in-country transportation

Scholarship/Financial Aid:

  • Varies per school

Samples of Work:

Robert Morris University:

Marywood University:

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(Credit: Andrea Frantz/Buena Vista University): Batt Burns introduces students to the village of Sneem on their first full day in Ireland.
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(Credit: Lindsey Wotanis/Marywood University): RMU student Gary Horstmann photographs the scenic Cliffs of Moher.
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(Credit: Friendly stranger): The RMU and Marywood groups pose for their first shot at Blarney Castle, just hours after landing in Ireland.

Getting the story in Ireland

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(Credit: Lindsey Wotanis/Marywood University): Elysabethe Brown (Marywood University) stays behind to capture a shot at Staigue Fort while Molly Boylan (Marywood University) walks ahead.

By Andrea Breemer Frantz, Ph.D. and Lindsey Wotanis, Ph.D.


In his book Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local, Jock Lauterer notes, “Few institutions of higher education offer classes called ‘Community Journalism.’”

This is especially true for the small journalism programs struggling to offer comprehensive curricula with too few hands and too many demands from an industry in mid-reboot.

Thus, according to Lauterer, journalism school graduates are “largely untrained and totally unprepared” for what they will likely face in their first jobs.

But as he and others have suggested, it comes down to this: It’s the story, stupid. And in that concept of “story” we also know it’s about reporters immersing in community to see its issues and experiences through the lens of those who live them.

The challenge lies in helping students, who are inherently transient, to define themselves as part of a community, even if temporarily.  Through a study abroad opportunity in Ireland, American journalism students did just that: immersing themselves in local Irish culture to report for a village’s annual publication.

The Sneem Community Journalism Experience

In May 2011, Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Penn., took its first class of journalism students to Sneem, a village of approximately 400 residents on the picturesque southwest Irish coast, for a two-week immersion project.  The village’s former school principal and nationally-recognized seanchaí (storyteller), Batt Burns, served as guide.

The goal was to immerse in village culture and connect with people by participating in community life.  Journalism students were to produce one single by-line and one co-authored human interest story; accompanying photos or video; individual blogs; and team video-blogs.

Students then pitched the human interest stories and photos to John Vincent O’Sullivan, Sneem Parish News Editor.  The Sneem Parish News, established in 1965, is an annual glossy, color magazine that caters to residents and natives living abroad.  O’Sullivan also served as ambassador for the American students by connecting them with the locals and even driving them to remote locations for interviews.

Sneem offered many advantages for this project.  First, its size—approximately 4 square miles—made it pedestrian-friendly.  Students only occasionally had access to a bus or van and therefore had to learn the village and walk where they needed to go.  Second, thanks in part to its size, Sneem is an extremely safe village, which makes sending students out in small teams far easier.  Finally, because Sneem is part of the Ring of Kerry, it is comfortable with tourists.  The community’s long tradition of welcoming outsiders helped us feel at home quickly.

Initial Success Led to Growth, Sustainability

The vision for this project was one of sustainability. Positive feedback from RMU students, Sneem residents and Parish News readers after the first year indicated all seemed anxious for a continued relationship.

In 2012, RMU professors Dr. Andrea Frantz and Christine Holtz partnered with Dr. Lindsey Wotanis and Dr. Laurie McMillan from Marywood University in Scranton, Penn. In spring 2013, a third university will be added to the mix.  Frantz returned to her Iowa roots this fall to teach Digital Media at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake; the schools plan to continue the partnership and recruit students from all three programs.

An advantage to cross-campus partnerships is that students also meet and work with peers from other parts of our country.  Not only are students confronted with the challenges of studying abroad, but also they’re asked to step outside other comfort zones when they room and work with students they’ve never met.  This pushes students in new ways; as they learn to cope, they grow personally and professionally.

Elysabethe Brown of Marywood University learned valuable lessons about her own personal and professional strengths in 2012.

“I am naturally a very shy person. [… ]If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be in Ireland, without any of my family, walking up to random strangers doing interviews, I would never have believed it,” Brown said.

Simultaneously Learning Community and Journalism

While the students who have participated in the project had an interest in journalism, their expertise was widely divergent; thus, it was important to teach the group as a whole about journalistic practices and ethics. Prior to the second trip, faculty led workshops, one via Skype, on journalism basics.  Additionally, faculty emphasized the importance of telling stories visually and verbally.  This meant students had to strike a balance between telling a story through their own (camera) lens and through the lenses of their sources by engaging interpersonally.

According to Heather Lowery of RMU, the reporting she did in Sneem was the most challenging and most rewarding work of her career as a student journalist. She produced a story on Michael Sheehan, a fifth-generation farmer, who has a knack for calling the seals into the bay with his whistling from the cliff’s edge.

“As a student journalist, I was on a mission to find out who the people were and what their town was all about,” she said. Though she faced cultural challenges, like understanding Sheehan’s thick Irish accent, Lowery learned firsthand two keys to CJ: active listening and tenacity.

In 2012, RMU student Abbey Lape produced a story about the local pharmacy.  Two village chemists figured prominently in the piece.  One of the chemists died the fall after her story was written, underscoring the importance of recording the voices and faces of people while we can.

Making Lasting Community Connections

CJ challenges reporters to identify as part of the community they serve—no small task for foreigners with limited time in the village.  So in an effort to connect personally with Sneem residents, the Americans host a pub night with traditional Irish music, dance, and storytelling. Students and locals engage as equals and do so in a public setting.

In 2012, the Americans also participated in the JFK 50-Mile Challenge, a walk hosted by Sneem for the second straight year.  While not all walked the full 50 miles, participating alongside the residents helped solidify relationships and even unearthed a few stories.  Some students interviewed as they walked, getting to know the community while taking part in its new tradition.

Finally, students connect with residents by sharing their work.  In 2012, the schools presented several residents with a book of photos produced from the previous year and most local residents had read the stories the students produced for the Sneem Parish News.

The next few years will be all about sustaining the credibility and social capital built from the last two successful projects.  And, it doesn’t hurt that students raved about the experience to others upon their return.  Molly Boylan of Marywood University said, “It was a true experience on how to relate different cultures to my area of study. So, not only would I go again, but I would also recommend it to anyone.”

We’ll be back, Sneem.

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