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Changing the Face of Journalism: Princeton Young Alumni Pioneer a Dynamic Pre-College Summer Program
By Richard Just, Editor, American Prospect Online


 


Two years ago, I was a senior at Princeton and just beginning my second semester as editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, the school’s independent student newspaper. A few months before, The New York Times had published its stunning sixteen-part series on how race affects the lives of Americans, and my fellow editors and I decided we wanted to attempt a similar series focusing on Princeton students and professors. In addition to writing about how race affects everything from sports teams to religious groups to roommates, we also wrote about how race affects The Daily Princetonian itself.

Our introspective piece in December of that year focused on the fact that the staff of the Prince (as the newspaper is known on campus) has, for a long time, been overwhelmingly white and Asian-American. It is a problem that generations of Prince editors, despite good intentions, have been unable to correct, and that, most disturbingly, has proven to be self-perpetuating. With few black and Latino reporters, the Prince has not always done a strong job of covering the black and Latino communities on campus. As a result, black and Latino students often conclude the newspaper isn’t for them and become disinclined to write.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Princeton. Black and Latino students are underrepresented in the newsrooms of virtually every elite college newspaper in America. Never is this more painfully clear than at the semi-annual Ivy League editors conferences. Among scores of writers and editors, it is often difficult to find a black or Latino face in the room. This phenomenon predictably carries over into the world of professional journalism, where blacks and Latinos are dramatically underrepresented in newsrooms as well.

Some months later, after our term at the Prince ended, I hatched an idea to offer a modest way to begin addressing the problem we had written about. Over lunch with some of my former editors, I proposed starting a summer camp for black and Latino high school students who were editors of their high school papers or had otherwise demonstrated interest in writing and journalism. We decided to organize a week at Princeton in August to expose them to the exciting world of collegiate journalism, offering encouragement and resources to stick with writing and reporting in college and beyond. Within weeks, The Daily Princetonian Class of 2001 Summer Journalism Program was born.

We received financial backing from Princeton University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Hodding Carter, the organization’s president, was particularly enthusiastic in his support. In the fall, we sent out applications to school districts throughout the northeast corridor. We spoke to principals and guidance counselors and, most importantly, newspaper advisers. We particularly wanted to target those high school juniors whom elite schools like Princeton were not reaching—or who were disinclined to apply to such schools because of their socioeconomic circumstances. So we limited ourselves to public high schools in disadvantaged urban communities. By the winter, thirty-three students had applied from fifteen different high schools. In March, three of us interviewed every student who had applied and selected a terrific group. On August 20, 2002, our first class of Daily Princetonian summer journalists stepped off the train to begin their week at Princeton—twenty-one students from thirteen high schools in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, New York, Hartford, Springfield, and Boston. For many of our students, just getting on the train and coming to Princeton was a big step. Many had never spent time away from home before, and few had spent any time on college campuses.

We had planned the week to be a frenetic introduction to both college life and collegiate journalism, and it was. The students lived in dorms together and ate at one of Princeton’s cafeterias. Each morning began with a seminar on college admissions and each evening featured an hour-long meeting between students and their mentors on the program staff. (With twenty program staff members—a mix of young Prince alums and current Prince reporters—we had a one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio that made such mentoring possible.) In addition to participating in seminars on news writing, opinion writing, sports writing and arts writing, our students met with journalists from The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. They toured The New York Times and ABC News in New York, then covered a Yankees game later that night.

Our students also grilled New Jersey Secretary of State Regena Thomas during a mock hour-long press conference she arranged at the state capital and grilled each other during long and contentious late-night discussions.

The week culminated in the students, writing, designing, editing and producing their own edition of the Prince. In true college newspaper form, they were up all night getting the paper finished. When they arrived at the program’s closing brunch banquet—just a few hours after leaving the Prince newsroom—to find copies of the paper waiting for them, they were wearing the same sleep-deprived looks of pride that generations of college newspaper editors have worn while waking up to the products of their long nights’ work. If our students hold on to that feeling, they will be passionate about journalism for a long time to come.

Though the week’s focus was on journalism, we also devoted time to the college admissions process. Almost none of our students had even considered going to an elite school before arriving at the program. Though many were among the top students at their high schools—with 4.0 GPAs and impressive extracurricular activities to match—too many had been told by guidance counselors to aim low during the college search process. During their week at Princeton, we tried to show them the range of possibilities they could aspire to. Again and again, we emphasized that it does matter where you go to college, that going to a top school can open doors that will change your life, and that many elite schools—while certainly expensive—offer outstanding financial aid packages that make college affordable. In general, we discovered that our students had not been well-prepared for the college application process. None had heard of the SAT IIs. One had been told by a teacher not to take the SATs more than once. Few realized that a liberal arts education is often a better training for journalism than a more narrow curriculum focused on communications.

We spent much of our week trying to steer our students in ambitious directions. We also gave them practical tips about the admissions process well-known to students at affluent schools. We don’t know yet where they will be admitted. But, we have tried to give them a sense of the possibilities. Based on what our students told us at the end of the week, we think we succeeded. “If it weren’t for the program, I wouldn’t be thinking about going to an Ivy League school,” one of our students wrote to me over e-mail. Her feelings were typical.

All members of our program staff will be working closely with our students in the weeks and months to come to help them finalize their list of schools, edit college essays, study for the SATs, prepare for college interviews--and do everything else that guidance departments at private and affluent high schools often do for their students. For as long as they are interested in the world of journalism, we will also help place our students at internships and jobs during the summers to come.

Even as we continue to work with our first class of Daily Princetonian Summer Journalists, we are beginning to think about our second class--and our third and our fourth. We want to expand the program but still maintain the one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. Enlarging the program will not be easy. But we think we have the potential to create something special--something that could, in the years to come, change the world of college journalism for the better.

Richard Just is the founder and director of The Daily Princetonian Class of 2001 Summer Journalism Program. He is also the editor of The American Prospect Online. He can be reached at rajust@alumni.princeton.edu.

Author Richard Just with members of Summer Journalism Program

 


Black and Latino students are underrepresented in the newsrooms of virtually every elite college newspaper in America. Never is this more painfully clear than at the semi-annual Ivy League editors conferences.


 


When they arrived at the program’s closing brunch banquet--just a few hours after leaving the Prince newsroom-- to find copies of the paper waiting for them, they were wearing the same sleep-deprived looks of pride that generations of college newspaper editors have worn while waking up to the products of their long nights’ work. If our students hold on to that feeling, they will be passionate about journalism for a long time to come.




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