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Teaching Street to Street, Person to Person Journalism

Temple University has started a new urban journalism lab that’s taking its students out into the streets of Philadelphia. Thomas Petner, a long time TV journalist, who in 1999 joined the revolution, now as an associate professor at Temple directs the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab. Join us as we learn more about street to street, point to point micro journalism in this Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust IM Interview.

Leonard Witt: Hi Thomas, let’s start by talking about Temple University’s Multimedia Urban News Room Lab (MURL). What is it and why did Temple decide to go this route?

Thomas Petner: The MURL program is based out of our Center City campus. It’s a newsroom environment where students have an opportunity to get a “hands on” experience. We work across platforms from broadcast to print to online. They learn journalism is this converged environment, which hopefully prepares them for the brave new media world. The why of this program is pretty simple. The media landscape is changing quickly — perhaps too quickly — and students need to be prepared to deal with all the pressures…

Witt: I read somewhere you will be teaching street-by-street journalism. I think your former department chair used the term. What does that mean in the context of this class?

Petner: I think you get a more direct approach to the journalism when you do it street-by-street. Students go out into the Philadelphia neighborhoods. Figure out what the issues are. What stories they want to do. And do it. The story might not rise to the level of some grand city issue, but something that’s important to the neighborhood. Leonard, there’s an incredible void on the local level … the neighborhood level.

Witt: Can you give us an example of the kind of stories your students are working on and why they are important?

Petner: Right now a few of the student groups are working along 5th Street, something that the community calls the “golden block.” There are several Latino-based community organizations working to change how the neighborhood is viewed from the outside. Some call it the “bad lands.” Our students are looking at some of the programs … one group is focused on one of the mentoring program. Another student is focused on the children of the neighborhood ….

Witt: What are the students learning from the experience?

Petner: Do you have several hours? We hope they get a number of things out of the program … out of the class … a “hands on” journalism experience to begin with. Understand the diversity of a city. Go into the communities with respect and an open mind. That’s just one small piece of it. Hopefully when they develop their stories they come to understand the strengths of each medium. What works in broadcast may not work in print or online. So convergence plays a big part. But overall, I hope they come away with a way to figure the depth of their commitment … Ethics and accuracy plays a large role. Students are so wrapped up these days in “process” that some things get lost in the speed to deliver.

Witt: What gets lost? And what do you mean by the students will figure out the depth of their commitment?

Petner: Think about this. Most broadcast stories are now reduced to 1:10, 1:30 second packages. The speed and packaging of content is so fast that very often in many newsrooms journalists are just trying to stay up and “feeding the beast.” If you parallel that with some other issues of marketing and branding, particularly in broadcast, I think many are hyper-focused on process. So, they…the student, the journalist…are blowing by issues too quickly. I tell my broadcast students, for example, when you are getting pressured (and you will) to deliver a story, and you’re uncomfortable about the facts, about the video to remember they have to look at themselves at night and make a judgment about their story. What they did that day.

Witt: The quality of the local broadcast news has gotten so bad, in my opinion, that I have pretty much given up on it. Are you saying there’s hope, and if so, why do you believe so?

Petner: Leonard, I come out of a deep broadcast news background and I’ve seen the business change. I love doing news. I love broadcast. But I have to say that there’s so much pressure on process and “feeding the beast” that balance and accuracy are being sacrificed to expediency. Like you, I’m concerned, but I haven’t given up. My mission…the MURL mission here at Temple is to prepare students for the hyper-speed, converged world, but to remember about ethics and issues. It can’t all neatly fit into a 1:10 package. The funny thing about local broadcast news is that it has come down to many news directors becoming slaves to marketing and branding. But hope comes on an individual basis. I think if you go after the bad guys, care about issue and people; you can wrap it all up in a slick product.

Witt: When you say go after the bad guys, are you talking about on the street or in the TV news and boardrooms?

Petner: I’m talking about the street level journalism. When you see a senior victimized. When you hear about an insurance company unwilling to pay a charge…that sort of going after the bad guy. Pretty straightforward enterprise material and “people based” stories. Right now much of local broadcast news is event driven. Broadcast has become so good at covering events that it overshadows issues.

Witt: When I asked about the bad guys in the news and boardrooms, I was asking are the new graduates of your programs going to get the support they need to create real journalism? Or will they have to find an alternative space to tell their stories?

Petner: I don’t think it takes “alternative space” to do good journalism. It takes understanding what each medium does, and does well. Take their own individual sense of ethic, and their individual sense of journalist and figure out a way to use the mediums to tell their stories. I’m not suggesting that the mainstream press is the wrong option. A long time ago, like many of my colleagues, I decided that I wanted to “manage” a newsroom because I wanted to bring my brand of journalism to the place rather than complaining about this story or the way some assignment/story is handled. Leonard, what do you think? What should journalists do?

Witt: I think one of the central questions surrounding journalism today, is who used to have control of the newsrooms, who has it now, and who will have it in the future? I’ll pick you and your students as my choice. But the question is how does that happen?

Petner: To me it’s like the “morning meeting” when a reporter might complain about a story assignment. My response is “if you don’t like the story you have, come up with one.” Leonard, I wish I knew how to do it. I think it’s about persistence…knowing your craft and sticking to your values. That doesn’t mean you are inflexible. Surviving in a newsroom is about negotiation. That’s what the editorial process is about. At the same time I think good journalism can generate cash flow and success in the ratings, circulation or whatever. When you do it in the extreme, it won’t work. I advocate understanding the “boardroom” issues. It is about developing some street level and newsroom savvy.

Witt: This is a new program — what are your challenges, which is a nice way of saying, what’s not working very well?

Petner: What’s not working well…hmmm…awareness is part of it. Students are beginning to figure out the program. They hear others talk about it. So, little by little, word-of-mouth the student population is now curious. Of course there’s the usual facility issues, but the administration and dean have been very supportive, so we’re working out the little stuff … already we’re concerned about space for the “MURL newsroom.” Since the program operates out of a satellite campus, you feel a little disconnected. However, since I also teach on the main campus, I do my best to sell the concept and keep the issues moving … space, equipment and so on. This is particularly helpful in neighborhoods where the digital divide is real and not some cliché. The one advantage that we have is that the faculty is very supportive of the program … this capstone effort … from top to bottom. Slowly we’re migrating a lot of classes to the MURL newsroom.

Witt: What kind of feedback are you getting from your students?

Petner: Positive.

Witt: In what sense?

Petner: I think they appreciate the “hands on” experience. Most of them are ready to transition into newsrooms, and for some, this is their first “real” news gathering experience. I have to admire those who are stretching. I’ve had students who are riding the subway for the first time … looking at diversity from a different perspective … and appreciate how neighborhoods tick.

Witt: Some city neighborhoods can be pretty rough, is that a concern for you and your students?

Petner: Some neighborhoods can be tough, but we spend a lot of time upfront preparing them. What to expect. How to view the cultural differences. About a certain awareness. They work in small groups of two and three and during the daylight hours. Generally they’re connected with a community group or neighborhood organization. We’re also developing a pilot project with WHYY-TV to send the stories the students gather up back into the neighborhoods via the digital signals from the station … with a small receiver an organization can pull the information (the story) down directly into a desktop computer.

Witt: So that’s micro local TV journalism? Interesting idea?

Petner: Yes, it is a micro-journalism or that street-by-street journalism that we talked about. Most large stations and newspapers seem to be moving away from the neighborhoods, so I think there’s a place for this.

Witt: Tell me more about this WHYY-TV experiment. Is it hyperlocal journalism? The stories get beamed just back to the neighborhoods, where they are developed? The individual neighborhoods are the primary or only audience?

Petner: That’s right, what we plan to do is take the student material, covert it to the format that works for WHYY. They turn it in digital packets for “data casting” and then send it out in a sort of’ sub carrier way to the community organizations that have the receiver box. From the rooftop box, the signal is taken directly into a desktop. So, if someone in the community logs onto the computer … let’s say for some kind of math tutorial … they’ll also get some local neighborhood news. Point to point, person to person journalism. The concept is really a no-brainer. They were already doing some data casting with about a dozen community centers. It occurred to me that this would be a natural way to deliver the information/stories.

Witt: When I referred to alternative space earlier, this is what I was talking about. Do you really need a massive news organization to do this kind of point-to-point, person-to-person journalism?

Petner: No, you don’t. But resources and people are always part of the equation. It is about good storytelling, which is, by the way, one of the things I try and drive home to the students. This is not about institutions; this is about telling stories that people care about … the WII-FM concept … the what’s in it for me. What cuts across all the neighborhoods is that while each one is different, people are simply trying to live a good life, raise their families and have a little fun along the way.

Witt: So have you considered inviting the neighborhood people into the process so they, along with your students, can help tell the real neighborhood stories?

Petner: Yes, and no. We’ve had a number of people visit and talk with the students, community people. But, and this is a big one, they can’t get so close that they lose perspective as a journalist. This is not about social engineering. This is about that micro-journalism that you referred to, that street-by-street approach to doing stories. So, the students need to figure out how the community ticks, and what the stories are, but the danger is that they get so close that there’s no balance … the view is contorted. I can’t tell you how many times students have been asked to supply questions ahead of time. Even when the situation or the group seems harmless, you have to remind them about keeping a certain objectivity to their reporting.

Witt: Yes, but your former department chair Patricia Bradley (Bonnie Brennen is the new chair) said in a Temple News interview. “The aim of MURL is to teach students to serve the community.” What does serving the community mean?

Petner: That’s hard for some. Serving the community doesn’t mean giving up your role and sense of balance. Serving the community is about telling the truth, telling it straight and giving them a voice. What we’re trying to avoid is just parachuting into the neighborhood and assuming we know it all. You serve them if you spend time, and do your damndest to tell it with accuracy. The last thing we want … and what most neighborhoods dislike is this drive-by sense of journalism. Leonard, I also don’t think journalism is wrapped in grim detail. We also serve a function when we’re delivering some other basic information … the school lunch … the missing stop sign. That’s also important to the neighbors and this service concept. I watched a local news broadcast the other night. Ninety-plus percent of it was neighborhood news that was crime based. It made me crazy. It’s sad to see: this vision of a neighborhood where crime, shootings and violence are the only way to reflect what’s going on.

Witt: This is a strong finish. Any other long-lasting take home point you want to make?

Petner: As someone who comes from “the other side” and the newsrooms there’s a certain denial that crime is all they’re feeding the public, which might be true. But, now in this fever pitched delivery process, the issues that impact people on a local level are being lost to the “only on” “breaking news” “new developments” … the research-speak of broadcast journalism. Other than that, Leonard, life is good.

Witt: Great, finally, where can folks reading this watch and see your students’ work?

Petner: We just put up the website. While it is a work-in-progress, they can see the beginning at … with more to come on the broadcast side … coming to a desktop near you … soon.

Witt: Excellent, we’ll be watching the progress. Thanks again.

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