Every year at this time, I am impressed with the imagination, invention, daring, and mission of our Social Journalism graduates at the Newmark J-School as they reimagine and reinvent journalism. I am particularly impressed this year as they were hit with the pandemic, forcing them to take their work of showing up and listening indoors and online. In this, the last week in the term, we watched 2020’s graduates and next year’s students present their work with communities.
These students consistently push the old, sealed envelope of journalism. Examples: A few are experimenting with fiction as journalism. One planned a play to educate tenants about their rights in evictions. Some reached their communities with posters on phone polls. One enabled refugees to take their own pictures so they could tell their stories rather than having them told by others. One tried to get newspaper publishers to print absentee-ballot applications (the papers refused). One made a zine with political cartoons to educate journalists. One made a guide for young Latinx journalists to help them get their stories told in newsrooms. More than one realized that to gain the trust they were asking for, they needed to be open about themselves; one offered her community an opportunity to ask her anything, another tells the story of his addiction. One got dragged out of a meeting by a mayor because of her reporting; the mayor was soon defeated. One created playlists to help people with depression as her journalism.
They serve a grand diversity of communities: black, transgender women; disenfranchised voters; tenants at risk of losing their homes in the pandemic; black women victimized over their natural hair; people going hungry in one American city; Kashmiris under occupation; Syrian refugees; victims of gun violence and advocates for gun safety; teachers; young journalists; people who buy weed; residents of Louisiana’s cancer alley; people with depression; recovering addicts and people who care for them; healthcare workers; caregivers; school social workers; people with intellectual developmental disabilities in group homes suffering abuse; feminists protesting the murders of women in Mexico; the incarcerated and their loved ones; trans sex workers; hair braiders; the Venezuelan diaspora; bicyclists.
What was particularly gratifying this year was that — given we were on Zoom and not in a too-small room — well more than a hundred people came to hear the graduates present their final project and among them were dozens of alumni of our still-young Social Journalism program. They came to give their support and admiration, which, thanks to Zoom, they could share as chat.
Our alumni are phenomenal. They are our Trojan horses who are changing newsrooms, where they are quickly employed, with their learned skills — social, data, reporting, investigation, product, entrepreneurship — but more than that, their worldviews, their vision for what journalism can and should be. As the director of our program, my brilliant colleague Dr. Carrie Brown, says, these alums preach the gospel of Social Journalism more eloquently and effectively than we do.
And what is that gospel? That we start not with content but with communities. That we first listen to communities so they are heard on their terms. We empathize with their needs and reflect our understanding back to assure we have listened well. Then we imagine what journalism we might bring to serve them. We believe in journalism as service, not product. As you can see above, we find and work with an incredible richness of tools to perform that service, beyond publishing stories. We try to build bridges and understanding. And we constantly question our assumptions about journalism, unafraid to challenge the shiboleth of objectivity, recognizing its roots in systemic racism and our field’s damage to communities, and questioning the high heresy of journalism as advocacy for those we serve.
This is our mission. This is our movement. This is how our students and graduates are reimagining and rebuilding journalism.
We accepted our first students in January 2015, only nine months after our dean, Sarah Bartlett, challenged me to envision a new degree based on my thinking about a relationship-based strategy for news and we were lucky enough to hire Dr. Brown to build and lead it. Here is the Social Journalism class of 2020.
I am prouder of nothing else in my career more than helping to start Social Journalism. May my tombstone carry the hashtag #SocialJ.