Pipelining underserved urban youth into neighborhood newspapers

Post by Candace Dantes | Photography by Kevin Dantes

It was a hard sell. Convincing a group of 1st- through 5th-grade students that an “old-school” way of receiving information is still important in their digital-everything climate. A lot — and I do mean a lot — of thought and creativity had to go into my newsroom pitch. And to a highly opinionated, pint-sized audience at that.

Nonprofit community development organization Andrew P. Stewart Center hired me to teach journalism in one of Atlanta’s oldest and now roughest African-American neighborhoods: The Pittsburgh Community. How I actually won over these post-Millennial journalists took much mothering throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. Some gravitated to me and my mission in minutes. Others weeks.

Nearly eight months later, though, up to 30 student journalists now know why my hard news teaching tactics were worth wild. The recent coronavirus outbreak and constant mainstream coverage of it has put all our newsroom lessons into perspective. The Stewart Center headquartered my journalism studio at Gideons Elementary, known as an academically struggling school in Southwest Atlanta with a roughly 340 student body.

Yet, my young journalists possessed natural reporter instincts, instantly qualifying them as perfect candidates for the newsroom lifestyle. These beginner reporters would spill all kinds of tea about people, places and things in their community. Trust me: They found me. And they told me.

With full support from the Stewart Center’s leadership, I transformed these underserved urban students into aspiring, award-winning journalists. As a mom and former editor with a crazier-than-crazy imagination, here’s how I successfully sold them on the significance of taking ownership of their neighborhood news:


Rising 4th-grader Tégan reading her newspaper article to student staff members for feedback.

DEVELOPING RELATABLE CONTENT

My student journalists are all African-American. Their once affluent neighborhood is now a distressed area riddled with crime, drugs and community displacement. They encounter situations I sometimes simply can’t believe they know about. I grew up in rural Georgia on a farm in a middle-class, two-parent household. Nature and constant nurture surrounded my childhood. Nevertheless, we do share similar experiences that connect to our beautiful Blackness. Therefore, pretty much everything I challenged them with celebrated, educated or analyzed our collective Black experiences.

How I accomplished this assignment: I put them in the center of the storytelling projects we created. We reported, interviewed and wrote newspaper articles based off their real-life experiences. If they witnessed a neighborhood arrest, spectated a recreational football game or participated in a neighborhood block party, we discussed it. Then, we connected those experiences to the who, what, where, when, why and sometimes how structure of storytelling. And, like that. They started to get it. Depending on the age group, my student journalists shared these stories by coloring, writing or role playing. I kept the story writing process straightforward, minimizing the complexity of how they already viewed reading and writing.

The journalism studio produces and distributes three editions — fall, winter and spring — of The Pittsburgh Press each academic year.

GIVING THEM A CHAMPION

Discovering the brilliance of Ida B. Wells during my collegiate years became a major impetus to become a Southern print journalist. She fearlessly covered our country’s first crusade against lynching using the power of the pen — a stance that made her a Pulitzer Prize award winner posthumously spring 2020. I come from a farming family in the very territory she concentrated her newspaper coverage on. And Wells knew like I understand more with age: If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will. Now 90 years after her passing, people of color and women are still struggling for opportunities and acceptance in newsrooms across the nation. According to a survey by the American Society of Newsroom Editors, people of color represent less than 23 percent of all newsroom jobs. They account for 19 percent of supervisors. On investigative teams, their presence is smaller. Women only constitute 42 percent of newsroom jobs. As kid-friendly as possible, I broke down her significance to my student journalists. I also petitioned them to help me continue Wells’ work in telling our untold stories. Understanding the important role they play in their neighborhood, they started to feel a new sense of responsibility.

How I accomplished this assignment: I’m a visual person. Same for most of my student journalists. Therefore, I took a trip to Office Max earlier this year to print out a black-and-white sketch of Wells to adorn our newsroom’s accent wall. Student journalists helped place our wall art and other journalism-related decor around her image. To keep her name and legacy current in their minds and as part of our weekly projects, I also participated in an investigative journalism workshop held by The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting to sharpen my skills. I reported back to the student staff about the professional development opportunity so I could transfer new information about researching and writing to them.


African-American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells graces a newsroom wall of The Pittsburgh Press to remind students of her work.

MARKETING, BRANDING THE NEWSPAPER

Before the researching, reporting and writing, I had to have brainstorming sessions with the team about our brand name and how to market the newspaper. The journalism studio actually started two years before I came on board. Student journalists created their own interpretation of a newspaper called The Wolf Howl. However, hallway surveys with each grade level showed that most of their classmates and teachers didn’t even know the name of the school’s newspaper. That needed to change — quick.

How I accomplished this assignment: I structured the journalism studio on themed lessons. One week may focus on interviewing. Another week photography. To get school-wide buy-in and participation with the newspaper, I dedicated one fall 2019 week teaching the difference between branding and marketing our paper. I focused on brands like McDonald’s, Disney and Nintendo as examples they could connect to for interactive, wacky exercises. We discussed and played games that explained how each were branded (the feel, colors and logo used) and marketed (the materials/commercials that explained why we needed these products). The same formula applied to our paper. Collectively, we decided to rename it something the school and community could instantly identify with: The Pittsburgh Press. “The first and only newspaper for the school and the Pittsburgh Community” became our slogan. We created newsroom signage and purchased T-shirts and reporter’s notepads to complete the look.

Lifestyles Editor Daejah Nichols reviews her questions with Journalism Educator Candace Dantes before interviewing a school source.

CREATING A NEWSROOM ADVENTURE

Presentation is powerful. My student journalists call me “Ms. Cowgirl Candace” for a reason. Not only do I come from agricultural beginnings, I actually dress and live out the part in our newsroom. It’s my childhood, lifestyle and brand. If they were going to become the next generation of community journalists, they needed a space that actually said and modeled a true newsroom experience.

How I accomplished this assignment: Each grade level of our staff helped transform a typical classroom into a modern newsroom. A series of decorative demolition days followed. Some grade levels worked on word art. A few on arranging desks and tables into cubicles for our iMacs. Others updated our popular “Boomerang Bulletin Board” — journalism jobs/courses offered in the real world for kids. We often imagined corridors as circus tightropes, mountaintops and sandy beaches we had to travel in order to get to sources like classmates, teachers and custodians. They fully committed to the process of turning story topics into three print editions of our now professional newspaper. And depending on their behavior and my discovery of their hidden talents, student journalists earned newspaper title changes, promotions, demotions and raises (ex: pizza parties, snack attacks, high-fives and tight hugs).


Photojournalists Jessiana and JaKhia operate the Instagram photo booth for showcase events.

POPULARIZING PRODUCTS, SERVICES

One thing this age group gravitates to at Gideons is the lifestyle of their favorite entertainers. That’s a conversation piece I would hear all the time. A large group of these kids live in poverty, so they place value on materialistic things, celebrities and money. With that in mind, I wanted to show them creative ways to not just make but save money through our brand-new newspaper product. Because in all honesty, it’s not a high-paying gig out the gate. However, the more streams of revenue they knew how to produce, the better.

How I accomplished this newsroom assignment: The Pittsburgh Press staff received up to four opportunities to show off their skills to parents, teachers and community members during “showcase” events. We rehearsed our presentation: welcoming guests to our display table, handing out promo materials about the newspaper and even engaging folks with our vintage typewriter as an interactive station. Always popular: the photojournalists’ Instagram photo booth. The staff also generated their own money. Funds went toward new media equipment and other forms of “voted on” fun from these three products and services:


One way The Pittsburgh Press teaches finance and entrepreneurship is by creating and selling custom-designed lapel pins.

  1. Newspaper ads: Our advertising staff knew how to sell full-, half- and quarter-page ads to showcase attendees. We offered a special $10 rate to parents and teachers with small businesses.
  2. Custom lapel pins: Their Shrinky Dinks prototypes — mostly newspaper and Black beauty themed — sold for $2 a pop. The newspaper raked in close to $500 before the coronavirus outbreak.
  3. Polaroid pictures: Some of my cub reporters’ jaws literally dropped when I snapped their photos and film slid out of my mint green Fujifilm Instax mini camera. A weeklong lesson about traditional vs. digital photography wowed my little ones so much, another money-making avenue presented itself for $2 a pic as well.

 

They blew me — and everyone else — away every time. Our showcase moments always left me teary as my Ford Mustang pulled out of the school’s parking lot. These up-and-coming content creators confidently acted on the skills and strategies we practiced each week — equipped to sustain in this business creatively and financially. The coronavirus outbreak closed the physical newsroom doors to The Pittsburgh Press mid-March 2020. Now, news assignments are virtual videos heading into the summer months. It’s refreshing that my newspaper career pitch to this inaugural team worked. Like I said earlier, they find me (online now). And they tell me.


Student journalists offer mobile payment option Cash App when promoting their products and services at school functions.

Cowgirl Candace

Candace, a.k.a. Cowgirl Candace, is an award-winning feature writer, internationally published brand blogger and wardrobe stylist.

The fourth-generation cowgirl and veteran journalist pioneered digital platform Southern Styles & Steeds — a country Western fashion, beauty and lifestyles blogazine — to share the sophisticated styles and sincere stories from her Down South upbringing.