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Medill D.C. Program Trains Journalists for Future

May 8, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- For more than four decades, Medill graduate students have spent time in Washington, D.C., learning how the nation's capital works, reporting stories big and small, honing their journalism skills and rubbing shoulders with veteran reporters and the people they cover.

"I don't think I would have the job I have today if I didn't take part in Medill's Washington program," says Dianna Heitz, who earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June 2008.

A senior Web producer at Politico -- the popular online news outlet launched fewer than three years ago by two Washington Post veterans -- Heitz expresses a sentiment shared through the years by many Medill graduates.

"When our students arrive here, they are given Capitol Hill credentials and all the privileges that go with them," says Ellen Shearer, professor of journalism and director of Medill's Washington Program. "As credentialed reporters, they have the same authority and same right to be on Capitol Hill as a reporter from the Associated Press, New York Times or NBC News."

That access makes for an exciting 11 weeks. "Each quarter at Medill was unique, but the Washington quarter was my favorite," says Jon Sonnheim, who graduated last June and remains in Washington as a freelance multimedia journalist. "It was like they let go of the reins and you were on your own, doing your own thing, writing stories on subjects you chose to write on."

At the same time, however, there is plenty of supervision and advice when students need it. In addition to Shearer, full-time program faculty includes Associate Professor Mary Coffman, Senior Lecturer Sharon Kornely and program co-director and Associate Professor Matt Mansfield.

Coffman and Kornely teach the broadcast/video students while Shearer and Mansfield teach the reporting/subject depth students, although everyone works together in a combined newsroom that reflects the converged newsrooms of today.

In addition, Medill's Washington Program, located just a block from the White House and a mile from the Capitol, boasts a full-time multimedia staff member, Matthew Schrock, and "computer whiz" Tunde Olatunji. Both are available to help students understand and solve any technology-related issues that arise when creating interactive, multimedia story presentations.

Medill students elect to spend their final quarter working and studying in the nation's capital. Those who take part in the program come to understand how politics and government work not only through their reporting and the sources that inform their stories but also through seminars that are integral to the program and from Washington insiders who visit those seminars as guest lecturers.

Learning how Washington functions and how to mine the sources and resources that exist there is valuable whether or not students wind up working in Washington after graduation.
"The D.C. experience broadens the way you frame a story; it gives it a bigger perspective," says Elizabeth Gibson. A reporter for Ohio's Columbus Dispatch, Gibson earned her master's degree last June.

Recently she wrote an article about Somali refugees in Ohio and the difficulties they were having sending money home to their families as a result of bank concerns about terrorist financing. "I called the member of Congress who sponsored the (federal) legislation affecting the Somalis here," says Gibson. "After D.C., you know about research groups, lobbyists, think tanks and people and organizations that can make a local story wider in scope."

Washington Watchdogs, a required Washington Program course, teaches students about the ways of the Beltway and the nitty-gritty realities of government and bureaucracy that civics books omit. "They learn how Washington runs, who really runs it and where money there actually goes," Shearer says.

The class includes intensive training in computer-assisted reporting, in which students learn how to make use and sense of the myriad documents, data and reports that are part of the official record. "By learning how to find and analyze that data and how to make use of or create their own data bases, our students automatically are ahead of the pack," Shearer says.

Medill students, for example, created the first database of the public records of privately sponsored travel by Congress members and their staffs. That database has been used by scores of journalists to find out who is paying to send congressmen around the world. Thanks to media attention and stories generated by the database, Congress has tightened its rules on privately sponsored trips.

The Washington Program also emphasizes depth of reporting and reporting across media platforms. Where program participants previously served as correspondents for small media outlets that lacked their own Washington correspondents, students today cover a specific subject area (or beat) of their choice. Beats include environment, health, defense, business, technology and youth and politics.

Gibson chose the defense and veteran affairs beat, and shortly after arriving in Washington covered Defense Secretary Robert Gates' press conference on that department's budget. She soon became what she calls "a sort of an honorary member of the top defense writers group" that included reporters for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.

"That group would meet pretty regularly for breakfast with, say, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who would talk to the reporters on background. So not only did I meet some of the military's higher ups but I also came to know some of the most prominent reporters in the field, and learn how they worked their beats," Gibson says.

Such contacts are invaluable, Gibson says. Adjunct Lecturer Alan Pessin and Shearer co-taught a seminar on military and defense reporting Gibson took. Pessin, the Pentagon reporter for Voice of America, was particularly helpful to Gibson in covering her chosen beat.

The program also includes a one-on-one mentoring component that makes use of the multitude of Medill alumni working in the nation's capital. Gibson, for example, was paired with Judy Pasternak, a Los Angeles Times reporter based in that paper's Washington bureau.

"Judy would take me out for lunch and give me career advice. And she introduced me to Peter Spiegel, the Los Angeles Times Pentagon reporter, who also was helpful given that I was reporting on military issues."

Politico Web producer Heitz credits the Washington faculty for the program's success. "(They) were all so willing to help and offer advice. They listen and offer smart, sound insights. It's helpful to have professors who know (Washington) so well and know politics like the back of their hand," she says.

The Washington Program emphasizes original reporting, asking students to hit the streets and find their own stories instead of simply following the pack. Client partners -- which include AP Online, UPI.com, MarketWatch, TV2 in the Virgin Islands, The Nashville Tennessean and Politico -- are e-mailed a daily news budget of the articles, videos, audio clips and photos that the students produce.

In defining their target audience, Washington Program participants focus on the 18 to 34 demographic. "Every news outlet I know is trying to figure out how to capture that young elusive audience," says Coffman. "The goal is to get students thinking about that age group -- and, after all, who better knows what appeals to that demographic than our students."

During the presidential election season, students did stories on problems college students had registering to vote and on the differences between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain on issues from college aid to health care for twenty-somethings.

Last quarter the Washington Program for the first time offered a program for undergraduate students. The students took two journalism courses from the Medill faculty and a political science course from a George Mason University professor. The latter now is an undersecretary in the Defense Department.

The undergraduate program focused on mobile journalism and the type of reporting required to satisfy 24/7 news Web sites.

On Inauguration Day, for example, students on the National Mall filed hourly updates, using their cell phones, for example, to file instant messages and Twitter updates. Their stories were fed into a Google Map showing where people were interviewed and what they said, accompanied by photos that were added when students returned to the continuous Medill news desk.

In the graduate program as in the new undergraduate program, there's no such thing as a print student or a broadcast student anymore. "We're blurring the lines here because that's what's going on in the industry today," Shearer says. "Today's journalists have to know how to do multiple things, and absolutely everyone needs to be able to file text to the Web."

Recent Medill graduate and multimedia freelance journalist Sonnheim says the multimedia approach is essential. Since graduating from Medill, he has worked on a documentary about homeless veterans, done research for the Associated Press, sold video stories to UPI, been a North American sports producer for Reuters and worked as a cameraman and editor for Cox Broadcasting.

"I'm doing every kind of journalism and reporting you can do and I'm holding my own," says Sonnheim. "Mary (Coffman) and Sharon (Kornely) knew lots of people in D.C. and were willing to pass along all their contacts which helped me get the ball rolling jobs-wise."

Sonnheim learned to use Avid (a digital editing system) in Medill's Chicago newsroom and Final Cut (another digital editing system) in Washington. "Knowing both and being able to write for the Web and tell stories in different ways made me marketable," he says. "It's what journalists of the future need to be."

The Washington Program helped lead Carson Krislov, who earned her master's degree in December, to a reporting job with Roanoke's WDBJ-TV. Her bosses at the station "expressed surprise at how quickly I was able to hit the ground running," she says.

After only a month on the job, Krislov had reported on a double murder and interviewed Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, one-time Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee and actor Steven Baldwin.

"The Medill D.C. experience was great because the people there are wonderful. Tom Diemer (a former Washington correspondent for the Plain Dealer and current Medill adjunct faculty member) and Mary (Coffman) -- people with great credentials and an incredible knowledge of Washington -- didn't just critique our work, they encouraged us," Krislov says.

"When I did my first (Washington) package," Krislov recalls, "it was so bad that I didn't want anyone else to see it. But halfway through the quarter, you get a rhythm and get to know the city and, suddenly, you know how to do things."

Krislov's story is not uncommon. "In my 15 years with the Washington Program, I'm still in awe at what quick studies our students are and how enormously their skills improve in 11 short weeks," says Coffman.

Above all, the Washington Program provides students with opportunities. "When else as a young journalist will you be able to attend hearings on Capitol Hill, eat breakfast at the National Press Club and live in the nation's capital," says Politico's Heitz. "I came here in January of 2008 thinking that I'd stay for just one quarter. I've been here ever since."

The Washington Program operates from a large office suite in downtown Washington, D.C., just blocks from the White House. It has been used by Northwestern faculty for meetings as well as by alumni for undergraduate admission interviews and by news industry organizations in need of training space during Northwestern quarter breaks. The bureau has meeting rooms and offices in excellent operating condition. Washington Program Director Ellen Shearer encourages hosting journalism or other education meetings, as well as making the space available to Northwestern faculty visiting from Evanston. "We are part of the Northwestern community and want to make sure people know our facilities are available for their use," she said.
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