One of the reasons I accepted our chapter board's invitation to be president after serving just a few months on the board was my wish to bring some healing and understanding to the newsrooms of the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News that had been devastated by the disastrous three-year strike that began in July 1995.
But despite numerous quality programs, fun-filled roasts and a Regional Conference with Elmore (Dutch) Leonard as keynote speaker, nothing seemed to bring people from the News or Free Press out to SPJ events. Nothing, that is, until we asked them to participate this summer in a seminar to improve the quality of journalism instruction in local high schools.
Our SPJ chapter and the Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists joined in an effort to help local high school journalism teachers instill their students with an enthusiasm for journalism, as well as help schools that didn't have a school newspaper start one. We invited more than 100 high school journalism or English teachers to come to a one-day seminar on August 21. About 50 showed up at Wayne State University (which gave us the space for free) for sessions on generating story ideas, copy editing, layout/design, sports and feature reporting and photography.
More than two dozen staff members from both Detroit dailies volunteered to teach the sessions. We teamed people from the Free Press with people from the News - for most of them the first time they had met a member of the competition's staff. Each team had to design its own lesson plan with help from a wonderful Web site -- www.highschooljournalism.org -- that is published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. ASNE also sent along enough copies of its 11-minute video on why high school journalism matters to give to each participating teacher.
Judging by the comments from the high school teachers and professionals alike, the seminar was a success and we plan to continue the effort the entire year with SPJ members serving as guest lecturers in journalism classes and informal advisors to high school newspaper staffs. Our new chapter president Sandra Combs Birdiett, who heads WSU's Journalism Institute for Minorities, is hosting a follow-up session on Oct. 19.
The August 21 seminar was offered free to any high school teacher planning to teach journalism or journalistic writing this year. Detroit Public Schools even gave its teachers a $150 stipend to attend. We got donations from a local casino and the owner of a minor league baseball team that paid for a continental breakfast and box lunches for all participants. The Freep and the News donated their staff members' time and gave us publicity and give-away items such as stylebooks and notepads.
Teachers who attended were impressed and gave us positive marks on the written evaluations.
"I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity to attend," one wrote. "I never thought seriously about advising a newspaper, but the support from the workshops such as these would make me feel confident."
"The participation from the on-the-job journalists was truly informative," said another. "Very well done execution and apparent planning."
"A handclap to the people in charge."
Will St. John, deputy chief copy editor at the Free Press, said teachers he taught "were articulate about their goals, had plenty of questions and even shared answers with others. ... We could have talked much longer."
Darci McConnell, political writer for the Detroit News and Detroit NABJ chapter vice president, said that "the main thing we have to do now is not drop the ball... It's clear that the teachers need help, and we (not just the organizations, but also the volunteers from the two papers) are in a great position to provide that."
An unexpected side benefit was that several staffers asked about joining SPJ. It seems that offering the professionals an opportunity to give, rather than struggling to try to give them something they may or may not want, is a key reason why they want to join our organization.