Kelli Cole came to her journalism class Tuesday expecting to eat a slice or two of pizza, listen to a New York Times reporter talk about a world she wouldn’t relate to and leave with the same sense of panic that has been plaguing her since the semester started at Youngstown State University.
“How am I going to do this project? I don’t want to offend anyone by the questions that I ask. I don’t know where to start. I want to graduate.” These are the issues that worry Cole, a journalism major at YSU who, one day, wants to work as a television news reporter.
Cole’s assignment for her senior projects class is to investigate two area school districts: one in the city of Youngstown and the other in the more prosperous suburb of Boardman. Her goal is to uncover what is different about the two districts. Why does one significantly out-perform the other? Part of Cole’s consternation is that, in Ohio, where school funds are largely dependent on property taxes, school performance is often divided along lines of class and race. Cole’s hesitation is in part rooted in a culture of journalism that too often seeks to avoid the gritty details of the important stories, instead opting for sterile facts and figures that don’t communicate a whole story.
In fact, for years, the profession of reporting has taken an odd turn in which practitioners have become professionals, upwardly mobile, college-educated and too often out of touch, as we noted in our last blog entry on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and has been documented by Brent Cunningham.
Steven Greenhouse, the New York Times’ labor reporter who came to YSU last week, had just started talking when Cole walked into class.
She and the other students in the class listened to his stories about the people in his book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.” Greenhouse shared accounts of managers locking workers in stores and erasing hours from employees’ timecards. The students were awed by his ability to gather information and were intent on unlocking the complex secrets of first-rate reporting. Instead, they found, his method for gathering powerful stories is simple, but too often forgotten in today’s culture of professional journalism-he hits the road.
Greenhouse told students he sometimes stands in parking lots waiting for people to leave work and he has gone door-to-door soliciting comments for stories even recounting a time early in his career when he had to interview the family of a murdered child.
Cole was the first to talk to Greenhouse when he finished his prepared remarks.
She asked him for advice for how to tackle her story.
His response was direct and simple, “You just do it.”
He told Cole that her job is to report the story even if it means asking uncomfortable questions.
He said that his decades-long career at the New York Times has been about asking those questions and getting out and finding people.
Greenhouse’s response was an important reminder for our students and for ourselves: Our jobs as reporters is not behind desks. Cole needs to wander the halls of both schools, she needs to talk to the students passing through them and to the teachers who are charged with educating them. She needs to find out what a ninth-grader is reading at each school, what each is eating for lunch and what each will go home to at the end of the day.
Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff
Steven Greenhouse’s appearance at YSU was sponsored by the Center for Working Class Studies with assistance from YSU’s Journalism Major and The New York Times. Greenhouse was interviewed for“Lincoln Avenue,” a weekly radio show broadcast on WYSU, the university’s public radio station. It will air on November 5 and then be available online as podcast.