Throughout the week of July 17, Drexel University’s Department of Communication collaborated with the Department of Politics to host the first Big City Journalist Boot Camp for high school students. The program was overseen by Dr. Hildegarde Van den Bulck, Department Head for Communication, Dr. Richardson Dilworth, Department Head for Politics and Khushi Patel, the Administrator for the Department of Politics.
In the span of five days, 14 students from as far as Maryland and Connecticut gathered on campus and were guided through the process of writing an article relevant to local news in Philadelphia. Dilworth explained the motivation behind the inaugural program, stating, “local journalism is a niche area but is socially important and…it serves this really crucial public function, and it has been dramatically changed, mostly for the worst, over the last 20 years.”
To combat this, the program aimed to emphasize the importance of accurate local journalism and this goal resonated with the students, according to Van den Bulck: “Young people… are so aware of the importance and I think it is because of all the misinformation… that we have been confronted with.”
At the start of the program, students learned how to pick a compelling topic that stood out to them. The wide variety of topics chosen included solar energy, refugees in Philadelphia and incarcerated men with mental health disorders. As the week progressed, students learned how to pitch their ideas, source information, ask for and conduct interviews, write articles and copy edit for publication.
Students met with different speakers with a range of backgrounds, including Joseph DiStefano from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sophie Alexander from Bloomberg News and Sandra Shea from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Every day, students applied the knowledge from the morning lectures as they worked with Jessica Blatt Press from the Philadelphia Citizen from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. as she essentially turned the classroom into a newsroom.
Accompanied by one of the organizers of the program, students could travel across Philadelphia for interviews. Five students stayed in dorms on campus, providing an additional layer to their experience of staying at Drexel.
By the end of the program, students were invested in their finished pieces as they were compiled into a newsletter. The collection may be published on the websites for the Department of Communication and Department of Politics.
Planning to host the program again next year, Dilworth hopes to “get the students out more” to enhance the in-person journalism experience.
Originally, they hoped to get students into newsrooms, but according to Van den Bulck, “COVID has had a huge impact… and newsrooms are Zoom meetings these days.”
Van den Bulck suggested a solution: for future students to shadow journalists going out to get the news. Additionally, student feedback will be taken into consideration when selecting guest speakers for next year and designating enough time to allow the students to write their pieces.
Both Van den Bulck and Dilworth were proud of the students as they enhanced their skills and got a better understanding of the field and its potential. They recognized their hard work and “the chief value… that they… wrote a news story in a very finite amount of time,” according to Dilworth.