February 7, 2008
With the proliferation of community-based publications, Internet news sites and the seemingly infinite number of blogs with news content, there are abundant points of entry outside the mainstream media for aspiring journalists to gain access to the profession. And yet “alternative journalism” provides a set of its own challenges for those who practice it, says Tulane faculty member Vicki Mayer.
Since 2004, Mayer, associate professor and chair of the communication department, has taught a course on alternative journalism that is now paired with an optional service-learning component that gives students a chance to write for community-based publications.
“The purpose of the course is to explore what is ‘alternative’ and to examine what we win and what do we lose when we work in alternative and mainstream press,” says Mayer. While writing for alternative publications allows for certain freedoms, there may be trade-offs, she says. And that’s part of the learning process.
“ ‘Alternative Journalism’ is a true service-learning course because students are not just theorizing what it means to publish as a community voice but also are looking at the conundrums that come up,” says Mayer.
Lauren Pavicevic-Johnson, a senior majoring in political economy, took Mayer’s course last fall and through the public-service component began writing first for Social Policy, a quarterly publication of the American Institute for Social Justice and the ACORN Institute, and then The Trumpet, a monthly newspaper published by Neighborhood Partners Network, a nonprofit organization that acts as a kind of umbrella for neighborhood and community groups.
As a fellow with the Tulane Center for Public Service, Pavicevic-Johnson assisted Mayer in coordinating the public-service component of the class. She’s written a couple of stories that have been published in The Trumpet and is currently working on a story for Social Policy about how nonprofit groups are using low-power radio stations to organize communities.
“Journalism is a different kind of writing style than I am used to,” she says. “In political economy I’m used to writing 30-page papers; journalism is 1,500 words and cut to the chase.”
One story that Pavicevic-Johnson put a lot of time into last year was never published and her experience is indicative of the kind of quandary that an alternative journalist can face.
In gathering information about how women activists viewed the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, Pavicevic-Johnson took notes at a meeting of the League of Women Voters as well as conversations she had with friends and acquaintances who worked within the non-partisan political organization.
Pavicevic-Johnson wrote the story and submitted it to Mayer for a grade but ultimately decided against publishing it in deference to her sources, who, because of their affiliation with the League of Women Voters, typically do not publicly share their political opinions. She says they were more candid with her than they might otherwise have been with another reporter.
“No good would have come from it,” she says.
Pavicevic-Johnson’s initial experiences as a journalist, however, may have been transformative. “I’m looking for graduate programs in journalism,” she says, adding that she intends to keep reporting on social issues.
“With my major in political economy I understand the issues; I will be going on and learning the mechanics involved in writing stories.”
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