In the Suburbs: Getting a lead on where to find the next generation’s journalists
Here’s my exclusive for the week! I met with a group of future journalists — seniors and freshman — from Kennedy High School in Waterbury last Friday, and it was one of my most rewarding experiences as a journalist/columnist. I was mesmerized and truly impressed by their questions, curiosity about my background and their candor.
The two-class presentations were arranged by my personal publicity agent and daughter, Stacey, who teaches at Kennedy and mentioned my background to her colleague, Alena, the journalism teacher. Alena, a dynamo of an educator, motivates and inspires her future journalists every day, manages a great weekly student newspaper and is filled with enthusiasm and a winning smile. I definitely want to be in this lady’s class!
Alena had given the students my biography and their assignment for the week was to ask enough questions to create a news or feature story about yours truly. And these folks were prepared, so it was easy for me to create a lively discussion around their curiosity. The students peppered me with questions about where I get my story ideas, the toughest subjects I’ve covered, a guess about the number of columns I’ve written since 1988, how I got started with my writing and with this column, my favorite columns (I chose family pieces), and the impact of social media on my writing.
I began each session by turning the tables on the students and asking why they had taken the course. Most told me it was to improve their writing, but with some probing I learned that the class originally had been public speaking and a lot of the students wanted to be better public speakers, as well as writers.
That proved to be an excellent segue to how journalists work and the importance of having a good nose for news. I provided some samples of ideas that could be good news stories, like the weather, politics, the top issues that might drive campaign platforms, domestic violence, bullying, destructive texting and changes in education. Then we talked about finding the best angle. Seniors Dylan and Brian in one class did some great focusing on aspects of weather stories like hypothermia and frostbite and a young woman, also a senior, shared her strong interest in domestic violence.
Alex, a truly aggressive freshman interviewer, asked some terrific questions and I got the impression that his story was going to be very comprehensive. Another freshman guy on the other side of the room kept up with Alex by asking equally strong questions. His queries focused on how I’ve managed to adjust to more social media, how I began writing and where I get my ideas.
One young lady in the freshman class told me that she knew all about journalism before coming to the class and I applauded her knowledge and told her I hoped her hunger for finding good stories would only continue. Jada, another freshman, expressed concern that her writing wasn’t good enough and gave me the opportunity to explain that writing begins as a craft and there really isn’t any such thing as bad writing.
I also suggested websites for online publications, as well as the Fairfield Citizen, which published my column every week in print and online. That also gave me the opportunity to talk about the growth of citizen journalism and encourage them to submit stories. Similarly, I encouraged the students to look at what was going on in Waterbury and what concerns they had that might lead to opinion pieces in their hometown newspaper, the Waterbury Republican-American.
When they expressed concern about their own writing, I suggested the late William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well.” One of the best parts of the book, especially for budding journalists, is Zinsser’s comments about leads — opening sentences. According to Zinsser, “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, you article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is safely hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit the lead.”
My hope after this valuable experience with these motivated students from Kennedy High School in Waterbury is that they will find their own voices as reporters and continue their writing. They definitely have the passion and drive to become great journalists.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.