By Katherine Manson
Burgess Brown sits quietly in class as a recorded interview sounds out of the speakers. He and four other students sit in a circle in the first enterprise journalism course offered by Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.
Veteran Telegraph reporter Joe Kovac Jr. is walking the class through interview techniques to help the students when they begin their own assignments interviewing Macon residents as a part of the community engagement project the class will spearhead this spring.
“It’s important to let the person being interviewed talk without interrupting,” Kovac says. “You’ve got to let them paint the picture of the story.”
Brown, a Macon native, transferred from Georgia Tech to Mercer last fall to be a part of the launch of the new CCJ, which The New York Times in a story last fall called “one of the nation’s boldest journalism experiments.” Brown will be one of the participating media students in the first community engagement project incorporated by the CCJ, and he is excited to be a part of the on-the-ground effort.
“The program is incredibly progressive and provides so many opportunities for hands-on experience,” Brown said. “I had spent a lot of time learning about media studies at Tech, but I wanted to actually get out there and learn by doing. The CCJ has provided me with that opportunity.”
Brown is a media studies major and said that the community engagement project was part of what attracted him to Mercer.
“I know the program is dedicated to playing an active role in the community and that is something that is important to me, particularly in Macon, which is my hometown,” Brown said. “I also love the idea of the untold story, and I fully believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell, so having the opportunity to try and tell those stories in an exciting way is a great opportunity.”
The students in the course, taught by Journalist in Residence Debbie Blankenship, will also work with Mercer’s investigative journalism class and reporters from The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting to begin a project that will be one of the first community efforts of the CCJ. The CCJ is funded by a $4.6 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a $1 million grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation. As part of the initiative, the CCJ will do two community engagement projects per year over the five-year grant.
“We’re trying to do the teaching hospital model of journalism, and we’re also trying to impact the community and figure out new ways for journalists to make a difference in their communities,” said Tim Regan-Porter, director of the CCJ.
“I want the students to improve their writing and reporting skills while learning about the community they call home, at least their community while they are here at Mercer,” Blankenship said. “The ability to talk and to relate to people is a skill you will need no matter what you do in life.”
The interview project will focus on involving members of the community to tell their story and the story of Macon and Bibb County. Students, reporters and faculty are fanning out into the community to talk with individuals and foster a dialogue about issues most important to Macon. The interviews will expose the community’s frustrations and praises of living in Macon, Kovac said. The project is tentatively titled “The Faces of Macon: Who Are We?” The interviews will continue for a few months with the initial interviews featured in The Telegraph and on GPB.
“The idea is to listen to the community and help solve their problems” Regan-Porter said. “We want to go out and talk to the community, find out what they care most passionately about, what they’re most frustrated with and how they feel about the community.”
With the launch of the CCJ's website later this semester, profiles and interviews from the project will be featured online as well. The website will contain news from The Telegraph, GPB and student-written stories, in addition to links to various local news sources. Through a user-generated section, community members will be encouraged to submit their stories to the website to participate in the project.
“I hope it gives us a better picture of who we are as a community,” Regan-Porter said.
Students like Brown will have a hands-on approach to learning and engaging the community in the CCJ's efforts. Regan-Porter hopes the initial interviews will lead to researching historical aspects of Macon and Bibb County. Those enrolled in Mercer’s investigative reporting class are planning to follow-up the interviews and investigate how the history of Macon affects the community. A Telegraph employee since 1991, Kovac hopes this project will open new stories to the media partners, and help better serve the community.
“For a long time I have come to notice that it seems like there are two, or even three, Macons,” Kovac said. “Many towns are like this, divided along racial and economic lines. But as Macon struggles to find its identity, I thought it might open eyes to show people how the other half lives, to, in essence, re-introduce locals to themselves. It may be easier said than done, this project.”
Like many of the CCJ's students, Brown is eager to be a part of the project and be a part of the flourishing CCJ. The project gives students the ability to learn outside of the classroom by practicing their interviewing and reporting skills while learning about the city in which they live.
“We are really lucky to have forward-thinking and passionate people in charge who truly care about the students they are working with,” Brown said. “As long as that collaboration and excitement for the future of storytelling continues, things are only going to get better for the CCJ.”