2007 AAJ Class Was 'Ambitious and Industrious'

october 11, 2007  10:58 am

The 2007 Class of the Academy for Alternative Journalism (left to right): Ciara Sampaio, Suemedha Sood, Kelly Virella, Bradley Campbell, Gus Garcia-Roberts, Yasmin Khan, Emily Withrow, Caleb Hannan, Ashleigh Braggs, Natalie Collier.

Ten young journalists, culled from an applicant field of more than 200, descended on Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., this summer for the Academy for Alternative Journalism, an intensive eight-week crash course on alt-weekly-style narrative journalism.

"This was a really ambitious and industrious group," says program director Charles Whitaker. "They took on some of the tougher stories of any class of the past few years, and by and large they pulled it off."

Each journalist focused on pursuing one long-form story during his or her time at the Academy. Whitaker says this year's fellows tackled complex issues and "stories that I usually discourage students from taking on, because you want everyone to finish a story." The fellows reported on everything from an unusual form of sexual dysfunction in women to a pernicious staph infection running rampant in Cook County's jail, to name just a few topics.

For the first time, this year the stories were put online, on to what Whitaker hopes will become a growing website for AAJ fellows past and present.

"We used to produce a print publication, which we distributed to AAN editors and other folks," he says. "But I always ended up with a stack of them in my offices." He says a website is a much more efficient -- and comprehensive -- way to present the work done at the Academy. Stories can be presented at their full lengths, and the fellows can choose to put any extra work they produced at the Academy on the site as well.

The site that features the fellows' stories will be like an e-zine, produced fresh with each year's class. But Whitaker says he hopes to build out an alumni section of the site, where fellows from the past six years can have a standing bio, contact information, and links to the stories they wrote during their tenure at AAJ.

"It's a good place for AAN editors to troll for talent," he says.

And troll they do. Of the ten 2007 AAJ fellows, two have already been offered jobs at AAN papers. Whitaker says that Cleveland Scene editor Pete Kotz was so impressed by Gus Garcia Roberts' work at the Academy that he offered him a job before the fellowship was even complete. And Kelly Virella was recently offered a position by The Pitch in Kansas City.

Whitaker says that the rest of the fellows are busy getting leads, securing internships, and casting about for work. He says the close to 50 percent of past classes have had some experience working at AAN papers, and that this year's crop should be equally successful.

"This class, in particular, is going to latch on and do pretty well," he says.

Intended as a recruitment and training tool for minority journalists, AAJ has roots 25 years deep in a diversity program started at the Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill. Mike Lenehan, the recently departed executive editor of the Chicago Reader, discovered the program in 1999, and it became a part of the AAN roster of training opportunities in 2000. For more on the Academy, or for a 2008 application, visit the website.