Podcast: Students embrace community journalism through The Oglethorpe Echo, with Dr. Amanda Bright.

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Former student journalists stand in front of the Oglethorpe Echo office.
Former student journalists working for The Oglethorpe Echo celebrating their first edition in 2021. (Photo: Sarah Freeman).

In 2021, after hearing that The Oglethorpe Echo, the community paper of Clarke County’s neighbor, Oglethorpe County, was shutting its doors, Grady College devised a plan to save it

For over a year now, after transitioning the paper to a nonprofit, The Oglethorpe Echo has been staffed by student journalists. Dr. Amanda Bright, the director of the Journalism Innovation Lab for the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership, and the instructor of the capstone journalism class that staffs the Echo, recently published an article on the project titled “Listening for The Echo: How Our Students Are Stepping Into, Embracing Community Journalism.” 

In this episode, Dr. Bright speaks about the origins of the program, training student journalists in community reporting, the adjustments and advancements made to The Oglethorpe Echo over the past year, what students gain from the experience, and the replicability of the program. 

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for clarity and brevity.

Grady Research Radio: To start, can you give us some general insight on the program, what the College’s involvement with the nearly 150-year-old newspaper entails?

Amanda Bright: It’s been quite a journey. About a year ago, Dink NeSmith (ABJ ’70), who lives in Oglethorpe County and is an alumnus, found out that his county newspaper was about to close. The family that had owned it for a long time had health issues. Obviously, in our industry, local news struggles financially. 

He did not want to live in a county without a newspaper, so he called Dean Davis immediately, and they hatched a plan that Grady journalism students would take over The Oglethorpe Echo, the editorial side, as part of a class.

From those early moments in October, we ended up getting a group of interns to take us through to the spring semester. I was asked to teach the class, and we developed a system by which students do all of the reporting for The Oglethorpe Echo every week plus participate in editor and producer roles to manage our six digital products. 

So, it’s been a lot of learning very fast, but we’ve essentially been able to save a county from becoming a news desert because of the really hard work done by our journalism students. 

Grady Research Radio: I know a big part of local news reporting is being familiar with the community that you’re reporting on. So what mechanisms were put in place to help the student journalists familiarize themselves with Oglethorpe County?  

Amanda Bright: I think that’s one of the hardest things that we struggled with off the bat, because Oglethorpe County — it’s about four times the size of Clarke County geographically, but only 15,000 people live there. There’s only one traffic light in the whole county. There are just two chain restaurants. It is a very different environment from the UGA, Athens-Clarke campus. 

Getting the students to understand, particularly those who weren’t already from small towns, the types of issues, problems and victories that the people in Oglethorpe County were having was super vital. 

So we did a couple different things. We did a bus tour. The superintendent of schools loaded our first very first capstone section onto a bus and took us around the county and showed us the antebellum reconstruction homes, as well as the trailers that didn’t have any running water or electricity, and we got to see the full gamut of life and experience out there. 

Since then we’ve hosted open houses where we go out and visit local businesses. We see the office and the courthouse and just try to meet with people. 

The other big avenue that I think is really effective is called a community audit. Students, in their beats, research, talk to people and then create some kind of visual documentation of what they can learn about that beat, whether it’s criminal justice and safety or accounting and politics or sports and recreation. So that has been a great tool to get the students into the county to just talk to people and see what they care about and then start pitching stories from that.

The Oglethorpe Echo's student journalists, Spring 2023.
The Oglethorpe Echo’s student journalists, Spring 2023. (Photo: Jackson Schroeder)

Grady Research Radio: Great. So, when Grady entered the picture, were there any adjustments or advancements that were made to expand upon the reach of the paper and the coverage? 

Amanda Bright: The big thing was we went from a weekly newspaper to a weekly newspaper and six digital products. That includes a website, four social media platforms, an email newsletter and an E-edition. I guess that’s seven. That allowed us to reach some audiences that had not yet been reached. That was very important to us.

The second thing, which is probably more important, is diversity and impact. I do think that one of the limitations of the coverage before was that it really did focus on the people who are already known, had power, had money in the county.

There weren’t a lot of stories on the people who were different than that. And so we’ve made a concerted effort over the last year to tell stories of lots of different types of people, and I’m really proud of that and the impact that’s made on those people’s lives, covering organizations’ efforts, celebrating with people in the county who may look different than the members of the Board of Commissioners. So I hope that has been something that the people in the county have noticed and have enjoyed.

Grady Research Radio: Great. So, it’s my understanding that the paper is primarily staffed by capstone journalism students. So, from the academic side, can you kind of walk us through what students gain from the experience? 

Amanda Bright: I think, for many of our students, particularly here at Grady where we have a lot of high achievers, small town, community journalism isn’t the first thing on their mind when they think about a career. They’re thinking of CNN, going to Atlanta.

One of the biggest things I want students to take away is that community journalism is incredibly meaningful and rewarding for them professionally as much as it is for the community. Every semester they’ve done this — the students come back at the end and say, “You know, I feel like I made a real difference. I understood people’s stories. I got feedback from them. I built relationships. People were good to me. They wanted to talk to me.” The student journalists are not vilified as the media in a popular culture sense. They’re seen as people who are serving. 

So I think that’s what students gain. I think they gain a sense of impact and they gain a sense of community journalism as a viable career path, which I think is probably what’s going to help community journalism survive in the next era. 

Grady Research Radio: And on that note, we all know about community journalism and its downward trajectory in terms of lots of papers closing. So, do you see this as a replicable model for saving community journalism across the country? 

Amanda Bright: That is a million-dollar question. We are a nonprofit, and I think that’s important. I really do believe in the nonprofit model for lots of reasons. 

We are working on stabilizing a more long-term business model inside of that. Right now we really rely on print advertising. We want to expand to digital, including donations, subscriptions, sponsorships, in order to have community investment in our ability to maintain, which is what a nonprofit does, keep the lights on, in what we do. 

The replicability part becomes sticky, because, unless you’re next to a big J school with a capstone class of 20-plus students that are available, that’s hard. We have 22 students dedicated to the county. That’s more reporters than they probably have ever had.

That being said, I do support, and I’m exploring with some colleagues in other universities, the idea that almost all J schools should be doing this. So it may not be able to affect all of the news deserts, but perhaps we can take this model and replicate it, even in smaller regional universities where they have a comms studies program.

Grady Research Radio: Great. Thank you for your time today. 

Amanda Bright: Thanks, Jackson.

Black History Month Alumni Spotlight: Christopher A. Daniel (MA ’07)

Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of spotlights highlighting the work of some of our alumni in celebration of Black History Month. Please watch for more profiles in the weeks to come.

Christopher Daniel works as a journalist and instructor of multimedia and digital journalism in the Department of Mass Media Arts at Clark Atlanta University. He enjoys writing about popular music and culture, civil rights and education. He has freelanced for publications including HuffPost, The Hip Hop Enquirer, Atlanta Magazine and CBS News, and his work has been recognized by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and NABJ.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month gives the country and even the world an opportunity to really celebrate the contributions and the blood and the sweat that Black people have given to this nation, and to the world at large. It’s a moment for us to really look into all the different areas and genres in which Black people have made certain strides, whether it’s in the arts or in the sciences or in education or entertainment. So I think it is an interesting time for us to be able to celebrate our history, but it’s also just a moment for us to dig deep and try to find those narratives that we haven’t heard before and those moments that can enlighten us and shine a really bright light on things that improve our human condition. Black History Month is a combination of us celebrating the contributions to our nation and just our culture, but also really digging deep to find the stories that we haven’t heard.

Explain a challenge that you had to overcome in your professional career.

I think one of the biggest challenges that I’ve overcome specifically as a Black journalist is getting editors to understand certain things culturally that need to be articulated in writing. Especially over the last few years, now we’re getting to a point where things have to be a little bit more transparent and things have to be a little bit more reflective of the communities that we serve. A great deal of what I’ve spent a lot of my career doing is educating people and educating editors on the ways in which Black communities live. Why does a certain song make sense, or if we go to the barber shop, what sort of resonance does the barber shop have on Black men and us being able to relate to one another? I’ve written about our culinary traditions and our literary canons and what they mean to the larger conversations about uplifting humanity or raising awareness. 

One of the biggest gifts that I’ve been given — because I don’t really look at it as a challenge, I look at it as a gift — is being able to expose people to the ways in which they need to understand humanity better and to really do their jobs better. When we tell stories about underserved or marginalized groups, I bring in a strong sense of pride and humanity to those narratives and really show people that the way in which they perceive Black people and Brown people is not the way the nation sees it. And it’s been a lot of fun doing those stories and really being the voice for my community.

What classes at Grady College did the most to prepare you for your career?

The first time I had a 9000 level class, there were maybe four people, and I was the only Black student and I was the only master’s student in the class. We took this class in the Peabody office, so you look around and you see all these posters of “MTV Unplugged” and “The Simpsons” and “Roots.” When I was in that class, I did a presentation on “The Boondocks,” which was at the time a big show and it was one of my favorite shows on TV. Everyone in that class was a white Ph.D. student, and even the instructor, Horace Newcomb, had no clue what I was doing. I just remember getting all of these questions from Newcomb and I had no clue why I was getting interrogated like that. But literally, probably a week or two weeks after this presentation, I was on MySpace, and I will never forget this. Aaron McGruder, who created that show and the comic strip, was on his MySpace page and posted a quote that said “Hot damn, I just won a Peabody Award.” That showed me the power of the influence that I had and kind of what my voice was meant to do.

Daniel was inspired by Charlayne Hunter-Gault to attend Grady College for his master’s degree.

I had what I call the holy trinity in Grady. This was Dwight Brooks, Andy Kavoori and Nate Kohn; those three were my thesis committee members, and Brooks was my thesis chair. And of course, my thesis was on southern hip hop music through the prism of hip hop publications. Doing something at the time that really wasn’t heavy in higher education and now you’re seeing classes on hip hop, on Outkast or on southern hip hop music in general, and using autobiographies as textbooks now. So to be able to come, you know, maybe 13-14 years later and seeing how we’ve really advanced in terms of the sort of material that we’re using in the conversations that we have. That really lets me know that those two years that I spent at Grady College was a monumental time to really move that needle, and doing this 60 years after Charlayne Hunter-Gault integrated Grady and the University of Georgia, really to me, is a big deal, and that’s what makes me proud to talk about this. The one person that helped to integrate and desegregate that program is someone who inspired and motivated me to make the decision that I made to go to Grady.

What does the recent movement to continue the fight for racial justice mean to you personally and professionally?

I feel as though what has to happen going forward so it’s not performative, that it is genuine, is you have to make sure that students are having these conversations in the media courses that they take. And yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but imagine how uncomfortable it is being in the newsroom or going in the community and having to write when there is a protest or someone died or something crazy happened that made national news. Literally turning your classes into incubators and making those spaces where you can have conversations about race and have conversations about sexism, so that once there is a moment where they are assigned to do those stories in the future, they know best practices and how to approach those topics so they’re not uncomfortable with it. I think we have to really do a better job at turning our educational spaces into practices, and optimizing opportunities so that when these larger issues come up in the future because those editors and those writers who are having these problems now, they were students too at some point. We just have to do a better job at really having those hard dialogues and creating tough love out of that so that things can be better.

It’s going to take a village for us to really do those sorts of things voluntarily so that we can make the necessary change that has to happen. But if you want to be a journalist especially, it does start with doing the homework. I would like to think that people that want to do those stories and win Pulitzers and win Peabodys and more awards down the line, that they are taking upon themselves the initiative to do the legwork on the ground as students so that they can morph and matriculate into those spaces where they are the productive citizens doing the necessary work. Even when things are quiet, you still have to be very vocal about what needs improvement because things won’t change if you won’t voice it and put it in people’s faces. You’re doing something that helps the larger community change the nature of what’s going on. 

How has your field of study changed since you were a Grady student?

When we were in school, Facebook was the new thing. And that’s the platform that everybody was using to promote events on campus. If people had potlucks on the weekend, that’s what they used; somebody had a birthday party, that’s what they used. I honestly don’t think people figured out at the time that you can literally use that to disseminate news. Now when you go online, Twitter is the number one way that a lot of young people get their news. You know people have breaking news on TikTok, they’re breaking news on Clubhouse and panels and things of that nature, so the way that social media and digital media have really become virtual news hubs. Now social media is the wire service. 

Another way the industry has changed is we have more spaces where we’re getting opportunities. In those days, internships created pipelines for how students would get their way into ESPN, Bloomberg, and the PR agencies and CNN.  A number of opportunities that I’ve received as a journalist have been because someone sees a tweet. It’s totally leveling the playing field so that we don’t have to look to the more arcane old school ways. It’s actually keeping things a little bit cooler and making things a little bit more laid back to where we don’t have to be so formal all the time, which I think is really a good deal. You’re allowing people who really have good voices and have the education to not necessarily be so uptight about getting their voice out to the world. It’s allowing us to be who we are, and I think that’s probably the biggest blessing that’s changed in time since I’ve been in school. We just have to be very diligent about making sure that when we get students in those moments where they can sell themselves on those platforms, they know that the stuff that they’re putting out there needs to have a certain look to it so they can get the moment in the sun that they’re looking for.

New program brings journalism students, Georgia newsrooms together to achieve digital goals

When initial discussions began about creating a new program called Digital Natives at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t factored into its launch. Despite the unforeseen challenge, program director and academic professional Amanda Bright and eight students jumped into action.

Digital Natives was developed in conjunction with the Georgia Press Association. The program pairs UGA journalism students with local GPA member newsrooms to help them accomplish a specific digital goal, from improving social media to experimenting with video production. 

“Once I heard about the program I was absolutely in,” Bright said. “I know that [newsrooms] need that support, and who better to give that to them than boundless energy college students?”

For 2021, eight students were selected through an application process that highlighted their abilities and interest in community journalism. The newsrooms also completed an application that determined their digital needs, willingness to work with the students and ability to follow through on what they learned. Students were matched with news organizations based on how well their skill sets would meet the newsroom’s needs.

The students spent a month preparing for an intensive week with their newsrooms. They consulted with editors and publishers about their digital goals and prepared a community audit that covered demographics, economic outlook, government, local competition and an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. 

Starting on Jan. 4, they implemented their weeklong plans to teach the newsrooms using guided practice, feedback and independent practice resources that they made themselves.

The students created synchronous and asynchronous video tutorials, how-to guides and presentations to explain how to get the most out of digital tools like Instagram and Facebook and develop strategies for optimal use based on the newsroom’s goals.

Senior Alexander Merritt worked with his newsroom, Hometown Headlines, to design infographics to embed in their digital content.

Fourth year Alexander Merritt said Grady Newsource prepared him to confidently work with Rome-based Hometown Headlines editor John Druckenmiller.

Merritt and Druckenmiller worked together to include more infographics in daily content, learn to manage and track a Google analytics page for the website and make a YouTube channel.

“Everyone’s thinking of the CNNs and the Wall Street Journals, you know those kinds of big name jobs, but we forget to understand that local journalism is just as important and those jobs are still good jobs,” Merritt said.

The program is designed to enrich the learning experience for both the students and newsrooms, and that sentiment was especially clear for third-year student Livia Geiger. Geiger’s parents own The Herald Gazette in Barnesville, and even though Geiger is a marketing major in the Terry College of Business, she was able to work with her parents’ newsroom.

“My parents kept referring to themselves as ‘dinosaurs’ and they truly didn’t know anything about Instagram,” Geiger said. “I had to create a Google Drive for them and show them how to post on Instagram. I also was able to level with my parents more because I didn’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes.” 

Kate Hester, a fourth-year student from Monroe, Georgia, said the most rewarding part of the program was looking at the Instagram page of her newsroom, The Hartwell Sun, before and after she arrived. By the end of the week, they were implementing what she recommended. 

“It’s nice that both parties got a new perspective,” Hester said. “When you’re teaching someone else, that’s the best way to learn. I realized how much I really did know about my field and what I needed to improve on in my field.”

The feedback from the newsrooms and the GPA was extremely positive. 

“On behalf of the GPA Board and the Georgia Press Educational Foundation Trustees, yes, a truly amazing report and program. We owe a huge thanks to the Dean for spearheading it and to Amanda for taking it and running with it,” GPA Executive Director Robin Rhodes said.

Bright remains optimistic with Digital Natives’ success and growth in a post-COVID-19 environment. 

“I hope one of the outcomes is that more students decide intentionally to do local journalism,” Bright said. “We have now an established understanding that local news is imperative and crucial and it also needs assistance.”

Grady Digital Natives was modeled off a similar endeavor called Potter Ambassadors at the University of Missouri, where Charles Davis was a professor before becoming dean of Grady College.

If member GPA newsrooms have any questions about the application for the 2022 program, please email Amanda Bright at amanda.bright@uga.edu.

Editor’s Note: This feature was written by Megan Mittelhammer, a 2021 Yarbrough Fellow in the Grady College Department of Communication. She was also a participant in the Digital Natives program.

Pete McCommons to receive inaugural award for distinguished community journalism

The University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication will present Pete McCommons with the inaugural Rollin M. “Pete” McCommons Award for Distinguished Community Journalism.

The award will be presented March 2 at 4 p.m. in the Peyton Anderson Forum at Grady College. The brief program will be followed by a reception, which is open to the public.

“Pete McCommons is an Athens journalism institution, the man who gave the Athens Observer its verve and who created Flagpole as an important countercultural voice of progressivism in the city,” said Charles Davis, dean of Grady College. “His unflagging spirit, his devotion to Athens and to journalism make him the ideal namesake for this new award.”

The Distinguished Community Journalism award recognizes the best in community journalism, as represented by small- to medium-sized daily and weekly news organizations who provide exemplary service to their communities.

McCommons, a political science graduate from UGA, is the publisher and editor of Flagpole Magazine.

Before McCommons worked at Flagpole Magazine, he co-founded the weekly Athens Observer newspaper in 1974.

Since becoming publisher of Flagpole Magazine in 1994, McCommons has written a weekly editorial column in Flagpole, “Pub Notes.” Last year, McCommons, published his first book, “Pub Notes,” which is a collection of his widely followed column.

“I am delighted that the Grady College and its generous sponsors are emphasizing community journalism with this award,” McCommons said. “I am humbled by the honor of having it presented in my name.”

McCommons has been involved in community affairs and local government as he worked in the UGA Institute of Government where he headed the State Government Section.

“The people who cover local government and community affairs are the first responders in the fight to keep our citizenry informed and our governments accountable.” McCommons continued. “This award honors all those whose task is to act as the public’s proxy—to tell us what’s happening in our town and help us understand what it all means. Call them enablers of democracy. That it is given in my name is the greatest reward I can imagine for attending all those community gatherings and meeting (more or less) all those deadlines.”

The Rollin M. “Pete” McCommons Award for Distinguished Community Journalism honors outstanding leadership, innovation and entrepreneurism in community journalism. Supported by an endowment, the annual award administered by Grady College was created to recognize professional journalists, students or faculty who produce community journalism of consequence. The award highlights the substantial contributions of community journalism to civic life and inspires students to pursue careers in community journalism. It is named for Pete McCommons in honor of his outstanding career in community journalism as a leading reporter, editor, publisher and innovative entrepreneur.