By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | September 6th, 2012
The newsroom was a pair of converted motel rooms stitched together into a space about the size of a double wide trailer.
The reporters were 23 college journalists who came from universities in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Florida.
Unlike many of their peers who spent Labor Day at a beach or a barbecue, these young journalists spent an intense and often chaotic 36 hours reporting, writing and editing an edition of The Homeless Voice, a monthly newspaper published by the COSAC Shelter in Hollywood, Fla.
They were all there as part of the 4th Annual “Will Write For Food” program, which is co-sponsored by the South Florida chapter of SPJ, a very creative effort that is the brainchild of Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky.
I joined the effort this year as an adviser and to learn about the program. What I witnessed was downright inspirational.
If any of you harbor doubts about the future of journalism, you ought to pay attention to these young journalists and what they were able to accomplish in one crazy, frenetic and sometimes improvisational weekend.
The spirit of the venture can be summed up by an off-handed remark I overheard one student telling another.
“I really like putting myself in awkward situations,” she said.
To me, that quip sums up the place where journalism lives. We do some of our best working through awkward situations.
The participants did so with a great amount of enthusiasm and bravado.
Take Chris Whitten, for example. Whitten is a University of Memphis senior and student editor who at one brief point in his life was homeless.
Most people would want to run as far away as they could from that experience. Whitten decided to go in the opposite direction.
He was determined to spend a night as a homeless person on the streets of Fort Lauderdale. So wearing a set of baggy clothes provided by the shelter, Whitten spent the night reporting the story from first-hand experience.
We all held our breath hoping he wouldn’t get arrested by police enforcing the city’s loitering ordinance. But instead he came back with this remarkable story about a spontaneous act of generosity by a homeless man.
The sheer range of stories these students came up with on the fly was breathtaking.
-One did a story about how violence against the homeless often is a way of life for shelter residents.
-Another wrote an interesting story about how time seems to pass more slowly for shelter residents.
-A photojournalism student gave five disposable cameras to shelter residents to photograph their world and help her write the captions.
-One student asked for a black light so he could see what the shelter floor’s looked like. This led to a somewhat gruesome but interesting story on what it takes to keep a shelter clean.
-And another did a hilarious story mimicking the unusual work-out routine and smoking habits of the shelter director.
Koretzky presides over this gathering with his signature snarky sense of humor and attention to detail.
For example, when one student said she wanted to create a new website for the “Voice” in just 36 hours, Koretzky challenged her by saying it couldn’t be done. She had it up and running within an hour.
Once it was up, Koretzky noticed one of the designers had created a masthead that read, “The Homless Voice.”
“Are you kidding me?” he asked. “You’re killing me!” he said.
“Looks good though,” he added.
Under the watchful gaze of two police officers, shelter staff and several advisors, a few of the students tagged along as shelter employees went out at night on their outreach tour, trying to coax people living on the street into coming into the shelter.
We travelled in a van, two unmarked police cars, an old ambulance and an old black and white police car that the shelter now owns.
For the students, it was an eye-opening experience talking one-to-one with people living under a highway bridge or in a tent in the woods.
There were several discussions on ethics, source credibility, anonymity, reporting technique and story writing. It was akin to a graduate seminar on real-world reporting done in real time.
By 3 a.m. Labor Day morning, I decided to call it a night, but not before telling the students (some of whom were still editing stories and working on the website) how proud I was of them and their efforts.
They give me great hope about the future of our profession.