By Carolyn Shapiro
Within the small city of Oxford, Ohio, students in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University had few opportunities for hands-on news reporting experience. They could travel about an hour in either direction, to newspapers in Cincinnati or Dayton, but their community had limited local news coverage.
So, in fall 2018, the journalism department started its own publication, the Oxford Observer, to provide not only a training ground for its students but also a crucial community news source for neighboring residents. The fully digital publication, oxfordobserver.org, is produced by students who write and edit about a dozen stories and about eight briefs each week under the guidance of a faculty editor. A skeleton staff of paid student interns puts out the Observer through the summer, except for a hiatus in August, and during the short Miami University winter session in January, known as J-term.
“It’s a community relationship, but it definitely benefits the students more than anybody,” said Sacha DeVroomen Bellman, the Miami University journalism instructor who teaches one of the courses that serve as the working newsroom for the Oxford Observer. “This is a way they can get professional work.”
Two journalism courses provide students to staff the Observer: One is a capstone reporting class, which meets twice a week as students work on stories and briefs. Another class meets weekly to edit and fact-check the stories, write headlines and edit photos. Those students put out a new edition of the Observer every Friday.
Miami University has 180 to 200 journalism majors, and many of them write for both the Observer and the Miami Student, the university’s student newspaper, which is one of the nation’s oldest and dates back to 1826. Students majoring in public relations, media studies, English, political science, and sports leadership and management also have taken the Observer courses, Bellman said. In her feature-writing classes, she encourages students to write personality profiles that they can publish in the Observer.
“So other classes are also getting opportunities to get published in this way," said Bellman, who earned her reporting chops at the Cincinnati Enquirer and Kentucky Post.
One challenge for the Observer is the size of the reporting class varies widely. “Some years we have 15 and some years we have seven” students, she said. Students can take the class more than once for credit if they want more experience and the chance to write more in-depth stories. One student embraced political reporting and took the course three times, ultimately landing a job at a small community newspaper in the state, Bellman said.
“They get great experience,” she said. “They get clips, you know, all that stuff that we preach to them. So it’s been really good in that way.”
Miami University had been looking to form a community news partnership that would give its journalism students real-life experience, said Richard Campbell, the now-retired chair of the Media, Journalism and Film department. He and two like-minded colleagues – former Miami University Provost John Skillings and now-retired geography professor James Rubenstein – pursued an arrangement with the Dayton Daily News and its parent company, Cox Enterprises, which owned the Oxford Press, a weekly that covered the local community for nearly 80 years.
“It was a very healthy weekly paper in a small town,” Campbell said.
That idea fizzled when another company bought the local newspaper group and folded the Oxford Press into a sister publication, the Journal-News of Butler County. That’s when the Oxford Observer came to fruition, Campbell said. Although back under Cox ownership today, the Oxford Press occupies a single page inside the other newspaper’s Sunday edition.
Campbell wanted to create a southwestern Ohio offshoot of Report for America, a national effort that pairs young journalists with community newspapers across the country, covering half the cost of their salaries. The COVID-19 pandemic put fundraising for that program on hold, but the Oxford Community Foundation does have a $50,000 fund set aside to support Miami University’s program in community journalism, which Campbell and his former colleagues support, he said.
That money covers payment to the interns who report and edit during school breaks. They earn about $15 an hour and can opt to take it in scholarships toward their tuition costs, Bellman said.
“We're just letting them pick up our stuff that we publish on Fridays for their Sunday paper,” she said. “So we have it first.”
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