By Jack Rooney
When President Joe Biden visited rural Licking County, Ohio for the ceremonial groundbreaking of a $20 billion Intel microchip plant, the major local newspapers sent a team of reporters and photographers to cover the event.
But those papers — the Newark Advocate and Columbus Dispatch, both owned by corporate news giant Gannett — didn’t have anyone available to write about the neighbors of the nearly 1,000-acre development, people who weren’t invited to the presidential address.
That’s where a small team of journalists from nearby Denison University stepped in.
“We went and sat with Danny and Barbara Vannhoose, who have lived on Green Chapel Road for 50 years, right across the road from where Intel's front door is going to be,” said Alan Miller, a Denison journalism professor who covered the story alongside fellow faculty member Jack Shuler and a student, Thu Nguyen.
“So they sat in their house, 500 yards away from where the president was standing and watched him on television,” Miller continued. “And we just went and visited with them while they watched and got their reaction and had an outside-the-fence view, literally, of a very big news event that everybody else was covering from inside the fence. And I get, they needed to be there. That was their job. And so we helped fill that gap on that day.”
Denison journalists have been helping fill holes like that in the local news landscape for the past two years through The Reporting Project. The nonprofit news organization posts stories written and edited by Denison students and faculty, and allows free republishing of its work.
The project grew out of the small liberal arts school’s journalism program, which began within the past decade as a concentration in narrative journalism.
“And slowly but surely, the students were producing just really cool work about where we lived, and people needed to see this stuff, these are stories about this place,” said Jack Shuler, director of the journalism program at Denison.
The Reporting Project developed organically, Shuler added, as an outlet to highlight Denison journalism students’ work.
“We started being a little bit more intentional about what we were doing, but really without a formal framework per se,” he said. “We would think about the classes that we are teaching, the assignments that we gave students. We would come up with assignments that we thought could feed into this project.”
The narrative journalism concentration at Denison has gained momentum over the past few years, and in 2021, the university added a journalism major. Denison enrolls around 2,300 undergraduates, roughly 70 of whom are majoring or minoring in journalism.
Around the same time the journalism major launched, Miller — who had taught journalism courses at Denison since 1999 — retired as editor of the Dispatch, where he worked for 37 years, and joined the faculty full-time. He’s one of five professors who work on The Reporting Project, along with six students hired through a work-study arrangement. Key to the development of the program and the increased focus on narrative journalism has been fellow faculty Doug Swift, Molly Born, and Beth Lossing, Shuler said.
“A lot of the stuff that we do, we do it collaboratively. We actually sit down and write stories together, around a table,” Shuler said. “... Every story that we put out has a lot of eyeballs on it, which I think is a little unusual, and we all work together as a team.”
Stories that go through The Reporting Project’s editing process and get posted online are then available for free to other news organizations. Miller’s connections to the papers in Columbus, about 25 miles west of Denison’s campus in Granville, and closer by in Newark, have helped around 20 stories get published locally.
“The smaller the paper, the fewer resources. And the editors of smaller papers are really happy to have the stories and photos that we're producing,” Miller said. “... And that also ups the game for the students. They know I'm not the only one who's going to read it.”
The Reporting Project has generated about 100 stories so far, and typically posts a few new stories a week.
“And my goal in the next five years is to be able to hire someone to manage The Reporting Project and a couple of journalists,” Shuler said.
The project tends to focus on longer-term stories that otherwise might go untold in local media. Since Intel announced its massive investment earlier this year, many Denison stories have focused on how the new microprocessor plant will impact the community.
This sort of journalism, Miller said, illustrates how liberal arts students and faculty can harness their broad base of knowledge and critical thinking skills into a valuable community service.
“We're combining the best of both, and that is the opportunity to learn about journalism and the rest of the world and then also apply it,” he said. “It quickly goes from theory to practical application, and then beyond that to a community service that is needed more now than ever.”
And as The Reporting Project continues to grow, Shuler said he hopes it can be a model for schools with similar aspirations to help fill gaps in local news.
“I would like to create a network of schools that are doing that, even regionally, even throughout Ohio,” he said. “Or I also think about what could rural community colleges, what sort of resources could they bring to bear? Tribal colleges, HBCUs, especially rural areas where there’s not a lot of reporting, what can we do? How can we support each other?”
For more information:
Alan Miller, Professor of Journalism, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Shuler, Professor of Journalism, email@example.com