A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Preparaing for a lofty career in the field of journalism begins at home

While many of her students have lofty hopes for jobs at the Washington Post or the New York Times, Dr. Melony Shemberger, Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Murray State University insists, “They have to get dirty in local news.”

“Everything’s local,” she adds, and students in her in-depth reporting class learn the truth of that assertion through a rigorous approach to community reporting that entails covering assigned beats.

“They have to understand the nuts and bolts,” the professor says.

Beat reporters develop in-depth knowledge by getting to know experts related to their assigned areas and creating a contact list of sources that help them tell accurate and compelling stories. The challenge is to stay up to date on the ins and outs of their area so they can delve deeper into the issues and explore and analyze the associated connections. Sports, business, local government, health, and education are some typical beats.

“Most young students don’t know the inner workings of a community,” Shemberger explained. By the time the semester is up, however, they are well-acquainted with the moving parts and unique personalities associated with the community they cover.

They use data analysis skills, for example, to understand and explain taxes, a topic that defies understanding for many taxpayers. “My students can figure out a property tax bill,” Shemberger said, and then they can go on to explain it in clear, concise terms.

Understanding how things work at the local level readied Shemberger for the bigger canvas of her own career, which includes teaching, research, writing, and instructional development and design. With a professional background in local radio reporting and small newsrooms in Kentucky, she credits her experience in that realm for the satisfaction she gets from her career, and she tries to pass that on to her students.

“My class is about writing,” she declared. “I want them to think things through and be able to plan a news story. They have to know what records they will need, who to interview, what approach to use.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Without that kind of methodical approach, students mistakenly think all they need to research a story is their cell phone.

National Newspaper Week just passed, but the trends and issues affecting newspapers – and people like Melony Shemberger who prepare journalists for the future – loom like storm clouds over the landscape.

“My students have grand ambitions but pay is low nationwide and they have student loans. How do we overcome that?” she asks.

She emphasizes the relevance of the skills and knowledge students acquire in the journalism program as applicable to their lives, regardless of the careers and jobs they eventually pursue. “We implicate many life skills that are important in journalism. These are the building blocks of a community,” she declares.

With newspapers increasingly confronted with financial difficulties, the demands on reporters are daunting, and the quality, and quantity, of local reporting can suffer. Nevertheless, Shemberger believes in a small community like ours, local news is an ongoing priority.

Just one year ago, she was appointed to the Kentucky Faculty Advisory Network of the Council on Postsecondary Education to provide perspective on state-level policies that drive decisions affecting student success. Currently, she is participating in CPE’s social media campaign promoting why higher education in Kentucky matters — #KyHigherEdMatters.

Featured in a recent post by CPE she said, “To reimagine the future of our state, we need a citizenry ready to examine our problems and devise innovative solutions. Higher education provides the skill and content knowledge to do just that.”

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One Comment

  1. Desiree says:

    Outstanding! We need new blood infused with the old standards. Long live the Fourth Estate!

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