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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

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New SUNY Initiative bridges gaps in local news coverage

Broadcast package with in-depth interviews about JRN 390 class and the Institute for Local News at SUNY. MARIAM GUIRGIS/THE STATESMAN

In the fall of 2023, Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism (SOCJ) created a new class called JRN 390 (Special Topics in Journalism: Working News Room #2) in which students help local news publications that may not have enough resources to provide news coverage for their communities.

“There is nothing more rewarding than to contribute to local communities who have lost their only resource for information and there’s no reason why student journalists can’t do this type of work,” lecturer George Giokas said in an interview with The Statesman.

Giokas spearheaded the course after learning about similar programs being implemented around the country.

“I looked at the newsroom and I [thought] maybe we should be using the newsroom as a real newsroom,” Giokas said. So, I had this idea and then pretty much unbeknownst to me, I knew there was something going on across the country with students filling in gaps with our news deserts.”

A couple months after the class launched at Stony Brook, Giokas learned of a new initiative that Richard Watts — Interim Coordinator at the Institute for Local News at SUNY and Director of the Center for Community News — was starting, called the Institute for Local News at SUNY, which helps local news publications with coverage. Watts’ efforts are also supported by a Knight Foundation grant.  

 “I was introduced to Richard Watts up in the University of Vermont and I joined his group and basically got together [with] some local newspapers and news outlets who found the idea pretty interesting and we were off to the races,” Giokas said. 

The JRN 390 course is designed to allow students to engage with local news publications to collaborate and produce stories that get published in the news outlets. This helps the students get professional experience, bylines and course credit while the news publications get more local coverage. 

“When I heard about this class [and] that it was a working newsroom, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to see how it would be to actually be a practicing journalist as opposed to just learning about journalism,” Toni-Elena Gallo, a senior journalism major, said. 

Watts emphasized the importance of universities’ roles in supporting local journalism, as well as their students. 

“Local news is in a crisis and universities have a role that we can play. We have resources that we need to bring to this issue, and those resources include our students, our faculty and our access to funding,” Watts said. “Many of our colleges and universities are located in places where local news is struggling so the idea of the … Institute for Local News at SUNY, is to knit together the 64 SUNY campuses and the 300,000 plus students with opportunities to do local news reporting and the best way that can happen is through reporting classes.” 

Since the class started, the course has partnered up with about five local news publications; Giokas plans to expand the partnership with more news outlets in the coming semesters. One news outlet that students have been able to publish with is The Long Island Advance

“It’s really convenient for us as a local paper … papers don’t have the huge budgets that we used to, so being able to work with quality journalists, even quality learning journalists, is nice to be able to get them in print while also benefiting our local paper by covering more things that we might not have been able to get to otherwise,” Nicole Fuentes, executive editor for The Long Island Advance, said.

Stony Brook is not the only university to have a program where students are able to work with news publications. Watts shared that he runs a similar program at the University of Vermont that has about 30 students each semester publishing around 150 stories in local papers. He also runs a national center that documents all of this activity around the country.

In the course designed by Giokas, students meet weekly and work on the pitches given to them by news publications from the week before by researching, writing and going through edits given by both Giokas and the outlet’s editors. Students also get the chance to come up with their own ideas and stories that they would like to cover if no assignment is given to them. 

“We have great opportunities [in the SOCJ], but this is something that I think more schools need to implement. We are helping the publications that don’t always have the resources or access to get certain stories, so… as students, we are looking to publish stories and they are looking to get stories published,” Mckenzie Post, a junior journalism major, said. “It’s some real world experience that I feel like a lot of people don’t really get so it’s a very unique opportunity.”

Post is not the only student to emphasize how unique the program is.

“The class is really an internship in so many ways, which is so different [from] other classes. It’s kind of the first thing in college that actually makes me feel like I’m doing the job of reporting in journalism,” Gallo said. 

Not only does this course help students gain professional bylines, but it also helps introduce students to the real journalism profession and what it is like working in a newsroom.

“This is like running a newsroom. Everybody’s on deadline, they have to submit things [by a] deadline, things need to be edited [and] questions get answered, so it’s exactly what the title says: it’s a working newsroom,” Giokas said. “I highly recommend it for any student journalist anywhere to jump on a program like this because it gives you real-life experience.”

By expanding this program and initiative to other schools, it builds a beneficial relationship for both the students and the publications. 

“The stories that students are writing nobody else is writing them, so local citizens really appreciate more local content. Students like the experience of doing real things, writing real stories that real people read with real bylines rather than writ[ing] a paper in a class that nobody’s gonna read except the professor. We’re giving more students the opportunity to see how it works to be a reporter in a local community,” Watts said.

Although this program seems to be a success at Stony Brook, this initiative and class is not the only thing that is needed to help struggling local news publications; instead, it is only a beginning. 

“I think there’s unlimited growth potential here, both in what we do in SUNY and what we model and teach elsewhere. We need to get buy-in on the campuses that this is a great idea and buy-in in local media that they’ll use what we produce,” Lane Filler, chief communications officer at SUNY, said. 

Filler also went on to explain the legacy programs in SUNY, like the legislative program at SUNY New Paltz that runs in Albany. The program teaches students how to cover the capitol and legislature to create content not found in other newspapers for media outlets to use. Journalism students enrolled in this program are able to publish their work about legislation that affects New Yorkers in a weekly newspaper and online.

“I don’t think our university resources solve the local news crisis, I think it’s part of the solution and it’s a solution where more universities need to step up and bring our students to address this crisis,” Watts said. “[It] is good for the local community that we do it and it’s good for our students, so more of us need to do that but we are not going to be the whole solution to what’s happening to local news.”

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About the Contributor
Mariam Guirgis, Assistant News Editor
Mariam is an Assistant News Editor at The Statesman. She is a second-year journalism minoring in political science. When she's not editing news articles, she is deeply involved with her Church community, planning events and hanging out with friends.
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