Reporter Corps participants, from left: Xochil Frausto, Ryan Johnson, Shanice Joseph, Skylar Myers and Miguel Molina
Ryan Johnson was one of five youth reporters whose work was published by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit journalism site that focuses on the education beat.
Johnson, a 20-year-old sociology major at Loyola Marymount University, contributed to “Education Against the Odds: Student Voices from South L.A.," a partnership between The Hechinger Report, Intersections South LA and Reporter Corps. The series invites students to share their experiences growing up in neighborhoods where pursuing a quality education could be a struggle.
“The idea is that in all the work being done on the education beat, you don’t often get to hear the voices of students,” said Liz Willen, editor of The Hechinger Report. “This is a chance for them to bring their voices to life and hear what they think about education, whether it’s the education they're getting or not getting.”
Johnson describes her neighborhood as a "predominantly African-American enclave" that boasts scenic views and great neighbors. But she and her peers had to go to great lengths--sometimes enduring two-hour commutes and taking three different buses--to go to school. Their families chose to skip the local high school option, which was known for its lack of resources and high dropout rate, and send their kids to charter and private schools. When the neighborhood high school added a magnet program, Johnson wanted to take a closer look at this phenomenon.
“You should be able to feel comfortable going to your local public high school,” she said. “So I was interested in seeing if the magnet conversion could lure the middle-class families in my neighborhood to go there.”
And Johnson affirmed that this issue isn’t just unique to her neighborhood, Baldwin Hills, but to all of South L.A.
“I think parents in general don’t think they have a voice on these issues,” she said. “But more awareness and more education equals more change.”
After a competitive application process, Reporter Corps connects professional journalists from publications like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with high school students or recent graduates. Reporter Corps members receive mentors and training to help them report stories.
Johnson, who learned about the 10-week program through a newsletter, described it as a great way to bridge the gap between community issues and journalism.
“Reporters from places like the L.A. Times and Hollywood Reporter came in and gave us advice on the stories we would be reporting and focusing on,” she said.
Although Johnson has completed the program, she stressed its importance in raising awareness about the diverse communities in South L.A., and hopes to contribute more.
Daniela Gerson, director of Reporter Corps, described the program as a training course for young journalists interested in community reporting.
“Education was a main theme that came out of their community reporting,” said Gerson. “So it was a natural partnership to work with The Hechinger Report on this.”
The collaboration was the brainchild of The Hechinger Report's managing editor, Sarah Garland.
And Gerson said this collaboration was important because Reporter Corps introduced stories specific to South L.A., while the Hechinger Report provided the context of broader education issues.
The three-year-old Hechinger Report is a specialized nonprofit news websites dedicated to hard-hitting education journalism. The Report has gained traction in part by filling the void left by mainstream newspapers and wire services, which no longer have the resources to support full-time education coverage.
“We care deeply about covering education because it’s a beat that doesn’t get a lot of specialization,” said Liz Willen, editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute. “We’re all real experts on it here and we think it’s the best beat in journalism.”
In 1996, the organization was known as The Hechinger Institute, which, similar to Reporter Corps, provided training for education reporters. As education coverage began to lack in-depth reporting, The Hechinger Report began providing the news.
“There was a culture of foundation-funded journalism around deep issues that were disappearing around regular press because newspapers didn’t have the resources to cover them,” said Willen.
The nonprofit, which has won many awards, uses their partnerships and collaborations to pitch their stories to multiple newspapers, websites, magazines and radio stations, in addition to working alongside reporters. Despite the small staff of five members and an intern, their work has been published in publications from The New Jersey Spotlight to The Atlantic. They currently have a full-time reporter living in Jackson, Miss., to cover their education system for the "Mississippi Learning" series.
Willen described the education beat as one of the most important in journalism because of its ability to create change.
“This is a beat where it’s so important to show and not tell,” she said. “And you can’t do that if you’re not in the classroom or reporting across the country.”
Read other columns from the series.
Correction: Nov. 1, 2013: An earlier version of this story omitted Sarah Garland. It also referred incompletely to Liz Willen, who is both editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute. Finally, it misstated the city in Mississippi where a reporter lives. It is Jackson, not Jacksonville, Miss.