Not Particularly Flattering
Columbia J-School Students Terrify Locals
New York Observer, October 6, 2004
by Brian Montopoli
A few weeks before graduating from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism two years ago, Shelley Preston was asked by the yearbook committee for a quote capturing her Columbia experience. "It was an easy choice," said Ms. Preston, who now works for a Florida newspaper. "Being a student journalist covering big-city news, you feel like you’re playing make-believe. It’s like, ‘Hi, I’m a pretend journalist writing a pretend story—do you mind taking a few hours out of your day to talk to me?’"
Ms. Preston chose a quote she’d gotten from a secretary for State Assembly member Joseph Lentol, who had cut off an inquisitive Ms. Preston after she identified herself as a Columbia student. "Oh no, no, no. Oh, God help me," said the secretary. "It’s that time again? You people come around and bother us every year and don’t write shit."
As loath as some students might be to admit it, the secretary has a point. As part of the required Reading and Writing 1 course, new Columbia J-schoolers have to put together a "beat note"—a long and detailed memo outlining potential sources and story ideas. The only way they can complete the assignment is by working the phones, pestering community activists and public officials in a particular neighborhood for information. Since multiple students are often assigned to the same neighborhood, officials and activists face a torrent of calls. One community board chair, Martin Collins, said he’s heard from about 50 students so far this year. "Every fall it’s like—what’s that movie?—The Day of the Locust," said Walter Delgado, president of the Audubon Partnership in Washington Heights. "At one point, I almost called the school to let them know it was getting out of hand."
Mr. Delgado never called, but the school still got the message.
"We know people sometimes get hugely irritated at J-schoolers," said Bruce Porter, special assistant to the dean of Columbia’s J-School and author of the nonfiction book Blow, later made into a film starring Johnny Depp. "We labor over it every fall; there’s just no way around it. The only people who actually want to talk to Columbia students are people who are oppressed and getting screwed and need somebody to complain to."
Last year, Mr. Porter sent an e-mail to the student body asking students to "not hound" the New York Police Department for materials, such as press releases, that they could get elsewhere. "The police are going through a stage of trying to be nice to the school," Mr. Porter wrote, "and we don’t want to irritate them needlessly."
Around the same time that Mr. Porter sent the e-mail, a police supervisor accused a Columbia student of stealing a detective’s notebook. (The student denied the theft, and the conflict was never resolved.)
And then there are the everyday issues. "I went out to Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, to do a ride-along with the police," said J-schooler Richard Morgan. "I got all the way out there, waited an hour, and then they decided they wouldn’t take me out." Why? "They said they’d run out of bulletproof vests," he said. His efforts at rescheduling didn’t go particularly well, either: "They don’t like it when you say, ‘I can’t do it that night because I have class.’" (Ultimately, he did get to go on a "watered-down" ride-along.)
While some students have been able to talk to individual detectives, official channels are drying up. "At this point," said Mr. Porter, "we don’t encourage students to contact [the NYPD public-information office], because they likely aren’t going to deal with them at all."
The J-schoolers have some tactics for keeping their low-on-the-totem-pole status obscured. "They tell us to say we’re reporters from Columbia University—not students," said Wendy Leung. "But people want to know where a story is going to be published, and so you end up telling them you’re a student. And then they don’t want to talk to you."
The hardest people to deal with, many students said, are those on community boards. After filling up a cup of coffee in the J-school lounge, student Mara Altman described her experience. "You go up to them after a meeting, and when you tell them the story isn’t going to print, they’re like, ‘Mmmmm,’" said Ms. Altman, adopting an exaggerated frown.
Zead Ramadan, former chairman of Manhattan Community Board 12, said the students sometimes expected too much. "They’d come in, and I’d sit there for an hour answering a slew of very obvious questions that they could have gotten from a pamphlet," he said. "Some of them would get offended if you weren’t immediately responsive, because they think you’re pompous, that you’re caught up in your power." Like many people who regularly deal with J-school students, Mr. Ramadan learned to organize one meeting per semester to which all students were invited. If a student missed it, he said, they were out of luck.
Mr. Ramadan, however, isn’t unsympathetic to students who have to depend on the kindness of strangers. "You get frustrated sometimes," said Matt Goad, who worked for newspapers in North Carolina before enrolling at Columbia. "You’re sent out on these stories—the professor wants you to do this, talk to this person, and you just feel like you’re not being taken seriously. It’s hard to go from working somewhere and getting paid and being productive, to paying and having people not take you seriously."
"There’s this pressure of being in school in New York and being flooded with this sense that you’re doing this very important thing," added Mr. Morgan. "The faculty sends you this message that you should earn your keep by doing really gritty street-level reporting. But the students are unfamiliar with it."
Many Columbia students hail from neighborhoods that don’t look much like those they’re assigned to report on. "You get to your neighborhood, get out of the subway and look around, like: ‘O.K., now what?’" said Ms. Leung. Not surprisingly, they tend to approach potential sources with relatively broad questions, at least at the beginning.
"They’re told to look for a story on sanitation issues or gang violence or something like that," said Michele Morazan of Alianza Dominicana in Washington Heights. "And they really don’t know what to focus on, or what’s going on in the area. It’s not like where they are on campus, maybe. They’re not sure what to ask." Ms. Morazan said she tries to be accommodating, but it isn’t always easy, particularly when she gets multiple calls from students each week: "I mean, we don’t have a press office—I’m the press office."
Mike Fitelson, editor of the Washington Heights–based Manhattan Times newspaper, said some of the more industrious students have called to pick his brain. "They want to know everything about the neighborhood," he said. "And I’m happy to help." The only problem? "I’ve had people [in the community] ask me to not give their name to students anymore."
A couple years ago, representatives from Sustainable South Bronx gave Columbia students a bus tour to let them know what was going on in the neighborhood. "Since then," said Elena Conte of Sustainable South Bronx, "we’ve been pretty popular. We didn’t realize the Pandora’s box we were opening up."
In the Bronx, however, many residents welcome the students, in large part because they put out a real weekly newspaper, The Bronx Beat. "One of the things I like about The Bronx Beat is that the students are expected to get their facts correct and their quotes correct, so they really make an effort to be accurate," said Margaret Hetley, a librarian in Hunt’s Point. "They cover a lot of stuff which is not covered in other ways, and any way we can help that out is great." Ms. Hetley sees so many students, she joked, that the school should pay her for it.
Projects like The Bronx Beat and the Columbia News Service (a news wire affiliated with The New York Times), which both run in the spring semester, get students’ work read outside Columbia’s rarefied halls. But that’s little solace to those who feel like they’re just treading water before grabbing their credential and moving on to bigger things.
"There aren’t a lot of aspiring Jimmy Breslins at Columbia," said Corey Pein, who graduated last year and now works as a fellow at Columbia Journalism Review. "Most of them would rather write 6,000-word epics in The New Yorker than hang around some City Council meeting in Queens."
Of course, upon graduation, many will be hanging around City Council meetings—if not in Queens, then somewhere else. Until then, they’ll keep asking strangers to talk about their lives, alternatively adopting the pose of a big-city reporter and of a kid just trying to do his homework.
"We’re supposed to act like professional journalists, but we’re not," said Ms. Leung. "We can’t say, ‘You’ll see your name in print.’ All we can say is, ‘I’ll read it, and so will my professor.’"