Student Journalists in New Orleans: A Hard Beat in the Big Easy

A shuttle bus stopped at a popular New Orleans po’ boy shop for lunch on Sunday. Occupants stepped off the cool bus into the hot sun and then into Parkway Bakery and Tavern to get a taste of one of the city’s signature dishes.

During lunch, conversations ranging from journalism projects to everyday interests took place among 26 student journalists from across the country and New York Times staff members.

The students, chosen from an applicant pool of 132, are attending the annual New York Times Student Journalism Institute, now in its 11th year.

The institute is held during the last two weeks of May. In odd-numbered years, student members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists attend the institute at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

This year, and all even-numbered years, are for student members of the National Association of Black Journalists, or any student enrolled at a historically black college or university; they gather at Dillard University in New Orleans.

Institute Background

Don R. Hecker, who co-founded the institute with two others and now serves as its director, said there was a concern that African-Americans were not being adequately channeled into journalism careers at major news organizations like The Times.

The Times wanted to be more proactive in increasing the number of black journalists in the newsroom by enhancing outreach and creating more opportunities.

Mr. Hecker reached out to an organization of journalism professors at historically black colleges and universities to ask for advice. Developing a journalism boot camp was the main suggestion he received.

“I came back to the office and I said, ‘We can’t do a boot camp. We don’t know how to teach anything,’ ” Mr. Hecker said.

But after further consideration, he said editors and reporters could create a realistic newsroom environment, with high-pressure deadlines, where students would produce daily copy, photos, graphics and video for a website and, at the end of the institute, a print newspaper with in-depth features.

“We do it every day,” Mr. Hecker said. “So we said, ‘Why we don’t just do what we do every day? We’ll see if it’s useful. And we’ll experiment. And maybe it’s a stupid idea, and if it doesn’t work, we won’t do it anymore.’ ”

Evidently, The Times decided it did work. The 17th institute (two institutes operated annually between 2007 and 2012) began on Sunday with an hour-long welcoming session where participants received their press badges and reporter’s notebooks.

Crystal Garner, a student participant focusing on web production and reporting, said having those items made her feel as though she were a part of The New York Times.

“It felt like confirmation that after all of the work I have been doing in college, I’m headed in the right direction,” she said. “It’s surreal.”

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Students then took a bus tour of New Orleans neighborhoods to learn more about the city’s layout and history. They visited the French Quarter, the Ninth Ward, the London Avenue canal breaches, the Lake Pontchartrain levee and New Orleans East.

“The tour helps give a better understanding of the environment we’re in,” Ms. Garner said, “and if we better understand the environment, we’ll have a better grasp on reporting in this area.”

“We want to try to get everyone set up on two planes,” Mr. Hecker said. “One plane is the city you’re going to be covering.” The other, he said, was explaining the specifics of how the institute operates.

John Dargan, a student videographer at the institute, said he thought the program would  help establish him as a journalist since he has very little experience.

“The idea of taking me to a new city, having me conduct research and interviews, to tell stories is a new experience — and it’s kind of uncomfortable,” he said. “But that’s how journalists are.”

When the students returned to Dillard after the first-day tour, they participated in a series of workshops covering topics such as how to stay safe in the city, web production and copy editing.

There was also a presentation on copyright laws in the age of visual journalism by Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. He  described various court cases involving First Amendment issues and photographers, and advised students about how to protect their own material on social media platforms.

Students ended their day in the newsroom working on short biographical articles of one another. And then the hard work began.

“We’re not going to do classroom experiences,” Mr. Hecker said. “The experience here is getting out and covering the news.”