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Jan. 19, 2023, 2:15 p.m.
Reporting & Production

A new fellowship enlists students to fill reporting gaps on HBCUs

“There’s no [better] way to be close to an institution than through somebody who lives in a dorm.”

When Jarrett Carter Sr. launched HBCU Digest in 2010, it was to fill a gap in thoughtful and rigorous higher education journalism on historically Black colleges and universities in the United States.

As a student at Morgan State University in the early 2000s, Carter wanted to be a sports writer. But one professor, Frank Dexter Brown, encouraged him to experiment with reporting on different beats.

Carter was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The MSU Spokesman, and after graduating in 2003, he went on to work for the university in a public relations role. By 2009, he knew firsthand that HBCUs weren’t covered the same way as predominantly white institutions.

“I started thinking about why HBCUs don’t get more coverage institutionally,” Carter said. “The goal with HBCU Digest was to tell the HBCU story in a different way. I never knew that I would fall in love with higher education and, particularly, the ways in which [institutions] can transform lives.”

After 11 years of running HBCU Digest, Carter left to work for Howard University as a director of operations, strategy, and communications in 2021. But his work on the Digest caught the attention of Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood, the co-founders of Open Campus Media, a nonprofit investigative news outlet covering higher education.

It led Hebel and Smallwood to the idea for the HBCU Student Reporting Network, a paid reporting fellowship for student journalists to cover the HBCUs they attend for broader audiences around the country. The program, with an inaugural class of six, launched this week, with Carter serving as editor and Wesley Wright as assistant editor. It’s funded through grants from the Knight Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and the Scripps Howard Fund. The fellows will be paid a $1,200 stipend per month for the semester-long fellowship.

The first class of fellows: Auzzy Byrdsell of Morehouse College; Brittany Patterson of Southern University and A&M College; Jasper Smith of Howard University; Skylar Stephens of Xavier University of Louisiana; Alivia Welch of Jackson State University; and Tyuanna Williams of Claflin University.

The fellowship is modeled on the CalMatters College Journalism Network, which launched in 2020 to increase news coverage of California’s public universities. Fellows in the HBCU Student Journalism Network will spend 10 to 15 hours per week during the semester working on a range of stories with guidance and mentoring from Carter and Wright. They’re most looking forward to covering “funding and enrollment trends, campus arts and sports cultures, and students’ and colleges’ roles in social justice,” according to the Open Campus news release.

Carter said part of the reason that HBCUs have gone undercovered is dwindling resources in the local newsrooms in the same communities as the HBCUs. Story budgets are often dictated by what assigning editors are most interested in. Reporters have limited bandwidths and education reporting has traditionally meant covering the local school boards and the largest college or university in town, which are hefty beats on their own. (One bright spot: The Plug, which covers Black and brown tech companies, has an entire newsletter devoted to covering tech and innovation out of HBCUs.)

“Typically, coverage has been about struggles and financial issues at HBCUs,” Carter said — and less about “faculty excellence, student workforce development, political mobilization, or even the impact of HBCUs on agriculture, secondary education, medicine, and law. [But] news operations are starting to connect the dots of what diversity means and how you get there in terms of workforce development, and HBCUs are a central part of that.”

The Student Journalism Network comes at a particularly important time for HBCUs. Three years into a global pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, HBCUs have received millions of dollars in philanthropic donations and nationwide attention. Author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated over half a billion dollars to nearly two dozen HBCUs between July and December 2020. The recipients put the donations toward funding their endowments, hiring faculty, upgrading technology and facilities, and more, according to The Plug. In 2021, the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation together committed $20 million to Howard University to open the Center for Journalism and Democracy, which is now led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Nikole-Hannah Jones.

Enrollment at HBCUs has increased over the last three years (even as college enrollment nationwide has declined) as students look for safe and inclusive environments to study. At the same time, corporations and major companies are pushing to diversify their workforces; some have started investing in HBCUs to do so.

But none of those are enough to fix major institutional issues like historic underfunding and discrimination, Carter said. (”$50 million helps, but it doesn’t address a $250 million problem.”)

Wright, who works as the student media advisor at Florida Atlantic University, said that as with other beats, when there are fewer or no reporters covering institutions, both local communities and the institution suffer. The student network fellows have the advantage of already knowing their campus communities best.

“People who work at HBCUs [often] feel like [journalists] parachute in after a tragedy or after some phenomenon, and then they leave,” Wright said. “This fellowship has a different tenor. We’re not sending somebody from another part of the country to parachute in and interview a football coach and that person has no local context. We’re working with [students]. There’s no [better] way to be close to an institution than through somebody who lives in a dorm.”

The fellowship will help students build their portfolios, network with professional journalists, and have their stories republished by Open Campus Media’s reporting partners, creating a pipeline of emerging Black journalists when they graduate.

“It is literally a dream come true for me,” Carter said. “I always wanted to see young reporters take an interest in higher education, specifically HBCUs. I didn’t want to do this work by myself forever.”

The Founders Library at Howard University. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

POSTED     Jan. 19, 2023, 2:15 p.m.
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