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Journalism conference discusses poverty

By Alex Pineda (Special to The Chronicle) “No editor ever turned down a good story, but you have to show me some passion,” said Joye Brown. Brown said this after listening to Yvonne Wenger, a city hall reporter for the Baltimore Sun, pitch a story about a Baltimore boy who grew up in the suburbs but is now homeless and living in poverty.

The reporter pitched the story to Brown, a former editor and current columnist at Newsday, as part of an exercise in a workshop focused on handling the real newsroom challenges of finding an idea, getting approval from an editor and writing a compelling story.

The workshop was part of a Specialized Reporting Institute that brought reporters, editors and producers from media outlets around the country together with economists, sociologists and activists at the University last week. The two-day workshop, funded by the Robert R. McCormick foundation, concentrated on better covering the growing crisis of suburban poverty in America while giving students an inside look at the politics of a newsroom.

Brown questioned Wenger about the factors that determined this boy was living in poverty. Sensing a lack of confidence in Wenger’s answers, Brown switched roles with the reporter and proceeded to pitch the story the way she would have. The difference in the two pitches was that Brown showed enthusiasm and confidence and expressed a sincere belief in the story while Wenger was passive in her approach. Suburban poverty is a growing crisis but it is a sensitive topic that may not be considered a news story to some editors, which makes a worthy pitch essential to a successful story.

The workshop, headed by Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies and former Newsday reporter, gave writers an opportunity to bounce ideas off of Richard Koubek, a public policy advocate and community outreach coordinator for Long Island Jobs. Then they pitched stories to Brown.

Brown suggested presenting an angle that demands a reader’s attention while Koubek spoke about finding an angle that shows how detrimental suburban poverty is to a community as a whole. For example, Koubek raised the point that a story about a lack of childcare in an impoverished community would be more effective if presented in a manner that shows how the issue affects employment, crime and tax payer dollars.

Using images to visualize disparities can show how poverty is no longer an issue confined to urban communities. Putting a face on suburban poverty shows that the issue is widespread and affects people from all walks of life.

Writers covering the crisis of suburban poverty must be able to relate to and understand the lives of those experiencing it to write a story with perspective.

“I want people to smell where I’ve been,” said Brown, who takes pride in her ability to connect with the people she writes about.

Levy said that it is possible to be a passionate journalist without being biased by pounding away at the facts. Koubek advised writers to evaluate statistics thoroughly and to be critical of political jargon, as both can be misleading.

As the workshop ended, Brown said to the writers, “Fight the power, get a thick skin, be able to inform and have a command of your information.”

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