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UVM Students Pursue Reporting and Storytelling Curriculum

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From left: Lisa Scagliotti, Julia Bailey-Wells and Cullen Paradis - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • From left: Lisa Scagliotti, Julia Bailey-Wells and Cullen Paradis

Twenty-one-year-old Cullen Paradis has heard the dire pronouncements about the future of journalism. Even so, he's determined to become an investigative reporter.

Paradis is one of the first University of Vermont students to participate in the just-launched Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program. The rising senior is spending his summer as an intern writing news stories for local weekly newspapers.

"For people like me who are hoping to go into journalism, it's certainly nice to have that on your degree," Paradis said. And for those who say journalism is in a death spiral? He believes its value will continue to be recognized and the profession will survive.

"There's a reason it's called the fourth estate. Now more than ever, people in government, people in power, need checks, need people looking over their shoulder," Paradis said. "And reporters are the people who do that."

The new program, an academic minor, combines more than 25 existing courses from various disciplines at UVM. It's designed broadly, to serve students with a range of interests: making documentaries for Netflix, producing podcasts for public radio, or creating interactive graphics and maps for digital media. Participating students might plan to work in newsrooms, but the program aims to cultivate core skills that can be used in many types of media, according to Richard Watts, codirector of the effort.

"We know that storytelling is so important, however you do it. It's not meant to be vocational in that we're training you to go get a job in print," Watts said. "It's the classic liberal arts thing. We're training you to be a good writer and thinker and take these skills to whatever you do."

Courses include the history of television, advanced screenwriting, video production, photography and the art of the essay. The program includes faculty who teach English, art, environmental studies, sociology, political science and other subjects.

Watts' codirectors are documentary filmmaker Deb Ellis, an associate professor and director of UVM's film and television program; and UVM English professor Greg Bottoms, author of books including Angelhead: My Brother's Descent Into Madness.

The idea for the program grew out of a faculty retreat in 2017, Watts said. He credits former UVM professor Tom Streeter, who now teaches at Western University in Ontario, Canada, for pushing the idea.

Rather than build a full journalism program from scratch, which would be expensive and redundant with other programs, including one at nearby Saint Michael's College, UVM opted for an interdisciplinary collaborative. "There's great programs out there, so it doesn't make sense to duplicate what already exists," Watts said.

During the decade that ended with 2018, the ranks of newsroom employees at newspapers declined by nearly half, to 38,000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal data.

But newsroom employment at digital sites increased slightly, and the growing popularity of made-to-stream documentaries, podcasts and other storytelling formats helped shape the focus of UVM's effort.

"We have to build something that's relevant today, and that means storytelling that students are interested in and taking advantage of multimedia digital," Watts said.

To that end, students will be encouraged to collaborate on episodes of the Mudseason podcast produced by the Center for Research on Vermont, of which Watts is the director, and to use UVM equipment for visual storytelling projects.

Because the program relies primarily on existing faculty, the launch cost was minimal, according to Watts — around $15,000.

Richard Watts - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Richard Watts

Students who declare the minor must complete 18 credits, which translates to six courses. They also must complete an internship. Some will write for the Community News Service, a new UVM-run venture created along with the minor that generates news for local outlets. This summer, six students, including Paradis, are participating.

For some, the internship is unpaid, while others were awarded UVM summer grants of about $2,500. The internship program is headed by Lisa Scagliotti, a veteran reporter and editor currently working as a correspondent for the Vermont Community Newspaper Group, which includes the Shelburne News, Waterbury Record, Stowe Reporter and South Burlington's Other Paper.

All the student interns have written stories published this summer by papers in the group, and some also contributed to VTDigger.org. Their work also appears on communitynews.net.

Last week Scagliotti, who assigns and edits the interns' stories, met with them in a small classroom in the restored Billings Library at UVM. The building serves as the program's hub and a place where Vermont journalists are invited to visit, both informally and formally, for talks with the students.

Some of the interns started with a few bylines to their credit, while others were brand-new to reporting. With Scagliotti, the interns talk about nuts-and-bolts details — when to file their stories, how to travel to assignments (by bus for several interns who don't have cars) and how to deal with the fact that interesting stories often attract other reporters.

Julia Bailey-Wells, a 21-year-old environmental science major from Concord, Mass., lamented that the Boston Globe had published a story similar to one she was working on about Vermonters' efforts to boost the population of grasslands birds known as bobolinks. "No," groaned the other students. Bailey-Wells explained that she didn't want her story to "seem like a shitty echo" of what the Globe reporter wrote.

Scagliotti countered with an encouraging: "We'll do it better." A discussion of fresh angles and reporting strategies ensued.

Sorrel Galantowicz, a 20-year-old geography and global studies major, shared the obstacles she's encountered in collecting data for a map to go with the bobolink story. Some property owners who had volunteered to adopt practices to protect the birds did not want to be identified by address. She was considering an alternative — perhaps spotlighting the towns, instead of specific addresses, where preservation is under way.

Galantowicz is interested in mapping, not writing, and has worked with Watts on several projects, including an interactive digital map showing the migration of grocery stores from Burlington to the suburbs, with data points going back to the late 1800s. "Providing context is always important, and spatial context is one way to do that," said Galantowicz, who is hoping for a career that uses digital mapping and geospatial analysis.

Several reporter interns, including Paradis, experienced logistical challenges. Although he had covered budget cuts, student hunger and faculty layoffs at two student newspapers, UVM's Vermont Cynic and Brattleboro Union High School's Beacon, he hadn't reported on many live events before this summer.

So when he was sent to cover the middle school graduation at Shelburne Community School in June, he struggled to shoot photos, get quotes and names, and quickly file the story. In the crunch, he omitted info on the main speaker — who wasn't happy and let him know.

"I can tell you, I did not leave anyone out on the next event that I covered," Paradis said.

Scagliotti, a former reporter at the Anchorage Daily News and the Burlington Free Press, deliberately assigned a mix of live events and longer pieces requiring research. Paradis, for example, is working on stories about hospital regulation and e-cigarette use in schools.

Scagliotti's advice includes covering the basics, such as municipal meetings.

"We talk about getting there a little bit early, figuring out what the space is, who's who," she explained. And for anyone mentioned in a story, she advised the students, "Ask them how to spell their names, even if it sounds like a simple name."

The internship has helped Paradis build a foundation he hopes will lead to a career. He said he wants a job that helps society, allows him some independence and sends him home with intriguing stories to tell at the end of the day.

"Investigative journalism is one of the few fields that ticks all those boxes," he said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Key Minor | UVM students pursue reporting and storytelling curriculum"

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