Need writing exercises for your media-writing class and sick of talking about COVID? Welcome to the Corona Hotline

“Corona Hotline… Yes, professor, we still have a land line…”

Each year in my writing for the media classes, I have students write a couple stories based on things that interest them. The problem I always faced was how to do this, because this course was an “everyone” course, not a reporting course and this was the first time a lot of these students were having to converse with other human beings for the purpose of garnering content that had to be spot-on, word-for-word accurate. Thus, having them each go out and do a handful of interviews was likely to end poorly for all of us involved…

What I did was have them pitch topics and I’d put them up on the white board. Once we had exhausted their interests, we would have a kind of an Athenian-democracy-meets-The-Hunger-Games kind of session in which we’d cut down the list to about eight topics. Of those eight, each student could vote for three, which would get us to the topics that we’d write on.

The students self-selected into groups based on interests. As I had 15 kids per class, the minimum per group was four and the max was six. They then had to discuss how they viewed the topic and who might make for a good interview subject. Each of them only had to interview ONE person, but they needed to make sure they all weren’t interviewing the SAME person (lotta calls from the police chief asking what the hell I was doing, after I forgot to mention that caveat one year after a particularly rough Pub Crawl Season…)

So, let’s say the topic was Pub Crawl, our twice-per-year event involving way too much day drinking that drives cops nuts and makes the kids do crazy stuff (one year, a young woman dove off her second-floor porch toward a kiddie pool in a back yard. She missed, but survived.)

Here’s how this would go:

Bobby: “OK, I know the police chief so I’ll interview him about what they’re doing different this year and what they want students to do.”

Susie: “Cool… I know a bouncer at The Drunken Clam who has to work on pub crawl and he’s worked the last five, so I’ll talk to him.”

Janie: “I know a girl coming down here for her first pub crawl from way out near Crivitz, so I’ll ask her about how she found it and why she’s coming.”

Nate: “Nice! I know two people who go every year, so I’ll get both of them!”

Clare: “My landlord has buildings all along Main Street and they always get trashed during Pub Crawl. I’ll talk to her about that.”

Troy: “I know a bartender at St. Elmo’s so I’ll interview her about her experiences at Pub Crawl.”

Each of these students then goes off and interviews their person and they send me the transcript of those interviews, along with any other information they found that they want to share. This could include links to previous stories on Pub Crawl, background on the sources and other such things.

I then put all of that material together into one big file for that group and call it something like “Pub Crawl RAW” so they all know it’s the raw material. Then, when they come to lab, they have to write a draft of a story based on whatever is in there that they want to use. They only need to do a two-page, typed, double-spaced piece on that topic. They can pick any angle they want. They only need to include TWO sources, but they can include as many as they see to be helpful in telling the story.

It’s like the old “pot luck suppers” we used to have at church or family gatherings: Everyone brings something and you can eat whatever you want.

That means that Bobby might decide not to use his interview from the police chief, but instead take the info from the bouncer and the bartender and do a “What it’s like to work on Pub Crawl” story. Clare might use her landlord and the police chief interview to talk about the negative aspects of Pub Crawl. Others might do the “why we love Pub Crawl” stories from the perspectives of the student interview.

After they file their stories, we go through the typical drafting processes with edits and suggestions and so forth.

This year, it was a bit tougher because a) half of my students were missing and b) it was hard to get interviews with people because students couldn’t go anywhere. What we came up with was kind of a compromise:

They went through the pitch process and got it down to three topics per class. I then agreed to either pull old interviews from previous classes and “freshen” them with updated information about life these days, or I agreed to make up content out of whole cloth after interviewing them a bit on the topic and digging around for other information. I then made up the names of the people, so there was no confusion, and they went about writing the stories.

I freely admit, I wish I could give them more experience in interviewing. However, in talking to them, I got the sense that they were afraid of going places (we’re a hot, hot, hot spot for the virus) and if they did this, the interviews would likely be weak as hell, which would impact the writing.

Still, this seems to be working, so I thought I’d share the stuff with anyone who needs it. The four topics (Spring Break, General Education Courses, TikTok and Movies/Theaters) are at the top of the Corona Hotline for Journalism Instructors Page, so feel free to grab whatever you want and use it however you want. I did some work to eliminate names and local references, but you might want to give this a look before you ship it out to the kids and they ask, “What the hell is a Kwik Trip?”

Hope this helps. Feedback is always welcome.


(a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

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