In honor of my students who will be taking this exam today, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this post with a few tweaks. Enjoy. — VFF
I often get to hear students complaining about classes and professors, as that comes with the territory of being an academic adviser, a former newsroom adviser and having an office right next to the computer lab. When they don’t think I’m listening, I’ve heard students mutter about the amount of reading I assign in Feature Writing or the way that AP style is way too big of a deal in the Writing for the Media class.
However, two grievances have been repeated about two specific things I force students to do that are both points of annoyance and points of pride for them. When they gripe about these things, they do so loudly and with an odd tone like someone in a really bad 1980s movie yelling, “I was in ‘NAM, man! You don’t even know!” It’s a mix of irritation and self-congratulations.
The first we’ve discussed here before: The Feel-It Lab.
The second is what one student referred to as “The Midterm from Hell.”
Conceptually speaking, it’s reporting in its purest form: You get an assignment you know nothing about, you research it, you find sources and you turn the story in for publication immediately. Maybe working night desk where asking “Can I get this done tomorrow?” would have gotten me mocked and then fired and then mocked again has jaded me to the difficulty of this, but I doubt it.
Below is the outline for “The Midterm from Hell” as it is presented to the students. Feel free to use it as you see fit or adapt it as you need. Consider it a “share the hate” moment from me to you.
Reporting Midterm Assignment
The 24-Hour Story
As promised, this isn’t going to be your standard “memorize some facts, regurgitate them and move on” type of midterm. Reporting is a skill that you hone over time and in many cases, you don’t have a lot of time to do the honing. You will be responsible for your own fate and the fate of your colleagues in this midterm exercise.
Part I: The Pitch
As per your syllabus, you will have to email me a midterm pitch no later than Sunday at noon. If you do not turn in your pitch, you will not be able to participate in the midterm itself on Tuesday.
(UPDATE NOTE: About one student every other year fails the midterm before it even launches because of this. I guess if I had this threat hanging over my head, I’d make it a priority to beat the deadline by several days.)
What you are attempting to pitch is a story that you believe you could accomplish within a 24-hour period. The pitch itself should include the following things:
- Your name
- Your contact information (phone number, email address etc.)
- An introductory paragraph of about five or six sentences that outlines what the story is about, what makes it worth doing and why it matters to a specific readership.
- A list of at least THREE human sources, including contact information and rationale behind these people being used as sources.
You should attempt to create a quality pitch, obviously. If your pitch is too weak or fails to meet the basic elements of the assignment, your pitch will be discarded and you will not be allowed to participate in the midterm.
Part II: The Story
Everyone who turns in a pitch will be expected to be in class ready to go on Tuesday. I will print off all of the acceptable pitches and give each pitch a random number. Each participant will select a number and thus receive the associated pitch. YOU CANNOT RECEIVE YOUR OWN PITCH. I will read the pitch to the class and give you a copy of the pitch. The person responsible for the pitch can then augment the pitch with additional information or suggestions. We then open the floor for other people to suggest other sources or other places for information. Once you feel comfortable with your pitch, we move on to the next person.
When all the pitches are handed out, you will then have approximately 24 hours to complete a solid news story on that topic. It must be at least 2 pages, typed, double-spaced. It must contain no fewer than three human sources. You do not need to use any or all of the sources suggested to you in the pitch. You can augment the list or stick to it. The pitch is merely meant to guide you.
Your story must be in at noon on Wednesday. If you are late, you fail the assignment, so remember the old line we repeat in here: Journalism is never done. It’s just due. Your completed work will be graded along the same lines as your previous stories, with one-third of the grade being assigned to each of the three main areas: Reporting, Writing and Style.
This is going to typify the quote on the front of your syllabus: You have to improvise. You have to adapt. You have to overcome. Stuff can go wrong. People might not get back to you. Sources might be out of town. Your job is to be a reporter and figure out how to get the best possible version of the story out of the assignment based on what you have available to you at the time. Perfection is unattainable, so don’t panic about that. Make sure you’re accurate, clear, concise and balanced. Work on smoothing out your writing without obsessing about how perfect it is.
You can do this. We’ve been preparing for it all term.
Questions? Ask ‘em.