Putting their heads together during the one-child assignment.
Putting their heads together during the Yangtze assignment.

Squirrel was confused. I had just handed out a sheet of paper with just one sentence:

BEIJING, Oct. 29 (Xinhua) – China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy, according to a communiqué issued Thursday by the Communist Party of China.

“What are we supposed to do with this?” he asked.

“That’s up to you,” I answered. “But if I were you and had only 100 minutes until deadline, I’d start reporting it.” Others in the class had already figured that out. They jumped on the story, scouring the Internet for more information they could use before I handed out the second of five fact sheets 10 minutes later.

“I hate this already,” John grumbled from the back of the room.

“Welcome to real life. This is how you figure out if you really want to be a journalist.”

Leonard Bernstein used to own a plate that said, in Dutch: “In the concert of life, no one gets a program.” Lesson one: in a real-life newsroom, no one gets a fact sheet.

It was the sophomores’ second in-class exercise in deadline writing. The first, three weeks before, had focused on the Yangtze cruise boat accident in June that left almost 400 dead. For the second, I had thought of using the Tianjin warehouse explosion but decided the two disaster stories were too similar. Then the Chinese government handed me a gift, abandoning the one-child system of which my students are products. (Exactly one of the 24 sophomores has a sibling. Families have been fined or worse for having a second child.)

Since I can’t realistically send them out to cover the kind of local government meetings we did when I was an undergrad, I have to devise exercises that will teach them how to find facts, organize them and write news stories. They had already been exposed to such concepts as the 5 W’s (translation for non-journalists: who, what, when, where, why and sometimes how) and the inverted pyramid (lead with the most important facts, then add progressively less important details and end with the least important). For practice, I had used my Journalism 101 exercise, in which I give out sheets of jumbled facts on three classic inverted pyramid stories – the Corzine car accident, the 2008 presidential election and the plane crash that killed half of Poland’s top leadership – and had them construct news ledes, later workshopping the results in class.

Deadline writing is different. Sometimes news breaks with no warning, and you have to drop whatever you’re doing, as I had to do last week, throwing out a planned lesson in international news analysis to address the terrorist attacks in Paris. The sophomores, most of them writing on deadline for the first time, clearly felt the pressure.

For the Yangtze story, I had them choose partners – inevitably their best friends – and handed out the facts sheets. At first they didn’t realize they had been given two different sheets, with only the first two items the same. (Both began, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I had to have my fun.) “Is one right and one wrong?” Bonnie asked. “No,” I told her, “but you’ll have more than one person working a big story, getting different facts that need to be pieced together.” That was lesson two. Lesson three: the sheets contained discrepancies in facts like the numbers of people aboard the boat, how many had been rescued, how many confirmed dead and therefore how many were still missing. One team argued the figures with me for five minutes, wasting valuable writing time. “When you don’t know,” I advised them, “you say you don’t know.”

At first there was dead silence as the students digested the information, then an explosion of activity as they discussed what to do and started writing. It was immediately evident who the born journalists are, and aren’t. Gigi pounced on the story, intensity showing in her face and body language; Sheila calmly just went to work. Some found supplementary information online, and some added photos to their stories (but, curiously, no one used the three or four photos I projected onscreen as sources of descriptive material). “Do we write a headline, or does an editor do that?” John asked. “Excellent question!” I said. “In real life, reporters don’t write headlines. But at CUNY all stories are required to have heds, so go ahead.”

At the next class, after grading, we discussed the experience. “Did you feel the pressure?” I asked. General assent. “Did you feel paralyzed?” Some admitted they did. Some, especially (and predictably) the most conscientious one, had trouble letting their stories go, despite repeated “I need it now!” – just like a crack New York Times Hollywood reporter on Oscar night. Lesson four: two teams received automatic failing grades because of fact errors, especially heartbreaking for the pair who scored 59 instead of 90 for excellent additional reporting and organization.

For the second deadline assignment, I assigned partners. “You don’t always get to work with your best friend,” I explained. “Sometimes to have to work with someone you can’t stand,” as God knows I have countless times, and they with me. My real motive, though, was to pair stronger students with weaker ones in the hope that the weaker would learn from the collaboration.

This time I gave each team a single copy of each fact sheet, starting with
the one-sentence announcement, followed at intervals by sheets giving more (and somewhat confusing) information from the Party, background and statistics, reactions from ordinary citizens, and expert opinions from the United States and China.

The results were generally good. One team scored in the low 90s; most were in the 70s and 80s; and once again two teams were knocked down to 59 for fact errors, including one unlucky student who had now failed twice for the same reason. More teams than I liked had simply reorganized the facts without significantly rewriting, but the one that did rewrite made the lede worse instead of better. Everyone still needs a lot of practice.

But probably not with me. Thanks to last week’s cancellation for a sports meet, we have only four classes left, in which I need to cover interviewing skills, writing headlines versus Twitter, workshopping their final projects and course summary. These are the bare basics I feel they need to take away. The semester suddenly seems to be passing so quickly, and the sophomores have so much more to learn. In the spring, they move on to English News Gathering and Writing II – with another teacher. I think — hope — they’ll be ready.

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