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From the Ground Up

Through a partnership with the hyperlocal newspaper Greening Frogtown, Bethel’s Reporting II students learn the value of laying down roots in community journalism.

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, senior content specialist

January 24, 2019 | 3:30 p.m.

Journalism students get hands-on experience at Bethel University.

Journalism students partnered with local newspaper Greening Frogtown to produce a special insert highlighting the work of churches and people of faith in Frogtown, St. Paul's most diverse neighborhood.

Maddie Christy ’20 jumped a little when the gloved hand rapped on her driver’s side door. She had just finished a pleasant interview with a pastor in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood—where she was on assignment for a Reporting II class—and she hadn’t planned on talking to anyone else. She rolled the window down a few inches and listened to the gloved man’s whispered allegation that the pastor’s church wasn’t what it seemed.

“That was a turning point in our story,” says Christy, a journalism major who spent months working in the neighborhood through Bethel’s partnership with area newspaper Greening Frogtown. “We thought it was about a church making a beautiful impact, but we found out that wasn’t the whole story. Journalistically, it’s so important to go back and do follow-up reporting.”

That was just one of the lessons Associate Professor of Journalism Yu-li Chang Zacher wanted her students to learn from the partnership. Beyond focusing on big influencers like the New York Times and Washington Post, Chang Zacher wants to present students with a more holistic view of what journalism can do at different levels of society. “If we’re not concerned about our local communities, we are rootless,” she says. “Journalism—and democracy—grows from the ground up.”

“If we’re not concerned about our local communities, we are rootless. Journalism—and democracy—grows from the ground up.”

— Yu-li Chang Zacher, associate professor of journalism

Delivered to 5,000 households, Greening Frogtown is a bimonthly newspaper that celebrates the people and spaces of St. Paul’s most diverse neighborhood. Produced by Patricia Ohmans and her husband, Anthony Schmitz—both of whom have more than 40 years of experience in journalism—Greening Frogtown began as a newsletter designed to keep residents abreast of a park creation campaign. “We realized in doing so that community newspapers cover other parts of the city, but they don’t cover Frogtown,” Ohmans says. “People here need information, and we thought what better thing to do with our skills than create a community newspaper?”

Nearly two decades later, the pair has covered the neighborhood from many angles—but they had never taken a hard look at the work of churches and other houses of worship in the community. When they connected with Chang Zacher, who was looking for a community publication willing to partner with her journalism students, the idea for a special religion insert came to life.

Ohmans and Schmitz joined students at Bethel for several class periods to impart their vision for the insert and talk through assignment topics, which ranged from immigrant neighborhoods to storefront churches to grassroots social justice initiatives. Chang Zacher also invited guest speakers from local government and media organizations to share tips and strategies as students worked to secure access to documents and independently verify information from their sources.

“It’s been fun to watch classwork be really applicable to the story we’re working on in real time,” Christy says. “They just kind of throw us out there and say, ‘Go for it.’ I’ve learned so much about myself, my environment, and other people. It’s made me a better journalist.”

English and journalism students at Bethel University work to create a special religion insert with area newspaper Greening Frogotwn.

“In the years we’ve covered news, we’ve realized that churches do an enormous amount of good,” says Patricia Ohmans, who worked with Bethel students to create a religion insert for the latest issue of Greening Frogtown. “It seemed like high time to acknowledge that.”

Located just a few miles north of Frogtown, Bethel has built partnerships in the area for more than 20 years. The longtime Frogtown-Summit University partnership enables students to live and serve in the neighborhood, and through a newer partnership with Maxfield Elementary, journalism students work side-by-side with fourth- and fifth-graders to produce a school newspaper. “It’s clear that Bethel is in it for the long haul,” Ohmans says. “They’ve really modeled a good, respectful partnership that sets them up for future collaboration.” 

Despite facing a tough economy, community newspapers still dominate the U.S. media market. Community weeklies account for 70% of all newspapers, and community dailies and weeklies account for 62% of press circulation, according to a 2018 study in the Newspaper Research Journal. Besides its partnership with Greening Frogtown, Bethel’s journalism program is connected to more than 20 local media organizations, most notably Southwest News Media and Press Publications, a family-run newspaper network owned by Gene and Kathy Johnson of the Johnson Center for Journalism.

 “When our students go out to find their first jobs, they’ll likely start at the community level,” Chang Zacher says. “I want them to not only be prepared, but to see the value of their work and to cultivate a passion for serving their own communities. That’s at the heart of our university’s mission—building community from the ground up.”

A Bethel student interacts with a professor between classes.

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