Start Spreading the News: A Cross-Cultural Virtual Newsroom

By Deborah Steinborn

Can­va BEST mag­a­zine cover

A vir­tu­al what? asked the per­plexed high-school prin­ci­pal on the oth­er end of the line. I was halfway through my one-minute pitch of the BEST Vir­tu­al News­room, a new cross-cul­tur­al media-lit­er­a­cy pro­gram for Ger­man and Amer­i­can teens. Appar­ent­ly in a hur­ry, he huffed and quick­ly passed me on to a teacher of Eng­lish at the Ham­burg school. To my relief, she was more enthu­si­as­tic about the oppor­tu­ni­ty. She promised to dis­trib­ute the call for applications.

I made that first cold-call in spring 2021. The Amerikazen­trum Ham­burg, a bina­tion­al cul­tur­al insti­tute, had approached me a few weeks ear­li­er with the germ of an idea. Why not devel­op a vir­tu­al pro­gram to teach teens in Ham­burg and its U.S. sis­ter city Chica­go the basics of jour­nal­ism? A firm believ­er that media lit­er­a­cy is need­ed now more than ever, I loved the idea. I threw myself into the plan­ning right away.

And there was a heck of a lot to plan, indeed. We need­ed to build from scratch a sol­id con­cept, appli­ca­tion forms, a selec­tion com­mit­tee, a syl­labus, a ros­ter of guest speak­ers, a func­tion­ing vir­tu­al plat­form, a course time­line and more. By August, the con­cept for the tuition-free dig­i­tal sem­i­nar was ready. Out of sev­er­al dozen appli­cants, 18 had been noti­fied of their accep­tance. The first of four Zoom ses­sions took place on a Sat­ur­day that month. For Ger­man par­tic­i­pants, it was late after­noon at the start of a new aca­d­e­m­ic year … for Amer­i­cans, it was ear­ly morn­ing at the height of sum­mer vaca­tion. The dif­fer­ent sched­ules and time zones were tricky, but the program’s feats far out­weighed its challenges.

In four dig­i­tal ses­sions with­in sev­en weeks, stu­dents learned report­ing basics from jour­nal­ism instruc­tors and prac­ti­tion­ers in Ger­many and the U.S. They learned how to spot a news­wor­thy sto­ry; how to inter­view any­one, any­where; how to write com­pelling arti­cles; and how to pitch a sto­ry to edi­tors. In addi­tion, they learned to sim­pli­fy their writ­ing styles, fact-check their own work and the work of oth­ers, and pub­lish across var­i­ous media chan­nels. Pro­fes­sion­al edi­tors gave them valu­able, line-by-line feed­back on their report­ing and writ­ing while guest speak­ers added a broad­er per­spec­tive to the role of the media in soci­ety. With just three hours per ses­sion and a lot of ground to cov­er, we all felt a bit rushed at times. But we still man­aged some live­ly dis­cus­sions. To name just three, we dis­cussed the Texas abor­tion ban, dif­fer­ent approach­es to gen­der pro­nouns in Ger­many and the U.S., and speed debat­ing, a top­ic many Ger­man par­tic­i­pants had nev­er even heard of.

Between ses­sions, stu­dents worked in inter­cul­tur­al groups of three. Each one was assigned a pre-deter­mined sto­ry lead based on ideas sub­mit­ted as part of the appli­ca­tion process. By the program’s end, these sto­ries were ready to be pitched to the media. Sto­ries ranged from debates about home school­ing sparked by the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic to envi­ron­men­tal draw­backs of meat substitutes.

We sur­veyed stu­dents at the program’s end. Their enthu­si­asm was broad. Some par­tic­i­pants caught the ‘jour­nal­ism bug’ and are mulling careers in jour­nal­ism. Oth­ers real­ized that basic jour­nal­ism skills – from inter­view­ing peo­ple to writ­ing in a clear, suc­cinct fash­ion or sim­ply check­ing facts – are trans­ferrable to oth­er careers.

All arti­cles devel­oped dur­ing our project were incor­po­rat­ed into a vir­tu­al­ly designed BEST mag­a­zine (using Can­va, the free graph­ic-design plat­form) for dis­tri­b­u­tion at inter­est­ed schools and for the stu­dents’ files. Three ’best of the BEST’ arti­cles will  appear in the Decem­ber 2021 edi­tion of iGen­er­a­tion Youth, a U.S. teen mag­a­zine pub­lished nation­al­ly in print and dig­i­tal for­mats. Two fur­ther arti­cles will be fea­tured on the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog short­ly, and still oth­ers on high-school blogs and addi­tion­al dig­i­tal media outlets.

That’s just one out­come of the pro­gram. In their sur­vey respons­es, all stu­dents said they ben­e­fit­ed tremen­dous­ly from exchanges with their peers and with pro­fes­sion­als in the field. An alum­ni net­work has been estab­lished to keep the dia­log going. An addi­tion­al pos­i­tive out­come of this ambi­tious pilot project is a wider recog­ni­tion of the need for youth-ori­ent­ed media lit­er­a­cy train­ing on both sides of the Atlantic. Learn­ing how to spot fake news or fact-check your own work is just one valu­able skill that can be taught through such pro­grams. A broad­er under­stand­ing of the media’s role in democ­ra­cy and the impor­tance of sol­id jour­nal­ism in today’s increas­ing­ly polar­ized soci­eties is another.

After that first cold-call to the prick­ly prin­ci­pal in spring, sev­er­al stu­dents at that very school applied to the Amerikazen­trum Hamburg’s BEST Vir­tu­al News­room pro­gram. One was accept­ed, became one of our most engaged par­tic­i­pants, and plans to apply to jour­nal­ism school after grad­u­at­ing next year.

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Deb­o­rah Stein­born is direc­tor of the Amerikazen­trum Hamburg’s BEST Vir­tu­al News­room. An inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and mod­er­a­tor, she writes reg­u­lar­ly for Forbes mag­a­zine, Die ZEIT, and oth­er media. She’s also edi­tor-in-chief of ZEIT Ger­many, an Eng­lish-lan­guage mag­a­zine pub­lished annually.