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Mighty Writers and veteran journalists are helping Camden high schoolers tell their stories

Three students in front of a building with a Mighty Writers banner February 19, 2019 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPurpose
April Saul is a keeper of stories. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and former Philadelphia Inquirer staffer knows the power that comes with the opportunity to hear and share a good one.

For the past few years, she has been telling the stories of Camden through her Facebook page, “CAMDEN, NJ: A Spirit Invincible,” about a city she was told was too depressing and not worth covering during her Inky days.

“I get people calling me all the time asking me to cover various things […] nobody else is covering,” Saul said. “I know from that how important it is to shine a light on a [what is] being overlooked.”

Now, she is passing the power of storytelling to the youth. Working in conjunction with Mighty Writers, a local education nonprofit that teaches writing skills, and public media outlet WHYY, Saul is establishing a Camden newsroom to be staffed by roughly a dozen local high school students.

Mighty Writers staffers, who will be administering the program, found out in January that they are part of the inaugural class of the Lenfest Institute of Journalism’s Philadelphia Ecosystem Collaboration Fund. They will be receiving a $25,000 grant to support the newsroom’s operations, to buy equipment and pay writers for their stories.

Students will be asked to apply, but Mighty Writers has a policy of not turning kids away, Saul said. She’ll be visiting Camden schools, passing out flyers and seeking student recommendations from teachers and principals to get the newsroom off the ground in April.

The stories will eventually be published on a new website dedicated to the students’ work.

Mighty Writers student. (Courtesy photo)

“With the kids, it’s a really good way of getting them to articulate the things that they see happening around them, to try and come up with possible solutions, to feel heard and make their feelings known about the city and their lives,” she said.

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Mighty Writers opened its first programming space outside Philadelphia in 2018, in Camden. Tim Whitaker, the executive director and founder of the nonprofit, believes creating a newsroom in a portion of the space will teach kids more than just the basics of journalism.

“We’re going to give them the skills [which] they’ll be able to write clearly and think clearly,” said Whitaker, a former editor of Philadelphia Weekly. “And no matter what they do, no matter where they go, journalism is a really great vehicle for that.”

Teens are the most difficult demographic to attract to their programming, Whitaker said. But once they’re able to get them in the newsroom, they’ll be tackling similar issues professional journalists deal with, like getting people interested in what they have to say.

Students will have the opportunity to produce stories about local and national news, features, sports and opinion, Saul said. They will also be able to delve into producing multimedia content with the help of WHYY, said Craig Santoro, the director of educational programs for the radio station.

Many of the extracurricular opportunities afforded to Philadelphia kids are not extended to Camden kids, Santoro said. Joining this venture serves a part of WHYY’s broadcast area and fulfills an important part of its mission.

“A free press has always been, even before our country’s conception, a major institution here in America,” Santoro said. “And so to be an active participant in the democracy, I think it’s important to understand how journalism works, and in the best case scenario, contribute to that.”

“The way that news was weaponized in the last election, and the way that news is talked about in the political conversation today, I think it’s even more important that young people understand how our news is made, what a reliable source is and how to be a reliable source for their own concerns and their own neighborhoods,” he added.

(Indeed, Mighty Writers students were featured in The New Yorker in 2017 for their lessons on fake news.)

It has been difficult to get Camden kids to attend WHYY’s programs in Philadelphia, which is why it’s important WHYY staffers make the trip themselves, Santoro said. It gives them the opportunity to add what Camden kids have to say to the regional conversation: “I’m really excited to hear their stories.”

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