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SMU Student Journalists Partner with Dallas South News to Cover Underserved Communities

Mark Agnew | Journalism and Business, ’12

I’ve been to some of Dallas’s trendiest neighborhoods across the Trinity River, where I’ve eaten at popular restaurants and soaked up the nightlife. But until recently, I had not experienced many of the other communities to the south of our campus. Some of them are dealing with tough issues, but they are diverse and vibrant and there are stories to be told there.

Jayne Suhler, a professor in the Division of Journalism, works with student Haley Thayer on a story about child abuse prevention month for Dallas South News.

As an SMU journalism student writing for Dallas South News, I’ve been able to provide these communities, many of them low income, with stories important to them. Without a doubt, my classmates are also finding the experience rewarding.

“Writing for Dallas South News has given me what I consider to be real world experience in the field of journalism,” said SMU senior and journalism major Charles Scott, who has reported on issues ranging from a gang intervention program in Dallas schools to a boxing program for at-risk youth.

Scott and I are part of Jayne Suhler’s Reporting II class in the Division of Journalism. The class teamed up in the fall of 2011 with the nonprofit news organization Dallas South News. Editor and founder Shawn Williams launched the publication in 2009 to serve the neighborhoods and suburbs of southern Dallas County, which is home to more than 500,000 people.

Since forming the partnership, students have spread out across the area to bring professional news coverage to these communities. They attend city meetings and press conferences, talking with residents, business leaders and public officials to get the full story. Scott, for instance, pursued Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to comment on his story about the youth boxing program. His tenacity paid off when Rawlings granted him an interview.

“I expected the students to do well, but the stories they have produced have proven to be very valuable and in line with our mission,” said Williams, who gained national recognition for his blog, which he started in 2006. “It’s been a seamless process.”

Suhler runs her classroom like a newsroom. Students pitch their own ideas, report off campus, and then rework stories in class until they are polished and professional. In some cases, students are covering breaking news and press conferences, and must report and write on a tight deadline.

The result is an impressive and growing list of stories published by Dallas South News, according to Suhler. Students have reported on issues that include a new food stamp partnership with the Dallas Farmers Market; budget cuts at libraries and nonprofit agencies; an update on one of the city’s lowest-performing high schools; and a profile on the growing number of AIDS cases in the African American community.

“What is truly remarkable are the relationships our SMU students are forging with the people of Dallas,” she said. “My students are meeting residents, business people and community leaders from areas where they might never travel were it not for this partnership.”

I reported a story about the emerging Tyler Davis Arts District, talking with storeowners and artists who opened my eyes to a community filled with an energy unrivaled in Dallas. I also wrote a piece about Dallas’s new Omni Hotel and its plan to hire hundreds of workers. The Omni story was seen by more visitors to the Dallas South News website than any story by an SMU student to date, and had the second highest number of visitors of any story ever posted on the site.

According to Williams, the paper and its website have reached several historic readership highs as a result of the partnership. Stories that drew the most attention included the Comerica Bank grant given to the Dallas Public Library system, a profile about well-known African American publisher and community leader Jordan “Randy” Blair, and the dedication of Dallas’s new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

Junior Ashley Stainton, who was part of Suhler’s Reporting II class when the partnership formed, worked this spring as a liaison between Dallas South News and SMU. She manages story ideas and serves as an editor for the partnership. She has had her hands on every story published this semester.

“The skills I am acquiring working with both Suhler and Shawn have already helped me with internships, and I know what I have learned will continue to be an asset to me in the future,” Stainton said.

Williams credits the hard work of the students and commitment from SMU professors as the formula for the collaborative success. Williams hopes the partnership will continue in fall 2012, drawing in other classes and teachers.

“Many of the stories may not have been told without the dedication of the SMU journalism students and professors,” he said. “I would love to see that continue into the future.”

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