Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, talks with reporter Pat Caldwell at the newspaper's Vale office (East Oregonian/E.J. Harris/file)

About a half dozen journalism students will spend two weeks in Malheur County next May as the Malheur Enterprise teams up with the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  

USC reached out to the Enterprise to participate in the university’s course on rural reporting. This will be the second time the university offers “Outside the Bubble: Rural Reporting.” 

The initiative was developed after journalism students at USC expressed frustration with the national media coverage of rural communities, explained Judy Muller, retired USC professor and journalist who helps with the rural program. 

“Many of our students come from urban, liberal backgrounds. By embedding students in a rural area, working with the local newspaper, they can learn more from first hand experience in two weeks than we could possibly teach them in a classroom for a full semester,” Muller wrote in an email. 

Muller said the Enterprise was the first choice when searching for next year’s partner.  The pilot course in May 2018 took students and two professors to the San Juan Record in San Juan County, Utah where they reported on a court-ordered special election to overturn gerrymandering in the county. 

“They did a good job and had an incredible experience for two weeks in an area they probably wouldn't think twice as having in depth issues to address,” said Bill Boyle, publisher and editor at the San Juan Record in Utah. 

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Boyle said the experience was a win-win for students and for the paper. He said students dove in enthusiastically to write stories for the weekly publication and create a special supplement ahead of a primary election, all while gaining a deeper understanding of rural communities. 

Training students to search for nuance in stories rather than “air dropping” or parachuting into an area with preconceived notions is one of the goals outlined in the course syllabus. In Malheur County, the students will cover topics of local interest that have yet to be determined. 

Dan Toomey, now a senior at USC, signed up for the experience in Utah after feeling that the conservative side of arguments was being left out of the conversation at his large urban campus.

“You see posters in college for study abroad and it shows you all the amazing places you can go. You can very easily see the potential of going to all these different places and forget how diverse and complex America is,” said Toomey, who is from Boston. 

Toomey said locals expressed feeling misrepresented in the national media by journalists who come in to cover stories without getting to know the community.

Boyle recalled the students’ surprise at how tight knit the community was with locals who had never met the students greeting them around town.

“We’re not naïve enough to think a two-week trip out of ‘the bubble’ will solve the issues of mistrust of the media or the partisanship divide in the country. But we do think small experiments like these can help jumpstart ongoing conversations about trust, responsibility and the role of journalism education,” according to Rebecca Haggerty, journalism professor at USC.

It’s an exercise the school hopes will stick with students for the rest of their careers, said Gordon Stables, director of the journalism school.

“Our hope is that students will see the world through a different perspective and a different set of eyes and that they’ll get a chance to hear from people and report on stories that are different than what they're used to,” Stables said. 

The more connections that can be made between aspiring journalists, educators and working journalists, the better, according to Laurie Hieb executive director of Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

“We as an industry need to make a clear path from our J schools to our newspaper operations,” Hieb wrote in an email.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: yadira@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377

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