by Greta Meyer
Friday, April 5, marked the biggest turnout yet for the Third Annual Philadelphia High School Journalism Conference hosted by Germantown Friends School. Approximately 130 aspiring journalists from 15 area public and private schools gathered to meet professional journalists, many of whom are GFS alumni, parents or part of the extended GFS community.
The conference, entitled “Getting the Story,” was sponsored by the GFS English Department and Earthquake, the GFS student newspaper.
Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Michael Bamberger, a former GFS parent, presented the keynote speech, teaching the students the dos and don’ts of the industry and sharing some personal anecdotes from his own work and experience. Bamberger’s presentation was dynamic, and included an interactive component in which he brought a senior from Girls’ High, Asha Anderson, to the stage with him.
Anderson participated in an impromptu mock interview. Asking students to be alert to body language and other nonverbal queues during the interview, Bamberger drew in his audience and pushed them to look beyond the answers that Anderson gave. Afterwards, Anderson said, “[Michael] really forced me to notice details and personality traits even when asking simple questions in an interview.”
In addition to the keynote, each student attended two workshops, chosen from seven options, during the course of the day. Topics offered included Sports Writing, Online Media, Crime Reporting, Photojournalism, Journalistic Essays, Writing for the Radio and Column Writing. The workshops were led by GFS alumni Zach Baron, freelance writer and member of the GFS Class of 2000; PJ Vogt, associate producer for NPR’s “On the Media” and member of the GFS Class of 2004; Rebecca Traister, Salon.com contributor and author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” and member of the GFS Class of 1993; and Allison Steele, crime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and member of the GFS Class of 1998. Other workshop leaders included Bamberger, Ron Tarver, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff photographer, and Inquirer columnist Karen Heller, a current GFS parent.
Zach Baron, who led a workshop entitled “How to be a writer on the Internet,” told students that “at such a young age, you really shouldn’t know what you want to do with your life.”
“This conference is so valuable because it allows you to get a feel for the field without committing – it’s like a quick tour through journalism,” he said. “And for those who know that journalism is what they want to do, it’s great to see people who have successfully made a career doing it. It makes the goal seem more attainable.”
For some, the decision is already made. Jess Newberg, a freshman at Penn Charter, has already decided that journalism is what she intends to do, and at her school there are numerous opportunities in the journalism field. In addition to literary club and the student newspaper, several students submit their work to the Huffington Post teen section online (HuffPost Teen).
“[The conference] was inspiring and encouraging and valuable because it informed [me] about what it takes to be a successful writer,” Newberg said.
Ron Tarver, an instructor of photography at Swarthmore College whose work has been published by National Geographic, Life, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, led a photojournalism workshop.
In the workshop, he displayed recent works that feature service dogs being trained and cared for by prison inmates. Schuyler Alig, a sophomore at GFS and staff photographer for Earthquake, has been in Ron’s workshop for two years in a row.
“I always love Ron’s photos, but the ones this year were especially interesting and moving,” she said. According to Alig, Tarver’s photos and video of a final ceremony that the inmates held when the dogs were fully trained and ready for service managed to capture the inmates’ deep emotional connection to these dogs.
The closing speech was given by Karen Heller, who spoke about the need to choose carefully what one reports about and ensure that the journalist – not the interviewee – controls the focus of the interview.
An earlier workshop led by Heller included a lively discussion with the students about the censorship by school editorial boards. On the issue of how to get the story in the first place, Heller advised her young listeners to “always call back again and again.”
“Don’t be afraid to be nosy and persistent,” she added. “That’s your job.”