J-School Dispatch #1

My first week of graduate school is over. The first four days were devoted to orientation, getting students familiarized with the workings of UC Berkeley generally and the J-School specifically.

Investigative reporter and J-School faculty member Lowell Bergman, left, chats with Daniel Ellsberg about the Pentagon Papers, the state of journalism, and nuclear non-proliferation.

A highlight of orientation week was guest speaker Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers. If you don't know, Ellsberg worked for the Department of Defense during the Vietnam War and released thousands of secret documents to The New York Times that explained in excruciating detail how terribly the Vietnam War was going for the US, in direct opposition to the public claims of the government. In short, he released secret documents to the press before it was cool: Daniel Ellsberg is the hipster of whistleblowers.

We also got a visit from Peter Nicks, a documentary filmmaker and J-School alum who directed the internationally acclaimed documentary film The Waiting Room that chronicles the trials and tribulations of patients, doctors, and nurses at the Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. In a way his film reflects the inherent problems of the strained health care system in the US. This microcosmos of health care made me extremely grateful to have a solid health insurance plan. He also showed us footage of his upcoming documentary project focusing on another integral part of Oakland, namely the police department. It seemed extremely gritty and real, and after having seen The Waiting Room I can't wait to see his portrait of the Oakland PD.

The last and fifth day of the week was the first day of classes. At the J-School all incoming students have to take a mandatory class called 'J200 - Reporting the News.' This J200 class is divided into different sections: topicals, and hyperlocals. The topical section is devoted to health and environment, and the local sections focus on the cities of Oakland and Richmond, two cities in the East Bay. Students are divvied up into these sections based on their indicated preference of reporting areas. 

J-School post-orientation mixer with beer and good conversations in the North Gate Hall courtyard

I'm in the Richmond section under the tutelage of Robert Rogers, a reporter and alum of the J-School himself, who covers Richmond and knows the city very well. The local sections work as real online news publications. In fact, they are real online news publications and it's our responsibility to operate them as such. Our specific news website is appropriately called Richmond Confidential, or RichCon for short and has been around since 2009. 

Each student reporter in the class is assigned to a beat, which is journalist lingo for a specific area of interest that we're assigned to cover. Beats can range from arts and entertainment, to education, and to politics and crime, the latter of which is my beat.

This is particularly interesting, I think, because it is a city with high crime and poverty rates. I suspect we're in for an interesting and challenging time. Learning by doing, trial by fire, and so forth, I guess.

When I have told techies and other relatively well-off people in downtown San Francisco that I'll be reporting in Richmond some have joked about me being a "war correspondent" and saying that I should be exceedingly careful when moving about Richmond.

My professor generally dismisses this. I'm inclined to take the word of the man who makes a living reporting on that city, and not the people who commute between their tech company's office and the local coffee shop: no offense to the people I've met to in downtown San Francisco, because they're lovely and friendly people, but I doubt they spend much time in Richmond themselves. 

Next week is devoted to a boot camp, a high-intensity weeklong introduction to efficient reporting and storytelling, with 12 hour days, five days in a row, focusing on writing and video production. It'll be challenging. It'll be new and awkward at times. It'll be awesome. I can't wait.