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Elon communications students find Detroit, journalism profession reinventing themselves

Detroit proved to be an eye-opener for three Elon University School of Communications students, who participated in the Journalism That Matters Create or Die unconference June 3-6.

Maria Rojas, a recent graduate of Elon's Interactive Media master’s program, Eugene Daniel, a senior Broadcast Journalism major, and Travis Mitchell, a junior Media Arts & Entertainment major interested in documentary filmmaking, found that the media portrayals of Detroit as a dying town contradicted the enthusiasm and energy of a community they saw reinventing itself.

The city, in a state of change, mirrored the transformations occurring in the journalism industry itself.
The students were in Detroit with conference organizer Michelle Ferrier, an associate professor in the School of Communications, as part of a gathering of journalists, technologists, educators and funders creating journalism innovations using serious games, data visualizations, unique partnerships and new methods of storytelling.

The gathering focused on bringing diverse voices to the storytelling of journalists and ensuring diverse stories are told using new journalistic lenses and tools.

Daniel said the conference couldn’t have picked a better venue to reflect the state of journalism.

“Something new is coming out of the disarray,” Daniel said. “I learned so much about the history of the place and the pride the Detroit community feels about its community that isn’t reflected in the stories being told.”

Eugene Daniel (right), a communications student, talks about changes to the journalism profession with Journalism That Matters attendees with communications student Travis Mitchell (center) and another conference attendee.

Rojas also felt the disconnect between the media stories and the reality of Detroit.

“The conference made me want to find ways to tell stories about the communities where I live. And there are so many people who need a voice,” Rojas said. “And Journalism That Matters taught me that when you help give others a voice, you breathe life into a community and can energize yourself and others.”

Journalism That Matters uses open-space technology and an unconference format that allows participants to create the agenda. It focuses attention on the participants and the knowledge they bring. The format disrupts traditional paradigms about learning and creates a dialogue where innovation can occur.

“The open-space model of learning and conversation and innovation at JTM was by far the most creative, open, conversation-evoking model that I’ve been a part of. And you can learn so much,” he said. “That’s what education should be about. It was brilliant, just genius.”

Added Rojas: “I think that conferences have the reputation of prescribing a certain kind of audience. JTM was different. It allowed people of all diverse backgrounds to find a place in which their voices could be heard.”

Several new projects were conceived at the gathering. A few will receive part of the $4,000 in prize money donated by Time, Inc. Some projects will benefit from mentoring throughout the next year.

Mitchell has already been inspired to create a new business in the few days since his return. His website, Indy or Die (artforfreedom.wordpress.com), plays off of the “Create or Die” theme of the conference and focuses on bringing independent creators together. His goal is to launch on July 1 with video projects presented on the website.

“From the conference, I understand the power of people coming together about things that they love,” Mitchell said. “They really care about what they do. They’re not in it for money. And that’s inspiring. And that inspired me.”

Rojas, Daniel and Mitchell will be working with Ferrier throughout the upcoming year to bring the Journalism That Matters gathering to North Carolina in the spring of 2011. The event will showcase the innovations created in Detroit and initiate a new corps of sustainable journalism ideas.

“People from Elon and the from community need to understand how important a session like this can be when you have positive, talented, motivated people coming to one place for one goal,” Daniel said.

Rojas is already planning for next year, using her interactive media knowledge and her local connections to build on the Detroit experience.

“I want people to see that in three short days, with the talent and passion that people bring, that their ideas too can change a community and those around them,” she said.

For more information about Journalism That Matters, visit journalismthatmatters.org. For more information about JTM: North Carolina, contact Ferrier at mferrier@elon.edu.

Travis Mitchell, a communications major, has returned from the conference and started his own business promoting independent projects.
Maria Rojas, a recent Interactive Media graduate, demonstrates the civil rights museum she built in Second Life to attendees at the innovation expo in Detroit.
Michelle Ferrier,
6/14/2010 5:53 PM