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Talking Bout a Revolution

Elissa Sonnenberg helps guide UC journalism into its future

By Mildred C. Fallen · September 23rd, 2008 · Cover Story

 

Because of guidance from Elissa Sonnenberg, University of Cincinnati assistant director of journalism, today a student follows his “grandiose aspirations” toward becoming a magazine journalist.

Sonnenberg remembers what “today” is without glancing at a calendar or a Blackberry. She retrieves a mental note.

“Ryan starts at NYU today!” she says.

As a sophomore, Ryan McLendon wasn’t sure he could make it as a journalist. Somehow, Sonnenberg reversed his outlook.

“I always had an interest in journalism, but it wasn’t until I met Elissa that I thought it was possible to become a journalist,” says McLendon, UC Journalism ’08. “She encouraged me to pitch to national magazines, to take risks and go after big stories.”

Now he begins his master’s in journalism.

A life-long journalist herself, Sonnenberg related to McLendon’s desire to tell it like it is. At age 4, she interviewed stuffed animals. With a Masters in Education from Northwestern University, 20 years of magazine reporting and a publishing career at Cincinnati Magazine, she joined UC in 2006 to “give back to a generation of students interested in journalism.” Sonnenberg sees to it that the circle remains unbroken.

“Coming into the UC journalism program in its second full year as a major was so exciting to me because I got my undergraduate degree from UC,” Sonnenberg says. “I had been an editor for The News Record. I had seen the success that graduates have had in the professional world, and I really felt like the opportunity for growth was phenomenal.”

Not only is there growth inside the program, but UC journalism is stretching outside of Ohio. Students have found internships and jobs nationwide, which include Harper’s Bazaar, Los Angeles Magazine and Wired.com.

It’s because Sonnenberg networks with her News Record colleagues. One of them is Newsday Pop music critic Glenn Gamboa, whose exceptional reporting led to being a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Sonnenberg found Gamboa on Facebook.com and told him about students like McLendon who were studying in New York. He and McLendon will have dinner. And the beat goes on. These are some examples of how Sonnenberg proved she was exactly what UC journalism needed in order to recharge, which is why UC Journalism Director Jon Hughes describes her as “someone with endless energy.”

“I have not been surprised by her ability as a faculty member,” says Hughes, who mentored Sonnenberg as a student. “Because she’s been an editor, students respect and understand that. She’s been able to talk to them and relate to the problems of students their age. “Another valuable aspect she’s brought is her concern about diversity, and it affects the faculty’s concern. She’s been able to establish programs that help build on the faculty’s interest in diversifying the program.”

Sonnenberg is inquisitive and passionate about civil rights and environmental issues, which are bases of her capstone seminars. In one, students covered the UC Solar Decathlon, following the UC Solar House’s journey to Washington, D.C., and reported from the National Mall. Sonnenberg describes the yearlong experience as “a story arc perfect for a narrative.”

“That was a great opportunity for upper-level journalism students to follow a project from its relative beginnings to a real culmination,” she says. “It was something that only 21 schools in the world were doing.”

Another seminar explored a century of black press.

Through meeting actual civil rights reporters, students became knowledgeable about a topic she hadn’t explored until watching PBS’ Eyes on the Prize.

“That’s all sort of what journalists today need, that depth of knowledge to be able to report on the present and into the future,” Sonnenberg says. “Without the focus in the media on the civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s, there would not have been the outcomes we saw. It was a huge revolution.”

It’s not surprising that Sonnenberg uses the word “revolution.” Her teaching style is revolutionary.

By employing use of new media technology, she designs wikiblogs and podcasts, which happen to save trees. By podcasting, she can interview a Rolling Stone editor and have him unofficially be a guest lecturer. And in addition to teaching the nuts and bolts of news reporting, she also teaches students that there’s room for journalists to write outside the box.

“There’s also a real hunger for those personal stories and those personal takes,” Sonnenberg says. “That’s what blogs are all about. Blogs need to be based on fact, but at the same time people want to understand a different kind of context.”

Outside of class, students lead. They plan professional journalism workshops, attend national conferences and form their own networking alliances with local and national journalism chapters. In 2007, Terron Austin was the first president of UC Association of Black Journalists. Austin now writes a CinWeekly fashion column and does Web site work for legendary Gospel recording artists The Clark Sisters.

“Cincinnati’s not New York City, it’s not Chicago,” Sonnenberg says. “But in a way it’s almost better, because all that we have is so accessible. It’s really been cool to watch them, the student leaders, grow and mature and give back to the generation coming in a year right after them.” This summer, local high school journalism students partnered with The News Record students for Intro to Journalism workshops. This Fall, Hughes expects at least 50 incoming freshman, rounding a program that began from zero students in 2005 to approximately 220 total majors.

“Last year, we were the fifth largest program (in Arts & Sciences) and we are moving up into the fourth,” Hughes says. This means that one way or another the revolution will be transcribed.

PHOTO: KURT STRECKER

Elissa Sonnenberg is a major reason UC now offers a journalism major.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
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