From classroom to newsroom: A look at Urban School journalists who have turned pro


Madeline May (’10) filming a documentary about witch camps in Ghana

Marney Kline, Staff Writer

Today, everyone and their dog can harness the power of the Internet to be journalists. Professor Marc Cooper of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California put it in a pithy way last April. “We (journalists) work with, not for, those formerly known as The Audience,” he said at the 2011 JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention in Anaheim, Calif.

Yet the massive proliferation and distribution of information does not guarantee accuracy. Therefore, trained journalists are more crucial than ever as sources of credible and straightforward news.

Several Urban alumni, including Debora Kan (’86), Phillip Robertson (’85), Amy Standen (’92), Madeline May (’10), and Adrienne Von Schulthess (’11) are trying to fill this need.

Kan, for example, is revamping The Wall Street Journal’s Asian coverage by creating multimedia packages on business news.

Robertson has received national acclaim for his coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; his work is published on and other noteworthy news publications.

Amy Standen creates podcasts, radio reports, audio commentaries for KQED News, reporting on everything from environmental politics to breakthroughs in the field of psychiatry.

After serving as editors-in-chief at The Urban Legend newspaper, both May and von Schulthess continued into journalism programs at their respective colleges, Northwestern University and Stanford University.  May will spend this spring as a reporter for the Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, while von Schulthess reports and writes regularly for The Stanford Daily.

Von Schulthess has covered mostly local issues, such as a horticultural crisis in Palo Alto, or the fate of novelist Wallace Stegner’s historic writing studio.

During a visit from Hong Kong to Urban on Feb. 12, Deborah Kan shared wisdom culled from her experience as a journalist and world traveller. A slight woman with bright brown eyes, she exuded curiosity and self-assuredness, energy and reserve. In an interview with the Legend, she advised all young people to “live in a lot of different places.”

Kan’s career has allowed her to live in four major cities: San Francisco, New York, London, and Hong Kong. Her interest in building a worldly perspective started in her teens, likely around the time that Urban’s project/service-learning program scored her an internship at KQED in the mid-1980s.

Although she was simply stuffing envelopes for the Bay Area public news station, Kan developed “a heightened awareness of the outside world” and an appreciation for well-crafted journalism.

Kan’s residency in Hong Kong and her travels abroad have proved “eye-opening,” she said. In Feb. 2008, Kan attended and covered the New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Kan reflected on the experience, saying, “I met people who were so deprived of information that you realized that your whole life depends on information. In the U.S., the fact that people have such access to information puts them at such a big advantage. You can’t take it for granted.”

May, a junior at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, has also reported on international affairs. May said that her experience at The Urban Legend set her on a pre-professional track in journalism because it allowed her to multitask intellectually, and to become “a mini-expert” on a variety of topics (two examples of articles she wrote include homelessness in the Haight and a day in the life of the UCSF emergency room).

At Northwestern, May said, she had to adjust to a more competitive academic environment than Urban. Nonetheless, she said she enjoyed “taking risks in education,” by taking courses that interest and challenge her, an approach that has not always boosted her grade point average, but has enriched her college experience.

For example, after eight months of research and logistical preparation, she and a classmate received the Eric Lund Reporting Grant in January 2012, allowing them to film a documentary in Ghana last July.

On a visit to Urban on March 27, May screened a rough cut of “Accused: The Witches of Northern Ghana.” May described the documentary as “a profile of women living in the Gushegu Witch Camp and the challenges they face trying to make a life for themselves.” A witch camp is a settlement for social pariahs, specifically, older women who have been cast out for various reasons by their families or communities. Often, they are accused of witchcraft and thus flee their original communities to escape persecution.

In Ghana, May learned a lot about the practical and ethical burdens that come with increased independence. May and her classmate had to set their own deadlines, bring their own equipment, budget their finances, and plan their itinerary, “without any oversight from anybody,” according to May. They also faced “issues with journalism ethics” because many people demanded payment for interviews and English translators often skewed their translations to communicate a groomed version of the story.

Another difficulty arose when their translator caught malaria and had to leave the project early. May and her documentary partner relied on locals to translate interviews into English. “It was very hard not being able to directly connect with our subjects,” May said.

May visited Urban in late March, two days before leaving for her reporting job at the Cape Times.

As a rising journalist, May is constantly tweaking her approach to researching and writing a story. So far, Her experiences have taught her that “if you get exactly where you thought you were going to go (with a story), you haven’t gone deep enough.”


Tips from Urban Alumnae for Urban Students:

Madeleine May’s Two Tips for Aspiring Journalists:

1. Embrace the editing process. While writing for the Santa Cruz Sentinel during the summer of 2012, May completely re-wrote her story on veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. She described her first draft as “flat, expected and typical.” While revising, May said she “learned most about my subject and myself as a reporter” because she was forced to “delve into what is true, even if it is more complicated and takes more of an effort to understand.” The Medill School of Journalism taught her “if you get exactly where you thought you were going to go (with a story), you haven’t gone deep enough.”


2.  Don’t be afraid to change your mind. “When I started at Medill,” May said, “all of the freshman thought they wanted to be professional journalists. Now only two-thirds of them do.” However, May remains on the pre-professional track precisely because it lets her become a “mini-expert” in so many different fields.


Deborah Kan’s Three Rules for Aspiring Journalists:

To balance her passion for free press with the personal constraints of a career in journalism, Deborah Kan sticks to a few guiding principles:

1. When it comes to “editorial judgment,” act with taste and discretion, advised Kan. After all, your reputation is on the line.

2. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” she continued. “Ask questions … I never pretend to know anything. Being up front is the best thing to do” to fill in gaps of knowledge.

3. Finally, “don’t compromise your integrity,” she urged. One’s reputation, credibility, and self-regard are frequent casualties of dishonest behavior.