NEW YORK, NEW YORK — At about 1:30am on Nov. 15, 2011, student reporters at The Brooklyn Ink received a tip that police would soon clear protestors from New York City’s Zuccotti Park, the focal point of Occupy Wall Street.
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At 6:30am, Brooklyn Ink editor and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Michael Shapiro awoke to find the site full of stories.
“They knew they had the tools, they knew how to report,” Shapiro says of his students’ work. “It got an enormous amount of traffic.”
(Full disclosure: CJR is published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Shapiro is a contributing editor of CJR, and Brooklyn Ink co-editor Michael Hoyt is CJR’s executive editor. Neither the author of this article nor its editor is a Columbia alum.)
The Brooklyn Ink was founded about five years ago by the Columbia J-school as a teaching tool, but, due to student demand, has since evolved farther and farther beyond the bounds of the classroom.
Shapiro makes it clear that the site is a creation of the students. They chose the name. One got a friend to design the logo.
“We just kind of made it up as we went along,” he says.
In the beginning, the goal was modest: a web-based weekly magazine. It was the students who pushed to publish new content first three days a week, then five, he says. At first open for business one semester of the school year, the site now operates year-round. The site had about 21,000 unique monthly visitors for February 2012, though it spiked to almost 45,000 for November 2011 in the wake of the struggle for Zuccotti.
The site is funded by the school. Grad students work for credit, a different group of fifteen to seventeen students per semester. They’re chosen by the Dean of Student Affairs based on who signs up for the course, not by Shapiro. For the spring semester only, students can apply specifically to work on the site. But for the most part student selection is “to-tally random,” Shapiro says. “So it’s not as if I’m being able to pick out the 16 or 17 most promising students in the school.”
Co-editor Hoyt says students work for the site between their other classes: “We own their Thursdays and Fridays, but they also sometimes work on other days and on weekends.” Some student reporters for the site are focused on the written word, while others come from the school’s multimedia concentrations.
With Shapiro on sabbatical in the spring 2012 semester, the site is being run by Dody Tsiantar, with editing help from Hoyt for written assignments, Simon Surowicz and Ed Robbins for video, and Krista Schmidt for digital and data work.
A story doesn’t need to be Brooklyn-centric to be right for The Brooklyn Ink, though the site contains a lot of Brooklyn news. Recent stories include a piece on the politics of hiring Brooklynites for customer-service jobs at the Barclays Center basketball arena after they were largely passed over for construction jobs, and an oddball feature about the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company and its secret iden-tity as funder of a nonprofit tutoring program.
But Shapiro is eager for stories that resonate beyond the borough–as well as stories that go beyond reporting into analysis. One of the site’s most popular stories to date is a 2,400-word piece on why public intellectuals were slow to weigh in on the Occupy movement in large numbers.
“It got an enormous amount of pickup because nobody had that angle,” Shapiro says. “We were sort of able to carve out a piece of that story and make that our own.”
The most popular story to date, though, has been “Soft Porn, Hardening Hearts: A Magazine’s Private Story,” about a publisher trying to keep alive an erotica magazine while struggling with digital competition and a divorce. It’s earned more than 50,000 page views since it was posted Jan. 2.
Shapiro and Hoyt are looking forward to The Brooklyn Ink’s coverage of the presidential election. Hoyt says he expects to view the election and the national issues involved, like the economy, through a Brooklyn lens.
But teaching is what really matters. That and, somewhat paradoxically, staying out of the students’ way.
“What I’ve found really exciting,” says Shapiro, “is that when you have a group of young journalists who are twenty-five, twenty-six years old, who want to be journalists and who are good at it, but who are unencumbered by the past in terms of how things should be done…then, God, it’s thrilling.”
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