Every day, a quarter million people ride Chicago Transit Authority Red Line trains, passing through the city's North Side, South Side and Loop neighborhoods. Through The Red Line Project — a news and entertainment website — DePaul journalism students tell the stories of these diverse communities.
Mike Reilley, an instructor in the College of Communication who started The Red Line Project with his Online Journalism II class, explains the site’s rationale. “To get a job today, journalism graduates need strong multimedia skills: they have to report and write stories, take photos and videos, make multimedia maps, and engage readers through social media. Today’s readers expect multiplatform storytelling. The Red Line Project began as a way for our students to gain and polish those skills. But it’s become so much more. No other student-run website is covering the news, neighborhood by neighborhood, as hard as we are. In fact, our students are producing work in a league with that of professional journalists.”
Leveraging the city as an extension of the classroom is a tactic supported by DePaul's strategic plan, Vision 2018; and this example has attracted positive attention outside the university. In 2012, The Red Line Project won three prestigious Peter Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism: best start-up publication, best online feature story (“10 Remember 9/11”) and best online business story (“Business Ties: Small Business near Chicago’s Red Line ‘L’ Stops”). The Lisagor Awards, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, are the highest honor for a Chicago-area journalist . They’re rarely given to students or student-run news outlets. The site also won first-place awards from the Associated Collegiate Press, the Online News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Clearly, our students are doing great work,” says Reilley. “Ninety percent of what’s on the site is ‘one-man-band reporting’ with each student doing the information gathering, copy writing, photography, and filming for a story. ”
One of those students, Clayton Guse (BA ’13), covered President Barack Obama’s February 2013 speech on gun control at Hyde Park Academy as a bona fide reporter. “When I called the White House to ask for access, the press office looked at The Red Line Project, saw that it’s a reputable news source, and gave me press credentials.”
The story is part of a bigger series on violence and gun control in Chicago. “We’re putting our hands in the same muck that real journalists do. Like them, we have a go-out-and-grab-the-story mentality.” Guse has also published in-depth multimedia coverage of the 2012 NATO Summit and last summer’s Red Line closure from Cermak Road to 95th Street,
Holly Pennebaker (MA ’12), social media news editor at WXIA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, says The Red Line Project prepared her for one of the most challenging, hard-to-break-into industries: “I have to pay credit to the ‘realness’ of The Red Line Project. We didn’t do ‘mock’ or ‘pretend’ work in a classroom; we got out in the field. Sometimes, Mike lets his students learn lessons the hard way because that’s what happens on the job. Journalism takes drive and determination: you need a backbone the size of a tree trunk and skin several inches thick. Looking back, I’m really glad I was part of the project.”
One of Pennebaker’s favorite assignments was an interview with Chicago firefighter Steve Serb, who recalled his post-9/11 work at Ground Zero as part of The Red Line Project’s series commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
“That’s the most emotional, the most memorable, piece of work that I’ve done to date,” she says. “During the interview, he teared up and then I teared up; we ended up talking about six hours. The time I spent with Steve, and the friendship we developed — I would not trade that experience for the world.”