Newhouse students travel to northern border for news reporting project

by Micah Castelo

June 11, 2019

Teams of Newhouse students traveled to communities near the U.S.-Canada border on April 5 to work on “Borderlines,” a weekend-long immersive news reporting project organized by the magazine, new and digital journalism (MND) department.

Students reported from communities in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, the Thousand Islands area, Ontario, Quebec and Akwesasne, a Mohawk Nation territory that straddles the border.

Their work—in the form of articles, photos and videos—was published this semester as a multimedia package on TheNewsHouse.com, a student-run digital news outlet.

Visit Borderlines website>>

Professors Greg Munno and Jon Glass oversaw the project with the help of other faculty and students from numerous programs including MND, visual communications and broadcast and digital journalism (BDJ).

“It was a great experience that students had off-campus, to work on doing journalism that hopefully will open their eyes to what’s out there, but also give them a chance to put what they’ve been practicing in the classroom into play,” Glass says.

Niagara skyline shrouded in fog.
Morning view of the Niagara Falls, Ontario, skyline as seen from Rainbow Bridge at the U.S.-Canada border. Photo by Michele Abercrombie.

Aileen Gallagher, an associate professor in MND, suggested the idea of covering borders at a faculty brainstorming session. In the end, they decided on the northern border because it was nearby, yet still felt unexplored, Munno says.

“We wanted to get students out in the field someplace outside Syracuse,” Munno says about the project. “Because Canada was right there, we were able to give it this international flair.”

Munno and Glass visited classes to talk about the project and garner student interest. Those who participated were required to pitch their own story ideas and attend mandatory project meetings from February through April.

Some students were able to write stories locally, while others were selected to do field reporting in teams led by Munno and Glass. Students in Munno’s news editing class also helped edit the stories, while Glass’s web journalism and innovation class packaged the finalized copy on TheNewsHouse.com.

In total, there were more than 50 student contributors. The project was made possible with the support of Melissa Chessher, chair of MND, and alumnus David Flaum ’68 and his wife, Jacquelene. 

"Most of the MND faculty lent a hand by recruiting student participants and offering timely editing," says Munno. "Of particular note is the contribution of Seth Gitner, who was crucial in the development of the content management system for the project and whose long hours of coding helped make the project look so spectacular."

Brockville railway tunnel, lit in blue light.
The Brockville Railway Tunnel, Canada's first railway trail, features a light show as you walk, with music featuring Canadian artists. Photo by Elizabeth Billman

Malika-Budur Kalila, a graduate BDJ student, was one of 12 students who traveled with Glass to the Buffalo and Niagara Falls region. She reported on two stories for the project—one on local businesses in Lewiston, New York, a town by the western part of the U.S.-Canada border, and the other on refugees living in Buffalo.

Kalila says she faced multiple challenges with her reporting team, including finding refugees who were comfortable enough to share their stories on camera. Yet these challenges made her a stronger reporter, she says.

“As a reporter, when you go to a place, you’re a stranger,” Kalila says. “You don’t have that luxury to be just a tourist. You really have to concentrate and analyze what’s going on around you.”

View of a building's steeple through an ornate gate.
Building in Gatineau, part of Canada's National Capital Region Photo by Doug Steinman.

Amanda Paule, a first-year newspaper and online journalism and French and Francophone studies dual major, traveled with Munno and 16 other students to Cornwall, Ontario, which served as home base while students traveled to cover their stories.

As someone who has been studying Francophone culture, Paule says she was interested in writing a story about Quebec, the only Canadian province to have French as its official language, and its relationship with bordering provinces.

For her story, Paule interviewed students and teachers at École secondaire Grande-Rivière, a high school in Gatineau, Quebec, who talked about what it’s like to live in a bilingual community. Paule says she felt nervous because it was her first time working on a big reporting project, but she learned how to gain her sources’ trust and engage in dynamic conversations with them.

Munno  says it was invigorating to see the students embrace the project and navigate through the same challenges professional journalists face in the field, such as finding sources or reworking their stories.

“To see that kind of mixture of exhaustion and excitement when they came back at the end of the day with the good stuff in their notebooks and SD cards was awesome,” Munno says. “It was the highlight of the year.”

Micah Castelo is a graduate magazine, newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.