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Journalism education on the rise at XULA

Major investments at XULA—from NBC and a former journalist at CBS—will potentially inspire students at the nation's Catholic HBCU to help diversify US newsrooms.

The nation’s Catholic HBCU is getting a journalistic boost—or two.

Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) announced in January that it will be one of the founding beneficiaries of the NBCU Academy, a brand-new journalism training program from NBCUniversal News Group.

A press release from the media conglomerate notes that the program is part of the company’s anti-racism initiative announced last summer.

The university has also inaugurated the Xavier Investigative Stories Program, led by Helen Malmgren, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer formerly of CBS and 60 Minutes.

Malmgren spoke with BCM last week, explaining that the XISP program arose from a previous project she helped create for the university: the Xavier Story Project, an exploratory archive of XULA’s history from its founding in 1925 to the present.

Originally funded by local attorney (and then-XULA board member) Gladstone Jones III, the Story Project eventually came under the umbrella of the university’s Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit (CEJHS), which was led by Dr. David Robinson-Morris until his departure from XULA late last year.

Malmgren and Jones had met during the production of a 60 Minutes segment, after which Jones proposed the Story Project to her some years later.

“When I finished that, Xavier reached out to me to offer me a position as a professor of practice,” Malmgren said.

Though her work at the school was initially just a course on investigative journalism, further conversations with Robinson-Morris, Dr. Tia Smith (former head of XULA’s Mass Communications department), and Dr. Sharlene Sinegal DeCuir (head of the History department) led to the current model.

“I had my own conversations with each of them,” Malmgren said, “and I thought Xavier could get more of me that was meaningful for Xavier students if we started a program.”

And thus the XISP was born.

In addition to learning basic investigative skills in the program, the students experience in-class interactions and on-the-ground training with professional journalists.

One example of the latter is their collaboration with the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, which recently purchased the McDonogh 19 school building their namesake and executive director helped desegregate in 1960.

The foundation plans to turn the vacant property into a community center and museum, among which some of the first exhibitions will be those currently being created by XISP students, according to Malmgren.

“It was a crazy epic violent, traumatic, and also inspiring heroic story, what these three women did from the time they were little girls,” she said.

“The idea that Xavier students could be working on the project that will provide the exhibits for an interactive museum in that very school building is like—I mean, it just doesn't get any better than that.”

Nested under the Story Project and the CEJHS, the XISP works across departments to draw interested students from any major, though Malmgren says most—“but not all”—of the current cohort are Mass Communication majors.

”Next year, it's likely that we will be a little bit more interdepartmental,” she said

They expect to soon have students from the school’s History, English, and new Digital Humanities programs in the coming years.

High-performing students currently in the XISP will also soon have the opportunity to participate in a paid apprenticeship with the program over the summer, a continuation of the program’s current hands-on activities in class.

Malmgren explained that one reason programs like the XISP are needed is the lack of diversity among investigative reporters in the US, a fact she says has concerned organizations such as the American Society of News Editors for some time now. And the issue is not limited to this one subset of the field.

“Newsrooms are really badly overrepresented for White male reporters,” she said, noting that as of last year, no major news media outlet in America reflected the ethnic diversity of its community.

As such, students in the XISP are being given the tools to become the minority journalists of the future, and the additional benefits of the NBCU Academy may lead to an increased interest in journalism at a university whose student media has largely been shut down since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Though to be clear: the XISP, NBCU Academy, and XULA student media outlets are technically unrelated.)

The week-by-week progression of the XISP curriculum can be tracked on the program’s website, and details about the NBCU Academy’s programs are said to be forthcoming.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).