Midtown comes into focus as USFSP students share neighborhood stories

In “Courageous Wives,” a feature article published in The Weekly Challenger last April, Indhira Suero Acosta tells the story of 12 African American police officers who sued for the right to patrol the entire city. 

It was 1965 and segregation still had a tight grip on the City of St. Petersburg.

Rather than writing from the officers’ perspective, Acosta interviewed their wives, who recalled their fears, concerns and hopes about the brave and potentially dangerous stand their husbands took some 50 years ago.

For many people, it’s a little known time in the history of St. Petersburg. But through the Neighborhood News Bureau, a newsroom run by journalism students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, these stories and more are being told.

A voice for the community

In 2006, Professors Michael Killenberg and the late Robert Dardenne, founding directors of the USFSP Department of Journalism and Media Studies, launched what was then a novel initiative -- a newsroom embedded in Midtown, the city’s traditionally African-American community.

The goal for the program was twofold: to give USFSP students a real experience in community-based journalism, and to provide better coverage of Midtown by reporting on stories that the mainstream media might otherwise miss.

For years the news bureau was located at the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center, but it moved to expanded offices at the Enoch Davis Community Center earlier this year (2016).

This is USFSP Assistant Professor Bernardo Motta’s second year overseeing the Neighborhood News Bureau. A former lawyer who grew up in Brazil and then went back to school to become a journalist, Motta teaches classes in theory, media law and community journalism. 

“The Neighborhood News Bureau is a semester-long class that senior journalism students are required to take, but it’s also a newsroom focused on covering community news in Midtown, which historically has not been covered,” says Motta.

Although students’ stories are published to the Neighborhood News Bureau website, “we’re not in the business of publishing the stories ourselves,” says Motta. “We operate more like a news wire service.”

The goal is for students to get their work published in other media outlets, such as Creative Loafing, The Weekly Challenger, the Tampa Bay Times, WUSF Public Media and StPeteTV, the city’s cable television channel.

“It’s all about learning to be better journalists, photographers, videographers and layout artists -- this is a full newsroom,” says Motta. “We are focused on getting and giving community-based news about Midtown.”

Lyn Johnson, editor of The Weekly Challenger, welcomes the collaboration between her paper and the Neighborhood News Bureau.

The Weekly Challenger is an African-American owned newspaper that covers the Midtown community and has been in operation since 1967.

“We are a small paper and a small staff,” says Johnson. “Working with the students has been the best thing for us. We can’t cover everything we’d like to and the students can move all over the city and cover what we can’t get to.”

In late September, The Weekly Challenge and the Neighborhood News Bureau organized a community forum in which local leaders were invited to discuss issues relevant to Midtown residents.

The students’ perspective

Indhira Suero Acosta came from the Dominican Republic to get her master’s degree in journalism and media studies at USFSP. The Courageous Wives is one of many stories about Midtown that she has written.

She says the Neighborhood News Bureau provides a hands-on experience students can’t get in the classroom.  

“Students feel the pressure of deadlines, do the work and then can see their stories posted online or in print,” says Acosta.

This semester is Devon Bonnell’s first experience in a news bureau setting. “Every college has a newspaper, but not every college has a news bureau program,” she says. “It’s all new to me; I’m just getting my feet wet. But I like the idea of having a positive impact on the Midtown community.”  

(Read Bonnell’s article about the denial of an additional early voting sites in South St. Petersburg.) 

Shawn Leung Kiu Fok is a USFSP graduate student from Hong Kong who worked in video production before enrolling in the master’s program here.

He hopes to use his video multimedia background to produce video stories about Midtown as part of his daily news beat with the Neighborhood News Bureau.

“It’s only been a month since the program started and I’ve already learned a lot,’’ says Fok, who is a graduate teaching assistant in the USFSP Department of Journalism and Media Studies and a student in the Neighborhood News Bureau program.

“I had been hearing a lot about the Neighborhood News Bureau from my classmates and how it was focused primarily on a predominantly black community in the city,” says Fok. “I felt it would be interesting and meaningful to be in the program.”

His experience so far has been excellent, he says. “I’ve had a chance to talk to residents and really hear what they care about. People outside Midtown don’t always hear what is happening here and I feel like it is our mission to provide that platform.” 

Where is Midtown?

A 5.5-square-mile area bordered by 4th Street South and 34th Street South and 2nd Avenue North and 30th Avenue South in St. Petersburg, Midtown was once considered the “heart” of the African-American community.  

At one time, neighborhoods such as Methodist Town, the Gas Plant neighborhood, the Deuces and Pepper Town were successful and thriving, with dozens of African-American-owned businesses.

But starting in the late 1960s and through the ‘70s, the community began a steady decline for a variety of reasons, including the desegregation of schools, neighborhoods and businesses.  

In the past decade, there has been a concerted effort through public and private investment to rebuild and revitalize the area.

One example of successful private investment is Carla Bristol’s Gallerie 909. Located on 22nd Street South in the Warehouse Arts District, Bristol’s gallery regularly hosts community events and art shows.

Neighborhood News Bureau students Katie Callihan and Marla Korenich reported on Bristol’s success in an article about the gallery’s second anniversary celebration.

Having the opportunity to participate in community-based journalism was both “awesome and eye opening,“ says Callihan. “It was challenging at first to establish my credibility and I had to fight for interviews and to get my foot in the door.’’ 

But the effort paid off.

“I loved learning how to juggle a camera, conduct on-the-spot interviews and take notes. It helped amp up my resume and beef up my portfolio which eventually led to an internship with Creative Loafing,” says Callihan.

Not just print journalism

In addition to daily “beat” reporting, collecting multimedia stories and oral histories about Midtown is an important objective for the Neighborhood News Bureau, says Motta.

“Midtown Stories” and “Voices of Midtown” are two ongoing projects that the students oversee. Those stories are published to the Neighborhood News Bureau website.

The students are also collaborating with WUSF Public Media journalists on “Telling Tampa Bay Stories.” This WUSF-sponsored storytelling project records interviews with residents of “the region’s lesser-known” communities, starting with Midtown.

Earlier this year, WUSF journalists and Neighborhood News Bureau students spent a day at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African-American Museum in Midtown interviewing residents talking about their experiences of growing up in the community.

“We did 19 interviews that day,” says Mary Shedden, news director of WUSF Public Media. “It was a great opportunity to hear the voices of members of our community who are not often heard, and also a chance for professional journalists to work with students to help them hone their skills.”

The stories were broadcast on WUSF’s Florida Matters Radio Show in April and showcased again in early October during Tampa Bay’s third annual storytelling festival.

K-12 outreach journalism program

The Neighborhood News Bureau is also reaching out to a much younger crowd of student journalists.

Lorien Mattiacci is a former Hillsborough County high school teacher who is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at USFSP. She’s working with the Neighborhood News Bureau on a K-12 outreach project with local South Pinellas County Schools.

“My big focus is educational journalism,” says Mattiacci.  

The News Bureau’s K-12 outreach project serves as a resource for journalism and multimedia programs at several South Pinellas County Schools -- Melrose Elementary, John Hopkins Middle and Lakewood High School, as well as the private Academy Prep and a youth group at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.  

Last year Mattiacci was a volunteer and intern with the K-12 outreach program. This year she’s been asked to take the program to the next level by developing a more formalized structure. She hopes to be able to expand the program to additional South Pinellas County schools.

“My job is to create a program that gives everyone what they need -- both the students at the K-12 schools and USFSP journalism students,” says Mattiacci. 

“The idea is to pair a student with a specific school to meet the school’s needs, while enhancing students’ journalism education by allowing them to work onsite teaching journalism to kids,” says Mattiacci. “We’re working hard to make it a positive educational experience for everyone.”

This story is part of a series -- supported by USFSP -- about innovative programs and talented people working and studying at the public university based in downtown St. Petersburg. 
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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.