By JASON AKST
Every once in a while, a story comes along about a journalism student that knocks your socks off and renews your faith in the future of our profession.
This is one of those stories.
Last fall, Northern Illinois University student Lauren Clohessy was enrolled for honors credit in my feature writing class at NIU. Clohessy is a family friend of longtime Chicago Sun-Times photographer Scott Stewart, and she chose to profile him for her JOUR 301 project.
Stewart, as most journalists in the Midwest know, is a talented photographer who worked nearly 30 years for the Sun-Times. His photographic career is extraordinary, and at one point he was part of a team that captured a Pulitzer.
Infamously, he was also one of about 30 Sun-Times photographers laid off in May 2013. News of the layoffs rocked the journalism world.
Stewart’s life, however, intersects with an equally storied Chicagoland profession: firefighter. Before and after the Sun-Times, Stewart was (and is) a well-known firefighter and investigator.
Though he has enjoyed success in two careers, medical and financial issues have made Stewart’s road rocky.
But rocky roads make compelling stories, and that’s where Clohessy and the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association come in.
Via multiple interviews and rewrites, Clohessy produced a rich and poignant personality profile of Stewart.
Ironically, the quality of her work created two new problems. First, unless the profile was published, it would just be a long term paper, jeopardizing Clohessy obtaining honors credit. And second, the story approached novelette length. Though it might eventually become a biography or script (We’re lookin’ at you, “Chicago Fire”!), for now, Clohessy and her teacher needed help.
Enter Phil Jurik, NINA board member and Suburban Trib editor for the Chicago Tribune. Jurik and other Tribune editors worked with Clohessy’s manuscript to preserve the essence of the profile and make it a manageable length for newspaper publication.
The pros were impressed.
“Lauren showed great instincts on this project,” Jurik noted, “first recognizing the story’s potential, which many people might have missed, and then reporting it out in tremendous depth, gathering rich details and beyond-the-surface quotes.”
For her part, Clohessy found the project worthwhile, too.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “It was a lot of work and rewriting, but I really liked working with the editors to sharpen the story.”
The story will be published soon in the Daily Southtown, the newspaper Clohessy grew up reading and which serves Stewart’s residence.
- Editor’s Note: Jason Akst and Shelley Hendricks will address journalism in postsecondary education in a series of stories on the NINA website. Akst teaches journalism and public relations at NIU and serves as NINA executive secretary. Hendricks advises the Northern Star, NIU’s student newspaper, is an adjunct faculty member, and serves as NINA’s communications coordinator.
FEATURE PHOTO CUTLINE: Lauren Clohessy (far left) works on her project in JOUR 301, Feature Writing. (CREDIT: Photo by Jason Akst).