Neon Tommy students.
USC Annenberg Photo

Summer journalism program offers high school students a complete newsroom experience

High school students from across the globe have traded in the rest and relaxation of summertime for a pen, notepad and an intensive journalism experience under the direction of Alan Mittelstaedt, USC Annenberg professor and managing editor of Annenberg Digital News, publisher of Neon Tommy.

Through “Summer@USC,” a program sponsored by the USC Office of Continuing Education and Summer Programs, 17 students are experiencing the deadline-driven life of a Los Angeles journalist firsthand.

In the 4-week class “News Reporting in the Digital Age,” they learn basic web reporting, interviewing, editing and news writing techniques, using the city as their learning lab.

“The goal is to improve our writing and get some stories published on Neon Tommy... to get out there and talk to people, and face that some people are going to reject you,” said Alexa Palermo, a senior from New York.

Students spend six hours daily in a classroom environment designed to mirror a professional newsroom, where they brainstorm story ideas, research current affairs and learn how to write news stories.

“I teach at all different levels, and what makes the high school level possibly the most rewarding is that I spend the most time with them,” said Mittelstaedt, who is teaching the course for the fifth year.

“You see them every day, watch their development and monitor their work.”

Mittelstaedt infuses a significant amount of field reporting and excursions into the class, giving students the opportunity to soak in the sounds, sights and culture of Los Angeles from a reporter’s perspective.

In their first week, the class traveled to Grand Park to conduct a series of man-on-the-street interviews on assigned and self-chosen topics — Mittelstaedt encouraged students to cover the George Zimmerman trial and Edward Snowden case.

“It was fun — it was nice to see how people reacted and just what people’s thoughts were,” said Daniel Chaplik, a senior from Chicago.

“I’d never done it before so I was really nervous going into it,” added Palermo. “The first person I talked to rejected me, but I just kept going up to a bunch of people and tried to get as much as I could.”

After talking with sources, students faced the challenge of turning their quotes into stories in less than a day’s time.

“I’ve worked for deadlines before, but not one-day deadlines,” said Tania Dawood of the Karachi Grammar School in Pakistan.

“It’s a little difficult,” she said, adding that she was up until the early hours of the morning perfecting her stories. “All the same, it’s a whole new experience, which is a lot of fun.”

According to Mittelstaedt, the assignments force students to confront and work around the challenges faced by professional journalists.

“I’d like to see them learn something here that they continue throughout their career,” he said. “I let them go out there and make mistakes, talk about the mistakes and then we go out and do it again.”

By the end of the program, students will have produced multiple stories on a chosen topic of interest.

Neon Tommy will publish some of the work, offering a professional byline for young reporters just starting to build their digital footprints.

According to the students, “News Reporting in the Digital Age” has encouraged them to put USC Annenberg at the top of their college wish lists.

“I definitely want to do something in the media, and Los Angeles is the perfect place to be,” said Chaplik.

“This [class] has cemented my love for the campus and desire to come here, because you get to live the experience,” said Palermo.

For Mittelstaedt, the course is an opportunity to teach young people to look beyond the traditional academic setting and use journalism as a tool to better understand the world.

“People come to this school and see there’s more potential beyond the walls and limitations of an academic program,” he said.

“I love journalism, and I love students who can see there’s some value in engaging with the world around them.”

For more information about the News Reporting class and Summer @USC, visit