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French Press

Students in this UA journalism class gain real-world magazine experience with an international twist.

By Deidre Stalnaker

Spending days on the French Riviera and evenings in fine Parisian restaurants sounds like a dream vacation for most. But for 20 University of Alabama students, it was all in a day’s work.

This past spring, the group embarked on a trip to France to cover stories for the third issue of Alpine Living, a full-color, 132-page magazine that’s the linchpin of a journalism class taught by Dr. Kim Bissell.

“The whole magazine is the students’ idea,” says Bissell, Southern Progress Corporation professor of journalism and creator of the class. “They develop sections and stories, take pictures and design the layout.”

While the students spent only two weeks in France, they devoted the entire spring semester to working on the magazine. Before the trip, they conducted background research and preliminary interviews and developed an itinerary. Afterward, they wrote and edited stories, chose photographs, laid out the magazine and handled other editorial tasks.

Students applied for the class by submitting a letter of interest, portfolio and references. Bissell and the magazine’s editor, graduate student Jennifer Mitchell, selected a team of 20 students, which Bissell says is the maximum number that is manageable logistically and editorially. Each student needed to be able to contribute to Alpine Living in at least two areas, such as copyediting, writing, design (Web or print), photography and videography.

“I was excited and overwhelmed with the possibility of traveling to France,” says Lacie Pinyan, an aspiring magazine designer who took the class as a senior. “I love to travel, even if it is just a weekend road trip, and I had been itching to go to Europe. I almost had to sit on my hands the week before we left because I wanted to hop on that plane so badly!”

In her role as assistant art director, Pinyan worked with the photographers in France and helped the art director assign layout spreads to the designers, in addition to writing stories.

“This class pushes you to be as adventurous as possible,” says Forest Sumrall, a senior journalism major. “Our job was to get out there and discover, then turn that into a format that could serve an educational purpose. Everything I wrote or photographed in the magazine was a new discovery for me.”

Bissell developed the course about five years ago. She was looking at best practices of college journalism departments around the United States and noticed that many produce a magazine, usually with a local focus. To make UA’s class more unique and challenging, she decided to take an international perspective.

“It’s an opportunity to get thrown into a situation they’re not familiar with,” explains Bissell. “From a reporting stance, it can be easy to make assumptions about a story. It’s harder to make these assumptions in an unfamiliar situation.”

In the summer of 2005, she took a group of students to Switzerland, and Alpine Living was born. The course is offered every two years; in the spring of 2007, the class traveled to Italy. Each issue of the magazine is distributed to select publishing houses, other journalism programs in the United States, local businesses, University faculty and staff, and incoming College of Communication and Information Sciences students.

Content in the current issue, while all French in theme, varies from the expected, such as fashion, food and wine, to the not-so-expected—for example, a poignant profile of a third-generation fisherman and his daughter.

“We really strove to produce truly original material, and I think the magazine reflects that,” Sumrall says.

This year the students added a multimedia dimension to the project, blogging during their trip and creating a companion Web site, http://alpineliving.jn.ua.edu.

“We had more stories and photos than we could afford to print,” says Bissell. Those stories, along with those that did make it into the print edition, are available online, along with video from the trip.

Bissell feels that it’s important for students to have the opportunity to write and produce for varying media platforms in the evolving world of journalism. “The blog, video and Web features were simply ways of keeping up with the times, but it was also a way to showcase more of their work,” she says. “Obviously, the Web is limitless in terms of space. More importantly, students learn how to think about preparing content for multiple platforms.”

In addition to experiencing both traditional and new media processes firsthand, students had the chance to gain an understanding of the different areas of specialization within publishing and get a feel for potential career paths.

“I doubt I would ever find a better opportunity to travel overseas and produce a magazine that would help me in a journalism career,” Pinyan says. “I feel like I am prepared to join a staff at any job and know what is expected out of each employee.” Pinyan also hopes her work on the project will give her a leg up in a tight job market. “Having the Alpine Living experience under my belt will hopefully help me be a few steps ahead of the competition,” she says.

“This class is really about as close as you can come to a professional environment in the magazine industry,” Sumrall says. “Working on the magazine confirmed that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Not only is it a great portfolio builder, but it prepared me for the real world.”

That kind of assurance and enthusiasm from students is exactly what drives Bissell. “I love to see them doing journalism; I love to see them get excited,” she says. “It’s rewarding and fulfilling to see them interviewing, taking pictures. It starts with excitement and passion for what you do. I love witnessing that.”

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