Adventures in J-School: Amish Media
- Guest post
By Lauren O'Neil
When I started journalism school last May, I had no idea what I would be in for. Looking back, I suppose it was pretty naïve of me to think that I could hold a part-time job on weekends and crank out assignments during the week like I had done during my undergrad years.Not only did I think I’d have time to work (ha!), I actually thought I’d have time to keep up with my reading list, keep up with my rigorous TV watching schedule, keep up with my friends and family… bathe regularly…*le sigh*
I’m not complaining here – I’m just saying. Getting an MA in Journalism is a lot of freaking work.
I’ve got a couple of friends in law school who are always kvetching about how bogged down they are with case studies and exam preparations. Yet, when Friday night rolls around, sure as the Thames River is brown, they’re calling me up to come out and play - and subsequently razzing me for being a nerd when I tell them that I can’t because I have “something to do for school”.
Often, that “something” is a feature article I have to work on, or a video piece that needs to be edited. Sometimes, it’s a chunk of readings for one of my theory classes, an interview that needs to be transcribed, or a group project that needs to be spun into a dazzling powerpoint presentation.
But sometimes, the best of times, it’s because I’m going on a “journadventure”.
Journ·ad·ven·ture [jur-nad-ven-cher] - noun: an exciting, risky or very unusual experience pursued for journalistic purposes. Can be carefully constructed or completely random. Often serendipitous.The best experiences I’ve had in journalism school thus far haven’t occurred when meeting esteemed guest speakers or learning to use all of those fancy, state-of-the art media production tools, or even hearing myself anchor a newscast for the first time (though I must admit, that was pretty cool).
My fondest j-school memories have come from the field – from reporting on the places I didn’t even know existed and talking to people I would never have imagined I’d interview.
Over the past year, story chasing has brought me to a candlelight vigil in one of Detroit’s roughest neighbourhoods, an organic horse-powered food co-op outside of London, a “laughter yoga” session on a beach in Port Stanley, a citizenship ceremony for new Canadians, an open call for hair models, a Harry Potter fan fair, a garbage dump, a drama camp, a hog farm and more fundraisers, festivals and concerts than I can count.
I’ve spoken with self-identified “real vampyres”, a family of hot dog vendors, a female truck driver, a woman who makes chocolate-covered bacon for a living, an award winning slam poet, a professor in “fat studies”, professional athletes, nomadic Disc Jockeys, obscure comic artists, Haitian relief workers, elderly gambling addicts, and the former president of FOX News.Recently, I had the chance to visit an Amish community just outside of Aylmer, Ontario. This was one of my most eye-opening journadventures yet.
It was an atypically warm March day when my classmate, Carrie, and I set off to cover “Amish News Media” for a current affairs radio show we were producing.
As we got closer to the site, I noticed road signs with buggies on them. “Seriously?” I asked. “These people actually drive horses and buggies?”
Yup. As it turns out, they also wear bonnets and educate their children in one-room school houses.
Driving down that long dirt road felt like driving backwards in time. I “OMG!”ed so many times I could have passed for a cast member on the Hills.
As somebody who never leaves home without her blackberry, iPod and digital camera (the “trifecta”, I call it), the stark absence of modern technology in this quaint settlement was quite startling.
Startling, but beautiful. Children in plain clothes were outside playing games and enjoying the sunshine. There wasn’t a Nintendo DS in sight! Women holding toddlers to their hips hung clothes to dry on long lines outside their homes. Large piles of wood and antique farm equipment dotted the landscape. Two stray chickens nonchalantly roamed along the side of the road.
When my car pulled up to the small historical library we were seeking, a friendly bespectacled man with a long beard and denim overalls opened the door to greet us. David Luthy was charming, smart and hospitable. He holds a degree from Notre Dame University and has studied Amish culture and history extensively. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get any of his wise words on tape.As soon as Carrie pulled out a microphone, Luthy shook his head and apologetically told us that any type of media recording is “verboden” in the Amish community. This was obviously quite problematic for the purpose of our radio show.I was further let down when Luthy declined to let me take a picture of him with my Blackberry. I had already been envisioning my reputation as the intrepid reporter who broke the very first photo of an Amish man in the Twitterverse.We were facing quite the predicament. How were we supposed to do a radio piece about Amish media if the Amish don’t allow media into their lives?
Well, it turns out they do – it’s just a different type of media than what most of us are used to. They may not subscribe to newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch television, but the Amish have their own way of distributing the news that’s important to them.Our group spoke by phone with Elizabeth Drudge, a Mennonite woman from Wroexeter, Ontario who writes for a widely distributed national weekly newspaper called “The Budget”. The Ohio based newspaper has been published in Amish and Mennonite communities across Canada and the United States since 1890.
Drudge told us that the news important to her community is different than the type of news that dominates the mainstream media. The Budget doesn’t publish stories about political scandals or international conflicts, but focuses on “good news” - news about families, churches, crops and businesses.
Luthy showed us three similar monthly newsletters that he helps to produce right here in Southwestern Ontario. While rich in beautifully written stories, letters and poems, the publications are humble in appearance. They’re filled with hand drawn illustrations to give it what Luthy calls “the homey look.”
Content for the newsletters is sent in by mail from Amish people across North America. Luthy compiles the material and types it with a typewriter before arranging the pieces by hand. He then sends the newsletters to a local printing press in a nearby town for printing and distribution. Thousands of individuals across the United States and Canada subscribe to the publications.
I had a blast leafing through these newsletters, learning about the unique values and experiences of a culture that, in many ways, is so different than my own. Some of the publication’s stories, the ones about young love and the importance of family, I could relate to. Others, about the simple joys of farm life, I could only ever hope to.
Reading the cheerful letters and postings for penpals left me wondering how much happier I might be if I abandoned my fast-paced, technology dependent lifestyle. Me! The girl who cuddles with her laptop and dreams about software suites was starting to think about how she might look in a bonnet.Immersing myself in Amish media had temporarily led me to question my entire value system.
But I guess that’s what good media does. It makes us take a good look at our own beliefs about what is true, false, good and bad. It makes us think.
Not everybody will get the chance to visit an Amish settlement and experience this culture first-hand, but if my classmates and I succeed in our goal to tell their story well, our journadventure will have been a successful one.
It’s opportunities like this that attracted me to journalism in the first place. Getting to explore what’s going on in the world keeps me passionate about the profession, even when I’m overwhelmed and super-stressing.
Sure, I miss partying with my friends, taking long bubble baths and spending my Monday evenings plunked in front of the TV with a bottle of nailpolish and a bowl of popcorn, but I know that when I graduate, I’m going to miss journalism school more than any of these things combined.
Lauren O’Neil is a student in the Master of Arts - Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario. She is rarely, if ever, spotted without a pink Blackberry in her hand and is fluent in both HTML and English. Please follow her on Twitter so that she can continue to build up her mad social media cred @laurenonizzle.