In January, Columbia Heights High School senior Gabe Hewitt earned his traditional $10-an-hour rate to interview a five-year-old reincarnated Buddhist lama.
Hewitt, a student reporter for the Columbia Heights iLander, was writing a 1,000-word feature story on Jalue Dorjee, the first Minnesota-born lama. The profile, published on Jan. 26, recounted the “vivid and symbolic dreams” that were the first step in identifying Dorjee as a lama and detailed the child’s extracurricular interests in Wii Sports Resort and Power Ranger Samurai.
“I never thought meeting a five-year-old boy could be one of the biggest moments of my life so far,” Hewitt began his story.
Hewitt is one of six student staff members on the iLander, an online-only “community news and events portal” led by a professional journalist.
The website, launched in March 2010, aims to cover city, campus and cultural issues and receives about 50,000 page views annually. The iLander program costs the district $30,000 a year, with funding coming from an Anoka County grant and a national youth development levy.
Students write about two articles a week and are largely responsible for picking their own story ideas. Recently, students have chosen to write about the closure of the Columbia Heights Blockbuster video store, the decision to go out of state for college and whether social networking is a “waste of time.”
Aaron Vehling, who works as a reporter for Thisweek Newspapers in his day job, makes final editorial decisions, but he said the iLander is “90 percent” in the students’ control.
“If they want to write about something that’s totally crazy and off-the-wall, like existential Marxist theory or something like that, that might not appeal to the other kids,” Vehling said. “But because they’re in high school, I trust them a lot to come up with story ideas, because they know a lot more about what readers would want to read and their demographic than I ever would.”
Staff positions are competitive. The current crop of iLander writers was culled from about 20 applicants, who were all given a chance to interview in an effort to promote job application skills.
Vehling said he teaches journalism basics—Associated Press style, the inverted pyramid, the Five Ws—in their roughly biweekly meetings, but most of the work is done through daily exchanges of email.
“This is kind of a weird animal in the sense that it’s not a class where they get credit,” he said.
The iLander has also branched out into photography and video. One student, Hannan Minhas, received a certificate of appreciation from the Columbia Heights city council for a documentary he filmed and edited about the city.
Hewitt, who will be enrolling in St. Thomas’s journalism program in the fall, said he reads most of his news online and appreciates the instantaneous news cycle of the iLander.
“I like that it’s all online and not in paper form,” he said. “You can write a story about Temple Run and then post it an hour later.”