Thursday, January 03, 2008

Wheeler Sees Dedication from Students in PAR Program

By Courtney Westlake

Charles Wheeler has his lack of baseball skills to thank for his journalism career.

"When I tried out for the baseball team in high school, they had a rule that no freshmen were cut...they made an exception in my case," he laughed. "But the administration knew I was a very avid sports fan, and the Joliet Herald News was looking for someone to cover Joliet Catholic High School sports. I was a sophomore in high school when I had my first byline in the Herald News."

Wheeler eventually moved from sports reporting into political reporting - "In a sense, covering politics is like covering a sports event, except the stakes are so much higher," he noted - and spent 24 years at the Chicago Sun-Times before taking a position as the director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at UIS in 1993.

"I was in the Sun-Times bureau at the time when the Public Affairs Reporting program started, and we had an intern the very first class and all the way through," Wheeler said. "I thought very highly of the program and enjoyed working with the interns and thought this was a way to work with all of them."

The highly-regarded Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) program at UIS is a one-year master's degree program in which students spend one semester in classes and then work for six months as a full-time reporter for a news organization in the State Capitol, under the direct supervision and guidance of the outlet's bureau chief. The program emphasizes the importance of informing readers, listeners and viewers about ongoing events and activities that impact on their daily lives, Wheeler said.

"I would say the one thing that sets us apart from any other program I know of is our internship," he said. "Our program offers these students the opportunity to show what they can do in a real-life setting under the deadline pressures and the complexity of state government, and as a result, they are able to walk away with proof they can handle any beat someone would give them."

Graduates and students within the PAR program have certainly showcased this each year by receiving numerous awards in an annual competition sponsored by Capitolbeat, the national organization of journalists covering state and local governments. Wheeler himself received top honors in 2007, for the fourth straight year, for magazine commentary, recognizing his contributions as a columnist for Illinois Issues magazine.

Along with continued success, PAR students and professors, as well as other media professionals, also face challenges and changes today regarding a huge push for multimedia reporting, Wheeler said.

"When I started as a reporter using typewriters, you didn't have to worry about shooting a picture or recording a tape," he said. "Nowadays reporters at some places are expected to go out with video cameras and get film or audio clips, and all of that goes on the Web. I think that's the big challenge for our program, and for other journalism education: to get people to be thinking in a broader concept about what the different ways are to be telling the story."

Because of the amount of internships available with news organizations, the program isn't able to grow much regarding the number of students it can accept. But it has grown more competitive, Wheeler said, and all of the students are extremely committed both in the classroom and within the internship.

"My hope is that the program continues to flourish and attract the kind of people that we've been able to attract," Wheeler said. "I tell people I'm the most fortunate college instructor in the whole world because all of the students I work with in the program are highly motivated and very talented. I don't have to deal with folks just trying to get a Gentleman's C; they are very committed, and that's a real pleasure."