What did you do last Labor Day weekend? If you have to think about it, you weren’t at Will Write for Food.
You weren’t one of the 18 college journalists who took over the nation’s second-largest homeless newspaper, and in 36 mostly sleepless and very stressful hours, published a 20-page paper that was sold on the streets of South Florida…
You didn’t eat dinner in a homeless shelter that’s so hardcore, many of its residents were kicked out of other shelters for being too addicted, disturbed, or disorderly.
You didn’t dress in their clothes and report what it’s like to panhandle. You didn’t tag along with the outreach van and meet a Desert Storm veteran who’s now a male stripper. And you didn’t interview shelter residents like Johnny One Leg (that’s what he wants to be called)…
…but you can do all of this and more during Labor Day weekend 2011. Although maybe you shouldn’t. Will Write for Food isn’t right for every college journalist.
While we pay for your hotel, your meals, and a chunk of your travel, we demand a lot in return from our reporters, photographers, and designers. What we don’t demand, weirdly enough, is that you possess a lot of journalism experience – we just need you to be possessed about journalism.
Don’t get us wrong, you need to know your shit. You’re going to work on deadline with very little sleep in depressing (and occasionally uplifting) circumstances. If you haven’t mastered your craft, you’re doomed.
Then again, just your journalism experience won’t save you. We’ve seen it at previous WWFFs: Sometimes the most seasoned college journalist caves under the pressure, while a tough-as-nails freshman bull-rushes right through it.
So before you apply, read the rest of this post and seriously consider if this is for you. Because it’s not for everyone. And we like it that way…
Last year, a community college photographer won a national SPJ Mark of Excellence award for her shots at WWFF. (What you do at WWFF qualifies for most college journalism contests.)
The year before, a private college TV reporter got his report on a homeless wedding picked up by CNN.
The former had just recently started at her newspaper. The latter had been reporting for a while. (Emboldened by his WWFF experience, he spent another holiday in the drug dens of Juarez, Mexico – and got on CNN again.)
If they shared anything in common, it was a suspicion that they were a little too intense for the rest of their staffs back home. Journalism isn’t a hobby to them or a convenient way to meet a wider circle of drinking buddies. It’s a calling.
Both of them were nervous as hell meeting student journalists they didn’t know. And they were even more nervous standing in line at the shelter’s cafeteria door.
But they toughed it out. They got over their fear and introduced themselves to each other and to the residents. (“We don’t bite,” one resident told a student a couple years ago, “unless you want us to.”)
WWFF staffers also don’t fret about perfection. That same award-winning photographer wrote this blog post and invented the term “erectile vomiting.” She meant “projectile,” but since it slipped past the staff’s bleary eyes, we refuse to change it now.
Aiming high means sometimes missing the target. So you need to have a short memory about your mistakes and a short temper for those who let their mistakes paralyze them.
If you forge ahead, the results can look like this, from the inaugural WWFF: Homeless But No Longer Speechless.
IS IT SAFE?
We get asked this a lot. And it’s a fair question.
Will Write for Food has four official advisers, and no less than two will be in the newsroom at any given time. Joining them throughout the weekend will be professional journalists who will assist with writing, editing, photography, video, design, and multimedia.
Our newsroom, while part of the shelter complex, is not accessible to residents and has its own bathroom. When we work late, a shelter security staffer sits outside the newsroom door. (He’s a chain-smoker, so he doesn’t mind.)
Rarely will you be alone. You’ll meet the shelter staff, and they’ll never be far from you. Many assignments – like nighttime outreach, where the photo above was shot – require more than one student to cover it right.
If you feel uncomfortable at any time, one of the advisers or pro journalists will join you on your assignment. We’ve done that often, and it’s very OK to request it.
For more than a decade, the COSAC Foundation has run this homeless shelter near downtown Hollywood, FL. The building is rumored to once have been a sex motel – used by local prostitutes and their johns.
Now it’s a 21-room private shelter that supports itself by selling the Homeless Voice newspaper on the streets of South Florida. It’s reportedly the second-largest street paper in the nation, after Chicago.
The third annual Will Write for Food program is sponsored, like the first two, by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Florida College Press Association.
You don’t have to be members of either group to get accepted into WWFF, but it sure helps. Both organizations have sponsored many alternative and edgy programs like WWFF. (Here’s a list of some others.)
Will Write for Food is best described chronologically…
- You arrive Saturday afternoon at the Ramada Inn in downtown Hollywood, FL. If you’re flying, we pick you up at the Fort Lauderdale airport only a few miles away.
- At 4 p.m., we meet in a hotel conference room to introduce ourselves and sketch out the next 36 hours. Then we caravan over to the shelter a couple miles (and a world) away.
- We eat dinner with the residents in the cafeteria, tour the shelter in small groups, and set up our newsroom in a musty, narrow office on the premises. This will be our home for the weekend.
- We hold a quick news meeting, and you’ll also meet in small groups with an adviser – one each for news, multimedia, and photo/design.
- Then we head back to the hotel. This is your only free night, so befriend your fellow WWFFers and hang out in downtown Hollywood. But…
- Get a good night’s sleep because you’ll eat a free breakfast at 8 a.m. and caravan to the shelter at 8:45 a.m. From 9 till dinnertime, you’re gonna be slammed. (We’ll bring you lunch and frequent snacks to the newsroom.)
- We’ll dine together – at a diner. We’ll talk about how things have gone so far, and how we’re going to wrap everything up before 4 a.m. (That’s when we finished last year.)
- Monday morning, eat your last free breakfast, meet one last time, and head for home. We’ll mail you a couple issues of the Homeless Voice when it hits the streets.
Applying for Will Write for Food is simple…
- You must be enrolled as a student this fall. Doesn’t matter if it’s at a small private college, a big public university, a community college, or some fly-by-night online school.
- Type up a resume and make sure it doesn’t suck. (Here’s some advice on not sucking.)
- Find links to three of your clips that move you. Doesn’t matter what they’re about. If you’re a reporter, we want to see your favorite stories (print or video). Photographers, your favorite pictures. Designers, your favorite layouts. Write a sentence or two (no more) about what made each clip special to you.
- Write a letter of no more than 500 words. Tell us why you’re willing to sacrifice a holiday weekend. Tell us something about yourself that a resume and a clip can’t.
- Past WWFFers will select the 2011 WWFFers, so be honest in your application. In other words, you’re being judged by people close to your own age. So they’ll know if you’re bullshitting them.
- Email everything to firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline to apply is 11:59:59 p.m. on Friday, July 15.
- We’ll email everyone who applied on Wednesday, July 20. You’ll know then if you’re accepted or an alternate. (We’ll explain the alternate thing to those it applies to.)
- Questions? Hit us up at the email address above or leave a comment below.