January 19, 2007

Journalism faculty, students expand Cairo project

by Tim Crosby


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Journalism faculty at Southern Illinois University Carbondale this year will expand a photo documentary course centered on a troubled Southern Illinois river community into the multimedia realm.

Led by photojournalism assistant instructor Phillip W. Greer, The Cairo Project will combine five previous semesters of student photojournalism documenting life in that city with student news reporting in print and online formats. The project is aimed at showcasing the best possible work from SIUC journalism students using a cutting-edge medium while at the same time raising awareness of Cairo's struggles and exploring possible solutions.

The project begins this spring semester, with the class being offered during subsequent fall semesters as students continue telling the story of Cairo with words and pictures

"Over the years, our students have come away from Cairo with remarkable images and experiences," said Greer, a longtime professional photojournalist who worked more than 24 years at the Chicago Tribune. "The community has been very receptive to our students and many people really opened up their lives to us. In turn, our students really care about Cairo."

The School of Journalism, which is in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at SIUC, is applying for a grant that would help pay for the project, said William H. Freivogel, director of the school. It also is working with SIUC's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute to possibly coordinate other endeavors, such as meetings with the public and lawmakers, aimed at raising Cairo's profile and looking for ways to help the beleaguered community.

"The goal is to find a home for all the good work our students have done on this community in a multi-discipline way," Freivogel said. "We'll also try to see if there are some sort of solutions and ideas to improve life there."

The project will include a special publication and Web site, among other efforts, Freivogel said.

Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on the southernmost tip of Illinois, Cairo is a fascinating study in success and lost opportunity. Greer said it provides an ideal real-world laboratory setting for young journalists who are learning to tell stories and put facts and personalities into context.

In its early days, Cairo appeared ideally situated to thrive. Thousands of riverboats used its harbors and river-based commerce roared. During the late 1800s, the city seemed destined to compete with St. Louis and Chicago as an important trade center.

A century later, however, the community was riven by racial strife during the civil rights era. Blacks boycotted white-owned businesses and whites moved away. Segregationists drained the city pool rather than allow blacks to swim there and a young black soldier died while in jail.

During the ensuing years the city's conditioned worsened. A once thriving commerce district gave over to boarded up buildings. The local hospital closed and the city's residents remain largely low-income.

"I've had students from Chicago who are shocked by the level of poverty, the lack of transportation, lack of shopping there," Greer said. "But they'll also tell you that Cairo has dreams just like everybody else. They want jobs and opportunities for their children."

Greer said the project will greatly benefit young journalists, but also is an opportunity for the University to support the region.

"We're Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Cairo is part of Southern Illinois," he said. "We want to bring a light to bear on Cairo and its situation and its people."

William Recktenwald, an instructor in the journalism school, and Anita J. Stoner, a visiting assistant professor there, also will work with students on the project. Stoner specializes in online journalism and previously worked at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Fla., as the entertainment web producer. Recktenwald is retired prize-winning reporter and editor from the Chicago Tribune.

For Greer and his students, one of the hardest tasks they face is selecting the images to use in the project. Since starting the effort as a documentary course several years ago, Greer's students have amassed thousands of strong images depicting life in Cairo.

"We want this to be the best thing our students can produce," Greer said.

(Caption: Left behind in Cairo – This is an example of a student photojournalism project at Southern Illinois University Carbondale focusing on the life and times of Cairo. It shows equipment left behind at the local hospital, which shut down a few years ago. Students in the School of Journalism at SIUC will work on a multimedia effort titled “The Cairo Project” beginning this spring semester, featuring the best photography and writing the students can produce.)

Photo provided