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From high school to headlines: Freeport students help launch local news podcast

Freeport High School
Peter Medlin
Freeport High School

Local news coverage has all but disappeared in many Illinois communities. In Freeport, citizen journalists -- including local high school students -- are trying to help fill in the gaps.

“This week's episode is brought to you exclusively from the students in the Freeport High School Media Production program!” says Salaiya, a senior at the school.

That’s the beginning of the most recent edition of the new podcast “Freepod.” It’s a volunteer-run news initiative focused solely on the city of Freeport.

For the past few weeks, Freeport High School teacher Jena Kleindl’s students have been working on a series of stories for the podcast.

They reported on local events in Freeport and, as you can imagine, wrote about what’s happening in their school.

“Freeport High School is seeing growing numbers of Spanish-speaking students and teachers want to be able to communicate with them better,” says another student on the podcast. “ESL or English as a Second Language refers to programs designed to teach English language skills to non-native speakers.”

Freeport junior Donavan Sullivan and a few other students wrote that story about the school district paying for some teachers to get certified in ESL to support a growing number of Spanish-speaking students, including refugee students.

Sullivan says he learned a lot through their interviews and the reporting process.

“How [ESL programs] works," he said, "and how it's new to Freeport High School."

He says they were surprised to find out that there’s currently only one certified ESL teacher at the high school -- and that there was this need at their school that they didn’t even know about.

Kalel, Asher and Diego wrote about a long-time teacher and administrator who’s retiring.

“It was just to summarize what kind of impact she has had at the school,” said Kalel.

They got to split up duties between interviewing, writing, editing, & recording. Kalel likes interviewing people, but…”I get nervous while interviewing," he said, "because I remember all my questions. I’m like, okay, I'm ready. Then once I click 'record,' I go blank."

It’s a challenge, but one they say is worth it. All three said they would like to keep reporting and working on other stories.

Declan Rustad and Zach Matz took on the sports beat. They heard how the softball team has a brand-new staff and wanted to hear if the team likes their new coaches and what maybe went wrong with the last staff.

They both play sports and are acutely aware of the lack of news coverage about their teams.

“There should be a lot more, especially in our area," said Matz, "because — like Mrs. Kleindl was talking about -- we only get coverage from Rockford, and then it's always them hyping up the Rockford teams and then they just throw our name there in the back."

They see that it’s the same for hard news stories too. If they want to hear anything about Freeport, they, generally, have to wait and see if Rockford news outlets like the Journal Standard and Rockford Register Star will cover it.

Their journalism teacher, Jena Kleindl, was a reporter herself before transitioning into the classroom and she still freelances. So, the lack of local news matters a lot to her.

And it can be staggering to wrap your mind around. Illinois has lost 85% of it’s newspaper reporters since 2005 -- the highest mark in the nation. And five Illinois counties have zero local news outlets.

It’s why, when she was approached by the citizen reporters starting “Freepod,” she was interested, even if she was a little skeptical at first.

“When I went to the meetings and talked to them, they all had a very clear plan, clear goals," said Kleindl. "That reassured me throughout the process, and since then, they've been doing really good work."

And she’s really proud of the work her students did for the most recent episode.

“One of them," she said, "when they were interviewing our principal, you hear in the raw [audio] files like, ‘Oh, wow, that's a really good question.’”

Now that the episode is out, like all journalists, her students are on to their next story. And Kleindl’s got plans to expand her program in the future. Next year, they’re starting their own online student newspaper and a media production pathway where students can earn college credit.

You can find the podcast and the students’ episode at freepod.org.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.