Spring 2012 Issue
A Life of Politics and Journalism
Charlie Wheeler spent most of his journalism career working in the Capitol press corp. Now he directs the Public Affairs Reporting program at UIS, where he guides the next generation of reporters
By Shannon O’Brien
In the age of Twitter and live blogging, where accuracy is occasionally forsaken for speed of delivery, a graduate program at the University of Illinois at Springfield is bucking that trend by teaching students to cover government accurately and effectively.
Public Affairs Reporting (PAR), a one-year graduate program that provides students with real-world experience, guarantees internships in media outlets covering the Illinois House of Representatives so that inexperienced reporters can hone their skills under the guidance of seasoned journalists.
Charles N. Wheeler III, a newsman who spent most of his career in the Capitol press corps and now serves as PAR’s director, says the creation of the experienced-based, 40-year-old program was possible because Sangamon State University was not steeped in years of tradition at the time of the program’s creation.
In the early 1970s, Wheeler says he and others saw a need to prepare budding reporters to cover government. Concurrently, Sangamon State University (the forerunner of UIS) was trying to develop alternative teaching methods. The mutually beneficial agreement, which Wheeler calls “happy circumstances,” received additional support from another quintessential newspaperman, former Illinois Lt. Gov. and eventual U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who, Wheeler says, “pulled it all together, and became the first director.” Simon went on to receive honorary degrees from UIS in 1991 and from the U of I at Urbana-Champaign in 2000.
Under the agreement, bureau chiefs would treat the students as full-time reporters, giving them the same types of assignments they would give to their staff. In return, the University would provide graduate credit for the reporting and writing skills that students would acquire while working as full-time journalists.
The program averages 18 internships per year, and the students who participate hold Wheeler’s long-term experience and insights in high regard. David Thomas, a current PAR intern working on behalf of the State Journal-Register, wrote in an e-mail, “He has reported on state government for so many years that his institutional knowledge of it is staggering.
“Working with Charlie has been the journalistic equivalent of Batman training Robin,” he says.
“Charlie has been a part of the business for years,” says Lauren Potter, a broadcast intern with News Channel 20. “We are learning how to write our own stories from his experience in the field.”
His lessons, she says, permeate her work, as sometimes she’ll consult her notes while working on a story and think, “What did Charlie say about this?”
In addition to internships, Wheeler wants to improve students’ reporting skills by providing some history on topics they may be covering in real time. His course, “Legislative Issues,” focuses on key matters before the Legislature in the particular session the interns are working. Part of the class involves guest speakers who can provide background information; for instance, Wheeler invited a member of the State Board of Education to address last spring’s education agenda, particularly the effort the state is making in obtaining a waiver for the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The waiver would provide the state an escape from some of the law’s mandates, including one that requires all students to pass state exams by the 2013-14 academic year.
Wheeler, who also teaches advanced public affairs reporting, believes the lessons the interns learn will cover other types of news as well. “They can bring it with them when they go out and are on some other beat,” he explains. “And we have people covering different stuff all over the country.”
He remains hopeful that an improved economy will also improve the number of internships he can offer, as the faltering newspaper industry has reduced the opportunities available.
“But in terms of [the program’s] basic mission – preparing people to go out and be working reporters covering the kind of issues that are important to their community – I don’t see that changing, or at least I hope it wouldn’t change,” Wheeler says.
“I think it’s got a track record of success, and the people who leave the program go out and do really good work.
“And it’s important work.”