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Jonathan Storm | An incubator for journalists

Ryan Buell spent his spare time at Penn State with a bunch of oddballs experimenting on ghost-buster machines and investigating "paranormal" occurrences.

Jenny Vrentas reporting for the Collegian in PBS's "The Paper," a look at the media through the eyes of young journalists at Penn State.
Jenny Vrentas reporting for the Collegian in PBS's "The Paper," a look at the media through the eyes of young journalists at Penn State.Read morePRINCE SPELLS / ITVS

Ryan Buell spent his spare time at Penn State with a bunch of oddballs experimenting on ghost-buster machines and investigating "paranormal" occurrences.

James Young, featured in Tuesday's Independent Lens film,

The Paper

, on PBS, was editor in chief at the Collegian, one of the largest college newspapers in the country.

Who do you think is faring better today?

Buell has his own TV show,

Paranormal State

, where we can watch as he purports to uncover restless ghosts. Oooh, Mildred, do you think we can contact Uncle Clem?

It premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m. on the once-respectable A&E cable channel. With 99-cent production values that make

The Blair Witch Project

look like

The Matrix

, the show has to be a cash machine.

Ex-editor Young gave journalism a shot after college, working for two years as a crime reporter at his hometown newspaper, the Easton Express-Times. Now he's a graduate student, living in penury and studying urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"Prospects for the future didn't look as great as I thought they were," he said in a telephone interview last week. "It's a shame that the field is the way it is now. . . . It's something that wasn't too clear to me or my classmates at Penn State."

The Paper

, airing at 10 p.m. on WHYY TV12, spends a school year at the Collegian, where student staffers suffer through many of the issues confronting big newspapers and professional journalists today: how to serve and simply hang onto readers in an increasingly fragmented community, how to get answers from individuals and institutions that seem to have secrecy as their primary goal.

Like its corporate counterparts, the Collegian, which operates with its own board of directors but independently of the university, must also figure out how to make enough money to survive. But the need to wring out ever-higher profits is not an issue, and there are jobs for any students who want them.

Aaron Mathews, 36, who has been making documentaries - several of them have appeared on PBS - for 12 years, said he decided to do a film about the media because he didn't think he knew as much about it as he should.

"I was frustrated about not seeing news that mattered to me in accessible places," he said. "I'm a sports fan and as much of a gossip as the next guy, but I do not see the media serving the public interest, even if the public is not interested.

"I feel there's a need for a group that's looking out after our interests, how hospitals run, whether the government is honest, all the things our taxes pay for. . . . I thought I could learn about it in a fresh way by looking at the microcosm, at a school newspaper, the training ground and laboratory, media in its embryonic form."

The embryos at the Collegian when Matthews was there, virtually every day during the 2004-05 academic year, had their work cut out for them. Matthews focuses on a few of them. Significantly, the two students who seem to care most about doing journalism for the public good are the ones who aren't doing it anymore.

Laura Baker, a feature writer who constantly agitated for more complete and compassionate coverage of campus sexual abuse, is also studying urban planning, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

"I'm invested in the community," she said, "helping it work through issues and achieve goals. As a journalist, I felt constrained by the framework. I want to be more a part of the solution than I could be working in the newsroom."

Some people go into the newspaper game for less altruistic and more personal reasons. It can be a drug, and often the addicts are the most prized professionals of all.

Jenny Vrentas seems on the road to being one of them.

A biochemistry major who grew up in State College, she was supposed to follow in her professor father's footsteps, but she went to the Collegian as a sports fan, for some fun.

"I got a lot of encouragement," she said, covering the Ultimate Frisbee Club and intramural basketball, "and I was pretty much hooked from then on. Nothing against science, but it doesn't have the intensity of sportswriting. There wasn't a day when I didn't want to do conference calls, didn't want to do interviews."

She earned a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in the spring and now works at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey's largest newspaper.

"Writing well on deadline, capturing a scene, seeing it a different way than other people might see it, is just amazing," says Vrentas. "I can do it. I just want to get better about it."

Kayur Patel, a freshman in the film who learned newspaper design at the award-winning Ridley High School newspaper, the Green Raider, in Delaware County, becomes quickly disenchanted with the bureaucratic brick walls that are a reporter's daily diet.

After shooting ended, he returned to the design side and has resumes out to newspapers in the region for a job after he graduates from Penn State this month.

Echoing a sentiment heard nationwide in newsrooms, where workers thrive on the adrenaline of pressure, he said, "The thing I love about newspapers is you have . . . to do the work they give you every day, and every day is a new opportunity to do that."

"My favorite part of school was working at the paper. My senior year, I realized that. Our lives were the Collegian. My best memories are from it."

Editor Young's too. "The Collegian was my life," he said. But he laments the public perception of journalists, characterized in the film by the paper's full-time adviser as lower than politicians, used-car salesmen and prostitutes.

"It really stings at first," Young said. "But you get used to it, this us-against-them mentality on the part of the people you're trying to serve."

Clearly he was in the wrong business. Facing facts is hard. As A&E's

Paranormal State

so eloquently demonstrates, people are much happier being protected from something that's not even there.

Jonathan Storm |


The Paper

Airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday

on WHYY TV12

Jonathan Storm | Coming Tuesday

Inquirer television critic Jonathan Storm reviews "The Paper."