Older Mainers Discover New Role in Community after Joining Boomer Reporting Corps

Every morning, Frank Booker, 75, of Bangor wakes up and reads the Bangor Daily News. He scours the pages for stories that speak to him, his beloved city and his community.

“You look at the front page of the paper and sometimes there’s nothing about Bangor,” he says. “I think there’s a real need for citizen journalism to focus on local levels.”

Booker — with a background in theater, dance, English, real estate and computer sales — has always had an interest in writing. He’s passionate about providing more local news while promoting the city and all it has to offer.

Booker took his first journalism class at the University of Maine two years ago and wrote a column for the campus-based student newspaper before enrolling in the Boomer Reporting Corps, a program offered by the UMaine Center on Aging and Maine Community Foundation.

The program, designed to create a group of older adults who can actively report on local issues to benefit their communities, began in September 2012 as an extension of the UMaine Center on Aging’s Encore Leadership Corps. ENCorps is a statewide program that provides skill-building workshops, educational resources and networking opportunities to adults who are at least 50 years old and volunteer in their communities, according to Jennifer Crittenden, fiscal and administrative officer of the UMaine Center on Aging.

“Learning the tactics and technologies of journalism and multimedia takes a lot of time and dedication,” Crittenden says.

The UMaine New Media Department is also a project partner, and UMaine Senior Lecturer in New Media Bill Kuykendall is the program’s lead faculty member.

Now 14 members strong, the Boomer Reporting Corps members have participated in a series of six five-hour educational workshops and prepared multimedia projects ranging from a feature on a Tai Chi instructor with a rough past to histories of their hometowns.

The idea for the Boomer Reporting Corps sprung from conversations Kuykendall had with Len Kaye, UMaine Center on Aging director, on ways UMaine students could use media skills to explore the world of older Mainers, Kuykendall says.

After Kuykendall presented on citizen media at a few Encore Leadership Corps Summits, some of the members asked if the center could offer a more extensive program.

With funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Maine Community Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies, the workshop series was established, culminating with the ENCorps summit in June where participants presented their work.

“Boomer Reporting Corps members are prime examples of today’s active and highly talented older citizens who care deeply about the communities in which they live and who want to stay in the game and make a difference,” Kaye says.

The workshops in Augusta, Orono and Belfast focused on reporting and storytelling, technology, photography and social media.

Kuykendall led the workshops, while several community members volunteered as guest lecturers. Contributors included Tony Ronzio, current director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily News and formerly with the Sun Journal of Lewiston; Mike Lange, a semi-retired journalist with more than 25 years of experience; Pattie Reaves, user experience and audience manager at the BDN and formerly with the Sun Journal; Jennifer Smith-Mayo, a professional photographer and UMaine new media graduate; Duane Shimmel, a UMaine new media student and Apple representative; and Cynthia Merrill, a recent UMaine new media graduate who recorded the workshops and edited the tutorials for the group’s Web page.

“We had a real nice group of people coming from the profession and the university,” Kuykendall says. “That gave the boomers a wonderful exposure to where this all may be going and to help them envision a role for themselves in the media.”

Booker said he enjoyed learning from a new media veteran such as Kuykendall and from the experienced guest lecturers.

“Our goal was not to create a cohort of citizen journalists who would be working in opposition to the local media, but rather a cohort that could work with the local media,” Kuykendall says. “It would give boomer reporters an outlet for their work and would give the local media more high-quality content.”

Kuykendall says another aim of the program is to preserve the health of traditional news reporting.

“It’s getting harder and harder to cover the news. There aren’t as many reporters at newspapers. The younger reporters who are there may not have the experience to cover a complex issue,” Kuykendall says.

One of the Boomer Reporting Corps members, Donna Wiegle of Swan’s Island, creates a monthly newsletter for her community and has been published in the Working Waterfront, a Maine Island Institute publication.

Wiegle’s latest addition to the Working Waterfront was a video she created while in the program. The video, “The good life on Swan’s Island,” featured 95-year-old Earl Lowell, Swan’s Island’s oldest resident.

“Donna is a great example of someone who is working in this area and has reached the stage where she is sort of self-sustaining,” Kuykendall says.

Sandy Olson, a library media technician at Unity College who created a piece on her Tai Chi instructor, joined the Boomer Reporting Corps to fulfill a longtime goal of using her photography and artistic skills to tell multimedia stories about her community and the environment.

“I want this to be my retirement career,” Olson says. “I want to be engaged in sharing stories that will help design what comes next. I believe in local economy, historic connections, environmental vitality, and I want to help if I can. I’m 67. I am ready for the next third of my life to be the best.”

Olson, who has created several websites in the past including one for the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust and her own hometown news blog, recently created a new website, watershednarratives.com, incorporating skills she learned from the workshops.

“I learned from listening to professional journalists that I had to find a way to present more focused, better-branded narratives,” Olson says. “I want this site to engage people through images, audio and text. I am practicing but I hope to get better.”

This summer, Olson expects to work on projects about local farmers, land trust preserves, and alewives and dams. She plans to create stories from these projects for her websites, as well as Troy Maine Local News.

The ENCorps program selects people with a high level of social commitment who have a motivation and enthusiasm to learn, according to Kuykendall.

“These are people who want to make a difference in their community,” he says. “They’re older folks so they’ve had life experiences, they’ve raised families, they’ve operated businesses, they’ve learned how to live in the world, and they have a high level of interest in and commitment to their communities.”

Booker is currently working on video interviews with Bangor residents who love the city and are working to make a difference, such as Ben Sprague, Bangor City Councilor, and Meg Shorette, marketing director for the Maine Discovery Museum and KahBang arts executive director.

“From being in the BRC, I’ve learned that I’m just beginning to understand the power of multimedia storytelling. There’s a great deal of power in it,” Booker says.

Kuykendall says he believes many of the members have gained confidence in their ability to create something meaningful for themselves and others and hopes they continue reporting.

“They have been able to take what may have been a loose set of goals and turn that wish list into a to-do or have-done list,” he says. “We knew they came in with this motivation to be a positive force in their community. They want their homes to be better, they want to sustain the economic and cultural life of their communities. Hopefully they learned ways they can do that.”

Ken Hamilton, a retired surgeon, joined the program to help promote his nonprofit organization Healing of Persons Exceptional, or HOPE. His South Paris-based organization provides support for people facing life challenges, such as serious illness.

“From the workshops, I learned how to use contemporary media technologies to communicate effectively in today’s North American world,” Hamilton says.

He used those skills to compile a series of interviews with people who have benefited from HOPE that he will use on his organization’s website.

There are no future workshops scheduled at this time, but there has been interest from participants to continue the program, Kuykendall says. He would like the program to offer an immersion experience with more hands-on exercises as opposed to workshops, if funds allowed.

Booker says he would like to see the Boomer Reporting Corps continue and have its members produce more in-depth projects that could be published or aired, and would like Bangor to develop an online citizen journalism platform where anyone could post their stories, photos and videos. He is also planning to take another journalism course in the fall and might take up his Maine Campus column again.

“It’s fun, that’s all,” Booker says about his newfound love of journalism. “I’m enjoying it and I’m passionate about it.”

Anyone interested in becoming a member of ENCorps can apply online or contact Mia Noyes, mia.noyes@umit.maine.edu; 207.262.7931. Application process and membership are free. Tutorials of the Boomer Reporting Corps workshops can be found online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747