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Dianne Bragg

Interview by María Jesús Silva Baameiro.

Audio Transcription

00:00:02 Maria Silva: 

This is Maria Jesus Silva interviewing Dr. Dianne Bragg at the International Center of the University of Memphis on April 6th, 2023. Dr. Bragg lives in Alabama and works as an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. Dr. Dianne Bragg received her Ph.D. from the University of Alabama and her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Memphis. During her tenure in Memphis, she was the third coordinator of the Teen Appeal, a metropolitan high school newspaper produced for 18 years in Memphis.

 

00:00:46 Maria Silva:

Hello, Dr. Bragg. I want to explain to you that this is an oral history that will be used to produce a podcast. I want to make sure it’s OK with you for this interview to be recorded and used for academic purposes.

 

00:01:01 Dr. Dianne Bragg:

Yes.

 

00:01:02 Maria Silva: 

OK, perfect. Before we talk about your experiences as a part of the Teen Appeal team in Memphis, I would like to know a little about your background as a student in Memphis. Tell me about your life in Memphis. 

 

00:01:19 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

Oh my gosh, well, we would need a few hours for that. I was born and raised in Memphis, so all of my education was there. Graduated high school and started actually at Memphis State; it was Memphis State University when I began out there in 1977, a long time ago. And didn't really know what major I wanted - kind of bounced around - and then ended up doing what often happened to women at that time and earlier: I got married and had children. So I continued going to school kind of off and on, but it was the early 90s when I went back in earnest. And so my undergraduate degree from Memphis is in English literature, which was kind of my first love. And so I completed that and then decided that I wanted to do a master's degree and knew some people in the journalism department at Meeman and made some contacts, and decided that that's what I wanted to do. I had done some freelance writing, and I don't know, kind of wanted to go in that direction. And so that's how I ended up in Meeman, doing the Master's program there. Dr. Arant was my advisor when I started and took, you know, a number of classes and just loved it. My experience there I enjoyed my undergraduate, but at that point, when I went back and finished that, I was an older student going back, so that was kind of a different experience. With the Master's program, I loved it, and I made some very good friends there that I'm still friends with. And Dr. Grusin was one of my professors that took a precision language course, which I loved just really; I can't say enough about that program. And at that time, for the Master's degree, you could. I don't know what they do now, but you could choose; we all did comps, but you could choose either a thesis or a project or extra coursework along with your comps. And I chose the extra coursework since my undergraduate degree was not Journalism, so I was able to take Feature Writing with David Waters, which still remains one of the best classes ever! And so one of the things that I did was I did an independent study with Teen Appeal because Dr. Grusin was running the Teen Appeal. And at that time, Chuck Holliday was the director, and Aaron Person was the Master's student working there, and he and I became friends. And so that was my first experience working with that program that semester. So I don't know. I mean, I can tell you lots more about my time in Memphis, you know, but that's the short version there. 


 

00:04:14 Maria Silva: 

When you decided to be part of the Teen Appeal team, how was the experience of being the third coordinator of the newspaper? 

 

00:04:23 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

Well, it can't, you know when I did the independent study there, I just worked with the students, and Chuck was the person who was kind of running everything, and he at that time decided to go to law school, and so I was graduating with my master's degree, and I just really love the program I had three children in three different Memphis city school, so I was a very big supporter of public schools in Memphis and then this and so I just thought the program was fantastic and so Chuck decided to go to law school so that position opened up and I decided to interview for it, and I ended up getting a job, and so I began doing that, and Aaron also graduated which just a little sad, fun fact about Eric Patterson and me when we walked for our graduation when we all graduated with our master's it was the same a graduation ceremony in May of 2003 when Penny Hardaway had finished his undergraduate degree because he had promised his grandmother, he would do that so he walked in the same ceremony with his undergraduate degree, and when it was all over at the Coliseum, we kind of walked around a corner, and there was Penny Hardaway, and so we have a picture with Penny when we graduated with our master's degree which I loved, but she left in the Jaron Sturdivant was hired to come in as that assistant and well, and there was Ellis Harman I worked with Ellis Harman and Jaron Sturdivant and so I really kind of jumped right in. We had our camp that summer and so pulled that together, but Chuck was great about helping with that transition, and it was nice having that resource; he would answer any of my questions for me; the biggest challenge, to be honest with you, I was very well working with students I had three children you know two of them were high school students and I also worked with programs through other organizations where I worked with high school kids so that I was very comfortable with that I was not a design or layout person and so that fortunately the assistance we hired that's kind of what they worked on, but that was my learning curve the big thing for me and we had to use the cork program which was horrible, but anyway so that's kind of how I just jumped right in with the camp we got all that organized there were very good you know Dr. Grusin was very meticulous and I don’t know where all these records are, but we have very meticulous records of how things were done; you know there weren’t any questions like you down to how many parking passes and how many buses passes you should get, so it was very easy to step in and have all of that information to help you do that, and so then we are that staff had already been chosen and so I worked within that fall and then that spring I began going to all the high schools recruiting students to apply for the upcoming year, and that was a lot of fun going to pretty much every single high school in Memphis and many of them I had been to before but a lot of them have not and so meeting with those students I just had a really good time with that, and we had a lot of applications and going through those and so that’s kind of how we got the ball rolling we did make some changes after that first year the paper had been front page of the paper had more of a traditional newspaper look to it with a lot of stories on the front, and we ended up changing it to more of a tabloid format; we would have a large photo on the front with one main storm kicked off things, and we found that we got a lot of positive response to that students like that big photograph you know and photography was something when we started we had small disposable cameras that’s the only thing none of our students and we really had phones like what we all have now, and so that’s what we would give them to go take their picture so we would have to give them these disposable cameras they would take pictures not knowing if they were any good or not, and then we would get those developed, it was an interesting process with photography, but with us doing that big photo on the front, we had a number of students who became very interested in, you know sort of competing about getting their story and that photograph on the front and that worked out really well several of them have gone on to do photography Kenneth Cummings thinks he’s still in Jackson, he was one of those that started with that little disposable camera because it was all that he had so that was one of the biggest changes. I think that we made it to the format of it; otherwise, we pretty much followed the template that Dr. Grusin had developed it with Tara Milligan, Amy Edmondson and some of the earlier people there, and I don’t know if it’s not broken, don’t fix it right. 

 

00:09:58 Maria Silva: 

How did you feel when you were selected for the Teen Appeal staff?

 

00:10:02 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

I was thrilled when I got that job. I had some other things that I was looking at since I now had my master's degree at that point, and I had contemplated going ahead and working on a Ph.D. but I really already had two degrees from Memphis that everyone 3 degrees from the same place and I wasn't in a position to move anywhere at that time, and so I figured I would work for a while and come see what happened and so I had some different opportunities but after doing that independent study and my heart was really with the Teen Appeal, I felt like the mission of the Teen Appeal which you know bringing students onto the campus who otherwise might never set foot on the college camp we had on Saturdays we had the lab open for students to come in and work on their stories they could come after school or on Saturdays, and we gave them bus passes, and we even did some Sunday afternoons too and kids would come in, and we would help them with their stories, but we would also help them with college applications sort of their essays they would write and how to go about doing that; we had one young man in particular who didn’t really have what I would call a stable home life and kind of bounced around with family members, and he was at Booker T Washington was his high school and he started coming in 9th or 10th grade, and we helped him with all those things, and he was involved with a couple of other organizations that we’re assisting, and so we ended up applying for that USA TODAY the Newark scholarship where they take a trip up to DC and two students per state were chosen and he was chosen, and it was really an amazing experience, and the teachers at the school bought him a suit and some luggage and you know we helped to come to get up there you know he went on to college he ended up getting his degree from Eugene Knoxville, and I think the Teen Appeal was a part of that. I had a number of students like that. I think we opened some possibilities to them, and very rewarding work with great kids that we worked with, so I just loved it. I loved it.

 

00:12:33 Maria Silva: 

What kind of training did you receive when you started working at the Teen Appeal?


 

00:12:39 Dr. Dianne Bragg: You know, a lot of the training I got actually came from that independent study that one semester that I worked with them, so Chuck was great. He gave me all kinds of different things to do. I worked with the lab, I worked with the students, so by the time when he decided to leave and I decided to apply for it, I had done a lot of those things, you know, some of the things that I had not done were things like the reports for Scripps Howard you know working with that foundation different things along those lines, but once again that was already like there Dr. Grusin was there it just there was a really good support system there at Memphis for the program Dr. Redmond was the chair at the time. They're just, I never felt like, if I didn't know what to do, I knew who to ask. Otis Sanford was still with The Commercial Appeal at that time, and he was our liaison and got things printed and got the paper distributed for us, so he was my contact there the school board, I got to know her, and her first name is Debbie. I can’t remember her last name, but she was the liaison of the school board, and I think it was Carol Johnson who was the Superintendent the years that I was there and we had a very good relationship with them, never had a story pulled they called and asked some questions about some stories a few times but we were always able to answer those. I felt like our students, you know, Dr. Grusin instilled in me making sure you have all of your facts, and you can answer all the questions, and you remember who your audience is, and I felt like we did that, but we also did some stories the students came up with some really good stories that are kind of challenged administration we did those you know I don’t know if you want to go into any examples of that or not today in this interview, but there are some really great stories of kids pursuing things that the schools that were not easy for them.

 

00:14:58 Maria Silva: 

As a coordinator of the newspaper, what was a typical work day like?

 

00:15:04 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

You know, it was fairly flexible. You had the number of hours you had to work, and I did teach a class also, and then that was part of that, and so I tried to be sure that we were there, and I pretty much took my kids to school and then came out, and so, I was there a lot during the day Monday through Friday, but afternoons we needed to be there either myself or the assistant to make sure if any of the students came to work on stories that we were there a lot of them would call us after school with help over the phone that kind of thing, and then I would work. I was there either Saturday or Sunday almost every weekend because students would often come primarily Saturdays, which was the day we focused on from the lab. Still, there were some students on Sunday afternoons, and I would often meet them there, so it was, you know, that’s kind of a little bit of flexibility there, but those were the primary hours.

 

00:16:02 Maria Silva: 

How was the feedback that you gave to them to the students, do you think you were a good leader for them?

 

00:16:11 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

Huh, well, I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them that. I was always honest with them. There was a lot of feedback on the stories; we kind of worked together on things as far just to give you an example so, high school students, not unlike many college students, often want to write editorials opinion pieces because they have a lot of opinions about what’s going on at their school, and so if I were to choose one thing that we felt like we really worked with students was that opinion stories had to be based on the fact it couldn’t just be I don’t like my principal well you know that’s not a story, and so trying to tease that kind of thing out and I felt like we did a very good job with that, and one particular school that did have a principal that was barely new that I had a lot of students complaining about, but nobody could really give me anything concrete, so to speak, and a young woman who ended up texting me from school and said he’s decided that students are smoking in the bathroom, so he has locked all the bathroom doors; so this student texted me and said he’d locked all the bathroom doors except the two bathrooms by the office and that school had almost 2000 students, so she’s like, nobody can go to lunch, nobody if there’s a line to the door with the bathroom so we wrote about that she wrote a piece about that and it was an editorial about the way running the school, and about that particular incident we went to their website to get the number of students because they had all that information on there. He was livid when the paper was delivered; he threw them all in the dumpster and but the only error that he could find in the story was the number of students; he said we had the wrong number, but it was the number that we got from their records so she got a lot of push back, but he was not principal there the next year so we took that as a win I would say if I were going to choose one thing they did get a lot of feedback from me. I think working on understanding facts and news and having everything so that when you are questioned, you can answer those questions.



 

00:19:14 Maria Silva: 

Is there anything you wish would have been different? Tell me about that.

 

00:19:22 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

So you know, at the time that I was there, being digital was not really an option, you know, and after I left, it probably could have moved in that direction. I feel that I wish they had not gone away, and I think that they went away because Doctor Bryson was not there and Didn’t really have the passion for that that shouldn’t have gone away. I just hate that, and I don’t know so I guess I would say administratively things would sell, and it would have been good there’s some things have been done differently to keep that going, you know, obviously, uh, the grant money, the Scripps Howard money that was a problem, and then, of course, The Commercial Appeal the Teen Appeal ended before The Commercial Appeal really began to face well it was starting to face a lot its issues ownership wise, and of course, you know that paper has completely changed, and so it would have been nice if before things fell apart, it had transitioned to digital where maybe the expenses were less, and it would have been able to continue; I would love to see it start backup because the problem that brought it about still exists today. Most of the Memphis City Schools do not have newspapers; they do some of them. I think they still have broadcast, which is great, but there is not there’s not that outlook for doing these long-form stories, investigative pieces, and different things like that. The students benefit a lot, not only the students who work for a paper like that and always leave paper plates printed on it but also the students within the school.

 

00:21:35 Maria Silva: 

Finally, what do you think is the legacy of the Teen Appeal in the city of Memphis?

 

00:21:42 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

The students who took part and Dr. Byrd probably told you we had a panel at the American journalism historians association which I’m involved in; we were in Memphis last September, and I put together a panel about the Teen Appeal, and we had four former members of the Teen Appeal there and I was there, and Amy Edmondson, who was with the Teen Appeal before me, was president of AJH at the time and so to have those students, one of whom is one of my sons, my middle son in high school. He wrote with the Teen Appeal there was, in fact, a huge competition between white station high school and Ridgeway we had the student from the white station that also wrote for us and but to have those students talk about what they’re doing now and the impact that that publication that had on that opportunity had and how it improved their writing and increase their confidence in themselves. For Caleb, my son, it’s sparked in him. This is what I want to do, and he works for USA TODAY and does sports podcasts, you know. Tony reached the same way. I mean, there are so many out there that are doing good things that I think they might have done good things anyway, but we help them along the way, and I think they’re better at what they do, and if you talk to them, they will tell you what great experience it was so I think the students themselves are our legacy and their impact and involvement in Memphis and I cannot say enough about Sanford’s involvement and support of that program. Dr. Grusin getting it started the vision that she had for that and really think and I think students may be that we don’t know who read that paper, we felt like someone was listening, you’re paying attention to their problems their concern because I think students rightfully saw, often feel that no one is listening so I think it was a huge impact legacy that carried on. I would love to see it start back up.

 

00:24:15 Maria Silva: 

Thank you Dr. Bragg for your time, thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

 

00:24:22 Dr. Dianne Bragg: 

Happy to do it, happy to do it. I'm glad you all are doing this project.

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