Vox blog: the story behind the story

Story by Richard L. Eldredge

A Teen-Driven Star Reporter Program Goes for the Gold, thanks to an Atlanta Maccabi Games and VOX ATL Community Partnership


With just 10 minutes before his noon deadline set by the Cleveland Jewish News, Atlanta Maccabi Games Star Reporter Jeremy was literally sweating. With good reason. Jeremy, 14, had just sprinted back into the Star Reporter newsroom on the second floor of the Marcus Jewish Community Center from taking some action shots of the Cleveland flag football team outside in the summer heat, and he was still hanging fire, awaiting quotes from the head of the Cleveland delegation.

Jeremy prepares to hit send on his story to the Cleveland Jewish News.

Minutes later, however, Jeremy had his quotes and filed his story, along with the photos he snapped, complete with captions, to the managing editor of the CJN. 

Welcome to the first-ever teen-driven Atlanta Maccabi Games Star Reporter program, a dedicated cohort of 14 young people from metro Atlanta, Orange County, Calif, Baltimore and Birmingham, who have assembled to cover the 2019 Atlanta JCC Maccabi Games July 28 to August 2. 

With lots of Star Reporter content being posted on both the Atlanta Maccabi website and across multiple social media platforms, the Cleveland Jewish News reached out to ask if a Star Reporter could report on their city’s teams for the Ohio-based community publication. Jeremy, an aspiring sports reporter, volunteered for the assignment.

To make all this teen-focused publishing possible, for the first time, Maccabi partnered with VOX Teen Communications, Atlanta’s 26-year-old nonprofit dedicated to youth-driven leadership and uncensored self-expression to bring its teen-led approach to journalism to Atlanta’s Star Reporter program.

As an Atlanta reporter who covered the 1996 Centennial Summer Olympics, now serving as one of the adult editors guiding the Star Reporters, I can tell you similarities between the two sporting events are inevitable. From the gold medal ceremonies and trading pins to packed venues and the excitement of athletic competition, the adrenaline rush was familiar but this time with Jewish young people from across the United States, Israel, Panama and Mexico in the spotlight.

Compared to the summer of 1996, the median age of the reporters is, well, a bit younger, with our Star Reporter staff consisting of young people ranging in age from 12 to 16. But by placing the reporters in the driver’s seat to decide what they wanted to cover, the angle of the story and the platform on which to present it, along with adult “guides on the side” and the help of Lexie, Isley and India, three peer to peer interns from VOX’s teen staff, the Star Reporters had the support system to shine daily.

Emmy, for example, who was easily one of the quietest 12-year-olds at our VOX facilitated reporter trainings this spring, literally found her voice during the five-day sporting event.

On day two of the Atlanta Maccabi Games, Emmy boarded a bus by herself with a reporting game plan to cover the track events at the Marist School. Even after a camera battery died on her, Emmy pulled out her smartphone and kept shooting, eventually making her way back to the newsroom to upload video and edit on the newsroom’s Adobe Premiere Pro video editing software.

“The Star Reporter experience taught me how to be more confident about interviewing people,” says Emmy. “Sometimes, I can be really shy. And this has helped me with that. I also discovered that editing video is fun.”

In a text message, Emmy’s mom Jodi added: “You are teaching her to be more confident, less shy and to put herself out there. She is learning conversational skills through the interview process and the best follow up questions to ask. It’s better than I ever anticipated!”

Shyness was not an issue for Star Reporter Levi, also 12, who likely has more camera gear and gadgets than his professional video editor counterparts at the AJC. Not only did he serve his Star Reporter colleagues (and a few of the adult guides too!) as our in-house IT professional throughout the week in the newsroom, Levi was fearless as he went from event to event, chronicling the games.

Levi interviews Israel star wheelchair basketball player Asel Shabo at the JCC Cares exhibition game at Marist.

At Wednesday morning’s JCC Cares-sponsored wheelchair basketball exhibition, Levi elbowed his way through the crowded gym to interview players from the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, including global wheelchair basketball star Asel Shabo and players from Atlanta’s own Atlanta’s Shepherd Center wheelchair basketball team.

“I was maybe a bit nervous just to go up to someone and ask if I could interview them,” reflects Levi. “But you only live once. You gotta do it. Every story I’ve done this week is my favorite. It’s all been fun. I also learned about more software and I’ve gained more confidence behind the camera. It’s much more nerve-racking than the [in front of camera] work I do for YouTube. It was also good that we had a bunch of practices before the Games started.”

Levi explains the difference between the teen-driven model in the Star Reporter newsroom and his other extracurricular activities: “It was fun being in the driver’s seat. Usually, if you’re on a basketball team, you have a coach and he tells you what to do, same with baseball or pretty much any sport. Here everyone got to contribute, no one was telling us what to do. We got to decide what we wanted to cover and we came up with our own story ideas but we had peer support at the same time.”

Making eye contact with 16-year-old VOX intern Lexi in the newsroom, Levi adds, “Especially playing [the morning energerizer] Zip Zap Zop when Lexi lost and I got all that on camera! This morning when we played, I said Zi…, looked at her and just started laughing!”

At age 12 and armed with his grandma’s smartphone is Ari, the Star Reporter program’s roving video correspondent, making his way through the JCC, doing behind-the-scenes stories interviewing coaches, Added Touch Catering head chef Emily McConnell in the JCC kitchen and even Atlanta Maccabi Games co-chairs Libby Hertz and Amy Rubin.

“I wanted to learn how to interview people, edit video and learn new stuff,” says Ari. “We as the kids got to make the decisions about what our stories would be about. That was cool. My grandma doesn’t use this phone all that much since she mostly uses her home phone, so she let me borrow it.”

Originally, when he entered the JCC cafeteria on Wednesday, Ari had planned on scheduling an interview with McConnell and then going back upstairs to retrieve his video camera and microphone. But when McConnell invited him into the kitchen on the spot, he opted to go with the technology already in his hand.

“She wanted to shoot it then and I didn’t want to inconvenience her by coming back,” he explains. “That might have been annoying.”

So how did Ari figure out how to use a smartphone almost instantly? “Oh, I don’t know. It’s not really that difficult, Rich.”

Orange County Star Reporter Ari, who won a gold medal for his reporting in Atlanta as part of the Star Reporter Team.

For the Star Reporter program’s other Ari, who is 16 and attending the Maccabi Games from Orange County, Calif., his Atlanta experience meant riding a lot of buses to keep up with Orange County’s teams while posting updates on the OC social media platforms and filing stories.

On Tuesday, Ari thought he was going out to cover the flag football match-up between the O.C. and Houston and ended up with a story about Rachmanus, a word that defines sportsmanship, community and compassion all together and is one of the guiding principles of the Maccabi Games. At halftime, examining the game’s lopsided score, the coaches and the players assembled and jointly decided to trade their team jerseys for gray and white shirts and combine players from both cities into new teams for a second-half exhibition. 

“I knew I had a great story,” says Ari. “I was eager to get back to the newsroom, write it down and be able to share it with other people.”

As a returning Star Reporter, who was also a member of last summer’s reporting team in OC, Ari says the teen-led approach of this summer’s game made the experience more fulfilling for him. 

Says Ari: “This summer is a lot more focused on free choice for the Star Reporters to go out and cover whatever they want and seeing all of that information and all those stories get published, which was not something that really happened with the program last summer in Orange County. We just ended up taking a lot of videos and photos, and they didn’t really end up getting published as much as I would have liked. This year, we were getting published every day, and we got to make the decisions. This allowed me to develop my own stories and work with cool people who came in to help us out to really focus our stories and help make them the best they could be.”

Emmy posing as a subject for Jeremy in downtown Atlanta this spring during an Atlanta Maccabi Games Star Reporter training session facilitated by VOX ATL.

And after hitting send on his story to the Cleveland Jewish News and refueling with a bottle of water and a well-earned pasta lunch in the air-conditioned MJCCA Maccabi cafeteria on Wednesday, Jeremy was able to reflect on his Atlanta Maccabi Star Reporter experience — and that pesky real-world professional deadline.

“It was a struggle to reach,” he says. “I was running around getting footage and last-minute interviews. After I got it done, it was quite relieving and I was finally able to relax and calm down. This was a great learning experience for my (hopefully) future career in sports journalism and broadcasting as I was able to finally understand the stress of meeting a deadline.”

To read and view all the great content assembled by the Atlanta JCC Maccabi Games Star Reporter team, go to the official Atlanta Maccabi website and the Atlanta Maccabi Instagram page.

The collaboration between the MJCCA’s Maccabi Games and VOX ATL, which applied best practices and 26 years of youth development experience to create and run the Star Reporter program,  was funded by a community innovation grant from JumpSpark. “Spark Grants” were designed to support innovative “big ideas with potential to impact our community” now and in the future. The team at VOX ATL is proud partner in that work and grateful to bring our model to partner spaces.