Why The War Horse created a Writing Seminar program to develop new writers from underrepresented communites

Traditionally, military spouses and children have been called the Silent Ranks, stoically supporting their enlisted family members.

While military spouses have historically not had their stories told, The War Horse, a non-profit site covering the military, is working to elevate their voices and the voices of other underrepresented communities within the armed forces.

And one of the ways The War Horse has taken steps to try and highlight their experiences is by developing new writers through a series of Writing Seminars. These week-long workshops afford attendees the time and resources to be able to focus on developing stories that the site ultimately hopes to publish.

“We did a lot of staying in our lane as spouses, and kind of kept quiet, but in reality we have all of these incredible stories to be told,” said Sarah Schmidt, a military spouse who was one of a dozen fellows to participate in The War Horse’s most recent seminar last month. The fellows spent a snowy week at the Carey Institute for Global Good in upstate New York attending workshops and developing their stories.

Schmidt wrote about the loneliness military spouses experience as they move a lot and what that means for her kids’ experiences growing up. Her story will be published soon on The War Horse.

“It was an incredible week,” she told me. “A lot of us have other jobs and we have families. To be able to be offered this week to do nothing but reflect on the life we’ve had thus far and to dedicate that to writing and making something meaningful from that was really incredible.”

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to study The War Horse Writing Seminars. We’re going to look at how the site has used the seminars to diversify its pool of writers, how it’s built successful cohorts of fellows, and what the experience has been like for participants.

While The War Horse focuses on the military community, there are a ton of great lessons here for any publication that’s looking to introduce new writers and tell underrepresented stories.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one invigorating thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

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Here’s the TLDR of what you need to know about The War Horse:


TLDR

The Challenge: The War Horse wanted to find new writers to share underrepresented stories within the military community.

The Strategy: In 2017, the site launched launched its Writing Seminars, week-long conferences where a group of writers attend workshops, discussions with leading journalists, and work with editors to develop stories.

The Numbers: The War Horse has held three seminars and published about 35 stories written by participants in the program.

The Lessons: Seminars are open to writers of all experience levels, which emphasizes that their stories are important — no matter their background.

The Future: The War Horse plans to hold its next seminar in October.

Want to Know More?: Scroll down to learn more about how other outlets are cultivating new writers.


The Challenge

The United States has been at war for nearly two decades now, but most Americans don’t know anyone serving in the military.

There are about 1.3 million people currently serving on active duty in the armed forces — which is less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. That’s down from 3.5 million active duty members in 1968, which was at the height of the Vietnam War when the United States had a military draft. In 2016, there were about 20.4 million veterans, less than 10 percent of the total population.

The War Horse, a nonprofit news site, was launched in 2016 with the goal of providing a platform for veterans to tell their stories while educating the broader public on war, trauma, and their impact on service members and veterans.

The site launched with a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and it broke one of its first major stories in early 2017 when founder Thomas J. Brennan, a Marine Corps veteran, reported that explicit photos of female service members were being shared in an all-male Facebook group. The story was published in conjunction with Reveal, and it resulted in investigations, court marshals, and changes in military policy.

But as The War Horse continued to grow, Brennan recognized that certain military voices were still underrepresented in the media, and he wanted to find ways to highlight  communities such as female service members and military spouses.

“As somebody in the military and then as somebody who was emerging in journalism, I noticed the amount of coverage on military and veterans affairs in the news was lacking,” he told me.

“Upon paying more attention, there were even less military and veteran family voices that were part of that dialogue. I had gotten my start writing first-person reflections, and I had sort of stumbled into working with The New York Times. I had some of the best mentors in the industry from the very moment I started writing. That really helped set the foundation for my own reporting career. Once I started heading down that road, I started seeing less and less for veterans and military voices. I asked myself, how can we get these two groups together. Both acknowledge that these conversations are missing.”


The Strategy

To bring new writers into the fold, The War Horse in 2017 created its Writing Seminar program to provide writing mentorship and training for veterans and military spouses with the ultimate goal that the site will be able to publish their first-person narratives.

“When you look at our own first-person reflections, a majority are written by active duty or veterans of the military,” Brennan said. “If we diversify our own voices from within the military community it will add to the diversity of conversation outside of our own newsroom.”

There are a number of writing programs aimed at veterans, but there was nothing that approached those communities from a journalistic perspective, Brennan said.

“I had to be an evangelist for why this storytelling mattered and why building these cohorts of people was important and remains important…There were a few [programs] out there that existed, and they leaned more toward MFA or writing for therapy, which are all great, but there was nobody connecting journalism and storytelling,” he said. “Since I had gotten my start that way with the At War blog…it seemed like a natural fit.”

The seminars are led by writing coach David Chrisinger, and over the course of the week-long program attendees participate in workshops and conversations with journalists, authors, agents, and others. Some of the speakers and coaches include Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll, Washington Post journalist Dana Priest, and Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden.

Participants spend the week working on one story from conception through completion. There’s time built into the schedule to allow them to write and they work closely with the coaches, War Horse editors, and each other to develop their stories.

“One of the cool things about the seminars is that it’s an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for pieces and you have a built in sounding board to see what resonates with other people,” said Elizabeth O’Herrin, a veteran who has participated in two seminars and written a number of pieces for The War Horse on topics such as the challenge of connecting with others after returning home from serving overseas and her wishes to be able to discuss and compare war experiences with her late grandfather.

“A lot of times, veterans don’t think their own stories are remarkable — especially women veterans within that — so to be able to share your story in a safe space when it’s in the nascent phase and to see it completely resonate with the other women that are there is very encouraging to want to get it out and share it with more people,” she continued.

The first seminar was held at Columbia University in New York, but subsequent seminars have  taken place in more remote locations. The War Horse covers all the expenses — including travel, lodging, and meals — for the fellows to ensure that everyone is able to participate.

The goal is for the fellows to just be able to focus on writing and connecting with each other and the speakers while they’re at the seminar.

“We learned so much from each other,” Schmidt said. “It’s unbelievable the different experiences we’ve had as military spouses, not just across branches but based on time of service, and family [experiences]. Our walks of life were so amazingly different but we all had our roots invested in the fact that we shared this thing that shaped our life experiences for a period of time. Gosh, that was so incredible. It was so nice to be able to talk about things and find that commonality. We ate all of our meals together, and I think your best talking and reflecting happens around meals, so that was really awesome.”

Each fellow progresses on their story at their own pace — some finish with a few paragraphs and others with finished pieces — but at the end of the week, there’s a reading and everyone who wants is able to share their work with the group.


The Numbers

To date, The War Horse has held three Writing Seminars. The first, held at Columbia in 2017, was aimed at veterans and military families. The second, in spring 2018, focused on women veterans and was held at Boulder Crest Retreat, a getaway for veterans and their families in rural Virginia.

The most recent seminar took place last month at the Carey Institute for Global Good in upstate New York and it was designed for military spouses. (I was planning to sit in on some of the sessions, but had to cancel my trip due to a snow storm.)

In total, 39 fellows have participated in the seminars. For the first seminar, The War Horse worked with a number of veterans groups and veteran writers staffers knew to identify potential participants. For the second seminar, it took a similar approach and also asked the first cohort of  fellows to make nominations.

With the third seminar, The War Horse identified 10 fellows via a nomination process by working with writers and groups, but it also opened up a public application for the remaining two spots. It received about 75 applications and The War Horse purposefully reserved those spots for people it thought “necessarily didn’t have the network or access” to attend this type of workshop otherwise, Brennan said.

Brennan said he expected it to get harder to identify potential candidates as the categories get more niche.

“It’s gotten more challenging as time goes on,” he said. “I’m guessing that the more niche the cohort is, the more difficult it will be come. With spouses, where you already don’t have a lot of people contributing the conversation, finding those that are willing to do becomes a little bit harder.”

And while it’s not required, one of the goals of the seminars is to get the participants to write for The War Horse. The site has published more than 35 stories from seminar fellows, and seven of the 12 fellows in the second cohort have published stories with The War Horse.

War Horse fellows have also published stories with outlets such as CNN, USA Today, and The New York Times.

“The hope is that they publish with us. We’re trying to carry our own community and foster our own network of writers,” Brennan said. “But we also realize that not every story that somebody is going to write is going to be a good fit for us. So three months or six months from now that one of the fellows reaches out looking for connections, our ultimate goal is to get more veteran and military voices in the media, period. So if we can help facilitate that it’s still a win regardless for if it’s for us or not.”

Surveys of the participants in the first two seminars showed that the fellows felt a greater sense of pride and a stronger belief that they had a story worth sharing.

The seminars have been underwritten and supported by a number of corporate, nonprofit, and individual donors. The War Horse has also received in-kind donations such as facilities at Columbia University and the Boulder Crest retreat.

The War Horse raised about $25,000 to support the first seminar and about $30,000 each for the next two seminars, Brennan said.

“We see corporate sponsorship and corporate philanthropy, individual donors, things like that as real opportunities for not only funding the seminars but we’ve worked it into contracts where any additional funds that are raised above the fundraising goal automatically goes to general operations,” he said.


The Lessons

• Open the pipeline: Newsrooms often only look to hire or publish journalists with certain qualifying traits — a college degree, a certain level of previous experience, etc. — but by focusing on these qualities, it can be easy to overlook talented people who might not have the most traditional backgrounds.

The War Horse has made a point of including writers of all backgrounds in its seminars. For example, in its most recent seminar, one of the participating fellows, Angela Ricketts, had written a memoir while others had little to know writing experience.

“Confidence that they have a story and that their story matters is a lot of what’s missing,” Brennan said. “We’re not teaching people where to put a comma, we’re not teaching people how to get something copy edited. We’re not teaching them the nuts and bolts of writing. More than anything, we’re instilling the confidence that they have a story that people not only need to hear but want to hear.”

Over and over throughout the seminars, The War Horse staff and advisors reinforced that the fellows’ stories were valuable and worth telling. By focusing on the stories and involving editors to help with the technical parts of the writing, The War Horse was able to involve writers of all experience levels in the seminars and make it valuable for them.

• Carry the momentum forward: It’s easy to focus on writing when you’re secluded at a seminar in the woods without cell phone service, but it’s much more difficult to continue that emphasis once you return to real life.

The War Horse has taken both formal and informal steps to try and help the fellows successfully make that transition. At the most recent seminar, O’Herrin led a session that aimed to help the fellows cope with some of the memories and feelings the writing process has brought up. The War Horse also works with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma to provide resources to the fellows.

“A lot of people uncovered deeply profound stories from their own lives that in a lot of ways they had buried down a little deeper,” she said. “To dig those back up and to figure out how to frame them and how they might want to share their story with a broader audience and what they would want people to get out of it, that in some ways was kind of traumatic…So I talked about the resources that are available as we kept working on those stories, tactics for self care, and just really healthy ways of carrying forth our work coming out of the seminar.”

The fellows have also continued to serve as resources for one another even after they’ve left the seminar. The War Horse has previously tried to create Facebook groups to keep the fellows connected, but Brennan said they often died out.

However, the closeness of the cohort has informally motivated one another to continue writing

“We had all of these accountability buddies in our Facebook group and then between our texts with each other that encouraged us to continue on with our story and to remind us when we had those doubts again about whether or not our story was important, to push and say this is a thing, remember how important it was and how impactful it was among the group of us so imagine how impactful it will be to people who read it,” Schmidt said.

• Recognize and leverage your privilege: The War Horse Writing Seminars are supported financially by donations and contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. The speakers all donate their time (though they do get travel and lodging covered).

Brennan is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and he’s contributed to The New York Times’ At War blog. And over the years, many people have offered to help with the site. So When The War Horse launched the writing seminars, he called in those favors.

“Anyone who had won a Pulitzer or who had been a professor and offered, ‘Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to help you once you get War Horse going.’ When the seminars came out that’s when I pulled those cards,” he said.

Brennan recognized that his experiences had gotten him into rooms that most people wouldn’t be able to access, and he used that leverage to help others learn from some of the leaders in the industry.

The fellows leave the seminars with the contact information for all the speakers, so they’re able to begin start building their own networks. Many journalists and newsrooms have this kind of access in their communities, and enabling others to join in is incredibly powerful and can help lift them up.


The Future

When I spoke with Brennan last just before Thanksgiving, the War Horse team had just gotten back from the seminar at the Carey Institute and they were still evaluating how it went.

The site has started publishing some of the stories the fellows wrote, and it’s going to continue posting them into the new year.

It’s also already started work on planning next year’s Writing Seminar, which The War Horse is scheduled to hold in October. And while it had to scramble to fundraise for the first two seminars, next year’s is already being underwritten by The Wounded Warrior project.


Want to know more?

Esquire wrote a great profile of Brennan, The War Horse, and the reporting on the Marines United scandal.

• Here’s a CJR story on The War Horse and other sites covering the military and veterans.

• The Lenfest Institute has funded a project at WHYY, the Philadelphia public media outlet, that’s teaching community members how to report their stories.

• Earlier this year, I wrote a Solution Set report about how a group of librarians at the University of North Carolina is teaching communities across the South to record their histories.


Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom empowering community members? I want to hear your experiences, questions, or thoughts.  Please get in touch!


The lead photo is a screenshot from this video.