The Watauga Experiment: How an MTSU professor turns the classroom into a newsroom

Photo and Story by Shorin Estell / Staff Writer

Watauga County just might be the craziest place in Tennessee you’ve never heard of. For instance, in March 2015, Roscoe and Kimberly Turin faced drug charges after police found unprescribed hydrocodone pills during a raid by the Watauga County Animal Patrol, which suspected the Turins were hiding 47 pit bulls that were allegedly victims of dog fighting in the woods behind their home.

Also in 2015, Lindsey Staple, football offensive coach of the Watauga County High School Pioneers, almost lost her job due to discrimination against her sexuality, and Paul Davidson was charged with reckless endangerment after he killed Enoch Mathis while driving home drunk.

So why haven’t you heard of these people before? Well, it’s because they’re all made up by Joe White, an adjunct journalism professor at MTSU.

White, who teaches three sections of Media Writing, used to give his students assignments based on made-up news in Rutherford County, but then realized if the work got out, someone could be accused of libel.

And so, Watauga County was born.

White took the name from the 1772 Watauga Association, which had hoped to become a separate state in the northeast region of Tennessee. He said he also named the public places after people who had been involved in the real Watauga County.

“I named the public schools after people who were involved with Watauga County,” White said. “One of the elementary schools is named ‘Dragging Canoe,’ which was the name of the Indian chief that was there.”

There are roughly 220 active characters in White’s Watauga County catalog, from dairy farmer Hunter Kerr to Cooter White, owner of Cooter’s Welding Repair; to  Lorraine Young, an 88-year-old Watauga County Nursing Home patient who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

There’s always something to write about. For instance, China Hagan was a homeless man who died alongside the riverbank after being released from the county jail.

“We were working on obits, and a lot of students looked at that and when they saw it, they said, ‘Oh, no! Not China Hagan,’ because they’d come to think of him as a real person,” White said. “When you can begin to see why someone is doing something, it becomes clearer why we have to cover it.” He added that, upon being released from jail, China had been fighting an undiagnosed case of pneumonia, which caused his death. Which raises the question of what exactly the sheriff is doing with the money for medical treatment, and there you have it: another story to cover.

White compared Watauga county to “Dungeons and Dragons” in the sense that everything is always the same: same characters, same connections, same events.

And so his students leave knowing exactly what to expect in their field, he runs his class like an actual newsroom.

MTSU professor Joe White forces students to rethink journalism by turning his classroom into a fictional newsroom. (SIdelines / Shorin Estell)

On Monday mornings, students give news stories that took place over the weekend and vote on which are the most interesting. The stories with the highest votes are put on the front page of the Frankfort Times, the made-up news plant for Watauga County, and the contributors receive an A for the day. The rest of Monday and the entire duration of Wednesday and Friday are often spent working on Watauga County stories.

“I think this class is really great, and I really do recommend it,” freshman Anicka Boyce said. “Though it’s fiction, it still feels like our job.”

If more information is needed for a story, students are instructed to place their pinky finger and thumb up to the side of their face, and yell, “Ring, ring!” White then answers the “phone” and pretends to be the person the student is looking for, often changing his voice and accent to fit different characters.

When students write their stories, they turn them into White, who is also the editor of the newsroom. He marks the papers up with green ink and yells for them to do it again until they bring him a story that is ready to be published.

Before coming to MTSU in 2007, White worked as a journalist for more than 40 years. His career spanned across five newspapers, two political newspapers (one that was his own for nine years) and Nashville Public Radio. He applies a lot of his own experiences to help his students learn.

“I have 50 students, which means I have to read 50 stories a day, and I do just that,” White said. “I don’t just give them a D, a B or a C. I mark up their papers and throw them back at them until it is acceptable, and after constantly rewriting, they begin to learn what is acceptable.”

“It’s definitely not your traditional textbook journalism class, which I think is important,” said Eric Goodwin, a freshman and one of White’s current students. “It incorporates a lot of things that you will experience in the real world.”

Shorin Estell is a senior at Middle Tennessee State University studying journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @shutupshorin_.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Marissa Gaston email

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    April 26, 2017

    I usually am against older people teaching a subject that uses modern technology and covers modern events, mainly because biasness of them not being able to comprehend modern ideas and/or technologies. Therefore, I feel they should not have a say so in commentary. However, in a field such as journalism, especially newsprint, age and experience is wisdom. I commend Professor White on his technique of teaching. I like how it is kind of a libel lesson taught along with media writing skills. The fact he pointed and has a good explanation for why they needed to create made up towns and characters to avoid libel is a valuable lesson for journalism students. It is one lesson that is often overlooked in curriculums. I feel this technique is a more valuable learning experience because if students just went off events that happened in real life, their imaginations would be limited. By being able to make up scenarios, they are learning ways to cover weird unusual events. I agree with his grading process. Instead of giving you a grade and not telling you what you did wrong, he tells you what did wrong, allows you to edit it, and gives you a chance of making a better grade. This makes the environment feel like the actual work field which I feel all mass communication classes should strive to do.

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