Experts point student journalists in the right direction

BERKELEY, Calif. — What makes a good journalist? Students from around the world participating in the “Discover the World of Communication” workshops heard from experienced reporters and editors in a series of field trips this week that helped them understand and untangle the profession. The student teams visited the San Francisco Chronicle and the Center for Investigative Reporting, and what follows are a few highlights of the visits.

Students write their first stories in a computer lab on the UC-Berkeley campus. Photo by Aaron Luck.

Students write their first stories in a computer lab on the UC-Berkeley campus. Photo by Aaron Luck.

Audrey Cooper, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle,  spoke to students after they sat in on the Chronicle’s morning news meeting with editors from throughout the paper, including Chronicle Editor and Executive Vice President Ward Bushee.

Cooper talked about the news organization’s new deadlines, which affect about 27,000 subscribers outside the Bay area and has led to complaints from those who aren’t getting late sports scores. She  explained to students that the Chronicle has contracts to deliver other newspapers, including USA TODAY and the Sacramento Bee, and has to juggle those deadlines with their own.

In publishing an earlier edition for those who subscribe in other parts of California, she said the newsroom had actually gained time — and later deadlines — in which to update the editions of the newspaper for those 300,000 subscribers in the Bay area.

Will Kane, a general-assignment reporter at the SF Chronicle and a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, said, “Part of my job is to put news on the Web that isn’t in the paper every day.”  Kane, who starts his shift at 6 a.m., said an internship at the newspaper led to his eventual full-time position, and he described his strategy: “I didn’t treat it as an internship,” he said. Instead, he said he cast his chance to stay there as, “I’m going to pretend I’ll never really leave.”

He told students, who had gathered in the newspaper’s conference room, “It’s your grit and your work ethic that will pay off.” He also reminded students — who are spending 10 days advancing their  interviewing skills while writing news and features stories — to “think of a good interview as a conversation. Don’t forget to listen.”

Jennifer Blot, executive assistant to the editor and VP,  is also a part-time editor in the Travel section and works for the editorial board at the SF Chronicle. Blot is a frequent contributor to projects throughout the newsroom, where she started as an assistant to well-known columnist Herb Caen in 1995. She shared a brief history of the paper and its merger with the San Francisco Examiner and talked about working for her former high-profile editor, Phil Bronstein, married to actress Sharon Stone at the time.

Students learn to abbreviate and create their own shorthand.

Students learn to abbreviate and create their own shorthand.

Blot described the Bay area as a mix of liberals and conservatives, and as a result, she said, “It’s very, very hard for us to please our readers.” She also said that as the world has changed with the advent of technology and hard economic times, so has the Chronicle. “We have had to become very hyperlocal,” Blot said of the paper’s focus on life in and around the Bay Area. She added that the newspaper was the first in the country to be affected by the loss of classified ad revenue when Craig Newmark created Craigslist in San Francisco, and also felt the digital move early on given the proximity to Silicon Valley and advanced technology.

The upshot of that lost revenue, coupled with the nationwide economic downturn and other shifts in the news industry the last several years, can be seen in the Chronicle newsroom, which Blot said had 560 employee 10 years ago and now has only 165.

Blot recommended that students develop a versatile skill set and a willingness to work hard, describing editors still coming in well into their 80s (Carl Nolte, who writes a column called Native Son on Sundays) and 90s (science reporter David Perlman). But the bottom line is still the ability to tell a great story, she said, recapping one of reporter Kevin Fagan’s heartwrenching stories of a homeless woman in San Francisco whose family learned of her through the news story and was able to reunite with her. “Being in this business, you can change lives,” Blot said.

Robert Salladay, managing editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest nonprofit investigative news center in the country, and which now has 75 employees and an $11 million annual budget, gathered students in a conference room in CIR’s Berkeley headquarters, soon to be moving to Emeryville, Calif. CIR partners with PBS FRONTLINE, Univision, NPR and HBO on various projects; some of CIR’s stories have been translated into poetry and plays in an effort to reach younger and wider audiences.

Ryan Gabrielson, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting, joined Salladay to relay to students how a news tip led to sources who led to more sources and what turned into 18 months and dozens of articles about how police were failing to investigate sexual crimes against the disabled.

Both he and Salladay encouraged students to study more than journalism when they go to college. Salladay said graduate school at Northwestern University taught him the field was “easy to learn and difficult to master.” He said, “The most important thing in journalism — hands down — is empathy,” encouraging the students to be good listeners.

Gabrielson enjoys working on new topics and new ideas and interviewing people. “I don’t know why you’re in our business if you don’t enjoy talking to people,” he said, adding that “smart questions can make up for lack of a knowledge base.”

Both told the students not to expect to get rich if they do decide to become journalists. But, said Gabrielson, “You do work of consequence.” And although the field continues to be in transition, as newspapers lose staff and advertising revenue, he seemed optimistic. “The lesson of the past 10 years is there is going to be constant change,” he said. “But good journalism will remain.”