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Turning subject experts into journalists: 9 good questions with Robert Steiner

A fellowship program at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs recruits subject-matter experts – from scientists and lawyers to economists and cyber-experts – and over eight months trains them to become beat reporters by mentoring their work for a growing network of newspaper partners including The Dallas Morning News, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star.

Robert_Steiner This week, the program graduated its second cohort. In that time, its partners have published 280 enterprise features and exclusive investigations. Alumni are now stringing on their beats for newspapers in the US, Europe and Canada.

We talked to fellowships director Robert Steiner about how this model is different than other journalism school programs, who’s applying, and his thoughts two years in.

What is the core idea behind the Munk School of Global Affairs Fellowship in Global Journalism and how is it different than other programs?

We recruit doctors, lawyers, scientists, economists and other specialists from around the world and, in eight months, train them to be specialized beat reporters for media around the world. We start with a six-week boot camp, and then match them with our media partners as beat-stringers. They become journalists by reporting on their own disciplines under our mentorship.

In so doing, we’ve broken three basic pillars in journalism education that tend to frustrate lots of editors:

  1. We break with the premise of generalism. While there will always be a need for generalists, there’s an under-served need for reporters who can cover complex stories with real subject-matter knowledge. A crash course in, say, business or science isn’t enough. So we recruit actual specialists – professionals and scholars — and teach them the disciplines of journalism so that they can cover their own fields as reporters.
  2. We break with the premise of assignment. Most j-schools assume that some editor will assign stories to a reporter. We assume that, as beat reporters, our Fellows are entirely responsible for generating and pitching a high volume of their own story ideas. Every story has to be both immediately relevant to their audiences, and smarter than mainstream coverage on their beats. We spend a ton of time mentoring competitive news judgment and pitching skills.
  3. We don’t assume there’s a staff job after graduation. Instead, we teach our fellows to be specialized freelance stringers. We teach them the tradecraft involved in generating a portfolio of clients around the world and balancing all their needs over years.  (Not surprisingly, they tend to be great candidates for the few jobs that are out there too.)

Having broken the three assumptions of J school, we also add two things that few other programs have.

  • We don’t foist interns on newsrooms — we recognize that editors rarely have the time to teach anymore. Instead, we take responsibility for mentoring live freelance work ourselves. After their boot-camp, our Fellows start covering their beats for our media partners under the personal mentorship of former foreign correspondents and editors on our faculty. We have a curriculum too, but the core of our program is live, mentored work for newspapers and broadcasters.
  • Finally, their work integrates the global with the local. We recruit experts around the world, they cover their beats from anywhere in the world, and our media partners are around the world. But we teach Fellows to adapt global themes into local stories that serve the unique needs of their different clients in each market. And wherever they happen to be based, our instructors mentor them the way foreign editors manage their foreign correspondents.

 Where did the idea come from?

I realized a few months ago that our program actually reflects my experiences working in the Wall Street Journal’s Tokyo bureau in the mid-1990s. The Journal in those days was a reporter-driven newspaper where foreign correspondents covered their beats across borders, for readers around the world. Our bureau chiefs were very experienced and, in large bureaus like Tokyo, took responsibility for mentoring less experienced correspondents very closely. We run our program like a Journal bureau.

The appetite for this kind of program became clear to me in 2009 when I was a senior administrator at the University of Toronto. Although we don’t have a J-school, one of our campuses runs a joint program with a community college that teaches reporting and a colleague there asked me to think about the future of J school.

Advertising data clearly showed niche media on the rise as early as 2008, but J-schools were still teaching generalists.

I poured through the Pew Project’s State of the Media reports to see what had happened to the profession since I’d left it for a Wharton MBA in 1997 — and then looked at the big schools’ curricula to see whether they’d kept up.  Advertising data clearly showed niche media on the rise as early as 2008, but J-schools were still teaching generalists. We designed a program to cultivate leading niche freelancers and found that mass media were looking for the same thing, because they’d lost so many beat reporters.

We also knew that our program had to be global because every beat, from science to economics to art, is a global beat. Correspondence is as much a global profession as diplomacy or banking, which is why our program isn’t set off in its own j-school, but is embedded in one of North America’s leading schools of global affairs.

Who’s applying?

An incredibly wide range of specialties and nationalities, but it breaks down roughly into three categories…

  • Professionals or academics who want to return to their jobs but add reporting to the mix — the way Atul Gawande covers medicine for The New Yorker while still practicing as a surgeon and doing research at Harvard. Most of them are at an early stage of their careers.
  • Folks who’ve just finished PhDs or Masters degrees who want to engage deeply in their fields as full-time journalists.
  • A small number of specialists with some journalism experience, who want to become global freelancers in their beats and have never actually been mentored in the work.

Their ‘beats’ vary widely. In fact, each year I learn about themes I’d never seen as beats before:

  • Three of my first nine Fellows were environmental specialists — a Rhodes Scholar zoologist at Oxford, a Colombian professor of engineering, and an environmental lawyer from Canada’s parliament.
  • Among my 14 Fellows this year, I have a public health doctor who used to hunt epidemics for the CDC; and an economist who had been working for a hedge fund.
  • Among the 25 I’ve invited to the Fellowship next year are two cyber-security experts leaving military-related careers, two doctors, a PhD neurology researcher, two lawyers, a Rhodes Scholar expert in women’s rights and a recent graduate of Columbia J School. They’re coming from graduate programs at Oxford, Cambridge, Tufts, NYU and elsewhere.

What’s the hardest thing for these experienced professionals from other fields to get about journalism?

Polite persistence.  Most professionals and academics are used to their colleagues returning e-mails and engaging with their ideas. Editors often don’t return e-mails or even respond to pitches, unless pushed – gently. That’s really frustrating. So we teach them the disciplines of polite persistence and, as a result, help them build working relationships with editors and sources.

Depending on the beat, conflicts of interest can also be very subtle. The big ones are obvious: You don’t report on anyone you worked for or with, or on any mentors or friends. But we spend a lot of time navigating grey zones. Medical residents, for instance, are affiliated with every teaching hospital in town – so we help them manage conflicts reporting health stories. Others worry about maintaining credibility in tight-knit professions. We teach them that solid reporting speaks for itself, and that flawless articles on important issues will earn them credibility with professionals in their discipline.

Who are the partners, and how has their thinking evolved?

Our six founding partners have been The Dallas Morning News, The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Toronto Star, The National Post and The Thomson Reuters Foundation.  As freelancers, our Fellows have also appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Reuters, Vice, The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera and others.

In our first year, editors sometimes treated our copy as marginal – they would use it when they had the space. This year, our work has come closer to the core news budget for them. I think that’s for two reasons:

  • First, because as more paywalls go up, editors want an edge over news that is freely available on-line; and they’re using our folks to deliver coverage they once got from beat reporters.
  • Second, because more of our partners are becoming digital-first. They no longer hold our enterprise features for a splashy print news hole or an evening broadcast. They want deeper stories, faster for on-line, and we can feed that.

Do you see any differences in the approach of Canadian partners versus U.S.?

We work with partners in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada – and I’m inspired by the fact that all of them are experimenting.

Canadian media seem focused on cultivating national audience, perhaps because English Canada is still more compact and cohesive than the national US audience. But they’re all doing it in different ways. The Globe and Mail is packing a ton of exclusive business content behind its paywall; The National Post is deepening a connection to a national niche through the kind of counter-intuitive news judgment that one sees in the savviest British broadsheets; CBC News has become a model of how to integrate local with national news gathering across platforms; and The Toronto Star is investing heavily in investigative journalism that gives it the kind of national footprint that some US metros like the Washington Post have.

Our main US partner, The Dallas Morning News, is leading a very bold experiment in building great beat reporting by hiring specialists jointly with the universities in North Texas – and that approach taps into some outstanding talent for readers in the region. Dallasites are very lucky to be served that way.

Our UK collaborators have a different approach, again. They have genuinely global news judgment. I think they see London as a vantage point on the world and want our coverage to serve a global audience, not just a British one.

What work has come of it, and how has that work been different because of the people involved coming from other careers?

We’ve now produced more than 280 published stories and broadcast packages in the first year and a half of the program.  (Their clippings are here.) Our current cohort has produced more than 180 pieces since October 2013. Some of the highlights include:

  • 11 major features for the Sunday op/ed section of The Dallas Morning News, including one of its 10 most-read pieces in 2013.
  • One of our Fellows – formerly a graduate student at the London School of Economics specialized in human trafficking – recently broke a big story for The National Post about child trafficking from Arctic communities, including police fears that some Inuit mothers are being pressured to sell their newborns. That caused quite a political stir and a bunch of follows, including one that Vice commissioned from her.
  • A Syria expert in our program proposed, launched and managed a Syria live blog for the Globe and Mail in 2013, which continually tapped into his local sources to assess news on the civil war there over three months.
  • A food expert in the program, Ali Morrow, investigated the decline in Turkey’s fisheries for Reuters; the story got great play in The New York Times.

In each of these cases, and others, our Fellows generated ideas that conventional reporters missed because they were tapping into debates inside their own specialties that generalists just didn’t see.

In the two years you’ve done it, what have you learned that has surprised you and what has changed in the program?

I’ve been surprised by how quickly our Fellows become strong reporters.  We’ve developed templates for them to use in pitching and in writing 600-800-word news features – so they understand structure and focus very quickly. That means we can spend more time coaching news judgment.

Indeed, this year we added two weeks to our boot camp so we could start with a real focus on news judgment and pitching, before going into a month of reporting and writing skills.  That’s made a huge difference. Our Fellows are now able to pitch strong stories and execute them quickly, much sooner in the program.

By the time their eight months are done, although there’s a lot left to learn, they truly have the basis to lead the coverage in their beats.

What have your graduates gone on to? How many of them are in journalism? Where are the ones that are not?

We just graduated our second class this week. The Dallas Morning News has hired Seema Yasmin, who used to be an Epidemic Intelligence Officer for the CDC, to be an enterprise health reporter; she’ll also join the faculty at the University of Texas. Anna Nicolaou is now working at Reuters’ EU bureau, covering economics. That’s amazing because we’re not even training people for staff jobs. Most of our Fellows this year have lined up clients for their freelance careers.

Almost all of the nine who graduated in our first class last year are working in journalism. Stephen Starr is a full-time stringer based in Istanbul, working with The Irish Times, USA Today, RTE (Ireland’s public broadcaster), Global Post, and The National Post. He’s also writing about security for a counter-terrorism journal run by the US Military Academy at West Point.

Our architect pitched and won a commission to make a documentary series on Canadian architecture within a couple of weeks of graduation. Canada’s equivalent of The New Yorker just ran a major investigative feature on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by our criminology professor. Our Colombian engineering professor was made editor of his university’s science magazine with a mandate to make it popular. One of our biologists is writing science and travel features for Canadian media; the other just edited a book on climate emergencies for the UN. So far, it seems to be working.

If you’re interested in becoming a partner or would like more information about the Fellows program, you can email me at robert.steiner@utoronto.ca.

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