New Balance

Training the next generation of conservative journalists

In today’s media market, training young journalists might seem like teaching workers to make buggy whips, circa 1905. But four nonprofit programs are betting that while media may evolve, the need for professional gatherers and interpreters of news is eternal—and that if journalistic ranks are to gain a healthy diversity of opinion, there is a particular need for news-gatherers open to conservative perspectives.

The oldest of these programs, the National Journalism Center, since 1977 has offered budding reporters the chance to intern with media outlets in Washington, D.C., while attending journalism classes taught by experienced faculty, many of them alumni of the program. The newest, the four-year-old Student Free Press Association, gives campus journalists a national platform for their work, as well as paid fellowships with publishers of political journalism. A third organization, now in its 21st year, is the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship, which offers reporters in the first decade of their career the chance to work on a yearlong project of their choosing. The fourth, the Buckley Journalism Fellowships, has since 2009 installed one or two young journalists each year at National Review, giving them on-the-job training at the flagship conservative magazine. All four of these programs aim to balance out what they see as the dominant liberal bent of the media by teaching the tools of the trade to individuals open to issues of interest to conservatives and libertarians.

Reporters wanted

The programs have another thing in common: They want budding reporters—the traditional gumshoes who ferret out facts and figures—and not editorialists. “The first thing we tell our reporters is, ‘No one cares about your opinion,’” says Hannah Jackman, program director of the NJC (which is now a division of Young America’s Foundation). “Solid reporting gives you respect and credibility. The best way to be influential and be marketable is to be a great reporter.” To develop that inquisitive instinct, NJC started a weekly Wednesday evening workshop for its interns focused on investigative reporting, taught by experienced alumni. They want their graduates to be “comfortable with investigative work,” she says.

Jackman’s words are echoed by Lindsay Craig, who heads the National Review Institute, the nonprofit arm of the magazine that houses the Buckley Journalism Fellowship. “We’re looking for young people who have expressed an interest in journalism—not just political bloggery,” she says. “There are a lot of kids who only know how to write what they feel. Real journalists understand the value of having multiple sources for their assertions, and know that editors will push you in certain places to make you a better writer.” The program was designed “in the tradition of Buckley—who was always finding and nurturing young talent—to be able to continue this commitment to up-and-coming journalists in a way that was valuable to the magazine,” says Craig. Buckley Fellows spend a year writing for National Review. The program includes regular lunchtime training sessions on journalistic practice and meetings with prominent writers. 

Novak Fellowship head John Farley—himself a journalism-school graduate who worked for a daily paper in Florida—connects the program’s focus on reporting and investigation to the influence of its namesake. The fellowships began in 1994 as a program of the Phillips Foundation, a small grantmaking organization established by publisher Tom Phillips. Robert Novak was an original trustee of the foundation, and suggested a fellowship in journalism to counter the leftward drift of his profession. The program has grown to include five to ten annual awardees, who are paid up to $50,000 to research and report a particular topic. Originally called Phillips Fellowships, they were renamed within a year of Novak’s death in 2009, and the program is now housed at the Fund for American Studies, where Tom Phillips continues to support it, along with grants from the Charles Koch, Diana Davis Spencer, JM, Bradley, and GFC foundations.

Novak, who wrote one of the longest-running columns in American journalistic history, never abandoned traditional reporting methods even as he was increasingly called upon to offer analysis and opinion on the news. “Bob was one of the great journalists of the twentieth century, and one of the few columnists who was a reporting columnist,” says Farley. “He was very proud of that fact and it really set him apart from the crowd.” Farley recalls Novak speaking with young fellowship recipients just before his death from cancer, when he had to use a wheelchair. His widow Geraldine remains a devoted supporter of the program.

From the ground up

John Miller, founder of the Student Free Press Association, was once one of the many wannabe journalists who make their way to Washington. Miller has been involved in campus journalism since he edited the Michigan Review, the conservative newspaper at the University of Michigan. After graduation he got an internship at the D.C. political magazine The New Republic, then spent many years at National Review, while publishing at a host of outlets (including Philanthropy, where he is a contributing editor). Having long attempted to help other conservative and libertarian campus journalists with internships and mentorship, he now heads the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

The Student Free Press Association arose from Miller’s interest in the next generation of journalists. The group’s online news portal, the College Fix, publishes the original work of right-leaning student writers, in order to give them “a platform from which they could get more attention” than  from just the campus level. On a recent Friday, for example, the website featured stories about a small Christian college nixing its “Crusader” mascot for fear of giving offense (before anyone had complained); a story from Dartmouth about Republican students being barred from a campus meeting to plan Martin Luther King Jr. holiday events; and video featuring New York University students confessing their ignorance of Benghazi—with two saying they’d be interested in going there for a study abroad program. “What makes us different is that we’re working with student journalists while they’re still in college,” says Miller, “helping them to break stories on their campus and exposing them to a wider national audience than they would otherwise have.”

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Matthew Pitchford, National Journalism Center

Coupled with the College Fix is a fellowship program, which pays campus journalists while they work stints at media outlets such as the Weekly Standard, National Review, RealClearPolitics, the Hill, and the Washington Examiner. The fellowships and website are supported by grants from the Searle Freedom Trust and the Bradley, Hertog, JM, Apgar, and Rumsfeld foundations.

Students who really integrate into a news outlet sometimes snag permanent reporting jobs. That was how it worked for Adam O’Neal, a senior at the University of California–Irvine who was studying literary journalism and working part-time as a radio producer. O’Neal hoped to come to D.C. to break into political journalism but couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship. Through the Student Free Press Association and its $400 per week stipend, he was able to spend two months working at the online political reporting outfit RealClearPolitics. At the end of his fellowship, he was hired full-time. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that the paid fellowship was a life-changer for me,” says O’Neal. “I would never have been able to afford to do this without that stipend.” O’Neal has written long stories on Chris Christie’s political trajectory and changes to marijuana laws, as well as shorter, breaking-news items.

When speaking to alumni of these four programs, it is striking how often the existence of a paid internship—even just a few hundred dollars a week—makes all the difference for students who don’t have the resources to intern for free and might otherwise have been unable to break into the field. Nikki Grey, an NJC alumna from 2011, credits the program with radically reshaping her life. Grey spent her teenage years in the Nevada foster-care system after her mother died and her father relinquished his parental rights. As a child living in group homes and shuffling from foster parent to foster parent, she took comfort in books, her journal, and teachers who encouraged her as a writer. After high school she joined the 2 percent of foster kids who go to college, graduating in 2011 from the University of Nevada. A paid internship through NJC landed her at the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s online publication. “So many of the people in journalism come from very similar, often privileged backgrounds,” Grey says. “For me, it seemed impossible just to go to college. NJC put me on the same level with them.” Grey landed a job as a features writer at the Santa Barbara News-Press, and presently is working on her first novel.

Tracking impact in changing times

For all four of these programs, the goal is to train journalists who will influence and help balance the national debate in years to come. All four struggle with precisely how to measure and define success in reaching that goal.

The Buckley Fellowship program scored an early triumph last year when its first graduate—National Review writer Robert Costa, who had won widespread notice for his reporting during the recent federal government shutdown—was hired by the Washington Post as a national political reporter, a crossover from conservative to establishment media.

NJC has recently invested in a full-time staff member charged with reaching out to and tracking the program’s 2,000 alumni. “Like with any nonprofit, when you’re trying to run the program leanly, it’s no small task to spend time” assessing impact, says Jackman. Tracking has two goals: helping NJC get a handle on how effective the program is at placing alumni in the news industry, and developing mentoring networks that can deepen the experience—and future career opportunities—of current students.

For Farley, the impact of the 117 Novak alumni is a similar exercise in biography. These former fellows, he says, “are climbing the ranks as reporters, writers, editors, and anchors, and a lot of them have written books that are moving debates.” He points to former Novak Fellows who now occupy positions at the Manchester Union-Leader, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Free Beacon, and the Weekly Standard. “We can point to millions of eyeballs on the work of our fellows.”

Younger than NJC or the Novak Fellowships, the Student Free Press Association has had fewer opportunities for national influence. Miller points to the explosive growth of the College Fix as an early indicator of influence. The website attracts millions of unique visitors in a year. The College Fix has been cited many times by the web’s heavyweight news aggregator, the Drudge Report.

These programs range from the relatively inexpensive (approximately $5,000 per participant in stipends and indirect costs for the Student Free Press Association and NJC) to $75,000 in salary and benefits for each Buckley Fellow. All four programs rely heavily or exclusively on philanthropic donations. A striking optimism suffuses these programs—the sense that journalism remains a proud and valuable profession even as individual media outlets change, evolve, or die.

To Jackman, the hands-on training provided by a program like NJC is even more important in a digital world where, as she puts it, “anybody sitting at a computer in their living room can be a journalist.” With the dismantling of the traditional layers of editors at daily papers and magazines, it’s critical that the journalists of tomorrow prize careful checks on the quality of content. NJC is also training young journalists to use social media as a way to push their content, offering video workshops that teach students how to use iPhone video clips and pictures to enliven stories.

To Farley, the present age is “a really exciting time for journalism. One platform—the daily newspaper—is fading,” but Farley notes that change has always been a hallmark of the news business. “When I came out of journalism school, television was changing print media and killing evening newspapers.” Now, the Novak Fellows are increasingly active in new media, and a number of alumni are blogger-reporters or work in online political or cultural journalism. “I can’t predict what the field is going to look like in 20 years,” he says, “but we’re training people to be on the vanguard of that.”

“The forms by which we consume the news have changed many times, and who knows where we’ll end up in a decade,” echoes Miller. “We don’t know which medium will survive, but we do know there will be media.” Wherever future readers and viewers go to get their news, these programs are working to ensure that there are qualified  journalists available to dish it up and balance it out. 

Contributing editor Justin Torres is an attorney in Washington, D.C.