Fight the good fight
In an age when newsrooms are hemorrhaging staff, Barbara Kelley '70 talks about what it means to teach journalism at Santa Clara—and what's in store for journeyman journalists just setting forth.
Photo: Charlotta Kratz
The director of the journalism emphasis in the Department of Communication, Barbara Kelley '70 has taught at Santa Clara since 1997. She has written for a wide range of publications including the Los Angeles Times, California Magazine, Health Magazine, Redbook, Salon.com, Pacific News Service, Parenting Magazine, San Jose Mercury News, The Christian Science Monitor, and San Francisco Chronicle. She and her daughter, Shannon, who is also a journalist, collaborated on the book Undecided, due out from Seal Press in April 2011. The book looks at choice overload in our day and age and builds, in part, on an essay she wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and adapted for Santa Clara Magazine. SCM Editor Steven Boyd Saum spoke with her about the trials and tribulations facing would-be journalists today.
SCM: As part of a Markkula Center panel a few years ago, you mentioned that students in journalism are truly excited about being in on the ground floor of the emerging new forms of journalism. Is that still the case?
Kelley: I can't say that students are truly excited about being on the ground floor anymore. They are worried about jobs—but there are many who are still excited about journalism itself. The sense of worry was exacerbated in 2008 with the downturn and the reality of getting jobs and paying off student loans. With everything changing in the news industry, students are a little more apprehensive—which is not to say they're not interested in journalism. That's slowly starting to turn, because I think they are seeing more possibilities, both with online news sources or graduate school in journalism.
We've recently had several students attend the graduate program at Columbia, including Jack Gillum '06, currently a database editor and investigative reporter for USA Today; and Jeremy Herb '08, who had an internship with Newsweek and worked for a New York Times site and is now with Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
There are two students who are currently in graduate school at Columbia now: Tatiana Sanchez '10 and Richard Nieva '09. It's important for readers to know that we have a journalism program here and it's vibrant, and there are still kids who keep the faith. That's the most valuable thing we could do right now for journalism: get them to realize how important it is and that they can be part of it. And they can dictate the future.
I was at a barbeque at San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy's house a couple years ago, and there were a lot of reporters there. I was talking to one sports writer from the East Bay, who was worried about his job and the way his publication was going. “What do you tell these kids about journalism in this day and age?” he asked.
I said, “I tell them they're the architects of the change.” And I really believe that.
SCM: You mentioned some interesting work in the capstone courses. What's surprising and illuminating to you?
Kelley: One is how seriously they take it. The capstone students work on one story all quarter. It's a piece that often relates to an issue that has a high level of impact outside the university. Last quarter, one student wrote a piece on a toxic site in Kettleman City that was being blamed for a cancer cluster in this very poor, mainly minority area. The student not only did all the background research on the science and talked to advocates for the families, but she went down there to spend time with the families whose kids had died. She went to the site itself and was hustled away by people with guns, and she was told: You can't come here. So she parked by the side of the road, got a lot of stuff by looking in her rearview mirror, got as close as she could. She did everything that a professional would have done.
Another student did her story on couples who can't conceive children naturally and the problems they go through in building a family. She studied adoption and various fertility treatments. She traced down the doctor who was responsible for the first in vitro fertilization and interviewed him. I think he's in his 90s. It's professional-level reporting and going as far as the story will take you.
SCM: Conversely, is there anything that you've seen that alarms you, whether that's here at Santa Clara or within the environment that the students are going into?
Kelley: One of the problems is lack of appreciation for what journalism is really about, and the good and the bad of online journalism. The fact that we've gone digital means there's so much information out there. It's hard, without real focus on media literacy, for students—and a lot of adults—to discern news from opinion, and to understand what the real news is, as opposed to commentary and political rhetoric.
The first thing our students need to learn is to edit: take all this information and figure out what is news, what can you trust, what's opinion, how to think critically about it. That's tough, because there's so much out there and it's so new.
SCM: So is the glass half full or half empty? Or, to extend the metaphor, is the glass cracked and all but drained at this point?
Kelley: I'm an optimist at heart, so I like to think half full. For a while it was kind of hard to bound into the classroom and say, “Hey! You're going to embark on the most important thing you can possibly do!” Because you're thinking, Well, the jobs aren't out there, everything's changing. But then, I realized, they are the kids who are going to go into it and make a difference—and they're going to be part of the change. The people who have been in the industry for too long kind of have blinders as how to change the industry and make it work for the future.
But these students, if they do go into journalism, are not contaminated by the old ways. They have grown up with social media and the Internet, so they think about it in a fresh way. If we can hold their interest and make them understand how important it is, we're going to have a new generation of journalists out there who are going to make it better.
SCM: On your blog j.linx, you ask people to join in on the conversation about the future of journalism. Are there other questions or observations that we aren't asking or observations that we aren't making that we should be?
Kelley: For those of us who went to journalism school when we did, we learned what we had to do for that time and place. But you have to keep thinking in new ways and look at the new forums that are out there and the new challenges that they bring.
For example, when you talk about digital news, what's great is that it's far more transparent. You have hyperlinks, so if you're talking about statistics or a document, you can link to those and the readers can dig further down. The downside is that it's all quicker, shorter, and you don't understand whether or not people are taking the extra step or they're tuning out after reading a blurb. That's something that still needs to be solved.
With the accessibility of the news not only online, but on cell phones, you are up to date on headlines, but more than likely that's it—because there's too much out there to choose from, and really you don't have time to luxuriate in a longer story.
SCM: Speaking of luxuriating in a longer story, you just finished collaborating with your daughter on a book project, Undecided. Was it with your encouragement or warning that she went into journalism herself?
Kelley: One time when she was writing for an alternative weekly, she put together a bio of herself. She wrote that she tried for years to avoid following in her mother's footsteps. But I never discourage her. I am delighted she's gone into it. I wish there was more money in it, but she's really good—and she loves it.
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