The business model for journalism is broken. We have heard this time again as media companies have downsized month after month for approximately the last decade.
Still, there will always be news. It just doesn’t pay very well except to a very few people. And many of those people, frankly, are charlatans. No need to name them. You have your favorite whipping boys and girls. I have mine.
To borrow a phrase from Occupy Wall Street: We are the 99 percent and they are the 1 percent.
Journalists in the 99 percent probably can’t fix what’s broken. Occupying public spaces or waging class warfare doesn’t seem to work.
Maybe what we can do is simply help each other. Here’s one way of doing that. I am hoping it works for one young journalist. I am hoping, too, it might create a path others might follow in their own way.
In June of 2000, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of stories that I wrote titled, A Better Place to Grow Up. The opus focused on a St. Louis inner city neighborhood, a school, a teacher, and a gaggle of fifth graders. That school year Richard Baron, CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, had launched an effort involving many St. Louis businesses that brought to bear financial and in-kind support for Jefferson School. Their goal: Create a brighter future for the kids at Jefferson.
I was fortunate that the Post-Dispatch gave me wide berth to write this series; that it assigned a much-decorated photographer J.B. Forbes to shoot it; that it put the stories on the front page four days in a row. The series brought me accolades. It burnished my reputation as a writer.
And then everyone moved on. The students at Jefferson School and me.
One of those students was Evita Caldwell, who is now 24 years old.
One day a couple of years ago, Evita got in touch with me when I was working at the St. Louis Beacon. “You may not remember me, Mr. Weiss,” she said. “But I was in that class of students at Jefferson School that you wrote about. I am writing a story about my teacher Mary Spencer and what she meant to me. Would you help me get it published in the Beacon?”
At the time, Evita was on a path to get a degree in communications from Saint Louis University.
About three months later, I was handing out scholarship checks in my role then as president of the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis. Up comes Ashley Westbrook to get her $1,000 check. That name sounded familiar. “Ashley, do I know you?”
“Yes, Mr. Weiss, I was one of those kids who you wrote about at Jefferson School.”
Another student with a great outcome. Ashley was also getting a degree in communications, but from another school here in St. Louis, Webster University.
Then, once again, everyone moved on.
Fast forward to August of this year. I got this message through Facebook from Evita:
Hi Mr. Weiss!
I hope all is well on your end… I have been having a hard time breaking into journalism, both editorial and broadcast, and it’s been 2 years since I’ve graduated college. So, I’m looking for an outlet that will allow me to stay afloat and to get more experience with a professional news organization.
Evita was looking for an internship. She said she would work for free.
Given the economy, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by her plight.
A young woman from the inner city follows all the rules, graduates from high school (second in her class), and, as I later learned, invests in her future by getting a college loan to the tune of $8,000.
She gets that university diploma, and the best she can do is find work as a pharmacy tech at Walgreens at $10 an hour. She’s about to quit, she tells me in a subsequent message, and begin looking for work out of town because she sees no future here.
This made me at the same time sad and angry.
Let’s talk, Evita.
We met at a Starbucks and hatched a plan. Evita would write the sequel to “A Better Place To Grow Up” with my help. We’d call it All Grown Up. Using the phone book and Facebook and whatever other means available, she would aim to get in touch with every student she could find from her fifth grade class.
Then she would address a question with them: Were their outcomes like Ashley’s and Evita’s? Did all that corporate involvement and support make a difference?
Then she would turn to civic and business leaders with another set of questions, including: The program aimed at improving the lives of my classmates has ended. What are you doing to continue level the educational playing field for disadvantaged students?
In producing this story, Evita would perform a public service. But she would also be helping herself. She would meet influential people and lay down a marker as a journalist worth hiring for a fulltime job. Or so I would like to think.
But who would publish Evita’s story?
Well the Post-Dispatch might given that it published the first group of stories. And maybe the Beacon, because it covers “news that matters.” And maybe the St. Louis American, which serves African-Americans. And maybe St. Louis Public Radio. And maybe the Nine Network.
To make it easy for them to do so, we would offer the story to these organizations free. We would raise the money to pay for Evita’s time from people with an interest in journalism and education; people with a social conscience; people who I have gotten to know as a journalist in this town for 40 years. At least I could ask.
In the meantime, I sent a letter of reference for Evita to KMOV-TV, which had an internship available.
Evita got the job. And now she’s making $7.35 an hour (minimum wage) and working from 3 a.m. to 8:30 Monday through Friday. It’s a financial step backwards to be sure, but a foot in the door. And she’s got her days free to work on “All Grown Up.”
My goal is to raise enough money to pay Evita $20 an hour. That’s a decent, but not overly generous, wage for a young journalist. I am donating my time. At this writing, more than 75 people have stepped up to donate anywhere from $15 to $500.
The research is underway. Along with that, we have been appearing together at events to draw everyone’s interest (and maybe some more donations.) Evita reads from some work she has already written about education, the inner city and her childhood. It is by turns funny and poignant, incisive and revelatory.
In recent weeks, the Post-Dispatch has not only agreed to work with us on the story, but has provided the services of photographer Forbes, who shot the pictures for the original series. Channel 9 is taping a documentary on Evita’s quest. We are setting up meetings with other media organizations.
By the end of her research – probably in the spring, I know Evita will have a great story to share.
And not long after that, I am pretty sure she’ll land a job worthy of her talents.
If not, we will try something else. There is no quit in either one of us.
Richard H. Weiss, is a nearly life-long St. Louis resident, who was a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 30 years, a founder of the St. Louis Beacon, and currently writes on a wide array of issues important to the region. He currently oversees operations of WeissWrite LLC, a business that provides writing, editing and consulting services for media companies, businesses, schools and anyone with a story to tell. During the first five months of this year, he is a visiting professor at the Oklahoma University’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication in Norman, OK. More information can be found at weisswrite.com.