The Detroit Free Press is abruptly ending a 29-year-old high school journalism program within weeks, where high school students were brought into the newsroom to work alongside seasoned professionals. The Gannett-owned newspaper no longer has a financial interest in funding the program, according to multiple Free Press employees, who learned that the program would be discontinued on Monday but declined to speak for attribution before the paper issues a formal statement.
“With (Detroit Public Schools) in such turmoil, this is the only newspaper outlet some of these schools had,” says Emiliana Sandoval, copy chief at Motor Trend, who ran the program while a copyeditor at the Freep from 1999-2006 and then full time 2006-07. “They (the students) can’t express themselves. Part of the program is learning about writing, communication, interviewing—all things that can be used in any job, not just journalism.”
Alumni expressed concern that budding Detroit journalists, particularly black ones—Detroit’s population is 83 percent black—would be shut off from a rewarding career if the program shuts down. “We’ve already seen newspapers are losing minority staffers at a fast rate. This isn’t helping—there’s no feeder system,” Sandoval says. The most recent American Society of News Editors census shows that about 12 percent of journalists in newsrooms are minorities, a figure that has remained stagnant for years.
Publisher Paul Anger, who could not initially be reached for comment, later issued a statement saying a summer apprenticeship program would remain but that the high school program was in jeopardy. Here’s his full statement: “Contrary to what CJR reported, the Free Press has no plans to end its Summer Apprentice Program, which gives high-school students, mostly from Detroit, a paid six-week stint in the Free Press newsroom as they are mentored by our staff. That program will continue.
“Also: We have not made a final determination on the future of the High School Journalism Program that runs during the school year. That program - which is separate from the paid summer apprenticeships - involves the Free Press working with Detroit high school journalism programs to publish content in a print newspaper and on a web site called freephigh.com.
“We do need to find ongoing funding for the High School Journalism Program, and we’re still working on that. If we are not able to continue the program this fall, that does not mean it would be gone forever - because we know what the program has meant to so many young journalists from Detroit.”
The Freep and Detroit’s other daily paper, The Detroit News, were once seen as starting points for future national talent, pipelines to the biggest newpapers in the country. Many of these papers have been covering Detroit’s bankruptcy and revival at length recently without getting the whole story. The New York Times’ most recent Sunday magazine cover about life after bankruptcy was penned by a non-native writers, to name just one recent example. So it’s more important than ever, alumni say, for home-grown talent to be cultivated, to rise through the ranks to tell their own stories.
“It shrinks the minority talent pipeline that the industry desperately needs,” says Bowdeya Tweh, a former apprentice who is now a business reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The Free Press’ high school journalism program began in 1985 under the guise of Jerry Tilis*, a Free Press executive who went on to work for its then-parent company, Knight-Ridder, and Dr. Louise Reid Ritchie, a longtime columnist, educator, and later director of the National Association of Black Journalists’ internship program. The paper began offering to print high school newspapers for several of Detroit’s public schools and distribute them to classrooms each month.
Some Detroit Public Schools funded their own newspapers, but nearly all of them took advantage of the Free Press’ generosity. Each school was granted one full page of content, and all the schools’ papers were published in one section. A website, FreepHigh.com, was launched in 2008.
Students on newspaper staffs were invited to the paper’s downtown offices to edit and lay out their final product each month, interacting with professional journalists. That spun off an apprenticeship program, launched in 1991, where 10 or so students, mostly from Detroit Public Schools, would work in the newsroom for about a month. (I completed the program in 2001.)
“They were writing stories,” Sandoval says. “They weren’t answering phones or job shadowing. They would sometimes write for 1A, or take photos for other sections…it was a benefit for them, and certainly a benefit for the Free Press.”