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After 29 years, Freep is indefinitely halting its high school journalism program (UPDATED) - It has long been a pipeline, sending local, diverse talent to prominent journalism careers

By Aaron Foley

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."

The program has a longtime association with Ford Motor Company, which has funded significant portions of the program for most of its existence and offers a scholarship to high-achieving seniors in the program. All other costs were covered by the Freep, including summer apprentice stipends, lunches, equipment, and printing costs for the school newspapers (once covered by the nationwide Newspapers in Education fund). The annual bill totaled about $100,000.

But as resources dwindled amidst industry changes, so did investment in the program. *In 2005, the Detroit Free Press was sold to Gannett. That brought an end to a Knight-Ridder scholarship offered to Detroit students to study journalism, one of only a handful of scholarships available to locals at the time. Gone, also, was Knight-Ridder's influence.

"When Gannett took over, (the high school journalism program) wasn't as much as a priority," Sandoval says. Sandoval left--"They said my skills and salary were too high"--and turned the reins over to Erin Perry, who handled the program along with her daily duties as a copyeditor.

"There was a time when I was doing copyediting, reporting, and the high school program," Perry says. "Some of the schools met at 7:30 in the morning, and I'd be getting off at 11 at night. It got really tough."

To Ford's credit, Perry says, the car company always was willing to continue its funding, even during lean times for the automotive industry. "(But) for the Free Press, at the time when I was there, the issue was always bottom line, which was time and money. It is not a free program," she says.

The paper stopped employing summer college interns in 2009; high school apprentices picked up some of the slack each year after that. When the apprenticeship program wraps for the last time on July 31, the paper will no longer print high school papers or operate the FreepHigh website. Ford will likely continue to offer its scholarship, but currently, to be eligible, applicants have to be Freep apprentices. "Where do you get applicants?" one staffer wonders.

Supporting the schools

Currently, 14 high schools in the Detroit Public Schools system participate in the journalism program. Some schools withdrew from participation after being turned over to the Educational Achievement Authority, a state-run public district launched in 2012 to oversee low-performing schools. Both school districts are fraught with problems; DPS operates on a $127 million deficit and has been under state oversight since 2009, while the nascent EAA has come into question for dismal state test scores and excessive spending on top-level employees. Still, public school students from Detroit were consistently well represented in local and statewide high school journalism programs, chiefly aided by the Free Press program.

"The Free Press has brought hundreds, if not thousands, of students to our programs over the years," says Jeremy Steele, director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association (MIPA). "Given the funding realities in Detroit schools, I think it's fair to say these kids likely would not have participated without this program's help."

The press association invites students and teachers from across the state to an annual fall conference to participate in workshops with journalism professionals and educators. And a summer MIPA program brings students to Michigan State University's campus for a week for an extended experience. Neither event is cheap; Perry notes she often pulled together additional funding from the Free Press to get Detroit students to those events. "MIPA would love to do more outreach in Detroit, but pulling that off without a partner like the Free Press would be a challenge," Steele says.

What may be lost

The high school journalism program is widely lauded by alumni as the beginning of a path to a successful career in the field. Alumni include ESPN columnist and broadcaster Jemele Hill, Atlanta Journal-Constitution features editor Jamila Robinson, New York Times reporters Steve Eder and John Eligon, Jenese Harris, an anchor at the ABC affiliate in Champaign, IL, and Kameel Stanley, a crime reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.

"It changed my life," Hill says. Her newspaper at Detroit's Mumford High School was printed by the Freep, and the monthly visits to the downtown office led her to apply to the apprenticeship program, where she was accepted.

"If this program shuts down, that's one less avenue that DPS students will have toward success. There are so many at-risk students who just need hope there's a different path, or to be exposed to something new. I fell in that category," Hill says. "This was a career I never knew was possible until I was shown just how possible it was."

Eder, a former Toledo Blade reporter who shared a Pulitzer nomination for uncovering Ohio's infamous "Coingate" scandal, is another former apprentice who rose through the ranks while mentored by a soon-to-be Pulitzer winner: M.L. Elrick, who won the prize in 2009 for his role in revealing former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's large-scale corruption.

"Getting a chance to be an apprentice at the Detroit Free Press was about the biggest career break that I could imagine as a 17-year-old," he says. "I had a strong feeling that I wanted to be a journalist professionally, but after a few weeks at the Free Press, I had no doubts about what I wanted to do with my future." When he arrived at the Times after stints at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, he adds, one of his first greetings came from Eligon, who was an apprentice alongside Eder in 2000.

As the news spread, alumni of the program have quickly rallied together in search of opportunities to keep the program alive, including possibly soliciting help from foundations or other sponsors.

Steele, the interscholastic program director, echoes those sentiments. "I hope like-minded organizations can find a way to pull together some resources," says Steele, "because there certainly is a need in Detroit for a program like this. The amount of money the newspaper invests in this initiative is minor compared to the potential benefits for these students."

*This story has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Jerry Tilis and the accurate date of the Detroit Free Press' sale to Gannett.

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