Lessons from young journalists finding work at non-profit news outlets

By GenJ Guest Blogger Robert McLean

Lay offs, furloughs and buyouts have hit the journalism industry hard in the past few years. Even The Grey Lady – The New York Times – hasn’t been immune from the profession’s transition into the 21st Century.

Yet young journalists continue to find jobs. Non-profit journalism organizations are hiring reporters and editors fresh out of J-School. Recently, I spoke with three of these non-profit journalists about their careers.

From left to right: Michael Todd, Managing Editor of Hear Nebraska (photo by Rob McLean), Rebecca Thiele, Radio Producer for WMUK (photo courtesy of Rebecca Thiele), Lauren Mills, Digital Analyst and Reporter for IowaWatch (photo courtesy of Lauren Mills)

From left to right: Michael Todd, Managing Editor of Hear Nebraska (photo by Rob McLean), Rebecca Thiele, Radio Producer for WMUK (photo courtesy of Rebecca Thiele), Lauren Mills, Digital Analyst and Reporter for IowaWatch (photo courtesy of Lauren Mills)

Lauren Mills, Digital Analyst and Reporter at Iowa Watch

Lauren Mills turned a student job into a full time journalism gig.

Mills and I met at the 2012 SPJ Region 7 spring conference in Ames, Iowa. She was in her senior year at the University of Iowa, and had just completed a project on nitrogen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico for the non-profit news site IowaWatch.org.

She landed a reporting gig at IowaWatch after applying for a fellowship program with the organization– a website that dedicates itself to “producing and encouraging explanatory and investigative journalism in Iowa, engaging in collaborative reporting efforts with Iowa news organizations and educating journalism students.”

Mills started out as a student reporter, but moved up to web manager and assistant editor during her senior year. After a brief stint at the Sioux City Journal, Mills joined Iowa Watch as a digital analyst and reporter.

Aside from reporting, Mills has sit in on board meetings, where she said she gets an inside view on what the organization is doing in various areas. It also gives her insight into how the organization is coming along in funding.

The main difference between working at IowaWatch and a traditional newspaper, she said, is the length of journalism. She said IowaWatch is able to do long-form pieces, averaging one article per week.

Participation is also different, she said. Iowa Watch has a smaller staff than her old newspaper, she said, which lets everyone participate in every aspect of the process.

Michael Todd, Managing Editor of Hear Nebraska

Full disclosure: I’ve made a monetary donation to and have written a few articles for Hear Nebraska, a non-profit music journalism website focusing on the Nebraska’s music scene. That’s how I came to meet its managing editor, Michael Todd.

Todd has been with HN since the organization’s early days. He said he really likes the creativity he’s allotted by the website’s co-founders, Andrew and Angie Norman.

“It’s just very open, productive and creative,” Todd said.

He met the Normans, after inviting them on a radio show he hosted on KRNU – the University of Nebraska’s student radio station. After the show, Todd said he applied for an internship with the organization and worked his way to managing editor.

Todd said he focuses most of his energy on producing editorial content, leaving development and conferring with the organization’s board of directors to the Normans. However, he has worked on fundraising initiatives for the site.

For instance he took a lead roll in posting social media about the Give to Lincoln Day fundraising initiative, where the organization raised more than $10,000.

Pitching ideas for the website is relatively easy, Todd said. He said he isn’t sure that would be possible at a newspaper that is already established.

Rebecca Thiele, Radio Producer at WMUK

I met Rebecca Thiele while she was freelancing for Patch.com in the St. Louis area. I was a Local Editor, and she had written some news coverage for the site I managed.

The call of the north, however, was too strong to keep her in Missouri. She took a radio producer position covering the arts at WMUK, the public broadcasting station at Western Michigan University.

Thiele graduated from the University of Missouri in May 2011. She said she was trying to find a job in radio, and the WMUK job looked attractive.

She said the organization is very good about keeping the news department separate from fundraising and other nonprofit aspects of the organization.

“When we need someone to do on-air fund drives, the news people are pretty much the last pick,” she said.

However, she’s not totally isolated from all aspects of the non-profit model. For instance, the show she produces has underwriting from the Richmond Center for Visual Arts – an organization on which she might report.

Thiele said when an opportunity to cover the organization arises, she asks herself if she would cover that story if the organization wasn’t underwriting the show. If the answer is yes, she pursues the story.

Rob McLean is a Digital Managing Editor with Hearst Television. He has been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since 2010 and a member of the Online News Association since 2012. Interact on Twitter: @robertmclean.

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