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Sept. 18, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Pitching coach: A program at the University of Toronto wants to turn subject experts into freelancers

“We’re running this like a clinical program. It’s more like a medical residency than a j-school.”

“Atul Gawande is a model of a guy who is active in his field, but in his journalism he’s actually a reporter,” Robert Steiner said. “He’s not just opining and writing op-ed pieces.”

It’s the hope of creating more Gawandes that brought a diverse group of professionals — several doctors, lawyers, an art curator, and the director of a human-rights education NGO — to Toronto this month to start an eight-month-long program at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs to be trained as reporters. The school’s Fellowship in Global Journalism was developed in response to cutbacks in traditional outlets that have often shrunk the numbers of beat reporters who are truly specialists in their area of coverage.

“We’re running this like a clinical program; it’s more like a medical residency than a j-school,” said Steiner, the fellowship’s director and a former Wall Street Journal correspondent. “Our program provides highly mentored practical experience.” (Steiner wrote a piece a few years ago for Nieman Lab explaining his motivations for starting the program.)

The certificate program admits a small cohort of people (16 in the class of 2016) each year from around the world who are generally already established in their respective fields and are interested in pursuing these interests journalistically. Often, Steiner told me, fellows are people who like their fields of expertise but don’t necessarily like what they’re doing in it: a working physician, for instance, who is interested in shaping health policy not just through writing op-ed pieces but through stronger reported work. (Like Gawande, the working surgeon who has also become an influential voice in health care reform through his New Yorker pieces.)

The Fellowship in Global Journalism isn’t about teaching experts how to better communicate with the public, or teaching academics how to write about their own research, Steiner says. And its conceit is not to push everyone into full-time journalism jobs. The program was designed to teach fellows to become successful freelancers in their discipline, reporting from different areas around the world. It doesn’t admit generalists; Steiner believes j-schools today misstep by churning out generalists into an industry that really needs niche reporters with “advanced knowledge” in a subject area. Moreover, the theoretical nature of many j-school classes doesn’t lend itself to accumulating quality clips, which are critical to securing freelance gigs or staff jobs. In fact, Steiner says, he’s had Columbia Journalism School grads apply to his program, which costs $16,000 Canadian — not cheap, but significantly less than what some prominent j-schools charge.

The fellowship kicks off with a five-week long intensive bootcamp in Toronto, where fellows are taught freelancer skills like pitching, structuring a 600-to-800 word news feature, and even filing radio reports from the field. Current and former reporters teach the courses.

After the bootcamp, fellows then scatter across the globe and immediately begin pitching stories to news outlets, with guidance from designated program instructors, known as “bureau chiefs.” Bureau chiefs, all of whom have lengthy journalism resumes, edit fellows’ writing before it’s filed to partner media outlets and hold weekly bureau meetings by video conference, during which fellows recap their progress and go over pitches. Bureau chiefs are also available for one-on-one mentoring, and the mentoring connection holds for two years after the end of the program.

“Since this is a global program, we let the fellows be where they are. So when you’re a freelancer and you’re isolated and everything is new, this is a very, very tough transition to make,” Steiner said. “You’re going through a massive brain shift that it takes to go from, say, a lawyer to a journalist. You’re going to need a fair bit of companionship, teamwork, and collaboration.”

Recently, the program set up some benchmarks for how many stories fellows should be producing at various stages in the year: at least one enterprise feature each month at first, then at least two per month after January.

“There’s nothing mocked about this; we’re not putting out a student paper,” Steiner said. “We’re running it like the bureaus we’ve all worked in. If you don’t produce stories, there’s not much we can talk about.”

On top of working in these mini (virtual) newsrooms with their peers, fellows also take mini-courses centered around practical digital skills through the duration of their fellowship, including ones on podcasting, recording video for arranged video partners, and data visualization and analysis. The curriculum has evolved a bit over the years, as industry demands change.

“I struggled a bit to figure out what a digital curriculum would be, partly because the industry itself didn’t know what it wants,” Steiner said. “But we’ve hit on what I think is a good portfolio of digital courses designed to introduce people to a tool kit of practical skills.”

Media partnerships are also critical to the Fellowship in Global Journalism’s function. Its fellows are part of a reporting “pool,” pitching to and writing for partner outlets in Canada, the U.S., and even India.1 These outlets have assigned editors who’ve committed to reading and responding to fellows’ pitches quickly, and will help edit if a story is accepted for publication. (Fellows may and often do write for other publications, though there is no formalized partnership in those instances.)

At The Boston Globe, the added workload of reading more pitches and shepherding more stories into publication was a fine tradeoff for good content, according to Doug Most, deputy managing editor for new initiatives and special sections. He receives pitches from fellows and either edits them himself or forwards them to editors of other sections, such as Business or Travel.

“If there are good stories that serve our readers, from a reputable authority, that are well written and thoroughly reported, we will take a look at them,” Most said. “Additionally it means more content for our website,, and that’s always welcome, too.”

The Globe didn’t publish quite as many fellows’ pieces as Most expected — around five or six pieces when he was thinking closer to a dozen, he added. “Some of the pitches were excellent; some were less focused and not targeted enough locally for us, which was key for me.”

Steiner acknowledges that the hole some outlets are looking to fill is local, not global, news, but these outlets have specific sections that can be better fits for fellows’ work. This year’s Globe editorial liaison is Kathleen Kingsbury, editor of the Ideas section, which Steiner says any fellows who pitch the Globe will likely focus on. Similarly, the Sunday Points section of The Dallas Morning News will be the target of fellows’ pitches and stories.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from our media partners,” Steiner told me. “But the most fundamental feedback is that our partners have published more than 400 of our stories in the past few years.”

Steiner also points to feedback from program alumni now working in journalism, whether part-time or full-time, for the Financial Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.

“Alumni who are staffers now have told me: Pitching skills are very different than conventional skills,” he said. “There are a lot of editors who say you can’t teach how to find a story or what makes good story, but I think that’s totally wrong.”

Steiner says he’s continually evaluating the coursework and considering tweaks, but for now the certificate structure works well. He’s considered the possibility of allowing part-time fellows, though that’s difficult because fellows need to make time to report stories to get the most out of the coaching the program offers. He would also love to eventually grow the program to about 25 fellows per class.

“You’re not studying to be a journalist — you are a journalist from the moment you step into the program,” Steiner said.

Photo of this year’s Fellows in Global Journalism courtesy Adrienne Harry, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

  1. The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, Deseret News, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the CBC, Vice (Canada), Foreign Policy, Network 18, and a partnership with is being negotiated. []
POSTED     Sept. 18, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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