February 4, 2009

When Chris Callahan, dean of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, went looking for someone to be the Carnegie professor and to help launch a program that is part of the university’s Southwest Borderland’s Initiative, it didn’t take him long to land the person he wanted.

It was Rick Rodriguez, former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He’s a journalist who has years of experience reporting on and directing the coverage of immigration issues.

Rodriguez learned a little of what it’s like to be a farm laborer as a teenager picking strawberries near his hometown, Salinas, Calif. Then after graduating from Stanford University, as a reporter for his hometown newspaper, The Californian, he helped cover the organizing of farm workers by Cesar Chavez.

He spent the next 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Fresno Bee and The Sacramento Bee, where he was one of the industry’s leaders in the push to bring more diversity into newsrooms.

Recently, Rodriguez answered my questions about the Arizona State program, diversity and immigration via telephone and e-mail. 

Favre: First, how goes the transition from the newsroom to the classroom?
Rodriguez: The transition goes well. It is a totally different pace. First of all, you have a lot of time to think, which is a luxury that most editors haven’t had in quite awhile. Of course, you miss people, the bustle of news and the hustle of a newsroom and the adrenaline rushes to which you’ve become accustomed or addicted to over the years. But there is something really rewarding about building for the future while helping instill the best values and standards of the past. It’s nice to try new things without having to “monetize” them immediately. It’s energizing to work with students who remain quite optimistic and dedicated despite the industry’s troubles.

It’s terrific to be at Arizona State, which just opened a new state-of-the-art journalism school and is emphasizing the best of old and new media. We have a university president, Michael Crow, who is very supportive of the journalism school, and a dean, Chris Callahan, who is both a visionary and the hardest working man in the business. It’s terrific working with my old friend Tim McGuire, and Len Downie will be joining us soon. I’m enjoying getting to know others on a very fine faculty. Plus, I’m having fun learning new multimedia and other skills at age 54.

Given the economic earthquake in the news business today, what are you telling the young people in your class?

Rodriguez: I tell them that the need and demand for news and information is greater than ever and that there will always be a market for great storytellers, photographers, artists, Web designers, editors and broadcast journalists. I tell them they’ll have to be much more versatile than we were at their ages, that photographers will have to be able to write and writers will have to be able to do audio and video. And none of that seems to faze them. They’re willing and able to pick up new media very quickly. I also tell students that while it’s a very uncertain time, it’s an exciting time because they will help invent the future. And while the business models for the future are still being invented, I encourage them to put themselves in positions to compete for traditional jobs or be part of creating new ones.
What is the emphasis of the course you are teaching?

Rodriguez: This semester just ended, and I taught a course in depth reporting. My goal has been to try to get students immersed in their stories, to force them to ask tougher questions than they have in reporting daily stories, to do the background work — reading, researching and interviewing — that is necessary to do in-depth reports. I also have tried to emphasize telling stories on multiple platforms either by taking audio and video themselves or working and planning early on with photographers or broadcasts students, emphasizing teamwork. I’ll be teaching that in the spring as well.
At the same time, I’ve been working to launch a new program, which is part of Arizona State’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative. As part of the initiative, the Carnegie Corp. is sponsoring a very unique multi-disciplinary seminar in which scholars from five different departments at Arizona State will share their expertise on Latino issues in the borderlands with top graduate and undergraduate students. It’s a terrific line-up that includes nationally prominent civil rights leader Raul Yzaguirre, borderlands expert Carlos Velez-Ibanez and other highly accomplished professors who will lecture about health, education, urban planning, religion, immigration, demographics and other topics. The goal is to give the next generation of journalists the background and skills to provide more sophisticated, nuanced and deep reporting on Latinos and the borderlands, both in the Southwest and in Mexico.

Isn’t there a follow-up project?

Rodriguez: The Carnegie seminar starts in the spring and is the prerequisite for entry into the News21 project sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Carnegie. It’s a 12-university, $7.5 million dollar, three-year program headquartered here at Arizona State with a goal of helping students create innovative, multimedia ways of telling in-depth stories. It’s a 10-week summer program in which top-notch students are selected through competition for paid internships. Stories from all of the News21 campuses with be posted on the Internet, of course, but will hopefully make their way into widespread media distribution. At Arizona State, students will concentrate on in-depth stories gleaned from the lectures in the Carnegie seminar.

So in the end, I’m hoping to help make sure in-depth journalism continues to thrive, which I think was one of the hallmarks at The Sacramento Bee, and that coverage of the fastest growing segment of the population — Latinos — is much better and deeper than it has been in the past.

Can you share some of the ideas behind the stories your students are producing?

Rodriguez: This last semester we focused on the border fence. Students have done a lot of really good work — some terrific photography, including a guy easily scaling the 16-foot fence, and some fine stories about problems with the virtual fence, manufacturing plants on the Mexican side of the border that ironically are losing jobs to China, the impact of the fence and illegal immigration on a Native American community and more.

Given your background covering the California farm workers as a reporter and following the movement as an editor and now as a teacher, what do you think the future will be like for immigration in this country?

Rodriguez: Right now because of strict laws against employing illegal immigrants, but mostly because of the rotten economy, we’re seeing fewer people crossing the border into Arizona to try to work. In fact, Mexico is experiencing an unexpected influx of people coming back and is seeing fewer dollars sent home by those working in the U.S. That, I think, will last for a while but ultimately will be temporary.

In places such as California and Arizona, where growth hinges on the construction industry, the demand for labor will grow and workers will come back. I think the Obama administration is going to have to confront this head-on. It’s interesting that the new head of Homeland Security will be Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s former governor, who is well-versed in the immigration issue. Stay tuned; it will be a big issue.

As we move deeper and deeper into the digital era, what is the outlook for diversity in newsrooms and in content?
Rodriguez: Unfortunately, but I guess understandably, I think diversity has taken a few steps backward because of the industry’s turmoil. It’s clearly been placed on the back burner because of so many other issues. In the digital era, there will be interesting opportunities. For example, Latinos are heavy users of mobile phones and other devices, so the industry will need an understanding of the community — the potential market — in order to capitalize. There’s a business rationale for continued diversity. There, of course, remains a digital divide, meaning there are still folks who don’t have the means or knowledge to connect digitally, and we need to attack that as a society.

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Started in daily newspaper business 57 years ago. Former editor and managing editor at a number of papers, former president of ASNE, retired VP/News for…
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