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Paper Group To Train Journalists

August 17, 1999

OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) _ In the newsrooms of the Thomson newspaper group, a new type of reporter is hitting the beat.

The company has been advertising in its own newspapers for local writers _ no experience preferred. The would-be reporters will instead get 12 weeks of training at a school created and run by Thomson.

The company hopes that by taking residents from the communities it covers and personally training them it can boost readership and create journalists dedicated to local news.

Twenty such reporters started work at their hometown papers last week. And on Sunday, they will begin their training course.

``These people are going to be taught to do things differently,″ said Jim Jennings, vice president and editorial director of Thomson Newspapers, based in Stamford, Conn. ``We are going to change the business.″

The training program, based in Oshkosh, is modeled after England’s Trinity Editorial Training Center, which Thomson has run for more than 20 years. But it is unique to U.S. journalism.

With labor markets tight and journalists’ salaries notoriously low, several other media companies are also going outside normal channels to recruit employees, said Jim Gray, executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Some critics said 12 weeks of training may not be enough to instill the ethics of the business.

``I hope they have thought through how long it can take for somebody to understand the culture of journalism, which has some very important and fundamental values about what constitutes news,″ said Terry Hynes, president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Thomson created the program to try to make the news in its 56 daily newspapers in 13 states useful and relevant to readers at a time when many U.S. newspapers are struggling to keep their readership, Jennings said.

``We want people committed to community journalism and really writing about their communities,″ said Lou Ziegler, who directs the training program, known as Reader inc.

He said the company wants people with little or no journalism experience _ people like Army veteran Frank Scotello of Fond du Lac.

The retired lieutenant colonel has been a college English professor and a published poet but said he has always been drawn to journalism.

``When I was in the fifth grade, I started a school newspaper. I guess it is a long, unfulfilled romantic notion of being in the press,″ he said.

Scotello, now an employee of The Record in Fond du Lac, is in Thomson’s first class of recruits. All but two have college degrees, and nine have graduate degrees.

Thomson’s minimum requirement was a high school education and passage of a test on current events, culture, history, people and writing skills.

The 20 will get their 12 weeks of training at the Oshkosh Northwestern, a Thomson newspaper, where they will get a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on writing experience.

Each student earns $5.35 an hour and makes a commitment to work at their hometown newspaper for at least 21 months. Then they get a $2,000 bonus.

What the school teaches about community journalism and marketing may be the key to whether it can produce journalists who fulfill their traditional role as watchdogs of the community, said James Naughton, president of Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., which has programs for professional journalists.

``If it means these are bright, creative and enterprising people willing to challenge authority on behalf of citizens, no harm done. If it means they are going to be compliant, easy to manage, unresistant, low paid, then that is a problem,″ Naughton said.

Thomson is investing $3.3 million in training programs, both for the new recruits and its own experienced reporters, Jennings said. He said critics are wrong to infer Thomson is trying to get reporters ``on the cheap.″

Trevis Mayfield, editor of the Thomson-owned Tribune Star in Terre Haute, Ind., said he looked to the new recruiting program as a way to staff his newspaper with people who know the town’s culture and people.

His newest hire, Peter Ciancone, is a 43-year-old college history professor from Terre Haute. A reporter’s job paying about $26,000 a year is waiting for him once he completes the training program.

``This is an opportunity to do something that is intellectual, challenging, around people and gives me a chance to write, which I do anyway,″ Ciancone said. ``Now they are going to pay me for it.″

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