Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Who needs a journalism degree anyway?

Remember the Tracy Press reporter who broke the story on the alleged killer of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu? Jennifer Wadsworth has been featured in the LA Times, appeared on the shows of Larry King, Dr. Phil, Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera.

It turns out that Wadsworth, 22, only has a high school diploma and is taking night classes at Las Positas College to get her associates degree. Her only experience prior to the Tracy Press was on her community college's newspaper. The Las Positas Express carried this profile of Wadsworth. Here's a portion of that profile:
    After a series of freelance gigs and internships Wadsworth became a staff writer at the Tracy Press in 2007. She was assigned the Cantu case as one of only two reporters at the paper.

    While covering the Cantu case she was following up on two rumors. One was that there was a connection with a woman who had been hospitalized, which turned out to be [Melissa] Huckaby. The second was that the suitcase, in which Sandra's remains were found, belonged to a Baptist minister named Clifford Lane Lawless.

    Wadsworth, in her quest for all the details, searched public records, a step that many reporters had skipped over. She found that Lawless' address matched Huckaby's, which led to a phone number. When she called, Huckaby answered and after objection, proceeded to talk to Wadsworth for 40 minutes. During the interview Huckaby claimed ownership of the suitcase but said it had been stolen. The story was printed. The police acted.
And the college paper included this quote from her boss:
    "She has a ton of initiative to root up information by herself," said Eric Firpo, City Editor for the Tracy Press. "She needs no hand holding, and she never really has. And she's great when she talks to people because she has a bubbly personality that puts them at ease. People feel comfortable talking to her and telling her stuff. And talking to people is an enormous part of the job. In fact, it's the single most important part of journalism."
The story said Wadsworth had to withdraw from an evening class because of the extra hours she was working, but hopes to resume her education this fall. (Photo credit: LPCExpress.com, Stephen Kirschenmann)

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Peter Jennings was a high-school dropout. Many of the best journalists didn't need a degree to ask the right questions.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the Tracy Press is that it's fired some seasoned reporters, reporters who had inside sources within the sheriff and police department.
And it wasn't because they were doing a bad job. In fact, the reporters often scooped the bigger newspaper, the Stockton Record. It's just that one ego couldn't handle it. Since the ego came in at the TP, it's down to two days a week, a give-away newspaper and very few local advertisers willing to acknowledge the "hometown" newspaper.
As for Peter Jennings, he got lucky. You still need media law, news gathering, Jschool 101 and a few other classes to understand reporting. She might as well be a "citizen journalist."

Robert B. Livingston said...

When students leave work to accept jobs with little earning power, it is a pity that most today are saddled with student loan debts that indenture them for a greater part of their lives.

I've no proof, but I suspect that most of these graduates, often better educated than ever, are less likely to sacrifice the time and take the risks necessary to do excellent work when the need to make their monthly payments takes precedence.

The traditional purposes of education are nullified when the "product" it produces is fettered.

Anonymous said...

While I would agree that her story is inspiring, it also says something about the Tracy paper that they would be hiring reporters with so little experience.

Robert B. Livingston said...

I meant to say above "When students leave school..." of course.
Cheers

Karen said...

Wow. I mean, I'm sure the Tracy Press isn't the best paper in the world, but this kid did a great job of researching and interviewing and putting together the pieces. She is a journalist. "Jschool" is just a mechanism for preserving the priesthood. Some jobs in journalism require special training, such as covering science, politics, that sort of thing. The rest is just knowing where to look and what BS smells like. As someone with formal training and 15 years in the trade, I say with some authority that ink-stained wretches like this girl beat Jschool empty suits 9 times out of 10. If I were hiring, I'd try to hire her, degree or no.

Anonymous said...

Karen, you'd hire her based on one story? Just like the LA Times reporter, fawning over the reporter based on one story.
As someone who's worked at the TP and has friends there, I would think twice about the statement that you'd hire degree or not.
You know nothing about her writing capabilities, about her interview skills or anything else.
And do you know how long a city editor or copy editor works to make her story readable? I do. You don't.
This is what riles me about journalists nowadays, you take something at face value and run with it. How about doing some research before you run with a story or make a statement that you'd hire her based on that one story?

jennwadsworth said...

Wow. It's strange to read what people have to say about me -- people who don't know me. This is Jennifer Wadsworth, from the Tracy Press, by the way.
I just wanted to correct a few things that this anonymous commenter wrote about me and the Press.
Firstly, my stories usually get published pretty much as I write them. They very rarely need more than a quick edit. I'll be the first to admit that I'm young and have plenty to learn. I hope I never stop learning, though, whether I'm in school or not.
Secondly, the reason this paper is down to two days a week, had a spate of layoffs, etc., is because it's a casualty of the industry. Newspapers are struggling. That's true across the board.
It's true that I don't yet have a college degree. I have lived on my own since high school. I come from a poor family that couldn't afford to pay my way through school. I have five siblings and never get help from my parents. And because I moved out of the house as a teenager, I've had to support myself for several years now. I've been saddled with medical bills that forced me to take on several jobs at once. It's because of those financial problems that I needed to work full time, that I couldn't afford to go to school full time. But I always managed to freelance on the side. I have written for nearly a dozen different publications, including the East Bay Express, the Bay Area News Group and the Daily Beast. Though my position at the Tracy Press is my first full-time reporting job, I came here with more experience than most college graduates.
I normally wouldn't respond to anonymous comments. People should publish their name with their thoughts. But I don't want anyone spreading rumors about the company I work for, or passing judgment on me -- a person they've never met and know nothing about.
Please, if anyone has any questions, e-mail me at sisterjenche@yahoo.com.
Thank you for reading :)

Anonymous said...

Wow. It's strange to read what people have to say about me -- people who don't know me. This is Jennifer Wadsworth, from the Tracy Press, by the way.

I just wanted to correct a few things that this anonymous commenter wrote about me and the Press.

Firstly, my stories usually get published pretty much as I write them. They very rarely need more than a quick edit. That's the case here at the Press and for the several other publications I've written for. I'll be the first to admit that I'm young and have plenty to learn. I hope I never stop learning, though, whether I'm in school or not.

Secondly, the reason this paper is down to two days a week, had a spate of layoffs, etc., is because it's a casualty of the industry. Newspapers are struggling. That's true across the board.

It's also true that I don't yet have a college degree (I do speak several languages, though, which comes in handy). I have lived on my own since high school. I come from a poor family that couldn't afford to pay my way through school. I have five siblings and never get help from my parents. And because I moved out of the house as a teenager, I've had to support myself for several years now. I've been saddled with medical bills that forced me to take on several jobs at once. It's because of those financial problems that I needed to work full time, that I couldn't afford to go to school full time. But I always managed to freelance on the side. I have written for nearly a dozen different publications, including the East Bay Express, the Bay Area News Group and the Daily Beast. Though my position at the Tracy Press is my first full-time reporting job, I came here with more experience than most college graduates.

I normally wouldn't respond to anonymous comments. People should publish their name with their thoughts. But I don't want anyone spreading rumors about the company I work for, or passing judgment on me -- a person they've never met and know nothing about.

Please, if anyone has any questions, e-mail me at sisterjenche@yahoo.com.

Thank you for reading :)

Anonymous said...

"The problem with the Tracy Press is that it's fired some seasoned reporters ..."

The Tracy Press has fired it's worst reporters. You sound like one of them, no matter how important you consider your degree and your cozy relationships with the sheriff and police. That's not journalism.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like this anonymous "former Tracy Press worker" got let go in favor of some better, younger talent.

Jealousy does not wear well.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that one good story does not a rock star make, the sour-grapes comments here affirm all the reasons I'm grateful I never went to J-school. We have to teach ourselves about every story, every day, so why can't some people spare a little praise for the self-taught journalist?

Anonymous said...

With apologies to Ms. Wadsworth, I went with what I was told by those inside the TP, who seem to be unnamed, unreliable sources.
As for sour grapes? Hardly, I've moved on and am now into public relations, much more lucrative then journalism ever was or will be.
Finally, as for the downsizing at the TP, Ms. Wadsworth, this happened before you were there and had nothing to do with the current economic hardships.
It was brought on after a reporter did story on real estate in town, that's when real estate ads dried up for the TP. It was brought on when editors decided to go with "there's a conspiracy behind everyone" attitude. There went the police and fire departments willing to talk to TP reporters, also the city council deciding the same.
After that, the TP decided to go tabloid, a give-away newspaper and twice weekly.