Elisa Tinsley, Deputy Vice President of Programs
1. Can you give us an introduction to your organization?
The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is a non-profit media development organization and what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years is a variety of things to improve the quality of journalism, mainly in the developing world, but we also work with other groups domestically. Our programs include exchanges where we send journalists overseas, but more often we bring in journalists and have them embedded in US newsrooms where they can learn editing and work on digital projects; the skills they learn they can bring back to their home countries and share with their colleagues and organizations.
We’ve created journalism programs and schools around the world; we have a graduate program in Beijing as well as in Georgia (in the Caucasus region), and also a digital journalism program at the University of Guadalajara. Our flagship program is the Knight International Journalism Fellowship, which has been around for about 20 years. The program today is project-oriented, meaning there is a defined focus with a goal in mind for each of our Knight Fellows.
We also do monitoring and evaluation, which is something that journalists never focused on in the past. Our main funders for the Knight Fellowship are the Knight Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Together they are trying to create a framework for measuring the impact of media through both quantitative indicators, such as numbers of people having access to health information, as well as qualitative indicators, such as the effects of media on policy change, including vaccines handed out and increasing the number of healthcare professionals available. We try to help media serve a watchdog role, ensuring that information is being made available and is unrestricted. Through data journalism and new tools, we help media to focus on evidence-based journalism that is sound rather than anecdotal journalism.
2. What are some of the regions you focus on in the developing world?
We’ve worked in dozens of countries, at least 180. Most of our projects are overseas – in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Central Europe and Asia. To give a specific example, in East Timor we helped start the first university level journalism program, which is still running today. We work in countries where there is an opportunity to improve journalism. We generally don’t work in conflict zones, but we do focus on post-conflict and post-disaster zones.
3. Why did you become involved with Northeastern University’s co-op program?
We really like the six-month co-op period, whereas the usual internship cycle is only one semester. For us the quality of Northeastern students has been exceptionally high and the work ethic has been fantastic, not to mention the knowledge base that they bring with them to our organization. The six-month period also means we don’t have as much churn; we only have to train people twice a year as opposed to three times a year, which is a huge boon to us.
4. Can you describe some responsibilities for co-ops working at ICFJ?
The co-op student is usually heavily involved in the Knight International Journalism Fellowship program. As part of that program, we ask for nominations for the Knight International Journalism Award, and the winter/spring co-op looks through the applications, helps the program assistant to sort them through no’s, maybe’s, and yes’s. Once the program director and deputy director comb through the piles, the student begins to dig deeply into the applicants to see if they are worthwhile candidates. Can we get all the information required for the nomination? Are there any problems that crop up that would make them not suitable candidates? The co-op has to do all of the due diligence, contacting people, doing research on these prestigious journalists; and at the end of the process the student organizes a session with a panel of judges who are all top people from news organizations in the US. We’ve had people from Twitter, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Univision. We always try to make sure there’s at least one international organization represented. The co-op has to organize this session. Afterwards there’s a backup candidate or two and there’s more research to do. The summer/fall co-op works on the lead up to the big awards ceremony, which is the single largest event of its kind in Washington, D.C. For the past two years Wolf Blitzer has been our M.C. In addition to the Knight Awards, we have given awards to outstanding journalists such as Tom Brokaw, Christiane Amanpour; we’ve had heavy-hitters at our event every year.
5. What kind of impact have co-ops had in the past?
We encourage all of our co-ops to think outside the box and contribute and speak up in meetings. The thing that I like about Northeastern people is that they are capable of doing that. Every person we’ve had has been a contributor and melded into our workflows, making them feel like staff. It’s been terrific for us. One of our co-ops introduced a tool called Expensify that was an immense contribution. We have international currencies and expenses we have to collate and so the suggestion was priceless.
6. What are you looking for in applicants?
We want someone who is a strong communicator with interpersonal skills, with VERY strong attention to detail. That cannot be emphasized enough. I’ve had so many people say to me that they are detail-oriented who sent in resumes with errors. Do you have too many periods. Do you have an indent where you shouldn’t? Consistency in everything is critical to us, as it is to every employer. We want a person who can multi-task and prioritize. We want someone who knows when to ask a question. Sometimes you just have to ask people what you should do. Foreign language proficiency is important, but not critical, including French, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Farsi, and Urdu, among others.
7. What kind of lasting impact does working at ICFJ have on co-op students?
A number of the people who currently work here started as interns. There is a strong tradition at ICFJ of hiring and then promoting from within. When I started here, the person who was the deputy director had started as an intern. She was promoted over the course of 12 years from an intern to one of our top people. Everyone is encouraged to think of new ideas, we have a department called New Initiatives where we share ideas and then search for funding. There’s an opportunity to be creative and think of innovative ideas. There’s so much opportunity for interns to grow and have a very real impact on our organization and on the world. It’s a great foothold into the world of NGOs, international work, and journalism in particular.