The online announcement of this year’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University is titled “Innovation from many corners.” One of those corners is SPJ.
Alexa Schirtzinger, a board member of the Rio Grande Pro chapter, is one of the 12 U.S. members of the 2013-14 fellowship program, which supports journalism innovation through leadership and entrepreneurship. Schirtzinger, editor-in-chief of the Santa Fe Reporter — an alternative weekly in New Mexico — applied for the fellowship because of the potential she sees for alt-weeklies to play key roles in their communities.
Her goal: “to use the innovative strengths and contemporary challenges of the modern alternative weekly newspaper as a platform for exploring new revenue models in local journalism,” according to the brief proposal on the fellowship website. She begins her journey in September.
Schirtzinger noted that alt-weeklies are a unique aspect of journalism for many different reasons: They’re a fairly modern news medium; they are well established with niche demographics in communities; and they’re similar to startups.
“Alt-weeklies are so naturally positioned to take advantage of that stuff,” she said. “We have this, but we’re not capitalizing on it at all.”
Schirtzinger is determined to find a suitable model that will allow alt-weeklies to have greater resources, steeper revenue and ultimately a stronger impact on their readers. But Schirtzinger didn’t always want to be a journalist.
“As a kid, I didn’t really know what journalists were,” she said. “I thought the newspaper just appeared.”
Upon studying environmental science and Spanish at Dartmouth College, Schirtzinger took a different path as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. It wasn’t until she returned to the U.S. with hundreds of handwritten pages in her journal that she realized her passion for writing about the world around her. And after covering a dog show for the Tao News, she was hooked.
Schirtzinger went to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where Stephen Fried, adjunct faculty member, recalled that she was a particularly successful student, winning the Richard T. Baker Magazine Production Award at graduation. But more than smarts, Fried noted that Schirtzinger wrote about social problems as a way to enact change. She won the award with her ability to put a human face to a global problem in America: immigrant remittances.
“She was very much fearless and very smart,” Fried said. “She really wanted the journalism to be high-minded and ambitious.”
She was just about to give up on the industry — and Fried was in the process of convincing her not to — when the Santa Fe Reporter offered her a staff writer position. Less than a year later, she was promoted to editor-in-chief of the alternative weekly, which has a lot of manpower for its limited resources. The publication’s small staff of five produces a weekly paper and runs a live website for roughly 22,000 readers.
One day during her tenure as editor-in-chief, Schirtzinger talked on the phone with Kimberly Thorpe, a good friend and former Columbia classmate. Thorpe recalls Schirtzinger speaking passionately about her work — the day-to-day art of running a publication, and more particularly a music festival the Reporter was organizing to raise funds. Schirtzinger’s experiment was a success; the festival generated 60 percent return on investment.
“She felt like this was a good strategy for journalism, specifically at alt-weeklies, and she wondered why this hadn’t been done before,” Thorpe said. “That’s what ultimately ended up being the opening formula for the opportunity for her to have a scholarship.”
Looking back on that conversation and on their time at Columbia, Thorpe is not surprised Schirtzinger received the fellowship.
“She cared that the stuff she chose had a serious impact,” Thorpe said. “I think journalism is a great career for Alexa because she’s really invested in the truth.”
The truth she’ll seek next: the best way for alternative weeklies to leverage themselves in local journalism.