Christine Schiavo has spent 30 years in the trenches of local journalism and seen its struggles firsthand: layoffs at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the loss of nearly the entire copy desk at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the permanent closure of that paper’s newsroom last year.
But even as staff and resources shrank and her workload increased, she never soured on local news. In fact, her passion for community journalism prompted her to move cross country earlier this year to become the Investigative Reporting Program’s local news editor.
In this newly created role, Schiavo spearheads year-round coverage of Berkeley Journalism’s two local news sites: Richmond Confidential and Oakland North. (Both sites are traditionally dormant in the spring and summer when J200, the introductory reporting class, is not in session.) Since January, under her leadership, dozens of new stories have been published on those sites, including: a four-part series about Richmond Mayor Tom Butt’s business dealings by Aaron Leathley (’21), an investigation into soaring overtime pay at the Oakland Police Department by Noah Baustin (’22), and a video about a missing Richmond teen by In Jeong Kim (’22) that has generated more than 17,000 views. This summer, Schiavo supervised four J-School students working as part-time reporters for those sites.
This fall, Schiavo will be working closely with the instructors and students of three J200 classes to publish a wide range of news and feature stories for Richmond Confidential and Oakland North, and developing investigative projects. She will also continue to edit stories for the IRP’s “Aging in America” series, which is funded by a grant from The SCAN Foundation.
We caught up with Schiavo recently for this brief Q & A:
What excited you about the IRP’s local news editor job that persuaded you to leave The Morning Call and move across the country?
I’ve never read a job description that fit me so perfectly. I took that as a good sign, like the universe was nudging me to at least apply. Berkeley was looking for the skills I spent a long time developing in my work at daily newspapers and as an adjunct journalism instructor. I thought, combining those experiences into one job would be pretty fulfilling.
You oversee coverage of Berkeley Journalism’s two community websites: Richmond Confidential and Oakland North. What are your goals for those sites?
Those sites not only showcase student work but give students the space to hone their writing and reporting skills, to experiment with styles. At the end of the semester, students should see an improvement in their work from the first story to the last. Along the way, they’ll start thinking more like a reporter, wondering what makes the gears turn and what jams them, looking not just inquisitively about how the machine operates but skeptically at why and for whom. Richmond Confidential and Oakland North also should be a service to people who live in those communities, raising issues on their behalf, watching how their tax money is spent, monitoring how power is exerted, flagging disparities, effecting change. Of course, the sites have been all those things, so in one sense, I’ll be trying to maintain that standard. But I’m also hoping that students eventually will venture more into investigative reporting and fill the important watchdog role that local news reporters have assumed for generations.
You faced some obstacles in becoming a journalist. What were they and how did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle I faced was in going to college. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia that reminds me a little of Richmond because it had a refinery. I only knew one person who graduated from college. I had no role models, and my family had no expectations that any of us would go to college — in fact, it was discouraged. But I excelled academically and wrote for my community newspaper and was determined to become the first member of my family to earn a degree. I commuted to school and worked all the time — nights, weekends, summers. Though I can’t say I had much fun in college, I absolutely loved it because I loved learning. Then I entered journalism during a major recession in the ’80s, so jobs were scarce. I started at a weekly, which was a great place to learn about local government, but it put me behind my peers who started at dailies. I feel like I spent much of my career trying to catch up.
You’ve spent more than 30 years in the trenches of local news and have seen newspapers, including The Morning Call, decimated over the years. How do you stay hopeful about the future of journalism?
My hope in this profession has, at times, been challenged. I’ve always worked at newspapers and I’ve watched those papers dwindle in resources and in reach. I was laid off from my dream job in 2007. And at my last newspaper job, which was with a Tribune newspaper, I saw morale sink as the company closed the newsroom permanently last year. That paper (and the whole chain) has since been purchased by a hedge fund. What kept me hopeful through all that was working with journalism students, at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and now here. It’s uplifting to see students eager to expose injustice and corruption or excited about telling people’s stories. And it’s interesting to me that many want to do that at local news sites, where the work is not glamorous but important and can have an immediate effect. The industry is changing, but the essence of what we do and why we do it hasn’t changed. That’s what I focus on.
-By Janice Hui
November 30, 2022
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