At a time when the president of the United States labels many media organizations as the enemy, Neal Justin fights for adolescents to share their stories.
“Instead of labeling the press as the enemy of the people,” he said, “the best answer is to turn to young people.”
Justin is currently a media critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a paper he’s been working at for 25 years. He’s also teaching a writing course at Minnesota State University and used to be president of the now-defunct organization UNITY, which advocated for diversity in journalism. UNITY’s mission is something he still believes in to this day.
“That mission, that we should all be working together, journalists from various backgrounds working together for the common good, still is a priority of mine and still something I continue to work on,” Justin said, “even if that organization doesn’t exist.”
Q: What motivates you to be in programs like ThreeSixty, which exposes high school students to the journalism field?
Neal Justin: Well, I guess the motivation is … I always feel like if you’ve had any good fortune in your life, you should give back as much as you can, and I found that, you know, you do it because you think it’s the right thing, and it is. But I’ve also taken enormous satisfaction working with young people in journalism. Two things I’m passionate about: I’m passionate about this craft. And I’m passionate about making—it’ll sound corny—but making this a better world for the next generation, and I’m just so motivated by young people … who are so smart and dedicated and are going to do wonderful things, and within the world of journalism even better things than my generation. And being able to play a very tiny role in that is extraordinarily gratifying. So you know, in many ways, it’s purely selfish, the satisfaction I get watching young people, whether it’s high school or college or just starting off in the profession, I get excited by a craft I like, journalism, and seeing them just develop into really conscientious, dedicated, passionate young leaders. [It] is enormously gratifying.
Q: What are some programs you’re involved in?
Neal Justin: The main program I’m involved in is called JCamp, which is a program I helped start 18 years ago, and we bring together 42 teenagers every year from across the country from various backgrounds for six days of training and conversation and workshops and fellowship. And it’s turned into a pet project, and it’s really blossomed into a big part of my life. You know, we’ve had over 800 graduates of the program, and many are now professional journalists. Graduates of our program from years past are now taking over the reins and are doing a lot of the managing of the camp, which is enormously gratifying. It’s my favorite week out of the year. … So that [has] first and foremost, in terms of educating, been the most gratifying. I love helping out at ThreeSixty, helping out local students. I’ve worked with the internship program at the Star Tribune for a number of years. I’m now teaching at Minnesota State University, a basic writing course, and I work with various journalists at the Asian American Journalists Association at different levels in their careers and lives. And I was also president of UNITY, who was a group that brought together various journalists and journalism groups that strived to bring more diversity to the newsroom.
Q: How are people of color generally portrayed in the media?
Neal Justin: It’s a question that’s been a big part of my life in my professional career. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to expand that a little bit because I think I’m so focused on that question of diversity when it comes to color for so much of my life. And I’ve learned mainly in the last five to six years that we really need to broaden that question and look at diversity across the board and ask ourselves those very same questions, but not just when it comes to race. I’m talking about, sexual orientation is maybe the most obvious, gender is another. But there are other conversations we need to have—economical background, political background, geographical background, personality background. I mean, I think those are questions that need to go part and parcel with this conversation about diversity, especially in journalism, because the stories we tell … have to do with the people in our newsrooms, and the public we’re trying to reach. If we’re not constantly thinking about our audience and where they’re coming from, then we’re falling short of what we need to do. [Participants at JCamp learn] that is really diversity with a capital D. [They meet] all kinds of people from all over the country to all different kinds of backgrounds, and it wasn’t just about race, right? It was about America. That sounds kinda cheesy, but that’s really when we’re selecting the students that come in, and we really have the luxury to be able to pick and choose because the program’s free, and we have a good reputation now. Unfortunately, we’re [only] able to take about 15 percent of the kids that apply, but the good side of that is we can really put together a very diverse program, I mean, because we have so many people, wonderful people to pick and choose from, so we can really have a melting pot, and that’s very exciting. … Regardless of what you learn from the teachers there, that chance to live and talk to students whose bond is an interest in journalism, but they come out of it so many different ways, [it] is so exciting, I think. And it’s exciting for me to watch but to be a participant … hopefully was a life-changing experience.
Q: Have you seen any changes made in the newsroom or journalism as a whole in terms of diversity compared to a couple years back?
Neal Justin: In general in the world at large, I am seeing changes. They’re slow, and we’re still not at the point where people who are making major decisions reflect the country well enough, but we’re getting there. And I’m very excited about the next 10 years. I can see this next generation really moving the needle. Since I’ve been in journalism, I’ve been a professional journalist for over 25 years, and there are some areas I definitely see vast improvement, particularly the growth of women in leadership positions. There’s work still to be done, but it’s definitely gotten better. I do think there’s been significant progress amongst African-Americans in newsrooms, but that was a result, or has been a result, of 50 years
of hard work. And I think the other organizations or other races and other diverse groups are starting to make an impact, but these things take time. You have to have a lot of patience.
Q: Do you enjoy what you do? And what are some things that have made you enjoy what you do?
Neal Justin: [Volunteering with students], it gives me more satisfaction than, sometimes, the job, and I have the best job in the world. I mean, I watch TV and go to concerts and meet celebrities for a living. I mean, that’s a pretty fantastic job. And yet, I think I get more satisfaction working with young people and watching them shine. As I said constantly,
JCamp is my favorite week of the year, and probably the best story I’ll ever be a part of. And that sort of was kind of the surprise. As a young person so driven to succeed and to excel personally, and while I still want to do those things, I found that helping other people succeed from behind the scenes is even more gratifying. So I love it.
Q: What is some advice you have for future journalists from diverse backgrounds?
Neal Justin: I really see journalism right now, I always have but particularly right now, as sort of a calling. The money’s not great, the hours are long, there’s a misunderstanding of how journalism works, and sometimes, very often, under appreciation of what it is. And that makes the calling of journalism even more important. You have got to do it in part, I mean, it helps if you like to write, and you like to talk to people and so on, but it’s almost essential now that you also see it as the role of a journalist is absolutely essential to making a great society. And I think that message might ring even truer to people who feel like they’re on the fringes, that feel like their voice isn’t being heard loudly enough.
I’ll give you an example. There’s a lot of frustration right now by people on the right, conservatives, who feel like they’re not represented. And I think there is a good case to be made for that frustration. I think that instead of labeling the press as the enemy of the people or yelling at the media, the best answer is to turn to young people and encourage them to get into the media and make a difference if they feel differences need to be made from inside the machine. I feel that way about young people from small communities, rural communities, who feel like their voices aren’t being heard. I think they also have a strong case to be made that they’re forgotten about so we need to go out to those people in small towns that may be labeled as the middle of nowhere and let them know they’re not the middle of nowhere, that they’re the heart of somewhere and that they should come and join the journalism family. That’s also why JCamp invited more people from small towns from across the country, and maybe small towns that don’t have the money to have journalism programs in their school and might not have strong newspapers like The New York Times, the Star Tribune in their community. Let’s get them excited about this profession, and I think the advice is, know you can do it, and take advantage of all these opportunities. I mean, the good thing about being on the fringes is that there, in some ways, are more opportunities for you. There’s scholarships, there’s programs like JCamp, there’s programs like ThreeSixty that are really eager to have you and take advantage of that. I would also say to young people, even if you don’t think you’re going to be a journalist, understanding how the media works is going to be such an advantage for you. And the skills you learn, communication skills and writing skills and seeing the world from different perspectives, are going to be so beneficial for you no matter what you do. I suppose maybe if you’re going to be a monk who never spoke again, maybe they wouldn’t be that beneficial, maybe they would be. I just can’t imagine a job that you wouldn’t benefit from understanding the world of journalism a little bit better and doing programs like ThreeSixty.