DAILY SIGNAL: How to Disrupt Media Groupthink: Train the Next Generation of Conservative Journalists

Ryan Wolfe got his start in journalism as a student at Wake Forest University and is now leading The Fund for American Studies’ new Center for Excellence in Journalism.

With many Americans lacking trust in traditional media outlets, The Fund for American Studies is training the next generation of journalists to focus on honest reporting and pursuing the truth—rather than advancing a political agenda.

It’s a big task and it’s one that Wolfe is eager to confront. On today’s edition of “The Daily Signal Podcast,” we talk about the problem and solutions, plus Wolfe’s own firsthand experience as a conservative student journalist. Listen to the full show or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: It’s always great to welcome our friends from The Fund for American Studies. I’m especially looking forward to our conversation today, about the center that you’re leading.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve served on the Board of Visitors for the fund’s Journalism and Communications Program for many years, so it’s a great honor to be part of your organization. We’ve had Roger Ream on this podcast in the past to talk about the fund’s many programs, and I’m glad that we’re focusing on journalism, a passion of mine.

Let’s begin by hearing about the center, why you’ve decided to invest in journalism and future journalists at a time when that industry and that profession faces so many challenges.

Ryan Wolfe: There’s lots of talk, amongst conservatives and others, about media bias and why it exists and where it comes from and what can be done about it. And I think one of the key insights that we’ve had is that media bias is very complicated, has lots of different reasons why it exists, but one of the key reasons why it exists is who the journalists are, right? The actual people in the media and on the talent side.

I think conservatives need to do more to get good people into journalism. And that can be either at conservative media institutions or mainstream media institutions.

And often the best people move from the conservative into the mainstream. And so by sort of affecting the talent pipeline and who is actually getting involved in the media, that’s one way that you can actually fight media bias, in a tangible sense, and increase diversity in newsrooms.

And I think a lot of media bias comes from a lot of people who have almost the exact same background, same faith background, graduated from similar schools, have a very similar worldview. They don’t ask certain questions, they don’t think in different ways. And so you end up with media narratives and stories existing because of this groupthink.

I think our goal is to try to disrupt that by improving conservative media and getting more good reporters out there who ask different questions, and then also, increasing newsroom diversity and getting more good talent into the mainstream media.

Bluey: That’s a big challenge. The Fund for American Studies already has a strong track record of doing that. And perhaps you can speak to some of the success you’ve had with journalists who are making contributions, right, today, in many positive ways.

But first of all, when you were talking about that, it brought me back to an interview we’ve done on this show with Batya Ungar-Sargon, who wrote a book called “Bad News.” And she talked about how journalism has changed in the respect of who actually goes into the profession.

So, 100 years ago, it was people who were trying to hold the powerful accountable. They probably came from working-class conditions. They didn’t necessarily come from elite institutions in higher education. And that has completely changed today.

What we see is, at those big legacy organizations, whether it be a New York Times or a Washington Post, they probably travel in the same circles. They think the same way.

And so when you talk about diversity, you’re talking about, I think, not just diversity as it’s come to be known in today’s culture, but diversity of thought and actually having people who may challenge each other on their ideas.

So why is that so important, particularly in a setting like journalism, where you’re shaping people’s minds?

Wolfe: So, my dad was a local news, first reporter, then a copy editor, and eventually moved into the comms field many other people have.

And so it’s been very interesting to see the shift of people from a more working-class background, getting a college degree that provided some basic training and how to do reporting, and then going and working at local news and kind of climbing their way up the hierarchy of local news institutions.

And today, I think we see a lot of people who come from elite institutions, don’t necessarily need to make a ton of money. There’s some generational wealth or they’re so devoted to their particular causes that that’s what they want to spend their time doing. There’s a number of fellowships from left of center groups that fund people not only in a national media context, but in a local one.

I was looking up a story from this newspaper in Belleville and it was about the queering of the family farm. And when you see a story like that, no one in Belleville probably wrote that, that’s coming from somewhere else. And so we kind of see ways that the Left has been able to influence through talent and through placing people.

And I think the conservative movement has done a pretty good job of that over its history, at TFAS specifically.

So not only do we have the internship program that you mentioned, we also have the Joseph Rago fellowship at The Wall Street Journal, and that’s an entry-level fellowship working nine months on the opinion page there. And that’s been very successful at launching careers. It’s only been around five years, but we’ve had a pretty good hit rate. And then the Robert Novak fellowship, which is a reporting grant for early to mid-career reporters.

And we have folks like Jason Willick at The Washington Post and multiple staff at the Journal and this year, folks across the conservative movement at National Review and The American Conservative and others that are going out and doing real reporting that provides a lot of value that I think traditionally conservative media hasn’t been as good at.

I think back to Tucker Carlson’s speech at [the Conservative Political Action Conference], when he founded the Daily Caller, and he was talking about how The New York Times, you might not like them, you might not like their opinion page, you might not like what they represent, but they do a pretty good job at reporting and we need to try to emulate that. And I think that’s a lot of what the Novak fellowship has accomplished.

So what you see there is, yes, people end up working in mainstream media, but also, their work ends up in the mainstream media. And I think that is kind of another way that we can influence this.

Bluey: And so tell me, specifically on that point, what are some of the things that you hope to do at the center, in terms of having a certain level of standards, journalistic standards, talking about unbiased reporting, things that historically we’ve known journalism to really embrace, but maybe we’ve moved away from that in recent years?

Wolfe: Our goal is to promote objectivity, again. And I think the objectivity debate has gotten sort of odd, a little too in the weeds.

I think a lot of people will say, and they’re probably right, there’s no such thing as being perfectly objective about any story, and granted, that’s true. But I think pursuing objectivity as a standard and trying to hold yourself to the level where you don’t let your personal views affect your reporting, you try to represent all sides of the story and be fair in your interviews and all of that sort of stuff, really protected the media from going in certain directions and in certain places, and from having a drop of standards that led to narratives taking over and reporting becoming less important.

And so I think bringing objectivity back in the traditional understanding of it is our goal. And I think that’s a goal that the whole media should get behind, it shouldn’t just be a conservative thing.

Bluey: So, let me ask you this—because I can go back to my early days at Ithaca College where I studied journalism and remember that first introduction to journalism class, which was taught by a leftist professor, who obviously wanted to take these impressionable young minds and steer them in a certain direction.

And it’s so important, early on before they start to head down that path, to make sure that they understand what exactly you were just talking about in terms of objectivity. How do you do that and how will the center be working with either academic institutions to make sure that you’re capturing people before it’s too late?

Wolfe: So, the kind of big new program that we’re launching is the Student Journalism Association. And so this is sort of the next step in a long history of efforts on college campuses to support right-of-center, independent, alternative student publications. And in addition to that, we’ll also be working with individual students at schools where they can’t quite support that sort of outlet.

So I think the best way to promote objectivity is to actually get students to do it and practice it themselves. And running your own publication, I think, is really one of the best ways that you can do that.

And so when I was a student at Wake Forest, I helped found my own version of this with a few friends. And in doing that, you learn very quickly what ethics look like because people get really angry if you don’t follow through on some basic journalistic rules.

We quickly had one story that only one side got reported and we wanted to get it out quick, and then we had to retract it, go back, re-report it, put it back out with both sides of the story involved. And it actually was a very important, good story about free expression on campus.

But I think getting people to learn that lesson while they’re in college and seeing it for themselves as students, the value of reporting, the value of being as objective and fair as you can be, is the way that we’re going to hopefully promote that amongst students.

I think with individual students, we want them to really engage in working with the campus newspapers on their campus, as well as national outlets like The College Fix and Franklin News Foundation and others, where they can actually go and do reporting and learn themselves as well. And I think sometimes it’s complicated and hard to do, but really just the activity is the way to learn.

Bluey: It’s so true. I feel very fortunate that I got my start at a college newspaper, learning from firsthand experience, working at a weekly, small town newspaper. You don’t have those opportunities in many cases because those publications don’t exist. So the fact that you’re supporting them and helping to foster them, encouraging people to create them, in some cases, is really encouraging.

I’d love to hear more about your story, your journey, and your interest and passion for journalism. This isn’t something that you’ve just come upon, this is something that seems like it’s been an interest of yours for quite some time. So take us on Ryan Wolfe’s journey in journalism.

Wolfe: Well, like I mentioned, my dad was a local journalist, and so I would go with him to sports events that he was reporting locally and saw him do interviews with people and all of that. So I always had an interest in it.

In college, I had an opportunity with a few other students to actually found a student publication. This one was The Wake Forest Review. And so that was my main entry into this space. I really enjoyed writing for it. I enjoyed the strategy of growing it and making it an influential campus institution.

I worked briefly one job right after college, but then after that I went to [the Intercollegiate Studies Institute] to run the Collegiate Network program, which has historically supported papers like this.

That was a really great experience at ISI. I was there for two and a half years, and I got to see lots of campus publications, how they worked, how they didn’t work, and I’m excited to be able to take those lessons as we launch a student journalism association.

It’ll be a little different in its focus. With the Student Journalism Association, we’re focusing more on high-impact campuses and less on having a paper at every school. So I think the Collegiate Network and Student Journalism Association will occupy a little bit of a different space, but I think, really, there haven’t been that many efforts to support campus publications outside of the Collegiate Network. So I think having multiple levels is really going to help.

Bluey: Based on your experience at Wake Forest, what was it like starting a publication from scratch and what were some of the challenges? You spoke of one in terms of just reporting the news, but I imagine there’s a whole business distribution side that becomes a factor as well.

Wolfe: Oh, yeah. It was a real learning experience.

I think, yes, most students who start these papers are not reporters when they start, so that’s one thing they have to learn. They have to learn just the basics of reporting and journalistic ethics.

There’s a whole financial side to this and how are you going to get funding? Do you do advertising? Do you get donors? And so we ended up becoming a 501(c)(3) and raising money and building a network of alumni, and that was a very kind of valuable experience, I think, for all of us.

And then, yeah, getting the news out is hard. It’s funny, college campuses are one of the few places where printing is still maybe the best way to get your news out to students.

At the time when I was in college, Facebook, you could still use the advertising and their algorithm was still good enough in that 2016, 2017 period where Facebook advertising could kind of do it. But now, email newsletters I think are a good idea, but are becoming oversaturated.

And on college campuses, it’s very hard to be ignored if you put your newspaper or your magazine under every door at the school. And there’s lots of student publications out there that do that and it really does work

Bluey: It’s true. And when they don’t like what you publish, sometimes they will burn them or throw them away or do other nefarious things. I’ve had those experiences.

You probably have faced blowback for things, but I think it’s so important because what better place than a college campus to have that debate of ideas? That is essentially the time in your life when you should be asking those types of questions. And the student body should be the ones who are debating those issues.

And it’s so true that in this age of cancel culture, there’s just not that willingness or appetite to do that. So kudos to you for encouraging that and providing that support. I agree with you that we need as much help, particularly for that generation, as we can provide them.

Wolfe: Absolutely. Yeah, I think the campus experience is very formative and having an impact on campuses I think can help us shape this experience in such a way that it’s productive, that it leads people to having a better understanding of what being a journalist looks like, what you can do to have an impact on the broader conversation on campus.

And I think those good practices and bad practices from campuses stay with people for a lot of their careers. So being able to increase the good practices, to get people to be really good reporters, that is a great skill that even if people go into opinion writing or into broadcast, it will stick with them and make them, I think, better members of the media.

Bluey: Now, Ryan, you said something earlier that I imagine will be somewhat controversial for our audience and that is, some of your graduates, some of the people who’ve gone through your programs, end up at legacy media publications.

I think you mentioned The Washington Post, obviously you have the relationship with The Wall Street Journal—certainly publications that in some cases have faced their own challenges, but at the same time, wield great influence in our country.

Why is it important to The Fund for American Studies to not only support a pathway for journalists to go to those types of publications, but also conservative media?

Wolfe: I think a big part is improving conservative media, getting more reporting out of conservative media, that’s very hard for the mainstream media to ignore. That’s one big part of it.

One key story I noticed from The Daily Wire in the past few years was all their reporting out of Loudoun County, and eventually that became a huge story. Mainstream media could not ignore it, had a giant impact on the gubernatorial race there.

I think when it comes to people in the mainstream media, you won’t get a majority of reporters or writers at any of these papers, but having good people, whether it’s on the opinion page or in the newsroom, who can ask some different questions, who can angle reporting a little bit differently, who are willing to suffer through maybe the less glamorous parts of the work or kind of the more progressive things these institutions promote or ask you to do with style guides and things like that, I think it’s a way to get some better information out there.

And I think it’s a way where if you have these big stories that conservative media finds and reports out well, it’s a way to get that into the mainstream, if you have some people there who are interested in those stories and think that it’s important to their audience to hear them.

Bluey: We’ve always said at The Daily Signal, we want to be the place where the news gets its news. And in certainly the Loudoun County example and others, there are plenty of historical examples of where that’s worked really beneficially.

I also want to ask you about how some of the newer and emerging media platforms. I’m thinking of Twitter, for instance, Tucker Carlson obviously having tremendous success, reaching an audience through that platform. Substack is now providing another monetary alternative for journalists who don’t want to follow the traditional path.

How are you thinking about those? And the students that you talk to, what are their thoughts in terms of maybe not taking a traditional route into journalism, but doing their own thing?

Wolfe: I think most influencers that I’ve seen do well from the Right, who are younger, have actually been involved in a campus publication in some way. That’s usually their background. And so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Twitter.

I think if you look at YouTube and how they allow people to monetize their content, that’s become clearly a path as a career for people. And maybe Twitter can be that as well from the Right.

And I think when it comes to Substack and when it comes to other forms of written media, Substack and podcasts seem to be a way for people to have influence and make some money in a way that you can’t do as well in mainstream media.

I think this is one of the major changes, which we talked about the decline of local news and it being a working person’s profession. What has replaced that, I think to some degree, is, it’s much, much easier to reach a big audience online.

So new conservative publications can start and many, many have started it in the last 10 years and are reaching huge audiences through these new platforms.

So I think instead of having National Review, Human Events, and a handful of newsletters, which is kind of what conservative media in print was for a very long time, now you have the opportunity to have lots of different people on lots of different platforms and reaching a much bigger audience than that small set of publications ever could back in any of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s.

Bluey: It’s given people so many great opportunities. As we wrap-up here, I want to give you an opportunity to go through, again, the programs that are part of the center and also tell us about The Fund for American Studies and how our listeners could support them, if they so choose.

Wolfe: The Center for Excellence in Journalism will be the home for our summer journalism internship program. It’ll be the home for the Student Journalism Association that I mentioned, as well as the Rago fellowship, which is our partnership with The Wall Street Journal, and the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowships.

The best way to support TFAS is to go on our website. Our main mission is to educate high school students, college students, young professionals on free markets and the rule of law, and to develop courageous leaders. And so if you support those things, we’d love to have your support.

Bluey: It’s a great mission, and all of those programs you’re mentioned are so valuable and important for fostering this next generation of leaders, so thank you for the work that you’re doing. Congratulations on launching the center, and we look forward to following your work.

Wolfe: Thanks so much for having me.

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