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Column: Does state care about creating qualified job candidates or not?

6:24 PM, Jul. 1, 2013  |  Comments
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Once upon a time, we were told that Wisconsin was all about job creation.

"Wisconsin is open for business," said the bumper stickers, the signs on the Wisconsin-Illinois border, the press releases, the elected officials and the actions of state government since January 2011.

We were told that the act of putting people to work had no bigger supporter than the state of Wisconsin. There was no qualifier on those statements. There should have been.

Apparently, one purpose of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism - to give high-quality, on-the-job training to highly qualified University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students - is no longer worthy of even in-kind support from the state.

A provision in the state budget says as much.

In part, Motion 999 would "prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee."

So, no financial support would be withheld, because there is none. The state government sends no money to the WCIJ.

Instead, we're talking about two offices in Vilas Communication Hall. They would become off-limits to the WCIJ. There are plenty of offices in Madison, though.

What about jobs?

The bigger issue here is creating qualified job applicants. According to the provision, no UW employee - even those in the journalism department, one of the nation's best programs - could assist the WCIJ in helping students develop skills that could eventually be put to use in newsrooms.

Think about that. No UW faculty or staff member could help the WCIJ create or refine job skills. This seems at odds with the state's job-creation mission.

In return for the office space, the WCIJ provides paid internships, guest lectures and one-on-one and group journalism instruction and guidance.

In an email, WCIJ executive director Andy Hall wrote, "My colleagues and I have spoken on topics including how to obtain public records, how to acquire and analyze public data, how to produce data visualizations, journalism ethics, the rise of nonprofit news media, interviewing techniques and how to cover neglected neighborhoods.

"The Center's staff also offers tutorials and advice to journalism students seeking guidance on stories and starting their careers. We also are a resource to faculty members on cutting-edge journalistic trends and techniques. We have enjoyed a close working relationship with the Center for Journalism Ethics, which is just down the hall, as we have collaborated on the development of best practices for nonprofit newsrooms and have participated in CJE's conferences. ..."

But apparently, that's not good enough.

Jobs are jobs, unless they're journalism jobs. And then, when the UW finds a partner that's willing to create great learning experiences and professional guidance for journalism students, well, that's a job unworthy of Wisconsin.

That's because journalists don't pay taxes, don't buy homes, don't send kids to school, don't pay for services or items, and don't visit any state tourism attractions.

Oh, hold it. We do. And we serve a purpose in society.

The WCIJ produces journalism that's published by for-profit news media organizations, including Post-Crescent Media and Gannett Wisconsin Media. We've partnered with the WCIJ and plan to pursue more partnerships.

You have to wonder if any other profession with a similar UW job-training connection has been singled out this way.

A 'vindictive' policy

The public servants - those who have sworn to help Wisconsinites find good jobs - who voted to place this proviso in the budget bill, now being debated by the full Legislature, only want the UW to help organizations who create jobs that won't make them uncomfortable. That's not necessarily what journalists do.

The lawmaker or lawmakers who targeted the WCIJ have yet to be identified.

The provision has been criticized for worthy reasons. Some criticism has cited the poor political gamesmanship. At least one conservative critic has labeled the proposal "vindictive."

Some criticism has centered on the lack of transparency and the early-morning placement of the item into the budget plan.

You might think this would work the other way: If the UW wasn't helping students develop job skills - and developing partnerships to create qualified and impressive job candidates - the Joint Finance Committee would take punitive action. But, no.

At a time when you'd think the state would welcome every qualified job applicant it could it find, it is what it is.

And what it is flies in the face of what Wisconsin is all about. Or so we were told.

Once upon a time.

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