Awards and Honors: Julia Thomas ’17 Receives Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, Project Will Explore Citizen Journalism Around the World

Julia Thomas ’17, a history major and environmental analysis minor from Bainbridge Island, Washington, will be spending her first year post-graduation doing independent research as Thomas J. Watson Fellow. The Watson Fellowship program, which awards graduating students the opportunity to travel and complete a self-designed project, selects applicants from private liberal arts colleges and universities around the United States. Among 149 nominees, Thomas was selected as one of 40 in the 49th class of Watson Fellows. For her project, titled “Community Voices: Exploring the Intersections of Storytelling, Journalism, and Citizenship,” Thomas will travel to India, South Africa, Spain, and Ecuador to investigate how journalists in these countries approach storytelling.

Morgan Albrecht ’18: In both your time at Scripps and prior, what has fueled your interest in citizen journalism?

Julia Thomas ’17: My interest in journalism came out of a passion for writing that I developed as a kid and that grew as I became involved with a student newspaper and community publication in high school. I really enjoyed the environment of newsrooms—the energy, the pressure of coming deadlines, the conversations, and the creative attention to many different, ever-changing topics. Coming into college, I knew that I wanted to pursue journalism, but I wasn’t sure how it would fit into my studies or my time outside of school. The 5C publication The Student Life ended up becoming a very significant part of my life, teaching me about collaboration, the journalistic process, editing, and the 5Cs more broadly. It has also raised questions about community journalism and the ways reporting can resonate, create meaningful conversation, and bring attention to less addressed or understood issues.

I am interested in understanding how communities and individuals produce journalistic stories within different government structures and political climates. What sorts of challenges do journalists in different political landscapes face, and how do they gather the perspectives of people within the communities they are reporting upon? What goes into the process of bringing a journalistic piece—be it a written story, a video, an interview, or a radio report—to life? Journalism has evolved significantly and into new forms as our world has become increasingly digital. Now, more than ever, the expression of peoples’ voices, and news that accurately represents those experiences, is so important. These types of stories are reported in many different ways, but, particularly at the present moment, citizens and local reporters are digging into this work by utilizing innovative forms. I hope to learn from the people who are telling these stories about how they approach the process of presenting voices and perspectives in different areas of the globe.

MA: Why did you decide to travel to India, South Africa, Spain, and Ecuador for this project?

JT: When initially thinking about this project, I wanted to choose countries with varied political structures, contemporary movements, and media laws and regulations. I knew I also wanted to spend a significant part of the year in Spanish-speaking countries to improve and use my knowledge of Spanish. I’m very excited about and interested in each country individually, and think they will provide an interesting mix of environments for exploring citizen storytelling and journalism. India, for example, is one of the world’s most populated countries, with a democratic government in power and has among the highest rates of print newspaper circulation. Ecuador’s media landscape has been shifting significantly since 2010, when conservative media outlets supported an attempted government coup, to become increasingly independent and regionally focused. South Africa also has a significant number of independent publications and community radio, and Spain, a constitutional monarchy, faces challenges in its citizens’ distrust of certain media outlets and has a growing independent journalism presence. I’m hoping to explore how these changes are happening and how news is conceived, produced, and received by communities in each place.

MA: How do you see this Watson Fellowship aligning with your future goals or plans? 

JT: One thing that I really came to terms with while building out my Watson proposal is that I know what I love to do, and I hope to pursue a combination of reporting, writing, and working with people and language in the future. I am less certain about what exactly that will look like. There are still many platforms I’m curious about and topics I’d like to explore before settling into a particular path—I’m excited to spend time in community radio newsrooms, particularly in South Africa and Ecuador, and I hope to interview and shadow female journalists that do both video and written work in a reporting collective in India. I think that this year is going to teach me a lot of things I can’t really prepare for or expect, but I’m excited to see how it informs my thinking about what and how journalism can be produced. I would really like to learn more about long-form reporting and would be interested in doing that in another country someday.

MA: What about this experience are you most looking forward to?

JT: I’m looking forward to all of it! I don’t think there’s one country I’m most excited for, since I think they will each be very different experiences. There’s also not just one type of journalism I’m most curious about. Trying to understand and learn as much as I can about the journalism landscape in each place will be challenging, and I’m looking forward to spending a thorough amount of time to really soak in and develop some understanding of and relationships with people in each place I go. One of my favorite aspects of journalism is interviewing people, and I think that’s something I’m really excited about. I look forward to shadowing journalists while they report and to interviewing writers about their own processes. My plan is for this year to be more about observing, shadowing, and spending time learning about journalism in India, South Africa, Spain, and Ecuador, rather than participating in it—though I do plan on keeping a thorough blog and am very open to seeing how my experiences unfold in each place.