Advocate for Journalism
At 7:30 on a gleaming April morning in Washington, D.C., the 103rd president of the National Press Club is having breakfast in the club's Reliable Source Bar and Grill, a room paneled with dark, polished wood and graced with the framed mementos of American journalism history. He's been up for hours, having bicycled into the district from his home in Virginia; he'll put in a long day, reporting on agriculture for Bloomberg News and returning to the press club that evening to host Commedia dell Media, a fundraiser featuring reporters attempting stand-up comedy. He's Alan Bjerga '95, one of the youngest presidents in the history of the National Press Club, an organization that CBS commentator Eric Sevareid once called "the sanctum sanctorum of American journalists."
Over fruit and yogurt, Bjerga reviews the previous evening, when Roxana Saberi '97, the freelance journalist who made international headlines during her 100-day captivity in an Iranian prison, spoke in the club's ballroom. To the 50-some Cobbers in attendance, it was a chance to feel pride in two Concordia journalists at the top of their game. Bjerga is an award-winning journalist who specializes in agriculture and food policy. Saberi has just published a book, "Between Two Worlds," which is being widely promoted and reviewed.
For Bjerga, the evening underscored two of his most passionate beliefs: that the press club has a vital role to play in the rapidly changing world of journalism, and that journalism itself, sometimes a dangerous profession, is vital to a free society.
"Roxana's event was such a wonderful example of exactly what the National Press Club should be doing, telling the story of why we need a free media and why courage in journalism is a necessity," says Bjerga, who was inaugurated for a one-year term in January. "We have a platform here where we can communicate that idea, something that I believe very strongly is part of what makes this country and system work."
As NPC president, Bjerga is an advocate for an industry undergoing cataclysmic change. In the 17 years since Bjerga, an English literature and history major, edited The Concordian, journalism has morphed from a robust industry dominated by newspapers and three network news channels into an incessant stream of Internet-based information that has fragmented news audiences and left news organizations reeling. Amid such change, he says, the press club is all the more essential.
"We have two taglines: ‘We are the world's leading professional organization for journalists' and ‘We are a place where news happens.' So when evaluating priorities, we always ask ourselves: ‘Does this further our mission?' And when we invite speakers we ask: ‘Is this news?'"
The challenge of the press club, he says, is the same as that facing journalism: affirming its foundations while adapting to remain relevant. That's why the club continues its oldest traditions, such as its well-known luncheon speaker series and its function as the place for D.C. journalists to network.
"Sometimes people are looking for a nice drink at the bar on a Friday night and a cheap taco," he says. "But they are also looking for tools that will assist them in a rapidly changing and, frankly, anxious professional environment."
That's why in recent years the NPC has focused on offering a mentor program and training for journalists, such as workshops on Web writing and using social media in news reporting. The club also advocates for First Amendment issues, such as a national shield law for journalists.
Although the club's current membership of 3,500 is down from previous years, when newsrooms paid member dues, the number of younger members continues to grow.
"We were an early indicator of the downturn in journalism, and now we're an early indicator of a bounce-back," he says.
Bjerga's dual roles as Bloomberg reporter and press club president not only require him to excel at time management, but to know who he is in a city where people can easily lose their way.
"A great thing about D.C. is that there's always someone who wants to buy you a drink – which is the bad thing about D.C.," he says. "I have found that the most interesting lives are led by substantive people who know how to find balance. Certainly you want to take advantage of all the exciting things there are to do here, but you have to have a space for yourself and an awareness of your own purpose."
That awareness of vocation is one of the things Bjerga says he learned at Concordia – as was thinking critically and developing the capacity to adjust to change. And essential to adaptability is knowing who you are.
"What are your values? What is important to you? Why are you doing this? As changes occur and as you are adapting and building your career path, you have to have a compass. And that is what a Concordia education can provide," he says.
Concordia didn't teach him how to use Facebook as a reporting tool, or how to use Web databases because those technologies were still years away, he says, but it did teach him about context and flexibility.
"What I am giving is the classic argument for liberal arts," says Bjerga, who attended Concordia before the advent of its journalism program. "But I would also say that because Concordia is a Lutheran school it takes great pride in asking questions of ethics and right and wrong – it's more than just knowing how to think. It truly is about how to consider things in a strong moral, ethical framework, which is something that is very important to good journalism and a good career no matter what that path may be."
Bjerga's background growing up on a farm near Staples, Minn., has also helped him in his career. He arrived in Washington the week of Sept. 11 and spent weeks reporting on the Pentagon attacks, intelligence and security. When things settled down, someone had to cover the farm bill.
"I wanted to make myself useful, so I made it a point to make myself the bureau expert on all things ag policy," he says. "And what I found was that my background growing up on a farm in Minnesota, which is not a usual background for a Washington reporter, suddenly was this big asset.
"I got it. It was a language I could speak with my sources. It was strange hearing some of the stuff coming from way down in my spine that I must have picked up at a church breakfast at Faith Lutheran in Staples one day. Suddenly I'm talking to some guy about his combine and I'm thinking, ‘I know this.'"
Self-knowledge is as important to journalism as it is to the individual, Bjerga says.
"Business models and technology change but the values we as journalists uphold do not," he said in his inaugural speech. Journalists must continue to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," and "find the story that people need to know, and tell it."
Journalism's future will include more "citizen journalism," Bjerga says, with professional journalists acting as aggregators and referees. The largest news organizations will survive, as will smaller community newspapers, he says. It's the mid-sized metro papers that face the greatest challenges, "but there is still that need to have the resources to hold city hall accountable."
There will always be a need for journalists to get the full story.
"I firmly believe that in our system of government the news does get out and people are held accountable eventually," he says.
But the process is messier and more complex than it used to be, he says, "and that makes it more challenging."
"That's why we need places like the National Press Club to handle that evolution and guide journalists through the changes," Bjerga says. "It's also why we need educational institutions like Concordia College to prepare the citizens to most responsibly gather the news and to educate news audiences to demand quality news and consume it critically."
Bjerga calls himself "an optimist for this profession."
"I cannot be 36 years old and the president of the National Press Club and not be an optimist. I think we are going to be fine," he says. "I believe in this profession and in the First Amendment, but we have to be vigilant and face those challenges every day."
Catherine McMullen is an associate professor of English and teaches journalism at Concordia.
Majors: English literature and history
Current profession: Agriculture reporter for Bloomberg News, Washington, D.C. Bloomberg has more than 2,300 reporters and editors in 135 bureaus and publishes 5,000-plus stories a day, syndicating to more than 400 newspapers with a combined circulation of 73 million people. Bloomberg also broadcasts through 11 TV networks in seven languages.
Career path: After earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, Bjerga worked for the
St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader, the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle and the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau. He joined Bloomberg in October 2006.
Honors and Awards: 103rd president of the National Press Club; winner of journalism awards from the Overseas Press Club, the New York Press Club, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers; winner of the North American Agricultural Journalists' top writing award for his reporting from Ethiopia on famine and U.S. food aid.
Who knew? Bjerga took second place on "Jeopardy" and won $50,000 on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He spent the summer after graduation following the Grateful Dead on their last concert tour and, at his black-tie inauguration as National Press Club president, played guitar with Honky Tonk Confidential, a band led by CBS "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer.
When he's not working: Bjerga runs with the Potomac Runners and makes it a point to spend at least one day per weekend staying out of the district. "It's about balance," he says.
Cobber memories: Bjerga says he's most proud of editing an edgy, progressive Concordian that took on controversial causes.
Career philosophy: "People sometimes see the media and politicians interacting in ways that they think are too cozy. I try to avoid that and maintain professional standards and integrity... Some skills and abilities aren't taught in the classroom but are based on who you are and what kind of environment you come from. A Concordia education is going to give you that guidance where you can make a decision saying this relationship is appropriate as I go for this story and this other one may be a road I don't want to go down. I almost said ‘on firm foundation grounded.'"