Tipping the balance for equity in OpEds

Katherine Lanpher at the Chicago Core Seminar

More than a week after a double session of the Chicago Core Seminar of the OpEd Project held at the Medill Chicago newsroom (part of the Medill School at Northwestern University where I am an assistant professor of journalism), I am still buzzing. I am electrified by the energy and ideas of the nearly 40 participants, their expertise and their intentions to change the world with specific knowledge and insight to share across platforms with the public.

Non-profit ceo’s, academics, researchers, lawyers, a doctor, a judge, social media experts, publishers, teachers, executives and even a member of the Secret Service, spent six hours focused on how best to articulate a balanced argument that will produce an intended outcome.
It almost sounds like the beginnig of a good joke” “A doctor, lawyer, teacher, Secret Service agent and a social media expert walk ito a bar…”

With seminar co-leaders Zeba Khan, Katherine Lanpher and Deborah Siegel, all in from New York for the session, we delivered a day of instruction, feedback, interaction and at time hilarious encouragement. We discussed and debated the upside of being outspoken and deliberate with specific knowledge.

“If you write something of consequence, there will be consequences,” Lanpher warned. “The alternative is to be inconsequential.”

Gina Marotta, managing director of StepUp Women’s Network in Chicago, rallied several members to particpate in the session, while representatives from Northwestern and DePaul University, all were vocal and engaged. We are anticipating their published viewpoints.

The more people moving successfully through the core seminars and sessions of The OpEdProject, the closer we get to tipping the balance toward gender equity or at least diversity of viewpoints in mainstream media opinion pages. The latest byline count from the OpEd project shows small gains at the traditional sites such as NYT and Washington Post, with an increase from non-staffer women but on “pink topics.”

More work to do. More seminars to offer. More voices to hear. More new knowledge to share.We can try again, same place, January 15. The OpEdProject is back in Chicago to continue to make a difference.

1 Comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers

What if women ruled the news, or at least half of it?

Andrea Stone, Cami McCormick, Nancy Youssef, Anu Bhagwati, me

It takes a bit to wind down from the euphoria that buoyed me since I attended last weekend’s Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS) in Asheville, N.C.

It’s a place where the content was deliberately offered in a context of all women journalists all about advancing themselves, each other and the notion that the profession should leap into equity with fervor. The message is that we can all learn new things, and that talented, smart women journalists can change the world. Or at the very least, a few media outlets, and a hell of a lot of minds.

I mean, enough already of the manly world of journalism. It is 2011.

So it is why once a year it is necessary to spend a few days with other women journalists, writers, innovators, academics and authors who understand what we all face without even saying a word. Even though we say lots of them.

From concrete technolgoical advice to the decades-enduring professional alliances and newfound friendships, I gathered what I needed to recharge, reinvigorate and come back to my work as an assistant professor at the Medill School at Northwestern University revved up.

Here are only a few things I learned:

1. Nancy Youssef, McClatchy’s chief Pentagon correspondence, described her job of storytelling in a war zone as ‘being in a very dark room with a very small flashlight.” She added about her coverage in Iraq and Afghansitan, “The story isn’t about me. At the end of the day, I could leave.”

2. Robin Phillips, web managing editor at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism: “Twitter can figure out the Venn diagram of me.”

3. Megan Cottrell, journalist for the Chicago Reporter: “Information won’t always change people’s minds but if you tell stories that have empathy, you can change the way people think.”

4. Lisen Stromberg, journalist and brand specialist: “Branding is being consistent, being clear to everyone. Communicate your brand across platforms, all moving toward an end game.”

Back in my Medill office, all jazzed to tell my students about Storify, the latest Google tools and how to get internship possibilities with hyperlocal startups, I was interested to read about the Who Needs Newspapers? site. It’s an ambitious and uplifting project that documents the ephipanies and other insights from 50 editors at 50 small to medium sized newspapers in all 50 states. I read the comments voraciously.

And it hit me like a ton of urinal cakes.

Of all 50 editors, four were women– all white. Three men were non-white. One Asian, one Native American and one Hispanic. This is pretty dreadful representation. Despite Jill Abramson’s recent declaration that as a woman she brings no different senisbility to her duties as executive editor of the New York Times– the first ever woman in that post in the paper’s history– I disagree vehemently.

Of course a journalist is a journalist. But we ask different questions. We bring different experiences to our writing. The male and female brains are different for goodness sake.

For confirmation, I checked the April 2011 newsroom census (the latest available) from the American Society of News Editors . Once again it demonstrated the woeful lack of gender and racial diversity in newsrooms in this country. The number of minorities in newsrooms declined only slightly to less than 13 percent of all employes in the 847 news outlets that responded to the survey. In all, more than half, or 441 newspapers had no minorities on staff.

Women in newsrooms make up 36.92 percent of full-time employees. Not much difference over the last decade; it’s actually a return to the same percentages as existed in 1999, when Cher’s “Believe” was the No. 1 hit song and the Backstreet Boys were still boys.

No wonder I love the annual JAWS camp so much.

Which brings me to a game changer I have jumped into with both feet. The OpEd Project, founded in 2008 by Katie Orenstein, has a mission to tip the balance of thought leadership in this country by engaging smart women and men around the country into claiming their expertise and doing something about it, instead of sitting back and letting the same old chorus of mostly male, mostly white voices drown the rest of us out.

I have been involved as a mentor/editor for a few months with OpEd and am helping to assist this weekend in Chicago at Medill’s Chicago newsroom, in a core seminar where more than 30 community leaders, authors, journalists, doctors, nonprofit executive directors, judges, advocates and academics will convene. All have the goal of changing the world with their thought leadership.

Because as The OpEdProject research shows, the byline count and the headcount on talk shows is abysmally weighted against a diversity of voice. In its June-July 2011 byline survey, 18.49 percent of opinion pieces were written by women in the New York Times. That means 81.51 percent were written by men. That same month, 35.67 percent of opinion pieces pubslihed on Slate.com were by women. More than 64 percent were written by men.

Even pundits on tv shows are predominantly men, as pointed out oh so cleverly on Jezebel a few weeks ago.

The OpEdProject is actively addressing this brand of disparity. In Chicago a June core seminar proved so powerful and inspiring, that 20 opinion pieces (including several from me on Huffington Post and in the Chicago Tribune) were published in the past three months by 26 participants.

We are all hoping for more of the same from this weekend’s group. More inspiration, more ways to engage the world with new ideas from new voices.

I wrote in my 2008 book, Everyman News, that diversity of thought shifts content. And I tell my students– including those I urged on the reaction story assignment today– that whom you include as sources matters. You must seek out a diversity of source along lines of gender, age, race, outlook, income, geography and ability in every story. Because it makes the journalism better.

And the people who write those stories must also represent society. We simply must reach parity in newsrooms, in bylines, in opinion pieces.

That feeling I had of being understood, respected and accepted as a colleague among other feisty, ambitious, powerful women journalists last weekend at the JAWS conference in Asheville, N.C.? You see, I want that feeling all the time.

What if women ruled the news, or at least half of it?

It’s a lot to ask. But I am doing my part. Really, no kidding, I am doing my best.

3 Comments

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers, Uncategorized

News of The World sleazy then & now

In 1987 I was a feature writer and columnist for the Dallas Times Herald, now defunct. I was sent to London to cover the February 14 wedding of Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, to a nice Dallas woman, Diane Burgdorf. (She has since divorced Thatcher and remarried, as has he.)

The news hook for my covering the wedding is obvious.

I managed to produce one to three stories a day for several days leading up to the wedding– business stories, fashion stories, Dallas socialite guest stories– and sent them by modem, that at the time, was the size of a briefacse.

Along the way of covering wedding-related events in London, I met a young male reporter from News Of The World. Maybe it was Nigel or Mark or Owen or Clive, who knows. He was my introduction to tabloids and Fleet Street.

The really funny part is he offered me money– I think a few hundred dollars– if I could confirm for him whether or not Mark Thatcher’s bride was a virgin. He wanted to include that in his news story about the nuptials.

“Now exactly how would I do that?” I asked.

He was not sure. Of course I did not take the money and I called my editor, Dave Burgin. We had a good laugh.

The next day the same reporter asked me if I wanted to disguise myself as a member of the Hotel Savoy staff and sneak into the wedding as a server. He planned to dress like a waiter.
We would both get scoops.

I called my editor. He told me to stop talking to the reporter.

True, this was Three Stooges, bumbling, unethical, stupid reporter stuff. They serve now as anecdotes I can tell my students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. But it was wrong then.

The unethical practices over the decades that made the News of The World sleazy then are what made it sleazy enough now for Ruper Murdoch to kill it.

Hacking into the phone lines of victims is outrageous and so obviously wrong not just for an ethical journalist, but for a thinking, compassionate human being that the paper deserves to go under.

It is even more stupid than trying to determine the chastity of a young bride. Or dressing up and pretending to be someone you are not.

Good riddance.

The Dallas Times Herald did not deserve to close, but died because of a poor economy and bad business decisions.

And though I am sorry the 200 reporters at the publication lose their jobs as of Sunday, The News of The World deserves to die. And even though it is a British tradition, I won’t say “Long live the…”

1 Comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers

Journos: Stop the flaky questions

The same week I gave the “Art of Intverviewing” lecture to the first quarter graduate students here at The Medill School at Northwestern University, a few working journalists conducted some bad interviews.

The attempt by the Australian journalist to tell the Dalai Lama a Dalai Lama joke fell flatter than the pizza with everything. Which brings me back to my lecture on interviewing: Be professional. Be respectful. It’s your reputation and your byline.

I don’t imagine interviewing the Pope with “The pope, a rabbi and a monk walk into a bar…”

Which brings me to Chris Wallace on Fox News asking Michele Bachman if she is a flake.

Let me be clear, I am not a Fox fan or a Michele Bachman fan. But as a journalist doing the interview, your bias should not be so transparent. It was arrogant of Wallace to put her down and make her defensive. My instinct is there is gender bias at play here; I do not recall anyone asking Jesse Ventura during a running for office interview if he was a flake. Or the same for H.Ross Perot. Ventura could have body slammed the interviewer. Perot could have bought him to death.

Which brings me back to the interviewing lecture. Sources beget sources. Show a sincere wish to get it right.

Under the heading, “Don’t fall in love with your subject,” I also advise students to remain objective. The flip side is also true. “Don’t be a hater.”

I have interviewed people who make me uncomfortable, I have interviewed people I disagree with personally, but I still hold to the adage: “It matters how you ask and what you ask.”

I tell students to consider how you phrase the question. Consider the order of the question. Consider the sensivity. Consider the tone and the way you speak. Consider your body language.

Toward the end of the lecture, I ask them to above all respect the source and the information. You need the information. You need the story. You need to be accurate. The reader needs to trust you will get it right every time.

I remind students there is no such thing as a dumb question. I say that because it is worse to have a correction in a publication or broadcast than to risk the subject thinking you are a little dense. Be sure you understand before you walk away. Make sure you understand your notes. Underline difficult concepts for follow-up questions. Believe that a good question yields a good answer.

After seeing these two professional interviewing failures, I will revise the prespcription that there is no such as a dumb question. Yes, there is. You can tell the Dalai Lama a Dalai Lama joke. And you can call a candidate for president a flake.

I am cutting this post short. I have an interview in a half-hour, a profile for a new book I am writing. And I need to follow my own first rule of interviewing: Be prepared.

Leave a comment

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers, Uncategorized

To Medill Grads: “Greatness is not a byproduct of timidity”

MSJ grads Jordan Turgeon and Kelsey Bjelland (me in center)

It was the best, most positive convocation I can recall in the past 15 years as a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Medill School. More than 150 undergrads and close to 100 masters graduates met in Cahn Auditorium to face the future. And they were well-prepared. Their first words during launch were well-considered, well-crafted and welcome. It was a morning filled with “real hope and real optimism.”

Commencement speaker and 1988 Medill MSJ grad Evan Smith charmed and informed the faculty, parents and students with his take on the future. The ceo and editor-in-chief of the newly launched The Texas Tribune told the crowd “greatness is not a byproduct of timidity” at this vibrant time of “news entrepreneurship.”

He urged the students he called iGrads as the “first generation of digital natives” to understand that this is “a great and exciting time to be looking for a job in journalism and its related fields.”

Recognizing that “the state of the media business– by this I mean the sad, sorry, unsettled, listing, sagging state of the media business– creates unprecendented opportunities for smart people” to create and launch innovative ideas.

It is a time when students are “able to be not just an intimate witness, but an active participant” in the revolution that is changing media forever, Smith said.

Smith offered three pieces of advice similar to what I often give my students in Reporting & Writing as well as Multimedia Storytelling.

1. “Build and burnish your personal brand.”
2. “Embrace risk.”
3. “No ingraved invitations.”

This year at Medill we have started teaching students how to begin to build a professional brand as a journalist, an idea that was unheard of just five years ago. We teach students to use social media to create a professional identity that will set them apart from so many others as hungry as they are for a position in the evolving media landscape.

A few weeks ago I told the students in my last spring class of Multimedia Storytelling that the single most important thing they can do at Medill and in life is to try. Enter into a challenge not with trepidation but with the eagerness to learn something completely new. Approach a challenge not with dread but with excitement. You cannot learn unless you try and you just might fail.

Try. Fail. Try. Succeed. Repeat.

I often tell students that no bad grade, no good source and no graceful sentence will land on them when they open a window. You must seek it all out. You earn a poor grade, just as you earn a good one. You find the sources and the evidence you need to back up your story. None of it lands on you like inspiration from some fictitious muse. You must create the opportunity.

Saturday was an uplifting morning. I met the parents of students who have been in my classes and have been my advisees for years. I have written several hundred recommendations for the members of this class of 2011.

I won’t call anyone out by name, so as not to slight anyone, but I told several parents that they can be proud of their son or daughter. The student was respectful, enterprising, bright, engaged, eager and diligent.

It was a day to celebrate. Just as I did for my son Weldon at his graduation last month from University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was celebrating for the students who have sat in my lectures or panicked in my office over classes to register for the next year. Some of them hated me for the current events quizzes and the AP Style tests, but I know they all learned a great deal. They learned how to report and to write. They learned to meet a deadline. And hopefully they learned that anything they dare to create is possible.

Try, I keep saying to students. The secret to succeeding in the real world? The same as it is in a class on Monday and Wednesday 9 a.m to noon.

Try. All you have to do is try.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Moms, don’t blame your kids for your own shortcomings

My sons did not make me a liar.

The dog ate my homework. My kids made me lie in my newspaper review. Both are wrong.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist and reporter Paige Wiser apparently was none the, when she submitted a fabricated review of a “Glee Live” concert last week and was fired for it.

Not that she was covering the war in Afghanistan or anything, but she lied in her column. In a newspaper. She lied. We cover that in the first course at Medill, “Reporting & Writing.”

She blamed her kids. When all she can really do is blame herself. She should have gotten fired. Sorry to be harsh. But this is why. It slashes the credibility of working mothers everywhere, and not just working mother journalists.

I know it sounds odd coming from a single working mother of three who is sole support. I realize I should nod my head and say I understand, send her a reassuring comment on her Twitter account. But I believe excusing her unethical behavior because she is a working mother is like excusing Anthony Weiner for exposing himself to young women online because his pregnant wife travels a lot. No, the two are not the same. They just give me the same reaction: incensed.

You cannot blame someone else for your behavior.

While a lot of women journalists, pundits and bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon to say the real problem is it is hard for working mothers to juggle everything, I cannot disagree more with that as an excuse.

Yes, it is hard to juggle it all as a working mother. Working single fathers too. But millions of us don’t take the shortcuts, do what we know is wrong professionally and ethically. Don’t lump us all together and say women cannot perform at peak because we have given birth. Or adopted. Or stepped in as a step. Or take care of an elderly parent.

Yes, it is hard to juggle it all, just as it is for men who do the same thing as single parents, like my brother Paul, a widower raising three kids and running a manufacturing company, attending every volleyball game, concert, meeting and even serving as Team Mom. Or my brother, Bill, raising five children as a widower.

When we start to trade in our kids as an excuse, we undermine all women who have been trying like hell for the last 100 years to reach parity in the workplace. To me it feels as gruesome and impossibly unlikely as saying you can’t expect a woman to attend a meeting because she may have PMS. I am offended.

Yes, I empathize. In 15 years of paying for childcare for three kids in five years without a husband in the house, I broke out in hives, panicking to the core if the phone rang at 6 a.m. Because if a sitter cancelled, I had to completely rearrange my life, get three boys to separate schools, or drop off a toddler at a friend’s so I could make it to my class at Northwestern University. Where I could not act as if any of my homelife was a problem. Continue the lecture. Teach the three-hour undergrad or seven-hour grad class.

Once I had to bring Colin and Brendan to the lecture hall with me, where they ran in and out, banging on the locked doors to get back in. It was not pretty. I have had to write newspaper and magazine columns at 3 a.m. because that was all the time I had. I have met book deadlines without any sleep because I would not tell an editor that the laundry and the wrestling tournaments took up too much of my time. I have given speeches with a few hours of sleep. But I would just do it.

I am free of that worry now. Weldon, Brendan and Colin are 22,20 and 17. They drive. They are mostly independent. My oldest graduated from college last month. I have not had to pay for childcare– except for someone to stay overnight when I travel for work and the older two are away at school– in five years.

Raising these three sons alone and working since they were 6, 4 and 1 makes me a lot of things, but it does not make me a liar. It does not make me fabricate, plagiarize or say I saw something I did not. It doesn’t make me type something I don’t know for sure and pretend something that is not true is true.

I am not saying I am a perfect parent. Or beyond reproach professionally. I have probably trimmed a lot off my performance as a mother, professor and journalist just because it is hard to excel in all arenas all the time. But I have not compromised my code of ethics.

I am in the same business as Ms. Wiser. I am a journalist. I am an author. And I teach and model for the next generation of journalists how to behave professionally. I show young women that yes, you can do it all. You don’t have to pick truth over lies. You can be successful, even with pictures of your kids all over your office.

There was another way out. This is what I would have advised Ms. Wiser: Call your editor. Say your kid is sick and you had to leave. Stuff happens. I understand completely; I am still traumatized by the memory of the itchy six weeks of chicken pox in our house the winter of 1996. And the flu the boys passed around that kept me sleepless for three days.

When something happens as it did with the Glee concert, you are transparent. After calling your editor, you are apologetic. You suggest to your editor that you find who tweeted about the end of the concert. You contact the blogger. You quote the person. You write about how you had to leave, you write your opinion based on the 75 percent of the concert you saw, and you fill in with the attributed info. And you end with the line: “Note to self: Never again.”

You keep your integrity. You keep your job. And you keep all the other working mothers in the world from rolling their eyes and muttering under our breaths that you just gave our bosses a reason to mistrust our integrity, while we silently pray that the babysitter won’t cancel so we can go to work the next day.

Having kids doesn’t give you a handicap. It makes everything a little more complicated. Not impossible. And it sure doesn’t give you a free card to do the wrong thing.

2 Comments

Filed under Features, Media, News, Newspapers, Uncategorized

“We are here to radically change the part of the planet you inhabit.”

Participants in the Chicago core seminar "Write to Change The World" at Medill's Chicago newsroom

This was definitely not your typical June Saturday.

We came, we saw and we conquered reticence, reluctance and any apology for striving to contribute to the world’s conversation and walk through “the front door into the marketplace of ideas.”

As participants in a day-long core seminar with The OpEd Project, more than 30 thought leaders convened at the Chicago newsroom of the Medill School at Northwestern University to do nothing less than attempt to change the world with words.

Seminar leader Katherine Lanpher, an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster (full disclosure is she is a good friend), urged each one of the academics, business leaders, documentarians, authors and activists to own our expertise. It proved a confronting and oddly confrontational exercise.

A business owner of a $50 million company described herself intitially as someone who “works in a family business.” A therapist was reluctant to say how many families she had helped in 40 years of practice. An aspiring cookbook author played down her years of kitchen experience.

Lanpher was having none of it. She questioned each person in the room until he or she could adequately articulate a specific expertise. We applauded the aha moments of empowerment.

“The next time your instinct is to not own your expertise, think about other people,” Lanpher said, “This is always about other people.”

Katherine Lanpher

Also participating as a sponsor was Donna Gutman, founder of Women of the World, who encouraged members of her organization to dive into the challenges head-on.

Even if some of the participants came to The OpEd Project convinced it was about writing opinion and editorial pieces, they left with a more complicated conviction.


It is at first about creating “an evidence-based argument that is timely and of public value,” Lanpher said. And from that, comes a larger discourse that can lead to systemic change.

The day was about elevating new ideas and insights to a wider discussion with the goal of instituting real differences– in mindsets, laws, attitudes, trends, policies.

“If you don’t know what outcome you want, no one is going to imagine it for you,” Lanpher said.

The mission of The OpEd Project, with a Chicago office soon to be run by Deborah Siegel, and expanding to think tanks, non-profits, coporations and universities in addition to public training forums, “is an initiative to expand public debate, with an immediate focus on enlarging the pool, of women experts who are accessing the opinion forums.” That is the goal, according to founder Catherine Orenstein, also on hand in Chicago Saturday and helping facilitate the workshop.

“If you say things of consequence,” Orenstein said, “there may be consequences, but if you do not say anything, you will be inconsequential.”

Lanpher explained about the structure of a logical argument and the need “not to be right, but effective.”

Orenstein spoke about work “that opens a conversation instead of closes one.”

I listened intently. I am not a wallflower at the party of public debate. I have been a journalist writing opinion pieces and nonfiction books for more than three decades. I have been teaching journalism at The Medill School for more than 15 years, leading writing workshops for more than 15 years. I have given more than 200 keynotes across the country in the past 20 years. So I don’t need a lot of coaxing to speak my mind.

But, like so many of us, I have had setbacks and rejection in my professional life.

So something Lanpher said in an eight-hour incredibly inspiring day hit me between the eyeballs. So much so that I want to put it on a t-shirt, or at the very least on a Post-It on my bathroom mirror.

“You are all sitting on a solution for something,” Lanpher said.

Then, reminding everyone to persevere, she advised us with what may just become my life mantra:”No is a bump on the way to yes.”

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized