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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.

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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.

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Guts is not the problem, but training is the solution


I have guts. A lot of guts. Guts is not the issue.

Recently Poynter.org’s Mallory Jean Tenore wrote that Minnesota Public Radio’s Eric Ringham claimed women and all others who felt left out of the public discourse in opinion pages of mainstream media needed to “summon up some guts to dive in.”

Women journalists have more guts than most anybody I know. For the Journalism & Women Symposium annual camp held in Texas last year, the t-shirt read, “Don’t Mess With a Woman Journalist.” We are not generally a timid bunch.

Many, many men and women journalists have been protesting for years about the inequity of gender –and color– refelcted in bylines and guest shots on opinion pages, broadcasts  and Internet sites for years. For YEARS. I did a chapter on it in my 2008 book, Everyman News: “Diversity of Thought Changes Content.”

Every once in a while, a gender-balanced or predominatly female byline count of a opinion or home page will feel fresh and victorious. And then it’s back to the same old same old.

Which is why founder and director of The Op-Ed Project Katie Orenstein is bringing the show to Chicago June 11 for a day-long core seminar with journalist, author and broadcaster Katherine Lanpher as workshop leader.

In bringing the Op/Ed Project to Chicago, partnering with Women of the World and Northwestern University’s Medill School, where I am an assistant journalsim professor, the goal is for thought leaders in the area to feel compelled to show up and spend a day learning how to be seen and heard. Diversify the conversation.

Because it isn’t about guts and it isn’t about surveys, updates and byline counts. It’s about having your voice listened to amid the noise. It’s about making a difference. Being the change. And not just screaming at the wind.

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No More Front Page Pineapple Boy!

Chicago Tribune front page ad May 14, 2011

 Last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune made me crazy. OK, it was before I had coffee, but after I retrieved it from my doorstep the old-fashioned way, instead of my from my laptop, I looked forward to reading the feature about a local kid who had a pineapple growing out of his head. Nooooooooooooooo. This was not a feature photo. This was an ad.

     Inside was the real front page. With an enormous girl on the left with an orange in her mouth. Ick. Another ad.

   First reaction: I was so glad I had written the book in 2008 about the changing front pages of American newspapers. Because then, I seriously had no idea that the next step past anecdotal leads, citizen journalism and non-news (the point of the book, Everyman News) was a big ol’ ad of a kid with a pineapple growing out of his noggin on the front page. Honestly, it upset me all week.  

Really, I am teaching students at the Medill School of Journalism to strive to be on the front page, the home page, the mobile screen with their excellent journalism. Do I have to say, well, maybe your hard work and enterprising journalism will now take a back seat to Pineapple Boy?    

    Today I trepidatiously approached the rolled Chicago Tribune on my doorstep. Phew. Two feature stories, a huge photo of Derrick Rose, a banner with an Oprah Winfrey photo and a vertical column teasing into four stories inside. All of it defensible for newsworthiness.

 Oh, yes, and a little sticker from Brown’s Chicken giving me six free corn fritters and a teeny ad (compared to Pineapple Boy) on the bottom from Target announcing sales on Doritos, corn, Pepsi and ground beef. I guess the editors are back from vacation and the ad department backed down.  

   I know the Trib is in bankruptcy proceedings. But really. If you don’t want to give me hard news, (and we know print is not about that anymore, just go and read the book, ok?) then give me fluff. Give me enterprise stories, give me photos, give me illustrations, weather or analysis.

Just, please dear God, never, ever, ever again give me Pineapple Boy.

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Editors Try This: 100 Story Ideas in 100 minutes

  We’re not doing a great job as journalists covering issues of gender and family. I gave a presentation to the Associated Press Managing Editors and Suburban Newspapers of America editors at the Chicago Sun-Times last week and dared the editors to come up with 100 story ideas after my 100-minute talk about stories at the intersection of the economy and gender. 

 Before we broke for lunch, half the room said they did. We’ll see how many of those stories get reported, written and published.

But today The Wall Street Journal defies logic, facts, stats and anecdotal realities from thousands of sources and declared there is no wage gap. Really? On Equal Pay Day? It’s making me crazy. As a journalist, as a woman, as a journalism educator, as a parent of sons, as a thinking human being.

It’s the same old story of viewing the news through a lens of denial. 

I wrote about it in “Everyman News,” in the chapter, “Diversity of Thought Shifts Content.” If we cannot achieve parity of gender and race in newsrooms, and according to ASNE, (The American Society of Newspaper Editors) we can’t, then we can for sure make a point in our coverage of trying to be inclusive in our sourcing and expansive in our brainstorming. OR we can keep saying what is real is not really there.     

     The recent White House Council on Women & Girls’ report, “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” contained the seeds for hundreds of story ideas and in particular broke down the wage gap. Compared to all workers:

•Black women earned 71 percent

•Hispanic women earned 62 percent
•White women earned 82 percent of what all men earned
•Asian women earned 95 percent
•White women to white men: 79 percent
•Black women to Black men: 94 percent
•Hispanic Women to Hispanic men: 90 percent
•Asian women to Asian men: 82 percent

     Read the rest of the report.  Absorb and dissect its contents. Among some of the stats are that women experience the highest poverty rates.It’s just that simple. If realities are denied, then the realities of the gender make-up of sources for the journalism is also denied.

•In 2011, only 27 percent of sources were female: The Gender Project
•In 2010, only 24 percent of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast, 76% – more than 3 out of 4 – of the people in the news are male: Global Media Monitoring Project
 
More from “Who Makes the News” on news  subjects:
-24 percent of the people heard or read on traditional platforms like newspapers, television and radio were female in the sample.
-23 percent of the news subjects on the 84 websites monitored were women.
•Story focus:
-13 percent of the news items in traditional media focus specifically on women.
-11 percent of the online news stories were centered around women.
•Authorship:
-41 percent of stories reported on traditional platforms were by female reporters in the same countries as the Internet pilot. Overall, 37 percent of stories in the whole sample were reported by women.
-36 percent of the news stories in the online samples were reported by women.
•Stereotypes:
-46 percent of the stories monitored in traditional media reinforced gender stereotypes, while only 6 percent challenged these stereotypes.
-42 percent of the online news stories were found to reinforce gender stereotypes and only 4 percent challenged them.

      OK, so it is quantified, and we are sick of reading the same old stories from the same bylines (PMS or pale, male and stale as my friends call it). Aren’t we sick of assigning and writing those stories too? 

I challenged the editors to go beyond the usual suspects and the same old thinking.  Come up with 100 story ideas today. Now.

Imagine a practice of journalism that involved consistently discovering news and stories by seeking new types of sources through academic, government, non-profit and grassroots organizations. Seek out stories that are hyperlocal, local, domestic or international with local ramifications. Beat the bushes to find story ideas that are citizen-driven and interactive. Learn from think tanks, centers on specific issues and trends. And for goodness sake, pay attention to what is happening out there in social media. And train every one of your staffers to be keenly observant.

It’s what I tell my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University very quarter, whether in the Reporting & Writing or Multimedia Storytelling classes. I just talked about this yesterday in lab.

Stories looking at gender, family and marriage issues intersect with the economy in a myriad of ways. All you have to do is cast the net for news. Story ideas will swim in. You have to know what you’re looking for, not stop looking at what is there and not throw back a big fish when you can definitely use it in the future in a new way.
  
    According to the White House report, 18 percent of women 40-44 never had a child; 46 percent of women 25-29 never had a child. For me this is the reason Eat Pray Love sold a gazillion copies.   More older women are divorced or widowed. For me this is the reason Betty White and Helen Mirren are hot and hundreds of thousands of women nationwide are into Roller Derby, the latest fitness craze for “women  old enough to know better.”
       
This country has more single mothers and the highest poverty rates are women as heads of households. There is no end to the stories that can come from that sentence. Tell the single and married working mothers paying for childcare there is no wage gap and it is not impacting women and their children across the country.
 
Still, in all of this, I urged the editors in the conference room last weeek also not to just look for stereotypical woe-is-me, half-empty stories bemoaning the economy. I urged them to find inspirational,  multidimensional stories, and to write about the individuals and communities making a solid difference.  And tell the truth. See and report what is really there.
 
We’ll see what happens.

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The Storification Of America

 

Jim Houser with Obama

Robert and Gary Allen. Mrs. Waters of Bruce Randolph School. Kathy Proctor. James Howard. Jim Houser. Brandon Fisher. Not household names. Not celebrities. Not diplomats. All of these ordinary Americans were mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union speech 2011. These citizens shared prominence with Gabby Giffords, the late Robert Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, the Secretary of Defense, al Qaeda, the Taliban and Sputnik.

    The score is 7-7. Unofficial sources to offficial sources. Two presidents, a Congresswoman, a cabinet secretary, two terrorist movements and a Russian space capsule. All had the same number of mentions as four business owners, a school principal, a mom going back to school and a cancer patient.

    What does it mean? So what? What may have become overused in the 2008 presidential race with Joe the Plumber is more widely evident today in all media. Our culture embraces the anecdotal power of the humanistic stories of individuals. And nowhere was it more noticable than in Obama’s speech Tuesday night.

     As I stress to my journalism students at the Medill School at Northwestern University, the rise of unofficial sources needed to flesh out every news and feature story is undeniable. The age of “official source stenography” is dead. The president knows this better than anyone and capitalizes on it. When the president of the United States mentions real people as often as he names diplomats in his annual address, something big has happened.

   I call it the Storification of America.

    

 Thanks to crowdsourcing,  social media, blogging and all forms of participatory journalism, there is a demand for communication to be inclusive. Away from top-down to bottom up, all in. It’s not such a rosy we’re-all-in-this-together appraoch, rather, it is a basic shift in the way that we understand information and how we look at the world. It is in thanks to a media relying on more unofficial sourcing in its reporting to articulate the truths of events, trends and issues, than in taking the word at face value of the official sources with the titles.

      We not only as citizens want to testify, we want to storify. And I did not make up the name.

       Storify.com is a new aggregating tool for social media users and anyone and everyone wanting to connect to current mainstream media and to add reliable sources to their blogs. As I see it, it is an attempt to upgrade the blogosphere from the “my dog is sleeping right now and I am brushing my teeth” to a more professional, polished arena for links to real stories, real posts, real video,real  audio, real photos and commentary vetted and published elsewhere. I hope it punctures a hole in the balloon of hearsay.

     My 2008 book, Everyman News, dealt with the overwhelming prepronderance of unofficial sources in news stories in domestic newspapers, and the growth of that trend. And why. There are many reasons driving the cultural shift to honor the individual and to consider the sanctity of story as peculiar to our time and place. 

      The use of “story” as a brand is nearly ubiquitious. It’s even on my drive to work where a billboard for a local college begs viewers to log on to read “mystory.”    

     Obama ended his speech with a reminder of the depth of reliance we have on story in America. He said:

From the earliest days of our founding, American has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.

   We need to understand the growing storification of our lives as we move ahead as journalists, observers and contributors if any of this is going to make sense.

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What I Believe for NPR’s This I Believe with Bob Edwards

Earlier last month I was one of four local authors who read an essay at NPR’s “This I Believe” event at Fourth Prebyterian Church in Chicago. NPR host Bob Edwards interviewed me briefly after I read, ” A Father is Born from Many Strangers,” whihc will be included in the upcoming book, This I Belelive: On Fatherhood in May.

More than 1,20o people were there including my y oungest son, Colin, and Coach Mike Powell, and his wife, Elizabeth. I wrote about how Coach Powell is a father figure in the lives of all my boys, a role he volunteered for as their wrestling coach, mentor and friend. 

What the applause and the excitement around the event told me is that the voices of individuals resonate with many. Elaborating on the history of  This I Believe  , executive director Dan Gediman spoke of the rich historical context of the views of contributors–celebrities, statesmen, journlaists, citizens all part of the project. In the 50s, the published collections of This I Believe essays outsold the Bible, Gediman said.

It is a reminder that the individual yearnings and graceful pronouncements of people from all corners of life make for compelling stories. You only need to be honest and authentic in the process. You know in your heart when words are real, and they can lift you up and connect you with everyone else.

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