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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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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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Profs Gone Wild! Sex Toys! Stolen Idols! Fake Names!

 

Mostly college professors seem as exciting and controversial as toll booth collectors or museum curators. Save the occasional outrageous act of Holocaust denial or live sex acts in the classroom, my colleagues at Northwestern University (where I am an assistant professor in journalism at the Medill School) are not people anyone would call a ribald or morally repulsive bunch.

They are on the whole intelligent, creative, respectful, mature professionals who behave with integrity. We write books and research archives for giggles. Discuss documentaries for a good time.  

But this week we are all lumped together as deviants, at least you would think so by reading the press. All because a full tenured professor in the psychology department, John Michael Bailey, decided that after his Human Sexuality class ended last week, the extra credit hour would be filled with the bonus of two women and one man performing a battery-enhanced act of sexual pleasure. I am not making this up.  

He defended his choice pretty much as academic freedom. It is, after all, his area of expertise. So I took a few minutes from my three-hour journalism class in Multimedia Storytelling yesterday– one that I prepared several hours for– to discuss it with my students, who were talking about the campus media stories and the fact that this is how and when our university is in the news.  

This is what I said: I believe this degrades all of the faculty. Never mind it degraded the woman who opted to be held down by another woman and to have an appliance inserted inside her unclothed body by a man, all on a stage in front of strangers.

I don’t know, but isn’t this performing a sex act in public? When is that not public indecency?  If you can get arrested for urinating in public, isn’t this just a tad more obscene? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, I do after all, get grossed out by people who pick their noses in cars.

Still, I think the academic freedom defense is thin.  I feel this was disrespectful to students, faculty, Northwestern community, and also to the parents who are spending and/or borrowing significant money for their children to attend this great institution, my alma mater. 

 As a parent paying tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also Ohio State University for two sons, I would be mad as hell if this happened in Madison or Columbus. 

Thank goodness during the NU demo we didn’t have any campus tours of high school juniors and seniors stopping in hoping to catch a glimpse of a college class.

Today NU President Morton Schapiro went on the record to pretty much agree it was a dumb thing to do: 

I  have recently learned of the after-class activity associated with Prof. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class, and I am troubled and disappointed by what occurred.

Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member. I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.

Northwestern faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial. That is the nature of a university. However, in this instance, I have directed that we investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.

Many members of the Northwestern community are disturbed by what took place on our campus. So am I.

Amen. Finally, some common sense. Someone defending a code of conduct that most all of us adhere to. We are not all deviants and idiots. We internalize the notion of responsibility to the students and are hardworking role models. I feel when I stand up to lecture, the students in my class are not just looking to me for the content that will be on the quiz or the assignment. They are looking to me to see how I behave.

Which brings me to the other news of a local Bad Boy Prof; this one at Loyola University Chicago. It seems Daniel Amick pleaded guilty last week to stealing archaleogical artifacts. Gee whiz.

And then in the news is another Columbia College journalism prof, Dan Sinker, who is all over the place for his fake Rahm Emanuel profanity-laced Twitter account.

OK, what did I miss? When is it OK for  a journalism professor to fabricate content pretending to be a prminent news source, hiding his identity and promoting a scam? I followed the fake Emanuel twitter feed for about two days, then stopped. I knew it was junk. I just had no idea it was a journalism prof.  

The really amazing thing is this Profs Gone Wild trend is not limited to Chicago area male colleagues. Huffington Post a month ago posted a slideshow of everything from incest to phone sex in 11 recent professor scandals. Now they need an update.

One thing is certain Bailey will not be asked to fill any vacant faculty slots at Brigham Young University, where news hit today that student and star basketball player Brandon Davies was suspended for admitting to having premarital sex, a violation of the BYU honor code.

Back to campus, where the news trucks are circling.

I spent the rest of my day creating a lecture I will deliver next week in a lecture hall on campus, thankfully not the same stage as the sex demo. Like hundreds of my colleagues, the most exciting apparatus we offer our students is  original insight, fresh useful information and concrete instruction.

And if we are really daring? Perhaps a short video clip inserted in the Power Point.

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Arianna Vs. Amy: Two Mothers’ Idealogical Battle

Arianna Huffington

   It was a battle of the Titan Mom and the Tiger Mom in Chicago Thursday night. And I know who won.

   Arianna Huffington, the $315 million woman, spoke eloquently and briefly at the WomenOnCall.org annual gathering in the Crystal Ballroom at the Hyatt Rgency on Wacker to about 500 women. The point was “speed dating for causes,” as Huffington put it, an event connecting volunteers with 76 area nonprofit groups from Working in the Schools to National Able Network.

  The 20-,30, -40- (and in my case) 50-somethings paid $25 to pair up with a nonprofit to volunteer, but mostly to hear from the media titan who recently took her initial 2005 $1 million investment in Huffington Post to Aol.com for a whole bunch more.

   Over the Chicago River and into the Tribune Tower a block away simultaneously –and likely not knowing or caring Arianna was up the street– was Amy Chua, the professor and author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” before a spill-over crowd who paid $10 each to hear the author speak about why she pushed her two daughters to the brink and why she is proud of it.

   It was an evening of stark contrasts in idealogy, parenting and world view. 

   Introduced by Margot Pritzker, the founder of WomenOn Call, Huffington took to the stage looking all the world like a woman of leisure, perfectly coiffed wearing an elegant black dress– and well-prepared.  She was forceful, inspiring and no-nonsense.

    “Life is not truly meaningful if we do not do something for others,”‘ said the author of 13 books. “When you are giving back to people you don’t know, we are expanding the boundaries of our being.” And the world, she added, “desperately needs more empathy. It’s time for everyone to step up to the plate,” she said.

   Of course she talked about HuffPo, calling it “community solutions” and she invited everyone to contact her and submit stories of their causes. “Two-hundred fifty million people around the world can read about things to motivate them and that begins to transform their lives and they recognize the responsibility to others,” she said.

    Huffington talked about Patch.com, the AOL community journalism project in 900 cities with “profesional journalists and freelancers writing about communities.” She added, “We can cover what is happening in non-profits.”

    I met Huffington in 1988 when I was a columnist for the now defunct Dallas Times-Herald. Back then I interviewed her on her tour for her breathtaking book, “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.” She was smart, inspiring, and if I remember correctly,  pregnant with her daughter. I also wrote about her in 1999 for the Chicago Tribune, on her “Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom.” I introduced myself to her Thursday night, reminded her of the interviews,  and she politely said, “Yes, yes,” even though I am pretty darn sure she did not remember. My point is, she was gracious.  

    “I’ve had an interesting personal journey,” she said Thursday to the crowd.

    Everyone knew what she meant: a very public divorce, media criticism, all of that. She also spoke candidly of her daughter’s dealing with anorexia and how volunteering for others helped her daughter put her own problems in perspective. As a mother,  I found her comments not exploitative, but authentic.

      A lot has been written about HuffPo not paying its bloggers. I tell my students at Northwestern  University’s Medill School of Journalism to write for money. It’s a karma thing. But the model for blogging is writing for free; if you aim to buy food with your work, then you have to seek outlets where you will be paid. 

      I am writing this on my one of two blogs for free with my goal to promote my ideas, my brand and ultimately my books and speeches for money. Because I have a family with two in college, and a third in college in a year and a half, I write for money more than I write for free. I have a paying job as a professor, I write articles for magazines and newspapers for money. 

      I also give speeches to nonprofits pro-bono each year.  I give back. I have been on boards of directors over the years for many nonprofits: Tuesday’s Child, Sarah’s Inn, Journalism & Women Symposium, and now am on the board of advisors for Between Friends, a domestic violence services agency. I don’t count all the volunteering I do for my boys’ schools and teams, because that is to benefit my sons. It is the stuff you do for strangers that counts.  I was brought up by a mother who said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I heard her.

   “The empathy index needs to grow,” Huffington said. And I agree.      

  While she made no public apologies for the free blogging model at her site, Huffington made a case for giving of yourself to causes you believe in. Because it matters.

   “There is far too much emphasis in our media on what is not working,” she said. “We are focusing on our dysfunctionality and perpetuating it.”

         Which brings me to Amy Chua.

      We came late to Chua’s book event; we nestled in the spill over room and watched on a big screen Elizabeth Taylor of the Tribune interview the controversial Tiger Mom. Like Huffington, she was well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-spoken  and well-prepared. But all I heard was whine, whine, whine, complain, complain, defend, defend. Her daughters, her job, her beliefs, her childhood, her students, her stance on boyfriends and sleepovers. She talked about instilling respect and gratitude in her daughters. But respect for her. Gratitude to her.

    When she complained about all she did was work and take care of her family, I had enough. She expanded on her plight of having  two daughters and a husband who shares in the raising of  both girls. We left before it was over.

    It got me thinking back to Arianna and just an hour earlier. She is a single parent to daughters. She managed to write all these books, think outside the box, create a media empire built on ideas. She purports to be about the fourth instinct, or the drive to add meaning to our lives by giving back.  

    “I’m tired of describing problems,” Huffington said. “We need to break that type of behavior.”

      Final score: Arianna 1, Amy 0.

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On A Blue Sky View of Chicago Media

The View from Chicago Media Pep Talk

The view from the 22nd floor Cliff Dwellers Club on S. Michigan Ave., was stupendous and the conversation was even more uplifting Saturday morning for the “All Chicago Media Pep Talk.”

A handful of speakers, all gathered for the event  organized by Karen Kring, president of the Association for Women Journalists-Chicago, volleyed about their reasons for optimism, in a lively banter moderated by  GreenMark Public Relations’ Sue Markgraf

“It’s a wonderful time to be in media,” Markgraf said, for media entrepreneurs going out on their own. “We are at our core a creative group.”  

Past what he called the “hand-wringing stage,” Chicago journalists are starting to realize they “have a skillset still much in demand,” said Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop, which just completed a 2010 study of 120 community news sites.

Storytelling “is all we do, no matter what platform,” said Sylvia Franklin, an independent producer and content strategist. “Be smart enough and stretegic enough for people to find your information,” she advised the room of about 75 media workers.

Moving from traditional print to a radio variety show, “Chicago Live!” co-executive producer Lara Weber said her career is still about “respecting the storytelling” in an innovative way. The stage show in a partnership between the Chicago Tribune and Second City, she said, is very much like a weekly Sunday print magazine, with the best stories of Chicago now reaching a new audience.

Hyper-local news is the impetus for a positive outlook, said Mike Fourcher, publisher of CenterSquareJournal.com and RoscoeViewJournal.com. in what appeared to be the only precisely timed, prepared remarks of the morning.

Fourcher’s four reasons for optimism:

  1.  Cynicism.  Because mistrust of mainstream media is high, “start-ups can find a niche and get a foothold.”
  2. Long tail. Taking a page from author Chris Anderson’s view of the Internet, Fourcher said the “one-size fits all” approach to news by MSM proves there is room “for as many different niches as possible.”
  3. WordPress. Noting the agility and ease of publishing with this free tool (this is a WordPress blog), there has been a “revolution in publishing.”
  4. Patch.com. Because of the high-dollar, aggressive start-up of this conglomerate of hyper-local news, this endeavor is the “Starbucks of news.”

      Editor and publisher of Our Urban Times Elaine Coorens presented her view in 4 C’s , a P and an S. She said Change, Challenge, Choice, Creative Collaboration  (actually it’s 5 C’s then), leads to Passion and Success. We all applauded.

      Sherry Thomas, former editor at North Shore Magazine, (coincidentally, my first job out of grad school was as managing editor there in 1979) said when the magazine folded she did not panic. Now the editor-in-chief of Quintessential New Trier magazine, Thomas said the secret for success is to “give them stories they are not getting anywhere else. ” She added, “People will want what they always wanted– good storytelling.”

    After Kring cheerleaded the group to finding their own answers and concluded that she hoped everyone “got inspired for a few things,” the tables of journalists and media entrepreneurs went about the process of sharing their take-aways.

   Swapping praise and business cards, we filed out after Markgraf reminded us it was up to each of us to “create your own brand.” That is precisely what I tell my students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

   Ending just after 11 a.m., it was the start to a sun-fileld glorious Chicago day, where the view on the media landscape was as inspiring and bright as the one from the 22nd floor.

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Are Personal Narratives Front Page News?

Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

   Taking up most of the Sunday Chicago Tribune’s text front page was a personal essay by staff writer William Hageman about the fire that nearly destroyed his home, “No Strangers Here.” Sharing the space with an enterprise story on larger class sizes in area public schools, this was a story that defies traditional definitions of news. And demonstrates precisely a shift in the profession to a reverence for personal narrative.

    Hageman’s well-written and poignant story reads more like a blog entry or journal post than what we traditionally have taught as news and feature stories at the Medill School of Journalism. The timeliness is more elastic, and non-specific. There was only one direct attribution and no other named sources. There was no prominence attached, no major impact or consequence. No costs reported on the fire’s toll. The story had human interest, drama and proximity. And lots at that.  

     It’s not that news did not happen yesterday. There were other stories inside about Obama, healthcare reform, the new lieutenant governor announcement. There were scandal, business and crime stories. But half of the front page was about one person’s story, and one that will likely become viral through Twitter and email. And if people still tack up stories on the refrigerator and send clips to friends through snail mail, I wager this is a candidate.

   This kind of story is exactly what I have been talking and writing about for the last few  years. The worship of  the personal reflects our cultural shift to humanistic journalism.

  What is an interesting twist is you couldn’t find this story so easily on the Web version; you had to click on it, the last in a list of stories after you clicked on “news.” Hegeman’s story was not on the digital home page.

   That’s because the importance of the digital home page and the front page is evaporating. Stories are their own entities, existing not in relation to each other, not even in a parallel presentation. But each story as its own whole, not one of many, not one in the news mix, but a story on its own. The text and web versions of the news mix are not even remotely similar.

     There has been for as long as I can remember the cliche that an announcement is or isn’t “front page news.” What that means is that the tidbit has significant impact and embodies a number of the elements we judge as newsworthiness: prominence, proximity, impact, timeliness, you know the drill. I’m thinking in the future consumers of media will have no idea what it means if anything is really front page news. Because what is front page news anyway?

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Storytelling and bigtime validation

“Chicago, we tell your stories” was the headline of a folded announcement over page one of the Chicago Tribune this morning.  ALL CAPS. Inside, editor Gerould Kern wrote: “We bring you stories about people who are part of the everyday drama of life in Chicago, stories that reveal who we are and what we value.” The backpage introduced the writers, columnists and photographers labelled “Chicago storytellers.”

Everyman news.

I had not heard or seen it so blatantly articulated before in a major newspaper. It validates all that I have researched and observed and continue to see in newspapers, not just in this country, but around the world. And not just in print, but in digital media formats, from blogs to broadcast outlets and long form text.

It’s about the story.

At the Medill School of Journalism, where this quarter I am teaching the freshmen in Reporting & Writing, one assignment was a speech story. Students needed to cover a newsworthy speech for credit sometime during the quarter, but regardless of when it happened,  it was due on Friday, November 20. Of course, about 12 of the 16 from my lab came in right on deadline. And three of the stories were about Gerry Kern’s speech at NU a few months ago. I graded those this morning.  

I was in the audience, too, for Kern’s speech and students got the basic gist. But today’s announcement on the Sunday front page from Kern was more than what he discussed back then. Today’s explicit declaration of a company-wide pursuit of everyman  narrative validates my assertion that everyman news is the direction of media, regardless of platform.

The story is king.

The audience craves stories that are personal, more in depth and categorized as human interest. They want a face to the news. They want the value-added journalism that is more than an opinion-soaked blog or an instant update from Twitter.

It gives me fodder for an essay I am working on for a magazine: the future of digital narrative. Far beyond the finite boundaries of a front page, journalism is emerging as a dim sum of narrative from a multitude of sources. Readers find the story they want, regardless of host outlet. The appetite is for a la carte narrative. Everyman news.

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