Tag Archives: humanistic

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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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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Opportunity to Report Stories of Refugees is ‘So Damn Cool’

It’s what makes for outstanding journalism. Immersion in the setting. Getting close to those whose voices tell the personal story.

“It’s a reminder that if you can get close to the story, you will have a much better story and a much fuller appreciation for what is really going on,” said Jack Doppelt,  professor at the Medill School of Journalism, a colleague I am proud to call my mentor.

Doppelt just returned from an exhausting and exalting trip with seven students to Osire, Namibia to complete one-third of the reporting package for Refugee Lives, a fascinating and ambitious project chronicling the stories of refugees at their original refugee camps and others who have arrived in the United States from those camps.

“It’s true in anything you do, but you have to go to the place where something is happening to appreciate the detail, the nuances,” Doppelt said.  

Simultaneous with Doppelt’s trip, eight Medill students reported for four days from Amman, Jordan, under the guidance of Peter Slevin, veteran reporter and senior lecturer at Medill. Another five students accompanied Brent Huffman, documentarian and Medill assistant professor, to Dzaleka, Malawi. The students were dauntless, energized and bold in their reporting; and the stories they posted show their courage and talent.  

“There is a huge difference between dealing with refugees in Chicago and America and dealing with them there; the stories reflect that,” Doppelt said, who also founded and created the Immigrant Connect project from Medill.

The stories students captured in text, photos, video and audio are mesmerizing, not just because they portray the anecdotes and personal views of the refugees, but because they were prepared carefully and mindfully by young journalists learning the craft. Students, who in many cases, are sophomores.

“It really worked at the motivational level,” Doppelt said. “Students came away with, ‘This will change my life.’ They realized that and appreciated the opportunity to be there and so did I.”

Doppelt applauded members of the Medill team who worked on preparing and finalizing all the details for the project from home– Jeff Prah, Jeremy Gilbert, Lois Shuford, Caleb Melby and Katie Zhu.

“Whoever was a part of it, got this great opportunity,” Doppelt said. “When you do it, it’s so damn cool.”

In a few days I start teaching in a new winter quarter for the freshmen Medill students in Reporting & Writing as well as Multimedia Storytelling. I am proud to look back when most every one of those students who worked hard reporting on this refugee project from abroad were either one of my advisees or sat in a lecture or lab for those classes–in many cases just one year ago.

And now the learning process starts again. I wish for all those students I will see on Monday and Tuesday in the fundamental skills classes this quarter who are just launching their paths in journalism to look at the astounding accomplishments of their peers, only just ahead of them.

Jack Doppelt is right. It is so damn cool.

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On committing journalism on purpose

In the last week I have been duly inspired by two standout women journalists. As I speak before a lecture hall to freshmen journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill School every week, I am brought back to the intention that inspired many of us to pursue journalism reverently and humbly. It starts with the intention to change a system, portray a life, change a mind, foster a smile or an action. I want to remind the young men– and mostly women– that journalism is a noble profession.

The shame of plagiarists, back-talking CNN anchors and sloppy pundits aside, there are many thousands who take this profession seriously and view our jobs more as a calling than a call to a paycheck. It is the storytelling that matters to us.

Connie Schultz , a columnist at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, reminded me why I became a journalist in 1979 in her essay published on Poynter last week.     

It is an honor to tell the stories of regular people leading heroic lives of struggle and hard work. While it is sometimes wearying to chip away at the daily injustices of American life, it is ultimately rewarding work, if for no other reason than it fuels the person I want to be when I wake up in the morning. I don’t want to give up the fight. I want to be the woman who still jumps out of bed ready to take another swing at life.

    Another journalist I emulate is Laurie Hertzel, whose new book, “News To Me” is just out from University of Minnsota Press. In her book she writes about her own career as a small town reporter able to tell stories exceptionally well.  

For my last book, Everyman News, I interviewed Laurie, then working on narrative projects for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. Now the books editor, Laurie said, “When you attach news stories to human beings, then it becomes more real.”

It’s ethics week this quarter in my Reporting & Writing Class and I have a robust lecture planned with two days of vigorous reporting and writing assignments designed to spark debate and thoughtfulness on the practice of being an ethical journalist. I sometimes cringe that I only spend a week on ethics. Hopefully this is the beginning of a dialogue that lasts each student’s four-year career here.

But it’s an opportunity to affect young journalists and to point out examples of those who continue to tell stories well because the compulsion is to inspire change that will affect lives. And to do it as well as humanly possible. Strive for excellence. And if real change is not possible through the journalism committed, then real stories will at least give a reader or viewer pause.

Schultz said it best:

“This is why I got into journalism. This is why I stay.”   

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The hubris of paid content and the humility of good journalism

     The New York Times announced yesterday it will begin charging in 2011 via a metered system for some online content. You would think New York fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Every media pundit is posturing about what this means for the future of journalism. Take a listen to what Jay Rosen of NYU had to say:

\”NPR Story on NYTimes Paid Online Content\”

      Here’s my take. When I was a journalism student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in the 1970s, my professors told all 100 or so of us freshmen that our goal should be to work on the national desk of the New York Times. That was the pinnacle. That was what we all should want. And if we didn’t want it, well, we were just plain wrong. 

    I nodded. OK, I’ll try.

     A few weeks into classes of Basic Writing, it dawned on me that if everyone in the freshmen class of 1975 –and every year before and after–is told to shoot for the same job, then one heck of a lot of us won’t make the cut. Just how many jobs are there are on the national desk of the NYTimes? And what is the turnover rate?

    Yes, NYT is an outlet for elite journalists. It is undeniably a well-respected legacy instituition, but one struggling to be successfully heard above the cacophony of voices and background noise that is today’s media landscape. But can it expect people will pay for it? Isn’t there a generational prejudice of an expectation for free content?

        Television used to be free. True, it was a handful of narrow networks, but it was free. At first observers scoffed at the thought of cable television and monthly charges for access to far fewer than the gabillion channel and content options available today. People paid. And paid. And they have not stopped.

      My notion is the reporters and multimedia journalists who contribute to the New York Times content must be certain their storytelling is enterprising, value-added and not what an audience can derive from 1,000 other outlets. Or even 10 others. No “official source stenography” and no ranting columnists; the blogosphere has 184 million of of those. That’s worth paying for.

     In the 21st century, it’s humbling and exalting to be a writer. I know. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites and also publish books. As an author, publishers want a guarantee you have an audience before you sign the contract. No more chasing the audience after the pub date, but establish the need before you deliver a printed or kindled word. No more agent lunches with the editor and a contract by 3 p.m.

   A similar shift is true in daily journalism. There is no guarantee your content will be read, your audience loyal.  No one needs to come to you for the news that happened yesterday, unless you will offer some fresh, original take, added to  enhanced, engaging alternative storytelling that will seduce readers/viewers/clickers to stay with you from the lead to the last line. The audience is fickle becuase it can be. There is a lot of real garbage out there, but there is a lot of great, evocative narrative journalism. And much of it on sites and from outlets that are not the New York Times.     

It is hubris to think people will pay for the New York Times just because it is the New York Times. New sites, nonprofit enterprises and blogs emerge regularly offering content that is valuable and free.  No matter where you work or post, as a journalist it is worth the effort and energy to produce excellent, authentic, poignant, humanistic and compelling journalism that informs, edifies and exposes.

However the business model shakes out, it is always the goal to expend the talent to deliver stellar journalism. You just can’t expect people will pay for the brand. Just like you can’t expect as an 18-year-old that you will graduate from college and get a job on the national desk of the New York Times. Along with 100 of your closest friends.

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