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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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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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Oprah, don’t let the liar get you down

 

Oprah, please don’t apologize. Please don’t talk about the liar ever again. You are better than this.

It is beneath you to spend so much time on someone who could not disclose that his complicated story was not a cautionary tale,  but a fairy tale altogether. And fretting over his insincerity causes me a million little anxiety attacks. 

I don’t watch Oprah in the mornings not because I don’t want to watch Oprah  in the mornings. When she airs in my market at 9 a.m. , I am either in the car on the way to work at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I teach journalism students to write the truth, or I am already standing in front of an auditorium full of students, talking about reporting,writing and telling the truth in multimedia platforms.

So I watch at 11 p.m. for many reasons, and not the least is because I am a big fan. A big grateful fan.

So I squirmed through her interview last night with James Frey, the author of the made-up A Million Little Pieces, who purports not to care much for the truth. In his Oprah interview, he sounded all Midwestern English adjunct professorish with his interpretation of reality and his Tropic Of Cancer accolades, talking about how he was really like Picasso who didn’t really look like his distorted self-portrait and that he only agreed to say it was a memoir so he could get an advance from the publisher.

What a bunch of baloney.

In spite of his writerliness, Frey tells a million little lies in the book that apparently caused Oprah her biggest headache in 25 years. And he does not look or sound like a man filled with remorse. 

I have read and heard this morning about how tricky it is to tell and vet the truth in a memoir. Just ask Greg Mortenson about Three Cups of Tea.

But the truth is telling the truth is not hard at all.

My first book, a memoir, came out in 1999. It took me three years to write the painful story of my experience with my husband who was violent.

Having been a journalist for 20 years by that time, I was excruciatingly mindful of the need to perfectly articulate the truth, as a journalist, with the details, the facts and indisputable realities bolstering my story. The publisher had lawyers. I had a lawyer. I had documents for every claim.

And my ex-husband was a litigating attorney. So I had to be sure to get it right.

Every description was accurate, every moment recalled was double-checked with another source. The idea of telling a story that was not truthful would ruin my career as a journalist, professor of journalism and slay my integrity and credibility.

It is not that I  dared not. It never occurred to me to even try.  

I was extremely lucky to be a guest on Oprah’s show in June 2002 discussing that book and my writing book as well. The path to Harpo Studios was lined with dutiful and diligent producers and lawyers. I took tough questions in scores of interviews over the weeks, months and years from 1999 to 2002 to earn the chance to have Oprah ask me questions about my books before an audience of millions. 

I cannot fathom getting to that point on the tails of a big fat lie. But that is me. Some authors and journalists apparently consider misrepresentation a marketing plan.

In my classes I tell my students about the dangers of fabrication and plagiarism, about how each journalist needs to fiercely protect the brand that is his or her own byline. I tell my students to be proud of every word that goes beneath their names and to be able to defend it vigorously. Because your words live forever.

Be genuine in your writing, I tell them, whether telling the story of a fire or telling your own story. 

I also give writing workshops, mostly on memoir, and have one slated for this summer through Northwestern. And I tell those writers eager to publish their stories that they own their own history.

So here is what I know. About writing, as a journalist. As a memoirist: You own your truth. You own the right to tell it, so you do not have to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to thwart your storytelling. Because as I wrote in my second book, writing can save your life.    

But no one can save you if you lie. You don’t have any rights to lie just so you can get a contract.

It is not tricky at all. It is a simple truth. So go ahead. Tell it.

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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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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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Journalism fast and slow

For the past three years I have been writing, speaking and lecturing about narrative or “slow” journalism as one authetic and viable form of literary antidote to the bells and whistles of live feeds, multimedia storytelling and the cacophony that is today’s media landscape. I see it not as an either or situation, but a both.

In my 2008 book, Everyman News, I wrote about the popularity of longer narrative in newspapers and magazines:

“News can be delievered more quickly to the audience by other media than by a newspaper in at least a hundred, perhaps a thousand ways. ..Narrative journalism is an attempt to make the newsworthy print stories more permanent or at the very least to have the stories so painstakingly reported and written last longer than a junk email before it hits the trash bin.”

Today I read about the new British magazine,Delayed Gratification, debuting in January 2011 and celebrating what it calls “Slow Journalism” with the clever tagline, “Last to breaking news.” From its premiere issue, the editors define the magazine’s mission: 

“Print is not dead. For all the wily charms of the digital world with its tweets, feeds, blogs and apps, there is still nothing like the pleasure created by ink on paper.”

I hear a lot of people — mostly at cocktail parties– pontificating about the death of print media. Mostly they do not know what they are talking about, only quoting bloggers misquoting other people who speak third about unnamed sources who swear it is so.

It’s a big informational universe, and a duality to the needs of a varied and fickle audience. Sometimes we like our information in real time. Sometimes we want to devour 10 videos of the crime scene or the rescue or the avalanche as it is happening. And sometimes we want to read 5,000 words in a glossy, thick magazine written by a superb phrasemaker about a theory of what happened 100 years ago and its impact on popular culture.

Sometimes we want to hit delete before we are finished reading the post. Sometimes we want to save the article and keep it on th enightstand for a couple of years.  

There is room for it all. I tell that to my students at the Medill School of Journalism. And I remind myself of this as I tweet, blog, polish a magazine article or fix up a chapter in an upcoming book of 95,000 words.

Journalism can be fast. And sometimes it is not best to be first.

Journalism can be slow. Sometimes it is best to be the most thoughtful.

A combination of the two, thank you, dear Goldilocks, is journalism that is just right.  

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Everything Matters as A Journalist and Why

I gave my last lecture of the quarter to nearly 70 freshmen at the Medill School of Journalism this week, in the basic fundamentals class, Reporting & Writing. I have been teaching this course in some iteration since 2001. It is never dull.

 “Everything Matters,” is a bookend to the first lecture, “Assume Nothing.” I like symmetry. The  Five W’s and one H apply to a journalist’s career. And here is the gist of the lecture. Minus the tuition.

  • Who. The strongest piece of this puzzle is who you are as a journalist. As you choose your platforms for success, consider that an agile journalist is a marketable journalist. The future is about diversification of skills. Also, remember to carefully select who you choose to be your mentor, whether it is an instructor, author, columnist, reporter or peer. This is one of a few professions I know where your success is about not based on who you know, but how you do. And who you are. Stop thinking you will inherit the opportunity to win the Pulitzer. My family is in the starter drive business. Not a lot of journalism cross-over.

            “You don’t write because you want to say something,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.    “You write because you have something to say.” That is a reminder to remember the audience, an important “who” in your work. What they want and what they need from you will help you decide how you will reach them, what is best for your content and what is best for the reaction you intend.

       Your sources are another key “who.” Remember to be inclusive and expansive. Consider diversity of voice in every story you write, regardless of whether that diversity is transparent. Strive for a chorus of different voices. And fact-check to save the integrity of the people you quote and to preserve the dignity of your own byline. 

  • What.   The value of your content is determined by the text, visuals, sounds. Is your content fair, balanced and accurate? Is it orginal and creative? Is it ethical? Is this your best work. This is a tough question. You strive for every article, post, book or project to be a reflection of your best effort. Sometimes we fall short. But the goal is to aim for excellence every time.

          That means moving your content beyond formula to excellence, by showing enterprise in your reporting. Consider the writing as music with cadence, beats and melody. Even storytelling across platforms must be based on a solid idea. Consider what author Ansen Dibell does: “What you need to ask yourself about any story idea is whether it’s something too personal, something that’s very important to you, but would justifiably bore a stranger sitting next to you on a cross-country bus.”

    But here is where your precision as a writer, your mastery of eloquent prose comes in to play. Know that the craft matters. Author and narrative journalist Tracy Kidder said, “You can write about anything and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved. ” 

  •  Where. Do you get your information passively?  Wait for the press release, sit in the back at the press conference, answer the phone? No, you report with your feet. You gather sources and background from a multitude of online sources and social media, but you go out and observe. You talk to people face to face. You learn by being there. Remember that as a journalist, you are a witness. Roman Milisic wrote: “We are not all celebrities, we are not all supertalented, but in one way or another, we are all witnesses. Reality defines our vision of the world. And what we have seen, we must tell others. “

       Remember that where your content arrives matters. The where — ink on paper, sound, video, text on mobile or screen– influences how the user takes your story and ingests the information, interacts with it and passes it on. When creating the journalism, remember where it arrives affects the impact.

  • When. Perhaps the most difficult first lesson in this course is meeting the deadline. Timing matters. When you meet the deadline. When your story arrives. The newsworthiness is determined by the timeliness. Is your story fresh? Is your story first? And does your audience need it now? But first is not best if it is not the whole story. If it is wrong. Or if it could be better if you spent more time, did more digging, polishing, or all of the above.

     Your worth as a journalist hinges upon your understanding of timing. Are you able to stay ahead of trends? React quickly? Assess the news value of any event or interview? True, every kind of story has been written before. But not by you. “Be yourself. The world worships the original,” Jean Cocteau wrote.

  • How.  Yes, it matters how you behave to sources, editors, peers and the audience. Be humble. Ask for clarification. How you report, how you write and how you deliver the content determine your value as a journalist. All great journalists internalize a solid code of ethics. Understand that the how is as critial as the who, what, where, when and why. Because your reputation outlives your content.

     How you improve your content is by asking for clarification when you don’t understand. Re-report. Add more layers. Rewrite. Work in layers. Write in layers. Revise. Let the content breathe, take stuff out. Put more stuff in. Janet Bukovinsky wrote: “Ask anyone who makes a living with words: Writing is hard work. To be a writer is not nearly as significant an achievement as is the act of having written something fine and eloquently.”

     How you are received matters. How well you do your job and how you are noticed are significant factors. How much passion you have for your work  matters. Is this more than a profession for you? It is for me. Try to find the magic in the work. Toni Morrison wrote,  “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.”

  •      Why.  Ask yourself why you are doing this story. Understand why your sources want to be included–or not. Know why your audience wants the story. Find the answer if you don’t have one immediately. But never forget to ask yourself, “Why are you here?” Dare to be good at what you do. Believe that your work matters and that everything you do as a journalist matters. There are no secrets you can keep as a journalist. Your professional life is transparent and avaliable for anyone to discover.

       Resist compacenecy. Erica Jong wrote, “The trouble is if you don’t risk anything you risk even more.” Take a risk writing a new kind of story. Take a risk by finding new sources and trying new avenues of storytelling. Experiment with audio, video, photo and graphics. Improve who you are and how you work as a journalist. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote,” Once you express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it. Then you can change the world.” Your journalism matters. Your journalism can change the world. A small piece of it, or the whole darn thing.

     I will say it again, everything matters.  

   But most importantly, remember that journalism and this course are each like a long road trip. You can spend your time looking at the lint in the car seat and worrying about how much gas will cost at the next station 100 miles away. You can also spend your energy complaining about AP Style and grammar quizzes, current events or the speech story assignment. You can keep yourself panicked about points and grades.

      Or you can look out the window. Realize how far you have come. And enjoy the view.  

    

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