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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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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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“Eat Your Fear” For Your Career

“Eat your fear and go for it,” Maria Hinojosa of CNN and public radio fame advised the crowd at the recent Journalism & Women Symposium conference in Texas.  It’s good advice. And advice was what was on hand in the buffet of career suggestions offered at the panel I moderated, “Portfolio Careers.”

Journalists are no longer able to survive with singular specialties. What is required is affinity for change, a mega-nimble approach to adapting to the marketplace and a willlingness to shape your talents to the needs of media outlets and organizations. All of this was evidenced by the panel of superstars who quilt together professions highlighting different interests and passions.

Roberta Baskin, a broadcast investigative journalist with 75 illustrious prizes to her name, has moved from the post of executive director for the Center for Public Integrity, and is now senior communications advisor at the Office of the Inspector General for Health and Human Services. Her years in Chicago and Washington, D.C., working for ABC’s “20/20,” CBS’ “48 Hours” and “CBS Evening News,” as well as “NOW with Bill Moyers,” prepared her for a shift in career where her skills as an investigative reporter help uncover fraud, scams and crimes that harm the American public on a grand scale.

 Arnesa Howell advised the audience to manage time efficiently, as she moves from her posts as full-time freelancer, editor and consultant in Washington, D.C. writing for People, Uptown, Heart & Soul, USA Weekend and adjunct speaking gigs at Georgetown University and American.  

Charreah Jackson is doing it all out of New York as a writer, speaker, editor and family life educator. She is associate editor at Heart & Soul and a social media editor at Siren PR, as well as head of her own communications company, Studio Social.     

Linda Kramer Jenning is the Washington, D.C. editor for Glamour and an adjunct at Georgetown in journalism. A former Associated Press reporter, she has worked as an editor for People as well as in stints in broadcast outlets. She juggles editing as well as freelance work.

Gone are the days of journalists spending 25 years in a single media job resulting in a gold watch, gold pen or party with champagne in the newsroom with a single layer cake. You do what you can for outlets who will contract with you for your efforts. And you make it all work because you need to make it all work.

You eat your fear.

When I was a student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in the 1970s, every instructor spoke with great reverence about how we should all aspire to be reporters on the national desk for the New York Times. It seemed a noble goal, but I also looked around and decided that if my class that year had 150 students in it, and every class all four years had 150 or more students each, then 600 students every year were told to get the same job at the New York Times.

Chances are they had been telling students for the last 10, perhaps 20 or 30 years the same thing. So anywhere from 6,000 to 18,000 people were right now trying for the same job. And the one person in that job wasn’t leaving.

I learned before my writing career even began that I would make my own way and craft for myself a challenging and fulfilling career out of writing that satisfied me and met no one else’s idea of success.

Now I teach at that journalism school.  In the last 30 years, I have worked on staff as an editor at three magazines and one major daily newspaper. I have freelanced regularly for dozens of daily newspapers, magazines, websites and written for radio. I have written thousands of articles appearing in hundreds and hundreds of media outlets.

I even branched out to non-traditional writing experiments. About 15 years ago, I wrote health briefs for a new company whose idea was to have health tip annoucnements every morning on voicemail at different subscribing companies. Forward thinking we all thought. But not forward thinking enough. Even laughable right about now.  

I am a journalist, but do not have one journalism job. I teach journalism, have published three books, am revising my fourth and brainstorming on a fifth. I have a bi-monthly magazine column, three websites, two blogs. I have three sons and am right now paying two college tuitions. I just finished paying for the basement reconstruction after a flood.  

 I write for money. I write because I love to write, but also because I love to pay the mortgage.

I give speeches. I give writing workshops.  For clients, I have written brochures, slideshow scripts, photo exhibit captions, annual reports, and for a little bit in the 90s I was the parenting columnist for Kellogg’s monthly newsletter, The Best To You. And I am not ashamed.

  As my friend and colleague Lisa Shepard says, journalism is undergoing a revolution. And the rate of change is volcanic.  

Success looks differently in 2010 and far beyond, than it did even 10 years ago. For sure, very, very differently than it did in 1975. There are new ways to get to work. New ways to share your multimedia journalism skills, new ways to produce content and put food on the table and non-sensible shoes on your feet, money in your account and books for your kids.  Ways to brand yourself. Ways to prove your worth and get out there. Ways for people to seek you out.

There is no one right way. Not everyone gets on the national desk at the NYT.

One thing that was so striking about all the women on that panel is that they appeared fearless. They are striving ahead in many different areas, all by choice. 

As Maria Hinojosa said, it is time to eat your fear. Bon appetit.

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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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Obits: The Ultimate Everyman News

     “Dead. That’s what Mary Jones is.”

     I remember clearly the Basic Writing assignment in 1975 at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University where I was a freshman. We were to write an obituary and we were not to write it that way. That was a catchy lead, sure, but it was not the proper tone. And obits are never funny.

   So we completed our obituary assignment from a sheet of facts, typing on manual typewriters in the basement of Fisk Hall where the instructor chain- smoked and drank about eight cups of coffee in a four-hour lab. Sometimes students stifled tears as they typed. Everyone turned in something at the end of the hour, along with the carbon copies.

    Fast forward 34 years. I am an assistant professor at Medill, assigning obituaries to the freshmen in 201-1 Reporting and Writing, and not allowing them to create fiction by writing their own obituaries (a practice I find not only ghoulish but unethical) that was suprisnlgy on the syllabus before my arrival.  Knowing how to write an obituary is solid practice in news judgment, sourcing, organization,  as well as writing with the appropriate tone and voice. Good practice for profiles.

         It seems obits are not only good practice for journalists, but good business for forward-thinking media innovators.

    Two of my Medill colleagues, Owen Youngman and Rich Gordon, led a group of students in the Fall 09 Interative Innovation Project to recently redesign, rethink and relaunch the American obituary for legacy.com.

    At the presentation last week students spoke about the immense popularity of “compelling stories about a noteworthy life,” separate from fame and celebrity. These were life capsules of “anyone’s neighbor, any average Joe.”
        Everyman news? Of course.  And these stories are not just a community or family service (no pun intended), but death notices are a 1/2 billion-dollar revenue maker for newspapers. 

       Add text, video, audio, photo slideshows and all combinations of multimedia memorials and this is the somber flipside to youtube’s jackass videos of teenagers jumping off their parents’ garages. Not that my three sons have done that. Yet.

      An element I found especially interesting in the presentation was the fact that historically newspaper obituaries were limited to stories of society’s elite, and naturally, at first only elite white men. Few women were written about and honored in print obituaries.   Another demographic piece is that an overwhelming majority of visitors to online memorial sites are Christian.

     Now here is the opportunity.

    We (me, too) spend a lot of time writing, teaching and talking about the democratization of news and the necessity for inclusiveness in media of all forms. Tell everyone’s story. Project all voices. So in the spirit of open sourcing, here is the chance to have storytelling without boundaries, with repsect for all religious and non-religious affiliations, to honor a life, any life, every life, everyman’s life, everywoman’s.

     We all deserve a memorial, a story with dignity that honors who we were, what we contributed and how we were loved and known. And one that doesn’t begin with “Dead. That’s what…”

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