Tag Archives: Newspapers

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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2010 and still not half the media world yet

A few weeks ago the American Society of Newspaper Editors Diversity Report came out with the latest depressing numbers. It’s worse now for women in newsrooms than it was last year. Thirty-seven percent of all newsroom employees were female in 2009, compared to 37.4 percent the year before. OK, not so much.

Except that I wrote about this in 2004 for womensenews  when the percentage of women in newswrooms was 37.23 percent. One step forward, a few steps back. Or maybe we are just running in place.  My lead then was:

 “Ambition defies the boundaries of gender. Opportunity is less democratic.”

I guess that could be my mantra.

There are the same percentage of women supervisors in newsrooms now as  in 2005– 34.8 percent, after a brief trend of minor increases. There are fewer women reporters, or 38.7 percent of  staff, compared to 39.1 percent in 2008. A woeful percentage of women are photographers, artists, videographers, or 26.9 percent, down from 27.1 percent in 2008.

 Recently businessinsider.com posted a story on the 12 most powerful women in new media, boasting that Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington and my old friend, Melinda Hennebeger, were part of a force of digital nature.   

Check out this breathless lede:

Media is not just a crotchety old man’s world. Women are making a huge impact, too.

As the media industry evolves, they are leading powerful companies, launching new ventures and redefining the future of journalism. And their success stories serve as models for those hoping to make a mark in this multi-faceted, risky business.

Isn’t it a little late in the 21st century to think it’s news that media is not just for men? I mean, how old is Brenda Starr? Seems condescending and a little ridiculous to keep saying it is not a man’s world. And a lot old.

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From Dollies to PMS and More of the Same

Not even two weeks after International Women’s Day, when the website for the March 8 event urged women to click and tell their stories, I am left wondering why we don’t understand that half the world needs more than a day in our honor. And why then,  if by default, the other 364 days are automatically International Men’s Days.  And what in the world we are still doing with mostly gender-avoidant media.

The media coverage of the day about the day seemed gratuitious, especially since most of the online and broadcast stories were splashed with Sandra Bullock’s Oscar win that night.       As we all know now, that wasn’t even the real story. Never mind.

In the superbly reported and written Newsweek  story this week,  “Sexism at Work: Young Women, Newsweek and Gender,” the “dollies”  write:

“Female bylines at major magazines are still outnumbered by seven to one; women are just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than a quarter of law partners and politicians. That imbalance even applies to the Web, where the founder of a popular copywriting Web site, Men With Pens, revealed late last year that ‘he’ was actually a she. ‘I assumed if I chose a male name [I’d] be viewed as somebody who runs a company, not a mom sitting at home with a child hanging off her leg,’ the woman says. It worked: her business doubled once she joined the boys’ club.”

All of this points to what my finely feminist writer friends label the “pale, male, stale” (or what I call PMS) status quo.  And then CNN attacked Politico for doing more of the same:.

Politico’s John F. Harris is on the defensive over the diversity of his staff after CNN’s Reliable Sources showed an editorial meeting that featured an all-white crowd and few women.

The publication’s editor-in-chief told Journal-isms columnist Richard Prince that the camera shots didn’t reflect the diversity of Politico’s staff, especially when it came to the number of women who work at the organization. Harris, however, refused to discuss actual numbers with Prince, saying “our corporate policies don’t allow me to release numerical data.”

The Reliable Sources segment was designed to show Politico’s preparation for covering the vote over the health care bill.

Blogging about the PMS for editorsweblog.org, Alexandra Jaffe wrote:

“(The editorial meeting) was pathetic.  All white folks at the table deciding the stories to cover.  Not one African American or any other minority,” says a journalist in an e-mail to the National Association of Black Journalists e-mail list.
Another laments: “How can they consider themselves ‘new media’ when they look just like the old media?”

The lack of diversity at this meeting was striking because of the visual uniformity of the scene, but it reflects a developing trend in the newsroom.  Although minorities compose over 33 percent of the population in the U.S., in 2008, as reported by the American Society of News Editors in their annual census, only 13.4 percent of journalists were people of color.  

Women fare only marginally better, with seven male bylines printed at major magazines for every one female byline.  Newsweek, which has a 39 percent female editorial board, reports that the four most common jobs for women today are stereotypically “pink-collar” jobs, with 43 percent of women working as secretaries, nurses, teachers and cashiers.  Of Newsweek‘s 49 cover stories last year, men wrote all but six.  And only two women currently work as editors of top circulation dailies in the U.S.

I teach my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University about the necessity of inclusiveness, about diversity of thought and how it shifts content and how every source for every story must be considered for race, age, gender, ideaology, geography, disability, education, income and orientation. You can’t get a broad diversity of sources on all stories, but you have to try. Why? Because it improves the journalism. Stories cease to be flat and become fully dimensional.

And then I came home to see my son, Brendan’s, new issue of Men’s Health. On the cover? “Cars! Beers! Breasts! And 9 Other Things Worth Living and Dying For.”

What more can I say.

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Wake up! It’s Transformation Time!!!

Students in Caryn Brooks’ and my Journalism Methods class

Driving to work last week, where I teach graduate and undergraduate students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a news story perked me up a bit.

ABC News President David Westin announced Tuesday what he is calling a ‘fundamental transformation’ of his network’s news division that will slash the payroll and re-engineer the way ABC produces news in the digital age. The network is seeking to shed several hundred jobs in the news division, or up to a quarter of the 1,400-person workforce.”

No, I do not have a ghoulish view of someone else’s unemployment. I am sorry 25 percent of ABC journalists are getting fired. But, it has long been the time for all of old media from newspapers to  broadast companies to change tactics. David Folkenflick of NPR goes on to write:

“But Westin says he finds hope in the same nimble approach that helped to ensure the survival of Nightline by keeping costs in check and enabling ABC journalists to get to stories more quickly.

“Much of the work that we do on Nightline today is shot by reporters and producers and edited by them and transmitted by the Internet by the field by them,” Westin said. “Anyone watching Nightline would never think, ‘Oh, they’re gathering their news differently or producing it differently.'”

This should not be news to a news organization. At least not in this century. Since 2003 in some classes and since 2006 in all classes, we have been teaching cross-platform multimedia vigorously across the curriculum, from freshmen clear up to the grad students. Anyone who follows the listserv or local blogs knows just how much grief we as a faculty and school  have endured because of that key move. We were damned for abandoning solid, investigative journalism, becoming button pushers. Criticism was fast and fierce and relentless: It’s nothing  but technology and software you teach. Stick to the old way. The old way was best. Who needs to know Soundslides? Why care about Premiere Elements as an investigative reporter? Where is the journalism? The journalism is in it all.

The reality is to stay alive, a journalism organization has to be nimble. And journalists moreso. That translates to the necessity for reporters to be equipped with a toolkit of marketable skills, all upheld by strong journalism traditions steeped in ethics, accuracy and transparency.

In the first year at Medill, students learn the fundamentals of news judgment, interviewing, sourcing, writing, fact-checking, database reporting, design, photography, audio and video storytelling and a splash of Flash. They end up producing audio and video stories that stand alone,  audio slideshows, as well as strong short and longer form text stories complemented by a barrage of relevant alternative story styles. What that means is they are employable.

To have considered journalism as a sacrosanct estate immune from the consequences of the economy was myopic, archaic and arrogant. And to resist the possibility that any journalist should be able to perform on at least two or more platforms with proficiency– if not mastery– is professional suicide.

I have the pleasure of teaching 15 marvelous grad students this quarter. Those are their smiling faces above.  They are smart, they are engaged and three days a week they are reporting and producing stories on specific beats in the community–from text to audio and video, slideshows and graphics. They will find jobs, they will produce journalism and they will hopefully not complain. 

On a recent American flight, I flipped through American Way magazine and read Carlton Stower’s February 2010 column, “Read All About It” concerning his take on the death of newspapers.  He wrote:

“That printed paper you folded into your briefcase and carried on the plane with you is a tried old dinosaur sadly limping away to its  dying place. All to which I say, “Balderdash!'”

OK, so I have not ever used balderdash in a a sentence, written or spoken, but I agree. It is the content that is important and an audience will arrive if the content is valuable. That means solid reporting and vetted, authentic good journalism  readers cannot get somewhere else faster. Good writing, insightful reporting, fresh ideas played out in a variety of formats. What we teach.    

The ABC story reminded me of a Christian Science Monitor column last May, “Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay,” by Robert C. Picard that initially made me angry at the headline, but then made me agree.  Picard wrote:  

“Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.”

Picard continues: “If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable and relevant to the audiences.”

They will have to transform. Before it is too late. Our students have until graduation. They will be fine.

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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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