Month: May 2018

Chronicling journalism in 2017, the home stretch: The final leg of my 10,000 mile #followmylede project

My former student and Sports Illustrated Producer Kelsey Hendrix (left) showed me around SI headquarters in the Time, Inc, building in New York City, March, 2017
My former student and Sports Illustrated Producer Kelsey Hendrix (left) showed me around SI headquarters in the Time, Inc, building in New York City, March, 2017


When I started my Follow My Lede project in March of 2017, my goal was to drive 10,000 miles over six months and visit dozens of newsrooms while chronicling American journalism. I was interested in holding a mirror up to the media and the people who bring us the news every day.

I wanted to visit news outlets big and small, traditional and cutting-edge. Since then I have shot thousands of photos, hours of video and taken plentiful notes. For me, it’s important to take a peek inside the lives of journalists and why — in such a hostile climate for the profession — they do what they do

My first leg included stops at USA Today and Franconia, Virginia; Buzzfeed, Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated. I also visited Columbia University and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism to delve into the history of Joseph Pulitzer (and snuck in to see the Pulitzer Prize Hall). As a full-time instructor at the University of Alabama I was not only chronicling journalism in 2017, but also gathering information for my classes. (The Innovation Team there is the reason I was able to take this trip.)

Columbia University, March, 2017
Columbia University, March, 2017


The second leg of my road trip kicked off in late June. I had to schedule my excursions around my teaching schedule and summer journalism camps that I direct. On that leg of my trip, I visited a real-life Clark Kent at the Lewisville Texan-Journal, The Santa Fe New Mexican, and Navajo Nation and The Navajo Times. I spent some time at VidCon in Anaheim, examining how media companies both large and small use YouTube to reach consumers. I got to know the people at KPCC Southern California Public Radio and heard from a journalist who told me, as many did, that journalism is her “calling.” My eyes were opened at Street Sheet in San Francisco where I met a journalist who covers homelessness then became homeless himself.

After that I ran into some problems many mobile journalists face. I had some connectivity problems uploading video associated with wildfires and, later, dense mountains. Perhaps more daunting was that I had to drive 2,4674 miles from Portland Oregon home to Tuscaloosa Alabama in only four days while also making media stops. There was no time to write, upload and edit videos, given my long driving days. Then life got in the way. I took a break from blogging on Medium to teach fall semester at Alabama and run the two non profits that I direct that help K-12 students do journalism in schools. (I also blog for This brings me to the present:

My daughter and I at Bleacher Report during March Madness in 2017
My daughter and I at Bleacher Report during March Madness in 2017


2018 is bearing down. My December classes are online, so it’s time to finish this wild, frenzied, educational adventure. All future posts will be written from the comfort of my warm office in Tuscaloosa in the dead of winter, with snow in the forecast, as opposed to the previous ones, which were written out on the road in the summer heat, which reached 112 degrees at one point.

After my final post I will post a round up of lessons learned, as well as an interactive map of my journey. Onward.

Next up in the #followmylede series: I visit abc10 in Sacramento.

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title at, published December 26, 2017.

Hitting the streets with Street Sheet: A journalist who covers homelessness becomes homeless


Inside Street Sheet offices, San Francisco
Inside the offices of Street Sheet, San Francisco

Street Sheet, San Francisco

11:30 a.m., San Francisco, California, June 30, 2017

Journalist T.J. Johnston working in the offices of Street Sheet.
Assistant Editor T.J. Johnston working in the offices of Street Sheet


T.J. Johnston has a story that’s straight out of a movie.

He discovered journalism accidentally, through a free class offered by Media Alliance. The class included homeless people, and did some impactful, investigative reporting on “poverty pimping nonprofits.”

Ultimately, Johnston became homeless himself.

“I’m not even quite sure you could qualify it as an irony but I suddenly found myself in the same circumstances that a lot of people find themselves in,” Johnston said. “The journalist who covers homelessness finds himself without housing. I’ve been pretty much making do in the shelter system ever since.”


Now he heads up Street Sheet as an assistant editor. In the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, past scores of neighborhood people hanging out, through a red door and up a tiny, thin stairwell, is Street Sheet. I am there during Pride Week, in the same neighborhood where the first resistance to police sparked the Gay Liberation Movement.

Art featured on the front page of Street Sheet July 1, 2017
Art featured on the front page of Street Sheet July 1, 2017


Street Sheet reminds me of a college newsroom, and I realize that I’m a long way (geographically and metaphorically) from the polished halls of Sports Illustrated or Buzzfeed. Shopping carts line the newsroom, which has walls covered by posters with slogans about social issues.

Street Sheet started out as a newsletter in 1989 as an offshoot of the Coalition on Homelessness. It recently underwent a major redesign with help from working artists.

“Most of it is done by volunteers,” Johnston said. “We’re able to get the word out on the issues that homeless people and low-income people face. That’s pretty much an accomplishment in itself. We’ve been doing it for three decades now.”

The staff welcomes me until I’m rightly called out for being from Alabama. (The day before I visit, the governor of California issued a travel ban to seven states, including Alabama. This was getting a lot of news coverage in Alabama due to its potential impact on football, but in California the focus wasn’t football, but Alabama’s laws that target prospective LGBT people who want to adopt.)

A poster wall inside the offices of Street Sheet, San Francisco
A poster wall inside the offices of Street Sheet, San Francisco


At Street Sheet, there were certainly bigger fish to fry. Call it public service journalism or advocacy journalism, but the reporters at Street Sheet work hard to shine light on issues that affect the homeless and people in need. At Street Sheet, they do social justice loud and proud.

They hit the streets to sell papers as an alternative to panhandling. Dozens of local ordinances forbid that, along with other homeless activity, which could include sleeping, sitting and hanging out. There are another dozen or so state ordinances that restrict the activity of homeless people.

“San Francisco is the most criminalizing of homeless people throughout the state of California,” Johnston tells me.

Street Sheet Vendor Manager, Scott Nelson, oversees people who choose to sell the paper on the streets. Nelson explains how the system helps homeless people in the area and gives them an alternative to panhandling.

“Some street newspapers charge 10 — 50 cents per copy. We don’t do that because we want our vendors to be able to impart the information that the Coalition wants people to know about homelessness and the struggle. So we have a lot of interesting articles about that and if we impose a fee, we would have less vendors getting less papers and we would have less papers out there.”

Street Sheet Vendor Manager Scott Nelson explains the process for selling papers.

Inextricably linked to social justice, the mission of Street Sheet extends to watching out for those who cannot help themselves, and giving voice to the voiceless.


Street Sheet office, San Francisco, June 30, 2017
Street Sheet office, San Francisco, June 30, 2017


Next up in the #followmylede series: Chronicling journalism in 2017, the home stretch: The final leg of my 10,000 mile #followmylede project

Reblogged with permission from a post with the same title at, published August 26, 2017.

The act of witnessing: “Telling the truth isn’t just a career … it’s a calling.”

KPCC, Southern California Radio

8:30 a.m. Pasadena, California, June 28, 2017

Digital Producer Elina Shatkin at 89.3 KPCC
Digital Producer Elina Shatkin at 89.3 KPCC, Southern California Radio


At 5 a.m. Digital Producer Elina Shatkin is already at her desk at 89.3 KPCC working on news stories for radio and web. She is a hybrid reporter who spends half of her day producing radio scripts and the other half working on web packages. She races the clock, which hangs above her work space in giant red numbers, ticking down the seconds. Just under that is an analog clock, just to drive the point home. Her phone, also with an ever-present clock, sits near her keyboard. She has 20 minutes to review the audio from her interview, put together a radio script and get to the morning meeting upstairs. The staff will decide what news stories will make the cut that day, a universal, usually twice-daily routine in all newsrooms regardless of medium.

When I arrive she has just talked with a Port of L.A. spokesperson for a breaking story about a cyberattack in Europe that has shut down some shipments coming into L.A. In a room already stunningly quiet and acoustically sound for radio, she types quickly, focusing on the work in front of her and tunes out everything else. I know that look, and so does every other journalist on the planet; head down, noise out. Deadline looms. Tick. Tick. Tick. The clocks on the wall count down.

We head upstairs to the morning meeting, several minutes late. She is aware of the time. She has a six-month-old who is teething, a fact she mentions in passing in the elevator. (I pause to ponder the plight of working journalists with children, constantly on micro-schedules, but that is for another post.)

The staff at KPCC gather for a meeting June 28, 2017.
The staff at KPCC gather for a meeting June 28, 2017.

In the movie The Paper the theme of clocks and time are everywhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie takes viewers through a day in a newsroom. When I walk into the sunny, splashed-with-yellow-paint main newsroom of KPCC, clocks are everywhere in screaming, red digital numbers. I am reminded of that movie.

Prior to joining the station, Shatkin (whose station bio says she “is a fan of dogs, bicycles, dark chocolate and bad Russian accents”) was the arts and culture editor at Los Angeles magazine, a restaurant critic for L.A. Weekly and a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Like many reporters, she made the leap from one medium to another and learned new skills along the way. She gives me a crash course on radio script writing to pass along to my students.

“One of the first things is that writing for radio is very very different than writing for print, and that took me some getting used to,” she said. “Writing basic news stories for radio, the wording is much simpler … As a written journalist I was used to packing a lot of information into sentences so there would be three or four facts in a big sentence. But in radio, the basic rule that was given to me was one thought per sentence when you’re writing a radio script and that’s very different than a written journalism story.”

I am struck by her willingness to learn new skills, something I see repeated over and over again in newsrooms across the country.

Something she said stuck with me more than anything else, and I’m summing up: At what cost comes journalistic speed? Newsrooms around the world hurryupfast to get a story finished, as if it were one word, and what do we, as consumers, lose from that?

Plenty of push back is happening in the industry to lobby for more in-depth reporting. (For example Narratively and others like it.) A few news outlets never lost it. But in newsrooms around America on my #followmylede tripI’ve seen dozens of stories that, echoing Shatkin’s sentiment, could have had better nuance with reporters on the ground.

A sign at KPCC announces "We Speak Angelino."At KPCC, promotional signs read “we speak Angeleno.” I imagine reporters, editors, social media managers, editorial cartoonists and anyone involved in news wants to know their public like that.

Yet I think of Shatkin, back in the shadowy downstairs at 5 a.m., sitting alone in a soundproof room. It is there in the quiet that her point is driven home. There is no commotion. Nothing to hear or see or witness. Just the tick, tick, tick of the clocks on the wall.


Next up in the #followmylede series, on the streets of San Fransisco with Street Sheet.

Reblogged with permission from a post with the same title on, published July 17, 2017.

Instructor Presence in Online Courses

We are working this year with our wonderful partners in Social Work for an Innovation Project centered on increasing instructor presence in the online classroom. We believe that strong instructor presence increases students’ sense of learning and connectedness, which may ultimately lead to increased performance and retention. Being present in the classroom, we believe, is just as critical online as it is on campus.

The Department of Education seems to believe so as well.

At the end of 2014, the DoE issued a Dear Colleague letter that indicated some requirements for Competency Based Education (CBE). CBE is an interesting topic on its own, but the more pertinent part of the letter was a requirement laid out for any Title IV program (that is, any program who’s students are eligible for federal aid):

All Title IV eligible programs, except correspondence programs, must be designed to ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. (A9)

The letter clarifies a bit further on the next answer.

We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.  Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction. (A10)

The implications for online programs and online instructors could be huge; this turned out to be the case for Western Governor’s University after an audit by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General concluded that they should repay $713 million in federal student aid.

This conclusion was based primarily on a 1992 law defining eligibility for federal aid for distance programs, and its possible that this recommendation from the Inspector General will not be enforced. The law was created in a time before online education was a normal process for so many universities, and many have expressed that this law needs revising.

But regardless of how outdated the law may be, there is a lot of value behind the sentiment. Instructors in an on-campus course are expected to interact with their students in a classroom for 2-3 hours a week. Shouldn’t online instructors be held to a similar expectation? That interaction might look substantially different in an online classroom, of course, but students deserve this interaction. And as noted in Answer 10 in the Dear Colleague letter, perhaps the interactions should be instructor-initiated.

It’s easy to forget that online education is still very new. I’ve heard faculty ask “what is the online classroom? Where does it begin and end?” It’s a good question. The immediate instinct is to say “the learning management system is the online classroom.” But that doesn’t seem right when you consider that learning could happen in email, a Zoom session, or in the community with an experiential learning assignment.

I’m not sure that we’ll be able to answer that question in the immediate future, but we’ll continue thinking and keep experimenting with our campus partners. We’re working with multiple groups on campus to increase instructor presence, either directly or indirectly, but we’d love to hear from others what they are doing.