Author: Meredith Cummings

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 al.com.) 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 Medium.com, 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 Medium.com, 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 Medium.com, published July 17, 2017.

I drove from Alabama to California to meet Jesus. VidCon — a religious experience.

Tote bag with slogan: Be Critical of the Media You Love
A tote bag for sale at VidCon in Anaheim sums up the feeling of the conference, although its go-to slogan is DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome).

 

Wednesday-Sunday, June 21–24, Anaheim, California

Mainstream journalists sometimes balk when I espouse why YouTube as an important news gathering and reporting tool. Yet it has come a long way since it’s first video was uploaded April 23, 2005. This year during VidCon (started in 2010 by Hank Green) released some numbers that back up the need for journalists to take note were tossed out from the stage by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. Take this one for example: There are 1.5 billion logged-in users visiting the site every month. Those users spend a over an hour a day watching video on their mobile device, which is staggering in a world of five-second attention spans.

Journalists should remember that YouTube overall, and even YouTube on mobile alone, reaches more 18–34 and 18–49-year-olds than any cable network in the U.S.

Crazy, epic, insane, ridiculous and thrilling are adjectives I’ve heard used to describe VidCon and that’s on point. But it’s also educational, enlightening and mind-opening.

Giant sculpture of "play" button outside Anaheim Convention Center.
The play button sits outside the Anaheim Convention Center and serves as a selfie magnet.

 

VidCon offer three tracks: Community, Creator and Industry, each a step up in ticket price and professional offerings from the next. While in one track people might be meeting the latest gaming, beauty or comedy gurus, elsewhere a panel on “Navigating algorithm changes in social video” and “Informing people in a post-truth world” are happening. (Sometimes media watchdogs become news at VidCon. This year at one of the panels, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian — known mostly for #gamergate ––took the stage for a panel called “Women online” only to be harassed, videoed and stalked by her online haters.)

Photo of #YouTubeBlack panel members on stage.
One of the panels I attended was called #YouTubeBlack.

While old-school media grapple with how to reach the demographic that attends VidCon, VidCon offers sessions such as “Jumping the chasm from online to traditional.” It’s a media timeline in reverse.

I’ve been to VidCon twice now and both times was bewildered and awestruck. Not just because a man walked around dressed like Jesus, or that I could get more free candy than on Halloween as a child, but because I was able to learn so much. Yes, the bulk of attendees appear to be in the under 25 crowd, but growth in the Industry and Creator tacks balances things out.

A man in sunglasses portraying Jesus at VidCon.
“Jesus, you’re very big in Alabama, where I am from,” I told him.

 

VidCon also challenges assumptions about what journalism can be. I met Reid Nicewonder sitting outside the Convention Center at a table with a sign that said “What do you believe and why? 5-Minute Interviews.”

Man seated at a table prepared to record "What do you believe and why? 5-minute interviews"

 

I’m pretty sure I irked him by turning the tables and asking him tons of questions, although if that’s true, there was no sign of it. He patiently and Zen-like answered them all. “Was he a journalist?” I asked and, if so, what was his end product going to look like?

He told me he is gathering answers for a documentary. Not trained in journalism, he was more interested in philosophy and how people perceive the world around them. His social media handle everywhere is Cordial Curiosity, except on Facebook where he is Civil Discourse Network. When I pointed out that what he is doing could be considered journalism (with the addition of ethics and context) he neither agreed or disagreed.

The man who sat down at the table before me seemed confrontational, but by the time he left the table Nicewonder had killed him with civil discourse and open ears. Disarming nature oozed from his table, the opposite of the comments section on any news story.

Afterward I met up with Jose Gramajo, a reporter for Univision, who taught for a year as a high school teacher in Los Angeles before he found his home in journalism. He was covering VidCon for Univision. He talked about the difference in ethical, credible reporting and media where “anyone with a camera” can contribute.

Jose Gramajo, a reporter for Univision, covered VidCon 2017

 

Next up on #followmylede series is an L.A. radio station. That city is on fire. (Literally.)

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title at medium.com, published on July 3, 2017.

The mission? In Navajo Nation voices need to be heard. “Who else will tell those stories?”

Monday, June 19

12:30 p.m., The Navajo Times, Window Rock, Arizona

The Najavo Times Chief Executive Officer and Publisher Tom Arviso Jr. in his office June 19, 2017

The Najavo Times Chief Executive Officer and Publisher Tom Arviso Jr. radiates old-school journalist, but with a twist. As the person who oversees the day-to-day operations of The Navajo Times his paper, more than many, has to do double duty.

Not only does it have to cover the necessary societal watchdog issues, such as school boards, the environment and any number of other public institutions and issues, it also must cover tribal courts and tribal-specific issues.

Navajo Times Guiding Principles poster
Guiding principles are posted on many walls of The Navajo Times.

Guiding principles are posted on many walls of The Navajo Times. When I visit on a sweltering hot summer day, we stand in the middle of the pressroom, fans humming overhead. It is noisy and loud.

“I am so proud of these guys,” he said, beaming. “The quality of their work is better than anyone else’s around. They can kick everyone else’s butts. And they’re all Navajo.”

I admit my ignorance to him. As a white girl from Alabama with almost no ties to any tribe (I have Cherokee deep in the family somewhere), I stumble on how to approach a couple of questions. (When he uses the word “indian” I cringe because for so long, I have been taught not to use that word, yet I understand in this context how it’s OK.)

There are two stereotypes of Native Americans in popular culture: 1) Rich, casino-owning people and 2) People who struggle with poverty and (because I have Type 1 diabetes I am aware of this one) diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

Because of the first stereotype, I expect the newsroom to be large and imposing. I have USA Today in my imagination. Yet when I drive up, the newspaper is in a small, unassuming building. I am right at home here. Arviso welcomes me in with open doors. He is a man filled with kindness who immediately ushers me around the newsroom, a welcome change from some media outlets who — though they talk a good transparency game — seem hell-bent on keeping people out.

I meet Arviso’s staff, including Terry Bowman who covers arts and entertainment, among other topics, for the paper. I interrupt him as he is working on a story, and put him on the spot.

As past president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity, I know Arviso has seen a lot while fighting for equality in newsrooms for people of color. I don’t beat around the bush, and ask him specific questions about diversity and what that means to him and to our countries newsrooms.

I wondered if there was anything specific to the Navajo reservation (about the size of West Virginia) guaranteed to sell more newspapers for his readership. (In my hometown it’s Alabama Football or Nick Saban.) I was surprised at his answer.

Back in the pressroom, the new press foreman Ron Livingston discussed the struggle of printing and distributing papers in the desert, which can reach temperature lows and highs that present problems. (The former press foreman just retired after decades of service, one of several long-time employees Arviso is losing this summer. We talk about the importance of institutional knowledge in newsrooms.) Pressroom know-how is also institutional knowledge that must be handed down from person to person. It’s an art that you can’t go to school to learn.

He shows me the consistency the ink should be, and notes that the temperature — and even water — have to be exact to make it work properly. There is lot of science that goes into making colors on newsprint vibrant and to match what a designer might see on a computer screen before it prints.

Ink and tools at The Navajo Times
Ink and tools at The Navajo Times

Next up in the #followmylede series, VidCon in Anaheim.

Reblogged with permission from a post of the same title published at medium.com on June 25, 2017.

The media is disparaged until the public needs information (and a cute teddy bear to keep things light)

Sunday, June 18

3:40 p.m., The New Mexican, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The New Mexican, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Large teddy bear in corner of newsroomEvery newsroom has quirky items sitting around, but The New Mexican is winning so far. A large teddy bear sits in the corner, yet no one can really explain why or where he came from, so he forever languishes in a sun-lit corner of the newsroom.

“No one’s quite sure how that bear got here, but it’s been here for a long time,” reporter Robert Nott tells me. “The bear and the sock monkey are left over.”

I don’t see a sock money, but decide to trust him.

A cascading string of origami birds hangs from the ceiling. A camouflage bowling pin with gold butterflies sits on a filing cabinet, a random reminder that ordinary things can be made extraordinary.

Camouflage bowling pin on file cabinet in newsroomDespite these fun visual cues, the day I arrive the staff is somber, still covering a shooting the day before. City Editor Cynthia Miller fills me in on details after Nott gives me a tour of the building:

Tim Baca and his wife were out celebrating her birthday and struck up a conversation with another man, Christopher Owens, and enjoyed the night until, apparently, the two men argued over a song and Owens allegedly shot Baca. The father of four was dead when police arrived on the scene. This came on the heels of a deadly shooting spree just a couple of days earlier.

Many local newsrooms are quiet on Sundays and this is no exception. The only noise is the police scanner in the background as Cynthia talks. Like many journalists, Miller found the profession through her love for creative writing, but that blossomed into a love for journalism, from crime stories to profiles on college graduates.

“I take it personally when I’m looking at my Facebook feed and I see all of these things about ‘the media, the media the lamestream media.’ I consider us to be fairly mainstream media because we’re a local newspaper. We don’t have an agenda — we do have an agenda actually — we are in a state that struggles with poverty, struggles with education, struggles with all sorts of social justice issues, environmental justice issues and we’re interested in letting the community know why these issues are important, how these issues affect our lives and finding solutions.”

Miller talks about how the media is demonized until someone needs to know information, a common thread I’ve heard in newsrooms I’ve visited on my project trip.

Santa Fe New Mexican City Editor Cynthia Miller talks about working in the news industry.

The Santa Fe New Mexican newsroom, Sunday, June 18, 2017
The Santa Fe New Mexican newsroom, Sunday, June 18, 2017

 

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title on medium.com, June 20, 2017.

A real-life Clark Kent, Goldfish crackers, hidden alcohol and a sense of service

Courtesy of Steve Southwell and The Lewisville Texan-Journal, video by Christina Ulsh</font size>

Friday, June 16

3:45 p.m., Lewisville Texan-Journal, Lewisville, Texas

Lewisville, Texas is a suburb of Dallas/Fort Worth. It has a dog park, skate park, drive-in theater and rodeo arena.

Although Lewisville is filled with characters, none beat the editor of one newspaper, Steve Southwell, an unassuming man who is a clearly a bit bold. In fact, one of the first things I said to him was, “You’re a litle bit nuts.”

I’m not a great conversation starter.

Back in 2015 when many newspapers were gasping for one last breath of air or had been six feet under for years, he started a print edition to accompany the existing Lewisville Texan-Journal website. When everyone else rushed out, he jumped in with a rudimentray printer and stapled first edition.

When the first editon was complete, he celebrated with a shot from his stash of alcohol from the local distillery. (Something I’ve noticed is that all newsrooms have snacks — goldfish are so popular I often wonder if journalist are all just big preschoolers, except for the other constant, hidden alcohol.) Lewisville has a winery, distillery and brewery and all of them carry the Lewisville Texan-Journal.

The only journalism training Southwell had was a semster of journalism in high school.

By day he is a computer programmer. By night he fights injustice in city hall (and school boards, etc.) through journalism. He’s the Clark Kent of Lewisville.

The Lewisville Texan-Journal website started as a “crappy” opinion blog in 2004 and quickly morphed into a news site.

“We were already writing news, so how hard could it possibly be to put it on paper,” he said, shaking his head, followed by a comment about his own naiveté.

Digital to print is not the traditional way to do it. Then again, Steve is a democrat in Texas. But, he points out, a democrat that poeple in the comunity seem to respect. I asked him about checking his bias at the reporting door. “Life and Liberty in the Lonestar State” is Southwell’s paper/website tagline. He knows he is not always going to popular in the community and he understands that, but Southwell fircely defends his reporters.

“All if can tell you is we’ve done our homework, we know it’s true. Our reporting is from practical sources. If they don’t like it, unlike us. Go away. We don’t care.”

Lewisville is bucking the trend as a two-newspaper town. The Lewisville Leader is the older, established newspaper.

“We work harder because they are there and I hope they work harder because we are here,” he said.

Like any good newsman, he gets a glimmer in his eye when he talks about breaking a news story, such as the gas drilling underneath the lake that serves as a water source for Lewisville and Dallas

“We beat all the outher outlets to it and that was because we had relationships embedded in the community,” he said.

His biggest challenge? “Money and time,” he quickly answered. “If we had more money we would have more time. I am not a sales person. I suck at selling ads.”

The staff of the Lewisville Texan-Journal on deadline June 16, 2017
The staff of the Lewisville Texan-Journal on deadline June 16, 2017

 

“The mission is not to make money off of ads,” he said. “It’s kind of a necessity that allows us to do our mission. In the business of news they will say, ‘Your readers are your product, not your audience. You’re selling your readers to the advertisers’ and I just can’t get behind that. That’s why our cover price is free.”

He serves the public, and pointed to the necessity of community news covering what matter to people on a day-to-day basis, where political squabbling among politicians must get put aside.

“At the end of the day, budgets have to get passed. They have to. There’s no democratic or republican way to fix a street,” he says of covering local politics.

The Lewisville Texan-Journal is hidden. It is small. You would never be able to locate the newspaper if you didn’t know it was there and, respecting his wishes, I will keep the location secret. However, it looks nothing like a newspaper buidling and is unmarked, just the way the staff wants it. Anyone who has covered community news knows that the death knell of privacy and work flow is constant interruption. And, while he is a staunch defender of Lewisville and its residents and wants to serve them, he wants to discuss issues by mail, email or offsite somewhere.

As he spoke, I thought about the recent death threats the Sacramento Valley Mirror newspaper received and wondered if more newsrooms should follow this policy.

 

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title published on medium.com, June 18, 2017.

Over 8,000 miles to go: #followmylede continues

As I carried a suitcase heavier than my child down two flights of stairs, through a parking deck to my car in the pre-dawn hours, I cursed myself.

“What. Is. Wrong. With. Me?” I panted, as I tried to lift the comically large suitcase high enough to place it in my trunk.

The answer came back loud and clear: I love journalism.

I get that I’m a little crazy to want to loop the country in an over 8,000-mile long road trip, but we don’t choose our passions. Journalism found me my sophomore year in college in the dingy yet ridiculously fun The Crimson White newsroom on the University of Alabama campus. It’s the same University that — because of it’s Innovation Team — I’m able to take this trip to chronicle American journalism.

Yesterday, I stopped in Liberty City, Texas in the middle of a 10-hour drive. The gas station had four local newspaper choices for towns in and around the city. That’s the dream. The more outlets representing the people, the better.

Newspaper stand in Liberty City, Texas.

Amid the swirling politics and disasters of the weeks before I left for this second leg of my trip, I was reminded that it’s important to chronicle who is bringing us our news. It’s important to document what newsrooms look like in 2017. News outlets don’t usually turn the questions or camera back on themselves, but I will. One of the basic tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is that journalists should watchdog other journalists.

More than that, it’s my goal to take a peek inside the lives of journalists and why — in such a hostile climate for the profession — they do what they do.

Stay tuned. My next post will feature people in Lewisville, Texas who might love journalism more than I do.

 Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title published on medium.com, June 17, 2017.

Bleacher Report has a pet fish and is crushing it in the social media sphere. (Bonus: I become a stalker during this post.)

Friday, March 17, 10 a.m., Bleacher Report, New York City

It is interesting that when I tell my cab driver, who is an older man in his 60s, the address of Bleacher Report, he says, “Isn’t that where Newsweek used to be?” Newsweek is still there, but that exchange speaks volumes about the audience B/R pulls in — young men.

Yet as soon as I walk in I feel right at home. Maybe because I love sports or maybe because this place feels a lot like my college newspaper with the close quarters and congenial attitude of employees. Sports-related posters on the walls are random (I went nuts over a Spud Webb poster because, as a “short” person, I’ve always been a little obsessed with him.). Nothing feels extremely put together, and I mean that in a good way. This is the closest I’ve felt to an old-school newsroom in a while.Inside the Bleacher Report newsroom.

My favorite finds were 1) the arcade-like basketball game in the back of the office (B/R’s new digs will have an actual court) and 2) the pet fish. I feel confident the fish is in good hands because of the newsrooms I’ve been so far, the B/R staff is most welcoming, open and unlikely to kill an animal.

 Bleacher Report's pet fish

Six TVs set to various games are on and it’s March Madness time when I visit. (Every newsroom I’ve been to this week concedes that it’s a lost week due to March Madness sucking employee time and energy.) As I expected, sports paraphernalia (helmets, jerseys, etc.) sprinkle the office.

 Group workstations in the Bleacher Report newsroom

One of the things I always tell my students is that whatever they love in life can be turned into a career in journalism. Do you like gaming? Write for a gaming website. (Or be like PewDiePie, the most subscribed YouTuber in the world since 2013, currently at over 54 million. He basically makes a living because people watch him play video games.) Do you like animals? Shoot photography for a magazine or website that specializes in animals. Are you a daredevil? Be an international reporter that goes to far-flung, dangerous corners of the world to report on what others will not.

If you love something, there is a place in journalism for you.

 Bleacher Report journalists and editors looking happy.

Bleacher Report is a great example of that kind of niche journalism which, in this case, happens to be sports. More and more, companies are hiring journalists who are not trained as journalists, but specialize in, for example, science, then become science reporters. (A great example of this is Carl Zimmer, who visited my classroom at UA recently.)

At B/R I speak with Maurice Peebles, deputy editor of trending whose Twitter handle is @tallmaurice. I love that he embraces that (see photo of us below for comparison). The “trending” part of his title means that he looks at what topics people are talking about then turns those into further conversation with more content.

Maurice Peebles "@tallmaurice" and Meredith Cummings.
Maurice Peebles is so tall his Twitter handle is @tallmaurice. He barely fits in the frame.

Peebles is a Jersey boy who went to Rutgers and dove into the grind for years, blogging about sports with two friends. The two friends eventually dropped off and it was just him. Over time, things started taking off, but not before he took other jobs that had nothing to do with sports as he continued to blog. This speaks to another thing educators tell students, but until they do it it’s a hard concept to grasp. Telling students, “Finding a job is a full-time job. It is hard. It takes time,” is one thing, but living it is another. As Peebles said of his former blog:

“We were doing that for two years before we got any traction at all. The weird part for us was trying to stay positive while getting maybe 15–20 hits a day.”

Peebles refers to Bleacher Report as a “social first” company and is proud of it:

“I find a lot of people get into writing because they have something they want to say, and that’s important. But if you want to make a career out of this and you want to continue to be accessible to a lot of people you have to look at the audience and sort of see, what do they like? What are they gravitating towards? It’s nice to combine the two. I feel like in my role now I’ve really got a great chance to do passion projects as well as sort of look to grow our audience.”

I ask him what challenges Bleacher Report faces and he answers with candor:

Maurice Peebles at Bleacher Report, interviewed by Meredith Cummings.

After my visit to Sports Illustrated just a day earlier and comments made there by Kelsey Hendrix, it was interesting to see Peebles echo her sentiments about diversity in newsrooms, specifically with sports products. Peebles said B/R, which has a target audience of millennial males, wants to be careful not to focus too much on “frat boy dude culture.”

Maurice Peebles at Bleacher Report discusses diversity in newsrooms

12 p.m., Columbia University Journalism School, New York City

Talk about two different worlds. Not only are they not geographically close together, Bleacher Report and Columbia University couldn’t be further apart in their atmospheres, but I am here on a mission.

I am stalking a man named Nick Lemann who I think I might find here. Alas (words like alas are things you say when you’re at Columbia), he took a train to Boston just before my arrival and I missed him.

This isn’t a newsroom in the truest sense of the form, but I feel it worth mentioning that along the way I will stop at places to shoot video and photos for my classes. Lehmann is THE person I want to talk to about Joseph Pulitzer and his life. Many people know Pulitzer from the prizes that bear his name, but there is so much more to this man. So Mr. Lemann, if you’re reading this, let’s catch up!

I can’t even begin to think about talking about journalism history in any of my classes without a visit to Columbia to the school that Joseph Pulitzer bequeathed the funds to begin. So I traipse around campus and visit the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, of which I am a big fan.

Front door, Tow Center for Digital Journalism

I pay my respects to the Pulitzer statue both outside and inside, front and back (because you can never get enough Joey P.) at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Joseph Pulitzer statue, Columbia University.
Joseph Pulitzer statue outdoors, Columbia University.

Stay tuned for the second leg of my trip soon. For now, it’s back to UA to teach class.

Reblogged with permission from a post of the same title published at medium.com on March 17, 2017.

I’m LOLing and, OMG, look at that swimsuit issue! Today’s stops: Buzzfeed and Sports Illustrated

Thursday, March 16, 11 a.m. BuzzFeed, New York City office

BuzzFeed is exactly as buzzy as you think it would be. At the reception desk/security check-in I am offered stickers that say omg, wtf and lol, along with mints. Nothing starts a day off right quite like being offered a wtf sticker and a mint, both of which I take.

Even before I go into the building, the giant block font that greets me at the door and in the elevator area says, “This is going to be fun and very, very big.” Because the font is very fun and very, very big. I imagine all of my friends who geek out over typefaces would love and appreciate the clean lines. I have weird friends.

At Buzzfeed corporate headquarters, wall art that states "WTF" and "OMG"

I log onto the wireless guest Internet access and even the guest password is catchy and cute. From the moment I enter, Buzzfeed is a carefully cultivated image of hip. At 44, I have never felt so old.

I have not been given clearance by BuzzFeed’s public relations department to shoot video while at BuzzFeed (despite my attempts), but my very quick tour gives me a sense of the place. No. It slaps me in the face with a sense of the place.

As I am whisked up several flights of stairs, the culture clearly screams “WE ARE YOUNG AND HIP,” which is exactly what I expected. Not in a “We are young and hip and better than you” kind of way, just in a matter of fact manner.

On every desk is a yellow circle, just like the ones on the top right of the BuzzFeed home page, with each employee’s name on it. On each floor a kitchen area offers various drinks and snacks, from giant plastic containers of various nuts to a row of cereal that would make Seinfeld jealous. These are my people because they love food. But their food is way cooler than mine.

The newsroom is like many newsrooms in America, with televisions (that day turned to CNN, at least at the moment I was visiting) and people milling about, but mostly sitting and typing.

In a large, open room I sit down with my friend to chat, but not before noticing the chalkboard, upscale-bar-like signs for Guinness. While we talk, a giant (and I mean giant) wall-sized screen interrupts us, as various people in one part of the building talk to people in another part. It is very Orwellian, but in a happy, IKEA-fied way, as the furniture and decor, from tables to chairs to lamps, look like high-end IKEA furniture. Much of it is blue and orange and yellow and there is color everywhere. This is interesting because the floor, ceiling and walls are gray and industrial-style, except for the walls that were Expo-marker friendly that employees can write on. (I’m totally doing this to one of my walls when I get home because now all I want to do is color on the walls.)

At Buzzfeed corporate HQ, a glass wall with large decal stating "ROFL"

 

 

For all of its embracing cat videos and text message abbreviations, Buzzfeed’s split into a separate entertainment and news division has allowed it to come into the news business like a bull, and not do things in a business-as-usual way. Remember when it dumped a Trump dossier? (Which, by the way, I ethically disagree with because it violates the SPJ Code of Ethics, but my students and I have had healthy debates with each other and with a Buzzfeed employee who visited.) This is the second time during my project I am reminded that media companies, in some ways, cannot do journalism in the same way they once could.

Journalism has clearly missed the window for the time to step back, take a breath and think. So it strikes me that many media companies are trying to see what might stick. (In college, we used to throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done. If it stuck, it was done.) In Buzzfeed’s case, the expansion into seemingly endless new territory (See Tasty and Nifty) seems to be working. But in many companies I feel like lots of spaghetti is being thrown at walls.

Maybe it’s because I saw Aladdin on Broadway the night before I visited Buzzfeed, but I wish for a lamp and a genie so I can see into the future 10 years and see what journalism in America looks like. Will we even know what ROFL means any more?

2 p.m., Sports Illustrated, Time Inc. Building

Outdoor mirrored edifice of Time, Inc. HQ.

If part of my goal is to take a snapshot in time of 2017 media companies, Time, Inc. juxtaposed with Buzzfeed is a good study in that. The differences between the two are subtle and important.

Time, Inc. has carpeted floors, as opposed to BuzzFeed’s industrial look and is starkly more traditional. I feel no need to use abbreviations here. Or take a quiz.

I sense history, in part due to the photographs from years of SI on the walls and, downstairs at the entrance, a Time photography retrospective.

Time, Inc. is right by One World Trade Center and is imposing and corporate from the outside. I meet Kelsey Hendrix, Producer at Sports Illustrated (SI) on an upper floor after clearing security (something I’ve been asked to do at every media company in New York, but this one is particularly thorough). I’ve been here before, to visit Time magazine, where the elevator spits me out today, and there is very little differentiating Time magazine from SI.

The same colors and red filing cabinets, chairs and accents are sprinkled throughout the offices with standard issue cubbies. I’m no decorator, so I only point this out to show that newsrooms all have different vibes and this one is clean and corporate, except for that one random dog I saw walk through with its owner.

Hendrix runs social media, writes and edits articles, produces videos, calls talent (SI models), writes for Campus Rush (part of SI) and freelances for People Country. (I honestly had never heard of People Country, but in my defense I don’t enjoy country music. I might be the only person in Alabama like this.)

We talked a lot about magazines and the magazine industry — she works heavily on SI’s Swimsuit edition each year), and the magazine insider information will be helpful for my classes. I noted that there were no large posters of SI Swimsuit editions plastered to the walls any more than there were SI magazines everywhere, except one place:

Hendrix also runs several social media accounts. One of the challenges of her job is to not repeat herself on social media and use a different voice for various social media, while keeping her own voice in her personal social media. She said the two are widely different. Social media can be fun, but if you run a bunch of accounts for work, it’s not quite as fun when it’s for pleasure. (I may be interjecting some of my own experience in this, but it echoes what she said.)

What really strikes me, though, are her comments on diversity, but let me first put them in context of my week: Being in New York is always refreshing to me. In a cab my driver was from Poland. In an elevator a Swedish couple canoodled. Today I was on the subway and the man next to me was reading a newspaper in Greek. A group of young men wearing yarmulkes sat across from me. The man next to me spoke Italian on the phone. Frankly, these are things I don’t usually see.

Hendrix struggles to reconcile her surroundings with her work environment, something I’ve already heard several times on this trip from other journalists, and I’m just at the beginning of my journey.

Diversity in newsrooms is something that will come up again, as I am making it a point to ask every single person I talk to about this. Her comments need no explanation:

“In my personal life, diversity is all around me. I live in New York, one of the most diverse places in the world. There’s no escaping the fact that people from literally every part of the world come here and I think that’s the most beautiful part of New York. You’re on a subway car with people from 10 different countries at any given point in the day and that’s a beautiful thing. Diversity in the newsroom can still use a lot of work. As — and I don’t pull this card often — as a woman working in sports there’s definitely still a lot of room for more women to work in sports and for — especially women covering mens’ sports and men covering womens’ sports — for us to figure out the best way to cover those behind-the-scenes in depth, without being intrusive and without overstepping lines of privacy that should be there. But our industry could really use more diversity, for sure.”

Reblogged with permission from a post of the same title, published at medium.com on March 17, 2017.