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
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
The past two years my daughter and I have driven to New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California (and down the coast) — all from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
On these trips I usually stop in and see friends who work in newsrooms. As a reporter turned journalism instructor (and freelancer) I have quite a collection of friends at media outlets because I’m sinking into the middle aged quicksand. Some of these visits are to my friends, some are former students.
Over the course of these trips something started to simmer and bother me: What people say about “the media” does not sync with what my experience has been as a journalist working in newsrooms in various states. I believe that newsrooms are as varied as Americans. My brief stops across the country back that up.
Journalists are Americans. They are old and young, rich and struggling, immigrants and people born in the United States, liberal and conservative, optimists and pessimists and, frankly, everything in between because it’s too hard to put them into a box, any more than I could put myself into one.
So today I embark on an approximate 10,000-mile road trip over the next six months to visit newsrooms across the country, both large and tiny, traditional and cutting edge, general and specialized to talk to reporters, editors, content managers, graphic artists and social media managers. This mammoth undertaking is part of an innovation project I proposed to The University of Alabama. To my surprise — because my plan is a little bit nuts due to all of the driving — they said “Do it!” and I was named an Innovation Scholar In Residence.
It’s fitting that I start this journey today, the day Sunshine Week begins. Sunshine Week is a way for journalists to shed light on the fact that this country sorely needs better open records laws. (I’m pointing the finger squarely at my home state. Get it together, Alabama.)
At this moment, I am typing from a hotel in northern Virginia, having just driven 12 hours and lost two hours (thank you daylight savings time). I am literally driving into a blizzard in New York City tomorrow after local stops. I am tired.
Yet I am so excited, because Sunshine Week is also a great time for me to shed light on what “the media” actually does.
I think of the old photos of newsrooms I have seen. Margaret Bourke-White with her camera. Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, leaning oh-so-casually on the desk. Edward R. Murrow at a microphone. I want to chronicle American newsrooms in 2017, beyond blown-up political rhetoric of “fake news!”
My students know that I like to rail against Americans for wanting everything to be black and white, this or that, left or right.
Where is the nuance? What about those gray areas in between? Life is almost never that simple. It’s messy and complicated and tangled.
By the time I am finished visiting all 25–30 newsrooms, my classes will be full of video and written content for our students. I also hope to write about my experiences as I travel. I anticipate that I will learn a lot from this project, even as I teach my own students.
I want to use video obtained through these visits to support learning objectives in each part of my classes. My goal is to bring these theoretical and abstract concepts to life for our students. While Skype and other online tools are fine for letting someone speak with a class, nothing matches the vibrancy of a newsroom. This project will help me bring the stories that happen in newsrooms daily to my students, but also to the public.
Many students have a picture in their heads of “the media,” but I want to drive home the point to them that the term “the media” can mean many different things.
Feel free to come along for the ride too.
Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title published on medium.com, March 12, 2017.