Tag: journalism

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.

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.

Driving as fast as I can: Winter Storm Stella is really ticking me off

Tuesday, March 13,  8:30 a.m., Franconia Governmental Center, Franconia, Virginia

My project is a huge one, so I decided to start by visiting someone I know, as I am using new camera equipment and anything can go wrong. I also woke on about four hours of sleep and am running on pure adrenaline as I set off on this six-month adventure.

I am also in a hurry to get out of Virginia to beat a potential blizzard to my next stop, New York City. If I do everything as planned, I should get there just as the storm arrives.

Taylor Holland, a former student of mine at UA, is chief of staff for Supervisor Jeff McKay in Fairfax County, Virginia. He has a picture on his office wall of himself with former Disney actress-turned-singer Selena Gomez. I feel that this will not inspire confidence in his constituency, so the first 10 minutes I tease him mercilessly about that. We share “Roll Tide!” in various parts of speech like that ESPN commercial, then get down to business. (But not before I pull a large hairbrush out of my camera bag and primp as if it were me going to be on camera. In my defense, you never know. A reporter is always prepared. Plus, at that moment I may have looked like Einstein from the gusty wind. Priorities, y’all.)

Taylor Holland

A politician’s office may seem like an unlikely stop for a project chronicling American journalism, but Holland has seen reporting from both sides of the political fence, both as a reporter in Selma, Alabama and at the Washington Examiner, then as chief of staff for a politician. In fact, it was specifically his journalism experience that landed him the job with McKay’s office. In Holland’s words:

“We could do all the good in the world, but if we don’t effectively communicate it, no one’s going to know.”

I have long held that government should serve the public and journalists should as well. Holland agreed with me, and not just because he earned an A in my classes:

“It’s the role of politicians and journalists to both do good for the public. I think that’s why we both go into the field.”

The visit wasn’t without some sidestepping of national politics, which we shied away from. I’m saving that for a later stop on my cross-country tour.

“I think people look, especially now, to journalists to lead the way to shine light on things that maybe shouldn’t be happening,” Holland said. “I don’t want to spend too much time on that because there are so many things that shouldn’t be happening.”

Journalists must shine light where there is darkness. This is the mantra I repeat to my students. I hope they listen.

10:30 a.m., USA Today, Tyson’s Corner, Virginia

USA Today has got to be the most tucked away yet large, beautiful newsroom in the country. The expansive building fits nicely into the landscape with lots of glass and foliage. I think it says something when a media company is literally transparent. Mostly that there are things in this building that I will probably break.

USA Today offices, with considerable floor-to-ceiling glass.

I wanted to track down the architect and give that person an award. (I grew up surrounded by my dad’s blueprints.) Parking was so easy I thought I was being tricked. When I arrive at a newspaper that calls itself “America’s newspaper” I expect more traffic.

Executive Editor of USA Today Network National News Desk Beryl Love welcomed me into his office which immediately gave me emotional whiplash. On one wall was a beautiful framed montage of front pages from 9/11. It was haunting. I have a photo on my office wall of the twin towers and Statue of Liberty. I feel like there is a kinship among people working in newsrooms that day, and certainly all Americans, but an unspoken journalistic respect beyond his fancy title struck me.

On another wall is a shelf of smiling Cleveland Indians bobbleheads and an old M5010 Mac similar to the first computer I ever saw. So I knew right away, here is a man who has lived through defeats both large and small. World Series and floppy discs. I was careful not to bring up the Cubs.

Executive Editor of USA Today Network National News Desk Beryl Love

I interviewed him for over a half hour about various journalism-related things that will be helpful to my students, but are too numerous to list here. His laid-back, steady demeanor echoed his past, relaxed life out West in Reno.

Love talked to me about how one of the nation’s largest circulating newspapers decides what goes in the print edition each day. It all points back to website analytics and social media. I liked his analogy:

“It’s almost as if once a day we put our hand in this river of news and stop it for a second and take a snapshot of where we are.”

We discussed how stories bubble up into the national news from small communities (USA Today works with many local papers that are Gannet owned). He used an example of a Florida editor sending him an email about a story about a jet ski and cruise ship almost colliding. So in that case, the news came from a person in that community.

This speaks to what I’ve always thought much of the general public misunderstands: News isn’t random and haphazard. It isn’t always determined by social media as we know it. Often it’s determined by that as-old-school-as-you-can-get method, word of mouth and person-to-person. Editors everywhere have a Code of Ethics and values that help us determine what is news and how to treat it. So in a way, American newsrooms are back to square one. In Love’s words:

“People used to think to be informed they had to read or watch Brand X, Y or Z. That brand awareness people had for news and for information got decimated in a digital space. The challenge I think that we face is to make that watchdog accountability relevant to a different audience. One that has no ties to print and no loyalty to any product … The challenge for us is, we’re not going to back off of our First Amendment responsibilities, but we can’t do business as usual.”

One thing I was consistently aware of , especially when talking about brand loyalty — and this is not unique to USA Today — was the branding being pushed by Love. I don’t mean pushed in a bad way. Simply that every company that practices journalism now has to think more like public relations professionals do about how to brand and represent its product.

It trickles down to reporters. I used to love the anonymity of reporting. I enjoyed being in a community and watching people read my work and them not knowing I was listening to their reactions and overhearing conversations about issues I covered. Now Twitter/social media/clicks and shares have made that impossible, because if people don’t read or watch what you produce then it doesn’t make the company money.

What if they didn’t have to do that? What would change then in American journalism?

Reblogged with permission from a post by the same title, published on medium.com, March 14, 2017.

Follow My Lede: Six months, 10,000 miles and dozens of newsrooms: Chronicling American journalism

I love road trips.

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.

Meredith Cummings with her camera, on a balcony.
On assignment for a travel piece for a magazine (while representing my beloved Crimson Tide).

 

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.

I need to test that hypothesis and see if I am right. Mostly for my students in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, but also for myself.

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.