Monday, March 4, 2013

A Case for the Rest of Us

On February 21, Google announced on their official blog that the selection process for the first generation of their Journalism Fellows was finally finished. They posted the names of the first eight Fellows, the organizations the student journalists would be working with this summer, and the schools that produced the first generation of Fellows. My name wasn't on the list.

Before I write any more, I have two objectives in this post I want to clearly state. The first is to avoid sounding petty or bitter. Google reported that 2,300 students applied to fill eight positions at the top organizations in investigative journalism this summer, and as much as I appreciated the usual outpouring of support and confidence from my mom and dad, my brother and sister, and the incredible people who work with me at the Crimson White, I knew I was facing long odds. I wasn't selected as a Fellow last week, and as amazing an opportunity as that would have been, I am not discouraged by the rejection. I plan to practice journalism for the rest of my life, and my commitment and hunger to do so did not hinge on one application.

Secondly and much more importantly, I don't want this post to be misread, to be seen as belittling or judgmental of the inaugural eight Fellows. I don't know them and although I have made a point to read or watch at least one published thing from all eight of them, reading a single article is essentially a quick glance at the outer edge of the whole of a student journalist. Even so, what I saw was seriously impressive, and I don't take any issue with who they are or what they've done, and I certainly don't think I'm better than anyone who's been chosen.

My gripe is this: of the eight Fellows, seven came from private schools with an average acceptance rate of 18.6 percent. The schools represented are in New York, D.C., Boston, Maine, California and Illinois. Fellows came from Columbia, an Ivy League school, from MIT, Stanford, NYU and American University, from Bowdoin College and the University of Illinois.

The problem I have with the selection of Google's first class of Journalism Fellows is that it ignores a huge swath of the country and hundreds if not thousands of qualified, dedicated journalists from the nation's public Universities.

On the Fellowship's application page, Google says their goal for the Fellowship is "to help develop the next crop of reporters working to keep the world informed, educated and entertained," and that students should be "passionate about journalism and the role that technology can play in the industry and the pursuit of their craft."

In sticking to mostly private schools in the Northeast, though, the Fellowship and its participating host organizations excluded a huge, talented, passionate portion of "the next crop of reporters working to keep the world informed, educated and entertained."

There is an inspiring surge of widely read, widely regarded, high-quality, high-relevancy journalism being cranked out in my neck of the woods, the southeastern corner of the United States. If you're skeptical about that and think I'm just trying to put the Crimson White on another pedestal because I work there, I suggest you look at the University of Georgia's Red and Black, at Florida's Independent Alligator, at South Carolina's Daily Gamecock or at UNC's Daily Tar Heel. These papers feature consistently incredible writing and reporting, deft visuals, smart design, innovative movements on the Internet and bold editorial thoughts and actions.

Journalism has traditionally been a field in which what you write, not where you come from, dictates your potential in the profession. Industry legend Bob Woodward walked into the Washington Post with absolutely no experience in reporting and they gave him a two week trial run. He wasn't hired because he had no idea what he was doing at the time, but he discovered that he loved doing it. After a year at a smaller paper, he was hired full-time at the Post. Nine months later, he and Carl Bernstein were the lead reporters on the Watergate affair. A presidential resignation and multiple Pulitzer Prizes later, Woodward is celebrated as the best reporter of his time, maybe of all time.

Even so, Woodward was Yale-educated, so maybe that argument hold less water.

Take Rick Bragg, then, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from my hometown in Calhoun County, Alabama. Bragg took a single writing class at Jacksonville State University before dropping out and diving into the industry. Bragg climbed from the Anniston Star to the Birmingham News, then moved from the Miami Herald to the New York Times, where proved himself to be one of the best story-tellers of his generation of writers.

The point is that being a journalist is about about drive, hunger and honed writing and reporting skills, smart ethics, adaptability-- it's not supposed to matter where you went to school, what your GPA was or whom you can list as a reference. Those are the things Google asked for in the application for their Journalism Fellows-- GPA, references, a short resume, a short essay. This isn't to say that the work I saw when I looked up the selected Fellows isn't impressive, because damn, it is. All I'm saying, I guess, is that I hope in the Fellowship's future, the make-up of its participants will better represent the wonderful reality that excellent student journalism is widespread. It can be found in public schools as well as private ones, both in the shining north and in the dirty south.

Besides, taking a chance on the rabble from public universities sometimes pays off. If you don't believe me, look no further than Sergey Brin, a Jewish kid from Soviet Moscow that studied at a public school, the University of Maryland, before taking a shot at his doctorate at Stanford. That opportunity was given to him by-- you guessed it-- a fellowship, offered by the National Science Foundation. The fellowship put him at Stanford, where he met another product of a public university, Larry Page from the University of Michigan.

The two went on to create Google.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Achievement Worth Celebrating

Last semester, then-provost now-president Judy Bonner launched an initiative that, for many students on the University of Alabama campus, will be the legacy of the Capstone's first female president. I'm talking, of course, about Celebrating Achievement. It's a song that Dr. Bonner commissioned to be written to honor success within the campus community, one that could be played from Denny Chimes whenever the situation called for it. A student obliged and wrote a merry tune that most students can't differentiate from the hymns and other University-themed songs that radiate from the bell tower, and every so often Dr. Bonner will email the entire student body to announce that the anthem will be played in honor of a championship team, a leader in the Women's Resource Center, a professor who's earned a prestigious award, etc.

Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with Celebrating Achievement. Some occasions call for acknowledgement and pride, and "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" ringing out from Denny Chimes just doesn't fit in with the carefully crafted spirit of tradition and pomp on campus. Dr. Bonner decided we needed a song that can be played from a bell tower to laud our successes with the same sense of academia and rich history that almost everything at UA radiates, and Celebrating Achievement does a pretty good job of that. 

Here's the thing. Friday night, while I was in Tuscaloosa meeting Bob Woodward and starting this blog, the editor-in-chief of The Crimson White was with the youngest members of the newspaper's editorial staff at the Southeastern Journalism Conference in Jackson, Tennessee, on the campus of Union University. The newspaper and the sophomores and juniors there to represent UA absolutely swept the awards ceremony of the conference. For our work in 2012-2013, the Crimson White was named the best newspaper in the south. Our website, cw.ua.edu, was named best web site in the region. Will, our editor, was named Journalist of the Year. Our magazines won awards, and so did the features written by our culture desk, the coverage of games and teams by our sports desk, and the public service of our news desk. We were acknowledged for writing and reporting about racial segregation in sororities on campus, exposing a culture of hazing in the University's fraternities, and for explanations and examinations of President Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act and what it means for students. Working on a campus that often shies away from hard truths and changing the status quo, that recognition meant a lot to me, even though I'd trade most of the awards we've won in the last few years for meaningful change at the University.  It was a huge day for us, and an affirmation that what we do is important, and of excellent quality.

What bothers me is that the Crimson White's decorations at the SEJC's Best of the South Awards were achievements that were not celebrated.

What gets under my skin is not that I did not get the opportunity to stand on the Quad with the people who work for me and with me and hear some song clang out from Denny Chimes. The issue here, to me, is that the only community that consistently refuses to acknowledge the value of the work of the students journalists at the Crimson White is the campus community, specifically the University administrators. 

Far from celebrating our achievements, which are many, Dr. Bonner's only acknowledgement of the CW this year has been to throw us under the bus. Bonner wrote an email to a concerned reader after the  paper ran an article about concerns surrounding sexual consent on campus. In it, we reported that a faculty member said this:
“Some people think there are false accusations. There’s really no false accusations. If someone feels they didn’t give consent, then they didn’t give consent. Whether it’s coerced or manipulated, that’s still not consent. I think right now that’s really a big issue on our campus and students are really confused about it.”
A reader took issue with the first clause in the statement, and contacted Dr. Bonner about it. She responded with this:

“I understand your concerns. As is often the case with student newspapers and unfortunately professional newspapers as well, reporting is not as accurate as we would hope. The interview that The CW did with [the official] was conducted last November on an entirely different topic. As I understand it, The CW selected comments from the interview on an entirely different topic and wrote a story about rape."

I won't spend much time defending our reporting, which was sound. The other members of the editorial board of the CW and I already did that very well in an Our View addressing Bonner's haste to rag on the newspaper instead of addressing the very real issue of sexual consent on campus.

What I want to address is the disdain for the Crimson White shared by the offices of Media and University Relations, by the public information officers of the Tuscaloosa Police Department and the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office, by the University president, by the chancellor of the University of Alabama system, by many of the University's highest administrators and by thousands of students. It boggles my mind, because I can't imagine a similar group of students in another field of study that so many people on campus want to fail so badly. I'm biased, though, so try to imagine it yourself:

Imagine more than 100 student engineers building something, or student nurses treating people, or student lawyers working pro bono. Imagine this group getting together no less than four days a week, every week of the school year. Imagine this group making less than minimum wage doing this, all while balancing full-time class schedules with full-time work hours. Imagine them skipping whole nights of sleep because they're on the verge of the next big thing and skipping meals just to make the day-to-day work the best it can be. Imagine the work they do being acknowledged as the best in the SEC, in the South, and sometimes as the best in the nation. Frame it that way, and try to tell me it's not difficult to imagine that University administrators would be anything but thrilled to pridefully celebrate that achievement.

In the last three years, I've seen hundreds of dedicated students log tens of thousands of hours to help the CW serve UA's student body by addressing the University's most divisive issues, covering its breaking news or connecting people in need with people who could help. The student journalists that work producing and designing content for the Crimson White are some of the hardest working, most dedicated students I've ever met. We have uncovered racism on campus, exposed political corruption, localized national issues, served the entire Tuscaloosa community in the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster in April 2011, and consistently covered the issues that affect our readership in a way that is every bit as good as our professional counterparts, if not better. When reports came in of a mass shooting downtown, of a drug raid in the dorms or of a robbery on campus, there was not a single staffer unwilling to drop what they were doing for as long was necessary to cover the news. We work all hours of the day and night, we work harder than any other news outlet on the story, and we work for very little money and very little recognition.

It doesn't bother me that Dr. Bonner hasn't emailed the students of the University of Alabama to announce that bells will ring in honor of the tireless student staff of the Crimson White. We do what we do as a service to this campus and its students, not for ourselves or for recognition and certainly not for money. 

What bothers me is that it takes a panel of judges at some journalism conference in Jackson, Tenn. or Gainesville, Fla. or Chicago, Ill. or Atlanta, Ga. to recognize what so many administrators, faculty and students can't or won't-- that at the Crimson White, we're achieving more than we have in decades, and that calls for celebration.

Friday, February 22, 2013

So, I've started a blog.

So, I've started a blog.

I guess this post will serve as an introduction to it and try in a long, rambling way to explain why I've made this thing in a manner that says more than "I like the sound of my own voice." My inspiration to do so came from four people who have, in their own ways, shaped the person I've become in the 21 years I've had to become someone. In varying degrees, they have all been friends to me-- family and friends, examples and idols and role models.

The first and oldest influence on tonight's creation is Neil Gaiman, my favorite living author of fiction, whom I met in February 2010 at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa. Neil was there as part of a visiting writer's series that was organized by Creative Campus, a student group for artists and writers of all shapes and sizes on the University of Alabama campus. I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman at the time and had no business meeting him the way I did. After the reading, Neil spent an hour or so with the big wigs of the creative writing department-- graduate students and professors, administrators of Creative Campus and the like. I was seriously out of place, but Breanne LeJeune, the instructor of my first creative writing class, knew that I was absolutely obsessed with Gaiman. In the first meeting of our class, I'd read a poem of his to show what kind of I was currently in love with and his book Coraline ended up being assigned reading. To make what is already a long story somewhat shorter, Breanne was on the list of big wigs to meet Neil not only at the dinner after his reading, but also at a closed-door Q&A the next day on campus that maybe 30 people were asked to attend. She gave her spot at both events to me in what is still one of the nicest, most selfless things anyone has done for me. I met Neil that night, after his reading. He approached me and asked why I wasn't mingling as much as everyone else in the room and I told him it was because I was not a natural part of that crowd. I said I was not only the lone freshman there, but also the only undergraduate student of any sort. I was almost certain I didn't belong in a fancy restaurant with the top minds of the creative writing department meeting an author whose entire published bibliography (sans his first book, a tell-all about Duran Duran) I had read and loved. He laughed at me, sat down, and we talked for a few minutes. In that time, Neil Gaiman pretty much single-handedly changed the way I saw myself as well as the way I looked at my role on a campus of 33,000 students. He told me to never let my age or any other factor that I could not personally change affect the way I presented myself to others or gauged my own worth. As an aspiring student journalist and a creative writing minor, that was huge for me. It meant I didn't have to be timid or afraid to ask difficult questions or embarrassed about the short stories I was workshopping. It meant that if I dropped the ball somewhere, I would take responsibility for that as necessary, but damn if people were going judge me for something other than the quality of my own work. He also told me, as he tells most people, that if I wanted to call myself a writer (which I still don't because it absolutely bleeds pretension at this stage in my life) that I should be writing every day. I write a lot. I write short fiction and poems and article after article. Some of it is seen and published, a great deal of it I just hammer out on a keyboard, save to my computer and forget about. Three years later, though, I realize I haven't been writing every day. This blog, I hope, will be an outlet for that.

The second source, an idol of mine for years, I met only hours ago. Bob Woodward, half of the journalist duo that eventually exposed the Watergate scandal, visited the University today, and I had the opportunity to speak with him twice. In the first, Woodward sat down with nine senior members of the staff of the Crimson White, the student newspaper that's employed me for the last three years. We didn't have long to talk, but Woodward took the time to ask each of us our role at the newspaper before he said anything himself, nodding and smiling as we answered. This man, the winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes, invested time and interest in us, and remembered who we were later in the day, after his speech. That alone was enough to make our days, to see us respect even more a man who was already a hero to us. When he did start talking, he said to keep at it, to write every day, just like Neil had. Woodward said that journalists were to be envied, that we had the greatest job on the planet, even if the pay is shit. Journalists, he said, have the rare opportunity to be a part of their readers' lives every day, to shape what people thought about and talked about that day, to capture their interest, even if only for a few minutes at breakfast. He then said if you found that you were no longer interesting people, to stop what you were doing and start writing something else. He didn't have much time for boring or meaningless journalism. I hope the articles I write do that, that they genuinely interest people for a few minutes. I have the same hope for this thing, even though Woodward almost certainly cringes every time he hears a word like blog. I don't care much if you're a friend or a co-worker, my family or a complete stranger. I just hope to keep you interested.

The third and biggest influence on this venture is my dad, who has for several weeks been insisting that I blog. He's stumbled on a few blogs that really interest and fascinate him lately, and every time we talk, he reminds me that this is something that I should be doing, and probably something I should have started a long time ago. I'm finally listening, because I don't think anyone in my life has been as personally interested and invested in who I am, what I do and what I become as my dad. He told me I should study at the University of Alabama back in high school and I laughed at him. I ended up here anyway, and it's been the best decision I ever made. He told me I should write for the Crimson White as soon as I landed on campus, and I laughed at him again. I was partially intimidated and partially pompous. The intimidation stemmed from being a dumbass freshman on a huge campus. (I hadn't met Neil yet, so I hadn't given myself permission to ignore that.) I figured the paper had little use for someone as hopelessly green as I was. As for the pompous part, I really wasn't sure I wanted to be a part of the Crimson White. I picked up newspapers and wasn't really interested in them, so I didn't think it'd be worth my time to hop onto what I thought was a sinking ship. I joined up anyway during my sophomore year after meeting Taylor Holland, a writer at the time who was my news editor the next year. Dad was right again, and I should have been at the CW all along. It wasn't a sinking ship, it was a phoenix that, in 2009, was in the early stages of heating up to rise out of the ashes of mediocrity. The newspaper is now one of the best in the nation, better than it's been in decades, and the biggest regret of my college career is not having been there my freshman year. Should have listened to my dad. The same goes for freelancing for Alabama Alumni Magazine, and for meeting a Pulitzer-winning journalism professor, Rick Bragg, and taking his class. The list is longer than I'd like to admit. Dad has always had an eerie sense of what the best opportunity for me is at the moment, and it's not some weird parent-living-vicariously-through-his-kids deal, it's genuine interest in what I do and why I do it, which has been an awesome and seriously under-appreciated thing in my life. Anyway, Dad told me I should blog, and having laughed off his best advice too many times, I figured I'd give it a shot. What's the worst that could happen?

The last influence is my best friend since childhood, a treasure named Skiv, who blogs every day about about salvaging things she finds wandering around Texas and up-cycling them into shelves and bags and planters and art. I read her blog every time she posts because she does what a blogger should do, what Woodward said we all had to do-- she interests me. I don't have salvaged treasures to captivate anyone who stumbles here, but I hope this blog can, in its own way, serve the same purpose and keep you interested. I plan to post, as the title suggests, my own musings about being a college journalist on a semi-regular basis, and also link to whatever it is I find interesting on that day. Maybe it's Crimson White content, Woodward's latest story in the Washington Post, a new poem from Neil or a song I've tripped over that day. I make no promises about what I will post here, other than it will be what is interesting me at the time, and with it I aim to interest anyone who stops here to read something.

That's why I started this thing, anyway. Enough for tonight, I suppose. I can't say it enough, but thanks to everyone I've mentioned above, even the ones who will never read this. To Neil and Bob Woodward, to Dad and Skiv and Breanne LeJeune, to Taylor Holland and everyone who's ever worked at the Crimson White, to all my friends and all my family, thanks for bringing me this far.


What I'm reading now:

Skiv's salvage blog

Woodward's latest story, in which he calls out President Obama for spinning a crisis he helped created as the fault of the Republicans in Congress. Woodward, I think, leans to the left, but he is unafraid to call out the President of the United States when he's lied to. As someone who is lied to on a fairly regular basis, I respect the hell out of him for that. It's also a decent primer of the issue of the sequester with plenty of embedded links for more reading, so if you've found yourself unable to talk intelligently about that, it's a great find.