Friday, February 19, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Scout

From New York Times, publisher's image of covers of Harper Lee's two novels.
If Truman Capote was the model for Dill, that would make Harper Lee Jean Louise Finch.

Well, goodbye, Scout. You lived life on your own terms. In an era of self-aggrandizing celebrity, it’s nice to recall a successful writer who preferred a more graceful, private life. From the obituaries I’ve read, you were not Boo Radley—you were never holed up, away from the world, you were not a recluse—but you preferred not to deal endlessly with reporters.

From New York Times:
Donald Uhbrock/The LIFE Images Collection,
via Getty Images, Lee and her dad, 1961.
I was a reporter, once, and I’m glad I was never assigned to do a story about you. But then again, you did media interviews in the wake of publishing “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and some time in the 1960s decided it was enough.

As a journalist, I almost feel guilty saying it. But, good for you.

Your second book did not touch me as your first one did. And I know some school kids forced to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in class don’t enjoy it much. But for me, it was one of the defining books of my childhood.

It was a book I read that I did not have to read. And as a boy, I was quickly smitten by Scout.

There is something about a strong, fearless, honest female voice.

Last night, not knowing that sad news would come today from Alabama, I watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for the first time—not the movie, but the first few episodes of the late 1990s TV show.

Man, it’s odd to look back at 1996. The “net” was something cool and new that a computer hacker used, but not a librarian. Factually, I think that’s false—I was using the net in a university library in 1989—but it’s still an interesting cultural artifact of its time.

Most of all, I was surprised at how much I liked Buffy. There’s a wry sense of humor there, a cute snide commentary on what life in a high school or a California town is “like” even if no town is actually a Hell Mouth.

While Buffy isn’t exactly Scout, and the librarian isn’t exactly Atticus Finch, I do see some parallels.

Most of all, tough girls rule.

We’ll miss you, Harper Lee, even if we’ll also always have you. Maybe only one of your books will be of enduring fame, but then again, what a book. Life was slower then. Yet, when we want to, we can always get back to Maycomb.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The View from This Mount

Have you been following the case of The Mountain Echo? The student newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s University reported that President Simon Newman initiated a plan for the Maryland Catholic college to boost its ratings in some college rankings by getting rid of some academically challenged freshmen early in the fall. Read all about it in The Washington Post and NewYork Times.

If the bunny can't jump, shoot it.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
by David Sedleck√Ĺ.
The paper reported that Newman said this when faculty, and the university provost, objected to his plans: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

As Patricia McGuire wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, that’s neither an attitude nor action once expects at a Catholic college that has any understanding of its mission.

The storm of controversy is just now rising. The Washington Post reports that it has confirmed the quote reported by The Echo. In the meantime, the provost at Mount St. Mary’s and two professors, including the paper’s advisor, have been sacked.

I’m a professor, and college newspaper advisor, at a Catholic University. I’m proud to say that I can’t imagine a president at Mount Mercy University calling upon us to drown any freshmen—symbolically or not—and that the culture at MMU is supportive of a vibrant student press.

The attitude of the administration at any university, public or private, is important in maintaining an authentic campus media voice, and at many colleges student newspapers are shrinking or disappearing.

True, I am not an insider at Mount St. Mary’s, and I’m sure there is more to the story. They don’t ask me who to keep and who to fire there or anywhere, nor do I get to vote on the wisdom of the board at a private university choosing a business person to run the university. (A business leader at a university and badly made remark about guns or shooting—anything like that ever happen in Iowa? Nah ….)

But then again, how much more can there possibly be to the story. “You just have to drown the bunnies?”

Some students, true, will sink rather than swim in any academic environment, and every student has the right to fail. But I can’t imagine working at a college that thinks it’s a good idea to strategically crush a set of student’s dreams in order to improve the college’s ranking in some ratings. Nor would I want to be associated with a place that would fire a student media advisor for allowing students to fulfill their role.

Echo logo, from the paper's web site.
I say, don’t drown the bunnies. Don’t put a glock to anybody’s head. But, in this case, I hope Simon Newman involuntarily says “so long” at Mount St. Mary’s soon.

Not all Catholic colleges are institutionally or culturally like this. I doubt many are. And, I feel a bit sad that the offending institution is both Catholic and has “Mount” in its name.


It seems nothing like the Mount I know and love in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

ICMA report 4: Observations on Students and Media

Panel of student journalists who worked with Iowa Watch on caucus night--from Iowa State University, Buena Vista University and Simpson College. They might be, right to left, Alex, Kiley, Zach, Brittany and Michelle. Or perhaps they are in some other oder.
Well, they are young, most of them. And they use media differently.

For example, there were free piles of “The Des Moines Register” readily available, but I saw few college students walking around with them at the Iowa College Media Association convention, held in conjunction with and hosted by the Iowa Newspaper Association convention.

Cell phone use. Bet my picture is better.
At ICMA/INA sessions, when something cool happened, mostly you saw cell phones taken out to snap photos or video. I saw at least one BVU student with an SLR camera, but it seems like my generation is the one more likely to use a camera. Not that old people don't take images with an iPhone, I just noted what I think was a trend as a lugged around my Nikon.

Several Friday, Feb. 4 sessions at ICMA featured advice for student journalists and/or shop talk from them. And even if it would give an old man some comfort to see these youths actually looking at a newspaper, I can take some solace in the quality of their anecdotes.

They care about journalism and think deeply about it.

A one session, Lyle Muller of Iowa Watch invited a panel of reporters who had covered the Iowa Caucuses to speak. Iowa Watch did a project on the caucuses, and two of my students took part. See their posts here and here.

Ahh! Justice! I think that's the name
of the BVU student with the camera.
Anyway, Michelle Hartmann, who I think was from Simpson College, described what it was like to have the Secret Service move you at a Ben Carson rally. I noted that when the Secret Service moves you, you do move. Muller added that you also don’t move until they do move you. “Your instincts (to get on some stairs for a better photo angle) were right,” Muller told Hartmann.

I hope I have the names right. I know Lyle, so I’m pretty sure about him, but there were five panelists from three colleges, and although I wrote their names down from a “names” slide, they were not sitting in the order they were listed. So Michelle might have been Brittany and Brittany/Michelle might have been from Buena Vista University. At least only one student was from ISU!

Lyle Muller is Iowa Watching you.
To me, the irony of my name confusion is that the session with Muller came right after a session on reporting basics by Brian Steffen, professor at Simpson College, spoke to ICMA about how easy it is to get basic facts confused when you report. As I like to warn my own students—get the information right when it’s in front of you. Don’t assume you can check it later. True, that’s advice that I should have followed.

A photographer who was moved by the Secret Service.
Anyway, back to Muller. Brittany Robb from BVU, or possible Michelle, said that covering the caucus night was a lesson in “being prepared for the last thing you would expect.”

That, I think, sums up a lot of what journalism is. In addition, as Steffen said in the previous session, you must verify information. Again, as Robb or someone else said: “Take anything you hear from a candidate with a large grain of salt.”

As Muller pointed out, that’s because a politician is trying to persuade, to sell an action. They are not trying to win the truth-telling contest.

Anyway, I have no way to fact-checking this. It’s just my personal impression, which makes it more blogging than journalism. I sensed enthusiasm at ICMA for basic shoe leather reporting. And I think the students who joined the Iowa Watch effort really gained from that experience, and not just the ones who spoke at ICMA.

As I noted earlier, two of my students wrote caucus accounts for Iowa Watch. Later, versions of their stories will appear in the MMU Times. While it’s great to write for the Times—MMU students, any of you who want to be in a communication-related field should do that—I’m sure the thrill of seeing your mug on the Iowa Watch site is a bit more of a rush then when it appears in the Times.

And it does give me pleasure to work with bright young people (and some not so young) who still seek that rush.
Brian Steffen at the earlier session. The pride of Simpson College.


ICMA report 3: Tears in the morning

Chris Norton delivers Iowa Newspaper Association Kickoff Address (ironic name) Feb. 5 in Des Moines, I was there for the Iowa College Media Association meeting.

At the advisor’s lunch meeting, one of the DMACC people commented: “I didn’t expect to be crying by 9:30 a.m.”

For me, that wasn’t completely true. I didn’t really tear up until about 9:50.

Chris Norton gave a powerful morning speech as the first session of the Iowa News Paper Association/Iowa College Media Association Friday events Feb. 5 in Des Moines. He spoke about his experiences losing sensation and mobility below his neck during a 2010 Luther College football game.

Norton, a freshman, sprinted across the field to tackle an opponent on a kickoff return. He says he dove a fraction of a second too early. The opponent’s knee met his head. And, as Norton describes it, it was like a switch was thrown: nothing below the neck—no sensations at all.

He kept telling the trainers he would be up in a minute. In fact, it took months of effort before he could get into a wheelchair.

Norton is better, now, but not fully recovered. He uses a wheelchair to get around, although he can take steps with assistance. He uses his arms and hands to move his wheelchair.

When did I tear up? It was near the end. Norton spoke about many of the ordeals that he went through, but also the good things that happened to him since the injury He managed to walk to receive his Luther College diploma in 2015. He has written a book with his father and has established a foundation that has raised close to $500,000 to aid people with disabilities. He met, and proposed to, his fiancé.

“If I could go back and change that play, I wouldn’t,” he said. Cue waterworks.

Chris Norton
Along his journey, Norton described two contrasting doctors. When he was feeling very down early in his long hospital stay, a woman named Dr. Georgia knelt down by his bed to get to his level and said : “Look me in the eyes.”

Norton says he wasn’t sure what was coming. “I’m from Wyoming, and people from Wyoming don’t lie,” Dr. Georgia told him, staring him in the face. “You will beat this.”

“It was just what I needed to hear,” Norton said. He urged us to be the “Dr. Georgia” for others in our lives, to encourage when we can—and avoid being the other doctor he called “Dr. Phantom.”

One day, lying in his hospital bed, Norton felt an “exposed” chill in his left big toe. He was very excited and reported the sensation to his doctor, who acted pretty unimpressed, and explained that people with spinal cord injuries often have phantom sensations, and that sensation was what Norton was feeling.

The explanation devastated Norton. However, weeks later, Norton was able to prove Dr. Phantom wrong. Over time, the sensation in his toe increased, and he was finally able to wiggle it. His father didn’t know the toe news, but had developed the habit of giving Norton’s feet “pep talks.”

That Thanksgiving Day, Norton asked his dad to give his left foot a pep talk. “Sure,” his dad said, and leaned over. A few seconds into the talk, Norton wiggled his toe at his dad.

Talk about shock and awe.
Norton, with his dad,
chats with INA attendees after his speech.

Anyway, after hearing Norton, my pile of J-term grading that’s overdue, the many preps and quizzes to write for next week—they don’t seem so onerous or burdensome. Each day is a gift, each challenge a chance to find my better self.

Now I’m writing like a motivation speaker. It’s not what I am—but given the choice, I would sure rather be Dr. Georgia than Dr. Phantom.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

ICMA report 2: Some lessons to learn

I kind of wish I had been videotaping rather than shooting images of the Iowa College Media Association convention. Of course, I have two cameras with me, and they both shoot video, but I don’t really want to edit hours of video.

OK, what I really mean is I wish someone else shot video and edited it to a highlights reel, but then again, there were a lot of highlights from the first day of the ICMA convention.

I thought our keynote speaker was interesting. Are you ready for a mouthful? It was Amalie Nash, who since 2014 has been the executive editor and vice president for news and engagement at the “Des Moines Register.” I must be getting old, as a newsroom title, “VP of news and engagement” sounds way too new age for me.

She made many good points—many of which are not revolutionary, and echo what I’ve long told my students, but I liked the way she put things. When covering news, always ask yourself “why is this a story?” And she was spot on—one of the problems with beat journalism is the risk that the journalist becomes too much a part of the club, or, as I would paraphrase her, the writer beings writing for his or her sources rather than the readers.

Amalie Nash, "Des Moines Register" executive editor

“Know who you are writing for, who is going to read your content,” she urged. CO 120 students, take note.

She also noted that many of her college classmates didn’t end up in journalism careers because they didn’t do an internship, and thus had no professional samples. Again, as I’ve told any MMU student unfortunate enough to be cornered by me—you must write for the Times, even if you’ll never work in newspapers, because you must establish a portfolio. And there is a reason why you can’t get a journalism degree or any other communication degree from MMU without an internship.

As for breaking into the field, Nash’s wisdom isn’t new, but is relevant: Network. Get to know people. Make a name for yourself.

As a young professional (Mariah Young of Dwolla, an e-commerce company) said: “You are your own brand.” “I am a product,” she added.

Aaron Young of the "Des Moines Register"
listens to Mariah Young.

Anyway, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with all of Nash’s speech. I am a bit bit ill at ease with the need for audiences to be “personal” with their journalism sources—I don’t care what she ate at the State Fair, it doesn’t seem like “news” to me. But I don’t deny that she’s fundamentally correct that journalists have to find new ways to reach audiences as the media landscape quickly evolves. And, after all, now that I think about it, my previous blog post about ICMA awards started with what I ate, so who am I to talk?

Mariah Young, by the way, was part of what I think was the best panel of young professionals I’ve seen at ICMA.

In particular, I liked some of the things that Kyle Oppenhuizen of the Greater Des Moines Partnership said. He emphasized that he has changed jobs, and in each has found that good writing skills are the key to his work.


Two MMU students listen to young professionals panel.

“I don’t know much about business, but I know how to be a reporter,” he said.

And what is one key to good writing? “Listening is maybe the most important skill you can acquire,” Oppenhuizen said.

David Ekstrom, Meredith, and Kyle Oppenhuizen.

Amen to that.

Prior to the young pros, there was a panel on diversity. That was interesting, too, partly because Justice Gage of the BVU Tack noted how his campus had a forum on immigration.

The sound you hear is my ears pricking up. I coordinate an annual Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy, and our topic for 2016 hasn’t been named yet, but has to do with immigration.

“Everyone has an immigration story,” Gage said. I’m not sure that is literally true—at least one Native American is an official at MMU—but it’s a pretty good generalization. I’m the product of a Hungarian family that came over a bit more than 100 years ago—my grandparents on my father’s side were immigrants. My mother’s Irish family had been in the country longer, but was in the great wave of 19th century immigration that causes so much fear and anxiety in the 1800s.

If Donald Trump were running for president in 1855, he would want to stop all those Irish from coming over “until we can figure out what is going on.” Give it up, Don, you won’t ever figure it out.

Justice Gage, BVU, listens to Danielle Ferguson, ISU.
Anyway, I digress. My point is that we want to play with the way the people of the USA understand their own immigrant heritage and our reactions to new immigrants. So Gage’s remarks resonated with me.

I got a lot of food for thought from the first day of ICMA. For one thing, the editor of the Register asked how many students regularly do video storytelling. Although I require it to a limited extent in my journalism courses, I can’t help but feel even writers need to be pushed more to be conformable with that kind of storytelling.

You have to reach the audience where it is willing to be reached.

And I have to go to bed. Day two of ICMA will be exhausting if it’s as interesting as day one.

ICMA report 1: What the Times won

Three MMU Times Editors with awards--Anna Bohr, multi-media editor; Taylor Zumbach, managing editor; and Billie Barker, copy editor.

It was quite day at the Iowa College Media Association Convention. Because I misread the schedule, and because the parking garage we usually use is a heaping pile of rubble, we completely missed the networking luncheon that was the kickoff ICMA event—and that left me rather bummed.

I was thus put in a sour mood. A foregone feast will do that to me. We had registered for the conference just at noon, an hour late, and there was no shuttle to the lunch spot, but we did find a nearby cafe and I did have a Reuben, one of my favorite sandwiches, so there was that.

I was also missing the opportunity for a media tour, one of my favorite ICMA activities. But then the sessions began, and there was just something about them. There was a student journalism discussion of diversity issues, followed by a young professionals’ panel and then an interesting presentation by a senior Register editor. None of these are new kinds of content for ICMA, but I must say I think we lucked out this year—even if the topics were familiar, I found the speakers to be excellent.

And during a break, I ran into Lyle Muller, and nobody can be in a bad mood for long if you’re a professor and Lyle is trying to recruit your kids for an Iowa Watch project. (Hint, students, I’m on Lyle’s side—yes, you should participate.)

So the afternoon was turning out well, although I was a bit tired and hungry by the time the ICMA awards program came around. The Mount Mercy Times won seven awards—not a record haul for us, but a very nice showing.

Our winners were:
Screen shot of the best news photo of the year.

•    Connor Mahan, first place, best news photograph, for a picture of a young boy searching for a relative’s name at the Moving Wall. It's on page 2 of the PDF.
•    Anna Bohr, second place, best feature photo for a picture from a play rehearsal.
•    Taylor Zumbach, second place, best news photograph, for a volleyball action picture.
•    Billie Barker, second place, best news story. I don’t recall for sure, but I think it was the one she wrote about the author’s speech—Dale Kueter— during the Vietnam series.
•    Madison Coates, third place, best investigative news story, for her freshman CO 120 “enterprise” story on education reform.
•    Taylor Zumbach, third place, best news photograph for a picture of a rose at the Moving Wall. See page one of the same issue that Connor's image is in.
•    Claudia Magana, honorable mention, best sports photograph. Again, the records are at the Times office—I’m pretty sure it was a basketball photo, probably men’s, but could have been women’s.

It was a good night, and we followed the awards ceremony with a hefty meal at Zombie Burger. A nice end to what was, in the end, a nice day. I’m planning to write several more blog posts, so stay tuned. There is a lot to talk about from day one of ICMA.

Don't feed the zombies at Zombie Burger.