The Power of Story

I am a Twitter advocate, someone who loves the ability to converse, communicate, get information, links, jokes and, yes, snark. It’s my early warning radar for news and for pop culture. I understand its limitations and drawbacks. I don’t mind the fire hose, but I probably do spend too much time on it. (New Year’s resolution, anyone?)

The power of story can make those 140 characters into a poem and a hymn as Billy Baker did last week. I loved the story itself of a teenager, succeeding against incredible odds. But as a journalist, I also admire Baker’s sticking with the story of George even after it had been published. Journalists must be detached to do their jobs. I understand that. We have to ask tough questions, to see behind the curtain sometimes.  I strongly believe, however, that we are human beings first and, as Baker showed here, last.

This Storify of the @billy_baker’s tweets as he waited  to get the news about George’s college acceptance were as compelling as anything I’ve read in a long time. Go and read it now. It moved me to tears. And in the flood of information that is this digital age, isn’t that what we are seeking? I, blessed with more advantages that I could ever count, felt connected to Baker and to George and to the power of the human spirit. I was pulled in and drawn along to the final, smiling photo of young George at the celebration dinner.

It’s the power of story and people and not being afraid to be vulnerable and honest. That’s what we need more of in a digital age.

You can find Baker’s original story about George and his brother from the Boston Globe and the video produced to go with it.

There’s also a video about the story:

Don’t stop. Full stop.

Don’t stop. Those words might make you think of a Fleetwood Mac song that is now going through my head.

But they also are an important part of a great book I’ve been reading called “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy.  It’s a series of steps to avoid procrastination and get things done. I read lots of these kinds of books, generally to avoid getting things done. I like this one very much. Particularly this idea of  don’t stop.

book cover of Eat That FrogI often get rolling, then get distracted or do something else or just don’t finish what I started. I need Don’t Stop as a mantra to just finish the stupid thing.

“Eat That Frog” also offers good advice on how to get started (also a problem I run into) and how to keep working. If you have some procrastination tendencies you want to change, this can help.

That Fleetwood Mac song can be a good reminder too. Tomorrow will soon be here.


Twitter is my go-to for news first

A new Pew study about Twitter use wasn’t surprising to me, an avid Twitter user.  Certainly my experience as a college journalism professor bears out the findings that Twitter users are young, mobile and educated.  The research showed 8 percent of people on Twitter get their news there. What did surprise me was the statistic that 30 percent of adults surveyed get their news on Facebook.

Graphic from the Pew Center report on Twitter

Graphic from the Pew Center report on Twitter

That’s not my experience. I am on Facebook often, and I follow several news sites, but I wouldn’t say I go there to get news other than about my friends and family. For me, the more ever-present Twitter feed serves as my early warning device, to let me know when something is happening. I follow a lot of journalists and news sites, local, national and international. After my Twitter warning signal, I likely then turn to a national or local news source to get more information.

The Twitter numbers for young people definitely skew because of their reliance on cellphones and smartphones. Most of my students have smartphones and the phones are seldom more than an arm’s-length away. The findings point even more to a digital first strategy and making content available for mobile in an easily digestible way.

Coding and writing and curriculum

It seems to be a simple question. But asking/debating whether journalists should learn to code and whether universities should teach their journalism students to code has taken on a life of its own. The latest conflagration started with an Atlantic article by Olga Khazan. She makes interesting points, but I don’t agree.  I think an understanding of code, of learning at least the basics can help any journalist  or anyone in an increasingly digital world.

Steve Buttry’s response  outlines the points I would make. I admit to a bias because my college journalism department has merged with the computer science department. We’re still working on figuring out how to make the most out of the merger, but our students take basic coding and have the opportunity to do more. We encourage students to write, to edit, to design, to solve problems, to think critically about issues. How you tell stories doesn’t have to be in the same way we’ve always told stories.

computer keyboard

I posted Steve’s response on Facebook and got interesting responses. One from Laura King-Homan, a former Omaha World-Herald colleague who now works for a tech company. Her take reminded me that we can’t think just about traditional journalism jobs or models anymore when designing curriculum. We have to expand our view of what journalists/writers/editors can do. That’s not to say I don’t wholeheartedly cajole, encourage and advise students to begin in news. The changing marketplace and the changing economics of news and opportunities outside traditional news outlets means we do have to look outside as well. Laura says there are opportunities outside the newsroom:

“Software development companies WANT journalism professionals (I am an example) and the more you know about the “tech” side the more appealing you will be if you decide to use your degree outside of a newsroom, blasphemy I know. Being able to craft a coherent paragraph and code a website makes you very appealing.”

Patrick Keaveny, who graduated from our program with emphasis in computer science and news, sees benefits in developing how you think and solve problems. He now is working as a communications intern with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Johannesburg, South Africa. Patrick writes:

“One thing I would add to the list is that learning code helps you to think in problem-solving terms; the systematic breakdown of an issue at hand and finding the most effective ways to approach it. It does wonders for writing investigative pieces and gaining insight into a particular news story. I think it’s a difficult prospect though, as writing/creativity and developing code/systems tend to use different sides of the brain, making it difficult for journalists to learn programming concepts. Which makes them all the more attractive to employers if they succeed!”

Managing a journalism curriculum is difficult as journalism changes so quickly. We emphasis the basics of good writing, creativity, critical thinking and ethical decision-making in all of our classes.  People who call themselves “word people” need to grasp the meaning of data, of finding stories in data. In an increasingly digital world. the ability to code can help open doors and lead to new experiences we haven’t thought of yet. Making the tools available to navigate in that world just makes sense.




Let’s innovate to build everyone up

Colleague and friend Mark Smedinghoff  reminds me that people and communication are what’s important about technology — not the latest gadget or app or update. The reminder comes in his moving, heartfelt essay to the memory of his dear sister Anne, killed in a suicide blast in Afghanistan. Anne was working on a literacy project for the U.S. State Department when she died in April.

iphoneIn his blog post, Mark writes about the days following Anne’s death and things he’s come to realize since. He ends with this eloquent passage:

So now I have, and I hope that the governments of this world, the tech companies of this world, and most importantly, the people of this world are able to realize that by working together, supporting one another, we are able to build a world so much better than if we try to lock others out. So while we go back and forth over who has the best platform, I say, don’t work to tear others down, work to build everyone up, because innovation is the savior of the human race from all adversity. Even if it’s just saying, “hi” to a friend halfway around the world, or working to solve one of the biggest problems we face as a species. We can only do it together.

Read his essay and think about the walls, electronic and otherwise, that we all build. Let’s innovate to build everyone up.

Find the joy in the world

Social media is full of snark and worse. It can be a waste of time. But there are moments when the connection and communication makes it all worth it. Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch tapped into those moments of connection and sharing by asking a simple question: How many of you have  a photograph of the single best moment of your life? He asked the question on Twitter. And people answered with photos that were happy, sad, small moments, big moments, success against the odds. All were such wonderful expressions of life and love and joy. Here’s a “CBS Morning Show” take on the response.

I want to thank Richard Deitsch over and over again for encouraging people to share these moments. I do think we need to live in the now and appreciate the moments of profound joy that can tap us when we least expect it as well as in the moments of great anticipation like births and proposals and graduations. But I also think whatever connects us and allows us to share those moments we’ve captured can elevate all of us, if just for a moment. So thanks Richard Deitsch and thanks Twitter.



Who wrote the book of love?

It’s time for some questions and answers. As part of the July Bloggers Challenge, started by Jen Schneider of  Liv, Laugh, Love blog, it’s time to write some answers. I’m much more comfortable asking questions, but I turned to Twitter to see if I could dig up some questions.

questionmarkSome wonderful former and current students obliged.  Carly asked about my journalist heroes. One that will be no surprise to most is Nicholas Kristof, for his New York Times work covering humanitarian crises and his use of so many kinds of media. I also love Rick Bragg, particularly his “All Over But the Shoutin.”

Dan asked: What are the three rules every professionals should live by? This is a tough question. I first wondered professional what, but then I thought about it. The same rules of basic human decency and behavior should apply no matter who you are.

  1. Treat everyone as a valuable human being.

  2. Be honest.

  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously; take your work seriously, but be able to laugh at yourself.

Amanda wanted to know if I had ever witnessed unethical journalistic behavior and, if so, what I did about it. Tough, good question. I honestly don’t think I have witnessed unethical behavior in my own work as a reporter and editor. What I have seen is laziness and shallowness that frustrate me as someone who loves journalism.

Finally, Lex asked the question that is the headline of this post: Who wrote the book of love? I think I’ll leave the answer to that to poets, but I would suggest that we each write our own book of love.

Why I love and hate lists

When I think of lists, I think of to-do lists. I love all of the other lists that rank and grade  from David Letterman’s Top Ten to the AP Top 25 in college football and basketball to any list of the 100 greatest fill-in-the-blank. But the to-do list tops my own list category.

The form of  to-do lists can range from what you need at the grocery store scribbled on the back of an envelope to the wonderfully designed TeuxDeux. People, too, generally fall into the category of compulsive  list-maker or the category of thinking they don’t need one.

I’m in the middle, but I need to push myself to become a compulsive list-maker and list-checker-offer. My problem: I make a list, feel defeated by all the things I have to do, and go spend some time on social media. Not the way to get things done. In fact, I usually find more ideas, more things to do the more I’m on social media.

Guides abound for making lists and making effective lists. I’ve looked at many. I’m entranced by planners and systems for getting things done. It’s like believing in leprechauns. If I just find the right system, I’ll be organized and productive. I’m beginning to give up that dream and focus on what I need to do to be an effective list maker and do-er. Here’s my list of what I’ve learned and what I hope to put into practice.

1151807_to_do1. I need to write things down. With a pen. In a cool book/planner. Or on a big piece of paper to hang on my wall.

2. I need a big, long-range list of things to do to keep me focused on the big picture.

3. I need to break down that big, long-range list of things to do into small, d0-able parts. Action steps.

4. I need to stop looking at my to-do list as a wish list. It’s a do list. While the act of writing it down is important, it’s not getting it done.

5. I need to prioritize. All those planning/organizing guides make this point very clearly. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to check something off the list.

6. I need to avoid hijacking by email, Twitter,Facebook. Part of making a list is being productive. While I find Twitter to help in my overall productivity and growth, I also spend a lot of time on it, feeling as if I’m accomplishing something. Twenty minutes later, not so much.

7. I need to be specific in my list. This is linked to the small, do-able parts section of No. 4. How will I tell when I have accomplished what I wanted to get done? So my list can’t just say work on research project. What do I want to get done today?

8. I need to be realistic. In my list-making zeal, I can go on and on. One planning guide suggested that most of us can really accomplish three things in a day.

9. I need to be consistent in my lists and my working life. I tend to go in spurts, but it’s hard to work on long-range projects that way.

10. I need to celebrate my success and look at ways to conquer my challenges.

Oh, wait. Maybe that’s another list.




Small ball and journalism

Forgive the sports metaphor, but the College World Series has rubbed off on me.

Small ball is a metaphor for probably what’s ahead in journalism. Start-ups and smaller news organizations will become more and more common. Nicco Mele has written about this phenomenon on a larger level in “The End of Big” where he describes how “radical connectivity” — the power of the Internet and mobile — is changing everything. In the latest Nieman Reports, he writes about the effect on journalism and his fears for what is next for investigative journalism. Mele says he is worried the most about the “loss of investigative journalism–holding power accountable–and the loss of a broad public sphere.” I’m worried about those two things as well. This self-proclaimed digital guy ends the essay with this:

“This is an exciting time to be a journalist. Opportunities abound; start-ups proliferate by the day. The future won’t look like the past. It won’t be the same, and it’s up to us to make sure that there is continuity in the core values of the profession as it is transformed.”

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 1.44.05 PMOne example of this new small sphere highlighted in the Nieman Reports is  Homicide Watch D.C., run from Laura Amico’s kitchen table. The site, which has as its mission to  “mark every murder death, remember every victim and follow every case, ” is a terrific example of what a very small newsroom can do. I am inspired by her work on many levels, but I was even more inspired by these words Laura Amico wrote:

“I’m a journalism. I believe in journalism, and I believe in our communities. I believe in holding those in power accountable. I believe in building civic knowledge. I believe in celebrating the good and trying to understand and solve the bad. But mostly I believe in storytelling, in the power of stories to validate who we are, how we live our lives, and our experiences, and the power of stories to allow us to enter into a communion with our communities, sharing who we are, and perhaps together, becoming who we would hope to be.”

I believe in that kind of journalism too. I believe it can be done in small shops and big newsrooms. I think many journalists also believe those same ideals, and we have to let them show in our work and the way we work.

Becoming fearless

Picture of Saide, a Shih Tzu.

Playing with my dog offers a great distraction when my frustration level gets too high.

One of my mantras these days is that young and old journalists have to be fearless — not reckless — but fearless when it comes to trying new things. Today I have wrestled with Photoshop, WordPress and assorted other programs to get this blog looking better. I still have a ways to go, but it feels good to live out the mantra. With help from tutorials and occasional breaks to pet my dog when the frustration level got high, I managed to make a logo and put it in place. It still needs work, but I’m happy to get this far.

I often ask people to help me do things, which many times ends up with the more competent person just doing it. I want to stop that and start more of the figuring out things on my own. I think I’ll probably need lot of frustration breaks with Sadie, but I know I can do it.