Archive for May, 2012

Since my post about Business Insider’s failings went live last weekend, almost everyone has agreed that the outlet produces subpar, rush-job, headline-driven journalism.

But many have also stated outright or implied that I am not in a position to criticize BI or anything else in the news business or that my insights will not be taken seriously.  Why?  Because I’m a professor, not a “professional.”  I’m supposedly an outsider to the “real” industry, unable to fully grasp its structure, day-to-day stresses, and longer-term shifts.

Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget: “Dear Journalism Students: Don’t Mean To Intrude, But Your Professor Doesn’t Get It”

ZDNet’s Tom Foremski: “[M]y chief complaint about journalism professors is how distant they are from a real newsroom.”

About.com’s Tony Rogers: “Journalism professor Dan Reimold started a fight he couldn’t win when he criticized Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal.  That’s because journalists more often than not see journalism professors as effete, ivory-tower types who are woefully out of touch with the realities of the news business, especially in the digital age.”

The headline to the About.com post: “Reimold’s Problem? Journalists Don’t Trust Journalism Professors.”

This distrust, and the accompanying perception that j-profs just don’t “get it” and live in ivory towers far from real journalism, must change.

Below are five reasons journalism professionals need to accept and should excitedly welcome input and, yes, criticism from journalism professors.

This is the age of the professor-professional. 

Each workday, the staffers at Business Insider search for stories, blog, and write occasional longer pieces.  Funny, so do I.  I am a professional blogger for a pair of national organizations (ACP & USA TODAY), a paid (and in some cases unpaid) freelancer for a few more, and an author right now under book contract.  By year’s end I will have attended and spoke at journalism, media, and literary conferences and workshops in Singapore, Senegal, Seattle, New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Chicago, and St. Petersburg.  Earlier this year, under deadline, I blogged from a hotel bathtub in Malaysia– the only spot in the room with working Wi-Fi.  (See photo below.)  Is it made of ivory?

Yet, apparently I’m not professional, nor am I in the know about what’s happening within “real” journalism today and how to do it.  Blodget: “I’m just guessing here, but I’d bet that if we put the good professor in [Business Insider deputy editor] Joe Weisenthal’s chair, he would fail miserably.”  Sir, just name the day.  I’ll pay for my own plane ticket.  And I don’t even need a chair.  (See photo above.)

Blodget seems to truly believe professors like me just don’t “get it.”  According to Rogers, we will never be trusted by the newsroom masses.  According to Foremski, we are distant from what’s going down.  Gentlemen, unlike the tub above, these assessments need to be scrubbed.

Show me a top journalist who isn’t adjuncting or guest speaking or strongly considering returning to school for a higher degree.  Show me a good professor who isn’t freelancing or under professional contract.  Show me a standout journalism student who isn’t working or writing for a professional outlet.  The lines are not just blurring.  They no longer exist.  We are all teachers-students-professionals nowadays, at least the good ones.

We are also all faking it until we make it.  See point two.

Professionals don’t know any better than professors. 

This past January in Singapore, I took part in a simulated skydiving session within the world’s largest vertical indoor wind tunnel (a pic below).  It was deafeningly loud.  Gale-force winds whipped me dizzy.  I frequently found myself twisting and turning upside down, against my control.  It reminded me of journalism, circa now.

We are all lost in a swirl of journalism topsy-turydom.  No one– not I, Blodget, Foremski, Rogers, Jay Rosen, Jill Abramson or anyone else– knows how it is all going to turn out.  The best we can do– all of us who love, work, and live for journalism– is innovate, experiment, question, and assess where we stand, where we think we might be heading, and how we can do things better along the way.

College newsrooms are people too.

What counts as newsroom experience these days?  Working in an old school one?  A print-digital hybrid?  A fully virtual home-based version?  What about the campus newsroom?  Some student news outlets and journalists are bad.  So are some professional outlets and journalists.  But on the flip side, the best student journos and pubs are innovating and producing content on a level that deserves greater attention and respect.  (Three quick examples: The Crimson Tide’s historic post-tornado coverage; The Red & Black’s digital reinvention; and The University Press’s special Board of Trustees investigation.)

In most cases, these students have professors at their backs and by their sides– teaching, mentoring, revising, probing, and, nowadays, helping reinvent.  As I mentioned, the professor-professional separation is fading within journalism.  So is the student-professional label.

Bottom line: Many journalism professors assist and advise outlets that reach tons of readers, keep their community’s power-base in check, and face the same advertising, economic, digital, and distribution issues as their professional counterparts.  These profs-advisers “get” what’s happening to journalism, as a practice and an industry. They see it and experience it for themselves every day.

We’re at your back and by your side.

Journalism professionals spend their careers focused on others.  Don’t bristle when the focus is turned on you.  Professors are engaged individuals who study journalism and are given the time, freedom, and tenure-tracked motivation to analyze various aspects of the industry and help make sense of what it all means.  Who better to provide this service?  When the story is about journalism, we are trusted sources, same as professionals.

A “scholarly” colleague once told me the professor-professional relationship is the equivalent of the police and internal affairs.  I disagreed vehemently.  We’re not out to simply catch wrongdoing or keep things in check.  Similar to our role with students, we stand side by side with professionals or have their backs, offering credit when it’s due, providing context to help frame achievements in larger terms, and trying to educate everyone on what the heck our craft is all about.

Love and Other Drugs

Anyone who criticizes me for commenting on journalism by asserting I’m not a true professional doesn’t love the craft as much as me.  Journalism isn’t professional to me.  It’s personal.  It’s the love of my life.  I practice it, study it, teach it, and soak it in every single day like a crazy-cool wonder drug.  And when I feel the responsibility and urgency to comment upon it, I will.  When I do, I’m not a professor or a professional.  I’m a journalist.

As part of a journalism-rights-focused First Amendment Free Food Festival (FAFFF) at the University of Tampa last fall, we hired a glitter tattoo artist. My arm is the one on top. :)

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Over the past academic year, there has been an explosion of new or renewed campus activities, pop culture phenomena, tech trends, generational shifts, and social movements started by or significantly impacting students. Most can be summed up in a single word.

I’ve noticed a small number of words appearing more frequently, prominently or controversially during the past two semesters on campuses nationwide. Some were brand-new. Others were redefined or reached a tipping point of interest or popularity. And still others showed a remarkable staying power, carrying over from semesters and years past.

I’ve selected 15 as finalists for what I am calling the “2011-2012 College Word of the Year Contest.” OK, a few are actually acronyms or short phrases. But altogether the terms– whether short-lived or seemingly permanent– offer a unique glimpse at what students participated in, talked about, fretted over, and fought for this past fall and spring.

As Time Magazine’s Touré confirms, “The words we coalesce around as a society say so much about who we are. The language is a mirror that reflects our collective soul.” Let’s take a quick look in the collegiate rearview mirror. In alphabetical order, here are my College Word of the Year finalists.

Boomerangers

Right after commencement, a growing number of college graduates are heading home, diploma in hand and futures on hold. They are the boomerangers, young 20-somethings who are spending their immediate college afterlife in hometown purgatory. A majority move back into their childhood bedroom due to poor employment or graduate school prospects or to save money so they can soon travel internationally, engage in volunteer work or launch their own business.

A brief homestay has long been an option favored by some fresh graduates, but it’s recently reemerged in the media as a defining activity of the current student generation.  “Graduation means something completely different than it used to 30 years ago,” student columnist Madeline Hennings wrote in January for The Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech. “At my age, my parents were already engaged, planning their wedding, had jobs, and thinking about starting a family. Today, the economy is still recovering, and more students are moving back in with mom and dad.”

Drunkorexia

This five-syllable word has become the most publicized new disorder impacting college students. Many students, researchers and health professionals consider it a dangerous phenomenon. Critics, meanwhile, dismiss it as a media-driven faux-trend. And others contend it is nothing more than a fresh label stamped onto an activity that students have been carrying out for years.

The affliction, which leaves students hungry and at times hung over, involves “starving all day to drink at night.” As a March report in The Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania further explained, it centers on students “bingeing or skipping meals in order to either compensate for alcohol calories consumed later at night, or to get drunk faster. . . . At its most severe, it is a combination of an eating disorder and alcohol dependency.”

Drunkorexia first surged into the spotlight this past fall when an eye-opening study by University of Missouri researchers revealed “one in six students said they restricted food in order to consume alcohol within the last year.”

FADerall

Studying for finals. Paying attention in class. Simply wanting to feel wired. The explosion of illegal Adderall use by students has many root causes — and a number of unintended side effects.  The pill’s medical purpose is to help individuals with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and narcolepsy. Yet, it’s being increasingly co-opted by college students looking for an academic edge or a head-trip. Apparently, full-time students are twice as likely to illegally use Adderall as individuals their age who are not in school or only enrolled part-time.

The results of this so-called FADerall: a running debate about whether the “academic steroid” is equivalent to actual cheating; student Adderall dealers who make oodles of cash selling the pills, especially around midterms and finals; student Adderall addicts whose sleep schedules, brains, and bodily functions are thrown off; and students with verifiable ADHD who face increased peer pressure to pass along pills to friends and increased scrutiny from medical professionals wary of promoting an academic doping revolution.

FOMO

Students are increasingly obsessed with being connected — to their high-tech devices, social media chatter and their friends during a night, weekend or roadtrip in which something worthy of a Facebook status update or viral YouTube video might occur.  (For an example of the latter, check out this young woman “tree dancing“ during a recent music festival.)

This ever-present emotional-digital anxiety now has a defining acronym: FOMO or Fear of Missing Out.  Recent Georgetown University graduate Kinne Chapin confirmed FOMO “is a widespread problem on college campuses. Each weekend, I have a conversation with a friend of mine in which one of us expresses the following: ‘I’m not really in the mood to go out, but I feel like I should.’ Even when we’d rather catch up on sleep or melt our brain with some reality television, we feel compelled to seek bigger and better things from our weekend. We fear that if we don’t partake in every Saturday night’s fever, something truly amazing will happen, leaving us hopelessly behind.”

Gender-Neutral

At a rising number of colleges and universities– in middle America and along the coasts– students are protesting, passing resolutions and publishing commentaries in support of a single hyphenated buzzword: gender-neutral.  The push for gender-neutral campus housing and restroom options appears to be part of a larger student-led fight on some campuses for greater “transgender inclusiveness,” something The Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma is hailing as the heart of “this generation’s civil rights movement.”

The Daily Texan at the University of Texas reported in late February that more than 100 schools currently offer gender-neutral housing programs nationwide, a huge leap in the last six years. Student newspapers are also helping spread awareness about the need for “safe restrooms,” in part by publishing reports and op-eds about “the population on campus currently uncomfortable with gendered bathrooms.” Last November, Samuel Levine, a University of Chicago rising junior, contended that “some students say an environment without gender labels has become an integral part of their college experience… Gender-neutral colleges can be a safe and comfortable place for students who are transgender or who don’t identify with their biological sex.”

Helicopter Parents

Certain moms and dads just don’t know when to quit. Even with their kids grown up and enrolled at a school far away, they continue to restrict, coddle and fuss over their academic, professional and social lives with an eye-opening vigor. So-called helicopter parents have hovered over higher education for years, but recently rose again to A-list prominence among the student and professional media and scholarly community for their continued extraordinary interference in their children’s lives.

These parents constantly phone, text, e-mail and tweet at their undergraduate kids, along with monitoring all social media activity.  They contact professors, admissions counselors and nowadays even employers to promote their children or check on the status of their work. They try to Facebook friend their son’s or daughter’s classmates and significant others and, separately, ensure they have a say in every major and minor life decision– even when it leaves their children exasperated, rebellious or clinically depressed.

To check out the rest of my College Word of the Year nominees, click here or on the screenshot below.

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Joe Weisenthal regularly works 16-hour days without restto the point that his own bosses worry publicly about him burning out and force him to take vacations, his wife needs to tweet him when she really wants his attention, and he occasionally lapses into a catatonic stupor in which he doesn’t do anything for an entire day but watch TV.  He regularly publishes content that is “wrong or incomplete or misleading” and full of “air and sugar” (which I take to mean insignificant).  He publishes this content on a headline-driven site when he himself says the stock market is not headline-driven.  And he races to submit roughly 15 blog posts a day, rarely writing anything above a few hundred words, and hardly ever talking to sources on the phone to verify information or gather context.

The New York Times reported all this two weeks ago in a profile on Weisenthal.  In a post over the weekend, I had the good sense to raise the question: Is any of this any good?

Henry Blodget apparently thinks it’s great– and will attempt to bully anyone who doth question it.  The Business Insider co-founder and CEO wrote what someone just joked to me is the longest post ever published by the online outlet.  In it, he attacks me for having the gall to confirm that I don’t want my own students to live the life Weisenthal is described enduring or to produce inaccurate, rush-job, “air and sugar” journalism.  That’s right, he attacked me, NOT the New York Times, which confirmed all this in its profile of Weisenthal.

Mr. Blodget, your own brass is cited by the Times expressing concerns about Weisenthal’s insane work habits.  Any medical doctor worth his license would concur that pushing yourself to the point that your brain and body periodically break down and you basically stop functioning is not good for you.  And any half-decent journalism ethicist would agree that being “wrong or incomplete or misleading” does not pave the way to a Pulitzer.

But hey, if that’s what you demand of your employees– to the point that you criticize anyone who questions it– that’s on you.  Just please, for everyone’s sake, stop falling back on the digital vs. old school journalism trope, which you roll out seemingly right on cue in your hit piece this morning.  Apparently, because I hold up acclaimed former Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid as a journalistic role model instead of Weisenthal, I am of course a professor who doesn’t get it, stuck in the past, watching old clips of Walter Cronkite, and wandering the streets of New Orleans with Times-Picayune ink stains on my non-texting fingers.

Journalism is changing.  Yes, the old school can do it better.  But so can you.  If you want to hold up your site as a model for quality journalism and the type of nonstop hell you apparently put your best employee through as the inevitable future work shift, that’s on you.  That doesn’t mean we all have to agree with it.

And for the record, since you mentioned it, I don’t just “describe myself” as a college journalism scholar.  I am one.  What do you call yourself?  Today, I’d say it’s a bully, and yes, someone who doesn’t get it.

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A recent essay by a Yale University graduating senior reflecting on her time in school and limitless future possibilities is spreading across the wider web in the wake of her sudden death Saturday in a car crash.

Within the piece, featured in a special commencement issue of The Yale Daily News, 22-year-old Massachusetts native Marina Keegan shares her affection for the Yale community, defining the security and warmth it provided her as “the opposite of loneliness.”  She also reminds her fellow graduates that even though they may already feel limited by their chosen degrees, peer competition, and general life stresses and responsibilities, they are still free to grab hold of the world and leave an imprint upon it in whatever way they want.

In her words, “We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. . . . What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

While powerful in their own right, her sentiments took on special meaning and made national news after reports confirmed Keegan had died over the weekend when the car in which she was riding veered off the road, hit a guardrail, and rolled over twice.  Prior to the accident, she had been set to begin work as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

Two of the comments posted beneath her piece:

“What a cruel turn of events. I only knew you through your byline and through mutual friends, but through them, you showed yourself as one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. The world is less without you, Marina. Rest in peace.”

“I think it’s time for us to remember that the same thing could happen to us. We think we are so young, that we have so much time, but it could all end in a second. She was looking forward to so much, and this was not one them. We should not fear. And we should hold each other while we have them.”

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Description: “As American University School of Public Affairs graduates walked across the stage to accept their diplomas, graduate Sarah Cooper got the surprise of a lifetime. In addition to the excitement of being a new graduate, Cooper is now newly engaged to School of Communication graduate Sam Miller. He proposed on stage in front of family and classmates.”

Three comments beneath it: “‘I don’t wanna get married until after college.’ Pounces the instant she’s done!”; “What a pig. Way to hijack her personal moment of pride and glory with your cliche gender role-play.”; and “Man, I’d hate to be the person to get announced right after her.”

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Business Insider’s Henry Blodget is Wrong: Here’s Why

5 Reasons Journalism Professionals Should Accept Feedback & Criticism From Journalism Professors

Roughly two weeks ago, New York Times Magazine published a profile of Joe Weisenthal, a fresh-faced, workaholic, social media whiz who serves as a writer and deputy editor at Business Insider.  Upon its online posting, the instant reactions from the journalism cognoscenti seemed to be admiration and disbelief about his insane work ethic and supposed conquering of today’s nonstop news cycle.

These reactions are not wrong, just incomplete.  There is a ton to respect about Weisenthal on spec.  He has become a major player in his coverage area at a relatively young age seemingly through sheer hard work.  And he excels at many elements of news reporting 2.0, including audience collaboration, multi-platform engagement, personal branding, and real-time reporting.

But if the profile is accurate, many of his professional routines and achievements also sadden and repel me.  Step back, and read the profile again.  While lauded in the Times as a leader of the new wave of all-star newshounds, he is not a role model I would hold up for my own students.  In fact, in a number of areas, he literally embodies the opposite of what I want them to strive for.  Three examples are below.

He almost never separates himself from his work.  

The Times piece describes Weisenthal as “someone so absurdly passionate about the latest economic data that he forgoes sleep, night life, and the company of his wife.”  Passion is fantastic.  Obsession is unhealthy.

His bosses express on-the-record concerns about him burning out.  He “rarely stops fidgeting with his cellphone.”  He tweets about doing nothing on Friday evenings or the weekend but working.  The photo featured in the screengrab above is an actual shot of him working in bed while his wife sleeps, an almost-daily occurrence.  A snippet from the profile: “When [his wife] really needs his attention, she said she sends him a tweet.”

There is even one odd reference in the piece about his penchant for using the restroom “much more often than the average 31-year-old.”  I’m not sure what that means exactly.  Is it because he’s so high-strung he gets constant diarrhea?  The bathroom is his only real escape?  Even his bladder is a distraction to be overcome or multi-tasked? Overall, it doesn’t seem like Weisenthal has conquered the news cycle.  He is a pathetic slave to it.  As one commenter wrote beneath the profile, “Wow, that sounds like a terrible, depressing life.  He’s welcome to it, but you couldn’t pay me enough.”

Bottom line: I teach my students to love their work and work hard, but not at the expense of having a life or a regular urinary tract.  I also teach them to value time off and stepping back– it can be incredibly restorative for the mind and inspire bigger picture thinking and new ideas.

He is wrong and sensational a lot. 

According to the piece, “Some of what he writes is air and sugar.  Some of it is wrong or incomplete or misleading.  But he delivers jolts of sharp, original insight often enough to hold the attention of a high-powered audience.”  Is this the standard we’re now holding up for success?  Feel free to be “wrong or incomplete or misleading” or sappy or insignificant, as long as you also practice halfway decent journalism often enough to get on people’s radars.

In part, Weisenthal is hamstrung by his chosen field and the writing he is expected to provide– involving lots of predictions and subtle and overt commentary.  There is also of course some value in publicly working through new data and breaking news, going back-and-forth on what it all means, and coming to a final solid conclusion.  But the simple fact, according to the Times, is that he is inaccurate as often– and possibly more– than he is right.

He is also frequently sensational, again an offshoot of the outlet at which he is employed.  One fun irony: He is quoted telling the writer that the stock market is not actually headline-driven, less than 300 words after being described as working for a site that features posts almost always “wrapped with a loud, blunt headline.”

Bottom line: I teach my students to be accurate and thorough much more often than they are wrong or incomplete, almost always in fact– even when overseeing a blog or publishing a bunch.  I also teach them to produce journalism that is evenhanded and content-driven, not simply loud, blunt, and headline-driven.

He writes too much– and not enough. 

Weisenthal apparently publishes 15 blog posts and 150 tweets a day.  I give him credit for apparently seeking news in between the lines at times by spotting quietly-emerging phenomena and reading through reports and data that others most likely scan or ignore.  (His best quote: “It’s from the subtleties that you start to see the trends.”)  But quantity often only works to lessen quality.

He writes a ton, but even his longest entries run only a few hundred words.  And the piece portrays him as so constantly stressed about being first to post, he races to get something, anything, online, reporting be damned.  Think of how powerful his journalism work might be if he channeled his laser-focused-energies on a longer-form piece or took the time to wrangle up a ton of sources before simply rushing to post, post, post.

Bottom line: I certainly teach my students to join the online conversation and to recognize the advantages and expectations of publishing and sharing more.  But I also urge them to not lose sight of the fact that time can work for us, not just against us.  At least every once in awhile, remove yourself from the rush and use the time you have been given to do your job to build deeper, more impacting stories.

To learn from the work and life of someone I do want my students to emulate, check out this excellent analysis of Anthony Shadid’s reporting by UPIU’s Krista Kapralos.

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An odd, public war of words has played out this week between comedian Hannibal Buress and The Daily Eastern News at Eastern Illinois University.  It began Sunday evening.  In a Comedy Central stand-up special, Buress ranted for five minutes near the start of his set about a three-year-old, 300-word DEN article hyping a campus show he once headlined.

He expresses a mix of both genuine and mock disgust at the piece for containing what he sees as awkward descriptions, racist undertones, and general tackiness.  Before diving in, he literally pulls a paper with the piece printed on it from his pants pocket and intermittently reads from it and riffs on it.  In his words, “This is all real and in print.  A human being wrote this and then they sent it to a higher-ranking human being, an editor, and that person said, ‘Yeah, let’s go with that.'”

Among other portions, he mines laughs from a redundant phrase describing his humor as focused on “comedic jokes.” (“Wait, wait, wait.  Comedic jokes?  As opposed to all the other types of jokes that are out there.  Am I missing out on a genre of jokes?”)

Separately, although he confirms saying it during a phone interview, he mocks the student writer for noting that his shows touch on “personal stories, current events, the streets [which he implies through a pause and audience laughter is an unwordly reference], and even food.”  (“What?!  Even food!  Who else is talking about food in the comedy game right now?  Nobody, just Hannibal Buress, that’s all.  He has cornered that subject matter.  He is the Lenny Bruce of grocery store humor.”)

He also criticizes the inclusion of a student event organizer who fully admits he invited the comedian to EIU in part because he is African-American and his appearance will raise performer and audience diversity.  Finally, Buress calls out the paper for mentioning the amount he was paid for the show– claiming it is embarrassing given the relatively low amount and does not add anything of value to the article.

In an editorial response, headlined “Buress’ Comments Unfair, Skewed,” top DEN staff first cite the newsworthiness of including performer pay in a piece: “What Buress failed to recognize is that the budget for the event was made possible through student funding.  As a publication, transparency is a vital function of our reporting, and we believe that informing Eastern students of how their funds are appropriated is imperative to our goals.  By including how much the University Board was paying Buress, the DEN was following the same protocol by which we might cover a Student Senate or Pension Board meeting.”

The editorial also criticizes Buress for playing both sides– telling a reporter something and then poking fun at the reporter for publishing it: “During his act, Buress admits to telling our reporter that his performances include jokes related to ‘personal stories, current events, the streets and even food.’  Buress then proceeded to mock the DEN for including this comment.  However, the blame for such a portrayal lies explicitly on Buress. If he did not wish for us to include that he talks about ‘the streets’ in his act, he should not have said it in his interview.”

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