Thursday, March 24, 2005

Experience Takes Initiative

This semester I’ve finally started taking journalism classes, which is exciting even if it means I’m stuck in the bottom of the Coliseum several hours a day.

After getting in some pseudo-journalism experience, I really feel as though my desire to be a journalist has solidified. However, I am also feeling great internal and external pressure to move outside the classroom and into the field. The need for experience before graduation has been stressed to me since I was a freshman, so I can’t say I’m surprised. I knew it was coming, but I guess I’m still a little startled that it came so soon.

I’ve had several conversations with other j-school students and they echoed some of the same feelings. There was a time when I thought I would easily get an internship the summer before my senior year, and that would be all the experience I needed. Unfortunately, now it seems like gaining experience from an internship even has its prerequisites. Also, it is frustrating to apply for scholarships to be able to continue studying only to realize the people doling out scholarships are looking for… people with experience!

In my Journalism 202 class Bob Bentley, a guest speaker and a USC alumnus, came to educate us on how we could be more appealing to future employers. Having been the editor-in-chief of six newspapers around the country, he said he has hired a lot of people and that a collection of really good clips meant more to him in those interviews than a master’s degree. He said good journalists had talent and initiative, especially when it comes to gaining experience. He also emphasized the importance of writing for student publications, working for experience instead of money, and becoming a “good reader” of newspapers.

Hearing these things over and over again, and now from someone who has turned down straight A students for jobs, it makes me very anxious to begin what appears to be the long process of gaining experience.

"I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours. ~H.S.T.

I know I'm a month late in posting this, but I wanted to lament the loss of one of journalism's greatest minds. Hunter S. Thompson's suicide came as a total shock. A friend of mine who shares in my Thompson adoration, text messaged me with the horrible news the night it actually happened. I'm sure the entire nation thought exactly the same thing: "Of all the craziness Thompson subjected himself to, all the illegal substances he reveled in experimenting with, all the gun-toting escapades he led, how on earth could he die like this?" It's truly tragic, but that's not the important part of the story. Thompson was a legend in his own right.
Some journalists may chuckle at notions that Thompson was a serious journalist -- but I think he was. He added innovation to the job during a time in American history that definitely needed a fresh voice and angle in the field. His reporting of Nixon came in a form unheard of before then. I was obviously not old enough to realize when the birth of gonzo journalism actually occurred, but its effects are indelible. However, I think the latest generations of journalists don't know much about the man who chronicled a journey to the heart of the American Dream. If this generation has read his reports, it's usually his more recent writings for ESPN or Rolling Stone. If his death brings anything, I hope it leads more young reporters to read his works and gain insight into how each journalist can be a fresh voice among the legions.
In a time when media consumers hear the same story told the same way several times in one day, innovators like Thompson showed journalists how their passion for life and for reporting can be revealed simultaneously -- in their work.

Just two more quotes:
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
"Publishers are notoriously slothful about numbers, unless they're attached to dollar signs -- unlike journalists, quarterbacks, and felony criminal defendants who tend to be keenly aware of numbers at all times."
To sample the cruder side of gonzo journalism, visit

Ethics in a blog world

There is an interesting post on the Mediacenter blog, Morph, in which Taran Rampersad puts a new twist on the ethics framework in which we operate.

Rampersad's take, briefly, is that our current media ethics framework evolved because media until now was largely a one-way relationship, and so society had a need to control the media and ensure its accuracy. But now, Rampersad says, that is shifting with the ever-easier ability to interact, criticize and fact-check journalism. Now, Rampersad writes, the onus is on us, society, to play an active role in shaping those ethics: "If you believe something is unethical, unleash your keyboard and say so. If you think something has to be written, write it. The time for blaming the traditional media for slanting the news is at an end. It's society's responsibility to challenge this new molecular media -- and this requires ethics, responsiblilty and accountability on the part of the reader more so than ever before."

I'd be interested in the reactions of those here at J-School Year to that. Are we, the readers up to the task? Is Rampersad being too nirvana -- does such criticism count if it is on a backwater blog somewhere read by three people and not easily discovered? Does his suggestion eveolve to be a cop-out by the media that says, well, someone else will catch it if anything's wrong?

Weigh in, please.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Great Divide


Eric Hancock, the publisher of Free Times, will be in the J-School Wednesday, March 23, from noon to 1 p.m. to talk about the relationship between news and advertising in an alternative weekly. As you're probably aware, these two departments have not always gotten along. SPJ thought Hancock could shed some light on how to successfully manage these two vital areas of a news organization. We will be providing the sandwiches and beverages.

Ya'll come.


Professor Wiggins

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Graniteville Train Wreck discussion


The train wreck in Graniteville, S.C. on Jan. 6 was national news. Journalists from local and national news organizations reported on this disaster, which happened in our back yard. Even now questions remain about the safety of transporting dangerous chemicals by rail, public safety officials' responsiveness in the hours immediately after the accident, and the quality of life of the residents in that area. The campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will convene a panel of reporters and editors from The State, WIS and WLTX to talk about the challenges of disaster reporting and reflect on their own efforts in covering this story. The meeting will be Wednesday, March 16, 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Room 209, Davis College. This will be a fascinating discussion. Come join us.


Professor Wiggins

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Contest winners

Contest season is here, and the winners have been announced. I thought it worthy to note how well USC has placed this year. Keep up the good work!

Kent Babb, first place, sports
Kristin Chandler ninth place, feature

SPJ Mark of Excellence Region 3 (exact places not yet announced)
James Warden, General News Photo
Julia Knetzer, Photo Illustration
Carla Wynn, Online Feature and Online In-Depth
Keita Alston, Online Feature
Eva Pilgrim, TV Spot News (two awards)
Anna Lake, TV General News
Parul Joshi, TV In-Depth
Corey Fulks, TV General News

S.C. Press Association
Tricia Ridgway: first, specialty page layout and design; third, arts and entertainment story
Juia Knetzer: second, feature story
Carla Wynn: second, specialty page layout and design; third, informational graphic
James Warden: second, informational graphic; third, specialty page layout & design
Melissa Ridings: first, informational graphic

Saturday, March 12, 2005

It's about evolution


Doug's posting about the Norwegian news operation's use of cellphones to cover public events reminded me of a couple of conversations with journalism educators and professionals. When "backpack journalism" was mentioned, I sometimes sensed confusion and fear. I suspect some students also feel anxious about what they're hearing and reading.
Why don't we think about these innovations as part of the natural evolution of our competitive profession, where speed in gathering and distributing news and information is one of the main goals. (THE primary goal is accuracy, of course.)
The use of cellphones is the latest development in the transmission of information, which began with the telegraph in the 19th century. In the 20th century, the telephone allowed reporters in the field to dictate their stories to staffers in the newsroom. Every journalist was expected to be skilled in giving and receiving dictation. That might be one reason why many new reporters started out on obits, where information was often phoned in.
Dictating information over the phone was common practice for decades. Then newsrooms purchased the clunky predecessors to today's laptops, and reporters and photographers were able to transmit text and pictures by dropping a telephone handset into a cradle and letting the machine chirp away at the mainframe computer.
When desktop computers were introduced into the newsroom, some old-timers continued to write their copy on typewriters and turn it over to the composing room to be set, but most staffers were expected to embrace the change or look for other employment.
I have no idea what will follow the common use of cellphones to cover public events but I'm confident there will be something because change is the only constant in this business.


Professor Wiggins

Friday, March 11, 2005

Next generation TV reporting?

We all saw the satellite phone images from Iraq. Jerky and expensive -- but we all were riveted.

Now, Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has upped the ante a bit for domestic transmissions -- last weekend it broadcast video reports of a ski race from a mobile phone.

The AP reports that NRK outfitted a reporter with a third-generation (3G) mobile phone "and sent him off with 15,000 skiers who started the race. He stopped six times to provide commentary and images from his perspective of the world's oldest, longest and biggest ski race."

But here's what reporters of all kinds (with the move toward convergence, not just TV) need to pay attention to:

NRK said images were as good as those transmitted by satellite telephone from conflict or catastrophe areas but that 3G was cheaper and easier to use.

The broadcaster said it will consider using the technology, especially for fast-breaking news and sports, when there is a reporter or witness at the scene but no camera crew.

The era of the "techno journalist," "backpack journalist," or whatever we want to call it may be growing closer more quickly than we think.
For more on the multiskilled journalist, see this from the Convergence Newsletter, this from OJR, and this counterpoint from OJR (written by Newsplex trainer Martha Stone). (Our point at Newsplex has always been that the concept of a backpack journalist as master of all trades is misguided, but that journalists will also have to be familiar with a much broader array of ways to do their jobs and present their material.)

(Cross-posted with Common Sense Journalism.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A dying breed

This past weekend I worked my second Southern Interscholastic Press Association (SIPA) Convention. I went to these conventions all the time in high school, and I realize now how much I missed out on while in high school.

There are a few speakers at the conventions that students isn't becuase they have the greatest topics or the best presentations, they just stand out for some reason. I saw one speaker at least 10 times in high school and all he ever taught was column writing classes, and he used the same columns every time. I can probably quote every column by heart.

As I was doing my check of classes, I realized how foolish I was to go to the column class all the time. This year, we had a speaker with J-ideas that helped with the study of students and the First Amendment. No one showed up to his class until 20 minutes after it started and then they only came in because their choice class was full. It was an eye opening experience...even student journalists didn't want to go to a class specifically about them and their rights...and he even gave away free copies of the study and T-shirts.

His class was not the only class that had hardly any participants or no participants at all. And I thought students not going to class might be because we had failed in providing an adequate program, but I really know it is because some just don't care. Some students were still asleep in the wonderful beds at the Marriott, others were wandering around Columbia and then at least a handful just stood defiantly in the hall saying they weren't going to class.

During the awards banquet, students had a chance to say what news broadcasters were doing wrong...and basically all of the students said they were bored. Broadcasters talked in monotone, they didn't do enough in depth stories and they just didn't care to care to hear about issues that they believed did not affect them.

In the session I taught about what programs the J-school offered, students didn't even want to know what their future as college journalists held for them...of course they were more worried about the college life in Columbia. When I asked if there were any more questions, there was an exasperated "NO!" from the back. I was so thrilled about my panelists of students and that students actually attended the class, but that "No" killed me.

I am proud to say I am a part of SIPA and that I play some role in preparing journalists for the future and I am so proud of the work SIPA does for student journalists, but this weekend made me realize that true passionate journalists are really a dying breed. We can preach all day long about why journalism is so great and why these students should take advantage of these classes and free resources offered....but we can never make them care about journalism more than they want to .

Monday, March 07, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson


Hunter S. Thompson, the originator of "gonzo journalism," killed himself on Feb. 20. Some of you may be familiar with Thompson's work and that of other "new journalists" of the '60s and '70s. You may have seen the film "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," which featured Johnny Depp as Thompson, or you may be familiar with the Doonesbury character Uncle Duke, which is based on Thompson. In any case, Thompson was an idiosyncratic writer, whose work some devour like candy while others, myself included, enjoy only in small bites. That Thompson was called a "new journalist" has always bothered me because he blended fact and fiction, often drug-enduced fiction, in his articles and set aside traditional reportial detachment for subjective storytelling. It might be that our recent troubles with fabrication in news stories can be traced back to Thompson and his celebrated ilk, who were not true journalists though for many their works were edifying. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, among others, were interpreters of public events who were not above artful embellishment and dramatic recreation. If Thompson's tragic death leads you to pick up some of his writings, I would recommend his relatively straightforward reporting on the Hells Angel.


Professor Wiggins

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

So, any suggestions?

I've had some difficulty adjusting to being back in school after spending last semester interning full time in Washinton. I'm finished with all my journalism classes, so I'm stuck in Gambrell Hall most of the day trying to satisfy my political science minor, while I daydream about the District and tell people how sometimes the Coliseum and the Strom Thurmond Fitness and Wellness Center remind me of Washington architecture. It's sick.
But last week I made a trip down to the J-School to sign up for senior semester and had the pleasure of hearing some magic words: "That's all you need to graduate."
So now, I wonder if I'd be better off trying to jump into the job market next December or staying in school through next spring to get some more education and experience. I'm here on a scholarship, and my family is supportive of my staying in school. But I wonder if getting out a few months ahead of the crowd will put me ahead in the job hunt . . . And I like reporting better than taking classes. I've come to appreciate journalism so much, because covering stories is the best education. In no class will thousands of people -- potentially with more knowledge on the subject than you have -- scrutinize your papers and hold you responsible for any inaccuracy. But that's the pressure and the power behind the trade, and that's why we can trust it.

I haven't posted lately, but I started freelancing for the Real Estate section of The State. I had to do some reading before I jumped into any reporting, but my first story ran Sunday. I was thrilled to get the work but unsure if I'd enjoy the beat. I'm working on my third story now, and I've loved it so far. Though I've only had positive experiences, I've been warned that real estate agents are like politicians. And hey, maybe that's why I like it so much.

Decisions, decisions


Graeme's posting of the on-air assault reminded me that journalism is unpredictable, which for many is part of the profession's appeal. Though fighting off passers-by is, thankfully, uncommon, it's the kind of incident working journalists can't foresee, which makes the job so exhilarating. I would hope your personal standards of professionalism would guide your response and reaction in this case.
You may have heard it said that in the news business no two days, no two stories, are the same. Every assignment -- whether spot or enterprise -- requires the reporter to make hundreds of decisions while gathering news and crafting the story. Some decisions are routine: What's the angle? Who do I need to talk to? How do I gain this source's trust? How assertive should I be with a subject who is clearly trying to hide something? But others are not so simple: How do I respond if faced with hostility? Should I intervene if a passer-by were to assault another citizen? Where's the line between covering a story and becomng part of it?
No journalism instructor or editor can make these calls for you; it's on you when you're in the field. As my first city editor told me years ago, you must develop the presence of mind to stay focused, keep your wits about you and act responsibly in the public's interest. That's the unique challenge of being a working journalist, and there's no profession like it.


Professor Wiggins