Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The Newseum tweeted the blow infographic about the First Amendment and how well Americans know it.

I always find it interesting how people respond to the First Amendment because it’s not always correct.

I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. The story is full of jargon and words people wouldn’t use in every day language. It could be a complicated environmental story or something about an upgrade in technology and my eyes start to glaze over because often there are phrases I won’t understand unless I’m an expert in the field.

Maybe the reporter didn’t ask enough questions to know what they were writing about. I fell into that trap more than once as a young reporter, especially when I had to write about Connecticut’s old affordable housing law. I had someone tell me to stop faking it and ask enough questions so I understood what I was writing about.

There’s another trap, though, and that’s writing too much about a certain topic. If you spend all your time covering cops and fires, you know their lingo. If you cover politics, there’s jargon only lawmakers and politicians use. You spend enough time around any of them and don’t check yourself, the lingo can end up in your stories.

Of course there also are the people who want to make themselves look smart by using all the jargon.

But as a reader it’s frustrating because this isn’t how they talk. I get frustrated because I want to take a red pen and change the words to something my mother would use.

And that’s the key here in breaking the habit of writing inside baseball (we have our own jargon in journalism too) and start writing how most people speak: How would you tell Mom this story?

I had a college professor who often talked about telling Mom the story. We want to write the stories we’d sit down and tell our moms about at the kitchen table. But we also want to write the stories in the same way of how we’d tell our mothers those stories.

Simplifying and breaking through the jargon doesn’t mean we can’t do something special with our stories. We can still write clever ledes. Just don’t write over your readers’ heads and write things in plain terms they will understand.

Also remember this: If you can’t explain the story to your mom, you don’t know the story.

One of my most embarrassing (in a good way) moments in journalism was because I asked a simple question in late November 2001. “Are there any plans to honor the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?”

“Oh, my, I forgot. I’ll let you know,” my VFW contact told me. It wasn’t a surprise since we were still in a new world following the Sept. 11 attacks. People’s minds were elsewhere.

A day or two later he called me back that they were planning a ceremony on one of Westport’s beaches, and it was at that ceremony that I felt a little embarrassed.

My contact was talking to the crowd that was gathered there and specifically thanked me for making the whole thing possible. If I hadn’t called him and asked, they wouldn’t have done anything to honor the anniversary.

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day (I covered the 60th anniversary memorial in Westport too), and it made me think of all of the veterans I’ve met throughout my career, especially those that fought in World War II. They never glamorized war, but they felt it was important to tell their stories. They were stories that would inspire you — the things they sacrificed to go fight to defend our rights and the lives they led once the war was over.

And I felt it was important to tell their stories too. These are men and women who are my generation’s grandparents, which means we’re coming to a time when they won’t be here to tell their stories any more. All that will remain are our memories of them, not their voices to tell us their memories.

That’s how journalism is a living history. We’re here to amplify these stories, remind people of what happened and teach the younger generations our history. This is where we came from and how today’s world was formed. And today’s technology allows us to be able to create things — like video recollections of veterans — that will live forever.

We really should do more of these kind of projects to help us all to remember and to learn. It’s often said journalism is the first rough draft of history, but it’s really more than a first rough draft. It is our history, our living history, as we tell these people’s stories.

Update: The Wire did a review of how we’re remembering D-Day through veteran stories and how the media in 1944 covered the events.

“The name of the site is WestportNow, not WestportLater.”

That’s something my boss at that time would say to me several times. It was 2005 and I had made the switch from newspaper reporter to web-only reporter, and Gordon Joseloff often would tell me the strength of working on the web was we could be immediate. It was what we all call “real-time news” today.

Gordon was tough. He was old-school and wanted everything a specific way, whether it was having a story up quickly about something that happened in town or making sure my copy was clean (and we often had grammar debates). But he also was respectful, and that made me want to do my best. It’s why I showed up to cover meetings after my night classes for grad school or made sure a story was filed almost immediately after a vote.

A lot has been made about “tough” editors in the days since Jill Abramson was dismissed from the New York Times. People are recalling the editors who made them do ridiculous things, saying those editors made them better at their job. But there’s also a theme to most of those editors: They were bullies and jerks to the reporters.

Then Dean Baquet, who replaced Abramson as the Times editor, basically said we should stop worshiping the nasty editors. It’s something others and I have been thinking.

I’ve had editors who people would describe as “tough.” One of my first editors would edit my copy by hand and pass it back to me and tell me to put in the corrections. A friend, who had been a copy editor, reviewed these things many times and said this boss was being ridiculous with 75 percent of her editing. Plus that editor never did anything to build you back up after she tore you down.

Another editor, who some would say is tough, would make me do ridiculous things. In my first weeks on the job she was unhappy with how the police department allegedly held back a story (they had not). But who was the one who had to make the call to the chief? I felt like the loud conversation (I don’t want to call it a fight) resulted in setting back my relationship with the police for a few weeks. She also tried to deny me the right to eat a meal after I had been on the run for 3/4 of the day. Her boss stepped in and told her she couldn’t deny people lunch. Her treatment almost made me leave journalism.

I look back at those editors, who seemed to do things just to toy with people, not as the ones who shaped me to become the journalist I am. It would be people like Gordon, who was a mentor before I even worked for him. I also had editors I’d ask questions about a story because they always treated me fairly, even if they were tough. And that always made me want to work harder. It got to the point where one such editor would let me leave before he edited my copy. “Your stuff is always good. You can leave.”

And those editors are the example I follow when I’ve been in the editor role. I don’t want to alienate people; I want to make them better. People will call me tough, but I also hope they will say I’m not a jerk about it. I think most would because they’d write me recommendations and some are still friends. It’s proof you can strive for a high standard and not be a jerk on the way to the top.

“This is my baseball tie,” my high school AP English teacher said one day in class. It was black. It was the day the MLB strike landed in 1994.

Mr. Curtiss was one of those teachers who inspired me, which I’m remembering today after asking people on social media to tell us about teachers that inspired them. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and the stories I’ve read are touching.

I wouldn’t say Mr. Curtiss was the teacher who made me a journalist or made me love something, but he’s the kind of teacher who “got” me. I’m a quirky person, and growing up where I did in Connecticut that wasn’t always a welcome thing. I was the outcast. But I always felt safe to be me in Mr. Curtiss’ class. But he also opened my eyes to a new way of studying literature.

We read all sorts of books in his class (and I actually wanted to read most of them), but we didn’t have quizzes on them or intense essays to write. Someone was picked to find a sentence from our reading assignment for us to discuss. It was fun to see what other people chose, especially the discussion they drove. They were always intense and so often someone would have an epiphany where the light bulb went off.

Strangely, Mr. Curtiss’ wife was my Shakespeare teacher, and she also is another one who inspired me. I don’t think I would love Shakespeare as much as I do today if it wasn’t for her. We watched movies. She gave us fake quizzes. And she loved “Bill.” You couldn’t not love Shakespeare hearing her talk about him. Oh and getting to go see Hamlet on a Broadway stage helped continue to stroke those flames.

Something Mrs. Curtiss said to me also stuck with me forever. She once told me that I was a good writer who needed to be tamed. I think that’s why I look such an interest in self editing and being a better writer as I grew from teenager to working adult. She saw talent in me.

There are so many teachers from growing up I could continue to list who had a dramatic influence on me and the person I have become. Some from later years in college and graduate school became mentors. But I feel like those teachers we had growing up had an even bigger influence because we spent so much time with them. I wouldn’t love literature and Shakespeare like I do if it wasn’t for the Curtisses and Mr. Lippman or the history of revolution because of Mr. Blanc. I got my first break in journalism thanks to my high school guidance counselor. I also had those teachers I wanted to prove wrong and feel like I have.

I also wonder what has happened to a lot of the teachers who guided me through my life. You’d think a Google search would help, but not always. If they are reading this, though, thank you.

I should consider myself lucky. I’ve spent 15 years in professional journalism (realizing this fact frightens me) and only now was I a casualty of a layoff.

A little over two weeks ago 300 people were laid off across my company, and I was one of the people told I wouldn’t have a job come September. The fact I have until September is a blessing since I have some time, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. Plus our layoffs happened during a rough week in journalism with Digital First Media also shutting down Thunderdome.

Since then I keep getting asked what I’ll be doing next. That’s still a hard question to answer since I still don’t know. I’ve done so many different things in journalism that I love that I don’t know what I want to go next. And it adds to the stress of the situation.

But the point of me writing this is to echo what Steve Buttry wrote on his blog about journalists helping each other in hard times. The emails, the tweets, the text messages, the phone calls — They keep coming from people wanting to express their support to me. Most often they come at times when I’m feeling really down with my uncertain future. There are words of encouragement, there are job leads and there are just moments of saying hi.

One of my friends calls the people who are helping me “job angels,” but they’re more than that. As someone who suffers from depression (and who doesn’t hide it), I can’t say how important all of this has been to me. It’s made a rough, stressful time so much better. I cannot say thank you enough.

People ask me why I stick with journalism after all these hard years for the industry. The outpouring of support has been one of the many reasons why I stick around. And, honestly, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

More than one of my friends has said “I didn’t go into journalism to do math.” They look at me cross-eyed when I tried to explain how to calculate a percent difference, which always seemed like basic math to me.

The thing is math is important to journalism, especially if you’re going to be diving into budgets, financial reports, polling figures and more. Heck, you need to know basic math in sports journalism to calculate your own statistics (I learned in high school never to rely on the stats given to me by the team).

I was reminded of this fact when I read a story earlier this week about average home prices. The Millburn township administrator popped into my head and all the times he ranted about how “average” is not a proper indicator of a town’s statistics, including taxes and home prices. Instead, you should be looking for the median, he’d argue.

His argument is that if there is a significantly higher than most or lower than most home price, it would screw up your average. The median price would be a better indicator of what most people are paying to buy a home (or sell it) in the town. The same with taxes.

But in order to understand this concept you need to have basic knowledge of statistics, which not everyone has.

There’s been a lot of talk about what journalism students need to learn in college and the disconnect between their education and the real world. The conversation will revolve around things like reporting, confirming information, writing better and multimedia skills. But no one ever mentions math and statistics, which is something nearly every journalist will encounter in their career.

When I was in college a billion years ago (OK, maybe not that long ago), math and statistics were not a requirement of my major. I did have to fulfill a math requirement that was not associated with my major, and my major did require you to take an economics class. In my education, though, I was never taught of the kind of math I’d need in the real world of journalism.

The same thing happened in my graduate education, which was far more recent than my undergraduate education.

I still regret not taking a statistics class, though I consider myself strong and math and understanding statistics. That doesn’t mean I know everything.

As we discuss the things journalists need to know, we need to include math and statistics. Colleges should be requiring it of their journalism students and should develop courses that focus on the type of math, statistics and budget knowledge they’d need. Afraid no one will teach it? I’m sure there are plenty of us (myself included) who would be happy to teach that kind of class.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,839 other followers