Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Most Important Address in Washington, D.C. (Hint: It's Not What You Might Think)

Washington, D.C.—555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. That address, I think, is the most important one in our nation's capital. Because you can literally see the Capitol from the sixth floor of the 555 building, and because the White House is on the other end of Pennsylvania (at 1600 N.W.), you can rule both out as most important, though obviously each is significant in shaping our culture and governing our communities. There are the other great addresses of inspiration: the museums and monuments and congressional offices. But 555 is a place where the First Amendment to the Constitution literally scrolls down the side of the building, reminding passers-by of the five freedoms those other places of government are committed to preserving: speech, religion, press, assembly and petition—freedoms, we all know they (as in government officials) don't always get right.

Which brings us to 555, home of the Newseum, the country's first museum dedicated entirely to those gatekeepers of culture, those watchdogs of government, those voices for the voiceless: journalists. For anyone interested in journalism as either a doer of it or a citizen dependent on it, the Newseum inspires, challenges and instructs at the same time. Yes, it's interactive, fun and enormously creative. But it also provides the news from around the world everyday in its amazing rotation of daily front pages. Its history section gives clues to the perils and sacrifices made throughout the centuries to bring the news to people, to protect their freedoms, to expose injustices or to report the stories that matter to their lives. Its various memorials—whether to modern reporters who've been killed for pursuing the truth or to standard setters in early journalism—are enough to make even the hardened cynic appreciate the role journalism plays for each of us.

This place, with all its artifacts, films and exhibits, matters. When I visited again last week, I realized its importance anew as I sat next to a fifth grader on a field trip while we waited for a movie to start. Her black braids shot off her head, her enthusiasm spilled over her seat into mine. Before the 4D film began (and we weren't wearing the funny glasses) I asked her if she wanted to be a reporter. "Yeah, I think that'd be so cool," she said, a grin on her face nearly as wide as the Potomac. The movie started and she marveled—quite exuberantly I might add—more than anyone in the cinema. And when the credits rolled, she told me that was "awesome." I told her I hoped to read her byline someday and advised her to always tell the truth in her stories. She seemed confused. "Of course. What else would I tell?" she asked.

So if a place like the Newseum can inspire the next—and current—generation of reporters in an age when the industry could use vibrant reminders of its critical role, then I don't care how much or how long the place took to build (and much has been made by the nay sayers and cynics). I'm convinced, unashamedly: This is the most important address in Washington because it could affect so many other addresses in years to come.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Making Unity Sexy: A Challenge to Today's Reporters

Conflict, we know, is the sexy stuff of storytelling. If it bleeds, it leads, say the editors. Tension lures in readers, takes us on a journey that keeps us glued to the set so that we'll hang in there till the end. After all, we don't watch action-adventure flicks to know how they'll end; we watch to see how the hero will get out of each pickle.

Little wonder then that reporters today cover the fringes as primary stories. The finger pointing, the opposite perspectives, the marginalizing—and hence the polarizing—seem to make for more interesting copy. It's sexy. So one day we get, for instance, full coverage of the folks on the Right who think the folks on the Left are nuts because of health care reform; the next day we get coverage of leaders from the Left who think the folks on the Right are nuts because of, well, how they view health care reform. And as a result, it spills over into town halls, rallies and marches until it erupts into screaming and shouting . . . that again makes for good stories, but does little to help us appreciate our diversity.

Surely, though, people somewhere are having conversations beyond their narrow Right and Left opinions. Surely some political leaders are reaching across the aisle, genuinely trying to consider how they can work together. Surely unity—somehow, somewhere—is happening.

Why, then, don't we hear many of these stories? Why don't we read the "Against All Odds" tales of folks who, in spite of their differences, agree to keep the conversation going because they know they'll be better off as human beings for listening to different perspectives? I'm certain they're out there.

So this is my challenge to reporters everywhere: PLEASE find the stories of the folks who are as determined to shake hands with others who might see things differently as the pundits are to polarize. The conversations these brave folks are having, who dare to work together, must certainly provide important insights for the rest of us who are tired of the polarizing and finger pointing. Please, Mr. and Ms. Journalist, give us the stories we need to better understand each other's perspective on issues (especially) like health care, and the economy, and so on, so that we'll make some progress toward civility and grace, the stuff that makes nations great. The stuff that unifies.

Surely, that's a story all of us would read, one that's essential and sexy, and most importantly, life-changing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

60 Years of Wisdom . . . in a Couple Conversations

Minneapolis, MN—I'm at the 60th anniversary conference of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), a smart and gracious group of about 160 (in attendance) professional reporters who have the audacity to believe that religion as a beat still matters. That's no small thing. When the general media is laying off or reassigning veteran religion reporters (the RNA president mentioned in his welcome address that he'd heard of two religion reporters in the last 24 hours who'd lost their jobs), it's encouraging to find journalists here who still recognize the far reaching implications and roles that belief systems play in shaping a culture. After all, everyone believes something. And most of the time, our behaviors come out of what we most believe. So to cover the stories that emerge from the world's major religions either in our towns or trends is an essential service to citizens. Religion reporting helps people make sense of current issues as well as the individuals in their communities, their neighbors.
     So I asked (or eavesdropped on) a couple reporters or speakers here about the insights they might have for new journalists, for those entering the field that is requiring different skills while still reporting the human elements we need to be self governing. Here's what a few said:

   "The pay is low, but don't fear the small town newspaper. That's where you get thrown into the action right away, covering everything from city hall or education to small businesses. Be willing to learn, because often you're learning with your editor. That's what I did."—William Taylor, assistant editor, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA;
    "In covering a recent and troubling story here (on the disappearance of Somalian young men) I began to see that this was revealing something much more complex than what appeared on the surface: many young men were wondering where—or how—they fit into U.S. culture. There's always something more behind the story."—Allie Shah, metro reporter of the Minneapolis Star Tribune;
     "I've found the news media generally very fair on their coverage (of religious issues). In fact, I've had more difficulty with the press within my own denomination than those outside." —Dr. Frank Page, President of Southern Baptist and "resident fundamentalist Christian (his words)" on President Obama's council of faith based initiatives;
     "Learn everything you can about new ways of doing journalism while also mastering the traditional methods of reporting. That means being the best writer/reporter you can be, asking the right questions, checking the facts, being accurate and fair so that you have the best content to fit into these new media. What do I love about reporting? Talking to fascinating people and then sharing their thoughts/stories with others. There's nothing like a goooood interview!"—Adelle Banks, senior correspondent, Religion News Service. (That's Adelle in the photo preparing her recorder, computer ready for note taking.)
     So there's good stuff to be gained in the community of such wisdom. It comes in many lectures, conferences and mostly, conversations. And it comes always in paying attention. Remembering to observe, especially this day, Sept. 11, how religion reporting took on another new and essential role. As one who lived in New York City in 2001, I offer you my own reporting from that day: The End of the World (Trade Center), posted on 9/11/01.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What Diane Can't Tell Me

Last week journalism history was made . . . again. Diane Sawyer was named to replace Charles Gibson on the ABC Nightly News, making her only the second woman to anchor a national television news program, and making this the first time when women anchored two of the three networks. As a woman reporter myself, I'm glad for what this signals, knowing how difficult it has been for women in what has been traditionally a male-dominated vocation. And though I'm sure Ms. Sawyer's qualities as a serious journalist were part of the decision behind her promotion—just as the same would have been true for Katie Couric and Brian Williams in their respective roles—I doubt I'll tune in much to her coverage.
     Why? Simple. National television news programs can't deliver for me much of what I'm mostly interested: local stories. Yes, they could give me quick pieces of international or domestic stories, news I should know to be a thoughtful and engaged citizen. But I'm more likely to look to online news outlets for those stories, to get more details than a sound byte can offer in the limited—but still important—time constraints of television news. More to the point, I'll look to the local newspapers to tell me about my community. Case in point: on Labor Day, I took a lovely stroll through my small town of Beverly, Massachusetts. I passed the Commons and saw the dog-bone installation of enormous metal sculptures. I smiled at the children playing on the 'dogs' and at the parents scratching their heads at the playfulness of the art. Around the corner I noticed a teepee in the backyard of a house, friends gathered around it  grilling for some holiday cooking. I immediately understood both 'stories' I walked by because I'd read them in the local paper. In other words, I connected more to my own community because of the local coverage I'd picked up in the print stories. And that's something no national news anchor can offer.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Moving from Print to Screen: When the College Newspaper Evolves

I knew it was inevitable. Still, when I learned from colleagues that the student newspaper at the college where we work would soon be published entirely online, I was sad. After 50 years of a weekly print paper—sometimes late, always with errors, usually an interesting gauge of what college students deemed newsworthy in their community—I mourned a bit. I confess: I liked the feel of the paper in my hands. I liked hunting it down on campus just to find the thing (consistent distribution was not a strength of college students). And I liked flipping the pages to see bylines of my students. I'd skim over the stories, sometimes with a roll of the eyes, often sighing from the sheer youthfulness of the content. But once in a while—maybe once or twice a month—there was that moment when I was caught, pulled in by a compelling lede, shown some details that made me pause in admiration and then look away for a second to think, really think, about the story I'd just read. Those moments made me proud. Of the student reporter who 'got' it. Of the immediacy of the moment when my fingers touched paper (not a computer), and of the long and difficult and enormously powerful tradition of print newspapers to connect a community. Those moments reminded me of the value of the profession, even when novices took it on. And of the human interaction that spilled over each issue I'd had to hunt down and pick up and thumb through, the paper version I could carry with me on my bike or to the classroom. Please don't get me wrong: I'm sure this online version will build community too. Somehow. Just as I'm sure it will be relevant and newsworthy and reflective of our high-tech students. But as I scroll over the electronic pages of its new version, I suspect I'll still roll my eyes every now and then or swell with occasional sense of pride. Something in me, though, will feel all the more grateful for the archive in the College library, the one that houses those musty old student newspapers which show how life used to be on campus.