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Archive for the 'Education' Category

Connie Schultz: Young journalists will be the heart and soul of this industry

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, Connie Schultz is one of my favorite journalists and one of my idols in this industry. For those who don’t know of her, Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She also happens to be a fellow Kent State alumna and former Daily Kent Stater editor — like me!

Poynter has an interesting interview with her posted online this week that’s worth reading, but mostly worth listening to. (Her responses are linked at the end of each bullet point.)

I’ve transcribed the last bit, which is her advice to young journalists entering this industry:

We’ve never had a time when we need you more.

I do think that young journalists will be the heart and soul of this industry and will keep it afloat. Because the ones who get into [this business], let’s face it, if we thought we were committed back when I got in, and you could make a living, compared to what they could do and make a living … in the business world, they could be making money in so many different ways.

If they come into [the] newspaper business, they really care about the business, and we need them. Because I think they really will be the ones who can poke the bear, who can say, but wait a minute we are the last stop in government corruption. If we aren’t watching them, nobody will. I just think that’s such a powerful … I believe that even more now having been married to a member of the United States Senate … I’m so aware of all that can go wrong if we aren’t paying attention.

Inexperienced student editors learn from each other, the job itself

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Often in student media, at least the ones I worked at during college, the staff is thrown into their position and told, basically, to build wings on the way down. Most active student media types I knew held a half-dozen or more positions within the span of four years of undergrad work. Often, you’re unprepared and have only your gut, your slightly more experienced peers who were in your shoes a semester or two ago, and your desire to do good journalism going for you. Oh, and then there’s the “every mistake you make will be printed for your entire campus to read and call you on” factor — so you better not screw up. Even though we adamantly professed and considered ourselves to be (and expected to be treated as) professional journalists, the truth is, we were inexperienced and clumsy at times.

Hilary Lehman is the managing editor for print at the University of Florida student paper, The Independent Alligator. She’s in the position I described above. And she’s smartly decided to chronicle her experience in a blog in hopes of sharing it with and learning from the other hundreds of college newspaper editors like herself.

Our student media director used to describe what we did as “publishing our homework.” Sometimes, we really were. After we submitted articles to the paper, reporters in some classes would submit them for the professor’s take on the work (often with a much more critical eye than our student editors). But unlike many majors, where the models they produced or papers they turned in were graded and returned without anyone else ever seeing them, we were also doing a job. A highly visible job. Though our “homework” was designed to teach us, it was also a real product that came with real responsibility. When our teammates didn’t hold up their end of an assignment, we didn’t just get a bad grade, we had a hole to fill in the paper. When someone slacked off or turned in a sloppy assignment, it might cost us a correction and some credibility.

Our newspaper switched jobs (well the staff turned over and most people switched jobs) once per semester. Every four months, you had to learn a new job. The benefit was you get to try your hand at a lot of different aspects of journalism. The drawback was you never truly mastered any.

I was the managing editor (no. 2 in charge) of the Kent Stater‘s summer edition as a sophomore, after just two semesters on staff. Fortunately for my own development, I was able to step back after that semester with what I learned and take a few more semesters to work as a reporter and mid-level editor before becoming No. 1 in charge. I started on what I expected to be the least time-consuming job, at the bottom proofing pages, and hit most news reporting/editing roles between. I finished as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, responsible ultimately for more than 100 people. That’s an insane amount of power to give a 20-year-old with one internship and two years in student media.

After I had been at my first real job even just a few months I remember thinking, “My God, why didn’t we think of doing it this way? How come no one told me!” If I knew then what I know now, that paper would have been 10,000 times more organized and productive. But it wasn’t. And that’s OK. The great thing about putting out a college paper is you don’t know and you don’t have to abide by all the rules of the professional news biz. So when I wanted to restructure my top editor positions to give the AME/Web more power, no one was there to say I couldn’t or that’s not how it’s done. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how it should be done. More college papers should exploit that to think outside the box. I wish I had done so more than I did when I had a chance.

The flip-side to that and what you lose with the quick staff turnover, however, is institutional memory. I remember making mistakes that decades of other students had made before me, and I’ve since seen people make mistakes I made. But, to be honest, I learned a lot from those mistakes, and being able to make them on a smaller playing field went a long way in preparing me for my job today.

All that said, as much as I really enjoyed being the editor at my paper, the biggest thing I learned was totally unexpected. I felt like I was too far away from the story, the daily journalism. Maybe it was that we had several layers of editors between the top and the reporters on the ground, but I felt as EIC I spent too much time worrying about keeping photographers within the budget, working with advertising/compo to get enough space for our special packages, and putting out fires among the staff and sometimes the community. That definitely wasn’t why I got into this. Some people might relish the power and prestige, but I missed the journalism. That was a powerful lesson to learn and one I’m glad I learned early on before I was shuttled into management in my career.

My editor today often comments that some day I’ll be in his position. I usually comeback, “God, I hope not.” I admire what he does, but at this point, not only do I not want it, I’d be bad at it. I chose this job and to start where I am because I believe you need a strong foundation. Maybe in a decade, my editor’s position will be exactly where I feel my strengths are suited and where I can make the biggest impact. Today, though I think I did a fair enough job when I was a student editor, I am enjoying my time as a reporter. Yes, I have less power to change the institution, my opinion on what to cover or not cover carries less weight and sometimes I have to accept doing something I’d rather not on the terms of “because I said so” from above. But with my undergrad crash course in newspaper roles behind me, I don’t think an editorship is in my immediate future. I’ll be the first to admit, I have a lot to learn. At 23, I have plenty of time to learn it.

Apologies: back-to-school is draining for education reporters

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

I have successfully completed, err survived, another back-to-school reporting season. My second as the education reporter here in Lafayette.

Normally, I wouldn’t feel the need to share the details of my daily toils at work, except that today I realized I posted three (just three!) entries in all of August. I always feel as if I’m letting my readers down when I go so long. I didn’t even pass along any inspiring quotes last month. But I’m not abandoning you. I’ve just been busy.

To be sure, August was a big month. My corporate owner cut 1,000 jobs, 600 through layoffs. (Only two at my paper, and none in the newsroom.) I attended some great Excel/database training, which when I have some beefier stories to share I’ll talk about. (So far I’ve only really used the skills to analyze proposed budgets, tax rates and SAT scores.) I also attended the wedding of two of my favorite people from j-school, whose wedding is noteworthy aside from the fun because instead of wedding favors they created a scholarship for journalism students. All blog-worthy occurrences.

But they aren’t what kept me, well not entirely, from blogging. Mainly, I was just very busy at my day job. See my first paragraph above.

Back-to-school time is like election season for an education reporter. Every district has its nuances. They all have new policies, new buildings, new teachers/administrators/students, all of which need reported on. Not to mention the typical first day features and the stories on dress codes, school supplies, bus routes, etc. And that was all on top of a very breaking, developing news heavy month on the schools beat.

To be honest, I couldn’t even tell you every story I wrote last week, let alone last month. But trust me it was a lot. In fact, I counted to see if I was just imagining being overwhelmed or if I was truly as busy as I seemed. Turns out I’m not imagining things. By my count, from Aug. 1 through Aug. 31 I had: 40 bylines, 16 taglines and 10 staff reports (beyond briefs). All that in 21 days of work, which was really only 19 if you take out the two I was away at training. (And it doesn’t count the stories I wrote at the end of the week that ran Monday, Tuesday.) So yeah, I earned my paychecks.

Unfortunately, that all meant by the time I got home, I was exhausted. While I kept up on Twitter, somewhat, I didn’t post much here.

I’m hopeful with the school year now well underway in my local districts, things can get back to a more manageable level. At least until the real election season rolls around. Somehow, I doubt that will happen, but a girl can hope?

A perfect example why superintendent searches should be open

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

As a reporter, it’s my nature to want to know more, faster. I do not like to wait for returned calls or e-mails, snail-mail packages or processes to happen.

That last part, that’s probably the most frustrating part of my job especially as it relates to board decisions. Especially when they are major decisions that I feel the public should be able to weigh in on at every step of the process.

Since starting my position as the education reporter in Lafayette, three of my four main public school districts have named new superintendents. All of them used a closed search process that drove me crazy. (The Catholic school system also named a new president, but I’ll give them a closed search since they’re a private entity.)

There was a post recently on Wired Journalists on tips to cover a superintendent search. I posted my advice, which if you care, you can hop over there to read.

What is absolutely most frustrating about these stories was waiting on people to give or leak or otherwise offer information. I had to practically coerce information just to update patrons on the fact that they had received X applications, that they were now to the interviews/finalists phase, that they would be naming someone and when. In one situation, I swear to God, I STILL don’t know how they kept it a secret. Because when I walked into that board room — after finally getting the board to release the name to me about two hours before the late night meeting so I could get it posted and start tracking down background — even the school principals in the back of the room did not yet know who their next leader was going to be. (I’d called many of them to see what if anything they could offer, and ones I know would have told me couldn’t offer any guidance.) I had by process of elimination come to a completely unscientific (but ultimately correct) decision on who it would be.

This invites speculation. In order to arrive at my “unscientific” determination above, I called a lot of wrong numbers. That is, I probably angered a few other superintendents when I called them or their board members to ask about it. Many denied even submitting an application. I’m fine with that. The way I arrived at my correct conclusion, incidentally, was settling on the one person who neither he nor his board members returned my calls.

That brings me to the point I make today. The reason every single board gave for a closed search was to protect the applicants from alienating themselves in their current community. You know what, fine. If you want to casually submit a “what if” application, fine I get that. But personally, I think anyone who agrees to come for an interview — especially if you’re footing the bill for that interview (often over a meal) with tax payer dollars — should be willing to acknowledge at that point they are under serious consideration. Don’t release the whole list. But there is absolutely no reason not to release your finalists.

Do you want to know why you should release your finalists? Here is a picture perfect example from the Indianapolis Star of why an open process serves the community:

Hamilton Southeastern Schools superintendent candidate Donn Kaupke withdrew his candidacy today about an hour before the district was going to publicly announce his candidacy on its Web site.

Kaupke, 71, told the district he didn’t want to be considered after a records search by The Indianapolis Star revealed reports that he had tried to seal public records — a violation of public access laws — and faced a sexual harassment suit during his stint as superintendent at a Florida district.

The district failed to uncover information the newspaper did. The newspaper saved the community the potential problems should this behavior be repeated and even if it weren’t, the embarrassment of this coming to light later.

When you are barely able to get a name hours before a meeting, you can’t do proper searches for those things. And when you do find something in those searches, by the time the question is flagged it’s nearly too late to turn back and save face. Obviously, as that story points out, you should have as many people checking these things as possible:

School Board President Jeff Sturgis said that both the district and the University Team, a group of education experts from the state’s four universities that helped the district find superintendent candidates, conducted a search on Kaupke but never found articles detailing the issues.

“We’re disappointed and surprised by the information that came to us late in the process,” Sturgis said. “We are glad that it did come to our attention before we took action on his contract.”

Finally, aside from the legal issues that might arise, the school board charged with choosing its next leader isn’t just picking the guy who will walk them through the agendas at meetings. They are choosing the visionary who will lead and guide the district and make the difficult decisions that, if not directly then indirectly, impact every child in the community. I understand school board are elected to serve the public will, but I also think this is such an important decision, every parent, tax payer and community member should be able to grill or at least meet the candidates long before someone is signing a contract on the dotted line.

Perhaps I am editorializing about something I shouldn’t. But I had this conversation with every board member during those searches, so my view is hardly a secret. Obviously, it fell on mostly deaf ears. But as this case brings to light, it’s still worth pressing for those names.

Is a database of graduate names really necessary?

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Databases are great tools. They make complex information easy to understand. The proliferation of them on news Web sites is also a positive development. Reporters request, compile and uncover mountains of data doing their jobs. Put the data in the hands of the readers.

There are hundreds of useful databases on news Web sites today. But what’s increasingly sad — almost as sad as the tendency to create and dump unrelated databases without any context into data ghettos — is the increasing tendency to create databases of information that, really, a database isn’t useful in helping to understand. In the worst instances, it really just complicates the information for the sake of saying, “Look at all the databases we’re giving you!”

Let’s check some information a database is good for:

  • Crime statistics that allow me to sort by location, type of crime, etc.? Check.
  • Salary information for publicly paid employees, broken down by job title, salary, department, name, etc.? Check.
  • Property tax assessments that show me how much my — or my neighbors — home has gone up or down? Check.
  • Restaurant health inspection results, especially violations? Check.
  • Summer camps sorted by location, length, type and date? Check.

But does the world really need a database to search the name of high school graduates at a particular school? Apparently, Brevard & Lee Counties in Florida do. Des Moines, Iowa, thinks so, too.

Many papers, including my own, run graduation lists at the end of the year. I don’t personally get anything out of this (and thankfully, though I did penance as an intern in college typing these up for weeks, the data desk handles typing them here). But I see the utility to a community, especially a small one, in being able to see that “Jeff’s daughter graduated,” or “Betsy from church was valedictorian.” Plus, it might be nice as the student to have and clip your graduation list for your scrapbook.

I could even see the paper keeping these lists in an internal database. It could be useful down the road to have the names handy of the graduates of a class if someone goes on to do something famous, or if you want to find students who were under a certain teacher or administrator when that person reaches a milestone or dies. Or if something happens to someone and you want to go back and check they were indeed a graduate of City High School in 2005. I could see that.

I can also see, to some extent, the IndyStar’s database with profiles of valedictorians and salutatorians in the counties it covers. They used some of that information to compile a story that ran last weekend looking at the trends in colleges and majors, etc. of the best of class. It was actually a pretty interesting story, and at least it gives that database context.

What I don’t understand is why you would take something that is most digestible as a simple list and put it into columns and rows? What’s the reason — because you can? Chances are if I have an interest in it — enough that I would actually know the name of the graduate, as each of the databases asks for — I already know he or she graduated. The only purpose I see it serving then is double-checking, such as, “Wasn’t Molly supposed to graduate this year? Uh oh, maybe she didn’t pass Algebra after all.” About the only useful idea I’ve come up with of interest to even a narrow margin of the public is being able to do some type of data analysis to see how common your name is. For example, in Des Moines, there are three pages worth of people graduating with “Smith” as or in their last name.

It just seems there are better uses of your time and resources, other data that would be useful to compile and host. Not only that, but frivolous databases get dumped into those data ghettos, creating an overwhelming list that further waters down the useful ones.

What do you think? Does a graduation list need a database or does it just complicate it? Also, share the most unnecessary use of database you’ve come across. Sadly, I have a feeling this isn’t the silliest.

J&C speller, FTW!

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Spelling bees were not a big thing where I came from. I suppose they’re probably like that in most places. The closest I ever came to caring was when my older sister won our elementary school spelling bee, but she never made it past the local competition.

When I came to Lafayette, however, I began to care about the spelling bee. First, the Journal & Courier sponsors the local bee. Also, I cover education, so it’s a big story for my schools. But the real reason is our spellers usually do well beyond the local competitions. But never before this well:

spelling bee winner leads Indy Star

That’s a screen grab from the front of today’s Indy Star, where Sameer was the lead story. — I’d have grabbed the J&C’s front where he dominated, but someone forgot to post it last night so I can’t. It’s probably cooler he got such prominent play in the state’s largest paper anyway.

Cool side note, he also got a photo mention on the front of the Washington Post! He garnered quite a few other front page photo mentions; in a quick birds-eye scan of Today’s Front Pages:

(Note: After today, those pages will be different.)

Now, I’ve written before about good news stories, and the public’s hunger for them. This is one of those stories.

I did a Q&A earlier this week with Sameer Mishra, the four-time winner of the J&C sponsored spelling bee whose older sister had won it in the years preceding him. This was his fourth and final time heading to the national bee, and he said he just wanted to beat his personal best — 14th place two years ago.

He’s obviously very smart, but beyond that, he’s hard-working. He spent 4-5 hours a night studying words to prepare. Not that other kids didn’t spend as much time, but you have to be dedicated to do that. The world could use more dedicated people.

Everyone was rooting for him around here. Each time he went up to spell, our newsroom gathered around the local desk TV to watch and cross our fingers. It wasn’t that we were the sponsors, it was that this was a local kid on the national stage and he was totally kicking butt. It was exciting. How can you not root for the local?

I monitored and wrote quick updates throughout the day for our Web site, but we had a Gannett reporter in D.C. writing the story itself, so I was hands-off there. When I left last night, I went out to dinner and out to the movies, so I only got to track him through the 10th round. When I got a call while at dinner from the night editor telling me he had won and they needed me to give them his parents cell phone number so the reporter today can call for a follow, I was elated. I mean, I had a huge smile on my face for at least 10 minutes. I was just so happy for him that all his hard-work had paid off. I honestly am not sure I’ve ever been that genuinely and unselfishly happy for someone else before in my life. It felt good.

Sameer wasn’t just a local favorite, he had audiences everywhere cracking up. Earlier in the semifinals, he would crack jokes, like the fact that the word he received was a dessert that “sounds good now” or when he was told one of his words had five languages of origin and he quipped “That’s wonderful.” But the funniest moment was when he — and most people as you can tell by the audience’s laughter — misheard the announcer saying “numbnut” instead of “numnah.” For your belly-laughing pleasure, that moment’s preserved on YouTube:

LOL @ nothired.com

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

If you’re a Twitter follower, you likely already know I discovered a new site about an hour ago.

It made me actually “LOL” several times, so I thought I’d pass along the joy of NotHired.com. Here are a couple of the journalism/writing related postings you may find as amusing as I did:


Here are a few typos from one applicant’s cover letter:

“I also teach an SAT prep course—the students their love me!”

. . .and. . .

“I can speak without thinking and right even better.”

Saving the best for last.

I’ll take “What not to call your potential employers?” for $1,000. Note the last graf:

It reminds me partly of Joe Grimm’s News Recruiter blog (the less formal journalism asides to his Ask the Recruiter column). In particular his Friday postings amuse me.

My two personal favorite lines from cover letters I proofread in college:

• Opening line of a cover letter from a photographer at my college paper in Kent, Ohio, to the Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer: “Greetings from Ohio!”

• In a cover letter from a designer to the Gannett recruiter conducting on-campus interviews: “I want to get with Gannett.”

I’m sure there are others. But those both stick out in my mind as the funniest. Your Turn: What’s the funniest mistake you’ve made or seen?