College papers capitalize on Chick-fil-A spectacle

By Wednesday afternoon, I was so sick of hearing about Chick-fil-A. I was tired about hearing how the CEO made public claims (via social media) about the company’s already well-known stance on homosexuality. I was tired of hearing people rooting for the company. Tired of hearing people bash the company. Just… TIRED.

Media fatigue.

But, as much as I believe this whole charade was nothing more than a PR stunt to increase publicity, I have to give credit to the college newspapers that took this ridiculousness and localized it.

My former paper covered the issue, as well as the Daily Egyptian, SIU Carbondale’s student newspaper. I didn’t look into any other papers, but I don’t doubt that others are doing similar stories as well.

Examples like this show just how easy it is to take national stories and bring them down to the college level. Granted, both campuses have a Chick-fil-A on campus, but my point still stands.

More often than not, there is always a connection between a university an a national issue. And the coverage doesn’t just have to come across through the news section. When the Egyptian uprising was occurring, the Alestle had two international students write guest opinion columns on the issue (here and here).

It’s good to see college journalists going outside of campus and bringing stories back in, rather than waiting for events and controversies to pop up on site.

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BREAKING NEWS: College doesn’t prepare you for the real world

I thought I learned everything I needed to know to land a good first job and start my journalism career off right. I did get a good first job. And I am doing quite a bit of work at my first “big kid” job. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was going to see, not necessarily in my newsroom, but the real world journalism industry as a whole.

The industry drives people away. It turns good journalists into burned out shells of their former selves. And it does so faster than I’d like admit.

It’s sad. There are at least two people I know who are turning away from journalism for that reason. Both of them are looking to get into public relations.

Journalism isn’t what they thought it’d be. It’s not what I thought it would be either. I had these ridiculous fantasies of ethics being commonplace in newsrooms across the country, people working together to make their product the best it can be and everybody loving what they do.

I can see that that’s not true in all cases. And college doesn’t tell you that. The best (or worst) advice anyone ever gets is, “Don’t go into journalism. It’s a dying industry.” The theory is that it’s dying because everything is shifting to a more online/digital focus. But I beg to differ.

I would propose the reason the industry is dying is because the good, ethical, passionate journalists get turned away by the depressing realization that people don’t hold themselves to high enough standards like we all did in college.

It was ingrained in my mind by former editors, fellow editors and professors alike that ethics, honesty and accurate reporting are the most important things. They are. I still believe that. But outside of the collegiate bubble, some people don’t see it that way. Or, if they do, they don’t realize that those qualities have been slowly slipping away.

If not for meeting the group of journalists who attended the SPJ Reporters Institute in July, I fear I might have already started to run away. But I love this business too much. All it takes is one person to try and make a change and pop the collegiate bubble so the  “real world” can get a taste of what it’s been missing out on.

I don’t think I’m that person. I’m probably not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and be that person. I have to. Otherwise, I might end up out of the industry like so many other talented journalists.

Return to Utopia: The resurgence of media ethics

The concept of ethics should not (but sometimes seems to) disappear after being involved in the journalism industry for a number of years. This is one of the most depressing things about the industry I’ve dedicated my life to.

Maybe this is just a naive, recent college grad wishing for the pureness and innocence of her college newsroom, but I don’t care. Everyone bashes the media for its bias, its bad coverage, its favoritism and the list goes on. It seems like a never-ending cycle. But I want to break that cycle, smash it to pieces and run over with a semi-truck for good measure.

Journalists fresh out of college, usually with experience gained from their college paper, are (in my biased opinion) the most pure, most energetic, most ethical of the bunch. They saw how things should be. They know right from wrong, ethically and morally speaking. They are always conscious of it. When something doesn’t seem quite right, they speak up.

Now, this is not to say that veteran reporters have no ethics. I know 99.9 percent of them do. But, as is always the case, it’s that .1 percent that tarnishes the hard work everyone else has accomplished.

I fear that young journalists see the unethical decisions being made, watch as superiors disregard the most basic journalist principles and they run away. They escape to safer place — perhaps public relations or even a non-media related field entirely. This has to stop.

To break the cycle, people have face the problems they see, confront them and correct them — not run away because it’s too much to handle. I want to return to a Utopian newsroom, universally speaking. I’m not running. I hope you’re not either.

The “One Man Band” era of journalism

Know inverted pyramid. Know how to conduct an interview. Know how to take photos. Know how to shoot video. Know how to update the website. Know about search engine optimization. Know this. Know that. Know everything.

That’s what journalism has become. We have to be able to do everything. And there’s nobody to teach us but ourselves.

I had a little bit of experience with shooting and editing video (on a Flipcam), taking photos and managing social media accounts, but not near as much as I should have had to prepare me for what people expect. The recent college grads are expected to know all of the things I mentioned earlier and, in some cases, teach those who hire them to do those things.

It’s a big task. And honestly, it’s not one that I was prepared for, despite knowing that in today’s world everybody has to do everything. I can design. I can write. I can copy edit. I can work with social media. But shooting video? I’m not that great. At all. I shot a few videos for my college paper, but nothing earth shattering. Taking photos? Same thing.

So to make up for my lack of attention to these areas of journalism, my mission is teach myself. Granted, I should have done this a couple years ago, but I was more concerned with improving my writing.

But anyway, even if what I work on isn’t for publication, if it’s just for my own experience, it’s better than nothing. It at least shows I’m making an effort and that I want to improve in every facet of journalism, not just my specialty.

I’m a journalist. I’m not supposed to have an opinion.

*Blogger’s note: This blog is mostly about journalism, but this specific post is going to take somewhat of a detour into the wonderful, crazy, obnoxious world of independent wrestling. So, please bear with me.

Before I start going on and on about indy wrestling, let me preface this by saying that from my sophomore/junior year of high school through my first year at college I wrote for a professional wrestling website/blog focused on the independent wrestling scene in the Midwest.

It was amazing. I got to interview local wrestlers and write recaps/reviews of local shows. Needless to say, as a 15 (or 16, I can’t quite remember) year old wrestling fan, being exposed to the world of independent wrestling — and being able to write about that world — was pretty much a dream come true.

I stopped writing for the site when I got promoted to Opinion Editor at my college paper, but I didn’t stop following local wrestling. For better or worse, I was hooked. The two companies I follow the most (partly because of proximity and partly because they are two of the best in the STL area, in my completely biased opinion) are Dynamo Pro Wrestling and St. Louis Anarchy.

Last night, SLA put on its biggest show of the year in Circus Maximus. It was, for lack of a better word, awesome. Every match had the crowd going and there were a couple standing ovations. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a crowd like that at a local show. Usually, it’s like pulling teeth getting the fans involved. Now, I really can’t complain about that aspect because I barely clap for the guys I like, let alone stand up yelling and screaming.

But anyway, back to what I think the point of this post was… when I was writing for the wrestling site, I did my best to keep as objective of an approach to my writing as I could. I wrote what happened, didn’t insert opinion into show recaps or interviews and generally tried to stay clear of all the political b.s. that comes with wrestling. Now that I’m technically not “involved” in the “business” anymore, I feel a little more comfortable giving my opinions.

Sure, people could probably tell by how I described a match or what shows I typically covered which guys I liked and respected and which companies I preferred to watch. But if that happened, it was never my intention. Keeping an unbiased outlook on things is so important, not just for wrestling, but in any aspect of anything, especially (shocker!) journalism.

By keeping that outlook, I think it makes people respect what you’re doing a lot more — even when the subjects you’re covering ask for your opinion. And when you’re out of the profession/business/etc. they look to you for advice or feedback. That hasn’t really happened to me, and I don’t expect it to, (It’s not like my opinion means that much to a bunch of wrestlers and promoters, right?), but the possibility is there.

So, with that said, I guess the point of this whole post is just that it’s important to remain as objective as you possibly can (duh), especially when sources ask for your personal opinion on topics you’re covering. I don’t like giving my opinion. I’d rather just write a good story that people can appreciate and leave it at that.

But some people either love the adoration or honestly want to know what you thought because they value and respect your opinion. Regardless, until you’re out of the journalistic realm, my theory is that it’s best to say as little as possible for fear of even the slightest appearance of bias in your coverage.

Headline writing: Not just a copy editor’s task

I’m terrible at writing headlines. I love a good pun and alliteration is one of my favorite literary gems. I know those things are frowned upon in journalism. But I tend to use them in headlines anyway. It never hurts to try, right?

Even when I was a college reporter, I wrote headlines. Did they always get used? No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean I should have stopped writing them. Because there’s always that one headline that you get right.

For all the crappy headlines in the world, anybody can write one, good, provocative (or witty) headline. It just takes time. And a lot, a lot, a lot of practice.

One of things I remember the most from staff meetings when I was a new reporter at my college paper is that editors would say to come up with a headline. Maybe they’d use it. Maybe not. But even if they didn’t use it, it could help get ideas flowing for what they think the headline should be.

Plus, one of the benefits of writing your own headline is that it can help you focus your story. If you can’t come up with even a crappy headline that explains what is happening in your story or what the angle is, then you either need to think harder about the headline or write the story from a different angle.

You’ll never know if you’re good at writing headlines if you never try. Very few people are good at it. I’m not. My former editors weren’t always the best. Editors at major papers across the country may not even have a knack for it. But to just refuse to write headlines because you don’t think you can is ridiculous. Like Nike says, just do it.

So, with that said, I present to you three of my favorite headlines from the Alestle, only one of which I actually wrote:

‘A drop in the bucket’ — This story was about a nursing alumna from SIUE who was in Haiti volunteering. This is one of the rare occasions wherea quote headline can actually make a good impact on the reader — and the story.

Heroes helping half shells —It’s not often you get to write about turtles. But I had the opportunity, and, in my completely biased opinion, I think this headline was one of the best the editors came up with. Giving a nod to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then-EIC Aren Dow came up with this gem on deadline. Playing on pop culture references isn’t always a good idea, but in this case, I think it worked out great. Cowabunga, dude!

Blagojevich ringtones cross the (expletive) line — This is one of the few headlines I came up with and that I’m actually proud of. Anyone who has heard anything about the drama surrounding former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich can understand and appreciate this. And working for a paper in Illinois, that’s exactly what I was going for.

Appreciation is the world’s greatest journalism award

Last week, I had the chance to interview some of the members of the St. Louis-based Pink Floyd tribute band, El Monstero. I went out to their rehearsal space, talked to the backup singers, lead singer, keyboardists, etc. The interviews were a lot of fun to do, and I loved writing the story.

But what is even more exciting than being pumped about a story you’re working on is when the people you are interviewing are just as excited. Or maybe the better word here is appreciative. But either way, it’s little things like that that make this ridiculous world of journalism meaningful.

A couple days after the story was posted, I got an email from the person who helped me set up the interviews. It was a forwarded message from one of the guys in the band:

Getting that email made my day. It’s so rare that people you write about tell you how much they appreciate what you’re doing. So rare, in fact, that I can only specifically remember one other time this happened. And that was about two years ago.

Very few people realize how much work journalists put into what they do and how little reward they get — unless they are involved in the industry themselves or related to someone who is. For people to go out of their way to get a message to you that they liked what you wrote is one of the best rewards a journalist could ask for. I think that says more than any award you can hang in your office.

Yeah, awards from fellow journalists are nice. Awesome, actually. Everybody wants them. But I’d take printing out a nice, unexpected email to tack on the wall behind my desk over a shiny plaque any day.

Press releases are NOT journalism

Press releases should GENERATE story IDEAS. They should not be stories themselves. Or even part of a story.

That’s why it surprised me that a poll on a recent Poynter. story about a Kansas City Star reporter being fired for using press releases in his columns had more than 50 percent of (presumably) journalists saying it’s okay to use press releases as long as they’re attributed (as of July 5).

Um… WHAT?

Running press releases is my least favorite part about journalism. Why? Because it’s NOT. JOURNALISM. Running press releases lets someone else — who was not properly trained in the journalism industry — fill precious space that, in most cases, could be filled with original, better work from staff reporters, freelancers, editors, etc.

Though readers don’t see it, it makes the paper look lazy (which, by the way, was my vote on the Poynter. poll). Printing press releases as if they are original news deceives (perhaps, unintentionally) the reader into believing they are getting quality, original news when, in fact, a dozen other media outlets in the area could be running the same story. Word for word.

Plus, what good does it do for a newspaper or website to have large portions of its space/webpage devoted to information that can be found anywhere?

I come from a strict no-press release background. I just wish the rest of the real world held to that policy as much as my college paper and its adviser did.

Feature writing: Why telling someone’s story is better than any FOIA request

Nothing. Not schemes. Not FOIA requests. Not breaking a story. Nothing compares to the love I have for feature writing.

Do I get excited when breaking news occurs? Hell yeah. What journalist wouldn’t? Do I love being the first to tell an important story that impacts an entire community? Um… Yeah. I do. Do I love asking the tough questions and providing readers with important information that can affect their daily lives? Abso-frackin’-lutely.

But I love feature writing more. I love the description. The ability to tell someone’s story. Taking a walk in someone else’s shoes. (Please, ignore the terrible use of a cliche. I am trying to make a point.) Bringing other peoples successes and failures to life with a few questions and some creative thinking. I love it. I love it so much.

Even though you keep your distance and remain impartial, becoming a part of someone’s life just long enough to tell their story requires a great amount of trust between yourself and the subject. It’s a big deal. And some could argue that getting someone to open up about their personal life is much more of a challenge than tracking down a corrupt government official. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But some might.

One example that comes to mind is a two-part series I wrote for The Alestle about a student (a speech communication major) who uses a wheelchair getting handicap buttons installed outside of the speech comm department offices. At first, it seemed like a pretty straightforward news story. But this girl was willing to talk about anything and everything. She let me into her world and allowed me to see things from her perspective.

In fact, I ended up finding out that we attended school in the same district (different high schools) before going to SIUE. And, I gave her a ride back to campus the weekend I was working on the story. During that time we did the interview. She didn’t have to go on and on like she did, making the interview take up almost the entire 45-minute drive from St. Louis to Edwardsville. But she did. She told story after story, without much asking, and allowed me to create one of the favorite stories I’ve ever written.

It wasn’t just about her making a change on campus. It was about her life. Her accomplishments. It was her life’s story. And I loved being the one to tell it.

You just don’t get the same satisfaction from a well-written news story that perfectly uses inverted pyramid as you do from crafting the words that reveal someone’s life to the world. There’s nothing like it.

Disappearing ethics a common occurence

It breaks a journalist’s heart to read about plagiarism, fabricating sources and stories and being generally unethical in the industry — regardless of how far back into your journalistic history those events fall. That’s why I could barely even generate a response other than, “WHAT?!” to a recent column on the Monroe News, where a reporter confessed to creating scenarios for stories, doing interviews for game stories BEFORE the game occurred with “we won” quotes and “we lost” quotes. Not to mention creating direct quotes from memory.

First of all, I can’t even imagine how someone could allow themselves to do any of those things, let alone write a column about it. I can’t think of a single thing a person could gain from exposing the unethical behavior of their past. There is nothing good that can come from his column, as far as I’m concerned.

You would think that most journalists have enough common sense not to do that kind of stuff. But then again, here’s an established journalist writing about his ethical blunders. Not to mention Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair.

This reporter has pretty much ruined any credibility he had and now sources, editors and future employers have a very real right to worry about the accuracy of his stories. I know I would.

Since the headline is “Journalists: Don’t do this,” maybe he wasn’t just talking about the complete and utter disregard he had for ethics. Maybe he was talking about writing the column too.

But, things like this are just one of the depressing and discouraging thing about this industry I’ve grown to love. From the moment we start out as cub reporters, we have the concepts of ethics and morals ground into our brains. But somewhere along the way, for some people at least, it seems to disappear. And that’s a damn shame.