The power of writers as activists

The incredible Taylor Lewis reflects on the power of writers as activists, her experiences teaching abroad in France, going to grad school in Hawaii, and the current political climate in a recent article in The Writers’ Bloc.

Back in 2011, at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland, Taylor had the great idea to start up a literary-arts newspaper on campus — what eventually became The Writers’ Bloc. The University of Maryland had niche newspapers, but nothing like this.

I was grateful to be included in starting the paper, becoming its Editor-in-Chief years later, and am so proud of what it has grown into.

“Since then, it has evolved in ways I could have never imagined,” Taylor writes. “From Writers’ to Writer’s; from a focus solely on arts and writing to music and blogs and activism. The staff has grown exponentially from the few of us who started it, and though I haven’t met many of them, every new generation carries on the legacy, making it bigger and better.”

Taylor is absolutely right when she says, “We do not take kindly to walls.” We as writers, we as creatives, we as thinkers, dreamers, artists, we as immigrants, we as people of color, we as LGBTQ/queer people, we as disabled people, we as indigenous people/Native Americans, we as people.

We don’t take kindly to being walled up, walled off, with borders or bans — everything happening now we are actively fighting and speaking up against. And The Writers’ Bloc has always and seems to continue to offer an important space for these writers and artists.

Taylor leaves us with insight into another language; apt since she is studying second-language acquisition.

Hawaiʻi Loa, kū like kākou
Kū paʻa me ka lōkahi e
Kū kala me ka wiwo ʻole
ʻOnipaʻa kākou, ‘onipaʻa kākou
A lanakila nā kini e
E ola, e ola e ola nā kini e

All Hawaiʻi stands together, it is now and forever
To raise your voices, and hold your banners high
We shall stand as a nation
To guide the destinies of our generations
To sing and praise the glories of our land

Thank you, The Writers’ Bloc staff, for continuing this legacy of sharing your voices. This is so necessary. And thank you, Taylor, for dreaming up that idea all those years ago in the midst of overflowing undergraduate schedules. What a dream — and what a newspaper it has become.

Taking back tech

This is a really interesting piece by Melody Kramer about how journalists can create and control technology, instead of being controlled by tech. Kramer interviewed Dave Winer, a software developer who has worked on blogging, podcasting and content management systems — such as an open-source version of Medium, a blogging platform.

Journalism students should learn how to set up Web servers and blogging systems.

Learning how to run servers and CMS encourages creative thinking, Winer said. “And it’s a gateway drug for coding,” he said.
Winer encouraged journalism students and journalists to use their own servers and CMS, instead of sites like Medium. Medium, and other apps and sites we rely heavily on now for social media and distribution could very easily disappear in a few years or longer down the road. What does this mean for all of the stories that are being shared on Medium (and those other sites)? Will there be an archive for people of the future? Will these stories disappear? Winer discussed the importance of records for the sake of knowledge on an example post for his open-source version of Medium.

“Will the Big Think piece you just posted to Medium be there in 2035? That may sound like it’s very far off in the future, and who could possibly care, but if there’s any value to your writing, you should care.

It’s no longer just a theory that platforms like Medium or Twitter or even Facebook do go away. I wouldn’t trust the longevity of anything you post on those sites.”

Representation in journalism

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article yesterday asking why there aren’t more minority journalists in newsrooms. Alex Williams, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, studies trends in journalism.

While the Commission called for an increased emphasis on better housing, education, and social service policies, some of its strongest criticism was directed toward mainstream media. “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” they wrote in 1968. “Fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes.”

How much have things improved? According to the 2014 American Society of News Editors (ASNE) census, the number of black newsroom employees has increased from “fewer than 5 percent” to … 4.78 percent. The Radio Television Digital News Association estimates that in 2014, minorities made up 13 percent of journalists in radio and 22.4 percent of journalists in television. Still, these figures are a far cry from the 37.4 percent of Americans that are minorities.

Williams called for hiring managers and editors to make a better effort of finding and hiring more diverse candidates in the hiring process. He referenced Executive Editor of News at BuzzFeed News Shani O. Hilton’s post on Medium, where she explained that building diverse newsrooms takes work. She called it “the Twice as Hard Half as Good Paradox,” where people “are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement.”

1) Everyone starts with their networks. But maybe your network isn’t sufficient. If all you’re turning up is white dudes, that’s a feature, not a bug, in the system. It seems obvious, but sometimes the pipeline is the problem. Look at the sources of your references, beyond your friends and immediate colleagues, and evaluate whether you’ve done all you can to make sure you’re considering a wider variety of backgrounds than, say, white guys from different parts of the country.

2) Sometimes you don’t know who the best possible candidate is until you’ve met them. People who are defensive about their hiring choices often say something like, “We’re hiring the best candidate for the job.” But sometimes the best of all possible hires is someone who didn’t seem obvious on paper, and then brings something more to the organization — not just the job.

3) Sometimes you have to put your pride aside. Maybe the job as conceived isn’t what the job should be. Maybe the requirements for it are biased in ways you don’t realize. Things change so fast — that’s the beauty of the web — and sometimes your applicant pool can illuminate the flaws in what you’re looking for. And when it comes to inexperienced candidates, take the time to be more thoughtful about who you’re giving a chance to.

The rewards are worthwhile, Williams said, citing the opportunity to attract additional readers and that minorities may be more interested in local news than caucasians.

How to make good radio

Last night I attended The Kalb Report at the National Press Club. Five NPR reporters and anchors focused on the sound of news. Steve Inskeep, Mara Liasson, Scott Simon, Susan Stamberg and Nina Totenberg discussed how NPR started making great radio in the 1970s and continues to do so today.

Here are tidbits straight from the mouths of NPR reporters and Marvin Kalb:

You are supposed to describe things in terms that make sense to a truck driver, without insulting the intelligence of a professor.

—Marvin Kalb, quoting Edward R. Murrow

Kalb said radio is about painting pictures for listeners. And NPR does this extremely well.

The best pictures are painted in the mind. Radio is the perfect, intimate medium. Tell a narrative and paint a picture.

—Nina Totenberg

Simon said listeners tune out when radio announcers use big, booming voices which are clearly a gimmick. So NPR reporters and anchors use their own voices.

The person who invented All Things Considered, and hired me to be that first woman anchor, said to me, “Be yourself.” And those were the most magic words anyone could have said. We want to sound conversational. We want to sound as if we’re over the back fence, talking to our neighbors.

—Susan Stamberg

NPR reporters create distinctive audio and stories with the freedom they are given.

NPR wants us to tell stories in our own voice. We have tremendous freedom. We have a lot more time than most people do on other radio networks, which is really liberating. When you have four and a half minutes instead of 90 seconds it makes a big difference. You can let people tell their own stories and you can use sound creatively.

—Mara Liasson

NPR is different than other radio news. It is public radio, not commercial. It doesn’t have as many advertisements as other stations. It relies more on funds through its own audience. This is why NPR offers such factual reporting and stories, the reporters said.

Creating good audio first comes from a story. You have to be there, you have to witness and describe, Inskeep said. He likes being in the studio and anchoring, but he knows that getting out of the studio might be even more important to bring context to listeners.

I wanted to be able to leave the studio, to get out. It’s a great opportunity to come back to the studio and conduct interviews and feel that you have a little more of a chance to sense what the story really is because you’ve seen it.

—Steve Inskeep

Even with the advent of digital tools, online news and social media, which are creating a major shift in journalism, these reporters feel radio still has and will continue to have a place.

Radio is a unique medium. People often listen to radio while doing something else, while driving, or commuting, or exercising, or cooking dinner. Radio and audio has managed to “go viral” in an age of cat videos, gifs and emoji. NPR One is a news version of Pandora, Inskeep said. And podcasts are an increasingly popular way to listen to stories.

The NPR reporters at last night’s The Kalb Report said the key to continue to make great radio, and great journalism, is to remain curious.

Photo by flickr user Alyson Hurt

My 10-week Phoenix adventure


Tomorrow I will begin working at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University for a 10-week fellowship through the News21 Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

This year, News21 reporters are focusing on gun laws in the nation. We are reporting on the diversity of gun laws and cultures in America. I will be producing articles, interactive graphics, data journalism and blog posts for the fellowship.

I flew into Phoenix early Saturday. The heat is the first thing I noticed. One-hundred-plus-degree  days are typical here. And while it is what everyone describing Phoenix calls a “dry heat,” instead of the incredible humidity back home in Maryland and D.C., it is punishing. The next is the lack of grass. It is a desert, after all. I’m looking forward to continuing to report for News21 as well as exploring the area, taking hikes, swimming in the apartment pool, taking trips on the light rail (the city’s version of the Metro, except it is all above-ground) and getting to know my talented peers.

Check back for updates on News21, interactive graphics and articles I produce for the program and my adventures in Phoenix.

Graduating from the University of Maryland

It’s one of those nights. The moon is far and small in a brisk December sky. I’m in bed, not sleeping, but thinking about tomorrow.

Tomorrow I’m graduating from the University of Maryland. Finally I can say those words: I’m a graduate, an alum of the university.

Tomorrow the next part of my journalism adventure begins. Even though I haven’t yet found a full-time job in journalism, I remain vigilant. Just like the countless scholarship and internship applications I submitted over the years, I believe I will eventually be chosen by continuously applying. I’ve learned that persistence pays off.

I’m excited for this journey. I have gained invaluable insight from student journalism and many internships. I have spent time as an editor-in-chief, reporter, web designer, social media manager and copy editor. These experiences have shown me that I’m most fulfilled and challenged when writing features and working on interactive design. The details in feature stories provide clearer pictures of sources, of people. And designing interactive maps, charts and graphics helps readers more easily understand data and stories. I am happy when I can help myself and readers understand.

At the end of high school, I wrote a senior column as the editor-in-chief of The Warrior student newspaper. It was my chance to say goodbye to high school, reflect and gaze into the future. In my column, I asked readers not to forget me. It was my readers who made me something, who I would disappear without. I was exploring the mantra “to be remembered, leave your mark.”

Now, four and a half years later, I’m penning a new column and message. I realize how much more I am in charge of my future. I’m graduating with extensive skills and a dogged determination.

I’m entering the professional world of journalism at a time when the very idea of who is a journalist and if newspapers will survive is questioned. Media is undergoing an ongoing digital revolution. And I’m excited to be part of the future of news.

This next year will probably hold some of the hardest, most trying moments in my life. I’m moving back home for the time being until I find a steady income. I’m searching for and will hopefully find a full-time job. I will be an entry-level journalist. I will have to begin paying back my student loans. I will make mistakes — and I will grow.

I will certainly learn a lot as a graduate . Much more than I did in j-school. This is one of the reasons I’m so fulfilled with a career in journalism — I learn something new every day.

I’m on the cusp of being a reporter or interactive/web designer at a media organization in the D.C. area. The electricity of the unknown and a new beginning is humming within me.

I am ready.

Striving for recognition, asking not to be invisible

The story of an undocumented citizen

By Marlena Chertock

Vargas writes about being an undocumented immigrant living in America, and the countless others who are as well. Photo courtesy of TIME Magazine.

First published in The Writers’ Bloc.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, came out of the closet when he was in high school. But it’s taken him 12 years to come out of the “illegal” closet.

In 2011 Vargas wrote a story about his status as an undocumented Filipino living in America for The New York Times Magazine. Vargas is an accomplished journalist. He’s been published in the Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He was also on the Washington Post team that produced Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Virginia tech shooting.

He talked about his path to founding Define American and the struggles of living as undocumented in America in Hoff Theater at the University of Maryland Tuesday night.

In a lot of ways, Vargas’ story is about searching for home. He left the Philippines in 1993 when his mother sent him to America in the hopes that he would have a better life.

Continue reading Striving for recognition, asking not to be invisible

Editor for News & Observer encourages writing with authority

By Marlena Chertock

May 4, 2011

Steve Riley is an editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He manages a team of investigative journalists. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Steve Riley, an editor for the News & Observer in Raleigh, pushes reporters to write with authority. Riley manages a team of three investigative journalists and spoke to communications students at Elon University on May 4.

“Be very assertive, very confident in what you present,” said Riley, who has been in the newspaper business for 31 years. “A fair picture. But not necessarily a balanced picture.”

Continue reading Editor for News & Observer encourages writing with authority

Learning from the greats: Reaction to Chapter 9 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 9: The Classics

APRIL 15, 2011

To be a reporter, to be a good reporter, one has to have a passion for the craft of writing. Reporters must have a passion for journalism.

Journalism is often a quest for social reform. Good reporters whose writing is powerful report on injustice, corruption, social issues and issues that need reform. It’s important for journalists to be the watchdogs of social reform, to alert the public to issues that require reform. They shouldn’t be afraid to write for social change, social reform. Reporters educate the public. And a public that is not aware of these issues, that is left in the dark is an uninformed and endangered public — it’s more possible for a public to be controlled and manipulated when they aren’t aware.

Reporters should “go beneath the actual events to explore their meaning,” Clark and Scanlan said.

There have been and still are untold stories in America and people whose voices are stifled. So reporters must report on these stories and offer a voice for these people. “The great writer struggles out of the cocoon of self-censorship and self-doubt to fly to a place where difficult truths can be examined, expressed and exposed to the light of day,” the editors said.

Good reporters must be aware of the political and cultural effects of new media, the Internet and other forms of media. This helps them know the impact and influence they’ll have on others, on the public. Reporters should also be aware of the capability of organizations, politicians and others to control the media and influence and manipulate the public. Being aware of this potential power will help guide media professionals in their work, life and ethical decisions.

Journalists have a role to be a social and media critic, according to Clark and Scanlan. They must be critical of the media, their own work and others. This ties into the watchdog role of journalists, to watch out for government and business corruption and other social issues. Journalists need to educate citizens and influence a culture of media literacy and critical thinking.

This questioning and critical thinking keeps people free, empowered and protected from tyranny and corruption, Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters have a powerful role, they should embrace it and acquire a powerful voice. The reporters included in this chapter on classic reporting, stories that were classic, had powerful writing voices.

Voice and powerful writing comes from determined, strong reporting. Reporters should observe, gather details, direct experiences and reactions of people and include those in their stories. Reporters should describe scenes and events and people’s emotions so readers can connect to the story. Clark and Scanlan said reporting should include honest emotion.

Get out of the office and on the street. You’ll find an interesting story. So go tell it.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Writers practice writing and revising for years, working to improve. Reporters must work to improve their reporting, interviewing, inclusion of details, writing and voice. Start by imitating other great writers and their writing style. Read a lot of great writing. As one of the writing greats listed in the chapter, Red Smith, said: “Your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.”

Top 5 list of classic journalism stories:

1. Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility, The Washington Post

Dana Priest and Anne Hull

These reporters write several articles about the failings of the army hospital, Walter Reed. They focus on specific people who are affected by the bureaucracy, neglect and lack of doctors at the hospital — the returning soldiers.

The average stay in the hospital is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years, they write. Their word choice, description and depiction of the hospital work to show the damning evidence against it, as Clark and Scanlan described in the chapter.

Priest and Hull include specific details about the hospital, rooms, people, even bathrooms in their articles.

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

They include sensory details,  to ensure readers can smell, hear, see, taste and touch the hospital, its age and neglect.

The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out.

Duncan and other soldiers recover in Building 18 of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The reporters said it was “not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss.”

Priest and Hull report to show the need for reform in the hospital, to show a social issue. They find soldiers who want to speak out about the issue, people who are upset, tired, in need of help and angry.

Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, an amputee, lived at Walter Reed for 16 months. “We don’t know what to do,” he said. “The people who are supposed to know don’t have the answers. It’s a nonstop process of stalling.”

2. Two Worlds Paired by War, The New York Times

C.J. Chivers

Chivers writes with a strong voice. When reading, you feel as if you start to know him. He often inserts himself into the writing, into the article, but remains objective. He is showing the human side of war and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He is writing to connect people across seas, from different cultures (American and Afghanistan, both engaged in war).

Just when you thought you had figured something out, you were proved wrong. You always risked missing the most important moments, because you were looking for something else.

He writes very descriptively, describing the Afghan landscape and people around him.

When a porter asks him where he’s from, and Chivers answers New York, an interesting moment happens and Chivers describes it with incredible detail.

When he spoke again it was in the slow diction of a man on an excursion into an unfamiliar language, but who wanted to be heard. He nodded, deep enough to be a bow, before raising both hands to eye level and letting them flutter to his waist.

The meaning was obvious, even high in mountains in a distant corner of the earth. Towers falling down.

“New York,” the Afghan porter said. “Very sorry us.”

He uses powerful structure to get across the theme of war happening in both countries, affecting many people in different ways.

New York and Afghanistan, paired worlds of rubble, work and grief.

Chivers uses a unique way to structure his writing, quotes and descriptions — he writes specifically about newspaper, radio and television stories about the war. This gives the article a strange feeling and context. He often writes about a notebook (a reporter’s notebook) with notes, but how no single scene can capture the devastation in New York and Afghanistan.

New York. A tremendous platinum-and-gold flash where the jet disappeared into the tower, and then the explosion’s roar and screams from a crowd breaking into a run. Mothers on a stairwell in the smoky Trinity Church day care center, cradling children and getting ready to step outside, unaware that the remaining tower was about to go. An old woman in a wheelchair being pushed down Greenwich Street, visible one moment and lost the next as another stampede began and the second wave of stinging dust swooshed through. A fire chief limping as he escorted out the bagged remains of one of his battalion’s dead. A National Guard captain walking by flashlight through the lightless World Trade Center basement, his beam briefly illuminating the face of the Bugs Bunny doll at the ruined Warner Brothers store.

Afghanistan. A teenager tossing a grenade into a brown river — ga-loomph, a geyser of spray — and then wading in to look for stunned fish. A haze of dust at sunset as the Northern Alliance infantry moved from Bangi to Khanabad, the restless soldiers hoping to claim the city in time to break the Ramadan fast. Two Taliban soldiers on their backs in the Kunduz bazaar, the dime-sized bullet holes in their foreheads showing the manner of execution hours before. A 10-year-old boy whose home was destroyed by American bombs describing pain in two limbs he no longer had.

3. A People of the Sea

Katrina took away Coast Vietnamese’s life, work, Sun Herald

Joshua Norman

Norman uses a literary technique from creative writers in the beginning and end of his article on Hurricane Katrina. He tells a mythical story that he was apparently told by a Viatnamese person.

A Vietnamese folk legend says in ancient times, the sea dragon Lac Long Quan married the mountain fairy Au Co and she gave birth to 100 children. Half of the children went with their mother back to the mountains, and half stayed to live off the sea.

From these 100 children came the Vietnamese people.

The 50 children who stayed with their father became fishermen. Thus those who make their living off the sea have an honored status in Vietnamese society.

But he then goes dramatically into the article. “The sea rose and took away much from the Vietnamese community along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina,” he wrote. The folk legend now becomes grim and sinister. But it remains a strong motif in the piece.

Norman brings the folk legend back, and a sense of hope and not only desperation, to end the story.

South Mississippi’s pleasant climate and ties to the sea are what keep many Vietnamese here. While the sea took so much away, many said there is much that it can give back and that is their hope for the future.

4. GOP Security Aide Among Five Arrested in Bugging Affair, The Washington Post

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This is one of the first in a series of articles by the famous duo of reporters — Woodward and Bernstein. They reported on the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Woodward and Bernstein reported for hours, calling countless people for information and to track down names and money, going to people’s houses to interview and researching in the library.

They stuck with the clear, simple and direct news writing style. It is extremely effective and necessary for a story like this.

Their lead exemplifies the direct style. But it also shows that news writing’s clarity quickly shows fault and the facts to readers.

One of the five men arrested early Saturday in the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters is the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s reelection committee.

The suspect, former CIA employee James W. McCord Jr., 53, also holds a separate contract to provide security services to the Republican National Committee, GOP national chairman Bob Dole said yesterday.

The reporters included numerous sources, quotes and information. They were sifting out the meaning behind the events, as Clark and Scanlan said, and what had actually occurred.

It is evident in their writing that they contacted several sources, or at least tried to. When people refused to comment, they wrote that, adding credibility and accountability of journalists to track down leads and ask questions.

Police sources said last night that they were seeking a sixth man in connection with the attempted bugging. The sources would give no other details.

“We’re baffled at this point . . . the mystery deepens,” a high Democratic party source said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien said the “bugging incident . . . raised the ugliest questions about the integrity of the political process that I have encountered in a quarter century.

“No mere statement of innocence by Mr. Nixon’s campaign manager will dispel these questions.”

The Democratic presidential candidates were not available for comment yesterday.

5. Ten Days in a Madhouse, The New York World

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly’s investigation into the mental institutions of New York were a breakthrough in the social reform of the institution. She investigated and wrote about Blackwell Island Insane Asylum.

Her articles prompted a critical look at the mental institutions and how mentally ill people were treated.

She writes in a first-hand account, which brings the harsh and unjust treatment of the patients out more. She allowed herself to be admitted to one of the asylums for the insane in order to witness for herself and be able to write about her own real, disturbing experiences in the institution.

Bly writes with conviction and an authority in her voice. Her writing holds a reader’s attention.

On the 22d of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a “chiel amang ’em takin’ notes?” I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.

Bly includes details that only she could uncover, since she was going undercover in the asylum. She also includes several scenes with doctors, nurses, police officers and quotes from them as well as other women in the asylum.

I was to chronicle faithfully the experiences I underwent, and when once within the walls of the asylum to find out and describe its inside workings, which are always, so effectually hidden by white-capped nurses, as well as by bolts and bars, from the knowledge of the public.

Bly was writing for social reform of the mental institutions. They were often mismanaged, kept people for long amounts of time and mistreated patients. She writes with clarity and great descriptions. And she inserts her thoughts of the system and life of the mentally insane in these institutions.

I shuddered to think how completely the insane were in the power of their keepers.