Lessons abound in The Daily Northwestern’s coverage of Jeff Sessions, protesting students

Gallons of ink, mostly cyber-based, have already been spilled. More will surely flow.

This is in the wake of recent events on the campus of my alma mater, Northwestern University—events set in motion by an on-campus speech last week by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to a group of Republican students.

From what I have gathered, The Daily Northwestern did a solid job reporting on his talk, as well as the protest of his presence on campus and general role in the Trump administration.

Then, editorial back-pedaling ensued, in the face of some students who expressed upset over certain elements of The Daily coverage—including its posting of protest photos on at least one of its social-media platforms.

On Tuesday, Charles Whitaker, Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, issued a statement that addresses myriad tentacles spawned by this saga. His observations are spot-on, and if you read nothing else about this entire chain of events, I urge you to read it here.

Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications Dean Charles Whitaker.

One especially important excerpt from Dean Whitaker:

“And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.”

Those words–in particular, “stay the course”–helped spur on the latest financial contribution from my household to The Daily Northwestern. The 138-year-old publication is where, as a sports reporter, columnist and editor, I enjoyed some of my best and most formative collegiate experiences. (And truth be told, it was my wife, also a Wildcat alum, who was the driving force behind the donation; after reading Whitaker’s statement, she couldn’t find the “Donate” button on The Daily Northwestern site fast enough.)

Some other initial reactions and reflections:

  1. Through each mundane story, energizing scoop, sloppy mistake, heart-wrenching encounter, and so many impossible-to-categorize pieces that I have written, here is a lesson that seeped gradually, inexorably into my soul: being a good journalist is a courageous, vulnerable, noble, messy pursuit.

2. Perfection is impossible, and excellence is not only elusive, but in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, how someone responds to a story frequently reveals much more about them than any strengths or flaws in the story itself. To wit: this entire Sessions coverage fall-out.

3. Good, old-fashioned reporting on difficult subjects has always been met with fierce resistance and come under assault. Some of my best and most important work has also been among my most reviled reporting—by a few vocal, and heavily vested, individuals. It’s human nature, after all, to try to deflect, or eclipse entirely, light that is unflattering or worse.

4. When compared with my primary time as a journalist (1984-2006), what is so dramatically different now: the weaponizing of social media. As Dean Whitaker so aptly describes it in his statement—the “brutal onslaught of venom and hostility.”

At times, journalists are the targets of that vitriol. More than ever, it is essential to develop thick skin and recognize that taking heat comes with the territory. In fact, and in my experience, it is often an indication that we are on the right track.

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Oak Leaves’ Real Estate Roundup Steers Clear of Exploring `Why’ of Slumping Sales Locally

What? Who? When? Where? Why? How?

In simple terms, those questions drive story-telling. Beyond the “what?”–which obviously covers a lot of essential ground–the most vital question to answer is “why?” Tackling the “why” of something that has happened or is happening requires expertise and insight and nuance and, yes, even sticking out your neck with speculation.

It’s a high-risk, yet also high-return query to address. And the risk is lessened when you solicit input from people with the right qualifications to roam into rumination territory.

On the other hand, leave out the “why?” and you may have a story, but you almost certainly lack oomph and impact. OK, thanks for telling us what we already could have found out ourselves–just the facts, ma’am.

With all that as preamble, it was a disappointment to see the Oak Leaves this week swing and miss, right out of the gate, on a story on local real estate sales being downright  desultory. The piece was largely a recitation of statistics with Realtors offering quotes that didn’t advance the story but simply re-hashed the numbers.

This was epitomized by the piece’s opening paraphrasing of a Realtor. This individual, magically given the authority to speak for all her professional peers, indicated that Realtors “don’t really know what’s causing slower sales this year.”

“It is an anomaly for us this year,” the Realtor is quoted as saying. “We’re used to very robust sales, I don’t know why it’s different this year.”

Sure enough, in a literal sense, these professionals don’t “know” with any absolute precision. But there are plenty of top Realtors on the front lines who collectively are talking to thousands of buyers, sellers, and tire-kickers. And they most certainly have at least a few pretty good ideas, based on what these folks are saying, of what’s miring the market.

The consensus of Realtors that I know is that higher property taxes have had a chilling effect on sales. For one thing, even if someone can afford to purchase a home, they cannot stomach covering both the mortgage and the sky-high property tax bill. There are countless other factors at play, too, and journalists serve their audience better when they dig in and press for those particulars.

It’s not all about price tags. There is the matter of value, so that paying more isn’t such a concern when there is a belief that what you receive in return more than covers those additional dollars and cents than you’d shell out elsewhere.

In the case of Oak Park and surrounding communities covered in the story, there are a variety of “X” variables, such as:

*Crime, or the perception of crime. Oak Park, for example, isn’t Chicago in this regard–but neither is it Mayberry.(for those who recall The Andy Griffith Show);

*Academic reputation. Good schools are routinely cited as the top factor in attracting newcomers. On the flip side of that coin, schools seen as mediocre can repel people. Are schools locally being viewed less favorably than schools in communities that are in the mix when prospective residents house-hunt?

Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t talk to enough Realtors who delved much below the surface to get at the “why.”

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Admiring & dissecting an artful Dodgers vs. Cubs story

I began inhaling Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover when I was 10 years old, after my dad hooked me up with a subscription for my historic double-digit birthday.

It was summer on the South Shore of Boston, my beloved Red Sox were miles ahead in the American League East, and the cover of my inaugural issue featured a photo of beleaguered Yankees manager Billy Martin and an allusion to a famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble”) that went over my elementary-school-aged head.

I had seen the game that was the focal point of that cover story, as Martin yanked star outfielder Reggie Jackson from Fenway Park’s right field for failing to hustle. A heated tete-a-tete ensued in the dugout, the Sox went on to win, and all was right with the world.

Between that moment of getting SI delivered to my home set back in the woods off Webster Street and my development as a writer, there is one solid, bold-fonted line.

Four decades later, this vibrant account of last night’s Cubs vs. Dodgers game at Wrigley Field reminded me of a key element that drew me to journalism: the creative joy of drawing from an abundant supply of words and phrases, coupled with the challenge and reward of picking precisely the right one for the moment.

It’s what SI did more often than most, and it’s what I would find in the sports section of the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe that I would fight over (and play hide-and-seek with) my brother Andy.

It was a stroke of Alice in Wonderland-style hyperlink-clicking fate that I happened upon Los Angeles Times writer Jorge Castillo’s story. Some of his choices that resonate with my word- and phrase-wielding and story-telling soul:

“electric boom-or-bust slugging shortstop”

This one’s got a back-to-back batch of alliteration–and even casual readers ought to get the gist that I am a sucker for alliteration, especially when it is as aptly stated as that characterization of Chicago Cubs shortstop Javy Baez.

“provoking an exasperated response”

Granted, this is a “tell, don’t show” description of Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda. Did he flail his arms? Tilt his head up and gaze at the encroaching darkness? Stab at the ball with a flick of his wrist when the catcher tossed it back?

Castillo doesn’t say, and that’s OK with me. Every word, every piece of punctuation is a choice, with a constellation of factors at play. Very likely, he simply wanted to employ an economy of words to move on with the story of Maeda’s rough inning. So that’s just what he did, raising the literary bar in the process.

“in a jiffy”

When’s the last time I read this phrase in a newspaper story–or any story, for that matter? Have I ever seen it? Maybe a handful of times.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to revive “in a jiffy” in my everyday conversational repertoire, particularly around my teen-aged kids. I like how it sounds, how it makes me feel. Digging deep, I suppose it has something to do with my own sense of nostalgia, since the phrase hearkens back to my childhood, when the phrase seemed to be more frequently uttered.

That Castillo chose to sprinkle “in a jiffy” in this game story makes it something of a gift that I choose to make personal.

“display of agility”

This refers to Baez’s latest base-running caper. And although the scene could have been depicted in innumerable ways, this phrasing gets it just right. It was, after all, a display of agility.

“His contention didn’t produce a reversal.”

Having covered the civil and criminal courts for years, this brings to mind a legal argument. In the context of this story, it was Dodgers manager Dave Roberts arguing that Baez should be ruled out for running out of the baseline.

Castillo’s choice strikes me as a bit of tongue-in-cheek whimsy. We’re talking about a game of baseball, not a life-or-death issue. But, oh, how these trifling contests in the universe’s grand scheme can be treated as so exceedingly consequential.

The story runs 16 paragraphs; the highlights I have picked out are only in the first six. If you enjoy the art of writing, or baseball, or simply have time on your hands, I exhort you to read the entire piece before the link goes stale.

Notably, and perhaps not coincidentally, much of the delightful story’s early phraseology revolves around the colorful Baez. Castillo was equal to the task of capturing and conveying the action.

One might say that, in his story-telling, he was Baez-like. My whole point, though, is that there are countless other ways to describe it. That’s the challenge–always has been–and therein lies the reward.

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“30”: The End of the Story–And The Beginning of Mine, 30 Years Ago

“He arrived in a rush.” The first words of my first newspaper story, on June 27, 1984.

“30” is the journalistic symbol for the end of a story.

Today, though, it represents the beginning: it was June 27, 1984, 30 years ago today, when the first story I ever wrote for pay (a whopping $15) appeared in a newspaper. My hometown weekly, the Marshfield (Mass.) Mariner, published a feature story that I wrote about two-time state tennis champion Chris Lapriore.

As a 15-year-old kid growing up on the Atlantic Ocean, in the suburbs of Boston, it was a thrilling experience to see my byline and my words in print for others to see.

Two months earlier, for no pay and as a kind of trial run to see what I could do, the Mariner editor at the time, Lois Martin, published my commentary on the hypocrisy of collegiate athletics, with too many athletes getting sham educations. Of course, that story could be written today as well.

A quick search online found two other events from June 27, 1984, both of which may be deemed much more momentous than my professional writing debut: the U.S. Supreme Court ended the NCAA monopoly on college football telecasts and Khloe Kardashian was born.

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Reflections of 1991: A Valentine’s Greeting to My Former Colleagues at The Courier-News

From the front page of the Feb. 15, 1991 edition of The Courier-News in Elgin, Ill.

This past Sunday was the 20th anniversary of my start with The Courier-News of Elgin, Ill.

When Mike Bailey hired a 22-year-old guy who had trouble navigating his way to the newsroom all the way from Chicago, it was for an eight-week period to fill in for a reporter on maternity leave.

As it turned out, the reporter decided to stay home with her baby, and Bailey decided that I could stick around longer.

It set into motion an eight-year period in my career that I appreciate more with each passing year.

Before moving on in March 1999, I had the good fortune of working alongside dedicated professionals, of having the chance to do wide-ranging, important work, and of learning a ton all along the way.

One of my first assignments, during Week 2 at the newspaper, was a feature story on Valentine’s Day 1991 about 25 couples who chose that romantic day to get married at the Kane County Courthouse in Geneva. (You can click on the image above to read more.)

The last few years, I’ve kept the piece on my office wall, with the idea that it would be fascinating to catch up with a few of those couples today, see how they’re doing–and whether they remain married.

A few weeks ago, I suggested such a follow-up to my former colleagues. No reply yet, and I understand if they don’t have a chance to pursue it. Resources are so limited and personnel so stretched today in the newsroom.

Thanks largely to social media, many of us have stayed in touch. Two months ago, when the paper’s office at 300 Lake St. closed after more than a half-century (though the paper continues on), we had a mini-reunion.

Being the PR guy now, I shot photos as well as videos that you can find on one of my YouTube channels.

So, if nothing else, I suppose this post is my Valentine’s greeting to all of those who played such an instrumental part in my years at The Courier-News–the few who remain and the many who have gone on to other endeavors.