Thursday, October 16, 2014

Best of the best at University of Oregon J-School

I learned the basics of my craft while attending the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. Yeah, I learned a lot of other things at UO, but these two professors gave me the foundation for a career. Their lessons didn't seem comfortable at the time, but I look back and appreciate their work. Sometimes you need a tough push to move forward.

1. Dean Rea. I could write about Dean's Reporting I class and his famous "truth is a dime disappearing into the distance" speech, but every J-School grad knows that wasn't his acid test. That test was Law of the Press. I had upperclassmen tell me that you had to bring your A game to class, and even then there would be unexpected challenges. Turns out they were right.

Law of the Press centered on the important legal precedents of the day regarding major factors in journalism such as impact of the First Amendment, libel, pornography, rights of privacy, etc. It took me only a couple of classes to realize I loved the subject matter. I enjoyed diving into case law and learning about the foundational court decisions. Of course, Dean made sure to spice up the lessons. Classes dealing with pornography included photographs that cut close to legal boundaries. Lessons about the reporter's ability to adequate report events included a staged event in which Dean was shot by a student who "had a grudge" against him. Dean collapsed on the stage, and the "shooter" ran out of the room. We had to jot down facts about what we saw once Dean picked himself up off the floor.

The toughness of the subject matter didn't fit Dean's standard demeanor. He was soft-spoken and had a gentle personality. He seemed like a friendly uncle from Iowa. He was, however, a stickler for knowing the body of knowledge we were supposed to master. The method by which we were to show our mastery was the final exam, which carried almost all the weight toward a final grade. The test was held early on a Monday morning, and I tossed out my regular schedule in order to get ready for the final. Friday at 4 at Duffy's? No way. Going out with friends for a night of cards? Nope. Call up a female friend for a date? Not on this weekend. I ate breakfast with Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comment as my companion. My conversations centered on New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan and Time, Inc. vs. Hill, which meant that not many people wanted to talk to me. I was focused on nothing but Law in the Press. Studying for my other finals would wait.

The final was as brutal as advertised. True-and-false questions were hardly present. There were numerous long essay questions in which we were presented with a situation and asked to select a particular court case and justify our reasons for that selection. I tapped my brain, which was like opening the spillway on a dam. I wrote feverishly. I rolled out my arguments, and I listed my reasons. I walked out of the classroom feeling good about my performance.

Grades were posted a few days later, and I rushed to Allen Hall to see my results. I missed an A by three points!!! Three points!!! I went to Dean's office and pleaded with him for leniency, and I asked whether there was any way I could earn the necessary points. There wasn't. He said journalism meant performing at your best at a particular moment, and I had fallen short of A-quality work. I walked out of his office as a crestfallen young man.

I had chances to talk with Dean several years later when both of us worked as copy editors at the Register-Guard in Eugene. I brought up the matter of the grade I received. "Three points?" he said. "I should have given you those."

Thanks, Dean.

2. Ken Metzler. He was the practitioner of tough love. No professor or teaching assistant ever attacked my ego as often or with as much strength as Metzler. (Notice I call one professor Dean and the other by his last name. That tells you something about their personalities and how they impacted a young journalism student.) If Rea's acid test was Law of the Press, Metzler's was Reporting II.

Here's where the tough love comes in. Every assignment I turned in for Reporting II got a terrible grade. I never got a D on any assignment until Reporting II, and I got several of them within the first few weeks. By a twist of fate, several of us in the class happened to meet up in the lobby of the library. We matched our experiences. Everyone in the class was getting the same feedback. Anyone getting a C was immediately lifted to an exulted status. Metzler went a step further with me. He pulled me aside one day and asked if I was serious about becoming a journalist. Of course, I replied. He said I should consider another major. Really? I worked my butt off for his class, and that was the response I got? That session only sparked a "I'll show you, you s.o.b." response from me.

Metzler softened his stance as the term continued. There weren't any A's given on assignments, but there wasn't the deluge of failing grades. I later got another side session with Ken, and this one went a long way to changing my outlook on a journalistic future.

One of our assignments was to line up an interview with a notable person in the state of Oregon. I chose to interview Larry Lawrence, who was a vocal advocate for gay rights. Back then, gay rights centered on not getting fired from jobs and not the right to get married. I interviewed Lawrence in the Erb Memorial Union, and it was a good session. I aimed to get information on his foundational beliefs and personal history. I can't remember how long we stayed and talked, but I felt good about reaching my goals. I wrote my story, and it got a good grade. It was only after class that I received that upbeat event. Metzler took me aside, and he said several students interviewed Lawrence. He told me Lawrence said my interview was the best of the bunch. Talk about a straight shot of confidence from my former "taskmaster."

I ended up getting a good grade in the class. All those failing grades early in the term were a method to apply pressure and see how we reacted. His advice about seeking another major was another way to crank up the heat. Hey, journalism was sure to bring controversial articles into my experience, so why not get a taste of real life while I was still a student?

I could talk about other professors because I had a bunch of good ones. Rea, Metzler, Roy Halvorsen, Charles Duncan, Bill Winter, Karl Nestvold, etc. all gave me a wide-ranging foundation for my career. I owe each of them a debt of gratitude.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Twitter for experience, Facebook for friends

I don't live on social media. I have many other things to occupy me these days. I am writing my novel, working on getting a job (I have one prospect that I want very much), and I take care of my house as a stay-at-home caretaker. But I am on social media enough to know I prefer Twitter and Facebook more than any other websites. I like Twitter for taking part in ongoing events, and I like Facebook for the ability to contact friends, family and former co-workers.

I must add one caveat here. When I talk about these websites within a business framework, my preferences are reversed. A posting on Facebook with a business goal draws about three to five times as many responses as a tweet. Anyone taking a social media campaign into account has to place a high degree of importance on that fact.

My personal enjoyment of Twitter is never more apparent than when watching a sporting event. Twitter becomes a chat room for fans from both sides, and the byplay can be enjoyable. My favorite time is while watching an Oregon Ducks football game. I worked in Denver and Santa Rosa, Calif., during the golden days of two franchises, the current Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. No pro team, however, can get me more involved in a game than the Ducks.

As long as the Ducks are on TV earlier in the day, a football telecast becomes a family affair. My dad, who is now 97 years old, comes over. So does my oldest brother. I am the only true Duck in the crowd. The others are Ducks in the sense of fans only, but that doesn't dampen their enthusiasm for the team. I enjoy that family feeling, but I want more.

I only have to get on Twitter to find other "family members" to follow the game. I receive a steady stream of updates from Rob Moseley, a former colleague at the Register-Guard and now the director of, the university's main athletic website. I follow tweets of those on recruiting sites who follow the Ducks closely. I also follow former Oregon offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, now with the NFL's New York Giants and one of the best tweeters in the business. Schwartz is a great information source for the football strategy part of the game, especially on offensive line play. He also has great insights on his family life, particularly on his infant and the exploits of Oslo Pepperoni, the family dog. (Oslo even has his own Twitter account, which makes him a very smart dog indeed.)

All those voices add to the enjoyment of the game. I relay some of the best tweets to my family. They get as much out of them as I do.

On the other hand, I never use Facebook for breaking news. It serves a much different function. It is my best way to check up on the personal events of those with whom I shared earlier parts of my life. I have several high school chums, and a few from my college days. There are many contacts from newspapers at which I worked, especially The Denver Post and the Register-Guard in Eugene. We talk about spouses, children and grandchildren. We talk about trips we have taken, whether it is a trip to the Oregon Coast or a trip to Europe. We stay connected that way. It keeps us close on a more personal level.

I can embrace the business functions of both websites, and I utilize them well. I also could use YouTube, Tout (my personal favorite over Vine or Instagram video), and I could utilize Pinterest if need be. It's just not up close and personal, and I prefer both websites for their "social" connections. That's just the way I am.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Don't Be Afraid To Shake Up Media

I have written here before about my love of Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath. My coworkers at YourHub listened to me talk about the book, and I urged them to act based on things the book told us. The basic message is that we not only need to think outside the box but to build a new box. Not one of Gladwell's examples centers on journalism or media, but the lessons are easily applicable. There is a second source behind this blog entry. It is a video by advertising adviser Cindy Gallop on the need for her industry to blow itself up and be reinvented. (Here is a link:

I will use some of the things that I thought of while reading the book, and I will relate them within the context of YourHub. I put five of those ideas out on Twitter earlier today, so those who follow my tweets got an early glimpse.

1. Don't accept limits placed on you by the system. YourHub is designed to be a counterpoint to the various suburban publications within the greater Denver area. We had teams that centered on Aurora and Adams County; Denver; Douglas and Arapahoe counties; Lakewood and Arvada; and Golden (including certain mountain communities) and South Jefferson County. The problem for me is that YourHub was expected to focus on second-level news stories. We were great at looking at local governmental activity, arts groups, new construction projects (from preplanning to pushing dirt), etc.

My problem with the second-level ideal was that it didn't help another main YourHub objective, which was to develop reporters and designers who could step into the main Denver Post newsroom. Only two made that jump to a reporting job directly. (A third did the circuitous route, going to Denver Post Online as a producer before getting a reporting job.) That second-level accent wasn't going to help my reporters get the kind of experience and clips to help them advance. I started seeking to have my reporters reach deeper for story ideas. I urged them to go to hospitals in their areas and visit neonatal intensive care units; go to churches and find out about the homeless who are being helped; go to agencies and see if they can trace soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan; etc. To do that meant we had to challenge the established YourHub system. I talked to someone about my idea, and this person told me that the main Post newsroom had sections that were designed to handle those kind of stories, and YourHub should keep our hands off. I can't disagree more with that statement.

I had only two such stories written during my time as YourHub's manager. Community manager Wes Gentry did a story on Street's Hope, a facility in Lakewood that helped prostitutes get off the streets and build a better future. I almost did handsprings when Wes said he was going to do that story. There also was a story by now-retired reporter Karen Groves that centered on two men in the Evergreen area who had differing levels of paralysis because of accidents. I had someone in the YourHub newsroom say that those two stories couldn't go together, but there were so many parallels between their lives that it was an easy fit.

I still believe in the standard I set there: Reach farther. Still do the second-level stories, but look for truly dynamic topics.

2. Think for yourself as a worker. This is more about establishing overarching policy than about doing individual stories. Each reporter or designer works independently on individual stories, pages or editions. One of my goals as a manager was to foster an environment in which my employees could suggest different ways to do things. A little history here helps.

I took a business personality test while working at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon. One part of my analysis resulted in the word Democratic. This idea of workers suggesting ways of doing things fits into that ideal. Give me input. Give me ideas. I ramped that idea up after I read David and Goliath. Journalism is facing trying times, and that won't change in the near future. It is an industry under intense pressure. To combat that, I pushed for new ideas and used David and Goliath as a framework. This won't be a popular point to make, but I got zero response. I decided to take a bold move, and one I figured might not be popular. I led off my weekly Monday morning meeting by saying that I would not be joining in the weekly team meetings, in which each team talked about upcoming stories and made sure our photographers were clued in on what was needed. I told them that they had all the power that morning, and they could work on any changes they wanted.

My idea went over with varying degrees of success. There was no great outpouring of new ideas. I asked each designer/editor to give me feedback on the way I handled things. The results could be tracked along lines of seniority. The most senior designer said it was no big deal and all that was needed was some adjustment in time and effort. The least senior, to put it simply, ripped me a new one. I was told I abandoned my leadership role, and the lack of time to adjust was a hurtful breech of policy. (It was different, but I didn't abandon my leadership duties. I just did them in a much different way, not following the "from the top down" management style and instead looking for a Democratic way of doing things.)

3. Be a manager open to new ideas. This goes hand in glove with the previous point. It is of no use to give reporters and designers the power to lend ideas if I am unwilling to listen to them and put those ideas into action. I have been a "from the bottom up" kind of manager for years.

I won't mention names in many of these stories, but I will make an exception here. Joe Nguyen was my designer for the Aurora-Adams County team, but he had time to do stories, come up with new ways of doing things, etc. I hope I was able to get across to Joe just how much his work and ideas meant to me. He also was my main IT guy. When we were looking to change pagination systems, I made sure Joe was my point man in dealing with the computer experts in the building. I lost a lot when Joe was hired for an online position in the sports department. (Sigh.)

4. Let writers/reporters/designers be creative. Don't be a micro-manager. I can't stress this enough. I gave my employees the freedom to explore. I didn't hover over their shoulders. I rarely held idea-generation sessions with a reporter unless that reporter had a history of not coming up with good ideas. I brought in the union rep in YourHub for one such session because of that rep's experience and knowledge. It was an invaluable aid in "reforming" a reporter. My point is that micromanaging can be a teaching tool, but it doesn't allow creative people to be creative. They think more about the next possible reprimand than the process needed to write well.

However, I still took time to sit down with each reporter, designer and community manager to get to know them better. Those sessions were always held on Thursdays and Fridays, the days of our lighter workload, and they all entailed having lunch or coffee. I should have done this much more often. Communication in a non-work environment meant we were able to be people and not workers. We got to know each other better. That can only be a plus.

5. Give the readers what they want, not want the system wants. Yes, YourHub needs to give information on government, agencies and the normal things of old world journalism, but it connects more with readers if that story affects them directly. It might be a story on a construction project on a certain major roadway, but I think the most effective tool for reaching readers is the personal feature story. If you give me a story on breaking ground on an apartment complex in Lakewood on one side of the scales and match it against the Denver story about a high school girl who found guidance and stability through a local boxing program, I favor the boxing story every time. Readers love to hear stories about other people, their problems and the solutions they discover.

A story that I received more feedback about was about a Douglas County girl who won lots of money for showing her animal at a fair, but she took all that money and put it toward her young cousin's battle with cancer. The short headline we had on the photo on the front page said "Little Girl, Big Heart." People loved "Little Girl, Big Heart." It was something that connected with them directly. It also would have worked with a story about an Iraq veteran facing PTSD, or the trials of a young family with a child in a neonatal ICU, but I can't make that happen now.

This last part of this blog is directed at the YourHub staff. One of the reasons I pushed so hard to think differently was as a manner of survival. I felt we needed to push the envelope from the second-level stories as a way to exist. One of the most powerful statements I received as a manager was delivered on the day I was informed I had to dismiss five employees because of a reduction of workforce. I asked whether these cuts could come from anywhere else. The response? "YourHub doesn't win Pulitzers." I feared that all of YourHub might be cut someday. I still fear that although I was involved in a much smaller RIF episode, being one of two veterans released from the newsroom on April 24. I fear the call will come to reduce staffing by nine or 10, and YourHub will be the one in the crosshairs.

YourHub's biggest plus is that the workers come cheaply. Their pay is on par with the suburban publications and not the rest of The Post newsroom. The negative is that YourHub doesn't generate much revenue in the overall scheme. That doesn't create job security. I urge people to read David and Goliath, and adopt that kind of thinking. Don't just think outside the box, but build a new box. Grow in the process. Be creative. Survive.