How serving as a Pulitzer juror made me a better journalism teacher

Being invited to serve on a Pulitzer jury is probably a little like getting accepted to Hogwarts: You receive a letter written on really nice stationary with instructions to show up at a certain place and time. And please, it goes on, don’t tell anyone what you’re up to.

My envelope from Hogwarts has, alas, never arrived, but for the second year in a row I was summoned to Columbia University in February to serve as a Pulitzer juror, picking finalists in one of 14 journalism categories.  Last winter, I sat on the local reporting jury. (Details on that experience here.) This time was breaking news.

Pulitzer deliberations are confidential, and jurors’ identities are secret until after the winners are revealed, but my experience has still been a powerful teaching tool, one that’s given me fresh vocabulary to describe what it means to master the craft of modern nonfiction storytelling.

My students have been poking around the new Pulitzer website for a couple of months, identifying strong leads and mulling over what topics make compelling stories. We also talked a bit about the Pulitzers and public service journalism ahead of our Spotlight event earlier this month.

Last week, my editing class watched the announcement of the 2016 winners live:


Then we examined the winner and finalists in the breaking news category and talked about the hallmarks of effective, responsible journalism in the first few hours of a big story. The students liked how the Los Angeles Times’s winning entry used rumor-busting bullet points to list known facts after the San Bernardino shootings. They found the Baltimore Sun’s interactive timeline useful in understanding the events that led to Freddie Gray’s death. We also talked about how the Post and Courier used a mix of screen grabs to illustrate a video showing the shooting of Walter Scott. (When it came to whether or not to publish the video itself, the students’ opinions were mixed.)

All three entries show a mix of urgency and comprehensive follow up. Here’s a little scribble that I used to illustrate this concept:

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In the hours, days and even months after a major breaking news event, readers want – need – coverage that provides context, answers questions and explores possible solutions. Accuracy matters more than speed. Or, as I told my students, it’s better to be dead last than dead wrong.

These Pulitzer-inspired lessons will continue in the fall, too. My colleague Tom Haines is teaching a course focused on environmental reporting, and his students will be able to learn from finalists like InsideClimate News, the Portland Press Herald and ProPublica. I’m teaching entrepreneurial journalism, and we’ll talk about how several of this year’s top entires came from news organizations that didn’t exist a decade ago.

So thanks, Pulitzers. And happy 100th birthday. Here’s hoping for another century of identifying and honoring excellence in journalism.

Learning about solutions journalism

I spent most of Monday at a workshop on solutions journalism. It was a lovely start to the week for more than one reason. We met at the NH Audubon’s Concord property, which meant we got to see this gorgeous creature during a coffee break. More important, though, was the chance to explore a sub-genre that I’ve been curious about for several years.

Our leader was Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, a group that aims to increase the “volume and quality” of this type of storytelling. We spent time discussing what Solutions journalism is and isn’t, but here’s one definition I like a lot:

Solutions journalism can include reporting on responses that are working, partially working, or not working at all but producing useful insights. We can learn just as much from a failure as a success. The key is to look at the whole picture — the problem and the response. Journalism often stops short of the latter.

The notion that this type of storytelling is about presenting a more complete, complex picture is important. I also appreciate the emphasis Rosenberg places on finding compelling characters and structuring “howdoneit” narratives that keep the reader engaged.

I took a lot of notes on Twitter throughout the day. Some highlights:

For examples of solutions journalism, check out these projects.

A girl named Ruby

Check out this Kickstarter campaign aimed at creating a children’s book about computer code. The best part? The protagonist will be a girl named (of course) Ruby.* The book is programmer Linda Liukas’s latest bid to make technology accessible to everyone. The project has already brought in more than 10 times its original goal of $10,000, — including a small donation from me — and Liukas plans to use the additional money for a parents’ guide and a mobile app.

Creative teaching like this makes me happy, especially when it means kids around the globe will be introduced to the male-dominated world of programming through the eyes of a strong, smart little girl.

* Ruby is one of the programming languages often used by journalists

Joining the club

Web guru and JAWS board member Adrienne D. Lawrence shares digital publishing tips with Boston's own Callie Crossley.
JAWS board member Adrienne D. Lawrence shares digital publishing tips with Boston journalist Callie Crossley. Photo/Meg Heckman

The first women’s press clubs appeared at the end of the 1800s, launched by female journalists seeking equal pay, professional training, camaraderie and, perhaps more importantly, respect.  By the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 700 women had joined groups in 17 states. In the decades that followed, hundreds more joined similar organizations, including the Women’s National Press Club.

I know all of this thanks to an excellent academic essay by Elizabeth V. Burt that I stumbled across earlier this year while researching the history of women in the American press.  It was an interesting read, but the concept of special clubs for women seemed as quaint and un-modern as the petticoats their members used to wear. As I learned last weekend, I was wrong.

The spirit of these clubs remains strong — and relevant — today. I was one of roughly 200 women who spent a few days in rural Vermont at the Journalism and Women Symposium’s annual conference. I’d registered for two reasons: The hotel was a couple of hours from my house, and I was certain to meet some of the people involved in the digital startups I’m researching for my thesis.

The drive was, in fact, easy, and the interviews I arranged were top-notch — but the weekend was about more than filling notebooks and collecting business cards. In her essay, Burt quotes a member of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association explaining why such clubs were important: “They hunt up every discouraged newspaperwoman within reach of them, give her the secret of how to get a corner on saleable news, and in fact set her on her feet.”

That’s exactly what I saw happen in Vermont.  Veteran members offered advice on job hunting, salary negotiation and story pitching to women just starting their careers. Those of us with technical skills held tutoring sessions on social media and website hosting. I picked up some tips about storytelling, of course, but also leadership advice, bookkeeping strategies and a few teaching ideas that I can’t wait to unleash in Ham-Smith next semester.  And all of it came from other women, which, as I said on Twitter, is pretty different from the scene at many journalism workshops.

The highlight of the weekend, though, was meeting veteran copy editor Betsy Wade, the lead plaintiff in an equal employment lawsuit filed against the New York Times in 1974.  At a reception Saturday night, I asked her sign my copy of The Girls in the Balcony, a book by Nan Roberts about the lawsuit. Next to her picture,  Wade wrote ” sisterhood is all.”

(Between annual conferences, JAWS members communicate through an active Google group. The conversations — and freelance opportunities and job postings — are worth the modest membership fee. Details here.)

Meet the “Ladies of the Press”

305919_10151390014587913_619961207_nIn 1936, a reporter named Ishbel Ross did something extraordinary when she wrote the first formal history of female journalists. It’s imperfect in many ways:  the book features only white women and Ross devotes many pages to praising reporters who get the story without sacrificing their feminine charm. Still, it’s full of fascinating tidbits, especially a chapter devoted to the rural press.

Nowhere, Ross writes, “is the newspaper woman more active than in country journalism” where she “practically raises her babies in the waste-paper basket, cooks rice pudding to the friendly thud of the linotype or chronicles the town doings from the cracker box stance.” At the time the book was published, Ross counted more than 300 female editors and publishers working at small papers across the United States.

Some of these woman worked alone; others came to power through family ties, operating the papers alongside their husbands or fathers. Many filled their newsrooms with women, just one example Ross cites of how their publications differed from their urban counterparts:

The country newspaper woman has a freedom of expression denied the metropolitan reporter. She can push a local cause, mix freely in political fights, write what she likes and continue her job until she is eighty years of age, if her eyesight is good and she so desires.

BBC creates video database of female experts

The BBC is helping its reporters connect with smart, well-spoken women by assembling a database of female experts. According to The Telegraph, the database includes specialists from a variety of fields who have completed a free media training day organized by the BBC.

The ‘expert women database’ contains the details of the 60 women who have so far received free training via these days, as well as the contacts of a further 120 women who “showed promise” in their applications to the BBC Academy. More than 2,000 women applied for the first BBC Academy female expert training day but there were only 30 spaces.

The BBC is one of several British news organizations responding to criticisms about gender imbalances in journalism.

As the Telegraph reports, this isn’t the first database of its kind. My own quick Google search uncovered this directory of female scientists in Eastern Europe. Are there any similar databases in the U.S.? Should someone start one?

Who else is counting?

I launched this blog to help find meaning in the scads of information I’m gathering for my thesis, which is focused on the role of women in emerging online news organizations. My methodology is still in the works, but I’m lucky to have some fantastic research to build upon. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to create a literature review — a document that describes “the critical points of current knowledge” on a topic.

But it won’t be your typical lit review. There will be video, photos, maybe even an interactive graphic, all designed to help understand what data is available, who’s collecting it and — perhaps most importantly — why. I’ve written already about some of the sources I’ll cite, including this list of blogs and books, a public Zotero bibliography and a post about The Gender Report, a byline surveillance project that’s found an underpresentation of women in online news.

I’m also talking to the Columbia Journalism Review in hopes of gleaning some useful information from its fantastic Guide to Online News Startups. There’s also some interesting research happening at MIT and in conjunction with the Boston Globe’s innovation lab. One or both of those projects could make for interesting video.

Who else should I include?

Why I love Zotero and you should too

Source: Zotero

Career adjustments are almost always laced with stress, especially when they’re made within the context of modern journalism. So when I started grad school last fall, my list of worries was long: figuring out the T, finding enough freelance clients to pay the bills, taking tests and — when it’s all over — finding a job in journalism education.

The one thing I didn’t have to fret over, though, was remembering how to cite research papers. My brother-in-law’s partner is a philosophy professor, and he introduced me to a digital citation tool called Zotero.  It won’t, alas, keep track of which professors like the Oxford comma and which consider it an affront to the English language, but Zotero is a great way to organize the many books and journal articles I’m reading these days.

What sets Zotero apart from other citation managers are its social features, including one that allows users to create shared libraries. Here’s one I’m putting together about women, journalism and digital news.  You should be able to see a list of publications — it’s short now, but there are more titles to comes — add comments, and download documents. It’s also compatible with most RSS readers.

What other publications should I include?