At 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26, SPJ president Dave Cuillier died in New Orleans. By 6:30 p.m., he was undead.
While Cuillier had (literally) stiff competition – a zombie pirate wench, a zombie monk in flowing robes, a zombie clown in a fright wig smoking a cigar, and a zombie bride in a blood-splattered white dress – he attracted the largest group of creeped-out reporters…
But it ain’t easy becoming undead.
Cuillier sat in the lobby of the New Orleans Marriott while a makeup artist rotted out his presidential face with latex. This being New Orleans on the weekend before Halloween, very few people looked twice at the spectacle.
Later this week, we’ll update you on how the rest of Zombie Stories went. For now, here’s the before-during-after of Dave Cuillier’s zombification…
Even zombies need leaders. Meet Richard Riggs, founder of Krewe of the Living Dead.
By day, Riggs works in a marina in Madisonville, Louisiana. By night, he leads a zombie gang that’s known citywide by its intials, KOLD.
The 38-year-old Riggs was born and raised in New Orleans, which is where 100 journalists will interview 30 of KOLD’s members this Saturday evening.
We call it Zombie Stories, and its director (and former SPJ national board member) Gideon Grudo says it couldn’t happen without KOLD…
What really strikes you is how they’re simultaneously fully devoted to anything undead – just follow the group’s Facebook page to see what I mean – and then very laid back about its culture and “rules.” They don’t care how you feel about the undead or what level of fandom you fall under. If you like a good zombie, they’ll crack a beer with you. That’s more than I can say for some holier-than-thou journalists out there.
Neither KOLD (nor Zombie Stories) would exist if not for a largely forgotten 1981 John Landis horror-comedy. Recalls Riggs…
My mother and aunt took me to see American Werewolf in London when I was 7 – and it horrified me. That pretty much changed the course of what I was interested in. From that night on, I went from a little kid obsessed with Star Wars and sci-fi to being obsessed with Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria magazine. The first Zombie movie I saw was Return of the Living Dead, which didn’t impress me too much. But it did lead me to rent George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, which impressed the hell out of me.
In 2011, Riggs launched his krewe – basically, a social group of horror-flick fans. These days, KOLD’s pub crawls can turn out 150 zombies who shuffle from bar to bar.
If Riggs is King of the Zombies, Bryanna Leger is their queen. Although her family thinks she’s crazy.
Leger is assisting Riggs with Zombie Stories because her day job requires her to be hyper-organized: “I am the Attendee Coordinator for the New Orleans Investment Conference. It hosts as many as 600 attendees and has many speakers who are well-known in the political and investment arena.”
Leger has been a KOLD member for about a year and a half. But it was a fresh breakup and not an old movie that got her involved.
“I had recently gotten out of a long-term relationship and was looking for fun things to get involved in and ways to occupy my mind and time,” Leger says. “I’ve had a morbid fascination with all things horror for as long as I can remember.”
Her relatives never understood that…
I come from a very close family, and although they may not understand all of my interests, they’re aware of them – and love and respect me unconditionally. My 78-year-old grandmother thinks that zombies are ‘disgusting’ – but she’s helped me make some of my costumes.
Think you can extract similar quotes from other zombies?
Then come to Zombie Stories.
You’ll interview real (and real interesting) people. If you can cobble together three good questions and elicit three good answers, you’ll win the grand prize: Getting made up as a zombie and embarking on a KOLD zombie pub crawl.
Of course, if you ask dumb questions, you get punished. KOLD zombies will smear your shirt with fake blood. Then again, we give you the shirt. And there’s no cost to play. So even if you suck as an interviewer, you walk away with a free (if bloody) shirt.
Want to know more? Email Grudo at email@example.com.
Zombie Stories is sponsored by SPJ regions 3 and 12 and SPJ Florida, the 2010 Chapter of the Year. So now you know who to blame.
In 50 days, you can grow your own salad.
Most varieties of lettuce and the smallest varieties of tomatoes (like cherry or grape) and carrots (like Thumbelina or Paris Market) mature in 50 days – as do onions, if you plant them from bulb sets.
Radishes takes as little as three weeks. Want to add goat cheese? You can make it yourself, and it’ll age perfectly within 2-3 weeks. Arugala? Ready to eat after 30-40 days in the ground.
But in 50 days, SPJ can’t even set the table to talk about a name change.
On Aug. 26, SPJ’s delegates – the 104-year-old organization’s “supreme legislative body” – planted the idea of becoming the Society for Professional Journalism. They ordered the board of directors to discuss it.
The next day, SPJ president Dave Cuillier announced…
I am creating a task force to look into it further and provide recommendations to the executive committee and then the full board, which could make a recommendation to the delegates at a future convention.
Wow, that sounds like a long time to harvest. Better get started, right?
But the task force has yet to meet. Last Wednesday, former SPJ president (and make no mistake, all-around great guy) John Ennslin emailed me his formal introduction as chairman of the task force. And yesterday, I learned from Cuillier who else is on it…
Fellow national board members Carl Corry, Paul Davis, Sue Katcef, and David Sheets, along with past president Hagit Limor and former Membership Committee chairwoman Holly Edgell.
Fine folks all. But as of today, nothing has germinated. Which isn’t a surprise, because…
SPJ moves slower than a three-toed sloth with a broken foot and a Xanax addiction.
From salads to sloths. I do enjoy mixing my metaphors.
Since SPJ moves with bradypodidae-like speed at a national level, I’m hoping its chapters possess a little more agility.
I’m asking each SPJ chapter to debate changing the name and mission of their parent organization. Last Thursday, SPJ Florida did just that at its bimonthly board meeting. Chapter president Jason Parsley says he’ll put it to a board vote at the next meeting.
If you or your chapter wants to do the same, email me and I’ll assist in any way you desire. And I’ll list your chapter and its results on this blog.
I don’t care if you vote to support or oppose a name change. As long as you take a stand quicker than SPJ’s national leadership, which is slower than a snail crawling across a stack of pancakes soaked in maple syrup.
There I go again.
If you fancy yourself an amusingly descriptive writer, send me your slowest SPJ metaphors and I’ll cheesily illustrate them. You can remain anonymous in this blog, but I’ll send you a $10 Amazon gift certificate if I use your words. And don’t worry, I protect my sources.
SPJ is an important organization, but until it starts moving at the same pace as the industry it represents, it’ll never be a compelling one. And I’m not just talking about a name change. I’m talking about everything.
You’d have to be Jane Musgrave’s age to remember the Dick and Jane children’s books.
Those simple, slender hardcovers taught mid-century Americans to read – and to accept some real traditional gender roles.
Jane Musgrave is anything but traditional. The Palm Beach Post reporter raised her daughter as a single mother and later adopted a son. At 57, she’s still a hard-bitten newspaper reporter, but one who’s embraced new technology so well that her news editor publicly lauded her in a blog post titled, Palm Beach Post social media star: Courts reporter Jane Musgrave.
That was 17 months ago. Last week, Musgrave was offered a “voluntary buyout” that she found slightly compulsory and fairly insulting.
Like many still-struggling newspapers, The Post is past the massive layoffs of the recession (because there aren’t any massive blocks of employees left) and is now targeting its older and more expensive employees. While not illegal, it’s certainly ageist – and a tad sexist and classist, since the mostly male senior executives aren’t being nudged out of their jobs.
It’s also short-sighted, since The Post itself has recently published articles called, Some employers see perks of hiring older workers and Older job seekers have track record, connections on their side.
This over-55 buyout was offered during a clumsy meeting that would’ve assuredly made the paper’s metro front if it happened at any other large local company. It’s no secret that newspapers have been informally forcing out older reporters for while, but this is the first such targeted buyout I’ve heard of. Then again, I don’t get out much.
But when Musgrave offered to tell her story, I was moved. Not only does she tell it well, she’s brave enough to put her name on it. Here it is…
My dad went kicking and screaming into forced retirement at age 75. My mom, unfettered by similar hang-it-up-now rules, retired at age 76.
This week, at age 57, I was told via email that I was a geezer who was surely ready to embrace those carefree days of golf and bridge games. Never mind that I loved my job, had expected to follow in my parents’ footsteps and had failed to learn the finer points of either of those otherwise fun-sounding pursuits.
Like roughly 40 other designated geezers at The Palm Beach Post, I was offered a “voluntary buyout.” All of us earned the designation by passing what otherwise didn’t seem like an important milestone: our 55th birthdays.
While I was out covering a trial and unable to attend the invitation-only geezer gathering, I’m told publisher Tim Burke said we were targeted because many of us had surely contemplated retirement and, if not, could probably use the skills we honed during decades in the news business to land other jobs.
The publisher, who turns 55 this month, doesn’t have to fret. As a bonus of his position, Burke isn’t being forced to contemplate his own carefree days of golf, bridge and frustrating (if not fruitless) job-hunting. And apparently, he hasn’t been paying attention to what all of us old farts have been doing the last several years.
Most of us have been working our asses off, hoping the economy improves and someone in the brain trust comes up with a way to save the business we love. While we wondered whether it could be done by posting videos of fender benders, dogs playing with babies and soft porn on our web site, we believed if we worked hard enough to cover for the colleagues we lost in the last wave of buyouts, we might have a fighting chance.
Instead, we are now faced with age warfare.
Since the emails went out, younger reporters have looked at us like fellow passengers on the Titanic. If we don’t jump overboard with our buyout packages in hand, there will be no room for them on the life rafts. Instead of us, the iceberg will be heading at them.
Some among them have graciously questioned the legality of targeting what we have dutifully learned is a “protected class.” However, as my friends in employment law and countless other geezer reporters at countless other newspapers know, if there’s one thing newspaper managers know, it’s the law.
By calling the program “voluntary,” it’s all perfectly legal. There are rules, of course. But as long as they don’t include packets of Geritol in the buyout packages or joke about the health care costs they’ll save on Viagra prescriptions they can decide one day that the life rafts are full and the geezers must go.
Even if it’s not legal, some legal advisers say, do you want to spend the rest of your life in court, proving you were wronged but right? Age discrimination cases take years. Make golf, not law.
Oddly, various publications have reported a reversal of the time-honored trend of getting rid of older workers who are more likely to command higher salaries. Some companies actually value experience and remember there’s a reason they pay experienced employees more. Many work faster and smarter. They teach younger workers the sometimes confusing tools of the trade.
A human resources manager said he preferred layoffs for that reason. Layoffs can target obsolete jobs and lazy or unproductive workers. They can cut the proverbial dead wood. Voluntary buyouts are scatter-shot. Managers don’t know who will leave or who they will be left with. Sometimes, he said, the results aren’t pretty. And neither is this.
In about three weeks, the results at The Post will be in. The jury is out on whether Burke will hit his goal of watching 15 to 20 of us grab our canes and limp out the door.
Times are still tough. We learned from the last round of buy-out victims that quick cash doesn’t cover long-term losses. Many who reluctantly, but hopefully, took the buyout five years ago are now freelancing for pennies on the dollar with no health insurance or paid vacations.
But the buyout then seemed fairer somehow. Anyone who had worked at the paper for at least five years was eligible. We lost young reporters and old editors and all ages in between.
This time, it’s only part of the newsroom that’s under fire. My forced retirement is another reporter’s job security. If the requisite number of designated oldsters don’t leave, younger reporters and editors, along with some older ones who don’t accept the buyouts, will be ushered out the door under far less favorable terms – one week of pay per year instead of two.
Many in our beleaguered business got nothing but the door. I understand that.
But whether we get the door with a so-called generous buyout or a door that leads to the unemployment office there’s no indication that this call for (in truly news-speak) voluntary or involuntary volunteers will be the last. And the way our geezer-first deal is structured, there’s no incentive for those left behind to dig deeper, write tighter and push harder, knowing that the payoff is that they’ll be spared.
The lesson? All it takes is to be born in the wrong year.
This is going to sound ridiculous at first.
An SPJ chapter in Florida is raising money for a troubled reporter in Chicago – even though he hasn’t asked for the help, and even though a judge might not allow it.
Then again, that’s not nearly as ridiculous as what got us to this point.
Thing is, Hosey hasn’t published any information the cops and court don’t already know. In fact, all he’s reported are some grisly details from police reports that weren’t made public. Nothing Hosey has written hurts the case at all.
And that’s not my opinion. Last week, the Crystal Lake-Cary Patch reported…
Will County Assistant State’s Attorney Marie Czech said during the hearing that the grand jury proceedings in the Hickory Street murder cases were not compromised by Hosey’s articles, nor was evidence compromised.
Even so, a judge ruled Hosey in “minor direct criminal contempt” – and socked him with a major fine of $1,000 and $300 per day. The judge also threatened him with jail.
That pisses off Jason Parsley.
Parsley is president of SPJ Florida. Over the weekend, he and his chapter’s officers decided to pay for one day of Hosey’s fines. And they challenged the rest of SPJ – and every other journalism organization in the country – to do the same.
“It’s appalling that this reporter could face more than $50,000 in fines and jail time for not revealing a source,” Parsley says. “This ruling by the judge is ironic since Illinois has a shield law that’s supposed to protect reporters from this exact situation.”
The chapter’s challenge comes after SPJ National wrote a press release last Monday and another on Friday. Chapter vice president Brandon Ballenger says journalism groups needs to stand up and not just speak out.
“The most sordid part of this case – which according to police reports involved people having sex on dead bodies – is that an intellectually bankrupt judge thinks a reporter should be fined hundreds of dollars a day for doing his constitutionally protected job,” Ballenger says. “While it’s a bit sad that justice costs $300 a day, we’ll do our part to see it done and hope other organizations will as well.”
But SPJ Florida hasn’t spoken to Hosey. Neither has anyone in SPJ National. And in other cases like this, judges have banned those charged with contempt from spending donated money.
Doesn’t matter to Parsley and Ballenger.
Because if Hosey turns down the money, it’s there for the next harassed reporter – and there will be a next one.
“Our $300 is a drop in the bucket compared to what he faces,” Parsley says. “So I can only hope that this small gesture of support will encourage others groups, including our parent organization, to step in as well.”
So Joe, email me and I’ll introduce you to SPJ Florida. Even if you don’t want the cash, might as well meet some supporters who are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
I’ve mentioned five reasons to change SPJ’s name. Here are five excuses not to.
1. It’ll cost too much.
2. It won’t lure new members and will scare off existing ones.
3. That’ll dilute our commitment to journalism.
4. It’ll be PR/branding nightmare.
5. Even contemplating a name change will devolve into a bloody battle, pitting SPJ brother against SPJ sister.
I’ve heard all these concerns since I proposed changing our name to the Society for Professional Journalism. So last week, I asked Mike Cavender about them.
Another journalism group has already been through this, and it has zero regrets.
Mike Cavender is executive director of RTDNA – which stands for the Radio Television Digital News Association.
But four years ago, it was RTNDA – the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Cavender, who had previously served as chairman of the RTNDA board, helped lead the name change.
Here’s how it went…
1. It didn’t cost a lot.
Cavender concedes, “You got everything from stationery to the website that’s gotta be changed.” But those don’t consume a lot of calories and cash.
(Indeed, SPJ webmaster Bill O’Keefe told me last week that updating the website “wouldn’t really cost anything.” He said, “Barring any rude surprises or unexplained phenomena, it would take a day of combing all our sites and networks for every instance of the name and switching out the ones that apply.”)
The big expense is legally changing the name, from IRS documents to the Articles of Incorporation. So Cavender just didn’t do it.
Instead, he used a DBA. That’s short for doing business as.
“We’re the Radio and Television News Directors Association dba RTDNA,” he says. “Many companies out there are DBAs, and their real corporate names are totally different. You just never see it. It’s totally acceptable and totally legal.”
And totally easy and totally cheap.
2. It may have boosted membership – or maybe not.
Cavender says the name change kicked off a new mission…
“We have become, over the last few years, far more inclusive in terms of members who are reporters and multimedia journalists. Did our name change have anything to do with that? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ve been able to communicate that we’re more inclusive.”
Has RTDNA lost members because of the name change? No. Cavender says some old-timers still aren’t pleased – “anybody who’s been there for awhile might not get used to the new name” – but they haven’t fled in a huff, either.
3. It changed the membership, not the leadership.
One question I’ve heard several times…
What if hundreds of non-journalists join SPJ and nominate one of their own for president? They’ll take over the organization!
To which I say: Outstanding!
The past four SPJ presidents have run unopposed. In fact, since 2008, only a handful of races have been contested – and there are 23 positions.
If “non-journalists” run for office and so offend the journalists, then perhaps the latter will start voting. The last national election three weeks ago turned out less than 700 of SPJ’s 7,800 members – and the voting was online.
So I question SPJ’s commitment now.
But if anyone frets SPJ’s board will be seized in a bloodless coup, consider RTDNA’s board. It’s been four years since it expanded beyond TV and radio directors to everyone in those fields, plus digital journalists.
Yet the RTDNA chairman, chairwoman-elect, past chairman, treasurer, secretary, and its nine regional directors are all still directors, managers, or even vice presidents. So no coup there.
4. It helped the PR and branding.
Five years ago, we began to look at the rise in digital journalism, which was pretty young at that time. But clearly, that was where the electronic media was going to gain strength. We wanted to be perceived as an organization that represented all electronic media –not just TV and radio.
So how’d it go? Cavender says the new name was perfect PR: “I would absolutely do it again.”
For SPJ, I fail to see how a similar discussion reflects poorly on our goals of an ethical and free press. After all, I’m not proposing we rename ourselves the Society for Pedophilia Jokes.
5. It didn’t descend into open warfare.
But it wasn’t a walk in the park, either.
“I recall board meetings that were very much contentious,” Cavender says. “We probably considered this issue for the better part of a year before we were able to make a sufficient case.”
The final vote “was convincing but not unanimous.” Still, there were no lingering animosities, and Cavender says everyone got over themselves pretty quick.
Many SPJ old-timers recall the 1988 fight that got us the name we have now. Back then, it was SPJ-SDX, and before that, just Sigma Delta Chi. (SPJ started as an all-white, all-male fraternity.)
Of course, that was the pre-Internet era, when it was hard as hell to scrutinize an issue in advance. As RTDNA learned, you can muse online and defuse emotions.
I’m hoping SPJ will learn from RTDNA’s experience and follow its path. Alas, I’m skeptical because…
SPJ moves with all the speed and grace of an oil tanker executing a three-point turn.
On Aug. 26, SPJ’s delegates ordered the board of directors to discuss a name change.
The next morning, SPJ president Dave Cuillier announced he’d appoint a task force to study it.
But as of today, still no task force. How long does it take to task such a force? When does a task force become a tardy force?
All I know for sure is that I’m on this force. Cuillier emailed me Sept. 6 to confirm it. Maybe he’s just having a hard time finding anyone to serve on the damn thing when they learn I’m already on it.
Still, if RTDNA can change its name within a year, SPJ should be able to do the same. So damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.
Even though I have a penis, I can join the National Organization for Women.
And even though I have very little pigment, I can join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
So why can’t fans of ethical and responsible media join the Society for Professional Journalism? Because it doesn’t exist. Yet.
Last week, I officially asked SPJ to change its name. At its annual convention in Anaheim, I submitted a resolution called Renaming SPJ the Society for Professional Journalism.
SPJ is, at its core, a quaint and cumbersome direct democracy. It reminds me of both ancient Greece and my high school’s Student Council…
Each SPJ chapter is awarded delegates based on its membership ranks, and they vote on resolutions once a year by holding up numbered cards. A sergeant-at-arms and his assistants count them, and resolutions pass or fail.
But here’s what I compelled them to contemplate…
Journalism is changing, and SPJ needs to change with it.
SPJ is more than a century old, but it took until 1969 to allow women to join. It just doesn’t like the word “change.”
(Seriously, try this: Go to the SPJ website, type the word change into the search box, then hit enter. It stubbornly defaults to change password. You literally can’t ask SPJ about change.)
So why do I want to change SPJ’s name? Five good reasons…
1. SPJ membership has fallen 20 percent since the mediapocalypse.
That’s actually not as bad as other journalism organizations, some of whom went out of business. But the sad fact is, for all of its 103 years, most SPJ members worked in traditional print newsrooms. From where are we going to replace those people?
A name change is not enough. We need to evolve from a trade organization to an advocacy group. Anyone should be able to pay dues and vote for officers, as long as they endorse and defend professional journalism – from SPJ’s vaunted Code of Ethics to its staunch support of a free press.
2. SPJ sucks at lobbying.
If you search the SPJ website for shield law, it’ll let you do that. You’ll land on an entire microsite called Struggling to Report: The Fight for a Federal Shield Law. SPJ has burned a lot of kilobytes and calories lobbying Congress on this topic.
Alas, Congress doesn’t care about SPJ. Why should lawmakers fear the nation’s largest organization for the nation’s fastest-shrinking profession? If SPJ represented everyone who’d benefit from a shield law – from reporters to readers – it might get more office visits on Capitol Hill.
3. SPJ should define journalism, not journalists.
The major intestinal blockage to easy passage of a federal shield law is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who’s constipated the process with her demand to define a journalist as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information.”
At the same Anaheim meeting where I proposed the name change, delegates voted unanimously for a resolution called Defining journalist. It concludes…
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Society of Professional Journalists strongly rejects any attempts to define a journalist in any way other than as someone who commits acts of journalism and admonishes Congress for stalling long overdue protection for journalists.
So why is SPJ defining “journalist” in its own name? I like the phrase, commits acts of journalism. If I thought it would fly, I would’ve proposed, “The Society for Committing Acts of Journalism.”
4. SPJ should treat its members like it treats its board of directors.
The elected leader of SPJ is not a professional journalist.
SPJ’s current board of directors is led by a college professor (an awesome one) and has six other profs on it – plus two students and a retired PR guy. The last board had a full-fledged media relations dude serving on its executive committee.
I wouldn’t trade our board members for anyone – well, honestly, a few I would – because they’re seriously committed to good journalism. I don’t care what it says under their names on their LinkedIn profiles.
5. We should train everyone to be journalists.
SPJ spends a lot of time teaching journalists how to blog. But it spends almost no time teaching bloggers how to be journalists.
SPJ can embark upon an entirely new and noble mission. A name change would welcome hundreds of amateur journalists who strive to be professional in their pursuits, whatever the hell those might be – from mommy blogging to city council watchdogging.
So I’m not just talking about changing SPJ’s name. I’m talking about changing its purpose.
And I wasn’t expecting that to happen in Anaheim last week. If I’ve learned anything from serving three years on SPJ’s national board, it’s this…
SPJ is as nimble as a school bus running a slalom course.
I submitted the name-change resolution to start a conversation. So it was hilarious and pathetic that the conversation lasted only a few minutes.
First, one delegate moved to limit debate to 15 minutes. Then, before those few minutes expired, another made a motion to “call the question” – cutting off debate to vote right away.
The reason? “This is a big decision with a lot of implications, and it requires further discussion.”
Yeah, well, that’s why I submitted the damn thing. Instead, delegates spent more time on a resolution called Thanking SPJ President Sonny Albarado.
I’m thankful for Monica Guzman, a young tech-savvy journalist who has almost as many Twitter followers (19,735) as all of SPJ (20,604).
At the end of the meeting, when the resolutions chairman asked if delegates had any other business to bring forth, Guzman raised her hand and admitted she was confused.
“I’m new at this, and I’m not sure what just happened,” she said. Turns out, SPJ doesn’t prep delegates in its arcane parliamentary procedure, and Guzman wanted to talk more about the name change.
You know the psychology: Once one person admits they didn’t understand something, others feel comfortable chiming in. A grassroots groundswell ensued, and an eccentric (and terrific) SPJ veteran named Mark Scarp informed and opined…
The delegates are the supreme legislative body of SPJ. If they choose, they can order the board of directors to discuss this issue and report back to this body when it reconvenes next year.
And that’s exactly what the delegates decided to do on a second vote. But at our board meeting the next day, SPJ president Dave Cuillier simply announced he was appointing a task force. I had to raise my hand and ask that we actually discuss it – for 15 minutes.
We went around the room, and I was pleasantly surprised how the reaction split three ways, in this order: mostly ambivalent, somewhat supportive, only a few steadfastly opposed.
I usually loathe task forces, project teams, and ad hoc committees. In SPJ, they’re the gulags where good ideas are sent to slowly die. But I’ll reserve judgment on Cuillier’s New Name Task Force until I see who he puts on it. Because if it doesn’t include me, the guy who wrote the resolution, I’ll be seriously pissed off.
What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?
Answer: When a pimp asks a prostitute to do two jobs, she gets paid double. When an editor asks a reporter to do two jobs, she gets paid the same.
OK, so I write lousy jokes. It seemed funnier Saturday night, drinking a Red Stripe and walking around a former brothel across the street from the Memphis train station.
SPJ’s traveling workshop, the Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, stopped last weekend in Tennessee’s largest city – which is not only bigger than Nashville but also (I was surprised to learn) Boston, Seattle, and Denver.
I was one of four Scripps “facilitators.” Alas, everything we facilitated in two days was undone in two hours by a 60-year-old bar owner named Russell George.
What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?
Answer: More people want to tour a whorehouse than a newsroom.
That’s one reason George is still sole proprietor of Earnestine and Hazel’s after 20 years. Opened in the 1930s as a sundries shop by two sisters named Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones, the women changed their business plan in the 1950s, creating a lunch counter on the first floor and renting out the small rooms on the second floor – by the hour, no questions asked.
It was a madame-less brothel for four decades, until George bought the boarded-up brick building in 1993 and reopened the downstairs as a bar-and-burger joint. He correctly reckoned people would buy more beer if they could stroll through the decrepit rooms where the prostitutes once put out.
That’s an enticing tale for out-of-town journalists. So while many Scripps attendees headed to Beale Street to drink Budweiser out of plastic cups and watch other tourists drink Miller High Life out of plastic cups, six of us walked a mile to Earnestine and Hazel’s…
What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?
Answer: The working conditions are about the same, but the prostitute makes her own hours.
When we pushed open the rusty front door, a couple was sitting at a rickety round table with splintered edges and another was sitting at the scuffed bar, which had three different kinds of stools. George wasn’t busy, so he asked if we wanted a tour.
A narrow wooden staircase in the back of the building was worn with such deep grooves that my feet never fell flat on any particular step. The walls had so many gaping holes and cracks, you could almost set your beer bottle down in a few of them.
The tiny rooms, some just a little larger than a walk-in closet, were oddly decorated. None had beds. But there were randomly placed lamps, sans shades, with red or blue bulbs. A white piano and black cafe table filled one room. A broken pinball machine was shoved in the corner of another.
The room at the end of the hall held a small bar, where we found one old guy drinking. That’s him in the photo above, with George amusingly trying to tidy up behind the bar. Cleaning that place seemed not only futile but foolish.
You don’t polish antique silverware or firearms because that lessens their value. Earnestine & Hazel’s is no different.
What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?
Answer: A prostitute can afford a newspaper, but a reporter can’t afford a prostitute.
George invited us into his office, a sanctuary he insisted few ever see. Being journalists, we were skeptical: Maybe he tells everyone this. Still, we were completely charmed. George can weave quite a yarn with his slurry drawl, but because I was a tad tipsy, I can’t accurately quote him, except for one exchange that stuck with me…
But when one arrived at our table, George came back and conceded, “It’s just a glorified Krystal burger.” Earlier, he told us there’s nothing special about his Soul Burger – which is, weirdly, why he thinks it’s so exalted…
“It don’t have no lettuce or tomato, because in the restaurant business, you can’t waste nothin’, and that shit don’t keep. So there’s just pickles and grilled onions and cheese on it. Hell, maybe it’s the name Soul Burger that does it. I dunno.”
George talks about his celebrity customers with the same no-hype slur. He has jaundiced, wavy photos of James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Norah Jones, and Orlando Bloom hung askew in dollar-store frames, and he tells small tales as he points to each – like how Sean Penn can drink anyone under the table, and how Robert Duvall danced with one of his friends.
If he’s serious about anything, it’s the ghosts. George insists the building is haunted. The jukebox mysteriously turns on and off, he says. Of course, that could just be the electrical wiring, if it’s as ancient and untended as the rest of the place.
What’s the difference between a prostitute and a reporter?
Answer: At Earnestine and Hazel’s, nothing.
As I peeked inside those tiny rooms on the second floor, I wondered if an entrepreneur like Russell George will one day do the same with a newspaper building – open a bar where the printing press was once bolted down and shove pianos and pinball machines into the editors’ offices and reporters’ cubicles.
On my lowest days, it seems our profession is following the fate of Earnestine and Hazel’s brothel.
But maybe we can learn something from Russell George, a once-divorced ex-musician and avid fisherman who admits he lost his 1950s Cadillac to gambling debts and dumped a girlfriend because she “messed with my tackle box.”
George slowly grew into a national success even though Earnestine and Hazel’s is more than a mile from the famed Beale Street bar scene. He draws hipsters, celebrities, young people, old journalists, and the most racially diverse customer base I saw in my time in Memphis – specifically because he refuses to change.
He knows the cachet of his club is in its stubborn anachronism and his easy ability to repeat the story with no hyperbole and lots of honesty. He knows his burgers wouldn’t be special if he tried to make them special. He knows no one believes his ghosts stories, but he also knows they’ll keep drinking if he tells them.
At the Scripps Leadership Institute earlier that same day, we were teaching journalists the opposite: Master all the latest tech on top of all the work you already do, follow all the latest trends on social media, see where the masses are moving and follow them.
I teach this myself. And it’s the right advice for the moment. But I wonder if journalists have lost what Russell George has preserved for prostitutes. I’m beginning to believe hyper-local journalism shouldn’t be defined just by geography but also by attitude.
I decided right there at Earnestine and Hazel’s to start my own hyper-local newspaper someday soon. And I’ll ask Russell George to be my “facilitator.”