Posts Tagged ‘Florida’


After seeing ‘Will Write For Food’ program, hope for the future of journalism

The newsroom was a pair of converted motel rooms stitched together into a space about the size of a double wide trailer.

The reporters were 23 college journalists who came from universities in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Florida.

Unlike many of their peers who spent Labor Day at a beach or a barbecue, these young journalists spent an intense and often chaotic 36 hours reporting, writing and editing an edition of The Homeless Voice, a monthly newspaper published by the COSAC Shelter in Hollywood, Fla.

They were all there as part of the 4th Annual “Will Write For Food” program, which is co-sponsored by the South Florida chapter of SPJ, a very creative effort that is the brainchild of Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky.

I joined the effort this year as an adviser and to learn about the program. What I witnessed was downright inspirational.

If any of you harbor doubts about the future of journalism, you ought to pay attention to these young journalists and what they were able to accomplish in one crazy, frenetic and sometimes improvisational weekend.

The spirit of the venture can be summed up by an off-handed remark I overheard one student telling another.

“I really like putting myself in awkward situations,” she said.

To me, that quip sums up the place where journalism lives. We do some of our best working through awkward situations.

The participants did so with a great amount of enthusiasm and bravado.

Take Chris Whitten, for example. Whitten is a University of Memphis senior and student editor who at one brief point in his life was homeless.

Most people would want to run as far away as they could from that experience. Whitten decided to go in the opposite direction.

He was determined to spend a night as a homeless person on the streets of Fort Lauderdale. So wearing a set of baggy clothes provided by the shelter, Whitten spent the night reporting the story from first-hand experience.

We all held our breath hoping he wouldn’t get arrested by police enforcing the city’s loitering ordinance. But instead he came back with this remarkable story about a spontaneous act of generosity by a homeless man.

The sheer range of stories these students came up with on the fly was breathtaking.

-One did a story about how violence against the homeless often is a way of life for shelter residents.

-Another wrote an interesting story about how time seems to pass more slowly for shelter residents.

-A photojournalism student gave five disposable cameras to shelter residents to photograph their world and help her write the captions.

-One student asked for a black light so he could see what the shelter floor’s looked like. This led to a somewhat gruesome but interesting story on what it takes to keep a shelter clean.

-And another did a hilarious story mimicking the unusual work-out routine and smoking habits of the shelter director.

Click here to find these stories, photographs and videos on a website that the students created.

Koretzky presides over this gathering with his signature snarky sense of humor and attention to detail.

For example, when one student said she wanted to create a new website for the “Voice” in just 36 hours, Koretzky challenged her by saying it couldn’t be done. She had it up and running within an hour.

Once it was up, Koretzky noticed one of the designers had created a masthead that read, “The Homless Voice.”

“Are you kidding me?” he asked. “You’re killing me!” he said.

“Looks good though,” he added.

Under the watchful gaze of two police officers, shelter staff and several advisors, a few of the students tagged along as shelter employees went out at night on their outreach tour, trying to coax people living on the street into coming into the shelter.

We travelled in a van, two unmarked police cars, an old ambulance and an old black and white police car that the shelter now owns.

For the students, it was an eye-opening experience talking one-to-one with people living under a highway bridge or in a tent in the woods.

There were several discussions on ethics, source credibility, anonymity, reporting technique and story writing. It was akin to a graduate seminar on real-world reporting done in real time.

By 3 a.m. Labor Day morning, I decided to call it a night, but not before telling the students (some of whom were still editing stories and working on the website) how proud I was of them and their efforts.

They give me great hope about the future of our profession.

Pushing back against the journalism brain drain

The email from Mr. Anonymous arrived in my mailbox one recent morning.

He wanted me to look into overcrowding in one of the local high schools where some classes had as many as 40 kids, he claimed.

“PLEASE INVESTIGATE THIS as you are our only hope,” the anonymous tipster wrote. “YOU CAN HELP OUR STUDENTS. PLEASE DO SO.”

The story will get done. But the email and its plaintive plea made me wonder: What would happen if I was not covering this inner city school district?

I don’t have a lot of competitors on my beat. Sadly, with the cutbacks that newspapers have been forced to make in recent years, there are many school districts and city halls that are not getting the attention we once paid to them.

Later that same morning, other emails followed with news of more layoffs of fellow journalists in Los Angeles, St. Louis and Dallas. It would appear that the cuts that have decimated our industry in recent years are far from over.

I can relate closely to the situation of my colleagues who lost their jobs, having been in that position myself when the Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009.

As troubling as the numbers are for our industry, there is a secondary kind of loss under way.

Within SPJ’s ranks in recent months, we’ve seen some of the best and brightest people leave the field of journalism for jobs outside the profession.

I think of former SPJ President Clint Brewer, one of my role models, who has taken a job with the state of Tennessee.

I think of Darcie Lunsford, formerly the president-elect, who has taken her bright personality and considerable skills into the Florida real estate business.

I think of Ian Marquand – the heart and soul of our Montana chapter – who also has taken a job in state government.

These are all bright people who have taken a new path on which I am sure they will excel. I’m sure we all wish them well.

All three have committed to staying with SPJ and helping out wherever they can, and I’m sure they will.

But it does make me wonder: What’s to become of our profession and our organization if we keep losing such bright minds and strong leaders?

Well, here’s one thing I believe we can and should do. There are plenty of bright and talented people in our business, many of them just starting out in their careers.

And there are others whom I’ve admired for years who for one reason or another have never joined SPJ.

We need to start reaching out to those folks and bring them into SPJ. We need to replenish our ranks with people like Clint and Darcie and Ian who can and will make a difference.

Here’s what I’m going to do: I’ve been compiling a list of 100 people who fit this description. Over the next 100 days, I’ll be writing a series of letters asking them to join SPJ.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do. Think of three people in your own world who you think would make excellent SPJ members and perhaps even leaders.

Call them. Email them. Write them. Ask them to join. (Here are few good reasons to join.) If you think a phone call from the SPJ president will help, email me their names and numbers. I’ll be happy to make those calls.

Let’s find these folks and make SPJ as strong in the service of journalism this year as it has been since 1909.

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