Posts Tagged ‘Fort Lauderdale’


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.

Do yourself a favor: come to Fort Lauderdale

I’ve been a journalist for 34 years, and the learning curve in the past five years has been just as steep as it was for the first five.

I’ve learned to tweet, blog and use social media to advance my writing and reporting.

I’ve learned how to shoot and edit video. I even spent some time in film school learning about visual grammar and how to tell a story in a minute or two.

I’ve produced my own Internet radio news program. I’ve covered raging floods with my trusty iPad. And I still take notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and notepad.

None of this is remotely a complaint. Learning how to tell old familiar stories in completely new ways has been one of the pure joys of being a reporter in recent years.

I look at the world differently now. While on assignment, I think to myself: I can live-blog this, shoot some raw video, write my story on a park bench and tweet breaking news. It’s terrific fun, and somehow I still get paid for it.

One very tangible reason I still have this job (aside from my sheer incompetence at almost everything else) is the fact that I’ve managed to stay somewhat current with all these changes thanks in no small part to SPJ.

Most newsrooms have had to cut back if not eliminate their budgets for training and continuing education. If you want to take a couple of days off now to attend a seminar or a conference, chances are they will be on your own dime and time.

That’s why I think SPJ is such a solid investment in myself. For $75 a year, I’ve been able to access a ton of training and tools that have enabled me to be a better reporter.

I think back to all those spring conferences I’ve attended in Salt Lake City, Denver, Fort Collins, Colo., Long Island, N.Y., and Tacoma, Wash. There wasn’t one where I didn’t come back to the newsroom the following Monday and start applying something I had learned.

The pace of learning accelerates even more when I think of what I learned at our national conventions in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

That’s one reason I’m so looking forward to this year’s convention, Sept 20 to 22 at the Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale. It’ll be our second year teaming with the Radio Television Digital News Association to present the conference we call Excellence in Journalism. (Information and registration are atexcellenceinjournalism.org.)

First, there’s the hotel itself. It is so unlike any of the earlier convention venues we’ve been to in recent years. You walk out the back door and you’re a short walk from the ocean.

The white-sand beach has sections roped off for a tortoise nesting area. I’m told on a moon-lit night you can go down to the water’s edge and see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

If I were not slated to be at a national board meeting, I would definitely take the hovercraft tour of the Everglades. And I plan a return visit to an outrageously retro Polynesian tiki bar that dates back to the 1950s. (Think “Mad Men” with flame dancers and umbrella drinks.)

But I digress. There’s also some excellent learning opportunities and great speakers.

One of our keynote speakers is Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia University journalism professor who I heard talk earlier this year at an SPJ event in New York City. He is an expert on using social media to enhance your journalism skills. An hour with him will definitely raise your reporting game.

And not everything is high tech. Another speaker is Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter and best-selling author. In my book, Rick is one of the best storytellers of our generation. And trust me, even in a digital age, stories still matter. I think they matter more.

Our partnership with RTDNA has made our conventions even more useful. As all forms of media have converged in recent years, people on all sides of our profession have skills that are useful to share.

For example, one breakout session I’m hoping to catch is “Unleash Your Inner Broadcaster,” presented by the Public Radio News Directors. This is a program we would never have been able to assemble without our friends from RTDNA.

Oh, and one of my personal journalism heroes, longtime public radio host Bob Edwards, will be speaking. He’ll also receive our Fellows of the Society award, one of our highest honors. I can’t wait.

This convention also will mark the end of my year as president. This job has been a joy, and I intend to work it hard right up to the last day.

But one thing I’ll enjoy when I turn the presidency over to the very able Sonny Albarado is this: When the 2013 convention in Anaheim rolls around, I expect there will be a lot more time to soak up the learning there.

But you won’t have to wait that long. Stop reading and register today while you can still get the early bird rate (ends Aug. 28). After all, aren’t you and your career worth the investment?

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