An Amazing Media Memphisis

I’ve spent most of my life getting kicked out of school, so it was a strange surprise to be invited to the University of Memphis last week to speak there.

The SPJ student chapter and its j-school have, for three decades, hosted something called the Freedom of Information Congress. Past speakers have included Carl Bernstein, Nina Totenberg, and Anderson Cooper.

And now me.

When I told friends and colleagues I was invited and I didn’t exactly know why, the younger ones accused me of humblebrag. (The older ones already know I’m an arrogant asshole.) But it was an objectively curious decision for a j-school to pay travel expenses for someone who’s been expelled as a student and fired as a newspaper adviser.

(Maybe this is also humblebrag, but I declined an honorarium. I’m not charging when my predecessors included Helen Thomas, Daniel Schorr, and David Broder.)

It turns out the University of Memphis is a quirky and contradictory place. It both depressed and impressed me. Here’s why.

The unkindest cuts and cops

If the University of Memphis is known to journalists outside the city, it’s for tormenting its student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman.

BoozerLast year, editor Chelsea Boozer and her staff won the Student Press Law Center’s College Press Freedom Award for fighting “a retaliatory budget cut while enduring a campaign of harassment by campus police.”

It’s a long story, but one worth reading. Or watching. I met Boozer at SPJ’s annual Will Write For Food program only days before she won this award. Her managing editor (and now SPJ chapter president) Christopher Whitten had also been accepted into what I believe is the toughest journalism weekend in the country. Both shined.

So I knew something about Memphis students when I flew up there last Tuesday. But I didn’t know squat about the faculty.

Burying the news

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s this: Just like big newspapers, big j-schools aren’t always the best. Both can be too massive to steer nimbly, too nervous to try anything new, and too arrogant for self-analysis.

The Memphis j-school lives in the shadow of its bigger (and richer) brother at the University of Tennessee, but it doesn’t seem to suffer from an inferiority complex. Maybe that’s because it’s a short drive to the famous Beale Street barbecue and bar scene, and after one night there myself, I was feeling rather mellow.

Whatever the reason, the Memphis j-school is small in all the right ways. Example: One student told me he had been arrested for stealing textbooks because he was too broke to buy them, and he got so depressed he stopped going to class. He only went back when journalism department chairman David Arant called him – and with kind but firm words, told him not to sacrifice his career over a mistake.

How many department chairs call a student in trouble? Or call a student ever?

This incident reveals something else about the University of Memphis: Many of its students are older and broker than in other places.

I spoke to three j-school classes and the Daily Helmsman staff before my keynote Wednesday evening. In each encounter, I met weary but earnest students in their late 20 or early 30s, many with one child and some with two and even three. A father told me the average student is 26 with a small kid and huge loans.

By the book

Under these circumstances, you’d think the professors would flee as soon as they got a whiff of another job offer. But all three who invited me to speak to their classes were pleased with their surroundings, and two are recently published.

Joe Hayden is the author of The Little Grammar Book, which he told me he wrote precisely because his students – who often work one or even two jobs to pay the bills –  were too frazzled to wade through musty grammar tomes. He wanted a slender, cheap paperback that would impart the crucial basics. And he succeeded.

He gave me a copy, and I read it on the plane back to Fort Lauderdale. I finished it somewhere over the Gulf without knowing I was more than halfway home. How often does a grammar book cause you to lose track of time?

Pam Denney‘s Food Lover’s Guide to Memphisis entirely different.

The veteran food critic published a gastronomic tour of her city last year, covering everything from barbecue joints to organic markets to local recipes to the city’s “food politics.”

(Memphis is, according to one study, the nation’s fattest city. Weirdly, Denney is a wisp of a woman. And few of the students were anywhere near obese – but one wryly told me that’s because they can’t afford food.)

SOL with the FOI

Unfortunately, my keynote didn’t offend, despite the photos of genital tattoos and a full-body cavity search.

(I thought it would be amusing for an FOI event to censor my slides – all of which were, of course, educational. I’m not an anarchist.)

The Memphis Flyer, the local alt-weekly, posted a mostly softball summary of what I said. I believe journalists go flaccid when they cover their own kind, out of some twisted professional courtesy.

And in fact, that was my theme for the night – “There’s nothing more hypocritical than a thin-skinned journalist.”

That led to the only Flyer flak…

I believe there are hypocrites in every profession. I don’t think one profession boasts a larger amount of hypocrites than another. … I expected that Koretzky would make some statements that were debatable, and this indeed was one of them.


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