Archive for the ‘weirdness’ Category


Quill magazine cover with image of women jogging, shot from behind

Is this magazine cover sexist?

When I was first asked that question Saturday, I said, No, but it’s stupid.

The cover story in SPJ’s bimonthly magazine is about journalism training, and the cover photo is a lame stock image chosen by a lazy editor – who quit his job a few weeks ago and obviously didn’t give a damn.

Then I saw this…

…and I thought, Sure, it sucks, but “not appropriate”?

Then SPJ member Marie Baca wrote this, in which she said…

I have a feeling that some of you think I am blowing this out of proportion, but I also have a feeling that some of you know that I’m not. Maybe some of you have had some of the same experiences that I’ve had in the journalism industry. You know, the ones that aren’t something worth filing a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit over, but the ones that very quietly tell you that you maybe you don’t deserve the same respect or opportunities as your older, whiter, male-r colleagues.

…and I thought, Damn, but does SPJ really look that bad?

Over the weekend, my fellow SPJ board members emailed (too) casually about this. Without asking us, SPJ posted this reply…

…and I thought, That’s not the way to handle this – no ifs, ands, or buts.

This is what irks me most about SPJ. We run from the Big Questions. We don’t like to admit we’re wrong, which means we never learn.

I admit it right now: I was wrong, but I’m glad I was. I learned something this weekend. When was the last weekend you learned anything?

I learn best when I say yeah, but and the reply kicks my ass. I emailed Baca yesterday, copped to changing my mind, and asked her some questions. Her answers were enlightening and depressing.

Asked and answered

Marie C. BacaI’ve edited Baca’s comments because they were long – but not boring or rambling. 

Q. How would you rate SPJ’s handling of this? 

I would characterize SPJ’s handling of this issue as “horrendous.”

Any organization that represents an industry like journalism, one that has a long history of discrimination, has the duty to treat accusations of sexism with great seriousness. It was clear from the initial response I received from the SPJ Twitter account – a non-apology if I’ve ever seen one – that this was not going to happen.

Q. How could we do better next time? (Because I won’t be surprised if there’s a next time.)

Before SPJ said anything, on social media or otherwise, the following things should have happened:

• Interviews should have been conducted with the people involved with the cover photo decision as well as the two people who complained.

• The directors in charge of diversity as well as the ethics panel should have been asked to review the complaint and the comments from Quill staff against SPJ discrimination policies and issued a recommendation.

• The board should have discussed the issue in light of the aforementioned information and recommendations.

Then, and only then, should any sort of statement be offered on behalf of SPJ.

Q. Has anyone personally reached out to you yet?

I just got off the phone with president Lynn Walsh, and it is difficult to describe the enormity of my disappointment in our conversation.

Lynn seemed both irritated and defensive. She acknowledged the photo was irrelevant for a journalism publication, but said she did not find it sexist or inappropriate.

She insisted that SPJ had already issued an appropriate response via Twitter and said the organization did not plan to investigate the issue further or issue any statement on behalf of the organization.

Q. Some SPJers think this is no big deal. What would you tell them?

To those who say this is no big deal, I say this:

Why have I received hundreds of social media comments from both male and female journalists expressing their disgust at the photo?

Why did it spur a discussion among my colleagues about the countless instances of sexism they’ve experienced over the years in all sorts of different journalism organizations?

Why was the knee-jerk reaction of the SPJ to defend the photo as opposed to taking more than a few hours to discuss the complaint?

And finally, why are we as journalists willing to call out others in positions of authority on their overt and less-overt acts of discrimination, but so unwilling to turn the looking glass on ourselves?

The real damage

Honestly, I think Baca is angry out of proportion. At this point – and I could be wrong again – I’d conclude: The photo is sexist, but it’s a misdemeanor, not a high crime. 

Still, I wonder how much of Baca’s outrage is due to SPJ’s terse and timid response. It reminds me of the old journalism expression, “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.”

It’s not the sexism, it’s the silence.

You know what the real tragedy is? Excellent journalists like Marie Baca won’t ever run for SPJ’s board of directors. And she is excellent. I looked her up.

Baca is versatile enough to report deeply about “forced pooling” in shale drilling for ProPublica and then turn around and write this for The Wall Street Journal: “Near Lake Tahoe There’s a Bear So Tough, Bullets Bounce Off His Head.”

She’s the kind of journalist we need running SPJ. But I wonder if she’ll even renew her SPJ membership when the next bill arrives.

The real problem

Without violating any confidences, I can tell you this…

Some of my fellow board members don’t think this even deserves a discussion. There was a lot of, “I would hate to see this incident detract from the important work we have to do.”

Thing is, we don’t have a lot of work more important than this. SPJ’s board tends to obsess over “chapter financial report requirements” and “election of unaffiliated delegates” – which actually means little to SPJ, even less to me, and nothing to you.

Meanwhile, Baca and dozens of other journalists are publicly questioning a public SPJ decision. Even if you don’t mind the cover image, you can acknowledge an image problem.

It’s not going away either, because Baca isn’t backing down…

I will continue to demand that SPJ investigate the cover photo situation, acknowledge the sexism inherent therein, come up with a plan to prevent this from happening in the future, and issue a public statement describing all of these things.

Want to know the weirdest part? Six men sit on SPJ’s board of directors – along with 14 women, which includes the current president and the next one.

So if Baca isn’t fighting The Man. She’s fighting The Woman.

SPJ Diversity chair Dori Zinn, a friend of mine, opined last night. Read her here. I kind of doubt SPJ will tweet about either of our posts today.

Registering for trouble


This guy has a great idea.

Michael Pitts is a Republican state representative in South Carolina. Yesterday, he introduced a bill called the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.

Pitts wants the state to license journalists – and if they fail his standards and flout his law, they can spend up to 30 days in jail.

In the past 24 hours, Pitts has been mocked by the left (Mother Jones) and doubted by the right (The Daily Caller). After all, it’s odd for a small-government Republican to expand government into the newsroom.

But I see promise in Pitts’ proposal. Sure, there are problems, but there’s also opportunity…


PROVISION: Before working as a journalist for a media outlet in this State, a person shall provide a criminal record background check to the media outlet to determine journalistic competence.

PROBLEM: Because Rush Limbaugh was booked on drug charges in 2006 and cut a deal with prosecutors, his popular radio show would be banned in South Carolina. Like him or hate him, Limbaugh shouldn’t be censored. Pitts’ conservative constituency would surely agree.

And yes, Limbaugh is a journalist under Pitts’ broad definition: “‘Journalist’ means a person who in his professional capacity collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information for a media outlet, including an employee or an independent contractor.”


PROVISION: A person is not competent to be a journalist if…the person has demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.

PROBLEM: Who decides? Pitts’ bill doesn’t say, and it can’t be him – because he’s already been caught in a “disregard of truth” and a lack of “public accountability.”

In September, The Pulitzer Prize-winning Post and Courier reported that Pitts spent “nearly $6,000 jetting to Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana to hobnob with ‘sportsmen legislators.’

“Pitts said the summits were ‘mostly business’ concerning hunting and fishing laws and initiatives. But photos from these events show Pitts and others proudly posing with freshly killed pheasants and other game.”

While that’s not illegal, it’s surely unethical. And weirdly, Pitts serves on the House Ethics Committee. It must be easier to legislate ethics for others than to practice them yourself.


PROVISION: A person who works as a journalist without registering…for a first offense, must be fined not more than twenty-five dollars; for a second offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than one hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than fifteen days, or both; and for a third or subsequent offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days, or both.

OPPORTUNITY: SPJ can boost its membership.

As the SPJ board member representing the southeast United States, I’ll offer South Carolinians this perk: If you can’t get licensed because you’ve behaved no better than the sponsor of this bill, I’ll match you with an SPJ member who lives outside your state.

You’ll write under that SPJer’s byline, and I’ll keep records attesting that the stories are really yours. When you apply for other jobs – hopefully in other states – you can show off your best work, and I’ll back you up.

Even if you earn the Registry Office’s blessing, you might not want to pay the “application fee,” which has yet to be announced but will be “an amount determined by the office.” You, too, can use the SPJ Byline Exchange Service and save.

But to use this free service, you must join SPJ. Since SPJ membership costs only $75, that’s cheaper than a second violation and might cost less than the application fee.

Finally, I’ll offer to pay the $25 first-offense fine for any unlicensed South Carolina journalists who report on their failed attempt to get licensed and thus get fined. I love it when stories eat their own tails.

Alas, the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law has zero chance of passing – even Pitts admitted as much to (unlicensed) reporters. Too bad. I was hoping he’d register public information officers next.


The mall and the media

TV news report on Mall St. Matthews in Louisville, Kentucky

When is a brawl a riot? When is it a race riot?

Around 7 p.m. Saturday, up to 2,000 “youths” rampaged through a mall in Louisville, Kentucky. But was it a riot?

The local FOX and  ABC affiliates hedged their headlines with quote marks: Kentucky mall shut down after police respond to numerous “riots” and Police: ‘Riots’ shut down Mall St. Matthews early.

National media settled on a less racially charged word: TIME and NBC used brawl. But none of these outlets reported the race of the “rioters,” which was obvious from some of the cellphone videos shot by shoppers inside the mall. Many were black.

That omission bugged Breitbart, the popular conservative website…

The story has received a great deal of national exposure, but the mainstream media coverage has consistently left out the race of the “youth” that went wilding through the mall, as well as consistently using the number 2,000 as the number of people involved in the incident. The reporting is part of the pattern of misreporting on stories about large groups of black youths goings on rampages nationwide in the past few years.

Earlier this year, Breitbart was slammed for “race-baiting” by liberal sites like Salon and New Republic. I wonder if both things can be true: Breitbart is right to call out the media for censoring itself, while simultaneously catering to the racists in its readership.

Below are just some of the objectively offensive comments I culled from the more than 2,000 on Breitbart’s mall article. Nearly all are uncontested by other Breitbart readers or Breitbart itself, which is a shame — because all conservatives aren’t racists, just as all liberals aren’t socialists.

Oddly, on many Breitbart posts about Muslims, the comment section usually includes something like, “When will Muslims call out the violence in their own community?”

Well, Breitbart, when are you going to call out the racism in yours?


What really matters

Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome

Black Lives Matter doesn’t matter this much.

At Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, the private liberal arts school is in the middle of a very public controversy.

Last week, the student newspaper ran a column called Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think. Written by staff writer Bryan Stascavage, it opined…

It boils down to this for me: If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.

Stascavage ended with…

At some point Black Lives Matter is going to be confronted with an uncomfortable question, if they haven’t already begun asking it: Is this all worth it? Is it worth another riot that destroys a downtown district? Another death, another massacre? At what point will Black Lives Matter go back to the drawing table and rethink how they are approaching the problem?

In the days since, Wesleyan activists with Black Lives Matter have done a lot more than write a letter to the editor. The Boston Globe has reported, “Wesleyan students want to shut down their own newspaper for its Black Lives Matter coverage.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education added that slightly less reactionary students are demanding, “space on the newspaper’s front page should be devoted to submissions from minority voices.”

That led Argus editors to post a staff editorial apologizing for “our carelessness in fact-checking. The op-ed cites inaccurate statistics and twists facts.” However, they didn’t list those stats and facts. They also apologized “for the distress the piece caused the student body.”

This entire mess distresses Frank LoMonte. He’s executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“It’s totally legitimate for them to protest the paper if they feel ill-served,” LoMonte says of the Black Lives Matter students. “But it goes too far to insist that every issue set aside front-page space for a minority-perspective or to threaten the paper’s funding.”

LoMonte continues….

Obviously, a private college isn’t legally obliged to continue funding the paper, but it would set a terribly intimidating precedent if making readers mad resulted in being de-funded. Would the readers really be better served by no newspaper at all? Obviously not. If the dissenters want to come up with a better newspaper, great, they can apply for funding and compete in the marketplace.

LoMonte’s days are spent defending student journalists from censorious administrators. In this twisted case, he’s defending students from students – and he has Wesleyan administrators on his side.

“Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable,” wrote Wesleyan president Michael Roth. “We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking.”

Attention Wesleyan Black Lives Matter: You know you’ve lost your campus’s hearts and minds when frequent enemies are aligned against you. Even worse, you know you’re toast when Gawker makes fun of you with “lmao.”

As an SPJ national director, I’ve emailed the shell-shocked Argus editors, offering to help them any way I can. But since everyone is piling on the student protesters, I want to make them this public offer…

If Wesleyan’s Black Lives Matter will stop trying to shut down their student newspaper, I’ll help them start their own. 

As LoMonte says, media can “compete in the marketplace.” I’ll help raise money for web and print publishing, and I’ll  assist with all the boring logistics so the students who hate The Argus can create a media outlet they like.

This isn’t a shtick, ploy, scheme, or bluff. The last time I offered to help students start their own publication, they raised more than $5,000. I truly believe anyone who commits an act of journalism not only informs their readers but also themselves. That’s my only greedy self-interest.

So all it takes is this: Any of 147 students who signed the Wesleyan petition complaining The Argus “neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color,” I’ll help you create that safe space. But you have to maintain it. I hope that matters enough for you to email me.

Bloch and tackle

Don't mess with Emily Bloch

Emily Bloch was just plagiarized. So why is she smiling?

Because the 21-year-old college editor proved a local reporter copied her story, proved he had done the same to others, and stood up to the publisher who vaguely threatened to sue her.

That all happened last week. By Friday afternoon, the plagiarizing reporter was suspended and the publisher had announced an internal investigation.

Not bad for a week’s work.

Here’s what happened, and what we can learn from it…

Bloch is the newly elected editor of the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, and not long after she reported about a police investigation into a student rape off campus, she discovered The Boca Raton Tribune had done the same – lifting entire paragraphs from her story.

Her faculty adviser emailed the Tribune, politely asking for elaboration. No reply. A few days later, Bloch called but couldn’t get past the receptionist.

So being a journalist, Bloch investigated her plagiarist and – to no one’s surprise – learned he had done it before. His targets included not just a major regional daily but national sites like Wired and The Daily Beast.

Bloch wrote a column on the University Press website that began like this…

At FAU, if I get caught plagiarizing a paper, I’ll get an F. It would go on my transcript and on a repeat offense, I could get expelled. But if I do it at The Boca Raton Tribune, I’ll get a paycheck.


Bloch promoted her column on social media, and Poynter staff writer Ben Mullin tweeted it, as did best-selling author Jeff Pearlman to his 49,000 followers. A local website called Rise Miami News covered the story, quoting Bloch: “Copying and pasting whole paragraphs from my story is pretty ballsy.”

Not surprisingly, within hours of Bloch’s column going live, the publisher called her — to demand the story be spiked. She didn’t back down. The publisher called the newspaper’s faculty adviser and mentioned calling a lawyer. He didn’t back down.

By the time I spoke with the publisher Friday afternoon — because SPJ Florida and Region 3 like to spend money on lawyers defending journalists — he realized his threats weren’t budging his targets. So he announced the reporter was suspended and he was investigating.

“She brought up very good points,” the publisher told Rise Miami News. “We want to teach young people good journalism, and this is not the right way.”

Bloch did it the right way. Journalism can not only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, it can punish a plagiarizer.

Schick hits the fan

Sam Olens

If only they were all this quick and easy.

Yesterday, I wrote about Sam Olens, Georgia’s attorney general, who was picking on a University of Georgia journalism student named David Schick.

I described how Olens was demanding Schick erase four pages of very public records from his personal blog. Last week, Olens filed a motion with a judge to force the 28-year-old to comply.

Yesterday, Olens withdrew that motion.

Why? Who knows.

I’d like to think it had something to do with SPJers posting those same public records on their own blogs in protest. Not ony did I do that, but so did SPJ President Dave Cuillier.

At least one attorney is convinced SPJ had something to do with it.

“Whenever there’s a blogger whose rights are being threatened, SPJ is the first to ride to the rescue,” says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “There’s no question this needless intimidation tactic would have dragged on for many more weeks without SPJ’s timely intervention. The attorney general’s office thought they could push around one little student blogger, but they didn’t realize they were taking on an entire profession.”

As for Schick, he’s happy yet confused: “I’m very glad the Attorney General’s office withdrew their motion, but I still don’t know the reason why.”

He concludes…

It’d be great if the AG’s office withdrew the motion because they realized it was legally unsupportable in the first place. But if they just withdrew it because they now realize — in the age of the Internet — it would be impossible to track down everyone who might already have republished this material, that’s less encouraging.

I disgaree with Schick. I doubt Sam Olens jumped out of bed yesterday morning and blurted, “My God, what have I done?!” before rushing to work and withdrawing his motion. He’s an elected official who saw some bad publicity barreling towards him, so he smartly got out of the way. I find that very encouraging.

Schick vs. hick

Sam OlensWant to enrage this guy in Georgia? Copy 21 pages of public records to your own website.

Somewhere in those pages are four that so offend Georgia’s Attorney General, he’s demanding a college journalist erase them from his personal blog. Last week, he asked a judge to force the kid to do it.

So what does Attorney General Sam Olens fear the public will learn? NSA snooping secrets? Benghazi scandal evidence? The recipe for Coca-Cola? (Coke is based in downtown Atlanta.)

“The four pages of documents,” says the motion Olens’ office filed last Wednesday, “contain the names of a number of individuals who applied for the position of president at one of the Board of Regents’ colleges or universities. None of these individuals was selected as a finalist for the position for which they applied.”

That’s right, Olens doesn’t want you to know the names of people who applied for a job and didn’t get it.

Perhaps Olens wants to spare those fine folks the embarrassment of everyone knowing they were passed over. Then again, they were outed only on an obscure blog written by a University of Georgia journalism student named David Schick.

So how did Schick get those names? Simple. He asked for them.

Olens’ motion contends Georgia officials “improperly” released those names, buried in 700 pages of public records Schick had been requesting for nearly a year.

Frank LoMonte

Want to enrage this attorney in Washington, DC? Whisper “Sam Olens” in his ear.

“It’s outrageous that Attorney General Sam Olens apparently doesn’t understand basic principles of First Amendment law that have been set in concrete for decades,” says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“The Supreme Court has said again and again and again that journalists have an absolute right to publish information they obtain without breaking the law, and no court can order them to stop the presses – much less the more drastic step of ‘unpublishing’ something distributed months earlier.”

What angers LoMonte is the triviality of it all.

“States have been conducting college presidential searches in the open for many, many years,” he says. “The idea that there’s some privacy right in being a candidate for college president that overrides the First Amendment is frankly nutty.”

LoMonte concludes, “Courts can’t stop a journalist even from publishing leaked classified documents or the names of rape victims, and the evaluation of candidates for college president looks like pretty small beans next to those. I’m certain that the judge will laugh this motion right out of his courtroom.”

Davd Schick

Want to assist David Schick? Annoy Sam Olens.

Click the image below to view 21 pages of public records from Schick’s original 700-page request (more on that in a minute). Then post them on your own website and tell Olens about it. I just did…

Mr. Olens: I heard about your office’s motion to compel a college journalist to remove four pages of public records from his website. Since the motion didn’t specify exactly which pages those were, and since David Schick and his attorney won’t tell me – it’s “pending litigation,” after all – I’ve discovered 21 pages that qualify. Since I’m reasonably sure the four pages that offend you are among them, I’m posting the 21-page PDF to my blog and asking others to do the same with their blogs. 

The reasoning here is simple.

If many others post the PDF, the judge will likely conclude it makes no sense to grant Olens’ motion. Because as often happens in these cases, Olens’ heavy-handed tactics have made those public records even more public.

So what did Schick want with 700 pages of records? I wrote about Schick last year, when he was investigating a $16 million budget shortfall at Georgia Perimeter College – where he went to school, and where his newspaper adviser was laid off due to budget cuts.

Obviously, administrators weren’t keen on Schick’s digging, and they stymied him at every turn. As I wrote last April…

First, the school charged him $2,963 to forward him emails. When he got a volunteer lawyer who threatened to sue, the price tag was knocked down to $291. But then administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them – which meant Schick couldn’t search them for keywords.  

Undaunted, Schick secured a pro bono attorney in Atlanta-based Daniel Levitas and sued the Georgia Board of Regents for “failing to produce public records.” After a 2 1/2-day trial in April, Schick and Levitas are awaiting the judge’s verdict.

How long will that take?

“I have no way of knowing,” Levitas says. “There may be a decision very soon or there may not be a decision for many months. Following the trial, we’ve received no instruction from the judge.”

That might seem like the wheels of justice grinding exceedingly slow, but Levitas says it was a speedy trial that the judge “rocket-docketed.”

He also doesn’t know when the judge will rule on Olens’ motion. But Schick, who now attends the University of Georgia and is president of the school’s SPJ/ONA chapter, is more patient than most journalists. In fact, he says this experience has emboldened him to become an attorney himself.

He already speaks like one. I asked him what he could say, given that we have no idea when the “pending” will end on the case and the motion. He replied via email with this lawyerly statement…

This is a rather extraordinary motion and raises profound First Amendment concerns of prior restraint and government censorship. Time and time again, the right of journalists to publish controversial and even classified government documents has been supported by the courts. The ability to publish controversial information — even information that allegedly jeopardizes the supposed “privacy rights” of individuals — is a cornerstone of press freedom in our democracy.

He concluded like this: “I look forward to responding further in the proper forum — in court by and through my attorney.”

When Schick passes the bar, I got to keep him on speed dial. Because I might want to hire him to represent me someday.

Make Olens mad

Fun with Dicks and Jane

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.

Reporters and prostitutes

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…

Lakeland Ledger reporter Ryan Little, StateImpact Florida reporter John O’Connor, Nashville’s City Paper editor Steve Cavendish, and freelancers Gideon Grudo and Brandon Ballenger.

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…

After peppering him with questions, we went downstairs for one of George’s famous Soul Burgers, which have been touted by Esquire and CNN.

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.”

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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