Photos Suggest Society of Professional Journalists Takes Its Toll on Executive Director

SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel’s latest photo shows how much he has developed and even aged physically during his role leading the nation’s largest organization of journalists.

Those of us on the Society of Professional Journalists National Board of Directors have the pleasure of working directly with Joe Skeel, who leads our top-notch national staff.

The photo on the left dates back a few years ago when Skeel was the editor of the Society’s membership publication, QUILL Magazine. The photo on the right has been added more recently.

Recently, I noticed that even for the baby-faced executive director, working with the 20+ members of the Board (and a separate Board for the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation) and the nearly 8,000 members of the largest, most broad-based organization for journalists can take its toll, to use a cliche.

Skeel, who became our executive director in 2009,  updated his photo on the SPJ Web site  during the last year and we can see that the years and the stress are showing just a bit.

As one who is proud of the increasing number of gray hairs showing up on my head, I am the first to say — aging gracefully is good.

But, Joe,  don’t let the Society make you grow older before it’s time.

Those in the national media have made fun of President Barack Obama graying during the years of his first term.

I guess once in a while, we have to poke a little fun at ourselves– as journalists  (Joe worked as a journalist before joining the SPJ national staff in 2004) when the age starts to show.


Attention Journalism Students: Bob Woodward Is More Than a Figure in American History

There are some questions about how relevant Bob Woodward is to college students studying journalism in 2013. A capacity crowd for Woodward’s lecture Friday night at University of Alabama included only a few journalism students.

Woodward THEN- in the 1970s as a reporter for The Washington Post. Courtesy:

You couldn’t tell it by the standing-room only crowd that came to hear Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward Friday night.

But, dozens of University of Alabama journalism students missed what for me was a once-in-lifetime opportunity:  A Chance to Hear and Meet One of the Greatest Journalists Ever.

Present and Former Fellows of the Blackburn Institute, a leadership program here at University of Alabama, took the front rows at Friday’s lecture by Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward. UA President Judy Bonner and Vice President for Student Affairs Mark Nelson were also in attendance.

I left the outstanding lecture with mixed feelings- EXCITED and ENERGIZED about what we do as journalists, but ANGRY because so many of our journalism students did not show up.   I saw fewer than 20 of the students in our classes here at the University attendance.

We have more than 300 majors in the UA journalism department.

This was such an important event that we invited students from the Society of Professional Journalists from Auburn University and Jacksonville State University to make the more than two-hour drive to Tuscaloosa for the lecture.

Students from Auburn University’s Society of Professional Journalists chapter took a photo with Bob Woodward after his lecture Friday night at University of Alabama.

And, the AU And JSU students both had delegations at the event, which was sponsored by UA’s Blackburn Institute.

We had dozens of high school journalists in town for the Alabama Scholastic Press Association Winter Convention.  But only one or two schools came to hear Bob Woodward, even though we re-arranged the convention schedule to include the 6 p.m. lecture.

Who is Bob Woodward?

Today as I began a 3-hour videojournalism workshop with 15 middle school students from the Birmingham area,  I asked them what they knew about Bob Woodward.

Most were aware of his work connected to the Watergate scandal.  These 6th, 7th and 8th graders could name all the U.S. presidents who Woodward has interviewed and featured in his 17 books.

These students were really sharp.  But,  I wonder how many of my college students are equally as adept in their knowledge of civics?

A matter of memory and relevance

I don’t remember Watergate.  It happened when I was two years old.

I told the middle school group today that the first president I can remember was Jimmy Carter whose inauguration we watched in the cafeteria when I was in 1st grade at Richmond Mary Scott Elementary School.

But, when you talk about why we do journalism, it’s hard not to point to the stellar investigative work of  Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and more recently, Brett Blackledge.

Bob Woodward addressed a capacity crowd in Sellers Auditorium at the Bryant Conference Center Friday night. The event was sponsored by University of Alabama’s Blackburn Institute.

As was evident in much of his address last night, Woodward is very much engaged in the policy issues that confront the White House and Congress today.

In fact, in his remarks Friday night,  he referenced his latest writing this weekend about the sequester, the $85 billion in spending cuts set to take effect March 1.

Members of The Crimson White staff had a separate meeting with Bob Woodward on Friday when the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was in town for the Blackburn Institute’s Winter Symposium.

There were a handful of UA journalism students there.  A few of the members staff of the student newspaper,  The Crimson White, had a separate meeting with Woodward earlier on Friday.

What could be more important than hearing and meeting Bob Woodward?

Perhaps it’s a matter of relevance.   Sports figures, pop culture icons and other celebrities are more relevant to today’s students.

If they’re not studying public policy or leadership, should students  be engaged with people like Bob Woodward?

Gene Patterson Interview Reminds Us What A Great Mind We’ve Lost

An archival video of Eugene Patterson, posted by Tampa Bay Times, provides us a reminder of what a great journalist and great mind we’ve lost with the death of this Pulitzer Prize winner.

Thanks to the Tampa Bay Times and The Poynter Institute,  we have a video that can remind us all of what a great contribution Eugene Patterson made to our profession of journalism.

Patterson, a former Times Publishing Co. editor and CEO, who also made his mark as an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died Saturday at the age of 89.

Appropriately, the Tampa Bay Times’ tribute website is appropriately titled “He made a mark.”

He definitely did– a BIG MARK.

Most newspapers and web sites are content just running Associated Press Reporter Mitch Stacy’s obituary on Patterson, which is comprehensive.

I  think this video, though, tells us so much more, when you can see Patterson reflecting on his life in his own words.

He says the three most influential people in his life were his mother, Ralph McGill (another former AJC editor) and Nelson Poynter (who started what would later be named The Poynter Institute).

Graduate Students Provide Reality Check on Required Blogging in Class

Web writing or maintaining a blog does not come natural to digital natives. Moreover, using blogs as a class requirement requires the instructor do more than say “go blog.”

This is at least the third year I’ve had students in my journalism classes at the University of Alabama doing required blogging.

For prospective journalists,  the ability to maintain an online journal is a necessary work skill as one enters a full-time news production job.

Consequently, we here on the UA faculty decided two years ago to start requiring incoming freshman to create a blog in their very first class and do AT LEAST FOUR blog posts over that first 15-week academic term.

In this first undergraduate course, we award extra points when they dress up their blogs with photos, pictures and web links.

We hope they’ll continue to use the blog for classes throughout the major.

Bob Sims, who leads the cadre of content producers at Alabama’s top news

Bob Sims, editor of, talked about the importance of blogging during a visit to both of my journalism classes Jan. 30. He was an outstanding, enthusiastic guest speaker.

web site,, spent 90 minutes with my class almost two weeks ago.   I was curious how much of what he said would stick as the students blogged.

Starting this semester on our journalism department web page, we are going to spotlight a “BLOG OF THE WEEK.”


This is the first semester, I’ve required graduate students to maintain a web log.   Now that we’re about four weeks into the semester, I am reading over their first few blog posts of the academic term.

I can see what happens when you require something that really ought to be informal or something with a personal flair to it.


Here are five (5) problems I see from requiring something like this in an academic setting:

Problem #1:  The students think they’re writing for me, the professor

Problem #2:  The students are reporting on what we did “in class” as if the reader was in our class and heard the same instructions that they heard last Monday morning.

Problem #3Text-only writing  is boring.  Where are the images or graphics that make something appealing to read?  Most of the blog posts are link-less, destined to NOT Be found out here on the World Wide Web

Problem #4: The posts fail to take much of a stand on a controversial or unpopular issue.

There’s little to argue about what someone said in a chapter of a textbook.  They should be finding something to engage an audience in discussion.

Problem #5: Some of the posts feel like they’re written because the teacher is requiring it, not because the writer actually thinks or believes what he or she is saying.  In other words, there’s no conviction.

Here’s the newsflash:  This is ALL MY FAULT.  Just like anything else, students ?(even very bright graduate students) cannot do what they haven’t been taught.

Assuming these digital natives who spend half of their lives in social media know how to maximize this free, open and flexible web space is a BIG MISTAKE.

We all know what assuming does (hint, hint).


It’s not enough to pose problems, if I don’t have any solutions.  I think I’ll address those in a later post here.

Time to Celebrate the Life of An Alabama Journalism Student

Today we celebrate the life of University of Alabama Journalism Student William Malnati, who passed away Monday after an illness.

As an instructor, you always remember those students who speak up and fire away with the tough questions that make you think.

Those in my  Introduction to Journalism class here at the University of Alabama this spring will surely remember William Malnati’s frequent exchanges with me on things such as how I enunciated words, pronounced his name or  provided the specifics of a journalism assignment.

Sadly, I won’t have the opportunity to see Mr. Malnati complete his journalism studies as he passed away Monday after an illness.

William Malnati

Despite his sickness that required hospitalization this semester, this 24-year-old journalism major from Centennial, Colo. did not let that keep him from staying abreast of the current events and up-to-date on his assignments.

He had a passion for his studies and took every assignment very seriously.   I believe he made as much of an impression on me as an instructor as he did on other students in the class.

In my eight years on the journalism faculty here at the University of Alabama, I don’t ever remember losing a student who was currently in one of my classes.

I admire Mr. Malnati for staying focused and fighting this illness to the very end.   His parents can be proud of raising a young man who was on his way to making his mark in the world, even as he pursued his journalism degree.

Today we celebrate the life of this University of Alabama student and remember him for the short time that we had the pleasure of knowing and working with him.

In William Malnati, we saw a true example of perseverance in the face of significant adversity.

I thank God for the privilege of having William Malnati in my class and for the opportunity to cross paths with him this semester.

Two reasons I’m struggling with news of Osama bin Laden’s death

I know bin Laden’s death is the big news of the day, but what about what’s happening here in Tuscaloosa? Do national media outlets under-inform their audience by putting all their eggs in the “bin Laden basket?”

Even as I got a firsthand look today at some of the areas of town affected by the tornado that changed our West Alabama community forever,  I’ve been struggling with how to react to the media shift from the Tornado Aftermath to the bin Laden death as the BIG STORY.

Yes, it’s a lead story, but..

Yes, as a television producer, it’s a no-brainer.  Timeliness, impact, Bizarre, Unusual– all the news values that make this the BIG STORY of the day.   I think ABC, CBS and NBC were correct to field anchor their newscasts tonight from Ground Zero.

But, bodies are still being pulled from the rubble here in Tuscaloosa.  If you’re not in Tuscaloosa, can you really turn your attention away from what’s happening here in Alabama?

How Did You Learn About Osama bin Laden death?

The other issue is how we all learned about this particular story.   One of my newest Twitter followers sent me a direct message asking my advice about how to handle this story.  I was like “what, what are you talking about?”

Then, I preceded to go to my usual pecking order of news sites for verification that this was the big story–,,,

Turns out Stacey Higginbotham has outlined almost exactly my steps in a post last night even as the story was breaking.   Her “7 Stages of News in a Twitter and Facebook Era” just became required reading for my journalism students who will be taking basic news reporting from me next month.

As for the shift away from Tuscaloosa, a question I posed in an earlier post in regard to the national TV networks, I think I can accept that our tragedy here will continue for some time.   It may not be the lead story on the evening news, but it’s still news– a story that will be back on the national radar in the days, weeks, months and YES, YEARS to come.

CNN Breaks New Ground, Offers Lesson In Covering America in Its Diversity With ‘Gary & Tony’ Documentary

CNN’s latest “In America” project, “Gary & Tony Have a Baby” is groundbreaking. The Turner-owned network managed to tell a story on such a controversial topic in one hour while appropriately acknowledging the various sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and the legal barriers that still prevent those Americans from being parents.

Well the much-anticipated premiere of the 2010 installment in CNN’s “In America” series is over.  If you missed “Gary and Tony Have a Baby,” you’ll get a chance to see airings both this Saturday, June 26th and Sunday, June 27th.

What I want to talk about is how CNN managed to tell a story on such a controversial topic in one hour while appropriately acknowledging the various sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and the legal barriers that still prevent those Americans from being parents.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien participated in at least two advanced screenings of "Gary and Tony Have a Baby" in New York and Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy: CNN

“My job is to do the story as authentically as possible,” said Soledad O’Brien, the CNN correspondent who has thus far  reported all of the network’s “In America” projects.

O’Brien’s comments were made at one of at least two advanced screenings — in Los Angeles and New York.

Being authentic in reporting any story about Gays in America or any other subset of our population is daunting, to say the least.

But, as one who prepares students to be responsible journalists in reflecting the diverse aspects of the lives of their readers, viewers and communities, O’Brien and her staff were up for the task and delivered in a big way.

It matters not whether you agree or disagree with the same-sex marriage or same-sex adoption.   What DOES matter is whether you as a viewer of tonight’s documentary were informed and enlightened about a topic that is rarely covered in this much depth.

Tom Shales Was Right

Even before tonight’s documentary premiere ended, CNN included an excerpt from The Washington Post in its promotion of the re-air dates for the documentary this week.

In a review published Tuesday, The Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote
“Gary and Tony” is not technically advocacy journalism, but in showing a same-sex couple who successfully navigate the mine field and adopt a baby that one of them helped create, O’Brien makes a case for, at the very least, compassion.”

I think Shales is right in his assessment that O’Brien made a case, a role that journalists have as they seek to shine the light on stories that might not otherwise be reported.

In an earlier post, I made reference to efforts in entertainment, one daytime drama, ABC’s One Life to Live, which recently showed the court case involving a same-sex couple that adopted a child what was biologically fathered by one characters in the daytime drama.    Also on ABC, two of the main characters on the hit drama, Brothers and Sisters, are using surrogate parenting to have their first child.

But, tonight’s one-hour presentation represents responsible journalism in ALSO acknowledging the naysayers, but NOT getting mired in the controversy. The back-and-forth, the hysteria that surrounds this issue could have choked out what is otherwise a great story.

If you look at the comments on CNN’s Gay in America microsite, which accompanied the documentary,  there is no shortage of hate and debate about gay marriage and gay parenting.  You don’t have to go far to find that.

This documentary could easily have been overtaken by that.   Instead, the CNN producers focused on the REAL story.

CNN Producers: “Their personalities come across”

“Agree or disagree with their lifestyle, we do think that their personalities come across,” said Dave Timko, who edited the documentary.

In their very short “behind the scenes” video posted on the CNN microsite, Timko and Producer Brandon Clements acknowledge it’s taken 19 months to bring this story to the airwaves.

Photo: Courtesy: CNN

Clements describes the project as “a human story about two people fulfilling their dreams in getting something they wanted for so long.”

These comments show how the staff at CNN clearly looked beyond the controversy in trying to depict the real story.   It was not about “exploring all sides,” which Shales in his  Washington Post review noted was “cliche.”

NOW– to my FIVE questions about “Gary and Tony Have a Baby”

In an earlier post today, I posed five questions that I took into my own viewing of tonight’s premiere:    Let’s try to answer them.

1. To what extent does the story reflect the tensions between those on multiple sides of the morality debate surrounding same-sex adoption?

This seemed to be handled best by the producers’ decision to tell a little bit of the background about Gary and Tony.    They took us the viewers to their hometown.   It’s interesting to note that one of the men grew up in a suburb of my hometown, Richmond, Va.

But, we also saw the tension in the story of depiction of Gary and Tony’s activism. We saw the tension in the way the New York vote on gay marriage was included as a reality check for same-sex couples in a state like New York.

2. How do the story subjects’ own experiences make them a highly unusual situation (and, by definition, NEWSWORTHY)?  Or does CNN broaden the canvas by contrasting Gary and Tony’s experiences with multiple other couples?

While I have no way of verifying this,  I think it ‘s safe to say this story is probably NOT the norm for most same-sex couples who want to have a baby and use surrogate parents.    Society, local governments,  etc.   have NOT embraced this concept.    Except for the vote on gay marriage in New York,  everything worked in Gary and Tony’s favor and they had a happy ending.

But, their experience is the exception.

This is where a 60-minute documentary has to oversimply in order to tell the story and depict the emotions.    A longer documentary might have contrasted Gary and Tony’s experience with a couple that did NOT have  the same success– either with adoption or surrogate parenting.

3. Is there an undercurrent of REFORM in the way the CNN producers assemble the information (i.e.  Is CNN making a subtle case for changing laws?”) in the documentary?

As noted earlier by Tom Shales, CNN makes a case for change.   The writers and producers included just enough of the spotlight on the government barriers that some could watch this documentary and use it to educate lawmakers about what some say still needs to be done for couples such as Gary and Tony.

4. What OTHER types of diversity (class, race, gender, geography) are present in the documentary?

With the exception of geography (we saw the typical small town vs. big city difference in the backgrounds of Gary and Tony), these other types of diversity were hard to come by in this presentation.

In my view, this was the biggest shortcoming of “Gary and Tony Have a Baby.”     By showing white male activists who have been part of the Gay Rights Movement, who march in Pride Parades,  CNN still mainly depicted homosexuality as a thing that happens in white community.

Some have argued these are actually feeding stereotypes about those in the gay community.    I would like to have seen producers carve out AT LEAST 10 minutes to briefly show some of the stories that appear on the Gay in America microsite.   These show couples from other racial and gender groups.

In television land, we call these vignettes.

The focus on the documentary is on Gary and Tony.  But, there are many viewers who may walk away with only their story and not realize how much more to this issue is out there in the stories of other couples from other racial groups.  What about those who could not afford the expenses involved in having a surrogate?

While lesbian parents were ALSO shown tonight,  I don’t think we got a full understanding of the DIVERSITY within the diverse experiences of same-sex couples who want to have a baby.

5. What does the documentary reveal about CNN’s general mission in its “In America” franchise?

I think we saw CNN take a VERY different approach with the “Gary and Tony Have a Baby” from their efforts last year with Latino in America and Black in America II.    They didn’t try to cover the landscape.  They really went in depth with one story.    And, the results paid off.

I think what we can learn about documentary producing or truly indepth reporting is that sometimes, it’s appropriate to have lots of different story– as you represent the landscape of experiences.  But, other times, it’s better to stick with one person or couple’s story and go much more indepth.

It will be interesting to see what approach the CNN producers take with their next installment in the “In America” franchise.

Time to Elevate our Social Media Strategy in Journalism Education

ORLANDO– Three social media sessions in TWO Weeks’ time– an indication of just how important things like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn are to the world of journalism in 2010.

I’m finding myself  knee-deep in social media teaching ideas as I reflect on what was learned at two academic conferences and one professional gathering.

At this year’s Society of Professional Journalists Southeastern Regional Conference here at University of Central Florida Saturday, the wrap-up or closing session was titled “Deploying Social Media.”   It was the OTHER book end to a day that for many of the conference attendees began with “Courage Amid Chaos.”

Etan talks during morning session
Etan Horowitz, digital media producer at CNN International, shares his career path with a standing-room only crowd at the SPJ Southeastern Regional Conference at University of Central Florida.

Both of these sessions were lead by a 28-year-old former technology reporter at The Orlando Sentinel.    I say former because his experience allowed Etan Horowitz to become the social media media coordinator for CNN International.

Horowitz’s experience, as outlined in his final tech column at the Sentinel, is a great case study of how the career path for journalists getting into the profession is changing (or has changed).  The old “farm team” system may not be the way to a rewarding career, particularly if one is planning to work at places where newspapers have traditionally been the core media product.

In my opinion, CNN has been on the leading edge of broadcast journalism’s true embrace of social media.   In my previous blog, almost two years ago, I noted how CNN’s Rick Sanchez had broken ground on true integration of social networking into coverage of the 2008 Presidential campaign.

At that time, Etan Horowitz was pounding the pavement  (Sorry for a very bad cliche) here in Central Florida gathering technology stories and producing a column on tech issues.

Today, he’s the man behind the scenes at CNN International as that worldwide news organization seeks to remain relevant in an age of fragmenting audiences, which include those who live on the social networking Web sites.

As a former full-time television news producer, I could identify most with Etan’s experience as he shared examples of breaking stories where he had a role in lining up social media content to share on what some of us like to call “CNN-I”

Horowitz did what I consider to be THE BEST JOB articulating a strategy for television (and potentially newspaper) Web sites’ use of the interactivity and virtual community-building that distinguishing social media from the traditional (AKA “old”) media prepared FOR an audience.

Time to stop the panic

What I’ve heard at so many conferences like the SPJ gathering is how news reporters and anchors HAVE To be on Facebook and Twitter.  News reporters and editors brag about being on the site.

Only a handful of presentations have gone beyond the “we have to be there because we need that audience” argument.

While this may be true, traditional media practitioners have to move beyond the “do it because our audience is there” argument.     There must be a BETTER reason.

I think many people have been able to see that Facebook and Twitter can be used as a great reporting tool.  Advertising and Public relations practitioners note how these can help in getting the word out about a message, product or event.

What Horowitz did was explain HOW journalists, specifically, can take what is on these social media Web sites and produce BETTER journalism.

His very focused presentation on Saturday gave me a reason for using the sites in my classes.  I was so glad that two of my students were in the room when Horowitz introduced concepts such as crowdsourcing, location-based social networking and crisis mapping.

If you don’t know what these terms mean, stay tuned– we’ll define them as we lay out a strategy for elevating what we teach on social media.

Time to think about what we teach

One week ago at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I joined more than 100 other journalism mass communication educators and graduate student researchers for the AEJMC  (Association for Education in Journalism Mass Communication) Southeast Colloquium.  During that conference, there was a session on the role of social media in our mass communication teaching.

Most of the discussion centered on how we communicate with students who are constantly on these Web sites.

A week before that at the AEJMC Midwinter Conference, one of the last sessions during the weekend of research presentations was an entire panel of emerging research on Twitter and News.

Taking the sum total of  these two sessions plus what I learned from Horowitz, I now have a sophisticated strategy for what students need to know.

An Elevated Strategy looks like…

Horowitz mentioned crowdsourcing– a way of using what we learn from a gathering of people around a certain topic or issue as a place to find interview subjects.   The cluster of users in a social media environment yields a seed for a news story that often is not otherwise known to the journalist.

Crowdsourcing is certainly not anything new.  It’s a much broader term that has been used in business.  Jeff Howe has written about it in WIRED years ago.

But, in the context of a social media strategy, it’s at least one step beyond just being on Twitter or Facebook.

Likewise, examining the tweets (those 140-character micro blogging posts on Twitter) for WHERE they are can yield yet another important detail on the location of a possible story.   Horowitz explained how he used various Web sites to research tweets and get a better handle on the reaction to various news stories.

“The key now with Twitter is the location,” Horowitz said.

How many of us journalism instructors even mention location when we talk about Twitter?    That’s what I mean by “elevating our social media strategy.”

But, it’s not just about crowdsourcing or location-based social networking, we also have to realize that those locations are critical when reporting a crisis such the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Our charge as journalism educators is to convey how social media mapping tools can elevate a flat, traditional story with an entirely new dimension.

At the end of the day, what we teach about social media — and YES, we MUST TEACH it.   Most of the students, who took up the greatest number of seats here at the SPJ Regional Conference, were unaware of the tools that Horowitz shared.

That means if we educators take these tools introduce them as we teach, our students will be that much better prepared to work in newsrooms that are figuring out how to use social media.