The best Christmas story I ever got to tell

This was the type of bomber 1st Lt. Enoch Perkins flew to Europe in December 1944. Photo/Wikimedia Commons

This was the type of bomber 1st Lt. Enoch Perkins flew to Europe in December 1944. Photo/Wikimedia Commons

Seven years ago, I helped tell a Christmas story that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I shared it with my students earlier this month, and I now I’m posting it here.

I’d spent months working with my former boss Mike Pride to interview dozens of local World War II veterans for a series of stories that would eventually become this book. The project focused on the memories of people still living in our community, but we also pulled a handful of narratives from journal entries, poems and letters left behind by veterans when they died.

Such was the case with 1st Lt. Enoch Perkins, who took command of a new B-17 bomber in the final weeks of 1944. Perkins had died about a year before we started our work, but his daughter had a copy of his journal, and she wanted to share some of it with our readers. Perkins was a great writer, and he kept a careful, vivid account of his travels – including an unexpected stopover at Grenier Field in Manchester, NH

Before I go any deeper into the act of human kindness that makes this tale so special, here’s a bit of backstory:

Many of the heavy bombers that helped the Allies win the war were assigned newly-trained flight crews at air fields in the Midwest. Those crews would hopscotch the planes across the U.S., then north to Canada’s east cost. From there, they’d fly to cold, remote airstrips in Iceland and Greenland, eventually landing in Scotland. One of the last places these crews would land on American soil was Grenier.

Perkins remained in Manchester for several days longer than planned because his copilot needed to recover from an ear infection. While he waited, he worked with a few Red Cross volunteers to make sure his crew and, as it turned out, dozens of other airmen would experience some holiday cheer thousands of miles from home.

Here’s the full story as it appeared in the Concord (NH) Monitor. Please take the time to read; you won’t forget it, either.

Service, solutions and theology in local journalism


I spend a handful of nights each winter in the basement of a downtown church, pouring coffee and passing out dry socks to men and women with nowhere else to go. I’m among the hundreds of volunteers who, for the last decade, have helped operate a cold weather homeless shelter in Concord, NH.

The people we serve there have been the focus of a sweeping collection of stories, photos, graphics and videos published this week by the Concord Monitor*The series, called Seeking Shelter, has given me a lot to think about both in terms of homelessness and the role of local newspapers.

I’ve learned a lot during my volunteer shifts at the shelter, but the Monitor’s series has taught me more. The city, write reporters Jeremy Blackman and Megan Doyle, is at an “unprecedented moment” in its history:

Concord’s homeless population has been growing for years, driven by a mix of economic instability, rising substance abuse and geography. State and local police have broken up many of the encampments in town, following a number of violent incidents and several deaths.

Community leaders have long discussed finding a more permanent solution, but they’ll need to act fast. Come spring, the shelter where I volunteer and a second one at a neighboring church will shut down for good.

The Monitor has addressed homelessness in the past through daily stories, photos and editorials. But this week’s series takes its coverage to a new level, one that bodes well for the practice of local journalism.

In his book The Wired City, Dan Kennedy** asks, “Can journalism have a theology?” He uses that question to explore the motivations and professional philosophy of Paul Bass, the founding editor of the nonprofit New Haven (CT) Independent. That publication’s journalism, Kennedy writes, is

based on a community-driven vision of conversation, cooperation and respect. It is a vision that sounds a lot like that of many religious communities, and it is the opposite of the top-down, we-report/you-read-watch-or-listen model of traditional news organizations.

I’ve been reminded of this passage as I’ve watched the Monitor’s series unfold this week. All of the players – social workers, policymakers, clergy members and the homeless people themselves – are portrayed as human beings facing complex challenges. Photographers Geoff Forester and Elizabeth Frantz earned the trust of the homeless community in a way that allowed them to document the lives of people who often prefer to remain unseen.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Monitor has explored possible solutions and invited public conversation. Much has been written about the concept of solutions journalism, and the Monitor’s work this week is a good example of the genre. The newsroom also created the hashtag #homelessinconcord to organize online discussion. Tonight, the paper’s editors will host a community dialogue at one of the shelters about the issues raised by the series.

Not that long ago, traditional journalists may have labeled this as something too close to advocacy. It’s not.

Instead, it’s the kind of thing news organizations must do to remain crucial parts of the communities they cover. Kennedy makes this argument in The Wired City, exploring how local editors like Bass can foster as well as cover civic life.

The Monitor isn’t immune to the financial and existential challenges facing newspapers, but this series is an indication that, to the journalists in its newsroom, simple survival won’t be enough. Local news organizations should practice the kind of storytelling happening at the Monitor this week. It will be hard. It will consume scarce resources. And it must happen. No matter what.

Can journalism have a theology?


And it’s embodied in the kind of collaborative, socially just and human storytelling displayed by the Monitor this week.

*I worked at the Monitor for many years, and was a consulting editor there this summer. 

** Dan Kennedy was one of several fantastic faculty members who advised my graduate studies at Northeastern University last year. 

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Teaching without a net

When it comes to class planning, I’m rather obsessive. I have white boards in my office, a couple of spreadsheets on my hard drive and a notebook for each course I teach. I write detailed memos to my students and myself, and I spend a few days at the beginning of every semester wrestling Blackboard’s grade book into something that resembles order.

But, sometimes, it’s fun to toss all of that aside and just riff. That’s what I did today with a dozen of my journalism students here at UNH. My inspiration was, a new collaboration between Northeastern University’s Media Innovation program and Esquire Magazine. (Disclosure: I received my MA from Northeastern last year. More disclosure: I remain a UNH hockey fan.)

Storybench is as useful as it is gorgeous, jam packed with techniques culled from the front lines of digital creation. Headline generation! Google Maps! Charts and graphs galore! The site formally launched yesterday, and I knew I had to use it in class right away.

Even without a plan.

We’re near the end of the semester up here, and I’d promised my students something a little fun and little different from the usual rhythm of our writing workshop. I talked about the why and when of telling stories with data and showed them a few examples. While they worked on projects in (which I’ve used for more than a year), I announced I would race them to build something similar using Storybench’s instructions for – a new tool I’d never touched before today.

We focused on data about where Americans purchase their Christmas trees. They pasted it into and, before long, were adding pictures and adjusting color palettes.


I spent 20 minutes wresting with Google Drive before giving up and putting the .csv file in DropBox. By the time class ended, this half-baked graph was all I had to show:


But the point of activities like this isn’t necessarily a finished project. What matters is introducing young journalists to the concept of real-time experimentation, showing them that it’s okay to dive into something new without knowing exactly where it will lead.

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What I’ve been reading lately

I’ve embraced the intellectual chaos of the web these last few weeks, and it’s led me to some interesting pieces. Here are a few highlights:

The Harvard Business Review explored the art of follow-up questions, something I’m still trying to refine after more than a decade of conducting interviews. Here are some highlights:

The key to understanding people lies in the follow-up question…To ask a good follow-up, you need to pay very close attention to how the interviewee responds to your initial question, and then build on his or her answer. (Full story here.)

American University’s Jan Schaffer has a manifesto for modern journalism schools, writing that “we make the media we need for the world we want.” She also has a lot to say about the professional value of a journalism degree:

Sure, you might land at your local news outlet. But, armed with a journalism degree, infused with liberal arts courses and overlaid with digital media skills, you are also attractive to information startups, non-profits, the diplomatic corps, commercial enterprises, the political arena and tech giants seeking to build out journalism portfolios, among others. (Full story here.)

Speaking of journalism education, I picked up a new monograph about the history of j schools and spent some time skimming it during the Thanksgiving power outage. Not my usual kind of reading material, but still interesting — and a good reminder that there’s always been robust debate around  how journalism is taught.

The last few weeks, writ small

Someday (and I do hope it’s soon), I’ll figure out how to juggle teaching, freelancing and blogging. Until then, we’ll all just have to live with somewhat sporadic posting. Here’s a recap of what’s been going on in my world:

  • Dan Kennedy called me “smart.”  Kennedy is one of several brilliant journalists who guided my graduate studies at Northeastern University.  Earlier this fall, he interviewed me for this video about the future of local news.
  • One of this year’s most interesting Congressional races is unfolding in my backyard. The contest for New Hampshire’s CD2 is, in many ways, a microcosm of the narratives about race, gender and generational identity swirling around this election season. Here’s my story in the Boston Globe.
  • I got some student journalists hooked on politics. (#sorrynotsorry.) UNH co-hosted a debate between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Scott Brown earlier this month, and a group of journalism students got an up-close look at what it takes to organize that kind of event. Here are a few of the students leaving the debate hall to interview the supporters outside:
UNH journalism student Tom Spencer leads his classmates through the crowd outside the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, NH on Oct. 21, 2014. Photo/Meg Heckman

UNH journalism student Tom Spencer leads his classmates through the crowd outside the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, NH on Oct. 21, 2014. Photo/Meg Heckman

As of this writing, roughly 36 hours remain in the 2014 midterm elections. Here’s hoping for a more regular blogging schedule after that.


The message is spreading

My research got a nice little shout out in this piece by German freelancer Pascale Mueller. Thanks!


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This arrived in today’s mail. I can’t help but notice that an organization lauded for providing “invaluable inspiration to journalists and students reporters everywhere” couldn’t find a single woman to picture on the cover of its marketing brochure.

A new book on digital journalism and ethics

51JSmCXh6HL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_A couple of essays I wrote for the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy have been published in a new book called A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics. I examined the complicated journalistic questions that arise from social media curation and how building an online social network forced me to rethink traditional standards of objectivity.

Other writers tackle the ethics of anonymous commenting, photo manipulation and credibility questions surrounding amateur restaurant reviews. The book is available through Amazon for $9.99.

Guess who came to UNH last night?

10606387_10152365995102913_4273260175722029226_nJournalist Brooke Gladstone is brilliant, funny and brave enough to do things like create a comic book style critique of the media. Last night, she spoke at UNH. The turnout was good, especially for one of the first lovely fall evenings of the semester, and the crowd included lots of UNH journalism students.

Gladstone offered them advice on building their careers and navigating the modern information ecosystem. She shared the stage with New Hampshire Public Radio’s Virginia Prescott, and it was refreshing to hear two female voices talk about the state of the media — a conversation too often dominated by men.

Here are some highlights I posted on Twitter:

Gladstone’s visit was co-hosted by the university and NHPR, where she spoke to listeners on this morning’s edition of The Exchange. Listen here.

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Throw — and code — like a girl

Back in the early days of the Internet, some feminists theorized that “computer-mediated communication” would erase the lopsided power imbalances of gender. Online, they imagined, “male” and “female” might not matter so much.That, alas, is not the case. Gender constructs still exist online and, worse, the conversation on the web — like in the physical world — often defaults to male.

Case in point: Software used by Little League Baseball to write game stories from box scores called Mo’Ne Davis “him” in a lead describing Davis’s powerhouse pitching

In case you missed it, Davis has made sure that the phrase “you throw like a girl” will henceforth be a huge compliment. She’s a 13-year-old girl from Philadelphia who’s been hurling baseballs at speeds up to 70 mph in the Little League World Series. That’s as impressive as it sounds. Most boys in the league, reports NPR, throw at 50-60 mph. 

It’s easy to blame the pronoun error on a computer glitch, but it’s not a glitch at all. Rather, the software was following directions, strings of code written by a programmer who probably didn’t think twice about assigning the male gender pronoun to all baseball players. (While boys are the majority of Little Leaguers, girls have been allowed on the field since 1974.) 

The error is a powerful example of how gender imbalance in technology fields can damage the credibility of the journalism we’re creating in the digital world. It’s likely that software programs like the ones used to generate basic game stories will become more common in the future, and it’s important that they’re created by programers from diverse backgrounds. 


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