How serving as a Pulitzer juror made me a better journalism teacher

Being invited to serve on a Pulitzer jury is probably a little like getting accepted to Hogwarts: You receive a letter written on really nice stationary with instructions to show up at a certain place and time. And please, it goes on, don’t tell anyone what you’re up to.

My envelope from Hogwarts has, alas, never arrived, but for the second year in a row I was summoned to Columbia University in February to serve as a Pulitzer juror, picking finalists in one of 14 journalism categories.  Last winter, I sat on the local reporting jury. (Details on that experience here.) This time was breaking news.

Pulitzer deliberations are confidential, and jurors’ identities are secret until after the winners are revealed, but my experience has still been a powerful teaching tool, one that’s given me fresh vocabulary to describe what it means to master the craft of modern nonfiction storytelling.

My students have been poking around the new Pulitzer website for a couple of months, identifying strong leads and mulling over what topics make compelling stories. We also talked a bit about the Pulitzers and public service journalism ahead of our Spotlight event earlier this month.

Last week, my editing class watched the announcement of the 2016 winners live:

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Then we examined the winner and finalists in the breaking news category and talked about the hallmarks of effective, responsible journalism in the first few hours of a big story. The students liked how the Los Angeles Times’s winning entry used rumor-busting bullet points to list known facts after the San Bernardino shootings. They found the Baltimore Sun’s interactive timeline useful in understanding the events that led to Freddie Gray’s death. We also talked about how the Post and Courier used a mix of screen grabs to illustrate a video showing the shooting of Walter Scott. (When it came to whether or not to publish the video itself, the students’ opinions were mixed.)

All three entries show a mix of urgency and comprehensive follow up. Here’s a little scribble that I used to illustrate this concept:

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In the hours, days and even months after a major breaking news event, readers want – need – coverage that provides context, answers questions and explores possible solutions. Accuracy matters more than speed. Or, as I told my students, it’s better to be dead last than dead wrong.

These Pulitzer-inspired lessons will continue in the fall, too. My colleague Tom Haines is teaching a course focused on environmental reporting, and his students will be able to learn from finalists like InsideClimate News, the Portland Press Herald and ProPublica. I’m teaching entrepreneurial journalism, and we’ll talk about how several of this year’s top entires came from news organizations that didn’t exist a decade ago.

So thanks, Pulitzers. And happy 100th birthday. Here’s hoping for another century of identifying and honoring excellence in journalism.

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Learning from “Spotlight”

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The Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson and I prepare to chat about investigative journalism Tuesday night at UNH. Photo credit/Hadley Barndollar.

During one of the opening scenes in Spotlight, Walter Robinson (as portrayed by Michael Keaton) uses the term “player-coach” to describe his role as editor of the Globe’s famed investigative team. That characterization is accurate – something I know after working as Robinson’s teaching assistant at Northeastern University.

At the time, Robinson was running NU’s investigative journalism program, teaching students how to dig up stories about gun policies at community colleges, racial disparities in Boston firehouses and more. He’s a master at teaching by doing, and, by watching him, I learned as much about running a classroom as I did about mining documents and cultivating sources. (Robinson is back at the Globe now, and NU’s investigative work continues thanks to longtime TV journalist Mike Beaudet.)

It was an honor to interview Robinson in front of an (over) packed room at UNH earlier this week. We talked for an hour or so about the investigation that inspired the Spotlight movie, the importance of access to public information and why knocking on doors is a better reporting technique than sending emails.

Robinson’s visit was the culmination of a series of lessons built around the Spotlight film. And, judging by the conversations I’ve had with students over the last few days, lots of them are inspired to dig just a little deeper on their next stories.

 

 

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The one with spoilers. So, so many spoilers

My first byline of the year is on this column for USA Today about the many feminist plot points in the new Star Wars movie. It was a lot of fun to write, and my mom got to dig up a photo of kindergartner me wearing a fantastically DIY Princess Leia costume.

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Getting my girl power on circa 1983. 

The response to the column has been robust and interesting. Here are some of the highlights:

First, strong female role models matter for boys and men, too. For more, check out this great piece by Mike Adamick. And those kinds of characters need to be available on and off the screen. That’s not always the case as evidenced by the blight of female action figures in games and play sets.

Second, one mind-bogglingly successful movie with kick-ass female characters and feminine framing is great – but pop culture remains a boys’ club. This Forbes article provides a good primer, pointing out that “gender discrimination, both in front of and behind the camera and in terms of the kind of stories that get told in cinema, has become so pervasive that the ACLU and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stepped in to investigate.”

Finally, this conversation is about a lot more than space-nerd gossip. Stories matter because they’re one of the chief ways kids learn about social norms and the human condition. Here’s an easy-to-understand rundown of the latest research about the power of narrative in child development.

 

 

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ICYMI:The pedagogy of the PSL

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I’m spending the final week of 2015 taking stock of the last year, a task that sounds rather lofty but actually involves wrestling with spreadsheets. I did, however, notice that I never shared around here one of the highlights of my fall: a short explainer on how my UNH journalism students mapped fall-flavored treats to learn about non-linear storytelling.

The piece I wrote appeared on Storybench, a must-read project of Northeastern University’s Media Innovation Program. The map my students made was published by The Sound, a fantastic weekly publication covering the New Hampshire Seacoast.

Where are the (emoji) women?

Earlier this year, I was pleased when my phone offered me the option of assigning different skin tones to the tiny faces I often include in text messages. Score one, I thought, for diversity in digital culture.

What I missed, though, was another subtle bias in this fast growing communication tool: There are very few emojis depicting professional women. As Mic’s Sophie Kleeman points out:

Women who want to use something other than a neutral female emoji have the following options to choose from: a princess, a bride, twins that resemble Playboy bunnies, a dancer in a red dress and a series of “information desk person” characters… Men get the “serious” professional roles, and women get the “girlie” ones.

As Kleeman goes on to explain, this isn’t the most pressing feminist issue out there – but I still think it’s important. Emojis are becoming a bigger part of our digital lives, and it’s problematic if they don’t allow us to properly express a full range of female experiences. Or at least as full a range as is possible with itty-bitty cartoons.


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(Political) origin story

In my latest piece for The Boston Globe​, I revisit a longstanding dispute about the origins of the Republican Party…. and uncover a bit of new information about a key organizational meeting that may (or may not) have taken place in Exeter, New Hampshire more than 150 years ago. Read the whole story here.

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Playing with noise

University of New Hampshire cheerleaders perform at the 2015 homecoming game against Elon University. Photo/Meg Heckman

University of New Hampshire cheerleaders perform at the 2015 homecoming game against Elon University. Photo/Meg Heckman

I’m teaching a digital reporting workshop at UNH this fall, and it’s been fun to dust off storytelling tools that I haven’t had occasion to use in any of my recent freelance work. Students in the course are spending the first half of the semester learning the basics of documenting stories with images, sounds and video. (Also on the syllabus: Social media curation, basic data visualizations and a bit of mapping.) Later in the term, they’ll continue to refine those techniques by covering beats in our community.

This week’s focus was on short-form audio storytelling. I assigned the students to create audio postcards from UNH’s homecoming festivities and publish them on SoundCloud. Yesterday, I brought my parents to the football game and, when I saw how close we were to the cheering squad, I decided to create an audio postcard of my own:

I used my iPhone to record the track. (An external mic tossed over the front of the bleachers would have been a good idea. The track isn’t horrible, but you can hear the guy next to me crunching his paper popcorn bag at a few points.) The sound was edited in FinalCut with the video setting turned off. (The students are using Audacity because it’s free.) The photos were taken with my Nikon D5100 and toned/cropped in iPhoto.

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Date this house (aka Inbox Essay returns today!)

Inbox Essay makes its triumphant return today. As a reminder, I resolved back in January to make 50 essays in 2015. The project took a longish hiatus this summer, but regular publishing resumes right now. This week’s installment looks at digital dating/house hunting/identity building. Read it here.

And here’s an archive of past essays and more about why I decided to do this.

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What I did on my summer vacation

Bought a house. Danced with my brother at his wedding. Unplugged just a bit. Packed, unpacked and repacked boxes. Pulled weeds and planted perennials. Seared things on the grill. Swam across Goose Pond. Found new places to run in the woods. Remembered how late summer in New Hampshire smells like over-sweet fruit and sounds like crickets. Wrote stories for the Boston Globe about political memorabilia and the end of Jefferson-Jackson dinners. Also: A little feature for the Concord Monitor about the rise of #wedding hashtags.

 

Three things I did in June

Pardon the silence around here. It’s been a busy five or six weeks personally and professionally. Some highlights:

1.) I wrote a couple of pieces for the Boston Globe. Here’s an explainer of New Hampshire’s headachy campaign finance laws. And, for some lighter fare, a look at the Granite State’s quirkiest political memorabilia.

2.) I helped run a crowdfunding campaign so the Journalism and Women Symposium can provide mentorship and professional training to 10 early-career female journalists. We raised more than $15,000 to support this year’s amazing class of fellows. (I also started a Northern New England chapter of JAWS. If you’re local and want to join, drop me a line.)

3.) Have I mentioned that I’m making a MOOC about the New Hampshire primary? The University of New Hampshire will launch it’s first massive, open online course (MOOC) this fall. The class is free and focused on the past, present and future of the primary. It’s taught primarily by political science professors Dante Scala and Andy Smith. I’m doing a lot of the technical production, plus giving a couple of lectures about political journalism. Sign up here.

Up next: Watching my baby brother marry a really great person next weekend and (hopefully) buying a house at the end of the month. In other words, it’s going to be a while before we return to regular blogging.

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