A Poignant Picture Essay of My Year in J School

It’s the last week of classes and, as a grad student,  I am naturally experiencing the constant urge to pluck every hair from my head. Additonally, I only have ONE chocolate left in my rabbit-shaped box of delightful Fererro hazelnut chocolate balls. Serious times, y’all.

Anyway, I am procrastinating writing my several ridiculously long papers by writing this eloquent blog post. And since I don’t exactly feel like glazing your eyes over with the usual text overload I have decided to put up a fun picture post. Yay picture posts!

Katie’s Life in Grad School: Phase One

This is me in August stepping onto Alabama’s campus and preparing to start my epic journalism journey and the proud owner of my OWN bathroom.

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LET’S DO THIS!!!

This is me at the end of the fall term.

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Oh Oh OH Stayin alive stayin alive

This is me at some undefined point during the spring semester.

Frustrated Business Woman

I picked Journalism?!! JOURNALISM??!!!!?

This is me whenever I get a blog post compliment.

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This is probably how I look and sound to my roommate when I walk into our apartment after class.

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This is me when I check my bank account balance weekly.

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This is me when someone asks me what am I planning to do when I graduate.

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This is me when a professor confirms I have a future as a writer.

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This is going to be me for the next 2 weeks before I move to Anniston, Alabama for the summer.

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And finally, where I imagine myself in 5 years, obviously.

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The Genie’s Out of The Bottle: Has News Dissolved Into Nothing But Entertainment?

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Associate Professor Bala A. Musa proclaims, “the era of factual hard news is behind us.” This statement may be disheartening to some of today’s consumers. For others, it comes as no surprise and an inevitable phase of the business. In “News as Infotainment: Industry and Audience Trends,” Musa details the struggle of journalists balancing three components that form the foundational pillars of the field: public interest, profit and professionalism. It is not a hard guess as to which components are easily shoved aside as the attention span decreases and the Internet continues to grow at lightning speed.

I found it worthy of note that both Musa’s article and Markus Prior’s “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge” were written a full eight years ago. Today, it is clear the epidemic of media choice has become widespread to the extent it is hard to make sense of what the public wants, needs or even who the public is at all.

Musa writes that today’s consumers gravitate toward “the bizarre, the sensational and the sleazy.” On a slow news day, journalists on a tight deadline may give in to temptation of an unethical quick fix and create their own story or simply twist a current story to meet the public’s craving.  In “Journalists Walk a Fine Line When They Act,” Diana Marszalek points out a rather unsettling reality that journalists are slipping into acting roles and raising a few eyebrows about where the line of credibility should be drawn.

My favorite quote from the article was from attorney Steve Dickstein who argues that journalists shouldn’t be criticized for landing acting gigs. “It’s silly to be sanctimonious in a brothel,” he says.  Well, when you put it that way…

We are deep in the trenches of a digital era where lies and embellishments can be created in a single second with the swipe of a keyboard. Journalists are under pressure to be the most credible megaphone out of the million voices screaming from Internet soapboxes. In this increasingly difficult fight for credibility and professionalism, journalists may lose readers and money. Obviously, in an ideal world people would consume the news they enjoy and the news they need all in one package and journalists would be praised for being expert jugglers of profit and social responsibility.

However, as Johanna Cleary’s study “The Family Business: Entertainment Products and the Network Morning News Shows” reveals, large news corporations are hungry for profit and power and are aware that without either of these compensations survival is unlikely. Cleary conveys that the public is unaware of what large chunk of their news is fueled by a desire for product promotion and ratings.  In response to this observation, Prior argues that we should not view today’s consumers as dumb but rather understand that they are simply motivated to watch what interests them.

Growing up, my only experience with political knowledge was dinner table venting sessions from my parents paired with the dramatic, sleazy television advertisements where candidates accused each other of scandal, lies and shady dealings. Prior confirms my experience by saying that many people’s political views are shaped through commercial intake.

Prior’s alerts us that as media hand out more choices with the hopes of keeping audiences intrigued, the result is people isolating themselves into tiny bubbles full of self-interest and no way to consume outside essential knowledge. He states, “even if a consensus emerged to reduce media choice for the public good, it would still be technically impossible, even temporarily, to put the genie back in the bottle.” So, how do we control this genie we have released into the wild?

My answer relates to nearly all the readings we have discussed in class. The secret to journalism lies in that delicate art of producing relevant, important information through a creative, accessible narrative. The information selection process is what an intelligent reporter gathers from the many voices of the public and through astute, objective observation.

Scandal, crime and celebrities will continue to dazzle audiences (myself included), boost ratings and produce profit. However, I think it takes a good journalist to risk the ratings and fanfare and do the extra work to produce quality work that both entertains and furthers understanding. Hopefully, profit will still be a result. It is not an easy task but I believe it is definitely a reachable goal for this profession.

Heavy Boots: Thoughts on Boston Marathon Tragedy

Today’s events jar me to my core and fuel the hunger for peace more than ever. There are no words that will ever allow me to wrap my head around the destruction of innocent lives through senseless violence. But it continues to plague this world. Sick, twisted individuals destroying the lives of thousands in a few seconds. It is absolutely horrific and causes my heart the deepest kind of pain.

I remember sharing my thoughts on the Newtown tragedy a few months ago. The post was titled “Heavy Boots.” Here I sit, such a short time later, with heavy boots once again. Here I sit, yet again, trying to rationalize the unimaginable. And here I am, again, reminded of the great responsibility we have as a human race.

I think of the family members and loved ones of those who lost their lives. I think of those who had no choice but to amputate limbs, those who will never walk or run again after working so hard to reach such a treasured goal. I think of all the survivors who will hear the explosion in their heads for the rest of their lives. Tragedy trickles out destroying millions of lives in a mighty wave. Justice may come but it does not change what has happened. And there is no guarantee that the violence will end here. The randomness is terrifying.

So many questions rise out of the rubble. Why. How. Why would someone do this? How can we explain to our children that this is the world they are growing up to live in? There is no simple road but we must do what we can.

Right now, there is only love. We must spread love like wildfire. We can honor the heroes that helped the second tragedy struck. We can hug our families and our friends and be thankful that we are still here, we are alive, we are breathing to see another day. We can weep for those lost and vow to never forget. And we can slowly began to heal and vow to fight the darkness with light.

Sending out so many prayers and waves of love. It is days like today I feel so small but know it’s the litte things that create change.

I ended my Newtown post a few months back with the following quote. Its truth remains.

“The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love will prevail. Join that movement.

KT

The Magic of the Magic City: One Southern Writer’s Story

Growing up within the flowery walls of Vestavia Hills, I was lost in a strange suburbia land and very much removed from the bright lights of downtown Birmingham. I remember as I neared high school graduation, I had the nagging feeling that I needed to flee the state. For me, this place symbolized synthetic beauty queens and preppy football kings. In the mirror, I saw nothing more than a frizzy-haired, converse-wearing teen that sulked in the back bleacher at pep rallys. This is not to say I didn’t receive a good education and I’m so thankful for my parents’ decision to put me in the school system. But as an awkward teen searching for an identity beyond my mushroom mop, I just could never find it in the stiff, hair-sprayed Vestavia bubble.

After spending my college years in South Carolina and another volunteer year in New Orleans, I landed right back in my parents’ basement, once again a suburbian but this time with a little more life experience. Working two minimum wage jobs didn’t exactly bolster a strong foundation of self-worth, but I now know that is was simply part of the process of highs and lows that happen on all of our journeys to somewhere.

As August creeps closer and closer on the calendar, I recognize that it’s time to decide where I will live while proudly clenching that Master’s degree and hoping someone sees me as a useful little worker bee. For the longest time, I pushed Birmingham away, vowing I wouldn’t stay here and that the city couldn’t offer me whatever I needed to attain fulfillment.

But now I’m starting to see the city itself has more to offer than my angsty teenage self once thought. Restauarants and businessses are sprouting up like fresh flowers in the springtime. The food trucks are rolling and big names in music seem to be shuffling through the streets at a steady pace. This past Wednesday marked the opening game of the Birmingham Barons in their new downtown megastructure. As I decide if I want to stay, I feel the tug of the Magic City strengthen its grip on me.

There is something special about the South. You can feel it in the thick, humid air that soaks your face, hear it in the sweet sounds of chords plucked on an acoustic guitar, and taste it in the melty hot BBQ. You can also read it in the words written by authors who have made a home here and see the good, the bad and the real. I would love to be known as a “southern writer.” To me, it is an honor that speaks more than any fancy award ever could.  So as I slowly lay the bricks of my future, one small rectangle at a time, I think I see Vulcan raising his torch a little higher for me.

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KT

Not Your Grandma’s Journalism: A Grim Look at Economics from a Doe-Eyed J Schooler

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In the first chapter of The Vanishing Newspaper, Philip Meyer states, “the best way to ensure the future of newspapers would have been to conserve their influence and pay the costs of the radical experimentation needed to learn what new media forms would be viable.”  I agree with Meyer’s statement but am also acutely aware that preserving influence in this new age of radical experimentation is easier said than done. Meyer asserts that while new technology does allow for a faster, cheaper, more durable product, it also leads to a confused audience lost in the land of sensory overload.

A central question that has formed in my mind: Can journalism still deliver a quality product using today’s electronic channels that is relevant, meaningful and profitable? There may not be a clear answer but possible solutions lie in the models and strategies outlined in Meyer’s The Vanishing Newspaper.

Meyer examines the societal influence model, which serves to provide an economic rationale for journalists’ fulfillment of civic duty. Through the investment of quality resources, publications are able to produce a quality product. This product either creates trust or strengthens already present trust and leads to increased readership, more advertisement opportunities and ultimately, the golden egg of profit. This model proposed by Knight Ridder’s Hal Jurgensmeyer is a logical business strategy but does not account for increased trust leading to monopoly and also neglects the reality that many newspapers no longer have the funds to increase resources.

Therefore, we transition into the goose and the golden egg scenario Meyer describes in the second chapter of The Vanishing Newspaper.  Meyer offers two models for newspaper owners. The first one is the harvest model, which focuses on short-term investments that have immediate rewards but future concealed costs. The second one is the nurturing model, which encourages owners to accept this new reality of competition and change and focus on improving their products to fit the electronic delivery market.

As the New York Times and more localized publications place their news behind pay walls, there is the concern that journalists will let quality suffer due to the fact that electronic distribution is produced at no variable cost. However, I believe in the future success of the entrepreneurs that view this change as an opportunity instead of a threat and are willing to take current risks and settle for rewards that may not happen for several years. I personally think journalists should accept that news is no longer a linear relationship and look for unique, creative ways to deliver news in this ecosystem of opportunity.

In the chapter titled “Saving Journalism” as well as in the 2013 State of the Media reports, it is clear that journalists have reasons to be optimistic but should know that the hard numbers don’t lie. Meyer points out that entrepreneurial risk takers need more than an income as compensation for their efforts. They need their news product to have value and meaning.  This balance of profit and public journalism is really put to the test on the Internet where, as Meyer puts it, there are “low costs and anyone can play.”

In “Newspapers: Stabilizing, But Still Threatened,” it is evident that while the new pay wall system seems to be working okay at the moment, it does not take away from the ugly reality that downsizing and cutbacks are covering the industry like an outbreak of weeds. Digital advertising does not seem to be making up for the loss of print advertisement, which implies a long lasting game of catch-up is set to happen over the next decade.

In looking at the television side, viewership and advertising are at low levels, which suggest that the Internet is consuming this form of media in the same way it did with print. An important factor in this digital shift is clearly the increased use of mobile devices to consume news. Not only are journalists going to face the pressures and difficulties of switching to electronic delivery in general, they will also have to acquire the in-depth skill sets that ensure readers can consume the news on phones and tablets. From an optimistic standpoint, I believe this need allows for more job opportunities for those who can master social media and other components that come with this digital shift.

The major concern always seems to rotate back to gaining profit without loss of trust. I appreciate Philip Meyer’s reference to Henry Ford’s sentiment that profit will be a natural byproduct of a well-performed service to society. I hope this sentiment will hold true as more and more doe-eyed journalists are hurled into this tumultuous digital era.

Public Journalism: When Civic Engagement and Journalism Marry

This blog post covers public journalism and debates whether it’s corroding or helping the profession of journalism.

What is public journalism, you ask? It can be best defined as a brand of politically engaged journalism. Journalism that looks in depth at possible solutions to problems. Journalism that includes the voice of the people.  Journalism that aims to save the world!

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In the Media Issues chapter “Public Journalism,” Richard Hendrickson outlines both sides of this debate about the linkage of civic engagement and journalism. Those who support the linkage argue that fostering discussion and encouraging engagement are essential pillars of journalism and that there is no such thing as complete objectivity. Critics of public journalism say that it blurs the lines between journalism and promotion and creates agendas that distract from the actual news content. I think a healthy balance can be achieved as long as the journalist does not gain tunnel vision and focuses on exploring relevant community issues from all possible angles.

I ran into this advocacy issue in creating my Master’s Project website titled “Eating Tuscaloosa.” In profiling local restaurants and organizations that I personally advocated, I had to be careful in presenting each of these places in a way that was informative rather than promotional. Similarly, I am currently writing a story about the food truck culture in Birmingham and the resistance they are facing from the city government as well as local businesses and restaurants. As a food truck lover, I have to keep making sure I am getting a wide range of experts, voices and opinions from all sides to include in my story in order to fairly and accurately explain the issue to the public.

For these reasons, I found Serena Carpenter’s “News Quality Differences in Online Newspapers and Citizen Journalist Sites” and Mike Ananny and Daniel Kreiss’ “A New Contract for the Press” model relevant and helpful to me as a journalist in this tumultuous digital age.  The results of Carpenter’s study reveal that while citizen journalists tend to produce highly local content that is relevant to specific communities of readers, professional journalists can hold their own with high numbers of sources and multiple viewpoints. Therefore, quality journalists are able to effectively use their communication skillset and tools to take news delivery to the next level.

However, as the “Crude Comments and Concern” study reveals, public journalism can have adverse effects or what is now known as “the nasty effect.” In “Reader Comments Reduce Credibility of Online Stories,” Dominique Brossard and Dietriniqam A. Scheufele break down the study that reveals the strong negative effect rude comments can have on other readers’ perception of a news story. I definitely agree that the “comment” section of articles turns into many readers angrily shouting misspelled expletives from their soapboxes with no clear reason or relevancy. In an ideal world, journalists would constantly create healthy discussion forums instead of providing a space where comments quickly unravel and turn into unnecessary personal attacks. However, Brossard and Scheufele point out that  “this phenomenon will only gain momentum as we move deeper into a world of smart TVs and mobile devices where any type of content is immediately embedded in a constant stream of social context and commentary.” It is here where the critics of public journalism have the best argument, which is that this model distracts readers from the raw facts and central message.

Ultimately, new publications need readers for survival and a decent chunk of these readers may be the Internet junkies sitting in their basements typing expletive after expletive. Despite “the nasty effect,” the comment sections still can lead to positive sharing of opinion and should remain in existence to let readers know that they are a part of a valued audience. Journalists can moderate comments if they are overly crude and encourage readers to give their feedback in a healthy, productive way while accepting the fact that there will always be angry readers who value their own opinion over public advancement.

In conclusion, I think Richard Hendrickson sums up public journalism best when he says it is a “communications tool that can help out-of-touch big-city journalists achieve the level of community connection enjoyed by their small-town and weekly counterparts” (p. 67). Dialogue is a unique feature of the new journalism age and if journalists do not take full advantage of interactivity and the importance of public opinion they could easily fade away like old newspaper print.