The death of an unemployed nurse who drove her SUV into Gray’s Lake Park and a predicted $1 billion shortfall in Iowa’s budget happened this week, reminding Michael Bugeja and Dennis Chamberlin of the power of Watergate-era street journalism.
There were upbeat developments as well, but we’ll mention those later.
In our Des Moines Register enterprise piece, “Scene’s from Iowa’s Recession,” we located the unemployed walking around Gray’s Lake in mild November weather that prevailed throughout last month. I interviewed a jobless registered nurse who requested that we not use her name.
This was not the same nurse who drove her GMC Jimmy into the lake and drowned in the vehicle on Monday morning. She was identified as Buffy Renee Lucas, 34.
This was at the same spot where Chamberlin and I did interviews. Here is a thumbnail of a copyrighted picture by the Register’s Rodney White whose powerful slideshow captured the unfolding drama.
You can read the full account in The Register.
Like Lucas, the nurse whom I interviewed was unemployed, hoping to start a new position that fell though. Lucas, however, also had received a foreclosure notice on Nov. 3, according to this Register follow-up by Tom Alex and L. Lars Hulsebus.
Sometimes, a dramatic narrative with visuals such as Chamberlin and I composed, creates a tipping point that sparks new disclosures. A week after our story ran in The Register, the state’s Legislative Services Agency announced the largest projected budget shortfall in Iowa’s history: $1 billion.
You can read about that in this report by The Register.
A genuine Watergate journalist, James Hill, managing editor of The Washington Post Writer’s Group, predicted our “New Poverty” piece would be a tipping point in a hitherto untold story about Iowans who played by all the rules, paid their mortgages, and lost their homes and careers. The day after our enterprise ran, he wrote, “I would hope the Register would assign a few reporters to do some follow-up.”
We’ll close with four upbeat follow-ups that also illustrate the importance of street reporting:
Douglas Steenblock, M.D., president-elect of the Iowa Psychiatric Society, wrote me that our project, which broke the news about record suicides in Iowa, made him think more deeply about unemployment and mental health. “I ended up contacting some of my mental health colleagues at Des Moines University,” he wrote. “We are having discussions about a program that could be sponsored jointly by the Iowa Psychiatric Society and DMU. It would be on a Saturday morning at DMU and would provide education and support to those who are struggling with the psychological consequences of unemployment.”
The CBS Evening News was to follow up with on one of our primary sources, Suzanne Hull, founder of Unemployed in Des Moines Web site. Hull informed us that she was to be interviewed by the network, with the segment to run on Dec. 4.
Our enterprise piece was the most trusted news article for a few days on the international journalism social network NewsTrust last week, a few points behind an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal and another by The Washington Post.
Encouragement from Randy Brubaker, managing editor of The Register, who guided Chamberlin and me so that we could live up to the highest standards of journalism:
“[Y]ou should be pleased to learn I’ve spoken with another woman today who, with a group of friends, took lunch to Gray’s Lake to homeless folks. She said she didn’t find many at the lake who were interested in accepting, so they took the meal to Bethel Mission. But they were inspired by your article to take action. That’s always rewarding for a journalist!”
The reward for Chamberlin and me was the opportunity that Brubaker provided, allowing us to perform as models for students and faculty of the Greenlee School, reminding colleagues throughout the campus and nation of journalism’s necessary place in academe and society.
November 23, 2009
COPYRIGHT 2009, DES MOINES REGISTER AND TRIBUNE CO.
COPYRIGHT 2009, DES MOINES REGISTER AND TRIBUNE CO.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DENNIS CHAMBERLIN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DENNIS CHAMBERLIN
Editor’s Note: Two journalism professors spent most of a week looking for stories that reflected today’s tough times. For the full account of how they prepared, access the blog’s archives.
Editor’s Note: Two journalism professors spent most of a week looking for stories that reflected today’s tough times. For the full account of how they prepared, access the blog’s archives.
They arrive at Gray’s Lake Park in the morning, basking on borrowed time of a mild mid-November, realizing the winter can arrive any day like layoffs without warning.
They are the unemployed, strolling with friends, partners or retirees, or sometimes alone. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone knows someone else out of work in what some call “The Second Depression.”
They are neighbors, acquaintances, family members, colleagues, friends. They may be you. They belong to “The New Poverty,” people who followed the rules, paid bills and mortgages on time and whose lives were scuttled by Ponzi and subprime schemes happening far away.
Now many are unemployed or underemployed, walking around a lake days before Thanksgiving, known for blessings, food and the start of holiday shopping — seemingly beyond the reach of many jobless Iowans.
There is a quiet desperation in the air, not only at the lake. To date, 24 Iowans have died of H1N1 virus, but a more desperate killer has taken a greater toll this year — suicide — at record levels in the state.
Money is in short supply, so much so that counterfeit bills and gold coins are circulating in the city. Iowans who never entered pawn shops in their lives are hocking gold jewelry to get by.
Some just walk around Gray’s Lake to give themselves something to do.
Gray’s Lake is on the road to the Des Moines International Airport, and an air traffic controller on a daily walk chats about the failing state economy. Fewer flights are arriving and departing Iowa’s largest city, he says.
Indeed, total departures and arrivals of small and large aircraft in Des Moines peaked in 1998 with 137,000, says Anthony Molinaro, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration. That was down to 96,000 in 2008. As of September, total flights were 68,000 this year, compared with 77,000 for the same nine-month period in 2007, and 74,000 in 2008.
Some say the decrease is due to higher fuel costs. Molinaro is not so sure. “If you can’t afford a ticket, you don’t need as many flights.”
At Gray’s Lake Park, the air traffic controller moves on, continuing his walk. Behind him on a bench is a woman lost in thought. At first she gives her name, then later asks that her identity be withheld. Contacted again by telephone, she is firm. “No name.”
She’s a registered nurse, laid off twice this year. It took six months before she found another job, but then last month it happened again.
How does it feel to be an Iowan with a strong work ethic but with no work?
“You feel flawed because 90 percent of the people are working and you’re not,” she says. “I look for work all the time. I learned about resumes and other recommendations, but at the end of the day that’s not enough because there are not a lot of jobs to go around.
“Even hospitals have furloughs and hiring freezes.”
Cars arrive at noon in the parking lot off Fleur Drive. People emerge from vehicles dressed in business wear, with sneakers or comfortable shoes. These are the employed in a state with a 6.7 percent unemployment rate, enjoying a stroll at the lunch hour.
Signs of the times: A few blocks down the road, a McDonald’s marquee beckons: “Times are tuff. Let us help. 25 items $1.” McDonald’s and Burger King are in a $1 double cheeseburger war, trying to lure the newly impoverished on fixed or low incomes.
A big burger may not be as delectable as some prefer, but it’s affordable. In 1972, that burger cost 55 cents. A dollar then had the buying power now of $5.12. So two beef patties should sell at $2.81.
There is another story at the McDonald’s on Fleur Drive — workers willing to accept underemployment. Manager James Kennedy says college graduates often apply for jobs at his franchise.
“I had an application from a guy with a master’s in engineering and another degree in biochemistry,” Kennedy says. “He didn’t get the position.”
Out of every 100 applications, Kennedy gets about 10 to 15 from college graduates.
Business booms at a nearby pawn shop. Vince Madonia, owner of The Pawn Specialist on Army Post Road, has struck gold — literally.
Gold is more than $1,100 an ounce and may keep rising if the dollar continues to decline.
In the Great Depression, investors hoarded gold to such an extent that President Franklin Roosevelt issued a gold confiscation order in 1933, “forbidding the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion and gold certificates.” (Gerald Ford legalized private gold ownership in 1974.)
“People are bringing in gold by the handful,” Madonia says.
Madonia also has seen fake gold. In the past, real gold was stamped 14 karat. But now you find that stamp on brass.
That bears out at Christopher’s Fine Jewelry and Rare Coins on Merle Hay Road. An elderly man waits for numismatist Ed Armstrong to return from lunch, clutching four yellow “liberty head” coins. He wants to cash them in for return on his investment.
Before Armstrong arrives, his assistant Brian Dresback looks at the coins and says each is brass with gold plate and worth “a quarter each.”
The elderly man is stunned. Did Dresback mean $250 each?
“No,” Dresback repeats. “Twenty-five cents.”
Armstrong enters the store, verifying that figure.
“Don’t buy gold coins from Internet, from television or anywhere else,” he warns, “unless you can look the seller in the eyes.”
Another reminder of the Depression – people who are out of work need food. Carey L. Miller, executive director of the Food Bank of Iowa, worries about whether partner pantries will have enough resources to fill demand.
Rising numbers of unemployment claims give cause to her fears.
By the end of September, the number of Iowans filing claims in 2009 was 298,285, or 33,602 more than were filed through all of 2008. Add October’s 32,613 claims, and totals reach 330,898, an increase of 183 percent over the same 10 months last year.
This weighs heavily on Miller. Pantries in her 42-county area serve 12,464 families per month, an increase of 1,495 families per month over last year.
“This has to be some kind of record,” she says. “I have been associated with the Food Bank for 20 years. I can’t imagine the need has been any greater or remember a time when I felt quite so concerned about having enough resources to meet demand.”
People at pantries using services for the first time are especially under stress. One man at a local pantry apologized for visiting a pantry, Miller says, “but he was laid off and had two kids he needed to feed.”
Children are the unseen victims of any poverty, but especially now. As families struggle to meet basic needs, children can develop emotional issues.
Heather Soener, executive director of the Young Women’s Resource Center, serving girls and young women ages 11 to 21, has noticed a theme running through some programs. “One of the things impacting their lives and normal development is unemployment. Families are under great pressure with layoffs now.”
Emotional trauma especially affects girls. The State Department of Public Health reports that in 2008, 13 percent of 11th grade females tried to kill themselves. In fact, the total number of suicides in Iowa is at record 10-year levels, with 376 such deaths in 2008, compared with 331 last year and 289 deaths in 2000, according to data from the state.
“Chronic stress or major losses in a person’s life, whether it is unemployment or any other personal crisis, can lead to depression,” says Douglas Steenblock Jr., president-elect of the Iowa Psychiatric Society.
In particular, he adds, “making the transition from a substantial income to virtually no income is very difficult and represents a significant loss in that person’s life.”
Options exist for Iowans who are battling stress or depression but have lost medical insurance. Most counties are affiliated with community mental health centers that offer psychotherapy and/or medication management, he says.
The Iowa Psychiatric Society may organize workshops for non-members to enhance education about available resources.
“There is a growing number of citizens who are struggling with the chronic stress of unemployment or underemployment, and this may be an issue that we will need to be more attentive to,” Steenblock adds.
Got work? Economic difficulties can seem insurmountable, but some are overcoming them.
Freelance businesswoman Suzanne Hull, creator of the Web site Unemployed InDesMoines.com, provides advice about getting a job.
A 1999 Wartburg College graduate, Hull has been laid off three times.
“The first was in 2003, and I was able to find work three weeks later.” When she was laid off from a West Des Moines genetics firm in February 2009, she was unable to find work for three months.
“I was angry — angry at myself for not being able to find work as quickly as I had before,” she says.
Hull tried different methods of networking, joined a business book club and followed advice that led to a positive attitude: She moved her laptop from the comfortable couch in the basement to the kitchen table, writing, blogging and designing her Web site and a T-shirt business. Her garments ask, “Got work?”
She uses that laptop to help bring together the unemployed not only through social networking, but also face-to-face at Smokey Row Coffee on Cottage Grove Avenue, where people meet every other week for informal networking.
In sum, she created her own community out of work ethic, self-reliance and that third very Iowan value, neighborliness, which eliminates the isolation of sudden or prolonged unemployment and inspires new options, opportunities and priorities.
Hull may not be the exception but the rule for the future as Iowans rely on old values to overcome new economic woes, reinventing themselves in the process.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, and Dennis Chamberlin is an assistant professor of visual communication. The reporting and photography for this article were part of a weeklong professional experience at The Register.
Mich, AEJMC: WELCOME to AEJMC’s first-ever LIVE online chat!
Today’s TOPIC: Survival Tips, New Media Tools & the Changing Reporter
Two journalism professors — Dennis Chamberlin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Michael Bugeja, former bureau chief for United Press International — tested their journalism skills during the week of November 8 with a return to the newsroom (The Des Moines Register).
Their assignment: To work on an enterprise piece on “The New Poverty,” documenting how the failing economy in Iowa is affecting all strata of society.
Chamberlin and Bugeja are here today to chat about that experience, and share their thoughts on what changes J-Schools need to make, which new media tools classes should incorporate and the differences between today’s reporter and yesterday’s.
11:55 [Introduction from Michael Bugeja: ]
First of all, thanks to Jennifer McGill and Mich Sineath for hosting our blog on “Hot Topics” and for producing this “Cover It Live” interactive session. To get things started, I wanted to provide some quick answers to questions that many AEJMC members are interested in knowing.
What changes do J-Schools need to make?
As an administrator as well as a journalist, I think we [in academe] have far too many stand-alone presentation courses in new media. Some programs have online sequences. We do need courses such as multimedia production or digital photojournalism and videography. Apart from those, if we haven’t already, we had best introduce new media into our mainstream courses. Dennis Chamberlin stands out as a colleague who has been successful at that in our visual communication classes.
What new media tools should classes incorporate?
It’s important not to emphasize specific tools and build pedagogy around them. That’s silly. That’s technological determinism at its worst. Instead, look at anticipated outcomes for each class. Then ask yourself, How can technology enhance these outcomes?
11:55 [Comment From Dennis Chamberlin: ] Last week’s experience at The Des Moines Register was a great opportunity to observe how professionals are using the available tools to create journalistic content under deadline. Our project didn’t push us as much as a breaking news story would have but I think that we were still able to learn about today’s high-speed news environment and venture a bit into the digital realm by creating material for the web. After last week I feel more confident about emphasizing traditional reporting skills in my classes. I’ve never liked using class time to teach technology and now I feel comfortable in keeping a balance between the latest technology and timeless reporting skills.
11:57 Jennifer, AEJMC: One question–how did you clear the time to actually be away from your normal workload for a week.
11:58 Michael Bugeja: Well, that’s the issue, isn’t it? I had good staff and backup administration, and I answered email from 9 p.m. to midnight every night.
12:00 Jennifer, AEJMC: Dennis — how did you handle your classes?
12:00 Dennis Chamberlin: Great question! I had the help of a colleague who covered one day of classes and on the other day I had prepared an online assignment. The result was that we worked at The Register until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. and then I did my professorial work until 2:00 a.m. I was exhausted by the end of the week.
12:01 Michael Bugeja: Also, Jennifer, I’m hoping to use this experiment to get a grant so that our professors can return to the newsroom or agency in summer when they don’t have to work around the clock.
12:01 Jennifer, AEJMC: Did it help to have two of you doing this?
12:02 Michael Bugeja: Actually, I could have handled the assignment by myself with a digital camera, but my photos could not be as sharp or professional as Dennis’. I also wanted to give the Register something in return for hosting us, and I hoped that would be an award-winning enterprise.
12:03 Jennifer, AEJMC: The Register did seem pleased by the end product–and it likely allowed them a couple of people to do things no one else on staff had time to do.
12:04 [Comment From Mark: ] Did the experience teach you anything new or was it a confirmation of already held ideas?
12:04 Michael Bugeja: There’s a reporter, Reid, who does what we did, and we may have inspired more street reporting in him. He’s an excellent writer. He does narrative work too.
12:05 [Comment From Tricia: ] Did you find any specific social media/new media tools that were essential to the newsroom that students should know?
12:06 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Mark: A newspaper reporter in the past had more time to think through news events more critically. What we now call “depth reporting” used to be just “reporting.” Content really is king in a 24/7 news cycle online. One of my former students at The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a rule that reporters there use as a guide, the 4/5 rule, or four paragraphs online within five minutes of knowing something.
It’s really a deadline every login. It’s the wire service on steroids. So I think we should emphasize speed and accuracy in basic reporting.
12:06 [Comment From Carol J. Pardun: ] A number of our faculty go back into the newsroom fairly regularly, but as far as I know, they do this by themselves (not with any faculty partners). What were the unique benefits of having the two of you at the paper at the same time?
12:06 Dennis Chamberlin: Mark, there is always the risk of walking into any situation and seeing only that which reinforces your established beliefs and I did my best to remain aware of that. I tried to observe and listen to people in order to learn about today’s newsroom from their perspective and I saw that most of those people are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the quickly changing technology brings. I hope I am able to use that perspective in the classroom.
12:07 Michael Bugeja:Reply to Tricia: I think the excitement that we created by our blog, “My Register Experience,” putting the focus on the news rather than on the reporter, is one aspect of the experiment that many folks have missed, with regard to interactive media.
12:08 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Carol: As an administrator, I had an agenda, Carol. I try to model the behavior I wish to see in others. So by taking Dennis, that act might have inspired some other colleagues to try it with me or by themselves. It broke the academic/professional ice, as it were.
12:10 Dennis Chamberlin: Tricia, I was told that Social Media skills is something that they would like to see in new hires and when I brought that up in class the other day my students all groaned. A number of them said that during their internships last summer their employers wanted them to use their Facebook friends to promote events and products. The students were annoyed and said that will be a good reason to stop using social media in the future.
12:12 Michael Bugeja: I want to add to Dennis’ comment to Tricia. This is why I am entirely against use of social media as a means to engage students in the classroom. Facebook is programmed for socialization, not education. Any number of popular consumer applications, including Second Life, are just not programmed to do what many tech advocates want them to, and students know that and groan.
12:12 [Comment From Carol J. Pardun: ] Dennis, that makes sense to me as well. I can tell you that I get annoyed when people use my facebook friends to attempt to market something to me or to others on my list.
12:14 Jennifer, AEJMC: Could something like this work as well for other industry areas — say broadcasting or public relations?
12:14 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Michael, when I’m reading the news, I pay attention to how often those in power or leadership roles are the news sources and how often those without power or leadership are the news sources. For your story on the new poverty, what would you say was your ratio?
12:15 Dennis Chamberlin: I’m not against social media but unless it enhances the quality of the content I’m not sure that I believe it will be a great addition to journalism. It is a marketing tool and we shouldn’t forget that and pretend that it is a great addition to modern life.
12:15 Michael Bugeja: Jennifer, you’re right on! I’m hoping in the future to work at an ad agency, broadcast outlet, etc., to get a sense of what students need to know.
12:16 Michael Bugeja: Paul, great question! We wanted to go into the streets and speak with people easily overlooked by reporters. We didn’t need social media to do this. We needed comfortable shoes. And then we took their comments and went to the power brokers.
12:17 [Comment From Alfred Hermida: ] Thinking of Facebook as simply a tool to promote events and products reflects the broadcast mentality that persists in newsrooms. I suggest that social media requires a shift in approach, from a one to many framework to a many to many framework, where the emphasis is on connectivity and participation, rather than content and control.
12:18 Michael Bugeja: Alfred is right. Many of these tools are designed for marketing. But if we analyze how to use them, we can achieve connectivity.
12:18 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Dennis, you wrote a blog entry on the serendipitous nature of daily journalism. What was the most serendipitous moment during your Register experience? Michael, was there one for you?
12:20 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Paul: Our story on “the New Poverty” is set to run on Monday. It is all about serendipity. It is narrative journalism. It chronicles almost hour by hour what Dennis and I encountered on the street.
12:20 [Comment From Donna D: ] Considering the student “groan” mentality of using social networking tools in the classroom, I think if you’re asking them to tap into their private friend networks for marketing, it’s like asking them to hit up all their friends for favors or they see something they like to use for social purposes turned into a “class gimmick.” It’s all in how it’s used and why, I think.
12:21 [Comment From Donna D: ] Reminds me of being a teenager and hearing my favorite Beatles tune played on my mother’s “easy listening” station.
12:22 Dennis Chamberlin: Paul, I learned about a few people’s experiences that had me really excited to tell their stories in audio and photos but I wasn’t able to convince them to go on the record. They were ashamed that they had fallen on hard times and didn’t want others in the community to know.
12:22 Michael Bugeja: You’re right, Donna. But social media was sold to traditional media as a marketing tool. And it was sold to education as an engagement tool. It’s a tool to make friends, to meet folks, to advocate for causes and the like. And it’s a databank for reporters to search out sources because they violate their privacy via social media, and you can track them down.
12:24 Jennifer, AEJMC: Do reporters really do that now?
12:24 [Comment From Donna D: ] I had a reporter in NYC read a high school message board and turned my private life into a headline, so yes, Jennifer.
12:24 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Jennifer: Use of Facebook to track down sources? You bet. Employers use it for different reasons. …
12:25 Dennis Chamberlin: I’ve seen the reporters in our campus paper use it to track down sources on a pretty regular basis.
12:25 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Dennis, do you find ways to tell some of their stories anyway, or without ID, are the stories simply not tell-able?
12:26 [Comment From Mark: ] If FB, etc. really are only tools, being put to different uses by different actors, doesn’t that increase the need to teach *about* them?
12:28 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Mark. [I’ll repeat what I said in the introduction, and expand on that] It’s important not to emphasize specific tools and build pedagogy around them. That’s silly. That’s technological determinism at its worst. Instead, look at anticipated outcomes for each class. Then ask yourself, How can technology enhance these outcomes? For example, I wouldn’t want an iPhone incorporated into a class whose main focus is writing across platforms. An iPhone might come in handy in some reporting classes on some assignments emphasizing spot news coverage. You can tweet, shoot pictures or video, and text to the newsroom. But that’s only one assignment in a class that may require other reporting skills for which an iPhone is ill-suited.
12:28 [Comment From Donna D: ] Seems social networking tools have the potential to be great research tools, as we learn how to use them in other ways.
12:29 Jennifer, AEJMC: Do professors talk about that in class?
12:29 Jennifer, AEJMC: Not just do it, but let students in on the thought process?
12:29 Michael Bugeja: Donna: Absolutely correct! But then we’ll be using them for research in a way that marketers do. But what you just noted is vital on how we should approach technology–as a concept, rather than as a tool.
12:30 [Comment From David: ] From what I read, it seems some faculty members readily embrace use of new media — while others steadfastly hold to the idea that colleges need to educate students about journalism, not train them to use specific technology. Where are you on this?
12:30 [Comment From Donna D: ] I agree totally with Michael
12:30 Dennis Chamberlin: Paul, I still haven’t given up on these stories. One woman will probably tell the story in her own words and I will make images ot go along with it. The other story is about a woman that might be recognizable if the situation was described and I have to respect her wishes. To be honest, I wish we were in the pre-internet era because I could probably do it for a European publication and she would be safe that no one in Iowa would see it. Last summer I taught a multimedia class in Italy and one team of students ran across a situation where the people agreed to be featured if it was for a print publication but they would not give permission for the story to run online. They said that you never know where it will end up or how it will be used.
12:31 [Comment From Eric: ] Is it your experience that students often are more interesting in learning technology for technology’s sake than they are in coming up with something to cover, then looking around to find what tools tell their story best?
12:32 [Comment From Chip: ] How do you feel about having more than one facebook account? Should reporters have one for friends, one for sources?
12:32 [Comment From Alfred Hermida: ] To David’s comment: Technology is a tool for journalism. The challenge in class is not whether to chose between teaching journalism or technology. It is to teach students how to harness the potential of new tools to produce high quality journalism.
12:32 Michael Bugeja: Reply to David: Dennis had a post on keeping an open mind. That’s essential with technology. Often because of my research I’m accused of being a Luddite. See http://chronicle.com/article/Reduce-the-Technology-Rescue/49078/
A person has to know technology to critique it in this manner. Actually, I have five Web sites, three blogs, a Twitter account and even have interviewed avatars in SL. But I see these applications for what they are, not what we want them to be.
12:34 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Eric: Students don’t want to learn about technology. They know it. They’ll learn about it if it can get them a job, such as portfolio class. But they use technology for different purposes. So we do have to critique applications, social media, and the like. And we do have to teach them how to use technology so that it doesn’t use them.
12:35 Michael Bugeja: Reporters have been fired for what they wrote on blogs. So yes, Chip. Keep a personal and professional Facebook account.
12:35 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Dennis, the concept of “proximity” in the internet age still remains important, doesn’t it?
12:35 [Comment From Tricia: ] You mentioned earlier that you created excitement about the project though blogging. Can you expand on that? Why did you decide to blog? What were your goals for the blog? Were you monitoring hits and feedback?
12:36 Michael Bugeja: Alfred: My biggest complaint, not only concerning technology in journalism, but in higher education, is how so few are willing to critique it. How can we use it if we cannot say anything against it?
12:37 Dennis Chamberlin: David, your description covers our department quite well. I like to see what we can do with all the tools but only to the degree that I still have time for covering reporting skills. I never got a job because I knew how to focus a camera and develop film. I got assignments because I knew how to sell the story idea to an editor and then pull it off under a tight deadline. I like to make sure students realize that tools are something that you need to feel comfortable with and know when to use.
12:38 Michael Bugeja: Tricia, I’ve seen reporter blogs speak about going fishing on the weekend, and what they caught. Nobody’s interested in that. If you check out our blog in “Hot Topics” or read the comments at our site, http://www.myregisterexperience.wordpress.com, you’ll see that we generated excitement about our story. Many folks emailed us. Comments helped us, too.
12:41 Michael Bugeja: Just a general observatioin about content: We need to teach students speed and accuracy now more than ever. They can text quickly, but do they know the databanks to access in providing a fact-base for their interviews?
12:42 [Comment From Alfred Hermida: ] Michael, I agree. A critical approach is necessary. At the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, we teach the students to understand the different forms of media and platforms, and be able to assess technology tools to tell a story.
12:43 [Comment From Carol J. Pardun: ] As far as speed and accuracy go, we are hosting a British journalist turned professor in the UK. Their school teaches short hand (as part of the accrediting process in the UK) for the very reasons of what you point to Michael: speed and accuracy. Short hand seems pretty old school, doesn’t it? Yet…..
12:44 Michael Bugeja: Alfred, your comment is so important. Think about this: How did McLuhan or even I in Interpersonal Divide write about technology so that the observations still spark debate? Because we wrote as you teach. That’s what we have to remember and reinforce, or our students will panic when they switch from QuarkXpress to InDesign.
12:45 Michael Bugeja: I regret not learning shorthand, Carol. Only I can decipher my notebook. On the otherhand, a district attorney couldn’t decipher it if I interviewed someone she or he wanted to prosecute, based on my notes.
12:46 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Michael and Dennis (and AEJMC)… Thanks for doing this live online chat. I now have to head to a live in-person group chat — called a meeting! I look forward to seeing what the Register does with your “The New Poverty” contributions.
12:47 Michael Bugeja: Thank you for your good questions, Paul. We appreciate everyone who participated with us live and online.
12:47 Jennifer, AEJMC: Thanks everyone.
12:48 Mich, AEJMC: Thanks to everyone for participating. If you haven’t had a chance to read Michael and Dennis’ series on “Returning to the Digital Newsroom” please do so. …
Having Michael Bugeja and Dennis Chamberlin working alongside Des Moines Register journalists for a week was a good experience–for our newsroom, as well as for Bugeja and Chamberlin. It gave many here a chance to reflect on what we do and why we do it, and it’s always good for journalists to be thoughtfully challenged and to have to articulate our guiding principles.
Michael told me with a smile that he wanted a grade for their efforts. I responded that this was a pass-fail enterprise. And, without a doubt, they’ve passed. The story that I’ve read and edited breaks some news that the Register hasn’t previously published (and hasn’t been on television or in other newspapers around the state). We haven’t picked a final publication date, and even when we do, it’ll be subject to change based on the news of the day. But it could publish as soon as Friday or Saturday and perhaps as late as Tuesday.
Michael hits the nail on the head when he says “content is still king.”
And Dennis’ analysis that today’s students need these two fundamental competencies is indisputable:
1. A familiarity with various technology that allows them to report on different platforms.
2. A traditional news skill such as news reporting, feature writing, visual story-telling, copyediting.
I think it’s worth noting, however, that in large part the experience Michael and Dennis created for themselves was focused on reporting an enterprise story, and it was a situation in which the reporter had a photographer working with him on the story. Several reporters here and at other news organizations spend most of their time on competitive, breaking news beats and often shoot still photos and video for their stories themselves. Those reporters and photographers still must rely on core journalism fundamentals, of course; but the most successful journalists in those jobs know how and when to use a wider range of tools than was the case a few years ago.
In an e-mail to me this week, Dennis recalled one day when they were in our newsroom and a hostage situation unfolded on the police scanner. It ended with the hostage dead and an officer shot. Dennis said he was tempted to jump in the car and help cover it. While that’s not a daily news situation here in Des Moines, covering that kind of breaking news requires a different comfort level with today’s new media tools and puts a reporter’s ability to execute those core journalism fundamentals to much tougher test (with less margin for error) than does enterprise reporting.
If Michael and Dennis had done that kind of spot or continuous news reporting for a week, would their conclusions be the same? I suspect so, although I think the nuance and the understanding of how the various tools are important to today’s journalism students would be different.
In that way, this anecdote echoes the call made by Michael Bugeja for funding for more journalism professors and news organizations to create experiences that allow professors to return to the newsroom for insight how to better serve students and the industry. No two journalists or news organizations will have identical experiences, and the broader the perspectives the better, not just for students but for the news industry during this time of transformation.
Finally, there’s value in pointing out that one of the reasons this experience worked for both the Greenlee School faculty members and for the Register was that a strong relationship and trust existed at several levels between our organizations before Michael Bugeja and Dennis Chamberlin stepped in the newsroom. The Register hosts the Iowa State Daily staff members and adviser in our newsroom once a year, to give that staff a look at how we do our work. We frequently have success with Iowa State journalism students as interns and as hires. And I’ve been to Michael’s office for conversation over the years, too.
We appreciate the extra efforts of Michael and Dennis in the past couple of weeks–and look forward to a time when we can do it again.
I returned to the classroom Monday and was surprised by the interest my students had about the week that Michael Bugeja and I spent in The Des Moines Register newsroom and on the streets of the city. Students were genuinely curious as to whether we passed the test. The staff at The Register will have to answer that.
To be honest, we didn’t spend much time in the newsroom because we were busy searching for subjects that would result in photographs or interviews to help tell the story of “The New Poverty.” This past week was similar to working on a freelance assignment where I am able to determine the situations to photograph as long as it complements the written text. Michael built the foundation of our piece with the text and I tried to add a layer of meaning with the photographs.
The traditional tools may have changed a bit–typewriters traded for computers and film cameras exchanged for digital cameras, as well as the introduction of new recording devices and means of electronic delivery; but the fundamental purpose of journalism has not changed over the past couple of decades. It still is concerned with informing readers and telling the stories that engage people in our society.
During the week I learned that it is dangerous to make too many generalizations about convergence and new media tools. Two years ago when I spent a week following photojournalists at The Register video was the new tool that was being emphasized. Today, it seems like there is more focus on choosing the right tool for the story.
On the first day I asked Managing Editor Randy Brubaker if I should be prepared to put together a video package in addition to an audio slideshow that I was planning. He made it clear that they don’t use the tools simply for the sake of presentation. He encouraged us to use whatever technology allowed us to tell the story best.
What do our students need? I asked this question a few times during the week and the general consensus is:
1. A familiarity with various technology that allows them to report on different platforms.
2. A traditional news skill such as news reporting, feature writing, visual story-telling, copyediting.
Michael says he agrees with that assessment. He adds that if teaching basic reporting, he would emphasize speed and accuracy–timed tests and expertise with computer assisted reporting–so as to generate content on demand.
I didn’t see any evidence that expertise is needed with several digital tools but rather with just one and a competent working level with others. There is still a strong need for reporting skills. If you know how to use the tools but don’t recognize a good story, a video camera or Twitter will not do you any good. If you know how to recognize a story, but give up when you encounter source or equipment difficulties, you won’t find a place in the metro newspaper.
Something else stood out during my Register experience: You have to be open to change and be ready to adapt as the medium evolves. Those who succeed in journalism today will always be open to change. Those who want to report, shoot, edit or design they way they used to in their comfort zone, won’t make it in the fast-paced newsroom.
Part of keeping an open mind also involves the story based on access to sources, interviews and luck. You still need that nose for news, persistence and courage.
As a photographer I learned how to deal with change prior to the digital age. Our work has always been tied to the available technology and the resulting images are defined by what cameras and lenses are in your bag. Look at award-winning images from the National Press Photographers Association archives over the years and you can see the influence that cameras, lenses and new emulsions had on the best work of the time.
Street photography did not come of age in the era of the Speed Graphic; it needed a smaller and quicker tool in the form of a 35mm camera. The visual records of the 70s and early 80s are defined by the possibilities of the fast telephoto and the 90s by the ultra wide angle.
What is today’s photojournalism going to be defined by? Camera phone images? Flip camera videos?
Only time will tell, but I am sure it will reflect our current technology.
I’ve had the weekend to reflect on my Register experience without necessarily thinking about “The New Poverty,” covered in my last post, and share with viewers today the chromatic scale of emotions that colored the week.
Dennis Chamberlin has just sent me a digital contact sheet of his photographs, which he will file today, and will post his thoughts about the week tomorrow. We’ve asked the Register’s managing editor, Randy Brubaker, to comment on our enterprise work, and anything else; we hope to post that on Wednesday. On Thursday, we’ll remind everyone about the national live chat session with Chamberlin and me, set for 11 a.m. central and noon eastern at this URL, hosted by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Chamberlin and I had something to learn and something to prove. We learned that digital journalism is part of everyday journalism, but not nearly as much as educators have made that out to be, as most of us, even me, are so accustomed to living technologically now via e-mail, blog, cell phone, camera-phone, text, tweet, html (or Website application software), Google, YouTube–you name it–that focusing on “new media” seems technostalgic.
Indeed, anyone still touting these tools as the means to secure employment in the digital newsroom should return to the newsroom to see why content is still king.
There are reasons. While advertisement sales may be down from previous highs in the print business, they still generate plenty of pages to fill, and most publishers want to fill them with local news. Also, we heard more than once in the Register newsroom about editors’ no longer relying on the Associated Press to generate local content to supplement the news budget, even in a city as large as Des Moines.
Increasingly, my wire service contacts affirm that the trend has been for them to disseminate local news generated by subscriber partners while their employees focus on all those other premiums that newspapers need, from sports scores to national and international news.
In fact, the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, is dropping the AP for a week to see how much they actually need it. Read about that here.
During my Register week, I observed reporters creating as much content as possible. Sure, the digital news editor, Web site developers and designers, along with support personnel, focused on what we in academe still label “convergence”; but they would have little work to do without others filing stories, photos, opinion and more from dawn to midnight.
That is what I learned, and perhaps Chamberlin will affirm or refute that.
As for me, I was excited to be back in the newsroom and working with some of the most industrious, dedicated journalists in the business. Many of them, including political columnist Kathie Obradovich, are Iowa State University alumni (or appreciate our hardhat journalism approach). Obradovich captured how I felt most of the week in her blog.
What most didn’t see was how terrified I was that street reporting and narrative journalism would fail in today’s fast-paced news cycle. I was apprehensive accosting people for interviews at Gray’s Park Lake, Southridge Mall and other venues, especially since they assumed (perhaps because of too much television) that we were law enforcement, dressed in suit jackets and brandishing notepads and cameras.
But time after time, our nose for news put us at a newsworthy spot. We interviewed an employed air traffic controlled about fewer flghts to Des Moines, and behind us was an unemployed nurse. We photographed an empty mall parking lot and saw a booming business at a pawn shop where a customer had just sold his gold teeth. Upon hearing about counterfeit notes and coins circulating in the city, I visited a coin shop and witnessed a man being told he had invested in replica brass rather than gold coins.
You can read about that encounter in a prior post.
I went to the coin shop on my lunch break and didn’t bring a digital- or videocam; had I done so, I could have documented the reality of “The New Poverty.” It was my one big error of the week.
The biggest emotional toll was remembering the conflict of interest in who comes first with the First Amendment–the source or the audience. Several unemployed sources did not want to be named in our story for fear that such disclosure would prevent them from getting a job. One gave her identity and then reneged. In the end, we decided to honor the source’s request for anonymity because of the nature of our story.
In closing, I believe that the Knight Foundation and other journalism organizations promoting digital journalism should think about funding experiences for professors, such as Chamberlin and I enjoyed. Educators cannot serve the industry as completely as we might without returning to industry. Otherwise we create curricula through our various academic filters (re-accreditation, assessment, program competition, new course-prep anxiety and pedogogical territorialism, etc.).
I will be using this blog as a pilot study for a corporate or foundation endowment to allow professors in the Greenlee School at Iowa State University to return to the newsroom, agency or company for a summer salaried first-hand look at how we can better serve our constituents, chief among them, of course, being our students.
If Tuesday’s post was dim, discussing bleak statistics about the scope of what some are calling, “The Second Depression,” this one contains two brighter spots, interviews with the executive director of a young woman’s resource center and with a young woman entrepreneur who could have fallen into the hopeless syndrome of depression due to joblessness, but instead relied on a historic Iowa value: neighborhood (but with a digital twist).
Heather Soener heads the Young Women’s Resource Center, 705 E. 2nd Street, Des Moines, which helps girls and young women from every demographic.
You can check out the long list of programs and services here.
In our interview, Soener told me that the center does “a lot of prevention programming,” especially for young girls reaching the fifth grade. One of the things impacting their lives and normal development is unemployment. “Families are under great pressure with layoffs now.”
The center also focuses on a Latina group of girls, emphasizing their culture and roots and how some values might differ in the community. (The Latino/a Iowa cultures share a strong work ethic.) In both groups, the specter of unemployment echoes. “You hear things like, ‘My mom worked there for seven years, and now she has been laid off.’”
Layoffs at home and school have harsh side effects on girls, in particular. “They might develop trust issues,” Soener says, “or the ability to form relationships, being more cautious” because of the instability at the places where girls expect to find little or none. “The focus is elsewhere rather than on the children.”
Soener also tells an anecdote that underscores the worries of Carey L. Miller, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank, profiled Tuesday on this blog, about having insufficient resources to serve the hunger needs in the 42-county service area. We’ll include that telling anecdote in our story.
Speaking of which, we will file that on Thursday. Because I have an award-winning photographer in Dennis Chamberlin, I can do narrative journalism, relying on him to showcase our article in slide shows and pictures. That narrative will end with Suzanne Hull, with whom we shared coffee this morning at Smokey Row Coffee, 1910 Cottage Grove Ave, Des Moines.
Hull is a remarkable young entrepreneur, the creator of the Web site “Unemployed in Des Moines,” which provides advice and information about getting a job in addition to unemployment news, such as the recent extension of unemployment benefits for the 31,000 Iowans who have run out of benefits since June.
Suzanne, a 1999 Wartburg College graduate in economics and international business, was laid off twice this year and could have fallen into the syndrome associated with the new poverty, believing her work ethic and self-reliance could overcome any difficulty, even one as potentially dire as this economic one. Instead, she joined a business book club, networked within the community and then followed a piece of advice that led to an epiphany and change of attitude: She moved her laptop from the comfortable couch in the basement to the kitchen table, where she did some remarkable work, using Web 2.0 to foster interpersonal communication.
She created her own neighborhood for the unemployed in Des Moines, meeting in the same cafe every other week for informal networking. A lot of good has come out of Hull’s contribution, and others can learn from her example.
Read about that in The Register.
Dennis Chamberlin and I spent Monday in the streets, tracking the new poverty from Gray’s Lake Park, local fast-food restaurants, a near-empty southside mall and then to a pawn shop, with interviews today that I thought would add substance to our journey. Instead, our narrative on the new poverty may have taken an ominous turn based on the theme that has guided us all along: If Iowans are known for their work ethic, what happens to them when there is no work?
That’s the “untold story,” meant literally, in that today we learned that some former prosperous Iowans–jobless for months and even years on end–eventually stop talking about their plight out of shame, give up searching for work because of that feeling and then grow depressed, draining their savings and then lacking money for therapy and insurance for psychiatric medication.
I have set up an interview with Dr. Douglas Steenblock, an Ames psychiatrist and president-elect of the Iowa Psychiatric Society, to address the syndrome. Not all jobless Iowans endure those symptoms, of course, as another character trait of Iowans is self-reliance; but you can see how that trait grinds against the strong work ethic, making some feel hopeless on the false belief that they should have been able to surmount any difficulty.
Only this difficulty is epic for some families, as we are learning.
Case in point: I also am interviewing and collecting data from Carey L. Miller, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank, who told me this morning that people at the pantries using the services for the first time are undergoing terrific stress, with some workless guests apologizing because they have been laid off and have children to feed. She has some startling stats to share about the depth of this new poverty, concerning a long-term need for food. Here’s a snippet of our interview:
“The partner pantries reports indicate that they are serving 12,464 families per month in our 42 county service area. This is an increase of 1,495 families per month over last year. This has to be some kind of record. I have been associated with the Food Bank for 20 years. I can’t imagine the need has been any greater or remember a time when I felt quite so concerned about us having enough resources to meet demand.”
Worse, Iowa’s jobless rate also is near record highs, with more to come as the state honors Gov. Chet Culver’s mandate to slash budgets by 10 percent. That will add hundreds to the furloughed and fired ranks.
But that’s not the end of bad news. Iowa’s work force is seasonal, especially in farming, manufacturing and construction. We are now entering the slowest time for new jobs, November through February.
To be sure, this is one of the worst recessions here since the Great Depression. And crimes that occurred then, such as counterfeiting, are recurring again. Today I revisited that topic in an interview with John Gutsmiedl, resident agent in charge, at the Omaha Office of the U.S. Secret Service. The Register has done recent stories about paper counterfeit dollars, such as this report. Counterfeit notes also were found recently at Polk County Bank, 5601 Merle Hay Road, Johnston.
With gold rising to more than $1,100 an ounce, Iowans also are being duped by fake replica brass coins, for which they paid hundreds of dollars, only to be informed of the scams.
I’ll end the post with a journalism example of the kind of serendipity that can occur when reporters interview sources at the scene. I did that over my lunch hour, just as I used to do enterprise pieces for United Press International in the 1970s during my weekends off. (Yes, I still have that zeal, and so do many of our students and professors at the Greenlee School.)
At Christopher’s Fine Jewelry and Rare Coins, 3427 Merle Hay Road, I waited for numismatist and counterfeit expert Ed Armstrong to return from lunch. A older man was waiting, too, with four large gold-appearing “liberty head” coins and a silver eagle-looking proof. He wanted to cash them in to get back a decent return on his hard-earned investment. Before Armstrong arrived, his assistant looked at them and said each coin was brass with gold plate and worth “a quarter each.” The man thought he meant $250. “No,” the assistant said. “Twenty-five cents.”
Armstrong entered the store at that moment, verifying the worth of the fake gold.
I introduced myself as working this week for The Register. “I could use those coins for my story,” I remarked. “How much shall I pay you?”
The older gentleman seemed ashamed. “Here,” he said, giving me the coins. “You can have them for nothing because that is what they are worth.”
Today, Chamberlin and I visit an unemployment networking group. Maybe their upbeat organization can help others find a way to cope (not to mention find a job).
Dennis Chamberlin and I didn’t sleep much last night in anticipation of our first day at The Des Moines Register, which turned out better than we could imagine, not only in discovering that journalism hasn’t changed much since our time (although people’s reaction to street journalists has), but also in seeing reporters and editors putting in extra hours to get out the news across several platforms.
Again, as a former wire service reporter, that’s not news to me. It was like being back in the bureau again.
Our day began at 7:45 a.m. as we headed out on Duff Avenue, Ames, spotting a man in a yellow bird costume beckoning us to get an “early bird special” at Jiffy Lube. So naturally, we had to stop an interview Marvin Lewis, 50, originally from Chicago who says he was out early to show members of his “Young Men of Integrity” chapter that the early bird gets the job.
You can read about that national group here.
Lewis, a groundskeeper for a local properties management company, said, “I came to Ames from the inner city, Chicago, and got in so much trouble”—indeed, court records verify that; “but then I learned that it’s all about surrounding yourself with the best people. I never had that before.”
He wants to pass on that experience to youth in our hometown.
About 45 minutes later, we arrived at The Register. Managing Editor Randy Brubaker gave us a tour, temporary press passes and a parking spot. We also got Register coffee mugs, and went straight for the coffee machine, lured by the scent of burnt coffee in a pot that hasn’t been properly washed in a decade.
Then we set out to Gray’s Lake Park. We had immediate luck. We were interviewing an air traffic controller who gave us a great tip about the decline of flights into and out of Des Moines International Airport, in part due to the poor economy. (Indeed, his stats checked out with 137,000 flights in 1998 and steadily declining ones down to 96,000 in 2008 and running well below that figure for the first nine months of this year.)
After the interview, we noticed a woman sitting a few feet behind us on a park bench. We asked if she was unemployed, and she was, a registered nurse who was laid off three weeks ago after going six months from January to June without work. She gave us a great interview so that we had insight into her and others’ situation, and at first allowed us to use her name; but later, she decided she didn’t really want us to. (She says she will read this blog and perhaps reconsider, and we hope that she does.)
Another woman walked past us immediately after, and she was out of work for two years. She also wouldn’t give us her name, but said she walked around the lake every day to give her something to do. “Lots of people do it.”
We hope some of those we interviewed will allow us to use their names, but if not, we’ll quote them anonymously and interview a psychologist who can elaborate on our core question to each person today: Iowa is known for its work ethic, but what happens to Iowans when there is no work?
Then we headed out to some fast food places to see if any college-degree holders were working there. At an empty ice cream parlor, we waited for about 20 minutes before two customers came in. One was retired, but she told us the unemployed in the city could be found at Southridge Mall. Moreover, we’d also find lots of empty stores to document just how bad the economy has become on the southside of the city.
She was right. Dennis will have some spectacular shots of a huge parking lot that at best was 5 percent full at the noon hour.
Almost half the stores, excluding the anchors Target and Younkers, had few, if any, customers.
But here we found the brightest spot of the day. You’ll have to read about that in our enterprise piece. We also visited a pawn shop where a customer hours before had sold his gold teeth because the price of the gilt metal had risen to $1100 an ounce.
The biggest change for us, former street reporters, was how anxious people were when we first approached them for an interview. A few hadn’t experienced that before. Dressed in suit jackets and ties, people assumed we were detectives or evangelists. (We’re sure that Register reporters interview plenty of sources in person, but we’re not sure if they stake out sites as we did in 1970s street reporting fashion, led by intuition optimization rather than the search engine kind.)
Tomorrow I’ve got some research and follow-up interviews to do. Wednesday we’ll be meeting with a networking group, and finish up interviewing and shooting at the lake one more time.
Thursday, we file.
Dennis Chamberlin and I will report to the Register newsroom Monday morning, getting temporary press passes, parking sticker and a work station. Then we will hit the streets, combing the city for “The New Poverty,” in search for Iowans hard-hit by the recession who might never imagined their unemployment or current job situation.
If you live in the Ames-Des Moines area, and have a story to tell, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will be looking for white-collar employees in blue-collar jobs, and the jobless blue-collar workers displaced by them in a zero-sum economy.
We will search them out at fast-food franchises, malls, networking breakfasts, Gray’s Lake Park, shopping malls and all the lonely places from shelters to soup kitchens.
We will investigate the return of Depression-era crimes in counterfeit bills and fake gold coins and document the desperation at “cash for gold” pawn shops and money stores.
We will end up at places we never imagined talking to people we never foresaw, led by the instinctual proboscis, or nose for news, rather than by Google maps.
Moreover, we’re mindful that Thanksgiving is a few weeks away; but Chamberlin and I see no silver lining in this recession, as Gov. Chet Culver has ordered a 10 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies on top of last year’s 15 percent cut, with hundreds of employees yet to be furloughed or fired.
So do not anticipate from us many “stories of hope” in an otherwise Dickinsonian time with the plague of H1N1 not only infecting residents before the dreaded Plains winter, but whose “swine flu” nickname has devasted the pork-producing industry on whose revenue the state also depends.
Rather, we will try to capture the unique irony of a city and state known for an unflailing work ethic when little work is to be found.
And if we find any silver lining, it just may be in how former white-collar Iowans have rediscovered their servant neighbors after years now of ignoring them while chatting on cells phones in the check-out lanes at Wal-mart, McDonald’s and Wells Fargo, realizing there is an underbelly of disenfranchised somehow overlooked in our pursuit of the upwardly T-mobile good life.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll help people lose the shame of such plight (because there is none in events beyond our control) and re-embrace the pioneer tenets that made Iowa one of the friendliest, most resilient places in the nation: how much we care about each other.