Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2010 (November 8, 2010 at 12:00 am)

Writing the First Draft of History


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November 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm
By Lynn Vollbrecht'06

If ever there was a career suited to a student of the liberal arts, it’s journalism. So says Stephen Hall’73.

“Journalism is the perfect profession for a liberal arts major,” says Hall, an award-winning author, former New York Times Magazine editor and contributor, and journalism professor at Columbia University. “On one day or another, you’re going to have to know about almost anything, and if you don’t know about it, you’re going to have to be a quick study. I think it’s an intrinsic psychological part of liberal arts that there’s nothing you can’t get up to speed on.”

That might be the reason that—for a school with only a journalism minor—Beloit College produces no dearth of writers and journalists. Talented ones, at that. Jim Simon’77, for example, was recently part of a team of reporters and editors at the Seattle Times whose breaking news coverage won a Pulitzer Prize this spring. A 27-year veteran of the newspaper industry, Simon sees his profession as one currently mired in a state of transition.

“For people like me, it’s been an exhausting time—I’ve seen a lot of friends lose jobs, but it’s also exhilarating,” he says.

The real trick will be determining how those providing news content can turn a profit. “I think the quicker newspapers could get to a print-free environment would be great, because they have extraordinarily heavy costs in printing plants, trucks that deliver things, but the truth is that there aren’t the revenues to sustain very substantial news operations for people like us online,” says Simon. “How do [newspapers] get to a digital future that will really sustain fairly large reporting staffs and the level of reporting now that we can do in print?”

It’s a question newspapers and other publications throughout the country are asking themselves as some of the big names in the business close their doors.

Hall likens the recent changes in the industry to an ongoing natural disaster. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what the world’s going to look like when the ground stops shaking. But it hasn’t stopped shaking yet,” he says. Whether steeped in optimism about their industry’s future or uncertain of how changes in technology will transform the way they work, alumni journalists like the six profiled here continue to carve out careers in a morphing media landscape.

Jim Simon’77: Tweets on the street, feet on the ground

Jim Simon 

For Jim Simon’77, assistant managing editor at the Seattle Times, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news could not have come at a better time.

“A year before, a lot of us thought that we weren’t even going to be around—that we were likely to go out of business,” he says. “So it was an amazing thing to go from what was maybe one of the lowest years around here—and for many newspapers in America—to winning a Pulitzer.”

In April 2008, the paper cut its staff by nearly 40 percent. In April of 2010, staff at the Seattle Times found out they’d been awarded a Pulitzer for coverage of the November 2009 murders of four police officers in the Seattle suburb of Lakewood. “I think what made it more remarkable for a lot of us was that it was really an award for the newsroom staff,” Simon says. “Often these are proud moments for a newspaper, but they’re usually individual awards, and this was really a remarkable effort by the whole staff.”

Though he’s quick to admit his first love is print, Simon says social media tools, such as the micro-blogging platform Twitter, played a pivotal role in reporters’ coverage of the crime. “Part of the reason we won was our use of multimedia, tools that really didn’t exist 10 years ago for newspapers to use on any sort of regular basis,” he says. His role as an editor was to help coordinate coverage and edit stories as the gruesome events unfolded. Sometimes the information his photographer—a college intern—was tweeting out was so good that police asked him to put a lid on it.

Given the caliber of the award it helped garner himself and his colleagues, Simon sees social media as a boon to journalists, but not as a medium without its limitations.

“In a breaking news story, social media is great,” he says. “What I’m still somewhat skeptical of is this notion of citizen journalism.” He believes the field needs to be maintained with experienced practitioners and professional standards. “That, I think, is really more where the tension is in my mind, rather than whether things are online or in print. I think some of the tension is around: Do you need professional journalists? And I would argue: yes.”

Working with journalists in developing countries like Kenya through the International Reporting Project has also shaped Simon’s perspective on the use of technology in journalism, reinforcing his belief that the platform is less important than the content. “In places like that, and in Iran and other places, that’s where the role of citizen journalism is amazing, and technology is really what allows and empowers that,” he says. On the other hand, he worries that when the dust settles after this industry shake-up, the loss of teams of reporters taking to the street and working their sources will be an irreparable casualty.

“A single blogger couldn’t cover something in the way that we did,” he says. “The thing that is most endangered right now is what I would call ‘feet on the street.’ And that’s stuff that is very hard to replicate outside of a news organization.”

Stephen Hall’73: The science of shortened attention spans

Magazine 2010 7 

Stephen Hall’73 posits that while major fluctuations in the journalism industry are well underway, they are not only coming from changes in how news is delivered. They are also caused by societal shifts in the way we seek out our news.

“In a very broad sense, people are reading less long-form writing,” he says, adding that his contacts in book publishing tell him people are not buying and reading books the way they used to, while magazines are getting thinner and thinner.

“You just wonder if people are getting into the habit of acquiring just nuggets, cocktail peanuts of information, but not really having it re-processed, reshaped, reframed by critical thinking.” In short, he says, we’ve shortened our attention spans. “I think our intellectual diet is being reshaped, and it’s unclear where we’re going to get our nutrients in the future,” he says, in terms of both fiscal viability, and vibrant content and analysis. Who, for instance, is going to pay for it, and how will we satisfy our need for a deep understanding of what’s going on?

Hall’s use of an extended metaphor comparing the acquisition of information with nutrition illustrates what’s made him a successful writer. His ability to break down dense scientific information into palatable, bite-sized pieces for the layperson is one of the qualities for which he’s known, a knack he discovered working a freelance gig for Encyclopedia Britannica in the early ’80s.

Though he’s noticed a shift in the way information is disseminated and absorbed, he says the need for explication has remained constant.

“I actually taught a course in explanatory journalism at Columbia, and one of the points I made to students, who were obviously concerned about this as well, is that the need for explanation, of giving an overview of something that has happened and explaining why and how it happened, is even greater now than it has ever been,” he says. “The big question in everyone’s mind is: How are you going to get paid to do it? And what’s going to be the form in which it appears?”

Since the late ’80s, the form he’s frequently employed is book-length works of nonfiction. He’s authored books on scientific subjects ranging from the competition among scientists to clone the human insulin gene to the relationship between height and happiness.

While he considers himself primarily a book author, even he has felt the tug of the immediacy of the Web. “It just feels really difficult to sit on a story that has any sort of timed element to it,” he says.

However the state of journalism shakes out, the need for good writers to put things into a broader context will always exist; Hall says those writers should prepare themselves now by getting as much experience as possible.

“Sometimes having curiosity and passion doesn’t translate into a job right away, or doesn’t translate into a job that pays well right away, or even a clip right away. And that’s the question that every journalism school is asking and every journalism student is asking themselves as they come out of school: How do you make a living at this?” he says. “Technical skills can be taught; curiosity cannot be taught. That sort of passion and interest in things, and wanting to explain them, those are more important, and those should be cultivated at all times.”

Peggy Robinson’74: The technology timeline

Peggy Robinson 

It’s not just that advancing technologies and a 24-hour cable news cycle have changed journalism, according to Peggy Robinson, senior producer for special events for the PBS NewsHour. It’s also that the distinction between audio, video, print, and photography has become blurred by the great melting pot of mediums that is the Internet.

“I began working in television in 1974—36 years ago. A lot has changed,” Robinson says. “When I started working in television everything was on film.” Now, she points out, an individual person with as little equipment as one laptop can produce video and audio content and send it halfway around the world instantaneously.

Robinson is in a unique position to comment on broadcast journalism’s evolution. In an industry not known for providing long tenure with one organization, she has been with the NewsHour for several decades, nearly since its inception.

“The traditional distinction between print and broadcast has been erased by online [media]. Online is such a mix of media and the printed word,” she says. “I just feel that those distinctions are now an old-school approach to what journalism is. Journalism has evolved beyond that. They’re both a venue for getting a product out, but ultimately they’re all co-mingled when you go online, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Viewers, she points out, no longer gather around the dinner table and catch a half-hour network news broadcast. Instead, they consume news all day long, usually on the Internet.

“The impact of the Internet in the last five to 10 years has affected all forms of media. Broadcast media’s no exception. Obviously the viewers of nightly news programs are not the same kind of consumers they were 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” she says. “The whole idea of having a defined time to get the news on a nightly news program is as outdated as a Tin Lizzie car.”

The NewsHour itself has gone through some serious renovations in recent years, more so than its December name change from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer to PBS NewsHour. The organization made a concerted effort to integrate its online presence with its on-air content. “If you watch our show, you’ll see that we’re constantly talking about what can also be found online, and there are some features online that are not on air ever, and vice versa,” she explains. That was not always the case. “I would say for a good 10, 12 years the NewsHour online operated in a totally different building and was sort of a little step-child. I mean they were not even fully integrated into the structure of the organization. They had a presence online, but it certainly wasn’t as dynamic a presence as it is now,” she says.

The trick, as this new brand of journalism is forged, is to make sure that it emerges with its reporting standards intact. “An individual can accomplish an incredible amount: pictures and images and ideas and words are disseminated around the world on a scale that is unparalleled,” Robinson says. “I think there’s a great opportunity for journalists.” The NewsHour itself uses freelance journalists working around the globe, but Robinson maintains that the ease with which content can be produced should not come at the expense of reliable reporting and high ethical standards. “I think everybody is still trying to find their way, that there’s still a journalistic ethics and ethos that pervades this new world, and it’s not every man and woman for him and herself. There needs to be some cohesion, some organization to it.”

K.C. Johnson’89: Beat reporting, Bulls, and branding

K. C. Johnson 

Though “old-school” and “traditional” are the adjectives he’s most likely to attach to his personal experience in the profession, journalist K.C. Johnson’89 actually got his big reporting break on the Web. In 1996, already six years into a career with the Chicago Tribune, he started producing content for that paper’s website, covering the Chicago Bulls as a beat reporter.

“I was added to cover the second Bulls three-peat, that historic Bulls run with Jordan and Pippen and Rodman and those guys, and it was simply just to augment our fledgling Web coverage,” Johnson says. “I have to be honest: In ’96, I was 29 years old, and I wanted to write for the newspaper, because back then, newspapers were king. I recognized the Internet as my break, but I was also trying to pitch story ideas to the newspaper, because back then I felt like the newspapers were more authentic and more viable than the Web.”

In recent years that statement has been flipped on its head. Johnson is the first to admit it, and his speed in embracing online journalism made him a pioneer of now-common sports coverage staples like an ask-the-sports-reporter interactive reader mailbag. “I see this from both sides, and it’s interesting how the Internet has totally become supreme over the print product,” he says. “At this space in my career I’ve accepted it, embraced it, and understood the power of it, and again understood that that’s what you need to do to survive in this business.”

The way he’s weathered the storm, he says, is by branding, pure and simple. “When I first got into the business, your entire objective was to remain this anonymous great byline in the newspaper, and now you have to be out front, with Twitter and social media and Facebook, and make radio and TV appearances. Sports might be a little unique in that regard, but you really learn you need to become a brand,” he says. The benefit of having his personal brand aligned with one of the most recognizable franchises in American professional sports is not lost on Johnson. “For better or worse, I try to kind of brand myself as the Bulls expert in town, because I’ve been the longest beat writer covering the Chicago Bulls in Chicago.”

That association makes a sports reporter’s position possibly more secure than other sub-genres of the profession. “I don’t get the sense that a court reporter or a court analyst at the Blagojevich trial is twittering—they’re not really promoting themselves or branding themselves,” he says. “Maybe I’m naïve, but my view is, the safest existence you can have right now in journalism, or one of the safest existences you can have in journalism, is to be a professional sports beat writer, because you’re linked to a product.”

His employer’s situation has not been so airtight. In the spring of 2009, the Tribune cut some 50 editorial employees. Earlier, in 2008, the newspaper’s parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

A 20-year industry veteran, Johnson was recently scouted by a multimedia company, but chose to stay with the Tribune. “I still believe in journalism, and I still believe in the value of good storytelling. I might be considered a dinosaur, but I stayed with the Tribune,” he says, adding that he’s seen the field change drastically over the last two decades, and warning aspiring journalists that it’ll change twice as much, twice as quickly in the next decade.

“There’s a certain time-honored value to what we do,” he says. “I still speak at high schools all the time, and I get contacted by a lot of young journalists all the time. I would still whole-heartedly endorse anybody entering this profession; they just need to know that given the light-speed with which it’s transformed in the past 10 years, it’s going to probably do so again, and we don’t know, ultimately, what direction it’s going to take.”

Valerie Reiss’95: Nurturing the niche

Valerie Reiss 

If ever a writer had a reason to feel negatively about the state of journalism, it would be someone like Valerie Reiss’95. Until recently, Reiss was holistic living and blogs editor for Beliefnet.com, a seminal website exploring issues of faith, religion, wellness, and even popular culture.

“We were bought about two years ago by News Corp.—which is also sort of an interesting herald of change—and they offloaded us to this smaller company, and then they laid off just about half the staff,” she says, her position among them. “That’s the nature of working for start-ups.”

Still, the writer, yoga teacher, and cancer survivor is remarkably positive. “I think a lot of people are very despairing about the state of journalism right now, and I can totally empathize with that and feel that as well, with newspapers dropping left and right. But I think it’s actually an incredibly exciting time to be a journalist,” she says.

Though profit margins for newspapers and media companies have dropped drastically, Reiss says the flip side of slashed profits is that scarcity breeds creativity. The ingenuity born out of hard times is a quality that will come in handy as the industry moves forward and tries to collectively figure out how to make digital content profitable.

“No one has found the answer: How do you monetize journalism? That’s the ultimate question. But I think it’s being answered in a lot of really interesting ways,” Reiss says. “I guess what keeps me hopeful is all the energy I see around it, and how many incredibly smart people I know are thinking about this, and really actively, passionately working on it.” She cites nonprofit models like that of website ProPublica as one possibility moving forward—journalism supported by philanthropy.

In her own career, Reiss (a Columbia journalism grad) nurtures her writing niche—health, wellness, and yoga—to a marketable advantage. It’s a lesson she learned at Beloit College, where she edited the Round Table’s lit/art section.

“Something that I learned in one of my journalism classes at Beloit was to cover something deeper than anyone else does. I think for a niche, you need to follow your passion,” she says. It helps, she admits with a laugh, when your passion becomes wildly popular. “I also personally got lucky that my passion (yoga) suddenly became the world’s passion. There are a lot of general writers out there, but there aren’t a lot of great niche writers, and editors are often looking for someone to cover a niche.”

Reiss is currently working on a book project, a memoir about her experience with cancer and the confluence of eastern and western medicinal practices, and she recently received certification as a yoga instructor. Though journalism is in flux, she’s confident that the drive for getting at the truth of things, in the way that journalism does, will always exist.

“I guess I have this belief that it’s going to come back even stronger,” she says. “I think the next 10 years are going to be fascinating, to watch how the industry changes.”

Shefali Kulkarni’07: Doing journalism, digitally

Shefali Kulkarni'07 

As a student at Beloit College, Shefali Kulkarni’07 remembers a class discussion in which she scoffed at the idea of the White House granting press credentials to a blogger. That blogger, editor-at-large of the magazine Washingtonian, was Garrett Graff. He became her first boss after she graduated from Beloit and landed an online-media internship with the magazine.

“Digital media was different back then. We saw it with more skepticism than we do now,” she says of that conversation in a bygone Beloit classroom. By “back then,” she means a few years ago. Even as someone immersed in and new to the profession, Kulkarni is amazed at the speed with which the industry has changed and how her own views of online media have changed along with it. “I had my stereotypes before,” she says. “Then I realized I was interested in digital media, because I’m consuming online media myself.” It was an “ah-ha” moment of sorts that wound up shaping her pursuit of an evolving profession.

In May, Kulkarni graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, equipped with a concentration in digital media. When she conceptualizes a story she wants to pursue, she doesn’t only think about her lead, quotes, and sources, but the multiple ways she can present the story. Columns of numbers become graphic elements, audio and podcasts add punch to slideshows and print.

“If we do this numbers-heavy story, I wonder if there’s a way we can get a visual graphic out of it, and if we make a website, you could click on this link, and it’d be a better way to digest the story,’” she says. “Years ago, I could never do that. If I wanted to find out about the oil spill, for example, I’d have to find a newspaper, or a magazine, read it, and then comprehend it from there. But this time around, when somebody tells me there are so many gallons of oil in the water, I can see that visually, maybe have a map that shows that, a photograph slideshow, an audio slideshow. I like that.”

The two years between her time at Beloit and her stint in journalism school found her cobbling together freelancing jobs in her hometown in Oregon and taking on a full-time secretarial position with an orthotics company to supplement her journalism habit. That period was also integral in rearranging her opinions of digital media. Applying to some 200 newspaper jobs, she wondered what was keeping her from landing a plum reporting role. “I knew journalism, I just didn’t know digital, basically,” she says. A visit to a friend at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California inspired her to pursue digital media studies at Columbia.

After Columbia, Kulkarni landed a fellowship with The Village Voice in New York City that carried her through this September. While there, a blog post she wrote about “coffee names”—about people with unusual or hard-to-pronounce names giving baristas fake ones when they pick up their coffee—garnered coverage from NPR’s All Things Considered. Her website is populated with multimedia content: photography (which she took up as a freelancing fashion journalist in Oregon, an experience she remembers with a wry laugh) audio slideshows, video.

“I like the fact that we have what we call journalism, but it’s in different forms,” she says. As a recent journalism school graduate, she worried about finding a job and paying the rent—less so, now that she’s working as an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast, a news website run by former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown. Overall, she eagerly anticipates the future of journalism.

“One of the reasons I like journalism is that you start out with a question, and it’s your own personal curiosity, too, that you’re trying to investigate,” she says. “We’re not changing what journalism is. We’re just changing how we think about it. When I get excited about the future, it’s about the fact that I can look at a story, whatever that might be, and I can see that in so many ways.”

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