November 1, 2020

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I was Zooming with some friends last week, all of us in changing positions in our professional roles. One is now a top newspaper editor, one is considering broadcast work again after years outside of the industry, and I’m fearlessly charging ahead in a newish role at Poynter.

The last time these particular friends and I were together was near Christmas 2019. In desperation for a warm place that served both food and alcohol, we ended up at a musty, dimly lit Ruby Tuesday in Oklahoma. And to put it in college bar parlance, we shut that place down! (Granted, it was at 9 p.m. on a Monday, but by God, we’ve still got it.)

What seemed at the time like a truly questionable decision has become one of our favorite “Remember when?” anecdotes.

As Ed Helms’ character Andy Bernard says in the series finale of “The Office,” “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”

I’m now going to insanely suggest that in some ways, these are them.

Call me Pollyanna — she’s the best coping device I have this week. I know we fear watching a candidate we don’t like or agree with winning this week and leading our country for the next four years. We are facing the devastating aspect of a holiday season without travel or the warmth of family.

But it seems like we’re learning to deeply value the experiences that we are missing.

My friends and I fantasized last week about where we’ll go after this is over and who we’ll see. That we’ll finally share that stack of pancakes at our favorite breakfast spot, or try that new brewery with people we haven’t seen in what may end up being years (or at the very least, certainly feeling like it). We might even reunite at that Ruby Tuesday. OK, probably not.

It was such a pleasure to imagine as a group the relief we’ll feel at normalcy. We expressed our gratitude and good fortune for each other, for other friends, and for our families. In anticipating reunions, we create cherished thoughts that we can build on, day by day.

So whatever happens this week, remember to keep your loved ones in your heart. Fantasize now about everything you’re going to do and all the people you’re going to reconnect with. Then act on it when it’s safe. Savor these days not for the frustration, depression and claustrophobia they’ve rained on us, but for the insight they’ve given us into the importance of what can come next.

This week we aren’t just teachers and students and journalists. We’re parents and friends and kids and voters and Americans. We can plan a future that includes love, kindness, forgiveness, happiness and togetherness.

We know that hard times are made easier by the love of our friends and family. Think about them this week, and keep your chin up.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Overcoming barriers to open records

Now this, well, I can barely contain my excitement. Poynter has just released a brand-new open records course designed with your students in mind.

Open Records Success is a free, one-hour, self-directed course designed (painstakingly, loving, time-consumingly) by yours truly and Frank LoMonte, the former director of the Student Press Law Center who’s now the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

We made it for absolute first-time records requesters.

If you’ve never made a records request, this course will give you the confidence and skills you need to do it in your sleep. Seriously! It was designed with college students in mind, but honestly, anyone who wants to learn how to make records requests can learn not just how to do so effectively, but what kinds of records to request, when and from who.

Opportunities for visual journalists

Speaking of free courses, this looks really interesting: “Learn from world-class National Geographic photographers, videographers, and visual designers in a series of Storytelling for Impact online courses in partnership with Adobe on how to use compelling photography, video, graphics, and audio to tell stories in the most impactful ways to affect change. … Offered for both educators and youth ages 16–25, these short, free, self-paced online courses are designed to guide learners to visualize and communicate powerful stories that inspire action.”

Sharing is caring

Check out these infomemes from Arizona State University’s News Co/Lab, created in partnership with Spaceship Media. The project’s Facebook post says the images “deliver fast facts about the upcoming election and other important topics. They are designed to share so we hope you will.”

Hit me with your best shot

Some professors have been sending me examples of great work their students have done this semester, which inspires me to put the call out to all of you: I want to see your students’ best classroom and student media work. Send me all the links. If I get enough good stuff, I’ll compile here for the Dec. 20 newsletter (so you’ll have until finals aka final project deadlines). I’m at ballen@poynter.org.

What I’ve been up to

This week, I wrote about a student editor who faced incredible intimidation from his university president. It was this quote from the president, written in a memo to the student on university letterhead, that really got me going: “Under no circumstances do you have the authority to contact the police department (or any other governmental agency) …” Now FIRE, SPLC and NAJA are all involved. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Jared Nally, editor-in-chief of the Indian Leader, the student newspaper at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. (Courtesy)

One more bit of election content …

I work closely with Taylor Blatchford, who produces The Lead, a newsletter that focuses on student journalism, for Poynter. (Side note: Do your student journalists subscribe? We’d love to have them in our audience. Here’s the link to get it delivered weekly.)

When I was editing her column this week, I cracked up at her subject line: This is the last time for awhile I’ll use the words ‘election resources’ in a newsletter issue.

I have to borrow that for this space. Here’s to one last round of election resources!

Transparency inspiration!

  • Here’s what we do to ensure our election coverage is fair, accurate, honest and thorough (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): “We do not report rumors, gossip or secondhand information that we cannot determine to be accurate or true. We seek to verify what we report before publication and to identify and attribute falsehoods, exaggerations and unverifiable claims. We fact-check rigorously. Here is more about our process …”
  • Readers: We may not know results on election night. Here’s why. (Chattanooga Times Free Press): “For local races, our staff reporters get the information directly from the offices of the secretaries of state for Tennessee and Georgia. We will have a team of editors and reporters working on Election Day. Results of statewide races will come from reporter Andy Sher, who is based in Nashville and covers the state legislature for the Times Free Press; the Associated Press; and Cox News for stories on the Georgia races.
  • Today’s trust tip: Explain election basics (Trusting News): “Think about what people in your community need to know about the election. This year, it’s almost as if everyone is a first-time voter (who has voted in a pandemic before?). If you keep that in mind, what needs to be explained? Make a list and then decide the best way to provide those explanations. Maybe you create an FAQ page. Maybe you create a group or space on social media to provide the answers. Wherever you do it, by providing easy to find answers to basic election questions, you can build trust with your users and maybe even pick up new ones.”

College headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

Classroom discussion

Key issue: Media insiders were critical of The New York Times’ decision to accept an anonymous op-ed by a “senior White House official” who was revealed to be a departmental chief of staff. Is the criticism warranted?

Background: Two years after it was published, an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times finally got an author. The Times’ piece, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” labeled as coming from a “senior official inside the Trump administration,” was written by Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security. It was a big deal when the op-ed published in 2016 — it was highly read while speculation abounded about the author.

When it published the original piece, The Times included a note that read: “The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

Today: When Taylor came forth as the author just a week ahead of the 2020 election, media critics expressed dismay  in the Times’ characterization of Taylor as a “senior official.”

But as Poynter Senior Media Writer Tom Jones pointed out, “In their story for The Washington Post, Colby Itkowitz and Josh Dawsey wrote, ‘A chief of staff and many senior deputies to Cabinet members are often political appointees and considered senior administration officials.’”

Questions for discussion: 

  1. Here is a staffing chart of the executive branch. Go through each of the departments and consider the positions within them. Which of the people who might serve in these departments do you think qualify as a “senior official”?
  2. What — besides title — do you think gives someone the gravitas of being called a “senior” official?
  3. The Times faced criticism from media insiders that it amplified the person’s role to make the op-ed appear to have a greater impact than it did. Do you agree or disagree?
  4. Now find your own university’s organizational chart. Think about someone on your own campus coming to you and asking you to publish serious, damning criticism of your university president. What position would that person have to be in before you would consider publishing their anonymous column?
  5. Apply that discussion to The New York Times. Does the discussion you just had change the way you might look at their decision-making process and how they labeled the op-ed? Why or why not?

One last thing

In this newsletter, I attempt to include some kind of classroom discussion that centers around current events and pertinent journalism topics (see above!). Writing them is one of my favorite parts of the job, but throwing those discussion questions out there without having an actual classroom to test them on can make me feel a bit uncertain. That’s why I’m looking for a handful of professors who use those classroom exercises to offer me some feedback that will make them even stronger, more relevant and useful. Interested? Let me know and I’ll coordinate with you.

Also, I’ll be off part of this week, taking a post-election reprieve, so this newsletter will return to your inboxes later in November.

Good night, and good luck.

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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