All posts by Shanna Perkins, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

How Julia Duin wowed readers about snake-handlers

Julia Duin, a journalism professor at Union University, explained how she used her 40 years of journalistic experience to successfully cover Appalachian snake handlers and captivate the world with her story.

Duin’s story on snake handlers led her to three Pulitzer Prize nominations and articles for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and  Duin gave advice to the SEJC attendees on how to create a story as successful and captivating as her documentation of serpent handling.

“One, don’t be afraid to get out of the box and report on something totally new and different.  What is radical yesterday is commonplace today,” said Duin.  “Don’t be afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions.  We live in a world where there is very little moral courage and there are few convictions and no endurance when it comes to standing up for beliefs.  Often it is not the most talented people who get the job done, but it is the most persistent, the most curious, the daring, the ones who didn’t give up.  It means asking question after question and risking unpopularity for bringing truths that people don’t want to hear.”

Duin recounted that she had been laid off in 2010 from the Washington Times and had been working as a freelance journalist when she received an opportunity from a photographer friend to cover fundamentalist snake handlers in West Virginia.

“Newspaper reporters always hope that we find that one big story that makes it around the world,” said Duin.  “I’ve been reporting for newspapers and magazines since I was in high school, so we’re talking about 40 years, but last May I did write a story that went all over the world and it had to do with a radical form of Christianity that most people don’t agree with.”

“So I went to West Virginia; packed my 7-year-old daughter in the car and sat for three days in endless church services and what we saw was this story,” recalled Duin.  “I researched what had been done on serpent handling and I found out that very little had been done in the last 20 years; the only ones I found had been done in the 1990s.  We spent five days in that corner of West Virginia, again the non-touristy region. I was continually either horrified or fascinated.”

Duin recalled the moment she realized the story’s hook had changed.  Once she became familiar with the practice, she realized that 20-somethings were its guiding force and her story shifted, changing the course of her documentation.

“We found out (that) the way that this custom was spreading was not just by visiting preachers, but by Facebook,” Duin said.  “All these young handlers were posting photos on their Facebook accounts. I thought ‘Here you go; this is a new story.’ When I got ahold of the Wall Street Journal, my hook was ‘Hey, this isn’t fading away after all; it’s now spreading among 20-somethings.’ They bought the story; it ran the day before Easter, and it got 37,000 hits over Easter weekend. Folks — that’s the kind of story you want to have.”

Duin said she never  imagined she would become an authority on snake handling, but she was called to continue her narration on the topic after Mack Wolford, one of the 20-somethings spotlighted in her story, sustained a fatal snake bite at an Evangelistic rally.

“The story I put together for his death went online at 8:45 p.m. the next day; within two hours it was trending as a top story on their (The Washington Post) site for about 36 hours,” said Duin.  “It got more than 1,300 comments.  I redid the story for that got 6,500 comments.  Everyone wanted to know how this man had died.  My byline was all over the country and overseas.  I got on Facebook and I read some of the comments from other serpent handlers, and it was clear the people up and down Appalachia were tortured and traumatized by his death.”

Reporters should be narrative storytellers, Simpson advises

Photo by Allyce Andrew, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Photo by Allyce Andrew, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

David Simpson urged college students from around the South to incorporate narrative storytelling into their reporting.

“I became a manager at The AP 11 years after I graduated from college and at that time I would have told you I was a lousy feature writer,” said Simpson.  “I really didn’t have a voice as a storyteller. I had that anonymous journalism voice. You know, that old stereotype of an AP story or just your bland daily news story. That was the only voice I really felt comfortable writing in. Now don’t get me wrong, I thought I was pretty good at it and that I could really go deep into a subject and explain it clearly, but I didn’t really feel like a storyteller.”

Simpson has 31 years of journalism experience.  He began his career reporting for The Crimson White newspaper at the University of Alabama.  He later spent 17 years as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, followed by 10 years as a reporter and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Most recently, Simpson served as the coordinator of student publications at Georgia Perimeter College, where he helped revive its student run newspaper, The Collegian.

Simpson said his experience editing for The Associated Press gave him the opportunity to study different styles of writing.  He said when he returned to reporting in 2003 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he found it fulfilling and fascinating to tell in-depth stories and started to develop his narrative voice.

Simpson then described the various elements that typically go into a narrative story, but explained that not every story has to have those elements in order to be effective.

“You can actually do some pretty brave narrative-style writing even if you don’t have all of the elements to write the classic, Pulitzer-winning, Rick Bragg narrative,” said Simpson.  “It’s doable, but there is one element that you cannot do without. That is, you’ve got to make the leap that you are the narrator. I think that’s the biggest hurdle that’s stopping students and professionals from really telling their story. What I mean is, you have to make the courageous decision to take responsibility for telling the story. It’s your job.”

Simpson then turned to the audience for an interactive exercise.  Each table of students had a piece of paper with a number and letter written on it.  Depending on what the paper said, each group had to think of campus-related suggestions of either: different kinds of people, time frames, challenges that arise or typical events that are always covered.

After several minutes, groups converged to combine their ideas into various theoretical stories that could be covered on campus and pitched them to Simpson, who provided feedback.

Caitlin Lafarlette, a 20-year-old junior from Arkansas State University, praised Simpson’s message.

“It was really informative,” said Lafarlette.  “I’m the photo editor, so I lean more toward photography, but this is the kind of news writing I want to do. And, now that I know how to do narrative writing, I think it will be a lot easier for me to incorporate that into our newspaper. So, it really helped.”

2011 Best of the South Winners

The Southeast Journalism Conference named Chelsea Boozer, a junior journalism student at the University of Memphis, the 2011 Journalist of the Year and named Dr. Michael Chute, a faculty member at Union University, as the Journalism Educator of the Year, at its 26th annual convention in Martin, TN., Feb. 11, 2012.

Boozer was selected from among seventeen students nominated by faculty advisers and peers for the award from 40 schools eligible to submit nominees. Chute was nominated by fellow faculty in the conference and chosen by a selection committee comprised of former recipients of the award.

In addition to the top two awards, 177 students were ranked in 26 categories as being among the “Best of the South” in the SEJC’s annual journalism awards competition.

The SEJC competition is open to the organization’s member schools from eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee —recognized in its constitution as eligible to enter the contest. This year’s competition included 433 entries from 40 eligible member schools. Judges for the competition included 23 journalism professionals from newspapers, broadcast outlets and magazines across the country.

The purpose of the SEJC contest is to function as a journalism teaching-tool, as well as a competition. All entries are given a rating, and judges are encouraged to provide comments and professional advice. The ratings and commentaries are given to each school’s faculty delegate to distribute to his or her students who enter, regardless of whether their entry won top recognition. A comprehensive list of this year’s winners is attached.

2011 “Best of the South” Winners

News Reporter
1. Cain Madden University of Mississippi
2. Ashley Falterman & Katelyn Tibodeaux Nicholls State University
3. Cole Avery University of Louisiana-Monroe
4. Chelsea Boozer University of Memphis
5. Elizabeth Conn Auburn University
6. Elizabeth Rose University of Louisiana-Lafayette
7. Jamie Futral Loyola  University New Orleans
8. Todd Barnes Middle Tennessee State University
9. Alex Brown Union University
10. Hope Rurik University of Louisiana-Lafayette
Feature Writer
1. Miriam Taylor University of Mississippi
2. Leslie Gamboni Loyola  University New Orleans
3. Miranda Dollarhide Auburn University
4. Annalise Kraus Belmont University
5. Erica Horton University of Memphis
6. Hope Rurik University of Louisiana-Lafayette
7. Will Isern University of West Florida
8. Emily Henagan University of Louisiana-Lafayette
9. Clarece Polke Florida A&M University
10. Will Tucker University of Alabama
Arts and Entertainment Writer
1. Becca Andrews Middle Tennessee State University
2. Hannah Jones University of Southern Mississippi
3. Hunter Ingram East Carolina University
4. Jhoni Jackson Georgia State University
5. Savannah Harrison Troy University
6. Chuck  Acheson Tennessee Tech University
7. Mary Margaret Alexander Mississippi State University
8. Caroline Gernhauser Spring Hill College
9. Michelle Corbet University of Memphis
10. Josh Cooper University of West Florida
Opinion – Editorial Writer
1. Tray Smith University of Alabama
2. Nicholas Markopoulos Auburn University
3. Scott Carroll University of Memphis
4. Kristen Kittell Austin Peay University
5. Margaret Brinson Union University
6. Angus McKellar East Carolina University
7. Aston Pittman University of Southern Mississippi
8. W. Paul Smith University of West Florida
9. Jeremy Smith Grambling State University
10. Erina Love Grambling State University
Sports Writer
1. John Martin University of Memphis
2. Will Trusler Middle Tennessee State University
3. James Carskadon Mississippi State University
4. James Summerlin Union University
5. Eric Roberts The University of Alabama at Birmingham
6. MyLinh Hoang Xavier University of Louisiana
7. Travis Thornell University of Southern Mississippi
8. Josh Weiss University of Tennessee at Martin
9. Stephen Wade Mississippi College
10. D.J. Dunson Georgia State University
Special Events Reporter/Editor
1. Lucy Berry University of North Alabama
2. Nicholas BeJeaux Southeastern Louisiana University
3. Melissa Holman Nicholls State University
4. Cameron Gupton East Carolina University
5. Peter Waselkov, Helena Corzan, Jacqueline Chandler University of Alabama at Birmingham
Press Photographer
1. Eli Baylis University of Southern Mississippi
2. Ebbie Davis Union University
3. Austin McAfee University of Mississippi
4. Srdjan Marjanovic University of Louisiana-Monroe
5. Jessica Wethington Louisiana Tech University
6. Drew Hoover University of Alabama
7. Whitney Jarreld Lipscomb University
8. Jordan Moore University of Southern Mississippi
9. Keli Mazza Spring Hill College
10. Eric Evans Mississippi State University
News Graphic Designer
1. David Hoernlen Austin Peay State University
2. Srdjan Marjanovic University of Louisiana-Monroe
3. Brian Pohuski University of Alabama
4. Brandi Wilson University of Alabama at Birmingham
5. Victoria Boatman University of Mississippi
6. Henrique Ruiz Harding University
7. Petre Thomas University of Mississippi
8. Cheryl DeYeso University of Tennessee at Martin
9. Sarah Hutto Troy University
10. Treasure Hightower Union University
News-Editorial Artist/Illustrator
1. Josh Clark University of Mississippi
2. Christy Walker Austin Peay University
3. Nathan Backes Mississippi State University
4. Timothy Weaver East Carolina University
5. Joseph Melancon Troy University
6. Micah Smith/Jeana Davis Mississippi College
7. Antonio Rosales Georgia State University
8. Michelle Chang The University of Alabama at Birmingham
9. Kelsey Hargrove University of Louisiana-Monroe
10. Rachel Suhs – Auburn Auburn University
Newspaper Page layout Designer
1. Miranda Dollarhide Auburn University
2. Patrick Armstrong Austin Peay University
3. Kelly Belton Louisiana Tech University
4. Josh Lemons University of Tennessee at Martin
5. Courtney Polivka Middle Tennessee State University
6. Cole Epley University of Memphis
7. Jenelle Grewell Austin Peay University
8. Sam Winstrom Loyola University New Orleans
9. Kristen Marks Union University
10. Brittany Carr University of West Florida
Magazine Page Layout Designer
1 Wilken Tisdale Florida A&M University
2 Kaitlin Riley Loyola University New Orleans
Magazine Writer
1. Marquavius Burnett University of Alabama
2. Kristen Swilley Florida A&M University
3. Melanie Ziems Loyola University New Orleans
Radio Journalist
1. Alessi Johnson University of Louisiana -Lafayette
2. Zane Hill University of Louisiana -Lafayette
3. Allison Jones University of Tennessee at Martin
Television Journalist
1. Chrissy Carter Southeastern Louisiana University
2. Sammi Bjelland Harding University
3. Stephen Quinn University of Mississippi
4. Rachel Ellis Troy University
5. Kyle Walker East Carolina University
Advertising Staff Member
1. Juan Gonzales Southeastern Louisiana University
2. James Michael Cox Southern Mississippi University
3. Jennifer Taylor Samford University
4. William Rowland Union University
5. Samantha Kendall Tennessee Tech University
Journalism Research Paper
1. Katherine Pullen Union University
2. Miranda Sain Georgia State University
3. Stephanie Katz Southeastern Louisiana University
Public Service Journalism
1. Katherine Pullen, Ebbie Davis,  Margaret Brinson Union University
2. Jenelle Grewell, Patrick Armstrong Ausin Peay State University
3. Hayley Taylor University of West Alabama
College Audio News
1. Louisiana Focus University of Louisiana-Lafayette
2. WJTM University of Tennessee at Martin
3. KDAQ 89.9 Louisiana Tech University
College Video News
1. The Southeastern Channel Southeastern Louisiana University
2. TV-16 News Harding University
3. Lumination News Liscomb University
4. Samford News Network Samford University
5. Studio 96 University of West Alabama
College Magazine
1. Journey Florida A&M University
2. Connect Belmont University
3. Bama Life University of Alabama
4. Exodus Samford University
5. The Wolf Loyola University New Orleans
College Newspaper
1. The Auburn Plainsman Auburn University
2. The East  Carolinian East Carolina University
3. Cardinal & Cream Union University
4. The All State Austin Peay University
5. The Crimson White University of Alabama
6. The Tech Talk Louisiana Tech University
7. The Voyager University of West Florida
8. The Reflector Mississippi State University
9. Sidelines Middle Tennessee State University
10. The Oracle Tennessee Tech University
College Website
1. iPulse Lynn University
2. Belmont Vision Belmont University
3. Florida A&M University
4. Cardinal & Cream Union University
5. The Link Harding University
6. The Voyager University of West Florida
7. The Crimson White University of Alabama
8. The Student Printz University of Southern Mississippi
9. Kaleidoscope University of Alabama – Birmingham
10. The East Carolinian East Carolina University
Multimedia Journalist
1. Katlyn Moncada Union University
2. Dacia Idom Louisiana Tech University
3. Kristen Swilley Florida A&M University
College Journalist Of The Year
1. Chelsea Boozer University of Memphis
2. Hope Rurik University of Louisiana-Lafayette
3. Margaret Brinson Union University
4. Hannah Rogers Mississippi State University
5. Alex Brown Union University
6. Abbey Way East Carolina University
7. Maya Jones Xavier University of Louisiana
8. Chantale Glover Florida A&M University
9. Patricia Lammle Lynn University
10. Amanada Haggard Middle Tennessee State University
College Radio Station
1. WUTM University of Tennessee at Martin
2. WTST Tennessee State University
College TV Station
1. Trojan Vision Nightly News Troy University
2. Campus 31 East Carolina University
3. Lumination News Lipscomb University
4. MSTV – 98, Take 30 Mississippi State University
5. News Watch 99 University of Mississippi

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