Category Archives: Past Conventions

images from the 2020 sejc convention

The 33rd Southeast Journalism Conference annual convention was held on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. It drew 275 students and faculty from 27 schools in six states.
—Photo by Robert Buckman
Southern Miss alumnus Ted Jackson, who spent more than 30 years covering news, sports and features for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, was the keynote speaker for the 2020 Best of the South Awards Banquet on Friday evening, Feb. 14. His topic: “Are You Ready for Your Future?”
—Photo by Kenny Richmond, UT-Knoxville
Even though it competed with Valentines Day, there was a packed house for the Best of the South Awards Banquet on Friday evening.
—Photo by Kenny Richmond, UT-Knoxville
Professors Terry Likes, left, and Jason Hibbs of Mississippi State listen to the keynote address during the BOTS Awards Banquet.
—Photo by Kenny Richmond, UT-Knoxville
David McRaney, author of ‘You Are Not So Smart’ and ‘You Are Now Less Dumb,’ spoke during the SEJC onsite awards breakfast on Feb. 15, in the Thad Cochran Center Grand Ballroom at USM. McRaney discussed the difficulties of changing people’s minds on emotional topics.
—Photo by Gabi Szymanowska
Cathy Straight, executive editor of national news for CNN Digital, offered students tips on landing jobs in journalism and other possible careers during the onsite awards breakfast banquet.
—Photo by Gabi Szymanowska, UT-Knoxville
Two students get better acquainted during the onsite awards breakfast on Saturday.
—Photo by Gabi Szymanowska, UT-Knoxville
Students examine the newspapers from other SEJC schools as part of the traditional newspaper exchange.
—Photo by Robert Buckman
Leon Alligood, right, of Middle Tennessee State, last year’s SEJC president, presides over the luncheon and business meeting on Friday afternoon.
—Photo by Robert Buckman
Six students participated in the 50-question current events onsite competition.
—Photo by Robert Buckman
Teresa Collier of Mississippi Public Broadcasting offered advice at a professional development session on Friday, Feb. 14, on what skills, knowledge and experience students should start acquiring to prepare them for today’s media market.
—Photo by Robert Buckman
Galean Stewart, news director of WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, spoke at a Friday professional development session titled “Navigating the Changing Landscape of Broadcast News.”
—Photo by Robert Buckman
Students take a break between panel sessions on Friday morning.
—Photo by Robert Buckman

NYT’s victor: use social media for storytelling

David Victor, senior staff editor for the New York Times.

Victor details uses of social media

David Victor, senior staff editor for New York Times, presented to an audience of over 60 attendees the different ways reporters can use social media to enhance their storytelling.

In an hour and 27-minute presentation at the 31st SEJC Convention at the University of Mississippi, Victor revealed a variety of social media tips to young journalists on such networks as Twitter and Facebook, as well as third-party aids to these networks, like CrowdTangle and Tweetdeck.

“I think a lot of times when we think about social media, we think about putting our stories out there,” he said. “You know, trying to get traffic from them or you think about horrible people harassing you. Yes that stuff exists, but I want to get past that and talk about the ways we can use it for good.”

Victor discussed how to search Twitter for story ideas and sources, how to monitor social media and how to find contact sources through social media and building Twitter lists.

Victor told a story of Michael Paulson, a religion reporter for the Times, who was working on an assignment centered around Orthodox Jews and members of other religions, who refuse to sit next to women on planes because it’s against their religion. In the story, he noted that you can’t go to an airline and say, “Excuse me; can you connect me to your most disgruntled passengers?”

Without having to go to airlines or ask random people about Orthodox Jews, Victor assisted Paulson in his research for sources and performed what he called “perfect source tweeting”— searching Twitter for keywords a person might use in a situation with an Orthodox Jew or in any other situation.

“The overall rule here is to think what your perfect source would tweet,” he said. “Imagine you are in the situation, think about what you would say.”

Through perfect source tweeting, Paulson and Victor were able to do eight interviews from Twitter and five were used in the story. Victor said when searching these tweets, think of keywords a person would use. He said the most common words to look for are “I,” “me” and “my.” Keywords used for Paulson’s story were “Jew,” “flight” and “plane.”

For a train crash that Victor covered, he searched for tweets reading, “I’m safe” and “I’m alive.”

He also stressed the importance of being aware of fake sources and how to verify if the source is telling the truth.

“Every time there is a mass shooting in this country, there are people who will fake tweets saying, ‘Oh my God, I was in that building. I’m so glad I got out,’” he said. “No idea why they decide to do this, but every single time, there are news organizations that seem to fall for it.”

Victor also taught the audience how to build a social dossier, which is a method used by The New York Times to identify people  through their social media who may be named in breaking news.

In this interactive part of the session, Victor showed the audience his personal Facebook and asked the audience to point out ways to identify if he was real.

“Maybe look on the New York Times website to see if you actually have the position that you say you have,” an audience member said to Victor.

Searching through people’s profiles and viewing whom they are connected to provides good opportunities to find information on someone and to ask more personalized questions and verifying a source, according to Victor.

The social media tool Victor appeared to be the most passionate about, and whose use he  encouraged, was Twitter lists. A Twitter list is a curated group of Twitter accounts that a user can personalize for his or her own profile. A user can also subscribe to lists created made by other users.

“If you have local TV stations, local newspapers that you’re competing against, student blogs, whatever that might be, you can put them all in a feed,” he explained. “You could create a list of college newspapers from across the country and maybe see which of their posts are doing really well and you might be able to localize the idea.”

To help with lists, Victor recommended the use of CrowdTangle, a third-party website that helps keep better track of your lists.

Also, Victor discussed how to talk to a source online for a potential quote or how to find general information you’re using in your story.

“Be specific about what you want and keep your requests simple,” he said.

Victor has worked for the Times for four years. Previously, he had served as the social media editor for ProPublica Inc. He graduated from Penn State University with a degree in journalism and is originally from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.

Holland addresses race, ethnicity reporting

Jesse Holland speaks to student and professional journalists at the 2017 SEJC convention in Oxford, Mississippi, about reporting on race and ethnicity in a changing U.S.

“If you want to be a popular writer, do not write about race and ethnicity, because you will always get attacked by people who don’t want to talk about race and ethnicity.”

Jesse Holland, Associated Press race and ethnicity reporter and author, spent an hour and 15 minutes with student journalists at the SEJC conference at the University of Mississippi in Oxford talking about how reporting on race and ethnicity is a changing field.

Holland said a common thread in his 300-400 daily emails is “Why do you always talk about race?”

“Usually I don’t respond, because the obvious answer is, ‘I’m a race and ethnicity writer. It’s sort of what I do,’” Holland said, chuckling. “But there’s a more important reason why there are race and ethnicity writers, and that reason is demographics.”

In the past, even when he worked on other beats, such as being a Supreme Court correspondent for seven years, Holland said he continued to write on his own time about these issues. When the race and ethnicity job opened, Holland said he “decided to take my passion and make it my job.”

The first few years were spent crossing the country, covering stories of tragedy and racial violence.

“After I started the job as race and ethnicity reporter for the AP, Ferguson happened,” Holland said. “So, I ended up spending about three weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, and then a few months after that is when Charleston [South Carolina] happened… And then after that, Baltimore happened.”

Holland said some of his favorite stories he’s done under the race and ethnicity beat have been about history.

“At heart, I guess you could say I’m a historian. I love writing about the past. I love looking at things that happened 100, 200, 300 years ago — and seeing how it still affects our lives today.”

By 2040, Holland said, the U.S. will become a minority-majority country.

“And that means, for the first time in its history, there will not be a majority race in America. There will only be a collection of minorities,” he explained. “No race will be more than 50 percent, and this is according to the U.S. Census.

“So frankly, as a business, that means as journalists we have to recognize that our readership is changing; that we will no longer be able to depend on one race to make up the majority of our readers. We now have to cover everyone. And you can’t cover everyone by writing one story.”

The second change, Holland said, is going to be covering white Americans as a minority.

“We’re having to learn now, as an industry, how to cover white Americans,” Holland said. “Race and ethnicity used to mean you cover everyone but white Americans. That’s changing.”

Jerry Mitchell addresses BOTS Awards Banquet

Jerry Mitchell, veteran investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, reminisced on his journalistic legacy of bringing justice to former Klu Klux Klansmen during his speech at the SEJC Best of the South Awards Banquet on Friday, Feb. 17.

“I truly believe we work in one of the world’s most noble professions,” Mitchell said, addressing the crowd of about 300 students and advisers. “And when we are at our most noble, we make a difference in people’s lives.”

He noted this difference can come in many forms: by telling stories, telling the truth or even changing the conversation.

Mitchell recalled when he was in high school and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan visited his hometown, Texarkana. He covered Reagan’s speech as the editor of the Tiger Times, his high school newspaper. He recalled a day spent with Hillary Clinton and the time he interviewed Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

“That’s the beauty of journalism,” he said; “you get to meet so many amazing people.”

Mitchell is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won a MacArthur genius grant. His career has focused mainly on racially motivated crimes and racial reconciliation; his investigative endeavors and stories led to the conviction of four Klansmen.

“You have far more power than you realize,” he told the students.

Mitchell said he’s always been inspired by Medgar Evers, a NAACP field secretary who investigated racial crimes, such as the infamous Emmett Till murder in Mississippi in 1954. Evers, 37, was shot and killed in his driveway on June 12, 1963, by Byron De La Beckwith, a Klansman.

Mitchell discovered the Mississippi Legislature had sealed all the records concerning Evers’ death for 50 years. That was his cue to start digging.

“If someone tells me I can’t have something, I want it like a million times worse,” he said, chuckling. “If you’re like that, you belong in reporting.”

He discovered the Mississippi State Sovereignty Committee aided De La Beckwith’s defense attorney to keep him from being convicted.

Thirty years later, Mitchell interviewed De La Beckwith and later found himself in the courtroom when De La Beckwith was finally convicted for Evers’ murder.

“I just felt chills, because the impossible had suddenly become possible. I believe that’s what journalism is all about,” Mitchell said.

At the end of his speech, Mitchell addressed the public’s attitude toward news media today. He mentioned how people are calling the press “dishonest,” but brushed it off with, “Oh, please, I’ve had worse insults from Klansmen.” He noted his career has been filled with death threats, as many journalists’ lives are, but encouraged students not to be afraid of what people say.

“The thing is, those death threats led to an unexpected gift for me,” Mitchell said. “The gift of living fearlessly. Living fearlessly is not about living without fear; living fearlessly is about living beyond fear. Living fearlessly is about living for something greater than ourselves.”

Wenger Shares Google News Lab Tips

Deb Wenger, a trainer of Google News Lab, led an interactive presentation at the SEJC convention at Ole Miss, which demonstrated ways that aspiring journalists can utilize accessible tools to improve their future writings. 

  “How many of you search Google more than 10 times a day?” Wenger asked to a crowd of about 40 students as she introduced her presentation.

All hands in the audience rose in response.

“The goal of the perfect search engine is to understand exactly what you need and return exactly the results that you want, regardless of what you put in the search box,” she declared.

Wenger showed how searches can be narrowed, depending on what is entered in the search bar.

She exhibited how to include or exclude words that appear in search results, as well as how to locate postings specifically from certain domains or posted by particular websites.

  “This is a good tool if you do a lot of Google searches to refine and narrow what you get,” she reiterated.

Wenger then shifted from word searches, to image searches.

She asked the audience, “How many of you have had a story before where you didn’t have an image, so you went to Google Images to find something that would fit with it?”

The majority of hands rose again.

Wenger stressed the importance of using searched images in stories if the rights are available.

  “The one that you’re looking for is the one that is labeled for reuse and modification. That means that you can take that photo and do what you want with it,” she explained.

She also showed attendees how to conduct a reverse image search, to discover where an image originated. She stressed that reverse image searches can often unveil hoaxes or “fake news” once the origin is discovered.

She projected a picture of a photo that circulated as Malaysia Airlines 370 crash footage. However, after a reverse search, she proved that the photo had been edited and was obviously a photo from the television show, “Lost.”

She projected another image of a ballot, circulated on Election Day, which claimed Donald Trump was not on the ballot in Oregon. After another reverse image search, it was revealed that the photo originated from a man’s personal Facebook profile.

“It’s probably not an official ballot if it’s on only one guy’s Facebook feed,” she suggested.

Wenger joked that she uses this feature to check pictures provided by students as excuses from tests and homework assignments. She gave the example of a reverse search that she did on a picture of a car accident.

She chuckled as she said, “I upload and I’m like, ‘Huh! Amazing! How’d you end up in Brazil?!” 

The audience joined her laughter.

“This is where I think it gets fun,” she said as she switched gears from image searching to discussing Google Trends. 

Google Trends tracks the trends of popular internet searches, updating results every three to five minutes. 

  “We’ve become a much better predictor in breaking news situations about what the problems are that people are interested in,” she proclaimed.

Wenger asked the audience to guess one of the five most commonly searched cities in the United States within the past year.

“I still haven’t heard one,” she teased as an array of incorrect cities were called out from eager students of the audience. 

Eventually, a student called out, “Flint, Michigan?” and was rewarded with a large T-shirt that Wenger tossed across the room to him.

She flashed the five most-searched cities on the projector: Flint, Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Dallas and Palm Springs.

  She continued to test and toss T-shirts to other students who correctly responded and exclaimed trends.

“The most important thing for us as journalists to think about with Google Trends, is how much more honest it is than polling or talking to people.  It allows us to connect to our audience about what they’re really asking questions about,” she said.

Searching behind a computer is a safe, judge-free zone, she said. People are more likely to ask questions behind the safety of a screen, than to risk potential ridicule for ignorance from peers. 

After a presidential debate last fall, Wenger said that the most-related search to Hillary Clinton was, “What is Roe vs. Wade?”

“We always have to take this data and apply it to journalism,” she explained.

She elaborated that through Google Trends, journalists can get ideas on what questions people want answered in stories, as well as what topics people care to read about.

She offered one final tip regarding how stories can be improved through the use of visuals and maps, by utilizing My Maps and Google Street View. 

She prompted attendees to download the Google Street View application. She then urged everyone to test it by standing, rotating in place and taking a 360-degree photo of the auditorium.

“Page views are still relevant and important but ‘time on site’ is something that has become even more important to news organizations to try to keep people on their site,” she said. “So, when they take that extra time to absorb what’s on that 360 image, that’s a benefit.”

Wenger also explained how maps serve as a helpful contribution to stories.

  “Any web map can be embedded on any website. If someone makes a map that works, you can use it,” she declared.  “And get in the habit of searching for a map if your story has a geographic component to it.”

She gave the example of a map that tracked the path of Malaysia Airlines 370 before it disappeared. This map was featured in a story about the crash. She also provided the example of a map pinpointing where fires were in California embedded in a fire cover story.

Through the many Google News Lab training sessions that Wenger has led, she said she often finds that many journalists are ignorant of how to access of these tools.

“Tools have gotten better. Google News Lab has listened to journalists and made them easier for them to work with, but journalism students are extremely busy,” she explained. “You may have heard about it, but unless it’s in your daily routine, you forget that it even exists.”

Panel suggests journalists should pick their battles

Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger; Kate Royals, education reporter for Mississippi Today; Bill Rose, senior Overby Fellow for the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism; Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting; and Marshall Ramsey, editorial cartoonist for the Clarion-Ledger, discuss covering news during a time of heightened distrust toward the news media.

Four prolific Mississippi-based journalists discussed continuing their professions in a largely Republican state at a time of increased hostility toward the press at a 2017 SEJC panel held in the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism Feb. 17.

Titled “Assault on the Media,” the panel featured Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger; Marshall Ramsey, an editorial cartoonist for the Clarion-Ledger and radio host; Kate Royals, an education reporter for Mississippi Today; and Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting discussed the current state of distrust towards the news media on both a local and national scale.

Bill Rose, senior Overby Fellow for the center, first asked panelists about President Donald Trump’s 77-minute press conference that occurred two days prior, during which the commander-in-chief claimed the media are no longer trustworthy.

Agnew, erstwhile executive editor of the Clarion-Ledger and four-time Pulitzer Prize judge, said with every tweet, Trump weakens his own power.

“I think it plays well in some parts of the country, but I believe that when you cry wolf as many times as the president has with the media in 6 a.m. tweets, people with brains can start to decipher for themselves what is news and what is not,” he said.

Ramsey, an editorial columnist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Clarion-Ledger and USA Today, said members of the media must also face “trolls,” or people who make contentious statements for shock value, who have been “emboldened” by the polarizing national discourse.

Mitchell said regardless of what subject matter reporters cover, journalists must exercise caution, especially in a time when objective journalism may fall prey to U.S. public opinion, which he said is “splintering” in wake of polarizing news media outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC.

“We have to pick our battles as journalists,” he said. “I think the more important battle is truth, and the more important battle is reporting on things.”

Agnew said the press should consider what it misses when reporting; he noted that the press missed covering Trump when it missed speaking to community members.

“How did we miss Donald Trump?” he asked the crowd of around 130 students and collegiate faculty members. “How did we miss this discontent of the country that would put Donald Trump in office? I think because we weren’t watching. We covered the incendiary things that he said  … We didn’t cover the people who were actually embracing his message.”

He advised the audience to “cover the people” instead of “covering the celebrity.”

Ramsey, meanwhile, said journalists should take note of who they follow on social media, as well as avoid creating an “echo chamber” of concurring opinions on their feeds.

“We can all now go safely into our little news bubble and we can get a la carte news how we want it, when we want it, what we want to hear,” Ramsey said. “I’ll sit there and read different views on my Facebook feed from different people and (will think) ‘Wow, did they watch the same thing I watched?’ Then I realize that they were watching a different news source than I was watching.”

The panelists also discussed covering Mississippi, which Mitchell said has poor records laws. Mitchell, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter with the Clarion-Ledger whose work has prompted four Ku Klux Klansmen’s convictions, said developing sources is crucial to community reporting.

Royals agreed.

“There’s constantly roadblocks — people are never going to make it easier for you to get what you’re trying to get,” she said. “You just expect it.”

Brian Blakely, a senior mathematics student from Louisiana Tech University and photographer for the university’s newspaper, said although he is not a journalism major, the panel spoke to what he sees his coworkers experience.

“It’s still interesting to see and hear the stories of people and the trouble’s they’ve had then and how things have changed over time,” he said.

2016 Convention, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tenn.

The onsite awards luncheon was held in the Student Union at Austin Peay State University on Feb. 20.
The onsite awards luncheon was held in the Student Union at Austin Peay State University on Feb. 20. —Photo by Robert Buckman

The 30th Southeast Journalism Conference convention teemed with alacrity as student journalists and their advisers brushed up on the latest news trends, tricks and technology.

Held at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, the three-day-long conference Feb. 18-20, 2016, hosted around 350 people from 37 universities in six states. Conference-goers meandered around the Student Union halls like children around a candy display. The university’s hilly landscape transformed into a refuge for college reporters from which they could gather anything from insight to sheer motivation.

“It was just an incredible experience seeing all these people that are passionate about the same thing as I am,” said Claudia Young, 20, from Arkansas Tech University.

The APSU newspaper, The All State, celebrated its 85th anniversary of publication with a “birthday party on” Thursday, Feb. 18. A panoply of old newspapers decorated the room, and party-goers decorated the air with questions and comments about the papers’ designs. The smell of old newspapers accentuated the rummaging through the venerable parchments.

Every SEJC convention gives student journalists an opportunity to share their schools' newspapers, providing a useful exchange of information and ideas.
Every SEJC convention gives student journalists an opportunity to share their schools’ newspapers, providing a useful exchange of information and ideas. —Photo by Robert Buckman

The night of news nostalgia also commenced the conference’s onsite competitions, which tested journalists on subjects such as news writing, law and ethics and anchoring. During the birthday party, feature writing contestants threw questions to The All State’s editorial staff like a major league pitcher.

“I got to talk to a lot of students and get interviewed about my career at The All State,” said Katelyn Clark, SEJC student president and The All State editor-in-chief.

While feature writers queried the paper’s loquacious staff, the arts and entertainment contestants covered a comedy show hosted by the Upright Citizens Brigade.

The next day’s competitions had news writing contestants cover a staged protest regarding APSU’s missing mascot, Governor Peay X.

Peay X, the original mascot, was replaced with The Governor. Despite students’ voting for the original mascot, Peay X has still eluded APSU.

“It was a lot of fun because we have been documenting the missing mascot stuff, so this was a good way to kind of get the ball rolling on that,” Clark explained.

When students weren’t flaunting their finesse, they were in professional development panels. Reporters and professors offered a peek into their experiences, which ranged from digital storytelling methods to the relevance of World War II to today’s news.

One session that stuck out to Young was “Digital Chameleon: Shape-Shifting in the Ever-Changing Media Landscape.” Young, who said she enjoys editorial and op-ed writing, found solace in the panel.

“I’m not super interested in news, but (the speaker has) made a living out of not doing news at all,” she said. “It was great seeing someone who is passionate about the same thing I am, because I’m afraid I won’t make a living because I don’t want to do news, so that was really encouraging.”

According to Clark, preparation for SEJC began after last year’s convention in Atlanta.

“Once we realized that we were gonna be the host school for the following year, when I got elected SEJC student president … we pretty much started planning right then,” said Clark.

The process provided Clark with an experience she said will help her in the real world.

More than 300 faculty and students from 37 schools in six states attended the Best of the South Awards Banquet in the Wilma Rudolph Special Event Center in Clarksville, Tennessee, on Feb. 19.
More than 300 faculty and students from 37 schools in six states attended the Best of the South Awards Banquet in the Wilma Rudolph Special Event Center in Clarksville, Tennessee, on Feb. 19.                      —Photo by Robert Buckman

The onsite awards luncheon was held in the Student Union at Austin Peay State University on Feb. 20.

The event culminated with the Best of the South Awards Banquet on Friday, where students were garlanded for feats accomplished in 2015,  and the onsite awards luncheon on Saturday. An antsy ambiance filled the rooms as nominees and applicants awaited results.

“It was such a huge event, and I’ve never been part of planning an event of that magnitude,” Clark confessed. “Most of the planning that I’ve helped with has been on a smaller scale than this huge conference that we planned, so I think the perspective that it gave me was, there’s always a bigger picture.”

With the conference location’s shift from bustling Atlanta in 2015 to bucolic Clarksville, the SEJC shifted to a more spacious venue.

“Atlanta was a very urban area, and this one was kind of in a rural area, so it was a little bit harder to find things around here,” said Emily Proud, 21, from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I definitely think there’s a lot more space for us here.”

Despite the conference’s ample space, the shared passion of journalism students made the event intimate.

“Belmont has a really small journalism department, so sometimes I feel like I’m one of the few people wanting to do what I want to do,” Proud related.  “But now it’s really cool because I get around all of these people who are like, ‘I want to do it, too.’”

Clark related to the energizing conference feel; in her third year as part of The All State and SEJC, she recalled her conference experiences.

“I’ve been to every SEJC conference since I started my All State career, and so it’s been a lot of fun seeing a lot of different places,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of different schools, and I’ve met a ton of people, students and professionals who have helped me further my career and networking and things like that. SEJC has been a big part of my college career because it was The All State, just on a grander scheme.”

The schematics behind hosting a reporters’ retreat, however, demanded an even more attentive eye as Clark transitioned from attendee to administrator.

“I think the hardest part was just making sure that what we put into different people’s hands was the right thing and that we chose the right people for it, and it turned out that way,” she said passionately. “We chose the right people to do what needed to be done.”

Policinski warns against ‘Kardashian effect’

Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and its First Amendment Center in Washington, delivered the keynote address during the Best of the South Awards Banquet on Feb. 19.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and its First Amendment Center in Washington, delivered the keynote address during the Best of the South Awards Banquet on Feb. 19. —Photo by Robert Buckman

In an age where everyone can be a journalist, Gene Policinski, a founding editor of USA Today and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and its First Amendment Center, predicted that use new technologies will make reporters’ credibility a more valuable commodity.

Policinski was the keynote speaker for the Best of the South Awards Banquet, held in the Wilma Rudolph Event Center during SEJC’s 30th annual convention in Clarksville, Tennessee, on Friday, Feb. 19.

He called the modern cell phone both a toy and a necessity in today’s media world.

“You and I, I suspect, see our lives through this prism, through this device,” Policinski said, holding his cell phone. “And that, to me, is where we’re going to have to be in the 21st century, despite all of the talk about the future of the free press — the viability of journalism in a world where everybody is a journalist. And when everybody is a journalist, whom do I trust?

“But when you move across that spectrum of a toy to a tool to a necessity, the value of the information that I receive goes up exponentially in terms of, is it reliable and is it credible?” said Policinski.

With information so easily available, he noted, people have begun to say newspapers are dying and are not concerned about the credibility of the information they receive. Explaining what he calls the “Kardashian effect,” Policinski said every time journalists publish a click-bait or eye-candy story meant only to entertain and draw in readers, “we do ourselves a disservice, we do our profession a disservice, and we do the future of the free press a disservice because we say to people, ‘Look how trivial we can be.’”

However, he added optimistically, consumers will still turn to good journalism because they will still ask themselves where can they find the information they trust and where can they find the people who really know what’s happening.

Even with op-ed columns, he said, he has found people look for opinions that challenge them.

“Ultimately, the value in journalism has always been to give people the news and information they need to make decisions about their lives,” Policinski told the audience of more than 300 faculty and students. “The need and want of people to make informed decisions is the key to defending a free press.”

He stressed the importance of quality journalism, and the positive impact a story can have on thousands of lives, citing a story about two local journalists who recognized a regional trend in infant deaths in hospitals.

“You tell me journalism isn’t important when it does that story,” he challenged the crowd. “You tell me that it’s biased media or irrelevant media. We saved 16,000 lives with one series of stories. I think that’s the tremendous power of credible, accurate, meaningful, relevant, serious and maybe even boring information.”

He also stressed the importance of the media to be able to get interviews, get information and provide discussion for the masses.

“We’re all participants in this incredible moment in human history where, for the first time, we can talk to the rest of the planet and it can talk back,” he said.

Policinski is a co-author of the weekly, national column, “Inside the First Amendment,” and is host of the online news program “Journalism/Works.” He is an adjunct faculty member at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, as well as a certified journalism educator from Journalism Education Association.

“It’s up to you, and for me as long as I’m still active, to stay the course in terms of bringing information, of bringing news to the best of our ability, the most accurate, fair representative way that we possibly can because that is what people will come to value.”

Slimp urges columnists to ‘write like you think’

Kevin Slimp, founder and director of the University of Tennessee Institute of Newspaper Technology, addressed the continuing importance of newspaper columns during the 2016 SEJC conference on the Austin Peay State University campus.

Although newspapers are traditionally known for relaying news, they also feature columnists’ opinions on a multitude of potentially controversial subjects. Even though columns may not be considered news, Slimp said good columns can be highly regarded because of what goes into them.

“They aren’t just a list of facts,” Slimp said. “Columns include other things. They include your opinion, other sources that you pull in, other people’s opinions and things that happen in history.”

Even though columns are based off opinions, Slimp said the important part is backing up opinions with research and talking to experts on a particular subject.

He also said the best columns are the ones that bring light to issues in society. However, Slimp said these controversial topics often scare young columnists away.

“When you’re younger and when you’re starting out, it’s only natural that you don’t want to push too many buttons,” Slimp said. “You don’t want to make people mad. But as you develop the skill of being a columnist, you’ll come to the point just like I did, and it was about 17 or 18 years into it when I figured this out, that you realize if you’re a good writer, and if you’re a reasonably intelligent person, and most people in journalism are, then probably most people think about the same way that you do.”

Ultimately, he advised young columnists to “(not) be afraid to write about what you think, if it’s the truth.”

After choosing a topic, Slimp said the writing process is different from newswriting. While it is important to make sure your grammar is correct, he said you have to be more casual when writing a column.

He said the best advice he ever received was from his high school senior English teacher.

“You write the way you think and people will read it,” he said.

Writing the way you think includes putting more of your personality in it than you would with news writing.

Slimp also addressed the claims that newspapers are dying out, and said those claims were a “load of crap.”

He talked about a column he wrote three years ago regarding large newspapers that elected to go “digital only,” including The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. So Slimp wrote a column about the importance of newspapers.

He said a small group in New Orleans composed of eight individuals who owned about 75 percent of the city’s wealth contacted him about New Orleans losing its primary newspaper with the Times’Picayune going to three-days a week for its print edition and focusing on its website. The group was concerned that the loss of a daily newspaper would drastically affect the city’s economy.

“They were concerned that if New Orleans loses its daily newspaper, then everyone will consider us a second-rate city and nobody will want to move their industries here and it will be a huge economic blow to the city,” Slimp said.

Ultimately, rather than the city losing a newspaper, he said The Times-Picayune just lost its quality. In turn, The Advocate of Baton Rouge swooped in and became New Orleans’ only daily newspaper.

Slimp said this was proof that newspapers will never die, but also partially because newspapers are the most accurate medium for news.

“Really, if you really want to find the truth today about news, you really need to look at a newspaper,m because newspapers check sources and double-up on sources and check facts,” he said. “When you watch TV, like ‘60 minutes,’ they can stick a microphone in front of anybody, and anybody can say anything.

“I had no idea the response that that story was going to have. That week, that story ran in over 2,000 newspapers in the United States. I got thousands and thousands of messages from people, and guess what? Not one bad message. Every one: ‘You were right.’”

Baron: Social media are ‘like white-water rapids’

Among the plethora of presentations at the SEJC convention, one that every journalist in this modern age should have attended was “Rethinking Journalism in the Age of Social Media.”

Austin Peay’s Rob Baron, Ph.D., a communication professor, focused on the ever-changing state of modern journalism, particularly focusing on social media’s role in that evolution.

“There’s a famous quote by John Culkin: ‘We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,’” Baron said. “That idea is that we create technologies, we use those technologies and then we in turn are changed by those technologies. It’s not like technology is some magic genie that forces us to do things. We’re always forced or pushed to do things by how the tools shape us.”

This "painter" in the Austin Peay Student Union, where the professional development panels were held, caused many a double-take.
This “painter” in the Austin Peay Student Union, where the professional development panels were held, caused many a double-take.                                              —Photo by Robert Buckman

This quote was the thrust for the entire panel: Because journalists and their readers use social media, journalism must adapt the way they write, then market the news to how the consumer wants to receive it. Just as journalists in the past had to adapt their styles to radio or television, Baron said, today’s journalists must adapt to the new frontier called the Internet and the new technology called social media.

Citing data, Baron said that in 2013, 47 percent of Facebook and Twitter users used the social media sites to access their news; by 2015, the percentage jumped to 63 percent.

He added that 23 percent of Twitter users and 28 percent of Facebook users discuss the news on these platforms as well, and the need to adapt becomes apparent.

“No one really is just a print journalist anymore,” Baron said. “You have to be involved with audio, video, images, stuff like that. It’s all becoming this big blob of media.”

Some of the key points Baron outlined for becoming successful at using social media to promote journalism were that the “spreadability,” or availability, when the audience needs the information, must be considered along with portability, reusability and its relevance to multiple audiences. Also, the information must be a part of a steady stream of material to keep your audience engaged.

“I don’t know anyone who has given me or given anyone a reason for why things go viral,” said Baron. “If you think about your favorite viral media moments in the last year, I think there are lots of things that go viral, but no one can really explain why that’s the case.”

However, Baron pointed to the work of Henry Jenkins, Ph.D., Sam Ford and Joshua Greene, Ph.D., from their book, “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture,” as having a potential answer.

In their book, they hypothesize that a piece of medias’ viral nature may come from engaging in a shared fantasy, using parody and humor, activating “cultural production” in audiences, offering an air of mystery, engaging rumors that speak fears or desires and activating civil engagement.

However, Baron said, the most important thing journalists can do is to build themselves as a “brand” they can sell online.

“I think building a social media brand means finding a voice, being able to find out who you are in terms of a coherent identity,” Baron said, “finding like-minded allies that can help you spread your message and inhabiting social media communities.

“All of these different things get at a core question that every journalist or person who is creating content needs to be aware of, and that is the simple question of, ‘Who are you on social media?’ The more you can do to do those kind of things, that’s going to help you to be there.”

Baron closed by telling the audience that social media and the Internet are like floating down a massive river and you’re “along for the ride.”

“It doesn’t mean you’re out of control and you don’t have a role to play in it, but, like white-water rapids, social media is going to go the way it wants to go,” Baron stressed.

“I think the same can be said for those making content for social media,” Baron added. “You can’t direct where the river is going; all you can do it make sure your message stays in line and afloat. So your job as a professional is to ride the waves of social media and make sure you end up where you want to be and at a given moment you’re cognizant of how the river is flowing and how you can navigate that river as best you can.”