Saturday, August 26, 2006

Riding the "L"

I guess I got the "authentic" Chicago experience last night as I and eight other colleagues attending the convention caught Chicago's famous elevated subway train, the "L," back to our hotel.

We went to Chicago's southside for dinner at the Negro League Cafe. The soul food (fried chicken, yams, green beans, mac 'and'cheese) was good even though the restaurant was loud and it was hard to have a conversation.

But, the best part of the trip for me was the ride back. Waiting for the train with a bunch of the editors and professor types who were along for the meal, I got a chance to chat and experience what it's like for the million-plus folks who use Chicago's transit system every day.

According to its web site, the Chicago Transit Authority (including the trains and buses) is the second largest in the nation and one of the few that serves two airports-- Midway Airport and O'Hare.

For many of us tourists, just getting a ticket was an experience. The station attendant noticed this large group of folks who had no idea of where we were going or what we were doing. She helped us buy our tickets and gave us transit maps.

All of a sudden the "L" is not just something I see on re-runs of ER, the hit NBC medical drama.

I've ridden the Chicago rail once before (back in 2000 when I was here for a seminar at Northwestern and wanted to go to a White Sox game).

But last night was different. It was different in not only who I was with, but also where I was coming from and the perspective I have on a city of which I'm learning more and more as the week progresses.

It was nice to get outside the convention hotel and experience some of what's REAL CHICAGO.

Friday, August 25, 2006

From Chicago's Black-Owned Media

Another highlight of this conference for me was hearing from some of the strongest voices from black-owned media in this town.

Roland Martin is a frequent guest on CNN and FOX News Channel. The white commentators like to feature him because he will give the "black perspective" on things.

But this 37-year-old, who I had the unexpected pleasure of escorting to his panel (as he was looking for the location), has recently taken the helm of one of the nation's oldest Black newspapers, The Chicago Defender.

I'll have to give all the history of the Defender later.

Not only is Martin running The Defender, he's doing talk radio on WVON, formerly known as "Voice of the Negro" (now "Voice of the Nation") every weekday morning.

Martin joined his boss, Melody Spann-Cooper, who is president and general manager along with Hermee Hartman, who owns several other media outlets to talk about "The Relevance of Black-owned Media."

Columbia College Journalism Professor Curtis Lawrence moderated this blockbuster panel that hit on so many business issues relating to black-owned media in the largest marketplace of the nation's third largest media market.

"What you get from black media is an authentic voice," said Hartman.

Martin, who worked at two major daily newspapers, the Austin American-Statesman and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before joining the Black Press as a reporter at The Houston Defender, gave some key insight to young journalists, who've recently faced the dilemma of whether to work in mainstream media or take a pay cut and report for the Black press.

"What is the value of the additional amount of money?" Martin asked. "I'd rather have the flexibility and freedom."

This panel was particularly interesting to me because I started my professional career in both a Black-owned radio station and as a stringer for a Black weekly newspaper.

Of course I didn't stay there, but I've always believed there is a unique place for people like Martin and his colleagues on this panel who are "keeping up the fight" to ensure that those authentic voices are heard.

Does that mean my voice (as one who worked in mainstream media) is less authentic?

That's a question to ponder following this forum.

For my purposes, the role of the Black-owned media in community journalism is not to be overlooked. I expect to be talking a lot about what's happening at WVON and The Chicago Defender in the coming weeks and months.

Columbia Prof. addresses MOE Luncheon

The fact that dozens of student journalists are recognized for outstanding work is not really news at an SPJ Convention.

That happens every year and today (Friday) was no exception as student staffs from schools such as the Merrill School of Journalism (U-Md), Cronkite School of Journalism (Arizona State), and Montana State University picked up multiple honors at the Annual Mark of Excellence (MOE) Awards.

I lead with that because it's the reason several hundred people gathered for lunch. In fact, for the students, it's the highlight of the week.

But, the take-away point may come best from the keynote speaker, Sam Freedman, author of Letters to a Young Journalist and a professor at Columbia School of Journalism.

While acknowledging the public image of journalism is not as high as it was when he entered j-school in the mid 1970s, Freedman encouraged the young journalists in the audience, in particular, to re-double their efforts toward excellence.

"Because what we do is in short supply, that makes it even more important what we do," Freedman said. "What we do matters and it can't be replaced by amateurs."

By amateurs, Freedman was referring to the increasing number of folks doing exactly what I'm doing now-- blogging.

He made it clear that bloggers aren't journalists even though there are lots of journalists (i.e. George Daniels) who are using web logs as tools to get out information (whew!)

I like to think this is a form of reporting. But, not everyone who is reporting information is practices the tenants of journalism.

More on that later.

Oh, by the way, I did get Freedman to autograph a copy of his book.

News Breaks at

How's that for a headline? Does it get you to read this blog posting? That was a question the leaders of the BEST convention session I've attended so far would want me to ask.

Charlie Meyerson and Danielle Gordon, senior producers for spent more than an hour helping me and eight of my colleagues think about AUDIENCE when writing for the web.

"It may be the end of Journalism That Takes Itself So Seriously That It Doesn't Bother To Figure Out How To Get People Interested In The First Place, " Meyerson said.

The session entitled, "Mindreading your audience," was a mix of tips from web producers and insights on how a website for one of the nation's major newspapers operates.

Traveling to the famous Tribune Tower was an experience in and of itself. I spent 10 minutes marveling at the quotes about journalism from the likes of Medill, Patrick Henry and McCormick that appear on the inside of the skyscraper.

But, once we went downstairs below the lobby to what once were the two levels for the presses of The Chicago Tribune, the action got even more interesting.

While Meyerson was talking about headline writing techniques for the Web and how to use web metrics to identify directions for online reporting, he and Gordon received an alert about a breaking story.

It wasn't a major story, but clearly the big story of the day for Chicago-- the closing of a famous department store on Chicago's State Street.

Gordon acknowledged that another news organization's website, a TV site in fact, had beat the Tribune to the punch in getting the story online for readers.

An hour later as the session begin to wind down, we saw how quickly the staff was able to get a photo of the story and a local story (not just A.P. wire copy) posted for readers along with a web poll.

It's that kind of reaction time that many of us who've worked in web journalism would like to see our sites have.

From a teaching standpoint, the talk about what to do when ordering stories on the Web's main page, how to develop relationships between online staff and print newsroom and most important skills for someone getting into web journalism are what made this off-site session invaluable.

I can't wait to do a more thorough recap of this later.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

COM-J Exchange re-started

Well, it's been almost a year since this blog was created as we marched up to the National Conference on Community Journalism in Anniston. That was in February 2006. The posting on my visit to WGN has nothing to do with community journalism per se. But, it's my first attempt to re-start communication online.

This week I'm in Chicago participating in the Society of Professional Journalists National Convention.

The conference is usually held in October. But, due to cost of holding a major conference in October in the Chicago area (very expensive), the staff decided to do an earlier meeting.

The last meeting was in Las Vegas in October 2005. So, this is the shortest period we've had between conventions in several years.

It's not a particularly convenient time for those of us in education because school is starting. But, nonetheless I'm here.

I hope to log in and post updates from various events throughout the week.

The opening reception tonight was held tonight at the River East Art Center.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Visiting WGN-TV

As a young broadcast journalist, I grew up watching the news on Superstation WGN. In fact, when I produced weekend news in Richmond, Virginia, my anchor and I would watch the 10pm news on WGN before doing our own weekend newscast at 11pm.

We would marvel at the smoothness, professional presentation and obvious top-of-the-line technology at play at the Tribune-owned powerhouse station.

Even when I worked in Atlanta, I would routinely watch WGN News at Noon when it aired in our market at 1pm.

Today I got a chance to see the studios and staff of WGN-TV up close as I made a visit while here in Chicago for the Society of Professional Journalists Convention.

I was impressed with the sheer size of the station and the recently re-modeled newsroom and studio. Many people might think the WGN-TV operation is still in the historic Tribune Tower in downtown.

Actually, it is 20 minutes north of Chicago's famous loop. The radio station (WGN Radio) and TV moved there decades ago. The radio station is back in the Tower, but the station is in a plant it has held for four or five decades.