Medill reflections: Look how far we’ve come

When I took the the ONA award we won for the Global Warning project to the Medill Newsroom in D.C. today, I looked through the info material about the master’s program. It struck me that I found a familiar face on almost every page – I know just about every student or alum interviewed in the magazine, as well as many of the instructors.

It’s strange to think that I looked at a previous version of this magazine myself, not knowing any of the faces and trying to decide whether I wanted to go to this journalism school. It’s even stranger to think that was three years ago! It’s remarkable how much I learned in those years and how much I’ve grown as a journalist and as a person.

Looking through the magazine also made me realize, again, how special the Medill program is. Yes, it’s going through some growing pains as our industry changes rapidly. But if you look at the course offerings, it’s all there: Data journalism, blogging, interactive storytelling, all based on a foundation in reporting and ethics.

Even the most extensive program can’t cover everything. In fact, as journalism skills become more specialized, some say grad programs need to become longer to cover all the ground. But one of the most important things I learned is that your education doesn’t stop when you hold that degree in your hand (even though that was pretty cool). You have to keep learning, keep exploring new ideas and skills. Journalism school is only the beginning.

Global Warning project nominated for Online News Association award

globalwarning

The project I worked on in the fall of 2010 has been nominated for an ONA award!

Global Warning is a finalist in the “Multimedia Feature Presentation, Student” category. We set out to answer some complex questions: Is the U.S. government prepared to answer the security challenges resulting from a changing climate? How can a complex topic like this be told in innovative, interactive ways? And how does traveling to far-flung places make the story more tangible?

These are the nominees in our category:

Global Warning – Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University
Haiti’s Lost Children – University of Miami
Now What Argentina – University of North Carolina & Universidad Pontifica de Argentina
Vwa Fanm: Stories on Statelessness and Migration – Knight Center for International Media

Other nominees include sites like the Tiziano Project, ProPublica and Producer Matthew’s site, as well as projects like Dollars for Doctors and Top Secret America.

Find out more about the project in this video I produced, which includes interviews with instructors and students and a look at one of the interactive experiences we created.

I’m also excited that the ONA awards honor achievements in categories like blogging and community collaboration. See all finalists on the ONA site. Congratulations to all nominees!

“The beginning is the most important part of the work”

grad

Graduation. Not pictured: All the wonderful teachers who helped me get there (except for Oly in the background).

… said Plato. I’m reaching a new beginning now, having completed my Master’s degree (all that’s left is the publication of our final project). At this milestone, I started to think about the impact teachers have had on my life. My Medill professors certainly deserve credit for many enriching experiences over the past year-and-a-half. I never thought it’d be possible to learn so much in such a short time.

There were many teachers before them as well. My language teachers especially left lasting impressions. When my first English teacher, a resolute woman with short brown hair, walked into our seventh grade class, she wouldn’t speak German. Instead she loudly and enthusiastically showered us in English words, none of which we understood.

The shock therapy worked. Four years later, I knew English well enough to spend a year at an American high school, where for some reason I was assigned to an AP English class. We read the Crucible and I did a report on McCarthyism. I was very proud when I got an A in my final semester.

At the same Virginia high school, my photography teacher instilled a love for this art in me that persists today. Developing my own pictures was magical, shaking the little container back and forth until I unrolled a wet filmstrip from it. Every step of the way, those photographs were my creations.

In my final two years, my English class was probably the best part of the schoolweek. Our teacher read current novels with us and challenged us to our own interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. We still meet for BBQs with him every summer.

And while I may not remember how to conjugate greek verbs in all three forms, the enthusiasm my greek teacher brought to instilling in us a “dead” language was contagious. It lead to a deep appreciation of Europe’s shared philosophical ancestors, such as the above-mentioned Plato.

capAt Medill, I was lucky enough to be taught by some equally dedicated and engaging professors. It started with Oly Oloroso, who pretty much has legendary status with students (if not school administrators). Marcel Pacatte’s encouragement and wit were priceless. Matt Mansfield, Owen Youngman, Alec Klein and Darnell Little are all experts in their fields, and they generously shared their knowledge with us. I learned more from them than I realized at the time.

Some of the best teachers, I found, are our peers. I’m blessed to call some amazingly talented and smart people my friends, people who I know will make a difference in our profession. My friends at Medill have been an invaluable part of my experience. They have shown me everything from specific skills to new perspectives on life – and, of course, a good time.

Thank you all for your friendship, advice and encouragement. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Ending is a new beginning

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been a year since I moved to Chicago to start my master’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism. Today, in Washington, after a year of hard work, countless interviews, approximately 4,000 pictures, more than a dozen videos, many, many articles it is coming to an end. It’s the last day at the newsroom, the last day of school – next weekend, I will be at graduation in Evanston.*

The most memorable and most amazing part of this year, however, are the wonderful friends I’ve made here. My fellow Medillians, you continue to inspire me, you made me laugh, you made the hard work fun, and I’m in awe of you and the things you are setting out to do.

In this sense, let’s remember it’s not really a goodbye. There will always be opportunities to see each other, be it in L.A., South Africa, Chicago, Cairo, Washington or Berlin. Keep in touch, keep kicking ass. You’re amazing.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBZ8ulc5NTg&hl=de_DE&fs=1&]

*(Technically I’m not completely done yet – I’m part of an exciting fellowship program in the fall, reporting on national security and climate change. But after much back and forth, I was allowed to participate in graduation with all my friends. I’ll try not to cry.)

Packing, again

Incredibly, my time in Chicago is almost over already. Just over two weeks from now, I’ll start onto another journey, moving from Chicago to Washington, DC. There, I’ll be covering National Security for Medill Reports Washington as well as other news outlets.

The next move - Chicago, Ill., to Washington, DC

I can’t believe how many times I’ve moved in the past couple years. Berlin, own apartment – Berlin, WG – Berlin, back home – Chicago, dorm – Chicago, apartment – DC. I’m a master at packing, in case you’re wondering.

I also can’t believe the things I haven’t done in Chicago:

  • ice skating at Grant Park
  • visit the Museum of Science and Industry
  • eat a deep dish pizza
  • look at the city from atop the Willis Tower (I’m counting on Abby to do this with me!)

So there’s lots of stuff to catch up in the last two weeks. Besides reporting, finishing up projects, packing, celebrating the end of the quarter, and saying goodbye to friends. That’s the saddest part of every move.

Insert

Of course, the first week of the new, second quarter was just as fast and as crazy as the end of the last one. I promise I’ll write more about it soon…

But then again, when will I write more? Ok, here we go.

Next week starts with an impossible commute – I’ll be at Medill’s downtown newsroom Monday until 9pm and have to be back Tuesday at 8am. Just so you know, it takes 50 minutes in the morning, when the express commuter train takes me and all the suburban soccer moms downtown, but it takes about 90 minutes when that express train doesn’t run. So all in all we’re talking maybe 5 hours of sleep, and web producing duties the next day.

But luckily, this will all be over soon! Yes, I finally found a place to live! It’s complete with a very nice roommate, big living room space, a beautiful back deck, a shy cat who liked me (I think) and a coffee maker. And a popular brunch place as well as a bar famous for its beer selection right next door. All the essentials!

Thanks again to my sweet classmate Sofia for offering me her couch and also to Abby, whose roomies were nice enough to show me their place and who I owe a beer now for not moving in! I hope you girls don’t hate me now, but maybe it’s a good idea to have a break from Medill and journalism every now and then, considering we spend close to 60 hours a week concerning ourselves with nothing else… ;)

Speaking of which, I really need to get my feet on the ground on my beat. Welcome to covering religion – again. And immigration issues, to spice it up a little bit.

For my German friends, I didn’t know what a beat was before coming here, either. It’s basically a topic or theme that you specialize in. That means since I’ll be the religion and immigration reporter, I will speak with people who work in those fields regularly, try to find out what their concerns are and what other media outlets aren’t reporting on, get in touch with those who are affected by these issues and so on. In short, I’ll become an expert on all things religion and immigration here in Chicago.

The stress in on “will” here, since I’m still catching up on research and all that’s going on here. Finding breaking news on the religion beat is a bit of a challenge, and finding breaking news that might happen during the week as opposed to on the weekend is even worse. But hey, in this program, there’s nothing that isn’t a challenge.

In the meantime, some love for my friends in Germany with this video (come on, Ladyhawke – no embed?? You gotta be kidding)

Special mention goes to Stefan in Paris. So glad you now have a place to live, but I can’t believe you got up at an ungodly hour like that to watch college football. You need a life.

Let me know what you guys are up to. And who you voted for! You’re going to vote, right? Otherwise I might have to send you that horrendous video of German non-celebrities urging you to “get out the vote” again. Safe yourselves from that!

For more frequent news, check out my twitter updates at twitter.com/tapmag (you can see some recent post on the right hand side of this page). Hopefully the fellow tapmaggers don’t fall out of their chairs when they look at the follower list next time. Special shoutout to CTABusDriver. This guy makes me feel more at home in Chicago – the bus drivers are just as cranky and hilarious as in Berlin!

Love,
Jessi

Notes from the field

Hey everyone!

I’m alive! Sorry about the infrequent postings, there’s been so much going on. Here’s an update.

Somehow I’ve become the Chief Catholic Correspondent for MTC2-111 (our class). That wasn’t even on purpose, just that one Catholic story let to another. For example, Chris and I spoke with the pastor of a catholic school, St. John Berchmans, the other day, and he told me about a pastor exchange where German pastors come to Chicago and vice versa. Check out the story here, I thought it was pretty cool!

But I branched out a little bit, for example on a story Sofia and I did together. We really don’t hesitate to go to any lenghts for our reporting. That includes getting up after 3 hours of sleep to treck out to Skokie for a law enforcement hate crime sensibility training.

We reported on a workshop for about 50 police officers-to-be about hate crimes and the holocaust – meaning asking a lot of police officers a lot of questions. I have about 400 pictures from two days of training sessions. I love my job.

Sofia interviews police officers in training for our article.

Sofia interviews police officers in training for our article.

I love my camera

We also had a broadcast day where we put on a would-be newscast. The whole thing ended in a lot of goofing around and picture taking.

Jessica and Jessica

Jessica and Jessica

The other Jessica and I worked on our part together – unfortunately we passed up the great chance of playing up our shared name “Jessica?” – “Yes, Jessica?” “Back to you, Jessica”. Next time!

These are the people I hang out with every day:

Most fabulous lab of all

Most fabulous lab of all

fuel for journalists

fuel for journalists

Afterwards, we moved on to Nevin’s, the gathering and drinking spot of choice for all first quarter students. You gotta unwind after all this pressure, right?!

How'd we do?

How'd we do?

After a few drinks we were brave enough to evaluate our performance on camera. It was pretty great I have to say! Everyone was nervous of course, but we put on a good show.

Especially the question-part was funny – the news anchor is wired up to the producer, who can talk to the anchor through his/her earpiece. So after the reporter has finished reporting “from the scene” (another room with a funny skyline painted on the wall), we’d be told a question to ask. I had to ask mine in German, which was pretty fun.

Yesterday, Virgi send me some super-cute pictures from home! Including this one of the best cat of the whole wide world, Rufus, being a tiger in the jungle. Danke Schwesterherz!

world's best cat. he's a tiger.

world's best cat. he's a tiger.

The next week will be absolutely crazy with exams, final projects and all kinds of stuff going on. What keeps me going is the promise of a pretty great party at the end of it all. Updates to follow, if I can remember…

xoxo

Jessica

I’m not the only one!

Today, Rachel and I were sitting at a casual restaurant, having lunch. People were chatting around us or waiting in line to pick up their order. She was picking on her salad and I munched on my sandwich. Rachel’s sister has come to visit for a month (hint, hint, own sister! that’s the sisterly thing to do!) and we were discussion what we had to get done by the end of the week:

Finish two big projects due on Sunday evening and Monday morning, homework in a couple other classes, midterm evaluations are coming up, I am failing my editing class, we need to get “smart” clothes to look professional for our reporting, and oh, are we having a sangria evening Friday?

“So how many hours do you sleep each night?” asked Rachel’s sister. Rachel looked at me and laughed. Sleep is becoming a luxury.

Another day, another meal, another conversation. Sonja and I were having sandwiches at her place with her great cat looking on (she later proceeded to jump onto the table to check if we’d left anything over for her).

“I feel like you cannot be ‘ok’ here,” Sonja said. It’s true. Either you’re feeling great, or you’re completely done with everything around you. There’s no in between.

And the worst part is, this can change within a minute. It feels like puberty all over again! I was glad I’d overcome that phase, but apparently, it’s back. All because I want to be a journalist. But hey, at least I’m not alone.

Ups and Downs

The last couple of days have been full of annoyance, and full of happiness. On Tuesday, the bottle popped – everyone’s frustation that had build up over the last week surfaced.

Being here can really kick your ass, because the pace with which we proceed is so fast. There’s no practice or test, there is only the real thing. There is only sink or swim.

What added to the frustration, though, were a lot of technical difficulties. We have brought so much new equipment here with us. Anxiety has been building around the fact that, in part, we weren’t very well advised on that. We got a list of equipment we would need, but it turns out some of those parts don’t work very well together. One of the biggest sources of frustration for me has been that “Medill is primarily a Windows-based operation” (that’s what they write on their equipment recommendations).

That assumption proves to be far from reality – I only need to take one look around my class to see at least half the people using Macs. Plus, Macs are the go-to platform for editing and graphics work! I wish they’d give up that outdated focus on PCs and just support the students the best they can. I am always a little envious when I watch this Apple-PR video about the Arizona State University’s J-School, which apparently is sponsored by Apple… hach.

There are some other issues that have added to the level of stress, but I feel these would not be so interesting to anyone not in the program. They concern the organization and the communication between instructors. Instead, I wanted to share some of the ups.

Wednesday morning, we had an amazing lecture by Bob McClory. He talked to us about feature writing – the art of crafting stories that touch what he called “the great realities”. Life and death, love and hate, freedom and oppression. He had a vast treasure chest of experiences to share, but it was more than that. The whole room was completely silent and transfixed to what he told us. It was magic, and it once again came back to what journalism is all about: telling stories that touch people’s hearts. He made me cry with a story he recounted. It is such a privilege and gift to be able to listen to people like him and learn from them. He is a true artists, and yet he was so genuine and nice and down-to-earth.

Also, we are so lucky to start our weeks off with another inspiring professor, Craig LaMay, who teaches our ethics class. I think there is not one person in my group who doesn’t think he’s absolutely great. He makes the perceptively dull matters of law so entertaining and understandable! When he talks about all the weird characters on the Supreme Court or cities precedent cases he really makes the matter come alive. I enjoy the class discussion a lot. I also feel very European in them.

Frequently, I remember our tapmag seminar talk with Scott Stevenson, which Kolja eloquently describes here (with video; in German). Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are preceived very differently in the US and Germany, for many reasons. Both positions have their advantages and disadvantages. I’m still on the European side of things, but Craig has  threatened to convert me – we’ll see how long I can hold out!

Another inspiration came from Roger Cohen of the New York Times. He wrote an incredible piece about a journalist’s ‘actual responsibility’:

“In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.

The rest is no more than ornamentation.

To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.”

He describes covering the uprising in Iran, and how the situation grasped him and didn’t let go:

“A chunk of me is back in Tehran, between Enquelab (Revolution) and Azadi (Freedom), where I saw the Iranian people rise in the millions to reclaim their votes and protest the violation of their Constitution.”

He continues that Iranians, too, have been witnesses with their cellphones, twitter messages and social networking that have carried their scream around the world. Never will we forget Neda’s image. By telling their stories, we can change reality.

The Foundation of Journalism

New media changes the way we receive and produce news. But what will the future of journalism be about – new tools and techniques, or accuracy and good reporting? At Medill, this question is currently fought out.

With a plan dubbed “Medill 2020“, the Dean wants to adapt the school to the changing media landscape. Journalism students will devote more time to audience insight and learning the technical skills needed in a 21st-century media envrionment. Also, the journalism and marketing programs will work together more closely to teach the future multi-media pros how to market their content to an audience and to media outlets.

Not everyone is happy with this vision. Quite a few faculty members, even in the short time I have been here, have expressed their concern that the basic journalistic skills they want to teach students will be lost among the flashy new techniques. Essentially, it comes down to a simple question: What should journalism be about?

For me, the answer is simple. Journalism is storytelling based on facts. It should engage people, open up new perspectives, tell them about the world around them. It should inform without being dull, and entertain without being sensationalist.

Journalism should point a finger at injustice, and it should hold those in power accountable for their actions.

In the words of one of my instructors: It should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

With this perspective, all the new media techniques are only an add-on to what really matters. That is good reporting, asking the right questions of the right people; Being able to write a story that balances conflicting facts, that shows the effects of government or private action. And while speed and a 24-hour-around-the-world news cycle push reporters to have the latest story before everyone else, we should not forget the trust placed in our profession.

We need act ethically and hold ourselves to high standards of truthfulness and balance. Failing to meet these standards is far more damaging than having a story two minutes after your competitor. Bloggers rightfully take journalists to task for being inaccurate, ill-informed, making embarassing mistakes and jumping to unwarranted conclusions (so does Jon Stewart).

Therefore new media are just a new tool with which to carry out the old task of informing audiences, a more powerful way to tell a story through audio, video, pictures, words and graphics. But the basis remains the same, and that is why I am here, that is what I want to learn. Therefore, I really hope Medill will not turn away from teaching its students reporting, writing and ethical standards, and how to apply those in a changing media world. These skills are the foundation of journalism.