Sunday sampler

Normally, I’d title this “Sunday sampler, Father’s Day edition,” but Father’s Day stories weren’t featured on that many N.C. newspapers front pages. That’s OK with me. What is featured on many of the state’s papers is a version — I assume an early version — of this story from the News & Observer.  Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the removal of three Confederate monument from the capital grounds to avoid them being torn down by protesters.

“I am concerned about the dangerous efforts to pull down and carry off large, heavy statues and the strong potential for violent clashes at the site,” Cooper said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “If the legislature had repealed their 2015 law that puts up legal roadblocks to removal we could have avoided the dangerous incidents of last night. Monuments to white supremacy don’t belong in places of allegiance, and it’s past time that these painful memorials be moved in a legal, safe way.”

Newspapers also featured stories about the protests going on around the state and nation.

Morganton: “’8 Can’t Wait,’ a project by Campaign Zero, proposes eight policies that police departments could implement that the organization said could reduce killings by police and save lives, according to the campaign’s website.”

New Bern: “Local citizens including clergy and retired law enforcement plan a peaceful march and demonstration at noon on June 27 in New Bern, a response to the nationwide movement on racial equality.”

Fayetteville: “‘It does not make sense for police internal review to be the end all when it comes to misconduct,’ said Shaun McMillan, who founded Fayetteville PACT. ‘’They can’t police themselves.’’ The outrage over the death of George Floyd is re-igniting the debate over whether Fayetteville needs an independent citizens review board to investigate complaints about police officer conduct.”

Hendersonville: “Hendersonville Police Lt. Mike Vesely joined about 200 area residents in a March For Change through downtown Hendersonville on Juneteenth, an event that called for an end to hate and racism.”

Both Greensboro and Winston-Salem have different versions — and good ones — on having “the talk” with black children about how to interact with police officers, and I hope that white readers will take them to heart. “This Father’s Day, Black men say they see hope in conversations now taking place regarding race, but they are facing the same circumstances that burdened their parents and now, seemingly, their children. As race dominates the headlines, many Black fathers find themselves discussing strategies based on the color of their skin before the ‘birds and bees.'”

But the best story of the day is this one in the N&O about the director of the N.C. Community Bail Fund in Durham, who bailed out nearly 30 men from jail to spend Father’s Day with their families. “Wearing all black and a Juneteenth T-shirt, she then walked up to the front desk of the jail with a deputy, who asked her how many people she was going to bail out. ‘I am going to try to get out 27,’ she said. ‘We have to get them free.’”

‘It is OK to not know exactly what the hell’s going on right now’

Madeline Coleman, one of my former students and now an intern with Sports Illustrated, described Jourdan Rodrigue as “the pep talk queen.” And she is that. Jourdan is a writer for the Athletic, covering the L.A. Rams. At Madeline’s suggestion, I asked Jourdan to speak with what I call my post-grad class. (I started this informal group of grads in an effort to keep their skills fresh and spirits up as they search for jobs. This could be the coolest thing I’ve done.) Jourdan’s topic was maintaining sanity during a job search amid a pandemic. And she did not disappoint.

Here are some edited excerpts from her talk.

The job search

“First and foremost, I want you guys to know that it is OK to not know exactly what the hell’s going on right now. Every single editor that you’re going to talk to is very aware that what you are experiencing as sort of a graduating generation is so adverse. Now you’re facing newspapers dying, the digital landscape changing, and some companies changing more rapidly than ever before. I mean, it’s like, what the hell, and so it is absolutely OK to not know what comes next.

“It’s OK to continue to give yourself the patience of finding your path. There are a ton of different paths and a ton of different twists and turns that your own path is going to take you on. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to have that fear of the unknown, and it’s OK to understand that your path is not going to look like everybody else’s, particularly right now.

“When I started my career, I was being told by all of my professors at the at the Cronkite School at Arizona State that ‘newspapers are dying. Good luck.’ And I panicked. I took the first job that I was offered. I was covering the Seattle Storm, the WNBA team, but I was doing it from an in-house perspective. I wasn’t doing real beat reporting, which I knew for forever that I wanted to be a beat writer. But I was making it work because here was a job that was getting me writing reps. It wasn’t the way that I ever thought I would start my career. I thought I was going to start my career like, ‘OK, I’m going to cover college football for five years, then I’m going to become a columnist on a college football beat, then I’m going to go national.’

“But it’s never exactly what you think it’s going to be. When I started out, my writing reps as a professional were in a PR space. I leveraged those articles into covering all the events that nobody wanted to do and that more established writers wouldn’t take and that was freelance. And then I was assembling emails for Fox Sports. Like, literally, I was writing lists for emails for Fox Sports from 4 a.m. to noon every day to pay my rent and then going and covering like the garbage-time articles that nobody wanted to do.

“And that’s OK because it led to more and more clips piling up and more and more resumes getting sent out, and one day after another of me really freaking hating what I was doing, but then it leading into things I love to do.

“You just never know what’s going to take you to where you feel in your soul that you’re supposed to be. And so, yes, the anxiety is very, very, very strong. Yes, the unknown is very, very strong, but it’s OK to sort of deviate from the path that you always thought you were supposed to be on. every success looks different to everybody.”

Dealing with imposter syndrome

“That voice in your head: ‘Why should I apply for that job? They’re probably looking for more experience. They’re probably looking for someone with X, Y, or Z on their resume.’

“What if I just went out and did it anyway. What’s really the worst thing that could happen? Could they say no? Could someone not like your story? What’s really the worst that could happen because if you reframe it in your mind at the end of the day, you still are succeeding. Because you went out and did it anyway.

“Being told no really stinks. It really, really stinks being told you suck. But at the end of the day, you’re always going to hear that from somebody. You’re not getting like your fingernails peeled off or anything. So if that’s really the worst thing that can happen, then what the hell? Then why don’t we just try and why don’t we just do and why don’t we kind of give the finger to that voice and and just go out and try to be who we are, anyway.

“I think my generation’s job to make sure that your generation understands that it is OK to fail. It’s OK to feel sometimes like you’re not good enough. It is not OK to let it control your life. The secret is, you don’t have to let it control you. It doesn’t own you. It doesn’t have any power. It’s not paying your rent for you; it’s not putting money in your wallet. It’s not bringing joy to your life. It doesn’t have any power over you.”

Dealing with trolls and harassment

“It’s like an ever-evolving process. Some days, you’re able to laugh it off, and then other days, you’re like, oh my god. There were days where things are really, really quiet, and  there were days in my career where I couldn’t stay at my own house. For me, it’s like, ‘well, why don’t you lose weight in your face’ or, ‘you know, why don’t you make an effort, like the TV reporters.’

“I think an ongoing process of growth and learning how to tune out those voices. What really helped me was being very intentional about some of the conversations that I would have with editors, or with colleagues, and developing support groups in that regard. And I’ll tell you, like the women who cover the NFL,  we’re all in one massive text thread.

“What do we think this person is doing, sending me this nasty message? I can either let what happened two minutes ago control my entire day, or I can, say, seek out a voice that matters to me, have a sip of this really good coffee or go pet a dog. I would  say, find a support system like a place where you can just vent it all out, a safer space where you have voices that you trust.”

Dealing with layoffs

“Am I ever going to feel safe in what I’m doing and am I ever going to be secure? Am I ever going to be comfortable? The answer is no.

“If you are seeking this profession because you want to be safe and want to be secure, those jobs are very, very rare in sports journalism and and in regular journalism. You have to attack and approach every single day, like, here I am, this is what I know I want to do with my life. And this is why I’m here. You start to stack enough of those days all in a row where you just give it what you have. Despite chaos and noise and scariness of the uncertainty, and all a sudden you have this massive body of work that you’re really proud of. Even if you are let go, you’ll find something else, because that’s the kind of work ethic that you have. And that’s the kind of talent that you’ve displayed.”

Dealing with no jobs

“There is a tendency, particularly as young people leave into the job market, to look around and see a lack of opportunity and a lack of jobs and sort of this decline in what the opportunities are that we always dreamed of doing. There is a habit that young people fall into as ‘this is my fault, somehow. I chose wrong. I studied all the wrong things for four years, all of these things that are happening around me, I did the wrong thing.

“The number one thing you need to make sure you’re reminding yourself is what’s happening right now is not your fault. And you didn’t do the wrong thing by deciding on what you want to do and for working toward that. You did not do the wrong thing by making the choice you did for what you wanted to do this is outside of your control, you cannot control this.

“The second part is focusing on what you can control, and the things you can control are providing structure for yourself and your life. So that you can literally feel at the end of the day, I know that everything around me is outside of my control but I accomplished this thing on my checklist and for that I am to be celebrated. And I can celebrate myself because I’ve done that for me what it was was I’m going to send out five resumes per day.

“It could be anything. I’m going to send out five resumes per day. It could be incredibly lofty aspirational things. It could be something completely outside my what I thought was my field of interest. It could be something that you know would be a very entry level position. It could be anything. 

“And if I can check that off my list. I am to be celebrated. Because with all of this happening outside of my control. I have accomplished this, and setting up structure for yourself. For me, it took eight months of doing that before I got my job covering Penn State football. Other people around me, it was two resumes, a week, and it took them two weeks. Other people around me didn’t find anything and they realized they wanted to do something outside of journalism and were happy doing that.

“The act of providing structure for yourself and reimagining that conversation that you have, instead of ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t control this. And I’m just going to be swept by this riptide that’s that’s coursing through our economy right now, OR I‘m going to create this task for myself. I accomplish this task and I have done what I can today to make my life better for myself and that should be celebrated, absolutely should be celebrated.”

“I got to like black people so much more than white people”

The New York Times on Sunday told the story of Robert Frank, a photographer who criss-crossed the nation, “seeing it as an outsider, a Swiss who left Zurich in 1947 in search of broader horizons.” Years later, he told the Times, “That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.”

It reminded me of the early 80’s when I covered religion for the News & Observer. One of my duties was to report on what was said from the pulpits on Sunday mornings. The idea was that clergy had a sizable audience and influence; if we were covering governmental meetings, we should cover “meetings” of the faith communities.

I understood the thinking, but I didn’t like it. It meant that I spent half of my Friday trying to find a preacher who planned to base a sermon on a newsworthy topic. Then I spent half of Sunday reporting and writing it. Basically, it cut down on the days when I could write stories with more impact on the faith community and community at large.

But, yeah, whatever. In any case, I could only write about sin and forgiveness so many times. I worked hard to find a sermon on a topical issue — social justice or something happening in the world — and many times, I’d get there and the promise of the sermon topic wasn’t fulfilled.

I kept it up for about a year, and don’t remember the topic of a single sermon now. But I do remember one thing: I was welcomed with open arms at the black churches; I was just another parishioner at the white churches. Even when I was asked by greeters at the white churches why I was there, my response was answered with a simple, “Welcome!” and they moved on to the next worshipper coming through the door.

But at the black churches, I was routinely invited to sit with someone in a pew, to join them for the potluck after the service, to talk about my background, and, most important, to be invited back next week. Maybe that welcome was because I was the only white face in the crowd. Maybe it was because most of the white churches I visited were traditional mainstream congregations. Maybe it was because they were simply more welcoming.

Or maybe they thought I was an angel. Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Sunday sampler

Many of N.C. newspaper front pages have stories about high school graduations and coronavirus. I was surprised that some of the smaller papers had race/protest stories. (Sometimes I can be a small-minded elitist.) I’m looking at you Mooresville, Kannapolis, and Hickory.

To the metro papers, the News & Observer has two good pieces on the protest. The first is a simple but compelling compilation of protesters’ voices explaining why they are marching. “History keeps repeating itself, and it’s time for change. I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t try to help be part of the change. Sitting around doesn’t make me feel good. I want change not only for myself but for future generations.”

The second story is about next steps for the protesters in Raleigh. “Active civic disobedience I don’t think will go away anytime soon,” Zainab Baloch said. “The crowds might diminish on the ground, but regardless of that, people are passionate and ready and want quick bold change.”

In Winston-Salem, artists took to the streets, literally, to paint “in big, block letters ‘END RACISM NOW #BLM, in the middle of the road. Every letter is its own art piece, with one artist responsible for each character — except for the hashtag, which had three.”

Burlington, Jacksonville and Kinston all feature an Asheville Citizen-Times story on North Carolina’s census count…and how way too many people aren’t filling it out. I can’t find the story online, though.



Finding story ideas: ‘Mine your own life’

Jessica Contrera, a remarkable journalist with the Washington Post, visited my post-grad UNC journalism group last night. I’ve followed her career as a writer since she was winning awards at Indiana University six or seven years ago. When members of the group asked to hear from someone about story ideas, I knew just who to call. (I started this informal group of grads to chat to keep their skills fresh and spirits up as they search for jobs.)

Contrera’s bio says she “reports on people whose lives are being transformed by major events and issues in the news.” Recently, she’s reported on the protests & COVID, but she’s also notable for her insightful feature stories. She spoke about covering the protests, finding stories, and quieting her dog, and took questions group for 45 minutes. I’ve excerpted a few of the topics, with light editing for clarity.

Advice for coming up with story ideas

“Mine your own life. If there’s something that you’re really interested in, the chances are that there are other people who are interested in it, too.

“I think that you have to read a lot. Right now that can be kind of an exhausting activity, so I don’t recommend non-stop reading and never taking breaks, but sometimes dedicating yourself to every morning, you’re going to read what’s on the homepage of The New York Times and The Washington Post and in your local paper. You know you’re not just skimming headlines right you’re actually reading because so often story ideas are hidden in a little paragraph in the middle of the story.

“So I would just encourage you read a whole diversity of things. Read fiction and as you’re reading be looking for story ideas, be looking for something that kind of sparks that curiosity in you and makes you want to know more.

“And then the last one would be to just try to develop sources. In my job, I don’t cover like a specific beat. I’m not the education reporter. I’m not the basketball reporter. So there’s not a very obvious like ‘oh, here are my sources that I need to form relationships with.’

“So for me, forming sources is a lot about just, anytime I do any story, I say to people, ‘You know, you have my number. If there’s ever anything you think we should be writing about please give me a call.’ Sometimes I’ll say that to like strangers who I meet where I’ll carry business cards and give them to like Uber drivers. You can do that with all kinds of people. You can post that on Facebook, you know, if you if you wanted to read a story right now, what would you read. Oh, you guys aren’t using Facebook;  Instagram. You only have two eyes and two ears, right? But if you can kind of utilize a network of people who can bring new stories then it multiplies you know your options.”

On deadlines and rewriting

“You want to meet your deadlines. You want to meet those expectations that people place on you. But what I really tried to do is carve out more time for writing, more time than I think that I need. Because the first time you write it, it’s not going to be like it’s going to be fine. It might. It might be actively bad. A lot of times what I write the first time is actively bad. I just know that if I keep working at it, it’s going to get better every single time I rewrite it. And so when I have a big project to turn it, I will leave even like one or two days on the end where all I’m doing is just revising. If I’m on a really tight deadline, maybe only an extra five minutes that I give myself but that kind of helps.

How you pitch for communities you’re not familiar with

“You want to read everything that publication has done as far back as you can manage. And then I think Twitter lists are an amazing thing. So every time I started a new internship or a new job. I would create a Twitter list about that place, and I would find all the local TV stations, all the local radio stations, all the local food bloggers, and reporters, and add them all to that Twitter list. Then start going through that. You can do that with a hashtag on Instagram too.

“When you guys arrive in these new places — and I think that being fresh is like the biggest benefit that you can have — you’re seeing a place with totally new eyes.  Just driving around, walking around you can see story ideas.

“You can do a lot in a coffee shop. You say, ‘I just moved here and I’m gonna report and I need story ideas and you hand over your card and say what’s been going on.’ Get yourself in that mode of when you’re out in the world, you can be reporter even if you’re not technically on the job.”

Advice for covering a protest

“Not to get in the middle of the crowd for a very long period of time. And putting your back against something, especially when you’re going to be on your phone typing is just safe. Because something could fly to the air or whatever. At the very first protest that I covered, I got hit in the head really hard because I was just trying to duck under these guys and get in the middle of the scrum, which I don’t know why I needed to do that because I can’t actually see anything.

“I’m constantly looking for ways to get myself up high. So a lot of like where I spent last week was like hanging on a light pole. Right. I was only two feet off the ground. I could look around and then when I saw a mother carrying her 2-year-old for the protest. I was like, I gotta go. And I like chased her down, and very respectfully asked her if she’d like to be a part of the story.”

On chasing ‘your’ stories

“You figure out ways to juggle your time, which is really important. If you care about a story, do the story, even if you if you have to find a more creative way to do it. Because when you care about a story, you’re going to do it well. And when it’s done well, people are going to read it and respond to it and your editors are going to go, ‘Great. Let’s do have her do more of that.’ So you have to be sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to be brave and to not just stay in your lane and write about only things you know.”

In Sepphoris, finding a voice

A year ago today, I was in Sepphoris, Israel, with those^^ guys in a UNC-sponsored course to report on the excavation of a 5th century Judaic temple in Huqoq. I’ve written about why here.

But Sepphoris was our first stop, before we even began reporting on the dig in Huqoq. As the Wikipedia entry about Sepphoris says, “In Late Antiquity, it was believed to be the birthplace of Mary, mother of Jesus, and the village where Saints Anna and Joachim are often said to have resided, where today a 5th-century basilica is excavated at the site honoring the birth of Mary.”

Our guide told us that it was only about six kilometers from Nazareth where Jesus grew up and lived as a craftsman. He pointed into the distance and said that, while it isn’t known for sure, it’s likely that Jesus walked over that hill and cut the stone at the very site where we were standing. That idea – that I stood where he worked – took my breath away.

By AVRAMGR – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Today, I finished reading “The Book of Longings” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a novel about Ana, fictional wife of Jesus, who grew up in Sepphoris. She was a writer at a time when only men were worthy of writing. Once she and Jesus married, she moved in with him in his home in Nazareth. Monk writes: “He was still traveling to Sepphoris to work on the theater and it seemed he should’ve been on his way by now, but he appeared to be in no hurry.”

The theater is to the left foreground in the photo above. We sat there.

And later: “He would leave tomorrow as a journeyman, traveling from village to village as a stonemason and woodworker. The theater in Sepphoris was finished and jobs there had disappeared as Herod Antipas erected a new capital to the notrh, name Tiberias for the Roman emperor.”

In one room in Sepphoris is a mosaic of a beautiful woman known as the Mona LIsa of the Galilee.

In “The Book of Longings” the model is Ana. Monk’s description: “I could barely bring myself to look at it. The tiny tiles replicated my face with near perfection. They shimmered in the dimness of the frigidarium, the lips seeming to part, the eyes blinking, a deception, a trick of light.”

Alas, in the author’s note, Monk writes that the amphitheater was built decades after Jesus’ death, and the mosaic dates to the third century. She did what all great writers do: she imagined it and made it real in my mind’s eye. That is one of the things that I try to teach writers to do: take what they know to be true and communicate it so that readers can see it.

Monk ends her author’s note this way: “If Jesus actually did have a wife, and history unfolded exactly the way it has, then she would be the most silenced woman in history and the woman most in need of a voice. I’ve tried to give her one.”

Monk tells a compelling, enthralling story. These days, it seems as if a lot of people need to find their voices and break their silence.

Sunday sampler

Today’s front pages were dominated by protests for the most part. The papers that bungled last Sunday’s front pages with a planned package of stories unrelated to the protests going on across the state and country didn’t miss this time. Greensboro, Wilmington, Kinston, Jacksonville, Burlington and Hendersonville used the Fayetteville Observer’s story on the memorial service of George Floyd in Raeford.

Otherwise, papers featured their own protest stories, including Winston-Salem Journal, which featured the compelling photo above. (Photo courtesy of the Newseum.) From the Journal’s story: “For the eighth straight day, protesters marched through Winston-Salem’s downtown, demonstrating their commitment to the fight against racial injustice. With temperatures in the low 90s, more than 1,500 people — the largest crowd yet — filled the city’s streets at noon, chanting and screaming for justice while remembering the people of color killed by police in America.”

Statesville: “More than 600 people took to the streets of Mooresville on Saturday afternoon in a peaceful display that demanded police reform and recognition of disenfranchised communities.”

Hickory: “Daria Jackson, an organizer of Saturday’s demonstration, said the event was meant as a call to action. ‘George Floyd’s death was not a call to loot, to hate. But what it was and what it is a call for us to take action,’ she said.

Greensboro: The News & Record reaches back to protesters from a different generation for lessons to pass on. “The legacies of people like Brown who took part in the civil rights struggles of the ’50s and ’60s can inspire those struggling to make their voices heard. Their stories also offer a lesson in how protesters can use this collective outrage to make change and just why the movement is still important.”

Charlotte: The Observer does a compelling deep dive into what happened during Tuesday’s protests there, telling the first-hand accounts of 10 witnesses. “Their accounts provide new details of a violent encounter between police and residents protesting police brutality. They also reopen critical questions about the tactics used by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in response to public protests.”

Lindsay Gibbs on freelancing: ‘Be unique and passionate’

I told you earlier that I was “teaching” a post-grad “class” this summer. (The quotation marks are my way of indicating that I’m not teaching it and it’s not a class. It’s more of a collection of newly graduated journalists looking for work. I’m hosting them via Zoom.)

Last week, Lindsay Gibbs came in to talk about freelancing. Lindsay is an accomplished writer, podcaster and freelancer. As she says, she “writes about the intersection of sports, culture, and politics. In other words, I’m a sports reporter who never sticks to sports.”

She was exceptional. Here are some edited excerpts of what she told us.

“You need to be really good and really unique at one thing. You need to have one thing that you can do better than anyone else. That’s always the best place to start when you’re freelancing stories. Do you have access to stories that nobody else does?

“What are the stories you want to be reading about how the current virus is impacting your community or what other stories that are getting completely overshadowed that you have unique connections to that nobody else does? 

“The point of freelancing is, what can you bring to the table stories that other people aren’t already? And once you establish relationships with editors, they’ll come to you.

“I would notice these big sports sites that I would read and they didn’t have any tennis coverage during like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open and so I would pitch them, I would say, “hey, you don’t have this and I can do this. And here the clips that prove that I can do this. And would you like this addition to your site? That’s kind of how I got in.

“Once I decided to go fulltime freelance, I started being more proactive about looking for stories. I set up Google alerts for all these different sports, and I would spend my time  scanning through them looking for things, taking notes, figuring out what the leagues were looking for stories and then pitching them whenever I saw openings.

My editor, you know, he’d say, can you do college basketball for us right now? Can you write this column? Can you do like ’10 NASCAR drivers to watch’? I never watched NASCAR, but I needed the $200 or whatever it was, they’re paying me for article. And so I just said yes. And then I figured it out. So I think it’s always a mix between being able to figure things out quickly and being able to do a little bit of everything because you’re definitely going to be thrown in.

“You need to be nimble. You need to be able to kind of work on the fly, and it has to be  breaking news stories and whatever your specific publication needs at the time.

“I still do think that the best advice is to be unique and to be looking for stories that you’re really passionate about.”

Hearst Journalism Awards national champs

School rankings are subjective and saying one school is “the best” is bogus. But…

For the fifth time in six years, the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media won the national championship in the Hearst Journalism Awards.

“Often called ‘The Pulitzers of college journalism,’ the Hearst program holds year-long competitions in writing, photojournalism, radio, television and multimedia for journalism undergraduates.” UNC students won 1st place in radio and television, 2nd place in writing and multimedia, and third place in photojournalism. Depending on the category, the entries come from 40-60+ schools.

As the school’s announcement says, “The school placed in the top three of all four awards categories. Of the 30 students UNC Hussman sent to the competition, 23 placed in the top 10 of their fields.” (I’m proud that seven of them were from my courses., and that I knew enough to get out of their way.)