Should Girls Rule?


(To stay in touch with the financial world, I chip in occasional pieces — gratis — for the Tabb Forum, a site for trading folks. Usually, the themes are market-specific, dealing with banking issues, regulation and executive-pay matters. Sometimes, I have a little fun with them. Here’s a piece from today that falls into the latter group.)

Researchers tell us that men are up to two times as likely as women to be involved in fatal car crashes. This raises an interesting question: if there were more women on Wall Street, would we have fewer economic crashes?

Sexist pap, feminists might argue. But the data on female versus male behavior on the road are too substantial to ignore. Check out the post on the Freakonomics blog for details.

Compelling studies cited there explain, as the headline writer said, “why you’d rather ride with a woman than a man.” It seems that men break the rules more often, are too aggressive for their own good and tend to court danger. (Sound like those guys in your trading room at times?)

Look at the evidence. A study by Washington State sociologist Jennifer Schwartz showed that in 2004 more than four times more men than women were arrested for drunk driving. Another case in point: research by Fran H. Norris of the National Center for Disaster Mental Health Research and others showed men are less likely to obey traffic laws.

Why the difference? Testosterone, perhaps. Socialization, maybe. Whatever the reason, other research by Dana Yagil of the University of Haifa suggests that women look at traffic laws as necessary and just, while men tend to think them optional. Anyone who has driven in Israel (or Italy for that matter) knows that guys tend to think even red lights are advisory, at best.

The question is whether behavior on the road is likely to be mirrored in the markets. There is some reason to believe this is so: New York Magazine, in a provocative piece headlined What If Women Ran Wall Street?, points to a study by Vanguard that suggests that men are more likely than women to sell stocks at the bottom of the market. One has to wonder whether women traders are less likely to jump foolishly into bad deals or to be guided by internal flashing yellow lights more than men.

But are there enough women in the game to make a difference? Personal impressions tell me that there are far more men than women in the markets. Women were absent – altogether absent – in most trading rooms for derivatives that I spent time in while covering the Chicago markets. And they are far outnumbered by guys on the exchange floors there. Indeed, writer Cari Lynn in 2004 did a dandy memoir of her days as one of the few women on the floor at the Chicago Merc from 2000-2002, “Leg the Spread: A Woman’s Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boys’ Club of Commodities Trading.” (Read the review.)

It could be that women are particularly underrepresented in derivatives because of the math bias. People drawn to such arenas tend to be math geeks and more of them tend to be guys. It could also be that many women don’t share the bloodlust the trading world sometimes requires – all those “animal spirits” that John Maynard Keynes famously talked about. And, in part, it may be simple sexism that has kept the doors barred.

Whatever the case, however, few would argue against the idea that appropriate caution and level-headedness are too often missing in the markets. The last few years couldn’t demonstrate that more. And instinct tells me that more women in the arena might bring a needed touch of prudence and good judgment, a sense of when not to leap into the void.

If your trading room doesn’t include a goodly number of women, gents, it might be time to get the recruiters out knocking on doors. And, once the ladies are there, you might want to make sure that they don’t get shouted down by the guys. Listen to them, just as you should listen to your wives in the car. And, judging by the studies, you might want to let your wives take the wheel a bit more often, too.

Business Journalism: Is There a Tomorrow?

A cynic might say that Steve Shepard, my old boss at BUSINESS WEEK, has to believe there is a future for the scribbler’s art. He runs the graduate school of journalism at City University of New York after all.

But it’s more than just where he sits that determines where he stands. Steve is a star in the field. The inveterate New Yorker — betrayed by both his accent and his misguided love of the Yankees — has collected just about every award available to magazine journalists. He knows what readers need.

The best proof of that is how he resuscitated the BW franchise. He turned the magazine into a growth vehicle, in the ’80s, after long-time parent McGraw-Hill had begun treating it as a cash cow, an aging brand that had plateaued in the market. In fact, Shepard later saw the book grow so fat that we had to turn away ads because the page count was busting the staples. That happy time was less than a decade ago. Sadly, of course, it is far thinner today.

Steve offered his views on the future of business journalism in this intriguing interview. He’s upbeat about BW’s future under Bloomberg. He’s convinced, too, that there is a future for business news reporting, though it will have to adapt to new formats. Take a gander:

The Future of Business Journalism from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

Steve, I believe, is spot on that business journalism will endure. The information that business journalists report — whether up-to-the-minute on the wires or in more long-form settings — is too important for people who have money on the line. Can you imagine if Wall Street ran only on rumors (something that sometimes happens already)?

Of course, the issue is how business journalism will support itself. Bloomberg is an intriguing model, since the biggest consumers of its news service pay a lot for it, something on the order of $20,000 a year for access to the famed Bloomberg terminal. Problem is, that’s a limited market, chiefly serious traders on Wall Street.

Bloomberg’s purchase of BW last fall was designed, in part, to expose the outfit’s news and information to a broader audience. BW brought it some 4.5 million readers in print and even more users of the BW Web site. The pub, with its 80-year-old brand name, is quite a crowd-broadener.

But plenty of questions loom. Steve argues, for instance, that there’s room for one long-form business mag. So, does that mean that Forbes and Fortune disappear? And will Bloomberg subsidize BW if it can’t grow fat again with ads? Is it sufficient that it be a marketing vehicle for the name and terminals or other outlets Bloomberg may develop for its products? Can the product succeed as a loss-leader?

Some folks argue that the general news service at Bloomberg is a big loss-leader already. Former colleagues of mine, such as Steve Baker, contend that traders pay for relatively narrow slices of information relevant to their work and ignore the bulk of the news on the machine. Of course, since Bloomberg is private, outsiders can’t know for sure how the news service fares financially.

For fans of long-form business journalism, the question is whether the format can survive only if it has a Big Daddy like Bloomberg. Will analytic and insightful work, the kind that made BW great, pay its own way? Will consumers pay anywhere near what it costs, now that so many advertisers have found other more cost-effective vehicles? Is the current slump more a reflection of economic stress or something deeper? Will business pubs prove to be niche operations serving elite audiences, much in the way that Harper’s or The Atlantic do?

At the end of the day, it seems clear that people who need financial and economic news will be served. They may be served over cell phones, iPads, the Net or someday by brain implants — who knows? — but their demand for information will be met. The challenge for business journalists is to figure out how to make sure these folks pay the freight so they can keep churning out top-quality work. And, for budding journalists, the challenge is to make sure that they can serve up the goods in whatever form the market requires.

Business Journalism Can Shake Your World


It has been almost 30 years since an economist and a business journalist used reason, logic and some savvy reporting assignments to lead me into a new worldview. Those two teachers at the Columbia Grad School of Journalism unsettled a quarter-century of woolly-headed thinking fostered by Vietnam-era radicalism, an English-major’s naivete and too much rock ‘n roll. In its place, they instilled something closer (on the good days) to a cold-eyed and clear view of how things work.

Now, as I map out a course in business and economic journalism for undergrads at the Nebraska J School this fall, the question is, can I hope to equal the work of Ron Krieger and Chris Welles?

Krieger, a union leader as a young reporter for the Denver Post, earned an economics Ph.D that led to teaching positions at Goucher College, an editor’s spot at BUSINESS WEEK and later a World Bank job. His keen grasp of how labor markets and global economics functioned shook off any sentimental red-tinged leanings that I and most of my dozen fellow students felt – at least in economic matters, if not social ones. From monetary policy to global development, Krieger knew his stuff.

For his part, Welles brought a skeptic’s eye to business. He wrote books about oil companies that rattled their cages so much that they shunned the Bagehot program, the midcareer biz-econ operation he ran at Columbia. He had a take-no-prisoner’s attitude toward business coverage, holding CEOs responsible for silliness and greed that got their companies in trouble. He later went on to serve as a hard-hitting finance editor at BUSINESS WEEK, where we wound up working together on smart stories about such luminaries as Donald Trump.

Over the course of the academic year 1980-81, this pair crammed enough business and economic knowledge into our heads that most of us went on to fairly impressive careers in the field. We made our marks at places such as the Wall Street Journal, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Institutional Investor, The Economist and the Globe and Mail. One fellow grad, Jan Wong, had been a gushy fan of Chinese communism until harsh experience in China and her economics training under Krieger cast her experience in a new light. She wrote a couple books, including the fascinating Red China Blues, about her personal political and economic evolution.

Can I hope to leave any such legacy, to make such a mark in my students? If so, I must give them a solid dose of economics that is both academically sound and real-world enough to overcome the distaste they get for the field in most classroom studies. I must show them how the Fed works, how business cycles occur, how government policies affect the economy – all in a lively way. I must make topics such as comparative advantage and supply-demand curves come alive, much as they, as journalists eventually, will have to for their readers.

On the business front, I must get them revved up about deconstructing corporate strategies, analyzing competitive markets, understanding Wall Street and the commodities bourses. I’ve got to teach them how to write basic earnings stories, how to understand financial statements, how to deal with analysts. I’ve got to show them how to put human faces on their work in these areas, whether by understanding CEO personalities or the all-too-personal consequences of business missteps on jobs. I’ve got to teach them how to appreciate entrepreneurs.

This is a tall order. Fortunately, I will have some help. Friends who teach biz-econ journalism at places such as SMU and the University of North Carolina (Chris Roush publishes the excellent blog, Talking Biz News, from there) have already kindly shared their syllabi. Another friend, former Forbes Chicago bureau chief Mark Tatge, has written a textbook about the field, cleverly using pieces from the New York Times to show students how to do their work. That and works like Freakonomics will help mightily to translate abstractions into newsroom reality.

Perhaps more important, I will also have assists from the business school at Nebraska. Thanks to some foundation funding lined up by our acting dean, I will be able to get assistance for course development from economists and business instructors at the business college. I’m hoping to tap these folk, too, for guest lectures. Busy as they are, some folks there already have offered useful guidance.

For my budding journalists, this will be crucial. Even as mainstream journalism shrinks, biz-econ coverage remains essential. Outfits such as Bloomberg and Reuters are providing vital up-to-the-minute news and information that readers pay for. The Economist, for various reasons, has a lock on business-magazine coverage that hard-pressed rivals such as BUSINESS WEEK, Forbes and Fortune, envy. Successful outfits in these fields will provide opportunities that mainstream mass-media no longer seem to, and I’m determined that my students leave the class skilled enough to take advantage of these chances.

For me, the move into biz-econ was a life-changer in addition to allowing me to see the world anew. I hope I can come close to making it work in the same way for my students.

Protected Sources


When should journalists rely on anonymous sources?

Almost never, most professionals say. Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, in January slammed staffers at BUSINESSWEEK for quoting them. Bloomberg, which in December bought BW from McGraw-Hill, uses unnamed sources “reluctantly only when the benefit … outweighs the lack of definitive attribution,” the editor said. Without names, he added, “readers have no proof that [the quotes] are more credible than hearsay.”

AP seems a touch more tolerant. Anonymity is acceptable, it says, if “the material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.” But it holds that the source must be reliable and the information cannot be gotten otherwise.

So, for us at the J School, the question arises: was it right to grant anonymity to a young illegal immigrant arguing against a plan in the state Legislature to boost tuition for illegals at the state university? The piece, headlined “Nebraska lawmakers and education officials debate immigrant tuition bill,” is a leaned-down version of an earlier story that identified the student.

Acting with compassion and prudence, my colleagues yanked that first story off our Website, NewsNetNebraska.org, after the student had second thoughts about her identity becoming known. No one here wants to put a student — barely an adult, really — in the crosshairs of politicians who could make life difficult and much more expensive for her. My fellow teachers here are educators, first and foremost. We’re all here to give students a shot at fuller lives and meaningful careers.

Still, the case is rich with lessons — and questions. The first piece, for instance, put a human face on an otherwise sterile and abstract debate. This came across with power in such details as a photo and audio slideshow where the student made her case — in her own voice — about the value of education to an immigrant. Even the most tough-minded would have to feel sympathy: this girl’s parents braved a desert crossing in the early 1990s to get her across the border at age 2, and she wants nothing more than a good, affordable education to become a contributing American citizen. Our student journalist did a superb job in drawing out such color and detail.

Regrettably, most such details are now missing. The slide show is gone altogether, as are all other photos of the young woman. Instead, readers get only a cold abstraction. Consider the lede — “If Nebraska continues to help educate immigrant college students, the state will benefit in the run, says an undocumented student who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

Does this put the argument in human terms? Does it make a reader feel anything? Further, does it meet the tests Bloomberg and AP apply for anonymity? In hindsight, an advocate for illegals, arguing with some passion, could make the same case with his or her name attached (a university official does so in the piece, but as blandly as a lawyer would). Perhaps the student could then have been referred to, with some detail about her situation but no names. Maybe this would buttress the argument a bit.

I believe my colleagues acted rightly in taking the student’s name and photos off the story. The woman — likely under 21 and a promising student — had pleaded that she didn’t understand the implications of going public on our Web site. Fair enough. Fear is a troubling thing, and it’s not uncommon for people to have second thoughts when the stakes are high and the personal cost steep. In a way, this young student has more to lose than, say, Rosa Parks.

But for everyone involved the cost of anonymity is high. For one, readers don’t see the face behind the argument. It all seems like just another bit of legislative yammering. Our illegal neighbors don’t even seem human, but are reduced to colorless terms such as “undocumented student.”

More troubling for journalists, we lose credibility. Every time we rely on an anonymous source, we say, “trust us, there really is a person behind these quotes but we just can’t tell you who that is.” Say that too often and readers will stop believing you. Finding people who are willing to put their names on the line in difficult situations can be hard work. But in the end, it makes for good journalism, the kind that can influence the actions of politicians.

The Google Challenge


Illegal immigrants live in the shadows. But now that one of our journalism students has put a spotlight on one of them, a hard-working UNL sophomore who has been in the U.S. since age 2, the glare is turning out to be too bright.

The result is something of an ethical dilemma for us at the J School. It is also a powerful illustration of how Google makes it impossible to pull a story back once it’s gone public. All in all, the case is rife with lessons for student journalists, a potent teachable moment.

The immigrant at the center of this tale, a promising young psychology major who hails originally from Mexico, willingly talked with our student journalist. She sat for photos. But after the story went out on our Web site, NewsNetNebraska, she phoned our student journalist to ask us to take her name out of it and to strip it of any photos or other identifying information. Essentially, she asked that the piece be killed.

The young woman suggested she didn’t understand the piece would go beyond a class exercise. This was the case, it seems, even though our student journalist maintained it was made clear to her that the information would be published. What’s more, the photo session alone should have brought this home to the woman.

Out of compassion, and a sense that some important questions need to be pursued, however, my colleague opted to yank the piece off our Web site — for now. He left open the possibility that it may be restored in coming days, with more details, once he and our student journalist can get answers to some crucial questions.

Problem and lesson No. 1, though, is that the piece hasn’t really gone away. True, it’s no longer on our site, and visitors get a message to that effect. But Google caches such pieces, it seems, and it remains available at the click of a computer button. As we’ve learned, once something is out on the Net, it’s out for good.

Lesson No. 2: politicians can make people very nervous. This story is playing out against a worrisome Legislative backdrop. Charlie Janssen, a senator in the Nebraska Legislature, is pushing to repeal a two-year-old state law that permits some illegals to pay in-state tuition rates. As a result, the student our journalist wrote about could be at risk if someone in the Capitol pokes around a bit. So, too, could the UNL Admissions folks who let her into school, perhaps especially because University leaders are trying to shoot down Janssen’s effort.

In short, the student could be tossed about like a political football.

From a journalistic standpoint, however, the situation raises a host of questions:

— did she really not understand that the information about her would be published? If not, why would she sit for photos?
— was it proper for her to be admitted to the University in the first place? It seems she was not permitted in under the embattled two-year-old law, the so-called DREAM Act, but rather just came in without a Social Security number.

Our students will be looking further to see if a follow-up is merited, and if the piece ought to be restored to our site. For now, however, it’s already providing a remarkable case study.

An Author’s Life


One of the joys of the academic life is writing books. Professors are expected to produce them. Programs make time for them, particularly in the summer. And folks at universities help teachers find resources, if needed, to pay for research.

So it was exciting for me to leave the classroom this weekend and talk to people about the book I’m setting out to write. I’m looking at the Transcendental Meditation movement, the effort founded by the late Maharishi that was all the rage back in the ’70s. I’m exploring a raft of questions: Can this movement endure? How is it attempting to reinvigorate itself after the charismatic leader’s passing? And how does it fit in with the many Utopian movements that have made their mark in the U.S. from the Shakers to the Amana Colonies?

To get a sense of whether this is book-worthy, I spent a couple days at TM’s home base, Fairfield, Iowa. The aptly named place is intriguing, especially since the TM folks account for perhaps a third of its 9,000 plus residents and count among adherents the mayor and several city council members. After 30-plus years in the place, the movement seems to have to settled in comfortably, something that would have seemed unlikely — a chalk and cheese situation, with mystics and seekers from NYC, LA and India seeming an odd fit with farmers and Bible-belters. TM has a full-scale university there that seems to be a major prop to the economy.

More interesting, I spent time with remarkably gracious folks at a synagogue there — Beth Shalom — founded by TM’ers. Why, one might ask, would they need Judaism if they’ve got TM? After all, TM brings a Hindu perspective and a full-blown theology along with the 20-minutes, two-times-a-day meditation approach. In fact, there is a kind of monastery near Fairfield where hundreds of Indian guys spend their days doing Vedic chants — a good deal more than a couple short sessions in a Lotus position.

Well, it turns out that old religious ties are not obliterated by meditation. Indeed, some Beth Shalom folks, Baby Boomers all, say they got more involved in Judaism as a result of their TM experiences (and having kids who needed b’nai mitzvah). They say some Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and others retain their religions while studying the ways of the late Indian guru.

The visit was fascinating. And I’m looking forward to much more time in Fairfield through the spring and summer.

It will be an adventure and a challenge for someone used to writing magazine pieces. Where a mag effort, even a big one, seems bite-sized, a book is a full meal and then some.

Just budgeting my time and mental energy between the classroom and research efforts will be daunting. As an academic newbie, I’m still developing curricula and testing it out on live students. I’m still learning how to grade with the right balance of severity and encouragement. I’m still perfecting those lectures that must be put together anew every week.

Others have pulled off the balancing act well. Joe Starita, a colleague at the J School, has written a couple well-received books on Native Americans, including “I Am a Man,” a major effort on a Nebraska Indian chief that is getting stellar reviews. He’s done this while teaching some of the best-regarded classes at the college.

I expect it’s a matter of discipline and energy. You find time for what must be done and for what gets your juices flowing. Certainly, the ride promises to be entertaining.

Hard Lessons


When a couple students clacked away on their keyboards during a lecture earlier this week, I crossed to the dark side. “There’s no need to check the Net right now, so if anyone here is, I’d appreciate it if you stopped,” I told them.

But when the clacking resumed a couple minutes later, I kinda lost it. “If you must check the Net, please step outside,” I said, working to keep my voice level and avoiding calling them out by name. “It’s distracting to everyone else.”

They stopped. But the sullen expression on one of their faces seemed anything but contrite. If anything, it said, “how dare you.”

For other classroom veterans, this may be old hat. These kids are undergrads, after all. Some don’t want to be in the class, don’t even want to be in school. And odds are pretty good that they’ve gotten away with sullen looks and rudeness before, at home or in class.

To me, however, it’s all new. When I’ve managed adults, I’ve had to be blunt to set people straight. “Just do the fucking work,” I told one staffer through clenched teeth during a frustrating evaluation session. (Hardly the kind of encouragement HR folks would like. But he later did go on to be a prize-winning investigative reporter.)

Of course, I can’t say precisely that to the kids. Nor do I want to. Instead, I want them to be as excited about journalism as I am. I want them to get the message that what we do and how we do it matters. Pulling the verbal equivalent of a Sister Attila knuckle-rapping session doesn’t seem like a way to get them revved up.

In fairness, the dozen other students were paying attention. Some might even have been getting as jazzed about the topic as I was. When many spoke up at points, I knew I was getting through. (These Nebraskans can be far too reticent.)

And the work that many of these kids do is outstanding — some of it ready to run in just about any newspaper in the country. In another class this week, one on magazine-writing, the work was good, so evocative, and the emotion so potent that it moved me close to tears. No exaggeration. Really heavy subject.

It’s the problem kids, however, that I find hard to shake off. The same sullen-looking Net-checking student, in a later class, turned in work that missed the mark in too many spots. Drove me bats. But it was the student’s reaction — annoyance at my questions, instead of embarrassment at a lack of answers — that really stuck in my craw.

Other teachers tell me it’s a generational thing. Some of these kids have been told how great they are all their lives, one colleague told me, so who are we to question them? If we do that, it’s we who must have a problem, not they. Certainly there can be nothing wrong with their behavior. And checking the Net in class is everyone’s right, isn’t it?

My son tells of how one of his profs at Boston University blew his cool during one talk. A student was reading the newspaper as the fellow was lecturing. The prof walked up to him, told him to leave the class and never come back. He wasn’t welcome in the room. Kid never returned.

Bravo! Before this week, I might have thought the prof was coming down a bit too hard. I might have even believed the problem was that he was a bore who couldn’t keep the kid engaged. Now, I’m with the prof. And I wonder if I should have tossed the students out this week. I hope the day doesn’t come when I’ll have to, but I’ll be ready, ruler in hand.

Bit sad, you know.

Bright Shiny Thing


Gary Kebbel, one of four candidates for the deanship at the J School at Nebraska, has a fetching idea. Since journalism is moving in the direction of the mobile device – with the iPad as the newest platform – why not turn our college into the national center for mobile media?

Kebbel’s vision is entrancing. He would bring together computer programming folks from other parts of the university with business-school folks and our faculty and student journalists to develop new apps so our budding reporters could serve readers on cell phones, iPhones, iPads and other yet-to-be-developed devices around the globe. Our student journalists would learn to write, film and photograph for such devices. And we could partner with newspapers, magazines, TV networks and other media outlets to commercialize the work we do (and hire our grads).

And Kebbel, who visited us yesterday, brings some street cred to the vision. He has reviewed and approved tens of millions of dollars in grants about such novel work in the journalism program at the grant-making Knight Foundation since January 2006 (program director since early 2008). He worked as news director at America Online, helped created USAToday.com and Newsweek.com and was a home page editor at washingtonpost.com. He got his start in small newspapers in upstate New York.

For us, he would bring a clear sense of what the cutting-edge folks in the field are doing to serve the journalism of the future – or, at least, what seems likely to be a big part of tomorrow’s media. He would also bring access to money through his foundation connections. And his outlook dovetails with that of the top administrators here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who are creating an entire campus, the Innovation Campus, on the longtime site of the state fair. Technology is key to the university’s future, our leaders rightly believe, and they would turn UNL into a beacon in the Silicon Prairie.

Kebbel, an energetic, likable and motivating sort, would turn the J School into the brightest bulb in that beacon. He would give our school national bragging rights to what could prove to be the key delivery systems for media in the future. And this, he believes, would attract bright students and faculty from around the country. It would put Nebraska on the map alongside schools such as Columbia and Missouri. (He’d like to beef up our master’s program, letting us compete better with such schools, with Berkeley, UNC, etc.)

For many of us who are steeped in the old media, however, the vision is as much as a challenge as an opportunity. We do a good job teaching students how to write, report, photograph and film for print and broadcast. We are used to magazines, newspapers, TV and radio. We each bring backgrounds in one or more of those arenas and a few of us have multi-media experience that brought those different platforms together. Still, we do tend to teach for those media as we know them (focusing on their traditional approaches even as we nod to the dabbles they make in the online world).

So how do we now get our heads around journalism for the mobile media? What skills will we need to add to our repertoires to push students into those areas? And what can we learn since we don’t know yet exactly what the mobile media will need? Some things seem obvious, such as teaching kids to write shorter and produce video that works well on the small screen. But we don’t even know yet what we don’t know.

To be sure, we’re all earning our multi-media spurs. I’m a lifetime print hound and was lucky enough to develop a touch of online sakel through BUSINESSWEEK.com. I’m now honing my skills in doing slide shows, using still and video cameras, and putting material on the Net. (I must, since I team-teach two multi-media courses with broadcast veterans. In one, students create stories for our website, NewsNetNebraska.org.) We all are laboring to integrate our schooling of the basics of journalism – clear writing, thorough reporting, fairness and accuracy – with technology in our classes.

Frankly, it’s a lot for us and for students to learn. Already, we grouse that students don’t get enough time and practice on the basics of reporting and writing. Those basics must be covered, whatever delivery system they use. We need to add more reporting and writing courses to the loads they carry, even if that conflicts with the rules that limit their journalism course-loads so they can study such areas as English, History, Science, etc., to get a well-rounded education.

If Kebbel does move into the corner office, he will surely bring an appealing focus to the school. His vision is almost certainly right about the delivery systems of the future (though I believe print and broadcast won’t disappear for a while yet, and skills such as compact writing, eye-catching layout and organization matter even more in the online world). But he must make room for the basics. If our students don’t master the essentials today, they won’t get the chance to serve up news on the beeping bright shiny things we’ll all be carrying around tomorrow.

Darndest Things


Kids say the darndest things.

If I mentioned that Linkletterism to the college juniors and seniors in my classes, I’d get a blank look or worse. First, they would have no clue who made the phrase famous. Worse, they wouldn’t want to be called kids, even by someone with three kids all a smidge older than they are. More to the point, they wouldn’t want me to treat their thoughts so offhandedly.

Indeed, there’s no way I could treat what they say lightly. Early each semester, I ask students in my magazine-writing class to do a short autobiography. I’d like to get to know them a bit and see how well they write. Usually, I get far more than I bargained for. These kids, it turns out, come with baggage.

“I was born in Bethlehem,” one young fellow writes. “Not the one you’re thinking of. Not the one with mangers, wise-men or Saviors. Rather, it’s a ratty industrial town in Pennsylvania whose sole claim to fame is the Philadelphia Eagles training camp at nearby Lehigh University.”

From there, my student says his chief desire is “to avoid the fate” of his parents. He doesn’t want “to be doomed to live decades with a person I don’t really like to simply avoid being alone.”

Then there’s the promising young lady who attended the same all-girls Catholic school as her mom, an Indian immigrant. “I was only 14 years old when my mother received a phone call from my principal telling her I was being expelled from school for being gay,” she writes. “It wasn’t my ideal ‘coming-out’ story, considering I had never brought up my sexuality with my family before, and equally, the repercussions were not ideal.”

And there’s the bright guy whose dad developed such severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that he lost his job, couldn’t drive for fear of killing someone and flipped light switches hundreds of times. “I couldn’t handle people thinking I was living in a comedy when in reality, I was listening to my mother cry herself to sleep in the spare bedroom,” the fellow writes. “I had to stop playing baseball because we couldn’t afford it and I didn’t have anybody who could drive me to practices.”

Whoa, brother. The pieces tear my heart out. I’m not sure whether to reach out to a school shrink to get in touch with the kids (or perhaps to counsel me on how best to take in such life issues). Certainly, Art Linkletter’s kids raised no such problems.

But, after talking with other faculty here – and listening to my own inner counsel – I do what I believe journalism instructors should do. I look at the revelatory work as pieces of writing. Does the writer make his or her points well? Does the piece hang together? Does it invite readers in, set a nice table for them and give them a solid meal? Are there good ledes, nut grafs and kickers? Painful as the accounts may be, do they paint a true and accurate picture? Does the writer do the job with grace and wit?

Today, I put parts of such pieces on the screen for the class to discuss. I read aloud or paraphrased some sections, praising them for their color or nice turn of phrase. I got excited about the anecdotes they sketched out. Unless I had their permission, I didn’t say who had written the more personal material. I kept that anonymous, or at least as anonymous as it can be since the students peer-edit each other’s work.

Like any reader, I prize an honest and thorough account of challenges someone has faced. I encourage the students to tell their stories well, of course, and I’m enormously pleased when they do. But I must admit that I’m pained by their tales, and grow to like them for their candor. It’s real life, folks, and that can be tough. I also wrestle with the temptation to grade them more for honesty than style or organization, something that takes a challenging dose of hard-headedness.

The fact is, as I tell my students, that everyone carries baggage. As we get older, we learn how to hide it better, I suppose, or it becomes less of a burden. It’s because they are kids, I suspect, that they are willing to share so much of what weighs them down now with a stranger, some guy at the front of the classroom who they barely know but who aims to make them better writers.

So is teaching an easy job? Not always. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.

Kyrgyzstan, Here We Come


One perk academics enjoy is travel. Friends in the economics department at the University of Illinois, for instance, roam the globe for a half-dozen conferences each year with other economists. They go to places such as Paris, Stockholm, Berlin and Jerusalem.

So, this May, I’ll get to do the same thing, only my trip is to Kyrgyzstan.

Yes, Kyrgyzstan, a country I had barely heard of until a couple months ago. Even then, I thought it was the place that Sacha Baron Cohen had parodied in “Borat.” (That was neighboring Kazakhstan, it turned out.)

Another faculty member and I will take a group of eight undergrads to this former Soviet republic for about 10 days. We’ll rove about, looking for yurts and such that the students can photograph for an ongoing multi-year project documenting global poverty. One student will supply the words, reporting while the photographers capture the images. At the end, we’ll put this into a magazine that we’ll produce.

It’s a fascinating undertaking, actually. It turns out that Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s more beautiful spots, with stunning alpine vistas. It’s also a good example of how the Soviets sought to impose their values on an ancient people with very mixed results — some modernization, but sterility in architecture and, it seems, rigidity in thought. Nineteen years after the Soviets were encouraged to leave (as they mostly did) the place in many ways is now reverting to old ways, perhaps including such bizarre practices as bride-kidnapping.

The country is also one of the poorest in the world. This won’t make our visit a posh affair, but should make it exciting and interesting. If journalism were only about Paris, the work of scribes would be mighty boring and unimportant, no? Indeed, if by our work we wind up influencing in some small way public knowledge of the place, we will have done a good job.

We all are likely in coming years to hear more about Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek, the country’s capital and largest city, is home to a U.S. air base that is a chief launching point for our forces in Afghanistan. The base has been controversial, since the Russians aren’t enamored of the U.S. having such an important post in one of their former reaches. But it’s also central to the war effort, which means more U.S. resources are likely to flow into the country over time. This will be worth paying attention to.

I’m very psyched about this trip. The students and my colleague, Bruce Thorson, and I will learn a great deal about the country in coming weeks. We’ll be mapping out our strategy for telling its story. We’ll educate ourselves about its customs, history, geography and current challenges.

Already, we are reaching out to contacts. We just met a delightful exchange student from there who is living in Nebraska, for instance. Over pizza the other night, we talked about the best places for us to go and the customs we should take note of (the women students should not cover their hair to try to fit into the Muslim culture, our new friend said, because that will create false expectations about their religion. And, even though the place is fairly safe, we should all get pepper-spray and avoid roaming about after midnight.)

I expect this trip will broaden our view of the world. In some small way, we will also make a difference in how people here see a place most people don’t know. Paris will just have to wait.

JW