In defense of Helen Thomas

Note: I was editing this post when the news broke that Helen’s retiring. I debated whether to post it at all, because I’m no doubt throwing myself into the lion’s den here (and ironically writing above a post about things that are better left unblogged), but this is something I believe needs to be said.

There’s an uproar over what veteran White House correspondent told a blogger last week: that Jews should leave Israel and “go home” to Poland, Germany, or America. (Want to know exactly what she said? Watch for yourself.)

Some members of the White House Correspondents Association are calling for her press pass to be revoked. Other players in Washington want her fired. Her speakers’ bureau dropped her, and the reporter who co-authored a book with her recently said he won’t do another. MediaBistro also has a solid round-up of reaction.

Now I’m having my own little uproar at home: Doesn’t Helen have a right to her opinion?!

I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m saying that as a columnist, she should be allowed to tell us honestly what she thinks.

Pundits say ridiculous things all the time, and we don’t chastise them for it — we give them more air time. Ann Coulter said the widows of 9/11 were self-obsessed and enjoying their husbands’ deaths. Radio talkshow host G. Gordon Liddy offered advice on the best way to kill federal agents. (On the other hand, Bill Maher was fired for giving his not-so-politically-correct opinion.)

Part of the problem here is that the public confuses the role of reporter with the role of pundit slash columnist. This is our own fault. It’s the fault of the media for mixing pundits with journalists on talk shows, in the newspaper and online. We need to do a better job of differentiating who’s paid to report and who’s paid to give their opinion.

Helen was an awesome journalist for decades. An unbiased journalist. But now she’s a columnist. She gets paid to write her opinion for Hearst newspapers. So what’s so wrong with letting us know her opinion?

What’s wrong is that her statement wasn’t politically correct — and it has to do with Israel, which we all know is a touchy subject. Helen expressed her real opinion even though it’s not popular. Once again, I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m also not saying I don’t agree with her, since I’m a reporter and I don’t express my opinion on these issues. (I also don’t believe reporters don’t have opinions. We’re still people. But we work really hard to keep our biases from influences our reporting.)

Speaking of biases, I should tell you that I’m not just writing this about Helen Thomas, the journalist. I’m writing it about Helen Thomas, my friend and mentor. (And yes, I’m fully aware that plenty of people don’t like her.) In my first job out of j-school, Helen sat next to me in the Hearst Washington bureau. Well, on the other side of my cubicle. We became friends, and we stayed that way after I moved to Texas to write for the Houston Chronicle. She goes out of her way to mentor young journalists. Including me.

More than that, I give Helen Thomas some of the credit for where I am today. She was a trailblazer for female journalists, and it was partly due to her persistence that women have a place in the newsroom. (Even though we’re still not paid as much as our male counterparts. But don’t get me started on that.)

Maybe knowing her as a person, knowing that she’s not the evil witch some people make her out to be — would a man who asked hard questions be called a bitch? — helps me give her some leeway here.

Time columnist Joe Klein is one of the few people I’ve seen write sensibly about this whole thing:

It’s not unprecedented for journalists with odious views to have access to the press room. What is unprecedented is for such a journalist to have a front-row center seat. Thomas should no longer have that privilege. The front row should be occupied by working reporters, not columnists.

Fine. Take away her front-row seat. But firing her, revoking her press pass or refusing to work with her? C’mon, people. Let’s think a little harder than that.

UPDATE: Just saw the news that Helen’s retiring. It’s probably time. She’s old (almost 90). But I hate that it happened over this.

How to use social media to look for a job

A lot has changed since the last time I was in the market for a job. Fresh out of j-school in 2005, I gave my resume and clips to the editor of a newspaper I wanted to work for. He didn’t have any openings, but he knew someone who did: the Houston Chronicle‘s Washington bureau chief. So the no-openings editor passed my resume to the Chron editor. And guess who hired me?

Now, five years later, as I look for a D.C.-based reporting/writing/multimedia/social media position (if you smell a plug, you’re right on), that passing of the resume is still important. What’s changed is how the resume is passed. Now it’s often done digitally. And most of that digital resume-passing occurs through social media.

Knowing how to use social media effectively has become doubly helpful in the job hunt: not only do employers value social media skills, but using social media strategically can help you land the job you want, even if social media skills aren’t required.

Here’s how I’m using social media in my job hunt:

Facebook. Yes, Facebook is for fun. But my friends might also help me with my career. Since I’m a journalist, a lot of my Facebook friends are journalists or former journalists who work for organizations that might be hiring. And because of Facebook, I’ve stayed in touch with colleagues-turned-friends who I might not have kept in contact with before it was so easy.

My friends know I’m looking for a job in D.C. They know because I’ve said so in my status updates, even asked them to let me know if they hear of any openings. Asking for favors on Facebook is easy, because these people already know and like me. The key is to not inundate your friends with hiring pleas. Let them know you’re looking and then move onto something else (please, not FarmVille).

I’ve mentioned my job hunt in my status update only twice in the last six months. That was enough for a handful of friends — including a few I wouldn’t have thought to approach individually — to write me private messages with suggestions of places that are hiring or people who might be helpful to talk to. Because of Facebook, 748 people might think of me when they hear of a job opening. And since the best positions often aren’t posted on job boards, it’s important to let people know you’re looking.

In addition to pimping myself on my status updates, I use Facebook to send private messages to friends who live in D.C. and ask them to be on the lookout for openings (because not everyone checks their news feed obsessively enough to catch all of my status updates). I’m not close enough with some of these friends to e-mail them on a regular basis, but thanks to Facebook, we’re still in touch.

LinkedIn. If you’re uncomfortable networking for jobs on Facebook (though you shouldn’t be), you should feel just fine doing it on LinkedIn, because that’s why the site was created. It’s good for more than simply building your network. LinkedIn has a great job board, and groups that I’m part of — my alma maters and media groups  — also list jobs on their own LinkedIn pages.

Whenever I apply for a job, I search on LinkedIn for people who work for the company, specifically the person who would be my boss or hire me (I figure that out with Google’s help). And this is genius: LinkedIn tells me whether one of my connections knows that person! It’s like riffling through my Rolodex and being able to see not only my networks, but my friends’ networks, too. Taking that one step further, LinkedIn lets you write a note to the person you want to contact — through your friend, who can endorse you in the process.

Why is this important? Because applying for a job online isn’t enough anymore. To get someone to pull your application out of the virtual pile, you’ve got to talk or e-mail with an actual person. In the old days (what, like five or ten years ago?), you had to know someone at the company or wiggle your way in by networking in person. But with LinkedIn, you can create that connection — and get a personal recommendation to boot.

Remember: if you can find someone on a social-networking site, they probably know how to find you, too. So make your profiles professional and all-around awesome.

Twitter. It’s ironic that LinkedIn is supposed to be the forerunner for career networking, because I’ve found Twitter to be the most useful in this job hunt. A different community of people follow me on Twitter than on Facebook, and tweeting about the type of job I’m looking for reaches a ton — about 1,500 — of people who otherwise wouldn’t know I’m on the market.

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Considering journalism school? My advice.

A woman who follows my blog wrote to me last week asking whether she should go to journalism school.

This question comes up a lot. The pros and cons have been covered again and again and again (ironically, this U.S. News & World Report story was published in 1996 — when a master’s at Medill only cost $20K! — and the arguments haven’t changed much), so I won’t go into them. Here’s what I’ll add:

I generally think j-school is worth it — I credit Medill with helping me climb the news ladder — but only if the program is practical, not theory-based. Only if you’ll leave there with clips (published in off-campus publications) and multimedia projects, tangible products you can put in front of a potential employer to score a job.

But. Especially in this economic climate, a j-degree will not get you a job. Clips will not get you a job (though you need them). Multimedia skills will not get you a job (though you need those, too). Lots of people have all of this stuff and more.

What you need to get a job is something that sets you apart. Maybe that’s your programming skills. Maybe it’s an awesome blog that offers insight into your niche. Maybe it’s an innovative project. Whatever it is, you need to show that you’re creative, with ideas, energy and innovation that will help propel journalism forward. Pick something, and make time to make it good.

Because a j-degree will not be enough. Go ahead and earn one. But to get a job, you’ll need something more.

Five cool ways news organizations are using social media

Yeah, I usually blog about writing or travel. But since I’m looking to dive back into full-time journalism, my mind has been wandering into news land. Specifically, social media news land.

I’ve been watching how journalists and news organizations use social media (and playing with some of those approaches myself). By now, most media outlets take advantage of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, maybe even LinkedIn and Flickr. But there are heaps of other ways to engage audience and create community.

Five social-media tools that journalists are using in innovative ways:

1. Twitter Lists. When Twitter’s list feature was first announced in October, journalists quickly realized the tool was useful to group and follow their sources. Now media organizations are taking it one step further, offering those lists to consumers so they can follow sources on their own. The New York Times, for example, has a page that aggregates all its Twitter lists, with a button that makes it easy for readers to follow those lists, too. The Texas Tribune created a list of the state’s elected officials using a unique format that lets readers see the latest tweet for each one. And some outlets, like the St. Petersburg Times, offer lists of their own reporter’s Twitter handles.

Because they can be put together quickly, lists are also an awesome tool for breaking news events — even if you’re already using a Twitter hashtag. Lists point both reporters and consumers toward tweeps who know what’s happening: people at the scene, experts on the topic or others who are affected in some way by whatever’s going on. When I come across such an example again, I’ll link to it here. (If you can share one, please let us know in the comments.)

2. Avatars. Personality is what makes Facebook pages and Twitter feeds popular; that’s why pages and feeds by reporters, infused with those individual’s personalities, often have more fans and followers than straight-up topical feeds (although topical and breaking news feeds have their place, too). But what happens when more than one reporter contributes to a feed? Can you go topical yet remain personal?

The Chicago Tribune’s solution was the creation of Colonel Tribune, its digital face for the paper. On Facebook and Twitter, the Colonel doesn’t simply throw out breaking news headlines, he teases links to stories and offers interesting tidbits, like a person would. (He’s unbiased, of course.) “He routinely gets news tips from some readers, hears from others about corrections and typos in stories, and he is offered story ideas,” explains Bill Adee, creator of the avatar, in this Nieman Foundation story.

3. Tumblr. Newsweek is leading the way (for media outlets, anyhow) with this blogging platform. In this interview with MediaBistro’s FishbowlNY, Mark Coatney, who’s behind Newsweek’s tumblelog, says, “It’s useful for us in terms of engaging a new kind of reader.”

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(Writerly) Lessons I Learned from Journalism

I whine a lot about how writing news on deadline stifled my creativity.

But as I transition from newspaper reporter to author, I’m realizing that journalism taught me a handful of lessons that apply to writing a book, reminders that can benefit even non-journos.

Do readers care? If my manuscript came across my reporter’s desk as a press release, would I throw it into the trash? Hopefully I’d pitch the idea to my editor and he’d get excited about putting it on page one. But first he’d ask: Is there an audience for this? How can you craft this story so people care?

Deadlines work. There’s no such thing as writer’s block when your story is scheduled to go to press in an hour. Create deadlines for yourself, both short- and long-term, and meet them. It’s as simple as that. If that means settling for imperfection, so be it. Lucky for us, self-imposed manuscript deadlines come with a perk: revisions are not only allowed, they’re encouraged.

Don’t bury the lead. A reporter’s intro has got to be interesting, offering at least a glimpse of the meat of the story, or readers will move onto the next headline. All we get is one sentence — saving the hook for the third paragraph is useless. So work on turning all your beginnings — the beginning of the book, beginning of each chapter, beginning of each scene — into fabulous leads. In a novel, yeah, you can save some of the juicy stuff for later. But if your beginning isn’t engaging enough to suck me in, you’ve lost me to the obituary page.

Quotes have to really say something. All those sentence fragments the mayor spewed about the Deed Restriction Task Force — it’s boring. Reporters only have room for one quote anyhow, so they pick the one that’s the most compelling. Of course, in an 80,000-word manuscript, there’s space for more dialogue. But that doesn’t mean anything and everything your character could say should be included. Cut the part about the task force. Quotes that don’t move the story along get kicked to the curb. And that brings me to…

Cutting ain’t all bad. Newspaper reporters rarely have as much space for a story as they’d like. Even when my editor offered a respectable length, I’d wake up in the morning and find half the story had been cut overnight to make room for some tale about a dog that could juggle. In truth, sometimes the part that was cut just wasn’t necessary. So ask yourself, while revising your manuscript: If you had to cut something, what would it be? Now look again — Is the story actually better without it?

Oops, I’d better go. My imaginary editor is reading this over my shoulder, asking when it’s gonna be done.

Breaking from writing to FreeRoxana

One of the benefits to taking time off from work to write my book is that my life has become more flexible.

This week, in addition to writing and coaching my softball team, I’ve taken on a new challenge: organizing a hunger strike for Roxana Saberi.

Roxana reporting in Iran (Photo credit: Eustacio Humphrey / ZUMA Press)

Roxana reporting in Iran (Photo credit: Eustacio Humphrey / ZUMA Press)

Roxana is an Iranian-American journalist imprisoned in Iran. She was arrested in late January, and the Iranian government has since convicted her as a spy.

The 32-year-old North Dakota native, who was living, reporting and studying in Iran for six years prior to her arrest, has been on hunger strike for more than a week to protest what much of the world believes is an unfair conviction.

Several days ago, Reporters Without Borders joined her fast. Starting Sunday, the FreeRoxana campaign — made up of journalists, friends and other supporters of Roxana — will go on hunger strike, too.

I’m helping to organize the effort. More than 150 volunteers from all over the country and the world, including Iran, will fast for one day between May 3 – 14. It’s a 12-day fast because that’s how long Roxana’s personal fast has lasted. FreeRoxana campaign volunteers, however, are fasting in shifts.

Why am I doing this? Because freedom of the press is important to all of us. If it weren’t for reporters like Roxana, we wouldn’t have news out of places like Iran.

And even though I don’t know Roxana personally, we share a love for journalism, not to mention an alma mater, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I also enjoy reporting overseas, and it could just as well be me rotting in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Want to sign up to fast?

I’m going hungry tomorrow, Sunday, for Roxana. But don’t you worry: While all this organizing has kept me from writing, fasting won’t. Tomorrow, as my stomach is growling, I’ll be cranking out Chapter Seven.