Searching out change lessons from the center of the storm

For a Kennedy School class I’m taking called Public Narrative, today I was tasked with presenting a paper about continuity and change as it affects the journalism industry — and what leadership lessons my peers and I can take from it. As I was writing this yesterday, I learned that one of my dearest reporter friends was laid off from the Associated Press. Talk about a reality check. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial fish who has no idea he’s in water — because that’s all he knows. It’s hard to sort out the lessons of this journalistic storm when you’re still stuck in the eye of it. But here’s one rambling attempt. . . .

Last year was the worst year ever for journalism in general and for my newsroom in particular. While we didn’t suffer layoffs at my paper (a rarity in the industry), we have had furloughs and buyouts. Our staff shrank mightily, with so many empty desks that the bosses finally had the maintenance guys rearrange the furniture — adding a red couch and a seating area to camouflage the loss. It didn’t work. The truth is, the few of us remaining are so busy that nobody has time to actually sit a spell on the couch.

Morale, as you might guess, is at an all-time low for journalists everywhere. As veteran journalists, we’ve all had several choices presented to us: Do we join the hundreds of other journalists who have jumped ship pre-emptively, getting out of the business before they’re forced? Or do we stay and fight? If we do stay, how as a reporter do we continue doing what we love as the industry shifts from old media to the new? How do we embrace change when we can’t even count on having a job from one week to the next?

Last week, I wrote about my attempt to turn the story of my industry’s loss into a story of redemption; how I’ve tried to reframe the dread-filled conversations that dominate newspapers across the country by inspiring other reporters to remember why it is we were originally called to tell the stories of the downtrodden and the corrupt; how to make the public’s business known. Some call me a Pollyanna, but I’m trying to convince the naysayers in my industry that we can reinvent ourselves but only if we invent new ways of working — and of working better together. That we have to change is evident; what’s less clear is whether we can hold onto our core journalistic values as we commence the metamorphosis. In this age of politically leaning blogs and shouting cable TV hosts, remembering our values of fairness and civic responsibility may be the only thing that saves us. Waving the white flag of surrender sure won’t.

I’ve come to Harvard this year to learn more about families, immigrants and the elderly, which are my specialty areas. I’ve also begun to study theories of collaboration, because I believe that journalists are going to have to learn to share their toys. Papers that used to compete vigorously are already starting to share resources; TV, radio and print are beginning to form unprecedented partnerships. I’ve also decided to use this year away as a time to learn new skills in radio, video and Web design — something few reporters have the luxury of doing because of all those empty desks I mentioned at the start.

The reporter who outlasts the apocalypse, I predict, will be the one who trains herself, in effect, to be a multimedia producer but still knows how to tell the hell out of a good story. She’ll also learn to give younger, Web-savvy readers a reason to go to newspaper Web sites — by offering personal commentary and by interacting with readers/viewers.

It’s an awkward time for journalists: We’re trying to prepare for a Web-based future — but we’re scared because we don’t know exactly what that future is, or whether there’ll be a place for us in it. And oh-yeah-by-the-way: We still have a little thing called a newspaper to put out every day.

Honestly, I don’t know how this narrative will end, or what leadership lessons, if any, we will have learned. I attend at least one “future of news” panel discussion a week, and — reading between the lines spoken by the smartest people in this business — it seems like no one knows.

But if we retain our core values of fairness and public responsibility, I think it’s possible that we’ll look back on this tumultuous period as a time when our century-old institutions kicked it into high gear and birthed a new kind of storytelling — one that still helps people understand their world and each other. Instead of writing our narratives as obituaries, I hope we’ll look back and tell a story about how we changed so much on the surface — but how, down deep, we didn’t change at all.

Life as the new kid

“I guess when I get back to Roanoke, I’ll be able to cross Grandin Road by myself,” the 11-year-old said as we were riding our bikes to his school.

We were dodging college students walking to class, dodging other bicyclists on the sidewalks and roads, dodging Mass Ave. traffic that makes Roanoke’s Grandin Road seem like a back street in Mayberry.

A month into our tour in Cambridge, it’s been a big Back to School adventure for all of us, with the teenager adjusting to taking public transportation to his high school, which is slightly smaller than his school in Roanoke but with a wider array of diversity and, apparently, fashion. (“Guys in tight purple jeans!”) Now in his second week of school, he seems to hate us less now than he did at the start. A little.

It’s tough being the new kid, and not just for the teenager. There are 23 Nieman fellows in my class, the vast majority of whom are hard-news hounds, including many who have reported, filmed and photographed from such far-flung and weapons-slung places as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip.

They are not used to sitting idly or quietly on the sidelines, and sometimes I have a shy/hard/awkward time getting a word in at our meetings. I like, admire and get a chuckle out of every one of them, for they are truly hale and hearty fellows. But being a Southern newbie at Harvard reminds me of a four-way stop sign: In sweet ol’ Roanoke, everyone politely waves everyone else on, often to the point of standstill. Here, you go when you get the opening — even if it’s all at the same time. Sometimes I wish I had thought to take a course in group dynamics, along with my four other classes.

But hopefully I will learn how to strengthen my voice in a course called Public Narrative taught by Marshall Ganz, who as the architect of Camp Obama, also teaches community organization and campaign mobilization. I’m one of about 200 students taking his Kennedy School class, along with grad-student Ashley Judd, who reportedly wants to keep a low profile but is often the first to raise her hand in class.

I’m taking a music appreciation course called First Nights in the Gothic 1870s-era Memorial Hall, which looks like something out of Harry Potter. While I enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of what went into the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, what really moves me is the comfort of sitting in that dark theatre for an hour twice a week and listening to a genuinely gifted teacher and musician. (Note to my classical-musical hound buddy, Angela: You have to come experience this class with me. Please.)

I hope to pick up a broader, deeper context for my  immigration reporting from a class that examines the history and current political climate around the question of legalizing the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. (Bonus: It’s taught by a professor who shared the Pulitzer with a group of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters that included our very own Mary Bishop!)

For a law school class called the Art of Social Change, we listen to world- class speakers expound upon human-rights and children’s issues. Last week, Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur genius grantee and Harvard Law grad, talked about his exhaustive efforts to litigate his way to the Supreme Court so that (mostly black) 13- and 14-year-olds serving life sentences in prison may one day get out. Later, I was thrilled to find a Washington Post Magazine profile of him written by Walt Harrington, who is my favorite narrative journalist of all time. (Another fabulous Harrington piece I stumbled upon recently was an essay about why we write — to feel alive — from American Journalism Review.)

The Nieman events and classes are no less inspiring (OK, maybe not the part about learning HTML. . . ). We’ve heard from theater dynamo Diane Paulus one week after seeing her Shakespeare-meets-Studio 54 production of “The Donkey Show.” Tomorrow, we meet with David Gergen in a two-hour, off-the-record seminar.

At a welcoming reception last weekend, hundreds of people from the Harvard community came out to meet and greet us, including prominent journalists, authors and CEOs, former Niemans and current fellows of other Harvard programs (including Firle Davies, a heralded BBC reporter from Zimbabwe who talked about how relieved she was to have a year away from the threatening, middle-of-the-night phone calls).

I nearly stepped into it when I joined a conversation of Boston Globe journos who were bemoaning the Globe’s editorial on Teddy Kennedy, which began with the line: “Ted Kennedy was not a great man.”  I defended the piece, explaining that I was in tears by the end of it, but Globe columnist Kevin Cullen said he was so pissed that he stormed into his publisher’s office the day it ran. (It’s a Massachusetts thing; I wouldn’t understand.)

Not long ago, former Nieman (and one-time Roanoke Times editor) Mike Riley told me to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the Nieman fellowship. While I’m still trying to find my sea legs (not to mention, at times, my voice), I have to say I’m loving every minute of being here, even the neighborhood yoga class that leaves me half-crippled; even the requisite three hours it takes to go grocery shopping because there are so many good places that I can’t go to just one. (Forget Trader Joe’s; I’ve since stumbled onto Russo’s, the world’s best bakery/produce market/deli, featuring rock-bottom prices on everything from beautiful berry pies to lemongrass and yard-long beans — just don’t get in the way of the Italian ladies when they’re sifting through the clearance rack.)

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square.

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square. I miss my zinnias at home (OK, so I've pinched a few starts of neighbors' coleus plants; what's a girl without a garden to do?).

I hope I don’t jinx it by writing this, but I’m starting to think that even the teenager is coming around, a development that makes me happier than all the $9.99 homemade pies in the world. That might have something to do with the tattoo (don’t freak, Mom; it’ll be small!) we promised he could get on his 16th birthday — if he makes the honor roll.

Or it might be the Thanksgiving trip to Jamaica we just booked on account of Tom’s theory that all money spent during the Nieman year should be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime expenditure. “Monopoly money,” he calls it.

Which is a fitting outlook, as we begin to try to make the most of this year — passing Go as often as we can and splurging, every now and then, on a Boardwalk hotel.

A recent trip to Narragansett, R.I. Some people plunge easily into new things and places and ideas while others wait on the periphery until their sea legs are found..

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