Memorial Day is not my holiday; it’s theirs

Memorial Day

This weekend, amid the smells of barbecues and fresh flowers at gravesites, and the sounds of children playing and new flags snapping in the breeze, my thoughts have been with two men for whom Memorial Day holds other meaning: my father and father-in-law.

My dad was a Depression-era child who came of military age as tension mounted in Korea and would have missed war entirely had he gone to college instead of the Navy after high school. So when most of the young men he knew in school were just learning to shave, he was learning how to keep his clothes dry while bunking on the damp anchor-chain deck aboard an aircraft carrier plying the Pacific.

He chose the military because he had no money for college. And he opted for the Navy because a favorite uncle served in that branch. The same uncle had jumped off a sinking carrier into burning oil during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, and my dad remembered seeing the scars across his arms and back from that and thought of him as a true hero.

My dad did nothing so risky during his service, but his contribution was no less important. He parlayed an interest in photography into a post with Naval intelligence, helping to map out battle plans. He served on two carriers during a duty spanning the end of the Korean conflict and the return to peacetime. Although he never picked up a gun, his work in the dark recesses of the carriers disseminating classified information was weapon enough. Even now, more than 60 years later, he refuses to discuss what he worked on down there.

My father-in-law, Gene, on the other hand took his life into his hands nearly each day he set out from port. A dozen years older than my dad, he was among what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” and his duty took place aboard the cramped, creaky decks of Liberty ships sailing to stock American troops and their allies. While with the Merchant Marine, Gene sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific, crossed back and forth through the Panama Canal and saw more of the world than an Illinois farm boy ever expected.

He does not speak of his service; I had to pry stories out of him. And what I heard amounted to fascinating and frightening tales. He recalled the days he crawled to his post, hand over hand, as storms crashed his ship and three-story waves loomed over the deck like granite cliffs, and the nights when he saw flashes of fire through the inky night as ships on the fringes of the convoy were torpedoed and sunk. More often, he rode the center of the convoy, on ships loaded with armaments. Gene said he had to force out of his mind thoughts of what might happen if a torpedo hit one of those.

And so while many Americans everywhere have enjoyed a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer, I content myself with the images and stories passed along from my father and father-in-law.

Instead of barbecue, I recall from my childhood the musty smells of yellowing yearbooks embossed with the carriers my father sailed on and filled with photos of 3,000 or so of his colleagues. Instead of enjoying the pageantry of parades, I prefer sifting the dusty snapshots of my father-in-law in his Merchant Marine uniform, so large it seemed to hang on his small frame.

They would prefer I go out and enjoy this holiday weekend. But it’s not really my weekend. It’s theirs.

Is the Daily Egyptian’s demise a Dunn deal?

Daily Egyptian logoI haven’t seen the man in almost 30 years, yet Bill Harmon still intimidates me.

His sharp-toned advice echoes in my head whenever I try to write or edit a news story. I cringe every time.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Harmon was the faculty adviser of the student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while I lived and breathed journalism there. He served in that role for nearly two decades. He was famous for, among other things, having two tools at the ready. In one hand he clutched a red felt pen that cut through a young reporter’s copy — and ego — like a butcher’s knife. In the other hand was an ever-present cigarette.

The walls of his office and the edges of his moustache were yellowed testaments to his nicotine habit, no doubt aggravated by the likes of cocky young know-it-alls such as myself.

He was gruff, direct, uncompromising, and when he was upset with a journalist for not asking a key question or missing the point of a story even the air in the room escaped to find safety. But when he issued praise, no honor was higher or possessed more value. It was the Pulitzer of my youth.

The staff of the DE strived daily to hear him utter that praise, however mild.

I mention him now because Mr. Harmon’s legacy, and perhaps that of the DE itself, may vanish this summer. Last week, SIU’s Board of Trustees, the principal governing body for the entire Southern Illinois University system, tabled further discussion of a proposed $9 student media fee that, in part, would deliver the DE from rough financial straits by covering an estimated $200,000 operating deficit.

The 98-year-old newspaper relies on advertising to pay the bills yet still struggles, as does every other university newspaper in the United States, to remain solvent. Most of those other student newspapers, however, already receive fee support, including the twice-weekly student paper published at SIU’s campus in Edwardsville.

SIU-Carbondale students endorsed the $9 fee when it was first proposed last summer. Then-SIU Present Glenn Poshard buttressed that endorsement by digging $55,000 out of his own budget to lend short-term assistance.

SIU President Randy Dunn

SIU President Randy Dunn

But on May 1, a new president, Randy Dunn, took over and brought with him a different perspective. He said last week at the trustees’ meeting that he preferred to reexamine the fee proposal and the DE’s finances, and suggested he might take a year to do it. As if the DE had not considered pinching pennies before now.

Despite its name, the DE publishes only four days a week, down from five a year ago. Staff salaries and student work hours have been slashed over and over. The salaries are paid out of advertising revenue, not out of the university’s pocket.

Current DE Managing Editor Eric Fiedler told the Chicago Tribune that he doubts the newspaper can last even a few months, let alone a year, without the university’s commitment. SIU-Carbondale School of Journalism Director William Freivogel said he intends to have the trustees revisit the fee when they meet again in July.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the DE editorial advisory board, and Bill Frievogel was a colleague of mine for several years in the editorial office of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

The easy thing to do now is voice frustration with President Dunn and the trustees for displaying what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward a teaching tool that just won 17 Illinois College Press Association awards and was key to the School of Journalism receiving reaccreditation this year.

But I can understand the president’s reticence, to a degree, and it may have less to do with money than with, well, discomfort.

When I was a student reporter for the DE, one of my assignments was to cover the university administration — the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the provost, the deans, etc. The role required attending meetings, analyzing budgets, sifting through sundry official documents, and upholding Mr. Harmon’s insistence that “Titles don’t matter, damn it! Only the facts matter.”

Southern Illinois University logoOften, these administrators begged off from answering my questions, resented them, even ran away from them. Once, I learned through a couple of dependable sources that a handful of SIU officials planned to fly together to Chicago for a conference and discuss university business along the way. I met them on the tarmac at Carbondale’s tiny airport and insisted on going along, arguing that the context of their discussion was required to be public, not private.

At that, all but a couple of the passengers stepped away from the plane, fetched their luggage and left the airport. On his way out, one particularly vexed administrator stormed up to me, pushed his nose to within an inch of mine, and grumbled, “You just ruined my vacation.”

When I returned to the DE newsroom, Mr. Harmon asked, “Were they pissed?”

I replied that they were.

He smiled broadly, snorted and said, “Ha! Good.”

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian are, first and foremost, public servants both mindful of and responsible to their university communities. Their staffs should be as tough and as diligent as the staffs at small-town weeklies or big-city dailies, because how else do student journalists grow to become professional ones?

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian should insist on honesty and integrity, and demonstrate the same, no matter the issue or the authority. The least we can do is lend them our support.

They are not obligated to make anyone feel comfortable. Bill Harmon was keenly aware of that.

Perhaps President Dunn is not.

Region 7 represents at Mark of Excellence Awards

SPJ's Mark of Excellence AwardsMissouri had three honorees and the states of Iowa and Nebraska had one each to represent Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri) in the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2013 national Mark of Excellence Awards, announced Tuesday.

Allison Pohle of the University of Missouri-Columbia, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a finalist in the feature-writing category among large schools for her work, “Kirkwood Father Tries to Find Meaning in Daughter’s Death;” the staff of VoxMagazine.com at the Missouri School of Journalism was a finalist in the online feature reporting category for “Matters of Faith;” and Vox Magazine’s iPad app was chosen best digital-only student publication.

Suhaib Tawil of the Iowa State Daily at Iowa State University was a finalist in the general news photography category among large schools for “ROTC Training During Spring 2013.”

Jenna Jaynes of the Time-Warner Educational Access Channel and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was a finalist in television feature reporting for “Nebraska’s First Male Color Guard Member Lives His Dream.”

The national awards recognize exceptional collegiate journalism in all 12 of SPJ’s regions over the previous calendar year and are chosen from the first-place winners at the regional level. This time, instead of first-, second-, and third-place awards, SPJ named a winner and two finalists for each category.

Not all categories were mentioned, however. If the judges determined that no entries were excellent by SPJ’s standards, the category was left blank. All judges have at least three years’ worth of professional experience in their respective fields. They are not permitted to review entries from their own regions.

(Complete disclosure: I have been an MOE judge the past three years, first as president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro Chapter and now as Region 7 director.)

School divisions were based on cumulative undergraduate and graduate enrollment, with large schools having a minimum of 10,000 registered students. For some categories, school size was not a factor.

Winners in each category will be recognized during the Student Union event at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, Sept. 4-6. A full list of MOE Award recipients is available on SPJ’s website.

Knight Center offers free training in investigative journalism

ReporterWhat about the word “free” don’t you understand?

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas will offer a five-week open online training course covering the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism, without charge. The course, “Investigative Journalism for the Digital Age,” begins May 12, and concludes June 14.

Instruction will cover, among other things, general concepts about conducting investigations, finding and cultivating sources, analyzing digital data and databases, sifting through social media for useful information, and presenting stories with attention to fairness and ethics. Four instructors will present multiple videos edited in a college-style classroom format.

The instructors are Brant Houston, who teaches investigative journalism and advanced reporting at the University of Illinois; Michael Berens, an investigative reporter for the Seattle Times and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting; Steve Doig, data journalism specialist at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism; and Lise Olson, senior investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle.

Each week’s work can be completed at the student’s own pace. Quizzes will be given at the conclusion of each instruction module. Students can request a certificate of completion at the course’s conclusion for a small fee.

Anyone who is interested should register now at the Knight Center’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) site. The center is supported by the Knight Foundation.