“You’re a real jerk … but don’t tell anyone I said so!” — Community Journalism’s decline in civility in the age of Internet anonymity

April 8th, 2014

David Klinger (UNC JOMC, 1976) was a resident of Berkeley County for 14 years and a Journal “community columnist” for two. He now lives in Idaho, recovering from his West Virginia experience, but still regularly reading the paper.

Author’s addendum: This opinion piece was submitted in early January 2014 to the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal for publication, but has never been published or acknowledged. The Journal’s anonymous online comment line was quietly removed shortly thereafter, however.

 

 by David Klinger

In a less politically correct era, when on the receiving end of particularly insulting, offensive, or profane mail from constituents, the late Senator Stephen Young of Ohio pulled no punches.

“Some lunatic keeps sending me crazy letters,” Senator Young typically would reply to the worst of the incoming diatribes. “He’s signing your name to them and I thought you should know about it.”

Well, someone keeps sending vicious comments to the Martinsburg Journal. They keep getting printed in the “Journal Junction” and the newspaper’s online comment section under false names … and I thought you should know about it.

As if it’s any surprise.

Yep, it’s each morning’s daily assault on the sensibilities of many readers of what once was a family newspaper, known as “Journal Junction” and its twisted sister, the Journal’s online comment board.

Hateful, snarky, spiteful, and often racially- or culturally-demeaning insults and barbs, aimed at everyone from presidents to schoolteachers to the homeless, from cops on the beat to lotto winners to hospice patients, are dished up as daily fare under the guise of free speech and heightened readership.

“Liars,” “zombies,” “goon squad,” and “sociopaths,” are four of the provocative epithets hurled back-and-forth in just the past week in these vengeful playpens of bad behavior.

Whether they cloak their identities behind anonymous monikers like “Majoritarian” or “Don’t Tread on Me” or “Some More Equal” or the increasingly tumescent “Hugh Jorgen,” the temptation to take mean, nasty, and often pointless cheap shots at others is equaled only by the newspaper’s willingness to tolerate them.

And they should stop.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I’ve sent in my share of comments — anonymously — to “Journal Junction” through the years. If the “Junction’s” rules mandated names, I’d ask that mine be printed. Since it doesn’t, well, I suppose anonymity’s the game and the price of admission to this conversational circus.

Yet I’ve always tried to focus my comments on overarching issues and problems and not on personalities or individuals. Demeaning remarks that impugn someone’s race or religion or orientation or personal circumstance are always out-of-bounds, in my view. In a region as rich with festering problems and unmet community needs as the Eastern Panhandle, there’s hardly a need to personalize the debate.

Similarly anonymous, the Journal’s online news and editorial comment section is a mucky mosh-pit of cyber rage, vented largely by a half-dozen or so frustrated regulars that launches every midnight and continues throughout the day. In that risky venue, I’ve always provided my name — on those few occasions when I dared risk an opinion and the inevitable slime fest that ensued. Appeals for enlightened self-restraint are routinely derided and ignored.

Classical training at one of the South’s finest journalism schools and a career spent on two newspapers and in writing and public information has taught me the importance and value of free speech. Provocative, challenging, and often distasteful public discourse is the First Amendment’s price we pay for a free press and a free citizenry.

I am for free and unfettered speech. I am also for responsibility in how that free speech is exercised.

I wrote “community columns” for the “Journal” for two years, under my own name, believing that anyone offering opinions on local issues should have the strength of character to stand by them by signing their name.

Today, that standard seems charmingly quaint.

The Internet revolution radically has broadened the rhetorical playing field into a truly global conversation, an electronic “tower of Babel” where anonymity emboldens the haters and shouters among us. It has ramped up the volume to a screeching decibel level, allowing anyone with a computer screen to bellow their opinions, regardless of relevance, experience, qualifications, or simple good manners. What has emerged is largely a mean-spirited forum where parentless words cut and slash like stiletto knives, debasing the concept of civil discourse.

Apparently a growing number of newspapers in the United States agree.

The Associated Press puts it this way, in a recent national feature story you probably didn’t read in the Journal:

“Mix blatant bigotry with poor spelling. Add a dash of ALL CAPS. Top it off with a violent threat. And there you have it: a recipe for the worst of online comments, scourge of the Internet.

“Blame anonymity, blame politicians, blame human nature. But a growing number of websites are reining in the Wild West of online commentary. Companies including Google and the Huffington Post are trying everything from deploying moderators to forcing people to use their real names in order to restore civil discourse.”

The AP cites a University of Houston study that found that nearly 49 percent of the 137 largest newspapers in the U.S. have banned anonymous commenting in an effort to restore civility to their Web sites.

The Huffington Post’s managing editor, Jimmy Soni, says that simply requiring names with comments has resulted in “significantly fewer things that we would not be able to share with our mothers” on that online news service.

It’s time the Journal follows suit with some much-needed reform of its public comment arenas. It could take an experimental baby-step as early as tomorrow, by requiring names for a month and seeing how that improves the complexion and tone of local comments.

Undoubtedly some will cry “Censorship!” They ignore the fact that newspapers are private businesses, with every right to decide what they will and won’t publish. The First Amendment checks government’s ability to restrict press freedom, not a newspaper’s inherent right to set its own standards of fair comment and decorum.

The easiest solution for disaffected Journal readers, of course, would be simply to ignore the rhetorical excesses of the “Journal Junction.” If you don’t like it, don’t go there. Turn the page, switch off the computer … or just don’t bother reading the paper altogether.

But that’s surrendering to the lowest common denominator. Asking the responsible majority to remain silent and to tolerate a pattern of abuse is like accepting the first couple of broken windows in a vacant factory. Ignore them long enough, and soon the entire building will be destroyed.

In the perverse world of today’s newspaper industry, economically buffeted by the cyber revolution, there’s a tendency by newspapers to drum up much-needed revenue by turning a blind eye to the worst of the Internet’s excesses. Mouse clicks equal pennies, and pennies spell the bottom line to a diminishing number of once-predominant daily newspapers. Anything to retain readers, no matter how low the conversation sinks, unfortunately has become the standard.

Yet far beyond their financial self-interest, I’ve learned that newspapers possess a dual responsibility: to uphold freedom of the press but also to contribute to the enlightened betterment of their communities.

The “Journal Junction” as it is presently structured weakens the community fabric. Its value as a daily “sounding board” is compromised by its two greatest deficiencies — results and cost. Nearly two decades of loud “Journal Junction” ranting have provoked very little change or demonstrable improvement in how things get done in Berkeley County. But the price of that ineffectual chatter has been high, in personal and community hurt, antagonism, and demoralization.

As a high school student in Winston-Salem in the 1970s, I was privileged to work with my local daily newspaper on the expose of some long-standing water pollution issues in that city. For that, coupled with an in-depth investigation of a proposed bauxite strip mining operation in the North Carolina mountains, the Winston-Salem Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting in 1971.

That taught me that newspapers, like other great institutions forming our national “social contract” — museums, public schools, free libraries, hospitals — bear a responsibility not just to their users, but to the community and its overall well-being. They are the great elevating features of civic life that lift us from the mud, that enlighten and educate, and that set the tone for fruitful human interaction.

Newspapers must speak freely … but they must also speak wisely because of that responsibility.

The “Journal Junction” and its online counterpart have degenerated into something radically different from the “constructive forum” its editors once professed they wanted. It’s past time for a change.

The Journal’s readers — and their community — deserve better.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

 

In which China comes through for Mr. Joke

June 13th, 2013

Our intrepid traveler is winding up a month of lecturing at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.” Herein  follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.

 

Publisher Yuan, left, and the staff of the fledgling Deng Feng Golden Edition pay attention as Mr. Joke gives a coaching session. (Photo by Li Tao)

Publisher Yuan, left, and the staff of the fledgling Deng Feng Golden Edition pay attention as Mr. Joke gives a coaching session. (Photo by Li Tao)

 

“It was my good fortune to be wrong,” writes travel writer Paul Theroux in the 1986 classic, “Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China.” And he concludes, “Being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale.”

Indeed.

In my last few days in China I too made a serious misjudgment that later looped around 180 degrees.

After three days of lecturing to large, impassive, unresponsive audiences of stony-faced major metro daily reporters and editors, I had concluded that our message about community journalism was falling on deaf ears.

Last night my hosts took us to see an outdoor pageant dramatizing in music, dance and light effects the ancient history of the region and its Shaolin Buddhist Kung Fu tradition.

But as I watched the spectacular sound and light show, I couldn’t help but be distracted by what felt like my failure to connect with all those journalists earlier this week.

Then this morning at breakfast, somebody told us, we’re going to visit a new community newspaper. I perked up.  Off we went; after a brief drive we pulled into a modest courtyard, piled out of the car, went in a door, down a hall, and into a small room.

And there, assembled were about a dozen people who, when they saw us, stood and burst into applause.

This, I was to learn, was the entire staff of a new community newspaper, the weekly Deng Feng Golden Edition. Just two-weeks old and already a runaway success. The publisher and editor claim that Professor Chen Kai and I get part credit! How could that be? We are treated like some royalty, as they shower us with editions of their paper for our autographs.

As Prof. Chen Kai (Karen) and I critiqued, coached and evaluated their handsome pair of editions, the little staff huddles over and around like a razzle-dazzle football team brainstorming their next play.

And they had a great back story to tell too: the nearby Zhengzhou Evening News launched the Golden Edition for the smaller city (200,000) of Deng Feng in late May when the media group’s visionary director, She Da Dong, realized that Deng Feng was a market ripe for the plucking.

The first week’s paper was met with such success that they doubled their ad revenue in one week. Much of the credit goes to publisher Yuan Jian Long, an affable and well-connected local journalist who laughs when he tells us, “I don’t need a business card; my face is my business card.”

Then turning serious, he explains, “The community newspaper is what binds society together.”

Publisher Yuan is ably assisted by a farmer-turned-journalist, Zhang Chao Hui, a self-taught photographer who serves as the managing editor.

Zhang told us that he and Mr. Yuan attended our lecture in Zhengzhou and that he was so excited about our presentation that he got out of bed at 4 the next morning to write down his thoughts and reflections.

Zhang told us, “The community newspaper is where I feel my value can be achieved.”

So the man feels that rush one gets when a successful newspaper hits the streets.  Zhang told us he’s so excited he can’t sleep.

At the coaching session this morning,  I hear more such excitement. Reporter Li Hui, a saucy education writer, tells me brightly, “I realize what I’m doing is important for my town, for my society, for China.”

Why am I so excited about this start-up? Because we believe it represents the future of Chinese journalism. And we’re not alone. There is big money and big government that is interested too.

We learn that in this province of Henan, there are about 144 cities this size (roughly the size of Durham, N.C.) Multiply that times 32 (the number of provinces) and that gives you the approximate number of Chinese cities that are potential markets for community newspaper start-ups.

Before the Golden Edition, there was no local newspaper. Well…there is the party paper, but I am told nobody pays much attention to it.

When the Golden Edition first hit the streets in late May, Mr. Yuan tells us, “People called in, wanting to subscribe. But we told them, it’s free! And they couldn’t believe it!”

For the small staff, Delivering the free weekly 30,000 is a daunting challenge — but one they relish.

From the publisher down to the greenest reporter, the Golden Edition staff individually hand delivers many of the papers to their readers, make one to one contacts along the way.

Mr. Yuan tells us, “It helps the journalists connect with their community. We got very positive feedback,” adding with obvious pride.  “The first time, (the paper came out) people said, ‘what is this?’ and when the second edition came out, people saw us coming and said, ‘Hey, here comes the paper!’”

Music to any publisher’s ears.

And to mine too.

Long live the Deng Feng Golden Edition!

Prof Karen (Chen Kai), front row, left, and I join the staff of the Deng Feng Golden Edition is a group photo. Publisher Yuan, center, joins me in the salute to this pioneering community newspaper. (Photo by Li Tao)

Prof Karen (Chen Kai), front row left, and I join the staff of the Deng Feng Golden Edition in a group photo. Publisher Yuan, center, joins in the salute to this pioneering community newspaper. (Photo by Li Tao)

Do I like Justin Beiber?

June 3rd, 2013

Our intrepid traveler is three weeks into a month of lecturing at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.” Herein  follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.

JL with the kids from the J-school at Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing.(Li Ren photo)

JL with the kids from the J-school at Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing.(Li Ren photo)

 

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of classes, lectures, workshops and working power-dinners.  Unforgettable vignettes jump out from my Reporter’s Notebook like a slide-show:

Click: Following a two-hour presentation and PowerPoint about U.S. Community Journalism, a boy in the back of the big lecture hall raises his hand and asks his question.  Do you like Justin Beiber?” And after the laughter has subsided, he continues, unabashed, “What music do you like? What’s your favorite book? And movies?” I love this line of questioning, and answer in order: “Jazz, Henry Kissinger’s book, “ON CHINA,” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” Heads nod in appreciation.

Click:  I have been asked to give a lecture on the Social Responsibilities of the Community Photojournalist. Today’s lecture is held in a large, brightly lit TV studio packed with at least 200 students, faculty and the deans. In the back is a humongous yellow-on-China-Red banner screaming: “SWUPL Extends a Warm Welcome to Professor Jock Lauterer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” It’s a China thing, my host tells me. Banners are customary, and making them is big business in town. They also surprised me when they trotted out a young woman who appeared to be their reigning campus beauty queen who presented me with an oversized bouquet of flowers. A first, for the ol’ perfesser. The lecture itself was a huge success, until halfway through, I realized that one of the photographs in my collection is the iconic shot from the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square 1989— the photograph of the lone demonstrator standing in front of, and facing down, a line of tanks. I had about two seconds to make the call: this was the wrong place at the wrong time to show that image and make a scene. Later — in another setting, to another audience — perhaps. But not now, not today. The image flashed on the screen for a mere second; and I think I saw one of the deans in the front row respond with a startled look of recognition; I can’t be sure about that. But she seemed to be the only one who had spotted it. Instantly, I dumped that PowerPoint and turned to a Plan B, and competed the lecture without incident, feeling an odd mix of elation and the urge to go back to the hotel and wash my hands.

A banner! Flowers! a beauty queen! What's not to love? (Photo courtesy of SWUPL)

A banner! Flowers! a beauty queen! What’s not to love? (Photo courtesy of SWUPL)

 

Click: The auditorium at Southwestern University across town in Chongqing is packed to the rafters with at least 200 kids. The topic is New Media and the U.S. Newspaper Industry, which lets me talk about the impact of social media. And when we get to the topic of blogs and blogging, I asked the students, “How many of you have your own blog?” And fully one half of the audience raised their hands! “Who pays you for your work?” I asked. They all stared back and shook their heads. “So you do if for free?” Yes, they nodded as if one. “Then, why do you do it?” I asked. And some of the responses were memorable: “ I do it because it lets me express myself,” said one girl. “Another student said, “I do it to communicate for my own interest.” And another: “I want to share my ideas with others. It’s an expression of yourself.” And finally a serious young man said, “I want to explain my views, share my life and accentuate democracy.” Sounds like free speech to me.

Click: After another lecture, I am in a taxi with one of the J-school faculty members who challenges me out of the blue. Her question relates to the New York Times reporter who this year won a Pulitzer for exposing a corrupt Chinese leader high up in the government.  She wanted to know, had I read the story — and more importantly, how could we know that the story wasn’t fabricated and a pack of lies? I was flummoxed, for I had to confess that I had NOT read the story, but was quick to tell her I knew OF the story. And most importantly that I TRUSTED the NYT. Because in our media system, if a reporter fabricates, fakes or embellishes a story, especially one of such heft and weight, he or she will be found out, exposed and busted. That led to a marvelous conversation about media veracity, credibility and trust — during which time I was told, “Trust is something that is in great scarcity in China.”

This was a tough room, full of seasoned journalists. (Jock Lauterer photo)

This was a tough room, full of seasoned journalists. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

Click: The toughest crowd yet was yesterday’s workshop with working journalists from Chongqing’s three major metro daily newspapers. These were not dewy-eyed students yearning for careers as famous TV anchors. These journalists were the sort you find in newsrooms the world over: seasoned professionals, worldy-wise and difficult to impress, and who knew how to bang out a story on deadline. But now their upper-level management was telling them to change their style; there was this new thing called Community Journalism, and that they were going to have to change and adapt to something new and perhaps even threatening and unsettling. Yesterday’s session reminded me of a similarly challenging workshop from years ago back in the U.S. where I had been asked to lead a workshop on Community Journalism for reporters at a major metro daily paper. To put it succinctly, it did not go well. All the way through the presentation the reporters sat dutifully in a dimly-lit dungeon-like room unsmiling, glaring at me, as if to say, “Are you DONE yet?! We’ve got more important things to do than to listen to your drivel.”  But I get the last laugh: it’s 10 years later and now Warren Buffett owns their paper. Welcome to Community Journalism, boys. Did we succeed yesterday with the hard-bitten journalists from Chongqing? As my Chinese hosts have taught me to say philosophically, “Who knows?”

Images, both lost and found

May 31st, 2013

Our intrepid traveler is two weeks into a month of lecturing at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.” Herein  follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.

His gloves were what first attracted my attention. (Jock Lauterer photo)

His gloves were what first attracted my attention. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

 

Every photographer is haunted by the pictures he or she has missed.

Whether by laziness or ineptitude, these  ghostly images imprint themselves maddeningly on the inner eye like some silly tune you can’t get out of your mind.

So it was with the abacus woman. There she was — in the doorway of her shop, the light just so, as she used this ancient device to do her sums.

Yes, I had a camera with me, of course, but it was in my backpack. Useless. And my mind was elsewhere; I had come to the store to purchase a desk lamp. It was only after I walked out of the store and was halfway back to the hotel that I realized, The Abacus Lady— there she was, indelibly imprinted on my inner-eye. A photograph I should have made.

For another five minutes I berated myself for my creative sloth. And then, I finally convinced myself to Turn Around and Go Back, you big goober.

Of course. She was gone. Gone too was the abacus, and the light, and the magic moment with it, now taunting me.

Leaving the store a second time, now feeling flat and deflated, I promised myself to not return to the hotel until I had made up for the gaffe. I would stay out until I had made a photograph worthy of the one I’d botched.

After wandering around the market area for a long while, I was about to give up, when I passed a primitive wooden pull-cart I had photographed yesterday. It had been the workman’s frayed gloves that had attracted me, as they lay there beside his wicker baskets, the glove fingers work-worn and holey.

I had wondered, what sort of man wore these gloves? Certainly a hard-working old soul, for sure.

That’s when I spotted him: an old man, by his look and gait many years my senior. Yet steady in his gaze and purpose as he went about his task of picking up trash and stray bits of wilted lettuce from the sidewalk and depositing these items in his baskets.

This photograph was not going to get away from me, I vowed. But how to capture the candid photo without giving myself away? For there I was — the only white dude I’d seen in two weeks in Chongqing — and bald-headed too! When I go around town, everybody looks; I’m sort of like a walking lighthouse. So anonymity here is a definite challenge.

Luckily today, I’d worn a black hat to cover my head, as well as a black T-shirt, which helped to mute the black camera’s presence. I camped out on a bench in the direction where I knew the old man must drag his cart — but far enough away so as not to around his suspicion.  And I waited.

Pre-setting the camera’s exposure controls and placing the camera innocently on one knee. I wondered how could I pull off this shot?  I’d only get one chance.

During the summer of ’98 when I served as a faculty fellow at National Geographic Magazine, the great Nat Geo photographers taught me the secret of capturing such amazing moments: become boring, they told me.  Become invisible.

But how am I going to do that in China, where I could not look more different from the locals even if I tried?!

Then it struck me: Do what everybody else is doing! Talk. And talk on your cell phone. Even if you don’t have anyone to really talk TO!

Pulling out my phone, I began jabbing buttons and chattering away absently, all the while keeping a wary eye on the old trashman, who appeared about ready to head my way with his heavy load.

Then here he came.

I pretended to look away in disinterest, jabbering away gaily to my imaginary friend, as the old man walked directly in front of me with his pull-cart.

Without looking at the camera, I carefully squeezed the shutter release button, uttering a silent prayer to the gods of photography. Please, let it be!

Did I get the image?

Ah….yessssss.

And the haunting image of the Abacus Woman suddenly evaporated — vanished — forever exorcised.

The gods of photojournalism were kind to me today. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The gods of photojournalism were kind to me today. (Jock Lauterer photo)

One thousand words from Chongqing

May 31st, 2013
Cow stomach, rabbit intestines, pig throat and eels — bring it on! (Jock Lauterer photo)

Cow stomach, rabbit intestines, pig throat and eels — bring it on! (Jock Lauterer photo)

HOT POT

Pride in place runs deep here. If you haven’t had Chongqing hot pot, then you haven’t had hot pot, my Sichuan trio of students tell me. And the mention of Beijing or Shanghai is liable to result in a sneer and a frown. Hot pot — literally a pot of boiling spicy brothy soup into which you then dunk with your chopsticks anything and everything — is considered Chongqing’s signature dish. Something there is about the experience that harkens back to ancient times.  Farmers, herdsmen, shepherds, hunkered down around a campfire, a massive cast iron pot bubbling on the open flame, and into the mix they toss whatever they have been able to scrounge — meat, vegetables, spices, fish…The modern version is far more sophisticated, but nonetheless, there still resonates the hardscrabble past in this open fire cooking done at each table. Eat what we eat, my band of angels challenges me. So I figured, “When in Rome, do as…” and I did as I was bade, including some firsts: cow stomach, duck entrails and pig throat. Now, maybe it was the excellent company, the fine view out the window of the River Jia Ling or the terrific Chinese local brew, but I found CQ hot pot to be excellent — and unforgettable.

Looks like a party to me.

Looks like a party to me. (Jock Lauterer photo)

 

NOT A PARTY

At the hot pot restaurant across from campus, a happy rowdy crowd of grad students is partying. No, my host tells me. This is not a party. To the Chinese, this is only “a gathering.” But it sure looks, sounds and feels like a party — and a joyous one at that. When I offer to make their photograph, this is the result. Par-TAY!

 

Hunkered down all day in his dusty sandles, to me, this laborer is an artisan. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Hunkered down all day in his dusty sandals, to me, this laborer is an artisan. (Jock Lauterer photo)

ROCKMASON

 

I’ve built a few rock walkways in my day. So i know the feel of the cement under my fingernails. The call of the right stone. The sweet monotony of one-thing-after-another. The mind is freed while the hands do the thinking. But here i am tutored by the sight of a simple laborer, hunkering, as i surely cannot, day-long on the sidewalk repairing a gas line ditch. He works with such concentration and ferocity, the rubber hammer telling each stone to get it right, that i must watch and stare. The supervisor grows nervous and demands what am i doing? A passing student who speaks English explains. I am admiring their work. The supervisor’s face, a sunburnt mask, does not change. The laborer i photographed flashes a shy grin.

 

"No blood, no foul" seems to be the rules of the game here. (Jock Lauterer photo)

“No blood, no foul” seems to be the rules of the game here. (Jock Lauterer photo)

BBALL in CQ

If anyone is curious about the Yao Ming effect over here, you have to look no further than the campus of SWUPL (Southwest University of Political Science and Law) where on this sunny Sunday afternoon an intramural championship game rages between the greens vs. the yellows. Let me be plain, this is peddle-to-the-metal streetball, and these dudes are taking it to each other. The refs, whistles limp in their lips, stand by idly, in spite of the physicality of the contact. Apparently the rule is, “no blood, no foul.” And another thing that is different, the game is accompanied by raucous pop music blaring over a PA system set up just to punctuate and accentuate the action. Sort of like Midnight with Roy, only 9,000 miles away. I had to stop myself from hollering. GO HEELS!

The boy in the ‘Make Love Not War’ T-shirt

May 28th, 2013

Our intrepid traveler is two weeks into a month of lecturing at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.” Herein  follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.

"Anna" and I engage in a spirited discussion about journalism ethics. (Photo by Li Ren)

“Anna” and I engage in a spirited discussion about journalism ethics. (Photo by Li Ren)

 

The boy in the Make Love Not War T-shirt has a question.

And he’s not the only one.

During this morning’s lecture on journalism ethics in the U.S., I challenged the class to take notes (which they had not been doing) and to be prepared to turn in written questions that my lecture had raised.

Turns out they were paying attention after all.

How does a reporter handle the temptation to fabricate?

What do you do when an advertiser pressures you to give him or her some special coverage in the paper?

In your obligation to pursue the truth, and you anger a source with a negative story, don’t you put your family in harm’s way?

What are the difference between our countries relative to business and corporate privacy laws?

These tough questions demanded good answers, and I gave it my best shot.

What I loved about his morning’s class was this: the typical Chinese college classroom is nothing like most American college classrooms.

First of all, there is no AC, so the temperature today was so hot it was stupefying. Kids sat there looking stoned, fanning their faces with their notepads. I knew it would take something special to make today’s lesson get through.

Secondly, in the typical Chinese college classroom, there is no flexibility in the seating arrangement. It’s a formal stage-and-auditorium setting.

Chairs are all bolted down in rows, where the students sit like groundlings, and the professor sits like royalty behind a raised desk where he or she usually stays to deliver the lecture. The students sit silently while the teacher lectures. Snore.

The typical teaching model appears to be “the sage on the stage” as opposed to my favorite Socratic teaching method of “the guide by the side.”

So in today’s class, I attempted to break the mold. After all, I didn’t come 9,000 miles just to hear my jaws flap. I wanted these kids to engage!

First I ran the idea past Prof Li for his blessing. Thanks to his enthusiastic and receptive response, we put our plan into action.

After 45 minutes of Powerpoint (which is enough to send anyone to the next dimension), we broke up into small teams of 4-6 kids for group discussion, and then we let them chatter away for 10 minutes or so.

Then we took up the written questions. Put them in a hat, and drew random pieces of paper out of the hat, and read them aloud, and I answered them ,one by one.

So maybe it was a little like a TV game show — but in my experience, there’s nothing wrong with a little “stagecraft” when it comes to enlivening an otherwise boring lecture.

Did we succeed? I can only hope. At the end of the two hours my shirt was soaked through with sweat. Perhaps that is not a bad indicator. If nothing else, I get an ‘A’ for effort.

Dr. Henry Kissinger and CHINA 101

May 27th, 2013

Our intrepid traveler is two weeks into a month of lecturing at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.” Herein  follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.

 

Same as it ever was: newspaper readers all over the world. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Same as it ever was: newspaper readers all over the world. (Jock Lauterer photo)

On this rainy Saturday in old Chongqing my host students take me to visit an ancient restored village on the banks of the muddy Jia Liang River.

Ciqikou dates back to 1527 — just to put things in perspective, that’s before Jamestown or the Lost Colony!

When you’ve got a civilization that dates back 5,000 years and a country that really cannot trace its exact date of origin, (unlike ours, to July 4, 1776), then the traveler has to stop and take notice.

Of course they celebrate 1949 as the birth of the People Republic of China. But that’s just one more reigning administration in the long, bloody and violent narrative of this country.

I heard this quote (and wish I could I cite my source!) …that, “China has had wars that lasted longer than the official history of the U.S.!”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, whose amazing book, “ON CHINA,” is a must-read for any aspiring China scholar, writes that China’s origins are so clouded in ancient history that the nation just always…WAS.

Which explains a lot, actually. Like the ancient name for the country…the Middle Kingdom.

Not middle, as in “between a superior and an inferior place.” But middle as in: the country to which all others are inferior! Middle as in “The center of the universe.”

Of course it is 2013 now, and China has joined what we call the “community of nations,” but the residue of the past is never far away here.

And then factor in that the Chinese have no concept of “community,” as do we in America. For the Chinese, “community” connotes only a statistical geographic area. There is no warm-fuzzy inclusive connotation to the term, at all. So even the term, “the community of nations,” has a very, very different meaning to the Chinese.

Appreciating this This China-centric worldview has been the single biggest aid in my trying to understand this complex land — and more importantly, our relationship to China. Our, as in, the U.S.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explains it this way: “China is in its own category — too big to ignore, too repressive to embrace, difficult to influence, and very, very proud.”

Yesterday on our tour of the ancient village, one of the Chinese journalism students asked me what was my goal for this summer’s trip to China? In response, I remembered what Kissinger said, and I repeated it to her:

“The U.S. and China…need each other, because both are too large to be dominated, too special to be transformed…and too necessary to each other to afford isolation…. Beyond that, are common purposes attainable? And to what end?”

I believe that our common purpose is to advance the cause of Community Journalism in China, and that my higher purpose here is to help sow the seeds of community newspapers and then to nurture that growth any way I can.

How blessed I am to be joined by Chinese students and colleagues in that common purpose!

I have to believe that Albright and Kissinger would approve.

Delivery day: the proof is in the pudding

May 26th, 2013

Our intrepid traveler is two weeks into a month of lecturing about Community Journalism at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught Community Journalism at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.”  Herein follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.

The delivery staff from the Huixing Journal gathers in the square for a team picture. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The delivery staff from the Huixing Journal gathers in the square for a team picture. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Newspaper delivery day! Ah, this is where the rubber meets the road. And as an old newsboy, the phrase still stirs me to my roots.

Today I accompany Prof. Li’s students as they hand-deliver the new (fourth) edition of their community newspaper.

The Huixing Journal gets its name from the neighborhood surrounding their university, a collection of high-rise apartment complexes, busy public squares and wide inviting sidewalks facing open-fronted shops catering to the mix of residents, faculty and students. So in a sense, it has the vibe of Franklin Street, Chapel Hill’s main college drag.

Meeting in the main square, the students erect a banner proclaiming the name of the paper, and then set out on their routes by foot. However, when we get to the gate of the main apartment complex, the students must first chat-up the suspicious guard, which Dong (“Betty”) does with great charm and skill. And just like that, we are in!

Karlla and Betty work their magic with the apartment complex guard. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Karlla and Betty work their magic with the apartment complex guard. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Once in the wooded gardens that line the path between the apartment towers, I watch with admiration as the students approach each resident, hand him or her a copy of the newspaper and engage them in a personal conversation. No hit-and-run delivery this!

There’s Karlla handing a paper to a young mother, explaining what the paper is, who the students are, why they are doing the paper, and also that it is FREE. This is important because many residents, I’m told, are wary of a scam.

While some residents wave the students off, most are receptive, even to the point of stopping what they are doing and reading the paper right then and there.

I am totally impressed with this one-on-one, journalist-to-reader style of newspaper distribution. It strikes me as so personal and intimate that I can’t help thinking – hey, we ought to adopt this practice with the VOICE in Durham!

Later, another guard stops our little delivery crew, but again Betty schmoozes him into submission, and off we go again. She is fearless! No doubt a great career awaits this woman.

The staff of the Huixing Journal uses a highly personal form of Reporter-to-reader hand delivery. Mr. Joke is impressed. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The staff of the Huixing Journal uses a highly personal form of reporter-to-reader direct delivery. Mr. Joke is impressed with how student editor, Betty, at right, handles the interaction so naturally. (Jock Lauterer photo)

SERVING A DUAL PURPOSE

Like the Carrboro Commons and the Durham VOICE, the Huixing Journal has a dual purpose — of not only informing and entertaining a neighborhood largely underserved by the existing media — but also of serving as a teaching and learning tool.

The newspapers Prof. Li and I produce are both putting Ernest Boyer’s “theory into practice” by getting the students out of the classroom and into the streets.

Out here, in the real world, real decisions have real consequences— and that’s when students learn effectively.

Both of us, 9,000 miles apart, face myriad challenges. And my problems are miniscule, me thinks, compared to those confronting Prof. Li and his courageous kids. In a country with a state-run media system, a newspaper without a government number (read: license) is basically an outlaw, illegal practice, and subject to severe punishment.

However, the Huixing Journal flies under the radar as  “class material.” And since it carries no advertisements, it is not considered a “real” newspaper.

This is precisely the case with our Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE too, neither of which carry ads and can’t be called “real” newspapers. It’s understood:  these are “lab newspapers,” produced by university students under faculty supervision as a teaching device designed to make journalism education come alive and be more relevant.

All the same, the results of a lab paper can be the same. And an erroneous or controversial story in a lab paper can have the same impact as an erroneous or controversial story in a so-called “real” newspaper.

We call such speedbumps, “teachable moments.”

And with this edition of the Huixing Journal, just such a “moment” occurred!

The lead story about street pollution (smoke and grease) created by the neighborhood’s pop-up sidewalk cooking stalls got some push-back when an angry shop-owner phoned Prof. Li, accusing the paper of getting the interview with him under false pretenses.

The reporter who interviewed him did not identify herself as a newspaper reporter, he objected. He said he thought he was just speaking with a random student about the issue of local pollution, and that he wasn’t told that he could be quoted directly in the press.

Ouch!

Prof Li, who fielded the phone call, promised quick action. And the very next day, he and the student-reporter went in person to apologize to the shop-owner, who was so impressed that he invited them to do a follow-up interview with him about his attempts to improve the pollution situation.

Problem solved, lesson learned and local news source satisfied.

"Ivy" hands out the papers and the Huixing Journal attracts the attention of a young reader. (Jock Lauterer photo)

“Ivy” hands out the papers, and the Huixing Journal attracts the attention of a young reader. (Jock Lauterer photo)

WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?

One of Prof. Li’s students, Wang Jingyi, who calls herself “Jeannie,” explained to me why the Huixing Journal, in spite of its obstacles, is so valuable.

“What we’re doing (may be) Mission Impossible,” she told me, “because the Huixing Journal wants to be a glue that connects people together…because people here have a weak sense of community, we want to devote our efforts to helping them feel together. This goal is our mission of launching the Huixing Journal.”

Way to go, kids.

 

Images from Chongqing

May 25th, 2013

Mr. Joke Returns to China

Our traveler returns to China this summer for a month of teaching, lecturing and learning at industry and university sites in Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing. Last summer, during his Fulbright to Beijing, he was once introduced to a formal conference as “Mr. Joke,” a moniker that has stuck. Following is the record of Mr. Joke’s reprise.

The Red Tent

Photo by Jock Lauterer

The China Red Tent

Every night in old “CQ” the people take to the streets. Even in this Seattle-Portland-like drizzle, they will not be deterred. Sidewalk cafes sprout like mushrooms, sheltered from the rain by bright red canopies. A single diner, her umbrella hanging from the rafters and chopsticks in hand, takes her repast, silhouetted by a bare lightbulb.

 

The Bridge Over the River Jia Ling

Looming out of the fog like the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur, the bridge soars out over water and thin air — the cantilevered construction project daring gravity and mass with its frozen leap of concrete and steel — dwarfing tiny figures of workers, while distant apartment towers on the far shore appear hauntingly through the mist.

Photo by Jock Lauterer

Photo by Jock Lauterer

Life at The Take It Easy and Don’t Worry About Anything Hotel

May 25th, 2013

Mr. Joke Returns to China

Our traveler returns to China this summer for a month of teaching, lecturing and learning at industry and university sites in Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing. Last summer, during his Fulbright to Beijing, he was once introduced to a formal conference as “Mr. Joke,” a moniker that has stuck. Following is the record of Mr. Joke’s reprise.

The staff of the Take It Easy and Don't Worry About Anything Hotel get warmed up for a day's work. (Jock Lauterer photo)

The staff of the Take It Easy and Don’t Worry About Anything Hotel get warmed up for a day’s work. (Jock Lauterer photo)

I am staying at a delightful little mid-town hotel in our neighborhood of Huixing (whee-SHING) where my third-floor room overlooks a garden three floors below. Each time I ask for the translation of the hotel’s name I get a different answer. I like them all:

The Heart’s Rest Hotel

The Heart is So Relaxed Hotel

The Comfort Hotel

The Take It Easy and Don’t Worry About Anything Hotel.

In any event, my accommodations are serenely protected from the hurly-burly of Baosheng Road’s rushing traffic. And since my spacious window-wall faces due north, i am treated to artist’s loft light all day, never any direct sunlight.

No one speaks English at the Heart’s Rest Hotel, but the eager staff wants to learn. Every morning at breakfast, along with my noodles and coffee, i am peppered with little notes in delightful Chinglish. Here’s what the front-office women left me today.

“The noodles isn’t good this morning?

We all love you

No thank you!

You can teach us something simple

May you have every day of happiness”

See? What’s not to love? They have consulted their front office computer for translations and are writing me notes every morning before their daily speech and warm-up out in the lobby: waitstaff, cooks in tall white hats and the front office women assemble out front and get their daily pep talk and finish with a rousing song.

Everywhere the clash of culture. Over the hotel PA system plays an elevator music version of Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sound of Silence,” while outside on the sidewalk a Chinese drum band plays BOOM BOOM BOOM, (pause), BOOM BOOM BOOM in an ancient type of percussion: each musician, dressed in flaming Chinese red and waving red wrist-scarves, beats a small oval drum worn strapped around the waist. I’m told it the practice comes from Xanxi Province and it dates back to the time of Jesus. That’s China today.