Taking a chance to rest

It’d be difficult to condense everything I’ve learned this semester into a simple, coherent article.

For the past 15 weeks, I’ve spent virtually every minute of every day learning: Learning to manage reporters in the newsroom, learning HTML markup, learning to work as a group on a tight deadline. It’s been a difficult road, but this has easily been the most rewarding semester I’ve had on campus.

I’m still married to the Columbia Missourian, working as an assistant city editor for Elizabeth Brixey and the education team. As a group of nearly 20 reporters, we’ve had our ups and downs. Whether it’s been writing tough corrections or conquering difficult stories, the team has been there for each other and taught me volumes about becoming a better writer, editor and leader.

In another challenge, working with Tom Warhover and Jacqui Banaszynski for our capstone project was a tremendous experience learning to define a group objective, set realistic goals and work cohesively to actually move an idea forward. And it seems our class idea for a symposium is even gaining some traction with important people (who have money).

Not to mention that I’ve learned a thing or two about HTML/CSS coding and public speaking — skills that’ll make me a better journalist and both of which I’ve written about before.

Taking on a full class schedule and editing has been daunting, but it was worth every ounce of personal and professional experience. I suppose it makes this winter break even more soothing, especially with graduation day looming over next semester.

Apologies for burying the lead, but I’m also pleased to announce that I know my plans for next summer. Following my graduation in May, I have the opportunity to take my dream internship and return to my hometown.

For 10 weeks I’ll be a metro desk intern at The Kansas City Star, where I’ll be covering the city I grew up in, writing general assignment stories long and short (maybe even for the front page). It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and I couldn’t be more honored to write for the newspaper I grew up reading.

First things first, though. In the spring I’ll return to a full slate of classes — including Investigative Reporting with Mark Horvit — and another semester as an assistant city editor for the education team.

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Coding from scratch

It ain’t the prettiest site, but for my first effort, I’m proud of how well it works.

I’m proud to show off my full-fledged attempt at creating a website from scratch.

It’s my variation on my Multimedia Planning and Design assignment to create a “Welcome to the SEC” website based on some of the content from the Columbia Missourian’s terrific Road to the SEC special section, put together in advance of MU’s inaugural football season in the Southeastern Conference.

Check it out, the site is live.

It’s my first foray into building from a blank slate to a fully-functional website with inside pages, media and CSS styling. We were given content for two schools, LSU and Florida, and an introduction story, then told to create something that follows HTML/CSS and journalistic design rules.

The whole thing was a real challenge, from storyboarding to execution, and it was crucial that I pace myself and work within my own limits. This design was born of a compromise between my coding capabilities and my desire to do this great content justice.

My favorite part of the site is an old-school HTML technique, called an image map, that I used as navigation to the individual schools’ profiles from the splash page. Basically, the code identifies certain areas of an image file (this time a map of SEC schools I created) clickable. By identifying the X and Y coordinates of the LSU Tiger and UF Gator logos, I was able to create a circular area with a radius of 50 pixels that essentially makes each logo a button to link you to each profile.

A look at the code associated with my image map with the “Inspect Element” feature on Google Chrome.

It’s pretty simple, but it was a cool effect for a rookie like me.

On the inside pages I made sure to play up a large lead photo and let the story flow underneath the important fast facts info. Plus, the school’s logos appear again as navigation from profile page to profile page.

The project was a good start and I had fun working through the kinks and bouncing ideas off my classmates and friends. Despite the headaches, I’m starting to feel comfortable with HTML, stylesheets and thoughtful web design.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll ditch this WordPress CMS for my own from-scratch site.

Education and the Saturday night grocery run

I had a profound moment at the grocery store this past Saturday night.

I don’t usually do my best thinking at Gerbes, but on my way through the checkout line I had the chance to chat with the guy who helped me sack my groceries. I had a small window to leave the conversation and get back to things that I thought were important when I decided to stop and hear him out. And I’m glad I did.

He mentioned that he’d wanted to get to school but had turned it down, so I simply asked him, “What do you mean?”

Well, it turns out he’d gotten a scholarship to an area community college to take his basic classes, but knew he wouldn’t be able to afford school beyond that.

“It’s just a flawed system,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to fight for scholarships, be born rich or take on debt with student loans to get an education.”

I can’t help but agree and I know there a lot of people feel the same way, so this wasn’t shocking. But as he went on, though, he said something that really struck me:

“I got a scholarship to MACC and I thought I could go there and get my basics out of the way,” he tells me. But getting my basics isn’t enough anymore.”

What a fascinating way to look at the current state of higher education. That’s something the Missourian would call “framing,” where we take a look at an issue or an article through a certain lens and/or from a certain perspective. Ideally to approach something in a fresh, revealing way.

Although he had obviously read plenty about education and knew his stuff, the real truth for this young grocery store employee was that his ambitions to be an IT professional are on hold because “getting the basics” isn’t enough — and that’s all he can afford.

I just thought it was powerful that given the chance to share, this young man had something really honest to say that I hadn’t considered as an education reporter and editor. Perhaps taking a long look at “the basics” is something we could tackle at the Missourian this semester.

Public speaking and course cross pollination

Only one of my classes this semester is not in the journalism track.

And Public Speaking 1200H is exactly as it sounds — designed to seek out and destroy the fear of speaking in front of groups large or small, and I’m finding it really applicable to the things I’m already doing as an Assistant City Editor.

So maybe I’m not giving speeches like Patton’s, but public speaking is still important to my role as an editor.

It’s not like public speaking is new to me.

The other week I spoke to a group of a couple dozen students about how to get an internship as part of a panel put on the MU chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association. Plus, I regularly speak in front of the Missourian’s newsroom full of reporters and editors and I’ve made presentations in front big classes before.

In fact, I’ve spent the last four years speaking publicly about the news and journalism behind my print byline, on my Twitter and Facebook, and right here on this blog.

So I guess it’s no surprise that learning how to be a clearer, more engaging speaker is proving to be incredibly useful for helping manage the newsroom while I’m a general assignment Assistant City Editor.

It goes toward the same kinds of skills I talked about in my last post, “Managing Down,” and my ability to work well as part of a team. I may not have to give Patton’s speech to the Third Army, but I have to be well-spoken enough to communicate clearly and thoughtfully off-the-cuff when I’m talking to reporters and other editors.

I just think it’s refreshing to see the work I’m putting into non-journalism classes paying off in the newsroom (no offense, Honors Middle Ages and Renaissance literature course).

Let’s just hope I never have to repeat the ethics and plagiarism speech I’m slated to give in the Public Speaking class to any reporters.

Managing down

In my new gig at the Columbia Missourian, there’s plenty to learn.

Despite my semester as a copy editor, I’m getting a whole new crash course in giving articles a first edit as an assistant city editor. What questions do I need to ask the reporter and what’s the priority for getting through an evening filled with copy? How do I edit a crime brief without convicting a suspect with sloppy sentences?

On top of it all, I’m having to learn a totally new way of managing all the new responsibilities.

Of course, over two semesters reporting from this newsroom I’ve had to learn a few things about handling more than myself.

My editor, Elizabeth Brixey, calls it “managing up.” Jacqui Banaszynski talks about the same thing in an essay and calls the practice “the care and feeding” of editors and writers.

Managing up is tough and it takes a keen understanding of how to work with your editor to communicate clearly and effectively, especially when the piece your managing is a massive project or vital breaking news.

But what I’ve found I’m struggling with most is keeping up with everyone on our education team. “Managing down,” as it were, is a whole different beast entirely.

It’s a challenge to stay on top of my responsibilities and helping Liz manage an education team of 20 reporters means dealing with a lot of different writing styles, personalities and levels of confidence. With everyone so eager to get published (which is a fantastic thing, by the way), I’m having to find all new ways to manage my time in and out of the newsroom.

There are still times when I have to manage up to Liz or when I’m on my general assignment editing shift with Katherine Reed, but I’m comfortable with that. It’s learning to manage down that’s proven a tough transition for me — I feel like I’ve just learned how best to manage myself, let alone 20 others.

But that’s what makes this such valuable experience and I’m excited to see what our team can produce this fall.

The end of summer

My time in Maine comes to and end this week and it’s impossible to believe that it’s passed me by so quickly.

I neglected my blog and scaled back some from my social networks (half-heartedly, at least) into the paradise that is downeast Maine in the summer. My mentor in Columbia, Liz Brixey, calls that “being present” and it’s been worth all of the withdrawal symptoms to enjoy things a bit.

But that’s not to say I haven’t been working. Just like someone has to take out the trash every week, some papers need reporters willing to hike Acadia National Park, tackle kayaking and sailing trips, tinker at the Telephone Museum and drink tea at FDR’s summer cottage.

Oh boy, I’ve gotta road trip all over again. Three days, 1,700 miles and an awful lot crummy radio stations.

So my colleague, Abby Eisenberg, and I spent the summer documenting some of the best places to visit and things to see on the Maine coast for The Ellsworth American’s special section, called Out & About.

In all seriousness, my time with The Ellsworth American has been 10 weeks of carefully crafting sentences and learning how to draw people into my stories in compelling ways. And in a complete leap of faith, I was handed a camera and told to be my own photographer.

The whole experience has been vastly different than my other reporting jobs and that’s been a blessing and a challenge.

The summer was a good retreat from my work covering higher education for the Columbia Missourian, but it won’t be much longer until UM System press releases are again flagged for my priority inbox.

Next week, I start my new gig as an Assistant City Editor at the Missourian and I’ll be returning to help lead the education coverage with Liz (like I said, mentor).

Along with tackling a capstone and a handful of other courses, I’m going to make an effort to publish more posts on this blog and hone my writing skills.

There’s plenty of work to be done, but first I have to tackle a 1,700 mile pilgrimage  to get back home to Columbia.

What’s a guy gotta do?

**Editors note: I originally published this post on our Advanced Reporting class blog.**

Why don’t people care about tuition increases? Is it something we did? Is it something we said?

Because I’m always a little hurt when the things we’re writing about for higher education aren’t consistently on the most read list, and you never seem to hear Joy praising the analytics of the most popular “strategic financial planning and assumptions” article.

Tom told you higher education is the company in the company town. George Kennedy told you that MU is a $2 billion business and that MU’s weekly payroll is around $16 million. Hell, in Columbia, you can’t spit without hitting something funded directly (or indirectly) by higher education.

So tell me, what do we need to do get people’s attention? How do we convince people of the importance of every Board of Curators decision?

We write articles, we tweet, we blog, we make graphics, we share, we engage — I even wrote an opinion piece in December, after the announcement of the new president. At this point, I’m not sure what we haven’t tried.

But I think I know what makes the difference: I see the connection from curator to student in every decision the board makes.

For people to care, they need to see what I see. To do that I think we need to come up with something new — something very different — to get people’s attention.

But I just haven’t quite figured out what that is.

The Chronicle and how state funding is changing

This morning I spotted a very interesting read from the Chronicle of Higher Education about performance-based funding’s growing popularity among legislatures around the country.

The idea is that funding schools based on their performance in particular measures (think graduation rates, professional certificates awarded, credit hours completed, etc.) would reward the most efficient schools while squeezing the most out of every education-allocated state dollar during tough economic times.

Last fall, Missouri adopted performance measures and I covered them pretty thoroughly (and skeptically) in my reporting.

But the end of the Chronicle’s article hits on an important point that I’ve heard here in Missouri. When I spoke with UM System admin Nikki Krawitz last fall, she pointed out that the higher ed relationship goes both ways — while colleges and universities have to do more with less, the state bears plenty of responsibility to get those schools the resources they need.

Over the long term, that trend toward regulatory freedom will only increase, Mr. Reindl says, especially as the states’ shares of college budgets gets smaller. “Campuses,” he says, “are coming to lawmakers saying, If you are not going to give us as much money, should you really have the same amount of control?”

In December, UM Chancellors Leo Morton and Brady Deaton told the Board of Curators they’re under pressure from donors who feel they’re money is just supplementing state support. From my article about the December board meeting:

Deaton said several donors he has spoken with have said they will not continue to give to MU if state support keeps dwindling, specifically because they don’t want their money filling a funding gap created by the state.

Now, Missouri ranks 45 out of 50 in state funding per capita in higher education so it’s fair to say that the colleges and universities have been doing more with not just less, but nearly the least.

So without state support, what’s the future model of higher education for Missouri colleges, including the UM System? That’s, very literally, the multi-million dollar question.

The sorry state of state funding

Here’s what may be the most important excerpt from interim system president Steve Owen’s response to Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposed cuts to Missouri higher education:

“It is fair to ask how long we can continue to do more with less. After a decade of reductions in state support and implementation of operational efficiencies, we are near the point where either the level of funding will have to increase or the scope and quality of services will have to decrease.”

As proposed, the fiscal year 2013 budget would cut $89 million from four-year Missouri colleges and universities, including $55 million in cuts to the UM System budget.

This graphic shows the frightening decline of state support over the last decade and couple this with record enrollments for every year shown in the graphic. A $55 million reduction in funding for the UM System, a 13.7 percent decrease from fiscal year 2012’s gross appropriations. (Graphic credit to Nicole Thompson)

At its December meeting, the Board of Curators discussed a preliminary proposal to raise tuition and course fees the rate of inflation (except at Missouri S&T), but that plan was contingent on a state budget with unchanged appropriations for the system.

When that proposal was discussed in December, the system was already preparing to cover a $78 million gap, and with an additional $55 million to make up it seems highly likely that tuition and course fees will have to go up even more.

The board will discuss and vote on tuition increases at their next meeting, Feb. 2-3 at UMKC.

I hope to have more information over the next two weeks and I’ll be there in person to cover the tuition discussion in Kansas City.

For the latest on the system’s budget gap and what it means for tuition, course fees, deferred maintenance and employee salaries and benefits, stay tuned here, keep an eye on my Twitter, @zach_murdock, and check out columbiamissourian.com.