The end of the Master Plan

I had a girlfriend my first year of college, and she called it the Master Plan.

Whenever more work came up, she’d chalk it up to the Master Plan. When I couldn’t think or talk about anything but my reporting; yep, it’s the Plan.

What she called the Master Plan was the course I’d charted for myself to go from zero to pro in my four, short college years. It was about working at the papers in Columbia, scoring internships and beefing up my resume with references and awards. She loved to tease me about putting all my gas into this plan, and her mocking title has stuck with it ever since.

My Master Plan didn’t account for the incredible summers I spent in Maine and Utah or the Saturday night graveyard shifts in the Columbia Missourian newsroom. But the plan always ended with a shot at reporting for my hometown newspaper, The Kansas City Star.

Now I have that shot.

Today I turn 22 years old, and I couldn’t think of a better birthday present than to start the final stage of the Master Plan.

It’s an opportunity I’ve worked toward for a long time. The countless hours I poured into my work (and those initial stages of the Plan) have all built up to this summer and the chance to break in to my dream profession.

With some more hard work, I’m hoping that my short time at the Star can help further establish my reputation as a reporter and writer. When job applications come around at the end of the summer, I’ll be proud to turn in the Star’s banner atop my clips.

Maybe by the time it’s all over I’ll have charted myself a new course.

And perhaps instead of the old adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” it’ll become “When one Plan ends, another begins.”

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.

On to the next

After a week of wonderfully unplugged vacation and time with family and loved ones, it’s time to move on to the next one.

I’ve wrapped up my tenure as a higher education reporter at the Columbia Missourian after two great semesters with two great groups of reporters and my editor Liz Brixey, and now I’m headed east.

This summer I’ll be working in Ellsworth, Maine, at The Ellsworth American. I joke that it’s the Park City, Utah, (where I spent the summer after my freshman year) of the east and I couldn’t be more excited to get out there.

Maine will be a different kind of gig for me after two semesters of grinding out reporting and classes simultaneously. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun, I’ve done some very cool things and in the fall I get to return to the Missourian as an Assistant City Editor.

For now, though, it’s off to Maine which is one helluva drive. Such a drive, in fact, that I’ll be blogging the trip for The American and tweeting along the way. The first leg of the drive — and the first post — start first thing Thursday morning.

Follow the trip on this website and on Twitter at @zach_murdock.

The Internet is trying to kill me and it’s all my fault

Over break I read two very good (very different) books, but one in particular reaffirmed one of my greatest fears.

The Internet is killing my brain. And it won’t stop.

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows was one of those, “Wait, other people are feeling this too?” books, but I’m still not entirely sure that makes me feel any better.

Over the last six months especially, I’ve been feeling a change in the way I think. My thoughts seem more scattered and my ability to focus is noticeably weaker. Instead of actually reading emails or articles (or books), my attention span has been reduced to the size of a tweet or a text. I skip across the surface of web page after web page and sometimes can’t even tell you what I’ve just read.

Apparently I’m not alone. In his book, Carr reaches way back into the history of transformative technologies and neuroscience (think Gutenberg and the printing press) to explain how changing technologies have always had an effect on the way people think. And not just as a matter of changing thought patterns — he’s talking about physically altering the way the neurons in our head communicate.

As people learn new things, the brain’s neurons physically adapt to the new task by changing the way they’re “wired.” It’s called neuroplasticity, and it’s the idea that’s killing the once steadfast notion that the make up adult brain is set in stone. It’s also how the Internet may not so slowly be killing the way we think.

Learning to navigate the web’s inordinate amount of information and constant distractions means learning to handle copious amounts of stimuli (Carr goes through an undeniably accurate 30 seconds on a computer that includes the ding of a new email, a flood of new tweets, a chat notification, on and on). Information overload requires us to multitask, that’s not news. But understanding how always skittering across the surface of all of this information changes the way our different types of memory function could be essential to understanding the Internet’s influence (good or bad) on the way we think.

In an article in New York Magazine in 2009, “In Defense of Distraction,” Sam Anderson argues that the changes to our way of thinking are making us smarter in some ways but that multitasking just isn’t a viable solution to the info-overload. Instead, Anderson talked to Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt, about attention as a tool that can be practiced and wielded against the constant distractions the web insists on throwing at us. Anderson says:

For Gallagher, everything comes down to that one big choice: investing your attention wisely or not. The jackhammers (distractions) are everywhere—iPhones, e-mail, cancer—and Western culture’s attentional crisis is mainly a widespread failure to ignore them.

Instead of chalking up our lack of attention and deep thinking to changes the Internet is forcing on our brains, perhaps being successful in the new media world is really more about willpower and making responsible attention choices.

Even sitting here writing this long post I’m feeling the effects of a shorter, weaker attention span. I can’t write more than 75 or 100 words without having to look up at something else, check my phone or get up and walk around.

So this year I’m making an effort to be more aware of my focus. No more lifehacks or self-help articles. I’m going to sit down and focus. I’ll just do it, using good ol’ willpower if I must.

It’s not that I feel less intelligent with my new way of absorbing as much content as possible, but I don’t think I’m ready to let go of the “deep reading” that inspired me to become a writer in the first place. I think there’s a place for both mindsets in this new landscape and I’m investing my focus in the search for the perfect balance.

Mid-week update

This week has been a marathon already — a libel law exam, a Missourian GA shift, a sociology book review, internship applications — and this afternoon I’m headed to Kansas City for this week’s UM System Board of Curators meetings.

It’s this kind of week that gets me frustrated, not because I don’t love what I’m doing, but because in trying to juggle being a student and a reporter I miss out on stories that I know I could (and very much would) have covered if I’d had the time.

The Kansas City Star’s Mará Rose Williams was able to publish an advance that I wanted to do about the addition of a closed-session presidential search meeting to this week’s previously scheduled Board of Curators meetings. But because of my student responsibilities, my own version of this article just never made it into my top priorities and now I’m simply following up a story that’s already been read by so many people.

And I don’t mean to be making excuses.

This same kind of frustration hit me in my post “Go with your gut,” when Janese Silvey of the Columbia Daily Tribune (almost) scooped us on a big story. As a professional, she’s afforded more time to develop relationships with sources and she’s more entrenched in her beat, something we student-reporters simply cannot do in 15 weeks.

But as a competitive, hungry reporter I don’t like losing. I don’t like being second and I don’t like chasing stories after someone else has broken them. It doesn’t make the story any less important or the reporting any less valid, but there’s that old-school point of pride in being the writer that broke the story.

Even worse, it’s not a frustration I can do anything to change. No matter how organized I am or how efficient with time I become, sometimes I just cannot compete with folks who get to put every minute of their day into their reporting. And the day I can do that too just can’t come soon enough.

Jarvis and journalism, damnit

I’ve recently started following Jeff Jarvis, both on Twitter and on his blog, He’s a journalism professor and entrepreneurial journalist, and is quickly becoming one of my favorite critics of today’s institutional journalism.

In a post published on his blog Saturday, Jarvis discussed some examples that challenge the traditional definition of journalism created by the institutions that produce and define it (like our beloved Missouri School of Journalism). Jarvis argues that what we think we know about the media and it’s “rules” may not be true at all, and asks “So what is journalism, damnit?”

I’m not sure I can answer that, and Jarvis admits he doesn’t have a definition either—he says:

“But I think we need to question — not reject, but reconsider — every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner.”

So if a well-respected, extremely successful journalist (because he is by nearly all definitions but a journalist) is unable to define journalism after a lifetime of experience and having a hand in shaping the media as we know it today—what does that mean for those of us in J-School now? Is real journalism tanking the way many people say it is?

I would argue that this is the most exciting time to be involved in journalism, and that the future of the industry is really up for grabs. But, frankly, I look around at the faces in my classes here at Mizzou and I’m confident the future is in good hands.

At the Columbia Missourian, we’re trying things to advance community journalism in ways many people would never consider. At the Reynolds Journalism Institute, fellows are researching ways we can be better information stewards for the community. And as an Internet generation, my classmates and I are already better equipped to undertake the digital media revolution that’s so stumped traditional news media today.

When all is said and done, I hope I too can say I made valuable and permanent contributions to my craft and to the future of journalism.