Preview: How do you get to Maine?

The answer is something along the lines of what you see above — or at least that’s what Beth and I will be doing. Each green point represents a stop we’ll be making on the way up to Maine.

Keep in mind, this is a four day road trip so the drives aren’t excruciatingly long. Plus, I’ll be blogging each night, so follow along right here and on Twitter at @zach_murdock to read stories and pictures from our cross-country adventure.

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.

Budget Debate

I’m tweeting throughout the afternoon with some updates from the debate going on in the Missouri House today. Representatives are discussing amendments to a budget proposed by Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, among other bills.

From the documents I’ve seen online, the most relevant amendment to my UM System coverage is an amendment to the system’s $360 million in proposed state support (section 3.210). If approved, the amendment would knock about $4 million off that state funding.

Follow me on Twitter for more info as it becomes available.

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.

Offseason wrap up

At the beginning of the fall semester I wrote a short piece about what it meant to finally have my shot at the Missourian, and I wanted to make it count. And hell, after more than 40 bylines, a theatre agreement, performance funding and a new UM System president, I think I’ve made the first impression I laid out in that original post.

But a new year brings a new semester and a new set of challenges, and it’s time to get right back at it.

All of the lessons I learned over my first semester at the Missourian were really just the foundation and basic structure of what I’d like to do as a professional journalist and writer — like a Phase 1 of the “Missouri Method” we were promised as freshmen.

But after the first reporting class for the Missourian, the method isn’t based so much structure as it is opportunity.

I’m taking Advanced Reporting this semester (and have the distinct privilege of staying on the higher education beat, which means I get to keep all those sources I’ve come to know so well) which is essentially enterprise reporting 101. It’s all the same newsroom resources without all the general assignment strings attached and that freedom will give me the chance to take on longer, more challenging pieces within the higher ed beat.

There’ll be more investigation, more analysis, bigger issues and harder hitting reporting. I’ll have more time to settle in to a big work and make it a reporting masterpiece.

So after a semi-hiatus from (almost) all things work this winter break, I’ll be back in Columbia Saturday to get to work on “what’s next.”

On the slate now are a few things I can talk about, and a couple of things I want to keep secret (for now).

Obviously UM System tuition increases will dominate the coming weeks, but I want to get a good jump on one of my secret ideas and hopefully have something really substantial out in the next four or five weeks.

Issues like e-Learning, the system retirement plan and even (dare I say) an MU diversity course requirement could be major players in 2012.

But not to get ahead of myself, what’s most important is to plug back in to the Columbia community and settle down for what should be the most challenging — and hopefully satisfying — semester I’ve had yet.