Day #4: What Next?

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After wrapping up the last of the sessions of the Campus Coverage Project on Sunday, it was back to Sky Harbor International and a flight to JFK where yet another major snowfall awaited me. And yet, this time the 5-hour flight back to New York was different.

Falling down the rabbit hole of investigative journalism: The loud thud means you've hit it big!

Four intense days had flown by and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed for the first time in a week, but not by the usual things that make student journalists scratch their heads in frustration.

I kept wondering to myself, what next? Story ideas, which have been and will probably continue to be one of my greatest journalistic weaknesses, were suddenly clawing at me from several directions like a mob of hungry vultures.

My mind continues to race with questions. Which stories do I pursue? What happens after the FOIA request? What happens if my university is perfect? Where do I even start?

Luckily for me, my university is probably as perfect as most other massive institutions with little to no oversight. Just to clarify: I’m not hoping for some kind of scandal or inconsistency in my university, it’s just that something is bound to go amiss in a community of over 20,000 people and an institution in command of millions in funding. And that’s not cynicism talking, it’s just logic.

I like to think of journalists as flashlights that shine on the obscure or darker areas of life that remain unseen from the general public in addition to covering the obvious and the breaking, though I know of plenty other people who continue to think that journalists both start the fire and pull the alarm.

For now, I’m content with simply gathering the most I can about my university until the beginning of the semester at the end of the month. Story ideas are great, but research and reporting are even better.


Day #3: “Becoming a Student of the Interview”

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: By Day #3 of the Campus Coverage Project, we students had already found that we had more than a few things in common despite our varied geography and backgrounds.

For one thing, stonewalling administrators are very much the norm and not the exception. And for another, we were all in general agreement when it came to the comfort of the Phoenix Sheraton’s lofty beds and the eccentric likability of Eric Nalder.

Nalder, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, gave us his take on the art of the interview, or as he called it, “honest manipulation.”

According to Nalder, an interview should feel at once conversational and hypnotic, basically “a scientific penetration of the brain.” He explained to students that while the goal of any interview is to “penetrate levels of privacy,” he also stressed that reporters should not misrepresent themselves or deceive others in the process of procuring information.

“We’re in the truth business,” Nalder said. “This isn’t a business for people who are cynical, it’s for people who are skeptical.”

For someone who has cracked some of the most interesting cases in investigative journalism simply by interviewing people (often more than once and for longer than the typical lunch date), Nalder’s tactic of getting people to talk by first taking a simple chronology of their lives is much harder than it sounds.

The process involves a sort of finesse that can only be obtained by “silencing the ego.” But whose ego exactly? Well, as it turns out, yours.

It’s very much in the vein of ‘you’re your own worst enemy,’ which I can personally attest to.  I can’t remember my last interview that went “as planned,” let alone one where the person I was interviewing divulged more than I had expected—though apparently Nalder can, which is why he is the master and I am but a mere apprentice.

But as he pointed out several times over the course of his lecture, it took many years and many interviews before he “became a student of the interview.” But luckily for us, he did and the next time I have an interview you can bet that I’ll be trying out a few of his methods—albeit with varying levels of success. After all, Nalder also taught me that a little bit of serendipity is built into life, even journalism.

Day #2.5: Budgets, Databases and FOIA! Oh, My!

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After an exhausting first full day that included seven sessions over the course of 12 hours, today’s set of six sessions over 12 hours was a welcome change–or perhaps I’m just beginning to build a resistance to investigative conferences!

Pretty soon, I'll look like this!

No matter how you slice it, my brain is beginning to feel like a well-toned body of gray matter. This investigative boot camp is doing wonders for my journalistic sensibilities, as well as my general physical endurance.

Yesterday’s sessions focused on the watchdog trifecta: budgets, databases and FOIA.

Sessions like “Minding the Money” took a systematic look at higher ed institutions with a look at the cold hard cash, making use of the old Watergate adage; ‘follow the money.’

And follow it we did! All the way to federal audit clearinghouses and court record databases, most of which are available at various sites online or are a simple FOIA request away. We learned about how to avoid getting FERPA‘d and the fallacies (okay, maybe ‘fallacies’ isn’t the right word) of open records laws.

At the end of the day, I walked (more like crawled) back to my hotel feeling tired, but nevertheless, empowered! Though, empowered in a purely appropriate, non-power-hungry, journalism kind of way.

After always being told what we couldn’t do, or being constantly reminded of how low on the totem pole we are as ‘just students,’ it was nice to finally see a solution or be taken seriously by older people. Not once did any of the speakers at the conference tell us that we should drop a story because it might be too difficult or that it didn’t matter in the large scope of things.

I felt like a real journalist, learning real skills, pursuing real stories that really mattered. And you can bet that I’ll be taking back a couple things or two with me to campus next semester.

Follow me as I tweet happenings from the annual Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) @jiejennyzou.

Campus Coverage Project: Day #1

January 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Phoenix, AZ.  “It’s the best time to be in the business,” according to Manny Garcia, executive editor of El Nuevo Herald.

So for all of you naysayers who doubt the power of journalism and its ability to subsist as a shifting industry, the joke’s on you. With the advent of social media and advanced digital storytelling techniques, journalists are better equipped to break news more quickly and over a larger audience base than traditional media allows for.

The opportunities are there, and as Garcia pointed out, they belong to those with varied skill sets, as well as the personality and drive to earn the trust of sources. But most importantly, they often go to the reporters with an investigative edge. Because after all, “Watchdog sells papers and moves ratings.”

And here in Phoenix, it’s what personally drives over 75 participants in this year’s Campus Coverage Project, a co-partnered conference aimed at providing college journalists with the tools they need to sufficiently cover the institutions they attend.

After a rousing introduction from IRE’s Mark Horvit detailing an array of breaking and important work, all from college journalists, I can say without a doubt that I am pumped for whatever this weekend has in store!

Horvit discussed the pressing need for more coverage of  the massive institutions that are often responsible for large community employment, command millions of dollars in funding and are routinely overlooked. The importance of the higher education beat is important not only from an economical standpoint, but from a social context as well. As Horvit pointed out, these are the very institutions that are responsible for producing much of America’s future leaders of business and industry.

And who better to cover the university beat than university students?

Phoenix, Here I Come!

December 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Color me excited. In about two weeks’ time, I’ll be in Phoenix, Arizona, where it is 66 degrees and sunny.

Follow me as I live blog from twitter @

That’s exciting news for several reasons, the top one being the current nor’easter which is dumping an expected half foot of snow right here in New York City as I type. The same storm already staked its claim on the south this past Christmas weekend.

Winter weather woes aside, my trip to Phoenix will not simply be an opportunity to defrost and take in the sights. I’ll be one of 75 student participants in IRE’s 2011 Campus Coverage Project which will be hosted by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in downtown Phoenix. The 3-day-long conference will feature training and tips from some of the top investigative reporters in the country.

As a staff reporter and copy editor for my campus news site, The Stony Brook Independent, I’m anxious to start implementing as much I can from the conferences to my staff’s local coverage of Stony Brook University and the local Long Island area.

Guest speakers are set to include Manny Garcia from The Miami Herald and its sister publication, El Nuevo Herald, IRE’s  executive director Mark Horvit, and Ron Nixon from The New York Times.

I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the training programs they have lined up for us, which include computer-assisted reporting sessions and budgetary analysis workshops.

Check back here for more updates as I’ll be posting as much as I can during January 6-9. I’ll also be live blogging via twitter @ jiejennyzou with the hash tag #ccp2011 (or something similar along the lines to this).

Newsweek: The One That Got Away…

November 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

Only to come back.

That’s right fellow media romantics, The Daily Beast‘s Tina Brown is at it again with  Newsweek Magazine.

The Daily Beast's Tina Brown.

After parting ways just last month, the Daily Beast is finally set to merge with Newsweek, making Brown editor-in-chief of not only her feisty web aggregator child, but also head honcho at the iconic and failing weekly magazine.

Newsweek's Sidney Harman

Brown confirmed the rumors on a column on the Daily Beast, which read: “Daily Beast, Newsweek To Wed!

It’s nice to see the two crazy kids finally get past their differences and just tie the media knot already, but in case you’re interested–here’s the nitty gritty of the new deal:

  • New company to be named “Newsweek Daily Beast Company”
  • Ownership will be split 50/50 by IAC’s Barry Diller (co-founder of the Beast in 2008) and Newsweek’s Sidney Harman.
  • No word yet on what the merger will mean for Newsweek and The Daily Beast as separate entities, although the Times is reporting that both “would retain their separate identities” (whatever that means).
  • Harman will finally get an editor-in-chief for the magazine with extensive print experience and an online following (Brown was former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.)
  • IAC and the Beast have the potential to see mega-profits with the redesign of an old print favorite.

Not to split hairs, but what exactly broke up the two anyway?

Well, apparently Harman felt like he was getting squeezed out of the company during deal talks. The 92-year-old audio pioneer, who purchased the company from the Washington Post Co. for $1 this past summer, absorbed the magazine’s $71 million debt and poised to turn around the failing weekly.

Only time will tell if these two can make it work. Here’s hoping that I won’t have to return that blender.

Joel Klein: A Lesson In Media Restructuring…Sort Of

November 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

Image: Daily News

Imagine my surprise when I received this text alert from the NYTimes today at 4:29 p.m.:

“Joel L. Klein, New York City Schools Chancellor, Will Step Down, Officials Say

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banked his current third term on an education overhaul and worked closely with Klein to secure mayoral control of the massive City school system.

Klein, who has served as chancellor for eight years, is most well known for putting an end to “rubber rooms,” which were seen as a costly band-aid for reprimanding teachers, as well as ending “social promotion,” while also controversially pushing for charter schools, testing, and his disdain for teacher unions.

So why ditch out now in the middle of Bloomberg’s term?

The Los Angeles Times reports that Klein is leaving his close partnership with New York’s most powerful billionaire politician (calculated net worth by Forbes: $18 billion) for another politically savvy New York billionaire with an Aussie flavor.

That’s right folks, Mr. Klein will be playing for Rupert Murdoch’s team now (Forbes net worth calculated at $6 billion) as executive VP of the Office of the Chairman of News Corp–a newly created post.

What’s an education bureaucrat to do in a mega media corporation like News Corp.?

One only needs to look at the Washington Post Co., which receives over half of its profits from Kaplan, the popular testing and test prep company.

In a statement, Murdoch commented on the decision to appoint Klein:

“His record of achievement leading one of the country’s toughest school systems has given him a unique perspective that will be particularly important as we look into a sector that has long been in need of innovation.”

News Corp. isn’t the only company to jump on the potentially lucrative education bandwagon. The New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, recently elucidated on the Time’s Education Network in one of his Sunday columns.

As failing media companies look into creating alternate revenue streams, restructuring almost seems inevitable. The recent clash between Cablevision and Fox boiled down to News Corp’s heightened demands for retransmission fees and even the popular is priming itself for a paywall in the near future.

The cherry on the media-education sundae?

Just ask Klein’s replacement, Cathleen Black, aka. Chairwoman of Hearst Magazines.

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