Tag Archives: Cedar Rapids

‘Drinking From The Fire Hose’–Learning What Journalistm Is Like

Francis, my bike, parked right outside the entrance to the Gazette Tuesday morning. Bikers always get the best parking places!

Francis, my bike, parked right outside the entrance to the Gazette Tuesday morning. Bikers always get the best parking places!

After touring the offices of The Gazette and KCRG Tuesday, one student in my Introduction to Journalism class vowed that she would never become a journalist. The hours and pay didn’t seem attractive to her.

Well, that’s OK. She’s a young mother, and making that kind of decision based on the kind of life balance she seeks isn’t wrong, in my opinion. As for me, I miss the madcap world of daily newspaper journalism any time I get to tour a newspaper office, so I had the opposite reaction–I envied those still caught up in that world.

Zack Kucharski, executive editor of The Gazette, kindly led our tour. We saw the combined KCRG and Gazette newsroom, and the sports and circulation areas upstairs.

CO120: Introduction to Journalism students tour the KCRG news studio.

CO120: Introduction to Journalism students tour the KCRG news studio.

Then, we entered the room that impressed the student’s the most—the KCRG studio. It’s interesting to see and hear how students react when some of them see an actual TV studio for the first time—I think the main shock is how small it is compared to what it appears to be on TV. You forget that when you point a camera at something, the camera only sees a narrow rectangle right in front of itself—it doesn’t see the tangle of cords, the robot cameras, the grid holding lights, the cement floor, etc. As one experienced student observed Thursday when the class debriefed on the tour—“that’s pretty much the way they all look.”

Anyway, fun as the tour was, I think the conversation after the tour—when Kucharski; Diana Nollen, arts and entertainment writer; and Jennifer Hemmingsen, opinion page editor, took time to speak with students in a conference room—was even more entertaining.

Zach Kucharski; executive editor of The Gazette; Jennifer Hemmingsten, opinion page editor; and Diana Nollen, arts and entertainment writer speak with my Introduction to Journalism students after Kucharski has led a tour of the Gazette.

Zack Kucharski; executive editor of The Gazette; Jennifer Hemmingsen, opinion page editor; and Diana Nollen, arts and entertainment writer speak with my Introduction to Journalism students after Kucharski has led a tour of the Gazette.

They summed up their experiences briefly. I liked Hemmingsen’s description of her first post-college journalism job working for a 6,000-circulation daily newspaper as her “drinking from the fire hose” experience. I worked for a small daily newspaper, too—it is indeed an intense first step.

She also said, and I agree, that despite all of the shakeups in the media world to date, there is still a vital role for the watchdog in our society. As Hemmingsen noted, people are so bombarded by instant information and misinformation that a journalist’s role in uncovering and telling the truth takes on new relevance. “That essential craft is more important than ever,” she said.

Kucharski went on to note that journalists are starting to learn some key lessons in the digital age. Early in the internet era, the new 24/7 internet news cycle put so much pressure to get the information online first that lots of mistakes have been made, even by credible news organizations.

That’s starting to change, he said, as journalists re-discover what they already knew—it’s more important to be right than to be first.

“Competition is a really dumb reason to make mistakes,” he noted.

Amen to that. As a professor, I see how hard it is for students who are in communication fields to learn the basic news gathering skills in the first place. To know what you know, and to take care to verify facts before passing them on, is not easy. And getting there first if you get it all wrong is not much of an accomplishment.

While one student may have been turned away from journalism, I don’t count that as a bad outcome. It’s important that students make clearheaded choices about what they want to do, and if you don’t feel the missionary zeal, than the life of a journalist is not for you. And the student I’m writing about is a PR major anyway; I don’t want to leave the impression that the Gazette turned off a budding new talent—her reaction against journalism as a career was more along the lines of affirming a choice she had already made, not changing a path she was on.

And not all students reacted that way. Most seemed to think it was really cool to see the inside of The Gazette. And I had one student speak to me briefly after class today. This student wants to add “News Processing,” a four-hour class that he would take as an elective, to his schedule next year.

Something has inspired him to learn more about journalism. Maybe it was partly the whole Gazette tour experience.

So, for me and my students, visiting the Gazette and KCRG was great fun. The Gazette is a smaller place now that it has relocated out of its older building into what once was just KCRG. But it’s still a vibrant hub of activity, an important place in the Cedar Rapids community, and it provides a vital democracy-building role.

So thanks Gazette and Zack and Jennifer and Diana. We had a great time. I hope to see y’all again soon. And y’all are invited to our fall faculty Vietnam War series of events at Mount Mercy University!

Near the end of class Thursday after Gazette tour. One of my students had my wife's class prior to my class, and they had some doughnuts left over, which they shared. Taking about newspaper journalism while eating cast off, greasy treats? It only Iowa, not Heaven, but it's close.

Near the end of class Thursday after Gazette tour. One of my students had my wife’s class prior to my class, and they had some doughnuts left over, which they shared. Talking about newspaper journalism while eating cast off, greasy treats? It only Iowa, not Heaven, but it’s close.

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How Does Rain Draw Our Parched Minds?

Rain falls on a toddler walker on the back deck Sunday afternoon, April 13, 2014. The fish looks happy.

Rain falls on a toddler walker on the back deck Sunday afternoon, April 13, 2014. The fish looks happy.

One of my memories of elementary school was the big windows that Sacred Heart School in Clinton, Iowa had. On a rainy day, I doubt I ever heard what the nun trying to teach us said.

True, the nuns would probably say, I didn’t hear that all that much on a sunny day either. While I was a top student in high school, I can’t say the same about my elementary years.

Anyway, what was it about rain that drew me so? Why must rain be watched? The sound of it, the drumming on a roof, the way waves of it form when there’s a wind, the thrill of danger if there is lightening.

I can’t explain it. I can’t say I totally love a rainy day—I like being outside too much to want it to rain all the time—but I am easily distracted by water cascading from the sky.

Today, there was a tornado warning east of here. I hope nobody was hurt. We had rain pelting down overnight, lighter rain this morning, and a very wet, sometimes wild, afternoon.

Raindrop on young lilac leaf.

Raindrop on young lilac leaf.

It was in the mid-afternoon that I couldn’t stand it any longer and shot some photos. I wasn’t that crazy, however—the photos are all shot through windows while I’m safe and dry inside.

Well, we need the rain The creek behind our house, however, is now out of its banks. Even this parched earth is having trouble absorbing the water as quickly as it comes down.

But, welcome rain. I don’t know why you draw my mind away from everything and put me in a rain trance. Still, it’s a good thing we are getting you. The grass is suddenly much greener.

Rain on a tin roof sounds like a drum. We're marching for freedom today, hey!

Rain on a tin roof sounds like a drum. We’re marching for freedom today, hey!

Then again, it is April. Before the water stops cascading from the sky, it’s should start floating. Yup. Snow tonight.

Hot sun Saturday, cold rain Sunday, snow Sunday night. Springtime in Iowa, baby! More photos on flickr.

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What Is The Opposite Of “Catastrophizing?”

I attended an interesting forum on Monday of this week where Dr. Jennifer Lee, an MMU assistant professor of psychology, spoke on pain.

Some people feel more pain than others, and a personality trait that is associated with more suffering from pain is “catastrophizing.” That is seeing any pain as more serious than it is. Dr. Lee noted that her husband and her mother can fall into this category—if her husband bumps an arm, it seems as if he can’t work out for 6 weeks.

Dr. Jennifer Lee listens to a question during her forum on her research into the psychology of pain.

Dr. Jennifer Lee listens to a question during her forum on her research into the psychology of pain.

My wife might claim that she, too, is married to a catrasrophizer. I’ll admit I have some personality traits in that direction, although that’s not enough for me to fit into a particular category—even if I do tend to tune into, and sometimes over-rate, my own pain.

As Dr. Lee pointed out, understanding that there is this personality trait, which leads to more pain perception, is not the same as saying that the pain is “all in your head.” In my opinion, the statement is slightly ridiculous anyway—in terms of our experience of pain, it’s always in our brains, so every pain—along with every other human experience we have—is all in our heads. And even if it is partly psychology that accounts for the pain that one suffers, that is not the same as saying the suffering is less valid. Pain that you feel that is enhanced by your personality and attitude is real pain—your experience of it causes you as much stress and suffering as anybody else’s pain.

I thought that was very interesting. Dr. Lee also noted, despite the fact that it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, that research indicates on average men have a higher pain threshold than women. She said the cultural attitude is based on the fact that women are able to withstand childbirth—but, she said, that one life experience does not tell us a lot about how people experience other pain in their lives.

So I felt it was a great speech filled with nice pain information. Still, most of all, I love the word “catastrophizing,” and I want to use it in many other contexts.

Besides wanting to use this newly found word, I also want it to have an opposite. Magnificentizing? That’s my word for the sense of extracting too pleasant or positive an experience from something—from having pleasure that is unduly amplified by your psyche.

I think I’ve seen some examples of “magnificentizing” in the wake of the recent city election.

For instance, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has handily won re-election. According to what I’ve seen in the media, he seems to  interpret that as an endorsement of his “open for business” stance and the flood recovery decisions.

Whoa there, big fellow. Don’t magnificentize. Speaking as a voter who cast my ballot for you, I can’t say I consider myself a member of Ron Corbett’s corps. I voted for you because you were running against someone else, and I didn’t want that someone else to be mayor of Cedar Rapids. I don’t care for many aspects of the “open for business” attitude, and I am perfectly willing to second guess some flood recovery decisions. You were the best of two options—that doesn’t mean that I or other voters who cast our ballots in your favor endorse all of your policies.

Then, there is the 1-cent sales tax, which was passed for 10 years to pay for street repairs. I feel that some city leaders have interpreted that as voter satisfaction with city spending and finances. That’s magnifencentizing. I voted for the tax because I agree the streets are in terrible shape and needs to be fixed.

But I am not a fan of sales taxes. And I’m not happy that the city has allowed its streets to deteriorate to this point—and I question whether raising a special tax and spending it on streets will help fix that underlying problem of street repair not being a high enough annual priority over time. So, for 10 years we can pay as we go for streets. At the end of that term, are we expected to again extend the tax because there is no other way to fix streets? Or does the 10 years of this tax mean we make up some lost time and at the end of 10 years implement a “normal” spending plan from other revenue that will keep the streets in repair?

I don’t know the answer, and I’m not going to magnifenctize and assume most voters agree with me. But those that do held their noses during the recent election.

It wasn’t all that magnificent. Then again, it wasn’t a catastrophe, either.

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Tossing A Coin on Gambling Vote


Photo from Wikicommons, uploaded by Toni Lozano from Don_Gato flickr photos.

I think Todd Dorman summed up my attitude about the Tuesday gambling election fairly well in his column in The Gazette this morning.

Except, I’m not sure I come down on the “yes” side. If I do vote “no,” however, it won’t put me in much of a funk should Linn County voters approve a casino. There is no guarantee one will be forthcoming even with a “yes” vote, and I don’t see it destroying the fabric of the universe as we know it if it is built.

I don’t see the need for a local casino, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never visit it if it’s open. If I want to toss money away, I’ll go see a Quinton Tarantino movie or add more layers of wildflower seeds to the compost of wildflower seeds I have strewn in the woods behind my house. I don’t see any reason to gamble my cash away.

So, I have no personal stake in the vote. But, in a larger social sense, would a casino be a good thing?

Well, it would provide some employment, although not in an industry that creates any goods or that is known for its lavishly generous salaries. It would provide low-paying, sometimes exploitive jobs. Say what you will about those terrible “Jumer’s” commercials, but those Midwestern “ladies” decked out in feathers ala Las Vegas dancers look neither comfortable nor particularly well respected.

Not that a CR casino would necessarily feature showgirls. But I’m not sure blackjack dealer ranks a lot higher on the scale of life vocations.

On the other hand, people whose education doesn’t qualify them to be software engineers need something to do, as do all those sociology majors—and a job is a job. And just because I don’t understand or engage in gambling doesn’t give me much motivation to deprive others of that thrill.

While it’s true that there are  social costs to gambling, we’re talking about shuffling those costs around, not eliminating them. True, we don’t have the casino “here,” but if it’s “there” why can’t it be here? And gambling is like drinking–not that harmful to most people who engage in it, even if it’s addictive for a few. I’m not campaigning to make beer illegal because it’s not safe for alcoholics.

Yet …

I’ve noticed among my “Facebook” friends that those who declared themselves as “no” votes are people I tend to respect. And I hesitate to vote “yes” knowing that “the deal” that is on the table seems like a particularly Cedar Rapids sort of plan—a slightly shady, inside job.

I could easily vote “no.” I don’t really want a casino in Cedar Rapids.

On the other, or third or fourth hand, the “water park” idea doesn’t sway me one way or another—if it makes economic sense, someone else could build it and there is no guarantee of it anyway. And it would feel odd to vote no so that some outside investor, flush with gambling cash, can build us a different kind of tourist trap.

In the end, Todd and I may disagree. My instinct is to vote “no,” although I concede my instinct isn’t speaking with much conviction and I may need a quarter to turn up “heads” to confirm my hunch.

Todd comes down “yes,” primarily, I think, because he can’t find a reason to say “no.” I respect that. But I might vote “no” using almost exactly the same rationale. If you haven’t sold the idea to me, why should I favor it?

Finally, both sides in this campaign have done a terrible job. The “yes” campaign started with insulting, provocatively bad ads, saying, in effect, you’re stupid if you vote no. And the “meat lady” was not an effective spokesperson. The later ads, which feature the main investor, were actually more effective, but I still have a bad taste form the earlier ones.

And the “no” campaign? Sure, there are local people who oppose gambling for saintly reasons, but the campaign seems to have been co-opted by other casinos trying to keep their share of the sucker market. (Just to thumb my nose at them is the biggest reason I’m still toying with a “yes” vote.)

I may vote no. I’m leaning that way, but I still might vote yes. Then again, I may stay home on Tuesday and drink beer and say the heck it.


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A Walk At Dusk On The Penultimate Day

Ben and Audrey on the Lindale Trail.

Ben and Audrey on the Lindale Trail.

Ben said these Christmas lights looked like a Tolkien hidden elven village.

Ben said these Christmas lights looked like a Tolkien hidden elven village.

Well, the Mayans clearly got it wrong, the world continued after their calendar expired even if the fiscal cliff looms.

On the penultimate day of 2012, after an afternoon nap, Audrey suggested we go on a walk. It was cool, but in the upper 20s, and when the wind is not blowing, upper 20s is truly not so bad. We headed up C Avenue with our son Ben, and headed east on the Lindale Trail.

The trail’s west end in Cedar Rapids was not cleared, but once we scrambled past a fallen tree, as we neared Marion, the Marion crew had taken over, and Marion does scrape its trails. The light was fading, so it was good that the trail was more clear. When we got to Lindale Avenue, we decided to walk through the neighborhood to the shorter trail, rather than take the long trail in faded light.

A winter walk makes you appreciate a city that scrapes its trails, and even more homeowners who do a decent job of snow removal. It has been many days since any snow fell, but some walks are clear, some were cleared after the heavy snow a week ago, but not since, and some merely have paths worn by the passage of booted feet.

It felt good to be out. The walk lasted about an hour, and when we were done around 5:30, it was dark, but not yet full night. It’s nice that the evenings are gaining, day by day, a little bit of light, and it was nice to be out for a stroll on a cool winter’s day.

So take that, Mayans. Long after some thought you said the world would end, the world was a nice place for a stroll.

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Writing Advice From Gazette’s Rick Smith

Rick Smith

Rick Smith, reporter for the Gazette. He reported that he has resisted being on TV, I hope exposure on a blog is OK.

Rick Smith, a long-time Gazette reporter who has covered City Hall in Cedar Rapids for more than a decade, visited one of my classes this morning.

Students in CO 281: Newspaper Reporting will cover a Cedar Rapids City Council meeting later this month, and Smith was kind enough to give students some suggestions.

The resulting conversation was wide-ranging and open-ended. Rick just opened up and shared anecdotes and context for city issues, and I didn’t see any reason to reign him in. In fact, I felt a bit guilty glancing at the clock, because he thought I might be done with him. Nope—please carry on, Mr. Smith.

Anyway, as often seems to be the case, what he told my students shouldn’t have been new or news to them—but it’s always useful for students to hear how another journalist articulates basically the same advice I give them.

For example, Rick emphasized the importance of the story lead—the first sentence.

On this blog post, I don’t have a particularly good example, although to be fair, this isn’t a news story, either, so there. Anyway, getting a good lead—recognizing what salient point will serve as the theme of the news story and summing up that main point in a compelling and interesting sentence that both communicates the main news and yet still motivates the reader to carry on—well, that’s a big part of the battle.

Especially in a City Council meeting which offers so many false data alleys and information dead ends. I like that Rick had prompted students to look at the city’s web site for agendas and minutes—something the class did as a group on Wednesday, and that I will expect them to do individually before the meeting they cover.

Anyway, what else do I hope students will recall from Rick Smith’s visit?

  • What happens at a meeting is always part of a larger story. For example, he spoke about a new development in the works for the corner of Edgewood Road and Blair’s Ferry. The policy question is whether the city should provide tax incentives to the developer. Those incentives traditionally were given to manufacturing companies, but a decade ago the city used them to help persuade HyVee to go ahead with plans for a new store in an economically poor neighborhood—and now someone wants them for a swanky new shopping and office complex in an upscale area of town. The city’s materials explain what the tax incentive is, but don’t tie this decision to the context of earlier decisions—and that context is what a journalist provides. The rule is bigger than just this topic—on any beat for virtually any story, a journalist needs to seek the context and deliver that valued insight. I think that’s increasingly the role of the profession, tying the news of the minute to the larger saga, as events themselves are more universally experienced without information intermediaries.
  • A meeting is partially a public performance. TV, even small-audience local cable TV, changes whatever it pays attention to. There used to be five members of the Cedar Rapids City Council—now, with nine, when something important happens, “you have to listen to nine speeches.” I suspect those speeches are for the benefit of the home audience of potential voters.
  • Brevity is one of the keys to good news writing. If he were professor, Rick says, part of the assignment would be: “See how short you can make it.” Students, Rick isn’t the professor and I’m going to want you to cover the full meeting…but “covering” does mean recognizing what’s important (and writing about it) and what’s not (and leaving it out). And whatever you report, if you’re a journalist, always try to use a few words effectively rather than deploy too many for the job. Write short.

Anyway, much of the talk was Rick telling stories that I think give students some context to try to understand what will happen before them later this month. He gave students and me a lot to think about, along with good advice, and I’m grateful he was willing to speak with my class.

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My Profile is in the Art Mix

Denver Faces

Detail of Helmick artwork from Denver, similar to what is planned in Cedar Rapids. From Helmick.com site.

Will I be immortalized in metal in the new federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids?

It’s not likely.

Today, I went to the downtown farmer’s market in Cedar Rapids. One of the booths we passed early on was for Helmick Sculpture. Ralph Helmick is creating a 40-foot-tall hanging metal sculpture for our new courthouse, similar, I think, to one he did in a federal courthouse in Denver.

His assistants are collecting profile images of Cedar Rapids area residents, and 12 of the profiles will be chosen to represent a jury in the sculpture.

The photographer at the booth said they were long on women and short on men, and the family group I was with encouraged Ben to sit. He agreed after I said I would do it if he would do it, so we both signed releases and had our profiles shot.


Ben gets his profile shot for possible use in metal in new federal courthouse.

I suspect he might stand a better chance. He has a stronger profile—a better chin, for example, and an interesting hair line. My beard doesn’t help clarify my profile.

But, we’ll see. I’m sure hundreds of residents will be in the pool for this federal jury.

I’ve been by the new courthouse several times this summer on rides along the Cedar River Trail. The security barriers were a bit of a concern the morning of RAGBRAI—Eldon and Brigid ride trikes that barely squeezed through. It will be interesting to see the courthouse when it’s done, and the idea of the Helmick Sculpture seems appropriate.

The courthouse isn’t the only new public building taking shape. The new library is rising in the area of the farmer’s market. I’m not sure Cedar Rapids has seen this much public facility construction since the Great Depression. It takes a flood to raise a city.

My profile

LIke Ben, I had my profile shot, but this is by Theresa and I didn’t hold my hand to my chin for the formal picture, either. Anyway, I think my profile is a bit fuzzy for art.

Anyway, the market was fun. We were there at 9 a.m., which is a bit earlier than usual, and that’s a good idea. The crowds were not as packed then as they are an hour later, when we usually arrive. And there is much more produce available now. We purchased some nice tomatoes and sweet corn for a family noon dinner.

The lunch featured brats and hotdogs grilled outside, and I finished by noon. This was good, because at 12:30 rain started falling, and from then until about 1:30, it rained cats and dogs.

The on-line news sites say there are power outages and downed trees due to the storm. When the rain hit, it HIT. Still, rain is a rare and precious thing in this drought-ravaged land, so I can’t say I was too sad to see the storm. I would grill out more often if it would bring rain.

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