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Fairy Tales and Poignant Memories: ICMA Day 1


MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan and Managing Editor Madelyn Orton at ICMA conference.

We had some great presentations on the first day of the Iowa College Media Association Convention in Des Moines. The most memorable moment came after the ICMA awards ceremony, when the state media’s association annual Eighmey Award, for a person in Iowa who has aided college media, went to Pat Pisarik of Loras College in Dubuque.

The award was voted on before Oct. 30 of last year, when sadly and unexpectedly, Pat passed away. His family was there to receive his honor. And ICMA renamed it’s “student journalist of the year award” as the “Pat Pisarik Student Journalist of the Year.”

It was a touching event, and his family received a standing ovation from the association.


Son of Pat Pisarik at ICMA ceremony.

Earlier, Tim Harrower, a national icon in the world of newspapers who wrote the classic text on design and also a popular text on reporting, gave ICMA’s keynote address.

Using a fairy tale theme, Harrower retold stories such as “Chicken Little” to be entertaining fables about modern journalism (Chicken Little ends up working for a conglomerate that produces fried chicken and finds “another way to serve readers.”).

In his version of the “Fox and the Grapes,” the fox gets angry that too many grapes lean left, so Fox plants his own vineyard where all of the grapes lean right.

Yes, I loved it. A keynote address full of the kind of “dad jokes” that make my wife and children chuckle or groan, but it was also full of insight and wisdom.


Hand of Tim Harrower.


Tim Harrower.

Harrower had us all raise our hands and swear never to lie lest we be eaten by wolves. In today’s world of social media alternative facts, it’s more important than ever that journalists be truth tellers, even if the audience seems to be struggling to distinguish truth from Fake News of the kind perpetrated by Foxes and fake presidents.

At one point, Harrower gave advice to students on how to land a job. He noted that he was in a position to hire for the largest paper in Oregon, and he confessed he never cared about GPA nor even which school an applicant came from. There are two keys to landing a media job, he says: “10 great clips and a pleasant personality.”

“I’ve talked with a lot of talented geniuses that I would not hire because I didn’t want to have lunch with them,” he said.

As a professor, I would hasten to add that grades matter to some employers, and certainly have some impact on scholarships and recognition, so don’t totally relax too much, students. But the importance of grades really is whether they are symptom of learning—if they show that you got out of each experience what you could. Because, frankly, Harrower is right—they may be part of some employer’s screening of applications, but for the most part, they don’t really matter in terms of getting a job.

It’s more than journalism. For PR, graphic design, technical writing, TV, radio—any form of professional communication, remember his advice. The “clips” may be a photo gallery or web site or audio stories or a demo “tape” (we really have to work on updating that language, even “clips” these days are usually PDFs), but you land that first job with a smile and conversation and 10 great samples of what you can do.

And samples from student media, the MMU Times, and an internship or internships, always mean way more than any class work.

So what do you with the advice? Mr. Harrower offered further words.

“When a good story comes along, jump on it with both feet,” he said, adding that you report the heck out of it and produce a great story, great pictures, an online video, etc.

“That gives you one,” he noted, going on to repeat that you need to do it nine more times.

For me, the great disappointment of the day was that MMU did not win any ICMA awards. I need to find out what happened—I’m hoping there was not a glitch with our entries, but I am suspicious, because we’ve never been totally skunked in the past and there were good stories and materials in our contest entries. In particular, the winning front page displayed at the contest was, in my very biased opinion, not better then the page we had entered. Assuming we were in the running for awards, that there was not glitch, however, the take away is that we need to up our game, especially online.

Earlier in the afternoon, we participated in a media tour, and chose to go to the Register’s downtown newsroom. I had been there before, but it was worth seeing their Star Trek like control area and the banks of desks with a window view of the Capitol’s golden dome. The students who were with me really enjoyed it.

And one of our tour guides was Kyle Munson, whose “Kyle Munson’s Iowa” is one of the highlights of The Des Moines Register. I got to take a picture of him perched on a chair in a hallway to speak to an ICMA crowd. It was a totally fan boy moment, and I loved it.

All in all, day one would have been better with a few awards for Times staff writers, but it was still a day with many outstanding events. I’m glad we came, and I have just one thought about the contest: 10 great clips—we need to produce multiple, better stories. Students, they can get you a job, and, it is to be hoped, they can get your newspaper some prizes.


Connor and Maddie listen at ICMA.


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What Did I Learn About The State of Journalism?


Ted Jackson speaks to ICMA awards ceremony. Most of what I write about is from his seminar presentation the next day.Ted Jackson, a great photographer, does not like oatmeal, one of my favorite breakfasts.

Ted Jackson, a great photographer, does not like oatmeal, one of my favorite breakfasts.

At one point during his excellent presentation to the Iowa College Media Association Convention, a gathering hosted by the Iowa Newspaper Convention at their annual meeting, Jackson showed a picture of a sign made for him by his college roommate. “Never,” it said over a picture of the Quaker Oats guy, “Be Mundane.”

OK, I can understand oatmeal as a symbol of mundane. But add a bit of honey, some peanut butter, a bit of cinnamon, some walnuts and raisins, craisins or both—well, you’ve got crunchy, nutty good morning nutrition, satisfaction in a bowl.

Photography is a bit like that, I suppose. It’s easy to do an average job of it, to take photos that show, as Jackson says, what things look like, but that don’t really compel a reaction or do well at telling a story.

Jasckson, who has shot incredible images of the aftermath of Katrina and showed multiple of that and other examples of his compelling visual journalism, shared several ideas. What were some highlights to me:

  • Aim for the rule of three. You’ve heard the rule of thirds. To Jackson, every photo should have three things that make it stand out. Subject, light, composition, the decisive moment, framing—not every image will have it all, and many have just two good points. A photo with three stands out.
  • Work a little harder. If what you’re doing is easy, and you’re a professional story teller, you may not be doing it right. One of the other advisors, chatting after the session, noted that it’s the same with writing. If what you’re doing seems easy, you’re probably not doing it hard enough or paying enough attention. I was impressed at how Jackson pushed himself. He showed a picture of a Cajun in a boat, and to most photographers, it would be a very good image. But he played with shutter speed, the presence of light cutting through background trees and the instance when the man in the boat leaned back to take a deep breath—and voila, rather than settling for the very nice image, several snaps later Jackson had captured something extraordinary.

I think it illustrates a point I make to students which Jackson didn’t state, but that was, I think, implicit in his work. One aspect that makes a great photojournalist is imagination. Not fiction—not creating that which doesn’t exist—but the ability to think of the different angle, to sense elements that could be framed—to imagine and then executive better photographs.

Jackson was a highlight of ICMA for me. But so was seeing the new newsroom of the Des Moines Register in an excellent tour led by Rick Green, Publisher.

The newsroom is stunning. It’s a bit like a giant bridge from the star ship Enterprise, although instead of one screen as the focus of a great semicircle, it has a bank of nine to 12 screens. And the semicircle spreads out in row upon row. In the other directios, window looked east where the gold dome of the Capitol shone in the setting sun.

Well, the main bridge of the star ship Register was exciting enough. They also showed us a state-of-the-art TV studio, which made me almost salivate with envy. A less fancy version of this same room is something I’ve been lobbying for at MMU in recent years. No, we don’t need a full broadcast studio, but yes, we do need a room decently equipped for video production. Between communication, marketing and art, we have too many disciplines on campus that need a strong video component to not have this kind of room.

Rick Green, publisher of the Des Moines Register, makes a point in the newspaper-web site's video production studio room.

Rick Green, publisher of the Des Moines Register, makes a point in the newspaper-web site’s video production studio room.

Green noted that the Register has a deadline every minute of the day, and that it produces its newspaper out of its digital online news service, rather than the other way around.

It left me thinking that we at MMU need to push much harder in that direction.

Besides the visionaries—Jackson and Green—the ICMA convention included other interesting journalistic speakers.

In particular, a former TV anchor and former governor’s press secretary, Courtney Greene, and former Register writer and Pulitzer-Prize winner, Jane Meisner, who now work together doing PR at AIB College of Business in Des Moines, described their careers and their paths from journalism to PR.

Well, it’s a route may careers have taken. For our students, it’s important to note that any communication career has multiple twists and turns.


Courtney Greene, former TV anchor.

So what is my take away from the 2014 ICMA convention? For one thing, I’m not as pessimistic about the future of journalism or journalism education. There are bright new things happening, and there is room for new, creative people. For another, I’m more convinced than ever that today’s journalism education requires multiple platform talents—that journalists need to be at ease telling stories any way an audience wants them. That’s not a new idea to me, but it’s one that was emphasized at the conference.


Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Meisner.

Finally, you can be a great journalist and excellent story teller and still make fundamental errors. Like traducing oatmeal without realizing some in your audience come from Cedar Rapids, home of a major Quaker Oats processing mill.

Well, you can’t win them all. And we still love you, Ted.

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