Posted without comment from the Daily Missouri Democrat (St. Louis), Saturday, December 22, 1860:

San Francisco Takes the Hat – The latest mention of the fertile Golden State is a plan to make white dogs useful. Your San Franciscan seizes up is white cur, and, with stencilplate and black ink, inscribes his business card on each side of the wretched pup, and sends him forth, a quadrupedal locomotive advertisement – a doggerotype of the fast people of a fast country in a fast age. It is reckoned that a lively dog will be worth at least five dollars a day, or equal to a quarter of a column in a newspaper.”

While doing research on journalism during the secession winter of 1860 to 1861, it occurred to me that in maintaining a continually updated list of South Carolina legislators’ stances on taking down the Confederate flag, the Post & Courier of Charleston is doing the same thing the Charleston Mercury did on the question of seceding.
Witness the following account, published as an exchange item in the Boston Journal on December 12, 1860:

“THE CHARLESTON ELECTION: There was evidently a screw loose in the election of the Charleston delegates to the State Convention of South Carolina. It was intended by the Rhett faction to be a completely one-sided affair, sending up a united delegation pledged to immediate secession. Accordingly, the Mercury had kept standing lists in its columns of the candidates known to be sound, from their explicit declarations, those who had not pledged themselves to instant secession, and those who had made no reply to interrogatories addressed to them.”

The piece went on to explain that a couple of uncommitted delegates were elected despite pressure from the Mercury. This should be a reminder that the press is powerful, but it is not all-powerful. The ultimate pressure comes from the people. Just as the battle then was not won by the Mercury, so the battle today is not won by the Post & Courier. Make your opinion known. Here’s mine: That flag has got to come down. That banner may be a symbol of heritage, but the deeper I get into the newspapers of the secession crisis, the more evidence piles up that the Civil War was about maintaining a system in which wealthy planters preserved their means of getting richer (cheap labor combined with a voracious appetite to expand the footprint of slavery) by co-opting poor Southern whites’ opinions via appeals to racial superiority. We are all equal regardless of color, creed, religion, ethnicity, national heritage, gender or sexual orientation.
So it’s nice to enjoy the irony of the press of today employing, for the purpose of removing an emblem of pride in racism, the same system that the press of yesteryear employed to put it up.

Successful students distinguish themselves from their struggling classmates in many ways. The contrast is particularly sharp during end-of-semester grading, which I just wrapped up last night for a journalism course in news reporting. If I could offer advice to those who struggled before they began the term, these are the things I would tell them they need to do to succeed:

  1. Go to class every day.
  2. Be interested in the subject being taught. If the course is in your major, it should be easy to be genuinely enthusiastic about it. If it is not in your major but a required course, use the “fake it until you make it” approach. This involves what theater people refer to in their audiences as “willful suspension of disbelief.” That concept refers to spectators at a play setting aside their immersion in their day-to-day reality in order to immerse themselves in the lives of the characters of the play. That is, they let themselves care about those characters as if they were people they cared about in real life. You can do the same in a non-major, required course, but accept that you are one of the players and your role is that of one of the people immersed in that field of study. My play is News Reporting, and I play the part of an editor (which I was for a dozen years, seventeen if you include my work at the Columbia Missourian). If you are a student in that class, you play the role of a reporter, and you learn to be a reporter by doing the things reporters do. Do this, and you just might convince yourself that you really are fascinated by the subject.
  3. Beware of absent presence. This is when the student is physically present in the classroom but mentally absent. Pay attention to the instruction taking place there. Not all of it comes from the professor. Much of it comes from discussion with classmates and hands-on exercises. It should go without saying, but successful students avoid using their cell phone unless specifically directed to do so in connection with a class exercise.
  4. Be aware that even when instructors do not take attendance, missing class has consequences. Those include falling behind the rest of the class; missing graded in-class lab assignments; misunderstanding the instructions for homework because you did not ask for clarification when needed before doing the assignment; missing quizzes; missing hands-on instruction.
  5. Get notes from a reliable classmate. Especially do this if you must miss a class on account of an emergency like an illness or a court date that you just cannot change. But at least once in the semester, swap notes with a classmate who takes thorough notes. Compare yours with theirs. Are you getting everything that they did? If not, work at writing down key points. It is so easy to forget what we see and hear. It really baffles me when I talk and the pens aren’t moving. Generally, you’ll remember only about 30 percent of what you hear without writing it down. The act of writing notes with pen or pencil helps cement what you have learned in your deep memory. Want proof? Here it is.
  6. Be careful about whom you judge to be reliable. Make friends with a student or students who really have their act together and borrow notes from them if you have to miss a class.
  7. Keep close track of deadlines for assignments. Don’t mix them up with each other. Find an organization strategy that works for you and stick to it. Also, being present in class will help make sure you know when the instructor decides to push back a deadline to give you more time to complete an assignment.
  8. Read the directions for assignments.
  9. Follow those directions closely.
  10. Turn in assignments on time. If I had to pick two things that hiring editors ask me about the most when deciding whether to offer an internship to a college student, they would be “Do they follow directions and respond to feedback?” and “Can I rely on them to meet deadline?” You get that question less about candidates for full-time, paid work after graduation because successful completion of an internship usually means the answer to both questions is “yes.”
  11. Give yourself time to re-read and revise your work before you turn it in. Do this even if the final grade will be based on a revision.
  12. When given the opportunity to revise, fix every error that your instructor points out to you.
  13. If you need help, ask for it. That does not mean to ask for an extension; journalism is a deadline business, and those who cannot meet deadlines find it difficult to stay in it for long. Rather, ask when you don’t understand how you are supposed to do something BEFORE deadline.

These next pointers are just for journalism students:

  1. Read, watch and listen to high-quality journalism. Want to be a writer for a news site, magazine or newspaper? Find it in the New York Times and Washington Post. Want to be a TV journalist? Find it by watching 60 Minutes, Face the Nation and the CBS Evening News. Want to be a photojournalist? Find it in the National Geographic and the New York Times photo blog, Lens. If you’re at Wayne State University, you don’t have to look far to find high-quality print, photography and video storytelling: Turn to the Detroit Free Press. Nor do you have to look far to find high-quality radio journalism: Tune your dial to WDET-FM.
  2. Identify your heroes in journalism and emulate what they do.
  3. Be careful about whom you deem your journalism heroes. Some rise quickly by cutting corners. But if they play fast and loose with the facts, their sourcing, or the originality of their work, they are eventually called out on it.
  4. Never misspell a name in a news story. Bad things happen to your grade if you do this in a class. Worse things happen to your career prospects on the job.

If you can make all of those things a part of your set of skills and attitudes, you will have much greater chances for success in the classroom or in the newsroom.

Buried leads (or to the old-school journalist, “ledes”) are a common problem for beginning journalism students. As I read a particularly long, throat-clearing buried lead, I had a Chance the Gardener thought. If you have seen “Being There,” you will get what I mean by that. If not, watch this. If you don’t need the reminder, here is what occurred to me. It is quite lengthy; I will try to remember it all:

It is important to remove the weeds from the garden. If you do not remove them, they will take up all the sunlight and the flowers in the garden will die. But if you remove the weeds, the flowers will get sun and bloom. You must be careful to keep weeding because they will try to come back and overgrow the garden.

Getting to the point matters.

That is particularly true in a relatively short story of, say, 500 words. Throat-clearing leads — those that take too long to deliver the most critical information and/or the news peg — waste space. Say in 75 words what you could say in 20 and you choke out room for a couple of quotes or more details about the event you’re writing about.

Throat-clearing leads also try your reader’s patience. A short story is usually not the right piece to attempt a scene-setter lead. Adequate scene-setting takes space. It is a form of ornamentation that works extraordinarily well if you have the space for it. There is a place for narrative and scene-setting leads in the news just as there is a place for certain kinds of plants in a large-enough garden.

But plants that are beneficial in one context are harmful in others. In the wrong place, they become weeds. I love mint, but if you let it out of a container and onto your yard it will take over the whole place and the other plants will die because the mint consumes all the water and sunlight and soil nutrients.

Put the plant of ornamentation in the wrong space and you have introduced weeds to the garden of your words that choke out quotes, context and details that would help the reader learn more about the subject rather than wonder what you left out in order to write that lengthy lead.

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