Recent work, 2020 edition

It’s been a while — five years, to be exact — since I took time to reflect on some of my favorite recent stories. I don’t often get a chance to look back on past work. As a full-time writer at Brown University, I’m always juggling a few stories each week. Most often, I’m immersed in the story up until the moment it’s published, when I immediately release it from my thoughts and pivot to the next item on the agenda.

But there are a few stories that stick with me for a bit longer. Sometimes, the subject matter is so engrossing that I keep reading about it after the fact. Other times, I’ll hit it off with an interviewee and I’ll get inspired to dig into their past work. Still other times, I’m just plain proud of my writing, and I spend a day or two basking in the glow of a job well done.

Here are a few of the stories I’ve enjoyed sharing recently.

Creating a lifelong singer

Choral music is a longtime passion of mine — I’ve been singing in groups since I was 13 — so I was thrilled when Chorus America staff reached out two years ago and asked if I was interested in contributing to their quarterly magazine, The Voice.

I was especially thrilled to write this article on how youth chorus directors can turn their singers into lifelong choir enthusiasts. My parents practically dragged me to my first choir rehearsal kicking and screaming, but not long afterward, I became a true believer. Singing in groups has had such a positive impact on my life that these days, when I move to a new city, seeking out a choir to join is my first order of business.

This wasn’t the kind of writing I was used to. Over the years, I’ve turned out hundreds of 500- to 800-word stories that draw from a small handful of interviews and other sources. But six-page features involving a dozen interviews and hours of research? That was unfamiliar territory. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about scheduling, outlining and planning from this freelance experience — and I’ve carried those lessons with me to my new job, where I’m often engaged in big writing projects with multiple stakeholders.


RaMell Ross heads to the Oscars

In 2019, four of the 10 documentary films that were nominated for Academy Awards were created by people with ties to Brown University — proof positive that this school’s reputation for welcoming and nurturing outside-the-box creative minds is well earned. The documentary filmmaker RaMell Ross, who in 2019 was a professor of the practice at Brown, had a whirlwind year following the release of his “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” I snuck in a half-hour phone call with him just as he touched down in Los Angeles for a week of talk show appearances, dinners, galas and meetings leading up to the Oscars. Given the weighty subject matter of his films, I didn’t expect to be laughing through the entire interview, but that’s exactly what happened.


Students find contemporary connections to ancient text in ‘Antigones’ course

It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college, and I still miss the undergraduate experience every day. I was one of those students who loved learning for the sake of it. Even though I majored in journalism, I ventured far outside my course requirements for my own pleasure, dabbling in German, paleobiology, Russian literature and music history. Today, as a staff writer at Brown, I’m lucky enough to get to relive that student experience on a regular basis.

The comparative literature course “Antigones” was one of those courses I would have been dying to take as an undergrad. It involved a close study of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play, along with several contemporary adaptations ranging from graphic novels to experimental theater scripts. It culminated in a short performance of students’ own adaptations. I loved how their performances shed new light on the play’s timeless commentary on gender, social class and protest.


Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

The tiles of Portugal have become Instagram darlings in the last few years. It’s easy to appreciate their beauty, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find out much about their history. I spent a few hours researching the Portuguese empire’s historical preference for tiles, which dates back to one leader’s love of Moorish design. Then, I went down a deep internet rabbit hole trying to find out more about the history behind the intricate tiled sidewalks all over Portugal and its former colonies around the world. Turns out they came into being as a result of a king’s weird obsession with white and a subsequent catastrophic earthquake. You know you want to click on that link to learn more.


Students, alumni celebrate accomplishments, anniversaries in procession

Working at the 250-year-old Brown University has introduced me to a fascinating world of quirky, venerable traditions that didn’t really exist at the University of Oregon, my alma mater. At Brown, there’s an annual holiday concert performed entirely in Latin; students and faculty alike embrace the legend of the fictional Josiah Carberry, professor of “psychoceramics”; and the logistics surrounding the century-old Commencement procession are so wonderfully complex that they need an explainer page.

The procession, in all its sceptered and top-hatted glory, is something you really have to witness to appreciate — which is why I felt daunted by the task of bringing this tradition to life in a story. I’m proud of the way I made it work by weaving together university history, inspiring student stories (including a father-daughter duo who graduated and walked in the procession together!) and fun bits of color.


Cyrano de Bergerac is the hero we need right now

I love interviewing professional actors. I find that they’re not only incredibly honest and passionate but also incredibly articulate — which makes sense, given it’s their job! For three seasons, I managed public relations for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and I had so many compelling conversations with its actors and directors. I was particularly taken aback by the honesty and candor of Scott Coopwood, who played lead roles in “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.”


Notes from 1958

I was incredibly fortunate to be working for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as it celebrated its 60th season and completed its second tour through Shakespeare’s complete canon of plays — benchmarks that few other American festivals have met. As we prepared to promote the season, I sifted through the festival history I could find — old programs, news clips and photos — and realized that many of the young actors featured in that first festival in 1958 were likely still alive today. I spent several hours tracking a handful of them down, and I’m so glad I did: They had some fascinating stories to share, and some had gone on to achieve monumental success. Over the course of the summer, I ran a short series of condensed interviews with the original cast and crew. I don’t know if they were my most widely read stories, but they sure were among the most fun to put together.

Boat Building GIF by Brown University - Find & Share on GIPHY

Boatbuilding course at Brown includes equal parts discussion and construction

Here’s another course I would have been eager to take as an undergraduate — although I’m not sure my construction skills would have been up to par! In “Boatbuilding: Design, Making and Culture,” students bonded as they read up on the history of boatbuilding and skilled labor and then made an actual wooden boat that floats. I loved that this course gave engineering students an opportunity to appreciate the role cultural context plays in the building process, while it gave students in the humanities a chance to work with their hands.

The new and improved AP test

A New York Times article today reminded me of a time when the AP was more than a national news wire service to me.

The advanced placement test was one of the greatest banes of my high school existence, second only to the college application process. From what I remember, the entire experience, which I withstood three (almost four!) times, consisted of three steps: receive a giant 1,000-page tome, memorize everything in it, and sit an exam whose questions in no way relate to the hundreds of pages of facts you memorized.

The first test I sat was for U.S. history. Just before the test, I remember going over the succession of presidents with a friend’s flashcards, trying desperately to remember which state ratified the Constitution first and telling my friend to stop playing his ukulele so I could concentrate. The test was far more difficult than any of us imagined and covered material we hadn’t had time to touch on in class. We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

The second test I sat was for English literature. Since most questions had more to do with reading comprehension than with memorization, I felt prepared after years of reading classic books and writing critical essays. I walked in confident and walked out tired but still sure I’d done well. I’d used knowledge from a wide range of books I had read, in school and at home, to answer the essay questions, and I had even drawn on past choir repertoire to answer questions about Latin roots of English words–further proving my belief that academic well-roundedness is still valuable.

The third and final test I sat was for calculus. Advanced calculus, no less. I don’t talk about that test, except to say that poetry was involved when it shouldn’t have been.

While I studied and prepared for these tests, I couldn’t help but think–why can’t they all be more like the literature test? That exam, rather than asking me to rattle off authors and book titles robotically, tested my ability to think critically and organize my thoughts coherently.

Why do tests in history, math and science focus so intently on students’ memory of names and places? Shouldn’t we demonstrate our comprehension of a subject by discussing broader concepts? What’s more important: that we know which days the Civil War began and ended or that we know what caused the war and how the war affected Americans?

Finally, the College Board agrees. The Times says:

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.

Not only is it impossible for students to memorize every fact, figure and formula without a photographic memory, it’s also beside the point–and I’m glad the test writers finally get that.

News flash: Journalists aren’t doomed

College journalists who haven’t entered the workforce yet have been trained to fear the very worst after they’ve secured a diploma, but Rich Gordon sees a much cheerier picture.

According to Gordon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the modern era of journalism should be defined as a changing job market rather than a shrinking one.

“All is not lost,” Gordon said in a Skype interview with our Power Journalism class last week. “As jobs in newspapers decline, opportunities for all kinds of other platforms are growing.”

My association with the changing nature of the newspaper has always been a negative one. After all, I go to school to learn about print journalism, I practice print journalism, and my dream to be a classical music critic can only exist if print newspapers hang in there. But now I have hope. There are other, equally rewarding ways to earn a salary, like starting a classical music blog, freelancing or working for an online arts publication.

Gordon’s predictions come from the fates of other companies like Kodak, companies who may have lost out in the transition to digital but who reinvented themselves to fit into the 21st century.

“If you go to their website right now, you’ll see that they’re hiring,” Gordon said. “Not for the jobs they had 10 years ago, for different kinds of jobs.”

But in case you were so brightened by Rich Gordon’s news that there’s no longer any need to worry, think again: as the newspaper must reinvent itself, the new wave of journalists must do so too.

These days, Gordon said, “Every journalist needs to be able to create content in multiple forms on multiple platforms.” Translation: don’t know how to work a video camera? Learn. Never had to take your own pictures while interviewing people on assignment? Get used to it. Never recorded interviews with the intention of actually posting them for audiences to listen to? Too bad.

Knowledge of multiple forms of media is a must, but the most valuable skill a journalist can have is knowledge of all things computers: HTML, videomaking programs, networking and more.

Computer literacy is, in fact, so valuable in the modern newsroom that Northwestern’s journalism school has just introduced a nine-month program in which computer science majors work with journalism graduate students to learn about the media industry. According to Gordon, when these computer whizzes graduate, they’ll all be a shoo-in for any Web design job at a major newspaper.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well the other way around. A journalist like me, who has next to no experience with Web design or computer programming, could never learn everything I’d need to know in a tech job at a newspaper in nine months. Still, Gordon might have talked me into buying a copy of “HTML for Dummies” to get a leg up on the competition.

How local is too local?

I’m pretty sure that, of all the news in my home county newspaper, about .00001 percent of it mentions the street on which I grew up. I’m not terribly disturbed that more news about my street isn’t regularly published, not only because hardly anything newsworthy happens on my street and also because there are thousands more streets competing for attention in the rest of the county.

But seriously, how cool would it be to know why that ambulance roared by my bedroom window at 2 a.m. the other day?

A while ago, it occurred to Adrian Holovaty that people of the 21st century crave information they don’t have, probably because so much of it is at our fingertips that we’re intrigued when it is not. He created EveryBlock, where residents of 11 densely populated cities across the U.S. can check out the latest news, police blotters, photos and more from their own backyards. While each city has a main portal site where news from all over converges, locals can use filters to only display an area, neighborhood or even street of interest.

Some newspapers have observed this trend of megalocal news coverage from both locals and professionals like Holovaty with interest, wondering how they can incorporate the really local into their own general news. They know they need to pull readers in, especially in the face of plummeting revenue, and what better way than to talk about what’s going on at the neighbors’? But newspapers probably won’t gain anything focusing on superlocal coverage, at least not without losing other vital parts of the paper.

Some non-newspaper websites that have tackled local-local news, as it is sometimes called, by going straight to the source: the locals themselves. These websites serve as portals for discussions on street- and neighborhood-specific issues between its residents and is not necessarily newsworthy. (Every neighborhood has its stereotypical old grouch who always finds something to complain about, hot-button issue or not.) However, some of the issues brought up on these sites can’t be gleaned from town hall meetings, police briefings or other public events reporters have access to–thus, these sites should clearly be on a reporter’s radar.

The question that remains, then, is how a reporter who finds pertinent, newsworthy local information on such websites should use it. The best way is to use these online discussion panels as a starting point for a larger story, perhaps even one that connects with a national issue. (For example, my hometown paper has of late focused on the locals’ angry reception of the downtured California State Prop 8.) Seeing these discussions at least gives a reporter an idea of the general public feeling and can show the reporter how a story might go based on personal and phone interviews with similar locals.

I’ve given references to my very localized hometown newspaper, one that gets all its international news from wire services, one whose reporters cover nothing but news that occurs inside Santa Cruz County lines. So what of huge papers with bureaus all over the U.S. and the world, like the New York Times? Can they benefit from websites like EveryBlock? Only to a very small degree, I think. Since their readership expects thorough coverage not only from within the city but throughout the entire country and world, their Bronx beat reporter should make efforts at crowd-sourcing through sites like these. The guy stationed in Tel Aviv needn’t bother.

Stuffy news sources step it up with video

In 2004, the video was as much of a novelty as was the blog–in terms of covering the election.

But traditional news was already losing its grip on public interest and advertising revenue four years ago, and newspapers in particular knew they had to change the way they presented the facts to the public–but how? It should have been an easy answer–after all, it wasn’t as if the video camera was a brand-new invention at the turn of the 21st century–but the video didn’t burst onto the news scene in one day. It’s slowly crept from novelty and experiment in 2004 into what we now view as the norm on any newspaper’s web site. No matter what newspaper it is, if it has any credibility at all, some video will be featured above the fold–er, at the top of the screen.

The New York Times, though its dusty old-guard reputation precedes it, picked up on the video craze fairly early and has now officially gone video crazy. With every hour, it isn’t just the headline story that changes on, it’s also the featured video! The New York Times now has a membership on YouTube and has in just one year posted more than 700 videos to its profile. Here’s one of the latest videos, dealing with the topic that hasn’t yet escaped the forefront of Americans’ minds: the 2008 election.

Just viewing this one-and-a-half-minute clip shows why the New York Times has so violently embraced the video as a source for news: it tells the story of a revolution in The Bronx better than text and any amount of photos could.

PR, personalized

As the 21st century dawns and the blogosphere takes over, journalists at print newspapers aren’t the only professionals who are worrying.

Public and media relations journalists don’t quite know how to handle the new phenomenon either. Gone are the days when a standard, canned news release sent out to the same e-mail list day and and day out suffices as “public relations”. Because blogging is all about injecting personal opinion and using filters to skip to what you really want to read about, public relations has to be about personalization too. As PR expert and blogger Steve Rubel put it, “For the first time, public relations means relating with the public.”

Unfortunately, anyone who’s been in the PR industry for more than five years probably doesn’t have formal training in blog-speak. They’re used to the standard news-style press release; how do they approach bloggers and customize their response for each and every one of them? How, some might think, is it possible to cultivate a relationship with someone whose face they’ll never see and whose voice they’ll never hear?

PR professionals have to resign themselves to the fact that connecting with people in the blogospohere is simply more difficult than typing up a few paragraphs and hitting the “send” button. They also have to get used to the fact that their role is no more significant than the perhaps thousands of other commentators of a blog, and their carefully-crafted messages might get lost in a sea of comment threads. A white paper released by the PR firm Edelman shows how these new obstacles can actually be used to a PR company’s advantage.

The white paper points out that bloggers don’t want to hear things that don’t obviously interest them, so strategic communicators can’t simply send a them press release that’s “scattershot” because it’s designed to interest everybody at once. Sending the kind of information that might pull a blogger in requires research–reading the blog–and selection–picking the elements of a general release the communicator thinks will be most valuable to the blogger.

Suddenly, with the advent of blogs, strategic communications has just gotten a lot more strategic, and I believe that’s the way it should be. After all, public relations journalists have always striven to connect with their contacts and build a relationship of trust, and what better way than to do it through blogging? Whereas in a traditional PR situation communicators might not know much about the convictions of their clients, in the blogosphere it’s increasingly more possible to intimately get to know your target audience. Companies should take advantage of online buzz by using it to direct the buzz in their favor.

The same applies to communicators of the future, even if they’re not strategic communicators and even if they don’t plan a future in PR. Every journalist should understand not just the power a blogger holds, but the power anyone who comments on a blog can hold. Were I to pick three blogs where I commented on a post and left a link to my blog, I may be able to double my traffic level in a matter of days depending on the popularity and audience of the blogs. (Now that’s power journalism!) I myself am not a strategic communicator, but in blogging, all communicators have to think strategically.

Blogs: What works and why

There’s no accounting for taste. My dad loves primitive, crackling old recordings of bluegrass singers that bore most people (my mom, for one) to death. My uncle loves the kind of jazz where anything goes, all improvisation and squealing saxophones and pounding piano keys. Some 80-year-olds can’t get enough of P. Diddy. Some 20-year-olds are hooked on the sounds of the 17th century.

(OK, so “some 20-year-olds” is actually code for “me.”)

Luckily, there’s a blog out there for every taste. For my dad, there’s, a place where he can hook up with his vinyl-loving brethren. For my uncle, there’s Free Jazz, where a girl named Stef regularly reviews new jazz CDs and groups; he can even filter the blog to only display entries that discuss modern jazz. For me, there’s a whole myriad of blogs, and I visit them regularly. Author Alex Ross, who wrote a book on 20th century classical music called The Rest is Noise, keeps a blog of the same name where he discusses classical goings-on and muses about the future of the genre. I can filter The New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog to only show entries about classical music. Best of all, I can see what’s going on musically in my own backyard with David Stabler’s almost daily updated classical music blog on The Oregonian’s web site.

Why do all these blogs work? For one, because they’re all regularly updated. People who keep a blog with the intention of gathering a steady readership must give their following something to read about at least every few days. For another, all these blogs–with the possible exception of Free Jazz–are kept by professional writers who are diligent fact-checkers and grammar Nazis. The better you write and the more authoritative you are on the subject you’re writing about, it seems, the more readers trust you as a news source and appreciate what you have to say on subjects they care about.

But in blogging, what’s even more important than writing skill and frequent updates is niche appeal. All the blogs above have those in spades. It almost seems that the more specific the subject of a blog, the more zealous the followers. I once interviewed a Palo Alto couple who started a blog about the accordion, and they told me that when they changed the title of the blog from “Let’s Polka” to “Let’s Banjo” for April Fool’s Day, one outraged follower left the most negative comment the couple has ever seen on their blog thus far.

In an article printed in the December 2006/January 2007 American Journalism Review, Dana Hull describes how “the Fourth Estate has fallen fast and furiously in love with blogs, from news-driven ones about professional sports teams, real estate, crime, Hurricane Katrina, immigration and local and national politics to zanier ones that dive deep into niche subcultures.” Newspaper staffers have found that blogs are a nice place to put pieces of information that are interesting but don’t fit into the print edition and may not appeal to a wide public audience.

Since the Internet took over the world of news, increasingly more online newspaper subscrubers have demanded the world of their hometown newspapers and have even customized the main page so that they see articles about subjects they prefer to read up on at the top of the page. Because the possbilities the Internet offers know no bounds, people have come to expect a myriad of information on their specific interests in their newspapers as well as their Google search engines. I, for one, am glad newspapers have wholeheartedly accepted the challenge set by their readers; ten years ago, I couldn’t find a classical music article in the news to save my life. Now, thanks to cyberspace, classical news is all over the place.

On the dark side, Hull mentions in her article that newspaper-affiliated blogging has raised questions about how true to news style blogs must stay while maintaining their casual, breezy and sometimes snarky style popular with readers. Just how honest and opinionated can reporters be in their blogs without losing credibility as a neutral source in their regular news stories?

I say, don’t touch the sensitive issues–religion, politics, going bald–and utilize the blog as a way to divulge information that either wasn’t important enough to make it into the paper or wasn’t interesting enough to the general masses. People will appreciate a more casual, behind-the-scenes personal touch to news they didn’t get in print.

Are bloggers ‘journalists’?

Over the past few months, there has been much talk of unity between the two presidential candidates and their running mates. It’s been a long time since Republicans and Democrats have been as divided as they are today. Those who vote red and those who vote blue agree on fewer issues than they might have a decade ago. That’s why, according to the politicians who may soon run the country, we need to make an effort to move closer together if we want to accomplish anything; otherwise, we’ll never be able to collaborate and accomplish something.

The same goes for journalism, according to Steve Outing. Think of bloggers and news reporters as red states and blue states. Though they’re positioned in people’s minds at opposite ends of the journalistic spectrum, dependable news may vanish if they don’t band together. But unlike liberals and conservatives, bloggers and print journalists have already begun to adopt each other’s writing techniques and traditions to give readers what they want. However, according to Outing, each camp still has a lot to learn from the other.

Because I’ve freelanced and beat-reported at my school newspaper for two years, I consider myself first and foremost to be a print journalist. I take pride in the fact that I conduct background research on all my sources, ask people how to spell names and places and companies without relying on the Internet for the answer, and make the trip to the courthouse to take a look at the records myself rather than call someone up and ask them to tell me what they say. Therefore, it’s sometimes frustrating to see so many widely-read blogs that can post a link to one of my stories, offer a paragraph of unstructured opinion and garner 40-odd readers’ comments. What do these people have that I don’t?

Well, the answer is obvious: opinion. Newspapers know the edginess and partiality of blogs is what attracts readers to WordPress and Blogger en masse, yet they aren’t willing to give up the impartiality crucial to reliable reporting. In order to jump on the bandwagon, reporters have increasingly tried to incorporate opinion in their coverage by keeping a blog on their newspaper’s Web site–but these blogs still don’t attract as much attention as their unaffiliated brethren. Still, keeping blogs is helpful and, some might argue, crucial to a reporter’s job because it offers the audience a chance to chime in and gives a reporter feedback that helps him or her determine the public mood. Newspapers that don’t know what its audiences think or talk about aren’t good newspapers.

Bloggers, on the other hand, know exactly what their readers want. On the one hand, that’s positive news; on the other, it may adversely affect the blogger’s posted content so that it begins to reflect more on the audience’s tastes than on the blogger’s own. Such an outcome is dangerous both to the blogger and to the audience; while one loses his or her perspective, the other only reads what it wants to read and doesn’t get diverse coverage.

It’s easy to expound on the upsides and downsides of blogging and traditional journalism; it’s better to focus on what both entities are doing right. Both are making an effort to start dialogues with the general public. Both are honing their reporting skills. Both are changing rapidly, and both could become so much like the other that they become one entity.

Links to Steve outing’s articles:
What Bloggers Can Learn From Journalists
What Journalists Can Learn From Bloggers

On blogging and the blogosphere

What’s a blog? According to, it’s a term short for “web log”, a kind of online diary where people can post their thoughts for others to read. Another definition states it’s a “meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life.” Yet another definition: “a rare opportunity to broadcast one’s views to the entire world.” is not a real dictionary revised by editors and printed in hardback volumes annually, but it captures the spirit of the blog more than Merriam Webster ever could. Blogs can argue the merits of peppermint versus tutti frutti toothpaste or discuss the role foreign policy will play in the 2008 presidential election. They can be read by everyone or only by a select group of people. Each entry may have two readers’ comments or 2,000.

The flexibility and the variation of blogs is part of the reason why the news industry is suffering today. Try as they might, they can’t offer the myriad of perspectives on every imaginable topic that the blogosphere serves up daily. But are blogs reliable news sources? Can they replace newspapers?

I have mixed feelings about becoming a blogger myself. On the one hand, this very form of publication may dash any chance I have for becoming a newspaper reporter after I graduate from school in two years. On the other, blogging offers the unique opportunity to reach out to a niche audience that doesn’t necessarily read newspapers.

For better or for worse, however, for the next couple of months I’ll be blogging about journalism and its relationship with the Internet. Stay tuned.