John Carroll remembered as ‘a great editor and an even greater friend’

June 22, 2015

Norman Pearlstine, the top editor of Time Inc. and, before that, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, stepped to the pulpit of Lexington’s First Presbyterian Church on Monday and got right to the point.

“John was our generation’s best, most respected, most beloved editor,” he said.

Anyone seeking confirmation of that had only to look out across the venerable old sanctuary. It was filled to capacity with John Sawyer Carroll’s family, friends and colleagues who flew in for his memorial service from as far away as China.

Carroll, 73, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Lexington Herald-Leader, died June 14 at his Lexington home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, rapidly progressive dementia that he was diagnosed with in January.

Lexington Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the newsroom staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Pearlstine was a classmate of Carroll’s at Haverford College near Philadelphia. His eulogy was followed by two more, from Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, and Bill Marimow, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Maxwell King, another former Philadelphia Inquirer editor, read a prayer selected by Carroll’s widow, Lee. The Rev. Mark Davis offered words of comfort and spoke of a life well-lived that ended too soon. Singer Calesta Day filled the sanctuary with a stunning a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace.

Friends and colleagues came to pay tribute to Carroll for five decades of remarkable journalism that produced more than two dozen Pulitzer Prizes and significant government and social reforms.

Among them: legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, who hired Carroll for his first editing job, and Frank Langfitt, a National Public Radio correspondent based in Shanghai who worked under Carroll at the Herald-Leader and flew 18 hours to get back for the service.

“He had such an influence on my life,” Langfitt said. “I had to be here.”

The service and a reception afterward at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning drew a who’s who of Kentucky media and political figures, including Mayor Jim Gray; Rep. Andy Barr and his predecessor, Ben Chandler; and former Gov. Brereton Jones.

Those who eulogized Carroll spoke of an intellectually curious and demanding editor, an inspiring leader, a great mentor and a kind and modest man.

After editing the newspapers in Lexington and Baltimore, Carroll went to the Los Angeles Times in 2000 after a scandal in which the publisher cut a secret deal with advertisers that compromised ethical standards and demoralized the newsroom.

“What followed over the next several years should stand as one of the finest acts of leadership in a newsroom or anywhere else in modern times,” said Baquet, whom Carroll hired as his deputy in Los Angeles.

“John’s newsroom was fun and ambitious,” he said. “The key people who went to work for him came out different, with bigger, larger ideas and fewer limits. And with the belief in the power and the honor of journalism; that we were part of something much larger.”

Baquet said that when he was named the top editor of The New York Times a year ago, he spoke to his staff and described the kind of outstanding but humane newsroom he wanted to create. “John was deep in my head and in my heart when I said that,” he said.

Marimow, who became Carroll’s deputy in Baltimore after working for him in Philadelphia, told how his curiosity about a routine story about the scrapping of an aircraft carrier near Baltimore led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series about the human and environmental toll of the global ship-breaking industry.

“As an editor, John was a visionary who reveled in great work as well as quirky stories and quirky colleagues,” Marimow said. “He saw the forest clearly, while most of us, including me, were lost in the trees.”

There were plenty of funny stories, too.

Pearlstine told how, when they were college students in 1962, he got Carroll out of jail after he and a friend ran onto the field of Connie Mack Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch to try to shake hands with Willie Mays.

Baquet recalled, early in their working relationship, a long, racy story about how the drug Viagra was changing Los Angeles’ pornography industry. Afraid Carroll might not want to publish it, Baquet gave it a bland headline and submitted it for approval. After a long silence as he read the story, Carroll started to chuckle.

“Then he said, ‘Great story. But why’d you put this really dull headline on it?'” Baquet recalled. “Then he pulled out a pencil, and I swear it took one second, and he scrawled down a new one: Lights, Camera, Viagra. He was the best headline writer in the business.”

Marimow recalled the last time he saw Carroll, when their families got together a year ago on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts.

“John was tan, trim, vigorous and energetic; the picture of vitality,” he recalled. “It’s the way I’ll always remember him. A great editor and an even greater friend. An irreplaceable friend.”

How do you tell real war heroes from frauds? Listen for the silence

February 24, 2015

What is it about some successful men that they feel a need to be war heroes, too?

There is a long tradition of prominent men exaggerating their military service for no good reason. And there is an equally long tradition of journalists and veterans’ groups exposing them to public ridicule.

But it keeps on happening.

Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, apologized this week after a TV news crew caught him telling a homeless man that he had served in special forces. McDonald graduated from West Point and Ranger school and served in the 82nd Airborne, but he wasn’t in special forces.

And then there are the TV stars who embellish their experiences as war correspondents.

This is a big deal because good journalism is about accuracy and the search for truth. Making up things destroys credibility, and without credibility, a journalist has nothing.

Brian Williams. AP Photo

Brian Williams. AP Photo

NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended earlier this month after he apologized for repeatedly telling how a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War was hit by enemy fire. Actually, it was another helicopter in Williams’ group that was hit.

Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling” that key detail. NBC executives have reacted appropriately by suspending their top-rated anchor for six months. Many journalists think he should never return to that job.

Even more interesting is the case of Bill O’Reilly, the bombastic Fox News talk show host and commentator.

Mother Jones magazine last week called out O’Reilly for repeatedly stretching the truth about his experiences as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

In his 2001 book “The No Spin Zone,” and on his show, O’Reilly has claimed to have “survived a combat situation” and reported from “active war zones.” In reality, O’Reilly and other non-British journalists were kept hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the Falkland Islands during Great Britain’s 74-day war with Argentina.

What O’Reilly was referring to was a demonstration he covered in Buenos Aires that turned violent. He claims to have seen Argentine troops shoot and kill civilians. And on his show in 2013, he told a guest, “My photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete.”

Bill O'Reilly. AP Photo

Bill O’Reilly. AP Photo

O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues have refuted his claims. They don’t recall any of their photographers being injured, and they note that there were no reports of civilian deaths that day.

Rather than apologize, O’Reilly has doubled-down on his claims and hurled insults at his critics and former colleagues. He called David Corn, the Mother Jones bureau chief in Washington who co-authored the story, “a liar”, “a despicable guttersnipe” and “a left-wing assassin.”

O’Reilly told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him about the controversy this week that if he didn’t like the story, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”

What O’Reilly has not done is offer any evidence to support his claims or refute the Mother Jones story. But rather than suspend him, Fox News executives so far have given O’Reilly their full support.

O’Reilly and Fox News may not be concerned about their journalistic credibility, since they don’t really have any beyond their loyal base of conservative viewers.

But they may be underestimating the military combat veterans in their audience who will be offended by O’Reilly’s manufactured heroism.

That’s because combat veterans and war correspondents who have performed bravely under fire don’t go around bragging about it. Even when asked, many would rather not discuss it.

I have seen this many, many times. But the one I will always remember involved the most famous hero of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee.

I interviewed York’s widow, Gracie, four months before she died in 1984. She told me her husband never wanted to talk about the deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“He never would, not even to me or the kids,” she said. “I guess he didn’t want to think about how bad it was in the war.”

Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

Story magazine founder wanted to tell Kentucky stories

May 4, 2014

story1 Julie Wilson is founder, publisher and editor of Story magazine. Photo by Tom Eblen


How does a woman born in Detroit become the founder, editor and publisher of a magazine dedicated to telling Kentucky stories? Well, there’s a story there.

Julie Wilson’s father was born into a big family in the Harlan County community of Pathfork. Like thousands of Kentuckians after World War II, he migrated north to seek his fortune. And, like many of those thousands, he eventually got homesick and returned to Kentucky.

Wilson, who has lived in Lexington since she was 4 years old, thinks her father’s experience nurtured her love for Kentucky in all its diversity. She now shares that love in each quarterly issue of Story magazine.

“There are so many unique stories in Kentucky,” Wilson said. “And every time we go out and talk to somebody, we get two more story ideas.”

With nearly two years of publication under their belts, Wilson and her partners are expanding Story magazine into a broader brand built around Kentucky culture and pride.

Kentucky Educational Television on May 14 will show the first episode of backStory, a quarterly program about the making of the magazine. Story is producing the show with Lexington-based Locker Public Relations.

Another project in the works, called Sessions, will feature collaborations of Kentucky musicians from a variety of genres. For that, Wilson is partnering with the magazine’s National Avenue neighbor, Duane Lundy of Shangri-La Productions.

story2Musicians scheduled up for the first session, on June 25, include Willie Breeding of The Breedings; Mark Heidiger of Vandaveer; and Stephen Trask, composer of the 1998 rock musicalHedwig and the Angry Inch, a revival of which opened recently on Broadway.

Wilson said a limited number of tickets for each session will be sold through The Morris Book Shop. An edited video will be posted online soon afterward. Event details will be available soon at

Wilson, 43, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky journalism program who worked as a free-lance writer for the Herald-Leader and a reporter for the Richmond Register. Then she spent a decade learning the magazine business at Host Communications, where she edited business-to-business magazines for the tour and spa industries.

After a year and a half as publisher of Kentucky Bride magazine, Wilson got to thinking about all of the interesting Kentucky stories she heard about but wasn’t seeing in other publications.

The cover of Story magazine’s first issue, which Wilson wrote, was a profile of Ashley Brock, a successful young model who travels from her home in Leslie County to do photo shoots in Europe and Asia.

“We look for how we can tell stories about Kentucky that are debunking the myths that are out there,” Wilson said.

She seeks out stories about Kentuckians doing cutting-edge things. Some are famous, such as the current issue’s cover subject, the late Louisville-born journalist Hunter S. Thompson. But many stories are about people whom readers might never have heard about otherwise, such as Dr. Joseph Yocum, a Nicholasville veterinarian who is a pioneer in animal stem-cell therapy, or Tim Hensley and Jane Post, gourmet mushroom farmers in Madison County.

story3Regular features focus on successful Kentucky expatriates, artists and craftsmen, musicians, philanthropists and people doing good things in their communities. Wilson said she tries to include features from across the state “so people won’t think we’re just a Lexington and Louisville magazine.”

She developed Story’s concept with Tim Jones, who as creative director oversees the magazine’s sophisticated design, and Laurel Cassidy, the associate publisher, who focuses on advertising sales. Bart Mahan is chief operating officer, and Allison May and Sara Plummer are account executives.

Wilson said the business is close to breaking even. The magazine has a distribution of about 18,000 copies and 2,200 paid subscribers, many of them Kentuckians living out of state. Eventually, she hopes to publish bimonthly.

Wilson’s husband, David Wilson, is chief operating officer of Yonder Interactive Neighborhoods, a sustainability education consultant. They have a daughter, who turns 9 this week.

“And, yes, her name is Story,” Julie Wilson said. “She says she was the first Story — but we didn’t name the magazine after her.”

The Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners recently gave Wilson an award as small business owner of the year.

“It has been more rewarding than I ever expected,” she said of the magazine’s first two years. “But I’m just doing this by the seat of my pants. I hope they know that.”

People ask, “What’s the future of newspapers?” Some thoughts

December 10, 2013

This is the season for holiday parties, which means several opportunities a week for someone to corner me in a crowded room and ask about the future of newspapers.

Some people tell me they worry about newspapers going away, because they like the feel of paper in their hands and the smell of ink in the morning.

Others worry more about journalism itself: How can American self-government survive without a robust, credible news media?

I fall into the second group; I worry about the news, not the paper. When asked, I give people a brief synopsis of why newspapers are hurting, why good journalism is threatened and where I think the trends could lead.

Then I ask if I can get them anything from the bar, because by that time I need a drink.

So, in the interest of public curiosity and my own sanity and sobriety, here are some thoughts about the future of newspapers and journalism.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, these are the best of times and worst of times for journalism. The reasons for both are digital technology and the Internet, which have profoundly transformed the news media.

The good news is that the digital revolution has given journalists amazing reporting tools and news-delivery platforms that they could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

Rather than just being able to publish one or two print editions a day, newspaper journalists can now deliver up-to-the-minute news, photos, video and audio anywhere on websites and mobile devices. Plus, readers can instantly respond with comments, changing journalism from a lecture into a conversation.

Newspapers’ print circulation has slipped some, but growing online readership has more than made up for it. And that’s the irony: more people are reading newspaper journalism than ever before, but newspapers are making less money. A lot less.

Before the Internet, mass media was an exclusive club. Media companies needed a lot of expensive equipment and vast distribution networks, so they often became monopolies.

Technology has ended those monopolies. Now, anyone with an Internet connection and a digital device can publish information that can be seen by unlimited numbers of people around the world within seconds.

But the same technology that has created what should be journalism’s golden age has ravaged the advertising-based business model that has always paid for journalism. More than two-thirds of newspaper revenues come from advertising.

As with news, there are no longer advertising monopolies. New digital advertising platforms keep taking slices out of the pie. Newspaper print advertising is still a good business, but it’s not growing.

Traditional media companies are getting some of the online advertising, but there is a lot of competition. Much of it comes from companies that are not having to spend money to create real journalism, or even what is generically called “content.”

As advertising revenues have shrunk, so have newspaper pages and staffs. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in June that newsrooms have shed 18,400 jobs since 2000, with employment falling from 56,400 newspaper journalists nationally to 38,000.

Will print newspapers survive? I think so, at least in some form in most markets. Print advertising remains very effective for many kinds of advertisers. But digital is the future, which means organizations that want to continue the costly process of creating good journalism will have to find new revenue streams.

I always thought newspapers made a mistake by giving away journalism online, but that model is changing. Most newspapers have recently initiated some form of online subscription or “pay wall.” That will only increase.

The New York Times recently reported that its online subscription revenue had surpassed online advertising revenue, which is a promising sign for journalism. It costs money to pay trained journalists to do quality reporting, writing, photography, graphics and editing.

The economics of journalism will continue to be a challenge, but the future holds many new possibilities. One exciting development is small, niche journalism websites being started by entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations. They could help fill some voids being left by shrinking media companies.

What worries me, though, is the rise of entertainment, hucksterism and political propaganda masquerading as honest journalism on scores of websites and cable TV channels, such as Fox News and MSNBC.

But that’s another conversation. Happy holidays.  

John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.

I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.

As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.

I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

JohnEgerton-webJohn was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.

I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.

The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.

I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.

“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.

John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.

He published several other books: a history of Nashville, an exploration of Tennessee’s 19th century utopian communities and a collection of his magazine essays that explored the South’s complexity.

His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.

John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.


News Literacy Project teaches kids to sort media fact from fiction

July 28, 2013

Before he retired and moved back to Lexington, John Carroll spent five years as the top editor of the Los Angeles Times, leading a newsroom staff that won 13 Pulitzer prizes.

Websites, blogs, niche cable TV networks and talk radio shows were beginning to become significant players on the media landscape then, and Carroll noticed a phenomenon he hadn’t seen before in his long journalism career.

“We would get 1,000 emails, ‘Why didn’t you cover this? You’re covering up!'” he said. “I was just shocked at the misinformation that people were calling us with and emailing us with, and it was obviously coming out in mass form, because you would get 20 or 50 or 10,000 queries about certain things that were not true.”

The proliferation of new digital media and the changing nature of traditional media have resulted in many more sources for news, information and commentary. But some of what is masquerading as journalism is really propaganda, marketing, entertainment or simply nonsense.

How do you know what to trust? It is hard enough for adults; what about kids? One of Carroll’s Pulitzer-winning reporters decided to take on that issue.

Alan Miller, who had been an investigative reporter in the Times’ Washington bureau, left the newspaper in 2008 and started the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit educational organization. Carroll now serves as chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

nlpThe project developed a media literacy curriculum now used by teachers in middle and high schools in the New York, Washington and Chicago areas.

“We’re teaching critical thinking skills, so if you find out something online … it gives you critical tools for deciding whether this is a good source of information and whether something is true or not true,” Carroll said. “The way we teach it is fun. It has a lot of practical exercises.”

The News Literacy Project also has enlisted dozens of journalist volunteers — including big names such as Gwen Ifill of PBS, James Grimaldi of the Wall Street Journal and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times — to speak in schools.

The curriculum was designed with help from trained educators to be compatible with the new Common Core standards, said Miller, the project’s president and CEO. Independent assessments have measured student learning and helped refine the program’s effectiveness.

So far, nearly 10,000 students have taken the courses in those three metropolitan areas. The long-term goal is to reach every student in every American school, and a digital version of the curriculum is being developed and tested.

Miller said some videos and other resources, such as a “teachable moments” blog reacting to current events, will be made available free to schools everywhere in October on a redesigned version of the project’s website,

Plans call for a full, free digital curriculum to be offered online beginning in the fall of 2014. Teachers can use the lessons as a separate social studies unit, or integrate them into their other curricula.

So far, the project has been funded mostly with grants from media companies and major foundations. Plans call for additional revenue to come from supplementary services to schools in major metropolitan markets, Miller said.

The curriculum teaches students to think critically and question the sources, accuracy, fairness and truthfulness of information they encounter in all forms of media. They also are encouraged to get their news from a variety of sources.

Miller and Carroll said the courses have been popular with both teachers and students, and assessments show they have increased students’ interests in news and public affairs. The project has received little criticism from partisan or ideological groups, which frequently claim media bias left and right.

“We are rigorously nonpartisan,” Miller said.

Even more than that, Carroll said, “We encourage (students) to pay attention to media they disagree with, because another characteristic of the modern era of media is that people have created gated communities for themselves; they listen to only the things they want to hear. Sometimes the people they don’t want to hear have something significant to say.”

The project’s goal is to create not just more savvy media consumers, but more well-informed and engaged Americans.

“It’s important for this next generation to know how to make good use of the media and not to be used by the media,” Carroll said. “Our fondest hope is to reach every young person in America, and that as a result of that they will become more sophisticated citizens and voters and discourse about public issues will be improved.”

Goodbye Kodachrome, and thanks for the memories

December 7, 2010

The roll of Kodachrome had been in my desk for so long, I had forgotten what pictures I took with it, or when. The yellow-and-red cylinder became a symbol of mystery and procrastination.

I knew I needed to have that slide film developed, especially after Eastman Kodak announced in June 2009 that it would stop making Kodachrome because almost everyone now uses digital cameras.

Then I heard that the last Kodachrome lab in America — Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan. — would stop processing it at the end of this year. If I wanted to relieve my guilt and solve this mystery, it was now or never.

What were these pictures? They must have been important; otherwise, I would have used a lesser, cheaper film.

When Kodachrome was introduced in the 1930s, it was the first widely available color film. It remained the gold standard for decades. “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away!” Paul Simon begged in his 1973 hit song, which praised the film’s qualities:

You give us those nice bright colors.

You give us the greens of summers.

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.

By the 1970s, though, Kodak’s Ektachrome was almost as good, required less light and was cheaper and easier to process. Many professionals switched to Fujichrome Velvia in the 1990s. Color print film got better and better. But until advances in digital photography made 35mm film all but obsolete, many photographers still reached for Kodachrome.

I took Kodachrome on my first trip to London in 1992, where I made a picture of a Horse Guard so crisp you could count the stray strands of horse hair on his helmet. When I covered the 1994 Olympics, Kodak was a sponsor, so there was plenty of Kodachrome. It was perfect for capturing Norway’s breathtaking winter beauty.

Some photographers are nostalgic about film. Not me. I love digital photography: It is easier, cheaper, more versatile, makes better pictures with less light and is instantaneous. I would never want to go back to film.

As a roving reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-1980s, I liked shooting photographs to accompany my stories, but it was a pain. I didn’t have a darkroom, so all I could do was put exposed film on a Greyhound bus to Atlanta and hope for the best.

Photojournalism was then done mostly in black and white. Even when I shot color, it was rarely Kodachrome. It was too fussy. Kodachrome required abundant daylight, precise exposure and special processing. If the film was not kept cool and developed promptly, the color quality suffered.

I saw that firsthand when Dwayne’s sent back my Kodachrome, which, it turns out, I had shot in early 1998, just before moving back to Lexington from Atlanta. The pictures were faded, which seemed appropriate given how much had changed in those dozen years.

There were several pictures from my older daughter Mollie’s 16th birthday party. She is now 28 and married, as are several of the giggly girlfriends who were with her that day.

Most of the pictures were from a going-away party my boss gave for me at her cabin in the north Georgia mountains. I had many good friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they and their now-grown children came to send me home in style.

The digital revolution that made Kodachrome obsolete also radically changed the newspaper and advertising businesses. The Journal-Constitution has been hit especially hard. Its newsroom now has fewer than half the 500 journalists who were there when I left.

As I looked at my faded party pictures, I counted the friends who have since retired, taken buyouts or moved on to other careers. Like my Kodachrome, today’s Journal-Constitution is a pale reflection of what it was then. But times change, and we must change with them.

Thinking about those days prompted me to search for more memories. In one box of old photographs, I found several unprocessed rolls of less-fussy black-and-white film. At least I had taken the time to label most of them.

Some were pictures for newspaper stories I wrote in the 1980s. Somehow, they never made it to the bus station. Two rolls were labeled “Shannon 1987” — the year my younger daughter, now 23, was born.

I must get them developed. One of these days.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Even ‘signature’ industries must support themselves

November 18, 2009

I’m worried about the financial state of journalism.

Digital technology has given news papers more readers than ever. Ironically, though, that technology means newspapers no longer are the dominant force in advertising, from where the money to support journalism has always come.

To make matters worse, most newspapers are owned by big corporations that went into debt to get bigger. They thought profits from advertising would make the debt affordable. They were wrong.

As a result, newspapers and newsrooms are dwindling in size. Radio and television newsrooms have been hit hard, too; they just don’t talk about it. But I worry most about newspapers, and not just because I work for one.

Newspapers have always done most of journalism’s heavy lifting, from investigations to public affairs reporting.

The Herald-Leader has gotten a lot of attention lately for exposing wasteful spending in some of Kentucky’s quasi- government agencies. But that kind of work is nothing new: Newspapers of all sizes have a long record of giving Kentucky’s powerful people and institutions some much-needed oversight.

Newspapers also play a big role in community-building. They do everything from covering neighborhood zoning disputes to printing wedding announcements.

You could call newspapers one of Kentucky’s “signature” industries. There’s at least one in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties, and almost all of them are struggling.

But I have an idea: What if newspapers could persuade the General Assembly to give them another way to replace the advertising revenue they used to have?

What if newspapers were allowed to put slot machines in some of that empty space where reporters and editors used to work? Big newspapers might even have room for full-blown casinos.

People who went to their local newspapers to gamble wouldn’t go out of state so much, so more of their money would stay in Kentucky.

Truthfully, though, much of that money would have stayed in Kentucky anyway. It just would have been spent on other things. So other than helping newspapers and the people associated with them, gambling revenue wouldn’t do a lot for Kentucky’s economy.

There would be other complications, too. For example, critics of slot machines and casinos say they attract crime and create other social costs.

There’s big money in addictive businesses like gambling, especially when they’re part of a government-sponsored monopoly.

Others would surely complain that it’s not fair for such a monopoly to benefit only one industry, like newspapers. At the least, TV and radio also would want a piece of the action. And it wouldn’t be long before politicians decided that government needed a bigger share of the take. After all, they created the monopoly, and they could just as easily take it away.

Even if newspapers could hang onto most of their new gambling revenue, I’m not sure it would be good for journalism in the long run.

Some media companies would use their cash infusion to invest in journalism — for a while. But corporate executives have a duty to maximize return for investors. If media companies could make big profits with slot machines and casinos, why would they want to subsidize journalism?

Even “signature” industries aren’t exempt from the laws of economics, no matter how special they think they are.

My guess is that journalism must find a way to adapt by attracting more loyal customers, doing a better job of marketing and selling its products, creating new business models and proving its value. It no longer can be totally dependent on something else, even advertising.

So maybe my newsroom gambling idea isn’t so good after all.

Besides, it’s not an original idea.

Another “signature” industry has tried this strategy in other states for years, with little evidence that slot machines and casinos are anything but a short-term fix for deeper economic issues.

Of course, that industry would have us think it’s a horse of a different color.

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Journalism is down, but hardly out

March 17, 2009

The boss’ email popped into my BlackBerry just as the smiling young lady walked into the school office to escort me to her journalism class. I would have to read it later.

I spent the next hour talking with the smart, engaged students who produce The Lamplighter at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. They wanted to discuss ways to make their monthly newspaper more interesting, relevant, inclusive and professional. I had a wonderful time.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I read the boss’ email. It was an update on the latest round of job cuts at the Herald-Leader, which will be announced soon. It also said that, for the first time, most of those who keep their jobs will have their pay cut.

I was glad the high school students didn’t want to talk about the future of journalism, because adults ask me about it all the time. They hear about the Rocky Mountain News closing and the San Francisco Chronicle on the brink and they ask, “What’s happening to newspapers? Will the Herald-Leader survive?”

It’s complicated, I tell them. It has to do with changes in the economy, technology and the ways people communicate. Nobody knows how it will all turn out.

The irony, I tell them, is that there has never been a bigger audience for Herald-Leader journalism. Print circulation has slipped, but online readership has soared.

The Herald-Leader staff’s work is no longer confined to once-a-day, regionally distributed ink on paper. We now report news and tell stories instantly to a worldwide audience with as much copy, photos, audio and video as we can produce.

What’s more, readers comment on stories as soon as they’re published online, offering additional information, corrections and their own views. It has made journalism better and more interesting.

But as technology has changed the way journalism works, it also has changed the way advertising works. That has dramatically changed the news media’s business model.

You see, the money to pay for journalism has never come from journalism; it has always come from advertising. Companies now have more ways to advertise and, in a bad economy, less money to do it with.

That means revenues have fallen for newspapers, radio and TV stations. Online advertising isn’t as profitable as with print or broadcast. Online ad revenues are growing, but not fast enough to make up the difference.

Blogs, social networking and video-distribution Web sites have given everyone a voice, and that’s great. But journalistic reporting and commentary have been swept up into a larger universe of “media” that has blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment, marketing and advocacy.

Much popular “journalism” these days isn’t journalism at all; it’s show business, more focused on maximizing profit than in seeking truth, informing the public or promoting healthy discussion.

Take, for example, Fox News Channel’s flag-waving, rah-rah coverage of the Iraq War, or the CNBC “personalities” who touted stocks and glorified CEOs rather than doing in-depth reporting and skeptical analysis.

It’s no wonder people are confused, because journalists haven’t done much to expose these frauds or explain journalism’s values to the public. It’s sad that some of the best media criticism lately has come not from journalists but from a comedian — The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

A decade ago, the Herald-Leader’s news staff stopped growing and started shrinking.

The same thing happened at radio and television stations. Lexington TV news has largely abandoned public affairs reporting to focus on crime, tragedy, sports and weather. There’s precious little reporting on commercial radio anymore; it’s all “talk.”

WVLK still has talk show hosts who discuss local issues, often based on the Herald-Leader’s reporting, but WLAP seems to have redefined its mission as right-wing political advocacy.

When people ask me if this newspaper will survive, I tell them I’m confident it will. The Herald-Leader remains profitable because no other advertising vehicle in this market comes close to its reach. As long as it has the journalistic muscle to be a must-read for Kentucky’s engaged citizens, it will maintain that reach. As the economy improves, advertising will return.

Much of the Herald-Leader’s current financial squeeze is the result of debt the newspaper’s parent, The McClatchy Co., took on a couple of years ago to buy its previous owner, Knight Ridder. I can’t complain; I welcomed the McClatchy deal.

Some people think local media ownership is always best, but I’m old enough to remember when the Herald and Leader were locally owned — and not very good. Outside ownership has some disadvantages, but it also can insulate journalism from powerful local interests and protect a news organization’s credibility.

I’m proud of the Herald-Leader. Reports about wasteful spending at Blue Grass Airport are the latest of many examples of local public-service journalism you won’t find anywhere else. I expect that work will continue, even with fewer people left to do it.

Newspapers aren’t about the paper, they’re about the news. As the old sayings go, good newspapers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, print the news and raise hell. They celebrate success, shine a light on problems and hold government accountable to the public. They tell a community’s stories, and they provide informed commentary that sparks public discussion and makes democracy possible.

Good journalism is too important to disappear. So what’s the new business model to support it? I don’t know, but I’m confident somebody will figure it out. I’m also confident there will be plenty of young people — at Dunbar High School and elsewhere — with the intelligence and commitment to do the work.

The national perspective

The Pew Research Center puts together an annual State of the News Media report. The latest report was published his week. Click here to read it.

Celebrate your freedoms on Constitution Day

September 14, 2008

Last week, we marked the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This week, we should note an even more significant milestone.

Wednesday marks the 221st anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the document that is the foundation of America’s bold experiment in self-government.

Ironically, when the Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, it didn’t include the most important part: The first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. That’s because many Founding Fathers didn’t think it was necessary to spell out citizens’ rights and liberties.

James Madison, the future president, was among those who insisted that a Bill of Rights was essential. He waged a tireless four-year political battle that has been chronicled in the book James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski, a University of Kentucky professor.

It’s a good thing Madison succeeded.

Over the years, some presidents and other powerful officials have found the Constitution an inconvenient obstacle to achieving their goals. In most cases, the U.S. Supreme Court reeled them in, as it did with some of President Bush’s efforts to subvert the Constitution.

While I worry about rogue leaders who trample on citizens’ rights and freedoms, I worry even more about citizens who don’t seem to care.

The University of Kentucky’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center will mark the Constitution’s anniversary Tuesday and Wednesday with programs highlighting the First Amendment.

I’ve always considered the First Amendment the most important part of the Constitution. In many ways, its 45 words sum up what makes America great: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I’m shocked by how many people think the First Amendment gives Americans too much freedom. You know who I mean: the people who think religious freedom should apply to one faith but not another, and those who think some speech should be silenced, or that the government should be able to tell journalists what they can or can’t report.

Such attitudes are reflected in an annual poll conducted by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The 2008 poll will be released Wednesday, but the center’s executive director, Gene Policinski, gave me a preview. The national telephone survey of 1,005 adults was conducted between July 23 and Aug. 3, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Policinski said 21 percent of Americans think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. And about 40 percent think the press has too much freedom.

I find that frightening, not so much because I’m a journalist, but because I’m a citizen.

Still, it’s an improvement over what people told pollsters during those scary post-911, Patriot Act days, when twice as many people thought First Amendment freedoms should be curbed.

Policinski attributes much of the public’s negative attitudes toward press freedom to well-publicized incidents of bad journalism. “But, then, newspapers are one of the few institutions in our society that correct their problems in full view of the public,” he said.

Another factor is perceptions of “bias” in the media, both left and right. Those perceptions have increased in recent years as the role of journalism has been blurred — especially on cable TV and talk radio — by media companies and personalities more interested in advocacy, ideology, entertainment and profit than good journalism.

This is a tough time for the traditional news media — newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Digital technology and a slumping economy have taken away some of the advertising revenue that has always supported good journalism.

Nobody has figured out yet how to make much money with Internet journalism, but the technology itself could prove to be best thing that ever happened to free speech and press. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now have a worldwide voice.

The First Amendment Center’s poll found that the percentage of Americans getting most of their news online has grown from 2 percent in 1997 to 17 percent. And most of those polled said online news can be just as good as news delivered in more traditional forms.

That’s good news for news organizations as they shift more content online. But it also means citizens must become more sophisticated and able to sort credible information from spin and propaganda.

Most of those surveyed thought bloggers deserve the same rights as traditional journalists. In many ways, bloggers are the 21st-century equivalent of the 18th-century pamphleteers the Founding Fathers had in mind when they ensured freedom of the press.

Our nation’s challenge now is to protect Internet free speech from government censorship and business manipulation. But for that to happen, citizens must understand that it matters — and that the future of American democracy may depend on it.


The University of Kentucky’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center has two programs marking the U.S. Constitution’s 221st anniversary. Both programs will be at UK’s W.T. Young Library auditorium.

Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, speaks on The State of the First Amendment.

Before Kirtley’s speech, the center’s 2008 James Madison Award will be presented to Tom Loftus, The Courier-Journal’s Frankfort bureau chief and investigative reporter.

Wednesday, 10 a.m.

Panel discussion on who should be considered a journalist in the new digital media. In addition to Kirtley, panelists will be Kentucky media lawyer Jon Fleischaker, managing editor William Nichols and Herald-Leader columnist and former managing editor Tom Eblen.