Fake News Watch

Attempting to debug the internet… emptying the ocean with a thimble.

• John Fugelsang’s tweet about the Secret Service and  President Trump is going crazy online. Here’s the deal: The Secret Service cannot accept gifts from a subject they protect, not even hotel rooms and travel expenses or renting tables and lights near Mar-a-Lago. The Trumps are not directly sending the SS a bill, but the SS is required to pay for it, including rent in Trump Tower for their security station. What has never happened before (that I’m aware of) is a president who owns multiple resorts and golf courses and goes there often. The SS is therefore indirectly paying the Trumps, but it’s required by law.

If you want more data, the Washington Post tracked how much of Trump’s travel has been at his own resorts. As of that report, he had been in office 346 days and spent 116 of them at a Trump property, or 33.5 percent.

• Oh for the love of… No, the senior-citizen couple who died in New Jersey on July 7 were NOT scheduled to testify before a grand jury against Hillary Clinton. Neither of them had a damn thing to do with the pharmaceutical industry, much less the company that blew up the price of EpiPens, which also has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton, which never seems to faze 4chan. The house blew up because of natural gas, possibly caused by poor installation of a new stove.

The Fourth of July meme that showed Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump celebrating Independence Day by visiting troops in three cases and golf in the fourth is not accurate. None of the photos were taken on any Fourth of July, and the Trump image on the golf course is several years before his presidency.

• There is no Congresswoman Ateesha Nubbins, and no one is proposing a law to establish an upper-age voting limit declaring no one over age 60 can vote.

• Immigration fun: No, immigrants cannot apply for asylum at U.S. embassies or consulates, no matter what happens in the movies. This one was repeated by a sitting Congressman. Asylum claims must be made while physically present in the U.S., and they have a year to do so. Also: No, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters did not tell CNN that Trump should “nominate an illegal immigrant” to SCOTUS. It’s a doctored image, and your first clue should be that “illegal immigrant” is not AP style. No, California does not have “39 percent illegals” in public school. It’s about 3 percent, about 12 percent parents. The same idiot meme that’s been circulating for decades says 66 percent of California births are “to illegals on Medi-Cal.” It was 15 percent in 2011, dropped to 12.6 percent two y ears later and keeps dropping.

Meanwhile, we usually don’t bother with things that are true, but people have been yelling Fake News at the word that a new ICE task force is charged with investigating and revoking citizenship from naturalized citizens. Sorry, folks, it’s absolutely true and it IS a new initiative, not people freaking out over something that’s always existed. It hasn’t happened since McCarthyism.

• Did Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh say presidents shouldn’t be investigated while in office? Analysis says: Sort of. In 2009, he wrote an article for the Minnesota Law Review in which he cited his experience with the Starr Report and opined that Congress could consider a law exempting the president from criminal prosecution because of the dangers of politicizing. However, legal experts say in context, the statement was about temporary immunity as granted by Congress, which has not been passed. Instead, U.S. v. Nixon still holds, which upholds that the president is not immune from subpoenas. Politifact has much more detail and rates it half-true.

• Speaking of SCOTUS, that pic of Sens. Schumer, Warren and Booker saying they don’t want a judge who follows the U.S. Constitution is rated “pants on fire” by Politifact, as the only source showing any of them saying these quotes is “The Babylon Bee,” which describes itself as “your trusted source for Christian news satire.” And no, of course the Notorious RBG  did NOT write that “pedophilia is good for children.” It’s a gross misinterpretation of an attempt to make a statutory rape law gender-neutral, in recognition that any gender can commit sexual assault.

• Of 98 statements of fact at President Trump’s campaign rally in Montana last week, 76 percent were false, misleading or unsupported by evidence, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker database. They focus only on material fact, not trivialities or opinions. Some are perhaps just misleading – calling on Sen. Tester a liberal Democrat when he’s voted with Trump more than one-third of the time – while others are… um. Read it here yourself – it’s long.

• My Favorite Fakery of the Week: No, Disney is NOT planning to build a new theme part in Escanaba, Mich.

Trufax: Walt Disney DID consider building a second Disneyland in St. Louis. It was to be called Riverfront Square, incorporating prototypes for Pirates and the Caribbean and New Orleans, among others based on Davy Crockett and the Meramec Caverns, etc. It’s not far from Walt’s hometown of Marceline, Mo., after all, and the famous Main Streets of Disneyland and Walt Disney World tend toward a stylized impression of Marceline.

So what happened? Beer. Legend has it that August Busch Jr. publicly insulted Walt after the MouseMan declared they would not sell beer in a St. Louis park. Financing and ownership were probably also factors, and then Walt started buying up acres in central Florida….

Note: This feature does not take a stance on political issues. It is solely in favor of fact over fiction, at least in the public discourse.

Annapolis

There are hundreds of columns and editorials out in the world condemning the slaughter of five journalists at a newsroom just like mine, less than two weeks after it happened. The columns appeared within hours, tweets and posts and laments. There’s a reason. Words are our lifeblood and our solace. We may be working out our collective sadness and fury in words for some time to come.

I honestly feel this is the closest we journalists will come to understanding how police officers feel when they hear one of their own has been killed in the line of duty. You feel shaken and sick to your stomach, angry and generally beyond rational thought.

It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know them personally. You live your life by a mission, and they were killed while fulfilling it. There but for the grace of God.

That Thursday afternoon, Annapolis was on all three screens in our newsroom. Everyone who was not actively writing something on deadline was gathered by the screens. Watching and waiting and trying not to show how it struck us in the gut.

They’re the same size we are, you know. Maybe a little smaller.

But the news doesn’t wait for tragedy. Within a couple of hours, a gigantic storm rolled into the area and we had to shift into emergency coverage mode. No time to obsess over tweets and updates; we had to churn out tornado warnings and closed roads and flooding dangers and power outages and damage reports.

The evacuated survivors of the Capital Gazette used the bed of a pickup truck to write their stories for the morning edition while they waited to hear which of their colleagues – their family – survived the shooting. No time for mourning.

Because that’s the job. As their editor now-famously declared, “We’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” And in a heart-rending cartoon showing the five murdered journalists at the pearly gates, St. Peter soberly shows them a copy and says, “Yes, they got the paper out.”

The Baltimore Sun reported on their own, on the journalists writing about the murders of their colleagues. Two reporters and a photography writing the most hellish story of their lives, chronicling for the world the deaths in their family. “I don’t know what else to do except this,” said reporter Chase Cook.

We are a family. Hour for hour, we spend more time with the people in our newsrooms than we do with wives and husbands, children and parents. We are sometimes a dysfunctional family, with the unusual personalities attracted by the profession, and the immense stresses that the job places on us. But a family nonetheless.

It takes a stalwart heart to love a journalist, and many marriages do not survive its rigors.

To love a journalist, you must be prepared for random phone calls during family occasions that see your loved one vanish into another room, taking notes on a napkin.

To love a journalist, you must get used to a partner who has to scan email and headlines before even getting out of bed in the morning.

To love a journalist, you must be patient when you’ve planned a romantic luncheon for two at a not-inexpensive Italian restaurant, and ten minutes after the iced tea is poured,  your partner is asking for that meal to go, there’s a standoff in the next town, I’m so sorry, dear.

To love a journalist, you have to still that whisper of nervousness when there’s a tornado warning and your partner has to go out and take a video, or is sheltered in a steel mill under the giant, heavy equipment. He or she may be sent to a rough neighborhood only minutes after a gang shoot-out, or writes a story that ruffles the wrong feathers, or is standing by the side of the interstate shooting video of the crash while someone may be coming up behind him, not quite paying attention.

To love a journalist, you have to know that there’s a possibility he or she won’t come home.

For five families in Annapolis, that worst possibility came true. It’s an accepted risk for police officers and firefighters and military personnel, but few people ever consider that journalists are one step behind those brave first responders and bullets hit us just as hard.

When a soldier is killed in action overseas, he is a hero. When Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered overseas, they said, “What was he doing there, anyway?”

His job.

It’s getting worse. At least 41 journalists have been killed this year, at least 30 of which were in direct retribution for a story or caught in a crossfire. That doesn’t include the Annapolis five. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists both detailed the darkening climate for journalists worldwide in a Washington Post piece that largely focused overseas. World leaders decry journalists, discrediting and undermining them – and it works. Someone will listen, and pick up a gun.

The threats aren’t just deadly. Internet bullying, harassment and stalking are pervasive. When we talk about it, it is dismissed as “the cost of doing business.” In the week since the Annapolis shooting, the Capital Gazette has received death threats and untold piles of emails and letters cheering on the attack, and not just in the darker corners of Reddit or 4chan.

I personally received mockery and abuse simply because as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, I co-signed a mass statement from the Student Press Law Center essentially saying we have the right to work without being slaughtered.

We try to laugh when another crazed reader emails us a nastygram, stifling the tiny thread of worry that says this could be the one who decides to back up his vendetta by striding into the lobby with an AR-15.

After all, my newspaper is based in the hometown of James Hodgkinson, who decided to vent his fury by shooting up a Congressional baseball practice. The idea that any of these shootings are in “other” places and therefore we are safe belongs in the far-distant past.

Every shooting is somewhere else until it’s here.

Every newspaper has a Jarrod Ramos. Every single one, and most have multiples. Ramos’ defamation suit has become the focus of the world’s attention – oh, he had a motive, so it’s easier to dismiss it. “He had a vendetta against the paper,” sayeth law enforcement, and already the shooting is recategorized.

It’s not about journalists or journalism, it’s not about violence against newspapers, they argue. It was just this one guy, this one newspaper.

But his defamation suit that supposedly spurred this caused me even more concern. Once again it began with a man stalking and harassing a woman, a common denominator among mass shooters. He pleaded guilty, then sued the paper for defamation because they reported it. When it was thrown out he appealed (thus costing the paper quite a lot in legal fees, I would imagine).

The appellate decision, as reported, is a thing of beauty. If he had had a lawyer, they stated in much more polite language, he might have been advised that in order to BE defamation, it actually has to be false. You can’t be defamed with the truth.

But he didn’t understand the difference between “fake news” and reality. He didn’t like it, therefore it was defamation.

And he isn’t alone. If the comments we received, the badinage on Twitter and the endless screaming threads on Facebook are any indication, there is an enormous and troubling population that can no longer tell the difference between fact and fantasy – and simply doesn’t care.

That is far, far more dangerous for journalists – and for the United States of America – than the guns or the mental illness or any other cause we can blame. We make our living through words, and our passion is for the facts, and to see both dismissed in the wake of a hail of bullets tore us all apart.

We got emotional. Some stepped over the line. Two journalists openly tweeted blame for President Trump in direct or indirect language. Both retracted their comments later; one was fired/resigned, his 21-year career as a journalist at an end in one foolish, heated Tweet. That, too, is a tragedy.

We spend our careers, our precious time with those long-suffering, patient families, our very lives in pursuit of the facts – I resist the word truth, since truth can be subjective, but facts are facts no matter what your perspective.  When you dedicate your life in the pursuit of finding and reporting facts to the world so that they can be informed, and they stop caring about the difference between fact and fiction, the very foundation on which you have built your life shudders.

And yet… there is another story waiting to be told.

June Linkspam Round-up

At least my last month in daily journalism won’t be boring.

On the Patreon:

• A short story titled “Dead Heat,” for patrons at $10 or more.

• Blog post: “Goal No. 1 – Unlocked,” for patrons only.

• A short story titled “Sisyphus,” one of my golden oldies, open to all.

• Photo posts of a double rainbow sighting ($5 and up) and the MoBot glass show. (open to all).

• A personal essay on “Life After News,” open to all.

I also posted this essay on meeting a group of Chinese journalists.

You can get all this lovely content by subscribing to my Patreon!

In the news:

• Feature: A son’s gift to his father: 16 more years of life and counting

SIU board to vote on firing President Dunn

SIU meeting to fire Dunn illegal, chairwoman says

Board deadlocks on firing Dunn

• Granite City teacher resigns after allegations of affair with student

Storm pummels metro-east; 45,000 without power

Also, a public statement as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists regarding Lindenwood University’s decision to stop printing its student magazine after controversial (and award-winning) stories.

And finally… I was not permitted to use puns in this story. I think the loss of income going freelance will be worth it simply to be allowed to pun in public.

ME: Am I allowed to say he got stuck with the bill?
EDITOR: No.
ME: Sigh. Someday I’m gonna quack you up.
EDITOR: *stare*
ME: Look, Leader Pub’s lead is, “One Six Flags patron apparently thought it was duck season.”
EDITOR 2: Are you sure it’s not wabbit season?
EDITOR: I’m about to declare a time-out.
ME: I’m not allowed to use puns. See? No puns in my story, and it is physically painful.
EDITOR 3: Since you’re leaving, does that make you a … lame duck?
ME: *points* How come he gets away with that and I can’t make a single pun??
EDITOR: I gave him the side-eye glare.

Signing in Kansas City

Just a quick update that I’ll be signing and selling in Kansas City on Saturday, June 30. Many thanks to Contra Mini-Con 29.5 for hosting me as part of their event! I’ll have books in stock to sign and will be bringing art prints; if there’s something specific you’d like to have, please message me in advance and I’ll see what I can do.

Keep in mind that several of my novels have gone out of print due to publisher bankruptcies, so at the moment all I have in stock are the three in-print books: Setting Suns, Nocturne Infernum and Moonlight Sonata. I’m a little low on SS, so if you want one, reserve it fast.

As a side note, if you’re looking for my out-of-print books like Dreadmire, The Cold Ones or Blackfire, the only store I’m aware of that still has stock is Afterwords Books in Edwardsville, Ill. They do mail-order, hint hint.

I haven’t been to Kansas City for at least a year, and haven’t done a signing there since I was GoH at Contraception several years ago. I’m hoping to scope out some photo shoots while I’m there or en route, so if you have suggestions of good locations, please let me know!

Full details on the signing are available on the Facebook event. Hope to see you there!

Fake News Watch

It’s not quite an all-immigration Fake News Watch this week, but close.

• The King of the Netherlands did not tell President Trump that the Hague is waiting for him. It was a parody account.

• No, fracking didn’t cause the volcanic eruption on Hawaii. And not just because there is no fracking in Hawaii. What the frack, people.

TIME Magazine’s cover with Trump and the crying immigrant child was not an image of a child separated from her parents. The child in question was crying while Border Patrol agents patted down her mother, but the child and mother were not separated. However, TIME stands by its cover, citing the girl as a symbol of the ongoing issues surrounding immigration and the administration’s policy, not just the children separated from their parents. Washington Post delves further into it here.

• Not Fake: Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care” jacket was real. It is a product of Zara, a Spanish fashion company popular with U.S. retailer Urban Outfitters. Zara creates such beautiful items as white-supremacist symbols on a skirt, Holocaust uniform shirts with the pink triangle, a similar set of pajamas made to resemble concentration camp uniforms, complete with Jewish symbol; handbags with swastikas on them… you know, it’s all in good fun! I can’t find if they were responsible for Urban Outfitters’ unlicensed Kent State University shirts with fake blood spatters, but they seem to enjoy the same vein. Here’s a timeline of Zara’s controversies, including allegations of labor violations, copyright violations and various cultural appropriations.

• This should be fun… Four different nonpartisan fact-checking sites (plus others I haven’t linked) have looked into “Obama did it too” as a response to the policy of separating families at the border. Each has found it false. Politifact points out that Obama immigration policy had plenty of critics, but he didn’t separate children. The Bush administration referred all undocumented immigrants for prosecution but specifically excepted adults traveling with children. Snopes rated it false: there is no law requiring it, and the policy was enacted in May 2018. Factcheck.org details changes in the administration’s story from speech to speech, and reiterates again: zero tolerance policy to separate families began in May 2018. Washington Post Fact-Checker has detailed the facts and fiction on this issue.

• Related: Business Insider, of all publications, compiled the stats and found that immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. By a HUGE factor. They’re also less likely to commit acts of terrorism and their children are no more likely to commit a crime than the children of native-born Americans. That factors in both undocumented immigrants and legal visa holders. More than 95 percent of sexual assaults were committed by native-born Americans. In addition, statistical analysis shows the claim that 63,000 Americans have been killed by undocumented immigrants since 2001 is impossible by the numbers.

The child dressed as Donald Trump was not expelled from school. The photo making the rounds first appeared in a 2015 HuffPo roundup of kids dressed as Trump for Halloween, before he even declared candidacy for President. (Trump, not the toddler.) The first clue that the entire story was made up might be that the kid’s alleged name – Basil Karlo – is the alter ego of DC Comics villain Clayface.

• Someone snagged the URL www.trumphotels.org. Naturally, the site is not being run by the president. The quotes (as of this writing) are accurate, however.

L.L. Bean is not refusing to hire registered gun owners. Michelle Obama is not its top stockholder. It’s a private company. It HAS no stockholders. The post came from a so-called satire site. That’s not stopping people from posting it and calling for a boycott, of course.

• This one’s making the rounds again: No, a small Virginia newspaper did NOT run a front-page ad for the KKK. The Westmoreland Times ran a story about KKK recruitment flyers found on front lawns, including racist and anti-Semitic messages. They included a picture of the flyer, which was provided in context and with a clear statement that the paper did not support the content expressed. This has been an issue that comes up from time to time: when we write about racism, are we supporting it or revealing it? In retrospect, other newspapers have reported on similar flyers and redacted contact information, which might have been a wiser choice for the Westmoreland Times. But in running a headline that baldly calls it an ad for the KKK, Newsweek crossed the line the other way. An ad is paid content. This was news, even if it made people clutch their pearls.

• I have a two-way tie for my favorite Fakery of the Week. No, Stormy Daniels is not running for president. And Mark Zuckerberg is not closing Facebook.

Note: This feature does not take a stance on political issues. It is solely in favor of fact over fiction, at least in the public discourse.

双耳开放

I did most of the talking, which is a bad form for a reporter.

Earlier this week, I was asked to join a colleague at a meeting hosted by the World Affairs Council in St. Louis. Every couple of years the WAC brings in a group of journalists from other countries and asks the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists to sit down with them and talk about the similarities and differences between their work and ours. 

Two years ago it was Russian journalists, and this year it was Chinese journalists and professors. Due to a confluence of schedules and a nasty bug going around, only my vice president Tammy Merrett and I were available to meet with them.

We did most of the talking, and the time went so fast that I never got to ask the questions I wanted to ask them. Questions about how much government control still exists over their work, and whether it is explicit or subtly implicit. Questions about the social issues in their country, and whether they lean more toward the traditional objectivity model or more toward advocacy. About the state of their job market, and whether the shift from print to digital has changed their landscape as it is changing ours.

But they had so many questions for us. We were working through an interpreter, which always takes me a little time to adjust – I have to remember to remove my earpiece while I’m talking, or I get confused having my own words interpreted into my ear in Chinese. Still, I wished I could just sit and listen; I find the cadences of the language fascinating without comprehending a word.

A lot of our time is spent gaining definitions. For example, the concept of a trade organization like SPJ vs. the concept of a trade union, which is a very different structure governed by different laws. They had several questions about unions, some of which I had to defer since I’ve never worked in a union newsroom.

Other discussions included the First Amendment and ethical balances for the veracity and impact of the protected speech; about pushback against journalists in the U.S. with police harassment and arrests during protests; about more subtle pressures primarily on student media, from student governments or college administrators trying to shut down funding in retaliation for unflattering coverage.

They wanted to talk about Edward Snowden, and about the balance between actual national security and putting lives in danger with coverage. They wanted to talk about credentials, about what structures exist to allow journalists access to do their jobs and the difference between being issued a press pass and being “licensed” to practice journalism.

And then we were back to the First Amendment again, about the advocacy of SPJ and other organizations and our role in fighting to maintain our freedoms.

We talked about small family papers and large corporate-owned media, so Tammy and I can do our annual arm-wrestle about the benefits and problems with each. We talked about bias and objectivity, about taking responsibility for errors or mangled coverage, and about the Ethics Code as guideline and statement of principles, but not a legal bludgeon. It was pretty heavy material for a morning without coffee.

I had to step out for a moment during discussions of intentional bias and advocacy journalism masquerading as traditional hard news. When I came back into the room, Tammy was talking about the frustration of journalists when we see someone shredding the ethics code with slanted, false or nearly-false coverage.

“So we’ve dealt with Fox News?” I said, and it got a laugh, even from our guests (after translation).

I love these meetups, because we tend to forget in the little microcosms of our newsrooms that there is a whole world out there doing journalism just like we are – but without the freedoms and structures we so often take for granted. They had so many questions and we answered them all, but I wish I had kept my eye on the clock so I could remember to ask them some things.

I wanted to ask them if their readers send them nasty messages calling them names, and how they deal with the disheartenment when they pour so much effort into a story and everyone misses the point.

I wanted to ask them if their families understand the long hours and low pay, and if they ever feel like they have to apologize for choosing the life they did.

I wanted to ask them what they do when a story is killed, and they know it needs to go out there, but there’s an insurmountable barrier preventing them from speaking.

I wanted to ask them if they love what they do, even if it doesn’t love them back.

Those are probably not appropriate questions for the forum. But they’re the questions I wanted to ask. Maybe next time, if I can remember to keep the earpiece out of my ear – and listen more than speak.

• Note: the headline was courtesy of Google Translate, as I am hopelessly monolingual. I sure hope it says what I meant to say.

Fake News Watch

Note: I’m giving this a shot. I will continue it as my time permits, and how long I continue with it will be directly tied to how much hell it gets me. Snopes and Politifact (as well as other sites) already do a spectacular job at this, but I still seem to spend a lot of time debunking stuff on the internet. So here goes.

FAKE NEWS WATCH

• Sorry, fans, Back to the Future IV is not a thing. An unverified account pretending to be Michael J. Fox posted a pic of the actor with Lea Thompson and Christopher Lloyd, announcing that they started shooting last summer. Despite the gleeful squees across the internet, multiple sources confirm it was a hoax, including Snopes.

• I understand that Anthony Bourdain’s suicide is a terrible blow to many. But the conspiracy theories are out of control. He was about to expose a pedophile ring! He was murdered by operatives of Hillary Clinton! Assassinated by Mossad! He was a #MeToo sympathizer and his girlfriend had accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her, so he was silenced to stop him from speaking out against sexual abuse! I’ve seen several say “I just don’t believe it was suicide,” but there is no legitimate source yet giving any evidence to doubt the preliminary conclusion of French authorities. Ordinarily I am not a fan of dwelling on details due to the risk of suicide contagion, but here they are, almost tastefully for the NY Post.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. Their line is available 24 hours, every day.

• No, Mitt Romney did not state that President Trump has “very serious emotional problems” and must resign. The news piece circulating that he said this on Anderson Cooper 360 is fiction, since it’s been years since Romney appeared on the show. The quote is cobbled together from various statements by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, including a December 2017 appearance on Anderson Cooper 360, according to Politifact.

• You’ve seen the picture of the crying toddler in a cage. The photo is real, but the boy is not in an ICE holding cell. He’s part of a protest against the practice of separating children from their parents at the border and keeping them in cages. He saw his mother and couldn’t figure out how to immediately get to her, and started to cry. So the photo is real, but miscaptioned, as Snopes points out.

Who’s NOT Dead: No one was pronounced Dead By Social Media this week! As far as I know, anyway.

Untimely Death: The obits for Ruby Lee and Malcolm Young are making the rounds; they died in 2014 and 2017, respectively.

Note: This feature does not take a stance on political issues. It is solely in favor of fact over fiction, at least in the public discourse.

One small step for me.

This has proven much more difficult to write than I anticipated, probably because this is the hardest decision I have ever had to make. 

Harder than the decision to leave Memphis and my career in the arts in order to pursue a career in journalism. Harder than the decision to divorce my first husband. And I’m not one to take a leap without considering all the options, so you’d best believe that I have discussed this with Jim, with my parents, with close friends, with mentors. Probably until they were tired of talking about it with me.

I have dithered and stalled, because once I post this, it’s final. It’s real.

I’m leaving the newspaper.

With that decision ends 21 years in daily journalism.

Wow, that was hard to type. And I haven’t even done it yet.

If you know me at all, you know how much my work means to me. I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to journalism, ever since I made that decision to quit my artistic career and pursue a different kind of storytelling, the kind that can change the world. I always knew I wanted to tell stories and be in public service, and in journalism I found a way I could do both. 

I believed it then and I believe it now, and the only difference between my passion for news in 1997 and my passion now is the amount of grey in my hair. For 18 of those 21 years, I’ve reported for the Belleville News-Democrat. I was and am proud to part of this team. The people I work with are some of the finest journalists I have ever known, with a dedication and steadfast perseverance that would stun the readers if they could only glimpse behind the scenes. 

And I have been proud to serve the people of Madison County for 17 of those years, through good times and bad. It has been my privilege to chronicle the life of my adopted home.

I’ve said often in my speeches that this is the best time in history to be a journalist, and I meant it. Still do. Ask me about it sometime, and buckle in for an essay.

Now I have a wonderful new opportunity.

Beginning in August, I will be a teaching assistant at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I’ll be teaching newswriting, and the assistantship will allow me to pursue my masters degree. I was actually accepted last November to begin in January, but it took a while for the financing to come through, and they were kind enough to allow me to defer my acceptance to fall.

For those keeping score, my whole family will be in college together. It’s like a sitcom, only we provide our own laugh track.

With a masters, I can pursue a full-time teaching position. I can pass on to beginning journalists all that I learned in 21 years of shoveling coal into the furnace, along with the things they won’t find in their textbooks. I can focus their attention on the Code of Ethics and the ongoing debates that too often get shoved into ivory-tower hypotheticals. I can be useful to my profession, and continue my career in a new phase.

I’m really excited about this. I always intended to move into teaching when I was finished reporting, a second career in the sunset of the first. This is a little earlier than I planned, but you know what they say – life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

However.

There’s one to two years of grad school ahead of me. A teaching assistantship does not equal the salary of a full-time reporter (low bar, but still). I am blessed that Jim has a good solid job with health insurance. But we were largely reliant on my income for our family, and that means I don’t get to sit around and wax philosophical in coffeehouses while I’m in school. (What? I was in college once upon a time.)

The development of The Plan has taken up much of the winter, and if this blog has been quieter than usual, that’s why. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

• Freelance writing. I’ll be knocking on a hell of a lot of doors, and I hope my esteemed colleagues in other publications will remember me when they need someone who can turn around a story quickly and well. In part, I’ll be doing this because rent is a thing, and in part it’s because I cannot bear to give up journalism entirely. It’s been my daily life for half of the time I’ve been breathing, and I find it hard to even say my name without adding my newspaper onto the end of it, as though it is another last name. I love the work, and I intend to keep doing it as long as I am able.

• Fiction. I’m still working out how my fiction work will change. To be frank, the novels have never paid off as much as I had hoped financially. While I would dearly love to write the next Nocturnal Urges book and finish the Blackfire zombie trilogy and a half-dozen other books sitting around on their outlines, it may be that novellas and shorts will be my necessary focus in the next two years. It really depends what the market will bear: just like in journalism, you get more of whatever you click. If I see more interest in my fiction, I’ll create more fiction.

• Photography. I’ve already expanded the photography site with its own online shop, and am pursuing more local art and craft shows with an eye to moving into higher-end art shows when I can afford the fees. I’ve also opened a shop on FineArtAmerica, so if you ever wanted my creepy angels on a tote bag or greeting card, now’s your chance.

• Editing. I’ve been doing side-gig work as an editor and writing coach for many years, working with new writers and small press publishers to help them shape and grow their work. I will be taking on more clients, and hopefully with a faster turnaround now that it will be part of my “day job.”

• Patreon. Yes, I’m joining the marching legions. Frankly, this is going to be the most important part of our survival. And I’ll sing for my supper: essays, short stories, musings on grad school, on journalism and the news of the day, photography, live chats, and much more are layered in the rewards for those kind enough to support me in this new venture. 

If you’ve ever wondered, “How can I help?” – this is how.

Please subscribe to my Patreon, and share it around with others.

 

What’s not changing: Literary Underworld will continue to operate. The store remains open. The newsletter, the website and the author features will continue. 

What may change: Cons. It will basically come down to hard cash: a con may cost us $300-500 to attend, and people aren’t buying books at cons like they once were. Jim and I are always there for a con willing to pay our way, but that isn’t common anymore. So we may have some hard choices to make, and we hope our friends on the circuit will understand if we have to regretfully decline.

What’s not changing: My volunteer work. I will not have to step down as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists or give up my seat on the Ethics Committee, because I’ll still be earning the bulk of my living from journalism. I will also continue to run Relay for Life, because cancer doesn’t take a vacation while I go back to school. 

What may change: Little things. Donations. Birthday gifts. Dinners out. Our trips to Memphis. I think it’ll basically depend on how many gigs I get each month, and our standard of living will have to adjust. 

A more flexible schedule may mean I’m free to do things I was never able to do before, like a cup of coffee on a weekday afternoon with a friend in the city, or a daytime photo shoot before the garden closes at dusk. I’m rather looking forward to remaking my life.

But this is scary. I’ve been mugged three times and won each fight, and I wasn’t as scared then as I am now. I’ve had two heart surgeries and an emergency c-section and wasn’t as scared as I am now. When I divorced my first husband, it was terrifying to think about being on my own again with a four-year-old hostage to fortune, but I wasn’t as scared as I am now.

I’m not afraid of the work load or the hustle of a freelancer. I’m not afraid of being back in the classroom after more than two decades. I’m nervous but not afraid of teaching, a whole new profession for which I am prepared only on the sense of knowing the subject matter thoroughly, and having guest lectured many times for various colleges. I imagine there’s a learning curve in front of me, but that’s exciting, too.

No, I’m afraid of the money, of not being able to support my family. I spent a long time as a working single mother. I did the poverty rounds of choosing whether to stiff the electric bill or the water bill (electric, they can’t shut you off in winter); of eating peanut butter so Ian could have a good meal; of finding non-exterminator ways to fight roaches in the apartment; of begging friends to watch my son when I had to work a Saturday shift because I couldn’t afford ten hours of babysitting.

I know poor, and I don’t want to be there again, not when Jim and I have worked our tails off to reach a point where all the bills are paid and up to date and we have a little in savings and almost no debt besides the student loan I’ll never escape. Do we really want to go back to peanut butter and cutting the milk with water to make it last longer?

I’ve had multiple panics where I call Jim and tell him I’ve lost my mind, we’re going to starve and be homeless. He always talks me down out of my tree, and tells me that he believes in me and in my ability, and we are going to be okay. Ian and Jim are both my biggest supporters, and we are all in this together as a team.

It’s not an easy thing to change your life, but who’s going to do it for you?

 

There will be a live chat TONIGHT at 8 p.m. CST in the Literary Underworld Tavern chatroom. Join me!

 

Award! (Well, me and some other folks…)

The Illinois Associated Press Media Editors gave a second-place award to “The day a Belleville man shot a congressman,” part of the day-one package our team put together in response to James Hodgkinson’s shootout with police at the Congressional baseball practice last year.

I was proud to be part of that team, working primarily on the background story about Hodgkinson’s political activism in our region. It was an incredibly difficult and fast-paced story, and nearly everyone in the newsroom was working on some aspect of it. We later joked that if you weren’t on the Hodgkinson case, you must have been out of town. (This was not as much of a joke as you might think.)

I have to say, I really couldn’t imagine any breaking story that could possibly have beaten it, and not just because it was our team on the ground. It went to the Arlington Daily Herald for “Hours of Torture,” which told of a young man with mental problems who was brought to Chicago and tortured for hours in an apartment. Twenty-eight minutes of that was shared live on Facebook. 

There was much fine work celebrated, including several more for the News-Democrat. Check out the full list here.

May Roundup

I spent most of May finishing a project a year in the making: a package on teen suicide prevention co-written with Alexis Cortes at the News-Democrat. Alexis and I started working on this story before I was transferred to a different team, so it didn’t really have to take a year, but it kept getting postponed during the reorganization.

It was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever worked on, and one that made me quite nervous. I’ve written about sensitive subjects many times – a series on domestic violence, an in-depth look at shaken baby syndrome, unlicensed day care centers, LGBT rights pre-Obergefell, racist harassment, etc. All of these subjects required careful, deft handling of both sources and subject matter.

But none of  them had the blatant warning sign: If you do this wrong, people will die.

Suicide contagion is a real thing and we shouldn’t scoff at it, particularly in the news business. Several reliable studies show that completed suicides rose by 10 percent in the weeks following Robin Williams’ suicide, which was widely covered in the press. Talking about suicide doesn’t make a mentally healthy person commit suicide. But something about reading about suicide or watching depictions of suicide in entertainment has a tendency to tip a person on the edge over into an attempt.

I told Alexis several times during our efforts to report on teen suicide that I’d rather we did it in a boring way or not at all than do it wrong and have suicide attempts on our hands. Both of us took extreme care in the reporting of the piece, and we were backed up all the way by our editing and audiovisual team.

Our first instinct, of course, was to focus on a family that had lost a teen to suicide and the impact it had on them. But I made a habit of asking every expert we interviewed one question at the end: “Do you have any suggestions for how we can approach this subject without doing more harm than good?”

And they all said, “Please don’t focus on a grieving family, or the memorials, the damage they leave behind.” Apparently that is one of the things that tends to kick off suicide contagion – along with graphic depictions of suicide methods, or words like “unsuccessful suicide attempt” as if suicide itself is a success. Or, as they told us, everything that 13 Reasons Why did in both seasons.

The show was part of the reason we looked at the issue, tracking the number of completed suicides in our region compared with state and national rates. With the guidance of counselors and experts, we focused instead on a young woman who survived, on ways schools are trying to cope with teen mental health, and on paths to heal and get better.

I’m proud of the work we did, and just as happy that we managed to do it ethically and responsibly. Would it have been a more compelling piece with a grieving family weeping into the camera and sad pictures of a grave? Perhaps. But it would not have been a responsible piece, and that’s more important than the hit count.

There are signs your teen may think about suicide. Here’s how you can get them help.

Teachers on the front line for teen mental health concerns

Parent Guide: Know the symptoms, and find them help

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

 

Also published in May:

SIU board will not support campus split

Swastika vandalism suspect refuses to speak in court (Yes, that’s in reference to this incident.)

Scarlet Letters: Memorial Day, or look out, it’s another food post!

 

Watch this space Monday for a major announcement.