July linkspam, new outlets and more!

It’s been a crazy busy month, though one of the weirdnesses of freelance magazine writing in particular is that you’ll do a pile of work in July, but it doesn’t appear until September or November. Still, by my standards, July was a bear of a month.

This month I celebrated my one-year anniversary of full-time freelancing, and we haven’t been evicted yet! I go into greater detail in “One Year Later” as listed below, but suffice to say it’s been an interesting, rewarding and ultimately positive experience, and I have a lot more to learn.

Also, this month I launched on Medium, which allows me to share essays and get paid by the click. I’m still figuring out exactly how it works, but a lot of good writers seem to be making money there, and what I’ve read so far is good quality. Please feel free to check out my page, and if you are so moved to click and “clap” for my work, it is deeply appreciated.

Here’s what went public this month:

Endgame checkmate (CultureGeek)

Today we celebrate our Independence Day (CultureGeek)

Behind the lens: Work featured in photography exhibit (Donald Media)

9-year-old serves as ‘mayor for the day’ (Belleville News-Democrat)

Highland to upgrade water plant (Highland News-Leader)

I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like (Patreon)

Roundtable: Spider-man: Far From Home (CultureGeek)

Highland Street Art Festival goes forward despite city opposition (Highland News-Leader)

Another roar at Pride Rock (CultureGeek)

Highland votes in favor of fewer construction inspections – with a twist (Highland News-Leader)

Cyberattack causes major outages on campus (The Alestle)

The National Aquarium (Patreon)

Here comes the sun: Sgt. Pepper’s is a big hit (The Alestle – my first restaurant review!)

Highland High School graduate gets perfect ACT score (Highland News-Leader)

One year later (Donald Media)

“Alleged victim” (Medium, a rewrite of a previous essay.)

“What do you like to read?” (Medium, see above)

In addition, you may have heard about a recent incident in which a high-ranking political operative admitted impersonating a student journalist in order to get into a conference call with a candidate from the opposing party and lob accusations at her. As president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, I wrote a statement condemning the action that was endorsed by a majority of the St. Louis SPJ board, and our statement has since been picked up by other news outlets, including the Telegraph and the Intelligencer.

Here’s the statement.

As it discloses, I am personally affiliated with The Alestle at SIUE, having served on its board for years and worked with the students this summer in an editing and advisory capacity; and my SPJ vice president is the Alestle program director. However, I believe this gives our opinions greater weight, not lesser: we know for a fact that this “student journalist” does not exist, and our responsibility to call out unethical behavior per the SPJ Code of Ethics is not lessened by our connections to the student newspaper.

Finally… I didn’t write this one. But the local newsmagazine, Edge of the Weekend, featured my family in an in-depth profile for their back-to-school edition. The weirdness of three family members all going to college together finally made print. The photos used are mine, because my menfolk are my favorite photographic subject. Many thanks to Jill Moon, magazine editor for Hearst Illinois, for thinking of us.

We’ve gotten a lot of attention on this story, and it’s been really sweet to see how many people are cheering us on and supporting us as we enter our second year of family-wide higher education and abject poverty. Six jobs, three tuition bills, two impending graduations and one car. It’s been… interesting.

And in three weeks…. here comes the fall semester!

One year later

It’s been a year, and coincidentally I was back in the newsroom for a few minutes.

One year ago today was my last day at the newspaper, capping 18 years in one newsroom and 21 years in daily news. It was chaos, of course: the paper in the middle of another round of layoffs, and the president was in town, which meant a number of our people were out of the office being jeered by the public so they could cover his speech.

It was bittersweet and strange, a bit like that dream when you’re falling slowly down a flight of stairs and you wake up before you land.

It was nostalgic, with a lot of memories from nearly half my life bound up in the place and in the people, enough that I needed to encapsulate those memories in a photo essay and, eventually, in writing. 

There’s a better analogy than the falling dream. It’s like jumping off the high dive without being able to tell if the pool below you is full of water, and you’ve got your family handcuffed to you. It might be easier to make that jump when you’re only responsible for yourself and maybe a cat, but when you have other humans depending on you, it’s frankly terrifying.

Could I manage to earn a masters degree in two years while freelancing? Could I gain enough skills and academic credentials to land a full-time teaching position and continue to be of service to my profession? Could I juggle all of these responsibilities while not starving to death or starving my family?

I spent the first few weeks of grad school convinced I had made the second-worst mistake of my life. I didn’t fit in, I was too old, my writing style was entirely contrary to academic expectations, the theoretical and philosophical aspects of research and analysis were… daunting. We’ll go with that. 

But somehow I passed, re-learned academic style (still a work in progress), and began research projects that reflect my passions and aspirations. 

I am officially halfway through my masters degree in media studies, and no one has yet chased me off the campus shouting, “Heretic!”

And I love teaching.

I’m not good at it yet. I’m capable, and I’m learning. My students seem to appreciate me, though I don’t think they appreciate the unannounced news quizzes that pepper the semester’s fun. (Too bad, kids. That’s what you get for drawing me as a professor.) More importantly, their writing seems to improve from the beginning of the semester to the end. 

It’s quite clear to me how much I have to learn in this new profession, but I really love it. I don’t know if I’ve yet converted any students to leap into news reporting as a profession, but they seem to gain a greater appreciation for journalism, at any rate. If I can train them to evaluate good, balanced, smart reporting, to follow the news from multiple outlets and figure out the real from the fake, if I can open their eyes just a bit to the importance of journalism, then I’ve succeeded in my mission, whether or not I get them to become reporters.

The freelancing has been a slower launch, partly because I had no idea what I was doing. If there is a craft to cold-pitching stories to editors, I have yet to master it. But thanks to a number of contacts in the industry, I’ve started to develop some regular recurring gigs, working with local news organizations and some magazines, as well as my fiction editing work. 

The photography has mostly been going to the Patreon, which has been an utter delight. It launched shortly before I left Ye Olde Newspaper, and I’ve experimented with a lot of different content. I’ve tried fiction excerpts, nonfiction essays/rants, photo essays, travelogues, even a recipe or two. The Patreon has become an absolutely essential part of my family’s income, but I have also found it wonderfully stimulating in a creative sense. I’m always thinking of new ideas to share with the Patrons, of places I can go and photos to shoot that might interest them. 

All through the spring semester, I ran the Door Project: I covered my office door at the campus with Magnetic Poetry words, and photographed the fascinating (and occasionally silly) poems left by anonymous passers-by. All of it was chronicled on the Patreon, with a summary on Donald Media.

The last few weeks have been consumed with compiling a promised ebook for the Patrons, for those who joined the Patreon during my birthday week and my original audience members. We’re minutes away, she said as she took a hammer to the algorithm that keeps deleting her footnotes. Another thing I’d never done before: Self-publishing. I’m not sure if it counts, since it won’t be available to the wider public. But it’s definitely on my horizon.

Today was the anniversary, and it was actually a quiet day. The Boy was off to a ballgame with his father, who is in town for the weekend. The Man had to work. So I decided on a whim to drive down to Eckert’s Farm in southern Illinois, because they had created a maze of giant sunflowers. It’s like a corn maze, but all sunflowers, and those things get crazy tall. I thought it would make for some fun pictures for the Patreon, and I was able to pick up some fresh peaches and other tasty items.

And on my way back, I stopped by Ye Olde Newspaper.

It wasn’t actually out of nostalgia. My former work twin* messaged me earlier in the week that a package had arrived for me. I was not sure who had missed the memo after a year that I was no longer employed there, but after she ascertained that the package wasn’t ticking, I promised I’d drop by the next time I was in town. It so happened that the newspaper is only a few minutes away from the farm.

Fortunately there were folks I knew on duty, and we chatted for a few minutes as I collected my package (a book for review). It was good to see the newsroom again, so familiar it might as well be an old apartment where I once lived. It helps that newsrooms never change; they switch out the posters or the computer screens once in a while, but fundamentally, they never change. I promised not to steal anything on my way out the door. 

It felt like full circle. I left a year ago not knowing if there was anything else I could do in this world that would be worth anything to anyone, much less could feed my family. I left in a bittersweet tang that I once described as eerily similar to the emotions of my divorce: regret, sadness, firm resolve that it was the right choice while coated in fear that it might be a terrible mistake. 

It’s a frightening thing to imagine that you can have a different life, but it’s also a freeing moment, what my good friend Frank Fradella might call the Possibility Sense. (You should totally check out Frank’s new book.)

There was no way I could have managed this far without my terrific fans who keep buying my work, clicking the links and supporting me, particularly my wonderful Patrons. Special thanks and a round of applause should go to my beloved menfolk. My husband Jim is carrying more than his fair share of keeping the roof on while I go through this crazy balancing act, and has never wavered in his support. My son Ian has been wonderfully supportive, as well as quite sanguine about going to college with BOTH parents. We’re a team, helping each other through one of the hardest times in our family life, and I couldn’t be more blessed with their love and support as I wade into the final rounds.

We’re still waiting to see if the landing is a splash or a thud. Ask me in another year.

* Her name is Elizabeth O’Donnell. When she was hired, I introduced myself as “Elizabeth Donald, and we are so going to be getting each other’s phone calls.” I was not wrong. 

Behind the lens

I’m pleased (if belated) to announce that two of my photos have been on display in the Behind the Lens photography exhibit in Ellisville, Mo. for the last few days.

I’m not sure how much longer the exhibit continues, so if you’re in the area, you might check before stopping by. (No, I didn’t win the contest.)

Selected were:

Gator Stare was taken toward the end of the shoot at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Smiley here was waiting for me and perfectly reflected in the stillness of the water around him. I thought this one turned out remarkably well considering I had to adjust for shooting through glass, a task at which I am not always successful.

(What, actually get that close to an alligator, no matter how small? I love y’all, but no. I like my hands more.)

Pigeon of New York: Empire State Building

I’m not sure why I was in an animal mood when I submitted to Behind the Lens, but somehow I ended up picking my few animal shots. This pigeon accompanied me to the top of the Empire State Building in 2013, when I was on a whirlwind tour of New York City with my dear friend Keith DeCandido and his wife Wrenn. This is the view from the top of the Empire State looking toward Central Park, and for some reason, it really wanted to be in black and white.

My friend the pigeon seemed to follow me around, as if showing off his city. Yes, tourist, this is my town. I only had 24 hours in New York on the Furlough Tour for my one signing, but I’ve always meant to go back when I could spend some more time.

For more of my photography, please visit elizabethdonaldphotography.com. Most images can be custom-ordered in any print size or style, except some of the images shot for news photography. Also: I will have a selection of prints available at the Melting Pot festival in Granite City, Ill. this Saturday.

June bylines

Colleges help students with autism reach higher education (Diversity IS Magazine) – this actually published in May, but I missed it for last month’s roundup.

Inspection debate in Highland still simmering (Highland News-Leader)

Highland Council mulls over allowing food trucks (Highland News-Leader)

The Spindler Building: If Walls Could Talk (Patreon)

Dark Phoenix rises, and it’s not so bad after all (CultureGeek)

“Alleged victim” (Donald Media)

The Alestle asks: What’s your favorite MRF memory? (The Alestle, just compiling quotes this time with photography in the gallery)

The historical marker sits close to the road, while the site itself is somewhere back in the trees. The land that once housed the Mississippi River Festival’s music acts has since been used as a radio-controlled airplane field, an outdoor astronomy lab and the current

Highland city leaders decide against granting funds for Chamber’s art festival (Highland News-Leader)

Highland weighs number of inspections required for new housing (Highland News-Leader)

Fiction: Prologue to Yellow Roses (Patreon)

Note: I have finally remembered to update my Contently site with more samples of my work. I try to keep it at no more than 100 clips, a sampling of my various nonfiction works. Click the link to see more.

“Alleged victim”

There are so many things wrong with the phrase above, and we see it constantly in coverage of sexual assault cases… but only sexual assault cases.

It’s been one of my pet peeves for many years, but it came to mind today because of a Boston Globe piece about the ongoing Kevin Spacey investigation. The latest story digs into court filings on Spacey’s indecent assault charges, alleging he fondled a then-18-year-old busboy against his will.

The piece was already questionable, since it detailed every. single. text. sent by this teenage boy to his girlfriend during the incident. The context of the texts will likely be debated in court, but I’m not sure that we needed the entire conversation as a recounting of every move during the incident. The Spacey case is important because the actor is a public figure and because the allegations against him blew up the #metoo discussion and highlighted the fact that sexual harassment and assault isn’t just something that men do to women.

The writer has gone to great lengths to avoid naming the young man – as is appropriate – and then listed family connections that ostensibly identify him anyway. That essentially defeats the purpose of shielding victims, as recommended in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

A tweet circulating this morning alleged that one of the young man’s texts was actually published as a dancing GIF. I do not see that in the current version, and if it was created by the newspaper, that would be wholly inappropriate.

But my real issue is with the phrase “alleged victim,” which is constantly used by all branches of the news business and needs to die. The initial filing of this story included the phrase multiple times, and in the time it took me to write this blog entry, it has now been edited to change the phrasing to “accuser.” We’re still going to talk about it.

First: “alleged” is a coverall term we slap onto anything we think might get us sued. It’s useful, to be sure, but why is it that only sexual assault victims are “alleged victims”? No one is an alleged burglary victim, for example. The presumption is that the crime occurred for every other personal crime except sexual assault, where the burden of proof inexplicably falls on the victim.

In our effort to create a phrase that shields the victim’s identity while not presuming guilt, we have created a phrase that does exactly the opposite.

I’m hardly the first to say this. The late great Steve Buttry wrote about it in 2012, and his essay is now linked to this issue on the SPJ Code of Ethics as he details far better than I the linguistic issues with “alleged victim” as a “blame the victim” term that needed to go away. He made the excellent point that it’s lawyers telling us to say “alleged victim” out of terror of lawsuits if the trial ends with a not guilty. But there are other ways to cover our collective rear ends without casting doubt on the allegations before they even take the stand.

The word “victim” is problematic as well. In interviewing many people who have been subject to sexual violence, “victim” is generally an unpopular word that removes their agency. I have generally found that they prefer the term survivor, which is appropriate for a piece written after verdict. But then there’s that pesky presumption of innocence. I’m not overly fond of “the accuser,” although it is technically accurate and Buttry prefers it; it carries a presumption of vindictiveness on the part of the subject, and of skepticism on the part of the writer.

What’s the solution? Quit being lazy and rewrite your story. Restructure the sentence, kick out the words “alleged” and “victim” both. “The young man told the court that the phone has been misplaced,” beats the hell out of “The alleged victim said he lost the phone.” See how the latter changes the entire meaning of the sentence to sound as though he’s lying?

These are tricky issues and difficult stories to write, and I’m sorry to spotlight one story by the Boston Globe when this particular sin is so widespread. In fact, for this specific story, it appears in the headlines of the Chicago Tribune, ABC and Vanity Fair. CNN, Fox News and USA Today went with “accuser.”

Buttry made the best point of all: “Don’t start whining ‘political correctness’ about this. That’s a name-calling phrase people use in an attempt to shut down discussion and skew arguments in their favor. This is about accuracy and if you don’t care about accuracy, I don’t care what you have to say.”

As I have told my students many times and will continue to shout until they haul me away: more than any other profession, journalists must recognize the immense power of words. Language is the most powerful tool we have, and we must never use it lightly. The words we use form the public’s impression of the issue we cover and the people whose lives hang in the balance, and that is a responsibility we cannot shirk, no matter how tight the deadline.

May bylines

One of the weird things about being a freelancer is that you never quite know when your work will run, and when it does, you aren’t always able to snag a link. However, as you know, I’m working for a lot of local, regional and national publications as a reporter, editor and photographer (and available for more!).

Here are some of my recent bylines:

Philadelphia college aims to address lack of rural healthcare in southern Georgia (INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine)

Highland buys land to move public safety building project forward (Highland News-Leader)

Historic Spindler building enters final days (Belleville News-Democrat)

Highland council rejects all bids for new public safety building (Highland News-Leader)

CultureGeek: Summer Movie Round-up!

The Troy Times-Tribune has recently moved into the wild, woolly world of the internet, so I’m not sure any of my stories are live there yet, but I do hope you’ll bop by and support them. I’ve been covering the Madison County board for them since fall.

On the Patreon: a photo essay on the Sauer Castle in Kansas City, which I shot several months ago; and a short essay titled “Full Circle” about returning to student journalism after 22 years as a pro. Subscribe!

Door Poetry

It was an experiment, and I think it was profoundly successful.

In January, I covered my office door in Magnetic Poetry. These are the little word magnets you’ve seen many times online and never bought. I received a few for Christmas – “Coffee,” “Book Lover,” “Photographer” and “Nasty Woman.” One of my fellow grad students said it looked like a shotgun blast of words.

And then I left them there.

My office door is on the lower level of the building, which houses mass communications, music and theater students. Many of them walk past my door to leave the building, especially those escaping the music practice rooms and the radio station.

All semester, random poems would appear on my door. The students (and teachers and staff, most likely) would rearrange the words on my door to create the most interesting, bizarre and unusual conglomerations of language.

I was warned it would backfire, that immature idiots would put up dirty limericks and someone would make me take it down. I put my faith in the kids, and for the most part, I was right. (I did remove a couple of words from the “Nasty Woman” set to avoid temptation.)

Each week, I collected the best samples and shared them with my Patreon. (See, I keep telling you the best stuff is on the Patreon. You should subscribe!) But here are a few highlights from this semester, as we move into the quiet of summer.

The first line, “We always know coffee and art,” was from my son as he helped me put all the words on my door. The rest was added in the coming days by unknown passers-by.
This is the most impressive effort of the semester. Actual stanzas. I can’t imagine how long the poet stood at my door working this out, but I am impressed.

It was the highlight of my day each time I came to my office and saw a new poem left for me by the Door Poets. I intend to keep adding to my word-shotgun and exploring what else they might have for me.

In the news, again

We’re getting all kinds of famous here at Donald-Smith-Gillentine Inc.

Author fair and book sale highlights local authors

SIUE’s Gillentine wins Degree Completion Award

And the previously announced Illinois Press Association Award got some ink this week.

In general, it’s been a good week for the DSG crew. The semester is winding to a close, and since I won’t be teaching over the summer, I’ll have plenty of time to write my fingers off.

At least, that’s the working plan.

And now, a word from our sponsor…

There’s a wry variation on Martin Niemoller’s famous poem circulating: “First they came for the journalists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a journalist. We don’t know what happened after that.”

It’s not a fair analogy, of course. But it underscores the point: the only reason anyone knows what really happened today is because someone covered it. Without acts of journalism, you have only to rely on government press releases to know what’s happening and why. That goes for big things like “going to war,” and little things like, “my water rates are going up.”

If you’re reading this, I hope I don’t have to convince you of the importance of journalism. If, however, you still have doubts, I hope you will look just at the list of Pulitzer finalists released earlier this week, and click the links through to see some of the amazing and powerful work being done by journalists today.

So today is the SPJ Day of Giving, and I have personally donated. Usually I direct my donation to the Terry Harper Scholarship Fund, which funded my attendance at the 2010 Excellence in Journalism Conference. By the end of that conference, I had been nominated to the national Ethics Committee, and I continue to serve today. It is one of the greatest privileges of my career to serve the committee and SPJ, and it would not have been possible without the Harper Fellowship.

Today, however, I directed my donation to be used for whatever the Society’s most crucial need might be. The folks working at national are coping with staggering issues in our profession, from vast changes in infrastructure and methods that continually create new challenges for working journalists, to mass layoffs that erode confidence among the survivors and a shrinking membership, to an increasingly hostile public that seems to believe we are its enemy. I can’t imagine which of its many missions is most in need of support right now, so I hope they use my meager donation for the best cause.

Things that make me #SPJProud:

  • The sheer number of scholarships, fellowships, internships and other financial support offered to students and members.
  • The Legal Defense Fund provides direct assistance to small news organizations, freelancers and others in their efforts to fight government encroachment on the First Amendment and for open records and transparency.
  • The training and webinars provide much-needed skills development and reinforcement for members who are increasingly being left without training by their newsrooms.
  • The support, practical and otherwise, for journalists who have been laid off and must now find work and/or retraining.
  • The advocacy in Washington and elsewhere to defend the profession against increasingly virulent threats, whether that is in discourse, in the courtroom, or in danger of physical harm.
  • The accountability for our own profession, for advocating diversity in the newsroom and combating sexual harassment and unethical behavior, even when pointing out those transgressions could damage the rest of us.

And so, so much more. SPJ has given me so many opportunities for my career, far beyond that which I could have achieved alone. I have met some of the finest journalists in the country through SPJ, and I am proud to call them colleagues. I am proud to serve as president of St. Louis Pro, and to help my local colleagues through all the crises they face covering our fine city and region. I am proud to be a journalist, and to stand up for what it represents: voice to the voiceless, a challenge to the powerful.

I hope that if you are a journalist, you will consider joining SPJ, if you have not already done so. Give us a year to figure out if our resources are of use to you, and tell us what we aren’t offering so we can address it.

And I hope that if you support the First Amendment and want to see independent news informing you of what’s happening in your community and the nation and the world, you will consider donating to SPJ, either for the defense fund or the SDX advocacy funds such as Legal Defense.

Note: This column was cross-posted to STLSPJ.org.