Alumni Shape the Future of News
A new class of RJI fellows boast four alumni members.
A new class of Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellows, including four Mizzou alumni, started nine-month fellowships at the end of August. They are investigating a range of ideas to help strengthen the future of news, including alternative revenue sources, better ways to engage readers and even a new way to change the world.
Tad Bartimus: Mentor, Muse, Visionary
Tad Bartimus was hurting. Twenty years after being exposed to Agent Orange while a war correspondent in Vietnam, she needed crutches to walk. She had just left her longtime career at the Associated Press, where she’d been the first woman in nearly every position she’d held, most recently bureau chief. Now, unemployed for the first time since she was 14, she was looking for a new purpose.
A teacher at the K–12 school in tiny Hana, Hawaii, on the eastern shore of Maui, told her about a student who was struggling with writing. The boy’s English teacher knew he had stories to tell, but he was too shy to attempt writing them.
Bartimus, BJ ’69, decided to see if she could help.
She visited Hana High and Elementary School and sat down with the student under the shade of a monkeypod tree. She had spent her career getting other people to tell her their stories, and she engaged the boy in conversation by asking him questions, then sitting quietly and waiting. Slowly, he started talking to her. First it was in single, clipped sentences. Then, gradually, he opened up.
“The beauty of working with the young people here is that they are oral storytellers,” says Bartimus, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing. “They talk in perfect, grammatical sentences; their [stories] have a beginning, middle and end. They don’t get caught up in jargon. They use powerful, four-letter verbs, like Shakespeare did.”
That was true of the student. “It turns out he had a wonderful story to tell,” Bartimus says, a kind of tragic fairy tale based on Hawaiian legend about a prince and princess. The princess dies in the water near where the boy’s family lived, which is why the ocean floor there is filled with red coral.
Bartimus entered the boy’s story in statewide writing competition for high school students. He won first place. His prize was a trip to a three-day writers conference in Maui. The experience helped him through high school and off to Portland, Oregon, where he went to college. For Bartimus, it gave her credibility with the other Hana students and changed the course of her life. It’s a change she hopes to bring to the rest of the country through her RJI fellowship.
Tell It, Then Write It
After that first student, Bartimus offered her writing help to anyone who wanted it for college applications and scholarship essays. Hana is a town where 77 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and most of the Native Hawaiian students didn’t have a family history of going to college. But they did have what Bartimus calls “sterling human qualities.” As a community, they value family, respect elders and live off the land and sea. Their culture’s rite of passage is killing a wild boar with a knife. “We have hilarious stories about that, when a boar got into the school grounds and everyone coached the boy killing it,” Bartimus says.
Despite these qualities, getting the students to believe in themselves academically was a hurdle. But every student who succeeded under Bartimus’s tutelage made it easier for the other students to see their own potential. “It’s changed the culture quite dramatically,” she says.
Getting students to believe they’re college material is one thing. Getting them to believe they can be the best in the world is something else.
Opening Up the Gates
In 2007, Bartimus learned of the Gates Millennial Scholars Program, which pays full costs for low-income, diverse students to earn bachelor’s degrees and, in select fields, subsequent graduate degrees, including doctorates.
Thousands of students apply for the scholarship every year from across the country. Hawaii usually has half a dozen winners. In 2008, Bartimus helped the first Hana student apply. She won. The school has a graduating class of a couple dozen, yet in 2012 three of them won the Gates. It seemed like an impossible feat — until they did it again in 2013.
By that time, Bartimus had formed a nonprofit organization, Talk Story, Write Story, to formalize her mentoring work. She had expanded the program to Alaska, where the state school board association invited her to work with students and teachers throughout the state.
Bartimus has volunteered thousands of hours of her time throughout the years, mentoring 15 Gates Millennium Scholars. But she dismisses any suggestion she is a hero. If anything, she will admit only to living like her Hawaiian neighbors.
Her adopted hometown is small and remote. There are only two roads in and out — depending on how recent the last mudslide was. The culture is less self-reliant than it is community reliant. The expectation is that everyone looks after one another, especially the sick, elderly and parents with infants. It’s a culture of sharing. Anyone’s banana tree is everyone’s. If you’re hungry and passing by, you take one. Or a bunch. People put baskets of avocados on their front lawn to share. This is not unusual. This is what you do. For Bartimus, there were students who needed help with their writing. She knew how to help. This doesn’t make her special. It’s what you do.
“They had stories to tell, and with help they could talk their way through the stories and then write them,” she says. “As long as they had the GPA, they could win these [scholarships], hands down.”
During her nine months as an on-campus RJI fellow, Bartimus will try to bring her Talk Story, Write Story formula to community newspapers. The idea is for a newspaper to partner with a local high school and choose a staff member or volunteer who is a strong storyteller to mentor the students and help them tell their stories. It would help the students develop their writing skills and engage the newspaper with the community. She recently arranged a pilot agreement between the Columbia Daily Tribune and Columbia Public Schools in which community and newspaper volunteers will mentor Hickman High School students during the 2015–16 scholarship and college application season.
The need is great, Bartimus says. Forty-five percent of children in the U.S. live below the poverty level and face a much steeper challenge in completing a four-year degree than higher-income students.
She sees her program, if it spreads, as a way to change the odds. “It takes one person working with one kid, that student winning and everybody else looking — it’s the best of copycat,” she says. “This is a game changer for a population that desperately needs it.”
It’s been a game changer for Bartimus, too. After years of fresh Hawaiian air and surf, she is off crutches, walking freely and swimming regularly. And perhaps more important, the reporter has found her purpose again.
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Marie Tessier: Breaking Down Commenter Gender Barriers
The Internet is open to anyone with access to it; therefore, the thinking goes, it doesn’t discriminate.
It’s a nice thought, says new RJI Fellow Marie Tessier, MA ’88, but it’s also nonsense. “The entire Internet has fallen down in engaging women in conversations about public policy,” Tessier says. “In all kinds of forums we consider to be open, women are vastly underrepresented.” For example, Tessier, the moderator of reader comments to The New York Times opinion page, says men make 75 percent of the online comments there. The Washington Post estimates its gender gap is the same. About 90 percent of Wikipedia contributors are men.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Tessier is part of the Coral Project, a collaborative effort by Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, The New York Times and The Washington Post to launch a free, open-source comment software system aimed at improving community engagement on news websites. Tessier’s niche in the project is making that community more inviting to women.
She will spend her nine-month fellowship exploring the research on women’s online participation and what incentives are effective at enticing women’s comments. She will also create materials to help educate Web developers about the sociology of public participation in online forums.
“It took 60 years for women to vote in the same proportion as men after the 19th Amendment” was ratified, she says. “It’s going to take time to change the online culture. I think we have to do it.”
Anne Thompson: Repurposing the Billboard
Billboards aren’t hip. The cool currency in advertising is in geotargeted push notifications, promoted Tweets — anything but the static, stationary placards that have lurked like plaque at the edges of the nation’s transportation arteries since the 1860s.
Which makes them ideal canvases for Anne Thompson, adjunct assistant art professor at MU, who since April 2014 has curated a public-art show on numerous billboards along Missouri’s east-west thoroughfare. “Artists historically have found new uses for outmoded technology,” she says, including matchboxes and television public-service announcements in addition to billboards.
The I-70 Sign Show places artist-created images on a billboard at Exit 144, near Hatton, Missouri. After two months, a new artwork takes its place, and the old one moves to an empty billboard elsewhere along I-70.
Though artists create the images, the point is not to beautify the interstate but to challenge expectations about commercial messages. One recent billboard, for instance, featured a man doing yoga. “It’s a different way to think about how topics such as gender, athleticism and spirituality are usually represented,” says Thompson, MA ’91. “It calls attention to [the norm] by being different.”
The Sign Show was slated to end this past summer, but Thompson’s nine-month RJI fellowship allows her to continue it at least through the spring.
The extension is important to Thompson because it means the billboards will be up during the presidential primary season. Missouri’s primary is March 15. “The project already is set up for the art billboards to function as commentary on advertising themes,” she says. “Continuing into the political season will allow them to engage with the heightened rhetoric around contentious ‘red-versus-blue’ issues.”
Thompson also will use her fellowship to look for ways to expand the project beyond Missouri and to investigate what journalists might learn from how artists repurpose analog methods.
Brian Hensel: Collecting Patient Stories
Every other day during his year as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home, Brian Hensel had to care for one particular resident. She was unable to move much, and it took Hensel’s strong arms to get her out of bed and to the bathroom. She also had severe dementia, which made her combative and confused. “When I came in the room, she would try to hit me and would call me names,” he remembers. He knew it was the dementia’s fault, not the woman’s, but it was difficult to not pull back emotionally. “I had to fight the institutionalization and remember that she had had a rich life,” he says. But he was left to wonder how that richness looked and felt. The woman was not able to talk for herself about her children, career, dreams or memories; he had not met any of her family members who could speak for her. If he had known her story, it would have helped him care for her.
Decades later, the memory of that patient helps inspire Hensel, MS ’87, PhD ’05, to explore digital storytelling in healthcare during his 2015–16 RJI fellowship.
“What if, as a nurse’s aid, I had to view a series of five or six short stories about that resident?” says Hensel, a health management and informatics instructor in MU’s School of Medicine. Nothing elaborate. Nothing that paints her as a saint. Just something that shows what she was like when she was younger, what she enjoyed as a child. “What happens is, it starts to bring a depth back, a multidimensional life to this person. It’s a reminder of the humanity of the people you’re taking care of.”
This is the kind of storytelling Hensel wants to explore to see how it can be used to improve health and health care — and what role journalism can play in telling those stories. Hensel, respectful of the power of stories to change individual behavior, sees them used to inspire people to adopt healthier lifestyles or take their medications regularly, or to get lawmakers and the public to see the personal effects of our health-policy choices.
Hensel will spend his fellowship talking with health-care leaders and journalists about the benefits they can reap in addressing this challenge; he is also searching for funding and participants to do the described storytelling project in a nursing home.