Remembering the nine victims of the Charleston shootings

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Look at this image of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church‘s home page. Nothing has changed since the horrifying murders of nine people Wednesday evening. The site also includes this quote from Sister Jean German Ortiz, who, I assume, is or was a member of the church: “Jesus died a passionate death for us,  so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

They died passionately for our sins — we, the inheritors and conservators of a Confederate-flag-waving, gun-drenched culture that has only partly come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism. The Washington Post has sketches of each of the nineSharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson. Sadly, with the possible exception of Rev. Pinckney, we’ll have an easier time remembering the name of the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof. There’s only one of him, and in any case evil holds our attention more easily than good.

I’m not sure why this terrible crime would spark any disagreements other than the inevitable disagreement over guns. But for some reason people are debating whether this is a “hate crime” or an act of “terrorism.” It strikes me that it’s obviously both — a home-grown act of terror committed by someone filled with hate.

But enough bloviating. Here is a short list of articles I’ve read that I hope will broaden our understanding.

I begin with our finest essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who has written an eloquent demand that South Carolina remove the Confederate flag immediately. He writes:

This moral truth [a reference to a speech by a Confederate politician] — “that the negro is not equal to the white man” — is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded — with human sacrifice.

Too bad Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial reaction to a question about the Stars and Bars was so clueless. Dan Wasserman of The Boston Globe does a whole lot better.

The New York Times publishes a piece by Douglas R. Egerton, the biographer of Emanuel AME founder Denmark Vesey, on the history of the church — a history marred by numerous racist attacks, the most recent coming in 1963. Here’s Egerton:

For 198 years, angry whites have attacked Emanuel A.M.E. and its congregation, and when its leaders have fused faith with political activism, white vigilantes have used terror to silence its ministers and mute its message of progress and hope.

Egerton also links to a 2014 Times article on the unveiling of a statue of Vesey, who, along with 34 others, was executed following a failed slave rebellion. Incredibly, there were those who opposed the statue on the grounds that Vesey was a “terrorist.” Think about that if you hear anyone deny that Roof carried out an act of terrorism.

I’ll close with my friend Charlie Pierce, who posted a commentary at Esquire on Thursday that demonstrated tough, clear-eyed thinking at a moment when the rest of us were still trying to figure out what had just happened. Pierce writes:

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

Please keep the nine victims and their families in your thoughts today.

Northeastern J-School partners with Esquire magazine

photoBy Jeff Howe

Earlier this year Northeastern University’s School of Journalism received a Knight Foundation grant to launch a Media Innovation graduate program. Students — mostly mid-career journalists and the occasional newly minted J-school grad — would pursue one story over the 18-month course of study. We’d let the story discover its own media, so to speak, rather than, say, imposing an interactive treatment on a piece that wants to be a photo essay. Then we would crack open the considerable resources of Northeastern University to our students. Javascript, data-scraping, digital videography — each student writes her or his own ticket, like a Knight Fellowship with a degree at the end.

In the final semester we would work assiduously to place the story with a well-respected media outlet. Poker isn’t poker without money, and journalism isn’t journalism without readers. Since we mostly acquire the craft in a newsroom, we figured we’d bring the newsroom into the university. So far, and to our great pleasure, reality has followed the blueprint.

In the spirit of marrying education to editorial, this week we launched a partnership with Esquire magazine. The goal is to create both a physical and virtual research and development lab for digital storytelling. Online platforms have recently delivered a cornucopia of long-form journalism, but we’re still in the messy — a.k.a. totally awesome — phase of experimentation. Most of the current experimentation will fade away without a trace. But some of it will stick.

Esquire and Media Innovation decided to approach the subject from three directions:

  • StoryLab, a full-semester course taught at Northeastern’s School of Journalism beginning in spring 2015, in which students will work with Esquire writers and editors to reimagine both classic and new Esquire stories for the digital age.
  • Storybench.org, a news site that offers an “under the hood” look at the latest and most inventive examples of digital creativity — from data-visualization projects to interactive documentaries — as well as the tools and innovation behind them.
  • StoryChallenge, an annual new-media storytelling competition, launching in October 2015, which will challenge journalists to reinvent the way magazine stories are told.

These projects serve a few highly pragmatic purposes. As one of the nation’s most prestigious venues for literary journalism, Esquire has a great interest in the future of that form. As educators, we’re doing our best to prepare journalism students to enter a workforce that expects creativity and a collaborative imagination as much as shoe leather reporting.

Recently we had Jay Lauf — the founding president and publisher of the business news site Quartz — speak to our students. Like Vice and BuzzFeed, Quartz is growing fast and hiring accordingly. I’m so accustomed to journalism’s famine mentality I assumed they were getting inundated with talented candidates.

That’s not the case. “We are getting swamped with résumés,” Jay says, “but not always with qualified candidates.” Jay defines these as journalists who may have a base-level fluency in programming but, more important, they can demonstrate an easy facility with numbers and data and social media. In fact, the various digital journalism ventures in New York, Jay says, are battling it out for the few journalists that fit the new mold.

There’s another mission threading throughout these efforts: How do you train journalists for jobs that don’t exist yet? One way, we figured, was to try to invent those jobs here. We’re not going to do that by stroking our chins in Aristotelian reflection. We’re going to do it by doing it. There have to be readers at the end of the process, and real sources and real stories. Poker ain’t poker if you’re not using real money. Journalism ain’t journalism unless the stakes are real. And that’s what these Esquire partnerships bring to the table.

Jeff Howe is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. This post was previously published at the Knight Blog.

Pierce leaves Globe to blog on politics for Esquire

Anyone who follows Charlie Pierce on Facebook knows the guy was born to be a political blogger. Few combine snark, outrage and an eye for interesting links better than he.

Well, now Jim Romenesko reports that Pierce is leaving the Boston Globe Magazine to become the lead writer for Esquire magazine’s “Politics Blog.” (Pierce was already a contributing editor for Esquire.) Editor-in-chief David Granger says:

Charlie is going to make Esquire.com’s “The Politics Blog” one of the very few political blogs one has to read every day, all day. He is one of the great American voices, and we’re confident that he will lead a national conversation during what should be the most entertaining political season of our lifetimes.

The timing is a bit awkward for the Globe. While you still can, check out a video of Pierce talking about his favorite writers, which he made as part of a Globe ad campaign.

In 2009 I wrote about Pierce’s book “Idiot America” for the Guardian. Pierce is a longtime friend of Media Nation, and I wish him the best.

Update: Turns out there was more to Pierce’s departure from the Globe. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine reports that Pierce was disciplined  for writing an “intemperate and intolerant” blog post about Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell for Esquire last year. Among other things, he called her a “sideshow freak” and a “crackpot,” observations that might seem unremarkable to anyone familiar with Pierce’s writing style, O’Donnell’s bona fides or both.

Pierce currently has a union grievance pending against management. Pierce told Sullivan, “You could probably safely say ‘yes’” as to whether the dispute was among the factors that persuaded him to leave.

It would be easy to rip Globe managers for letting one of their most original writers walk over such a minor matter. But I understand why a paper like the Globe prohibits its writers from going postal for other publications, much as that policy might seem archaic in the Internet era. So I’ll leave it at this: What Pierce wrote for Esquire was precisely what the Globe could have anticipated he would write — it was standard-issue Pierce, neither more nor less caustic than his political writing in general. (Good Lord, have they read “Idiot America”?)

And the Globe is losing a lot more than it’s gaining.

Roger Ebert, Esquire and the paid-versus-free debate

Here’s something I don’t think I would have said five, three or even one year ago: the editors at Esquire made a mistake when they posted Chris Jones’ and Ethan Hill’s wonderful profile of movie critic Roger Ebert on their Web site last week. Ebert, as you may know, is slowly dying of cancer* and is writing, literally, like there’s no tomorrow.

We are in the midst of an endless debate over free versus paid content. I generally come down on the side of free Web access. Most news is a commodity, and if you can’t get it from one place, you’ll get it from another.

But the flip side is that when you’ve got something that isn’t a mere commodity, you shouldn’t just give it away. Jones’ story about Ebert, and Hill’s photography, comprise anything but a commodity. This is exclusive, important, heart-breaking, inspirational journalism. And it’s something that Esquire should have used to drive sales of the magazine.

Increasingly I’m coming around to the idea that a newspaper or magazine’s Web site should be different from its print edition. The Web should be about blogs, community, interaction and extra features that aren’t available in print. The print edition should drive traffic to the Web site, and the Web site ought to drive sales of the print edition.

Esquire does offer some online extras with its Ebert story, but it could have offered more (a slide show, a video, a podcast of Jones and Hill talking about the piece) — and less (not the entire story, at least not for a few weeks).

As I look at the Ebert story online, I see just one non-house ad — a banner at the top of the page, currently selling Dockers pants. I’ve read the story, looked at the pictures and have no particular incentive now to buy the magazine. The idea, I think, should be print and online working together. What Esquire has given us is a Web-first approach with the hope that, someday, someone may figure out a business model. How 2005 is that?

*Further thoughts: A Media Nation reader has asked me to rethink my “dying of cancer” construction. I didn’t write it carelessly. The story is replete with references to the limited time Ebert has left (“Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it”), and his health is precarious because of repeated bouts of cancer. Nevertheless, the story also makes it clear that Ebert is, at the moment, cancer-free. Perhaps Ebert will be with us for many years to come. I hope he is.