Follow my lede: Six months, 10,000 miles and dozens of newsrooms while chronicling American journalism

By Meredith Cummings, SPJ member and past president of SPJ Alabama

I love road trips.

The past two years my daughter and I have driven to New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California (and down the coast) — all from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

On these trips I usually stop in and see friends who work in newsrooms. As a reporter turned journalism instructor (and freelancer) I have quite a collection of friends at media outlets because I’m sinking into the middle aged quicksand. Some of these visits are to my friends, some are former students.

Over the course of these trips something started to simmer and bother me: What people say about “the media” does not sync with what my experience has been as a journalist working in newsrooms in various states. I believe that newsrooms are as varied as Americans. My brief stops across the country back that up.

Meredith journey 1
On assignment for a travel piece for a magazine (while representing my beloved Crimson Tide).

Journalists are Americans. They are old and young, rich and struggling, immigrants and people born in the United States, liberal and conservative, optimists and pessimists and, frankly, everything in between because it’s too hard to put them into a box, any more than I could put myself into one.

“Journalists are Americans.”

I need to test that hypothesis and see if I am right. Mostly for my students in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, but also for myself.

So today I embark on an approximate 10,000-mile road trip over the next six months to visit newsrooms across the country, both large and tiny, traditional and cutting edge, general and specialized to talk to reporters, editors, content managers, graphic artists and social media managers. This mammoth undertaking is part of an innovation project I proposed to The University of Alabama. To my surprise — because my plan is a little bit nuts due to all of the driving — they said “Do it!” and I was named an Innovation Scholar In Residence.

It’s fitting that I start this journey today, the day Sunshine Week begins. Sunshine Week is a way for journalists to shed light on the fact that this country sorely needs better open records laws. (I’m pointing the finger squarely at my home state. Get it together, Alabama.)

At this moment, I am typing from a hotel in northern Virginia, having just driven 12 hours and lost two hours (thank you daylight saving time). I am literally driving into a blizzard in New York City tomorrow after local stops. I am tired.

Yet I am so excited, because Sunshine Week is also a great time for me to shed light on what “the media” actually does.

I think of the old photos of newsrooms I have seen. Margaret Bourke-Whitewith her camera. Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, leaning oh-so-casually on the desk. Edward R. Murrow at a microphone. I want to chronicle American newsrooms in 2017, beyond blown-up political rhetoric of “fake news!”

My students know that I like to rail against Americans for wanting everything to be black and white, this or that, left or right.

Where is the nuance? What about those gray areas in between? Life is almost never that simple. It’s messy and complicated and tangled.

By the time I am finished visiting all 25–30 newsrooms, my classes will be full of video and written content for our students. I also hope to write about my experiences as I travel. I anticipate that I will learn a lot from this project, even as I teach my own students.

“I want to use video obtained through these visits to support learning objectives in each part of my classes.”

I want to use video obtained through these visits to support learning objectives in each part of my classes. My goal is to bring these theoretical and abstract concepts to life for our students. While Skype and other online tools are fine for letting someone speak with a class, nothing matches the vibrancy of a newsroom. This project will help me bring the stories that happen in newsrooms daily to my students, but also to the public.

Many students have a picture in their heads of “the media,” but I want to drive home the point to them that the term “the media” can mean many different things.

Feel free to come along for the ride too.

Meredith Cummings

Meredith Cummings is immediate past president of SPJ Alabama Pro and is Instructor of Journalism, Director of Scholastic Media, University of Alabama. @MereCummings