Driving as fast as I can: Winter Storm Stella is really ticking me off

Sizing Up the South is catching up with Meredith Cummings on her journey through hundreds of newsroom this summer throughout America.

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

Tuesday, March 13

8:30 a.m., Franconia Governmental Center, Franconia, Virginia

My project is a huge one, so I decided to start by visiting someone I know, as I am using new camera equipment and anything can go wrong. I also woke on about four hours of sleep and am running on pure adrenaline as I set off on this six-month adventure.

I am also in a hurry to get out of Virginia to beat a potential blizzard to my next stop, New York City. If I do everything as planned, I should get there just as the storm arrives.

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Taylor Holland, photo by Meredith Cummings

Taylor Holland, a former student of mine at UA, is chief of staff for Supervisor Jeff McKay in Fairfax County, Virginia. He has a picture on his office wall of himself with former Disney actress-turned-singer Selena Gomez. I feel that this will not inspire confidence in his constituency, so the first 10 minutes I tease him mercilessly about that. We share “Roll Tide!” in various parts of speech like that ESPN commercial, then get down to business. (But not before I pull a large hairbrush out of my camera bag and primp as if it were me going to be on camera. In my defense, you never know. A reporter is always prepared. Plus, at that moment I may have looked like Einstein from the gusty wind. Priorities, y’all.)

A politician’s office may seem like an unlikely stop for a project chronicling American journalism, but Holland has seen reporting from both sides of the political fence, both as a reporter in Selma, Alabama and at the Washington Examiner, then as chief of staff for a politician. In fact, it was specifically his journalism experience that landed him the job with McKay’s office. In Holland’s words:

“We could do all the good in the world, but if we don’t effectively communicate it, no one’s going to know.” – Taylor Holland

I have long held that government should serve the public and journalists should as well. Holland agreed with me, and not just because he earned an A in my classes:

“It’s the role of politicians and journalists to both do good for the public. I think that’s why we both go into the field.” 

The visit wasn’t without some sidestepping of national politics, which we shied away from. I’m saving that for a later stop on my cross-country tour.

“I think people look, especially now, to journalists to lead the way to shine light on things that maybe shouldn’t be happening,” Holland said. “I don’t want to spend too much time on that because there are so many things that shouldn’t be happening.”

Journalists must shine light where there is darkness. This is the mantra I repeat to my students. I hope they listen.

10:30 a.m., USA Today, Tyson’s Corner, Virginia

USA Today has got to be the most tucked away yet large, beautiful newsroom in the country. The expansive building fits nicely into the landscape with lots of glass and foliage. I think it says something when a media company is literally transparent. Mostly that there are things in this building that I will probably break.

USA Today newsroom, photo by Meredith Cummings

I wanted to track down the architect and give that person an award. (I grew up surrounded by my dad’s blueprints.) Parking was so easy I thought I was being tricked. When I arrive at a newspaper that calls itself “America’s newspaper” I expect more traffic.

Executive Editor of USA Today Network National News Desk Beryl Love welcomed me into his office which immediately gave me emotional whiplash. On one wall was a beautiful framed montage of front pages from 9/11. It was haunting. I have a photo on my office wall of the twin towers and Statue of Liberty. I feel like there is a kinship among people working in newsrooms that day, and certainly all Americans, but an unspoken journalistic respect beyond his fancy title struck me.

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Beryl Love, photo by Meredith Cummings

On another wall is a shelf of smiling Cleveland Indians bobbleheads and an old M5010 Mac similar to the first computer I ever saw. So I knew right away, here is a man who has lived through defeats both large and small. World Series and floppy discs. I was careful not to bring up the Cubs.

I interviewed him for over a half hour about various journalism-related things that will be helpful to my students, but are too numerous to list here. His laid-back, steady demeanor echoed his past, relaxed life out West in Reno.

Love talked to me about how one of the nation’s largest circulating newspapers decides what goes in the print edition each day. It all points back to website analytics and social media. I liked his analogy:

“It’s almost as if once a day we put our hand in this river of news and stop it for a second and take a snapshot of where we are.” – Beryl Love, USA Today National News Desk

We discussed how stories bubble up into the national news from small communities (USA Today works with many local papers that are Gannet owned). He used an example of a Florida editor sending him an email about a story about a jet ski and cruise ship almost colliding. So in that case, the news came from a person in that community.

This speaks to what I’ve always thought much of the general public misunderstands: News isn’t random and haphazard. It isn’t always determined by social media as we know it. Often it’s determined by that as-old-school-as-you-can-get method, word of mouth and person-to-person. Editors everywhere have a Code of Ethics and values that help us determine what is news and how to treat it. So in a way, American newsrooms are back to square one. In Love’s words:

“People used to think to be informed they had to read or watch Brand X, Y or Z. That brand awareness people had for news and for information got decimated in a digital space. The challenge I think that we face is to make that watchdog accountability relevant to a different audience. One that has no ties to print and no loyalty to any product … The challenge for us is, we’re not going to back off of our First Amendment responsibilities, but we can’t do business as usual.”

One thing I was consistently aware of , especially when talking about brand loyalty — and this is not unique to USA Today — was the branding being pushed by Love. I don’t mean pushed in a bad way. Simply that every company that practices journalism now has to think more like public relations professionals do about how to brand and represent its product.

It trickles down to reporters. I used to love the anonymity of reporting. I enjoyed being in a community and watching people read my work and them not knowing I was listening to their reactions and overhearing conversations about issues I covered. Now Twitter/social media/clicks and shares have made that impossible, because if people don’t read or watch what you produce then it doesn’t make the company money.

What if they didn’t have to do that? What would change then in American journalism?

Meredith Cummings mug
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