What we did in my Writing and Reporting classes this semester

Met and learned from K-9 officers Molly and Kash (and, uh, their humans).

Learned that I will lose what little chill I have in the presence of dogs.

Interviewed students: about their feelings on Silent Sam and for our Humans of Chapel Hill profiles.

Learned that a lead is not a headline.

Talked about how to write cover letters that would get us noticed for job interviews.

Heard from two international journalists about their work in the Balkans and Poland.

Reiterated that, really, a lead is not a headline.

Learned how to write like a PR professional and a broadcast reporter. (I also learned how to teach this, which was tougher than I expected. Respect.)

Made fact errors. Schmit? -50. It’s Schmidt.

Learned from our fact errors.

Learned one more time: A lead is a full sentence. It’s the first line of your story. It’s the thing that will hook a reader in. It is NOT A HEADLINE.

And learned the most important lesson that a UNC student (journalist or otherwise) can learn: It’s Tar Heels, two words.

How to make a difference as a journalist

I work with many students who get frustrated with journalism because it limits their activism. I’ve been thinking about them a lot in the last few days as I read coverage of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville. (This is an especially good and harrowing account.)

“It’s so obviously wrong to hate anyone who isn’t white,” they say. “Why can’t I speak out about that as a journalist?”

I have a hard time answering them, because I’m not someone who feels compelled to work as an activist. (Middle class white privilege plays a big part of that. But so do introversion and a desire to see what’s going on but not necessarily participate. I also don’t love playing organized sports.)

It’s also been beaten into me, in my 10 years as a student and professional journalist, that I am neutral no matter what.

But in reading the Charlottesville coverage, an answer finally dawned on me. Journalism is a form of activism. Journalism, at its best, uncovers things that people are doing that are not right — and puts them on display. Journalism holds powerful people accountable.

And, at its best, it does so without taking a side.

What’s more effective? Me going to an anti-white supremacy rally as a participant, where people agree with me? Me going to a pro-white supremacy rally as a protester, where I could very likely be killed? Or me, as a journalist, doing an interview with a white supremacist to find out why he thinks the way he thinks? Or me, as a journalist, talking to an anti-fascist protester to understand her side?

Me, as a journalist, using my stories to show each side what the other thinks?

My students say “it’s so obvious racism is wrong.” But you know what a white supremacist says? “It’s so obvious affirmative action is wrong.” “It’s so obvious having a black president hurt the country.” “It’s so obvious Donald Trump is taking us in a better direction.”

“It’s so obvious” depends on your perspective. As a journalist, you get to see a story from every perspective.

When this inevitably comes up this semester, I’ll talk about Claude Sitton. He covered the Civil Rights movement for the New York Times, setting the standard for how to do journalism with an impact. He won a Pulitzer Prize while he was at the News & Observer — and managed to get several high-level K-12 and college school officials to step down by overseeing reporting on their wrongdoing.

If you were doing something wrong, Claude Sitton was going to write about it. And that’s what I want my students to think about when they think about good journalism.

Things I learned listening to NPR this month

I’m borderline obsessed with NPR.

I’ve listened to Morning Edition (almost) every weekday since I graduated from college. I learn what’s happening in the world while I put on my makeup or eat breakfast. It’s easy to access, easy to understand, easy to consume — three things that I believe are key for creating loyal news consumers.

I feel like Benedict Arnold typing this.

Career-wise, I’m a newspaper girl. I’ve worked or interned for seven newspapers in my career. I firmly believe that local newspapers do some of the best reporting in the country.

But I don’t think they do a good job of getting the word out about that reporting.

And they know that. As an editor at the News & Observer puts it: At newspapers, we grow great squash. But now, we have to learn how to get it to the market ourselves, rather than relying on people to walk by our front porch and pick it up.

NPR also has great squash (as opposed to the Krispy Kreme fluff you see some outlets put out). They just do a better job of getting it to market. As a newspaper girl, I’ll continue to listen … and try to steal their methods.

***

Here’s what I learned from NPR this month:

John Grisham keeps a running list of names he can use in his novels. He says there are about 200 names in every novel (seems like an exaggeration, John), and he doesn’t like to use the same name twice. He’s always looking for names that are unusual, easy to pronounce and not made up. Can I suggest Pressley?

People who think and talk about tech companies use FAMGA to refer to Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Not that catchy. I also discovered that FANG (Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google) is a popular acronym.

Chance the Rapper is only 24. What?!

Illinois has not passed a state budget in two years … and because of that, the lottery is leaving the state.

Renowned designer Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful houses kinda sucked, in terms of functionality.

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick once berated one of his Uber drivers who he felt wasn’t doing a good job. Come on, Travis; PR 101.

A few (more) things I’d tell my students

As of Friday, I’ll have been running College Town for seven months. In January, I’ll begin my sixth semester of teaching.

(Pause for incredulation about the passage of time.)

I try to give all the students I work with practical advice — like how to write a cover letter, or how to shape a story idea, or why it’s always a good idea to send some kind of thank-you note.

These are often prompted by circumstance, when a student is trying to make a specific move professionally. But because of that, I often never get to tell kids the other stuff — the big stuff that you learn on a random Tuesday when you’re not doing the scary job application thinking.

These are those revelations, for me.

Read. Everything. All the time.

For pleasure, and to learn how to be a better writer, but also for information. Because it is super annoying to your professor and/or editor when you ask a question that they’ve already answered in an email or the syllabus.

In the same vein: If you have a question, try to figure it out yourself before you ask someone.

This is inspired by/derived from my mother. When we were little and would ask her something we could figure out (or do) ourselves, she’d always say, “What would you do if I weren’t here?” I didn’t like it then. Now, I wish I could shout it at coworkers who don’t seem to understand why Google was invented.

Plus, this is an easy way to seem smarter than you really are. A former coworker of mine once asked why I always seemed to know everything. I smiled demurely, ready to offer a not-so-humble “Oh, stop,” when another coworker leaned over and said, “She just Googles stuff.”

No one is going to just stumble on you and your work and offer you what you want.

I still have to learn this myself. I like recognition, but I’m also a perfectionist, and so I’m hesitant to share my stuff unless it’s The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done. (I also try not to be what I consider annoying on social media.)

But that’s really dumb. No one is going to see my work unless I show it to them — or offer me a job unless I tell them I’m looking, et cetera. Another way to view this: Think of that one person you know who’s constantly bragging about themselves and their work on social media. Does that person drive you nuts? Yep. But do they always seem to have countless opportunities pop up? Also yep.

My advice: Hide them from your Facebook feed, suck it up and tell people what you’re doing.

Think about what you actually want to do — not necessarily what looks good on paper.

(This is a little sappier.)

In my first semester of grad school, I was hanging out with some friends after a Carolina basketball game. One of them — the only other girl at the table, whom I’d met about five minutes earlier — was getting ready to graduate from undergrad. All of us started talking about senior year of college and making the transition, and this girl very quietly started crying.

No one else at the table noticed. But I saw her, and I immediately remembered how it felt to be in her shoes. I tapped my seatmate on his shoulder (I actually think I pushed him out of the booth; sorry, John), slid in next to her and asked what was wrong.

She had three potential job offers. Two were at big-name papers. One was at a place that, while still impressive, didn’t carry quite as much weight as the others. As we talked, I realized she wanted to go to the third paper, but she felt like she shouldn’t — or couldn’t. And suddenly I was 21 and terrified again, making the decision to take my first job out of college — a job that (in hindsight) I didn’t actually want and would quit in three months.

I told her all this, also crying at this point, because I cry at everything and because I was feeling her worries so clearly. She visibly relaxed, and we both started laughing at ourselves, crying while surrounded by boys who clearly knew something was up but were not about to butt in.

The next night, I saw her at a party. She walked in, walked up to me and told me she’d decided to take the third job. Two years later, she’s still there and doing some amazing work.

Granny and the tomato

One of my biggest regrets involves my granny and a tomato.

Georgia Cleota Snyder Baird, or Cleo, but really just Granny, is the only great-grandparent I can really remember. We’d go visit her a lot, driving up to her little trailer in Mountain City, Tennessee, right over the North Carolina border. She had a big apple tree in her front yard, a homemade zipline up the hill and a old, falling-apart wood barn down the road.

(A side story: We had a birthday party in that barn one year, and I remember my dad’s horrified face as we balanced the cake on a pile of hay and then lit candles on top of it all. Nothing went up in flames, but it was a memorable Baird family “there but for the grace of God go I” moment.)

This particular trip to Granny’s was a summertime visit. I can’t remember why we’d gone up, but I do remember my parents, my sister and I sitting around Granny’s kitchen table shortly after we’d gotten in. The sun was shining; the napkin holder and Texas Pete hot sauce were in the middle of the table; all was right with the world. Granny wasn’t sitting, mainly because she was fixing us something to eat, but also because Granny just didn’t sit much.

She put a hot can of Sprite in front of me and asked if I needed any ice for it. I told her no, I didn’t mind hot soda. She grinned, her eyes almost disappearing into her face like they always did.

“You’re just like your granny, then,” she said — music to my people-pleasing ears.

She kept puttering, and we kept talking, and then she set down a plate with a home-grown tomato, sliced and sprinkled with a little salt, right in front of me.

I may have been a people pleaser, but I hated tomatoes. Even home-grown ones. Even ones given proudly to me by my granny.

I felt that panic in my stomach that you get when you’re a little kid and every wrong move feels like it could be the end of the world. I stared at that tomato. I had to eat it. I had to show Granny that we were just alike, that we loved hot Sprite and summer tomatoes. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to choke it down.

(Okay, so maybe I was a dramatic kid.)

As I looked up from my plate, I made eye contact with my dad, who must have seen the worry and impending tears on my face.

(I was also a crier. I was probably not a fun kid to be around.)

Granny’s back was turned, and she was still talking. In one quick move, my dad reached his fork across the table, speared that tomato and popped it, whole, into his mouth. My eyes as big as saucers, I mouthed a grateful “thank you” to him before Granny turned back around.

Crisis averted.

He didn’t make fun of me then, but he always laughs his big guffaw laugh when he retells the story. Pressley was crying over a tomato! Pressley thought Granny would be mad at her! Pressley wouldn’t dare just try something new! To this day, he’ll still widen his eyes, fake a weepy look and mock-whisper “thank you” to me and dissolve into laughter. In my family, you don’t let things go, and you don’t live down embarrassment.

I think about that day and that tomato and my granny a lot. She died when I was in high school, but I wish I could go back and sit at her kitchen table. I just want to eat that tomato and tell her how delicious it is.

Yes, I now like tomatoes. I’ll still drink hot Sprite, too. And I cry a lot less than I used to. (Well, mostly.)