Back in school at old school in a new way

This is going to be fun. I am for the third time enrolled at Wesleyan University… Continuing an old tradition of “leave job… return to college  (preferably Wesleyan)…”

When I quit my daily newspaper job at The Hartford Courant, my goal was to take a year off, finish my courses for a master’s degree in anthropology, and spend a summer in Ireland researching my M.A. thesis. The one year spun into three after my advisor left on sabbatical and never returned. My new advisor, ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin, directed me into a couple of new courses and even made me his teaching assistant for a course on Ethnicity and Popular Culture, my introduction to Wesleyan’s cinema resources. He was enormously patient, and it was a struggle to keep the master’s thesis to 280 pages, even after one of the “informants” asked to be removed from it completely.

The resultant editing and rewriting were part of the inspiration for learning everything I could about “word processing” at the university computer lab, and buying my first computer. That led to my taking computer courses during the summer after graduation, editing a newsletter for Wesleyan microcomputer users, and landing a job writing (in English, not computer code) for a software company — which paid me to take more software-and-writing courses on the side.

When the founder sold the company and technical writing started feeling “old,” I added up the courses I’d taken already and headed back to Wesleyan to complete a second master’s — a “Master of Arts in Liberal Studies” — by writing a thesis about hypertext. (With the help of cognitive science prof Marc Sebrechts, I kept that “liberal studies final essay” to 135 pages, but it was 1988 and hypertext hadn’t been made the organizing principle of the World Wide Web. After the Web happened, I headed to UNC Chapel Hill to — eventually — write a much longer doctoral dissertation, very slowly.)

Now that I’ve taken my retirement from full-time teaching at Radford University, I can’t face a September without some involvement in higher education… so I am enrolled in a Wesleyan University online course:

The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color with Scott Higgins

“This Film History course explores how fundamental changes in film technology affected popular Hollywood storytelling. We will consider the transition to sound, and the introduction of color.”

I hope to use what I learn the next time I teach a course about the portrayal of journalists in film and popular culture, possibly offering it as a more-online class myself. Professor Higgins’ course sounds fascinating, and I suspect I’ll learn plenty about film — and about online teaching in the process. Here’s how he describes it in the syllabus:

Each change in technology brought new opportunities and challenges, but the filmmaker’s basic task remained the emotional engagement of the viewer through visual means.

We will survey major directors and genres from the studio era and point forward to contemporary American cinema. Our aim is to illuminate popular cinema as the intersection of business, technology, and art. Through film history, we will learn about the craft of filmmaking and how tools shape art.

The course is a “MOOC” — a Massively Open Online Course — hosted by  Coursera, whose motto is “Take the world’s best courses, online, for free.” (See another Wesleyan professor’s reflections on teaching her first MOOC.) Since my first UNC course as a teaching assistant in 1995, I have produced Web pages for every course I’ve taught. I’ve used blogs, wikis, online forums, “course management systems” and podcasts, but I’ve never taught or taken a fully-online course, massive or otherwise.

Lectures will be online videos. We students will be on our own for film viewings — and I’m already tracking down the 10 films at local libraries and online suppliers. ( helped me quickly find several of the films at the Radford University and Virginia Tech libraries, and order others through Radford by InterLibrary Loan. I’m also buying a few, or at least renting them online.) Among other things, I’ll be interested to hear the professor’s view of the copyright (and ethical) issues involved in the posting of classic films on YouTube, which I started exploring because of my interest in hard-to-find newspaper films.

Posted in 2013, Education, hypertext, jpop, media studies, movies, Radford, Stepno, wesleyan

Old-media convergence in Scandal Sheet

(The “Scandal Sheet” title sequence at YouTube has classic shots of 1950s presses rolling.)

For a bit of summer nostalgia, I’m updating a journalism education website for my 11th year as editor… and re-watching the 1952 movie Scandal Sheet to see how much of a reporter Donna Reed was… playing a Vassar-educated feature writer with higher ethical values than her editor.

Next, I’ll dig back into Samuel Fuller’s novel, The Dark Page, which was the basis for the film. Written before he headed off to fight in World War II, it was inspired in some ways by his earlier experience as a newspaper reporter – including his start at the New York Evening Graphic, which really did run Lonely Hearts Club Balls like the one in the story.

In the film, Broderick Crawford is a tough tabloid editor whose Lonely Hearts Club Ball starts out as heartless exploitation — and leads to murder. His star reporter, with with help of Ms. Reed’s character, investigates clues that lead back to the boss. More info at Turner Movie Classics.

Although “Scandal Sheet” isn’t one of his productions, Fuller went on to become a film maker himself, and “Scandal Sheet” is included in a nice boxed set of his early films. Ironically, his two main newspaper-focused films, “Park Row (1952)” and “Shock Corridor (1963)” aren’t part of the set, but they are available separately.

Posted in AEJMC, film, Journalism, Newspapers

Spring housecleaning

Wait! You didn’t type the wrong address…

I’ve just changed the “look” of this blog drastically, something that WordPress makes it easy to do. Scroll down and you will see the same blog posts that were here yesterday, including my notes on the “Appalachian Hathaway” purchase of the Roanoke Times, my discovery that one 1950s actor was very busy in newspaper-related movies, and my notes on the dubious distinction of being named one of the top-50 journalism professors in the country, just as I was leaving my teaching job.

This new layout allows me to use longer, more specific menu headings at the top of the page, and a background graphic that the page shares with my home page.

At least for the moment, the new design sacrifices the landscape photo that used to stretch across the top of the page. And I’ve reorganized the menus, giving my collection of notes on Classic Newspaper Movies (many with video players) better display, and giving my WordPress tips a clearer title and a menu of their own.

In exchange, the layout promises to be more “Responsive” (that’s the name of the theme) on other devices, so I’ll be testing it with a phone and a couple of tablets.

Let me know if it works better for you, or if you’re already tired of the green plaid.

Posted in 2013, WordPress

Journalists in famous suspense and monster movies

I just watched “Rear Window” to review how Alfred Hitchcock presented its wheelchair-bound photojournalist character. Pretty amazing that the travel, excitement and adventure of his career are billed as such strong competition for Grace Kelly…

So far, I haven’t read the story the movie was based on, which apparently did not include Hitchcock’s romance angle. But I’m still tempted to go see what the original says about the fictitious photographer, and I made a cursory investigation to see if there was a newspaper career in the story author’s background.

The original tale, titled “It Had to Be Murder” or “Murder from a Fixed Perspective,” was by the late Cornell Woolrich, whom I found on Wikipedia, at IMDB, and in a centenary article at Time magazine. None of them mention journalism in his background, which Time summed up like this: “Woolrich’s life was as twisted and compelling as his work, and that’s saying something.” I did note two details that might interest Media Studies or Journalism students:

  1. Wikipedia and other sources (e.g. 100 American Crime Writers, edited by Steven Powell) say Woolrich left his estate to Columbia University to endow journalism scholarships in his mother’s memory. However, the Claire Woolrich Memorial Fellowship Fund, now worth more than $2 million, apparently offers a more general writing award and is not part of the journalism school, which makes sense for the bequest of a mystery writer. Columbia’s website has very little about it. But I did find it listed in this Columbia University School of the Arts writing program booklet.
  2. “Rear Window” also inspired a copyright case related to the works based on the original story; it made it to the Supreme Court, and you may run into it in an advanced media law class.

Back to the movies: After posting that “Rear Window” trailer to my 1950s Journo-Movies page, I noticed “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” right below it.

I will leave it to the movie fans, problem-solvers with the skills of a Perry Mason, and the very curious to recognize why that’s a coincidence.

Hmm. I was wondering if there were any journalist episodes of “Ironside” to make it a trifecta, then discovered a made-for-TV move and short-lived series about a 1976-77 media mogul named R.B. Kingston. Even his initials are interesting. Have to watch for that on the TV rerun channel!

Posted in fiction, film, Journalism, jpop, movies, photography

Virginia newspapers… An Appalachian-Hathaway?

Virginia BH Media papers

Click to visit any of these Virginia BH Media papers

Yesterday’s announcement that Berkshire-Hathaway Media is buying my almost-local daily, the Roanoke Times, sent me off building link lists for the benefit of recent graduates still researching media careers… (See below.)

Warren Buffett’s BH Media has been acquiring papers in this region for several years, including former Media General (Richmond, Va., Lynchburg, Va., Bristol, Va., Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Landmark (Roanoke, Va., Greensboro, N.C.) publications.  BH also has owned a good chunk of the Washington Post for 40 years. I’m beginning to think Berkshire-Hathaway Media Group should replace the “Berkshire” in its name with “Appalachian,” at least when doing business in this part of the world. (It also owns papers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.)

The main Roanoke Times story, with several sidebars

Editor & Publisher, the industry trade paper, on the Roanoke Times sale.

I did notice that stories in out-of-town publications had an inflated idea of the Roanoke Times’ daily circulation  (76,000 instead of 67,000 reported in the RT itself)– perhaps based on a press release that used old data. See the discussion thread on the Times own story. I would expect an industry bible like E&P to check the numbers, but apparently not. Note the byline “by: Press Release | Dirks, Van Essen & Murray” (a newspaper acquisition firm, which you also might expect to have up-to-date stats).

Triad Business Journal on the sale

Buffett’s hometown newspaper’s version of the story (You may want to bookmark its “Warren Watch Page“) is the homepage of BH Media Group

Career Opportunities

News job openings with BH Media papers (About 16 vacancies in Virginia and nearby North Carolina, from internships to managing-editorships and a weekly editor-in-chief. Venues include  a regional copydesk in Hickory, N.C.: “The ConsolidatedEditingCenter is located in Hickory, N.C. and is the design hub for most of the World Media Enterprise newspapers in the southeast.” It does worry me that the ConsolidatedEditingCenter doesn’t have spaces in its name. IhopeTheCopyEditorsAren’tUnderOrdersToSaveSpaceThatWay.)

Internet/socialmedia-related job openings with BH Media papers (When I looked, they needed a director of Digital Media in Bristol, Va., “the chief web designer, coordinator and developer of new products for Bristol Market group which includes the Bristol Herald Courier and”; Also, a Digital Media Specialist in Richmond)

Information-technology openings (including a Web Analytics person in Richmond)

Meanwhile, for my former journalism students reading this, the largest Virginia daily that paper that Buffett hasn’t bought, has a few openings too — The Virginian Pilot, still a landmark of Landmark.

(Note: If you’re intrigued, as I was, that both the Pilot and BH Media jobs are posted at a site called “,” it’s a human resources software company independent of both Landmark and BH Media.)


Newsonomics feature on last year’s BH Media/Media-General purchase

SeekingAlpha analysis of BH Media performance

Posted in Journalism, Newspapers, Future of news, hyperlocal, community, Roanoke Times, 2013

“Top 50 Journalism Professors” — who, me?

Last year I was named one of America’s “Top 50 Journalism Professors”, and I’ve finally decided to share that link with my students as an end-of-semester exercise in critical thinking, while we talk about the differences between journalism in print, on the air and on the Web.

After class — or after next week’s final exams, or after I clean out my office the  week after that — I may come back to this page and add a few paragraphs to explain why I’m taking at least a semester or two off from teaching.

(I am also making jokes about going to a tractor-trailer driving school so that I can declare myself “semi-retired.” If I come up with better jokes, I may add them to this page, too — or at least delete that one.)


After-class update.

I was very pleased that a good number of students in my intro news writing class came up with appropriate “critical thinking” questions about that site — in particular,  two questions they should ask any news source:

  • Who are you? (In this case, who runs the website, who pays the bills, and what is the site’s real purpose?) 
  • How do you know that? (In this case, what are the criteria for the top-50 list and how was it assembled?)

In addition to “interrogating” the Web pages themselves, reading the “Home” and “About” pages, I suggested students try the Top 50 list’s find-a-school zip-code search. Surprise! Almost all the results were for for-profit schools or online-only programs. Nowhere was there any link to the major accrediting or research associations in journalism education (ACEJMC and AEJMC), and (coincidentally?) (ironically?) the search never turned up schools at which the “Top 50″ professors teach.

My conclusion: While it’s flattering to be on a top-anything list, that’s about all I can say about the “” site. Its operators didn’t respond to my request for information about their criteria or its ownership, and I assume the site is just an advertising ploy to get people to visit and click on links to “journalism schools” that are not on anyone’s “Top 10.”

I recommend that students try to look beyond the window-dressing of such list-making link-farm sites. In all searches for information, look for sources that show why they are authoritative. In dealing with higher education, that means finding real “.edu” institutional sites with lists of faculty that give names, degrees earned, publications, professional experience, previous employers, scholarly interests and contact information.

(Last year I tried that with one of the universities advertised at “JournalismDegree” and chatted online with an “admissions” salesman, who ultimately could not direct me to a page listing any journalism faculty member.)

Personal Transition

As for my own status as a “Top 50 Journalism Professor,” the final irony is that right around the time the site in question was putting me on its “Top 50″ list, the personnel committee at my school was prepared to drop me off its list entirely. There were no actual journalism professors involved in the decision, and no one from my other teaching area, Web production, so I didn’t feel too bad. I was told I would probably win another year’s contract if I appealed, but I decided not to.

I’ve had enough “best teacher I’ve ever had” student reviews to feel O.K. about my career here, even though those reviews were the exceptions more than the rule. For the past few years I simply haven’t been able to manage a four-course-a-semester teaching load and a schedule of publishing traditional “peer-reviewed” academic articles. My own disorganization and some health problems didn’t help. Student teaching reviews and conventional publications were all the committee cared about.

I’ve been better at keeping up with Web-publishing and social-media developments, with hundreds of pages published through my home page and in a half-dozen blogs, a podcast and a Twitter feed. But those things didn’t count for much to the non-journalist, non-Web-focused faculty who served on the personnel committee. (In contrast, my online media presence is probably what counted most to that link-hungry “Top 50″ list site.)

As a result, I’ve decided to retire from the faculty of Radford University and take a semester or two to get healthy, play more music, and finish the book I’ve been writing online. You can watch its progress at — Newspaper Heroes on the Air. And you can check out my past, present and future at my homepage, or get some day-to-day links by following me at I may return to teaching in 2014, here or somewhere nearby.

Last update to this page May 18, 2013

Posted in 2013, biography, humor, jheroes, Journalism, Radford, teaching

Henchmen as kittens… porn, yo?

Writing about old time radio programs at means a lot of transcribing from  mp3 files made by collectors over the years from tapes of even older transcription discs.  With my eyes bothering me on a recent morning, I decided to see whether Google’s Android voice recognition  could expedite the transcription process.

Could my Android phone “listen” to an old radio show and convert the dialogue to text? I tested the idea with the plot summary a couple of minutes into episode 6 of an “Adventures of Superman” story titled “Ruler of Darkness.” (See the “Ruler of Darkness” entry.)

I admit it is not the most static-free recording in the Internet Archive collection, and background organ music probably put the voice recognition to an unfair test.

Here is my eventual (manual) transcription, followed by Android’s two unassisted tries, for your amusement. I’ve highlighted a few words that came out right… but I’m especially curious about the words that Android replaced with asterisks. Did it think the radio announcer said something naughty?

“And now The Adventures of Superman.
“When cub reporter Jimmy Olsen was seriously injured by henchmen of Mike Hickey, political boss of Metropolis, editor Perry White swore he would drive Hickey and his corrupt political machine out of power.
White opened an attack on Hickey in the Daily Planet and chose Joe Martin, war hero and brother of Beanie Martin, the Planet’s copy boy, to run for mayor against the machine candidate in the approaching election.
Enraged, Hickey swore he would nip this reform movement in the bud.”

Android 1.

No seriously injured my kitten or you could drive up with you so don’t want to be my wife definition of elections oregon live in the b*** status other joe wasn’t serious come on out free porn yo

Android 2.

Oh yeah you’re phone daniel seriously injured my kitten like 40 with drive she out of our over then so still want to be my stuff white directions great looking forward sleep well in the b*** account brother

Definitely room for improvement…

Footnote: The accurate transcription also was made with Google’s speech to text. I would listen to a phrase, press pause on the mp3 player, press record on my phone, then speak the phrase in a normal voice at conversational speed or a little slower. I discovered that I couldn’t read the dialogue at radio actor speed if I wanted to!

Finally, I edited the result to fix proper names, capitalization and a few words here and there. End result: My eyes were still tired and my thumb hurt.

But I’ll try again sometime with a more recent, slower-paced radio show. And I’ll do some homework about Android Speech-to-Text or “voice typing” — and  Android Text-To-Speech for good measure.

Posted in Android, j-heroes, jheroes, oldtime radio

A seriously undercover reporter: Lee Tracy vs. Dr. X

An old-time-film blogger’s Twitter feed (Nitrate Diva) just alerted me that the original “Dr. X” is now available on YouTube at full-length, so here it is. I had hoped to show it to my “Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture” course last semester, but couldn’t get my hands anything as good as this copy — now online, presumably because it is sufficiently out of copyright for YouTube to allow it.

(You Tube has quite a few classic “newspaper” movies.)

Maybe some of the students are still following this blog to see what they missed: A reporter versus a serial killer in a horror/comedy with hints of secret high-tech (for 1932) medical research, madness, sadism and cannibalism. The title character, Dr. Xavier, is the head of a medical lab at the center of the murder investigation, while his daughter is the reporter’s romantic interest — played by Fay Wray, a year before she was carried up the Empire State Building by King Kong.

Filmed in an early color process in 1932, “Dr. X” features Hollywood’s leading “rascal” reporter, Lee Tracy, the original actor to play star journalist Hildy Johnson in “The Front Page” on Broadway in the 1920s.

Tracy wasn’t chosen to play that role in the 1931 film, which cast Pat O’Brien as Hildy, but Tracy had a wisecracking style that kept him playing reporters and publicity men for more than a decade.

In addition to “Dr. X,” he was a tough Broadway gossip in “Blessed Event” (also 1932), a Miss Lonelyhearts columnist in “Advice to the Lovelorn” (1933), a press agent in “Bombshell” (1933), a foreign correspondent in “Clear All Wires” (1933) and a tough city editor in Samuel Fuller’s “Power of the Press” in 1943… and probably other reporters in between.

“Dr. X” is a Lee Tracy classic — in fact, the character is given the name Lee Taylor, suggesting how close the actor and this type of role were identified. As a Daily World reporter, he hides under a shroud at the morgue to get literally undercover information,  slips into a whore house to borrow the phone, startles a beat cop with a handshake buzzer, misrepresents himself as a policeman using a press-credential badge, climbs a drainpipe to sneak into a second-story window, steals pictures from someone’s parlor, hides in a closet during the scientist’s secret investigation, and ultimately solves the murder and gets the girl.

The film was popular enough to rate a sequel in 1939, “The Return of Dr. X,” which has no Lee Tracy and none of the original characters, but a similar plot. In that movie, Humphrey Bogart plays one of the suspicious characters, while Wayne Morris plays another scrappy reporter investigating horrific murders.

Posted in ethics, Journalism, jpop, movies

And now it’s “Spring Semester”

Welcome Lamp, Radford VA, Jan. 18, 2013

That’s Friday morning after Thursday’s storm… Now three days of melting-and-freezing before classes begin.

I’ll keep my WDBJ7 weather app handy.

For now, sure is pretty…

snow-laden trees and white-capped mountains in the distance

(Distant visitors: That’s from the top of a hill in Radford, Virginia, looking west across the New River valley toward West Virginia.)

Posted in 2013, photography, Radford

Celebrating a do-it-yourself Web apprenticeship

Updated Jan.15, the day of Aaron Swartz’s funeral; I changed the headline and added a few more links

About finding things out for yourself.

I first saw Aaron Swartz in 2000, when he visited MIT as a runner-up in a youth programming contest, having accomplished at 13 something I couldn’t do at 50 — and me with most of a Ph.D. I don’t remember whether I had a chance to say “congratulations.” At least I got to applaud, and shake my head in wonder.

Many heads are shaking this weekend at the news that Aaron apparently took his own life on Friday, at 26, beset by a federal prosecution over his copying a lot of files from an MIT computer without permission, and probably suffering from depression.

The “why” of his death is just terrible and sad. I would rather celebrate his life by sharing some of his writing, especially items that reflect his passion for tracking down information, asking questions, learning and building things.

In his own words, here’s how a 7th grade assignment helped Aaron find his heroes.

About a dozen paragraphs down, that page’s picture of Aaron and “TimBL” (Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web) speaks volumes, but so does his unnecessary apology for the quality of his writing — which was already excellent.

I suspect his skill with words — posting curious questions and articulate arguments in email lists — is what set in motion his brilliant, passionate and much too short career.

When he was 14 or so, he wrote an essay on self-education and Web apprenticeship that is no longer at its original address on a family website, but I quickly found a copy in the Internet Archive using its Wayback Machine. Here originally:

From writing he eventually moved on to public speaking, again with self-effacing comments, and posted this script from an online talk he gave to a gathering in India. He borrowed the title from Kurt Vonnegut, another hint of how well-read this young man was: How to get a job like mine.

He was even more public after a successful campaign against legislation he saw as online censorship, and you can see him talk about it on YouTube.

I lost track of Aaron for years. I used Creative Commons and the and the followed the campaign against SOPA and PIPA; I probably used other tools, sites and projects he was involved with, but I didn’t make the connection back to that 13-year-old visiting MIT. When news of his death started spreading from the MIT Tech newspaper to Twitter and beyond, I spent a day following his links and being amazed.

I remembered that I heard from him in 2005 or 2006 after I linked my blog to an automated “river of news” style aggregator for New York Times news stories — something he had set in 2002, using the paper’s first RSS feed. It’s probably not what the feed’s creators had in mind; I think the original idea was to help bloggers link directly to Times stories for discussion purposes, not to build alternatives to the paper’s own front page and archives. But the RSS feed system made it possible, so Aaron did it.

(At 14, his age entirely irrelevant at the keyboard, Aaron had joined an email-list working group of Web experts drafting a formal specification for a more complex “RDF Site Summary” version of RSS, but the Times earlier “Really Simple Syndication” version was good enough for this project.)

In fact, his site kept running until September 2009, when the Times changed its feed hosting system. You can still find a scattering of seven years’ worth of Times links through the Wayback Machine’s copies of that aggregator page.

Even back in 2005, Aaron seemed pleased that someone in Tennessee was using the site to point journalism students to stories they might have missed.

Most of his career, before and since, was about getting people access to information online — through projects including Wikipedia, Creative Commons copyright, campaigns to make court cases and library books available for free, and a startup that became part of

More recently, in the months preceding his untimely death this weekend, he had been sharing a lot of information in his @aaronsw Twitter feed and blog, on everything from economics to the deeper meanings of the Batman movies.

There’s a little consolation in knowing his work and words will be kept online through the efforts of friends at the Internet Archive and around the World Wide Web, and that his life and work may inspire more activism on behalf of the open-information causes he supported.

For now there is mostly sadness.

Tim Berners-Lee posted to Twitter:

“Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”


Posted in Digital Culture, Education, HTML, Memorial, WebDesign, writing

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