Diversity in Lincoln, Neb., through the lens of high school proms and teens

Bobby Caina CalvanBy Bobby Calvan (Reporter, The Heartland Project)

LINCOLN, Neb. – The assignment was straightforward: Produce a story about the growing diversity in the Cornhusker State’s capital city.

Certainly, we could have gone straight to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website and downloaded the data. We could have strung together a bunch of numbers and surrounded them with quotes and analyses.

We could have left things there.

But the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, Dave Bundy, wanted a different approach. He wanted a story that put a face on the numbers.

Bundy had a novel idea — tell the story of his city’s diversity through the lens of a quintessential American institution: the high school prom.

As is often the case, schools serve as microcosms of a community’s evolving demographics – and Lincoln is no different.

As our report points out, about a third of the roughly 38,000 students attending Lincoln Public Schools are now from communities of color. That’s a huge jump from about 15 years ago, when the majority of the school district’s students – nearly nine in 10 – were of European descent.

In recent years, Nebraska has experienced a surge in its population of immigrants, many of them of Hispanic origin. But Nebraska is also a safe haven for refugees escaping the turmoil of their homelands, including Sudan, Burma and Iraq.

The prom package Bundy proposed would be a perfect vehicle for launching the Heartland Project, a first-of-its-kind collaboration aimed at broadening news coverage of communities of color – as well as gay, lesbian and transgender issues – by partnering with newsrooms across Nebraska to produce stories on folks and issues that often don’t get attention.

The Journal Star has been among the first of Nebraska’s newspapers to embrace the collaboration.

As the lead reporter for the Heartland Project, it was my responsibility to take the prom story and run with it. I set out to pursue the package in words, pictures and video.

As part of the assignment, I’d write an overarching story connecting prom and Lincoln’s evolving demographics. And I’d enlist journalism students to help produce vignettes, photographs and videos that would spotlight teens from different backgrounds.

Among the teens we profiled: a teenager who moved to Lincoln from Mexico City, a Burmese girl born in a refugee camp in Thailand, a student coming to terms with her sexual identity, and even a foreign exchange student from Sweden.

The prom project was about acceptance and belonging, regardless of background and life stories. It’s about inclusion and being a part of the broader community.

Indeed, “community” is at the core of the Heartland Project’s mission of collaborating with newsrooms across Nebraska to generate stories, like the prom package in the Lincoln Journal Star, to enhance coverage of the state’s increasingly diverse voices.

The Heartland Project is itself a collaboration. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the project brings together the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The ambitious project will undoubtedly have its challenges, as was clear during the reporting of the prom stories.

Some at Lincoln Public Schools had their guards up, and it took some cajoling to get cooperation. (Others, including teachers and family advocates who have long worked with refugees and the LGBT community, were more embracing.)

It’s only natural to distrust an outsider – in my particular case, an experienced reporter from Washington, D.C. – who begins venturing into areas seldom explored.

Some of those challenges come from my own deficiencies. Over time, I’m certain that I’ll develop better skill in directing inexperienced journalism students. When I move on from Nebraska in December, I hope to become a better teacher, editor and leader.

The prom project has been a learning experience for me, for my colleagues at the university and – I can only hope – for my crew of student journalists.

There is so much more to learn. Indeed, I hope the Heartland Project becomes the learning experience it is meant to be.

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The Road to the NLGJA Hall of Fame

By Mark Segal (Publisher, Philadelphia Gay News)

What surprised me most at the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association annual convention in Boston last week was the concern for print media.

Granted, print media is having a hard time at present; it doesn’t know how to monetize its online material and print circulations are on the decline. So, that led me, at the last minute, to completely change my acceptance speech for my induction into the NLGJA Hall of Fame.

First, to give some perspective to audience members who didn’t know me, I detailed my activism background. Those of you who have read this column regularly know that the timeline went: Stonewall, Gay Liberation Front New York, the founding of Gay Youth, disruptions of “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite … then the founding of PGN.

PGN Masthead

I first told them of our early days in which we put up with bombed vending boxes, vandals destroying our office, only having one IBM Selectric typewriter and using press type for headlines. We even had The Thunderbolt, the nation’s white supremacist magazine, put us on their hit list. No journalism organizations allowed us to join (now I sit on their boards).

Then to give them optimism, I explained that PGN now owns its own building, equipment, all our bills and taxes are paid to date and we employ a full-time staff of 14 with full benefits. That is success in print media.

Then the important part — how did we become so strong? It’s a simple formula, at least to me. A strong business department that makes the funds to hire award-winning journalists to put out not an LGBT newspaper, but the highest-quality journalistic newspaper that serves the LGBT community. It was easy to explain that. PGN is the most-awarded LGBT publication in the nation. Yes, I said that with some of the other publishers present.

Stories that readers can get only in your newspaper bring readers, so publications shouldn’t be afraid of controversy and strong opinion pieces, and allowing those who disagree with you to do so in your letters to the editor or in op-ed pieces. But the most important is investigative reporting. Here I recalled Tim Cwiek’s 10-year saga on the Nizah Morris case, which prompted a new report by the city’s Police Advisory Commission, and rule changes at the Philadelphia Police Department. No other paper that I know of would put the resources into such a story for so long.

Hard news and features keep you relevant. We were out front on the Boy Scouts and the city’s decade-long battle with that group began in our pages, while we also covered the dangers of pumping parties, requesting a reporter to spend a night on the streets with homeless gay youth.

Media has changed and print must embrace and innovate. I explained that we have partnerships with philly.com and Philadelphia Business Journal, the first such partnership in the nation. Our work with the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network, which not only allows PGN to work with a full range of diverse publications but has helped more than 20 newspapers, making Philly a vibrant, diversified newspaper city.

I had much more I could have added, but my time limit was running out. My desire was to bring new ideas and optimism, and I believe I succeeded.

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at mark@epgn.com. This article was originally published on epgn.com.

Do Values = Profit?

By Michael Tune, NLGJA executive director

I recently attended a session of the NLGJA monthly webinars, entitled “Follow Your Inner Leader” with leadership coach and journalist Robert Naylor. The session was fascinating, and reminded me of some of the core skills it takes to differentiate between managing a situation and leading a situation.

Robert included in his discussion a push for creating core values for one’s self. What ideas, for example, best reflect what is important to me? As I answered that question on my notepad, I began to notice differences in marketable core values and non-marketable core values. Robert promised we could write him one-on-one and ask questions, and so I asked him about it.

He responded, “Core values are essential to doing business in an ethical way and they really should be part of every process. However, they are commodity only in that they form the basis of how we do business, not what we do to make money.”

Robert went on to compare the dilemma to opening a coffee shop. “[John Doe] could decide to sell fair trade organic coffees in what otherwise looks like a gallery space in which local artists are allowed to exhibit. The furniture could be refurbished from salvage yards because he doesn’t want to contribute to the carbon footprint by purchasing new items. [Values] could form the basis of how he treats employees, making sure they are treated and paid fairly, and the way he greets customers. In that sense, he would not be just selling coffee, he would be selling his ideals.”

Robert recommended not abandoning our core values in order to make a profit, but rather incorporating them into “something tangible” and “make them the foundation of [your] business practices.”

The truth is, we can’t always turn our passions into profit. Making enough money to eat is important, but it’s just as important we make enough money to eat for tomorrow and the next day and the next (that retirement is calling).

What I learned from Robert is that I can still incorporate my personal passions and core values into my work, without necessarily sacrificing my future.

If you are itching to learn something new yourself, join us for the next one. The NLGJA webinar series is free for members.

Jen Christensen Affirmed New NLGJA President

ChristensenThe National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association Board of Directors has affirmed Jen Christensen of CNN as its new president, succeeding the late Michael Triplett. Following the rules of the NLGJA bylaws, Christensen will serve the remainder of the term, through the 2014 convention.

Since 2009, Christensen has served as NLGJA’s vice president for broadcast.  She previously served on NLGJA’s board of directors for three terms, as president of the Georgia and Carolinas chapters and as the founding president of the Kentucky chapter.

A writer and producer with CNN.com, Christensen previously worked as an investigative producer/documentarian in CNN’s Special Investigations Unit, where she won the Peabody and DuPont awards, among other top prizes, as a producer for Christiane Amanpour’s God’s (Jewish) Warriors. She also produced the award-winning MLK’s Words That Changed a Nation; Black in America: Eyewitness to Murder; Obama Revealed; Sarah Palin Revealed; Christiane Amanpour’s Generation Islam, and several breaking-news documentaries.

Before joining CNN, Christensen ran investigative units at WSOC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., and WTVQ-TV in Lexington, KY

Christensen holds a bachelor’s degree in TV/Radio and politics from Butler University and also attended the London School of Economics, where she studied foreign policy and economics.

“While I take on this role under extremely sad circumstances, I hope to carry on Michael’s important legacy of thoughtful leadership,” she said. “I look forward to echoing his passion to seek fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues in the media and to continue to help create more inclusive newsrooms for LGBT journalists.”

Michael Triplett, 1964-2013

Triplett_Michael_0It is with great sadness that we inform you that our friend and leader, NLGJA President Michael Triplett, passed away today after a courageous battle with cancer.

While Michael only served as president for a few short months, he has been a member of our leadership team for several years, first as a Washington, D.C. chapter board member and president and then as a national board member and vice president for print. His quiet demeanor masked a steely resolve and an uncanny ability to push our organization forward. Michael quickly became someone who could be relied on both to provide sage advice as well as the time and energy to help us accomplish our goals.

Michael was the assistant managing editor at Bloomberg-BNA, where he used his legal background to develop and lead reports on tax and labor policy, as well as grooming journalists around the world. NLGJA members often called on Michael to provide a legal perspective to policy issues and governance, and he frequently sat on panels covering legal issues at NLGJA conventions.

Michael played an enormous role in our joining UNITY: Journalists for Diversity in 2011 and was one of our first representatives to the UNITY board. There, he worked with members of our partner groups to fully incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity into UNITY’s mission.

He also helped our organization connect with members as a principle contributor to the NLGJA RE:ACT blog.

Michael was truly a joy for all of us to work with, and his loss will be felt among our organization for years to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with his partner, Jack and his family in Alabama.

The NLGJA board will meet in the coming days to elect an interim president, as well as to determine the best way to honor Michael’s memory. But for now, we pause to remember our friend and an enormous contributor to our recent growth and success.