NYT’s Felicia Lee Visits CCNY

IMG_1268Felicia R. Lee wrote 1,460 stories for the New York Times before she left the paper in December. Yesterday, she shared her insights with about 40 City College students in our Race & Reporting and Reporting and Writing courses.

Felicia began as a Metro reporter for the Times in late 1988 — and got thrown into the fray of covering New York in the bad old days. Her first story: The Central Park jogger case, in which five men of color were wrongly convicted of beating and raping a white woman. Reflecting back, she says she would’ve thought about the story differently today. “Being older and being a mother, I might’ve thought ‘these kids don’t have records, let’s look at the DNA, let’s retrace their steps,'” she told the class. “Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if there’d been a few people in key places that looked at things differently.”

(Twenty-five years later, Felicia wrote this story about Sarah Burns who wrote a book about the case and created the documentary, The Central Park 5.)

More recently, she covered culture stories writing about Toni Morrison, the movie Selma and interviewing Oprah and Scandal’s Kerry Washington and many, many more. Though she enjoyed her days at the New York Times, she is clear about what it meant to be one of the fewer women of color working as a senior writer. “Yes, I’m lucky; I hit the jackpot,” Felicia said. “[But] I also realized this paper needs me as much as I need them.”

In the end, she felt grateful for the opportunity to share her experiences with our students. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “The country is changing. The media needs you–smart people with eyes open.” IMG_1274


The Paper — Past & Present

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 2.26.41 PMThe Paper has a long, colorful and respected legacy. It was first created in the late 60s by a group of African-American students at City College. Back issues of the publication are currently being digitized for research, thanks to the support and energy of some of these original contributors.

First called “Tech News,” The Paper was born in a very turbulent period of the country, featuring the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and anti-war demonstrations, and fights for student rights–at City College, CUNY and all over the country.

With a period so rich in social upheaval, The Paper sought to report issues not covered in traditional college newspapers (though some of that was done), or indeed the mainstream press. News coverage ranged from community issues to national and international news, the arts (there was a movie and theatre critic, and a poet-in-residence).

The Paper produced some amazing journalism and was able to “break” several news stories before the mainstream press. In 1971, David Friedlander broke the true story of the uprising at the Attica prison several weeks before the New York Times. Similarly, The Paper broke the story of the 1970 student takeover of the CCNY campus to protest the US invasion of Cambodia. Arlette Hecht wrote a story on the Rockefeller drug laws, an article released simultaneously with a published article in the New York Times and NY Daily News (quite a feat for a college weekly publication).

The Paper also published in depth articles, such as a seminal piece on drugs and their flow into the US. This was important at that time (as it is now) because of the heroin epidemic plaguing Harlem and other black communities.

Right now we need contributors, so please reach out to thepaper@ccny.cuny.edu if you’d like to write, edit, take photographs or help design the publication. Or stop by our office on the first floor of the NAC 1/118.

In the meantime, our very small current staff stands on the shoulders of the alumni giants of the past. Our students hold tight to this Langston Hughes quote, which ran on the banner of The Paper: 

“So we stand here

On the edge of hell

In Harlem

And look out on the world

And wonder

What we’re gonna do

In the face

Of what we remember”

How to Write Short: When Less Is More

gQlAyAs Shakespeare once wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit.” And it’s also the soul of good writing. Even before the Twitter age, many of the best writers used words sparingly–keeping each sentence tight, efficient, but still full of meaning.

Take, for example, Ernest Hemingway, who practiced what’s called “muscular writing.” As the legend goes, over lunch, he challenged some literary friends to a contest: Write a short story in six words. On a napkin, he scratched out a winner: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Several years ago, that tale inspired Smith Magazine to launch a challenge to writers to tell their life stories in exactly six words.

Some of the best: 

  • Not quite what I was planning.
  • It all changed in an instant
  • You wouldn’t know, looking at me.
  • Birth, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence
  • Longed for him, got him. Sh*t
  • Everyone who loved me is dead
  • I can’t keep my own secrets
  • Living my dream, please send money
  • Fat, thin, fat, thin, fat, thin

As space and attention spans get shorter, I like to challenge my students to do the same. Try it yourself. And for more inspiration, watch this video.

6 Tips to Improve Writing

writeI don’t sweat small stuff. But I do have a few nit-picky things that really bother me when I see them in writing. And I don’t mean run-on sentences, misspellings, fragments and grammatical errors we scolds love to point out. You should know better.

I’m talking about the kind of under-the-radar tics that make writing slow, boring and torture to slog through. Obviously, I teach journalism, not technical or college essay writing–but still. The best writing is clean, crisp and active, no matter the setting or the audience. So I encourage students to write like journalists and avoid subtle errors that few notice but add up.

Try these six tricks that–I assure you–will make your writing better:

1. Shorten long sentences. Most people pile too much onto and into each sentence, as though another one isn’t right behind it. Keep your sentences short and declarative. Write like a radio or TV journalist: Even if a sentence is grammatically correct, if you can’t read it without taking a breath, break it up. (I even felt a little breathless reading that one!)

Not this: I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave,” starring the amazing actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is of Nigerian descent and also appeared in “Dirty Pretty Things,” a film that offered a searing look at organ harvesting in London.

Instead: I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave,” starring the amazing actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Of Nigerian descent, he also appeared in “Dirty Pretty Things.” That film offered a searing look at organ harvesting in London.

2. Get rid of passive voice. Of course, you know this, but sometimes it manages to slip in, often when you aren’t sure who did something. Instead, figure out who did what, which will make your sentence active and more precise.

Not this: Computers were stolen from the chemistry lab.

Instead: Thieves stole computers from the chemistry lab. Or: Someone stole computers from the chemistry lab.

3. Use fewer words. Some people add more words to sound smarter–or to make a paper, essay or article longer. Better to expand the thinking rather than just the word count. So look to trim the fat.

Not this: I am an individual who often has a hard time figuring out what it is I want to eventually do with my life.

Instead: I have a hard time figuring out what to do with my life.

4. Don’t repeat. First, avoid, “like I said before,” “to repeat,” or “once again.”  And try not to use the same words over and over…and over.

Not this: My plan is to first go to the library. Then I plan to study all night long. Planning my day helps me feel in control.

Instead: I plan to go to the library and study all night long. Organizing my day helps me feel in control.

5. Whenever you can, change all forms of the “to be” verb. I know, I know…everyone finds this difficult, even me. But push yourself. Use active verbs to keep your writing interesting.

Not this: Introduction to Journalism is my favorite course.

Instead: I love Introduction to Journalism. I adore Introduction to Journalism. Introduction to Journalism rocks.

Not this: The instructions were not applicable to me.

Instead: The instructions did not apply to me.

6. Finally, think like a sportswriter, and many of the subtle errors will fall away.

Not this: The Giants were the winners over the Colts by a substantial margin.

Instead: The Giants crushed the Colts.

Not this:  The Nets are coached by former Knick Jason Kidd.

Instead: Former Knick Jason Kidd coaches the nets.

Not this: Serena Williams is the year’s number-one player.

Instead: Serena Williams finished the year at number one.

Anything to add? 

Take a Good Photograph!

Yes, yes–a picture is worth 1,000 words. And journalists, even those who stick mainly to print, must know how to take one.  What’s a good photo? Try these tips:photographer1

1. Take good pictures. Here’s a website with 5 good tips to help improve your camera work.

2. Understand the rule of thirds.


2. Make sure you photos tell a story. The best photographs tell a story, and a photo essay has to be about SOMETHING, not just a random series of pictures. Click below on some slide shows/photo essays that some of my students have done to help guide you. Each tells a story.

  • This student’s photo essay looked at the aftermath of Sandy in Harlem. Click here to see it.
  • This one shows a block party on Marion Avenue in the Bronx.
  • I did this photo essay about a church in Harlem that grows vegetables–and distributes them on Monday in a soup kitchen. And this one about bicycle theft shows all the ways that people lock up their bikes on a block in Manhattan to keep them safe.

3. Vary the composition of your photos. Let’s say you’re doing a photo essay about a family. Don’t have all full body shots. One could be a close up, another just hands, another a shot of a person in a room etc. Make it interesting.

4. In the best photo essays, something is happening. So it’s better to shoot action than posing.

5. Make sure the photos are large, so that they will look good on the site.

Good luck; see you Thursday.

Producer Rose Arce Visits CCNY Journalism Class

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 2.13.24 PMThe documentary producer talks about people-driven stories by Aimee Haicken

Rose Arce, an award winning journalist, producer and documentary film maker, visited Professor Linda Villarosa’s Intro to Journalism class in early October with a talk about her life in journalism and her new ventures into documentary film making.

The class listened raptly and asked good questions as she shared her experiences. Her tenacity, even as a teenager, won her an interview with a space shuttle astronaut’s wife. She fell in love with the field of journalism, and paid her dues as she learned the craft. Today she is a respected producer and journalist. Now working with Soledad O’Brien at Starfish Media Group, she proudly talks of their newest documentary, The War Comes Home. It debuted on CNN in August and garnered praise for its look at returning veterans and the troubles they face.

Arce gave the class a peek at the documentary, pointing out the use of still photography that captures the moments in these men’s lives that need to move to the forefront. “With documentary you can really capitalize on things you need people to say,” said Arce with her characteristic quick patter. “There are many techniques you can use, and once you get that down, your creativity can come into play.”

She prefers to focus on people’s lives: their trials and hardships. By telling those tales, Arce allows viewers to see more about the world, and gets the audience to think. “It’s allowing us to view what it’s like from his perspective,” she said, referring to one of the vets in the documentary. Showing this angle gives the story a very personal touch and using still photography, combined with interviews conducted by O’Brien and other video footage, helps create an intimate portrait of the lives wrecked by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arce never stopped talking, even as she took questions from the class. Her bright eyed, fast-paced style serves her well. She spoke about many things: her history in print journalism, her move to TV and video, her passion for the stories she tells.

What’s her key to success? “Research, research, research.” Through laughter the point came across: You have to know what you are talking about. Get the background; the details will come as you tell the story.

With 20 plus years of award-winning journalism behind her and more to come, this suggestion may compel some of the class to tell their own tales in the future.

Herman Lew–A Colleague Remembered

10701982_648472738584567_1683951334945981887_nby Onaka Fiedtkou

The Media and Communication Arts department, and City College, lost an exceptional member of their community a few weeks ago. Professor Herman Lew, director of the BFA in Film & Video program, passed away on September 20. He suffered from a fatal heart attack. The dreadful news stunned the public. People recognized Professor Lew to always be in good spirit with a smile and joke waiting for you. The MCA department falls with heavy hearts over this loss. His office remains closed with a poster and marker outside for the public to share their condolences. From an academic standpoint, the administration has everything organized after this tragic loss. An active Director of the program has been assigned as well as a professor for his classes for an entire year.

Professor David Davidson, a long time member of the BFA Film & Video department, takes over as the new Director of the BFA Film & Video program. Professor Davidson was a founding director of the MFA program in Media Arts Production. Davidson’s role as the new Director of the BFA program holds a special connection to the MCA department, and to Professor Lew.

“Not only given his talents, his experience at the institution, but in addition to that he went to graduate school with Professor Lew,” Jerry Carlson, Director of the Cinema Studies minor, says. Lew and Davidson were friends outside of being coworkers. “Professor Lew shot a number of Professor Davidson’s documentaries. It’s not only something that has to do with professional qualifications, but there is a personal bond there as well.”

-2Professor Lew also taught courses in the Film & Video program. The administration has called upon a veteran to the MCA department, and a good friend to Professor Lew, cinematographer Niknaz Tavakolian. She will step in as a substitute professor for Lew’s class this semester. Tavakolian has previously taught cinematography courses and served on the technical staff in the department. “She has actually the perfect candidate,” Carlson says. “There are many cinematographers who have high qualifications but she knows our department, she knows our students, she knows our philosophy of film, and of teaching.”

It becomes difficult to honor a great man with many accomplishments, who had a great impact on countless people across different platforms. Outside of City College, Professor Lew played a significant role with Third World Newsreel, a nonprofit organization in New York. City College and Third World will coordinate together to hold a memorial later in October for Professor Lew. “We have overlapping philosophies and missions,” Carlson says. “It’s only appropriate that we would do it together and that the communities would be able to come together in that way.”