Category Archives: Journalism

Bill Cunningham, street photography and freedom in freelancing

“Bill Cunningham’s on the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography” goes on sale Tuesday. This book will soon be among my photography books.

This The New York Times remembrance of the Cunningham and his contributions to street and fashion photography includes colorful stories that reveal traits that made him both a talented artist devoted to doing what he loved and a difficult personality who apparently could drive editors to drink. As someone who has tested the patience of editors to pursue a story, to interview the right source, to not interview a hack, I delight in knowing that.

I also admire his independence; his unwillingness to be an employee after freelancing for several years is something I can relate to.

It’s important, when we are young professionals, to work for other people and big employers. I wish I’d been more aware of that as I started my journalism career, it wouldn’t have taken me this long to allow those experiences to sink in and to learn from them.

As I’ve gotten older, however, especially after about a decade of freelancing, I’ve realized I’m simply not built or interested in working for a corporation, an organization or an institution.
Some days, the freedom to run my life as I see fit is liberating and exciting. I do what I want, pretty much whenever I want. That includes taking assignments I want and not taking others because I want to take an afternoon to take a training, run errands, see an exhibit.
Other days, that freedom is frightening. I’m still learning to prioritize my time and tasks. I’m my safety net, I’m my only 401 (K), and, at the moment, access to a good health insurance policy is prohibitive. I often have to remind myself how lucky I am to be healthy.
Now and then I’ll take a moment to remember that many don’t have the freedom I have, that, to some degree, I’ve had the privilege to make that choice. That that freedom, which in my case includes roaming the back roads of Texas taking photographs on a workday and taking a leap of faith to make a documentary film, is priceless and demands a high level of responsibility and a strong work ethic.
Cunningham understood that.

Why journalism matters

The survival of any democracy depends largely on a press corps that doggedly holds our leaders accountable. These people may be PTA members, council members, state senators or congressmen.

As newsrooms shrink, there are fewer watchdogs available to keep us informed- so we too can hold them accountable. It’s something that troubles me immensely, and I thought about that a lot during our trip to Cuba, where there is no free press to speak of. It’s a frightening thing to think of, to think we could live in a country where you don’t have watchdogs to do the hard and important work that is journalism.

If you need a sobering reminder of the role the press plays in our lives or any doubt that it is critical for the survival, success and stability of our country, please read the latest stories by The Washington Post on the woman who approached reporters with a false story about Roy Moore.


Your mother may not love you, and other anecdotes about a beloved professor

Last night, I found out my favorite journalism professor died last year. I used to call him now and then, but hadn’t in several years. By all accounts, he lived a good life; he died surrounded by friends at 85.

The kitschy ceramic sculpture in the photograph below was a prize I won twenty years ago in his introduction to reporting class for writing the best lede for an assignment. It is one of my cherished possessions, a reminder that reporting was what I was meant to do.

Alan Prince was a newsman through and through. A reporter’s editor and a tough one. For one of his most memorable assignments, we had to interview someone who had HIV or AIDS and find out what they had planned for their funeral. One of my classmates and I rode the train to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and met a guy who was a great profile. I then called him and asked whether she and I could co-write it, and he replied, “Sure. And if you get an A, I’ll split the grade in two and you’ll each get a C.”

In his obituaries, family and friends remembered him as a charming,  generous and witty man who was a talented magician. One of the tributes said he’d always wanted a career in journalism. Students remembered him as a demanding and wonderful professor whose lessons have stayed with them more than twenty-five years after taking his courses.

In his long and successful career, Alan Prince was a reporter and editor at the Miami Herald, where he worked twenty-five years. He also taught at the University of Miami, where I was a student, and at Florida Atlantic University.

One of his singular traits was that he had an inherent distrust of authority and encouraged us to do the same. Among the lessons that have stuck with me: Always attribute what sources say, don’t trust them because they may be wrong or they may lie. He told us not to believe even our mothers when they told us they loved us. He used to say something along the lines of, “Your mother says she loves you, but you don’t know that’s true.”

There were grammatical lessons, too. I’ve never fogotten how to spell “nickel,” the differences between “to lay” and “to lie,” and “to convince” and “to persuade.”

This was a man who was hard-core old school about reporting and was not above yelling at you when you did someting stupid. He was a passionate professor who made you want to do good work. If you polled students who took his class, they’d tell you they hated him or they loved him. I was in the latter camp, and I know, as I knew then, I am the better for being in his classes. In the end, a handful of us earned the privilege of calling him Alan.

Alan Prince lived and breathed the history of American journalism. He made us memorize the First Amendment, and would give us pop quizzes for which we had to write it out. During the course, there were a few people whose names he wrote in such large handwriting on the blackboard they took up the entire space. They were his heroes. One of them was John Peter Zenger, a German immigrant who in the 1730s became one of the first American newspaper publishers and journalists tried for libel. Another was Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an abolitionist journalist and editor killed in the 1830s by a mob who set fire to one of his printing presses.

Here’s to Alan Prince, and the many other professors like him who have inspired us to be journalists, to do the good, messy and hard work of reporting and writing the news.