Coach's Log: On Directing the School of Authentic Journalism

By Al Giordano

(If only the late choreographer, theater and film director Bob Fosse, and head coach Vince Lombardi, were around to advise me now...)

The School of Authentic Journalism that we’ll be able to host for only the fourth time since 2003 - in May 2011, in Mexico - is, to so many who have attended, one of the most intense, pleasing and meaningful life experiences we’ve ever known.

I’ll never forget Johanna Lawrenson’s parting words to the last session of 70 participants from 40 countries back in February on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. I mean, Johanna lived and traveled for fifteen years – seven of them as fugitives – with the late, great Abbie Hoffman, one of the funniest, most exciting and most historic figures of the last century. She noted that she and Abbie had attended hundreds of conferences, gatherings and historic events and moments together, but that “this one, was by far, the best.”

As the school’s “head coach” it’s my responsibility to choose each school’s roster of professors, and, later, the students, all of whom come on scholarships. There are, of course, other coaches on this team with whom I discuss each school’s potential faculty prospects at length and I hear many arguments from different perspectives in favor of, or not, one talent or another and how they combine as a group. But in the end the job falls on me to pick the year’s roster of players. You can’t blame any assistant coaches for bad decisions: they’re mine when all is said and done.

Or, since not everybody relates to sports metaphors, think of it as a Broadway stage production, or a major motion picture: one needs the right combination of actors and other talents to make it work and succeed and have meaning.

It is an unbelievably difficult job, with so many talents to choose from, especially because each season we seek out students from previous years who we think are ready to teach in our subjects of investigative journalism, video production, online reporting and the strategies and tactics of the social movements that we report.

And what inevitably happens is we can’t choose everyone, not every person who has something to teach, nor every person we love and respect. And because the school is an event that so many past participants want so passionately to return to, there is inevitably disappointment – in some cases, even anger and resentment – from some who don’t get invited to come back. Ah well, there is a common expression here in Latin America: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die to get there."

Others, of course, understand. They applaud and congratulate each new school’s faculty roster, especially the up-and-comers who are promoted from student to professor. They take pride in having helped their colleagues grow and advance. (And not all understand: It is no picnic to be a professor at this school, with me constantly pushing them to prepare better, teach better and do better: It's the students alone who think this school is heaven!) And we really appreciate and respect them even more for their good wishes and willingness to find other ways to collaborate with and stay involved in the very big project that is Narco News. They “get” that having been invited even just once – especially since students pay no tuition and in many cases we pay their air travel, room and board – is a once in a lifetime experience.

Since we are about to announce the j-school 2011 roster of professors and invite everyone in the world to fill out applications to convince us why we want them to attend as students, I want to explain our criteria to all for how we went about choosing the 2011 faculty.

There have been about 180 student and professor positions from more than fifty countries that have participated in previous Schools of Authentic Journalism as either professors, students or staff. Since some professors return from school to school, and some students are promoted to professor in subsequent schools, I would estimate that around 150 to 160 people have passed through its doors and received at least one diploma. Most of them are still considered very valued colleagues and collaborators and, most importantly, our friends. We wish we could invite every one of them. But for 2011, we will have 40 new students, and space for a maximum of 40 professors and staff, and we can’t choose all our friends to come. Instead, we choose the people we think will be the best teachers of the lessons we want to teach.

Other factors are geographic and language balance (the school is bilingual, in that everything is translated to and from English and Spanish while it is happening), having enough personnel in each category of learning that we teach (kinds of media, a broad set of skills, and the all-important strategic dynamics of movements curriculum) and – I’m especially a stickler on this, because too many “progressive” events seem to have terrible disequilibrium when it comes to this – gender balance. We also try to have all age groups represented, too.

The truth is, the only faculty that has absolute job security for these (unpaid, and thus doubly impressive how coveted they are) professor positions are the school’s “social directors,” Tiberio and Maia, because they’re a big part of the reason that almost everybody always wants to return! The rest have to fill the very specific teaching and staff needs that are also necessary, and work very hard with us over the coming months to give our collective and individual absolute best to the students. And we build our roster from there.

Now that letters have gone out to next year’s professor corps – 31 experienced professors and nine 2010 students invited to come back as professors (almost all of whom confirmed within 24 hours, to give you an idea of the passions for the school) – word has begun to circulate among the j-school community and some folks, upon realizing they didn’t get “the letter,” have responded with the gamut of possible emotions and reactions. Some apparently felt a sense of entitlement and are upset, even angry, that they won’t be teaching this year. I’ve been on the receiving end of some frosty communications and a very few others have put spins on it and decided to respond with speculation and/or gossip to others about why they think they were “rejected” or “excluded.” I suppose that is human nature, but it’s not very professional, is it?

I really should talk to some theater directors or sports coaches about this whole process, because I find it interesting: Like, let’s say you once got the most wonderful present – a scholarship to what probably was the most fun and meaningful school or team or Broadway performance you ever attended in your life – but then didn’t get a second ticket to perform on the next run of the show or the next season on the ball field. I’ve known some great actors, actresses, entertainers and even some sports figures who handle this sort of thing like pros. They know that you don’t get called up after every audition, but there will be another audition for a future show and your chances haven’t ended to be part of it in the future. And stuff can even happen between now and next May, when the show premiers and the season begins! There is always the chance of being called up on waivers if another player or actor is injured or falls ill or gets a better gig. Especially for the pros who carry themselves as such.

Anyway, for the rest of you who are not in the middle of this community (not yet, but we hope you someday will be), you can look forward to the upcoming release of the awesome faculty roster for the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico. And I hope you’ll congratulate and wish every starting player, each leading and supporting actor, and the all-important crew behind the curtain the best. And if you would like to show your support by tossing a coin or two into the cup, please do so, because this happens only because enough of you do.

Together, we’re about to pull off the biggest, and hopefully the best, School of Authentic Journalism yet. The theme will be “Movement Strategies for Journalists.” And we’ll usher in yet another next generation of auténticos whose good works you’ll be reading, viewing and informed by for years to come.

And even if you don’t attend, even more of the curriculum will be shared with you via Narco News TV and the stories our students post on these pages.

Meanwhile, I just look up at the skies and say, “Where are you, Bob Fosse and Vince Lombardi, when I need your counsel now?!”

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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