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Alexander Mallin's Blog in 2012
After the fact

Posted 11/16/2012: 

On Wednesday I wrote a story about the increase in international enrollment last year. I found that the increase was primarily due to a surge in Chinese students, specifically undergraduates.

The next day I went to work at my dining hall job on campus and started talking with one of my coworkers there, who just happened to be an undergraduate Chinese student. While his English certainly isn't the best, I wanted to pry him for more information as to why he decided on America, and more specifically, Missouri.

I learned a great deal from the conversation, at least to the extent that he could say with a limited vocabulary. About China's complex economy, his aspirations of being an engineer. He went to college in China for two years, but it was a ten hour train ride from his home. A train that was so crowded that people would take several hour-long shifts standing in a cramped compartment. Being a polite and younger person, he said he only sat for about 2 hours and would give his seat up to an elderly person or a woman.

I was listening to this and was learning so much about a culture I don't have a great deal of knowledge about, and this news angle was more intriguing to me than almost any other I had originally considered. Instead of just looking at the numbers and fact sheets, I need to work on my skills in getting the voice of people in my stories. It's so important to explore every angle of your stories, because most people don't care a great deal about what an administrator, politician, or spokesman says, they really want to know how it affects the common person, a voice with passion and a real story always outweighs the recitation of some formal press release.

This story was a lesson learned, and I am excited to move forward and not lose sight of the real reason I wanted to become a journalist in the first place. I need to work harder on analyzing all angles, and not just figure things out after the fact. As cliche as it may sound, I really do want to tell the untold stories, bring a voice to the voiceless, and shine a light where there was once darkness. Getting a quote manufactured down a hierarchical administrative chain sounded off by some irritated spokesman is easy. Getting an actual voice that can tell you with all five senses what something felt like, that's what storytelling really is. That's what great journalism is made of. 

I'll leave you this week with a video ( ) I watched this past week. It's a story by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Charlie LeDuff, and it's a witty, incredibly well-done piece of advocative and investigative journalism. It's another great example of bringing a voice to the voiceless, and I think you'll enjoy it.

Election week
Posted 11/09/2012: 

This week I attended Gov. Jay Nixon's election watch along with Nick Thompson, and we both covered what turned into a victory party for the candidate along with Attorney General Chris Koster.

It was an entirely new environment than I had ever experienced before. The only election watch I had ever attended up to that point was in a small restaurant in Plattsburg, Mo. called Bert and Ernie's for the election of a state representative in that county that my Mom was high school friends with. Needless to say, this was a slightly different situation.

We arrived at the Pageant and immediately began throwing wraps together. With every minute passing we felt like we were competing with the other news agencies to release up-to-date material. It was my first instance as a journalist where open competition was visibly taking place. We researched, tweeted, talked to the audience and attendees like Treasurer Clint Zweifel and tried to send back to MDN the most original and informative content we could come up with. By the end of the night we sent in a total of 9 wraps along with a newspaper story. Working with Nick went very smoothly and we were in sync with eachother as the discussions we had with eachother and other journalists opened our minds up to new angles and material for our stories.

It felt great to immerse myself fully into that journalistic mode where you are constantly trying to absorb and release information without making it sound regurgitated by all of the other news outlets covering the event. The need to be new, original, and authentic must be paid close attention to while maintaining perfect accuracy. The fear of any journalist on election night is committing a Dewey-Truman-esque headline mistake that attracts scrutiny from other media outlets and the general public.

While I didn't make this exact mistake, I was at fault when I tweeted that Gov. Nixon was expected to win the election before numbers had been concrete and confirmed by a reputable source. I had overheard the ABC news agency reporting live on the HD TVs at the event say the same thing, and I rushed to stay current by following along. While it wasn't a major mistake it was certainly a learning experience to never go off of what news sources say and go off what the most reputable sources say instead. This is an essential lesson for every journalist, similar to when NPR reported former US Rep. Gabriel Giffords had been pronounced dead after the Arizona shooting, mostly all news agencies followed their lead. When it turned out that she was still alive, and is still to this day, the news agencies had to learn that a doctor pronounces a person dead, noone else, especially not a news agency.

Check out my story from Wednesday on the lower voter turnout in this year's election.

Preparing for Election Night
Posted 11/02/2012: 

The most anticipated moment of 2012 for many arrives with election night next Tuesday. Where we can finally see the (temporary) end to political attacks and countless commercials telling us who and what to vote for.

I'll be reporting from Gov. Jay Nixon's watch party at The Pageant in St. Louis with my fellow reporter Nick Thompson.

Nixon is ahead in the polls, and after interviewing him Wednesday it seems he will stay there if not for the simple fact that he has done what some other Missouri politicians have failed to do, keeping his mouth shut.

Nixon has yet to take a stance on hardly any major ballot issues like the cigarette tax, Medicaid expansion and the health care exchange. When asked by reporters regarding these topics, he gave the politically safe answer of "let the voters decide" and didn't elaborate much further. When asked about attacks by his opponent Republican businessman Dave Spence on lack of action in the Mamtek failure, he pivoted to attack Spence for his bank's acceptance and non-repayment of TARP funds.

If at anytime a reporter sought to press him for a more straightforward answer, Nixon brushed it off and again changed the topic.

Sometimes it seems that politician lose much of their effective governing qualities as they work to push for gaining or regaining election.

Rather than working with the press, its as if politicians are at-odds with them, fearing the watchdog qualities and labeling them as "gotcha" questions.

I wonder if politicians were more open and trusting in the press if it would lead to a more cooperative relationship in delivering to the public exactly who is on the ballot, what they stand for and what they believe in.

So much news has been reduced to defining a politician by 10-second sound bites of some type of political gaffe. With YouTube and Twitter, the missteps define a politician publicly so much more than the actual steps. Perhaps Jay Nixon has found a way to manipulate this by keeping himself out essentially out of the public eye, running without hardly any indication of what political party he even stands with and it might work out perfectly for him in the end.

The question remains whether this helps or hinders journalism and its democratic role in society.

Here's my story from this week

What happens in Vegas, doesn't always stay in Vegas
Posted 10/26/2012: 

This week I reported on the Mizzou Athletics Video Director Michael Schumacher and his strip club escapade in Las Vegas, where he racked up $7600 on a bill, which was subsequently repaid.

After poking and prodding various Mizzou sources, I was assured that this wasn't even an issue, that because Schumacher repaid his debt that this wasn't important, and the disciplinary methods taken by the university were appropriate and finished. Of course, the public couldn't be informed when exactly he repaid this debt, or even the "disciplinary methods" that were taken against him.

Being a Mizzou student, I almost felt I had a conflict of interest when a twinge of anger arose every time someone tried telling me this. Being that I work a just-above minimum wage dining hall job, pay my own bills, and mediate with my two divorced parents to help pay for my absurdly expensive college education, how could someone sit there and tell me this was a non-issue?

I am disgusted with the way the University handled it. The fact that this occurred in May of 2011 and the public is only now hearing about it. The fact that this man who had no problem charging $2,000 on a university card to tip strippers in Las Vegas when he was there on Mizzou dollars attending a professional conference. The fact that he originally tried to dispute the charges, and then when the bank ended up giving him physical evidence he finally fessed up. And last but not least, the fact that this man is still employed.

I find it troublesome that no other news networks in Columbia have been covering this issue hardly at all. Its an issue that needs to be brought to the attention of the students no matter what the administration thinks. They should know where the mounds of money they throw every year at this institution are going. If they knew it was at some point nestled comfortably between the g-string of a high class Vegas stripper, there might be quite a different attitude around campus.

"He paid it back," is the excuse that we will hear. And this, in their minds, is supposed to make us feel better. The fact is, and this was illustrated very eloquently in an interview with one of my sources on Friday: "What an insult to students. What an insult to the students who work hard in their classes and their jobs to get a good education, and somebody in a position of trust uses school resources this way."

If I had the choice, I would have made a radio wrap playing that quote over and over.

But, I couldn't. I had to be a journalist, and deliver the most objective story possible. It was a test, to say the least, but I feel like I'm learning more and more to distinguish the roles and feelings of a student and a journalist. I called Schumacher over and over, and I honestly wondered what I would say to the man if he ever answered, despite that I had the interview questions right in front of me. One day I hope Schumacher will find a way to at least apologize publicly, and take the responsibility that I feel is what the student body deserves.

But hey, I haven't yet been able to afford a trip to a Las Vegas strip club, so how could I know?

Here's the first story

Here's the second story

St. Louis City Public Schools gain accreditation
Posted 10/19/2012: 

This Tuesday I got to cover the school board meeting and, essentially, the finale of what I have been working on for the past several weeks.

St. Louis City Public Schools received provisional accreditation. In past weeks I have sought to emphasize what this truly means for not only the district but the entirety of the Missouri Public Schools system. The district is the first since 2002 to rebound from having lost accreditation. That doesn't quite do the district justice, because the last school district to do it was Niangua, which is incredibly small compared to the city of St. Louis.

As Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro stated in an interview, this is simply the beginning of a long road to recovery. In her words, "A bigger ship takes much longer and much more effort to turn around."

The question is whether or not the district will use this provisional accreditation as a sign of accomplishment or an incentive towards further improvement.

The district must also consider what the board emphasized in its meeting, that next year it will be evaluated under a whole new set of standards, ones the district characterized as more difficult and analytical. If the district doesn't continue along the same road it has been in the last year, it could see its accreditation stripped right back away from it.

Transmitting this sense of urgency among the student and teachers is essential, but it could also place unfair pressure inside the classrooms. Students who are just there to improve their own education are now placed with an additional task on their back and rather than placing emphasis internally they must consider the integrity of the system itself.

I hope to continue coverage of this district and also others, I hope to spread out towards the Kansas City Public School District and see what measures they are taking that compare and contrast to the ones that helped implement the turnaround in St. Louis. Also I hope to focus on the two other unaccredited districts in St. Louis and see what they may take away from their neighboring district to hopefully follow suit.

The parallels of Niangua and St. Louis City Schools
Posted 10/12/2012: 

This week I spoke with Niangua Schools Administrative Assistant Vula Dudley, and learned much more about a tiny rural district and its parallels to the academic giant that is St. Louis City Public Schools.

The first thing that drew me to Niangua that the districts have in common is that Niangua is the only other district in the state in recent history that has rebounded from a loss of state accreditation. The district lost accreditation in 2002 and regained provisional accreditation the following year.

One of the main reasons Niangua was able to recover so quickly is that the student population is so low as well as the student-teacher ratio that reaching out to students is much easier than in the St. Louis schools, where the student to classroom teacher ratio was 19 to one last year.

Still, the actions taken by both districts towards recovery are similar in ways that should be noted by other schools in Missouri's School Improvement system.

The essential ingredient in both cases was the emphasis put on literacy. Each school wanted its students to be reading at grade level. Both felt that if this goal was reached then everything else would fall in place.

Doing this in St. Louis City and Niangua was not a simple task, and its still not fully accomplished. Literacy is something that must be emphasized not just in schools but at home as well, so community outreach is essential. Its also the greatest difficulty.

Both districts have over 75 percent of students on free and reduced lunches. In St. Louis City, 10 percent of the students are homeless, 10 percent don't speak English as a first language, and 85 percent are below the poverty line, according to CEO of the special administrative board Richard Sullivan.

In areas with so much poverty, finding ways to reach out to communities is a very demanding task. The question formed around all of this and the three other unaccredited districts in the state is; should different standards be established in order to deal with impoverished families and students? By putting this unaccredited label on these schools, are we promoting proactiveness in academics, or are we writing off the districts integrity entirely?

These are questions I plan to continue to address in the coming weeks as I go more in depth in the issue of poverty in the unaccredited school districts in the state.

See my feature

See the radio story

New developments in the St. Louis City Schools Story
Posted 10/06/2012:  After extensive research on the topic, I couldn't believe when I got the call from an education spokeswoman that I had missed something in my St. Louis Public Schools story.

The interesting thing is that it wasn't only me who missed it, it was a different DESE spokeswoman who had given me incorrect information.

I had written two stories involving the St. Louis Public Schools applying for provisional accreditation. According to DESE spokeswoman Sarah Potter, they were the first school in "recent memory" to be able to do that in Missouri. I quoted her as saying that in my stories, so when facts surfaced that there was in fact another district who had done this 10 years ago, I still wasn't guilty of a fact error in my stories. At that point it simply became a new angle for the story, and an interesting one to say the least.

The school district that achieved this prior to SLPS was Niangua, a very rural district near Springfield, Mo. It lost its accreditation in 2001, and reapplied for it a year later in 2002, gaining provisional accreditation. This is significantly different that SLPS obviously. The district is very small compared to St. Louis, it has completely different demographics. But it did achieve what no other school has been able to in 10 years, and that's where they have something in common, potentially. This is a very multifaceted story, and developments in it have been changing every day, even while not much is actually happening with either district until SLPS finds out if its accredited on Oct. 16.

Finding out what Niangua did right can be a very basic approach to how all other struggling districts should follow suit. Paralleling their achievements with that of St. Louis could establish a framework for a truly appropriate response to dealing with districts who just don't measure up. With Niangua and St. Louis, the hiring of a new superintendent is what both credit largely to their turnarounds. The amount of times you hear 'funding' in reference to turnarounds is incredible. Getting financial assistance is how schools replace old equipment, pay teachers, and give students enhanced experiences through providing an educational environment that wouldn't have been provided before.

Another thing I hope to look at through this story is if stripping accreditation is a truly effective motivator for students and teachers alike to implement a turnaround. When you're in an unaccredited school district, how does that affect morale? Do you feel like other schools will look at you as stupid? If you are performing well, does it cause you to resent your peers who haven't developed academically as well as you? Does it really make students and teachers strive for better days or does it just make them accept defeat?

I look forward to further reporting this story and rolling out a feature next week that addresses these issues.

The turnaround at the St. Louis Public School District
Posted 09/28/2012: 

This week I reported on what I feel is one of the biggest issues in the entire state right now, one that needs to be paid close attention to.

The St. Louis Public School District is up for provisional accreditation. That sentence doesn't quite measure up to the historical significance of this in terms of Missouri's educational system. This is the first time in recent memory, according to my sources, that any district has seen a turnaround in regaining the academic standards required for accreditation. The district lost accreditation in 2007. Since then, through the actions of a state appointed board, a new superintendent, and the efforts of parents, teachers, students and the general community have turned this seemingly hopeless situation into one with a newfound hope not yet seen in Missouri's recent history.

How was this done? Is it simply a temporary turnaround? And what models can the other unaccredited schools in the state (Kansas City Public School District, Riverview Gardens, newly unaccredited Normandy District) utilize to follow the example of the district? 

Those are the issues, and its why this story needs to be heard.

The angle that I feel is underreported on this issue is the exact thing that all of these schools have in common: poverty.

All of these schools have above an 80 percent student population which are on the free/reduced lunch program. Specifically, 10 percent of the students in the St. Louis City District are homeless, according to the CEO of the state-appointed board Rick Sullivan. Sullivan said addressing this issue on all fronts was the most important aspect of this turnaround. 

The state appointed board had town hall meetings, heard the concerns of parents, students and teachers and through the district's actions was able to implement programs that many would think would bankrupt the financially struggling district. The opposite is true, in the past years the district has had financial surplus.

Upon the approval or disapproval of the districts accreditation on October 16, several things are true.

First, the district is on the right track. They have seen improvements in the reading levels of students across the board. Levels that district officials correlate almost entirely with the turnaround

Second, more work must be done. This isn't a success story... yet. It's something that is very much in the developmental process. With a district that was so down and out, its still scoring in the bottom percentages in the state on most academic areas. Its not something that can be fixed on a one-day, one-month or even one-year cycle.

The reason that this is one hell of a story is that previously unaccredited schools have simply continued to fall. Like a phoenix, this district has risen from the ashes and done things hardly anyone anticipated. How this was done, what can be done to implement this turnaround in all other schools, and whether this turnaround will be continual or temporary, is something that, if other districts can follow suit, could be a momentous turnaround in not only the Missouri Public School system, but quite possibly, the public school system across the country.

See the first story

See the second story

Covering the debates
Posted 09/23/2012:  This week was quite an eventful one at MDN. I produced three stories, with 8 wraps total. The first story of the week I covered concerned the removal of accreditation at the Normandy School District in St. Louis. I found this story very interesting, but my biggest challenge was finding a way to make the news, which happened the day before I produced the story, seem current. I feel like I did this effectively and produced a solid and balanced story.

Friday brought the Senate and Governor debates. I covered the event in Columbia at the Holiday in with Jordan Shapiro, and found them to be incredibly intriguing and definitely the biggest story of the week. Watching Todd Akin respond to the opening question of the debate, aimed at his comments made several weeks ago regarding abortion and rape. I grabbed some great sound bites from this debate but I'm not sure whether I liked the opening question. The Missouri Press association sponsored the debate and although I know it Akin's comment was the biggest news between the two major candidates, I think it sort of paralyzed his ability to make any credible or good arguments following it. As much as Akin's comments were wrong, he answered to them weeks ago and its really the only thing people know him for now. I'm not sure if a politician should be bombarded constantly after apologizing for a stupid misstep. It takes away from presenting the public with more important arguments that I feel would have been productive to have rather than dwelling on a single statement made weeks ago. I don't say this in support of Akin, rather, I say this in presenting the public with honest and productive discourse about the direction of the state and policies of the candidates.

I don't see the public or the media ever letting Akin recover from these comments, and it will likely taint his political career for the rest of his life no matter what policies or ideas he may have for the country. However, I find some agreement with Claire McCaskill's statements saying that his misstep opened the window to his general views. It was a mistake, and his political responses were poorly calculated. I just hope that for the remainder of the campaign the media coverage will turn its focus on views of the candidates and let them both battle it out to help the public decide who would be the healthiest senator for the state. Even if Akin's words politically crippled his campaign, it shouldn't get in the way of both candidates answering for their total record rather than one single sound bite.

One thing I wish would have gone differently is that I composed two stories with the aim of being current, yet both weren't put on the MDN site the whole weekend. I was very proud of these stories and I would have liked to have seen them online.

My first legislative veto session
Posted 09/13/2012:  Unlike many, I spend a lot of time wondering how the rules and laws that dictate our every day lives are made. Yesterday, I got my first real taste of exactly how these rules come to pass.

I arrived in Jefferson City at around 9:30 a.m. and immediately commenced one of the busiest and demanding days of my year so far. I was set to cover the legislative veto session, and my focus was on Senate Bill 749, a bill designed to clash with a Health and Human Services rule in President Obama's health care law that provides contraception and abortion procedure coverage in employee health care plans. This bill was vetoed by Governor Nixon, and its essential element was that employers and health care providers (insurers, health officials, etc.) are able to deny coverage on the basis of religious objections.

The circus that ensued was like nothing I had ever seen. Both Republicans and Democrats had valid arguments for and against overriding the governor's veto, but the former prevailed after several Democrats crossed their party lines in favor of either moral beliefs or the approval of their constituents. Watching this process gave me an eerie nostalgia reminiscent of watching School House Rock's "I'm Just a Bill" in my third grade class. I learned more in depth the complexities of this process and got to see constructive debates from both sides of the aisle.

The problem with this bill, and a reason I hope to continue covering this issue, is that is puts our state law at odds with federal law. It puts insurance companies in the position of having to choose which law to follow, and consequently many have expressed intention to sue the state which dips into taxpayer money. I only had about 3 hours to piece the story together, so I didn't get to fully cover the issue in a way that satisfied me. I wanted to get not just the voices of politicians but also that of the Missouri Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood. This law will certainly prove controversial, and I really want to dig down and cover how it will affect employers, employees and businesses in general with its passage.

Covering issues like this is one of the many reasons I want to be a journalist. Piecing a story together and breaking it down to transmit to the public and public officials alike is something I'm continually learning. MDN has led me to think quickly on my feet and I'm excited to continue covering issues like this. 

First blog of the year
Posted 09/06/2012:  Beginning in the fourth grade, I established publication of my elementary school's first student-run newspaper. Along with several of my friends, we reported on school events (the luau, skating parties) and released what was more of a four-page pamphlet every other week. Ever since then I haven't shied away from my dream of being a journalist, and my acceptance to MDN is certainly my biggest step towards achieving it.

My first story last week involved reporting on how the effects of the drought severely depleted the amount of corn harvest this year, and the effect that is going to have on ethanol prices, and, subsequently, gas prices. I hadn't done much hard reporting in my time in college yet, so I was surprised to arrive and within 30 minutes be conducting a phone interview with a state senator. The experience I have with interviews derives from my tenure on the high school newspaper, where I truly feel I established my first footings in journalism.

I wasn't as satisfied with my ethanol story as I wanted to be, but such is working under deadline sometimes. I know along the semester I will get better, and I think this week I have already shown improvement in reporting. I am currently working on a new story regarding the veto of a rabies vaccination bill, which is resulting in keeping Missouri in the category of one of five states in the US without mandatory rabies vaccinations. I'm excited to finally compile this story and have it finished on Friday.

Not much else to go over this week, time to get back to work!

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