My SEJC 2019 Recap

By: Joshua Fife

The Southeastern Journalism Conference in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was an amazing experience that left me feeling inspired and invigorated.

All of the presentations were amazing, including the keynote speaker, Phil Williams. He is the chief investigative reporter for Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 and a seasoned whistleblower. He has uncovered corruption, lead to Tennessee laws being changed, and has won numerous awards for his work. He showed us what the relentless pursuit of truth looked like, and assured us that though it is not an easy road, it is rewarding.

Earlier in the conference I caught the tail-end of a presentation from Peter Cooper, Grammy-nominated musician and award-winning journalist for The Tennessean. He talked about writing obituaries following the death of legends like Johnny Cash and George Jones. He didn’t give us some magic secret on how to craft a good hook, he simply told us to write from the heart. His classic article, “Somehow, Johnny Cash is Dead”, was birthed from the first instinct that he had at the time; that the indomitable force that was Johnny Cash had somehow been overcome, and Cooper, along with the rest of the world, was left in awe. He encouraged feature writers to scrap inverted pyramid and experiment with different styles, and to never be objective. Rather than using balance, feature writing uses emotion to tell stories. Good writers can translate what they feel onto paper, but great writers can take those same emotions and make the reader feel them.

Following Cooper, I stepped into Stephanie Dean’s world of virtual reality. I had never considered the use of VR and augmented reality for storytelling, but I got an early taste of interesting new developments in immersive storytelling. Telling stories has always been an “immersive” experience, however new technologies bring new ways. Radio and television once changed the way people consumed news, and now VR is offering another way to bury yourself in the story like never before. We tested some VR stories that are out now, and research has shown that virtual reality has the ability to stick with people longer and impact them in a different way than traditional methods. They are currently being used to tell powerful and often emotional stories, but journalists are only beginning to scratch the surface of VR’s potential.

The last (and my personal favorite) presenter that I saw was a photographer by the name of John Partipilo. He had traveled to many places with his camera, showing us projects that he worked on in Iraq and Cuba. He also showed us the kinds of people he liked to shoot, sometimes for news, sometimes for personal endeavors. His subjects were typically the disenfranchised: the homeless, gang members, survivors of natural disasters, and people living in poverty. He, like good journalists and photojournalists do, had an amazing way of giving a voice to the voiceless. It was amazing how he was able to tell so much in one still image, and make reality look so beautiful or so grim that it seemed fake. He hardly alters his photos and preserves the harsh realism that comes with his work. There aren’t a thousand words that can describe any one of his pictures, and they’re worth much more than that. Beyond showing us the pictures, he also describe the lengths to which he went to secure the photos, and that was what really inspired me. I was astonished hearing about how this seasoned, award-winning photojournalist had hopped out of a moving car to sneak a picture of President Obama (easily the coolest picture of Obama I’ve ever seen) before getting escorted back by the secret service. Or how he dressed up as a refugee just to sneak into immigrant camps and get a few shots before getting kicked out. 

 The message that seemed to come through, in some form or fashion, in every discussion was to dare to be different, break the status quo, try something new, and think outside the box. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. This golden nugget hit close to home for me. Isn’t that the point for anyone who works on a craft? To try new things and develop your own unique style. That’s what makes creative industries so rewarding to work in, and what separates us from basic cookie-cutter, desk jobs.