London stories: The journalists’ church

St. Bride’s Church and its magnificent steeple can be found just off Fleet Street, where print journalism began in the early 1500s.

One of the most indelible memories of my trip to London last summer was the visit to St. Bride’s Church, also known as The Journalists’ Church.

The church is situated just off historic Fleet Street, where the British printing press was established in the early 1500s. My Media Literacy students and I were there on a field trip to learn more about that history when our tour guide led us into a quiet courtyard and pointed out the elegant structure designed by the famed architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

The entrance to St. Bride’s Church

According to historians, St. Bride’s roots go back to shortly after the Roman invasion of 43 A.D., making it one of the oldest sites of worship in Britain. This is the eighth church on the site, succeeding others lost over the years to fire, World War II bombs and other causes.

Little did I know of what awaited us inside — a pristine interior with lit candles and an altar dedicated to the memories of journalists who have died in the course of their duties around the world. 

Seldom have I been moved as much as I was by this tribute to the men and women who work so selflessly and courageously to cover wars and other events around the globe, as well as happenings in local communities.

On the day we visited, there was a newspaper story that recently had been added to the display — an account of the four journalists and a sales associate who were killed at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, by a gunman upset by coverage of his failed defamation lawsuit against the newspaper.

Less than a month before our visit, 5 people were killed at the Capital Gazette in Maryland in the deadliest attack on journalists in recent U.S. history.

I was reminded of their deaths — and of my visit to this hallowed space — when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this month. Along with honors bestowed on leading organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, the Pulitzer judges awarded a special citation to the Capital Gazette for its “courageous response” in covering the deadly shooting at its own offices, coupled with a $100,000 bequest to further its journalistic mission.

I was reminded, too, by the death of a young journalist just days ago in the United Kingdom. Lyra McKee was killed April 19 while reporting on a night of violent unrest in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. She was 29 years old.

Around the world, 54 journalists were killed in reprisal for their work in 2018 — three times as many as the year before — according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The tally includes Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder allegedly was ordered by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. As we all know, President Trump refused to cast blame despite a CIA assessment that the prince had ordered the killing.

My students were touched just as I was during the half-hour we spent inside McBride’s. Though it was sad for all of us, I was heartened to see them move slowly through the pews, taking in the names of reporters, photographers and others who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their profession and the public.

In a class discussion afterward, one student said through tears that the visit had forever changed his perception of the news media and his appreciation for the First Amendment freedoms we enjoy in the United States.

It was a profound experience for me as well, and one I look forward to repeating with another group of students when I return to the U.K. in July.

Life after graduation from WSUV

Spring semester is winding down after 16 weeks at Washington State University Vancouver, and I’ve got to say it’s a very satisfying feeling.

I gave my last lecture on Thursday, a day after attending an event that recognized the 17 graduating seniors in the Integrated Strategic Communications program at WSUV, and I’ll spend part of this weekend preparing next week’s final exam.

I’m sure students are relishing the end of the term. So many of them are working in addition to their coursework, and I know they’ve dealt with various stresses along the way.

Me? I won’t mind at all having a lighter teaching load along with more leisure time, but I will miss the regular interactions with students and seeing their intellectual growth.

Fortunately, there are events like Wednesday’s end-of-year event to recognize graduating seniors and look ahead with them to what lies beyond.

For starters, the Strat Com program, which prepares students for careers in public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism, honored one of my students, Brendan Nuzum, as Communicator of the Year.

Dr. Narayanan (Nanu) Iyer with Brendan Nuzum, winner of the Communicator of the Year award.

Also, my colleagues, Program Director Nanu Iyer and Assistant Professor Liz Candello, facilitated a panel discussion featuring five recent Strat Com grads who are working as communications professionals or pursuing a masters degree in the field.

They shared some familiar advice: Develop a versatile skill set. Get some internship experience before you graduate. Network like crazy. Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Turn your inexperience into an asset by emphasizing the fresh perspectives you can bring. And don’t underestimate the value of likability. No one wants to work with a difficult person.

Lastly, I was able to congratulate a handful of students in person. The list of 17 Strat Com grads includes 11 students I’ve had in my classes, including three in the Sports and the Media class I taught this spring.

Among those in the Class of 2019 is Billy Gordon, one of the most outgoing and popular students on campus. At age 64, Billy is finally getting his degree. I so admire Billy, who overcame an inferior public school education in the Jim Crow South and contributed mightily to our class discussions in Sports and the Media as a former track athlete himself.

Another is Bailley Simms, who took my Reporting Across Platforms class as a sophomore and rose to become editor of The VanCougar student magazine while securing a PR internship this summer. She’s handing off the editor’s chair to Anna Nelson, another former student who also was among those traveled to the UK last summer to take my Media Literacy in London course.

As a final note, I made sure to include this interview with baseball writer Claire Smith as part of the last class meeting this week.

Don’t know her? You should.

Coming of age in a poor Texas border town

You know those little free libraries that you find on city streets? The ones that people stock with books to encourage passers-by to take one or leave one?

I helped myself to one earlier this year in my neighborhood and it turned out to be a gem.

“The Boy Kings of Texas” is a memoir by Domingo Martinez. It was a 2012 National Book Award finalist and I can see why. He is a gifted storyteller.

I recognized the author’s name, having come upon it two years ago when he wrote an essay about Brownsville, titled “How Scared Should People on the Border Be?” It’s the same south Texas city that would burst into the international spotlight a year later as immigrant families were separated at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

With sardonic humor, brutal honesty and luminous prose, Martinez writes of growing up poor with his Mexican American family in Brownsville, a place he describes as miserably hot and humid and devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Bored, uninspired in school, at odds with his womanizing, macho father, and feeling left behind when his older brother enlists in the military, Domingo despairs of being stuck in his hometown hugging the Rio Grande River.

He escapes eventually as a young college dropout and moves to Seattle, where he welcomes the rain and marvels at the “sincere and institutionalized absence of racial prejudice” in the Pacific Northwest city. It’s a far cry from what he knew in Brownsville: small minds, dead-end jobs, racial prejudice.

In 33 chapters spilling across more than 400 pages in this gently worn book, Martinez writes with a range of emotions — love, hate, hope, resentment, heartbreak and angst — as he describes growing up between two cultures in a house too often filled with violence, family drama and put-downs.

I could relate to a certain degree as Martinez reminisced about his barrio childhood, referring to curanderas (folk healers), Catholicism and his domineering Gramma, a pistol-packing, take-no-crap character that reminded me of my late mother. I could see myself in the same uncomfortable position as him, someone who stood out among the Mexican kids in grade school as someone who was bright and spoke fluent English.

But our experiences diverged wildly as we reached our teenage years. Whereas Domingo drank, used drugs and rebelled against his perceived lot in life, I walked a straight and narrow path to a four-year degree and after graduation moved to Oregon from my native California. Though I grew up in a Chicano neighborhood in a blue-collar town, I came of age in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of San Francisco at a time when assimilation was the order of the day. No reckless behavior for me during my teen years.

Domingo Martinez with his grandmother Virginia Campos Rubio, a central figure in his “Boy Kings of Texas,” a National Book Award nominee. (Photograph by Brad Doherty)

Not so for Martinez. At one point in the book, he rages: “Seventeen years I’ve lived my life in this outpost, alone, isolated and with an eroding sense of wonder about America at large. I can dream of nothing but getting out of here and exploring the rest of the country, watching leaves turn color and following the winter; I want out of this shit hole of a border down at the bottom of Texas, out of this racist, ignorant, locus-eating, lower Texas toxic hell pit. I’ve endured my father, my grandmother, years of pathetic education, beatings, berations, concentrations of shame, and this heat most hellish. All I have to do is graduate high school in a few weeks and I can leave, I’ve been told. And I have listened. I don’t care what the means are. The military, a bus ticket, this “college” thing other people talked about, stowing away — I just want out. Out of here.”

The current border fence between the United States and Mexico runs along the road directly across from a residential area in Brownsville. (Photograph by Daniel Borris for The New York Times)

I sense that my praise for Martinez’s work falls short, so let me share a couple of quotes about this “lyrical and gritty” book from others.

“Martinez has a gift for storytelling, with alternately good-natured and sardonic wit, and quirky pop culture reference points.” — The Seattle Times.

“His stories are as eye-poppingly and bruisingly painful as they are funny.” — The Washington Post.

And then there is this, from author Carlos Eire, a National Book Award winner himself: “Domingo Martinez writes like an angel — an avenging angel who instead of bringing wrath to a fallen world redeems it by using beautiful prose to turn the most awful and gritty realities into transcendent gems. This is also a significant historical-document, a first-person account that reveals one corner of America as it has seldom been seen. What a voice, what a story, what a testament to the transforming power of self-knowledge and the right choice of words.”

Damn. Wish I’d written that. At least I had the good sense to pick this memoir out of the free little library a few blocks from my home.