Oregon scholastic journalism like Oregon weather: Unpredictable, crazy, fun and full of surprises

Rob Melton, Contributing Editor

By Rob Melton | June 22, 2012 |
It’s summer and it’s cloudy and rainy outside. Seemed like the perfect time for things I’ve been meaning to get around to doing, such as looking for my JEA Carl Towley Award speech, partly out of curiousity and partly because JEA is now posting the speeches with their list of winners. The good news is that I found the 2003 speech I gave in Portland, Oregon, at the spring convention.

The bad news is that not much has changed in Oregon over the last nine years. I mentioned in the opening of the speech that as a Portland teacher, I had just taken a $600 pay cut for five months — we worked 10 days for free. There are many teachers this year who can again relate to this experience, including Portland teachers who agreed to a six-month pay freeze to avoid further cuts to staff and programs.

There were certainly a lot of crazy things going on in the world of journalism but alas, it is difficult to find much of a world of scholastic journalism left in the state of Oregon. With our unique tax system in Oregon that takes money away from public services during good and bad times if the state economist (or “seer” as I call him) doesn’t predict correctly — and takes away even more money when times are bad through kicker refunds when they are needed the most, we’ve been in a state of decline for some time now.

The only stories you hear now are about the latest journalism programs that have been cut. Just a handful of programs remain, and only a handful of schools have entered their publications in a national rating and contest over the last 10 years. I know, because I checked. I looked online, and personally called the heads of National Scholastic Press Association, Quill & Scroll, and CSPA to find out if Oregon schools had entered, and how they had placed.

I remember when I started teaching in 1979 that there were an amazing number of successful journalism teachers — and by journalism teachers we meant yearbook, newspaper, magazine, radio and television teachers. (I’ve started writing biographies for this website of Oregon journalism teachers I’ve known, and you’re welcome to join me in sharing your own story or those of others. You can also email your bits and rewrites at [email protected] and I’ll make the changes, or we can add you as a contributor to this blog and you can use our WordPress dashboard to prepare your own stories and photos.)

We had 45 NSPA All-Americans from Oregon on a regular basis, and a number of prominent programs throughout the state that were pacesetters. They won NSPA Regional and National Pacemakers, and they won CSPA Medalist and Crown Awards, and they won Quill & Scroll Society George H. Gallup Awards and enrolled a generation of Oregon journalism students into the Quill & Scroll Honor Society. (I have also begun chronicling everything I know from our records here and research I’ve done about awards and honors earned by our Oregon teachers, students, schools and programs. Everything we know is on the NW Hall Of Fame page. If you see an omission or were a winner who is not recognized on this page, we want you to tell us so we can add it or correct it.)

One thing hasn’t changed, though. Teachers and students who have the opportunity to be passionate about exploring media have stories to tell. Looking through just a few of the stories that I told from my time as a journalism teacher in 2003 remind me that if you’ve got a good story to tell, you must and share it with others. And I’m reminded that it’s never easy, but totally worthwhile.

I have heard from former students over the years who are doing outstanding work in their chosen fields. Each of these students explained to me the connection between their high school journalism experiences and what they do now — and I’m always surprised by what they say. I certainly hope to hear what you’re up to these days and where life took you after we met.

I’ve also been mulling over what I said, which was by design more of a humorous after dinner speech. I wanted people to laugh and have a good time while they were visiting Oregon, and my more serious and thoughtful nature is there, cleverly disguised as humor. The piece is almost more of a script than a speech, written for the moment and performed for the teachers and educators assembled in the audience.

The freshness of the experiences I wrote about in that moment remind me of how important it is to write regularly — in the moment. When I was 19 I traveled to Europe. I kept a daily journal that filled a book with words and postcards and drawings and other things that — when I read it almost 39 years later — transports me back to the moment I was writing it. The journal literally filled a book. That’s the power of journalism, or daily writing.

The speech also reflects my belief in and practice of the power of great stories. If you pay attention, are prepared, and can manage to be in the right place at the right time, your stories will illuminate all of our lives. To be a successful journalist and story teller, you must be a student of the human condition. It is a satisfying journey and I hope we can reclaim it in new ways as we move forward together.


Spring 2003 Carl Towley Speech

By Rob Melton | April 12, 2003

I am honored to be among such distinguished company. I know that every single day, like me, you act to make this a better world. That’s what I’ve tried to do for the last 24 years in JEA, in our own little corner of the world. And you’ve given me that opportunity and for that  I am thankful.

Now in case you haven’t followed the news about Oregon, our school district and our state just ran out of money to pay for schools, police, courts and prisons. Quite frankly, I think if public schools do a good job, you don’t have to worry too much about the police and prisons, but that’s just me. So I’d like to start by recognizing all the Portland Public Schools teachers who donated 10 days this year so we could put together a full school year for our students. Stand up, will you? (They’re probably all working at McDonalds today so they can afford to teach journalism during the week.) There are other districts who have settled contracts this year. If you took a pay cut or made other concessions this year, stand up. These people are the real heroes today. Give these people a big round of applause.

Like them, this month I’m taking a $600 per month pay cut for the next five months. So naturally when Ann said if I showed up and said a few words they’d feed us lunch, I said, “And can I bring my wife? And by the way, if any of you need any interior design work done, or heck, just cleaning and vacuuming, for that matter, give my wife a call. She’s the Melton Maid Slash Designer who not only cleans and polishes but rearranges your furniture and paints your room some fabulous new shade of sage or eggplant!

Now you yearbook people already know this, but I’ve learned from my wife that designers never call colors by their names, because when they say purple, you think of the worst shade of purple you’ve ever seen, not the coolest. Isn’t that an odd bit of human behavior? Anyway, heaven forbid I should paint the living room light brown when it could be latte or mocha or espresso. Remember, this is Starbucks country!

So with that little news update, welcome to the Northwest, home of liquid sunshine, which we’ve had plenty of recently. We just finished a record-breaking 28 days of rain, so if you see the Northwest kids and teachers running outside to look at that strange yellow ball in the sky, please forgive them and try to understand. After all, Oregonians don’t tan, they rust! Just last week, we had thunder, lightening and hail, yeah!

Welcome to the home of strong weather, strong coffee and the world’s largest bookstore, Powell’s Books over on Burnside. We have more restaurants and brew pubs per capita than anywhere else in the country. What else are you going to do when it rains solid for 28 days? We love to read, eat, and drink our brains out! I know Steve Carrigg and I certainly did during those “planning” meetings at the Fulton Pub!

Sometimes I think I’m living that Chinese curse. You know, the one that says, “May you live in interesting times.”  I used to ask, “Why me, God?” until one day the message came back from her saying, “You’re a storyteller and I’m giving you some great material here. So use it!”

I just want you to know that when I began teaching journalism 24 years ago, I was tall, thin, blond and rich. You can see what it’s done for me! And I have been active in state and national journalism organizations all that time. I wouldn’t change a minute of it. Well, maybe a few minutes kind of right there in the middle. You know, that “May you live in interesting times” thing. Sometimes I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them. I believe in personal growth.

I’m here today I suppose because you were there ready, willing and able to help. If I’ve achieved any measure of success, it’s because you were willing to help when I asked. I’ve always believed in the power of people to move mountains. We humans built the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and while we had a little help parting the Red Sea, we did manage to get all those animals on Noah’s Ark! I think it helped that H.L. was there keeping things organized. But that’s nothing compared to what you do every day, week and month of the year getting out great newspapers, yearbooks, magazines, web sites and broadcast programs.

I am sure some of you have wondered why anyone would want to volunteer time to an organization for so many years. I have to admit my motives are completely selfish: At the end of every day, I want to have acted in ways that make this world a better place for all of us. It’s not always easy.

Sometimes people ask me how you get people to do things for you. At the risk of sounding like the village idiot, I think the answer is:     You ask! It’s like church — no one ever volunteers to be an usher at service on Sunday — well, except for my friend Ray Hopfer from Tillamook, God bless you Ray! But if you ask, sometimes assertively, they’ll almost always say yes. Every week I say to my son James “Why don’t you take out the garbage tonight?” and he knows it’s not a question. He’s on the newspaper staff at my school this year. He’s my youngest. He wrote the story that got the newspaper locked up for two days this year … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The other part of it is to recognize people for a job well done. That’s why we do paper plate awards and certificates in my classroom. It’s why we gather here together today — to say thank you to the tireless volunteers and to those who have distinguished themselves and who help the rest of us find our way through the dark.

We all have family, friends and mentors who have changed our professional and personal lives for the better, and I feel lucky  — I am a profoundly different person because of what you all have taught me. H.L. taught me to “shake a pica, shake a pole,” and I learned from Linda Puntney that when pumpkin pies and diapers collide in a moving car and you have to lick your fingers clean, well, you get the picture.  Yes, I’ve had some of the most important, personal, life-changing conversations in these four days twice a year for many years, and at the many workshops I have attended!

How did I become a journalism teacher in the first place? Well, I’ve known since third grade I wanted to be a newspaper guy. My grandfather was a newspaperman in West Texas, and my aunt was the West Coast Editor of Forbes magazine for many years. Another aunt was a published poet. My dad was a teacher, coach and principal. So I guess you could say it came naturally. I graduated from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and worked as a reporter and photographer for several newspapers, including a daily. But you can blame Barre and Mary Hartman for getting me into this line of work in the first place when I was an unemployed journalist looking for work during the last big recession in the late 1970s. He was the Editor of the Eugene Register-Guard, and she ran Oregon Scholastic Press at U of O.

Even though I said I would never be a teacher (my dad was a teacher remember, never say never), I needed a back-up plan for those times a writer is unemployed, and so I became a journalism teacher. I’ve been implementing my back-up plan for the last 24 years, and loving it. And it’s because of all of you that I am standing here today.

Why do I do this work? I think that is a fair question.

It’s certainly not easy. Why just this year, a vice-principal confiscated and locked up our newspapers, because he thought our hard news coverage was not appropriate. My son had written a story about a Benson graduate who was suspected of murdering his girlfriend. The papers were delivered to the main office, which is where the vice-principal saw them and locked them in his office. (Needless to say, the newspapers are no longer delivered to the main office!) I just want to thank again the Student Press Law Center for advising my editors — and this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve ever used SPLC — on a strategy to get the papers to our readers. Mike advised them to stay focused on the goal of getting the paper into the hands of our readers. Among other things, my staff actually started a whisper campaign. All 12 of them, bless their hearts, asked every student they knew to say “We want our newspaper!” every time they saw an administrator. That and a conversation with our principal. But it worked.

And another thing: You certainly aren’t supported when you need it. I remember one of the years I advised the literary and arts magazine at Wilson H.S. just right across the river. I taught there for 10 years. We had a winning tradition going there until the cuts started 12 years ago. (We’re just now getting around to dealing with the problem.) But anyway, the school district was printing the magazine for us that year. They called the principal because they weren’t sure about the cover. Now, the photograph we used on the cover was taken in a local mannequin factory. And you would have loved it — there were arms and legs and torsos thrown into a pile in this room ready for assembly. And one of the mannequin torsos was female and — I know this will surprise you — its breasts were showing. Now, this was before stores used more “anatomically correct” mannequins which you see today. So anyway, the principal decided without consulting the literary arts magazine staff or me to censor the breasts. By printing a black stripe across them. On 2,000 copies. Naturally, in the next Statesman newspaper, we printed the uncensored picture with the caption “Should this picture have been censored?” The response was overwhelmingly “No!”

This was the principal, by the way, who changed his name after he had been our principal for several years. Gene Douthit had been married twice before, and got married again over the summer — to his third wife who, like the previous two who also lived in Portland — was named Judith. He just couldn’t see having three wives living in the same town named Judith Douthit, so the two of them — both Portland Public School administrators — decided to change their last name. He decided to change their last name to Valjean. You know, after the character in Les Miserables? He told us this in his welcome-back-to-school letter in August. So by twisting the pronunciation of his first name a bit, his new name was Jean Valjean. Why? I asked him, and he said — I’m not making this up —  “Because students are the oppressed, teachers are the oppressors, and I, Jean Valjean, am their liberator.” A free thinker? Or maybe he was just Looney Tunes. But in any case, at the first faculty meeting, we all had to wear nametags, and about half of us had decided to change our names as well. Mine was Rob ValRob. Next to me were Tom ValTom and Susan ValSusan.

And I can tell you I don’t do this for the love and respect you get. Eventually I started developing an aversion to recognition, because not every principal can handle it. And it’s happened to a lot of successful people I know. Jean Valjean — remember him? — told me once that I was stuck up and egotistical and “was only in it for Rob Melton.” Now I may be stuck up and egotistical, but…

I’ve always been in it for the kids, and getting them the recognition they deserve. And I’m also in it because I want my students, whether as creators of media or consumers or teachers, to know the difference between good journalism and bad journalism.

I’ve had some pretty special kids over the years, too. Take, for example, Russ Steele, who was one of my editors back at Roseburg High School. Every issue he gave an award to the best staff member. It was a can of creamed corn. It was the most coveted prize that year. Russ became a typesetter. The funny thing about Russ is that he never could tell the difference between Times and Helvetica, so I taught him to use all the weights in Helvetica instead. Russ became the publisher of Microsoft Books. If you ever wondered why they were all set in Helvetica, that’s it.

He retired about seven years ago, a multimillionaire, and was featured on the CBS news as one of the Microsoft millionaires who were living their dream. His dream was to own his own helicopter flight training school, which he sold a couple of years ago. Now he flies helicopters for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska six months of the year. He and his wife live in Seattle the rest of the year.

Michelle Matassa is the co-newsroom editor at The Seattle Times. Her brother Michael covers Microsoft for the Seattle Times.

Kari Gee was remarkable at advertising sales. She sold more than $6,000 in advertising in one year her senior year. Now she is married with kids and runs her own successful advertising agency. And the list goes on.

I have always believed in the power of people working together to get great things done. If I’ve learned anything, it’s not enough to want something. You have to go out there and make it happen. You have to act to support the things you value.

I’ve judged. I’ve spoken. I’ve critiqued. I’ve written. I’ve voted. I’ve organized. I’ve walked. I’ve phoned. I’ve donated. I’ve volunteered. I’ve sold. I’ve traveled. I’ve danced. I’ve laughed. I know my kids. I love my wife Kate.

And at the end of the day, I hope I have acted to make this a world I want to live in, and that I can share with my family, my students, my friends, with you. Obviously, I have a lot more work to do, judging from the mess we’ve created here in Oregon. But if not me, who? If not now, when? Now is a good time to ask yourself the same question: If not you, who? If not now, when?