Taking I-95 to the #DeathRace

What’s an Orlando student journalist have to do to get some innovation and inspiration in her writing life?

Drive three and a half hours to Fort Lauderdale (thanks for sucking, Mid Florida SPJ. But more on that later).


This weekend I was able to be a part of Death Race, an event held by SPJ’s South Florida Pro Chapter. I first became associated with them through the Will Write For Food 2012 program that I was a part of this past Labor Day weekend (and I urge everyone to sign up for).

Death Race was a kind of hands-on training on writing obituaries. It’s rare the case when a j-school professor goes in depth about writing obituaries, since it’s not such a popular beat for reporters to want to cover.

Miami Herald obit writer Elinor Brecher, talked to us about her career writing obituaries and advised us on how to write them. The prize? An urn with the newspaper ashes.

Oh, and three journalists died.

Well, not really.

But these three South Florida SPJ board members volunteered to die for the day, you know, for authenticity: Gideon Grudo (managing editor at South Florida Gay News), Mariam Aldhahi (an art director with Forum Publishing Group) and Cassie Morien (web editor at Boca Raton Magazine).

And if that wasn’t eerie enough, their family, friends and colleagues were invited to speak about them in a creepy chapel, in front of a coffin, two urns, floral arrangements and pictures of the young journalists.


Here are some of the obit writing tips that I wrote down when Elinor spoke:

1. Be sensitive to the nuance of people grieving. Be patient and compassionate.

2. Know your audience. What may fly with one family, might not fly with the next.

3. Writing obituaries IS journalism–get the right facts (research).

4. Figure out why the person you’re writing about is obit worthy? The 5W’s aren’t enough.

5. Watch out for cliches (“He was so nice. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”).

6. Listen carefully for nuggets of info. The person sharing their story might not think its important, but that could potentially be your lede.

I decided to write my obit on Mariam, but the problem was that her family lives in freakin’ Dubai. Just yesterday (I’m not even kidding) I was telling my friend that I don’t know anyone that has even lived or been in Dubai. I called her uncle in Cali and we spoke for a bit and he gave me enough information about her that I could use.

Long story short: I didn’t win the obituary contest, but I realized that writing them isn’t easy. I was originally going to approach it like a feature story (which I should have done), but I doubted myself and wrote a basic boring skeleton of an obit. Its really hard to approach a story about someone dying and make it into a nice piece that people can reflect on. So much pressure!

I am interested in continuing to practice writing them (weird) so friends: Beware. You’re all my next targets.

On another topic, I quickly want to touch on the SPJ Mid Florida Chapter run by interim  president, Bobbi O’Brien. That’s the chapter that Orlando falls under and unfortunately that includes me.

Whenever I am interested in expanding my career as a journalist or simply just learning something new, I don’t have the luxury of having a good pro chapter. Our student chapter at UCF, run by journo professor Rick Brunson, is great. We get a lot of guest speakers and internship fairs, which I’ve benefitted from. But our pro chapter is ridiculous.

I decided to look up our pro chapter on Facebook and this is what I got.

That is probably the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. The 23 member open group (so that means I can see their SPJ chapter plans) lacks creativity and innovation. It doesn’t pull and attract potential journalists.

The last post was on January 9th about the “revival” of the chapter in which O’Brien invited everyone for appetizers and drinks. If I had the option of going to this or driving three hours for free food and actually learning stuff, I’d do the latter (oh wait, that’s exactly what I did this weekend).

One of O’Briens’ posts from November 28, 2012 reads:

“Looking Long range: A workshop on social media bringing journalists up to speed on Twitter, Facebook, Storify, Pinerest, Tumblr, etc […]. Boots camps… on computer assisted reporting [and] social media […]. Create a local public records event to incorporate Tampa Bay media and SPJ college chapter students.”

I could probably give O’Brien a lesson on social media so that we could do something about that terrible group, lack of Facebok fan page, lack of website, lack of Twitter, etc. It’s ironic that these are all her ideas for journalism workshops but our chapter doesn’t implement any of these things.

All these ideas were suggested because on November 19, 2012 she posted:

“URGENT: All Mid-Florida SPJ members past, present and hopefully future!

Michael Koretzky, former president of the South Florida SPJ, current president of the Florida College Press and SPJ Region 3 director, has sent me several emails this morning demanding that I close the Mid-Florida Chapter account and mail him the check.

The Mid-Florida chapter received no prior notices of Mr. Koretzky’s intentions or this demand. The National SPJ membership officer and president have been copied on Mr. Kroetzky’s emails. But I have not heard from them yet.

I ask for input IMMEDIATELY and a meeting to review Mr. Kroetzky’s emails and demands.

Please share this information with all the journalists in the Mid-Florida Chapter region. So we can formulate a response and show that the Mid-Florida Chapter is still viable.”

First… see, Koretzky? I’m not the only idiot that misspells your name.

Second of all,  they SHOULD have taken the money because previous to that post, on October 3rd, 2012, someone posted: “Does this chapter hold meetings? Trying to find information but it looks outdated.”


Holy crap my brain just imploded! What does this chapter do all year? Where exactly does the money go to? Appetizers and drinks? It’s so outdated I almost heard a dial-up tone going off.

After I graduate and become and alumna, I’ll probably still be a part of UCF’s SPJ, but I can’t attend internship fairs forever, so that’s why I wish our chapter was more active. It’s important for someone like me, who just decided to become a journalist not so long ago, to have a chapter to keep me active and current with things I should know.

I’d rather have this Mid Florida Chapter be closed than continue in mediocrity.

It’s embarrassing.


Craig, Booper, Bernie and the mansion.

It really IS a Society of “Professional” Journalists (Photo cred: Chris Whitten).

Chris Whitten and I just finished writing our joint Outreach article.

The only hints I’m giving you are:

1) There’s a man named Craig,

2) There’s a cat named Booper,

3) There’s a man named Bernie,

4) There’s a $15 million mansion built by the state of Florida

I’ll link the actual article when it comes out.

Outreach basically consists of going out into the town, talking to the homeless and telling them about the shelter so that maybe they’ll decide to come back to the shelter.

We rode in an ambulance, a cop car and vans and went with the COSAC staff.

Whenever we met people, we’d offer them water and/or cigarettes.

It was pretty crazy to be walking around in the middle of the night, by the railroad tracks with our phone “flashlight” apps lighting the way.

At the beginning, I was super overwhelmed. I walked away from the first interview, because the state of the homeless was sad. The two guys had this toy chest, similar to one that my sister and I had when we were little. I remember complaining that things never fit in that toy chest, but everything that they owned fit into the chest.

Their beds were an old dirty mattress and a sleeping bag in front of a mural with a giant heart. I wish I had taken a decent picture of it but it was too dark and the picture came out like crap.

(Photo Cred: Either a WWFF12 staffer or COSAC employee, not sure). 

After talking to most of the homeless people, during outreach and throughout the day, I noticed that divorce was a big trend. Someone would get cheated on, keep the money and kick the other to the curb. It’s pretty sad. Disabilities, whether they be mental or physical, were a big trend as well.

We were riding the ambulance to our next spot, when the ambulance broke down on the highway. We had to pull over and wait for the rest of our crew to come and pick us up.

My crappy view from the back of the ambulance. 

(Photo Cred: Mark Targett).

While we were waiting for our ride back to the shelter, I was talking to one of the security guards, Patrick Russell. He is 19 years old and the youngest member of the shelter. He’s been living at the shelter for a few weeks. I scolded him for smoking (which by the way, I feel like everyone and their mother smoke’s here). He’s too young to be cutting his life short this early, I think.

His parents kicked him out of the house because he wasn’t contributing anything. He ended up at the shelter that he now calls home as well as his job. He is currently finishing school and plans to go to college for his A.A. and then enroll in the Army or Coast Guard.

“Every night I text my parents ‘Goodnight,” he said. “They never really text me back.”

I really hope they take him back. He’s such a sweet kid.

I didn’t really think about whether I was going to see everyone again, so I forgot to bid the shelter staff farewell and thank Sean Cononie & Mark Targett for allowing us to be super intrusive for a whole weekend. It’s been a pleasure working with everyone.

And of course, I’d like to thank everyone that put this event together, all the talented journalists I got to meet and lastly, Michael Koretzky, for only being scary via email, but not in real life.

Sweating at the bus stop: “Men are liars.”

Whoever took this picture, thanks. I look like a sexy journalist (Photo Cred: Mike Rice).

While waiting to find out if my article sucks or not, I went for a walk outside. The amount of homeless people here is pretty overwhelming, but I think that what Sean Cononie is doing with his shelter is amazing.

While on my walk, I realized something. The actual people from the town of Hollywood are way creepier than the homeless people could ever be.

I walked to the drug store and at least four cars slowed down, one of them actually followed me in his car into the drug store and asked me if I needed a ride. I politely declined.

(Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I went out for a dangerous walk).

I can’t even imagine what homeless teenage girls must feel like, getting solicited all the time. I wonder if they actually go in these men’s cars, just because they don’t have anywhere else to turn to.

COSAC homeless shelter doesn’t take homeless kids in. They have to be 18 or above so a lot of the homeless kids hangout at the parks in Hollywood.

Anyways, I was creeped out enough so I headed back to the shelter.

I met a man at the bus stop, also Puerto Rican, who told me he had been living in the streets for a month after his wife left him for another man and took everything. He was left with nothing and on top of that, he had lost his job so he was surviving on unemployment checks. According to his story, someone mugged him and stole his debit card and after he filed the police report, no one has gotten back to him. Then he told me he had cancer and AIDS.

He’s scared to call his family in Puerto Rico because he thinks everyone will abandon him and he’s scared to go to the homeless shelter. I’m not sure if everything he told me was true, but I still felt pretty bad.

I told him everyone at COSAC was pretty cool and that he shouldn’t worry about it.

I gave him my sandwich and told him everything would be okay.

He said, “Thank you so much. Take care. Stay in school. Don’t listen to men, they are liars.”

I hope he goes to the shelter tonight.

Georgia conned the cake off of me

This weekend I am part SPJ’s Will Write For Food 2012 team.

That’s me in the white tank top, looking confused. (photo cred: Mike Rice)

Will Write For Food is a program in which 20 student journalists from around the nation get to take over the Homeless Voice (the second-largest homeless newspaper in the country) for the weekend.

Honestly, I can’t believe that it’s already Labor Day weekend. I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. I remember reading a blog post about this program Labor Day 2011, being pissed off that I wasn’t a part of it and then reminding myself every day/week/month to update my resume and clips so that I would be able to apply this year.

On March 8th, the day that the time period to apply opened, I applied. On March 26th Michael Koretzky, the program’s advisor, e-mailed me back.

Damn, that was fast. Sorry for taking a week to get back with you. But
truly, no one’s ever applied for Will Write for Food this quickly.
(It’s still not a very popular program, for obvious reasons.) […]

But either way it goes, this is damned impressive.

I really wanted to be a part of this.

Yesterday, my classmate Sarah Aslam and I drove down to Miami from Orlando and got to the Ramada on Hollywood Blvd. We met our advisors, previous WWFF participants, the national president of SPJ John Ensslin and Michael Koretzky.

Then we went to the COSAC homeless shelter and met its founder and director, Sean Cononie.

It was small, it smelled weird, there were way too many people, people were coughing, there was hand sanitizer everywhere and there sat Georgia.

Georgia is a tiny elderly woman who lives at the shelter. One of the WWFF girls, Cayla Nimmo went to help her stand up from a bench. When Georgia shuffled her way into the shelter’s tiny cafeteria, Cayla and I sat on the floor and talked to her. It was very hard to understand her because she spoke so low and she was losing her hearing.

At first, Cayla and I thought Georgia was deaf because she signed “thank you” and “you’re welcome” to us. I attempted to sign our names to Georgia but she said that she didn’t know sign language–she reads lips.

“This is a sign that everybody knows,” she said and proceeded to flick off both Cayla and I. My grin was probably wider than anything in the world. This lady is awesome.

I wandered off to get food after talking to Georgia for a little bit. Lunch consisted of pasta with some sort of pale, tasteless meat. I thought it was chicken. Chase Cook thought it was turkey. Eleanor Roy thought it was tuna. Whatever.

I decided to eat my cake, the only thing that didn’t look questionable on my plate. Georgia eyed me picking at the cake and asked me if I was going to finish it. I looked down, sighed and said she could have it.

I looked at her tray as I plopped my cake onto it. She had three other pieces of cake.

A staff member from the shelter came up to Georgia and said, “Georgia! You’re not supposed to be eating cake!” He shook his head and walked away. I looked down, embarrassed, since I didn’t mean to get her in trouble.

Georgia winked at me, smiled and whispered, “It’s okay.”

Then she ate her cake.