Death in the Family

Rob Hiaasen’s cover photo on his Facebook page, which soon after his death was given over to tributes from colleagues, friends and strangers.

When I heard about the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, I had the feeling that I might find connection to a victim.

Journalism is a small family, after all. I’ve been teaching for more than 40 years, so I figured that one of my students was there, had been there, or had some connection there.

I awaited the names of the victims, fearing I’d find a name from a long-ago class roll on the list. When I saw the names, I was punched in the stomach, and all I could say was, My God.

Rob Hiaasen in his office. This photograph appears on the Capital Gazette’s Facebook page.

I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, but for years I’d heard from those former students lucky enough to work with him. He was their mentor, dean of their newsroom grad school, the man responsible for their continuing education.

I didn’t know him, but I knew what he did and that he was much beloved.

I’d also known his brother, Carl, and his nephew, Scott, for 30 years.

Carl was an esteemed graduate of the University of Florida program I served for 24 years, and he was always generous with his time — for students and for faculty members such as me.

Though a best-selling author and media celebrity, he gladly helped provide succinct and snappy quotes for the dust jackets of my books. Coming up with something good for someone else’s book jacket is an often-thankless job with no reward, but he kindly — and regularly — did so.

Scott is my argument for the hypothesis that writing talent is genetic. Even as one of my freshman students, Scott had a gift, which he has since shared with thousands of readers.

So though I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, I knew of his work — thanks to the legions of grateful young journalists who shared with me tales of his generosity and kindness.  I could only imagine the anguish of his family, people I cared about deeply.

Wendi Winters. This photograph appears on the Capital Gazette’s Facebook page.

And I hurt for the families of the other victims —  Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara.

The gunman had no argument with any of them, but they were caught in the brace of his rage.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a lot of newspaper journalists recalled dealing with the public — those members of the public who walked through the newsroom doors and presented themselves at our desks.

In one of my newsrooms, office geography dictated that I was usually the guy who dealt with the walk-ins. When the other reporters saw someone wandering into the newsroom, they’d bolt for the canteen or the head.

Lacking social skills, I never really knew how to negotiate myself out of such situations and often ended up listening to a reader endlessly rant. But once in a great while, I was able to find the seam of a great story in these diatribes.

Years passed. I was going to visit a student intern on the job, when I made my first newsroom visit that required a security checkpoint.  I had to empty my pockets and go through  a metal detector at the door of the newspaper building.

Has it come to this? I thought.

Yes. And now: this.

Stunned by this horrific news, we turned to social media for minute-by-minute updates.

I heard from a lot of students who’d been touched by Rob’s kindness. I read tributes from people with whom I had no connection but the common denominator was that the man freely shared his talent and gifts with others to better this profession.

The next day, still reeling from the news, I heard from my colleague Noelle Graves. She knew that her four years of former students were shaken by the on-the-job murders and asked if it was all right to send them a note from her university account. She’s cautious that way.

Of course, I said.

As usual, Professor Graves spoke with eloquence and grace, articulating what we felt about these deaths in our family.

With her permission I post her note below:

I’ve been thinking of you all since the news in Maryland broke yesterday.

Rob and Carl Hiaasen. This appears on Carl Hiaasen’s Facebook page. As Carl wrote, ‘We called him Big Rob because he was so tall, but it was his remarkable heart and humor that made him larger than all of us.’

Some of you were students of mine four years ago, some just this spring. All of you, though, are close to my heart.

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, you and I. Whether your path has taken you into news or another field, we shared a time of learning about this great tradition of providing the truth in context to the public.

On Thursday, five of our colleagues who shared that mission lost their lives to a gunman apparently bent on mass casualties and destruction.

We talked in class about the beauty and value of life, that each person is unique and irreplaceable. We stand in grief with the families and loved ones of the five – Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.

This unthinkable loss of life is difficult to fathom, impossible to comprehend. The loss, as with all the similarly horrific events our nation has seen, is truly senseless.

Overarching this event is the environment in which we find ourselves today. These are such perplexing times to be in journalism with headwinds from Washington and the amplifying effect of the Internet.

We’re not alone in these times though – history indeed repeats itself – and the framers of the Constitution enshrined a free press anticipating its vital role as a bulwark against tyranny.

The five who lost their lives in Maryland were part of that proud tradition of a free press.

Noelle Graves

And so, our hearts are broken, but our resolve remains. We are committed more strongly than ever to find and report the truth to the public.

We will not be cowed into submission. We will not forget our Constitutional mandate. We will not abandon our public trust.

We stand together. Shoulder-to-shoulder.

Take care of yourselves, and I’m here if you want to talk.

All my best,


Some final words from David Carr

David Carr, 1956-2015

We are dealing with the second anniversary of David Carr’s death. There were so many tributes after this death, so maybe this ‘last interview’ (with Stefanie Friedhoff of the Boston Globe) got lost in the mix. Thought I’d reprint it. We were lucky to have David on the Boston University faculty. He was a gifted teacher and we all looked forward to many years of his friendship. This was published February 13, 2015.

New York Times
columnist David Carr, who died Thursday at the age of 58, had a reputation for going after his own tribe with bracing honesty and clarity. With his unusual past as a crack addict, a distinctive scratchy voice, and quirky character, he had become a media figure in his own right as he chronicled journalism’s struggle to reinvent itself in the digital age. Carr shuttled to Boston once a week to teach journalism at Boston University, a routine he had started last fall. In one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Carr talked with Globe correspondent Stefanie Friedhoff in late January about his rookie teacher mistakes and the future of writing.

[Friedhoff’s questions are in bold italic. Carr’s answers are in regular type.]

What was it like, working with this next generation?

The first time they said, ‘Here comes the professor,’ I turned around looking for him, then realized, oh, that was me. I asked them to call me David. I did not feel a huge generational divide. I was not parenting or patronizing them. As long as they didn’t call me professor.

One generational difference is that they rely on texting, which is not a good business or academic application. I much prefer e-mail, which allows you to keep an archive, send attachments. I also made it clear that there was no texting or Facebooking during class. When someone did it, I would stop and say: ‘Do you need a few moments so you can finish what seems so important?’

The platform you used, Medium, allows for storytelling in all media. Did students experiment with different forms?

Some students included extensive video and audio, and some built stories around photographs, but writing played a distinctive role. Students were far more traditional than I thought they’d be, they were extremely animated by idea of longform narrative. I weighed heavily on blended content but they were not as interested as in big narratives.

Is there a future for writing, for the careful crafting of sentences and narratives, in the digital age?

Well, there are two problems with it. One, if you look at The New Yorker, GQ, and the Atavist or Longreads, there is a good supply of deep immersive writing, but there is an audience problem, in terms of what people are willing to commit to. And two, there is a business problem: getting paid enough to do what may pass for literary journalism.

Some signs are encouraging: Engagement levels, people staying until the end of the story, are quite high. But you have to earn the readers’ interest. Turns out that the phone, which was thought of as the enemy of longform — people read a lot on phones, they have become used to the infinite scroll. I read a lot on my phone, and I am old as dirt.

Did you like teaching?

Oh, this class was like a bomb going off in my life. I thought I could zoom up on an airplane on Monday, teach the class, do office hours, go to sleep, take the train back in the morning and be fine.

That is not how it went. There was a lot of steady communication with students. We produced a lot. Sixteen students wrote over 60 pieces, published in four collections on Medium. Four articles are on their way into the commercial market.

David’s memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” is one of the finest books I’ve read in the last decade. Click on the book cover to order.

I enjoyed it all. The truth about teaching is, whatever you expect from them, you should be ready to give back. I’m glad I’m like a vampire. I still keep college hours and stay up late.

You have guest taught a lot. What surprised you about teaching a semester-long course?

I made a fair amount of rookie teacher mistakes. I brought in too many guest speakers.

I said ‘I love your personal essays, I will put comments in’ and then I had to really do that. It took me five seconds to say in class but 12 hours to finish.

I learned I talk too much. Every time I went quiet and solicited discussion, wonderful things were said and I thought, ‘Duh, of course.’ Part of the reason was that I wanted to look like a serious academic. I did not want to be one of these newspaper people who show up and tell stories.

There was also an important business lesson: My teaching assistant insisted I give students some class time to collaborate on their projects. I asked, ‘Why? They are doing this online all the time.’ But she was right — face-to-face time led to amazing cross-team collaboration and improvements. We think online communication works, but a well-run meeting has a lot of value.”

Are you a tough grader?

Not as tough as I thought I would be! When I was an editor, my office was known as Cape Fear. I did give out some rough grades to start with, but if kids demonstrated improvement, I gave them better grades. I was kind of torn about what to do when someone was a good writer but didn’t try very hard, versus someone who tried hard but wasn’t so gifted. It was very much a learning curve.

What did you tell students about their future in journalism?

I told them it’s a good time to be looking for a job. There is a lot of money in content in New York. You can’t be too picky about what you want to do initially. And you need to make your own judgments about where you want to [go] — regardless of where you went to school or who you know.

There is no doubt students will be walking into a news ecosystem that has more information, more sources, more providers, and more clutter. And they have to think about what value are they adding that will make them a signal above the noise and make their work stick out and have value — both in terms of who they work for and the kind of work they do. They have to [go] from creating commodities and toward creating things of value.”