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Aug. 20, 2014

Joe Grimm: Living My Values

Aug. 20, 2014

Joe Grimm is an instructor and visiting-editor-in residence in MSU’s School of Journalism in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. He teaches the course, Bias Busters, where students research, write and edit a series of books exploring different cultures.

One of the things I love about the School of Journalism is that it lets me live my values. Another is that I learn more than I teach.

Before I came to Michigan State in 2008, I spent more than 20 years doing diversity work at the Detroit Free Press, first as its reader representative and then as its newsroom recruiter. That work is so important.

Part of that work in Detroit was creating a 100-question guide about Arab Americans. It was published by Knight Ridder two years before Sept. 11, 2001, captured the nation’s attention. I did the guide because the paper was in a unique position to help journalists in other places understand the people we live with in the Detroit area.

Today, MSU students carry on that work. They have expanded it beyond anything I ever imagined. So far, we have published six books or guides using publishing technologies that are also beyond what I imagined.

Frankly, the speed of the technology scared me. The first time we did a book, one on bullying in the spring of 2012, I got cold feet. I freaked out. I told the class that we were not going to be able to meet the deadlines with the quality a book requires. I told them we would have to reboot the class, stick with the website we were doing but drop the book.

They overruled me. They were so confident they could get through it that they voted and turned the book back on. It came out in 101 days. My jitters probably cost us a week. Lesson learned.

Other lessons came when the students decided to market the next book, our first cultural competence guide, about Indian Americans. On their own, they sent it around to university departments. The Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives asked us to explain what the guides were all about. I went with a student who has since graduated, Devyne Lloyd, and we showed the students’ work. Paulette Granberry-Russell, the director, suggested we create a guide about Americans to help our international students acclimate quicker.

I resisted, believing it was our mission to answer questions about people who were “different” and that people like me weren’t. That was incorrect thinking. And that was another one of my mistakes. A publisher I took the dilemma to told me that I just needed to turn our journalistic lens around and we could do the project. “100 Questions and Answers About Americans” has become our most popular guide to date. Another lesson learned.

These guides come out in the space of a semester. The work is usually finished within 80 days of the first class. Students have printed guides in their hands within 100 days. But holding information in your hands is such a throwback.

These guides are on paper, yes, but they are also produced—even faster—in digital forms. We make them not for journalists, but for all people. We use the journalistic tools of reporting, research, interviewing and editing to make them. When we publish, we hit Amazon in paper and on Kindle, Barnes & Noble and Nook, iTunes, Kobo and Google Play. The guides are formatted so they can plug right into future forms without being redesigned.

The essential idea behind this kind of publishing, which uses a proprietary form of extensible markup language, is that we free content from form. If content is truly king, it cannot be constrained by form. Sections can easily be added, subtracted or combined from different projects. We can add pages by sponsors and we can produce custom covers for them. We do not print until we sell. We sell first and we print fast through a company called Lightning Source.

MSU journalism graduate Dmitri Barvinok, who made that bullying book come out and who worked on “100 Questions and Answers About Indian Americans” project manages these guides in his job with our publisher, Front Edge Publishing.

The journalism school gives me the opportunity to live my values. Students like Devyne and Dmtri show me the way we do it now.


Read more about Grimm's class and work in the MSUToday feature, Busting Biases>>

Photo courtesy of MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences