Math Tools Pt. 1 – Numbers, Percentages and Statistics

By Patrick Larsen

Ch. 1 – The Language of Numbers

According to Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, author of Math Tools for Journalists, it’s the precision of numbers that scares most journalists. Despite that, they are present in every newspaper without fail. At the end of the day, numbers are essential to good journalism – they provide solid context and framing that even good writing may not be able to provide. It’s important for journalists to understand basic style rules from the start, such as knowing when to spell numbers out as opposed to using numerals.

Ch. 2 – Percentages

Percentages can be used to great affect when attempting to show how meaningful certain numbers are. There are several techniques that journalists should understand in finding percentages, according to Wickham.

Percentage of a whole is the most basic type of percentage used – all you do is take a numerical value that is part of a whole and divide it by the value of the whole. From there, simply move your decimal point two spaces to the right.

Next is calculating percentage increase/decrease. This is used when a change in values within a whole has occurred over time and you need an understandable representation of that change. To do this, take the new figure and subtract the old figure from it. Then take the solution of that equation and divide it by the whole – this will give you the percentage change.

Finding percentage points also has to do with increase and decrease, but it’s a little more abstract and it starts from before and after percentage values. To find them, start by subtracting the original percentage value from the new percentage value – this gives you change expressed in percentage points. From there, you can divide the change value by the original value to see the percentage change.

Calculating interest is also of interest to us. Ha. To find this, you’ll need a few values: money borrowed, interest rate and the length of time it’s borrowed for. All you do is multiply those values together.

Compound interest is the next and more complicated step.  Instead of interest that grows at a constant rate, the rate of compound interest is built over time by have interest charged on interest.  To calculate this, you will need values for the monthly payment (A), the original loan amount (P), the interest rate (R) and the total number of months interest is being charged for (N).  Also note that the interest rate should be expressed as a decimal and divided by 12.  The formula is as follows:

A = [P x (1 + R)^N x R] ÷ [(1 + R)^N – 1]

Ch. 3 – Statistics

According to Wickham, statistics are the second most common number journalists use, after percentages.

“Having a basic understanding of statistics and the role played by the manipulation of numbers is an important element in a journalist’s toolbox.”

First, we need to understand mean, or average.  It’s very straightforward.  All you have to do to find mean is add together all of the values in a data set and divide by the number of values.

Next is median, and it’s just about as easy.  All you have to is order each value in a data set from lowest to highest and find the center value.  If there is an even number of data points, just add those two values together and divide by two.

Mode is the next statistical value we can find.  It simply refers to which values in a data set occur the most often, and all you have to do is count the number of times each value appears.  If multiple values are tied for most appearances, they are all the mode.  If none do, there is no mode.

These are all measures of average that serve their own purpose, but what else is there?  For starters, we have percentile – a way of measuring where a score falls in comparison to others.  This is done by dividing the rank of a value in an ordered data set by the total number of values in the set.

Next, we have standard deviation, which is used to express how much a figure differs from what is normal.  The formula is represented in the following image, copied from Wickham’s work:

Probability is also useful to journalists.  It’s also very easy to calculate.  All you have to do is (using deaths from a certain disease as an example) take the number of people affected and divide that by whatever population you are considering.  That number will probably be difficult to understand, so just divide one by the value and treat it as an “every one in x” value.

Ch. 4 – Federal Statistics

The government doesn’t always do the public favors with the numbers it releases.  Oftentimes the statistics are difficult to understand or unclear in purpose.  That means the onus falls on journalists to provide accurate and valuable versions of that data.

Unemployment is a federal statistic that many people hear about almost daily.  It’s consistently in the news, so we have to be sure to know how to properly calculate it.  Fortunately, it’s a pretty easy equation:  all you have to do is take the number of unemployed people in the labor force and divide that by the total labor force and multiply it by 100.  Essentially, the labor force refers to the total number of people above the age of 16 who is employed or looking for employment.

Another frequently used term in reporting is inflation, which is measured using the Consumer Price Index.  When finding this for a month, use this equation:

(Current CPI – Prior Month’s CPI) ÷ Prior Month’s CPI x 100

Annual inflation rate can be found by changing “Prior Month’s CPI” in the last equation to the CPI from one year earlier.

It may also be necessary or helpful to adjust for inflation in certain stories.  For example, if you need to change a past value into current dollars, you would divide the original value by the CPI for its year.  Then multiply that by the CPI for the present day.

Gross Domestic Product also comes up quite a bit.  This can be found simply by adding consumer spending on goods and services, investment spending, government spending and net exports.  GDP is important because it can tell a lot about how a nation’s economy is changing.

Finally, net exports – the last piece of the GDP equation – simply refers to number of exports minus the number of imports.  It is also commonly known as trade balance and is a helpful perspective on an economy.



Understanding Fake News: a Broad Perspective on a Multifaceted Issue

Multimedia Reporting by Patrick Larsen

The term ‘fake news’ has picked up fairly constant levels of search interest for the past five years, according to Google Trends. All of that changed, however, right around one specific date: November 8, 2016. You might remember it as the United States presidential election.

Perhaps it is no surprise. Fake news has constantly been in the conscience of the American people since Donald Trump’s inauguration. In the past he has called news outlets such as CNN and BuzzFeed “fake news” on multiple occasions.

President Trump’s free use of this term is only part of the fake news hubbub, though. This brings us to a defining question of this article:

What is fake news?

Unfortunately for us, Donald Trump (along with everyone else) popularized a very poor term for what it is trying to describe.

(Disclaimer: this article will disregard Trump’s use of “fake news” except as a possible explanation for the popularity of the term – his use of the term is consistently inaccurate, even when dealing with something as general as fake news.)

Fake news can be a wide variety of things ranging from The Onion writing about Anthony Weiner sending an “Apology Sext to Entire Clinton Campaign” all the way to Alex Jones of InfoWars claiming Lady Gaga was ready to perform a satanic ritual at the Super Bowl.

Claire Wardle

Claire Wardle, strategy and research leader at First Draft News, brings some definition to the table.

According to Wardle, the first step is to know the difference between misinformation and disinformation – misinformation being “the inadvertent sharing of false information,” and disinformation being “the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false.” Obviously, disinformation is the more troubling of the two.

From here, Wardle gives us a very helpful infographic:

Infographic provided by First Draft News

Specific names are helpful, if not essential, when discussing fake news. As previously mentioned, fake news is a broad and misleading term in itself. Fitting, isn’t it?

The scale goes from least insidious to most insidious as it moves from left to right, making fabricated content the most dangerous.  For example, The Onion article (satire) is nearly harmless while the Alex Jones video (manipulated content) is dangerous and dishonest.

This information, however, only begins to scratch the surface.

Where does it come from?

Buzzfeed News media editor Craig Silverman has some answers.

Craig Silverman, Buzzfeed News Media Editor

In his article for BuzzFeed News titled “This Is How Your Hyperpartisan Political News Gets Made,” Silverman asks why two articles about Kellyanne Conway from entirely different sites (one liberal and one conservative) look almost identical.

“Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.”

That’s right. These two stories with diametrically opposing viewpoints came from the same source.

Silverman found that American News LLC is tied to several clickbait fake news sites posting content tailor made for people of different ideologies.  From this, we can assume that the biggest motivation behind the sites is not political, but monetary.

It’s not just Americans trying to make money off of this phenomenon, however. Fake news that concerns American politics can come from anywhere.

As Samanth Subramanian reports for Wired, there is actually a town in Macedonia that gained attention during the election for being “the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites.”

It is unclear how much impact these websites had on the election, but it is quite clear why so many of them came out of such a faraway place: money. “Boris,” the main subject of this article, dropped out of high school to run pro-Trump websites. It paid off, too.

“Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites,” writes Subramanian.  “The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.”

Despite how unsettling that may be, perhaps the scariest origin of fake news is intentional misinformation campaigns. Essentially, these are social media campaigns to profile all individual members of a targeted group (we’ll say voters in a Presidential election) and give them bits of information that are tailored to them.

That means that all of your likes, comments, friends and countless other data points could be gathered by one of these companies to feed you propaganda.

Jonathan Albright writes all about this tactic as used by Cambridge Analytica (CA), a data analytics firm hired by the Trump campaign, in his Medium post “What’s Missing From The Trump Election Equation? Let’s Start With Military-Grade PsyOps.

Jonathan Albright, Elon Professor/Data journalist

Essentially, CA’s job was to attempt to individually profile every American voter using data gathered from social media, internet history, ad interactions and many more data sets.

That’s still not all that’s going on here, though. As we know, Cambridge Analytica aren’t the only people gathering information from internet history. They provide a good example of what Facebook and Google do as echo chambers of emotion and bias (in a more sinister way), but that wasn’t good enough for Albright. He wanted to figure out exactly where it was coming from.

“For the most part, I’m looking at fake news from a system-level perspective,” said Albright. “I found evidence that many factors are overlooked in the fake news debate. These include ad tracking technology, content delivery and web hosting providers, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and that misinformation tends to flow from smaller sites in the hyper-biased political news sphere into social media platforms.”

He’s referring to the piece on Cambridge Analytica as well as the rest of his series on fake news in which he thoroughly investigates the complete path that far-right propaganda and  fake news takes – where it starts, where it ends, where it goes in the middle.

This brings us to our next question:

How do people fall for it?

When it comes to the “Military Grade Psy-Ops,” it is not so much about people falling for it as it’s about people having it fed to them strategically.

As previously mentioned, Cambridge Analytica (CA) used internet data points gathered from individual voters to create personality profiles on each different person. From there, advertising could be targeted on a level mostly unprecedented in American politics.

This is a good lens through which to look at the fake news we see today.  Fake news takes advantage of our social media and search history “echo chambers” by being sensationalist.  It uses language that preys on people’s existing prejudices.

Breitbart, a well-known fake news publication, has plenty of headlines that do just this.  Take for example “Planned Parenthood’s Body Count Under Cecile Richards Is Up to Half a Holocaust.”  This is an article written by former senior editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos about undercover videos of Planned Parenthood employees.  The article itself is filled with inaccurate or misleading statements about the business model of Planned Parenthood, among other things.  All of this is done to fire up pro-life individuals in order to get more shares and push Breitbart’s alt-right ideology.

What’s being done?

At the end of the day, it’s tough to say what the best course of action is for dealing with the systemic problem that is fake news.

“I don’t think there is an easy fix,” said Albright. “What’s currently happening is a problem that will never really disappear.”

Alexios Mantzarlis, a journalist and fact-checker working for Poynter, doesn’t think we should sit back and watch the problem grow. He thinks we should put a stronger emphasis on fact checking.

Alexios Mantzarlis, International Fact-Checking Network

In his article “Journalism can’t afford for corrections to be next victim of ‘fake news’ frenzy,” Mantzarlis writes about the threat to fact checking posed by the term “fake news.”

In this instance, a newspaper was fact checking its own work after publishing an unfortunate but mostly innocuous error.

“The Texas newspaper’s top headline on Feb. 21 incorrectly indicated that Lt. Gen. McMaster would be replacing Vice President Mike Pence — rather than the outgoing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.”

The error must have been horrifying to the newspaper, but it seems more comedic than problematic when looking back. That’s the opinion of this writer – not so of some commenters.

“Hey, did anyone think of proofreading your headline today before the paper went to press?” reader Barbara Tyler asked. “I am pretty sure Trump did not replace his vice president. Fake news at its best. Sometimes I wonder why I continue to subscribe to your paper.”

This sort of outlook on fake news is a different level to the issue entirely. It’s why the carefree use of the term by public figures is dangerous.  It also goes hand in hand with why fact checking is so important to Mantzarlis.

Fact checking seems to work, too – to a certain extent. In another article, “Fact-checking changes minds but not votes, according to new research,” Mantzarlis discusses the findings of a study Royal Society Open Science.

The study worked by asking people to assess several different statements used during the presidential campaign. Some were factual, others were not, some were attributed, others were not. From there, participants were asked to assess the statements after seeing a fact-check either confirming or denying it.

Mean belief in statements made over time for each group/statement type, showing effect of fact checking over time.  Graph from Royal Society Open Science.

“The results are clear: Regardless of partisan preference, belief in Trump falsehoods fell after these were corrected.”

As Mantzarlis points out, this study doesn’t show that fact-checking has a measurable impact on ballot choices. That should not be too concerning to a journalist, however. What matters is that fact-checking does work in the fight against misinformation.

John Robinson, adjunct professor at UNC

John Robinson, adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina and former editor at the Greensboro News and Record, thinks that fact-checking is an imperfect solution.

“There are two responsibilities,” Robinson said.  “One is on the news consumer to make sure that they are getting factual information and absorbing it and understanding what the information is as best I can.”

“The other side of it is the people who are presenting the information.  There’s a lot of responsibility to go around.”

What can be done/Wrapping up

By now, you may have figured out that talking about fake news isn’t easy.  There are lots of things to cover and, as with all new problems, solutions are not clearly defined.

Stephanie Brown, director of Park Library

Stephanie Brown, director of Park Library at UNC, wants to help bring solutions to students.

At this point, Brown is especially interested in bringing information about fake news to students outside of the communications field.

She wants to “teach non-journalists what reporters do – you talk to sources, you gather information.”

This is an interesting idea.  So much discussion coming from certain politicians is focused on undermining mainstream news media sources that it seems to have lowered trust in the press.  Maybe helping people to understand what it is the news media does is the key to rebuilding that trust.

Beyond that, Brown wants to help students with determining the trustworthiness of an article online.

“Let’s say you see a story on Facebook and you are not sure if it’s true or not,” Brown said.  “Before you share it, you should check it out.  So how would you go about checking out whether a story you see is in fact true.”

In terms of what universities should be doing, Robinson wants to see media literacy classes taught.

“For a couple years now I’ve proposed that UNC-Chapel Hill should require a media literacy and understanding media course for all students in the same way that English and history and econ courses are required.”

The purpose of a media literacy course would be to help students understand the news media a little better.  This would help to foster trust in the decisions of mass media because more people would understand what goes into making those decisions.

“It seems to me as if it’s a failure of the education system that they don’t have a stronger place for a media literacy requirement,” Robinson said.

Brown also thinks that media literacy courses are a must.

“Not only universities, I think high schools should be doing it, I think it should probably be taught in middle schools,” Brown said.  “I think it needs to be taught to everyone in some way and I think librarians are uniquely positioned to do that.”

Outside (and inside) of schools, lots of work is being done by lots of people – journalists and researchers especially.  It’s important to support these people in their efforts to quell this threat.  You can do so by actively following and sharing the work of the people mentioned in this article as well as taking some of the tips from the following guide:

For more thorough information on checking your own facts, please check out this page created by Brown.  It features many helpful resources for teaching yourself to be a better news consumer.

Online fake news may well be looked upon as the defining media issue of this time.  It will be written about in textbooks and it will be referenced in scholarly discussions for years to come.

Although we will likely never leave it all the way behind, do your best to at least be aware of it and talk about it.  Discussion can only help shed more light on the issue.

Check facts and click carefully!


Elon Alum Al Drago Shares Experience and Knowledge with Reporting Class

By Patrick Larsen

Al Drago talks about his use of social media

Al Drago, photojournalist and Elon University graduate, took time out of his busy schedule to visit Janna Anderson’s Reporting for the Public Good class early on Friday.

Drago spent his time at Elon gathering extensive experience, completing internships at four newspapers and spending time abroad in Morocco.  He now works with the New York Times, covering the president.

“Every holiday, you’re gonna be working.  You’re gonna be loving it and you’re gonna be embracing it,” said Drago of journalism.

“Knowing that, I kinda got to jump in head first and get a head start.”

Drago began working in high school at the Independent Weekly with dreams of being a sports photographer – just like all high school male photographers, he said.

It was a given for him to jump right in at Elon as well, covering his own Freshman convocation only days after moving in.  But that’s not all he did.  Again, Drago worked extensively at various internships at Elon.  This is a story about one photo that he took for one of those internships:

The story went national and Drago’s photo ended up in the New York Times.

While in college, Drago listed all the places he wanted to work according to how much he wanted to work there, with the New York Times way up in the top tier.

Now, Drago works for that very publication in the president’s travel pool, which follows the president around wherever he goes.

“I’m one of those ten or fifteen people crawling around at the president’s feet.”

Drago’s first tip for getting your work out there effectively – start networking on day one.  He started emailing editors when he was only 16.  From this communication, editors sent him tips on improving his work for building a strong and appealing portfolio.

Next, “I worked nonstop.”  He worked every day the summer after first year from 2 p.m. until 5 a.m. and then slept until it was time to work again.

Drago also encouraged the students to work hard now and relax later.  “I think you can advance your career more in the first five years out of college than the 15 or 20 years after.”

Branding is also very important.  His brand is very serious to him, but interestingly he mentions dancing and biking at the top of the list and following the president around at the bottom, which is pretty telling of his character.  He really means that order.


Another one of Drago’s specialties is using social media to reach new audiences.  His work is a blend of everyday Snapchat and Instagram stories and television news packages and he knows quite a bit about how to best use each.

“Snapchat prioritizes content creation over consumption.  Instagram flips that formula.”

Along the same line, Drago says that you have to treat each social media platform differently.  For example, use Twitter to show your work, but use Facebook to show your work and a little bit that didn’t make it – it feels more personalized.

With each story he talks about, Drago tends to repeat that “I hit all the things I needed to do.”  This follows right along with his tips to work hard and use early communications courses to build on.

This comes through again in an Instagram story he did for the New York Times on the Land of Oz festival in Beech Mountain, NC.  In only the first three videos of the assignment, he essentially had told all of the important parts of the story told, so the rest is even more open to entertainment and information.

At the end of the day, he sums his “belief in the struggle,” as professor Anderson would say, up in just two sentences:

“I chose work every single time,” said Drago, “and I think it shows.”  However: “You have to have me time or you will totally explode.”

Liveblog – Dan Gilbert Speaks at Elon Convocation

Daniel Gilbert, Elon Convocation speaker

Daniel Gilbert is a psychology professor at Harvard University.  He has completed important research in the field, but is perhaps most commonly recognized for his international best-seller Stumbling on Happiness and several popular TED Talks.  At Elon’s 2017 Convocation, he will discuss the flaws in common understandings of happiness and how applications of psychology can have large implications for business practice.  More information can be found on his website.  Check back for updates starting at 3:30 p.m.

3:30 – Processional begins.

3:36 – Invocation begins, delivered by associate chaplain for Protestant Life Joel Harter and director of Jewish Life at Hillel Jessica Waldman.

3:38 – President Leo Lambert welcomes the audience.

3:42 – Lambert challenges audience to “dive into national dialogue about higher education,” and “to prepare yourselves with the fundamental facts about the importance of education.”

3:45 – Assistant professor of psychology India Johnson introduces Daniel Gilbert.

3:47 – Applause as Gilbert takes the stage.

Gilbert addresses convocation crowd.

3:47 – “I get to talk to a room of several thousand really nice people who don’t have to ask me what’s on the test,” Gilbert begins, to laughter.

3:50 – Gilbert begins by offering a brief discussion of human history, culminating in present day happiness:  “People who have everything they want aren’t any happier than the rest of us.”

3:53 – Gilbert shows old product advertisements for cigarettes, Coke and TV, all promising happiness – we don’t think the same thing anymore because of science.

3:54 – “Lucky for us, for the last couple of years, scientists have gotten into the happy business.”

3:56 – How do we measure happiness?  Gilbert says EMG, EEG and f-MRI – but none is as effective as asking people questions.

3:59 – Marriage, money and children – his mother’s recipe for happiness.  Gilbert later discovered that moms all over the world give the same advice.

4:01 – But do they actually work?  Gilbert begins with marriage and polls the audience – almost none of the students and surprisingly few adults think it makes us happy.

4:02 – But they’re wrong!  Married people, according to Gilbert’s research, are happier than single people or unmarried people who live together.

4:06 – He also covers the happiness levels of divorced couples – it’s sad beforehand, but happiness tends to shoot up afterwards.

4:09 – Now it’s on to money – people tend to think that money can’t by happiness but, “NO! THEY’RE WRONG!” says Gilbert, emphatically.

4:11 – Happiness actually goes up quickly with increased money until about $65,000, interestingly.

4:12 – “If money doesn’t bring you happiness, you’re not spending it right.”

4:16 – So how should you spend your money?  Gilbert says experiences (not things) and others (not yourself).

4:18 – Now, children.  Almost everyone thinks that children make people happier – unless they have kids themselves.

4:19 – It’s also harder on stay-at-home parents – stay-at-home moms are almost twice as likely to experience depression than women with no children or working women with children.

4:21 – The more you know – spending time with children is about as invigorating as vacuuming for average parents.

4:23 – “The young people are all thinking ‘Oh my God, do my parents hate me?'”  Seems like the audience might think he’s not far off.

4:24 – Why is this so backwards sounding?  “The answer is that it might not apply to you because you are not average.”

4:26 – “Children are hardest on the people who have the fewest resources to deal with stress,” and on people hardest hit by the stress, young people and women, respectively.

4:29 – “The more we learn about the true cause of happiness, the more of it we can get for ourselves.”  Gilbert steps down from the lectern (or minibar, as he had called it earlier,) to great applause.

4:31 – President Lambert takes the stage again, recognizing fourth year students, students on the President’s List and students in various honors societies.

4:34 – Lambert also takes time to recognize faculty and staff, pausing for a round of applause as they stand.

4:36 – Another round of applause for Gilbert as the recessional begins.

For Jon Metzger, Learning Never Stops

By Patrick Larsen

Left to right: Jon Metzger, Carey Bina, Kavian Bina and Andrew Trautmann in class

Carey Bina, a senior at Elon University, shows up to Jon Metzger’s jazz improvisation class. He is ten minutes early and is carrying a saxophone. He begins preparing for the class, running through a scale on his instrument over and over again, perfecting it. He uncovers a vibraphone and pulls it into the center of the room.

Not long after this, Jon walks in. Carey finishes his scale successfully.

“You did it!” says Jon.

What follows in the next few minutes is a sort of musical conversation with a few instructive and questioning words thrown in. Jon stands behind the vibraphone, showing Carey variations on the scale, prompting him to follow.

It is immediately evident that Jon is one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure and good fortune of meeting, but he didn’t just stumble across this talent.

Jon’s experience with the vibraphone began when he was 15. His parents convinced his school to let him borrow their vibraphone for the summer. It was around the same time that his sister, Lise, granted him a life-changing experience.

Lise brought Jon to see legendary vibist Milt Jackson, an exposure to jazz vibraphone that profoundly affected Jon.

“As a 15-year-old, I couldn’t articulate what was going on in the room, but I knew I just had to have it,” said Jon. “Milt said, ‘Never stop playing.’ That was a lot of the impetus to do everything that I had to do.”

And it is very clear that this impetus was strong.

Andrew, Kavian and Jon playing in class

Jon Metzger, Jazz Ambassador

Jazz ambassador.

It’s not a title that sounds exactly real. It sounds a little bit too good to be from this world.

In fact, the position of jazz ambassador is quite important. The program originated in 1968 as a sort of cultural bridge to make the United States seem more appealing in the midst of the Cold War. The program has continued for similar reasons to the present day.

Like any regular job, being a jazz ambassador requires an application. What’s more, you have to apply for each round as ambassador. Jon applied and got the job – after his first round, he was given a “highly recommended” rating to tour again. Jon felt confident and reapplied.

He was denied.

So, he asked why. As it turns out, they still really wanted him, but there were two sizable obstacles standing in his way.

Those obstacles were none other than jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.

“I don’t know, I was probably around 27 or 28 at that time. I said ‘Yeah, okay. I’m not competing with them quite yet.’”

Jon looks back at the denial and is clearly amused. He has good reason to be – his chance came not long after that and he got to play with Gillespie and Hampton out of the connections he made with them there.

“It’s interesting, you never know who’s going to apply.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 1.09.25 AM

He certainly deserves the position. Jon’s résumé is probably among the most extensive at Elon University. According to the bio on his website, he has worked as bandleader on seven albums, lectured and conducted masterclasses at numerous institutions and has had praise heaped on him from all sides.

The way Jon talks, it’s easy to see how his value of hard work got him to where he is today.

“I’m still fascinated by the music, I’m still very eager to explore it. I still want to practice all the time. What I can learn or take way from any experience is really really meaningful to me.”

That’s Jon talking just a couple weeks before this article was first published. The drive has never left him.

Jon Metzger, Professor

For the rest of the class I sat in on, the atmosphere was truly remarkable.

Despite not being a member of the class or really knowing anything about music theory at all, I can confidently say there are few times that I have felt so invested in the classroom.

Jon’s ability to jump from big picture to one on one tutoring to personal story to everything in between escapes description. He is efficient – his fast pace does nothing to reduce the quality of his work.

There is no doubt that this efficiency is due in no small part to the respect his students have for him. I get the sense that they work diligently outside of class to learn their assigned work.

Thomas Erdmann, orchestra director and professor of music at Elon, shared his perspective on Jon’s relationship with his students.

“Jon has a unique ability to clearly and substantively share his knowledge of music, giving our students the theoretical and practical skills necessary in order to develop decidedly accomplished abilities,” said Erdmann.

Kavian Bina, a Junior in Jon’s jazz improv class, feels lucky to be learning from Jon.

“He is encouraging, patient and understanding when we are learning difficult things, and he is so gifted at teaching complex concepts in easy and digestible ways, which facilitates learning and creates a sense of accomplishment.”

Kavian cited Jon’s stories about his “heroes” – jazz musicians he grew up listening to and now uses them to teach his students. His personal ties to the music make for “infectious and enlightening” stories, according to Kavian.

His core philosophy on teaching is simple.

“I want to make sure they’re truly jazz musicians.”

He holds in high esteem a student’s ability to make the music their own – the ability to understand all the different ways they can improvise and to know what they feel they should do next.

Jon’s intimidating knowledge of jazz and music theory isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal, however.

“Jon’s experience navigating legal issues involved with a performing life – such as copyright and contracts for live and recorded work – allow him to share this knowledge with his students,” said Erdmann.

As Erdmann hints at, Jon’s understanding of the business side of the music industry is one of his greatest assets to the music department. Perhaps his most impressive achievement was working with Elon associate professor of entrepreneurship Barth Strempek.

“Barth Strempek took that improvisation II class, he’s a jazz pianist,” said Jon. “He did really really well. He stopped me after class because he had some new ideas about how he wanted his business students to gain this business acumen.”

They had the idea to produce a standards album performed by Jon and other professional jazz musicians as a business project for Strempek’s students and as a way for Jon to get his students to take an interest in business.

“Strempek got a $50,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation in Chicago and that was that first album – his business students won business plan awards in North Carolina.”

“The album, which was with my professional quartet at the time, sold more than 4,000 copies in North Carolina alone, which are good numbers for a jazz album nationally,” said Jon.

His eyes widen a little bit at this comment and he sounds a little in awe – he is still clearly very proud of what these students were able to accomplish.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 12.47.46 AM

“That led to another project, the two projects together Strempek used to apply for a FIPSE grant, which is from the United States Department of Education, and it was a matching $385,000 grant that Strempek won. That was really the beginning of the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.”

Since then, Jon routinely speaks at the center and is proud to see his students still taking classes there.

For Jon, all this teaching seems to come pretty naturally.

“I see myself in my students. I do remember being 18 or 20 years old and that fire that burns in the belly, and the dreams that you have of being a professional musician.”

His instruction in class verifies this statement. His conversation with students is peppered with bits of advice and his own personal experience that backs him up.

“I know what I needed at the time.”

Jon Metzger, Still Learning

There was a magical moment early on in the class when the students were playing the assigned music for class and improvising on the melodic minor scale when Jon stepped up to the vibes and did a little playing of his own. The best word I can think of to describe his playing is arresting. It’s no wonder that his students obviously have so much respect for him – he fully embodies what any jazz instructor would ask their students to aspire to.

Like many professors, however, it’s not about his students looking up to him.

“I’m learning things from my students all the time, you saw them saying ‘Have you heard this,’ and I thought ‘No, let me check it out!’”

He’s referring to a funk band – Lettuce – that his students referred him to after class ended for the day.

“I think the minute we close our minds, our hearts and our souls to being open to something new like that, that’s not a good thing. I hope we never stop learning.”

At the end of the day’s work, Jon became serious for a moment. He told his students that they are the future of music, that in some time people will be learning from them as they are from him.

He means every bit of it.

Xenia Rubinos Begins Her First Headlining Tour of 2017

Xenia Rubinos

By Patrick Larsen


Xenia Rubinos is a Brooklyn-based musician who released her second album, Black Terry Cat, last year.  The album received overwhelmingly positive reviews, such as and 8.0/10 rating from respected music publication Pitchfork.

I was recently lucky enough to be able to sit down with her for an interview before her show on March 6 at Kings in Raleigh.

The interview started with a discussion about her new album, which was quite commonly revered as a political work about the struggles of minorities in the United States.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.03.10 PMRubinos disagrees.

“I am talking about my personal experience,” said Rubinos.  “I’m making some reflections on societal things; income inequality, the experience of being a person of color in America, being a woman, image issues.”

“I think that perhaps since there are maybe fewer people who look like me or have my background that are given a chance to tell their story then people call my story political.”

Rubinos later talked about the problems that arise with music’s need for definition.

“That’s intrinsic when talking about music,” said Rubinos.  “You’re going to be put into categories and boxes.”

“Our identities are more complex than one box that you can check off.  That’s why those categories are challenging.”

Rubinos said that she wanted to move in a more specific and personal direction with this album, a move that she thinks helped people connect with her music.

“The little things are the most exciting.”

The Profile and Feature Story

By Patrick Larsen

The news media would not be what it is today without profiles and features. As America’s Best points out, these stories were originally intended to increase circulation of newspapers.

They are in some ways both constant and changing styles of writing, with human interest turning from outlet to outlet on a regular basis but never straying too far from the fundamentals of an emotional human story. But change has undoubtedly rocked the foundations of profile and feature writing since its inception. The pure format itself is less popular than it was in the past, but pieces of it are adapted regularly in beat and even hard news reporting. For example, it has become commonplace to humanize politicians that formerly would have been quotes on a page.

There is certainly some merit to this approach, as the press should not only be a narrow understanding of political affairs, but also a way to make them informational and interesting. It helps to get the people informed.


Cynthia Gorney – National Geographic


Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids



By Cynthia Gorney

Gorney does well in this profile of the venerable author to characterize him as not only the creator of his brand of wit, but also someone who lives in it. She ensures that there is a Seuss-like curiosity that appears wherever his work takes him in the world. Just as importantly, she also is sure to convey his perfectionism and how that ties him to his father, which allows him to maintain his character while also making him distinctly relatable to the average American adult. He is fun-loving and hard-working, comedic and very serious. Even the title belies this balance: Wild is equated with Orchestrator and Plausible is equated with Nonsense.

Koch Grabs Big Apple and Shakes It

By Saul Pett

It’s no mystery after reading this story Ed Koch was a contentious mayor. Pett never lets an assertion go by without an anecdote featuring the mayor to back it up. What results is a mixed bag of a character, which is just what Pett wanted.

His Dreams Belong to the Next Generation/An Old Flame Still Burns After 50 Years

By Diana Griego Erwin

Erwin, in two relatively short pieces, makes the reader think that they are not reading the news. These stories are teeming with little details that slow them down and make them tick. This shows the value of persistent note taking while reporting in the field. It is necessary to write a compelling feature on a person. The reader sees themself in the details.



For Lerro, Skyway Nightmare Never Ends


Finkel uses extensive setting description that goes hand in hand with the character of the story. For example, Lerro talks about living like an animal and Finkel backs it up with a dreary description of Lerro’s regular surroundings. Finkel also does well to describe the success of Lerro’s past and using that as not only an emotional device but also one that brings us into the present moment. Although it certainly is not a cheery story, it is very powerful.

Here are some current examples.

Mingus and poul fri among newest Tijuana residents

Ten Tips for Feature Writing

By Matthew Suárez

This story is interesting because it ties three very different things together and makes it interesting and cohesive as a piece. Mingus and chicken act as themes that tie the ends of the story together. They provide an arc that the reader can follow and be interested in.

Geoff Toovey: ‘It’s very easy to pull club culture apart

By John Davidson

Davidson does well to use the background of sports to his advantage. Sports are structured around making stories, so the NRL offers good bones for his story about Toovey, a person.

In the Face of A.L.S., Simon Fitzmaurice Finds His Fire Inside

By Kathryn Shattock

Shattock has the advantage of a fascinating story here. Most people could never imagine someone with a disease as degenerative as ALS directing a film and Shattock likely realized that in choosing this story. Her interviews with Fitzmaurice about the day to day difficulties of directing with ALS and how he overcomes those difficulties are excellent bits of detail – they show us how he fights adversity, something we all relate to.