ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Jack Howland, University of Missouri

By Crista Dockray, Drew Koloup & Brian RadermacherCMM correspondents

This past spring, Jack Howland captured and shared the story of an openly transgender student at the University of Missouri named Shane Stinson. The pronoun leading off the main headline in The Maneater campus newspaper story is the most significant, telling term within the roughly 5,000-word piece — “His Name is Shane.

As Howland, 21, a native of Fairway, Kan., writes, “He. Him. His. Shane likes the way the words sound. He gets excited when strangers come up to him and assume he’s male without question, noticing his flat chest and short hair. … If someone refers to Shane as she, he feels like a lesser version of himself. He likely won’t blame the person or bring up the subject, but it sticks with him. … It’s sometimes hard for him to understand how someone could look into his eyes and see a woman. He’s always felt like a man.”

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The piece has been named one of the winners of the 2014 ACP Multimedia Feature Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Howland, currently an enterprise beat reporter at the Columbia Missourian, discusses the motivation behind the long-form story and the challenge of putting it together in a way that earned the respect of his featured subject.

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Jack Howland, 21, a native of Fairway, Kan., is a junior journalism major at the University of Missouri.

What compelled you to tackle “His Name is Shane”?

This was our first edition of Maneater Long Reads. Before I even decided to talk about Shane, I decided this would be a cool series to with the Maneater. That idea came from seeing what a lot of people were sharing on Facebook. Being friends with a lot of journalism majors at Mizzou, you see a fair amount of different media being shared. Long-form seemed to be a thing that people were still interested in. When The New York Times did its now-famous “Snow Fall” interactive long-form story, that was shared a lot and people thought it was really cool. I was seeing this interest in long-form that a lot of people had. Talking with our web editor at the time, Tim Tai, and our multimedia editor, Cara McClain, I asked, “Why aren’t we doing this?” We have this talented staff. Tim is a great web designer. We had writers who wanted to write longer stories. So we felt like it was a no-brainer.

For this story in particular, Shane Stinson is a very popular person on campus, very well-known. I said, “Hey why don’t write about Shane Stinson? It would be a pretty interesting story, I think.” Some people didn’t really see it. Mainly because many stories have already been written about Shane. Shane told us there are a lot of transgender people on campus who just don’t talk about it because there is still a stigma. … Shane was always really open about it though. He even publicly came out in a Mizzou News article. … I think a lot of people thought, “Oh well, what more can I write about Shane? It’s already been written about.” I thought him coming out and being embraced on the Mizzou campus could all be part of the story.

How did you come up with the headline, including the decision to emphasize the gendered pronoun at the start?

It was actually the day before we were going to publish the article online. There wasn’t a headline for it, and I couldn’t come up with one. “His Name is Shane,” I had that as the title of the first section. I liked the way it sounded. It had a nice ring to it. It got the point of the article — that he doesn’t want to be seen as a woman and he always felt like a man. So were up against deadline and someone asked, “Why isn’t ‘His Name is Shane’ just the headline?” I thought, “You’re right. That’s a lot better.”

What are some of the challenges you faced while working on the story?

The biggest thing for me was making sure Shane was portrayed the way he wanted to be portrayed. … So the biggest thing was pronouns. Even in the story, he talks about how when you’re ‘mis-pronouned,’ it hurts when you don’t really feel like a woman. As the writer of the story, I was always checking in with Shane. When the story was published, I sat down with him and talked through the whole thing. There was only really one thing. I had written “when Shane was a woman” — and Shane wanted me to change it to “when Shane identified as a woman.” Shane was more worried about me getting into trouble with the LGBTQ community we have at Mizzou. … My biggest thing was making sure Shane was OK with the story and doing anything I could to make him fine with it.

What did you learn personally while reporting or writing the piece?

I learned a lot about what it takes to write a big long article. The interview process, I felt, was really easy just because Shane is such an amazing source. I interviewed Shane and his girlfriend. We sat in the Maneater newsroom for two and a half hours for the first interview. Then we met again later in the week and talked for another hour or so. … I think the hardest part was budgeting my time. When you have a long article due in a month, it can be hard to wrap your head around it. In the last week [before it was due], I was definitely panicking because the story wasn’t yet at the point I wanted it. I spent a lot of late nights to get it done on time. That was I learned most — budgeting. You think a month is plenty of time, but [a long-form report] takes up lot of your time especially with other responsibilities on campus.

“It’s funny, you write a story that’s 5,000 words — how can you not fit everything in? But when you talk to people for upwards of four hours about something, you’re going to get details you have leave on the cutting-room floor.”

What satisfied you most about the final published piece?

I am the kind of person who starts working on the story and spends far too much time on the opening of the story. … I liked the opening a lot. There were other parts I liked too, and again the reason is because of the detail Shane was willing to give me. He talked to me [for example] about his suicide attempt and I was able to include that in the story. I felt the story was really as much about Shane coming out and being openly transgendered as it was about him becoming accepted at Mizzou.

Freshman year, it’s crazy to think about Shane Stinson being so nervous to talk to people and not making friends or having a bad time just because he’s so outgoing and well-known on campus now. So for people to find out that freshman year he [attempted] suicide, I thought that in particular was a great detail because a lot of people didn’t know Shane had struggled so much.

What spurred the decision to run the images in black and white?

Tim Tai was our web editor at the time. Cara McClain was our multimedia editor. And for that first [long-form piece] Michael Cali was taking photos. That is actually a decision he made. The night I was talking to Shane and going through the story at a Starbucks, Michael actually joined us and showed me some of the pictures. He had just put them in black and white because he liked the way it looked. He also thought it could be something that separates Maneater Long Reads from standard things on the website. I was totally content to let him run with it because I thought the black-and-white photos were really cool.

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Actually, yes. This was during that last week of craziness while I was finishing up the story. One of the things I wanted to include were the details of Shane and Dani’s (Shane’s girlfriend) relationship, because I talked to them for a really long time and they told me everything. They told me about their first date, many other dates, funny memories — and they really went into detail about those first months of them becoming a couple. I felt that was relevant to the story because Shane becoming accepted on campus and having this great girlfriend he loves were all part of his journey to coming out. In the end though, it didn’t really work. One of my friends was looking at the story and just thought the details about their relationship deviated too much from the story itself. So I ended up taking [that part] out and replacing it with the description of a specific event, which was the beginning of the website that raises money for his operation. It’s funny, you write a story that’s 5,000 words — how can you not fit everything in? But when you talk to people for upwards of four hours about something, you’re going to get details you have leave on the cutting-room floor.

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