Hockey or hurricanes – he’s ready

Douglas Clifford
Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
”Every second counts,” says photojournalist Douglas Clifford, in action at a Lightning game.

USFSP Student Reporter

TAMPA – When he’s on assignment, Douglas Clifford is always looking for patterns of opportunity.

Whether it’s daily stories for the local section of the Tampa Bay Times or long-term projects like documenting the recovery of a tiny town devastated by Hurricane Michael, Clifford looks for ways to tell each story through his photos.

“I am consummate in being committed to getting to the heart of the story, no matter what the situation is,” he said in an email. “I work hard to stay focused on those elements that are most storytelling while remaining open to the unexpected.”

The night of Oct. 26 was typical for the veteran photojournalist, who has been on staff at the Times for 21 years, as he prepared to photograph the Tampa Bay Lightning matchup against the Nashville Predators.

His job began as soon as he got to the arena – ideally a couple of hours before the game starts.

After he checked in, he strolled by Lightning players kicking a soccer ball around to the press room, where he met with Diana Nearhos – the Times reporter who covers the Lightning.

Their meeting gave Clifford a good idea of what, and whom, he needed to capture during the game.

“Every second counts,” he said. “I’m trying to find storytelling pictures that boil the game down.”

Clifford stressed the importance of “front end work” for every assignment. In the case of hockey, every game starts the same: meet the reporter, find an updated roster and prepare captions with relevant data.

His office for the evening consisted of a step stool and a small opening in the glass panels at the edge of the ice. With two Canon cameras strapped around his torso and cookies tucked into his pocket for later, he headed for his seat – or stool, in this case.

Clifford rotated between his cameras with different lenses, depending on where the action was. During the 20-minute intervals between periods, his MacBook was open to upload photos to meet deadline.

If he falls behind, he’s left in a balancing act between his camera’s viewfinder and his computer.

“As the game reveals itself, I try to document that,” he said.

Another key factor in Clifford’s work is communication – with Times colleagues, sources, subjects, bystanders.

One instance came when Clifford let two children sitting next to him reach their hands through the opening in the glass to get a practice puck.

“Why not?” Clifford said. “I really cherish the opportunity to interact with our sources, to be able to use visual information to tell stories, to help people feel something through pictures, and to help people experience something familiar in a different way.”

Establishing a connection helps him capture photos that elevate stories.

Such was the case in Mexico Beach, the tiny town in the Florida Panhandle that was ravaged by Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

Clifford snapped a seemingly unremarkable photo of people walking down the street, debris on either side of them – a photo that turned into a valuable source for one of the many stories told by him and reporter Zack Sampson.

One of those people was the mayor of the city decimated by the Category 5 storm.

After more than two decades as a photojournalist, Clifford estimates he’s covered nearly 10,000 assignments and collected more than a dozen 2-terabyte hard drives to store and archive his work.

His fascination with photography started in his childhood home in St. Louis with a large collection of National Geographic magazines. He studied the photos and was fascinated by the work these photographers produced.

“Pictures give us a license to be curious,” he said in an article in the Times in 2016. “I found I can be creative while being grounded by my responsibility to the subject.”

One thing has remained consistent in his years of work: being able to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of journalism.

“We are in changing times where social media can be used as a journalism tool, not only for disseminating content, but as a means to anticipate news, stories and elements of any given story,” he said.

“A case in point is evident in my partnership with Zack Sampson during our coverage of Hurricane Michael. Sampson was consistently plugged into and farming social media for leads and live information, which revolutionized our decision-making and news judgment in the field.”

Mistakes? Clifford has “made them all,” he said. But the drive to deliver accurate and captivating news keeps him going.

“Journalism can be a pure meditation on our living condition,” Clifford said. “It’s about helping people, bringing information to our readers, informing those with honest, balanced, fair and ethical reporting.

“I really enjoy all of it.”

She rambles through recreation

Becky Gunter
Bridget Burke | USFSP
Her job “truly varies every day,” says Becky Gunter.

USFSP Student Reporter

SEMINOLE – After supervising an Easter egg hunt at the Seminole Recreation Department several years ago, Becky Gunter took the hand of the Easter Bunny to lead him to safety.

That’s when she heard a small voice behind her.

“Daddy, this is the best day of my life,” said a 4-year-old girl.

That assessment, Gunter says, was all the confirmation she needed that she had chosen the right career.

“I feel like a fish out of water at events when I’m not doing anything,” she said.

As recreation director for the city of Seminole since 2012, Gunter and a staff of 16 oversee programs for people of all ages, from daily activities for families to holiday events for the community.

“My job truly varies every day,” said Gunter, 39. “Some days I am working on day-to-day operations and other times I am working on park design. I work with community partners on new events and programs and plan special projects for the city manager.”

Gunter was not always destined for a career in recreation, however.

At the University of West Florida, she got a bachelor’s degree in public relations, advertising and applied communication.

Rather than going home to Leesburg over the summers, Gunter worked in the Student Recreation Department at her school. By her junior year, she had worked in various roles and caught the attention of the director.

She was invited to attend a conference for the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association, the leaders in collegiate recreation.

After seeing all the potential opportunities, Gunter said, she continued to work hard and learn as much as she could so she would be invited back to the conference the following year.

Gunter worked as often as she could to pay for her education. When she came home for Christmas break during her senior year, Gunter got word of an unpleasant present.

The house she and two roommates were renting was broken into, and everything was stolen. When Gunter returned to school, she knew she had to work harder than ever.

She was rewarded by being invited back to the NIRSA conference. This time, she was hoping to find a way to continue her education after graduating from UWF.

Receiving a financial offer she couldn’t refuse, Gunter pursued a graduate assistantship at the University of North Texas. She spent two years there and received a master’s degree in recreation administration.

Gunter did not like Texas and there were few career advancement opportunities there, so she moved back home to Florida. She worked in parks and recreation departments around the state until she finally landed the Seminole job.

Gunter has spent almost 20 years in recreation and has been in her current position for seven years.

As recreation director, Gunter can now escort the Easter Bunny whenever she likes.

His passions? Algorithms and feral cats

Tod Stephens
Courtesy Tod Stephens
“Trapping is a necessary evil,” says Tod Stephens, shown with a neighborhood cat named Yuki.

USFSP Student Reporter

Tod Stephens is a self-described multidimensional nerd who thrives in a world of computer-aided design, virtual reality and algorithms.

As a software engineer at Arthur Rutenberg Homes, he designs homes by computer. At his home in Belleair Beach, he used 300 hours of computer time to create a short, virtual reality film titled Fractal Immersion.

“With fractals, it’s the combination of science and art. I’ve always been intrigued by it,” said Stephens, 56. “I just really love the idea of how an algorithm can generate beautiful patterns.”

On weekends, he traps feral cats.

He and his wife, Carolyn, are volunteers for an animal welfare organization called MEOW Now, a tiny nonprofit that is dedicated to humanely reducing the number of free-roaming cats in Pinellas County.

The cats they capture are sterilized and vaccinated. Some are placed for adoption in shelters; the others are returned to their outdoor homes, where other volunteers provide food, water and health care.

Over time, the organization says, the number of feral cats should stabilize and decline.

The Stephenses became involved with this program in 2015 because of an overwhelming population of feral cats in their own neighborhood. They have a cat of their own, Squeaky, so named because she sounded like a squeak toy when she was a kitten.

“You see people that are so overwhelmed and so attached to the cats and they’re using their own money to feed the cats, so to come in and help them out, it’s very rewarding,” Carolyn Stephens, 53, said.

Courtesy Tod Stephens
Amber Thompson (left) helps Carolyn and Tod Stephens with their volunteer work.

Chad Thompson, the executive director and only employee of MEOW Now, said that the Stephenses are “two of the best volunteers we have, the most loyal volunteers we have, and the longest-running volunteers.”

Thompson’s wife, Amber, also volunteers for MEOW Now.

When people call Meow Now to help with feral cat populations, their duty does not stop there. Meow Now requests that no one feed the cats 24 hours before the planned capture so that the volunteers can use food to lure the cats into traps.

“You have to collaborate with the people taking care of the cats,” Carolyn said. “There has to be a component of a responsible person to work with Meow Now.”

Once the cats go into the traps, a towel is put over the cages and they’re off for surgery.

“You put a towel over them and they’re totally relaxed,” Carolyn said.

Cat lovers have called feral-cat trapping cruel and inhumane, but People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Stephens have a quick response.

Without vaccinations, feral cats often “die from blood loss or anemia because of worms and fleas,” PETA says. By catching feral cats and vaccinating them, the cats are returned to their homes and without the risk of infection from worms or fleas.

“Trapping is a necessary evil,” Tod Stephens said. “Trapping and euthanizing the cats is inhumane, but trapping, having the surgery and returning them back to their outdoor spaces gives the cats a chance to live out their natural lives.”

Stephens also volunteers at the SPCA in Largo to help socialize and walk the dogs that are available for adoption.

His next project will be a virtual reality documentary to raise awareness of the importance of animal adoption from local shelters.

If you know of free-roaming community cats, contact MEOW Now at (727) 203-5255.

At this school, she is the ‘go-to’ on staff

Georgene Votzakis
Courtesy Georgene Votzakis
Many Sandy Lane Elementary students “are left to fend for themselves,” says Georgene Votzakis

USFSP Student Reporter

CLEARWATER – The backpack rests just inside the office at Sandy Lane Elementary School.

It belongs to a third grader who once threatened to bring a gun to school in the backpack.

There was no gun, but part of her penalty requires her to check her backpack in the office every morning.

The office is in a D-grade school, where many students struggle academically and have disciplinary issues.

Georgene Votzakis, 54, has worked in the office for 21 years. She is only the bookkeeper and secretary, but she gets sucked into the issues of the school.

“It’s a demographic issue. There’s not enough parental involvement. Our kids are left to fend for themselves,” said Votzakis.

Votzakis grew up in Gary, Indiana, in a traditional Greek household. She attended Purdue University Calumet, where she received a bachelor’s in early childhood development.

In 1988, she moved to Florida to marry her husband, Nick Votzakis.

In a typical day, Votzakis makes calls to find substitute teachers, orders supplies for teachers and assists them with any issues they may have, and works on payroll paperwork.

In Votzakis’ office, both students and faculty are regulars.

The front office clerk stepped inside to share a story of a student who showed up late because he had to walk to school by himself. His parents were still asleep, he said.

“To be honest, this is a calm day,” said Votzakis.

On her computer, she typed into a program that looked like it hadn’t been updated in many years.

Later on, a teacher called to ask her how to reset the emergency lock-down button after a student pressed it. Unfazed, Votzakis called the police and unlocked the doors.

“She is our go-to for any time there is an issue. She does more than her job title for sure,” said Julie Brewster, the school’s assistant principal.

The school has been rated a D school four times in the last six years. In the 2014-2015 year it dropped to a F, and in 2015-2016 it rose to a C.

Sandy Lane is a Title 1 school, where 40% or more of its students are considered low-income.

This qualifies the school for extra funds and students receive additional instruction to help them meet state requirements.

Sandy Lane is one of eight schools in what the county school district calls its “transformation zone” because students there have a record of poor performance.

This fall the curriculum at Sandy Lane was expanded to include what the district calls a Conservatory for the Arts. All the students there get instruction in music, dance and other arts.

“We have a lot of resources that can really help families,” said Votzakis.

Thrill-seeking reporter prowls City Hall

Josh Solomon
Courtesy Josh Solomon
“Sometimes, when the sun goes down, so does the productivity,” says Solomon, shown clowning around in the newsroom.

USFSP Student Reporter

Josh Solomon likes the jolt of adrenaline.

He played basketball as a center and power forward in high school and remains a fan of the New York Knicks. He received his pilot’s license in his last week of high school but hasn’t flown in years. He rides a motorcycle in his free time.

And as the Tampa Bay Times’ Pasco County crime reporter, Solomon loved the thrill of pushing a hard news story out the door.

“I still like writing the crazy crime story on deadline,” said Solomon, 27. “It’s fun. It’s a rush. It’s a personal challenge.”

But above all, Solomon wants to do the right thing.

He sports a “Westfield, N.J.,” tattoo on his left forearm, in honor of the town where he grew up. He picked up a journalism class in high school and found his niche writing and reporting, especially since he loved to ask questions.

“I was always kind of a pain in the butt,” he said.

While Solomon’s interests may draw him to a high-octane style of reporting, his childhood drew him to civic skepticism. His father was a member of the board of education, and local government “was dinner table talk.”

Listening to his father, he said, “I always felt like my peers were getting screwed.”

Taking his experience from high school, he attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He interned at CBS News in the summer of 2013 and came to the Times in 2014 after graduating from Medill.

Solomon started at the Pasco office in Wesley Chapel, reporting on crime and breaking news.

“I loved the job in Pasco,” he said. “I was driving a lot, I was outside all day and visiting crime scenes.”

But while Solomon enjoyed the excitement of covering crime and visiting courts, he wanted to do something bigger and more impactful, something that would draw on his childhood skepticism of government.

He twice applied for the job covering City Hall in St. Petersburg and got it in November.

When Solomon isn’t covering city government, he focuses on covering the courts in a similar fashion – as a place to examine systemic legal issues.

A court story is among Solomon’s proudest works – a September 2018 piece about a Florida doctor who was sued for malpractice and for years made a principled stand against the suit over anything else.

Solomon said that the first two or three drafts of that story were “failed attempts at an accountability story,” a style that he praises colleague Mark Puente for executing well. But the story naturally developed into a strong narrative.

“What I liked is that different people saw different things in the story,” Solomon said. “Some people saw (the doctor) as a hero; others saw him as a crazy person. It’s about perspective.”

Although crime and courts were his first assignments and government is his new focus, Solomon considers himself a “jack of all trades.”

Press passes for local Trump, Clinton and Sanders rallies are pinned to his cubicle wall, alongside a press pass for the launch of the SpaceX-8 rocket. One of his weirdest stories involved a topless woman running through the Sanders rally.

Some of his most rewarding work, however, has been covering three hurricanes that hit Florida — Hermine in 2016, Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018.

“Even though it’s telling the story of someone’s tragedy, it’s so much fun,” Solomon said. “It’s about telling the story of what happens after the storm; it’s an opportunity to help people.”

Although Solomon has been covering City Hall for only two months, he has big aspirations for his role in the city.

“I’m trying to write issues stories,” he said. “I’m not creating the narrative, but I’m trying to push the story along. I want to find more high-level stories and work them out.”

Solomon has a cordial relationship with City Council members. He waves to them as they pass his desk at City Hall, and he makes small talk with them about what he’s writing. But he knows that journalism and government are inherently at odds.

“Just because I write a tough story doesn’t mean I can’t say hi in the hallway,” Solomon said. “Some people might view it as a cat-and-mouse game, but it’s not. I want the same things they want – a better St. Petersburg.”

While Solomon knows there are “tough stories” to be written and issues to uncover, he knows that his relationship with the government is one that can make positive change.

After all, his Times profile says that he is in journalism because he believes “the truth can touch hearts and change the world.”

Horses by morning, homicides by night

Oxenden and Sassy
Courtesy McKenna Oxenden
Oxenden enjoys horsing around with Sassy.

USFSP Student Reporter

McKenna Oxenden wakes up at 6 every morning to travel from St. Petersburg to Plant City to feed 25 horses before starting her job as a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.

One of those horses is GG, a 15-year-old mare Oxenden has owned for six years. The name fits her well, Oxenden says, because she is so sassy.

Oxenden, 22, began horseback riding at age 6 and started competing four years later.

“It’s a big part of who I am and what I want to accomplish,” said Oxenden, who hopes to compete in the Olympics one day. “It keeps me sane. I’m not a very happy person if I don’t get to ride.”

She said that a lot of life lessons in riding translate to journalism.

“There is a lot of uncertainty, just like (in) journalism,” Oxenden said. Each day brings a new challenge: She doesn’t know how her horse will behave or what she’ll be covering at the newspaper.

Oxenden Jumping
Courtesy McKenna Oxenden
There are hurdles in riding and in journalism, Oxenden says.

Oxenden was born in Maryland. She fell in love with journalism her senior year in high school, when she dropped a pre-calculus class and switched to journalism. She went on to study journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Oxenden began at the Times as a summer intern. She worked on web design last fall and started the new year as a one-year intern covering breaking news and general assignment in the St. Petersburg office.

She is also the producer and editor for the Times’ entertainment and culture podcast, “The Life of the Party,” which is released every Friday.

As a reporter, Oxenden said, one of her most memorable stories was about a father who police say tried to choke his son with a baby wipe. The mother of the 6-month-old boy was grateful for the chance to tell her story, Oxenden said.

Oxenden said she enjoys making a difference and having the opportunity to write stories like that.

“You’re writing history and holding people accountable,” she said.

As an early bird, she gets the scoops

Carrie Pinkard | USFSP
“My deadline is always 30 minutes ago,” says Nealeigh.

USFSP Student Reporter

BRADENTON – As a breaking news reporter for the Bradenton Herald, Sara Nealeigh’s day can be packed with crime, car crashes and crazy weather.

On Jan. 16, it was packed with puppies.

She covered a fundraising breakfast for Southeastern Guard Dogs, a Manatee County-based organization that matches veterans with service dogs.

Nealeigh, 27, moved through the crowd with ease, taking notes on what she saw. She chatted with veterans, CEOs and retired generals with confidence.

The service dogs sat dutifully by their owners’ sides as the attendees made a beeline for the buffet.

After the event, Nealeigh rushed to her car to head back to the newsroom to write a story that would be up on the Herald website within hours.

She starts her day at 6 a.m., so by 10 her day is half over.

“My deadline is always 30 minutes ago,” Nealeigh said. There is no time to waste in this era of digital journalism, she said. The goal is to publish as quickly as possible while still maintaining accuracy.

As newsrooms shrink, reporters are called to wear more hats. Nealeigh shot the photos and video for her article. She also knows how to optimize her articles for search engines and promote them on social media.

Aside from these skills, Nealeigh said, the most important thing a journalist can have is connections.

Connections are what brought her to Bradenton from Ohio in December 2016.

She saw a posting for a reporting job at the Herald and reached out to a college friend who worked there. With the friend’s help, Nealeigh got a job interview and ultimately a position as breaking news reporter in the Sunshine State.

She packed her bags and left 24 years of Ohio living behind her.

“I don’t miss Ohio at all,” Nealeigh said. “They’re scraping 4 inches of snow off their cars as we speak.”

Despite her aversion to the weather there, Ohio is where Nealeigh got her start in journalism. As a sophomore in high school, she finessed her way onto the school newspaper staff, which at the time was filled exclusively with juniors and seniors. She then attended Ohio University to study broadcast journalism.

Eventually, she realized writing scripts for anchors wasn’t as satisfying as writing her own news copy. So after graduation, she took a reporting job at the Chillicothe Gazette, a small daily in southern Ohio.

It was at the Gazette that she broke the most memorable story of her career.

She covered the so-called Pike County massacre, the largest homicide investigation in Ohio history. Eight people in one family were found murdered in four homes in April 2016 – homicides that Nealeigh said rocked the sleepy town of Chillicothe and the state of Ohio.

Now, at her job at Herald, she is the first one in the office at 6 a.m.

It’s quiet as she scrolls through arrest records from the day before, wondering if today could be the day a huge crime story breaks. Every few minutes, a voice from a police scanner echoes through the newsroom, reporting a car accident or other incident around Manatee Country.

Nealeigh’s job is to listen and decipher what news would be the most impactful and meaningful to her community.

Coffee is brewing, but she’s already wide awake.

“Once I’m up in the morning I’m ready to go,” she said. “I’m eager to start my day.”

For this reporter, change has been a constant

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
“I’d like to believe that there’s always going to be a need for someone like me,” says Callihan.

USFSP Student Reporter

BRADENTON – Since Ryan Callihan joined the Bradenton Herald in October 2017, his beat has changed from breaking news to retail to county government.

Change has been a constant since his days in college, but it’s what solidified his belief that journalism was the right career path for him.

“My favorite part of my job is (that) it’s different every day,” said Callihan, 23. “Sometimes I’m sitting at the County Commission office. Sometimes I’m at the beach reporting on Red Tide. Sometimes I’m covering a shooting at an apartment complex and someone died.”

With the recent layoff of two editors and resignation of a reporter, the Herald’s small newsroom is restructuring. That caused the shuffling of his beats.

Some jobs in the newspaper industry are deemed “superfluous” and the industry needs to figure out how to do the job without them, Callihan said. That leaves him disappointed but not disheartened.

“I’d like to believe that there’s always going to be a need for someone like me,” he said.

Callihan, who grew up in St. Petersburg, began attending USF St. Petersburg in 2013 as a graphic design major. He switched to journalism and began working for the student weekly, The Crow’s Nest, in January 2016.

In the summer of 2017, when he balanced an unpaid internship at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and a part-time job as a store protection specialist for Ross Dress for Less, he learned two things: how to adapt quickly and how to get stories out of people.

The job at Ross forged a connection with those who work minimum wage jobs like he did.

“A lot of the stuff we do is for people,” he said. “We say we give voices to the voiceless, and (to do that) it’s about knowing what it’s like to be voiceless. When someone works as a bartender or a security guard and is making diddly squat and they say they can’t afford whatever, I’ve been there.”

He sits in Manatee County Commission meetings a few times a week. While they can be boring, a strong cup of coffee and his sense of duty keep him awake – typing away, studying an agenda and sifting through government jargon so people who can’t attend midday meetings stay up-to-date on things that directly affect them.

Jan. 16 was no different. It began at 9 a.m. with a two-hour presentation from a project manager at the Department of Environmental Protection to the Manatee County Port Authority.

A couple of hours for lunch gave Callihan time to start writing his story before the County Commission met again.

The meeting wrapped up quickly, but sometimes he isn’t so lucky. Deadlines can leave him writing a story while also taking notes during meetings that have stretched up to 10 hours.

“Say I need to write something by 4. Then I should be at the meeting taking notes on whatever they’re talking about and writing my story at the same time,” said Callihan.

Callihan advises student journalists to get started early, so they know how to do whatever they want, and not to worry too much about their lack of experience.

“A lot of times you are good enough, and at the end of the day it’s about telling a story,” he said. “Everyone knows how to do that.”

For some adjuncts, the joy of teaching is dampened by low pay, poor benefits

Nancy McCann | USFSP
Greg McCreery, 39, has to cobble together several philosophy courses on two campuses each semester to make an average annual salary of $35,000. “There’s always a risk I won’t make enough money” to support his family, he says.

USFSP Student Reporter

One of the last things college students expect to learn is that their instructor is living below the poverty level.

Or can’t afford to take a modest vacation.

Or is working three jobs.

But that is the reality for many of the temporary, part-time teachers around the country known as adjuncts.

In the Southeast, they are typically paid between $1,800 and $2,700 per course each semester, although some make significantly more, depending on the individual and institution.

Consider the numbers at USF St. Petersburg:

  • Almost half of the faculty in 2016 – 128 of the 269 teachers, or 48 percent – were adjuncts. In 2015, it was 138 of the 280 teachers, or 49 percent.
  • Adjuncts taught 39 percent of all undergraduate student credit hours and 68 percent of all undergraduate course sections in 2015, according to numbers collected by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In graduate programs, adjuncts taught 25 percent of the courses and credit hours.
  • On average, USFSP adjuncts earned around $8,180 per year by teaching about 25 to 30 percent of a full-time load, according to a 2015 university report. The average annual salary for full-time USFSP faculty was $79,496.

Greg McCreery, 39, an adjunct who teaches philosophy on the St. Petersburg and Tampa campuses, said he usually has six classes in the fall, five in the spring and one in the summer. His average annual salary? About $35,000 for a married man with two young children.

A few years ago, he said, he lost health care benefits because he came just short of the required teaching load.

“I’m a full-time teacher who has to grade and take care of students, but every semester I have to find classes to teach,” said McCreery. “There’s always a risk I won’t make enough money or have benefits. We (adjuncts) have no guarantees.”

After years of complaints, some adjuncts like McCreery are beginning to take action.

On April 20, a group representing adjuncts on the three campuses in the USF system – St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee – filed a petition to hold a union election sometime in the months ahead.

If a majority of USF adjuncts approve, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) would become their agent in seeking better pay, benefits and job security.

“Right now, adjunct faculty cannot earn job security, even after many years of dedicated service,” union organizers told USF adjuncts in an email last year.

“Pay is out of step with Florida’s cost of living, there is a ceiling on opportunities for advancement, and it is routinely unclear whether our classes will be offered in the upcoming or subsequent semesters. These working conditions are detrimental to our efforts to teach effectively, to develop as professionals, and to contribute to the intellectual life of our campus communities. Also, these conditions force some of us into poverty, unable to afford our living expenses.”

* * *   * * *   * * *

Nancy McCann | USFSP
Peter Golenbock, 70, a nationally known sports author, acknowledges that he could – and would – teach his classes on sports and American history for free. But he says the campaign to unionize adjunct teachers at USF’s three campuses is a just cause.

Around the country in recent decades, the number of adjuncts has been rising as college administrators seek to hold down costs, including student tuition and fees.

Adjuncts (not including graduate assistants and other non-tenure track employees) now make up more than 40 percent of the faculty in schools across the United States. In 1975, it was 25 percent.

Part-time faculty typically fall into four groups: Graduate students; retired academics and other professionals; people working in government and private business who like to teach on the side; and teachers striving for a career in higher education by piecing together jobs each semester, sometimes at multiple schools.

At USFSP in recent years, adjuncts have included high-profile figures like Melanie Bevan, a former assistant police chief in St. Petersburg who is now police chief in Bradenton; the late Terry Tomalin, the longtime outdoors editor at the Tampa Bay Times; and Fred Bennett, a former Tampa business executive who helped oversee a program linking the College of Education to youngsters at some of St. Petersburg’s struggling elementary schools.

They typify the group of adjuncts who teach for emotional fulfillment and the chance to give back to the community.

“Don’t tell the administration, but I could do this – and would do this – for nothing,” said Peter Golenbock, 70, a nationally known sports author and law school graduate who teaches classes about sports and American history. “These kids are wonderful, and I enjoy the hell out of it.”

But Golenbock was one of the names on a recent email urging fellow adjuncts to support the union campaign.

“Every other type of faculty (at USF) has a union, including teaching assistants,” he said in an interview. “The cause is just and I can’t imagine anyone disagrees with that.”

He said his support for the union drive “simply has to do with fairness” – adjuncts must be able to “make a living” so the best teachers can be hired.

“I’m rooting for ‘em,” said Golenbock.

But for every financially secure adjunct like Golenbock, it seems, there is an adjunct like McCreery, the philosophy teacher on the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses who is struggling to make a satisfactory income.

“Did you know that a definition of the word “adjunct” is “an inessential part of something”? he asked.

McCreery said he has no interaction with other philosophy professors, and since he must share an office on the Tampa campus with other adjuncts he can’t leave books and other material there to share with students.

“Right now, we (adjuncts) have no voice,” he said. “Everyone else at the university has union representation. It makes sense that full-time professors make higher salaries (than adjuncts), but we deserve more.”

* * *   * * *   * * *

Courtesy of Rebecca Skelton
Adjuncts “are floating out there alone,” says Rebecca Skelton, who teaches art on the St. Petersburg campus.

Some of the adjuncts around the country who struggle to make ends meet consider the growing, low-paid work force a crisis in higher education.

That has helped spur the drive to form unions – a drive that is gaining momentum.

In the last three years, adjuncts at schools like Duke, Georgetown, Tufts and the University of Chicago have joined SEIU, the union says, and adjuncts at more than 50 other schools are considering it.

The union has already had an impact on some campuses.

According to SEIU, the “median pay per course was 25 percent higher for part-time faculty that had union representation.” The union says that part-time faculty at Tufts now make at least $7,300 per course; adjunct pay at George Washington University increased 32 percent in one department with the first union contract; and Antioch adjuncts now have defined workload expectations and protected health care insurance.

In November, part-time faculty at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa voted 2 to 1 to join SEIU. The victory was announced as the first for adjuncts at a public school in the South.

Courtesy of Jeanette Abrahamsen
“There are a lot of people who want to get behind” the union drive, says Jeanette Abrahamsen, who teaches broadcast news and beginning reporting on the Tampa campus.

HCC adjuncts are now seeking a collective contract to improve pay and working conditions.

Rebecca Skelton, a USFSP adjunct who teaches art, and Jeanette Abrahamsen, an adjunct who teaches broadcast news and beginning reporting at USF Tampa, were guests this spring on WMNF’s call-in show, “Radioactivity,” to talk up the union.

Abrahamsen, 31, who has a master’s degree in digital journalism and web design from USFSP, said she had met with other adjuncts to talk about banding together.

“It helped us just to meet and talk about it because a lot of times you don’t know a lot of the other adjuncts.  We are working at different times and people are driving around to different campuses,” said Abrahamsen.  “Once we started talking about it, we realized there are a lot of people who want to get behind this.”

“We are floating out there alone,” Skelton, 64, told The Crow’s Nest.  “You can feel from some of the professors that you are not as good as full-time faculty.”

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Nancy McCann | USFSP
Adjuncts are “a great resource” who complement full-time faculty well, says College of Business chief Sridhar Sundaram.

At USFSP, the pay for adjuncts is set by the college they teach in – Arts and Sciences, Business, or Education – and the philosophy on utilizing adjuncts seems to vary from college to college and department to department.

For example, adjuncts make up about half the faculty in the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, and exact numbers can vary from semester to semester, according to Dean Sridhar Sundaram.

Because of their expertise in specialized topics outside the university, he said, adjuncts are paid $3,500 to $5,000 per course. They teach 30 percent of the credit hours in the college, he said.

USFSP business adjuncts include professionals working in government, accounting and investment firms, and health services administration.

The majority of core and introductory courses are taught by full-time faculty, while adjuncts teach electives, Sundaram said.

“The spirit of using adjuncts in my college is that we want someone who is an expert in their area,” said Sundaram.  “Adjuncts are a great resource to tap into, and they complement full-time faculty well. It would be difficult without them.”

Courtesy of Lisa Starks
Adjuncts with doctorates make more than those with master’s degrees, says Lisa Starks, chair of the Verbal and Visual Arts Department.

The portrait of an adjunct in the College of Arts and Sciences can be quite different.

In the English program, there are eight full-time faculty and 19 adjuncts, said Lisa Starks, chair of the Verbal and Visual Arts Department.

Adjuncts taught 56 percent of the classes this semester in the English program – 40 percent of the classes on campus and 81 percent online.

The adjuncts with master’s degrees make $2,500 per course per semester, said Starks. Those with doctorates make $3,000.

“It would be wonderful if we could use full-time faculty only, “said Starks. “If the budget allowed, it would be a dream come true.”

Morgan Gresham, the department’s creative writing program coordinator, said the department utilizes guidelines published by the National Council of Teachers of English for the working conditions of adjuncts.

The guidelines include making teaching appointments in a timely manner, providing office space with access to computers and telephones, and including adjuncts in faculty meetings and on committees.

“Many of our adjuncts have been here for years,” said Gresham. “I would love for them to have an opportunity to be full-time.”

One of the two full-time professors added to the department a couple of years ago was an adjunct who was “given the chance to move up,” said Starks.

Starks said she was an adjunct herself “a really long time ago,” teaching five classes in a semester when she was a graduate student. She also taught aerobics and GRE prep.

“We are doing the best we can to make the lives of our faculty and students the best for everyone,” she said.

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Although adjuncts are often described as talented and popular teachers who can bring outside experience and a love of teaching to the classroom, the cost savings may have a downside for students, at least according to one study.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a nonprofit association of academics that strives to maintain quality and preserve academic freedom in higher education, issued a report in 2016 repeating its 2003 conclusion that “the dramatic increase in part-time faculty has created ‘systemic problems for higher education’ that have … diminished student learning.”

The AAUP report says that “while many faculty members serving in part-time positions are well qualified and make extraordinary efforts to overcome their circumstances, researchers have found that having a part-time instructor decreases the likelihood that a student will take subsequent classes in a subject and that instruction by part-time faculty is negatively associated with retention and graduation.”

The report says that “every 10 percent increase in part-time faculty positions at public institutions is associated with a 2.65 percent decline in the institution’s graduation rate.”

Part of the problem, according to AAUP, is that many adjuncts are less available to students than full-time faculty are. The reasons for this include the paradox that adjuncts sometimes teach more courses than full-time faculty due to the low wages they receive per course, they are less integrated into the institution, and they do not have access to as many resources.

AAUP also mentions that adjuncts are assigned to “crowded group offices” or do not have one at all, making it more difficult to meet with students.

Courtesy of Vincent Tirelli
A glut of adjuncts diminishes the influence of full-time faculty, says Vincent Tirelli, an adjunct at City University of New York.

Vincent Tirelli, 58, an adjunct for over 25 years who teaches government and politics at the City University of New York, said “one of the most important things research has shown is that students need contact with their professors and their peers.”

Tirelli wrote his doctoral dissertation – “The Invisible Faculty Fight Back” – on what some call “precarious faculty” and was one of the founders in 1998 of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor. He said a university with a lot of adjuncts can have consequences for full-time faculty.

“In the past, the idea that our colleges and universities were governed by both the administration and the faculty was a thing – shared governance,” Tirelli wrote in an email to The Crow’s Nest. “Less and less is that the case, and with the growth in the use of part-time faculty the idea is pretty much a joke. Thus, we have the corporate university.”

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What about students – and their parents? After all, they are the consumers at USFSP.

Students sometimes do not know their class is being taught by an adjunct. Some are not even familiar with the term. But interviews suggest they do have opinions on what makes a good teacher.

Take Zack Batdorf, 22, a senior majoring in psychology. Asked if it concerns him that an instructor is not a full-time professor or does not have a doctorate, he said these things don’t matter to him.

“Certainly, for me, it’s the quality of the experience that’s important,” said Batdorf. “How can I relate to the teacher?”

Samantha Ortiz, 18, a freshman majoring in criminology, said she knows exactly what an adjunct is because an “honest and passionate” instructor last semester talked about his financial hardships and explained to her class that adjuncts like himself were “not being treated as equals.”

Ortiz said the instructor “made me think outside the box,” and although he was not available all the time, he “tried to make the most of helping his students.”

“Being a good teacher has to do with how much they involve themselves with you, not their Ph.D. or whether they work full time,” said Krista Evans, 21, a junior in mass communications. “Adjuncts deserve a shot, too.”

Nancy McCann, a graduate student in journalism and media studies, has taught as a graduate assistant and adjunct at USF Tampa and USFSP.

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Information in this article was obtained from the following reports:

“Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Economic Value of Tenure and the Security of the Profession (2015-16),” American Association of University Professors.

“Statement from the Conference on the Growing Use of Part-time and Adjunct Faculty” and “Position Statement on the Status and Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty,” National Council of Teachers of English.

“This Was Our Movement in 2016” and “SEIU Contract Highlights: The Union Difference,” Service Employees International Union.

Dr. Lauren Friedman, Director of Institutional Research, USFSP Office of Academic Affairs, provided data reported to the National Center for Education Statistics through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

He became a statistic in a struggling industry

Caitlin Ashworth | USFSP Caplan once thought of becoming an X-ray technician.
Caitlin Ashworth | USFSP
Caplan once thought of becoming an X-ray technician.

USFSP Student Reporter

LUTZ – Andrew Caplan left his office earlier this month to cover a meeting of the Pasco County School Board for the Tampa Tribune.

When he got back, both his job and his newspaper were gone.

The Tribune had been sold to its longtime rival, the Tampa Bay Times, which closed the 121-year-old paper and laid off all but a handful of its news staff.

And just like that, Caplan, 27, became a casualty in the disruption that has convulsed the American newspaper industry over the last two decades.

Florida’s newspapers have had a major impact on the history and culture of the state. The Tribune was arguably the state’s most important newspaper in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was still Florida’s second largest paper.

However, the digital age, the Great Recession and self-inflicted wounds have greatly weakened once-prosperous papers, and readers’ habits and loyalties are changing.

Around the country, newspapers are cutting back or closing, and thousands of journalists like Caplan have lost their jobs. The future of the industry is uncertain.

Caplan, who grew up in Citrus County, was well into his 20s when he decided to pursue a career in journalism.

At first, he said, he thought he might become an X-Ray technician, but quickly changed his mind.

“I realized I don’t like blood and broken bones,” he said.

As he and his father kicked around career ideas one day, Caplan said there were two things he loved to do: watch sports and talk about sports.

“If curling was on TV, I would watch it,” he said.

After mulling over potential employment options in radio, commentary and journalism, he decided to become a sports reporter.

Going to games and talking with players and coaches seemed like the ultimate fan experience, Caplan said. And you get paid to do it.

Caitlin Ashworth | USFSP At the Chronicle, he said, he learned “how to write fast and on the fly.”
Caitlin Ashworth | USFSP
At the Chronicle, he said, he learned “how to write fast and on the fly.”

As he pursued an associate degree at the College of Central Florida in Ocala and then a bachelor’s at USF St. Petersburg, Caplan supported himself as a self-employed process server, delivering subpoenas to people who were behind on their child support, mortgage, rent and credit card payments.

The pay was good and the work was usually mundane – until the day he encountered a barefoot, bearded man with booze on his breath and a gun, which he pointed at Caplan.

“It is dangerous to constantly knock on strangers’ doors day in and day out,” Caplan wrote in a column for the USFSP student newspaper.

“After the event, I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want to do for the next 20-30 years?’

“Hell, no! I want to be a sports writer.”

At the student paper, he covered university and local sports. He created and co-hosted a weekly sports show on the USF student radio station, and he covered high school football games for the Times.

But he knew he needed to broaden his resume, “to do more than just sports.”

During the 2015 spring semester, Caplan interned at Equality Florida Action, an organization focused on equal rights and security of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The ban on same-sex marriage was lifted in June 2015 and, through his internship, Caplan documented the effects it had on LGBT people.

A lesbian couple with two children tied the knot. A Sumter County clerk was honored to wed same-sex couples. And a teacher married her partner of 26 years and finally felt comfortable enough to share the news with co-workers.

Caplan said the internship gave him the opportunity to learn about things happening nationally and talk to local people whom it affected. It helped expand his breadth as a reporter and strengthened his skills as a feature writer, he said.

Over the summer of 2015, Caplan interned at his hometown paper, the Citrus County Chronicle, a daily with a circulation of 26,000, and graduated from USFSP.

The internship led to a full-time job with the paper as staff reporter on education, city government and anything else that needed covering, like a feature on actor Miles Teller, who grew up in Lecanto and frequently returns for visits.

“I learned how to write fast and on the fly,” Caplan said.

He also learned how to design pages using Adobe InDesign. On some Saturdays, he would design five or six pages for the Sunday section.

When the Tribune reached out to him about an open position in Pasco County, he jumped at the opportunity. He was hired in March.

He knew that the Tribune lagged far behind the Times in circulation and prestige, he said, but moving from a small-town daily to a big-city metro was too good to pass up.

Mainly working out of the Tribune’s office in a business park in Lutz, Caplan covered county schools, Dade City government and features for a Pasco news section that was distributed on Fridays and Sundays.

It was obvious that the Tribune was struggling. He was often the only journalist in the office, and his editor was there only once a week.

But the paper’s sudden demise was still a jolt, leaving Caplan and the paper’s other 265 employees at loose ends.

For now, Caplan is back at the Chronicle, covering his old beats. But he is only a stringer – paid per story – not a full-time staff member with salary and benefits.

He has applied to attend USFSP this fall to seek a master’s in digital journalism, which could “give me a leg up” in an industry where digital is supplanting print. He might apply for full-time jobs at other papers, might start a sports blog to get more experience.

After all, he still wants to be a sports reporter.