Larry Oakes’ last story (5×8 – 1/7/12)

A voice for vulnerable, on motivation, maybe our kids are smarter than we think, Iowa and the hostile work environment, and ice climbing in Saint Paul.


The Monday Morning Rouser:

1) A VOICE FOR THE VULNERABLE

Larry Oakes was the kind of reporter who made other reporters angry because he wrote stories in a way that the rest of us wish we had. But, truth is: Most of us couldn’t write the way he did.

His colleague says his strength as a reporter was giving a voice to the “vulnerable and marginalized.” His death offers the same opportunity.

Oakes, a reporter for the Star Tribune, checked himself into a psychiatric unit on Wednesday because he was having suicidal thoughts. He was out by Friday and walked into the woods of Duluth and shot himself to death, another apparent casualty of depression, another secret that many people didn’t know until it was too late.

The Duluth News Tribune provided a glimpse of the man:


News Tribune reporter John Myers crossed paths with Oakes many times over the past 26 years, as they often covered the same stories in the Northland. He said Oakes never lost his empathy for the people he interviewed.

“I remember the day after a horrific murder in Grand Rapids, saying goodbye to each other after a press conference at the police station, only to drive up at the exact same time to the house belonging to the family of one of the suspects. Even though we worked for different papers, it was Larry’s idea that we do our interviews together that day so the families wouldn’t be bothered twice,” Myers said. “He did his job so well, he was tenacious, but he never stopped being a good person.”

Ann Glumac, a communications consultant in Duluth, worked as a reporter at the News Tribune at the same time as Oakes. Even on the difficult cops and courts beat, Oakes had a way of connecting with his sources, Glumac said. And unlike some of her other young colleagues, Oakes didn’t bring an attitude of cynicism to the newsroom.

“He just was fun,” she said. “We had those blocks of cubicles, and what you’d see with him were those twinkly eyes peering over the cubicle. He was a wonderful, positive force in the newsroom.”

The Star Tribune, working under heavy hearts, buried its sensitively written story on page B6 yesterday. It’s a standard policy at Minnesota’s most influential news organization, one that stems from editor Nancy Barnes’ personal experience when she was 17 years old, a fact she wrote about in March 2010.


The next day, I received a phone call from the dean of students, begging me and my editors not to do that again. The suggestion of suicide is a powerful force, the dean told me. It could encourage other students who might be stressed and depressed to think of suicide as a solution to their problems. It was my first confrontation with the responsibility that comes with the power of the press, and it was a lesson that I still go back to, more than three decades later, when confronted with a story on suicide.

The power of the press is the power to influence, and we need to take great care with how we wield that influence, especially with issues of life and death.

Ever since that event, I have questioned every story about suicide, especially if it is suggested for the front page. At my student newspaper that year, we discussed guidelines for how to cover student suicides. They were remarkably similar to the ones we have today at the Star Tribune. We restrict ourselves to suicide stories that truly involve news, such as those of public figures or those that occur in highly public places or those that document significant trends. So when a reporter brought us a story on the hidden problem of suicide among the elderly, we debated for weeks how to present that story. Would we put it on the front page? How would we design it? When would we run it?

It’s highly unlikely that Larry Oakes took his own life because he got the idea from a front-page story about suicide. Much more common in cases like this is the feeling of being alone, a sense of hopelessness, that help won’t help.

Sure, some suicides can be an impulse. Others aren’t.

Star Tribune editorial page editor Scott Gillespie assessed Oakes’ loss to journalism in his column today:


Oakes leaves behind heartbroken family members, colleagues and readers across Minnesota. They should find comfort in knowing that his contributions to journalism and the state will endure.

We are all better off because Oakes had the courage to tell stories from the darker edges of our complex world.

Oakes’ courage is matched by his family’s willingness to clearly state how he died, a clear invitation to talk about suicide and depression. It’s past time we in the news media step forward with an equal measure of courage to begin talking honestly about why he died.

Related: Conductor with bipolar disorder on music and mental illness. (BBC)

2) ON MOTIVATION

Reneé Rongen of Fertile, MN., quit her corporation job and chased a dream of becoming a motivational speaker, the Fargo Forum reports. Now, she’s a motivational speaker who’s just written a book, gives 20 percent of the proceeds to domestic violence causes and 20 percent to a woman battling breast cancer.

3)MAYBE OUR KIDS ARE SMARTER THAN WE THINK

Perhaps you’ve seen those studies showing American schoolchildren are near the bottom of the rankings for math and science knowledge. But a few states — Minnesota included — jettisoned the country’s less smart states and competed in the Trends in Math and Science Study as if they were a country, instead of a state within a country.

For 4th-graders, Massachusetts finished 11th. For 8th graders, it finished 7th, while Minnesota finished 8th.

Check out this telling graphic:

tims_mn_math.jpg

And check out our eighth-graders science chops:

tims_mn_science.jpg

Jim Stergios of the Boston Globe connects the dots:


Well, given what Massachusetts has accomplished these past two decades and the little impact of federal policy, perhaps a better way of putting it is: States and localities are the only entities capable of improving student performance. States and localities bring 90 percent of the revenue pie, and states and localities are flexible and innovative enough to craft policies that matter.

The question for Massachusetts is why, if it is showing this kind of progress, it would want to tether itself to national and federal efforts like the Common Core standards, tests, and curricular materials. Why the best state in the US would resign itself to being like all the rest of the states is truly a difficult policy decision to explain.

Here’s the full report for math. And here’s the one for science.

4) IOWA AND THE HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT

Someone in Iowa thinks it’s not a bad idea to have prisoners watching movies that make them sexually violent. The Associated Press says murderers, sexual predators and other men housed at a unit for mentally ill inmates at the maximum-security state prison in Fort Madison were allowed to watch movies such as “Deranged,” a horror film that includes a scene in which a woman is beaten, raped, hung upside down and skinned.

But the story is what happened to a woman who tried to stop such an obviously bad idea. Kristine Sink defied orders from administrators not to turn off the movies or shows. Her bosses accused her of insubordination, suggested her clothing was more responsible, and let prisoners know who complained about what they were watching.

Related: Cat arrested at Brazil prison (BBC)

5) EMBRACING WINTER: ICE CLIMBING

There can’t be many parks in American cities where people can ice climb in the winter.

Ice Climbing In Saint Paul Parks from St. Paul Ofc. of Communications on Vimeo.

Bonus I: The Greatest Conversations To Ever Happen On Twitter Between Real Astronauts And The Cast of Star Trek (Cyberbuzz)

Bonus II: A game-changing invention. A bicycle horn that sounds like a car’s horn. (Wired.com)

Bonus III: What if you thought the earth was flat? And then you found out it isn’t? (h/t: Brian Hanf)

TODAY’S QUESTION

The new Congress includes an unprecedented number of women. Twenty women now serve in the Senate, and 81 serve in the House. Today’s Question: How might the record number of women in Congress affect the conduct of government?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: What kind of president will Obama be in his second term?

Second hour: In his new book, Faitheist, religion scholar Chris Stedman draws on his own unique religious experiences and academic studies to explain why it’s necessary to bridge the growing divide between atheists and religious adherents.

Third hour: What drives humans to explore? Is there something in our genes that can explain it?

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): A program from the Aspen Ideas Festival about the ways technology might transform the college learning experience.

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – The consequences of a short term farm bill fix.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - To kiss and tell is not new for teenagers. But with camera phones and social

media, they can show and tell their sexual exploits to nearly anyone. These have become powerful tools for bragging, and for shaming. NPR looks at teens, technology and the new scarlet letter.

Minnesota’s moribund recycling rates are likely to be a target of new laws as the Legislature begins a new session. Minnesota was an early leader in recycling, but in 2008 the recycling rate flattened out at 41 percent of waste discarded, and that rate has even started to decline in the last couple of years. Recycling is not only better for the environment; it’s an integral part of a growing economic engine in the state, and experts say we’re throwing away resources that those businesses need. MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill will have the story.

  • jon

    #3:

    Both of my sisters and my mother were teachers.

    Being of course a former public school student myself I’ve known many teachers.

    All of them that I’ve had the opportunity to discuss education policy with have very similar things to say…

    Usually it comes down to two points:

    1) Local Control. The more you tie the hands of teachers the less they can actually teach, give them the power to to teach. Give administrators in a school the power to administrate. Sure bringing a knife into school in an inner city school is likely a bad thing. Doing the same in a rural school isn’t necessarily the same (people in rural area often carry pocket knives, as tools, not weapons) but since we legislate these rules so high up that we can’t see the localities we effect they both result in the same punishment.

    Lets leverage the strength of 50 states, and 100’s of thousands of school districts to innovate, and share what works, and what doesn’t, and hopefully lift every one up by implementing good practices and removing the bad. What works in MN might not work in AL or MS…

    2) Give Teachers Money. This isn’t a cry of higher pay, while most of the teachers I know wouldn’t mind being paid more, many of them would rather just have a budget for supplies… Many of the teachers I know say they dip into their own financials to get supplies for students, for their classroom, etc. All of them have said that a lack of good supplies has been an issue.

    To me this sounds like an issue that could be helped by the economies of scale of public schools. This is one area where local control and purchasing power of a collective need to be weighed. If all the schools in MN purchased the same books through the same vendor, they should be able to leverage their buying power to get a decent deal on these things… If we setup an exchange for schools to post their no longer needed supplies, and other schools could purchase them if they were needed there, and at the same time allow vendors in there… give the teachers budgets to use on this exchange, and again leverage the buying power of all of these teachers to get the deals…

    I compare what I feel needs to happen with our public schools much to what is presently happening in the health care industry. Hospitals are joining together to create buying groups to leverage their buying power to get better contracts on just about everything. These contracts don’t bind the hospitals to one supplier (on the contrary many of them open up new suppliers that weren’t available before because of cost) it doesn’t tell the doctors what they need to do with their patients (well maybe to a small extent, but not with rigid guidelines on exactly the process for diagnosing and treatments that will be given) it leverages the fact that these hospitals are all buying the same things, so lets get them in bulk and get the best value…

    p.s. I don’t know if it’s still true, but 10 (or so) years back when you looked at american public education the US was second to none for our post secondary (college and up) education… We were also second to none on the cost for college… there is conception that we in america are dumb, and our education system is fatally flawed, the reality is that our education system is over managed, and under funded. When we look at education systems that are more adequately funded and more adequately managed (post secondary) The numbers skyrocket. Give our schools money, give our teachers control over their classrooms, and let the people who we’ve trained to do this job do it, rather then elected officials who are often trained as lawyers not educators.

  • Jim Gust

    #1 Larry Oaks’ stories were memorable as they exhibted poverty’s cost in our north woods region. I’m deepily saddened by his death. I will never get accustomed to the tragedy of another life lost to depression and easy access to a gun by a depressed person.

    #3 We have one of the best public school systems in the nation because we have some of the best teachers in the nation practicing in this state. It would make sense that other states look to Minnesota and Mass. for their examples of best practices.

  • Christin

    #3 We also have one of the largest acheivement gaps in the nation; our overall scores look great but we are failing our children of color. So how do we finad a solution to grant all students the opportunity to experience this kind of acheivement and success?

  • Jim Gust

    #3 For all students, the earlier children are exposed to an enriched preschool curriculum the higher their word recognition, reading, and math skills become. The richest college educated parents know this and they compete for space in private pre-schools. All kids whether they be poor, middle class, or rich kids get better when they start formal schooling earlier than Kindergarten. They also need trained, better than average teachers. Great teachers are not born, they are taught to be competent with good training and support from our state colleges and staff development training once they are employed as teachers. If you empower and support the continuing education of better than average teachers, some of these will become great teachers. These master teachers are the ones who can effect change in the long term. This effort costs money, but it’s less money than housing the failed students who populate our growing prison populations.

  • Susan Lauritsen

    I don’t know anyone that has entered a hospital for suicidal ideation and was released two days later. No one gets over those thoughts that soon. I believe his Dr. was in great error releasing him at that time, unless he was AMA.

    I’m sure he felt very close to the Earth being in the woods and probably felt at peace there.

    My condolences to his family and friends.

  • Bob Collins

    I can tell you of many cases in which an adult checks into a mental health unit, spends 24 hours inside, never sees a doctor, and is released the next day with a $4,000 bill.

  • http://www.TwoPuttTommy.com Tommy Johnson

    “…and is released the next day with a $4,000 bill.”

    Ain’t for-profit healthcare just swell?

    Sincerely,

    Bill Frist

  • http://www.greatdiv.com Charlie Quimby

    My dad’s suicide was top of the front page in his community. I recall going out for a run and seeing his face in the driveways I passed. Going public and being public was the right choice in that case. While there’s pain with publicity in any suicide, it can’t compare to the act itself.

    Larry’s death is part of an epidemic that dwarfs the Sandy Hook killings and the out-of-proportion response to preventing school violence.

    As a society we really should focus at the intersection of access to mental health care and access to guns. About 19,000 Americans use a gun to kill themselves each year, well over twice the total number of murders with firearms.

    Publishing information about another suicide is at least as likely to prompt people to seek help, or for families to become more aware of the risk to a troubled member.

    Ironically, it’s suppressing information about gun ownership that can hamper efforts to help those in crisis.