11 Journalism Alumni Headline ‘Words Matter’ Writing Conference at the School

Sports and Magazine Writing, Reporting Techniques and More Will Be Covered in Week-Long Conference

By Ashley Szatala

Columbia, Mo. (April 12, 2016) — Eleven Missouri School of Journalism award-winning alumni will return to campus April 11-15 to lecture on various topics including sports, magazine writing, reporting techniques and personal paths that have led to writing success. This event is open to members of the public, as well University of Missouri faculty, staff and students.

Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference
The April 11-15 “Words Matter” conference will feature (from top, left to right) Mary Kay Blakely, Amanda Dahling, Angela Busch Denker, Shane Epping, Walt Harrington, Robert Langellier, Mary McNamara, Lois Raimondo, Sara Shahriari, Wright Thompson, Michaella Thornton, Steve Weinberg and Seth Wickersham.

Six years in the making, the book and the writing conference by the same name – “Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference” – began when faculty member Mary Kay Blakely talked with former journalism students about collecting some of their best work to create a book that would circulate much longer than magazines and newspapers. Their enthusiasm was contagious. They loved the idea of being “between the same two covers” (very briefly, their first choice for the book’s title), and loved the possibility of returning to campus for a reunion, Blakely said.

“Took a long time, but these wishes all came true,” she said. “Fortunately, I’ve had a tremendous amount of help from colleagues and student assistants.”

The book upon which this conference is named, “Words Matter,” features articles written by each of the speakers. Copies will be available for purchase at the conference as well as from national book sellers.

The schedule of events includes:

Monday, April 11, 6:30-8 p.m., Jesse Auditorium
It’s On Us – Keeping Athletic Aggression on Sports Fields and Out of Domestic Relationships

Two ESPN senior writers, Wright Thompson and Seth Wickersham, have consistently used sports writing to raise public consciousness about social issues in the news—head injuries, brain damage, drug use, sexuality, violence, racism. The Missouri School of Journalism and Women and Gender Studies are co-sponsoring the opening discussion about sports and domestic violence because fans care, athletes care and the news media care. Along with award-winning sportswriter Angela Busch Denker, they’ll discuss how sports figures influence society in both positive and negative ways.

About the Speakers

  • Angela Busch Denker, BJ ’06. Denker specializes in sports and divinity writing. She has written sports articles for Sports Illustrated, Columbia Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Naples Daily News in Florida. She graduated in 2013 from Luther Seminary with a Master’s in Divinity degree. Since graduating, she has served as a pastor and writes for Overwhelming Jesus, Sojourners and Red Letter Christians. She is an advocate for women serving in male-dominated professions and strives to bring a Gospel-based perspective to current events, sports and pop culture.
  • Wright Thompson, BJ ’01. Thompson specializes in sports reporting. Upon graduating from MU, he started working at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where he became the Louisiana State University beat writer, and then later he wrote for the Kansas City Star. In 2006 he became a staff writer for ESPN and ESPN the Magazine. His “Ghosts of Mississippi” article about the 1962 football team’s perfect season and the violent reaction to integration that followed became a 30-for-30 series documentary film. He continues writing for ESPN on everything from football and soccer to auto-racing and cricket.
  • Seth Wickersham, BJ ’00. Wickersham has written for ESPN The Magazine since graduating from MU. His work has been anthologized in “The Best American Sportswriting” and in “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” He’s part of a staff at ESPN that twice won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.

Tuesday, April 12, 6:30-8 p.m., Fisher Auditorium
Life Stories and Career Paths of Successful Writers

Michaella Thornton, Shane Epping and Robert Langellier have published work in prominent national and/or international publications. When did they make the decision to become writers and/or photographers, and how did they know? What were the most important experiences that prepared them for success? Panelists will share the story of their careers, important breakthroughs, mentors who were helpful, roadblocks they encountered and how they established their bylines with audiences. They’ll offer tips/tricks for succeeding as freelancers and navigating publisher networks. Presentations will be followed by a Q&A with the audience.

About the Speakers

  • Shane Epping, MA ’08. Epping has a passion for photography. He works as a photographer, writer and adjunct Missouri School of Journalism faculty member for the past seven years. His photos have been published in ESPN/ABC, CBS Sports, AP, Fox Sports, Huffington Post, NFL.com, NBC Nightly News and Runner’s World.
  • Robert Langellier, BJ ’14. Langellier regularly writes features for Esquire Online. He has freelanced for the Kansas City Star, Belt and Vox Magazine. He recently took a yearlong journey on the road as a long-haul trucker. Langellier is in the process of moving to Europe to hitchhike around the country and study permaculture.
  • Michaella Thornton, BJ ’00. Thornton has served as a nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review; her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; National Public Radio; Sauce Magazine; Tucson Weekly; and elsewhere. Her experiences teaching and living in the rural South changed her life’s work and deepened her understanding of social inequalities and the challenges inherent in short-term educational reform. She received a Master in Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona in 2006. As the first woman in her family to earn an advanced degree (and as a second-generation college graduate), she is committed to empowering the students she teaches at St. Louis Community College to find their voices and stories.

Wednesday, April 13, 10-10:50 a.m., 103 Schlundt (Limited Seating)
How to Get Started in National Women’s Magazines

The MU Textile and Apparel Management Department of Health and Environmental Science is hosting a program on how to write stories for national women’s magazines. How should previously unpublished writers decide which magazines to approach? How do new writers determine what topics are most likely to interest editors, how to pitch stories in query letters, follow up and negotiate contracts. The panel will address pitching “how-to” articles and avoiding “listicles” (stories that are mainly glorified “lists”).


  • “Words Matter” co-editors Amanda Dahling and Mary Kay Blakely.

Wednesday, April 13, 5-6:30 p.m., Ellis Library Auditorium
Freelance Writing: When Can You Quit the Day Job?

Given the difficulties of landing a full time writing job and living on a freelancer’s income, writers Sara Shahriari, Robert Langellier and writer/photographer Shane Epping reveal how they acquired more assignments, solid relationships with editors and publishers, established networks and negotiated contracts. When is it time to look for a literary agent, and how do you find one? Do writers encounter PTSD after researching, photographing and writing about traumatic issues and events? An audience Q&A follows the presentations.

About the Speakers

  • Sara Shahriari, MA ’09. Shahriari is an associate producer for KBIA-FM in Columbia, and she formerly worked as a print and radio journalist based in Bolivia. Her reporting often focuses on social justice, politics and the environment, and her stories are regularly published in the Christian Science Monitor and the Guardian, among others. Before beginning her career as a journalist Sara worked in legal aid, wrote for magazines for children, and taught English in the Marshall Islands and Ecuador.
  • Shane Epping and Robert Langellier: See previous bios.

Thursday, April 14, 5-6 p.m., Arts and Sciences Auditorium
Can Writing Be Taught, or Do Writers Have to Be ‘Born?’

“Words Matter” contributors Lois Raimondo, Shane Epping, Sara Shahriari and Mary Kay Blakely have taught writing to high school, undergraduate and graduate students. What are the most effective ways to help students improve their work? What are the most important experiences for writers to advance their skills? Are there any practices in writing classes that are actually harmful to emerging talents? What specific lessons should be covered in class? Outside the classroom? Writing students and teachers are encouraged to bring their questions and experiences to this discussion.

About the Speakers

  • Lois Raimondo, BJ ’88. Raimondo moved to Tibet under martial law upon graduating from MU and then stayed in Asia for two years while she reported for magazines in China, India, Vietnam and Thailand. When Raimondo returned to the United States, she began working with the Washington Post to report on conflicts in the Middle East. Her front-line reporting from the war in Afghanistan was recognized with the Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting. Raimondo is currently writing a set of essays based on her time living between the lines in Asia. In 2005, Raimondo was the recipient of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship and spent a year in Pakistan working on stories related to women’s jails and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Mary Kay Blakely, Shane Epping and Sara Shahriari: See previous bios.

Thursday, April 14, 5:30-7 p.m., Middlebush Auditorium
Getting the ‘Unspoken’ on Record

Good interviews lead to great stories. Professional journalists Walt Harrington, Mary McNamara, Michaella Thornton and Steve Weinberg have experience in preparing good interviews, and will share what constitutes a “great question” and what they now identify as “useless questions.” Since one of the major obligations of good journalism is providing a voice to the “silent majority,” what difficulties have they had writing about unseen and unheard minority populations? How do they find reliable sources? When is it necessary to reveal names and identities, when is it appropriate to withhold them, and when can sources be “disguised” without violating ethics? When a story is “killed” after interview subjects have invested a lot of time, what obligations and courtesies do writers owe them? Questions from the audience will follow the presentations.

About the Speakers

  • Walt Harrington, MA ’75. Harrington was a long-time staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, where he wrote numerous profiles of notable people, such as Carl Bernstein, and he wrote in-depth stories of ordinary people. His work has garnered numerous awards. His book, “The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family,” became an Emmy-winning PBS documentary film. His book, “Crossings: A White Man’s Journey into Black America,” won the Gustavus Myers Award for the Study of Human Rights in the U.S. and was declared a “vital” book on race in America by The New York Times. He is the author or editor of seven other nonfiction books, including “Acts of Creation,” “Next Wave,” “American Profiles,” “At the Heart of It,” “The Beholder’s Eye” and “Intimate Journalism.” He is a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches literary feature writing.
  • Mary McNamara, BJ ’85. McNamara is a television critic and senior culture editor for the Los Angeles Times. A Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism in 2015, she’s a two-time Pulitzer finalist (2013 and 2014), and has won various awards for criticism and feature writing. She is the author of the Hollywood mysteries “Oscar Season” and “The Starlet.”
  • Michaella Thornton: See previous bio.
  • Steve Weinberg, BJ ’70, MA ’75. Weinberg is a journalism professor emeritus and author of “The Reporter’s Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide to Documents and Techniques.” Weinberg was the first director of the Investigative Reporting and Editors program on campus and continues to invest in its longstanding success.

Thursday, April 14, 6:30-8 p.m., Fisher Auditorium
Multimedia Storytelling

Journalists Lois Raimondo, Shane Epping and Sara Shahriari will discuss how they’ve learned when to write, when to photograph, when to tape record, and when to do it all – a frequent expectation in the digital age. Is it possible for one person to be skillful in all venues? Is it preferable – or even possible – to work in teams today? How do writers, videographers and photographers find each other? Who makes their joint decisions…and who holds copyright? Writers who have lived and worked abroad must also learn to speak and communicate in at least two cultures: the one they grew up in and the one they’re visiting. Returning home, how do writers re-acclimate to their original culture? A Q&A will follow the presentations.

About the Speakers

  • Shane Epping, Lois Raimondo and Sara Shahriari: See previous bios.

Friday, April 15, 9-11 a.m., Jesse Wrench Auditorium
What Helps You Write?

The Campus Writing Program is inviting high school students and writing teachers from across Missouri to campus to discuss with Walt Harrington, Mary McNamara, Michaella Thornton, Lois Raimondo and Mary Kay Blakely what they have learned from their writing experiences. As both freelance and staff writers, often working on deadline, they’ve written essays, criticism, memoir, creative nonfiction and fiction for the last quarter century. What helps them write? Have they experienced writer’s block and, if so, how do they overcome it? What motivates them to begin new projects? What are the joys and challenges of being a writer? What experiences in and out of school helped launch their careers? What tips and tricks can they share about getting published?

About the Speakers

  • Mary Kay Blakely, Walt Harrington, Mary McNamara, Lois Raimondo and Michaella Thornton: See previous bios.

Support provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Visiting Professionals, established in 1990 at the Missouri School of Journalism by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

Updated: September 24, 2020

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