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Lexie Little (JEM ’18) Places in Hearst Awards for Clarence Brown Story

Alumna Lexie Little (JEM ’18) placed sixth nationally in the Personality/Profile Writing Competition in the 2019-20 William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program. 

Her award-winning feature article, “A Roustabout Career: The Forgotten Celebrity of Clarence Brown,” started as a class assignment but eventually appeared in the Torchbearer, the University of Tennessee’s alumni magazine. 

Little is now pursuing her Master’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She recently started work on her thesis project, which explores shifts in the collective memory of the Civil War through studying newspaper coverage of Confederacy statue dedications in the 1890s and 1920s. 

What led you to write about Clarence Brown? What did you know about him going into the story? 

At the root of it, Trivial Pursuit led me to write about Clarence Brown. I know that sounds strange, but I hope it will make sense with some explanation. This story-behind-the-story actually stands as a wild manifestation of the campus phrase “Vols help Vols.” 

My mom, also a CCI alumna, is a trivia buff who loves Trivial Pursuit, which was co-invented by CCI alumnus Scott Abbott (MS/C&I ’78). As a result, I cut my teeth on pop culture, history and various other related subjects. To this day, my friends know not to call me at 7:30 p.m. because it’s the time slot for “Jeopardy!” Movies and music kind of became my niche branches of knowledge as my parents and grandparents introduced me to a wide array of films and artists. I retain an arsenal of little random facts like how Lucille Ball once emerged as a contender to play Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” It’s almost like a parlor trick; give me two actors’ names, and I can take you through six degrees of separation to connect them. 

Anyway, University of Tennessee trivia also existed in my life, as I spent nearly every Saturday in the fall on campus as a kid. Both of my parents graduated from Tennessee, so I haven’t missed a Homecoming game in 20 years. My knowledge of Clarence Brown arose during visits to campus, passing by the theatre well before I realized its namesake shaped much of Hollywood in the early 1930s. I just knew he was an alumnus. 

When I became a UT student, movies served as a means to unwind during breaks. Joan Crawford is one of my favorite actresses, both for her talent and her outrageous life story, and I watched several of her films my sophomore year. The title credits for “Possessed,” “Sadie McKee” and “Chained” flashed the same wording: “Joan Crawford in Clarence Brown’s [Title].” Well, go Vols. I googled his name and found the Academy Awards write-up listing some of his films, then filed that tidbit under “more random UT facts for small talk at college events.”

Fast forward, and I’m a senior in need of a final pitch for Feature Writing. I could not think of one, single, solitary idea. Potential stories had floated around in my head for three and a half years, but none of them seemed like a good fit. Walking up Volunteer Boulevard with fellow JEM alumna Abby Bower (JEM ’19) after class one day, I (probably dramatically) detailed my dilemma, and she stopped when we got to Ped Walkway, looking toward the theatre. Abby knew of my interest in Tennessee history and culture. She turned to me and said, “Why don’t you write about Clarence Brown? That sounds like a cool idea.”

Remind me to thank her after this. 

When you think about “traditional” journalism, it involves a lot of interviews, but that certainly wasn’t the case with this feature since Brown passed away more than 30 years ago. What was the process like to research and assemble the story?

I love this question. My former professors who read this Q&A will probably chuckle at this point because they’d be the first to tell you I always preferred less conventional styles of reporting and writing. 

Journalism manifests through myriad modes, and many stories rely on creative research gathering techniques to tell a complete, compelling human story. All journalists rely on a mix of stored sources (like archival materials, books, the web, etc.) and human sources (interviews, firsthand observation, etc.) to seek information. We’re not simply limited to the living and current affairs. Voices from the past coexist with and influence the present, so I enjoy telling stories that connect people in cultural contexts.

In this case, I obviously had to rely heavily on stored sources. Many newspapers and magazines across the country archive their issues, so I gathered quotes and status details from old issues of the Los Angeles Times and Variety available online from the 1940s on. Special Collections at Hodges Library on campus also has an entire collection dedicated to Clarence Brown with old photos, movie posters and personal effects, so I perused materials there to find information about Brown’s life in Knoxville. Lastly, though Brown isn’t alive, his biographers are, and Gwenda Young’s insights played a key role in exploring his legacy. 

As far as assembling and writing the story, narrative structure made the most sense in presenting a profile of Brown’s life, which, of course, had a beginning, middle and end. But, again, I like to buck traditional forms, so I crafted sort of a delayed lead, opening paragraphs intended to draw in the reader before disclosing the main purpose of the article. I wanted to play with the cinematic theme and the movie title, “Possessed.” I’m a firm believer that nonfiction forms don’t have to be dull, and I think structure plays an integral part in writing engaging stories.

I heard this started as a class project? Now it’s been in the Torchbearer and honored by a national journalism foundation and seen by way more people. Did you see this story having this much reach?

Yes, the piece originated as a final project for JEM 414 Feature Writing. To tell the truth, I actually did expect it might reach a fairly wide audience. I owe that expectation largely to the course instructor, Lisa Gary, who encouraged us to write our pieces with an outlet and an audience in mind to help us publish and build portfolios. This piece fit like a glove for Torchbearer, not only because the story centers around a prominent UT alumnus, but because the university’s impending 225th anniversary prompted a push for historical writeups. Perfect timing. I’m certainly indebted to Torchbearer editor Cassandra Sproles for accepting the pitch. 

I’m also grateful to Professor Gary for her feedback and support, particularly for seeing the piece’s potential on a national stage. I criticize my own work to the nth degree, nitpicking every little detail, and seldom am I pleased with the outcome. The Hearst Award rendered me rather speechless, and I’m truly honored by this recognition from one of the most prestigious names in journalism. As much as I am elated for this acknowledgement of my skills, I am also glad for the program in which they were developed. 

The JEM faculty continually elevate the quality of and opportunities for student journalism, and they constantly work to build a program through which students and alumni grow and thrive professionally and personally. I can’t even begin to describe how much their words of encouragement, commiserations, advice and cordial dialogues mean to me. I grin like an absolute fool when I see their names appear on incoming correspondence now. So, to the faculty who might read this, thank you for actively supporting me and fellow alumni while teaching, advising, researching, publishing and performing service duties, not to mention responsibilities beyond the university. I hope we bring you more national acclaim.

What led you to continue your education with a master’s degree? What specifically are you studying at UGA?

As I followed the Journalism & Electronic Media major sequence at UT, I found myself interested not just in how to tell and edit stories, but in what ramifications, professional norms and cultural practices reflect in journalism and media. Journalism, as is often quoted, exists as the “first draft of history.” History helps us to explore our values and beliefs as a society, and the prospect of studying journalism’s role in shaping how we view and construct our world intrigued me. With rampant disinformation campaigns post-2016 and festering mistrust of media, media literacy proves more crucial by the minute. With every crack of mistrust in the Fourth Estate’s walls, with every indictment against veracity, the press and its history remain crucial to shaping cultural and political landscapes.

In Dr. Amber Roessner’s literary journalism course during my penultimate semester, I had the opportunity to both try my hand at the longform craft and study its historical development and cultural ties. Our discussions prompted me to think critically not only about reporting techniques and writing, but how that reporting serves as a cultural prism that can both reflect and refract images of people and events. In addition to a 4,000-word longform piece, Dr. Roessner assigned several essays to examine pieces by the likes of John Dos Passos, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Tom Junod. I took cues from their work to develop my skills as a writer, but I also held their work against various contexts to see how journalism shapes culture, and vice versa. Dr. Roessner saw my potential both as a writer and a scholar, and she became one of the fiercest advocates for my work and growth. As her research areas align with my interests, I expressed to her that I wanted to pursue longform journalism and scholarship professionally, and she has made every effort to connect me with opportunities and bolster me on my journey. With her guidance and encouragement from my other professors, I decided to go for it.

At UGA, I am earning my master’s in Journalism & Mass Communication with a journalism concentration to further develop my skills as a feature writer and pursue cultural media history scholarship. I recently finished a critical writing course with journalism professor Valerie Boyd, who also directs the narrative nonfiction program, to continue my professional development while I also studied qualitative research methods and public opinion. My professor for the latter, Dr. Ivanka Pjesivac, is also a CCI alumna, so it was neat to work with her. And the first week of May, I commenced my thesis research, which explores how newspapers covered the unveilings and dedications of Confederate monuments in the 1890s and 1920s. The analysis will cover more than 250 articles printed in seven different newspapers to explore shifts in collective memory of the Civil War as the nation worked to reunify and Jim Crow law took hold.

What have been the biggest takeaways from the Journalism and Electronic Media program that have helped you as a journalism and master’s student?

Gosh. Where do I start?

We tell stories about people. We tell stories that affect people. We tell stories as people. And we tell stories that might be researched by people. That’s a huge responsibility, and through JEM, I discovered how to assume that responsibility as a journalist and critical thinker. Journalists and students must develop wide curiosity – an appetite for information – and adopt healthy skepticism to seek the truth and report it. I learned to pay attention to detail and context to add as much depth as possible to storytelling. And I learned to both listen to and care about the people and communities in my stories. Everyone has a story to tell, and they simply want someone to listen. The best stories come from the most unexpected places, so it’s critical to always pay attention, ask questions, be flexible and respect the people you encounter. There’s always something to learn and something to teach in turn.

Practice also remains key. My time as a deejay at WUTK and as a reporter and Editor-in-Chief at the Tennessee Journalist (TNJN.com) helped me to build my professional portfolio that led to a job within two weeks of graduation and to my current roles as a sports columnist and graduate assistant for the Georgia Scholastic Press Association. As a student, you have the ability to explore various communication platforms and methods, all of which journalists and researchers need with current competing technologies. Practical experience serves great purpose to hone areas of strength while targeting weaknesses. Taking time to practice and ask constructive questions while you have mentors and advisors ready and willing to help makes all the difference in elevating work. Also, being humble enough to make mistakes and learn from them is important to development, particularly in a field where even the littlest mistake needs correction. 

Lastly, the most crucial takeaway for me has been to stay passionate and find the people who support that passion. I’ve been so fortunate in that I enjoy what I do, and I have a host of family, friends, colleagues and professors at two institutions rooting for me. Journalism and academia both remain competitive fields that require a lot of time and energy, but those who work the hardest – with the most passion and respect for what they do – typically see the most success, especially with support from others who care.

What are your career goals?

After I graduated from UT, I wrote feature profiles and edited stories for a magazine in Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia. With that experience and development since, I intend to return to writing and editing after I finish my master’s degree, hopefully for a mid-major or major publication. However, as Editor-in-Chief at TNJN, I developed a passion for teaching as I mentored younger students and editors working on the website. With research interests in mass communication and a desire to teach the next generation to report accurately and independently, I ultimately see myself returning to the academy down the line as a PhD student and instructor/professor. Once bitten by the research and teaching bugs, it’s hard to find another remedy. Regardless, I look forward to the journey ahead, no matter how it unfolds.