Butch Ward

Since joining Poynter in 2005, Butch has had the chance to share with hundreds of journalists the wisdom he first heard from a Wharton professor back in 1994 -- when most newsrooms hadn't heard of the Web. "From this day on," the professor told the seminar on managing change, "you will find nothing in your professional lives but white water." Helping journalists cope -- maybe even thrive -- in times of constant change has become the common aspiration of Butch's seminars.


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Leaders change lives, thanks Jim Mutscheller

JimMutscheller-300It was April of 1973, and I was about to spend my last summer as a college student water-proofing basements.

An English major about to enter my senior year, I only recently had decided I might like to work for a newspaper, but my applications for internships at Baltimore’s dailies – the Sunpapers and The News American – had been rejected.

A summer of digging in wet basements awaited.

Then I took a ride on an elevator with the former pro football player.

Jim Mutscheller had just spoken at a Notre Dame Club of Maryland luncheon at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. A graduate of ND in 1952, he had gone on to play tight end for the Baltimore Colts—and Number 84 had become a hero on my team of boyhood heroes.

He introduced himself to me following lunch as we were waiting for the Down elevator. Once on board, Jim asked what I planned to do with my summer. Read more

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Here’s what journalists miss when they don’t leave the office

Today let us pay tribute to reporters who, in their quest for a good daily story, boldly defy the Production gods and do the unthinkable: Hang up the telephone and leave the office.

Granted, doing a “phoner” often seems like the only recourse when your responsibilities for the day include preparing a story (or two or more) for multiple platforms, posting to social media, and any number of other special projects.

But rare is the story done by phone that successfully transports the viewer or reader to that place where they actually can experience something.

Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Relief.

The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.

It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when Doreen Carvajal, a reporter based in Paris for the New York Times, received an email from the city of Paris. Read more

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A daily story about a car theft that reminds us why journalism matters

The past few weeks have not been much of an upper for those tracking the health of the news business. More layoffs. New (and increasingly meager) buyouts. And the downsizing strategy that promises to grow ever more popular back at Corporate:

All staffers must reapply for their jobs.

Only the delusional suggest this is a cycle from which we will emerge. Increasingly, editors know this is their reality:

I have fewer people this year than last, and I’ll have fewer still next year.

I remember feeling like this about 15 years ago when my newsroom in Philadelphia was in the midst of its latest “right-sizing.” Looking for a way to recharge my batteries, I asked 12 of my colleagues to join me for lunch and bring stories that reminded them why they did journalism. It was great. We laughed, we cried, and we left the room a bit more aware that what we did mattered. Read more

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A call for really good daily stories

Daily news concept.Earlier this month I offered some ideas for how journalists can produce better daily stories.

The need is obvious. Thanks to the production demands confronting understaffed newsrooms, reporters and editors are increasingly favoring stories that can be done in a day (or less.)

But that doesn’t mean those stories need to be thin, predictable or boring. They don’t have to be kiss-offs.

Daily stories can be good stories. Sometimes, they can be great stories.

I’d like you to send me a daily story that you’re proud of.

Send me a daily story that you took beyond the routine. Maybe you elevated a straightforward assignment with a great interview, a vivid scene or strong character development. Maybe you offered your audience thoughtful analysis of an important issue. Maybe you told you story from an unusual point of view. Maybe you effectively used multimedia.

The only requirement is that you reported, wrote and produced the story in one day. Read more

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Three ways to serve up better dailies

Back when I was doing my communications gig for Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, I received a phone call one morning from a reporter who was playing catch-up on a new state insurance regulation.

“I’ll be happy to explain it to you,” I said, “but be patient. It’s a little involved.”

About two minutes into my explanation, the reporter interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s way too complicated. I’ll get something else for tomorrow.”

Another story falls victim to media bias.

No, not the liberal political bias that journalists so often are accused of having. This was another, perhaps more disturbing bias. It’s called:Production Bias.

Simply defined, Production Bias holds that if a story can’t be done in a day, we won’t do it.

I first heard the concept of Production Bias in 2001 when I was working with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, authors of The Elements of Journalism, and they were developing a newsroom curriculum based on the book. Read more

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Journalists are losing access, but the public still expects the story

Update: FIU provides credential for Miami Herald’s beat reporter

After denying access to Miami Herald beat writer David J. Neal for the football team’s opening game last Saturday, Florida International University has decided to credential him for the remainder of the season, according to Paul Dodson, the school’s assistant athletic director for media relations.

This weekend, Florida International University opened its 2014 football season at home in Miami against Bethune-Cookman University. The game was close, ending when FIU fumbled a field goal attempt that would have won the game as time ran out.

Pretty good game, I’m guessing. But I’m only going on the six paragraphs that ran on the Miami Herald’s website under a byline: “From Miami Herald Wire Services.”

The Herald decided not to cover the game. Why?

Because FIU refused to give a press pass to the Herald’s FIU beat reporter, David J. Neal.

In a statement issued Saturday and placed atop the Herald’s original story on the flap, FIU said:

“We did not issue a media credential to the Herald’s beat reporter because of concerns we have brought up to the Herald’s reporter and editors over the past few years about the reporter’s interactions with our student athletes, coaches, and staff and the nature of the resulting coverage.”

“As far as we can tell,” Managing Editor Rick Hirsch said in the Herald’ story, “David has done a diligent, thorough job of reporting on the Golden Panthers. Read more

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Ziggin’ and zoomin’: Find yourself some metaphors for leadership success

My nearly two decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer had barely begun when I first heard the phrase that, in many ways, expressed both the newsroom’s strategy—and its essence:

Zig when everyone else zags.

The idea was simple. Don’t cover the story as everyone else is covering it; find an angle that helps the reader or viewer experience the story in an entirely different way.

(One of my favorite zigs is a story by education reporter Linda Lutton at WBEZ in Chicago. During the height of that city’s gun violence in 2012, when journalists were doing thousands of stories on the victims, the shooters and police efforts to stop the bloodshed, Linda attended a teenager’s funeral with the principal of a high school that had seen 27 of its current or former students shot—in just one year. Her story inspired a two-part series of This American Life.)

For us at the Inquirer, editor Gene Roberts’ “zig” mantra was everything you want your leader’s communication to be: clear, actionable, inspiring. Read more

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Got writer’s block? 14 writers share how they fight the blank screen

A few weeks ago I wrote about my bout with writer’s block, and how I needed a good “slap” to get over it. That got me thinking: how do other writers get over those moments (or hours) when the blank screen is so imposing?
So I asked for advice from some very good writers whose work appears in print, broadcast and online.

You’ll see that in addition to sharing a gift, they also share an understanding that writing well is the product of discipline and hard work.

I hope their advice helps you the next time the words won’t come. Most of all, I hope they inspire you to write.

Steve Hartman, Correspondent, CBS News

Butch sent me an email asking me to share my thoughts about writer’s block.  His email sat in my inbox for a while. I didn’t know what to say. That is how common writer’s block is for me. Read more

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Brady: Local coverage should involve communities – and help them improve

In the weeks after Jim Brady announced plans to launch brother.ly, a local news web site in Philadelphia, he and Poynter’s Butch Ward had an email conversation about Brady’s previous experiences with guiding digital newsrooms.

Ward: More than a decade later, have you changed your thinking in any significant way about local news coverage in the digital age? How about your thinking on how to build a financially successful news business? 

Brady: I think the biggest change in my thinking has been about the overall role of a local news organization. I used to be a believer in staying out of the fray, and just reporting on what was happening and stopping there. But I now think news organizations need to expand their thinking there. I’m not suggesting that papers drop objectivity in reporting; I still believe in that. But I think they need to acknowledge that their role should be to help connect their consumers to information, people, events and whatever else might empower them to take action to improve their communities. Read more

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Manager alert: pay attention to your best people

For the better part of the past two weeks, I needed a good slapping.

I don’t mean that literally, though some of the people in my life might wish I did. What I needed was someone to snap me out of the insecure funk I get in from time to time.

I had writer’s block.

Do you ever get it? Ideas that seem so clear in my brain get hijacked and disappear somewhere en route to the keyboard. I start a sentence, delete it, start another and delete that, too. I get up and walk the dog, stare some more at the laptop, send out Facebook birthday wishes, stare at the laptop, get a cup of coffee…

Before long, my insecurities win. I am convinced I will never write again. How tragic. It happened so quickly; I never saw it coming.

Am I overreacting? Of course I am. That’s what insecure journalists do. Read more

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