Chip Scanlan

Chip produces "Chip on Your Shoulder," Poynter Online's popular writing advice column. He is an award-winning reporter, feature writer and novelist.

CNN Photo by Brandon Ancil

CNN sheds light on family’s harrowing experience, Alaska’s highest rape rate

CNN Photo by Brandon Ancil

Convicted sex offenders are American pariahs, kept at bay by law and stigma. In the Alaskan wilderness, however, an experiment is underway to keep these criminals close to their communities.

“The Rapist Next Door,” by columnist John D. Sutter, describes the approach through the harrowing prism of one family: a wife, daughter and the husband who raped the child. This remarkably detailed story blends a family’s tragedy and startling response with a policy-driven look at the state with the country’s highest rape rate, accompanied by absorbing videos. In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Sutter reveals how he reported, structured and wrote the story, grappled with ethical dilemmas, why he employs first-person storytelling and describes CNN’s unusual approach to choosing such stories. Read more

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Cage fighter’s faked death gives life to rich NYT storytelling

Last month, The New York Times continued its streak of publishing groundbreaking newspaper narratives with “Tomato Can Blues,” a longform account of a small-town Michigan cage fighter who faked his own death.

Reporter Mary Pilon crafted a mystery story amid the bloody world of amateur sports with a cast of carefully-etched characters, an eye for telling details and creative organization. “It combines lush illustrations and audio narration and reads like a graphic novel come to life,” praised the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mary Pilon is a reporter with The New York Times. (Nikola Tamindzic)

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Pilon, 27, unpacks the reporting, writing and collaboration behind this exceptional story:

How did you come upon the story and why did you decide to pursue it?

Having just finished some investigative work tied to our Westminster Dog Show coverage, my editors, Jason Stallman and Sam Dolnick and I met to talk about where I should next focus my energy. One of them threw a short wire story about an amateur cage fighter who faked his own death at me. We weren’t setting out to do anything big. I made some calls and got some of the Michigan fight promoters on the phone, but at that point, the Robinette robbery had just happened and even folks in Michigan were still trying to get a handle on what had transpired. Frustrated, I reported that back to my editors. Jason said, “Take a one-way ticket to Detroit,” which was a really gutsy move on his part. I threw some clothes in a bag and got on the next flight, unsure what, if anything, I would get on the ground. Was Rowan dead? Alive? What happened?

How much time did you spend in Michigan?

I was in Michigan, all told, about two weeks spread over two trips, but I continued to work on regular news coverage, chipping away at this story bit by bit. I drew maps and diagrams of where things happened and when, put together timelines, tracked down cage fighters and any public records I could get my hands on. I attended cage fights in Michigan, including at Streeters, interviewed dozens of fighters, but also tried to sneak in cage fights as I traveled elsewhere for other stories throughout the summer, hoping to get a context for the Michigan scene. YouTube clips, blogs, message boards and phone interviews with experts in the sport helped, too. Even when I wasn’t in Michigan, I wanted to be immersed.

How did you get Charlie Rowan to open up?

At first, I reached out to his lawyer, who told me no. My first stop when I landed in Michigan was the Gladwin County Courthouse when he was brought in for a hearing. I know this sounds crazy, but I felt like I had to see him with my own eyes, even if he wasn’t being interviewed, to confirm he was alive if we were going to report that in The Times. I began to find people — friends, neighbors, relatives — who told me more of the local buzz, taking me back in some ways to my roots as a small-town reporter in Oregon. People were incredibly kind with their time. I roamed in and out of gyms, coffee shops, people’s living rooms, fast food restaurants, the woods, just trying to absorb as much of that world as I could. Hard to not get a little Nancy Drew about it all. After a week on the ground in Michigan, I left thinking Rowan wasn’t going to talk, but I had enough for a modest Sunday story about cage fighting in the heartland, nothing more.

Soon thereafter, the bombs went off in Boston and I helped my colleagues cover the Marathon and the aftermath. Later that week as I was leaving one of the hospitals there, my cell phone rang and it was a collect call from a jail. I was shocked when the caller identified himself as Charles Rowan and said he wanted to talk. I pulled out my laptop there in Boston Common, exhausted and surrounded by police, and Rowan started to tell me everything. We kept talking on the phone and I flew to Michigan a second time to interview him in jail, then follow up on all the leads he gave me from our conversations. It’s not often a reporter gets to ask, “So was that before, or after you died?”

Your eye for telling details is remarkable, whether it’s the Rite Aid visible from the bedroom of Rowan’s girlfriend’s home where he hides during the memorial service to his many tattoos and the Skittles on sale at the local gun shop? How do you soak them up?

The Rite Aid bit I got from going to Rosa’s house, an address we had from a police report, and walking around the neighborhood. I use my phone as a note-taking device and took photos and videos of the house, Gladwin, the cage fights, which I returned to over and over again in writing and piecing everything together and shared with my editors. If a detail stuck with us over and over, we kept it in, thinking it would likely resonate with readers, too. The tattoos were buried in a police booking report and the Skittles came from a crime scene photo. I confirmed them with Rowan and the Robinettes, as well. We tried to verify as much as we could with as many people as possible and there were a lot of things we left out because we only had one source.

Attila Futaki’s illustrations helped tell The New York Times story of a cage fighter who faked his own death.

Evocative animated illustrations by Attila Futaki add a powerful storytelling dimension to “Tomato Can Blues.” How closely did you work with the artist?

We hadn’t done anything quite like this before and still wanted to be as accurate as possible. Attila lives in Hungary, so we used a file-sharing service to share relevant reporting materials (police reports, story drafts, photos and videos I shot with my iPhone, etc.). He sent us back sketches that we reviewed…then refined and inked them. One example: the shot of Rowan’s feet at the gun store originally had him in boots. We knew from interviews and the police report that he wore sneakers, so we changed it. Another: the “ROWAN” tattoo above his navel in the cover shot where Rowan is getting punched was in one of his old fight photos and confirmed in a police report.

Why did you wait a long time to reveal that Rowan is a source for your story?

We wanted there to be suspense, but at the same time not feel like we were “tricking” readers. Same with the opening. We wanted readers to step into the world as we had — completely confused — and keep them enticed as we had been in the unraveling.

In the process of reporting my upcoming book, “The Monopolists,” I did a lot of research on story structure, a new and foreign art to me as someone with more of a background in shorter news stories. My editors are longform veterans and we tossed around movie trailers, true crime articles, book chapters, to try and get a handle on the structure. “Tomato Can Blues,” too, was an exercise in figuring out how to keep readers hooked while still being factual. I think journalists can learn a lot from screenwriters and novelists about how to arc facts, which was a huge task here.

What were the most helpful resources?

I found myself dissecting works that I have long loved (“The Third Man,” “Casablanca,” Coen Brothers films, Woody Allen’s humor writing and movies, anything F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ken Kesey, Alice Munro, on the nonfiction front, passages from Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Truman Capote, dog-eared copies of The New Yorker, etc. ) and thinking about what made them so effective. I reread Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and also find the writerly manifestos of Steven Pressfield, Christopher Vogler, Stephen King and Robert McKee to be great roadmaps when lost on the proverbial drafting highway.

The kicker quote is very poignant. When did you decide that would be the way you would end the story?

Rowan, often without realizing it, had oddly prophetic offhand comments about life and death throughout the course of our interviews. As soon as he said that, I knew it had to go somewhere important in the story and it quickly made sense as an ending note for the piece. It’s a bizarre, George Bailey story in some ways, set against the backdrop of a really economically hard-hit part of the country. Rowan is one of only a few people in the world who had a glimpse of what life would be like for others if he was dead. We knew early on that these themes of life and death, feeling caged, had to be woven throughout the story and somehow resonate in the end. As cheesy as it may sound, it was through “dying” that Rowan said he learned about life.

What has been the reaction to “Tomato Can Blues?”

You can never predict the outcome of a story, but I’m thrilled people liked it and the reaction was great. Many people picked up on some of our inspirations — Truman Capote, Gay Talese, the Coen brothers, Ernest Hemingway (his work on boxing, in particular), to name a few.

Some readers have asked what Rowan thought of the story. Due to restrictions at his jail, Rowan has no Internet access, but his lawyer passed along a copy of the paper to him and I spoke with Rowan on the phone after the story ran. “I wish I went global for other reasons than this,” Rowan said. “But you know, maybe someone will take my story and use it to help themselves.”

Chances are that many journalists would read “Tomato Can Blues” and say, “I want to do stories like this.” What advice would you give them?

It sounds obvious, but try and report the hell out of a story and be okay with not knowing where a story is going to take you. When we started, it’s not as if we said, “Let’s do a big written piece, audio book and graphic novel about cage fighting in the heartland.” We started out with curiosity and went where the reporting took us. I’m lucky to have editors who embrace the unexpected and we have a dynamite multimedia team that helped us take the project to another level. Another huge lesson is that stories like these are really team projects. There’s sometimes a temptation to be a lone wolf reporting, but Tomato Can would not have been possible without the patience and effort of my colleagues here.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and webinars at Poynter News University. Read more

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How text-to-speech technology can help journalists avoid copy errors

You’ve run spell-check and closely studied your story. Your editors have done the same and the copy desk — the last line of defense against mistakes — has scrutinized every word and line to ensure error-free copy.

And then the worst happens. You pick up the newspaper or open your online story. A mistake, perhaps several, jump out: misspellings, repeated words, missing ones, sources’ names spelled differently on second reference, any of several embarrassing screw-ups have made their way into publication.

You’re not alone.

Spell and grammar checkers are designed to flag misspellings, dangling modifiers, misshapen clauses and run-on sentences, but they’re far from infallible. Mistakes are easy to ignore on the page, but even more elusive on the screen where everything seems pixelly perfect.

There’s another, much more valuable, tool to cut down on creeping copy errors: Text-to-speech. TTS, which converts text into synthesized speech, adds another sense — hearing — that improves your chances of catching mistakes that your eyes miss. It’s a technological antidote to the mistakes that bedevil writers and editors, and make us look lazy, or worse, stupid. The feature is built into most computers’ operating systems. There are also third-party programs that provide the same function.

Meet “Alex,” a TTS voice that lives inside my Macbook Pro. I just select text I want him to read, hold down the control key and then tap the g key. Alex starts reading what I’ve written, or what I think I have, while I follow along on the screen. I usually plug in ear buds to block distractions.

In the three years that TTS has become part of my editing toolkit, Alex has improved my writing, bolstered accuracy and made my stories more graceful. Text-to-speech lets me hear my stories, simultaneously comparing them with the written version, allowing me to detect flaws of word choice, pacing and grammar that I can change on the fly.

When I listen carefully to Alex, he tells me when “know” should be “now.” He guides me to unnecessary sentences and paragraphs. I still rely on Word’s spell and grammar checker, but Alex always manages to find lingering mistakes. I relied on him for every word in my latest book that already had the benefit of a first-rate copy editor. Alex still found missing words, homonyms, such as “then” and “than,” and things I revised but then neglected to delete my original mistake. These days, I let Alex “edit’ my copy before I even activate spell-check.

Both Macintosh computers and computers running Windows operating software provide text-to-speech, but with varying simplicity. Text-to-speech on Macs requires selecting one checkbox in System Preferences and two keystrokes to make Alex talk.

Computer users running older Windows XP and Vista software need to select multiple options before the feature is ready to work. Fortunately, “Microsoft’s solution has improved significantly with Windows 7 and up,” Omar Schwanzer, a former member of Poynter’s technology staff, said via email.

TTS matters because copy editors are under attack by newsroom cost-cutters who have slashed copy desks and often transferred their crucial duties to editing “hubs” that process copy from multiple news outlets. These losses undermine the commitment to accuracy that news consumers demand.

Even small errors can affect a news organization’s credibility and cause readers to lose trust in us.

But it’s not just journalistic sloppiness at work. The brain conspires to keep us from getting things right. We make unconscious errors based on our kinesthetic memory that preserves motions and explains why we can ride a bicycle for the first time since childhood and, after a few wobbles, confidently pedal away. It stores keystrokes as well, which is why I habitually spell judgment with two e’s.

Procedural memory remembers rules — grammar, style, and punctuation. Writing “it’s” for “its” — those maddening misspellings on signs, menus and supposedly professional copy means that writers and editors don’t know the difference between a contraction and a possessive pronoun.

Inattention is another culprit. When we read, our eyes skip forwards and backwards over words, rapid movement known as visual saccades.

Typically, psychologists say, the brain sees the first and last letters of a word and automatically fills in the blank. That explains “then” instead of “than.” And “though” for “through.”

TTS fans include lawyers, novelist, screenwriters and educators who work with dyslexic children.

“I love the idea,” Vicki Krueger, author of News University’s “Cleaning Your Copy” course, said by phone. She believes that TTS “is especially valuable for those whose primary communication is not writing: photographers and other visual journalists, programmers and the millions who write for social media.”

Carolyn Jewel, a romance novelist, said in a testimonial to Text Aloud that hearing her work read aloud keeps her from “supplying meaning that isn’t really there. … Lots of writers recommend literally reading one’s work aloud because it’s a great way to catch clunky phrases and repetitive bits. I tried that once, but it’s pretty hard on the voice, and it still doesn’t solve the issue of your eyes and brain conspiring to ‘fix’ typos for you.”

More newsrooms would benefit from using TTS. Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, said she’s not aware of any newsrooms using it. But it’s time, NewsU’s Krueger and other copy editors say, for them to make friends with my digital editor Alex.

“We already use or should use, a dictionary, stylebook, spell checker and reference books,” Frank Fee, Jr., a veteran copy editor who taught the craft at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ohio University, told me when I introduced him recently to Alex. “Why shouldn’t we add another tool to help us when the safety net of copy editing is frayed or vanishing?” Read more


How journalists can become better interviewers

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing is the heart of journalism. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. “No one ever teaches the journalist how to conduct an interview,” Courtney Herrig, a student at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, complained in a 2007 blog post. For most journalists the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?

Get smart.

If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of question scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviews experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said by email. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.

Craft your questions.

The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story.

Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the company’s money? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.

The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.

Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”

Listen up.

The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments, until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.

The moral:  Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.


A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight — they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”

“I am a human first,” says Carolyn Mungo, executive news director at WFAA-TV. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care,” Mungo said by email.

Look around.

Good interviewers do more than listen.

“I always try to see people at home,” says Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who fills her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said in a 1985 interview for “How I Wrote the Story.”

Capture how people talk.

The most powerful quotes are short, sometimes just fragments of speech. In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.

Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

Don’t just settle for quotes: Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action and propel readers forward.

Establish ground rules.

You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”

That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.

When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses in Philadelphia, read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.

Be a lab rat.

Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.

This column was adapted from “News Writing and Reporting: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” by Chip Scanlan, co-authored with Richard Craig and due out from Oxford University Press this spring. Read more


How brain science can make you a better writer

A TV ad for features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient’s exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It’s funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.

A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don’t have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.

The science of  “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. It starts with a geography lesson, based on the principle that the map of the brain locates multiple areas that control the way we move, see, hear, taste, smell, touch and remember.

It’s long been understood that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain that separates humans from all other species, interprets language through the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. But their powers are limited: they enable us to understand words, but nothing more.

That’s why traditional news articles with their passive verb forms, collective nouns (“officials said”) and clichés have so little impact on readers. Flabby prose turns off readers because it doesn’t turn on the brain. Neuroscience shows how carefully chosen words and the tools of storytelling activate parts of the brain other than those that process language to make reading a deep, resonant and lasting experience.

A fascinating essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul, details these developments.

She describes how researchers at Emory University earlier this year discovered that the phrase “he had leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex that activated the sense of touch. Spanish researchers found that words like “cinnamon” and “soap” triggered a response from the olfactory cortex which processes smells.

A French team learned that action verbs, such as “Pablo kicked the ball,” fired up the motor cortex, which governs how the body moves. Not only that, but verbs that involved different parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, activated the parts of the brain that controls those specific limbs. Evocative language also reaches into the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory, and plays an important role in the way the mind turns language into meaningful experience, a goal for all writers.

Based on these findings, we can take advantage of this three-pound organ with its 86 billion nerve cells to enrich our writing. Here are five ways:

  1. Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” that captivates readers.
  2. Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a “cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible” does a much better job than “a car.” “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism.” “It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
  3. Choose vivid action verbs. “Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain” triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
  4. Avoid passive verb forms. “The body was found” is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. “A seven-year-old newsboy found the body” heightens the senses.
  5. Cultivate a “a nose for story.” Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.” The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. “Hit a tripwire of smell,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” “and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

Neuroscience offers profound lessons on the power of story. You can use this knowledge to bring stories alive in readers’ minds. For writers and readers, the brain is a terrible thing to waste. Read more


A multimedia journalist’s holiday wish list

Technology has filled the journalistic toolbox with an array of innovative gadgets that enable journalists to gather and deliver the news with speed and sophistication. But which ones does a multimedia journalist need? It’s an apt question to ponder given the time of year. That way, if family, friends, perhaps even a wise boss, ask, “What do you want for the holidays?” you’ll be prepared.

In the spirit of gift giving, and receiving, I asked three leading multimedia journalists and a college professor who teaches multimedia journalism to build a “holiday wish list for multimedia journalists.” Their admittedly subjective suggestions for hardware and accessories range from the reasonably priced to the wildly extravagant. Note: Prices vary. In this post-Black Friday market, these experts advise hunting for bargains but always stick with reputable sellers. Be sure to read customer reviews.


Smartphone. With still photo and audio/video capability, wireless access and the right mobile apps, a smartphone is the Swiss Army knife for multimedia journalists. Says Sara Ganim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter who recently joined CNN as a correspondent: “I call my smartphone my mobile newsroom, because it really is essential to how I gather news daily. I can shoot, edit and post video to the Web. I can get photos up almost instantly. I’ve even had people tweet during a press conference, giving me questions they want answered.”

Buyers have lots of choices as wireless providers compete by offering deals for feature-laden models in exchange for usage contracts. Ganim’s pick: the iPhone5. “I’ve had several but none were as fast and efficient.” Price: Without a provider contract, the cost is $649 for the 16-gigabyte model. If you already have wireless service, it can be as low as $199. Another contender is the Android Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a bigger screen than the iPhone. Price: $600 and up. With service contract adding $100 or less.

Computer. Naka Nathaniel, a multimedia journalist who has traveled the world’s hotspots with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, recently updated his gear. His choice: the 13-inch retinal display MacBook Pro. It’s light, quick and ideally suited for editing and producing audio and video stories. Price: $1,700. Macs are not the only option; deals abound for less expensive Window-based personal computers.

Digital camera. For the serious multimedia journalist, these professionals agree on a full-featured Digital Single Lens Reflex camera to capture high quality still photos and video.

Nikon’s D5100 with a variable zoon lens is a good option. Price: $550. But Casey Frechette, who teaches multimedia journalism at the University of South Florida, prefers the entry-level Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS. Price: $600 for the body and a 18mm-55mm zoom lens.

Video camera. DSLRs may be a replacement in many circumstances, but video cameras remain viable for “run and gun” style shoots, when it’s important to be mobile and constantly reframe and refocus shots in fast-moving environments. Check out the Canon VIXIA HF G10. Price: About $1,100. Or the Sony HDR CX160. Price: $319.

Portable Digital Audio Recorder. Smartphones and digital cameras can capture sound, but a high-quality audio digital audio recorder is “a must-have for the multimedia journalist” to capture voice-overs, interview soundbites and on-location sound, says Frechette. His choice: the Zoom H4N, which features on board mics and jacks for three external mics and can record to four tracks simultaneously and independently.” Price: $250.

iPad. Multimedia journalists who use the iPad prize the device for its versatility and small footprint to conduct live interviews from Times Square to the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. For iPhone lover Ganim, the iPad is the only other device she carries. Google’s Android and the new Windows Surface tablets offer video output and USB ports for greater connectivity, but as New York Times techno-gadget guru David Pogue notes, they are still woefully shy of the iPad’s 275,000 tablets designed apps. IPad Price: $399 for 16-gigabyte model. Note: You’ll need a wireless contract to connect on the road.

Remote Controlled Helicopter Video Camera. For the 1 percenters out there, Mark Briggs, director of digital media at KING5-TV in Seattle, is high on the $8,000 radio and GPS operated HexaKopter XL equipped with a Go Pro Hero 3 video camera for $300. It can fly up to 500 meters high for 22 minutes (demo). “It would be amazing to fly this over protests, parades, sporting events and so much more,” he says. “Journalism is so often about access and this would provide the kind of access we’ve never seen before.”                      


Headphones. You’ve got to hear what you’re recording to ensure quality. Pick up the Sony MDR-7506. Its closed ear design makes it easy to monitor sound and the fold-up design fits easy into your gear bag. Price: $100.

Tripod. Effective video requires steady hands, especially during interviews. Enter the tripod, the three-legged stand that secures your camera for jiggle-free shots. Look for the Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod. Price: $115 with mail-in rebate. Or the Canon Deluxe Tripod 300 Tripod. Price: $40.

Monopod. Says Frechette, “Tripods are useful, but they’re bulky. Monopods are a terrific alternative. They’re telescopic and can be used in lots of different positions — anchored to the ground, hoisted above head and anywhere in-between.” He recommends the affordable and sturdy Manfrotto 679B 3 Section Monopod with Head. Price: $60.

Shotgun microphone. Built-in camera mics are usually ill-equipped to capture high-quality sound. Multimedia journalists work around the problem with a shotgun mic attached to even the smallest video cameras. Nathaniel and Frechette suggest the Rode VideoMic Mini Shotgun. Price: $149.

Wired and wireless microphones. Lavalier mics, tucked in a subject’s shirt or lapel, are the best way to capture high-quality interview audio. They plug into your camera or audio recorder and “are affordable, custom made and feature great construction and sound quality,” says Frechette. His choice: Giant Squid Mono Omni Lav. Price: $40. Wireless mics enable the subject to move around and still transmit high-quality sound. Naka Nathaniel likes the Sennheiser EW 100-ENG G2. But it comes at a stiff price: $779.

Lights. Lighting is a critical component of quality video, especially for interviews, but that doesn’t mean you have to lug and set up complicated equipment. LED lights are bright, require little power, don’t heat up and are affordable. The 160 Dimmable LED Camera Light easily mounts to a camera or light stand and the lights can be dimmed, too. Price: $40.

Backpack. Multimedia journalists need something to carry all their gear in. The Lowe Photo Backpack is big and sturdy enough for a DSLR camera, lenses, accessories, even a laptop and a tripod side pocket. Price: $150.

Storage. Taking stunning photos and videos won’t matter if your device runs out of storage space. Nathaniel recently upgraded his stock of 8-gigabyte SD cards with 32 and 64-gigabyte versions. Prices: $20-$75. For larger files and editing on the fly, he relies on 2-terabyte Passport portable hard drives for Mac and PC. Price: $140.

USB 3.0 card reader. If your computer doesn’t feature a card reader, you’ll want one to copy files from your media cards to your computer for display and editing. It’s powered by the USB port on your computer, no batteries needed. Version 3.0 supports the fastest transfer speeds. Price: $16.

Batteries. There’s nothing worse than running out of power at a critical newsgathering moment. Stock plenty of extra batteries as well as a battery charger to keep them primed.

Blank DVDs (under $10 for a 25-pack) and a Power Strip (under $10) are good to keep handy. Check out the Pivot Power-Articulated Power Strip. $30.

I wish all you multimedia journalists the gift-happiest of holidays. But remember: Your gadgets are essential — and cool — but nothing substitutes for reporting and writing skills, curiosity and tenacity.

“At the end of the day, no gadget can tell you how to report,” says Ganim. “Those things only help make you better and more efficient. The most important tool is your head.”

Chip Scanlan’s new book, “Reporting and Writing: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” co-authored with Richard Craig, is due out this spring from Oxford University Press. Read more

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Storytelling on Deadline: A Bookbag for Reporters and Editors



A Bookbag for Reporters and Editors
Suggested by Chip Scanlan, The Poynter Institute




“Aim for the Heart: A Guide for TV Producers/Reporters,” by Al Tompkins. Bonus Books, 2002.


“The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on the Wall Street Journal,” by William E. Blundell. New York, NY: New American Library, 1988.


“Becoming a Writer,” by Dorothea Brande. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. (reprint of 1934 edition published by Harcourt Brace.)


“Best American Sports Writing series.” 2002 volume edited by Rick Reilly. Boston: Houghton Mifflin).


“Best American Sportswriting of the Century,” edited by David Halberstam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


“Best Newspaper Writing,” edited by Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, Karen F. Brown, Christopher Scanlan, Keith Woods, Aly Col�n. St. Petersburg, FL: The Poynter Institute and Bonus Books, 1979-2004.


“Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms,” second edition, by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry. New York: Bedford, Freedman & Worth, 2003.


“The Complete Book of Feature Writing,” edited by Leonard Witt. Cincinnati, OH: Writer�s Digest Books, 1991.


“Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction” by James B. Stewart. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1998.


“How I Wrote the Story,” edited by Christopher Scanlan. Providence, RI: The Providence Journal Co., 1989.


“Read to Write: A Writing Process Reader,” by Donald M. Murray. 3rd. ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.


“Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century,” by Christopher Scanlan. Oxford University Press, NY 2000.


“Speaking of Journalism: 12 Writers and Editors Talk About Their Work,” edited by William Zinsser. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994.


“A Treasury of Great Reporting,” edited by Louis L. Snyder. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1949.

“The Art of Fact,” edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda.  New York, NY: Scribner, 1997.


“The Sound On The Page: Style and Voice in Writing,” by Ben Yagoda. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004.


“Telling Stories, Taking Risks. Journalism Writing and the Century�s Edge,” edited by Alice Klement and Carolyn Matalene, Belmont, Calif. Wadsworth, 1998.


“A Writer�s Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, From Vision Through Revision,” by Kenneth Atchity. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.

“Writing Broadcast News–Shorter, Sharper, Stronger”, by Mervin Block. Bonus Books, 1997.


“Writing in Flow: Keys to Enchanced Creativity,” by Susan K. Perry.  Cincinnati, OH OH: Writer�s Digest Books, 1999.


“Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner,” by Jon Franklin. New York, NY: Plume, 1994.


“Writing for Your Readers: Notes on the Writer�s Craft from the Boston Globe,” by Donald M. Murray. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1992.


“Writing to Deadline, “by Donald M. Murray. Portsmouth, NY: Heinemann, 2000.

“Writing Under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process,” by Sanford Kaye. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.




�Narrative Journalism:Reporting and Writing in a Different Voice.� Nieman Reports, Fall 2000. A collection of articles by Tom French, Laura Sessions Stepp, Roy Peter Clark, Gerald Boyd, Rick Bragg, Madeleine Blais, Mark Kramer and others.


�Storytelling on Deadline,� by Christopher Scanlan, Best Newspaper Writing 1995.  pp. 355-365.


�Tom Wolfe�s Revenge,� by Chris Harvey. American Journalism Review, October 1994, pp. 40-46.


�Return of the Narrative� by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry. Quill, May 1994. pp. 10-12.


�The Art of Storytelling,� by Jack Hart, The Coaches� Corner, March 1992, p. 1,4,6.


�A Nonfiction Writer is a Storyteller,� by James Cross Giblin, The Writer, April 1988, p. 13-15, 46.


�A New Shape for the News,�  by Roy Peter Clark, Washington Journalism Review, March 1984, pp. 46-47.


Bob Baker’s Newsthinking

The Power of Words, writing lessons from the Providence Journal

No Train, No Gain: Training for Newspaper Journalists

Writing Matters



  Read more

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Rhetorical inventory of Obama’s budget, deficit speech reveals talking points, strategy

The torrent of news stories, analyses, editorials, columns and blog posts about President Obama’s speech on his budget plan focused, appropriately, on the numbers.

But there’s another way to look at it: analyzing the speaker’s words in ways that reveal as much about the content as the dollar signs that pepper its paragraphs. This approach employs a tool that linguists rely on in their study of human language. It’s a concordance, an alphabetical list of the principal words in a text that can be sorted by the number of times they are used.

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Before computers, generating these rhetorical inventories was such an arduous, time-consuming project that they were limited to literature’s big guns: The Works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran and the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

Now digitized texts and software make a concordance just a few keystrokes away.

One of the simplest concordances are those that crunch word frequencies to view patterns, like the one that the British newspaper The Guardian produced in 2010, comparing Obama’s first State of the Union speech with those delivered by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt,  John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush “to see where president’s focus lay.” There are also other ways language lovers can aim a spotlight on a politician’s rhetorical skill or lack thereof.

Word frequencies (selected ever-so-carefully by speechwriters, spin doctors and political consultants) offer another prism to examine the messages behind Obama’s attempt to seize control of an issue as vital — and polarizing — as reducing the federal deficit and the path the President wants to take to achieve that goal.

Here are three examples.

Spread the Wealth: Income and class
Words Frequency of use in speech
Wealthiest Americans/Wealthiest 2 per cent of Americans/ Wealthier/Wealthy/Most fortunate 9
Millionaire/Millionaires 4
Billionaire/Billionaires 3
Seniors 11
Middle class 8
Poor children/Poor families/Less fortunate 5
Working families/Working Americans 3
The Vision Thing
Words Frequency
Believe 27
Future 17
Vision/Visions 15
Talking Points: The Focus of the Speech
Words Frequency
Deficit/Deficits 28
Reduce/Reducing/Reduction/Reductions 23
Spending 23
Pay (verb) 17
Debt 17
Medicare 18
Tax cut/cuts 11
Social Security 11
Medicaid 10
Taxes 7
Defense/Military 5
Tax breaks 2

As in any speech, what isn’t mentioned is often as revealing as what is. Here are words that President Obama did not use in his speech:

  • Entitlements
  • Rich
  • Welfare
  • Redistribution
  • Hope

This concordance was created using DEVONthink software. Read more


Putting Voters in the Analyst’s Seat

Political analysis of campaign debates has long been the business of the chatterati: news analysts, commentators, spin doctors. That won’t change, at least not in the ’08 presidential campaign.

But now the digerati — computer wizards — have teamed up with journalists to put voters in the analyzer’s seat, too. The vehicles are innovative, with interactive features that include:

  • Debate video and transcripts, posted in near real-time
  • Keywords that enable voters to leap into the debate to see and/or read candidates’ stands on issues ranging from “maverick” to “surge”
  • Fact-checking pop-up windows
Spacer Spacer

I know of four such offerings, which I’ve listed in the sidebar to the right. unveiled its “Debate Analyzer” for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 as part of its “Decision ’08 Dashboard.”

The analyzer “really gives users the ability to explore specific concepts within the context of the entire debate with a level of detail previously unavailable,” Paige West, director of interactive projects at, told me in an email interview last week. (West previously worked for Poynter’s NewsU as senior interactive learning producer.)

I wanted to know why a news organization would go to such trouble to create something like this, what it took to make such a feature a reality, and most important of all, what impact it could have on a participatory democracy as ours. Whether you’re a geek, a political reporter or a voter, I hope you find our exchange fruitful.

Scanlan: What is the “Debate Analyzer”?

West: The debate analyzer is a special interactive feature that allows users to experience the debate in a much richer way than a typical linear video player. … Video search, which is what this interactive is powered by, is definitely a new and exciting technology that we’re pioneering.

How would you describe the “Decision ’08 Dashboard� and its place in coverage?

West: The Dashboard is the main entry point to our political coverage this election season. It provides an amazing variety of information in one place, in whatever format a user might want — video, text, data, maps, etc. We needed a way to surface the vast amount of content we have and we wanted to do it in an innovative, visual way that grabbed people’s attention. Lists of headlines just aren’t intuitive and interesting enough to get people to dig in and find out what is available to them; and it doesn’t do justice to the variety of content that we have.

How does the “Analyzer” differ from traditional post-debate coverage?

West: This really puts the user in the driver’s seat. They can focus on the issues that are important to them, and they can compare and contrast how the candidates addressed those issues within the context of the different topics introduced by the moderator. Typically, analysis is pretty general (Who won?) and unidirectional, from reporter to users; the audience primarily sees the key moments that are replayed over and over again without the context of what was said before and after. This allows users to get past that and dig into the meat of the debate.

What are its features?

West: Users can watch the whole debate from beginning to end or skip around as with any regular video player, but the interface also shows users when each question segment started and what the question was, when Obama or McCain spoke and for how long, and where specific keywords and phrases were used. For example, users can jump to the specific part of the debate where McCain mentioned “Iraq” when answering the third question, which was about the economy, actually. Editorial analysis and fact-checking of statements made by the candidates is also time-aligned and juxtaposed against the question, speaker, and keyword information.

How were they created?

West: The transcript was time-aligned to the video and the different start and stop times of the questions, speaker segments, and keywords were recorded in a database. The interactive itself was built in Flash using our embeddable video player; the time line interface was drawn dynamically based on the time-in and time-out values for the different elements. Just by linking the Flash application to a different set of data, we can produce the same experience for all the debates — or any video, really.

What did it take: technology, reporting, personnel, skill sets?

West: The skills necessary were mostly technical and interface design-related. The Flash application was designed and built in about two weeks prior to the debate. A lot of thought and effort went into the interface design in order to make it intuitive; when introducing a new feature like that, people aren’t familiar with how it works, and you want to make it as easy to interact with so they don’t get frustrated and leave. Once we had the video and full transcript in hand, it was just a matter of time-aligning them, searching for the relevant time-in values, and wiring up the data and video with the application. All the politics editor had to do was send the transcript and a list of keywords that she generated from listening to the debate. We used the fact-checking analysis from the live blog posts on NBC’s First Read. The editors really didn’t have to do anything outside of their normal work flow — which is important during a live event like that.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

West: There were elements of this in lots of other projects. It just required we pull together the right things.

Could you give a bit of the “back story,” how and why it came to be?

West: We knew we wanted to do something special for the debates and we’d just entered an agreement with a partner that is helping us develop video search for our site. We decided to do a test of the technology in a limited capacity by using it to analyze one video and a set of associated keywords.

How did you decide on the particular keywords and phrases?

West: The politics editor sent a list of keywords and phrases that she derived just by listening to the debate and identifying terms that were spoken quite often or that had a good deal of significance. We compared that to a computer-generated list of the most frequently said words and phrases to produce the final set of keywords. Amazingly, the two lists were quite similar.

Can users add their own?

West: Not in this application, but in future evolutions of this technology on our site, users will be able to search for any term or phrase they want across multiple videos.

Black circles locate the keyword almost immediately. I’m a bit confused by the empty circles — what do they signify?

West: That’s the NBC News analysis — fact-checking points, basically. NBC reporters identified statements or facts that were mentioned by the candidates and they fact-checked them or provided some relevant background. For example, Obama cited Henry Kissinger, a McCain adviser, as saying that the U.S. should meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions. The NBC analysis provides some deeper background info, including a statement released by Kissinger after the debate clarifying his position.

What other uses can you envision for this technology? Do you plan to use it for every debate or major speech from now on?

West: We’re using it for all the presidential and vice presidential debates this month. After that, we’ll explore where best to apply this technology in other areas on the site.

What is its importance in a democracy, and specifically, in a presidential election?

West: It lets people study the candidates’ answers to the debate questions and draw their own conclusions. Giving people the tools to make up their own mind is what drives my thinking behind all the politics interactives we do � like the Candidates + Issues Matrix we had during the primaries or the Data Explorer that’s live now.

What kind of feedback have you received?

Everyone loves it! Editors want to reuse it for everything! At last count, the video player had close to a million video streams, and that was before the vice presidential debate, which should draw a lot of interest. Users have been actively engaging with this innovative tool and have sent lots of enthusiastic e-mails saying they want more. Read more


Diagramming Palin’s Sentences

Forget politics. Anyone who’s interested in clarity should study this post on by author Kitty Burns Florey: “Diagramming Sarah: Can Palin’s sentences stand up to a grammarian?”

In her post, the novelist and copy editor says:

“There are plenty of people out there — not only English teachers but also amateur language buffs like me — who believe that diagramming a sentence provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator,”

OK, it’s political, since she’s taking on Sarah Palin’s tortured sentences from interviews blamed for a drop in her approval ratings. But a return to the lost grammar school torment of diagramming sentences — illustrated by sentence maps that look like an incomprehensible equation — is an enlightening journey.

Read more


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