Tom Huang

Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program. He has worked at The Dallas Morning News since 1993, first as a feature writer, then as features editor, and now as the Sunday Page One editor. During Huang’s time as features editor, the newspaper’s features coverage was named one of the nation’s best by the Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Awards and by the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. His reporting has taken him from Bosnia and Vietnam and the Athens Olympics to the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks in New York. At Poynter, he teaches seminar sessions in ethics, diversity, writing and leadership issues, and he was co-editor of Poynter’s Best Newspaper Writing book for 2008-2009. Before moving to Dallas, he worked at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, where he covered courts, city hall, demographics and general assignments. He is president of the Society for Features Journalism Foundation and serves on the national advisory board of the Asian American Journalists Association. He is a 1988 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and engineering.


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Find your resilience: 5 tips for new editors

Dear new editor,

Not long ago, I wrote a column encouraging young journalists to keep their chins up and pursue their dreams of working in a newsroom, even though many of those newsrooms have become difficult places to work. Several readers suggested that editors – especially those just starting out – needed encouragement, too.

And so I am thinking of you. Congratulations on your new position. You must be thinking: Now what? And maybe: What did I get myself into? And also: How do I get my old job back?

Those are the very questions I asked myself during my first two years of editing. And that was at a time when the news industry wasn’t nearly as tumultuous as it is now. I can only imagine the doubts and pressures you face today.

And I hesitate to imply having any wisdom on how to be a good editor. I can honestly say that I don’t live up to any of my editing aspirations — on a daily basis, in ways both big and small. But I have learned lessons along the way. In that spirit, I’ll share five things I think are important for new editors to embrace.

Focus on your relationships.

We can talk all we want about the craft of editing, but the hardest part of the job is building and sustaining trusting relationships with your colleagues – not only your reporters, but your bosses and your peers. I often become so focused on the work – the stories, the schedules, the finances – that I forget how important these newsroom relationships are. I’ve learned the hard way that while trust is built over time, that same trust can be damaged in an instant, with an emotional outburst, thoughtless act or callous remark.

As you begin your journey as an editor, take time to get to know your reporters and the other journalists you work with as the human beings that they are (or that you hope they are). Side note: This is the part where you want to avoid telling a reporter, “Do it because I said so.” That might work once or twice, but it damages your relationship in the long run.

Learn to listen.

When I was a reporter, the best editors that I worked with had something in common: They all knew how to listen. That didn’t mean they weren’t stressed or harried, or that they always agreed with me. But it meant that they would actually stop what they were doing. They turned away from their computer, ignored the phone, made eye contact and absorbed what I had to say.

They demonstrated that they were paying attention by taking notes, asking me relevant questions and repeating some of what I was saying. It’s important to listen and to seek to understand. Too often, we’re already formulating the next argument in our heads, and that gets in the way of listening. It’s also difficult because the rhythm of an editor’s day – lots of juggling and multitasking – makes it hard to find that moment of calm in order to truly listen. As an editor, you have to find, and maybe even foster, that moment of calm.

Lead by example.

When you become an editor, people in the newsroom start to watch you closely. If they see you frown, they wonder whether layoffs are on the way. If they see you hunkered down in your office with the door closed, they speculate about personnel issues. If someone says hi and you’re distracted and don’t reply, they wonder why you’ve become such a jerk.

So you need to be aware of what signals you’re sending, not only through what you say but through your body language. At the same time, you have the opportunity to set a positive example. That means you have to be willing to jump into the things that you demand of your staff. If you are asking them to use social media to report on and promote their stories, then you have to do the same thing.

See the big picture — and find ways to help your whole news organization.

I remember when editors used to succeed by focusing inward – on their staffs, on their territories, on their resources. As a reporter, it was frustrating, and even somewhat fascinating, to watch grand turf battles rage on. Lord knows, those turf battles still go on. And I’m not naïve enough to think that you shouldn’t advocate for your staff and compete for resources.

But I also know that, to succeed in today’s newsroom, you must be mindful of the larger picture. What are the greatest needs of your newsroom? How can you use your team’s expertise to help other teams across the newsroom? How can you collaborate with other teams on large projects? How can you include other journalists in your story planning, including those on your multimedia, photography and graphics teams?

Find your resilience.

This is the part where I say, “Better eat your Wheaties.” These editing jobs are among the hardest in the newsroom, and they aren’t for the faint-hearted. You’re going to have some really bad days, the kind that discourage you and make you want to crawl in a hole. On those days, you’re going to have to find your resilience – the spirit within that helps you go home, get some rest and then get back to work the next morning.

Think of those athletes who experience a devastating loss in one game, find a way to shrug it off and then play hard the next game. That’s the kind of editor you need to be. It also doesn’t hurt to have a life outside of the newsroom – one that allows you to have the proper perspective.

If you are devoted to your reporters and dedicated to improving your news organization, you are truly doing God’s work. Yes, it can be a thankless job – you’ll often get criticized from management, from your peers and from your reporters. And even though you may think you’ll gain more power and control as an editor, you’ll quickly realize that’s an illusion.

But then you’ll watch a cub reporter grow as a writer; you’ll watch a veteran dive into a new role and enjoy it; you’ll watch a staff come upon a killer idea in a brainstorming session. And it will all be worth it.

Simply put, we need you in the game. Having been a reporter for many years in several newsrooms, I know that good editors can be hard to come by.

You owe it to yourself to see whether you have it in you to be one of the good ones.

If you are interested in learning techniques for sharper line editing, as well as strategies to coach your reporters and help them brainstorm ideas, check out the Poynter Editors Bootcamp, April 22-23. Kelley Benham of the Tampa Bay Times and I will help you build an editing toolkit, including time management, social media and ethical decision-making. Learn more. Read more

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Resolutions Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

5 resolutions you can make to become a better journalist in 2013

Resolutions are daunting — especially New Year’s resolutions. Getting more exercise, quitting smoking, reading more books — can we stick to our resolutions past January, and will these new behaviors make us better people?

Well, maybe not in all cases, but it’s always good to have something to aspire to. When it comes to journalism, there are a few simple resolutions you can make in the first weeks of 2013 to set you on the path to becoming a better journalist.

Visit a neighborhood where English is not the predominant language.

The demographics of the United States are changing swiftly, and we are often unfamiliar with ethnic groups that are transforming our cities’ neighborhoods. We may be unfamiliar with them because, like most people, we become set in our routines; we visit the same stores, the same restaurants, the same parks, the same churches.

We pick up our story ideas from these familiar surroundings. Intentionally or not, we ignore the other communities. And so they are not reflected in our stories. And so we miss some of the most important trends that are affecting our cities. I’d like to encourage you to take one small step and visit a neighborhood where English is not the predominant language. Allow yourself to feel awkward and disoriented.

Allow your curiosity to take you into a restaurant or store. You may learn a new word or like a dish you haven’t tried before. You may even see some stories that you haven’t seen before — and then realize that this is what becoming a better journalist is all about.

Commit to learning one new tech skill.

The time has long since passed when journalists could simply focus on one aspect of our craft — reporting or editing or photography or design or copy editing. Those skills will always be at the core of what we do, and we have to excel at them. But our work, and, frankly, the success of our business, depends on how well we work with digital technology that is continually and swiftly changing.

Don’t get left behind. Commit to learning at least one new tech skill this year, whether it’s your newsroom’s blogging system or that new data visualization program, or more effective ways to use your smart phone to shoot, edit and send videos. Is it fair that we have to learn all these new skills? Maybe not, but only versatile, resilient journalists will thrive in this environment.

Introduce yourself to a colleague who works in a department that’s different from yours — preferably someone you haven’t talked to before.

Even as newsrooms get smaller and smaller, our departments often still operate as silos. We can’t afford to work that way anymore. We have to be more collaborative, building teams that produce sophisticated multimedia stories across all sorts of platforms. At the root of all of that are relationships that we build across the newsroom.

So, this year, why not make an effort to get to know your colleagues who work in other departments — the night desk, say, or graphic design or Web production? What if you were to introduce yourself to someone new each month? The advantage in doing so is that you will likely come upon some good story ideas. And you will likely meet someone who can teach you that new tech skill you’re committed to learning. By the way, if you’re a shy person, you can use this column as an excuse to make the introduction.

Dive into social media.

Many of us (myself included) are concerned about the time-suck that social media can represent. Our lives are so busy with work, family and friends (and don’t forget the laundry). How can we possibly fit Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest (and the list goes on) into our schedules? And what if these social media sites are passing fads? Again, I don’t think we have a choice.

We are in the communications business, and millions of people are communicating and sharing ideas on these sites. As journalists, we have to learn how to best use social media for our work. The only way we can do that is to incorporate social media in our own lives.

And about passing fads: These sites may or may not be around in 10 or 20 years, but the next generation of these sites will be, so we need to learn how to use these sites NOW. Take one small step and check out a social media site that you haven’t used before. Or if you’re not already on Twitter, sign up and try it out.

Eat your vegetables, stay hydrated and get plenty of sleep.

And you thought I was going to stay away from your health. Well, Mom and Dad may not have been right about everything, but they were right about eating right and sleeping well. I’m not going to advise you to lose weight, exercise more or cut down on the drinking and smoking (there are plenty of magazines to tell you that).

But I will encourage you to take one small step and add more vegetables to your diet and cut back on fast food. Journalism is a stressful business, and my guess is that it’s only going to get more stressful as our business continues to change.

If you’re in this for the long game — and I’m hoping you are — then take good care of yourself.

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Ideas2

6 questions journalists should be able to answer before pitching a story

I can’t believe that my former editor never threw me out of his office. That’s because, back when I was a cub reporter, I used to pitch story ideas by proclaiming that I wanted to write about “the homeless,” or “drug gangs,” or “teen mothers.”

While these were interesting and important topics, that’s all they were — topics. They didn’t have enough shape or specificity to be ideas.

Several months passed before I finally learned how important it was to do research to support a story idea. I realized I could do “pre-reporting” without getting too invested in a story. I could read previous stories and interview a few sources to have a better sense of what the story might be about.

And with that background, I could pitch my ideas in the form of a small quest: “The number of homeless families is increasing in the suburbs, and I’d like to find out why.” “Juries seem to be particularly unforgiving of drug gang members, and I’d like to see what prosecutors and defense attorneys have to say about that.” “A school has started a program for teen mothers, and I’d like to examine who’s behind it and what they hope to accomplish.”

Story pitches can come in all formats. (The narrative blog, Gangrey.com, has a good piece on pitches — particularly magazine story pitches — here.) Pitches can vary depending on the reporter’s track record, and how long the reporter and editor have worked together. In general, the more the editor and reporter have worked together, the more they can communicate in shorthand.

But regardless of the reporter’s experience or how mature the editor-reporter relationship is, I think it’s important for the reporter to be able to answer a handful of questions before pitching the story to his or her editor. These are questions for both reporters and editors to ask.

What piques your curiosity about the story?

I always ask this when a reporter approaches me with an idea. I want to know whether she is genuinely interested in the idea and whether her curiosity will drive her to seek the answers she needs to tell the story. I want to know what aspect of the story first caught her attention. If she ever gets lost in the weeds during the reporting, I can remind her about the initial moment of intrigue. Finally, I want to understand how the writer thinks. What topics are of natural interest to her? Where is she getting her ideas from? What is she reading?

What’s new about the story, and why do you want to tell it now?

I want the reporter to have done enough research to understand where the story lies in a timeline. What previous events have led to the current situation? Give me that context. Then let me know what’s new about the situation. Does the story reflect a new trend, a turning point, the start or the end of a conflict? Do we need to tell the story in advance of an upcoming decision, meeting or event?

Such “news pegs” can be limiting, and I’ve often argued that we should be able to publish stories just because they are good stories. But given how busy readers are and how many distractions they face, it helps if a story — even “just a good story” — has a compelling reason to be told today.

Why will the reader or viewer care about the story?

Yes, I’d like to know why a reporter is curious about a story idea. But I’d also like him to step outside of his reporter’s role and think as a reader or viewer. How can we frame the story in a way that’s relevant to the average person? This is where the reporter considers why the story would grab the attention of his parents or, say, his friends at a bar (or his parents at a bar).

Not that his parents or friends are average people, but they live outside the newsroom (which can sometimes become fixated on a story that’s not relevant to others). Ordinary people are most concerned about their finances, health and safety. And if they have kids, they’re probably concerned about all of that, plus education. Does the reporter’s story idea touch upon any of these issues?

How can we tell this story digitally?

We are increasingly telling our stories across platforms — on the Web and on tablets and other digital devices. It’s important for the reporter to develop a sharp sense of what kinds of storytelling work well on different platforms. In addition to producing the traditional story, could we create short videos of the people in the story for an online package? Are there any ways of telling the story through an interactive graphic that would work on the iPad?

I’m not expecting the reporter to produce these packages himself. But I’d like him to have the judgment to say, “Here are the components in my story idea that I think would lend themselves to digital storytelling.”

What questions will you need to ask to get this story, and what sources will you need to consult?

Since this is still the ideas phase, I’m not expecting the reporter to know what the story is going to say. I hope that he has a hypothesis that he’s going to test through his reporting. That’s why I’d like to know at least three or four questions that the reporter wants to ask, plus two or three sources he’ll consult. I’d also like to know whether there’s a central question that the reporter is trying to answer in the story. The central question can help us focus the story after he’s done most of his reporting.

How much time will you need to produce the story, and how much space/time do you think the story deserves?

As an editor, I think it’s important to talk about the scope of a story before much of the reporting gets under way. I don’t want to be rigid about it — we can increase or decrease the scope depending on what the reporter finds out. But it’s important for the reporter and editor to agree on the story’s ambitions at the beginning, and then adjust as the reporting progresses.

I’ve also found that it’s not a good idea to tell the reporter, “Write what you think the story deserves.” In the newspaper world, if a story deserves a lot of space, let’s talk about it ahead of time, and I will fight for that space. But both the reporter and the editor will benefit from having a starting point and shared expectations for how ambitious we both will be.

If you’d like to learn more about pitching (and selling) your stories, join Butch Ward and me at “Writing and Selling Your Freelance Stories,” a three-day Poynter seminar that runs Oct. 1-3. Read more

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Matt Lauer, Ann Curry

How race factors into the conversation about Ann Curry’s possible ouster from ‘Today’ Show

This week’s news of Ann Curry’s problems as co-host of NBC’s “Today” show makes my mind reel and my heart ache.

It makes my heart ache because, as the son of Asian immigrants, I’ve felt an instinctive pride as I’ve watched Curry’s slow and steady climb up to one of network news’ most high-profile jobs.

Finally, on morning TV, I could find someone who looked like me. I identified with her. I was inspired by her.

Now she is faltering and may even be forced out because of a decline in ratings.

No doubt, many factors lie behind the “Today” show’s drop in viewers. It now runs neck-and-neck with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” But some executives fault Curry, because the collapse has occurred in the year since she became co-host after replacing Meredith Vieira.

The news makes my mind reel, because Curry’s lack of rapport with Matt Lauer and the “Today” show family — real or perceived — and her possible ouster may have something to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing. (She is biracial with Japanese roots.)

Or these things may have absolutely nothing to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing.

She may just not be good at projecting the ease and warmth of Vieira or Katie Couric, the co-hosts who preceded her.

Simple as that.

And yet: In Curry’s saga, there’s enough of the whiff of race and culture to prompt Mike Hale, New York Times TV and film critic, to mention it in his in-depth feature story about her struggles.

I have long admired the intelligence and balance that Hale brings to his work. So I trust that Hale, who has Asian roots himself, raises the cultural issue only upon great reflection. (I contacted Hale but didn’t hear back. He and I are friendly acquaintances, as we are both members of the Asian American Journalists Association, whose governing board I serve on. My views here do not necessarily represent AAJA’s.)

Hale observed Curry for a month, and I’m drawn to his insights: “But as you watch the show,” he writes, “there’s an inescapable sense that Ms. Curry is outside the group in a subtle but unmistakable way, like the stepsister Cinderella without a prince…”

“I don’t know what personal factors might come into play in creating an on-screen distance,” Hale writes. “You could speculate about certain things. Ms. Curry is biracial (Japanese-American) and spent part of her early childhood living overseas, a situation that has been known to generate self-reliance and reserve. (Barack Obama probably wouldn’t make the warmest of morning hosts.)”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Hale or anyone else is arguing that Curry is being overtly discriminated against because of her race.

In fact, Curry’s Asian background, along with her strong reporting chops, hard work and credibility, has probably been a plus for her career, as “Today” and other shows recruited a diverse group of journalists to reflect the communities they cover and the audiences they seek.

What I am suggesting is that Curry’s Otherness, real or perceived, might have worked against her as she tried to fit in with — and take a more prominent role in — the chummy morning-show environment.

What do I mean by Otherness?

Think about the things in your background that set you apart from the others who surround you every day — not just your race or religion or age or sexual orientation or political convictions. Maybe you grew up with an easy-going Texas swagger and are having trouble fitting into an abrasive Boston workplace. (Hey, I can say that because I’m from the beloved Beantown.)

Maybe you were raised by an Asian father or Asian mother (or, God forbid, both) and were taught certain cultural norms — to be reserved, to not share private family matters, to not interrupt others, to not be showy about your feelings.

Or maybe you weren’t taught any of these things.

They are simply part of your personality and have nothing to do with your family and their traditions.

But there is this observation from Mike Hale: “There are moments in every show when you feel as if you’re registering Ms. Curry’s true feelings, and in the constructed world of the morning show that honesty can work for you or against you. It’s one thing when we know that you’re moved by the story of a sick child. It’s another when we know that you’re bored by and a little contemptuous of a visiting chef.”

Maybe, as in Ann Curry’s case, you’re just too honest for your own good. Read more

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How to make every word count when writing about people, places & things

If you’d like to bring your story to life in a tight space — say, 500 words or less — try traveling back in time to your 3rd or 4th grade classroom. Back then, your teacher most likely instructed you to write short pieces about a memorable person, place or thing.

He or she probably advised you to identify a theme — and then narrow the scope of your story — by selecting a character, a setting or an object that was relevant to your theme. Of course, some of these writing steps may not come in that exact order. For example, you may be drawn to a certain character as you write your first draft, only later recognizing the theme of your story because of that character.

With all of that in mind, here are some tips for describing people, places and things in short passages.

Writing about a person

Consider how Pico Iyer, author and essayist, focuses on one person in his New York Times piece about a Lawson convenience store in Nara, Japan:

The one person who has come to embody for me all the care for detail and solicitude I love in Japan is, in fact, the lady at the cash register in Lawson. Small, short-haired and perpetually harried, Hirata-san races to the back of the store to fetch coupons for me that will give me ten cents off my “Moisture Dessert.” She bows to the local gangster who leaves his Bentley running and comes in the store with his high-heeled moll to claim some litchi-flavored strangeness.

How does Iyer paint a portrait of Mrs. Hirata in a few sentences? Some tips:

Use a few physical details and mannerisms to help the reader see the character. We understand that Mrs. Hirata is “small, short-haired and perpetually harried.” We’re not given much more, but our imaginations fill in the gaps.

Show the character in motion, when they are busy and interacting with others. Mrs. Hirata races to help the narrator, and we recognize her thoughtfulness. Mrs. Hirata bows to the gangster, and we recognize her deferential personality, as well as her ability to deal with all sorts of people. What this means for your reporting: Budget some time to be a fly on the wall and observe the person you are writing about.

Writing about a place

Let’s turn our attention to describing places. Anthony Bourdain, chef and TV personality, specializes in writing about far-flung locales, many of which are less than romantic. Notice how he describes a hotel room in Pailin, Cambodia, in his 2001 book, “A Cook’s Tour”:

Picture this: a single swayback bed, a broken TV set that shows only fuzzy images of Thai kick-boxing, a tile floor with tiles halfway up the wall and a drain in the middle – as if the whole room were designed to be quickly and efficiently hosed down. There’s one lightbulb, a warped dresser, and a complimentary plastic comb with someone else’s hair in it…

About two thirds of the way up one wall, there are what look like bloody footprints and – what do they call it, arterial spray? The wall opposite has equally sinister stains – evidence of a more opaque substance – these suggesting a downward dispersal. Having seen the bathroom, I can’t blame the perpetrator for anything.

How does Bourdain use one paragraph to put us in the hotel room? Some tips:

Use details — the more precise, the better. The writer introduces us not just to the broken TV set, but to what program is on — Thai kick-boxing; not just to the floor, but one with tiles halfway up the wall. He shows us what look like bloody footprints, arterial spray and other stains. He takes note of the drain in the middle of the room. And then there’s the detail that stands out most to me: the plastic comb with someone else’s hair in it.

Use all five senses. Bourdain doesn’t use all of his senses in this passage. But I’d recommend using sight, sound, smell, touch and taste (well, maybe not taste in the case of the hotel room) to evoke a strong sense of place.

Use different vantage points. Imagine that you’re taking photos of the scene. You will want to take wide shots (capturing the whole scene broadly), middle-range shots (capturing major details) and close-ups (there’s that plastic comb again).

Writing about a thing

Describing an object is another way to narrow the scope of your story. Let’s study a passage written by travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, who loves trains and railways. Here, he describes a train’s sleeping car in his 1975 book, “The Great Railway Bazaar”:

The romance associated with the sleeping car derives from its extreme privacy, combining the best features of a cupboard with forward movement. Whatever drama is being enacted in this moving bedroom is heightened by the landscape passing the window: a swell of hills, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge, or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps. And the notion of travel as a continuous vision, a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth — with none of the distorting emptiness of air or sea — is possible only on a train.

How does Theroux bring the train’s sleeping car to life? A few tips:

Compare the object to something that readers can relate to. Theroux uses two images to help us see the sleeping car: “cupboard” and “moving bedroom.” Even if you’ve never been in a sleeping car, you can begin to visualize what it looks like.

Show the object’s relationship to its surrounding environment. Theroux presents the sleeping car as a vehicle of “extreme privacy,” but he also shows the passing landscape: “a swell of hills, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge, or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps…”

Connect the object to the theme of your story. Theroux develops the theme of romance in this passage, and we come to understand this romance through the sleeping car – the “moving bedroom.” And notice how Theroux’s choice of words resonates with romance and sensuality – “swell,” “surprise,” “loud,” “melancholy.”

All of this raises a larger point: As you narrow the scope of your story, make sure the person, place or thing that you focus on is relevant to your story’s theme. As you become more economical with your words, you must strengthen your vision of the story. Read more

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5 ways young journalists can stay motivated, thrive in the newsroom

Dear Young Journalist,

I’m writing this letter to you because I get the feeling you might need some encouragement right now. (Lord knows, we all need some encouragement right now, but let me focus on you for the moment.)

I’m writing to you not as a sage sitting on top of a hill, but as a fellow journalist (firmly ensconced in middle age) who is fighting alongside you in the trenches.

I’m writing to you as someone who cares about you, and who wants you to stay in the business, because you’re going to help us save this thing we call “journalism.”

I realize that this advice runs counter to conventional wisdom. Many of your colleagues are telling you to flee the newsroom while you still have a chance.

Recently, author Malcolm Gladwell told students at Yale University that they shouldn’t try to make their mark via newspapers. “Newspapers are kind of dreary, depressed places,” Gladwell said. “I would go the penniless Web route to get practice. You can enter the mainstream so much quicker there.”

And Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, told students at the University of North Carolina not to go into journalism if they want to change the world.

I’m not going to argue that newspapers aren’t dreary, depressed places. They are — though there’s still a lot of fun going on, too. I’m not going to argue that you shouldn’t work for a Web news organization — though working for one is probably just as hard as in a “legacy” newsroom.

And I’m not going to argue that you should go into journalism if you want to change the world.

Actually, you should go into journalism if you want to save the world.

My point is that you don’t get to choose the time that you’re called upon to be brave and do your best work. Don’t forget: A time of crisis and change is a time of incredible opportunity.

You can accuse me of being delusional (you’re probably right), but I think I’m pretty clear-eyed. Even as I approach my 25th year in this racket, I make mistakes every day. I get frustrated. I lose my cool. I wallow in doubt. I fall down.

And then I get back up.

I’ve learned some lessons along this bumpy road. They’ve helped me pick myself up and keep going. I haven’t mastered any of them. But I’ll share them anyway, because, well, if you’ve done your time in the news business, you should at least come away with a few bullet points. (Right?)

So let’s begin.

  • Be a learner. I can’t think of another business where you can learn as quickly, widely and, potentially, as deeply as in journalism. Whether you are challenged to understand the latest trends on your beat, how to comb through an obscure public record, or how to employ a classic narrative-writing technique, you are learning something new every day. We make our living by our wits and curiosity. We get paid to ask questions. That’s pretty cool. So even when learning is scary and exasperating (um, what’s that latest tech tool?), let’s embrace that part of our jobs.
  • Dream now. I’m pretty sure that you didn’t get into this business expecting it to be easy or to give you a great sense of security. If you are like me, you probably felt “called.” You fell in love with journalism. You dreamt about it. You decided to follow that dream. Well, now you’re here. Give it a year or two. Or three. Give it your best shot. And if your dream doesn’t work out, move on to your next dream. Dreaming gets harder when you get a mortgage and kids, and when your knees and other joints start to sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies. So: Chase your dreams now.
  • Have a life outside the newsroom. Or get one. When I was just starting out, I promised myself that I would never put my work above my family and friends. And then, over time, I broke my promise to myself. I began to neglect my loved ones, and I lost some along the way. Don’t make the same mistake. Surround yourself with friends and be committed to your family. The work is good, but it won’t be a soft place to land after a hard day. This is something I’ve seen: The journalists who become obsessed with work burn out early. The journalists who build lives outside the newsroom stay happy and productive, and they bring that human perspective to their stories.
  • Take good care of yourself. There’s no way around this: This is a stressful profession. So listen to your mom and dad: Eat well, sleep well and get exercise. It may sound obvious, but these are the basic things that help us stay sane and resilient, even as chaos descends upon us. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was when I was in college. A family friend — a professor — told me that, yes, it’s important to keep studying and learning over the years, but also to stay physically fit. Because that’s going to help you keep attacking the hard work, even as you get older.
  • Find a mentor – and be a mentor. I’ve already written about the importance of mentorship, but it’s worth repeating. Journalism is a craft that you learn mostly by doing, rather than by reading about it in a textbook. So getting the guidance of a mentor is essential. There are kindred souls in your newsroom who will be willing to help. You just have to be a good reporter and find them. We are happy to help you because others helped us, and we want to pay it forward. I’d encourage you to pay it forward, as well. It’s never too early to start; there are plenty of high school and college journalists who need your help. And as you help others, you will begin to see that you are not alone. You will stumble, as we all stumble. You will fall down, as we all fall down. And then you will pick yourself up again.
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5 ways journalists can strike a better work-life balance

One recent afternoon, I walked from my hotel through the historic Art Deco district of South Beach, following the curve of the ocean to South Pointe Park. My parents had chosen Miami as a place for a family reunion, and I was killing time before my loved ones arrived.

At the park, I saw people doing yoga. A young woman sat on top of a hill, reading a book. A gigantic cruise ship slipped through a wide channel. Gulls hung in mid-air. At the beach, a boy was spinning in the waves.

I tried to remember what it was like to be his age, and a voice inside me said: Work less, play more; work less, play more…

This is hard for us journalists, and for anyone driven by work: Finding balance in our frenetic, stressed-out lives.

You never realize just how tired you are, just how disconnected from life you’ve become, until you … just … stop … and … enjoy the day.

I don’t have any sure-fire ways to create a balance in our journalistic lives. (Ironically, I’m writing this column in Miami as I wait to go to dinner with my brother, sister-in-law and 4-month-old niece.)

I’m not even sure that journalists can truly and consistently find such a balance. But there may be a few ways to occasionally nourish our lives outside of work. Here are a few ideas.

Ditch the digital devices for a few hours a week. I don’t bring my phone with me when I go out for a run or to the gym. That’s time I save just for myself, and so I disconnect myself from the digital world, if just for an hour or two. I also try not to look at my phone when I’m out at dinner and with friends (unless, of course, they are all looking at their phones). Can you allow yourself a few hours a week to unplug from your device?

Rediscover what you loved as a child. I always ask my friends and colleagues what their hobbies were when they were kids. Give that some thought. Whether it’s playing the piano, journaling, singing, dancing, drawing, reading fiction, listening to music – chances are, you’ve allowed these passions to slip away in your busy adulthood. I encourage you to tap into those passions again. Often, that will help you remember who you are (or were) outside of work.

Allow yourself to become a fanatic. I think that obsessions can be a good thing (as long as they don’t lead to stalking). I have been a die-hard Dallas Mavericks fan for the past 12 years.

My fanaticism has helped me blow off steam on occasion and bond with other Mavs fans through all the team’s ups and downs. It also means that, at least 20 to 25 times a year, I have to leave work behind and step up for my team, attending a game or watching them on TV at a friend’s house. I know others who have become obsessed about community-league soccer, or gardening, or “Mad Men.” It seems to work for them.

Hang out with people who are not journalists. While journalists’ work can be pretty interesting, I suspect that we can become pretty boring people, especially when we talk shop all the time. I know a young journalist who has built a diverse circle of friends through her running club and a weekly dinner group.

That seems a lot healthier than hanging out with a bunch of journalists who are constantly talking about the decline of their industry. One related tip: Visit your old college or high school friends at least once a year. They really could care less about your journalistic work and will (for better or worse) remind you of who you were when you were younger.

Go someplace new. I try to travel overseas at least once a year because it forces me to step outside of my routine, and it’s a humbling experience to try to figure out how things work in a different culture.

Travel nourishes my life; it gives me a sense of meaning and accomplishment outside of journalism. But you don’t have to go half way around the world to get the same effect. Just make a conscious effort every so often to visit someplace new — maybe it’s an unfamiliar neighborhood in your city.

The possibility of adventure will help bring some balance to your life — and it might even help you become a better journalist. Read more

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3 things journalists can learn from ‘Linsanity’

Like most sports fans (and many non-sports fans, for that matter), I’ve been caught up in Linsanity.

That’s the term fans use to describe Jeremy Lin’s stunning breakout performance as point guard for the New York Knicks.

For those who haven’t been following their social media streams, Lin emerged from the Knicks’ bench to dominate several games, including a 38-point, 7-assist performance against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Under Lin’s leadership, the Knicks are on a five-game winning streak headed into Tuesday night’s game.

What’s unusual about Lin’s story is that he is a Harvard graduate and an American of Taiwanese descent. There haven’t been that many Harvard graduates in the NBA. And, as best as I can tell, there have been only three or four Asian Americans in the league before Lin.

Add in Lin’s apparent good-guy humility and devout Christian faith, and his story resonates with a lot of folks, regardless of their appreciation for his fluid jump shots and acrobatic drives to the basket. (For an explanation of this watershed moment, read Jeff Yang’s exuberant piece for The Wall Street Journal.)

Lin’s story certainly resonates with me. As the son of Chinese immigrants — and an NBA fanatic — I can’t help but feel a sense of pride when I watch Lin play. He excels in an arena where I haven’t seen many people who look like me (except for my Asian brothers and sisters cheering in the stands).

So I’m going to enjoy Linsanity for as long as it lasts. In the meantime, with my journalist’s hat on, I’d like to sketch out three things we can learn from covering this phenomenon.

Even as Lin breaks stereotypes, let’s watch out for subtle stereotyping in our coverage.

I’ve seen Lin described as a quiet and thoughtful young man, as a hard worker. All of this may be true, and who wouldn’t want to be described that way? These are positive traits, and they speak to Lin’s good character.

The problem, though, is that many of these traits are typically ascribed to Asian Americans in a stereotypical way. We in the media often don’t go beyond these surface descriptions to try to understand who the individual is.

The fact of the matter is that Lin appears to be a natural leader – not just a quiet, hard worker. It would be interesting to explore how he has established that leadership on a team of NBA stars in such a short time.

I’ve also seen Lin described as a “shifty” shotmaker. I’m sure the writer’s intent was good; he was trying to describe how Lin uses various feints to get open shots against his defenders. But the writer also needs to be aware of the history of describing Asians as shifty — using deceit to gain an advantage.

The other problem is that when things don’t go well for Lin (and if Lin has a lengthy NBA career, there will be plenty of ups and downs), this shorthand may shift into the negative. I can imagine these statements: “He’s so quiet, he has trouble communicating with his coach and his teammates.” “He’s so thoughtful, he’s overthinking the game and turning over the ball too much.” “He’s a hard worker, but he’s got limited skills, and eventually they’ll figure out how to guard him.”

The great Yao Ming, for example, was knocked for not having enough of a mean streak for cultural reasons. When things don’t go well for Lin, let’s not fall into such simplistic thinking.

Let’s not pigeonhole Lin into restrictive categories.

Ivy League graduate. Asian American man. Devout Christian.

These are all categories that fit Lin, and I’m sure they are all important components to who he is as a human being. But they aren’t the only things that define him. We need to be cautious about stereotypes that linger underneath these labels.

When you think of “Ivy League grad,” what stereotypes come to mind? Brainy, elitist, arrogant? “Asian American man”– inscrutable, passive, reserved? “Devout Christian” — judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou?

I doubt that Lin has any of these traits, though he may have a bit of several of them. People are multidimensional, and it’s our job as journalists to capture some of their complexity. For a nuanced look at Lin as an Asian American Christian, read Michael Luo’s thoughtful essay for The New York Times.

In upcoming profiles, let’s avoid limiting Lin to these boxes. For example, someone likened Lin to the “Taiwanese Tim Tebow,” and I’m not even sure what that means. It seems reductive in the worst manner.

Instead, let’s find out what challenges and obstacles Lin has truly faced in his young life, and how he overcame them. Then we can begin to understand who Lin truly is and why his story may very well transcend the sports story.

This is a feel-good story, so humor should be a part of it. But let’s be careful about using humor that crosses the line.

Perhaps one reason journalists are ga-ga over Jeremy Lin is that his last name inspires a seemingly endless litany of play-on-words headlines: “Linning Time,” “Linning Streak,” “Lingenious,” “Lin the Knick of Time” and, yes, “Linsanity.”

And the signs that fans hold up at basketball games have been pretty creative, too: “Who says Asians can’t drive?”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Point Guard,” and “Me love you Lin time.”

All of this is in good fun, but at some point, the headlines will grow tiresome, and the signs will cross the line into racism. Already, there’s controversy over one fan’s sign at the Knicks-Lakers game: “The Yellow Mamba,” a play off Kobe’s nickname, “The Black Mamba.”

Let’s not kill the joy. But let’s also be aware that what’s funny to some can be offensive to others, especially when it comes to racially-tinged humor.

Jason Whitlock, a FoxSports.com columnist, found that out when, after Lin’s dominance against the Lakers on Friday, he tweeted: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.”

The Asian American Journalists Association swiftly called for an apology, arguing that the tweet didn’t “hold up to the conduct of responsible journalists, those in sports or otherwise, who adhere to standards of fairness, civility and good taste.” (I serve on the national advisory board of AAJA, but I was not involved in the Whitlock matter, and my views in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.)

On Sunday, Whitlock apologized, saying that he had given in to one “part of my personality – my immature, sophomoric, comedic nature…” As AAJA pointed out, “I debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Jeremy Lin’s fast rise to fame is fascinating, because it emerges from the intersection of so many important issues: race, religion, education, sports, marketing, pop culture, social media. His is a fantastic sports story, but it’s so much more than that, too. And it will be interesting to see how this story plays out. Read more

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The 6 things you learn as a journalism mentor

Mentoring is one of the most important things we can do as journalists. But I wonder whether we’re doing nearly enough of it.

It’s a difficult time in our newsrooms, and it’s easy to forget that our colleagues, especially the younger ones, are being asked to sink or swim.

Many of us are fighting for our own survival. So it’s hard to think of lending a helping hand, let alone a sympathetic ear. But our survival depends on our commitment to mentoring others. The act of helping others makes us stronger and wiser leaders. We learn what our strengths and weaknesses are.

And the younger journalists who are brave enough to enter our business today will help us find our way through the news industry’s tumult. They are the ones that we need to nurture and encourage.

What do you need to become a mentor?

You need to be a good listener and ask tough questions. You need to know when to push and when to back off. You need to be supportive and recognize a potential in your colleague that he or she does not yet see. You need to watch your judgmental attitude.

I don’t think you have to be a grizzled veteran to be a mentor; young journalists should mentor others, especially high school and college journalists.

All of that said, mentorship — committed, authentic mentorship — can be a rocky road. Let me first share some of its joys:

  • You learn more about journalism. I find that I learn more about the craft — in my case, reporting, writing and editing — when I mentor others. That’s because I’m forced to break down what I do into smaller parts, ponder why some things work and others don’t, and then articulate that to someone else. That helps me become a better practitioner of the craft. In turn, these journalists end up teaching me what they know. For example, several younger journalists introduced me to social media tools a few years ago.
  • You learn more about yourself. I realize that I’m not nearly assertive enough in the newsroom when I push others to be more vocal. I realize that my patience can be a double-edged sword; sometimes people need a sense of urgency. I realize that sometimes people don’t need an array of solutions, which I’m inclined to give as a former engineer. No, they often just need to vent and know they’ve been heard.
  • You create a legacy. I experience great joy when I watch the success of people I’ve mentored. Some of that joy is altruistic, but I think some of it is selfish, too. I think many of us are seeking some sense of permanence, a legacy that lasts beyond the words we’ve written or the stories we’ve uncovered. When I cross paths with a journalist I’ve mentored — it can be months later, or years later, or decades later — and I see how much they’ve grown and how far they’ve traveled, I think: I gave something of myself to them, and now that small spark lives on.

As I mentioned, mentorship can be rocky. Here are some of its challenges:

  • You realize that you don’t know everything. I get frustrated sometimes because I don’t have all the answers, and sometimes I wish I did. Or I wish that I at least had some of the answers. More and more young journalists are coming to me dispirited and disillusioned, and I try to persuade them to stay in the business. But I worry that I’m misleading them by telling them to keep the faith. Because some of them won’t make it in the business.
  • You come face-to-face with your own flaws. There are times when my impatience and frustration have flared, and I’ve allowed myself to speak in a judgmental way.
  • You realize that you can’t always help. As a mentor, I can be a sounding board and offer advice and do my best to advocate for a colleague. But I can’t promise my colleague a job or a promotion or a plum assignment or even to always be treated fairly in the newsroom. It hurts to watch when a young journalist learns that the newsroom can be a vicious puzzle of a place and that the world is not fair.

So why become a mentor?

I’ve never believed that you can fully learn how to be a journalist in school. Journalism is still one of those trades where you learn through doing and you grow through apprenticeship.

And so we have to step up to make sure that our colleagues are not ignored or neglected. Even though times may be different, we can share our experiences and show them the paths that we have taken.

Ultimately, they will know that they are not alone. Read more

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10 tips for journalists who want to be better presenters

Congratulations! You’ve been invited to teach a session at a journalism conference.

That means your colleagues think you’ve reached a point in your career where you’ve got some wisdom to share. (Or it could also mean that no one else stepped up to volunteer to organize the session.)

Now what?

Here are 10 practical tips gleaned from several years of teaching and attending conference sessions – the good, the bad and the ugly. These tips can help those of you who are preparing newsroom training sessions, as well.

Give yourself enough time to prepare.

As journalists, we tend to wait for a fast-approaching deadline to inspire us. Unfortunately, that attitude will only lead to disastrous teaching. You’re good at what you do. But that doesn’t mean you’ve broken down what you do into steps and thought about the most effective way to teach those steps. That preparation takes time and care.

Focus, focus, focus.

A good presentation is like good storytelling. You can’t try to cover an entire topic. Instead, you need to focus on two or three main points that you want to convey to your audience, and then shape your presentation around those main points. A side note: Some presenters find that using a PowerPoint presentation can help them focus their thoughts. Use PowerPoint if you’re comfortable with it, but avoid making so many slides that you have to rush through them at the end.

Know your audience.

A group of editors, a group of reporters and a group of average citizens are all going to have different perspectives on your topic. A group that includes international journalists may not understand your cultural references or even some of your assumed journalistic standards. Tailor your presentation to the group.

Know your audience’s needs and experience.

Take a minute at the start of your session to survey your audience. How much experience do they have with the topic you’re going to talk about? What tools are they familiar with? What are they hoping to take away from the session?

Avoid war stories.

My eyes glaze over whenever a speaker rambles on, talking about stories that he or she reported on back in the day. Yes, you want to share your personal experience — that’s why you’ve been asked to speak. But make sure to attach a clear, relevant lesson to each “war story” you tell.

Realize that panels are their own beasts.

Panels are not excuses for winging it, and they’re not always the most effective approach to engaging an audience. The best panel sessions require preparation. Select your panel members so that you know you’ll get a diversity of perspectives — perhaps even disagreement. Include a few “ringers” — people who you know are reliable and who can present to great effect. Talk to your panelists ahead of time and e-mail them questions so you can get a sense of what they may say. Then, if you’re the moderator, be prepared to guide the panel with both a light touch and an iron fist. You want to encourage each panelist to have their say. But you don’t want any one panelist to dominate the conversation. If that happens, you’ve got to intervene for the audience’s sake.

Foster the people.

Or: Get your audience to interact with you. I hate it when a presenter says he or she wants a conversation with the audience, and then proceeds to talk and talk. Give some thought to how you’re going to not only foster – but enforce – interactivity. If your audience is small enough, ask folks to pair up or break into smaller groups and work on an exercise. If you’re working with a large audience, ask folks to take a minute to write down their thoughts on the topic and then ask three or four of them to share what they’ve written.

Understand that part of teaching is showmanship.

As an introvert, I struggle with this the most. My father, a venerable university professor, once advised me that “to teach well, you have to bubble with enthusiasm.” Well, I don’t think I’m ever going to “bubble,” but I do understand that to teach, you have to choose entertaining examples and bring drama to your storytelling. A little bit of humor won’t hurt, either.

Save time for questions.

In your prep work, edit your presentation down so that you have 10 to 15 minutes to spare. That will allow you to take questions at the end. Sometimes, the Q&A period is the insightful part of the session.

Make handouts.

In this time of chaos and uncertainty, journalists who attend conferences want to know that they’ve left your session with some practical takeaways. Share your wisdom on the handout and pass it out at the end of your session. And take comfort in knowing that the handout can cover any bullet points that you weren’t able to address in your session. Read more

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