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.


What movies, comic books & songs teach us about writing powerful scenes

Scenes are the building blocks of dramatic storytelling and narrative nonfiction.

As Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark explains in “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer”: “From childhood, we inhale scenes. We experience them from literatures and news reports, from comic strips and comic books, from movies and television, from advertising and public service announcements, from our memories and dreams.”

Why do scenes hook us into stories? Because scenes transport us out of our known worlds and into others. We get to visit people and places we’re less familiar with. “What we gain from the scene,” Clark writes, “is not information, but experience.”

Journalists can bring the power of the scene — always based on strong reporting of the facts — to nonfiction stories both long and short. Here are six key ingredients to writing powerful scenes, based on lessons drawn from a movie, a comic book and a song.

A movie

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite movies was “The Empire Strikes Back.” (Well, OK, it’s still one of my favorites.) Even though I liked the original “Star Wars,” the series’ second installment was darker and more troubling — all the more reason to love it. Of course, the pivotal scene, which you can watch here, is when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker what their relationship is really about.

At that instant, Vader’s sword comes down across Luke’s right forearm, cutting off his hand and sending his sword flying. In great pain, Luke squeezes his forearm under his left armpit and moves back along the gantry to its extreme end. Vader follows. The wind subsides. Luke holds on. There is nowhere else to go. Here’s their exchange:

VADER: There is no escape. Don’t make me destroy you. You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

LUKE: I’ll never join you!

VADER: If you only knew the power of the dark side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

LUKE: He told me enough! He told me you killed him.

VADER: No. I am your father.

There’s a lot to take away from this climactic scene, but two key ingredients immediately come to mind:

  • Conflict. You want to write scenes that reveal what your protagonist is in conflict with, whether it’s external or internal or both. No, your story is not always going to have an intergalactic villain like Lord Vader. But as you’re reporting your story, think carefully about the dilemmas, obstacles and opponents that your protagonist faces on his journey. How does your central character overcome these roadblocks, and what is driving him to do so? Identify and report on scenes that show the protagonist waging this fight.
  • Revelation. Toward the end of your story, you’ll want at least one scene that shows your protagonist discovering something important about herself. She’s not always going to be discovering that she is the offspring of an intergalactic villain and that together they can rule the universe. It’s more likely that she discovers something about herself — her resilience, her cowardice, her capacity to love and hate — as she seeks to reach her goals.

A comic book

As a kid, I fell in love with stories when I started reading comic books. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that many of these comics weren’t just about characters with super powers and utility belts; these comics dealt with deeper themes, including the dark side of vengeance. These two quick scenes (or three comic book panels) explain how young Bruce Wayne decides to become Batman.

Two key ingredients here:

  • Motive. Don’t be afraid to use a flashback in your story — a scene that shows a significant moment in the protagonist’s past that helps explain what her motives are, why she is the way he is, and how she got to where she is. Bruce Wayne is driven to fight crime because of the murder of his parents. Maybe you’re writing about a first-time teacher. Is there a scene that shows how and why she became a teacher? Maybe you’re profiling a politician who is sponsoring a certain law. Is there anything in her past that led her to feel strongly about such a law?
  • Decision points. As you follow your protagonist on her journey — getting through the first day of school, the first week of the legislative session, the first month of rehabilitation — think ahead of time about the important decisions she will have to make. Then do your best to be present when she makes those decisions. You’ll want some of your scenes to revolve around those decisions.

A song

When I was in graduate school, I listened a lot to a young songwriter named Suzanne Vega. I loved her melodies, but I also liked seeing in my mind’s eye the scenes that she painted in her songs. You can hear a short passage from her song, “Tom’s Diner,” here.

The song’s narrator is seated alone in a New York diner, reading the paper and watching strangers interact with one another:

There’s a woman
On the outside
Looking inside
Does she see me?

No she does not
Really see me
’Cause she sees
Her own reflection

And I’m trying
Not to notice
That she’s hitching
Up her skirt

And while she’s
Straightening her stockings
Her hair
Has gotten wet

Oh, this rain
It will continue
Through the morning
As I’m listening

To the bells
Of the cathedral
I am thinking
Of your voice…

And of the midnight picnic
Once upon a time
Before the rain began…

I finish up my coffee
It’s time to catch the train

Two key ingredients here:

  • Details. Notice how Vega uses details to transport us to Tom’s Diner. We see the woman outside looking at her reflection; we see her straightening her skirt; her hair is wet in the rain. We hear the cathedral bells. As you’re reporting your scenes, allow yourself to be a fly on the wall. Use all your senses to soak up details. Observe the people around you and how they move, how they interact with one another. Part of good reporting requires that you be quiet and watchful, rather than feeling compelled to interview people constantly.
  • Emotion. Whenever I listen to “Tom’s Diner,” I feel the narrator’s detachment, sadness and loneliness. Maybe that’s just me, but I think that’s what Vega wanted her listeners to feel. Still, she didn’t explicitly use words like “detachment,” “sadness” or “loneliness.” Instead, she probably gave some thought to specific details that made her experience those emotions. Then she built her scene around those details. For me, that’s the key to writing emotional scenes. Don’t use adjectives or adverbs to try to describe or hype the emotions. Just write with spare language, and use details to put readers there. They will likely experience some of the emotions you felt as you observed the scene.

There are many other ingredients to powerful scenes, but this is a good start: Conflict. Revelation. Motive. Decision points. Details. Emotion. I’d encourage you to think of your favorite scenes from TV, radio, plays, the opera. What ingredients make these scenes compelling to you, and how can you bring these ingredients to the scenes in your stories?

If you want to learn more on how to write powerful scenes, check out my upcoming News University Webinar. Read more

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5 ways to effectively oversee a project involving multiple journalists

For the past four months, I shepherded a Dallas Morning News project on the lasting impact that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had on North Texans and the rest of the nation. The eight-day series includes several Page One stories on topics ranging from 10 years of war and the security state, to reader experiences and attitudes in the Muslim community, culminating in a commemorative section on Sept. 11. We’ve also got a blog and photo galleries online, and a section devoted to 9/11 stories on our iPad app.

Beyond acknowledging the feelings of sadness and grief many of us will have on the 11th, I’d like to reflect on lessons learned in overseeing a project involving dozens of journalists across several departments.

Don’t be afraid of getting a lot of ideas from across the newsroom.

As editors, we sometimes feel like we have to come up with the best ideas ourselves. But the longer I’m an editor, the more I want to create a space for journalists to generate their own ideas. Then it’s my job to select the best ideas and help my colleagues make those ideas even better.

To prepare for the 9/11 series, I hosted a brainstorming meeting in mid-May. I invited about 35 journalists from across all departments. I asked them to brainstorm 9/11 ideas in small groups of five or six journalists (this often helps quieter people participate more quickly). I set one guideline: “No idea is a bad idea today.” We brainstormed for a half hour; then each team shared its ideas with the larger group. We kept the session to an hour and came up with about 75 story ideas.

Some of the journalists in the room eventually became involved in the project; many others did not. The point of the meeting wasn’t to assign stories, but to put as many ideas on the table as possible.

Work with a brain trust to select the best ideas.

When you’re launching a project, identify the journalists in your newsroom who are passionate about the subject. Some may have expertise in the subject; others may have fresh ideas on how to approach telling and presenting the stories. Either way, you should add two or three of them to your brain trust.

This brain trust can help you select and refine the best ideas from the batch you got from your brainstorming session. This group can also serve as a sounding board as you move forward, giving you feedback on what’s working in the project and what could work better.

In my case, the newspaper’s A section editor, Metro’s enterprise editor and several photo and design editors were instrumental in shaping the series and the commemorative section. In June, we worked on getting the list of 9/11 ideas down to what we saw as the best 10. Then, in early July, we held our first 9/11 coverage meeting with department heads and started making story and photo assignments.

Think visually and digitally from the beginning.

A project can have much greater impact on readers and viewers when images, graphics, design and Web components are integrated into the process early on. That’s why it’s so important to involve visual and Web journalists in the project from the get-go. They will have a sense of ownership, contribute story ideas and come up with innovative ways to tell these stories.

For the 9/11 series, I made sure that visual and Web journalists took part in the first brainstorming session. They gave me feedback as I narrowed down the story list, and they had a place at the table at our first planning meeting.

The collaboration paid off. Our photo team brainstormed a Web component to a package of reader reflections that our reporters were putting together – using portraits and audio clips to bring the readers’ experiences to life. Our Web team focused on creating a 9/11 blog that is updated a couple of times a day with staff stories, as well as coverage from other news sources. And our design team came up with a memorable collage concept for the cover of our commemorative section.

Communicate early and often.

Whether you’re working with dozens of journalists across several departments and disciplines, or leading a small team of reporters, transparency in planning is crucial. Transparency isn’t always possible, of course, and who would expect good communication in a newsroom?

At any rate, in projects like the 9/11 series, where there are a lot of moving parts, I find that scheduling a weekly update meeting is helpful (it doesn’t have to be more than a half hour).

Our update meetings started in late July, about eight weeks before the series launched. The meetings consisted of story editors; some reporters; our visual, design, Web and iPad editors; and our copy desk leaders. It was important for the copy desk’s senior editors to be involved in the planning, so that they could read early budget lines and get a sense of the project’s scope.

You’ll also want to find a way to give the project team access to the budget of stories and, if possible, the ability to read one another’s story drafts as they develop. This helps avoid significant story overlaps. Our publishing platform, CCI NewsGate, allowed us to do that.

Don’t be a control freak.

Yes, you’re going to have to exert control and make sure the team meets its deadlines and that the editors and reporters are accountable for their work. You’re  the last line of quality control, the one who pays attention to final details as publication nears.

But you should be prepared to adapt your plans when the unexpected happens. For example, a couple of story ideas came up after the project’s story list had been set for awhile. The editor of the paper had asked me to be selective and not overwhelm readers with too many stories. Still, I felt that these new ideas were worth pursuing, so I gave them the green light.

As newsrooms across the country, including the Dallas Morning News, continue to battle staff and budget cuts, it’s becoming more and more important for departments to collaborate. That’s how we differentiate our coverage from that of other organizations. Read more

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How introverts can strengthen their presence, roles in the newsroom

I am a quiet leader, fumbling and stumbling along, barely able to figure out how to do the leadership thing some days.

Writing has always been my solace — the best way for me not only to lose myself, but to express myself. It’s not a big stretch, then, to understand why I became a journalist, right?

Now that I’ve been in the management racket for a few years, things are harder. Sure, if mimes ever needed a world leader, I’d throw my hat in the ring (or at least make a silent gesture to that effect). But, alas, there are very few mimes here.

And so I’ve been challenged to exercise my vocal cords more and more. I try to speak up at meetings (at least every so often); I network and make small-talk with complete strangers; I give presentations to large audiences.

Still, I think there’s something to be said (or at least murmured) about quiet leadership. If you’re a quiet leader, here’s what I think you can offer.

Be a good listener and observer.

When I was a reporter, my listening and observational skills held me in good stead. I got difficult interviews — with people who were grieving and with people who had been accused of awful things. I approached them quietly, and I think they could sense that I was listening to them without judgment.

I came to understand sensitive and complicated situations not just through interviews, but through observation. I was often a fly on the wall, watching how people interacted with each other, paying attention to what was said and what wasn’t said. This skill became especially important when I reported stories in communities whose languages and cultures I wasn’t familiar with.

You also need to be a good listener and observer to be an effective leader. How else are you going to coach reporters to produce excellent journalism? How else will you understand what your team’s concerns are? How else will you understand how decisions get made in the newsroom, who the key players are, and who you need to collaborate with to get things done?

Use your credibility as a strong platform to speak from.

Chances are, if you’re a quiet type, you moved into management not because of your sterling speaking skills, but because you were good at what you did before you moved into management.

This is not to say that loquacious types aren’t great at what they do. They are, and boy, do many of them talk about it. It’s just to say that, in a work environment that generally values extroverts over introverts (want to argue about that?), quiet types usually get promoted in spite of not talking very much.

So don’t underestimate the credibility that you have in the newsroom. You most likely have a track record of getting things done – no muss, no fuss. Don’t forsake the things you fought so hard for. Use your credibility as a strong platform: Speak up for the things you believe in, whether it’s more powerful storytelling or beat reporting or investigative reporting.

People will most likely stop to listen to what you have to say.

Be calm and resilient, encouraging others through hard times.

Not long ago, I found myself in a conversation with a young editor whom I admire. I admire him not only as a journalist, but as a human being who survived a horrible accident and, throughout his recovery, has lived with and endured more pain than most of us can ever imagine.

He was feeling down for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t planned on going deep in the conversation, but something suddenly told me to speak the truth. I told him: “You are one of the strongest warriors in this newsroom. People need you to be a positive force right now.”

At that moment, I realized that even though I’ll never be the loudest person in the room, I can, even if it’s behind the scenes, encourage people to do good work – and all the better if they are the extroverts who can, in turn, rally the newsroom.

Find ways to show enthusiasm

If you’re a quiet leader, you’re probably not the biggest cheerleader in the room. In fact, people might wonder, sometimes, whether you are interested or disinterested, engaged or disengaged. They can’t tell what’s going on in that head of yours.
I don’t think the answer is to fake being a cheerleader, because that will just come off as being phony.

The trick is to show your enthusiasm in ways that are authentic to who you are. Treat a colleague to lunch if you’re interested in the work he or she is doing. Write a personal note of praise if you were wowed by a reporter’s story. Share stories from other publications that your teammates might enjoy and learn from. As my friend Butch Ward of Poynter says, take the time to ask, “How are you doing?” and truly listen to the response.

Serve as a mentor.

The longer I’m in this business, the more I realize how important it is to mentor younger journalists. Perhaps it’s the most important thing we can do as leaders, whether we’re extroverts or introverts. These young people are brave souls for getting into the news business at this time. Some jaded folks would call them naïve and foolhardy, but I don’t see that.

I just tell them that they will have to truly love journalism — they will learn soon enough whether they do or not — to get through the next several years. And they will have to learn to live with uncertainty.

I listen closely to what these journalists tell me — stories about their dreams and doubts. I find that it helps in these situations to not be so talkative, because really they aren’t looking to be regaled by war stories. They want you to be a sounding board; they are looking for reassurance; they are looking for someone they can trust.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve lost staffs and sections. I’ve seen many friends walk out the door. I’ve seen as much loss as the next person. But I can tell these young people that what we do as journalists still makes a difference, and that we need them in the game, because they are the ones who are going to figure out what journalism is going to look like next.

So, to my fellow quiet types, I offer encouragement: Speak up and assert yourself. But also know that you have many powers that you can use for good in the newsroom. Read more

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Tips for finding your voice as a newsroom leader

Finding your voice. It’s one of the hardest things to do, whether it’s developing your writing style, establishing your role in a relationship or leading others through difficult times.

Finding your voice in the chaos of the newsroom is especially hard if you’re the quiet type.

I know from personal experience. I grew up in a family where we were encouraged to listen to others and not interrupt. Try behaving that way in a news meeting and you’ll never get a word in edgewise.

Finding your voice is hard because it requires you to know some important things about yourself — what you value, what you love, what you will stand up for. And it requires that you be comfortable with yourself, warts and all.

A strong voice doesn’t always have to be loud, but it has to be authentic, honest and clear. And so, if you’re like me and you constantly struggle to find your voice in the newsroom, or if you’re mentoring a colleague who has the same struggle, you might need some tips. Here are some you can start applying now.

Communicate what you stand for.

  • Take some time to reflect on three or four key things that you stand for in the newsroom. Maybe you want to push for stronger investigative reporting, or create a collaborative process for multimedia storytelling, or foster more powerful visual packages, or help reporters venture into under-covered communities. Think about what values might lie behind those goals: public service, storytelling, diversity, collaboration, technology. What do you stand for?
  • Use every opportunity to speak up about the values that are close to your heart — in coaching sessions, critiques, news meetings and one-on-one conversations. Of course, you can’t just talk the talk; you have to walk the walk and be a dedicated student. For example, let’s say that connecting with readers and viewers is key to you, and you want to help develop your news organization’s social media strategy. Make sure to engage in social media yourself and study its best practices. Meet up with other colleagues who have social media expertise and soak up their knowledge.
  • Remember that communicating is not just about talking or writing. It’s about how you conduct yourself. You have to lead by example. For example, if collaboration is a key value for you, you have to incorporate teamwork into your daily work. If you’re an advocate for narrative storytelling, share some great narratives with your staff.

Speak up at meetings.

  • If your organization has a regular critique, daily news meeting or weekly planning meeting, come prepared to say at least one or two things. If you’re going to attend a meeting to brainstorm ideas, come prepared with some ideas.
  • If you have trouble formulating your thoughts or articulating what you want to say, write down what you want to say ahead of time.
  • Raise your hand so that you commit to saying something. Try to do that within the first four or five comments. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to jump in.
  • If you’re a quiet person, you’re probably a good listener. Use your listening skills to your advantage. Try speaking up by tying a few threads together, or “piggy-backing” on what another participant said and expanding on it.

Engage others in one-on-one conversations.

  • Get out of your office or cubicle and do the walkabout. I fail miserably at this all the time, but I try, at least once a day, to walk through the newsroom and check on how people are doing. I stop by reporters’ desks and pay visits to photo and graphics editors. I learn so much about how they’re doing, what’s going on in the newsroom and what stories I haven’t heard about — and I get great story ideas.
  • Make sure to use eye contact and facial expressions to show your attention. Don’t let your computer or telephone (or smartphone!) distract you. When you’re in a conversation with your colleague, give him or her your full attention.
  • Take time to truly listen, rather than thinking of your next point in the conversation. Learn how to restate what you’ve heard to show that you understand what the person has said.

What additional tips do you have? Feel free to share them in the comments section. Read more

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6 questions that can help journalists find a focus, tell better stories

As an editor, I try to ask good questions. That’s because I’m a curious person, overflowing with sentences that end in question marks.

It’s also because, as Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark once wrote, “Teachers and editors best operate as resources for writers, by conferring with writers, not telling them what to do.”

I don’t mean to say that I never give writers suggestions. But I try to start with questions that spark a writer’s imagination. I push the writer to think harder about the story’s theme. I encourage the writer to try fresh approaches to storytelling.

We know the basic questions that journalists strive to answer when chasing a news story — questions starting with “who,” “what,” “where,” when,” “why” and “how.”

Here are a few other questions I like to ask writers — usually right before they start their reporting, and then right before they sit down to write.

Even if you’re on deadline, try having a 10-minute conversation guided by these questions. As an editor, the coaching you provide on the front-end can often save you time revising the story after the fact.

How would you tell this story to a friend? I like asking this question because it encourages the writer to think about the most interesting and relevant nuggets of the story. We’re good at considering the news value of a story, but we’re not always as good pondering the “Why should the reader care?” part. Having the writer imagine telling the story to a friend can help him or her think about why we should care. This approach can also help the writer move away from any jargon and bring a conversational tone to the piece.

What would an early headline be for this story, knowing that the headline is not set in stone? This is a variation on the question, “What is this story really about?” Boiling the premise down to five or six words can help the writer sharpen the story’s focus. In my newsroom, we’re asking reporters and line editors to write early Web headlines and short summaries on top of their stories. This is largely for production reasons, but the added benefit is that we’re encouraging writers and editors to get at the heart of the story earlier in the process.

What surprised you? As much as I hate to admit it, many, if not most, of the stories that journalists produce are written in a predictable way. Asking about “surprise” can help the writer shed his or her journalistic mantle, at least for a moment, and just react to the story’s events as a human being. Who were the quirky personalities you met? What was a jarring quote you heard? What did you not see coming? What interesting details and anecdotes do you have in your notebook that you left out of the story, and how do we get one or two of them back in?

What are the unanswered questions? As journalists, we’re not always good at spelling out what we don’t know in a story, especially if it’s a breaking story. Oftentimes, we try to write around the holes. Better to be clear and ’fess up in the story about what remains to be explained and clarified. This question also prompts the writer and editor to compile a list of questions for any follow-up stories.

How do we bring something new to this story? Your best reporters want to be challenged. And chances are, if they are veterans, they have tackled a story similar to the one they are tackling now. What better way to challenge them than to ask them to come up with a fresh approach to the story? The approach could involve words, but it could also involve photography, graphics and online elements. This question will also help writers think about collaborating with visual journalists across the newsroom.

What’s the glimpse of wisdom we can offer? The best stories for me are those that not only tell readers something they don’t know, but also resonate with readers because they touch upon a universal theme. They offer readers a “glimpse of wisdom” — an important lesson that the people we’re writing about have learned — whether it’s about love or loyalty, betrayal or resilience. Those are the most satisfying stories for me. Equipped with cable TV, laptops, tablets and smart phones, our readers are lost in a sea of information. They are hungry for context and meaning. The “glimpse of wisdom” is one of the most important things we can offer them. Read more

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Coverage of Japanese citizens’ ‘stoic’ response to tragedy both accurate, stereotypical

A master narrative has developed around the media’s coverage of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, leading us to believe that there are cultural roots in the Japanese citizens’ stoic response to all the horrors of the past few weeks.

In The Christian Science Monitor, Gavin Blair writes: “Amid all the destruction, shortages and despair, one thing stands out: the character of the Japanese people, which remains almost unflinchingly respectful, honest and conscientious through these darkest of times.”

In Canada’s National Post, Kathryn Blaze Carlson describes how lines “for water and fuel are single-file. Shoes are neatly arranged in the shelters. … There have been no reports of looting, as there were in earthquake-ravaged Haiti or after Hurricane Katrina or in a flood-riddled England in 2007.”

Even my journalism hero, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, opines: “So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where [the disasters] haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers … risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown.”

What’s behind the resilient spirit of the Japanese?

John Nelson, a cultural anthropologist who works at the University of San Francisco, explained to the National Post’s Carlson that, “In Japanese culture, there’s a sort of nobility in suffering with a stiff upper lip, in mustering the spiritual, psychological resources internally. There’s even a word for quietly enduring difficult situations: ‘Gaman.’ ”

The basic idea here is that, through centuries of war and natural disaster (not to mention the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the Japanese took on the cultural concept of “toughing it out.”

And who am I to question whether this is true?

When I traveled through Japan in 1998 and 2005, I saw how caring, polite, respectful and orderly its citizens are.

Whenever I got lost, people went out of their way to help me find my way. I could walk the streets of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo late at night and never feel unsafe. And, this may seem a small point, but the trains always arrived and departed exactly on time.

There is something special about the Japanese people and their culture — not just their resilience, but their attention to style and detail, their spirituality, and their strange juxtaposition of modern and traditional.

It’s why I’ve long been drawn to Japan. It’s why I dream of visiting again.

But: I’m worried that the portrayal of the Japanese as a stoic people is too much of a shorthand, if not a stereotype, as positive a stereotype as it may be.

The problem with what I call “reporting in shorthand” is that it allows journalists to cover people at a superficial level — especially those from a less than familiar culture — and not probe any deeper.

As long as we can rest on cultural generalizations, we believe we understand the situation. Unfortunately, the situation in Japan is more complex than that. People are more nuanced than that.

Let’s push for more precise, shoe-leather reporting like that of Martin Fackler of The New York Times, who in recent days has traveled to destroyed hamlets and cut-off community centers.

Fackler describes how those “in the shelters try to maintain the orderly routines of normal Japanese life, seen in the tidy rows of shoes and muddy boots at the doorway to the shelters, where everyone is in socks. But there are also stressful differences: the lack of privacy, the growing odors of hundreds of unwashed bodies and the cries of fear every night during the countless aftershocks.”

The fact is that not all Japanese people are stoic, just as not all Japanese people are militaristic like the soldiers in all those old war movies.

When I look at the photos from Japan, I see people in deep grief and utter shock. And many others, no doubt, are masking their strong emotions — anger, sadness, bewilderment.

“Such apparent calm is not necessarily evidence of a uniquely Japanese type of hardiness,” argues Gavin Rees, the director of Dart Centre Europe, a branch of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. “In fact, scientific research from other mass-casualty disasters around the world shows that panic is more rare than we imagine. In traumatic situations, people commonly experience elevated emotional states, but may appear quite restrained and calm on the surface.”

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of “The Unthinkable,” a book about how the brain works during disasters, makes this point in her blog: “There’s something a touch patronizing in all of this, and I suspect it says more about the rest of us than it does about the Japanese. Namely, that we expect panic and hysteria and are awed when we don’t see it.”

She cites previous news stories that described stoicism in calamities that hit far-flung places ranging from Chile and Cameroon to China and Missouri.

“Why do we expect people to behave otherwise?” she asks. “When humans endure trauma and stress, they are usually quiet, passive and obedient. That’s not because they are superhuman. That’s because in most circumstances, it is in their survival interest to gather information and help each other.”

Still, why can’t we admire the Japanese for how they have endured these disasters? Well, we can. And we should. But just because they may appear stoic now doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing profound inner turmoil, or that they won’t have related problems later. Once the Japanese get past the basic issues of survival, their struggles with mental health will become significant.

As Rob Gifford of National Public Radio reports, there’s still a stigma in Japan about going to see a counselor. A grief counselor told him that “Japanese patience and inner strength are admirable. But … whatever culture you are from, keeping it all bottled up doesn’t help.”

Let’s make sure that our perception of Japanese stoicism doesn’t prevent us — whether we’re journalists, aid workers or concerned readers — from understanding just how devastated Japan is, and just how much support its people need. Read more

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11 ways for editors & reporters to communicate better when working from afar

Working with reporters from afar is something I’ve often struggled with. Not seeing each other on a daily basis makes it harder for the editor and reporter to communicate. E-mails get misinterpreted. Periods of silence — we all get busy — can create anxiety: Have I done something wrong?

It’s even more complicated if you don’t know the other person very well. You may not understand when he or she is being serious or joking. You may think a curt e-mail signifies frostiness rather than someone trying to meet a deadline on another matter.

While on the phone, you may need to talk through an idea at length, while the other person may need time to think. Such differences in communication styles can lead to misunderstandings, especially in long-distance editor-reporter relationships.

As an editor, chances are you’ll eventually work with reporters in distant bureaus or with freelance writers based elsewhere. I’ve come up with a few tips for editors who face this situation, and I also asked for advice from two Dallas Morning News colleagues who are especially good at working with reporters from afar — Janie Paleschic, deputy business editor, and Ryan Rusak, state government and politics editor.

Whenever possible, use the phone instead of e-mail.

There’s nothing like the human voice (even if it’s disembodied) to create a better connection between people. Plus, you can pick up on the nuances in a phone conversation better than in an e-mail exchange. Even better, you may want to explore using Skype, the online video/phone tool.

“Taking time to reach out and to listen when you are not on deadline helps establish the trust that a reporter and editor need to be an effective team,” said Paleschic, who worked on the foreign news desk for several years. “Knowledge and understanding of a reporter’s situation is crucial. An editor may need to provide the calm center in a turbulent world.”

Make sure to talk to the reporter not just about assignments, but about what’s going on in the newsroom.

“Take time to explain newsroom management’s thinking on various topics, the current vogue for certain kinds of stories, the push for more graphics…” Paleschic said. “This helps the reporter avoid the paranoia that can grow in a small bureau when people feel isolated.”

Use e-mail for quick updates and for sharing drafts.

When I’m editing a draft, I typically write my suggestions in bold in the text and use double parentheses around proposed trims.

I call the reporter, ask her to read through the draft as I talk to her about my suggestions, and ask her to revise the draft herself. I only revise the draft myself if we are on deadline. Bonus tip: Avoid using sarcasm in your e-mails. It doesn’t translate well.

Use conference calls to patch the reporter in to staff meetings. Also include the report in discussions with photo, graphics and online editors about the reporter’s stories.

While it’s good to use the phone, don’t overuse it.

If you’re like me, the number of tasks you have to accomplish as an editor in any given day can be overwhelming.

Avoid getting drawn into long phone conversations by setting up a weekly call (ranging from a half-hour to an hour) to chat about short-term and long-term issues, plus story ideas and challenges on the beat.

Let the reporter know when your meetings and busy periods are.

For example, if you have news meetings at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, the reporter ought to know it will be difficult to reach you at those times. If Wednesday is your production day, it will probably be hard to have an in-depth conversation on that day. Similarly, if you know that a reporter is in writing mode or on deadline, you probably won’t want to call her unless it’s urgent.

Respect time differences.

“If a reporter is in another time zone, do what you can to accommodate them on deadlines and on work/life balance,” Rusak said. “Similarly, they should understand that deadlines for the publication are what they are – and plan accordingly.”

Ask the reporter to e-mail a short progress report at the end of each week.

The report should explain what the reporter has accomplished and what’s on the horizon. This can help you keep track of stories and get a heads up on any emerging issues for the next week.

Take advantage of visits.

When a reporter is in town, make sure to schedule lunch, dinner or coffee. You’ll want that face time to get to know each other. On occasion, Paleschic would even accompany reporters on shopping trips.

“Foreign correspondents often needed time to shop for basic items not easily found in their country,” she said. “Sometimes I would go along, and this helped our bond. I still encourage Washington bureau staffers to get to Dallas at least once or twice a year.”

During the visit, arrange for the reporter to meet with other staff members to help him feel more connected to the newsroom. In turn, if you have the funds (I realize resources are strapped these days), schedule a visit to the reporter’s bureau to get a better sense of his work environment.

Consider using social media to stay connected.

Not everyone is comfortable with this, understandably so. If you do decide to friend your reporters on Facebook or follow them, and be followed by them, on Twitter, you’ll need to be careful about blurring professional and personal lines. At the same time, social media is an effective way of staying in touch with colleagues who work elsewhere.

Realize that distance can also sometimes be an advantage.

“When you have a disagreement and need some space,” Rusak said, “it’s not hard to come by.” Read more

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6 questions for reporters & editors who want to build their relationship

In a previous column I wrote about how, as an editor, it’s important to build your relationship with a reporter before critiquing his or her stories with candor. You want to lay down a foundation of trust, so the reporter knows that the criticism is about the work, not the person. You want reporters to know that you’re rooting for them.

Some editors exude not only competence, but compassion, and (at least to the observer) appear to forge their relationships with ease. Other editors stumble; they get wrapped up in their work or authority, holding staff members at arm’s length.

Then there are editors (often newly minted) who are eager to please. They forget to set boundaries with their staff and get drawn into one personal drama after another.

Here are three questions for the editor — plus three questions for the reporter — to help each gauge the relationship.

Three questions for the editor:

1. Do I know the names of my staff members’ partners and children?

I’m not suggesting that you pry into the private lives of your staff. But knowing these names is a sign that you’ve spent a little time talking about life outside of work. It means that you’ve listened when one reporter’s daughter has triumphed at the science fair, and another reporter’s spouse has moved a parent into a nursing home.

2. Have I asked my staff members what they hope to accomplish — and where they hope to be — in three to five years?

The way the news industry is going, it’s hard to know where any of us will be in three years. But you still want to get a sense of your staff’s goals and ambitions. As a boss, your job is not just to shape the work, but to develop people. You want to help them get to the next level, whether that’s a plum assignment in your newsroom or a job at another news organization. Yes, I know that last goal can be painful, especially when you can’t fill openings, but how can you truly develop people without expecting that some will leave?

3. How comfortable are you with the interplay of emotions in the editor-reporter relationship?

This is one of the hardest areas for me, and, I would imagine, for most editors. I’ve had reporters break down in my office as they struggled with personal issues. Others have showered me with love one week, then acted out with hostility the next. My general approach has been to try to be even-keeled — to calm them down by remaining serene (or at least serene on the surface).

At the same time, sometimes reporters need to see your emotions. Several years ago, on a day when dozens of people were laid off in my newsroom, I lost it. Consumed by anger and sadness, I walked into my office– and proceeded to trash it. A reporter later told me that it meant a lot to see that. Now, I’m not recommending that you trash your office. But for your relationships to thrive, your staff has to see you as a human being, warts and all.

Three questions for the reporter:

1. Have I invited my editor to an event related to my beat or a restaurant in the community I cover?

Editors get chained to their desks and their schedules. Sometimes they just need a nudge to remind them that there’s a real world outside the newsroom. As a reporter, you can show them a glimpse of your beat, whether it’s at a public hearing or a community festival. As you chat with your editor outside of the workplace, you might begin to see other facets of who he or she is.

2. Do I know what my editor’s passions and hobbies are?

As you build a rapport with your editor, don’t forget that you’re good at doing this; it’s how you cultivate sources on your beat. You chat them up, you find out what their interests are, you try to find common ground. At worst, you’ll have topics you can make small talk over. At best, you might discover that you both love the Jayhawks (not the University of Kansas basketball team, but the Minneapolis band) and start sharing music.

3. Have my editor and I talked about our favorite writers?

You and your editor can talk all you want about the craft of writing, but really, the main way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. That’s why it’s important that you and your editor talk about writers you admire (it doesn’t matter in what category: fiction, nonfiction, journalism, poetry, etc.) and share books, magazine pieces and news stories that you like. What worked? What didn’t? How is the piece similar to what you’re trying to produce? If your editor doesn’t have any favorite writers, well, you might want to start looking for another editor. Read more

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10 tips for working with reporters who are sensitive to criticism

Your first few months as an editor can be tough. A couple of things dawn on you. You realize that editing is really an art (perhaps even a dark art), not a science. And you realize that you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. The way you edit stories and offer suggestions might work for one reporter, but not for another.

iStockphoto image

One question that comes up a lot: How do you work with reporters who are particularly sensitive to criticism? I still have my good days and bad days in this realm, but here are 10 tips.

Build your relationship first.

Avoid offering blunt criticism when you’re just getting to know a reporter. As a coach, you’ll want to develop your relationship with the reporter and read their stories over time to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are. You’ll also want to figure out how your communication styles mesh. As with most relationships, you’ll be able to be more frank as you build trust.

Make it about the work, not the person.

Avoid using phrases like, “You need to [insert task here]”; “You neglected to [insert task here]”; “You should get better at [insert task here].” Couch your suggestions in terms of the story: “The story would benefit from X, Y and Z”; “We could strengthen the story by doing X, Y and Z”; “We could clarify this passage by doing X, Y and Z.”

Present yourself as the first reader of the reporter’s story, not as a supervisor or God’s gift to journalism.

Frame your conversation this way: “You’re the expert on this subject and understand this better than me. Reading the story cold, I didn’t understand X, Y and Z. Can you help me understand this better?”

Put your criticism in context.

I always like to point to the strengths of the story and let the reporter know that the foundation of the story is already solid — we’re just talking about ways to get the story to the next level. So don’t forget to be clear and specific about what works in a story. At the same time, keep in mind that most reporters have good B.S. detectors, so don’t try to soften your criticism with a long preamble of praise.

Ask good questions.

Great coaches ask good questions that help the reporter think through what might be missing in a story. Rather than giving the reporter a laundry list of instructions, try asking a few open-ended questions: “What is the overarching theme of your story?” “What are you trying to achieve in this section of the story?” “How can we move through this passage more quickly?” “Why are you introducing the character in this section, rather than the next one?”

Be specific in your criticism.

When I was a reporter, there was nothing I found more frustrating than when an editor would say, “This part of the story isn’t working for me,” but couldn’t point to WHY it wasn’t working. That’s where the craft of editing has to come in. Is the lede not related to the theme of the story? Are the verbs not strong enough? Does a character need more development in one of the sections of the story? Figure out what specifically needs improvement, and then articulate that clearly to the reporter.

Plan on face-time.

If you have any time at all, try to talk about stories (especially at the front-end, rather than when you’re trying to fix the story) and offer your suggestions face-to-face, not via e-mail. Especially as you are building your relationship with the reporter, you’ll want to sit side-by-side as you go over the edit.

Ask the reporter to make the changes.

Offer concrete suggestions, but set the expectation that the reporter will figure out how to improve the copy and make the changes herself. The less you as the editor touch the copy, the better.

Pick your battles.

In your conversation with the reporter, focus on the two or three major areas where a story can be improved. Don’t get bogged down in nit-picks. Those can come later in the final line edit of the story. Also, as the old saying goes, “Tie goes to the writer.” If you and the reporter are arguing back and forth, and it’s not clear that your suggestion is going to significantly improve the story, then let it go.

Ditch the red pen.

This may seem minor, but give some thought to how you mark up the reporter’s copy, especially if you work on hard copy. A manuscript riddled with the scrawl of a red pen (along with double and triple question marks) can be daunting. Consider using a black or blue pen. Or even a classic No. 2 pencil, if they still have those in your newsroom. Read more

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3 key moments to identify when coaching writers

For the editor, coaching means engaging the writer in an ongoing conversation about the story, from the conception of the idea to the final edit. The more the editor can invest time and thought in this conversation, the less work she’ll likely face in “fixing” the story when it comes in.

Let’s focus on three key moments in coaching. The editor can reduce or expand these questions depending on the scope of the story and the amount of time she has for the conversation.

Key moment #1: After the idea, before reporting

In this conversation, you can help the reporter sharpen the idea, develop an initial premise for the story and prepare for any potential minefields in the reporting. Here’s a set of questions that you can use to guide the reporter:

  • Why are we doing this story, and why will the reader care?
  • Knowing that the premise will evolve during the reporting, what do you think this story could be about?
  • What are our expectations of the story? We’ll be flexible about the story’s scope depending on what we find out, but let’s start talking about story length and the amount of time for reporting.
  • What are some of the key questions to address in the story?
  • What sources should we consider? Who are the stakeholders? If applicable, whom might you tell the story through?
  • Does the story, at least as we understand it now, represent a larger trend? What background do we need to understand this trend?
  • Do we need to address issues of ethics and diversity?
  • Are there any previously published stories from newspapers, books or magazines that I can share that will inspire the reporter?

Key moment #2: After the reporting, before writing

In this conversation, you can help the reporter talk about what he found out in the reporting, sharpen the focus of the story and consider different approaches to telling the story.

  • What is the question driving the story?
  • What is the news?
  • What is the story really about? Can you say it in two to three sentences? In one word?
  • What surprised you most?
  • If it’s possible, how do you tell this story differently than previous stories on the subject?
  • Who do you think might be the main character or characters in this story? Or, put another way, who will be featured most prominently in the story?
  • What are the quotes, anecdotes, details, scenes that stand out to you?
  • Are there any lines of tension or conflict that you’d like to develop in the story?
  • What are some possible beginnings and endings to the story?

Key moment #3: The first edit

In this conversation, you can give the reporter feedback and talk about premise, simplicity, clarity and story flow.

  • After writing the first draft, does the premise of the story still hold? How are you conveying what the story is really about?
  • What can you do to make the story’s language simple and clear?
  • Are there any differing viewpoints that need to be reflected in the story?
  • Knowing that we’re interested in tight, powerful writing, take a look at these story elements and keep only those that are relevant to the point/theme of the story: quotes, details, anecdotes, scenes, characters. Does the beginning hook you into the story? Does the ending resonate with you? Does the structure of the story have a logical flow? Does it set up the story effectively? If applicable, does the flow add to the sense of drama?

If you take advantage of these three key moments and ask some of these questions, you and the writer will be happier with the process and the end result. Read more

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