Tips for reporting and telling stories with traditional and new tools, including “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark.

Fast Food Restaurant

Three ways to serve up better dailies

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

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

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

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

Another story falls victim to media bias.

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

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

I first heard the concept of Production Bias in 2001 when I was working with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, authors of The Elements of Journalism, and they were developing a newsroom curriculum based on the book. Production Bias was among a number of terms identified to help journalists understand that the first step in mitigating a bias is to acknowledge its existence.

I joined them in a number of newsrooms where we asked the staff if Production Bias existed. Without fail, the journalists said yes.

And let’s be honest: it’s more prevalent today than when I got that impatient reporter’s call more than a decade ago. In fact, in some newsrooms it’s mutated: If the story can’t be done in two hours, we won’t do it.

Am I exaggerating? Sure. But spend a few hours scanning the web sites of news organizations around the country, and tell me how many meaty profiles, in-depth analyses and just plain surprising stories you find.

Clearly, a whole lot of good stories are not being done.

Could this have anything to do with our disappearing audiences?

We’re all familiar with the changes that have contributed to the spread of Production Bias. Less staff to do more work. The 24/7 news cycle. Publishing on multiple platforms. The demands of multimedia.

But the biggest reason, I’d suggest, dates back to a notion that held forth long before we were tweeting or blogging or gathering multimedia.

Our newsrooms are preoccupied with filling.

Fill the show. Fill the book. We can’t do that story because we need everyone to help us fill.

One newspaper editor told me that several years ago, he flat-out told his staff to stop worrying about filling the book. “I want everyone, every day, to write for the front page,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have plenty of good stories left over to fill the book.”

I asked him how it’s going. Slowly, he said. A few more good stories are getting done each day. “Everyone says they want to take risks, but they don’t,” the editor said. “They find a great deal of safety from filling the book.”

Filling is a hard habit to break.

But we’ve got to get started. How about this modest goal: if our news reports are going to be dominated by one-day stories, let’s make them better. Even memorable.

How?

Here are three ideas, inspired by a handful of print and broadcast stories that were reported, written and produced in one day.

The first story was reported in 2009 by Boyd Huppert at KARE in Minneapolis. Watch and then we’ll talk.

Idea Number 1. Frame the story tightly. Think about where this story was reported and during what time frame. One Checkers, one shift. I can think of many similar, but less powerful, stories done by reporters who visited multiple businesses over several days. Stories, no matter how quickly they are reported, benefit from a well-defined, tight frame.

David Barstow, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, says that the tighter the frame you put on your exploration of an issue or event, the deeper you can go. His tick-tock on nine crucial minutes aboard the burning Deepwater Horizon is a classic example of tight framing. (And no, it was not done in one day.)

But Huppert’s Checkers story shows that it’s just as important to place a tight frame around your daily story. The frame helps the writer decide what pieces of reporting to put in and what to leave out. It helps you identify your lead and your ending. And it can help you choose your story structure.

So when you embark on a story, don’t just think about the issue or event you’re covering. Spend some extra time thinking about how you’ll tell that story—how you’ll frame it. And remember: the sooner you identify the frame, the sooner you can zero in on the reporting you need to do.

Here’s another daily story that teaches a great lesson. It’s by Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times. Have a read.

Idea Number 2. Do some planning. Often we know in advance—sometimes weeks in advance—that that we will be doing a daily story on some event or issue. Thinking about the story ahead of time (and how we might tell it) affords us the chance to identify reporting opportunities, set up some interviews. DeGregory had covered Officer Yaslowitz’s funeral, and knew that at some point, she wanted to follow up with the policeman’s widow. Once she decided to tell the story through the frame of Mrs. Yaslowitz’s first day back at kindergarten, she could make the calls necessary to give her access.

When our daily stories involve breaking news, we’re left to scramble to find sources and arrange interviews. But many of our best one-day stories don’t involve breaking news—they involve the community’s ongoing life. If we can identify more of those stories, and plan in advance how we’ll do them, we’ll have more time during our one-day window to devote to reporting and writing.

Now here’s a story by Diane Tennant of the Virginia-Pilot that was done in a day and takes some creative risks. Have a look.

Idea Number 3. Ask yourself, “What’s this story’s purpose?”

Some stories are meant to expose wrongdoing. Others aim to inform. Some help members of a community better understand each other.

And some just plain entertain.

Along the way, Tennant’s story also demonstrated to readers of the Virginian-Pilot the role that social media is playing in their community. But at its heart is a cute story that caused one reader to say in an email: “Thank you, what a pleasant surprise to read such a tender story in the paper this morning!”

One of my former editors used to say that every day’s news report should include a surprise—a story that readers and viewers would find nowhere else, and which would remind them why they valued us. Tennant’s story was a surprise.

I asked her about her story’s purpose, and she said she had not thought much about that.

“When I saw Binky’s picture on Facebook, I called my family’s attention to it, and then it kind of struck me that if Binky’s story amused me and my family, and had amused the restaurant’s followers on FB, then it would probably resonate with The Pilot’s readers, too.”

Her answer made me think she knew exactly what she wanted her story to accomplish. She wanted it to amuse me. It did.

Oh, and just to make sure no one thinks the Virginian-Pilot has eschewed serious journalism, “Binky’s Big Adventure” ran in a paper whose front page featured the “Defiant Governor” vowing to expand Medicaid over the legislature’s objections; and an enterprise story on how the history of accidents involving military drones raises questions about the possibility of increased drone traffic.

Bonus time. Back to Lane DeGregory for a story that puts this all together. Take a read.

Did this story make use of all three ideas?

Tight frame: The focus was on one woman, returning to confession on one night, at one church.

Advance planning: DeGregory obtained advance permission for a reporter and photographer to attend the service and approach attendees. (She avoided wasting half her evening wandering from church to church in search of someone she could interview—and photograph.)

Purpose: The story explored a question as old as the human race—what propels a person to seek forgiveness from God?

DeGregory explains her process:

“I had seen an ad on TV about the Catholic Church opening its doors for people to come ‘home.’ My husband is a recovering Catholic, as he calls it, and I was interested in who might return, and why they left, and what they hoped to get out of it. I called a couple different churches, mostly ones where I knew people who attended so I could drop names, and got that one to agree to let me in. We weren’t allowed to go into the confessional, which was a bummer, especially for the photographer. But we came early, not knowing who—if anyone—we would find, and the line stretched around the church. We approached probably 20 people who didn’t want to talk before finding this one sweet woman who was hesitant, but willing.

“I left about 8 p.m., I think, and wrote it by 10 p.m. for the next day.”

Lane said she was attracted to this story by plain old curiosity.

“I was brought up being made to go to Methodist church, where we didn’t confess. And I’ve never gotten why anyone would want to spill their sins. But I just thought something powerful must be happening to draw someone back to the church after all these years, not to go to a Sunday service but to confess something. I knew there would be drama and mystery and God and sorrow and regret there. And a quiet, reverent scene.”

For me, these three ideas add up to a sound strategy for writing better daily stories. Start by choosing stories with the potential to be memorable. Yes, cover breaking news—but stop chasing it to the exclusion of stories that readers and viewers might, just might, consume in their entirety—and remember.

There is much about the disruption of the media landscape that individual editors and reporters cannot control. What you can control are the stories you choose to do.

Let’s not squander that opportunity.

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Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

Spitting in the eye of a deadline is risky business for any writer. Beyond the dangers of self-medication, the writer can 1) have an anxiety attack, 2) be punished for getting the work in late, 3) leave no time for revision, and 4) leave no time for editors and other collaborators to do their best work. Not one of these comes into play when the writer sets an artificial deadline.

Author Jaipi Sixbear describes how writers working online can be both productive and punctual:

Remember to write your assignments two days ahead of their due date whenever possible. You can even trick yourself into meeting deadlines easily. Put an earlier due date on your outline. Chances are, you won’t have time to look up the actual date due. Your editor will be impressed with your promptness.

This process can work by the year, the week, or the day. If it is noon and your story is due at 6 p.m., impose a 4 p.m. deadline on yourself and use the extra two hours to improve the story.

For a big project, I like to use holidays as time targets. For “Help! For Writers,” I had a deadline around Christmastime, so I imposed a fake deadline on myself for Labor Day.

When the draft started to flow, I told myself, “You know, Roy, you could finish this by your wedding anniversary, Aug. 7.” I shipped out a completed draft just after the Fourth of July weekend, almost six months ahead of contract deadline. It may have set a Little, Brown record. Take that, Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger! You slackers. Read more

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Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

Jay Nixon

Was Ferguson a ‘news desert’ until two weeks ago?

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference  in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of  Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Coming late to the Ferguson story, I have a modest thought to add to the ongoing discussion of why the police shooting and the bumbling local response to protests happened there.

My hunch is that like many aging and changing suburban communities, Ferguson had received only the most episodic of news coverage until all hell broke loose.  Political theory and high profile reports from the Knight Foundation and FCC suggest that when a town is a news desert, low civic engagement is almost certain to follow.

So if that’s the theory, isn’t Ferguson the practice?  A community, as the phrase goes, that doesn’t know how to talk to itself.

Many reports have noted that with a nearly 70 percent African-American population (flipping the racial composition of 20 years ago), the town’s 53-person police force has only three black officers.  Others have observed that the mayor, the school board and other elements of the governing power structure in Ferguson remain virtually all white.

We will soon find out whether patronage and racism have kept the police force as it is.  But as for white dominance in elections, that seems as if it could only be explained by the black majority being uninvolved and unorganized politically.  Rev. Al Sharpton observed as much Sunday, calling for a registration drive and improvement of a dismal 12 percent turnout rate in the last election.

What kind of news coverage had Ferguson been receiving?

Margie Freivogel, editor of St. Louis Public Radio (formerly the St. Louis Beacon) pointed me to a pair of weeklies based in larger towns nearby.   But their Ferguson stories appear fragmentary and not aggressive at all.  (The August 14 edition of the Florissant Valley Independent led with “leaders’ reactions” to the shooting and protests with no additional reporting).

Freivogel, who was a long time Post-Dispatch staffer from 1971 to the mid-2000s, added “the P-D never intensely covered Ferguson or north county. But it was certainly covered more heavily than now.”

Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor of the Post-Dispatch, confirmed that in an e-mail:

The Post-Dispatch used to have a North County bureau, which I believe we closed in 2007.  Ferguson was one of many north St. Louis County communities covered by two reporters in that office. We used to zone a North County page twice a week. Our sister Suburban Journals publications ended their weekly North County edition in 2011.

But, Goodman said, the Post-Dispatch has still made it out to Ferguson to cover important stories like the dismissal of a popular black school superintendent or continuing foreclosure issues.

My own reporting and Steve Waldman’s FCC study both found that metros, which have been forced to make the deepest cute news staff in the last decade, typically denuded their suburban coverage and pulled back to the city limits.

I visited this phenomenon five years ago in a story “Alhambra, Calif.: The  Little Town News Forgot.”  Four times the population of Ferguson, Alhambra is a suburban community of small bungalows, just north of prosperous South Pasadena.  It once had its own daily newspaper and subsequently was covered by a small Los Angeles Times bureau and the Pasadena Star-News until the early 2000s.  Then coverage dropped from several stories a week in the Times to five or six a year.

Meantime Alhambra demographics, like Ferguson’s, changed radically.  From a mostly white community, it  became a center for Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups with some white and a very small African-American population remaining.  Indicators of civic vitality were remarkably low, in part because many in the major ethnic groups could not speak each others’ language.

This prompted USC-Annenberg journalism professor Michael Parks (formerly the editor of the  L.A. Times) to assemble grants and help from colleagues to build a new digital site with the Alhambra community from the ground up. The resulting  Alhambra Source, with a professional editor coordinating a corps of citizen contributors, has had typical growing pains and financial sustainability challenges but is still publishing.

I can see something of the sort in Ferguson’s future once the current crisis settles.  Huffington Post announced yesterday that it will try to crowd-source a locally based reporter and give her continuing support from its own professionals.

My Poynter colleagues Kristen Hare and Jill Geisler have ably chronicled the strong local media response of the last two weeks (Ferguson is just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis). Freivogel’s public radio news department will no doubt continue its Ferguson blog, and the Post-Dispatch and TV stations now have the issues of Ferguson and similar towns in fragmented St. Louis county in their sites.  National media wonks too have discovered oddities that bear continuing analysis.

To be clear, the erosion of newspaper coverage in Ferguson and a vast swath of  suburban/exurban communities where so many Americans choose to live undercuts democracy.  But the remedy, if one is forthcoming, is not going to be a revival of  newspaper coverage — but rather something else, something new, something digital.

Related:
Trayvon Martin story reveals new tools of media power, justice Read more

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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

ron1

Veteran photojournalist talks about going into hotspots

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

“The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group, ISIL,” President Barack Obama said on Wednesday. “He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away.”

Around the time of the speech, I was discussing the impact of honest photographic reporting on an Associated Press Photo Managers’ online panel. One the many takeaways from the panel: The role of the photojournalist is often misunderstood. These women and men see themselves as the eyes and ears of the community. One just needs to ponder the disconcerting experience of seeing this focused group of individuals who rush to the epicenter of drama and trauma while others flee for safety.

Take Ron Haviv, co-owner of VII Photo, whom I spoke with this week. He has been taken hostage three times.

He said contrary to popular opinions, all photographers covering conflict zones are not adrenaline junkies solely out to make a name for themselves.

“I say this out of experience,” Haviv said. “To some degree, going back to the war in Yugoslavia, more magazines and agencies are hesitant to put you on full assignment because the responsibility for your safety is become so great.”

“In the case of Syria it is all across the board. Some places are refusing to take work from freelancers in order to discourage them from taking such risks, some places will not look at your work until you are safely out of that region and then there are places like the GlobalPost, they will take your work and do what they can to support you, like they did for James,” referring to Foley.

No doubt the risk appears to be greater than the reward for the photojournalist, which is why Haviv and others now strongly encourage journalists be required to complete some sort of hostile environment training course or preparation.

“Seeing amazing things, and witnessing historical times and seeing the impact on different human situations is why I did what I did” for the first five years of covering conflict areas, said Haviv, who said he has documented three genocides.

Now, he said, it is about “raising awareness, moving people to action” and creating a “body of evidence” to hold people accountable.

“Through the work of credible journalists, the world is witnessing this live,” he said, “not allowing the excuse, ‘we did not know.’” Read more

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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 12.05.31 PM

Reporting under fire: CNN’s Ivan Watson stays calm

Photo courtesy CNN

Photo courtesy CNN

In the months ahead, as I show journalists examples of excellent reporting, I will use a story that CNN’s senior international correspondent Ivan Watson filed this week.

Watson and his CNN crew flew in a helicopter with the Iraqi air force and fighters with the Kurdish peshmerga to drop supplies and rescue 20 or so Iraqis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled attacks from the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“We landed on several short occasions, and that’s where — amid this explosion of dust and chaos — these desperate civilians came racing towards the helicopter, throwing their children on board the aircraft. The crew was just trying to pull up as many people as possible,” Watson said.

Watson said in his story he worried that some of the boxes the crew had tossed out may have hit some of the rushing crowd.

Tuesday, a day after Watson’s flight, New York Times journalist Alissa Rubin, Read more

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Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Robin Williams

How to cover the Robin Williams story responsibly

The suspected suicide of comedian Robin Williams is an opportunity for journalists to give more coverage to a topic that deserves it. Suicide rates in the United States rose between 2000 and 2007.

But screaming headlines, speculation and images of crying fans could do a lot of harm. Journalists have to cover such high-profile deaths — the key question is how.

The CDC reported last year that in 2009, more people died from suicide than from car accidents. It also found “substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States.”

Baby Boomers “who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm,” Tara Parker-Pope wrote in a New York Times article about the CDC’s findings.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

Coverage Guidelines

The American Association of Suicidology has this collection of recommendations for journalists who cover the issue.

The AAS makes three big points:

  • More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount,  duration and prominence of coverage.

  • Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

  • Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.

One of the most common mistakes that journalists can make in covering suicide is to advance the notion that one big thing caused someone to take their life.  Suicide is a complex response that usually involves lots of factors including mental illness. In fact, suicide experts estimate 90 percent of suicides have some connection to mental illness and/or substance abuse. Both are treatable.

A couple of years ago I helped teach a workshop for journalists who cover suicides. The Dart Foundation pulled together tons of resources that will help you, including these:

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Friday, Aug. 08, 2014

The Kardashian Family Celebrates the Grand Opening of DASH Miami Beach

Dashes — the Kardashians of punctuation

The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.

My friend and mentor Don Fry has for years waged a holy war against the dash. Not the hundred-yard dash or a dash of paprika, but that most horizontal mode of punctuation, also known as an em dash — so named because it’s about as wide as a capital “M” in some typefaces.

Don, known as an enthusiastic exaggerator, has drummed up his opposition to the dash to ramming speed, and, truth be told, I can’t remember seeing a single instance of that mini-flatline in his own writing. He argues that writers use the dash profligately as a substitute for another more precise mark, and that the failure to learn, say, the colon or semicolon has created a dependence on the dash as the fallback punctuation tool.

I followed Don’s lead for a while and found that in most cases I was better off with something other than the dash. Then one day I sat staring at a sentence in frustration until my eyes went out of focus and my nose started to bleed. Suddenly it hit me: I needed a dash! Once liberated from Don’s orthodoxy, I began to see useful dashes everywhere, especially in the work of some of my favorite authors.

You know, every now and then, that Kim Kardashian looks pretty hot, doesn’t she?

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian attend the opening of their boutique Dash -- seriously, that's its name -- in Miami Beach, Florida, in March. (Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP)

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian attend the opening of their boutique Dash — seriously, that’s its name — in Miami Beach, Florida, in March. (Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP)

My reading reminded me that the dash has two important uses: 1) a pair of dashes can be used — like these two — to embed one sentence or important thought in another; and 2) a dash can be used for emphasis in sharp moments when you want to end a sentence with a stab — like this.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes essays that often appear in the New York Times, as did this one about a striking coincidence concerning an infamous rocker of the 1960s:

It has been nearly 40 years since the rocker Jim Morrison died. But last week — the day after Morrison would have turned 65 — he appeared in the New York Times in two obituaries: his father’s and that of the owner of the Los Angeles club, Whisky A Go Go, where Morrison’s band, the Doors, got its big break.

Let’s revise that second sentence using commas to replace the dashes:

But last week, the day after Morrison would have turned 65, he appeared in the New York Times in two obituaries…

Those commas would pass Don Fry’s abolitionist test, but I don’t think they make the sentence better. Marking off the embedded clause with dashes sets it apart from the rest of the sentence and highlights an interesting pair of coincidences. With 65 being the traditional retirement age, that clause contains a backstory and a moral lesson of sorts, reminding us of the great music Morrison might have created if a dissolute lifestyle had not led him to an early and much-visited Paris grave.

Klinkenborg wonders aloud about such lessons:

You can play this kind of moral Sudoku — finding the patterns — with the obituaries every day. Look at those summary lives. See how they fit together — or not.

To fit together his words and ideas in those three sentences, the author uses two dashes to embed “finding the patterns” and another at the end to emphasize “or not.” So Don, I say with the love of a true brother: Abolishing baseball’s reserve clause was good; abolishing the dash not so good, especially when that tool is used with care.

It takes a nerd badge to proclaim a favorite dash of all time, but here’s mine, from one of the most famous endings in American literature:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning —-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In the authorized text, that dash after “morning” is twice as long as the one after “matter.” Its length, position, and purpose turn it into end punctuation, more than a period, perhaps something like a “double full stop.”

This proves an important point about marks of punctuation: They may come to us as a set of rules, but they serve the writer as tools of meaning and emphasis.

As for the Kardashians, I have just been informed — I am not lying — that they have created a chain of retail outlets called Dash.

Parts of this essay are reprinted in The Glamour of Grammar. All the Kardashian stuff is new. Read more

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Wednesday, Aug. 06, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 2.32.30 PM

Why don’t more photojournalists become news directors?

Michaelsen

Michaelsen

Sinclair Broadcasting Group named Lane Michaelsen its new corporate news director, Rick Gevers reported Aug. 3. Sinclair, the biggest local television ownership group in the U.S., now has three former photojournalists in top news division leadership positions.

Michaelsen became a national award-winning photojournalist at WSMV (where I worked with him) and at KARE-11 in Minneapolis. After a one-year residency at The Poynter Institute, he rose to news director in Little Rock, D.C., Tampa, Miami, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

Photojournalist Stan Heist is Sinclair’s news talent manager and in 2006 was the National Press Photographers Association national TV Photographer of the Year. He started his career as a news photographer and a live truck operator at WKEF-TV in Dayton, Ohio. Scott Livingston is the group’s vice president of news. While he worked at WBFF in Baltimore, Livingston was twice named Photographer of the Year by the Associated Press and was honored three times by the National Press Photographers Association.

It’s fairly rare for photographers to become news directors. I wanted to know what others could do to move photojournalists into glass-office jobs. In addition to Heist and Livingston, I asked other former and current news executives to offer some advice.

John Lansing, the former head of Scripps Networks Interactive, started as a photographer in Paducah, Kentucky, and over the years worked as news director at WCCO Minneapolis and WBBM Chicago. He rose to general manager in Detroit and Cleveland. Bruce Carter, the news director at WLEX-TV Lexington, Kentucky, began as a photojournalist. Bruce and I worked together in Bowling Green, Kentucky, back in the days of film.  I also asked my esteemed colleague Jill Geisler to add her thoughts, since she trains news executives around the world and has been working in and around newsrooms for more than 40 years.

How does your photojournalism background inform your decision-making as a news executive?

Livingston

Livingston

Livingston: We’re big believers in the power of our pictures and sound. Our news corporate team has a great grasp on what makes a memorable story. Just as photojournalists look for those special moments which will connect with the viewer, we look for a connection in every story we choose to put in our newscasts. Not every news item is a full package, but every news story needs to be told in a way that has value to the viewer. We respect that every viewer has access to myriad news sources. Their choice to watch us is because of our commitment to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Carter: A successful photojournalist has to have a considerable bank of skill sets. They tend to possess strong people skills. They not only deal with the stresses and strains of the daily newsroom work environment but they also interact with public officials in difficult times, people in tragic situations, victims under duress and the like. Photojournalists learn to work and create in a collaborative team environment, they tend to be highly organized, excellent problem solvers and know how to meet extremely demanding daily deadlines. In addition, I find most photojournalists to be creative and engaging people that love a challenge, love storytelling and have a true passion for what they do.

Lansing

Lansing

Lansing: To be successful as a photojournalist you must focus on every aspect of the assignment; the visuals you record are the end result of your ability to manage a complex set of variables such as: understanding as much about the assignment as the reporter, planning and logistics, technical competency with equipment, problem solving on the fly, engaging people in often tense situations, excellence in sound recording, understanding lighting advantages or restrictions, managing competitive concerns, meeting deadlines, managing expectations of the assignment desk and producers and of course understanding how to tell great visual stories that will engage and inform an audience, have a keen sense of your mission as a journalist and its ethical underpinnings.

If you are constantly thinking one or two steps ahead, and taking full responsibility for the final product on air, you are enhancing your chances for success.  I can’t think of a better job description for a news director.

Heist

Heist

Heist: As a photojournalists, we’re driven by video’s unique ability to capture moments — and for me that’s a big driver in my decisions. We understand that the content our stations produce must be compelling, informative and relatable for the audience, every day. So when I review work, it’s always through the lens of creating an authentic experience for the viewer, and helping them better understand the issues that affect them every day.

Perhaps as a more practical matter, from our photojournalism past, we’re used to working with all types of people both inside the newsroom and out on the street. We’ve made tough calls in the building, and been challenged by the pressures out in the field. Even though we were news employees, we had to have very good relationships with engineering, graphics, production, and others inside the building. At least for me, understanding how to build those relationships took time–but it was key to being able to move up and see the bigger picture. This pays off now, because in order to be successful in my job I need to understand and connect with every type of news employees, not just photographers.

Why is it so rare for photojournalists to rise through the ranks as producers, reporters and sales executives do? 

Heist: A great question, and one I hope to explore more in my role here at Sinclair. I think as an industry we can all do a better job of developing leaders from within the ranks and giving them the tools they need to succeed as leaders earlier in their career. The way this business moves so quickly, sometimes it’s hard to get the right management training in before the opportunity to lead presents itself.

I do think a big reason is that people in the roles you have mentioned have so much more time inside the building, where the decisions are made. That’s why it’s so important for photojournalists to get involved in both the day-to-day operations, and the big picture, if they want to get involved in management. Leaders have to think about things on an organizational level, which means understanding how their newsroom fits within the station and within the community at large. Producers have the inside track with this, at least as far as being a news director goes, because they are in the building when decisions are being made.

Lansing: It’s rare because photojournalists are naturally prone to making other people look good, and making it look easy, which I assure you it is not.

If you read the great business book “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins describes the best business leaders as those who follow the “Hedgehog Principle”, meaning they are goal oriented, focused on leading teams by example rather than ego.  These leaders work in service to the team, not the other way around. I think that is a good description of the best photojournalists I have known and the best leaders I have encountered.  But like many businesses it’s easy to assume the people who work more closely to the money or the power somehow understand the most of what makes the business work. I think that is a risky assumption for a television station that relies almost entirely on having viewers choose their content over 4 or 5 other choices. It seems more logical to choose those closest to generating engaging content versus counting money.

Carter

Carter

Carter:  I think the fact that most creative and talented photojournalists have a passion for what they do, being creative visual storytellers, so many stick with doing just that for most of their career. Some leave the business and go to work for production houses or start their own photography-based business. Others continue their career in television news, which I think is great! If you love what you do, then do it.

There is one group of photojournalists which I feel is a tremendous untapped resource for future news and station managers, that group being chief news photographers. These are people that usually rose up through the ranks and became proven respected leaders by their staff and newsroom peers. They are organized managers and team leaders. With a bit of financial/sales training, this talented group of photojournalists could be a great talent pool for any company.

Livingston: Probably because being a photojournalist is way more fun than any of those other jobs!  Seriously, no other time in my life did I exercise more creativity, more autonomy than when I had a camera (and deck) on my shoulder.  Historically, there have been great photojournalists in news management: Butch Montoya, Bruce Carter, John Lansing, to name a few. In our current climate, photographers also act as reporters, producers and multimedia journalists.  I predict that with photojournalists having more of an obvious editorial voice, we will see more photojournalists evolve into news managers.

Geisler

Geisler

Geisler: I think it’s more likely than ever for photojournalists to grow into newsroom leadership roles, but there have been obstacles. Namely: training, geography and culture.

  • Training: In the past, photographers came from a variety of backgrounds, including a more trade-school model that focused on the art of making pictures and not necessarily the full spectrum of media history and law, communications theory, and writing. When an organization is led by people who place a strong value on writing (as print AND broadcast newsrooms traditionally have been), they can undervalue talented people for whom that’s a lesser skill.
  • Geography:  In the days of film, photographers and their gear were housed in walled-off areas of TV stations, thanks to OSHA requirements related to the chemicals used in processing film. They didn’t live in the newsroom, where decisions are made.  As technology changed, it took time to physically knock down walls, and that was often done by forward-thinking newsroom leaders who realized there was  buried treasure in the building — photographers who didn’t want to simply be dispatched to assignments, but were eager to be partners in brainstorming and developing them.
  • Culture: As photographers began to work in tandem with reporters, producers and managers, and as many came into the business with more broad-based liberal arts education, their status changed from “helper” to “partner” — and from there, much more easily to “leader.”

What do photojournalists need to do more (or less) to improve their odds of rising into leadership jobs?

Livingston: Be involved and engaged in the editorial process. We all remember when photogs liked to hide in the back, waiting to be called by the assignment desk. Those days are gone. We not only encourage but expect our photography staff to provide just as many story ideas as the rest of the staff. Frankly, they have a great grasp on what’s going on due to the fact they are out in the field all day. By definition, photographers are great observers and listeners and have the ability to get genuine evolving soundbites by making those observations.

Carter: If a photojournalist wants to climb the ranks into a managerial role they need to inform their manager(s) of their career aspirations. Managers look for people that show interest in exploring new things. I suggest spending time with your general manager, news director and other department heads. Ask questions, be inquisitive. Volunteer to take on additional tasks and responsibilities. Make yourself indispensable. Learn everything and anything about every single department and how the station functions as a whole. Be involved in the daily operations, exhibit leadership, be a mentor those around you with lesser skill sets. Managers will take note.

Geisler: Avoid silos and us/them thinking. Be a presence in the newsroom, immerse yourself in storytelling rather than just visual journalism, be a continuous learner, coach and mentor others, ask for feedback — and read this column I published last week.

Lansing: Be well informed and act as a professional journalist, not a camera jockey.  Show up at editorial meetings with good story ideas. Dress like a professional even if you have jeans and boots for some stories. Understand your station’s strategic plan and ask questions at staff meetings. Learn how sales works, embrace mentors and friendships from all departments. Ask the GM for a chance to learn more about how you can help the station succeed.

Heist: Get involved. It’s very easy for a photojournalist to respond to the needs of the newsroom, especially when the job is so taxing by nature. Photographers and reporters can easily have their daily schedule upended at any moment during the day. It’s in their nature to be on standby. If a photojournalist has an interest in leadership, it’s important to take a view of the news operation as a whole. You can’t be worried about only your assignments of the day. Look for opportunities to help the newsroom be stronger, and don’t wait for them to come to you. I’ve seen it several times from those who have worked with me when I was a chief in Richmond and in Baltimore. I remember one photographer in particular who would ask me repeatedly if he could help organize and maintain the live trucks for me. It didn’t take long before I “delegated” that task to him — and he embraced it. He saw a need and he filled it. Today he’s in management for an international broadcaster in D.C. Read more

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sochi Olympics Pussy Riot

Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. In the series, vampires are allegorical representations of gay men and women. Many have “come out of the coffin” and into the mainstream, seeking tolerance from humans. The enemies of the “fangers” include religious bigots and conservative politicians. Hence the verbal assault in “Republic–t.”

As we watch the c-word inch away from deviance, it will help to understand the nature of this semantic shift from a historical and literary perspective. Let’s start with a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “Vulgar Slang 1.The female sexual organs. 2. Sexual intercourse with a woman [this was new to me]. 3a. Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a woman b. Used as a disparaging term for a person one dislikes or finds extremely disagreeable.

I think there’s something missing here. When used against a woman, the term is offensive enough and more than “disparaging,” more loaded than “bitch.” It’s one of the ultimate language weapons, a word designed to reduce her to the most basic objectification, defining her by the part men can use for their pleasure. I’d prefer not to elevate it by placing it in a rhetorical category, but it’s a form of synecdoche, in which a part represent the whole, the way we call a sailor a “hand.”

Men might be objectified as “dicks” or “pricks,” but those words are derringers vs. the c-bomb. When used against a man, c— takes on a powerful emasculating homophobic connotation, defining him by a body part he doesn’t have. Crude, nasty, and then some. A fighting word.

The etymology of the c-word goes back at least to the French Middle Ages. In English literature, versions or analogues of the word can be found prominently in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

In 1972 medieval scholar Thomas Ross compiled Chaucer’s Bawdy, a lexicon of the poet’s sexual and scatological words. One of the longest citations is for queynt (pronounced quaint), which was the Middle English equivalent of the c-word, but one that could be used with much more subtlety.

In addition to being the “normal if crude” synonym for vagina, explains Ross, in other contexts it could mean: “strange, curious, elaborate, ornamented, neat, artful, sly and graceful.” These multiple meanings allowed Chaucer to describe the way that the clever and handy clerk Nicholas grabs the lusty young Alison (I will modernize the language a bit): “As clerks know how to be quite subtle and quite queynte (sly), he in private caught her by the queynte (her privates).”

An earlier lexicon is Shakespeare’s Bawdy by the great British slang master Eric Partridge. He explains that a French version of the c-word is coun, and that one of Shakespeare’s characters mispronounces “gown” as “coun,” causing embarrassment and laughter. A more memorable usage occurs in Hamlet where the young prince torments the fair Ophelia with punning accusations. He tells her to “get thee to a nunnery,” when that term meant both convent and brothel. At one point, when Ophelia seems shocked by his reference to her “lap,” Hamlet asks her “Do you think I meant country matters?” That double-meaning places emphasis on the first syllable of country. In her book Filthy Shakespeare British scholar Pauline Kiernan has an entire chapter with the title C—.

Let’s move ahead 400 years to a recent overheard conversation among four men drinking beers in the clubhouse of a municipal golf course. They took turns complaining about the women in their lives, including girlfriends and wives. The complaints included repetitive use of the c-word. “You know what C— stands for?” asked the loudest of the bunch. “It stands for Can’t Understand Normal Thinking.” (I had a fantasy that the woman warrior knight from Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, would appear, take names, and kick ass.)

There have been feminist efforts to reclaim the word, not unlike the habit of some African-American’s to reclaim the n-word. The most notable of these is a 2002 book by Inga Muscio with a one-word title, spelled out: C—. The sub-title is “A declaration of independence.”  The dedication speaks to its aspirations: “To everyone with C—love in their hearts, especially my Sacred Mother. I thank you for giving me life.”

Who knows to what extent the word will experience what semanticists would call “amelioration.” It remains one of the most powerful weapons of hate and de-humanization, used by both men and women, against both men and women. Yet if it continues to be used in the culture and political wars, we may find ourselves wanting to use it in places we haven’t used it before, perhaps in news stories, even in headlines. “Never,” you say?

There is a recent precedent for this shift in the experience of the c-word’s younger and more playful little sister, the word pussy. Ian Fleming let that cat out of the bag decades ago with one of the most memorable “Bond girls,” Pussy Galore, played in the film by Honor Blackman. Bond you may remember turned this lesbian into a has-bee-an.

But now there is Pussy Riot, the Russian girl punk band whose members have suffered the consequences of proving to the world that the Emperor Putin has no clothes. Their political courage has put the word Pussy on the map – and on the pages of all the big newspapers – and on the lips of all the respectable news anchors. As 007 once reminded us with that inimitable gleam in his eye: “Never say never.” Read more

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

no-fly-zone

Resources for Journalists Covering Malaysian Air MH17

Poynter is assembling a Twitter list of journalists who are on the ground or near the crash site of the Malaysia Airline jet. These contacts may be especially useful to those of you who want to get permission to use images and get information directly from journalists on the scene.

FlightRadar24 is a website that provides global flight tracking. The site provides this data showing where the Malaysia Air jet was last seen on radar. Read more

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