How To’s

Quick tips for building journalism skills, from reporting to using Twitter. Suggest or submit a How To.

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AP Stylebook, parenting edition: ‘It’s baby-sit, baby-sitting, baby-sat and baby sitter.’

On Tuesday, the Associated Press’ monthly style chat focused on parenting with Leanne Italie. As you’ll see from the collection of tweets below, we quickly move through the stages of life, from baby sitter to teens to elder care in three tweets. Enjoy.

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5 Tips for staying safe in conflict zones

A young Kurdish YPG fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years with the spread of technology and social media. While some are cautious and well-trained, others take major risks in hopes of getting a picture or story that no one else has, and thus is more valuable. And they often lack the institutional support staff writers receive if they get into trouble in a conflict zone.  (AP Photo/Jake, Simkin)

A young Kurdish YPG fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years. While some are cautious and well-trained, others take major risks in hopes of getting a picture or story that no one else has. (AP Photo/Jake, Simkin)

The world isn’t getting any safer for members of the media: According to Reporters Without Borders’ annual “roundup of violence against journalists” 66 were killed, 119 kidnapped, and 853 arrested in 2014.

At the same time, difficult and dangerous stories still need telling, and there will always be those drawn to covering conflicts. The big players’ budgets are shrinking but the ways in which information is spread have become more mobile and immediate. In turn, anyone who uses social media now has access to a near-global audience. Read more


Monday, Jan. 05, 2015


Stuart Scott was a master codeswitcher and we’re all better for it

ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor, is gone, dead of cancer at the age of 49.  He leaves behind a splendid legacy in sports journalism, one that has shaped me as a fan, a writer, and an American.  Scott was a master of what is called “code switching,” that quality of language that that enables us to change the way we talk and write to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences.

Scott could be as rigorous as a scholar on commencement day, talking about life, sports, race, or his battle with cancer.  That power of Standard English was gained through his upbringing, his education at the University of North Carolina, and his professional aspirations to become a journalist and an anchor.  His predecessors at the networks, including ESPN, were primarily white and male and spoke in the Generalized American dialect we associate with Cronkite and Brokaw. Read more

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3 big lies that public speakers tell and why journalists should care

Professional microphone

Three lies told over and over again by public speakers of all kinds – including me — are:

  1. “You can interrupt me at any time.”
  2. “I want this to be a conversation.”
  3. “There will be plenty of time at the end for questions.”

What follows typically is 30 or 60 or 90 minutes of nonstop bloviation, leavened only by predictable PowerPoint slides, usually dense with text that encourage even more talking. Why?  Because the speaker wants to “get through the material.” But don’t worry. “There will be plenty of time for questions at the end.”  Pants on fire.

This critique, I believe, is increasingly important to journalists. There is much to learn these days about our evolving enterprise. There is a greater need than ever for training, but fewer resources and less time than ever to provide it. Any journalist with special knowledge, and these days that includes many journalists in their twenties and thirties, will be asked to present that knowledge from brown-bag lunches to major conferences. Read more


Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014

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Writing resolutions for 2015: Read more books, master the headline and take up golf

I usually despise New Year resolutions (lose weight, exercise more, call Mom), except when it comes to my writing. At the beginning of each year, I write down some of the things I might do as a writer. It helps to write down some tentative plans, even when I don’t follow them – like the year I swore I’d take trombone lessons. It also helps to make them public. Your private unfulfilled aspirations as a writer can turn into corrosive regret. Expressed aloud or in print, they take on an independent life, gathering curious allies around your efforts.

Here then, in no order, are my writing resolutions:

1. Read more books, especially novels. There is only so much time, and, more and more often, my evening narrative time is taken up with binge-watching serial dramas on Netflix. Currently it is “Mad Men.” Before that, “Breaking Bad.” These are great narratives from which there is much to learn. Read more


Friday, Dec. 26, 2014


What defines a healthy newsroom culture?

Earlier this month, I had the honor of conducting a writing workshop in Washington, D.C., for the writers and editors of National Geographic.  It was a kick for me to work with a publication that I had read as a boy, one that, in 1963, had published a photo of my father, a U.S. Customs officer, pasting a sticker on the wooden crate that contained the Mona Lisa as she made her way on a tour of America.

The folks at NatGeo asked some great questions, and I want to answer one of them in this essay.

“You keep talking and asking questions about the ‘culture’ of this place,” asked one young man.   “What do you mean by ‘culture’?”

As is my habit, I was going to begin my answer with a dictionary definition of culture, but even the shortest one I could find was so complicated and multi-faceted that it would not provide much direction. Read more


Thursday, Dec. 25, 2014


Yes, Virginia, it is OK for a writer to play with the form

As a boy, my favorite story genre was the cowboy movie.  As I got a little older, I left Hopalong Cassidy behind in favor of parodies of cowboy movies, the kind of thing Mad magazine produced or Mel Brooks perfected in Blazing Saddles.

No doubt, good writers learn how to fulfill the requirements of a particular writing form, whether it’s the inverted pyramid or the three-act play. One sign of mastery is the ability to parody. In order to ridicule something well, you need to discover its actual elements. That’s a lesson I learned from poet Donald Hall and his 1973 textbook Writing Well.

He includes an example of journalist Oliver Jensen making fun of the way President Eisenhower talked.  First Jensen must learn the quirks of Ike’s awkward rhetoric. Then he applies it to the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln may have said: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….” Ike’s version might have been, “I haven’t checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a government set-up here in this country….”

Last year at this time, it was my turn. Read more


Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014

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Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism: An Interview with The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow

Eli Salsow

Eli Salsow

The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow is known for moving into his characters’ lives and writing about them with intimacy and empathy. A former sportswriter, Saslow depends on close observation, a sharp ear for dialogue, and writing that is powerful for its quiet eloquence and clarity.

His six-part series about lives affected by the national food stamp program shows off all those skills. The series won the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the American Society of News Editors’ award for non-deadline writing, and a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

In these stories, Saslow, a reporter on the Post’s national enterprise team, digs beneath stereotypes and shuns easy answers to illuminate the lives of ordinary people – and one politician – for whom food stamps are a bruising, and sometimes infuriating, reality.

The series included pieces on a Rhode Island town that is transformed on the first of the month (when one-third of its residents get their food-stamp funds) and a Washington family that has subsisted on food stamps for four decades. Read more


Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014

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Managers: 4 things to check before the year ends

time-managementAs the year winds down, it’s a good time for managers to step back for a little review and reflection. I suggest that you check areas that are time-sensitive as well as those that are timeless leadership responsibilities and opportunities.

You’re busy, of course, so I’ll keep the list concise:

  • Look at your budget. Is there any use-it-or-lose-it money that will evaporate at the end of December? If so, how might you creatively put that to work in a hurry? While you are scanning your financial records, review your spending categories. Are you seeing any trends, any surprises during this calendar year? What does it tell you about planning and priorities? How might that guide your future decision-making?
  • Look at your team. Who hasn’t had some quality time with you in a while? It might be your highest performers, the ones who don’t make problems and often get less attention. Don’t miss a chance to let them know they’re truly appreciated.
Read more

Tuesday, Dec. 09, 2014


How graphic writing distorted the focus of the Rolling Stone rape story

As a Poynter source, I have answered dozens of questions now about the implications of the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely.  I notice now that the title of the story is not the same as the headline on the print magazine’s cover, which reads “Sexual Assault on Campus.”


rape-on-campusIt may just be that the problems with the story, reported by The Washington Post and others, are embedded in the tension between those two titles.  The phrase “Sexual Assault,” however disturbing, is more general and less graphic than “Rape.” Add the indefinite article, and you have something specific and more graphic, with promises of details to come: “A Rape on Campus.”

The particularity of that phrase is expressed most dramatically in the graphic scene that opens the narrative, a scene in which a particular woman enters a particular fraternity house with a particular date who betrays her to seven rapists, one of whom uses a beer bottle on her, another who utters the horrific, dehumanizing phrase “Grab its motherfucking leg.”

I almost gasped when I read that phrase, and why not?  Read more


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