How To’s

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


Eight lessons learned from a former journalist’s job search

As the AARP solicitations in my mailbox arrive with ever-increasing frequency, I am reminded of something a friend once told me about our aging: “When the rock starts rolling downhill, it picks up speed.”


Next month I’ll mark my 10th anniversary as a member of Poynter’s faculty, and in addition to wondering where that decade went (and, by the way, when did Paul McCartney get to be 72?), I find myself thinking about how this gig has fit into the journey we call a career.

My resume: Journalist, 27 years. VP of Communications, 3 years; journalism teacher, 10 years.

The jobs are, in many ways, very different. But each one gave me the opportunity to try something new, to learn from talented and, often, inspirational people, and to contribute something I care about passionately: giving people the information and meaning they need to live better lives. Read more

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Thursday, Jan. 08, 2015


Satire’s conflicting kinship with journalism

jesuischarlie300So 12 are dead in Paris, with more injured. Their crime is an association with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which ridicules popes, politicians, prophets and Islamic extremists. It comes down to this. The magazine was eager to publish words and images that fanatics hated. Symbols were met with bullets.

The pen is mightier than the sword, we say, but is it mightier than the automatic rifle, the rocket launcher, the Molotov cocktail, the dirty bomb in a terrorist’s briefcase? Should journalists and satirists work in bunkers?

Journalism is a dangerous business, requiring physical and moral courage. Just look at what has happened to our war correspondents this past year. The events in Paris have demonstrated that satire is as powerful as journalism – and just as dangerous. Read more


Tuesday, Jan. 06, 2015

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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.

Read more

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. 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.  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. 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. 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 Society of Cosmetics and Beauty.  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. 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. Read more


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