How To’s

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


As photos flood our screens, which ones hold our attention?

During a week when millions of viewers/readers keenly search internet screen, mobile devices and publication pages for photographic images of a botched Super Bowl XLIX pass, an encaged Jordanian ISIS hostage and a tragic Taiwanese TransAsia Airways flight 235, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) released some pretty revealing findings of their own.

The question the study looked at is “What makes a photograph worth publishing in an age when images are shared in an instant, around the world?” The study has gone beyond the anecdotal to provide some scientific facts.

John Loengrad, former Life Magazine picture editors insisted that the picture editors see her/his roles as the advocate for the photographer,  “Other editors, with the story’s text in hand, may judge photographs by what they have read. Read more


Wednesday, Feb. 04, 2015


Timing and other writing lessons from Harper Lee

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." (AP Photo)

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (AP Photo)

Today is a day in a writer’s life when the stars seem in alignment. On a day when I am working on a revision of a book chapter on To Kill a Mockingbird and the writing strategies of Harper Lee, news has broken that her publisher will produce a sequel this summer: Go Set a Watchman.

Reports say that the manuscript was written before her most famous book but serves as a kind of sequel with the narrator Scout now grown, living in New York, and still learning from her righteous father Atticus Finch. Read more

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How to find details that make a powerful story

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy as they arrive at Love Field in Dallas in 1963. (AP Photo/National Archives via Jimmy Carter Library and Museum)

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy as they arrive at Love Field in Dallas in 1963. (AP Photo/National Archives via Jimmy Carter Library and Museum)

I was 11 years old on the November Friday when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Does anyone else remember what Jackie Kennedy was wearing that day?

A pink suit. Not an important detail at first glance, except that this designer suit bore the bloodstains left behind after the wounded president collapsed into his wife’s lap. When Mrs. Kennedy refused to change her clothes until she returned to the White House the following morning, the suit took its place among America’s most tragic symbols. I remember the picture of Mrs. Kennedy still wearing the suit as she stood with Bobby Kennedy, her hand in his, behind the hearse bearing her dead husband. Read more


Friday, Jan. 30, 2015


Seven questions every editor should ask the writer

I have done a lot of coaching and editing in my career, but I have never, since the college literary magazine, been THE editor. But I often imagine that I am. So let’s say that I am assigned to become a coaching editor at a make-believe enterprise called the Calusa News. We are covering a community on the west coast of Florida, and I will direct the work of, say, ten writers and reporters.

The first thing I would do – before I read or edited a single story – is interview each writer. This turns out to be a surprisingly rare event. I remember chatting with one veteran reporter at a newspaper who told me, “I’ve been here for more than 30 years, and you are the first person who asked me about how I work.”

Recently, I read a magazine article about “36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The questions — such as “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” — are designed to create intimacy, even among strangers. Read more


Monday, Jan. 26, 2015


Four weather writing lessons from someone who died more than 300 years ago

I have dear friends and family members from Maryland to Maine so I am paying special attention to their fate over the next few days.  The weather event has an interesting name:  a bombogenesis, more sinister, it sounds, than a polar vortex. Forecasters are describing a storm of “historic proportions,” one that might produce as much as three feet of snow in parts of New England.

To family and friends in Rhode Island, I say, only half in jest:  move to Florida. But not this week.

 Sir John Evelyn

Sir John Evelyn

I am a reading and writing teacher so it’s my habit to look for lessons in the journalism and literature of the past. In the case of weather, I have stumbled upon the work of a British author named John Evelyn (1620-1706). Read more

With a road sign warning of an expected blizzard, morning commuters travel across the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge into downtown Boston., Monday, Jan. 26, 2015.   The Boston area is expected to get hit with about two feet of snow in the winter storm. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Here are 20 story ideas for covering the blizzard

Anybody who needs these ideas will be really busy for the next several days, so I am going to write sparsely to avoid taking up their time.

-Craigslist helps you find “Blizzard Boyfriends or Girlfriends?” You know this just seems like a bad idea, but it seems that people are going to CL to find winter warmth. Be careful clicking on the photos, some are NSFW. Who knows if this is a bunch of noise, a cover for escort services or if it really results in snowbound hookups? Color me skeptical, but it is getting some press.

-Is it REALLY true that you can expect a baby boom nine months after a blizzard? The answer is no. It seems so plausible, but the numbers just don’t bear it out. Read more


Friday, Jan. 23, 2015

Official game balls for the NFL football Super Bowl XLIX sit in a bin before being laced and inflated at the Wilson Sporting Goods Co. in Ada, Ohio, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The New England Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Gategate: It’s a scandal that we revert so easily to the –gate suffix

Now we have Deflategate, the scandal involving the New England Patriots and the doctoring of footballs. That same team gave us Spygate, in which the team secretly videotaped the practices of rivals. Not long ago we had Bridgegate, in which the governor of New Jersey was investigated for causing a traffic jam in the town of a political foe.

The use of –gate as the scandal suffix of choice goes back, we know, to the 1972 break-ins at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., a crime and political dirty trick that cost President Richard Nixon his job. There is actually a Wikipedia page that lists the progeny of Watergate, dozens upon dozens of examples from the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment. Such is the power of –gate that it has made its way into the scandal language of other countries and even other tongues. Read more


Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015

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Resources for digging deeper and asking better questions on Ebola

Tuesday, President Obama mentioned Ebola in his State of the Union address saying, “the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics.” The next morning, I led a Poynter/Association of Healthcare Journalists seminar to help journalists learn lessons from the Ebola response that we can use when the next epidemic/pandemic emerges. And there will be others.

Over the course of our two days together, we pulled together a list of reliable websites and resources that will help journalists dig deeper, ask better questions and report cautiously but precisely. Here are some of the sites we explored:

ClinicalTrials: This site tracks trials completed, in process and recruiting.

PubMed: There are 24 million citations for biomedical literature here. Read more

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Friday, Jan. 16, 2015


How one young Canadian reporter in Haiti helped turn Twitter into a storytelling tool

Twitter launched in 2006 and in less than a decade has almost 300 million users. Conceived as a social network to share information, it was gradually embraced by journalists and is now an essential tool for reporting and communication. In spite of its 140-character limit, it has also become a powerful platform for storytelling, used as a live blog or as a kind of inverted serial narrative, with each tweet a micro-scene or mini-chapter.

One of the pioneers of this use, I have argued, is a young reporter from the Toronto Star named Joanna Smith. A beat writer of Canadian government and politics, Smith was sent to Haiti to cover the effects of a devastating earthquake and early efforts to recover. This week marks the fifth anniversary of that disaster. Read more

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Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015

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One reporter’s journey to Cuba and how to get the story

Flag and fins - Harrison reporting from Cuba. (Photo by Carlos Harrison)

Flag and fins – Harrison reporting from Cuba. (Photo by Carlos Harrison)

The announcement came as a total surprise. The United States and Cuba would normalize diplomatic relations, ending their half-century-old Cold War stalemate.

It was a big story. Even bigger in South Florida. They don’t call it Little Havana for nothing.

As a Miami-based freelancer I knew that all of the local TV stations would want more than what the networks would offer. They wanted stories catered to their market. And because of their connection to South Florida and el exilio, I knew Cuba wouldn’t let most – maybe not any – send one of their own in.

I had been to Cuba a dozen times as a reporter. I covered Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the island for Fox News. Read more