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4 tips for creating efficient newsrooms from Vox’s Yuri Victor

Yuri Victor, a senior user experience designer at Vox.com, began his talk at TedxPoynterInstitute Tuesday by explaining how a newsroom shouldn’t operate.

Dysfunctional newsrooms are characterized by a lack of communication that makes creating new things difficult, Victor said. When somebody gets a good idea, they have to wade through endless bureaucratic roadblocks to make it a reality. And when the final project is released, it often doesn’t resemble the original idea.

These journalists, who are stuck in organizations where they can’t get anything done, end up miserable because they feel ineffectual, Victor said. They get into journalism to make a difference, but never get the chance.

RELATED: Using design thinking to build new news products

During his talk, Victor outlined a few points for transforming newsrooms from places of frustration and unrealized ideas into hubs of communication and collaboration. I’ve listed a few below:

  1. Break down silosLack of communication between departments creates islands of influence in the newsroom, where managers can reign over their staff without consulting others.

    “Siloed newsrooms create egos,” Victor said. “Newsrooms inflict them on themselves.”


    Victor addresses the audience at TedxPoynterInstitute Tuesday. Photo credit: Benjamin Mullin

    News organizations can combat this trend by creating teams with representatives from several different departments, Victor said. This opens up new channels of communication and ensures that people from multiple areas of the newsroom have a voice.

  2. Communicate efficientlyEmployees often complain about poor communication even when they face a daily deluge of emails and long, boring meetings, Victor said.

    To snap this trend, newsrooms should consider taking ponderous email conversations into instant messaging, where members of a team can give input in real-time. Chats also make communication between teams easier, allowing anybody to contribute an idea and instantly answer follow-up questions.

    Vox employees try to limit their daily meetings to five minutes to avoid unnecessary digressions, Victor said. They discuss their daily goals and what might prevent them from being accomplished.

    Vox.com also uses Slack, a service that consolidates and organizes communication between members of a team. Now, Victor says he only gets emails whenever someone is hired or the office is celebrating a birthday.

  3. Create a support networkThe day Victor arrived at Vox.com, several people in the newsroom began sending him messages, asking if he had a few minutes to talk. When he responded, they all asked him the same question: How’s your first day going?

    When employees make a simple effort to check in with one another, they create a supportive atmosphere that spreads quickly from one person to the next. Before long, every team in a newsroom is supporting every other team, creating a network that’s near-impossible to break down.

    “When you value support, you get better support,” Victor said.

    Now, every time someone new arrives at Vox, Victor sends them a message inquiring about their first day.

  4. Constantly question your newsroom’s policyIt may be that none of Vox.com’s organization strategies work in a given newsroom, Victor said. This is because every newsroom is different and constantly changing. Newsrooms have to be able to adapt their culture to accommodate advances in technology.

    That’s why it’s important to constantly re-evaluate newsroom policy, he said. Try different organizational strategies and encourage people to question them.

    “As content evolves, as platform evolves, we may have to organize our people and our culture to accommodate whatever’s new.”

Read more

Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014

4 tips for adjusting to the tempo of digital news from veteran designer Mario Garcia

The key to telling stories in the digital age is remembering that the news cycle is propelled by two tempos that each require different strategies, veteran news designer Mario Garcia explained at TEDxPoynterInstitute Tuesday.

The tempos, which Garcia calls “24/7″ and “curation,” are different from one another, but every news organization has to pay attention to both to fully serve its audience, Garcia said. He shared some tips, gleaned from four decades of design consulting with 700 news organizations, on how to manage the two storytelling modes. Here are some highlights:

1. Don’t rehash the background of the story

While Garcia consulted for Aftenposten, which he called the “NYT of Norway,” the paper started to replace long text-based stories full of outdated background information with small, compact updates. These “story segments,” as Garcia called them, allow news organizations to give their audiences quick, relevant bites of information without bogging them down with obsolete details.

2. Put out a curated edition while maintaining a continuous flow of news

Garcia began his talk by going over the old model of news delivery, where journalism would reach its audience in discrete packages at regular intervals, such as the morning paper and the evening news. Today the news landscape has changed, but these self-contained news packages are still important.
These curated digital editions, which include tablet magazines, are carefully crafted, edited and art directed products, Garcia said. To best serve the audience, news organizations must combine these with 24/7 breaking news (which Garcia calls “raw meat”).

3. Make your content available on the “media quartet”

Today’s news is presented on what Garcia calls a “media quartet” of platforms — print, tablet, phone and online. And the most important of these is the phone, Garcia explained, holding his aloft so the audience could see. The newsroom managers who try to push print exclusively on their audience are doomed, Garcia said. Rather, newsrooms should create content and make it available on their entire portfolio of platforms.

“You have to tell your audience ‘we report the news and you can consume the news on any of these platforms,’” Garcia said.

Garcia recommends that news organizations that want to prioritize newspapers should invest in their weekend editions, which he says will be more robust in the future.

RELATED: Essay: Hey, Publishers: Stop fooling us, and yourselves

4. Bring every department in on planning meetings

Often, news organizations fail to include people from every department while making decisions, Garcia said. When he’s brought in for redesigns, some teams lack a representative from advertising and some are missing a representative from the development end. For news organizations to be successful, they need to bring in people with have a wide variety of skills while making decisions. Read more

Modern wireless technology and social media

8 Tips for Techno-Evangelists

Modern wireless technology and social mediaJournalism and technology don’t always go together very well.

I think there’s a natural conflict between the gathering of news and information and the various means of packaging and distributing it. This conflict is especially challenging for newsroom managers. On one hand, they want to focus on the journalism; on the other, they need to stay aware of technological changes and motivate their staffs to try new digital tools.

Newsroom leaders need to be evangelists for change — and that includes technological change. They need to better understand the role of technology adoption within their organizations as the means of gathering and sharing news shifts at an increasing rate.

The rate of technology adoption is critical to the success of news organizations, which is why we are embarking on new research about the topic, starting with a survey of journalists, educators, students and others. Follow this link to participate in the technology adoption survey.

While picking the right tools is important, it is essential for managers and staffs to look at technology adoption as part of a larger process. Here are my eight tips for being a better “techno-evangelist.”

  1. Understand that technology is an ecological issue. By itself, technology adds nothing to a newsroom. However, its introduction changes everything.
  2. A newsroom learns by example. If newsroom managers are not willing to invest time or energy in understanding technology, they should not expect the staff to care.
  3. The key issue in technology adoption isn’t hardware or even software or apps. It’s workflow. Understand how work moves (or how you want it to move) through the newsroom or organization, and you’ll understand what technological solutions you need.
  4. Techno-evangelism means finding a leader who will take risks, become a teacher, shoulder responsibility and be willing to go wandering in the “desert.”
  5. Looking at history can help you prepare for the future. Recognizing a paradigm shift is important; knowing when there isn’t one is more important. Going from hot type to cold type was evolutionary; going digital was revolutionary.
  6. No matter how much you try to be on the “cutting edge,” there always will be something newer and cheaper (or free) the day after the purchase order is signed. Accepting that as part of the “techno-lifecycle” reduces stress and allows you to make better decisions.
  7. No matter how well you plan, the project will take six months longer.
  8. Computers, programs and apps crash. No matter how fast any of it works, no matter how nifty it all looks, technology is just machines, software and technology.

I originally wrote those eight thoughts for a Society of News Design workshop in 1993. Only minor tweaking was needed for this article. Read more


Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014

covering an event with a video camera

What breaking news reveals about your newsroom culture

Here’s what a lifetime in journalism has taught me: Breaking news reveals the true character of a newsroom’s culture and quality.

Spot news success happens in cultures with specific systems, skills, values, mindsets – and leadership.

In the healthiest cultures, when news breaks, here’s what staffers can count on:

  • We have a plan. We don’t have to scramble to figure out how to respond each time a big story breaks. Everyone on our team has an understanding of the key roles that need to be filled – both in the field and at the mother ship. We automatically call in and report for duty. We adapt the basic plan by situation and story, and we’re never caught flat-footed.
  • It doesn’t matter if our boss is on vacation. Deputies and team members are capable of making tough decisions and deploying resources because our leader routinely shares information and power. (No one has to say, “What would the boss do?” We know what WE should do.) We know who’s in charge and we know we’re all responsible.
  • Our hardware and software won’t be our weak link. Our organization invests in the necessary gear and the preventive maintenance to keep it ready for heavy duty use at any time. We have backup provisions for power, technology and tools.
  • Our communication works. Okay, it never works perfectly, but we have phone trees, updated contact lists for email, social media and phone access, bridge lines for conference calls, protocols for briefings, and computer files for shared information and resources as the story continues. We minimize ignorance, confusion and duplication.
  • We’re cross-trained and talent-deep. We’re not in a hole because a key player or craftsperson isn’t available. Even our bench is brilliant — and can step in with confidence and competence. We can cover all the bases.
  • We have an investigative and analytical mindset. We assume that everyone will cover the “what.” We’ll get that — and automatically dig into the “why?,” “what the hell?,” “what’s the bigger picture?,” and “what next?” That’s not the exclusive role of people with “investigative” in their titles; it’s expected of all of us on the team.
  • We play on all possible platforms. We understand that people expect the news to come to them, wherever they are, however they prefer to consume it. We do our best to deliver — with quality.
  • The whole building knows the drill. When breaking news demands all hands on deck, people from other departments (from sales to sports to marketing to maintenance) take the default position: “How can I help?” We gratefully tap their talent and plug them into our plans.
  • We know what we stand for. We know that breaking news is fraught with land mines. We know how to navigate them. Because we talk about values in our everyday coverage, the stress of spot news won’t make us stupid.
  • We take care of each other. Our leaders focus on the needs of the next shift, the next day, the next week. They don’t let staffers run on empty, and don’t hesitate to encourage (even order, if need be) exhausted or traumatized teammates to stand down or accept help.
  • We never forget we’re covering human beings, not statistics; featuring their stories, not our selfies; chasing truth, not thrills. We’re documenting history.

And when the story becomes history, we think about how to do things better next time.




  Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014

image 1790

Ziggin’ and zoomin’: Find yourself some metaphors for leadership success

My nearly two decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer had barely begun when I first heard the phrase that, in many ways, expressed both the newsroom’s strategy—and its essence:

Zig when everyone else zags.

The idea was simple. Don’t cover the story as everyone else is covering it; find an angle that helps the reader or viewer experience the story in an entirely different way.

(One of my favorite zigs is a story by education reporter Linda Lutton at WBEZ in Chicago. During the height of that city’s gun violence in 2012, when journalists were doing thousands of stories on the victims, the shooters and police efforts to stop the bloodshed, Linda attended a teenager’s funeral with the principal of a high school that had seen 27 of its current or former students shot—in just one year. Her story inspired a two-part series of This American Life.)

For us at the Inquirer, editor Gene Roberts’ “zig” mantra was everything you want your leader’s communication to be: clear, actionable, inspiring. It helped us develop a common newsroom language. And with every “zig” we successfully executed, the mantra—and the strategy it represented—buried itself more deeply in our approach to our work.

It also, as it sometimes does, took on an even larger meaning. At the Inquirer, “zigging” eventually applied to the very culture of the newsroom that Roberts and his staff created.

Do you use mantras or metaphors to help you manage your staff—and yourself?

Meeting journalists from newsrooms around the world, I hear some metaphors repeated often. The “full-court press,” a defensive strategy in basketball, describes a newsroom’s response to a big story; a “tick-tock” is a story that recreates an event in great detail, chronologically, along a timeline.

A number of other metaphors are borrowed from visual arts, like filmmaking. And why not? They’re intended to help us visualize strategies for good storytelling:

Zoom in. Get up close to a character or scene, focusing on small details that will help bring the person or place to life.

Turn the camera around. Instead of reporting on the action in front of you (for example, the debate among members of city council), turn your attention to another, more interesting, subject (an angry person in the gallery, the stoic stenographer, a veteran security guard.)

Widen the angle. Add context to the story by placing the action in its proper relationship to what else is going on.

All of these metaphors—and other successful ones—work for several important reasons:

  1. Their meaning is clear. The staff of the Inquirer understood “Zig” and “Zag.” Our familiarity with cameras lets us appreciate what it means for a writer to “zoom in” or “widen the angle.” Mantras or metaphors that confuse are highly unlikely to catch on.
  2. They are consistent with other messages. The Inquirer when Roberts was teaching the newsroom to zig was an underdog, a newspaper scrambling for credibility in a town where the Philadelphia Bulletin was the respected paper of record. So the whole idea of bucking the trend, being the rebel—zigging when the others zagged—was consistent with our self-image.
  3. The idea they represent has merit. Many a catchy slogan has been created to help sell an effort that ultimately failed. Most of those efforts, and their slogans, are long forgotten. “Zigging,” and the idea it represents, lives on; it still suggests a viable strategy for succeeding in the multi-platform newsrooms of 2014.

And while mantras and metaphors can help rally a staff behind an idea or project, they also can be highly personal. Individuals adopt them to help make sense of their leadership, their editing, their reporting.

Marissa Nelson is senior director of digital media for CBC News. Recently we were talking about the challenges of leading her staff through major changes, including a significant reduction in personnel. She told me about her “mast.”

“I picture myself at the helm of a ship,” she said, “and I’m standing with my back up against the ship’s mast. It represents the values that are most important to me—integrity, empathy, fairness—and it reminds me that as we move forward, I need to be true to those values no matter what challenge we face.”

I asked her what role those values played in her management of the downsizing. She said she tried to bring empathy to the process, to remember that the situation was taking a human toll on her staff, and that she needed to deal with each person individually and with compassion.

In addition to standing for her values, Marissa said the “mast” also helps her from a strategic point of view, reminding her as the department moves forward to stay focused on the division’s goals and not to be buffeted off course.

Marissa’s story reminded me of several metaphors that helped me in my attempts to be an effective leader.

One of them helped me deal with the sense of depression I repeatedly experienced about three weeks after accepting a job with increased responsibility. Eventually I realized why. The depression coincided with my realization that no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get my arms around the staff and its work. I could not control things.

Today I look back and realize it was actually good that I could not control everything—how are people supposed to grow if they’re manipulated like puppets? But I do remember the metaphor I used to describe my strategy for managing this “uncontrollable” operation.

I set out every day to touch it.

Each day I would try to engage my staff in ways that made a difference. Maybe I’d visit a bureau. Maybe I’d meet with a group working on enterprise. Maybe I’d have a difficult conversation. Or maybe I’d spend the morning with a colleague on the business side.

That was my daily challenge: How could I touch the organization in a way that would move us forward? If I chose well, I actually was having far more impact on the quality of our work than if I had assigned and edited every story.

The touch metaphor helped me.

Another metaphor helped me, like the “mast” helps Marissa, remember that values can play an important role in guiding a staff through difficult times of change.

For me, the metaphor was a bunch of rocks.

It was more than 20 years ago that I heard a Wharton professor describe how successful CEOs traditionally guided their organizations through times of change.

“Companies moved from periods of stability,” he said, “into the white water. And the best CEOS successfully guided their organizations through the white water, back to periods of stability.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “I need you to know one thing. For the rest of your careers, there will be nothing but white water.”

The professor didn’t know the half of it. In 1993, there were no iPods or tablets or smartphones. In fact, it had only been a few months since World Wide Web software had been placed in Public Domain. Imagine anyone suggesting today that we will return to periods of stability.

While last two decades of white water have given us many technological wonders—our ability to create and share journalism has never been greater—they also have made it difficult, if not impossible, for newsroom leaders to promise their staffs some once-basic things. Things like raises, promotions and even long-term employment.

So what can a leader promise a staff?

Values. You can promise your staff that together you will create journalism that is fair, accurate, independent and benefits the community. You can promise that together you will learn things that will benefit you now and if you go elsewhere. You can promise that together you will do work that has meaning.

And here’s the metaphor—those values are the rocks on which you cross the white water. I picture those rocks and remember the values I hold most dear.

Not everyone responds to metaphors; some people want facts, figures and a well-organized spreadsheet. But for as long as journalism has aspired to be a watchdog, shine a light and give voice to the voiceless, metaphors and mantras have served its leaders well.

Get ziggin’.


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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


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:

Read more

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


Wednesday, Aug. 06, 2014

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Why don’t more photojournalists become news directors?



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: 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: 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: 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:  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: 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


Tuesday, Aug. 05, 2014

Brazil WCup Top Five Highlights

Killing the game story would be a shame

My love for almost everything began with a love for sport writing, and it remains my favorite kind of journalism.

In the early days it was the game story that most excited me. There was so little television coverage of sports back then – no replays or ESPN and the like – that if you wanted a good accounting, you read a rundown of the game in the New York Daily News. A sharp game story accompanied by some data visualization – uh, I mean the box score – and you were good to go.

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post.  His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Goff’s story for more than a month now.  I am about to X-ray it for you to reveal what I think makes it special.  You can read it now. Or you can follow along as I quote passages and then analyze them.

Great journalism comes at the intersection of talent, preparation, and opportunity. The readiness is all.

Red Smith was ready when Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard round the world” to lead the New York Giants in a shocking 1951 defeat of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the most famous baseball game ever played.  Smith’s lead for the New York Herald Tribune read:

Now it is done.  Now the story ends.  And there is no way to tell it.  The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic can ever be plausible again.

The kicker of the story, describing the downcast pitcher who threw the infamous pitch to Thomson, remains just as memorable:

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

Most striking about Steven Goff’s game story out of Belo Horizonte, Brazil is its unconventional approach to news writing.  It begins with two long paragraphs that almost ignore the details of the game.  What might have been expected in the report of a routine match flew out the window in the wake of a historic loss and humiliation.  Goff was ready:

It’s been said Brazil has never fully recovered from its greatest sporting tragedy, the 1950 home loss to Uruguay in the World Cup final.  Despite proceeding to win a record five global crowns and injecting beauty in the beautiful game, for blessing the sport with legendary players such as Pele, Romario and Ronaldo, Brazil remains haunted by the ghosts of “Maracanazo” – a term capturing the heartbreak of that day before 173,000 spectators at Rio’s Maracana stadium.

While that 76-word lead has no news in it, per se, it was news to me.  Perhaps students of the game would automatically understand the reference to the 1950 disaster (the way that I know about Bobby Thomson’s famous home run). This lead provides something that we say we want more of these days in journalism: context.  In a single paragraph, we come to understand the place of Brazil in the history of world football, and the place of world football in the history of Brazil. Now we are ready to put into that context what happened “yesterday”:

After what unfolded Tuesday, a 7-1 loss to Germany in the cup semifinals, Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations, an expression to capture what it looked and felt like at Estadio Mineirao, what it meant to concede four goals in six minutes of the first half, to suffer one of the most humbling setbacks in World Cup annals, to lose at home for the first time in 12 years and to equal the largest margin of defeat in its eminent history.

Has there been a better 88-word sentence in the history of game stories?  I’m ready to see it.  This one will suffice for now.  Let’s examine the parts:

  • “After what unfolded Tuesday” – The obligatory When of the story, but “unfolded” is a verb I associate with the beginning of a surprising narrative.
  • “…a 7-1 loss to Germany in the cup semifinals” – This is the What, the news, but it can be embedded in apposition because most people will already know what happened.
  • “…Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations,” – This phrase picks up the focus of the first paragraph, not only the idea of national disaster, but something so devastating that a new word may be needed to describe it. One part of a story sticks well to another; we call that stickiness “cohesion.”
  • “…an expression to capture…” – This phrase introduces a list of four discrete elements of the national humiliation. The entire sentence should remind us that the well-organized long sentence – one that takes a reader on a journey – must be on the workbench of every successful writer.

A good game story almost always answers the question ‘How’ for the reader.  How did the Giants defeat the Dodgers in such a surprising fashion? (By cheating – stealing signs – as it turned out years later.) How did a world soccer superpower allow seven goals in a game on its home field? Take these three short paragraphs:

Between the 23rd and 29th minutes, Brazil imploded. Without Thiago Silva, their defensive sentry, the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.

Kroos passed to Muller, who crisscrossed with Klose inside the penalty area. Cesar blocked Kloses’ initial shot but had no chance to stop the second.

“It was a great shock to them,” German Coach Joachim Loew said, “and you realized they were confused. They did not know what to do.”

The phrase that stands for me is: “the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.” The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.

Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing.  What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective. There are moments when the skillful writer can merge the elements of information and judgment, the kind of move we might expect from a Frank Rich reviewing a Broadway play or a presidential debate.

This final paragraph did the trick for me:

After the final whistle, Brazil’s players gathered at midfield and applauded the spectators. It was almost a plea for forgiveness. None was offered.

I love it that a story that began with two sentences that totaled more than 150 words, ends with a sentence of three words.

What this story reveals most of all is how ready Steven Goff was to write it.  That readiness – a combination of preparation and physical energy – reminds me of one of the great stories in the history of sports writing.  (I am retelling it from a chapter in my book Writing Tools.)

I end with the story of a famous foreign correspondent and novelist, Laurence Stallings, who was assigned in 1925 to cover a big college football game between Pennsylvania and Illinois.  The star of the day was Red Grange.  Known as the Galloping Ghost, Grange dazzled the crowd with 363 yards of total offense, leading the Illini to a 24-2 upset victory over Penn.

The famous journalist and author was awestruck.  Red Smith wrote that Stallings “clutched at his haircut” as he paced up and down the press box.  How could anyone cover this event?  “It’s too big,” he said, “I can’t write it,” this coming from a man who had once covered World War I.

Someone should have quoted Shakespeare to him:  “the readiness is all.” Read more