How To’s

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


‘Resist the urge to be clever or cute’ and other tips from a writer-turned-reader

As a reader far more often than a writer these days, I find that I’m bothered by different things than I was when the situation was reversed. A sports section that can’t get its agate correct consistently. A story that fails to include a person’s age when it is clearly relevant. Reporting that lacks adequate geographical references so I can locate an area.

I could go on, of course, but you get the idea. This hit home for me the other day when I heard from an editor about a story I had written. His first question was one that I couldn’t answer very well. I immediately realized that I’d fallen victim to one of my own observations: insufficient reporting, compounded by not writing well enough to camouflage it. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015

Screen shot, The New York Times

This is why we write stories

Most of the texts we call stories in journalism are more properly called reports. The imprecision of our nomenclature matters because the differences between reports and stories are important, both in how they are produced and how they are received.

The differences, I have argued, begin with the purpose of a report. In general, we write reports to collect, sort through, check out, and dish out information in the public interest. In short, we report to inform. A good report points you there. This is what you need to know. Pay attention to that.

A story is different. In the end, no one reads a story for information. No one reads “Gone with the Wind” to gain information about the Civil War. No one reads “Hamlet” to find out how to get to Elsinore castle. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015

Photo by Andy Wright/Flickr

12 basics of interviewing, listening and note-taking

As a writer I would NOT give myself high marks for the crafts of interviewing, listening, and note-taking. But I have sat at the knees of journalists who are experts at these elements of craft: John Sawatsky of ESPN, Jacqui Banaszynski of the University of Missouri, and Tom French of Indiana University – all of whom have taught at Poynter.

Not long ago, I taught a workshop on these topics to the young men of Poynter’s Write Field program, about 40 minority students attending middle school and high school. They found my lessons useful, so I thought I would pass them on to a larger audience.

I realize these dozen strategies constitute the basics. But when I am struggling with a craft – golf, music, writing – I find it helpful to remind myself of those basics, to climb down from the penthouse and visit the ground floor. Read more


Monday, Aug. 17, 2015


Managers, use that ‘You’re a Fraud’ voice in your head to become a better leader

Did anyone out there wake up this morning convinced that today was “The Day?”

The day they discovered you don’t know what you’re talking about?

I did.

Fact is, I wake up on many mornings feeling that way. And I’m not alone. Whenever I ask a group of managers whether they ever start their day with a crisis of confidence, they overwhelmingly say yes.

And when I ask them what they would most like to take home from the seminar or workshop, increasing numbers of them — no matter how experienced they are — say they would like to be more confident.

Ah, insecurity. It isn’t enough that managers have to deal, every day, with unpredictable news developments and wave after wave of change. They also have to deal with that little voice inside their heads that say, “You’re going to mess this up.”

One way to deal with the fear is to just live with it, taking comfort that many creative people suffer from insecurity. Read more


Tuesday, Aug. 04, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 8.08.38 AM

Eat cereal, and other tips on creativity from Snapchat superstar Shonduras

Snapchat celebrity Shonduras

Snapchat celebrity Shonduras says anyone in a creative industry should involve the audience as often as possible. (Screen shot)

When it comes to social media platforms, Snapchat users might be stuck with the most limitations. Most famous for its (supposedly) self-destructing messages, Snapchat limits videos to 10 seconds, text to 31 characters and offers only rudimentary tools for users to draw images.

But Snapchat celebrity Shaun McBride, known as Shonduras to his followers, says Snapchat’s limitations foster creativity rather than restrict it.

Hundreds of thousands of Snapchat users have tuned in to watch McBride, a 28-year-old Utah native, gorge on massive bowls of cereal, pretend each of his many airline flights is his first or perform skateboarding tricks with his luggage.

McBride’s creativity and cheerfulness have built a massive and devoted fanbase and sizable earnings through branded stories. Read more


Monday, Aug. 03, 2015

Poynter to host conversation on covering social justice issues

AJ+ producer Damu Bobb uses a mobile rig to report from Baltimore. (Photo by Devin Allen)

AJ+ producer Damu Bobb uses a mobile rig to report from Baltimore. (Photo by Devin Allen)

As editors reorganize and identify new beats or topics, social justice reporting is gaining ground as an area of coverage. In the San Francisco Bay area, where social justice is a simmering topic, newsrooms are developing creative approaches.

The Center for Investigative Reporting sent poets and playwrights into the field with reporter Amy Julia Harris to examine the state of the some of worst public housing imaginable in Richmond, California.

Public radio station KQED commissioned graphic artist Andy Warner to create a comic book describing citizen’s legal rights when they get pulled over by the police. They distributed comic book to high school students.

AJ+’s Shadi Rahimi helped develop a strategy for covering citizen protests that starts with reporters documenting events and witnesses on their cell phones and publishing raw video straight to social media. Read more


Why I always play music during writing workshops

Roy Peter Clark plays the accordion

The most fun I have as a teacher is when I can incorporate music into writing instruction. (Photo by Armondo Solares)

I was 46 years old, and my life and time were filled by three pursuits: teaching writing, coaching girls soccer and playing in a rock band. My imagination was born, or reborn, that year in 1994.

I saw them as discrete activities. For each I wore a separate uniform, spoke a distinctive dialect and derived a different reward. It felt like a rich and satisfying life, and it was.

I would soon learn there was something more.

I was at work on the book “Coaching Writers” with Don Fry. That word “coaching” made me wonder whether there was something I was learning from coaching my daughters’ soccer teams that I could apply to the coaching of writers. Read more


Wednesday, July 29, 2015


The decisions behind the New York Magazine’s Cosby cover

When New York Magazine began planning its stunning cover of 35 women who accuse Bill Cosby of assault 30 women had come forward. Now, six months later the number is 46.

The magazine had to navigate a range of ethical, journalistic and design challenges. For instance, is it fair to publicly accuse a person when he/she has not been charged? How would the magazine portray the women in still photographs? Even subtle decisions such as lighting, makeup and framing can affect reader impressions.

Lauren Starke, New York Magazine director of public relations, answered a range of questions I posed via email:

How and Why did you choose to have women wearing black and sitting in the chair with their hands on their laps for the cover photo? Read more


Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Enough with the Hitler comparisons, already

In this file picture a man holds a poster with a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel wearing a swastika. The leader of a German anti-euro party called  for Germany to leave the common currency, telling an inaugural convention that the euro forces German taxpayers to rescue bankrupt southern European countries whose people denounce them as Nazis for their efforts.  (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File)

A man holds a poster with a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel wearing a swastika. Merkel opposition said that the euro forces German taxpayers to rescue bankrupt southern European countries whose people denounce them as Nazis for their efforts. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File)

Presidential campaigns tend to fuel the dark art of the false comparison.

I covered this tendency in 2011, citing incidents in which presidential candidates, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama were compared to Hitler.  That spectrum should be enough to reveal the emptiness of the comparison.  If politicians as different as Reagan and Obama can attract the Hitler zinger, it means that the content of the comparison is less important than the propaganda effect of comparing your antagonist to one of the world’s most notorious villains. Read more


Friday, July 24, 2015


6 tips for covering people with disabilities

Andrea Dalzell, 2015 Ms. Wheelchair New York, participates in the inaugural Disability Pride Parade, Sunday, July 12 in New York.  (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Andrea Dalzell, 2015 Ms. Wheelchair New York, participates in the inaugural Disability Pride Parade, Sunday, July 12 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Like many reporters who end up covering disability issues, it’s not my beat. But I’ve made my share of mistakes­­ and seen enough of the mistakes other journalists make to be able to come up with this list of some basic mistakes to avoid, and links to other sources if you want to dig in deeper.

Talk to people with disabilities.This seems simple and almost absurd to mention. But I’ve seen plenty of stories include quotes from social service providers, academics and politicians and leave out people with disabilities. A mantra in the disability community is “nothing about us, without us.” Keep that in mind when reporting. Read more