How To’s

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Death and writing short – the missing SXSW session

I once heard the great Francis X. Clines of the New York Times tell a group of journalists never to apologize for writing about death.  “We tell the morbid truth,” he said.

I was scheduled to deliver a workshop on “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” on St. Patrick’s Day at SXSW.  But on Friday the Thirteenth my mother, Shirley Clark, died at the age of 95.  I cancelled my trip to Austin and turned my writing skills to crafting her eulogy.

Here are some of the things I would have said at SXSW if I had been able to make the trip.  It riffs off my handout for the session, which you can access here.  When I picked the selections of short writing for study, I didn’t realize how many of them were about death:  dying, almost dying, fear of dying, recovering from a death, remembering a death, the legacy of death.  Read more


Monday, Mar. 23, 2015

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Lessons from women in leadership in Europe: Speak out, innovate and do your homework

At journalism school, a Serbian colleague was advised to spend time in the kafana (a traditional local cavern) to source the best news stories. At the newspaper she later worked for, editors would start the day with coffee and a shot of raki. Eventually, she left after she hadn’t been paid for three or four months. Her experience maybe bubbles down to societal and cultural details; suffice it to say, she’s no longer in journalism.

In the European Union – which comprises 28 countries on the continent, not including Norway, Switzerland and most of the former Yugoslav nations, like Serbia – more women than men go to journalism school. A 2013 report from the European Institute of Gender Equality (EIGE), which has done the most comparative data fieldwork in this field, emphasized that for at least two decades, women outnumbered men at university level and in practice-based journalism programs. Read more

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Friday, Mar. 20, 2015


The importance of teaching specialized writing skills to journalism students

Diana Dawson, director and writing coach at the Journalism Writing Support Program at the University of Texas, coaches a student. (Photo by Jessica Sinn)

Diana Dawson, director and writing coach at the Journalism Writing Support Program at the University of Texas. (Photo by Jessica Sinn)

The University of Texas junior handed me a story about a baseball league for disabled children and sank into a nearby chair. Mercedes Cordero had been through two rounds of editing with her professor but the piece remained troubled by awkward phrasing and lacked the zip needed for publication. Her professor worked with her but he also had lectures to plan, stories to grade and dozens of other students to help.

Hidden in his edits and her frustration was a tale of courageous athletes winning on a different playing field.  But Mercedes had hit the point where she needed help to get that story published. Read more

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Monday, Mar. 16, 2015

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Women need to be as tenacious with raises and promotions as they are with their reporting

As journalists, we are taught to be tenacious. We go after interviews, push for public records and dig for data. But when it comes to advocating for ourselves, why do we often fail to ask the tough questions? This is especially true for women. Many of us hesitate to ask for raises or promotions because we don’t want to be seen as difficult or pushy.

Is this true for you? Think back to your last job offer or your last annual review with your boss. You probably went into those discussions with certain hopes. Maybe you wanted a higher salary, a better schedule or more travel opportunities. Whatever it was, were your expectations met? If not, did you ask for what you wanted?

I’m willing to bet that many of the women reading this, as well as some of the men, are shaking their heads no. Read more


Friday, Mar. 13, 2015


Quartz experiment: Shades of gray distinguish facts from hearsay

As of Sunday night, there remained many unknown elements about the over-the-top subscription service that HBO will launch this year. CEO Richard Plepler confirmed back in October that the premium cable channel would offer the service in 2015. But what would it be called, when would it launch, and on what device(s)?

Quartz writer Adam Epstein wanted to do a story that summarized what was confirmed, likely to be true and as yet unknown about the HBO service. The challenge was to mix information with three different levels of confirmation in a way that readers could understand, while not ruining the flow of the article.

“I had the idea for the piece after browsing Reddit and seeing that despite there being a ton of interest in the upcoming service, there was still some misinformation floating around,” Epstein said by email. Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015


How to get the most out of a writing conference

I have attended a lot of writing conferences since I arrived at Poynter in 1979.  I have organized some, delivered keynote speeches and hands-on workshops, and I have sat in the audience as a learner, at times enthralled by the speaker, at other times amazed that so many people seem so engaged by a writer whose grasp of the writing process seems so obvious.

I once heard someone say this about a favorite food:  “Pizza is like sex.  Even when it’s bad it’s good.”  I am ready to add the writing conference to the list.  Even when it’s bad it’s good.  And when it’s good, it’s great.  And when it’s great it can change your career – and your life.

One of my favorite writing conferences, the one at Boston University led by Mark Kramer, is coming up.  Read more

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Journalism and public shaming: Some guidelines

Public shaming has been in style for a while and journalism plays a significant role. It’s time to examine the ethics of this.

Public shaming, or openly humiliating someone as punishment for a certain behavior, is inherently a form of intimidation. It’s a strategy where we shine a light so hot and bright on a subject that he or she suffers, or at the very least shuts up and goes away.

It’s often perceived as positive because it exposes what many people consider bad behavior such as when BuzzFeed aggregated a bunch of racist tweets after an Indian-American woman won the Miss America crown.

To be sure, there is a certain nobility in shaming public officials who try to keep public documents from the public, or in exposing a greedy corporation that abuses its lowest paid workers. Read more


Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2015


Ken Doctor: Newspaper companies should focus on news apps

kendoctor150Ken Doctor, media analyst and President at Newsonomics recommends that publishers continue to develop reader revenue while print advertising continues to fade. He spoke during a session at the Media Innovation Tour seminar held at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg on March 9.

Reader revenue is the new source of revenue for most newspaper companies, but the boost from paywalls has now hit a bump. Newsrooms, he said, now need to “earn their way back to the community.”

The particular focus should be on the number of loyal customers who are paying for subscriptions or news apps for access, Doctor said.  The future of news business lies in “relationships with community,” so news organizations should focus their attention converting their readership from “users – to readers – to subscribers – to members.”

That requires reconnecting with the community and becoming part of their news. Read more

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Monday, Mar. 09, 2015


The power of slow reading in fast times

I am a slow reader, and that’s a good thing.

Let me give you an example.  Go back and re-read my first sentence, more slowly this time.  What do you notice about it?  What surprises you?  How does it work?  You can’t answer any of those questions by reading it fast.  Only through slow reading can you get an X-ray view of the writer at work.

slow-reading-275When I read that sentence, I notice it is divided into two parts:  1) I am a slow reader) and 2) that’s a good thing.  Both of those parts work as independent clauses.  Connecting the two creates something called a compound sentence.  There is a kind of equality, a balance between the parts. Turning from structure to content, my slow reading reveals to me a creative tension between the parts.  Read more

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Dorothy Bland didn’t let a dead rat or a stalker hold her back

Dorothy Bland at USA Today. (Submitted photo)

Dorothy Bland at USA Today. (Submitted photo)

Name calling, a dead rat and a stalker. What do they all have in common?

No, this is not a quiz for an episode in “How to Get Away With Murder,” and I’m certainly not the angry black woman in America.

I became a news junkie as a child and have lived through all these experiences over the last 35 years in journalism as a reporter, editor and publisher. Do not call me a victim as each of these experiences has made me stronger.

I owe much gratitude to Florestine Purnell, the reporter I succeeded at the Rockford Register Star in Illinois in 1980. For more than a year I was called “Flo” because a white male state’s desk editor praised Flo as the only black woman reporter in that 1970s newsroom. Read more