“You’re the pangolin guy!”
That’s how random people sometimes greet John Sutter, a contributor to CNN and National Geographic Explorer.
“I wrote this story around five years ago about pangolins, which are scale-covered, armadillo-looking things,” Sutter said. “They’re trafficked in high volumes in Southeast Asia and Africa. The investigation was originally hard to get approved. Some editors were like, ‘What is this weird creature? Why would we send you to Indonesia to do a story about it?’”
But Sutter’s story blew up on the internet. After CNN readers donated more than $17,000, Education for Nature Vietnam aired a PSA campaign in the area about pangolins. A reader started a successful petition on Change.org to put a pangolin in a Disney movie. There was even a “My Pangolin Friend” music video on YouTube.
When you’re a flourishing reporter, your impact can be both great and unexpected. Poynter’s newest training, Reporting Workshop for Rising Stars, is designed to help up-and-coming reporters maximize their influence by elevating their career and craft.
Sutter will co-lead the four-day workshop in October with Erin Ailworth, a disaster reporter for The Wall Street Journal. I talked with Sutter and Ailworth about how this Poynter training will teach newer reporters to strategically balance the “gajillion” things they’re asked to do, weather the turbulence of seeing a story through to the end, and view walking their dog as a journalistic exercise.
Mel: This is a new workshop for Poynter. Can you describe what it’s all about?
John: It’s a small-group workshop for early-career journalists. The way we’ve been talking about it is how to level up in your work life. Part 1 of that is leveling up your craft. Part 2 is about career management.
Mel: What sessions are you most pumped about?
John: I’m going to do a session on multimedia reporting. Reporters are asked to do a gajillion things in every format, all on deadline. I’ll talk about how to plan that out so it’s not totally overwhelming. One example we’ll draw from is a trip I took to the Marshall Islands, where it was just me. They wanted me to make two videos, a story, a daily Snapchat thing … and I ended up dropping and breaking some equipment because I was doing too much. That was a stop-and-reflect moment where I realized I needed to be more strategic.
Erin: Yeah, you do have to be strategic, because you can’t take written notes, video and audio at the same time. And also shoot a photo! You have to know how those things can work together for you. I actually have started taking more voice memos to document what I’m seeing. I end up doing a lot of driving and it wastes too much time to stop and write things down.
Erin: It’s about being out in your community, not just being a reporter in your office making phone calls. Reporters need to talk to people and build relationships, like when they’re walking their dog. When a story pops up, then someone in their community might tell them about it.
My dog helped me find a couple of page ones and a couple of centerpieces, simply because we were out and about in the community. She is truly a newshound.
Mel: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask … what’s your dog’s name?
Erin: Lois, of course.
Mel: Okay, let’s zoom out. As star reporters yourselves, why do you think this training is important?
Erin: I assume that a lot of budding journalists have gone through collegiate journalism courses. But then you actually get into a newsroom, and the way things work in real life – the way you navigate a story or just the inside of your newsroom – are different. Developing relationships can be important to the opportunities you get and the ways you can grow. I’m looking forward to passing on what I know to help early-career journalists succeed.
John: The stakes in journalism are so high right now. I think that we’re all looking to the next generation of reporters to do this important work and take it to new levels. It helps to learn how stuff gets made, whether it’s an investigative piece or a TV documentary or a special series on Instagram. All that can seem inaccessible at first. We’re going to bring in a lot of smart people who can share their experiences about how they went from being exactly where all the people in this course are at in their careers to award-winning, impactful reporters.
Erin: You think, “I found this story. I did the reporting. And now it’s done!” That’s not how it works at all.
Mel: What are some hurdles that you think early-career journalists face in particular?
John: We’re being asked to do everything all the time. In that environment, there are lots of opportunities to try new, fun, creative, impactful things, but it can be completely overwhelming. This workshop will be a chance for people to step away for a beat and think about what they’re doing and why. We will help those reporters find those few precious stories that they’re going to throw everything into and make something memorable.
Erin: The enormity of the task can be paralyzing. I don’t think that is unique to beginning journalists. But I do think that they haven’t yet realized that we all go through these motions – and emotions – every time we report something that’s bigger than a daily. Figuring that out is important.
John: It’s always been critical that journalists are accurate and we check our work. But now that we’re in the crosshairs of certain political figures and certain parts of society, we need to be 150% on our game. That can be scary for veteran journalists. That can be terrifying if you’re just starting out.
Getting tools to check your work from veteran reporters so that your story is true with a capital T is so important. The political and accuracy pressures are higher than they have been in any other part of my career, certainly.
Mel: John, you’ve talked about the importance of your Poynter cohort as you’ve developed in your career. How have both of your networks supported you through these types of challenges?
Erin: Listen, I’m a disaster reporter. Particularly since I’ve taken on this beat full time, that network is so important just for mental health. Being able to talk to people who know what you’re dealing with when you’re out in the field, what you’re seeing when you’re reporting … being able to have that kind of support network is really, really important.
And then outside of that, I’ve just had so many professional mentors. But there’s not a classic college course on mentoring, either. You’ve got to learn how to make and sustain those relationships, and also how to look for them.
John: Super tangibly, the six-week summer workshop I did at Poynter right after college is the reason I got a job at CNN.
This network is particularly important when you’re working on a story that tests you in some new way. I moved into the investigative team at CNN about two years ago. There was a major learning curve for me trying to figure out what type of story meets the bar of an investigation. How do you pitch a story like that? The cohort that I formed, partly at Poynter, helped me through that transition. They showed me how they pitched their successful stories. They talked me through how certain database systems work. I’ve learned a ton from my peers over the years. I think journalists work best when we work across a peer network.
Mel: What are some stories you’ve done that people still email you about?
John: There are two stories that I still get emailed about, even though it’s been years. I wrote a story on modern slavery in Mauritania as part of CNN’s Freedom Project. It took forever to do that story, because we weren’t originally allowed to go there to do the reporting. A whole team was involved that helped troubleshoot and figure out how to do it in a safe and ethical way. There’s a nonprofit that started out of it. And our audience donated a bunch of money to a training center for escaped slaves in Mauritania’s capital.
Erin: In terms of reporting on disaster, I’m most proud of stories where the sources maintain relationships with me. After the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church shooting in 2017, I ended up being invited into the hospital room of one of the shooting victims, Farida Brown. I wrote a daily on deadline, basically from her hospital room/the parking lot of the hospital, about what she had seen and experienced and thought. She still talks to me today, which I take as the highest compliment. It means that I handled the interview and the story appropriately.
Mel: The theme here is impact. As much as this training is for ambitious, career-climbing reporters to focus on their own skills, we want to remind them of the power of journalism. It sounds like you’re going to do that in a new way during the workshop. How?
Erin: We plan to Skype with Farida Brown, the Sutherland Springs survivor (and maybe another trauma survivor, too). I’ve asked her to share what it’s like to be approached by a reporter – in her case, multiple reporters – so quickly after a tragedy. And what made her decide to talk to me? When I spoke to her, she had already turned down several other reporters. I think I know why she said yes to me, but I’ll let her tell the people who attend our workshop.