February 20, 2008

David Folkenflik spent more than a decade as an award-winning newspaper reporter at The (Baltimore) Sun. In 2004, he says, he “took a leap of faith across media platforms,” taking a job as a National Public Radio correspondent. He’s NPR’s media correspondent, now based in New York City.

Folkenflik says he “seeks stories that haven’t been widely told, such as the multimedia innovations of a small Kansas company and the decision by the owners of a crusading Alabama paper to make it not-for-profit.” He’s a digger too, breaking stories about the Chicago-based Tribune Co’s financial woes, and a skillful profiler of figures in the media world.

I’d long been a fan of Folkenflik’s media coverage at The Sun, and curious when he surfaced on NPR. I wanted to find out more about his decision and the lessons he’s learned from the transition — matters not only relevant to those who make such a change, but also to print reporters who contribute audio storytelling on their Web sites. What follows is our e-mail interview and links to some of his favorite stories.

Chip Scanlan: When did you move from print to radio?

David Folkenflik: I left The Sun in October 2004 and joined National Public Radio late the next month.

Scanlan: Why did you make the move?

Folkenflik: Perhaps the central reason has to do with NPR itself. I’ve been a listener — first involuntarily as a child, then by choice — for as long as I can remember, so I have a strong affinity for it.

Once I learned NPR was creating this position, it seemed a natural way for me to continue covering an intriguing beat while adopting a completely fresh approach to the job. And that held a strong appeal.

But I might not have had the confidence — or the imagination — to take this leap of faith across media platforms had it not been for the presence of my former editor at The Sun, Bill Marimow, who was a senior editor here at NPR at the time and is now the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. It assured me that this very different kind of medium can adhere to the fundamental principles that drew me to journalism in the first place.

Scanlan: What did the transition entail? What did you have to learn and master to report and write the news for radio? What’s the difference between writing a newspaper story and a radio story?

Folkenflik: Joining NPR from the world of print was a little bit like entering the Marine Corps at Parris Island. You’re completely stripped down and then built back up.

The journalistic tools and techniques I relied on for articles often help advance the reporting of my stories here — but they’re not enough. The basics are the same. But the way you structure stories on radio is very different.

For one thing, you give the host who reads the introduction to your stories many of the best lines. In the body of the story, you really need to guide listeners by the hand — there are a lot of external distractions as they hear the stories. So you have to convince them this is worth listening to and you can’t expect them to remember everything as the story moves along.

You need to think very consciously about sound. You want to minimize or avoid the noises that interfere with your ability to hear people’s voices — the refrigerators, flourescent lights, computers, leaf blowers, and so on. And yet you want very much to capture the clatter and chatter that make up the soundtrack of real life.

You need to honor the way people speak, to let their cadences unspool and thoughts unpack, more than I did for written articles. You have to learn to get out of the way more. And I had to cast aside my ignorance of (and relative lack of interest in) technology to recognize its importance in conveying the stories I want to tell.

Because you simply have fewer words in which to tell stories, you have to economize. In a newspaper article, you might include all five damning episodes or illuminating anecdotes. This is much more like haiku. You generally have to choose one or two.

“In a newspaper article, you might include all five damning episodes or illuminating anecdotes. This is much more like haiku. You generally have to choose one or two.” -David FolkenflikFor many of the same reasons, it’s been a complete blast. It’s fascinating to have to learn a new form of journalism. It’s been great to try to use the medium to give my stories a little turbo boost; when I did a piece about a small paper in Alabama that’s going to be owned by a not-for profit foundation, I interviewed people at a general store — the sound of the owner (a county commissioner) bantering with customers as he scooped beans out of a barrel evoked small-town life of the Deep South far more powerfully than my hitting listeners over the head with it.

In the hitting-listeners-over-the-head category, I did a story on CNBC’s bombastic Jim Cramer that allowed him to explode through the microphone. But in another piece, about former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, the power came simply from allowing Eichenwald to speak at length about his struggles.

One last point about that: I think the learning process continues, and the mastery lies a ways off.

I’ve also found I can leverage material online in interesting and different ways. On longer stories, I try to include expanded excerpts of interviews with key players. I think it allows listeners to hear them in their own words in greater depth — and as a practice I think it gives listeners who take the trouble to access those links enhanced trust that we’re representing people fairly.

Also, on weighty stories where I can’t include all the relevant stuff I’ve learned on the air, I’ll incorporate that into a lengthier Web version. We can link to related material — including the controversial stories that are at the heart of some of my reports. And periodically I write an online column for NPR.org that allows me to indulge my previous incarnation as a media critic and columnist. Others are also podcasting — an area in which NPR seems to be doing pretty well — but I haven’t done that yet.

Scanlan: How does working for public radio compare to working for a major metro?

Folkenflik: I worked for two newspapers — one pretty big, the Baltimore Sun, the other much smaller, The (Durham) Herald-Sun in North Carolina. (I also had an internship at what was then called The News and Courier in Charleston, S.C.) I love newspapers. I had a great time and learned a lot reporting for both.

“I love newspapers. … Yet when you met people socially, and they asked what you did and who you worked for, you’d as often as not get an earful. … These days, if people ask what you do, and you tell them, you hear, ‘You know what I love about NPR?’ That’s a gratifying shift.” -David FolkenflikYet when you met people socially, and they asked what you did and who you worked for, you’d as often as not get an earful. And that earful would start like this: “You know what’s wrong with your paper?” or “You know what I hate about your paper?” I don’t see people doing this to dentists or utility company employees.

These days, if people ask what you do, and you tell them, you hear, “You know what I love about NPR?” That’s a gratifying shift.

The reach is also pretty amazing. We have listeners all over the country, in big cities, small towns, red states, blue states — all over. People are always surprised to learn our audiences are a lot bigger than those of cable news channels, and often rival the networks.

As a reporter, I find sources are more accustomed to dealing with newspapers, on a few levels. The sources figure they reach more people by going to one of the big newspapers — even though any story we do is likely to be heard by far more people than would read it in, say, The New York Times.

And there’s the inhibition factor — when you talk to someone in person or by phone, all you need is a pen and a pad. To make a story that really leverages the power of radio, you need sound — and so you have to whip out a microphone or ask if you can call back once you’ve arranged for time in a studio. Even if it’s only a three-minute hiatus (we have booths set up for quick-and-dirty phone interviews), that can give sources a bit more time to second-guess their decision to talk. And people, especially lawyers, are nervous about talking on tape. I imagine if they misspeak, they feel it’s harder to step away from those comments. It also makes it tougher for them later to claim they were taken out of context.

Scanlan: What was the greatest surprise?

Folkenflik: The pace is pretty different. On the whole, the days are more manageable — but the deadlines for breaking news are like full sprints. “All Things Considered” kicks off at 4 p.m., so a developing story that I could have finished at 5:30 or even 7 p.m. for The Sun has to be done and ready to track — that is, to record in studio — by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. at the latest. That means your reporting has to be done at least an hour before that. Your days can be really compressed.

On the flip side, because “Morning Edition” doesn’t start until 5 a.m., you can spend long nights reporting and recording stories on things that happen too late in the day to turn for “All Things Considered.” And, it means the show’s producers can (and occasionally do) call you at 3 a.m. to update stories that are about to run with new developments — or at 11 p.m. or even 5 a.m. to come into the studio to match someone else’s piece. It doesn’t happen very often — but it’s very much a round-the-clock mentality. Newspapers aren’t so Web-crazed that they feel as much need to do that yet.

It is also a relief not to be worrying as much about newsroom budgets.

Scanlan: What role do producers, editors and others at NPR play when you are producing a story?

Folkenflik: It’s an exceptionally collaborative place. I still do the loose-knit kind of consultations I used to favor with trusted colleagues at The Sun. But I’m in frequent discussion with my direct bosses, such as Laura Bertran, Steve Drummond, and Ellen Weiss, my arts desk colleague Sara Sarasohn and my fellow New York bureau crazies Robert Smith, Mike Pesca and Adam Davidson about possible approaches to the story. And that’s been great fun.

So far, I haven’t worked much with producers in the field; instead, I record the interviews and sound in the field, Alison Bryce and colleagues from the news operations desk help me identify and gather sound from public events (say, press conferences or speeches); either Laura or show producers “lay up” the piece, which means putting together the constituent sounds of the piece, from my narration to the voices of the people I’ve interviewed, to the background sound we use to represent life as it actually sounds when you’re there. The sound technicians, the engineers, make sure the levels are strong enough to hear clearly but not intrusive — they can work magic to make it all flow together. As digital technologies have become more sophisticated, though, reporters are taking on more production tasks and show producers are taking on more technical duties.

Scanlan: Did you have teachers or mentors who helped you become a radio journalist?

Folkenflik: I’ve found NPR to be an astonishingly collaborative and gracious place. Even aside from my bosses, experienced reporters such as Danny Zwerdling have gone out of their way to offer constructive tips on how to tell stories more simply but no less completely. Others such as David Kestenbaum have offered pointers on incorporating humor, or simply encouraged things they thought worked. That helps too. People here seem to genuinely revel in one another’s successes and little grace notes. Jonathan Kern, a former executive producer of “All Things Considered” who’s been an in-house coach, has been particularly patient with me. So has our former national editor, Ellen Weiss, who’s now our vice president for news — although I was initially not one of her reporters.

And you learn just by listening to other stories -– such as those by foreign correspondents like Rob Gifford or the dispatches of StoryCorps, with its incredible initiative enabling people to tell their own tales.

Scanlan: What advice would you give someone who wants to make the transition from print to public radio or to a print reporter who wants to add radio skills?

Folkenflik: You have to be willing to overcome your own inhibitions about hearing your voice, and dealing with slightly cumbersome equipment. You have to be willing to collaborate to a greater degree. You have to tell complex stories more tightly — but without losing any of the sophistication or vital context. You should be eager to have fun along the way.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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