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Posts Tagged ‘Reporting’

Better phone interviews

In Uncategorized on July 6, 2017 at 3:19 pm

Alexander Graham Bell placing the first New York to Chicago phone call in 1892.

Last week, I introduced Luz, our summer intern at the Half Moon Bay Review. Predictably, she’s been teaching me more about myself, our newsroom and our business than I could ever impart to her.

Today, she and I were talking about an unsuccessful phone interview she suffered through. She called a world-renowned science museum looking for information about the whale migration that is making its way off our beaches. It didn’t go well.

As we talked about why that might have been, Luz guessed it was because she wasn’t confident enough and therefore didn’t speak up with her questions. The result was that the expert on the other end wasn’t comfortable and ultimately didn’t provide any useful information for whale-watchers.

As Luz found out, it’s not enough to call an expert and ask them to talk about whales. That is probably obvious to the professional reporters reading these words, but it wasn’t obvious to her. That’s because I didn’t properly prepare her for the call.

It got me thinking about all the reasons phone interviews fail.

Lack of preparation. It’s easy to find someone on the internet who seems like a great source for just about anything. In fact, it’s much easier to find a source than it is to think about what you want to know from that source. Luz and I would have done well before her call to brainstorm ways to make the best of it. That requires some reading, which would have opened us up to questions like, why do there seem to be more whales migrating close to shore in the last couple of years and what are the rules governing human interactions with endangered species? … Read the rest of this entry »

Reporters with clever signs

In Editing on June 29, 2017 at 4:21 pm

On Thursday, dozens of journalists walked out of the New York Times building for a coordinated “15-minute coffee break” that was really a solidarity protest with copy editors. Why? Times newsroom management announced it would cut the number of copy editors from more than 100 to about 50 in order to free up more money for “top talent” reporters.

It was a remarkable moment and it is a first in my memory. Suffice to say, reporters haven’t always come running to extol the virtues of copy editors who are sometimes wrongly blamed for messing up the prose and just generally being killjoys. Copy desks were once a central part of big-city newspapers. The work has always been grueling. I know, because I’ve done it. I used to come in at 5 a.m. to copy edit an afternoon daily. Then I stayed until 2 a.m. to copy edit the weekend morning editions. You stare at a screen. You never leave the building. No one ever asks what you think of a story on the front end. No one ever thanked the copy editor.

The ranks have dwindled in recent years, and we all know why. Faced with cutting expenses, management looks around the room and knows that it can continue to put out a paper without those guys with the green eyeshades and stylebooks.

In a blistering critique of management plans, Times copy editors penned a letter claiming that it’s “dumbfoundedly unrealistic” to expect 50 copy editors to catch as many errors as 100. Top editors answered that they weren’t doing away with “copy editing,” only the freestanding copy desk. We are assured each desk — National, World and so on — will continue to go to great pains to assure that all copy remains fair, accurate and in keeping with correct style. Management might have added that it’s dumbfoundingly unrealistic to expect a newspaper to carry 100 copy editors in this day and age. … Read the rest of this entry »

Do you name the school?

In Ethics on February 23, 2017 at 4:40 pm

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X High School students suspected of armed robbery.

That suggested headline gave me pause the other day. The story concerned the arrest of two 16-year-old boys who had been arrested for robbing a younger teenager of his watch and some other stuff. The suspects, who by California law were not named because of their age, were charged with armed robbery because the victim said he saw a knife and the handle of a firearm during the commission of the crime.

The writer handled all that stuff well, I thought. It was a legitimate news story. … I just couldn’t get past naming the suspects’ high school. Ultimately, I deleted reference to it, and I wanted to mention it here in case my reasoning is useful to you.

So why did I delete reference to the school? Why not give readers all the information you have? What’s wrong with specifying where these charmers take classes? Wouldn’t mentioning it help parents take precautions that could keep their families safe?

I don’t think so. There are three relevant points for me:

First, the incident did not take place on the high school campus. The affiliation was incidental to the crime. If they were plumbers, say, would we run a headline reading “Jake’s Plumbers employees arrested for armed robbery?” If they were prominent, you might be more specific. If they were the highly recruited star football players, perhaps, or if they were two assistant principals, say, I might feel differently. I don’t think juvenile students at a local high school meet that measure. … Read the rest of this entry »

When the news follows you home

In Writing on September 22, 2016 at 4:42 pm

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This I know: There will be a murder in the news this week. You’ll see news of it on TV. You may even report on it. You’ll see the detectives talking about it at a podium, a grieving mother interviewed in the street, B-roll from the scene, a neighbor of the alleged killer saying, “He was quiet and kept to himself.”

These terrible events can be mind-numbing because we just aren’t all that shocked any more. At least I’m not, sad to say. That is not true, however, if you are covering one of these crimes. In that case, the violence and injustice can get under your skin for a very long time.

The New York Times’ Jesse McKinley walks us through his experience covering one such murder in upstate New York. I found it fascinating just for the inside baseball of it all. How he learned of the crime from another reporter and the calculus they made in deciding to commit significant time to reporting one crime in an out-of-the-way place. (This one featured a child victim, racy allegations and a race angle: The victim was white; the accused is black.) The case goes to the jury this week.

Several news organizations have made laudable efforts to cover serious crime of late. The New York Times has written exhaustive reports on individual murders that might not have merited any coverage but for the Times’ effort to bring home the specter of such violence. Chicago news organizations have chronicled an epidemic there and I can remember The Oakland Tribune doing something similar. … Read the rest of this entry »

Time to listen up

In journalism on July 22, 2016 at 8:44 am

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The best piece of journalistic advice this week – or in a long while – comes from City University of New York Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis. It will take you six minutes to read his blog post, “Learning to Listen,” but it may just save your career.

As he points out, there has been a bit of a convergence around the idea that our communication with readers is no longer a one-way street. Yes, yes, all of us say we hear our readers loud and clear. But do we really?

Jarvis (riffing off of New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd) notes that newspaper reporting too often works like this:

Editor: Hey, reporter, why don’t you do a story about the new bridge over the river?

Reporter: Good idea. I’ll rehash the construction process, get a quote from the city manager and assign a picture of the ribbon-cutting. Have it for you in two hours.

Reporter and editor intuitively know what readers would find interesting about this bridge, mostly because they know what would be easy to get by talking to the usual suspects and they know how they have always done it. I submit to you that the readers in the scenario above are likely to have interests that aren’t immediately obvious to those two – and that aren’t contained in the city staff report. Every newsroom is set up to eliminate friction and minimize change. In fact, that is true of most organizations. As a result, we make some things automatic. In order to be more machine-like, we have to hold change agents — readers who are demanding something different — at a distance. … Read the rest of this entry »

On being open-minded

In Ideas on March 17, 2016 at 2:56 pm
U.S. National Archives

U.S. National Archives

Al Tompkins posted a fascinating breakdown of White House press corps questions on the Poynter site last week. He maintains, with plenty of justification, that the best and the brightest covering the most important public office in the world blow their big moments when face to face with the president.

Then he tells us about interviewing Alex Haley in 1976, which dates him a bit. Nevertheless, he makes some valuable points.

The key takeaway is an awareness of the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions. Open-ended queries are those that start rather than end conversations. They are best defined by what they are not. “Will you run for president, Mr. Bloomberg?” is a close-ended question. The only acceptable answer is “Yes” or “No,” and then the interviewee is free to go. If, however, you asked, “What would motivate you to run for president?” you can see that the answer would have to be more nuanced.

I realize this isn’t new territory for anyone who has been a journalist for more than a week, but perhaps you haven’t thought about it in this way. Too often (and we’re all guilty from time to time), reporters ask questions only hoping for a sound bite or quote to run as the third graph of the story. We are hardly listening to the answer. Think about the likely response to your question and you are likely to think of a way to ask it that elicits something interesting. … Read the rest of this entry »

Let the dust settle

In Reporting on February 11, 2016 at 5:51 pm

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There was a brazen daylight armed robbery in downtown Half Moon Bay earlier this week. It was a bit of a scare. We don’t get much of that around here.

So we did what reporters do when they find out about high-profile crimes in their coverage area. We went out there. A reporter and photographer sprinted down the street to the scene of the crime. It was all over but the shouting, so to speak. There were police cars out front of the jewelry store and crime-scene tape blocked the entrance.

Consequently, all our reporter could find out was that men with a gun held up the store. No one was injured. Police were investigating.

This led me to think anew about a truism of local journalism: You almost never learn anything interesting while cops are still working a crime scene. Which leads to another truth: You have to go back.

It has been my experience that there are two good windows in which to learn what happened at a crime scene: Before the cops get there and after they leave.

Sometimes you are just in the right spot. You see something go down, or it occurs while you are in the vicinity. (One time I was quarantined for anthrax because I got to the scene of a scare before the authorities. It was sorta great, and sorta terrible. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about it sometime.) When this happens, the eyewitnesses will be apparent. They likely will be only too happy to talk. We are social animals and when something extraordinary happens to us – even if it’s awful – we want to tell someone. If you are the first one there, chances are folks will be dying to tell you what happened.

More often, you will hear about the wreck on the highway on the scanner, or a regular call to the police will tip you off about a murder, etc. Usually, you arrive to see police doing their thing and crime scene tape doing its thing. Here’s what I advise, and I’m sure you have similar protocols: … Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t put off the writing

In Writing techniques on November 12, 2015 at 6:30 pm

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Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute offered up 10 tips for those of us who have occasion to do a little bit of reporting and research. They are all great. But I wanted to focus on two. Specifically, Nos. 1 and 6.

Clark’s first tip: Research and report until you begin to hear a repetition of stories or key information. That strikes me as the most concise and on point explanation of when to quit that I’ve ever heard. (And when I say “quit,” I acknowledge that we never really quit the reporting. But there comes a time to stop thinking and start doing.)

“Listen for anecdotes, those mini-stories that reveal a larger point,” he writes. “When you begin to hear the same key stuff from different sources, it may be a sign you need to gear down the research so that the drafting can be revved up. Most important, never use the need for more research as an excuse for not writing.”

Which brings us to No. 6.

“Get busy writing before your editor … starts yelling at you because you’re about to miss a deadline,” Clark implores.

“Writers often devote a disproportionate amount of their time to research, leaving writing to the very end,” he writes. “… Your story will not be perfect, but most times “good enough” is good enough. Feel the adrenaline. Use it. Then let the work go.” … Read the rest of this entry »

Montana makes a stand

In journalism on October 1, 2015 at 12:25 pm

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Join me in a toast to the great state of Montana, home of our own Sidney Herald.

As a result of a vote earlier this year, On Oct. 1 the state became the first in the nation to provide an absolute privilege for reporters’ communications that might be stored digitally elsewhere. That means state agencies can’t subpoena Google or Facebook, for instance, in order to get reporter emails or posts. You may be surprised to learn that your gmail – including that in your Wick Communications accounts — is not really yours; once a gmail message is sent it is stored on third-party servers and can be had in most places by virtue of a court order or simply by asking for it. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

The change in law might seem subtle, but consider how important it is for reporters to have confidential sources in government. Many government employees, contractors and plain old citizens won’t speak on the record about very important things for fear of reprisal. Quoting confidential sources should always be very rare, but many of us routinely speak to people off the record if only to confirm what we already know.

The new law protecting reporter privilege was sponsored by a Republican legislator. And no one spoke in opposition, according to an account in the Billings, Mont., Missoulian.

You can read James Warren’s account on the Poynter site. … Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Watergate Day

In journalism on June 18, 2015 at 1:14 pm

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Watergate changed my life. That is true despite the fact that I was only 11 when the break-in occurred on June 17, 1972, 43 years ago this week. it is true even though I lived a continent away when Richard Milhous Nixon resigned from office, stepped up to that Marine helicopter, flashed a weird peace sign and choppered off into the sunset.

Actually, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee changed my life. It wasn’t the first time investigative journalism had uncovered illegal behavior in government, but it happened at just the right time in the course of human events to drive thousands of kids like me into a profession that seemed if not saintly at least on the right side of history. Sometimes that’s enough.

Sadly, on this anniversary of the Watergate burglary that kind of journalistic will is in short supply. At the risk of sounding a bit hyperbolic, I think that our business and our nation are in grave danger as a result.

Getting our mojo back will take many things but none more important than swagger.

To this day, reading the very first story of the break-in, under the byline of Woodward and Bernstein, leaves me breathless. It’s a barking dog of a story. It’s relentless in the telling of facts that some might consider irrelevant. Together, the facts signal that these two guys on the Metro desk were not going away. Consider that this was before information was available with a keystroke. Every bit of this story was gathered by hand, by getting out of the office and finding sources. These were two young reporters who didn’t really know anyone in political circles. The hard work evident in these few graphs is typical of the dogged pursuit that came to define a generation of American journalists: … Read the rest of this entry »