Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Reporting’

Finding time for solutions

In journalism on 16 Jul 2018 at 8:55 am

I had been conscripted, really. It wasn’t my idea to stand before 50 or so journalists and ask them to please come be part of my group rather than one of the others forming around equally important concepts. But there I was, on a hot and sunny Portland Saturday. I knew nobody. Here goes.

“OK kind people,” I began. “How can those of us in small newsrooms, amid all the cutbacks we’ve all experienced and the new responsibilities we all have as a result, find time for solutions in addition to problems.”

It was really Solutions Journalism Network regional leader Linda Shaw’s question. I think she culled from a survey of participants at the SJN West Coast gathering on July 14. However it emerged, it was the key problem for many and many in attendance. Many of us spend too much time cataloguing problems all day, every day. How do we make the next step into leading a conversation that could change society for the better? Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?

Eeeeerrrrrrkkkk! Crash. (Insert your own trainwreck sound here.) Hold on a minute here. I confess that I had to wallow in that concept for a while before I got it. This “solutions” thing can sound suspiciously like advocacy. Personally, I didn’t get into journalism to push a cause. Most of us got into the business thinking that you publish the truth and it will set us all free. Folks simply will understand the president is a crook or that we need to mitigate climate change. We don’t present solutions… right?  Read the rest of this entry »


On the other side of the pen

In Media, Newspapers, publishing on 7 Jun 2018 at 10:43 am

The Chronicle asked me to take a photo of our building.

Just as every doctor would learn from being a patient, every reporter ought to be interviewed once in a while. It’s instructive.

This week, I was interviewed twice. Reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED radio called to ask me about the transition of our newspaper, the Half Moon Bay Review, from an out-of-state corporation to local hands. It’s an exciting time and I primed the publicity pump with an email to the Chronicle.

So, I was pleased to hear from a Chronicle reporter. We talked for about 10 minutes and I thought she asked the right questions. The result was a 250-word take on the sale that was entirely sufficient for readers in San Francisco.

It was not, however, the story I would have written. It lacked the sweep of the tale. It didn’t cover all the points needed to truly understand how a group of readers came to purchase a newspaper, the angst as other potential buyers circled, the concern we all had for our jobs. There was originally a stray apostrophe in my quote!

In other words, it was fine. And I was getting a taste of what it’s like to have no control over my words once they were out of my mouth. I’m sure hundreds of people I’ve interviewed over the years would be pleased to know I suddenly shared their chagrin. (Editors subsequently cleaned up the story a tad and it ran in the paper two days after it appeared online.) … Read the rest of this entry »

Report for America

In Innovation on 21 Sep 2017 at 3:07 pm

There is a new idea afoot that seeks to make explicit something we all know intuitively: Journalism is as important to the republic as military might and the ready availability of quality, low-cost donuts. Kidding aside, it is heart-warming to see the unveiling of a program that will be known as Report for America.

The concept is simple, though execution might not be. A partnership between Google News Lab and a non-profit called GroundTruth seeks to put local civics journalism on par with organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America. It would work like this: New reporters who need the experience and mentoring would apply for positions that are funded 50 percent by Report for America, 25 percent by the local newspaper and 25 percent by local donors the newspaper would help find. These reporters would agree to stay for a year in exchange for inclusion. Sorta like a paid internship making real money.

I was particularly heartened by what one of the program’s founders had to say about the importance of mentorship and the fact that many good, young journalists are now lucky enough to skip the ladder through the ranks of the profession and that that sometimes leads them astray.

“What I think a lot of emerging journalists are missing these days is the experience of being lied to on a local level,” he told Poynter. “You need to go into storytelling and you need to know what it’s like to be misled.” … Read the rest of this entry »

Better phone interviews

In Uncategorized on 6 Jul 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 29 Jun 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 23 Feb 2017 at 4:40 pm


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 22 Sep 2016 at 4:42 pm


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 22 Jul 2016 at 8:44 am

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 8.42.39 AM

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 17 Mar 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 11 Feb 2016 at 5:51 pm

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 4.26.30 PM

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 »