Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Interview skills: Share the destination with your subjects

leave a comment »

Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” recently talked about interview tactics and skills with Andre Pizer for the Nieman Storyboard. Mullins had a lot of good tips to share. But the best was about how to begin, how to give your interview subject a sense of where you wanted to go. Mullins explained:

“I tell them ahead of time what I might want. If we’re on deadline, and the person we’re going to be talking to is what we call a kind of ‘normal person,’ maybe part of a couple in Dublin who is talking to us about how the seismic financial cuts are affecting them personally, they may be reluctant, they may be shy, they may be reticent to reveal too much. If I say, ‘What I’d like to leave the audience with is an idea of what your life is like right now,’ then they will start telling me the information I need in the form of a story.”

That is one of those simple but rarely done parts of a great interview. Too many reporters feel they have to lead a subject down a path. Instead, engage the person in leading you down the path by taking the time before you begin to sketch where you would like to go, what you hope to write about, and, perhaps, how their story will likely affect readers. That also means a reporter, and hopefully their editor, have talked about the focus of the story ahead of time to make the most of each interview.

And this is not just great advice for broadcast or video pieces, but print as well.





Written by mroberts8

01/03/2011 at 9:30 pm

Digital readiness

leave a comment »

Michelle McLellan over at the Knight Digital Media Center recently blogged about, “Three signs your newsroom isn’t ready to cross the digital divide.” Unfortunately, the danger signs and solutions she describes reflect a dated misunderstanding of what is already happening in newsrooms around the country.

Her three danger signs and “the fix” for each:

1: The staff still reports to an assignment desk that is focused on print and/or is organized in departments that correspond to the sections of a newspaper. The fix: Newsgathering staff reports to the online assignment desk. Print becomes a production team that draws heavily on the online report for content at the end of the day.

2: News meetings focus on top news for the next day’s paper and meeting times reflect print. The fix: Meetings run by online editors at times that reflect digital publication timetables (like when to serve peak traffic) and focus primarily on online content, traffic and engagement metrics.

3: The top newsroom executives – say the Editor and Managing Editor(s) – are all print veterans who look at online from the outside. The fix: Either the top newsroom executive or the Number 2 has been steeped heavily in online – both the practical and the strategic – for at least five years, if not 10.

The first two are framed via the same print-centric mentality (e.g. desks, formal news meetings) the danger signs are meant to criticize. The third is just bad stereotyping.

The idea of “assignment desks” based on platforms (print versus digital) may have been attempted years ago, if ever, but is not part of the scene now. The assignment function rests in the hands of editors who manage reporters and visual journalists and think about both digital and print publication. In fact, they do not separate the two, but rather think in terms of “continuous coverage” where a story starts online, may evolve through the day, and continue into print as its own unique piece. What is really evolving at many papers is a digital approach that is heavy on breaking news, following by the print component that provides more context and analysis the next day. And this is managed by one “assignment” editor working in both worlds, as well as mobile and maybe even TV.

Similarly, the idea of formal news meetings based on platform is also off the mark. The afternoon news meeting for the next day’s paper survives, but largely as a hand-off between shifts and as a production discussion with the night copy desks. Meetings around content that happen earlier in the day, to manage the flow of news to combined platforms, often happen in short stand-up meetings as needed, versus formal, scheduled gatherings. These are small, quick meetings involving the people who need to act, rather than a gathering of the editorial hierarchy for approval.  The notion that online meetings should serve “…digital publication timetables…” is just goofy, as online (combined with mobile) does not usually plan around timetables, but rather the flow of news. Metrics may detect clear highs and lows. But the idea is to expand the highs, not limit content to those times.

And, lastly, characterizing top editors based on how much they are “…steeped in online…” is shallow and insulting.  As well, the idea that top editors still operate as the all knowing, total control captains of the newsroom is long gone. High-performing teams combine and leverage collective talents. Editors and managing editors need to know how to form and manage high-performing teams.

These danger signs are over a decade behind the curve in digital content delivery and newsroom management, not a good sign for a “digital media center” devoted to”…helping good journalism and good journalists thrive in the Digital Now.”

Written by mroberts8

12/29/2010 at 9:03 pm

Beats crumble, and few take flight

leave a comment »

Nieman Reports’ new Winter 2010 issue opens with a tough look at the loss of strong beat coverage and the appalling consequences for journalism. Much of this will not be news for editors and reporters who have been struggling with diminished resources and rising demands for coverage. They know the result is a sham, thin stories and large pieces of the community that go without coverage.

In one article, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnson, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting and now teaches at Syracuse University, puts it bluntly:

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution. What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

Stories built on quotes. No context. “Conflict” stories rather than explanatory or investigative stories. Reporters dependent on sources to tell them what is happening, rather than sources being held accountable for the facts assembled by the beat reporter. In many newsrooms, even the parameters of a given beat are vague and the coverage goals unspoken. Beat mapping discussions are a crucial beginning.

The issue also takes a look at new twists in beat coverage in Sports, the science beat, and in a fun group article four members of the Community Engagement Team at TBD share thoughts on their own emerging beat, one that is about engaging the community.

Beat mapping: How to focus and drive a beat.

Written by mroberts8

12/14/2010 at 9:35 pm

Beyond galleries to quality slideshow content

leave a comment »

Chadwick Matlin contributes to the growing set of forms and approaches when it comes to online slide shows. The random stream of images and dead end captions of basic photo galleries have given way to more structured slide shows that tell stories, convey complex information, and add great value and user traffic to new web sites.

Writing in the latest Columbia Journalism Review, Matlin sketches seven types of slide shows, including the “Listicle” and the “Essay.” Plus he’s enough of a realist to toss in the “Sex Show,” a form every web site manager and paranoid newspaper editor is well aware of, usually involving cheerleaders, fashion shows, nightclub parties, Miss Hooters contests, or some other variation on soft porn and high traffic. (What’s your version or war story on same?)

Readers like slide shows because they control the medium via clicks, the content can be powerful, and the topics are endless. Web site managers like them as each slide can represent one ad view. Done poorly (or cynically) and they will destroy your credibility. Done well they take digital news presention in new and interesting directions with minimal technical requirements and as showcases for traditional journalism skills — great images and tight writing.


Written by mroberts8

12/02/2010 at 1:38 am

Posted in Editing, Multimedia

Print perspective in the digital age

leave a comment »

Rem Rieder, writing in American Journalism Review, arrives late to the realization that traditional morning-after hard news stories seem stale in the wake of real-time online coverage hours earlier. He observes, correctly, that:

With instant access to information available for so many people, an old-school hard news story looks pretty silly the following morning. In a world where so much information is widely available in real time, it’s imperative for news organizations to provide added value: analysis, perspective, context, narrative. And to make it interesting. Otherwise, what’s the point?

That’s been the case for years now.

The alternative for newspapers is “continuous coverage,” meaning a stream of coverage from the first short online post on through a growing package of online news during the day to the next day’s print story or package that provides the analysis and perspective. For newspapers trying to remain the number one news source in their communities, this has been the game plan for some time.

To build this kind of approach into the culture of your newsroom, it is important to settle on a set of online approaches that everyone is familiar with and can turn to as news unfolds. This can include the basic tools and clear standards and practices as to how to use them. There is also an editorial function, an aggressive but still  measured approach to rolling out the news through the day online. Then, most importantly, it also means breaking off someone, or allowing the primary reporter the time, to report and write a print story that takes the basic news and explores impact and context.

Done well, continuous coverage provides readers with the emerging facts as news happens online and then provides the perspective and wrap-up the next morning in the paper and online.

Written by mroberts8

12/02/2010 at 1:23 am

Art of the profile

leave a comment »


This New York Times Magazine piece on Mikhail Prokhorov is a great example of centering a major profile on the defining characteristic(s) of the subject, and not just dragging the reader through a resume history. The young Russian billionaire is the new owner of the New Jersey Nets. The opening scene sets up the notion of Prokhorov’s ability to adjust and adapt, framed in the context of a specific martial arts skill. That becomes the thread as his story unfolds and his colorful personality arrives in New York and the world of professional sports. There is still lots of personal history in the piece, but animated with this key to his character. Some very nice writing as well.

Written by mroberts8

11/04/2010 at 3:34 pm

Posted in Editing, Writing

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a choronology

with one comment

Comes the time to sit down and begin your story. First develop an outline that, in most cases, lays out the chronology of events. Once the timeline you’ve reported is complete, the question is what part of that timeline will be your story.

Consider the simple diagram below as your completed outline timeline. Each vertical hash mark represents an important moment or development in the story.

But that does not mean your piece needs to cover the entire timeline. So the next step is to settle on the point or meaning of the story you want to tell, and then identify which part of the timeline contains the material that will tell that story most effectively.

In the second diagram below, the yellow portion represents that portion of the total timeline that will be used to tell the story. Events that come before the yellow section become “exposition,” or material that may need to be woven into the story to help explain how events developed. Events that fall after the yellow portion are likely irrelevant, or may be briefly mentioned in touches of foreshadowing.

They key is to be clear in your mind about the story you want to tell — in terms of events and meaning — and then be disciplined about focus. Selecting a portion of the total timeline to focus on also allows for greater detail and variations in pace. And in addition to weaving exposition (earlier events) into the story, the occasional use of flashbacks can bring important moments into play in the flow of the partial chronology you’ve selected.

Next you will divide the highlighted chronology into sections. Using classic story structure, consider the three-act model wherein the first block introduces the main character and the conflict or complication, the second block shares how the main character works to resolve the problem, and the third block conveys the resolution.

With that basic story structure in place, go through your notes to determine what material goes where, including dialogue, description, exposition, etc. Jon Franklin, in his book, Writing for Story, recommends using file cards, with one card per scene or key moment. Note on the card what happens, the telling details, and the meaning of this specific event. How does it advance the story? What does it reveal? Lay the cards out in a line, like a storyboard, and try to see and feel the story as that sequence of events conveys. Franklin calls this “chronology with meaning.”

Determine if the meaning is the one you wanted to convey to readers. Are there scenes or moments that blur the meaning, take readers off on an unnecessary digression? Or is there a missing piece, either within the time frame you’ve selected, or an element of exposition needed to shore up a gap? This is how you preview the story you want readers to see and feel.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

Written by mroberts8

05/07/2010 at 5:45 pm