Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Archive for the ‘Editing’ Category

Try a NewsTrain workshop in 2010

leave a comment »

I’ve been working with APME’s NewsTrain workshops since the beginning. After seven years of them across the country, we’ve worked with thousands of editors. And now we’re drawing and working with an increasing number of journalism educators. If you’ve never been to a NewsTrain, here’s a taste.

More background, the schedule, and how to host one in your town.


Written by mroberts8

February 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

leave a comment »

Sometimes the point of crafting a “story” is to bring an issue or trend into focus via the experience of one person. They become a microcosm of a larger subject. This approach can be very powerful. The trick is to be very clear from the start just what part of their overall experience is the story.

Too often, editors and reporters venture down this path with the notion of “putting a face on the news.” Done badly, this can amount to little more than some emotive quotes, long passages of general background and biography, and a hazy focus about just what the “news” is supposed to be in this tale.

Working with microcosm still means having a sharp focus going in. And that comes from solid reporting on the issue, the numbers, the trends. Know what you want to show, based on facts. Then find the person who lives that experience. The big mistake at this point would be not having all the facts and trends in hand, grabbing someone who seems to be involve in the subject, and just accepting their experience as telling.

And its important to note here that emotion or reaction is not enough. Very easy to obtain. But great stories that work in a microcosm vein are about experience — action, choices, struggles, changes — not just feelings associated with that experience.

Example: In a story about how the working poor are dealing with cutbacks on state supported health care, reporting reveals people have far less contact with doctors and less access to medication. Your subject can easily be quoted about how this feels. Or, you can show something:

Robert Wilson sat on the couch in his family’s Eastwood apartment with a notebook and pencil. No matter how many times he added or subtracted, the result was the same: There was not enough money to buy prescription medicine for his two daughters and his diabetic wife.

Wilson makes $9 an hour with a small waterproofing company. The job does not offer health insurance, and Wilson cannot afford the $8,000 a year on private insurance for his family. He qualifies for Medicaid coverage for his two children. But he risks losing that coverage if he works overtime. And without overtime, he cannot make ends meet each month.

Every month, Wilson scratches numbers on his pad trying to figure out a way to buy medicine for his wife or pay doctor’s bills and the bank loans he has taken out to cover emergency care.

Robert and his wife Kathy recently shared a bad cold. She got a 10-day antibiotic prescription from a hospital pharmacy. He couldn’t afford his own, so they shared hers.

Two things about this short example.

Instead of just sharing random facts and experiences about the plight of the Wilson’s, the focus, based on earlier reporting, was on access to doctors and medication. The reporter knew the subject well enough to see it in the Wilsons’ lives and capture the facts, action, and choices in a notebook.

Then, by selecting only telling details per the subject, the passage shows how that abstract trend — less access to doctors and medication — plays out in one person’s life. A quote on how all this feels could be included later on. But the use of telling detail, in both dramatic and summary narrative, is how good storytelling engages the reader’s senses and sensibilities, conveys information and meaning, and elicits a reaction.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling 3: Pick a main character

Telling description

Written by mroberts8

February 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Accountability: Choices in watchdog coverage

leave a comment »

Holding those in power accountable is the heart of public service journalism. But sometimes reporters and editors think too narrowly about the possibilities.

Accountability does not just mean illegal. Accountability journalism is a matter of (a) citing a standard and then (b) showing how the subject  has fallen short or violated the terms. So think of “accountability” along a range of standards when covering a beat.

Consider this range of standards:

  • Illegal
  • Violation of policies, standards
  • Inefficient (i.e. costs, manpower)
  • Misleading; not as promised
  • Deceptive; fraudulent
  • Dangerous
  • Potentially harmful

Now consider the possibilities and examples here off a City Hall beat.

Illegal: The subject has violated the law. Pure and simple. (e.g. Department head embezzles money.)

Violation of policies, standards: Sometimes this takes digging deeper into city policies that may not be well known. Or if the city policy is vague, digging into similar policies in other cities, or national standards put forth by professional associations or other credible experts. (e.g. City building inspectors fail to follow up on condemned building notices as outlined in city policies. City employees expense personal travel expenses on official trips. City’s review policy for municipal judges far more lax than other cities, and below what the state Supreme Court recommends.)

Inefficient: This usually comes about by doing the math and making smart comparisons. Sometimes there are related standards. Other times the comparisons might run over periods of time or be struck between similar-size cities. (e.g. City finance department’s old computer system makes fast and immediate budget projections impossible. City spends twice what other similar-size cities spend for road repairs.)

Misleading, not as promised: Here the comparison is between what the subject said or promised and what actually happened. Sometimes inefficient and misleading combine. Often this is just recalling what was said in the past and comparing to the results in the present. (e.g. Mayor promised to install open bidding process on city projects — but a year later has not.)

Deceptive, fraudulent: This occurs when bad things are happening (e.g. inefficient) and the subject is willfully lying or covering up the failure. (e.g. City managers cover up overtime expenses to meet budget restrictions.)

Dangerous: When practices — even accepted practices — pose an immediate danger on any level. This can involve public health, money, staffing, etc. The task here is to articulate and prove the danger. (e.g. City water department has not updated its water testing procedures in 20 years, leaving public vulnerable to various pollutants.)

Potentially harmful: A variation on dangerous, but without the immediate threat. These stories look further into the future and may track a worrisome trend, project the math, or in some way identify a problem that has not yet occurred but soon may. (e.g. Rules on lobbyists are far more lax than in other cities, which could lead to undue influence by outside interests in coming budget negotiations.)

Again, the task for each level is to articulate a standard and then prove how it is missed or violated. In many cases, that means going outside the subject of the story for sources with expertise, perspective, proven standards, or other metrics that set up the case to be made.

The denouement comes when after working out the standard, the reporter confronts the subject with clear evidence of how it has been missed or violated. But often the bulk of the story is more explanatory, laying out the standards and the proof of how the subject has fallen short. The best avoid much he said / she said exchanges and instead focus on making a strong case.

This is the essence of good watchdog coverage of government, schools, health care, and other important public institutions, private companies, and powerful individuals. It is also time-consuming work that requires digging, critical thinking, and beat knowledge, things readers rely on us to provide.

Written by mroberts8

February 17, 2010 at 12:07 am

Storytelling 3: Pick a main character

with one comment

Good stories usually revolve around a main character. As you begin to frame and report a piece with an eye toward storytelling, settling on a main character is an important early step.

A main character can be a single person, a group of people, or even an organization. In selecting a main character you are simultaneously settling on a point of view and a theme or premise.

Point of view does not mean an opinion, but rather a perspective, a vantage point, a central focus through which the story unfolds. In classic story structure, a main character encounters a complication, grapples with the complication, and then resolves the complication. So the selection of a main character is also the selection of the complication and storyline.

Imagine a movie about a big family wedding. Many possible storylines are contained in that situation. If the main character is the bride, perhaps its a story about balancing family pressures with her fiance. If the main character is the groom, perhaps the story is about last minute fears about commitment. Mother of the bride. Ex-boyfriend. Sister. Even the band. When you select that main character, their complication becomes the center of the story, the foreground, and everything else is of relative value, interest, or attention based on that central focus.

Imagine a story about a controversial pieces of legislation coming up for a vote in your state legislature. You might attempt a setup piece about the bill, its impact, its supporters and detractors. But that story could devolved into a list-like recitation of facts and events. Instead, thinking of a main character, perhaps the story is about the legislator who has pushed the bill through, or the legislator who has led the fight against the bill. Without taking a position on the bill’s value, a good story with either main character instead focuses on the deeper, more universal storylines of how a person tries to prevail, overcome the odds, stand up for values, or whatever that main character’s story might be. Along the way, the factual information about the bill and process is woven into the piece, but is not the story.

And, again, a main character in this example could be a group of people (e.g. a coalition of legislators behind the bill or lined up against it), or an organization (e.g. a political party, an industry group, another state or federal agency). All may be part of the landscape, but to craft a story you need to select one, a main character, as the vehicle for your tale. That may be a matter of interest, access, or news value.  In many cases you may have several choices. The important thing is to select one and then report and frame our story around that main character.

Storytelling 1: Touching Shared Emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, Telling Details, and Meaning

Written by mroberts8

February 4, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

with 2 comments

The best starting point for planning and writing a compelling story is a good timeline. The timeline is not necessarily a big part of the finished piece. But planning a good story starts with understanding the time frame, those parts of the story that occurred before the start of the time frame (exposition and context that must be worked in), and if necessary where the tale did or may go at the end of the story.

A timeline helps structure early reporting by focusing on a clear understanding of the chronology of events, the cause-and-effect that occurs, and how the timeline may naturally break down into chapters or sections. As Jon Franklin notes, narrative power comes from “chronology with meaning.” Building and studying a timeline is about discovering the patterns and meaning that comprise the story.

This applies to timelines that run over weeks or months, as well as a timeline that may run just a day or less. And that clear sense of chronology also applies to key moments or scenes, so a timeline could involve something as short as a conversation.

Consider the opening of this story about how a mercury spill unfolded at an Arizona high school:

Maylene Byers’ Physical Science class was reviewing a set of articles. Students worked in groups in a classroom located next to a science laboratory in one of several buildings that make up the Agua Fria High School campus.

Two boys sitting in front weren’t paying attention. One was a junior, the other a freshman. They had noticed a plastic bottle on the open shelf next to their desks. They removed the screw cap, looked inside, and swirled around a metallic liquid they did not recognize.

Curious, they poured some onto the floor to see what would happen. The boys liked how the liquid balled into tight beads. The freshman scooped it up from the floor and put it into an empty Gatorade bottle.

Byers walked over to see what the boys were doing. Looking down, she thought the droplets on the floor were small BBs and swept them into her hand. She dropped the mercury into the trash and told the boys to get back to work.

Byers did not realize the freshman still had both bottles of mercury, which he slipped into his backpack. After class, the boys each took a container and went their separate ways, unaware they were carrying a dangerous substance.

Two types of chronology or narrative are at work here. Summary narrative compresses time and summarizes a series of events. Dramatic narrative slows down for a scene that is in the moment, unfolding in real time. In this passage, the summary gives way to dramatic narrative, then backs out to summary. The accuracy of this account — in both forms of narrative — begins with a clear, accurate chronology.

One thing reporters and editors often underestimate in planning and writing stories like this is the amount of time and detail that goes into building the overarching timeline and the chronology of even short scenes. Think of the painstaking detail in flipbook animation and how once the pages are set and flipped the visual chronology comes to life.

And that coming to life is the goal. Stories built on quotes present readers with digested narrative information, second-hand information. Stories built on clear chonologies allow readers to experience information and reaction emotionally. That’s the chemistry of great storytelling.

Story Telling 1: Touching Shared Emotions

Story Telling 3: Pick a Main Character


Written by mroberts8

January 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Indirection in writing, and how to fix it

with one comment

Eleanor Gould Packard was for over 50 years a grammarian and proofreader at The New Yorker.

Her passion as an editor was the pursuit of clarity. When she died in 2005, New Yorker Senior Editor Deborah Garrison said, “Eleanor’s understanding of grammar goes deeper than stuff like making sure subjects and objects agree. It’s about the architecture of the sentence and the paragraph. And it’s about the architecture of the thought behind the sentence and the paragraph.”

One of Packard’s pet issues was “indirection,” defined as “the practice of obliquely insinuating new information into a narrative as if the reader already knows it – a technique feature writers often use to jam facts into tight space and achieve a knowing tone.”

Newspaper writing is full of “indirection,” and is one of the primary reasons readers turn away from newspaper stories. An awareness of the damage indirection can do in a story should be part of every writer’s and editor’s set of language skills.

Examples of indirection:

“The 36-unit apartment building burned in just two hours.”

“Acme Real Estate, the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm, will purchase Allied Real Estate.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman, twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League, went hitless in the struggling ninth-place Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader.”

To remove the indirection, each sentence could be broken up so the information is delivered in a simple, logical order, closer to how people speak.

“The apartment building burned in just two hours. It had 36 units.”

“Acme Real Estate will purchase Allied Real Estate. Acme is the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman went hitless in the Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader. The struggling team is now in ninth place.” (The “twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League” is not only indirect but irrelevant in this context.)

Unfortunately, jamming information into tight spaces is what newspaper reporters and editors do. Some do it in an effort to pack more stuff in limited space. Some do it to achieve that knowing tone. In either case, readability suffers and we have given readers one more excuse to stop reading.

Attention to indirection, particularly in the opening paragraphs of a story, can be a very valuable part of the revision and editing process. The immediate benefit is improved clarity. Ideas are clearly stated. Sentence length tightens. Non-essential information is pruned. Comprehension and reader satisfaction can only go up.

And clear writing lays bare the “architecture of the thought.” Another way to say this is that brevity reveals both weakness and strength. If the thought is a good one, it will shine through. If not, then peeling away the husk makes it easier to spot and fix the problem.

Written by mroberts8

January 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Leadership lessons

leave a comment »

One of the least taught yet most important newsroom skills is leadership. And in tough times the demands on leadership — at all levels of newsroom management — are overwhelming.

As Sandy Rowe ends her 16-year-run as editor of The Oregonian, one of her many former colleagues, Michelle McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center, shares six leadership lessons learned from Rowe,  and others who have passed through Rowe’s orbit underscore how well she lived each one.

Here’s the list of lessons:

  1. Listen, and listen well.
  2. Let others lead.
  3. Make the tough calls.
  4. Stand up for readers.
  5. Know your talents and how to use them.
  6. Own the vision.

The six share pieces of  the “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” at the heart of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book, The Leadership Challenge.

  1. Model the way.
  2. Inspire a shared vision.
  3. Challenge the process.
  4. Enable others to act.
  5. Encourage the heart.

All these skills and practices  culminate in that last one of encouraging the heart. Kouzes-Posner describe the fifth practice this way: “Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make.” Recognition can be public praise or rewards. But day to day “recognition” is about  listening, walking the talk, letting others lead, and all the rest. And if there was every time hearts need encouragement in journalism, that time is now.

Written by mroberts8

December 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm