Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Archive for the ‘Newstraining’ Category

New URL for newstraining — click here

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Needed to change the URL for the newstraining blog. Same material and more, on into the future, here.

Please bookmark new location.



Written by mroberts8

February 27, 2010 at 4:50 am

Posted in Newstraining

Try a NewsTrain workshop in 2010

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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

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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

Plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism

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The chilling, maddening, twisted account of NYT Business reporter Zachery Kouwe and his resignation over plagiarizing Wall Street Journal and Reuters material is also, sadly, a rich training opportunity. Kouwe was initially called on material he took from a WSJ story on Bernie Madoff and posted on the NYT DealBook blog. Times editors apparently found more examples from the WSJ, Reuters, and other sources.

Consider Kouwe’s explanation, quoted here from the New York Observer, of how it happened:

“I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” said Mr. Kouwe, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?’”

Mr. Kouwe says he has never fabricated a story, nor has he knowingly plagiarized. “Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the blog,” he said, referring to DealBook. “In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.”

“I’ll go back and rewrite everything,” he continued. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.”

Apparently Kouwe has no idea of what he did in terms of process, and maybe even what constitutes plagiarism in the rip-and-clip-and-link-a-thon of digital publishing.

After reading Kouwe’s bizarre explanation, what are your staffers or students doing when it comes to “…the essence of speed,” or throwing things into a publishing template, or going back to re-report a story broken by another publication. And what are the workflows associated with blogs and other quick-to-print portions of your web site — if any?

Perhaps it is time to revisit what constitutes plagiarism, in all its forms, especially in the digital context. And perhaps it’s time to evaluate emerging workflows, accuracy measures, editorial oversight (even after the fact) for digital content. And then clearly convey the standards and best practices needed to ensure credibility in a training setting where examples, discussion, and simulated exercises are tossed out for writers, editors, copy editors, and online producers.

Proactive training can protect the essence of your good name.

Written by mroberts8

February 17, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Accountability: Choices in watchdog coverage

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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

Career goals & journalism

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From an  interview of remembrances and views with Phyllis Orrick,  a longtime alternative weekly journalist formerly with City Paper and the New York Press, who lives in Berkeley, CA.

Question: If a young person, say 18 years old, asked you today whether journalism — in its current permutation — was a worthwhile career goal, what would you say? When we were that age, the whole field was more glamorous, with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and scads of serious magazines and daring publications on the newsstand. It was exciting. Could you, in good conscience, make a recommendation that journalism is a wise path to pursue?

Orrick: Sure. It gives you an excuse to go anywhere and talk to anyone and forces you to think out loud in front of thousands of people.

Written by mroberts8

February 13, 2010 at 12:07 am

Posted in Newstraining

Outside speakers & training

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When travel and tuition money for outside training opportunities disappears, newsroom managers may turn to guest speakers as a local alternative.

Making the best use of a guest speaker takes some effort. Not making that effort can result in poor training that wastes time, accomplishes nothing, and gives training and the topic a bad name.

Here are ways to make the most of training provided by a guest speaker. And most also hold true when tapping staff members to provide training, be it for writing, editing, video and multimedia, software skills, management, beat background, or any other topic.

  1. Learning objectives: No one has time for long-winded presentations on broad topics and generalities. Consider what you want people to learn and be able to do when the session is over. Instead of bringing a local college professor in to talk about “good writing,” identify a couple specific skills related to good writing and build the session around those skills. Many guest speakers are not good at this kind of concrete skill focus. Some talented performers even have trouble breaking down what they do into a clear process. So it falls to the newsroom manager arranging the session to drive that discussion. This is a crucial first step.
  2. Time: Most newsroom training tends to fall into the 60-90 minute category. So when having the discussion in #1, keep the time fame in mind. If you have the luxury of several hours or even a day, still break that time down into 60-90 minute modules and build a strong sequence. Attention to time will help in framing clear learning objectives.
  3. Civilians & Journalists: Journalists like to ask questions. Training or education in most other settings is far more passive and lecture-oriented. Prepared a guest speaker who is not from the newsroom culture. Let them know there will be questions and that people will freely challenge assumptions or statements. That way, when it happens, the speaker will not take it personally or panic.
  4. Exercises: Having a chance to do what is being taught is an essential part of effective adult learning. An exercise provides a structured opportunity to practice new skills and receive immediate feedback from the speaker or other participants. Often this is where the real learning takes place. When working with an outside speaker, help that person develop an exercise that reflects real-work situations in the newsroom.
  5. Participate: Top managers should not only attend the sessions they’ve helped plan, but also participate. Join in the exercise. Offer feedback. Open and close the sessions by mentioning how this new skill will help people and the organization. This sends an invaluable signal of importance about the topic and job expectations after the training.

More: How to Build a Training Module

Written by mroberts8

February 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm