Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Archive for the ‘Working together’ Category

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

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

Q&A: Effective A1 story pitches

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QUESTION: I think I have good story ideas. But I have trouble getting my pitches past the A1 editors. How can I write better budget lines so they take a chance on my stories? — R.K., California

Bad story pitches — as expressed in budget lines — usually come in two forms.

Take a look: A too-short budget line written something like, “Acme School District unveils its new budget for the coming school year. We take a look.”

Full story: A too-long budget line that begins in the past and recounts in excessive detail all that has happened leading up to this particular story.

Both usually fail to clearly state the news at the heart of the proposed story and the impact of the news. A1 editors study budgets from several departments looking for stories with broad appeal. They want to avoid routine process stories or stories of interest to a narrow audience. Impact is a first important measure of appeal. Impact might a matter of precedent (e.g. first; last; biggest), scale (e.g. in dollars, people, geography), universal experience (e.g. something many people or organizations face), or human emotion, as in a story about a death or courageous act or happy ending.

If you have a good story, articulate the news and its impact in clear, concise terms that someone unfamiliar with the subject can grasp. Avoid jargon and vague references. Cut to the chase. Think of how a freelance writer might frame the pitch to the New York Times for regional play.

In the school example above, A1 potential might be how drastic a cut is expected, or that the district has struggled for years and this could put them under state control, or what the loss of a band program will mean to the students. If you have some preliminary information, put it in the pitch.

In the second example, a little context goes a long way. Do not recount the long history of the district or delve into other issues unrelated to the budget. This may be how you think about the story, the subject, or your beat, but the people studying budgets just want the essence of today’s story pitch so they can quickly compare to other contenders.

And if possible, update the budget line. Maybe send an update e-mail to your online and print editors. Once the kernel of the story is clearly stated, it is easier for people to become invested in your story and work with you to shape it.

Send your questions to

Written by mroberts8

February 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

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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

Twitter news filters

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Hooked on Twitter as your own personal news wire? Here’s a nice roundup from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog on apps and Web sites that allow you to filter out some of the noise and hone in on the news.

Perhaps of greatest interest to journalists is the site Muck Rack which offers a directory of working journalists on Twitter.

Written by mroberts8

January 5, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Covering communities, nurturing democracy

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Amy Gahan is writing an interesting series of weekly blog posts over at News Leadership 3.0 on how to put the ideas contained in a new report from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in Democracy into action.

The report is titled, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and is the work of 17 media, policy and community leaders whose purpose “…is to assess the information needs of communities, and recommend measures to help Americans better meet those needs.

In the introduction, they write:

The Knight Commission sees new thinking about news and information as a necessary step to sustaining democracy in the digital age. It thus follows in the footsteps of the 1940s Hutchins Commission and the Kerner and Carnegie Commissions of the 1960s.

But in the digital age the stakes are even higher. Technological, economic and behavioral changes are dramatically altering how Americans communicate. Communications systems no longer run along the lines of local communities, and the gap in access to digital tools and skills is wide and troubling.

The Commission seeks to start a national discussion – leading to real action. Its aims are to maximize the availability and flow of credible local information; to enhance access and capacity to use the new tools of knowledge and exchange; and to encourage people to engage with information and each other within their geographic communities.

Amy’s weekly posts so far:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

Making key government documents easier to find, understand

Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations

Volunteering widget: Basic gateway to civic engagement

Future of Media Project: FCC wants your views by March 8

Written by mroberts8

December 31, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Leadership lessons

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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