Welcome, summer session I reporters!

You’re about to take the plunge into a completely different kind of class. Come to think of it, “class” might not be the best way to describe the experience you’re about to have. You’re about to become a reporter, with lots of help from lots of people. If you’ve done a little reporting before, that’s great. If you haven’t, do not despair: You’re not alone. And we won’t let you fail.

Unless.

Unless you don’t meet us halfway.

What do I mean by that? As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”

Showing up, in the context of the reporting class, means doing more than just occupying a seat in the newsroom or in class or on assignment. It means really being present, paying attention, and thinking, thinking, thinking. It means: asking for help when you need it, after you’ve done as much as you can on your own:

  • (very carefully) reading (not “skimming”) the previous reporting on the topic you’re covering and taking notes on it
  • making a list of the people you need to talk to and research you need to read
  • making another list of all the questions you need to ask and checking them off, one by one.

Showing up — being present and prepared — will allow us to help you do really well in reporting and walk away with the kind of experience (and clips) you came here to get.

This is the Missouri Method. It’s not just marketing. It really works. If you don’t believe me, I can give you the phone numbers of about 20 people you can talk to — former students —  and some of them have already won Pulitzer Prizes. Ask them if this whole thing works.

You might want to know what not showing up looks like:

  • Not showing up. I mean, like, physically, because you’re afraid of this whole reporting thing. Understandable, but self-destructive
  • Not paying attention in class or in our morning meeting
  • Not volunteering for stories
  • Not taking advice from editors
  • Not making to-do lists
  • Not writing down what people tell you
  • Not using social media to share your work, others’ work, thoughts and ideas
  • Not coming into the newsroom with ideas
  • Not thinking like a reporter (“Hey, that might be a story!”).

Good luck. It’s going to be waaaay more fun than you think.

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Journalism is its own greatest enemy, and Donald Trump is its new best friend.

“My 89-year-old grandmother now watches the evening broadcast with a rosary in her hands, as she prays for the world portrayed onscreen. Television news drives viewers to the point of utter hopelessness, when it should convince them to act.”

A Missourian In Training

In light of the current presidential administration’s accusations of “fake news,” many Americans worry about the security of press freedom. With White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer literally declaring war on the media, this may seem to be an existential threat to the future of American journalism.  However, the news media have brought these troubles upon themselves.

Perhaps 50 years ago, Spicer and his boss, President Donald Trump, would have been cast away and labeled as conspiracists. Their radical message would fail to gain traction with Americans who generally trusted what they read in the morning paper or saw on the evening news.  Back then, the news was actually newsworthy.  The media reported on matters that helped citizens steer their democracy or informed their understanding of the world around them.  I don’t mean to romanticize the journalism of the past because surely, it had its own serious institutional issues…

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Journalism’s Ultimate Foe

Great advice. Thank you.

Reading Writing Reporting

This week in lecture, we Missourian reporters were presented with a set of important questions to answer, questions that have a multitude of different answers and solutions.

The question that everyone probably has an answer for: What is the greatest threat to journalism right now?

The even more difficult question: What can we do about it, and what makes us think that might work?

I’m fairly certain that most American journalists will say the current administration is the problem, and now that government officials can simply label something as fake news when it displeases them, it’s become harder and harder to convince people of the truth.

I agree, being despised and labeled as the enemy by the government is a definite problem. But there’s something else we as journalists should be equally concerned about, something we often overlook:

One of the biggest threats to journalism can, in fact, be journalists.

I imagine…

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Threats

Alejandra, thank you. This is terrific. And now I have to go hunt down “The Shadow of the Sun” (a hyperlink would be great right there!).

Alejandra Arredondo

On Tuesday at class we were asked to think about what we consider the greatest threat to journalism right now.

I come from a country where ours is considered a dangerous profession; almost all Colombian journalists I admire either live outside of the country, like Daniel Coronell who now works at Univision, or have to live with a strong security network.

Like many other Colombians who’ve had the privilege of studying outside the country, I’ve been struggling between going back after I finish my degree and sort of  ‘give back’ or staying abroad, where circumstances are easier.

If I had to answer that questions regarding the journalism I grew up to and I’ve seen most of my life, I would say the greatest threat to journalism right now is power and dishonesty.

Three media companies owned by three of the richest men in the country control more than half of…

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Yes, we do want to know what you think

You’ve been a reporter, now, for at least one semester. You’ve called total strangers on the telephone or walked up to them on the street and asked them questions, sometimes sensitive ones. You’ve asked them to share personal stories with you, sometimes painful ones.

You’re still somewhat new to this journalism thing, so you’re (hopefully) not cynical, yet, or not too cynical to have some pretty worthwhile ideas about this battle we’re in right now for the public’s trust, which is closely linked in many people’s minds to the survival and health of our democracy.

So we want to know what you think:

What is the greatest threat to journalism right now?

What we can do about it, and what makes you think that might work?

Oh, and before you write, maybe you want to engage in some useful procrastination. Have a look at this amazing thing The Oatmeal did.

The Oatmeal header

Sorry about the bad words, but this is brilliant. It’s part of the puzzle.

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If the story isn’t part of the solution, it might just be part of the problem

We’ve been reading and talking about C.J. Chivers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning feature, “The Fighter,” and one of the insights you heard was related to his use of first person in the story and the justification of that later, when he plays an active role in the story.

Chivers plays a direct part in getting Sam Siatta out of prison where, arguably, he should never have been in the first place and where he was sure to become more ill.

This is a role that journalism and journalists sometimes play indirectly through the impact of their journalism and/or through their actions as journalists in the service of a conviction that a great wrong has been done.

What if, on a daily basis, we could — through our journalism — engage communities more deeply by framing our stories to include solutions, rather than simply laying out the problem? Journalism often seems to be based on the implied assumption that all we need do is inform people about the existence of a problem. The rest is up to other people to figure out.

What if we’ve been more than half wrong most of the time?

By Tuesday morning class time, I would like you to read this Solutions Journalism Toolkit and get grounded in what solutions journalism is and how some newsrooms have begun to practice it — to eyebrow-raising effect.

I would also like you to save this PDF to your desktop because you will have to use it for a short assignment later this week.

 

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One great sentence (that we should have talked about…)

We missed one. Nieman Storyboard didn’t.

one great sentence

What makes it so good?

 

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What makes a piece of writing work?

Don’t forget that you’re expected to arrive in class tomorrow with your red pencil sharpened and your thinking cap all lit up to talk about C.J. Chivers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning story, The Fighter.

Here are those elements again from Jack Hart’s “A Writer’s Coach” that I asked you to look at:

  • Force (from verb choice, in particular)
  • Brevity (from verb tense, by avoiding depleted words, too)
  • Clarity (by using shorter sentences, defining terms, re-identifying characters)
  • Rhythm (through the music in the words, the alliteration, the cycles of sound, the “rule of three” and by pacing)
  • Humanity (through scenes, anecdotes, vignettes, that perfect quote)
  • Color (through the well-chosen, telling details and broader description)
  • Voice (oh, that indefinable imprint, that combination of all the others, that makes each of us unique as a writer, if only we could clear away the pomposity, the clutter, the bureaucratese).

And the last criterion for evaluation:

  • How well does the story justify its existence? This should get you thinking about the context the story provides, not just in the form of the good-ol’ nut graf but in other forms. How well does the writer re-connect the specific facts to the broader issue?

Finally, don’t forget to look at the structure. What do you notice about how it’s put together?

See you tomorrow.

 

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What are words worth?

Every time John Schneller starts talking about words and meaning, I get this old song in my head by the Tom Tom Club.

But never mind about that. This is a serious subject because we in the news media have a terrible tendency to pick up other people’s use of words and use it in our work, without thinking about the impact. I remember keenly how much I hated the word “downsizing” when I first heard it, and I ranted and raved about calling a layoff by its proper name.

And then there was “improvised explosive device” for bomb.

Recently, the word “reform” has taken a beating from readers in the New York Times.

John’s going to be talking about words and meaning tomorrow morning in class. Please read this interesting piece in CJR in preparation for that discussion.

 

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Really truly listening is harder than ever

I’m fascinated by listening and what goes wrong — and right — in human communication. And over the years, my conviction has grown that listening is if not the secret than one of the secrets to great interviews.

I bet Julian Treasure would agree. He studies and consults with companies on listening, and he did a beautiful, thought-provoking TED talk on the subject that you must listen to before Tuesday’s class (and please do it to the exclusion of all other activities; it’s just 7 minutes long). He believes listening is under siege from so many directions, and I couldn’t agree with him more.

He also talks about “listening positions,” which should resonate with those of you who have done a lot of interviews. Sometimes, you want to be reductive. Other times, expansive. Sometimes, interviewing requires us take a more critical posture; other times, a more sympathetic one.

No matter what, we risk being wrong — slightly wrong, pretty wrong or really, way-in-left-field wrong — when we don’t listen carefully. I bet bad listening accounts for three-quarters of all errors in journalism.

It’s also good to know that our senses don’t all operate at the same speed. As it turns out, our sense of hearing is faster than our other senses. It’s a survival mechanism: We are attuned to sounds that might pose a threat.

Layer on a bunch of distractions (like the TV, a person nearby having a loud cell phone conversation, the whoosh of an espresso machine in a cafe) and attentive, careful listening gets very difficult. If you’ve ever done a phone interview in the middle of the noisy Missourian newsroom, you know what I’m talking about.

Hearing is easy, says Seth Horowitz in this excellent piece from the New York Times. On the other hand…

Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.

Talk about information overload! Let me tell you a story about something that happened to me on a trip. I was getting on a very crowded Southwest Airlines flight in St. Louis when I learned there was no more room for carry-on bags in the overhead compartments. The flight attendant told me I would have to check my bag, and she asked me where I was headed.

“San Antonio,” I said, looking her straight in the eye. (People listen more carefully when you look right at them, it seems to me.)

She nodded and I went off to find a seat. Behind me, passengers were thrusting their bags at her and calling out destinations. I got into my seat uneasily, thinking, how could she possibly keep all of that straight in her mind and get the right tag on my bag with all of those other passengers demanding her attention?

A little while into the flight, she came by to get drink orders, and I asked her — just checking — where she’d tagged my bag to go, and she smiled with satisfaction.

“Austin,” she said. “Just like you told me.”

I am sure all the color drained out of my face. “No,” I said. “I actually told you I’m going to San Antonio, and I have a presentation at 8 a.m., so I really really really need that bag.”

She blanched. “I’ll fix this,” she said. And off she went.

“San Antonio,” a man standing next to me said, sympathetically. “Doesn’t really sound much like Austin, does it.”

Listening, as you surely have discovered this semester, is crucial to good conversations with your editor, and to good interviews, which are crucial to good journalism. Respect the process by giving yourself every chance of success. That means removing distractions, making adjustments when necessary and asking for a do-over, if you missed something (“I’m sorry — can you run that by me one more time?”).

What have you noticed about your ability to really listen? I’d love to hear (and really listen to) your thoughts in the comments here, or on your blog.

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