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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‘I am the boss of me’ (and other benefits of making your own way in this world)

Ann Friedman is coming to class tomorrow morning. I don’t want to steal all of the happy endings, but she does kinda have a great story about how she turned a (seemingly) bad thing into a good thing in her career.

She’s also going to talk about her newsletter project. Have a look at this example and think about what you’d like to know about the Big Bad World Out There because Ann will be taking questions.

Me, I like her pie charts. A lot. Here’s one for today:

Ann pie chart

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Put off reading this, miss out on free $$$

The J-School has a scholarship to give to some deserving junior or senior who’s headed in the direction of a career in newspapers (and, of course, we don’t just mean print products by that). Read the attached PDF for eligibility details. Fill out the application. Get $2,500.

Not a bad deal.

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Science, skepticism and storytelling

Thought you’d find this interesting after watching the first part of “Merchants of Doubt” in class on Tuesday. (The film actually earns a mention in this piece.)

What’s our role in the “War on Science”? One thing is obvious: We have to make it easier for scientists to tell their stories. The stakes are high.

We’ll talk more about this in class tomorrow.

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Some reading about writing

We’re going to talk tomorrow about writing tightly and brightly with the online and mobile reader in mind. To that end, I’d like you to read this piece from BBC Academy and also this piece from the same source (ignore the Britishisms — you know how to spell realize and that the punctuation goes inside the quote marks nearly every time).

Although this piece from Slate is a little dated, it does introduce you to the ideas of Jakob Nielsen. Plus, it’s easy to read — and that’s the point. Be clear, concise and conversational in tone because that’s what works on line. Once you abandon the false formality that finds its way into journalistic writing, you’ll find the writing process gets easier. And what writer doesn’t want it to be easier?

And who doesn’t want their work to be read? Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of blah, blah blah…


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Yes, these things still happen in America

More great work from the New York Times magazine and Nathaniel Rich, who is obviously some kind of wunderkind.

What I liked about this story: depth, details, description. My first reporting job was in the deep South, and yet Louisiana is something else altogether. That sense of place permeates this piece.

If you care about equity, you should read it. Reading time: about 45 minutes.

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