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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On that hard-to-find line between the personal/professional for journalists

This is a sad story. But you should read it and the original blog post, and then share your reaction (here, on my blog) to it. It relates directly to what we’ve been talking about.

It was posted on Medium.

I was fired from my journalism job ten days into Trump

Credit: MaxPixel/creative commons

On Monday I was fired from my job as a journalist at Marketplace, where I have worked as a news reporter since May 2016.

I was fired for publishing a post on my personal blog about being a transgender journalist exploring what it means to do truthful, ethical journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time. It questioned the meaning of neutrality in the face of an administration that’s aggressively promoting fiction. Please read it.

For context, I loved my job at Marketplace. I reported on marginalized communities and tried to illuminate economic issues through human stories. I believe in the mission of media that serves the public, and I believe in truth and fairness in reporting; I have been passionate and dogged in those pursuits, as is every reporter and editor at Marketplace and NPR. (NPR is, by the way, a separate organization — my employer was not NPR but American Public Media — APM.)

For further context, I am (was) the only out transgender reporter at Marketplace or, that I know of, at any national radio outlet. I started working in public radio four years ago through a fellowship created to foster diversity in public media. I have had a very successful career and done a lot of interesting work, including recent stories about the criminalization of disability, federal regulation, the growth of the private prison industry, Donald Trump’s Twitter habits, lamination, and shady lending practices in post-Recession Detroit. I have reported daily stories for the Marketplace Morning Report, often writing two different stories before 9 a.m. which air to millions of people. I am known for being meticulous, accurate, and always on deadline.

I also believe that media needs to change to make space for the diverse voices it purports to desire within its ranks. It is for those reasons that I decided to go public with this story — not out of any desire to disparage my incredible and intelligent colleagues or to tear down the extremely difficult work they do every day. Your local public radio station is likely one of the last bastions of trustworthy reporting in your community. Please support it, especially in its efforts to expand, diversify and experiment.

What happened: Now for the background. Firing stories are always kind of boring and process-oriented. Luckily mine happened pretty quickly so it won’t take up too much of your time. On Wednesday, January 25, after a long day of doing daily news for the Marketplace Morning Report and watching President Trump roll out executive orders, I put up this blog post, reflections on what it is to try to report fairly in a “post-fact” environment. I wanted to hear what other journalists might think about it, and start a conversation about how media organizations need to adapt when freedom of information and the press are under attack.

I thought my experiences navigating this as a trans person might bring some interesting perspective. I also thought, falsely as it turned out, that the prominence of my job at Marketplace would prevent me from becoming a target for expressing such thoughts, and perhaps allow others at smaller organizations or in less powerful positions to express their own misgivings about how to report on this moment. I thought if other journalists disagreed, we could have a vibrant discussion about why, and that it might reach others who were feeling isolated or afraid to speak out.

A couple hours after it was published, I got a call from the managing editor and executive producer at Marketplace. They said my post was in violation of Marketplace’s ethics code, and that I would be suspended from air and should not come into work for the rest of the week.

They specified a few reasons it violated the policy: Marketplace, they said, believes in objectivity and neutrality (though neither word actually appears in its code). And they were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled “politically correct” or even “liberal” for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.) They said they wished I had brought the post to them first.

After suspending me, they told me to take the post down, and asked me not to speak to my colleagues about it. I asked them what they were worried about: had there been blowback, or consequences to Marketplace related to my publishing this piece? They said it was about the policy, not any particular feedback they’d gotten. But I didn’t and don’t believe I violated our ethics code (see my letter to them below for more on that). I expressed to them that I was very surprised: I had no idea that a personal post raising questions about the role of journalists today would be so controversial. And I’d specifically been asked by Marketplace to maintain a personal blog as part of building my “personal brand.”

The next morning, I took the post down. I also communicated that I wanted some time to think about our conversation. When I did remove it, I was not reinstated.

On Friday, still suspended, I woke up feeling like I was disappearing. My job is a huge privilege. At the same time, I have made a lot of personal compromises to get to do the work that I do: given up a previous life as a youth organizer and opinion writer, set aside personal convictions that matter a lot to me, and put up with a lot of daily disrespect as a trans person(albeit a very privileged one) working in an industry that doesn’t really have space for me. I routinely go out in the field in situations where I can’t feel safe using a public restroom; I approach strangers for interviews in small towns and big cities; I experience small but daily humiliations related to my gender identity. I’m also fearless. Allowing myself to be intimidated into retracting a thoughtful blog post about ethics felt like one too many compromises, small though it may seem. I sent my superiors a very heartfelt message (copied below) and let them know I’d be putting the post back up at the end of the day.

They didn’t respond. I wasn’t given a chance to debate the issues I raised, to hear exactly what they might change about the post, or to discuss why I didn’t think I should be punished.

On Monday morning, the VP of Marketplace fired me. I was terminated effective immediately, with my benefits ending in two days and an offer of two weeks’ pay.

The VP said she believed I’d shown what kind of journalism I want to do — I think the assumption was that I want to do advocacy journalism — and that it is not the kind of journalism Marketplace does. Again, here is the original piece. Here is Marketplace’s code of ethics. She said that we cannot be both activists and journalists at the same. I respectfully disagreed with that binary. I never suggested that we should become advocates rather than doing our jobs as journalists, nor do I believe we should take stances on policy issues in our stories. However, I believe journalism itself is under attack, and in order to defend it, we need to know what we stand for and perhaps even consider activism as journalists on behalf of fairness, inclusivity, and free speech. All told, I suspect that the move to get rid of me was more about fear of the perception of what I said than what I actually said.

Why I’m telling you: I know I’m not the only one having doubts about our role as journalists. I hope I can contribute to a meaningful conversation about how media organizations need to change to adapt to the times, putting ethics and morality into historical context — history shows these things change as politics shift. I have been told a few times that this is a simple choice between “journalism” and “activism.” I believe my original piece makes clear why I find that binary to be false. (Also, I’m trans. I’ve spent my life fighting binaries just to survive!)

I hope people understand my messages here: that we cannot have token diversity without making actual space for the realities of being a marginalized or oppressed person doing journalism; that we cannot look to the same old tools to defend truth in reporting; that we must work harder and do more to truly represent the communities we report on and on behalf of in order to build trust and remain relevant. I have always believed these things, but didn’t expect that these beliefs would be put so harshly to the test, so soon after Donald Trump came into power.

I wish everyone in public media luck in navigating what is truly a new world. I did not expect nor desire to be fired from my job as such an apparently direct result of the fear produced by these intimidating and fast-moving political changes. I can see at least one silver lining: for those of us who are used to fighting for our dignity, perhaps it will be marginally less difficult to identify the tools we need in this moment, pick them up, and wield them against authoritarianism and tyranny.

Here is my last communication with Marketplace before I was fired:

Dear [managing editor and executive producer],

I have been reflecting very deeply on our conversation, and on my suspension from being on air at Marketplace. I’ve also revisited the contents of the blog post I wrote, as well as Marketplace’s ethics policy.

I have come to a few conclusions.

One is that I don’t agree that my post was in clear violation of Marketplace’s ethics policies. I believe there is a lot of ambiguity there, and I routinely see colleagues of mine say things on social media that could be interpreted as disagreeing with or opposing the current administration. I also wonder if anyone else has been suspended summarily for violation of Marketplace’s ethics policy and if my colleagues are aware of where the line is. The policy asks that we not post anything we wouldn’t say on air or on Marketplace’s digital properties. I believe that I would and should be allowed to raise the questions my piece raised on Marketplace’s air or on our digital publications. In fact, I would welcome the invitation.

Another is that I cannot maintain my own integrity, both in my identity and in my personal views, and comply with your request to keep the post down. My integrity and courage are my most important assets as a journalist, and I don’t believe we can do our jobs well in this moment without rigorously maintaining both.

For that reason, I’ve decided to put the post back up tonight. I’ve copied the text of it below, as a reminder to you of what it said. I think it is also self-explanatory on the question of why I think voices and views like this are important to air at this historical moment. I wish any of us had a handle on where our country, the media and the free press are headed. My posting invited open discussion. I’d love to participate in that together.

On that note, I would encourage Marketplace, or perhaps another employee of Marketplace with different views, to publicly rebut my points. I would love to see that conversation carried on transparently and in public, and I believe it would contribute to building the public trust in our organization as a voice of reason and truth, and as an organization with the courage to stand up for its employees when we are ourselves targets of oppressive policies.

Marketplace has encouraged me to build my personal brand on Twitter and on Medium. I believe my voice has an important place in the public conversation. I also want to be clear that I am not, and have never, advocated that I or we should report stories in a way that doesn’t fairly consider the arguments or what is at stake. Nor have I proposed that we should take a stance on political parties or specific policies in our stories. But I am absolutely sure that now is the time to question where our moral center is, which arguments will be given credence in the public sphere, and how our personal experiences and identities influence our coverage. That is what my post on Medium said, and I stand by it.

Finally, I continue to be aghast at the punitive nature of how I have been treated. I was suspended from air, from my job that I love and do well, even before being given the chance to discuss the policies you say I violated. When I agreed to remove the post, I was not immediately reinstated. I am shocked that on the same day our president was cracking down on the dissemination of scientific fact, advocating waterboarding and announcing a policy of aggressive targeting of marginalized communities, Marketplace decided to treat me, its only transgender employee, as the existential threat to what we stand for. Yesterday, the first day of my suspension, Donald Trump’s senior advisor Steve Bannon described the media as the “opposition party.” Trump says he is in a “running war” with the media. I would hope the organization’s concern in this moment would have focused on its employees’ physical and psychological well-being in the face of such statements, doing the extremely difficult jobs we do here.

I am well aware that, as a transgender person, I would not be where I am had I not stood up for myself, for my core values and beliefs. Without courage and an extreme distaste for cowardice, I don’t think I could have become a journalist or even survived the process of coming out as transgender. I came out over a decade before trans people had any of the legal protections and media attention some of us do now. I was brought into public media four years ago as a person with the potential to be an agent of change. Perhaps what needs changing is not my actions, but Marketplace’s policies.

I look forward to talking this afternoon.


Lewis Wallace

View story at Medium.com

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You really have to learn to search smart

In class today, I talked about the friendly stalking you’re about to do of your social media partner and I referred to this Mashable graphic that is so buried on my blog you’d never find it.

Check it out, and learn how to search more efficiently. It’s about saving yourself time and stress.

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