Why go to workshops? It’s about thinking big

For the month of June, I am taking off from the blog and podcast to focus on a variety of career goals. Among the highlights: I am speaking at several workshops, of which there seem to be plenty this month, and I would encourage any journalist to attend one. Why? Read below.

I frequently get asked to speak at workshops and conferences about journalism.

I rarely turn them down.

I enjoy the workshop experience for a variety of reasons. In a speaking role, I appreciate the chance to (I hope) inform and inspire those in attendance. I relish the relationships I get to build and the ideas that develop from discussion.

But beyond those benefits, I find workshops valuable for one main reason: I love the passion and enthusiasm that always emerge.

Rarely does our business make time for education. We are expected to learn on the fly, develop our skills in the daily crunch, and make all of our deadlines in the process. These requests are not unreasonable; in fact, I have always found I learn more by doing rather than watching.

But I still find great value in watching. And when I go to workshops, I always come away with a handful of tricks and tools I plan to incorporate into my own work. I went to my first conference in 2014 when I was invited to speak at the Ignite Your Passion workshop in the Twin Cities. (I had never attended one in my early years as a journalist.) I stayed after my presentation for the remaining speakers, getting to witness the great team of reporter Boyd Huppert and photojournalist Jonathan Malat. They described their execution of a story I still remember today: a piece about death, love, and regret around the subject of towing trailers

I left the Twin Cities with an immediate burst of motivation. I wanted my work to be that complete and rich; I wanted it to shine at the next level.

I take bits of inspiration from every workshop I attend. I have already spoken at four this year, and I have left each feeling like a stronger journalist.

I have also left with a renewed belief in what we do.

I wrote in my book, The Solo Video Journalist, about the importance of thinking big. We are given so many incentives to focus on the day-to-day rather than the larger possibilities. Workshops provide a tremendous reminder to expand one’s ambition – and an opportunity to surround oneself with journalists who have a similar outlook.

Earlier this month I interviewed on my podcast John Wilson, the chief photographer at KSL-TV and an organizer of the NPPA Rocky Mountain Workshop in Salt Lake City. He encouraged people in the area to sign up for his workshop, but he mainly encouraged people to “go to A workshop”. I could not agree more. I will speak at the Rocky Mountain and Sound of Life Southeast Storytelling workshops in June, and I fully recommend both to anyone looking for some rejuvenation and training.

But good workshops are rarely hard to find. If you haven’t been to one, I would highly recommend it.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

PODCAST EPISODE #55: Justin Hinton, reporter, WLOS-TV

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It was a pretty cool moment.

At last year’s NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, one of the loudest ovations came for someone in the audience.

One of our speakers was talking about the innovative work being done at his company, and he showed a live shot from a reporter and photographer who happened to be in attendance at the workshop. During the shot, for a story about a suspect who left a fingerprint at the scene, the reporter smudged his thumb on the camera, and the photographer panned toward a light that enabled the thumbprint to appear on the camera.

Check it out:

The workshop crowd erupted … because the reporter and photographer had made the extra effort to conceive and execute a compelling and eye-catching live shot.

Fast forward a year later, and that reporter — WLOS-TV’s Justin Hinton — has gone from attending a workshop to presenting. He will be speaking with coworker Evan Donovan at the 2017 Sound of Life Storytelling Workshop.

Hinton is my guest on Episode #55 of the Telling the Story podcast.

Check out this episode for a great discussion of how to strengthen one’s live shots, which often veer to the extremes of either sameness or gimmickry. Hinton also talks about the moves he made in college to catalyze a strong start in the business.

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Rereading and rewriting: the importance of giving a news script a second look

Earlier this month, I watched a local TV news story I found genuinely compelling and innovative. I e-mailed one of the photographers to learn more about their process; in his response, he mentioned how much time his team had received to produce the piece:

Two weeks.

“Two weeks?!?” I thought. “I’m lucky when I get two days!”

Time, for most journalists, is always at a premium. Local TV crews, solo or traditional, must typically produce several stories in an eight-hour span. When I mentioned above about getting to spend two days on a story, I was referring to the infrequent chances I receive to do long-form pieces; typically, I work under the same daily crunch as the majority of my colleagues.

And I must always resist the urge to take shortcuts, specifically on my scripts.

I can write a standard TV report very quickly, but when I do, I sometimes struggle to capture why the story matters. That’s why, in almost every occasion, I take a few minutes to reread the script. I try to block out the looming deadline and focus on the words that will ultimately compress and convey my story to my audience.

Those few minutes often make a massive difference.

First, they give me a chance to confirm my facts. Especially on breaking news or issue-based stories, I want to make sure I accurately report every detail. Rereading my script enables me to double-check.

Second, the extra pass allows me to tighten. I can see where I have repeated myself, overlapped with one of my interviewee’s sound bites, or simply used too many words instead of a concise alternative.

Mostly, I reread my script to make sure I am telling the best possible story. I try to remind myself of why the piece matters and how I can best express that. Then I scan my structure to make sure I have lived up to my story’s themes; if I have not, I use whatever time is available to regroup and rewrite — not the whole story, perhaps, but at least a sentence or two.

I use this approach in the daily mix but also for my longer assignments … including my most recent one that aired earlier this week.

I was assigned a powerful graduation story: Andee Poulos had suffered a brain injury at age 14 that put her in a coma. A doctor told her parents she might never eat, drink, walk, or talk again. But she did. This past Saturday, two months shy of her 21st birthday, Andee walked across the stage and accepted a diploma as a high school graduate.

The synopsis is touching, but the details went way deeper. Andee and her family have lived this journey for six years; I was tasked with condensing it to four minutes. My first script felt way too cluttered; I had tried to fit in so many details that I struggled to maximize the ones that mattered most. I often feel this way about stories of such complexity. When I learn so much about a topic, I naturally want to provide my viewers with the same level of knowledge. In doing so, I often fail to present the story in a digestible way … unless I give my script a second look.

My second look at Andee’s story made it much stronger.

I found myself better equipped to tighten my script, remove the details that felt superfluous, and accentuate the themes and personalities that gave extra meaning to Andee’s triumph. When I sat down afterwards to edit, I felt much more confident into my material. Here is the result:

This is a long-form example of a daily scenario. The pressures and deadlines of local TV news are not slowing, but the standards of local TV journalists should not drop. We must push ourselves whenever possible … starting with our words.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

PODCAST EPISODE #54: John Wilson, chief photographer, KSL-TV

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‘Tis the season … for journalists to focus on everything journalism-related but their jobs.

After the May sweeps period comes the month of June, which always seems to be the ideal time for award ceremonies and workshops. I will be speaking at two workshops this month, and I plan to use this space to give each one some attention.

If you live in the Southeast, I encourage you to head to Asheville to check out the Sound of Life Media Southeast Storytelling Workshop, organized by my good friend (and former fellow workshop co-director) John Kirtley.

And if you live west of the Mississippi, I advise you to check out the NPPA Rocky Mountain Workshop in Salt Lake City from June 2-4.

If you need any convincing, just push play on this podcast.

John Wilson is the chief photographer at KSL-TV, the Salt Lake station that is hosting the workshop. He is a testament to the power of such events. Wilson began his career with aspirations of shooting Kentucky men’s basketball for a living; when he reached that goal at age 23, he became propelled by attending workshops to focus more on storytelling. That choice has led to massive career success — and the creation of this upcoming event in June.

Wilson is my guest on Episode #54 of the Telling the Story podcast.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring innovative storytelling in local TV news

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Verify: Homeless camps (4/14/17, WFAA-TV): Across the country, local TV stations owned by TEGNA have been rolling out a segment in their newscasts called “Verify”.

(I say this, in full disclosure, as a TEGNA employee at WXIA-TV in Atlanta.)

I have seen this segment be successful in many forms, but I have never seen it as compelling and relevant as it seemed here, in this piece from WFAA-TV in Dallas. Reporter David Schechter and the Verify team respond to a viewer question by bringing along that viewer to find the answer.

Something about this just … works. Maybe it’s because of the buy-in of the viewer, Felecia, who grills her city councilwoman while developing more perspective about the homeless camp by her neighborhood. Maybe it’s because of the chronological, peek-behind-the-curtain nature of the storytelling. Mostly it’s because this segment took an issue many stations won’t touch (homelessness) and made it engaging in a new way.

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She sounds like she’s smiling: Saying goodbye to “B”

Television newsrooms have a way of draining one’s idealism and optimism.

Journalists often see their big dreams swept under by waves of daily deadlines and demands. They watch too many co-workers depart for other industries, unwilling to withstand the toll and frustrations of the business. They see an industry changing and tightening while their stations’ ratings struggle to sustain. Their wide-eyed smiles turn into weary looks of acceptance.

But not Birnur Richardson.

She worked at my station in Atlanta, WXIA-TV, for more than three decades. She edited video for our morning show, taking the overnight shift to do it. Such a schedule often drains people more than deadlines, but not the person we all called “B”. No matter my mood in the morning, I would walk into the newsroom and receive the greeting of her smiling face. When Birnur retired last year, it left a hole in our building impossible to fill.

Birnur passed away this past weekend.

Unbeknownst to many of us, she had been battling aggressive cancer for several months. I was stunned and saddened by the news, as were many of my colleagues.

I am struggling today to find the words to explain the rarity and beauty of B’s spirit. Thankfully, several of my colleagues have put forth poignant words of appreciation, and I would like to share them with you.

Bumble B: Fellow reporter Jerry Carnes entered the 11Alive orbit at the same time as Birnur. I can honestly picture and relate to every memory he shares, such as this one:

Years passed. B drifted to the morning shift, and eventually, so did I. A newsroom can be a solemn, grumpy place at 3 a.m., unless you employ Birnur Richardson. Nothing could [faze] her. Editing glitches, computer problems, system breakdowns. She handled it all with polite professionalism. And if you had an issue, somehow she would break away from her job of editing two-and-a-half hours of videotape to help. Never, not once, did I ever hear B speak a cross word to anyone. Ever.

A difficult day for 11Alive: In a Facebook post the morning after B passed, reporter and morning shifter Jennifer Leslie offered her own memories — as well as photos displaying B’s delightful smile:

I will never forget how kind and loving she was after my boys were born. She was the first to grab and squeeze them during their newsroom visits, and she ALWAYS asked about them. She was an incredible role model who raised the most impressive children. She had a full plate but always had time for those around her.

Finally, I urge you to watch this five-minute video made last year for B’s retirement. I actually never saw it last year, but when a co-worker posted it earlier this week, I watched and nearly cried. Even while describing the mundane details of life on the morning shift, B cannot help but smile. And when video plays over her voice, she sounds like she’s smiling.

I will always remember that smile. I will always remember B.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

PODCAST EPISODE #53: Chad Nelson, photojournalist, KARE-TV

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Last June I flew to Cleveland to cover the championship parade for the NBA’s Cavaliers. I stood in a swarm of a million Clevelanders and witnessed one of the most stellar scenes in sports.

I also witnessed one of the most stellar sights in photojournalism: the editing of Chad Nelson.

The photographer from KARE-TV in the Twin Cities had been, like myself, called to help our sister station in Cleveland. We worked on separate stories, and after I completed mine, I stopped by Chad’s desk to say hello.

Within minutes, I was receiving a master class in color and composition.

I had always admired the care with which Nelson treats his video, but in Cleveland I gained a deeper appreciation. Nelson works at a station that prides itself on its storytelling culture, and he carries that culture in every story he shoots.

Last month, it paid off. Nelson received three pieces of extraordinary news:

  • He was named the NPPA’s Central Top Region’s Photographer of the Year.
  • He was named a finalist for the NPPA’s Ernie Crisp Photographer of the Year award.
  • He was also named a finalist for the NPPA’s Editor of the Year award.

Now he is my guest on Episode #53 of the Telling the Story podcast.

We talked about quite a bit but focused on two of Chad’s great stories from last year:

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5 lessons from the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism 2016 video winners

Every year I watch the video winners of the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism awards.

Every year I go back to the same thought:

The building blocks of storytelling are absolutely important to a great piece of journalism, but they require the foundation of a story worth telling.

If we cannot get in the door with meaningful material, we cannot expect viewers to appreciate the various techniques on which we pride ourselves. Last year I profiled several BOP winners on this site and drew lessons from them. In my introduction, I wrote: “The best stories I saw last year demanded my attention, and I watched zero of them on television. I watched all of them online, via links and recommendations from colleagues and friends. I arrived upon them organically and, when I clicked on the videos, found myself instantly engrossed.”

Ditto for 2016. In general, the stories that won BOP awards — and stood out in public as well — were triumphs of content over technique.

Here are five first-place winners and the lessons I took from them:

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Mighty Ivy, Jerry & Susie, and finding three dimensions in tragedy

“Find the emotion.”

TV reporters and photojournalists hear that refrain often. Our medium, after all, lends itself less to in-depth analysis and more to visceral video. As such, we often receive assignments that offer the greatest potential to witness raw feelings.

But rarely are we asked to push beyond those feelings.

We are told to put our most emotional moments at the front of our stories, not set them up with context. We are sent to horrific scenes and given little time, both on site and in newscasts, to get a sense beyond the basic. We are pushed to keep things moving.

So often, though, such a philosophy produces reports that only connect on a surface level – and, while powerful in the moment, are almost immediately forgotten.

I want my stories to be remembered. More importantly, I want the people in my stories – the ones who open themselves to news coverage at extremely vulnerable times – to be remembered.

This past month, I received two specific opportunities to tell such stories. I tried to produce pieces that would provide both powerful moments and the depth and poignancy to earn them.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the Marshall Project

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The death row basketball league (3/16/17, The Marshall Project): This week, in this segment, each piece comes from the same source.

I have gradually become a big fan of The Marshall Project, which bills itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Its editors and writers consistently contribute insightful, revelatory journalism, often partnering with other news agencies. That’s what they do here, presenting a first-hand account of life at a death row prison through a collaboration with Vice.

Writer Lyle May is incarcerated at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. He discusses the prison’s basketball league, weaving details of games with reminders of life on death row. The reader does not learn what crimes May committed … until the very end, when this humanizing portrait receives a hammering reminder of what leads to such a sentence.

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