23Apr
Atlanta skyline 2

5 lessons learned from 5 years reporting in Atlanta

Last week I celebrated a very special anniversary:

My Atlanta-versary.

I have officially lived and worked in Atlanta, Ga. for five years. I have not lived anywhere this long since high school, and I have enjoyed the chance to truly settle down and plant roots in a major U.S. metropolis.

(That chance, by the way, is by no means a guarantee when one dives into the field of broadcast journalism. I have appreciated that fact from the moment I arrived in ATL.)

In both journalism and life, my time in Atlanta has been pivotal.

My first few TV jobs came with a seemingly endless variety of responsibilities and opportunities. I worked in both news and sports, filled numerous roles in each department, learned my strengths and weaknesses, and developed my identity as a journalist and storyteller.

When I was offered a job at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, I noticed a few obvious differences. I would only work in news, not sports, and I would be surrounded by a staff of veteran journalists, most of whom largely served specific roles had logged far more miles than their newest colleague.

My life outside the newsroom also changed dramatically. Always one to explore the regions where I lived, I found myself bombarded by the excitement of a bustling big-market city. Even five years later, Atlanta never fails to keep me busy and engaged, with opportunities to blossom socially and civically.

Combine those changes with the natural maturity of an adult in his late 20′s and 30′s, and it adds up to an invaluable half-decade in the Peach State.

So what exactly have I learned? I could never fit it all into one article, but here are five major lessons from the last five years that have strengthened my work as a journalist:

1) Some of the most critical storytelling work occurs before you leave the building. The news in Atlanta occurs at a faster speed.

At least, that’s how it seems at first.

But the metro Atlanta region presents some major logistical challenges. It extends dozens of miles in each direction, meaning one might have to travel 90 minutes to reach a story’s location. Surely I need not also remind you about the area’s reputation for traffic.

This often creates a temptation to rush out the door on a story, and sometimes a journalist has no choice.

But sometimes, leaving without thinking is a mistake.

Whether in the newsroom or my news vehicle, I always aim to give as much advance thought as possible to any story I get assigned. I learn as much about the topic as I can, and I think about how I might be able to tell my current story in a unique way.

But I also like to think as much in advance about how to succeed at Lesson #2 …

2) Storytelling always comes first. This applies to any story, from breaking news to investigative journalism to emotional features.

I recently chatted with a young reporter about the differences between getting a story done and doing that story well. The former is relatively easy, if you have spent enough years in the business. The latter is difficult, in terms of originality and depth, as the pace of storytelling quickens.

I have been forced, in this market, to constantly remind myself to take the path of greater resistance. As a backpack journalist, I constantly face a dwindling amount of time and resources in my day.

In short, I have a lot to think about.

But I try to keep one thought at the forefront: “Why does this story matter?” After gathering all the elements and interviews, brainstorming in my head and on paper, and compiling every fact and figure I can find, I still need to remember what makes my story important in the first place. Why would a viewer be interested, and how does an individual story affect people on a universal level?

3) Natural moments always trump artificial ones. If you have five minutes, take look at one of my first human-interest stories from my time in Atlanta:

I still love this piece, but in watching it now, I notice some major bad habits.

For starters, back then, I relied way too much on artificial moments.

The story is filled with musical backing, fuzzy dissolves, and posed shots. I believe each of these techniques has an occasional role in storytelling (except for the posed shots, which I now try to avoid at all costs), but five years ago I used them as crutches.

Now I spend my time, in the field, seeking out natural moments — as many as I can to advance my story.

It worked in the video above. The most moving moments happened on their own; I just stood back with the camera, got in position, and pressed “Record”.

4) Take care of what the viewer may not notice. Something else about this story makes me cringe.

I cannot believe how much less I understood about attention to detail.

Watch the story closely, and you will notice hard cuts in the audio, different color balances in the video, and some abrupt transitions.

None of this stuff may jump off the screen. But all of it makes a difference.

Good versus great storytelling often comes down to mastery of one’s craft. I make more of an effort now to meticulously watch my pieces after I edit them, before I send them to air. (This all assumes, of course, I have time to do so.) I aim for perfectionism in a business that does not always prize it.

5) Improvement takes time … and constant effort. Each of the above lessons makes little difference without the ability to execute.

NPR’s Ira Glass once famously made a great point about creative work:

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Same goes for storytelling and journalism. Whatever the job — reporting, writing, photography, editing — it involves the deceptively difficult task of turning nothing into something.

That requires a great deal of learning — and making mistakes.

I came to Atlanta with a lot of potential, early success, and rough edges. I have spent the last five years building on my strengths but also sanding out those rough edges and weaknesses. As the business evolves, new challenges will arise, and I will need to adapt.

In those times, more than ever, I will require constant self-evaluation and critiquing. It is the most reliable way to improve.

Working in a city like Atlanta has enabled me to learn from tremendously talented co-workers; it has pushed me to become a better journalist.

I look forward to continuing to push.

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.

FOLLOW MATT ON TWITTERSUBSCRIBE TO THE TELLING THE STORY PODCAST
21Apr

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring FSU, lists, & Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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 only obviously common thread between the three stories below is that they were all written.

I offer no TV pieces this week, nor anything from radio or video. I have selected three pieces that appeared on the Internet this week; one is the online edition of a print story, one is a web exclusive, and one is a republished magazine interview from 33 years ago.

The only other common thread? They are all insightful and memorable.

A star player accused, and a flawed rape investigation (4/16/14, New York Times): Wow.

This is how you research, write, and present a piece of investigative journalism.

Instantly one of the most widely spread articles of the week, Walt Bogdanich’s in-depth look at the Jameis Winston rape investigation produces incendiary highlights throughout. From interviews with relevant parties to a timeline of the events in question, Bogdanich offers a thorough look at what was done — and what was missed — throughout the aftermath.

No wonder the article has invoked such a reaction — both from Florida State, where Winston just led the football team to a national title, and from readers, many of whom followed the Winston coverage intently last fall. Read More »

16Apr
Brian-Kaufman-682x1024

PODCAST EPISODE #16: Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press

Play

This is a story of faith.

Not religious faith, mind you. Not “the Cubs will one day win the World Series” kind of faith.

This is about Field of Dreams-type faith … the faith that, “If you build it, they will come.”

In this story, “you” is Brian Kaufman, a 31-year-old, Emmy Award-winning photographer and videographer for the Detroit Free Press.

“It” refers to his remarkable, nearly single-handedly produced documentary, “Packard: The Last Shift”, which premiered last month at the inaugural Freep Film Festival.

“Building” that documentary took four years … and a whole lot of faith.

The Packard Plant, the subject of Kaufman’s documentary, is a former auto manufacturing factory in Detroit that has been abandoned for years. It has become a city landmark, both in the negative (a blight on the city, a once-beautiful building wasting away) and positive (a haven for artists, a visual masterpiece). It has recently been at the center of a whole lot of news.

Kaufman arrived in Detroit in 2008, having (like most of us) never heard of the Packard plant. But he became smitten by its story and its twisted beauty.

So he went there. And he shot video. And then he went back, over and over again, with no promise that his material would ever find an audience — all while handling a fast-paced daily workload at the Free Press.

Kaufman’s commitment turned into a dynamic long-form story in 2012, but he knew he had more to offer. When the Free Press last year announced its intentions to host a film festival, it knew exactly where to turn for an original production.

Kaufman is my guest on the latest episode of the “Telling The Story” podcast. You will be amazed by his technical know-how, but you will be inspired by his perseverance, which resulted in a tremendous accomplishment: a riveting, powerful, 70-minute documentary that stemmed from one person’s vision.

Read More »

14Apr
Chipmunk

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring animals and David Letterman

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.

Being assigned a local TV news feature story about animals is like starting Monopoly with an extra $2,000 and three “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

Basically, you’re a mile ahead in a three-mile race.

Animals — particularly when placed in an eccentric context — almost always provide the kind of necessary flair, both visually and aurally, for a light-hearted feature. Attend a morning pitch meeting at my station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, and watch as the mere mention of an animal-related story elicits swoons from half the crowd.

(It also typically brings out groans from the other half.)

But if animals provide great feature material, the storyteller must still finish the job and produce a compelling piece.

Here are two strong examples of that from last week — as well as a thoughtful farewell piece to a late night titan:

A sign of spring at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (4/7/14, TWC Rochester): Unfortunately, only Time Warner Cable subscribers can actually watch this piece on its Rochester affiliate’s web site.

Thankfully, the story’s teller, multimedia journalist Seth Voorhees, liberated it onto YouTube, to which I have linked above.

Voorhees pens a piece about a local cemetery where, every spring, more than a dozen deer show up and, essentially, hang out. As most storytellers might do, he starts by discussing the cemetery and then, 30 seconds in, reveals the deer.

But pay attention to how Voorhees does this. Story-wise, he first introduces a character named Terri Wolfe; she is an older woman who regularly visits the cemetery. As a viewer, I have no idea how Terri fits into the story. Is it about her? A lost loved one of hers? Some feature of the cemetery? This misdirection makes the surprise of the deer more effective.

‘Candidates who really give a crap’ (4/6/14, KUSA-TV Denver): In this story, a couple of Telling The Story favorites take you on a four-minute visit to Animal Town. Read More »

9Apr
Michael Driver 2

A video journalism how-to guide, from KUSA-TV’s Michael Driver

Consider this a cheat sheet.

Last week’s podcast with KUSA-TV photojournalist Michael Driver was one of the most-downloaded Telling The Story podcasts to date.

But, as I noted then, Driver was almost too good a guest.

He offered so much advice in such a short period of time, and while we were recording the interview, I kept thinking I could better serve photojournalists — heck, better serve myself — by transcribing all of Driver’s terrific tidbits.

I always enjoy the discussion of journalism, and I have used this blog several times to focus specifically on photojournalism. Check out my spotlight on the best NPPA video stories from 2012 or my podcast with KDVR-TV photographer Anne Herbst. Great photojournalism is an art that often must be sustained and passed down by, not station managers or other journalists, but the artists themselves.

Here is a thorough collection of important advice from Driver, one of the top photojournalists in the country.

BEFORE YOU SHOOT:

Back-time your day: “You need to make sure you know how much time you’re going to have to do this stuff. Give yourself enough time to edit and do the story properly. You have to have a plan in place. If you go in like, ‘We’ll see what happens,’ you’re going to run out of time. We work in a business where deadlines are our enemy. You have to make sure you get everything you can in the quickest amount of time, and then give yourself enough time to work on it.”

Work with your reporter (if you have one): “We’re constantly communicating, constantly talking about what we’re going to do. Talk to your reporter. When you get out to a scene, you’re not going to know exactly what it is. It’s constantly talking about, ‘What elements do we need? What are the visuals we need to tell this story?’”

Read More »

7Apr

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Gmail, NY pizza, & the Trix bunny

Frivolity can be a beautiful thing.

And the Internet loves frivolity.

Think of how it has changed journalism and online content. Think of how many articles now are devoted to nostalgia, pop culture, and the highbrow interpretation of seemingly lowbrow material.

Storytellers occasionally get these stories right, and when they do, they succeed with either a detailed behind-the-scenes look, a thorough guide, or a scientific slant. (Sometimes they use a combination of all three.)

Here are three stories from last week that tackle such topics with unquestionable rigor:

How Gmail happened: the inside story of its launch 10 years ago (4/1/14, Time): Mark this one under “detailed behind-the-scenes look”.

And boy, is it detailed. Time writer Harry McCracken travels back a decade to when leaders at Google wanted to invest in an e-mail service.

That service, otherwise known as Gmail, changed our culture.

What’s more remarkable, it did so largely in the same ways its creators predicted.

McCracken shows a screengrab of Gmail at its inception, and it actually looks relatively similar to the product in 2014. More impressively, McCracken identifies the hurdles Google’s programmers faced in creating Gmail, and then he neatly explains how they solved those issues.

This is a long read but a great one.

Read More »

2Apr
Michael Driver

PODCAST EPISODE #15: Michael Driver, Photographer, KUSA-TV

Play

Young photojournalists — heck, all photojournalists — need to listen to this podcast.

Last week, after winning my own award as NPPA Solo Video Journalist of the Year, I decided I wanted to interview another of the association’s big award winners for 2013.

I found a photojournalist whose work I have admired and referenced before in the blog: Michael Driver of KUSA-TV in Denver.

Driver was named the NPPA’s 2013 West Top Regional Photographer of the Year, and he beat some of America’s finest photojournalists to do it. The West, largely because of the highly-regarded photographer staffs at KUSA and Seattle’s KING-TV, is usually the most competitive region in the country. Driver arrived in Denver in 2012, eager to make his stamp on the competition.

Then he went ahead and won the whole thing.

Driver produced some magnificent work in 2013; I have included two stories below. First, “I Miss You, Beryl”:

Then, “Before I Die”:

Now Driver joins me on the Telling The Story podcast, and he is as ferocious on the mic as he is behind the camera.

Read More »

31Mar

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Upworthy, ageism, & post-Olympics Sochi

More and more, I see long-form writing being spread on short-form media.

I found two of this week’s 3 Great Stories through links on friends’ Twitter feeds, which struck me as ironic both then and now. Here is a social media service, designed for lightning-quick communication, often derided for the lack of depth it encourages through its 140-character Tweet limit. And yet, it has become — on some small level — a conduit to explore much larger works of writing.

My vantage point on Twitter is, I believe, not unique. When I use it, I typically want a quick scroll of headlines, quips, and commentary to keep me abreast of the latest news and conversation topics. But I also find myself turning to Twitter during pockets of down time, and in those moments, I find myself susceptible to being lured into a long-form read.

Here is what lured me in this past week:

Watching Team Upworthy work is enough to make you a cynic. Or lose your cynicism. Or both. Or neither (3/23/14, New York Magazine): Speaking of something that seemingly succeeds by functioning against conventional wisdom, enter Upworthy.

The web site known for its bluntly emotional headlines and sincere content is also notorious for its astounding ubiquity online. It is much-loved and much-hated — and the envy of virtually every web developer eager to duplicate Upworthy’s rags-to-Internet-riches success.

Give credit, then, to writer Nitsuh Abebe for penning a fascinating article that goes behind the scenes with Upworthy’s 40-person staff. Abebe covers all angles of the Upworthy saga, from its founders’ mission to its detractors’ skepticism.

More than that, Abebe, normally the music critic at New York Magazine, performs the deft trick of revealing various details of the Upworthy creative process while still acknowledging the seeming mystery of the site’s monstrous performance. He maneuvers around that tension throughout the piece, which remains absorbing throughout.

Read More »

26Mar
NPPA_New_Logo_Nov2012_OnWhite

An outstanding NPPA honor, and a prideful achievement

At the moment when I received one of the greatest honors of my career, I could not have felt less prestigious.

I was not dressed in my black-tie finest, attending some lavish awards banquet, hoping to walk up on a stage and give an acceptance speech. I was not surrounded by my colleagues, loved ones, and journalists from all over.

I was sitting alone on my couch, in my gym clothes, staring at a laptop.

And that was completely, absolutely, undoubtedly fine.

The TV branch of the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA, held its annual awards show Monday night. The association named its photographers and stations of the year for each of its three regions. It also named its national Solo Video Journalist of the Year, in a category full of talented one-person bands who shoot and edit their own reports.

I am thrilled to announce that I was named 2013′s Solo Video Journalist of the Year.

Read More »

24Mar

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring “Mercer 78, Duke 71″

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.

A significant role of the media is to chronicle the major events of our society.

If something captures the attention of the nation this week, I should ideally be able to look back in five years and remember how we all discussed and covered it.

And I should also be able to relive how the various spectacles and sideshows that surrounded it.

In the moment, though, we tend to share the spectacles and sideshows as much as the actual events.

This past Friday, 14-seed Mercer stunned the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Online the following day, I saw a slew of articles getting shared about it — not about the game, but about what made it more than a game.

Here are three such stories that did their job exceedingly well:

Duke loses, world wins (3/21/14, New Yorker): How strange for staffers at the New Yorker to see this article atop its “Most E-Mailed” list.

Despite some strong competition in the Top 5, this was Number 1.

Read More »

© Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved