MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Ready for Rio, preparing for the grind

Eight years ago this week, I received my first opportunity to cover a major national event … and thus my first experience with, for an extended period of time, working to the limit.

I flew to Denver to report from the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the eventual nomination of our current president, Barack Obama. I operated by myself in a sea of tens of thousands, lugged 50 pounds of equipment to and from my workspace each day, turned roughly a dozen stories, and used any brief window of free time to gobble down enough food to sustain me for the next few hours.

Exhausting, right? Not enjoyable at all, right?

And yet, when I returned home, I wrote this — in all sincerity — to my boss:

This was one of the most unforgettable weeks of my life. I ended up working some 60 hours in four days in Denver, and it was partly because I kept looking for new things to cover, because I didn’t want to waste a minute of the experience.

Yup. When the work is that riveting, I actually crave it. And as I stare into my immediate future, I spy another extended brush with extended hours:

On Saturday I head to Rio de Janeiro to cover the 2016 Summer Olympics.

I have taken this assignment twice before, and each time I have authored blog posts that echo my e-mail from 2008. At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, I wrote an entry saying this:

I don’t think a day has gone by yet where I have worked less than 10 hours; on average, they run about 12-13. Meals generally consist of scarfing down food at your workspace, hoping not to spill it on your tapes or computer, and in my case I spend several hours a day lugging around a 20-pound camera, a nearly-as-heavy tripod, and a definitely-as-heavy equipment bag.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having an absolute blast.

Four years later I traveled to Sochi, Russia, and upped my average workday to 15 hours. Here’s what I wrote in my final dispatch:

I am nearing the end of Week 3, which means I am in many ways fading. My back, shoulders, and calves feel absolutely spent. My eyelids can barely keep from drooping. I keep pondering the idea of dropping 1,000 rubles into the nearest massage chair and letting it go to town for an hour.

But then I walk around the Olympic park, take in a medal ceremony, watch an event, or just look around at the picturesque Sochi scenery.

In those moments, it’s hard to say goodbye.

Now, as I prepare for my third Olympic go-round, I already know how my workload will feel.

And, as usual, I can’t wait.

These Olympics already seem different in that, for months, they have been hampered by backlash. I have already learned far more than I had planned about bottled water, Brazilian crime, and, of course, Zika. I have received a three-course meal of briefings, warnings, and advisories. I have taken each one seriously, wanting to prepare and protect myself however necessary. We went through similar training before the Sochi Games, and I genuinely appreciated my bosses’ efforts to keep me safe and secure. I feel that way again with the Rio Games, and I hope for a similarly uneventful three weeks.

Except for the events themselves.

I feel excited and ready for another go-round of the grind. I look forward to bringing you as many stories as I can tell, and I will attempt to write new entries in this space every weekday. I will also offer extensive reports and behind-the-scenes looks on Facebook and Twitter, and I encourage you to reach out to me on social media and let me know what you think!

Mostly, I hope you enjoy the coverage. I’m ready to work to the limit to provide it.

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.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring New York(er), New York (Times)

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.

Leslie Jones and Twitter’s troll economics (7/23/16, New Yorker): This article is the latest in a weekly James Surowiecki column called “The Week in Business”.

That title sounds beyond boring.

Surowiecki’s work is anything but.

He covers three topics in this column, the title one dealing with how Twitter polices its members. It’s a multi-layered discussion, especially for those of us who use Twitter on a regular basis. The crux of his column? This paragraph:

The fight underscored the peculiar nature of Twitter as a quasi-public space, and the challenges that this presents to the company as it tries to grow its stagnant user base. Twitter isn’t, after all, a coffee shop, and much of its appeal stems from its free-for-all nature. Tough speech codes run the risk of alienating users who relish the possibilities presented by the service’s relative lack of oversight. At the same time, many, perhaps even most, Twitter users have grown alienated by the disproportionate toxicity that a minority of users can spread, and in particular by the kind of pack harassment that is often directed at “controversial” figures, many of whom are visible minorities or women. (That’s largely why the site also produces a steady flow of articles about, or by, people who have quit Twitter.)

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REPOST: The lesson I learned telling a story about race

This past week I was assigned to do the lead piece for a half-hour special about race in America. I pitched an idea about the city I call home, Atlanta, and how it has seen massive race success yet continues to have a massive race problem. I intended to write a new post for this blog about the experience, but I found it mirrored my previous experience in this arena 18 months earlier.

I continue to be heartened with people’s willingness to talk about race. The topic seems taboo to discuss with friends and family, but it shouldn’t be. Experiences like mine prove it can be done, even with complete strangers in an on-camera setting.

My story from last week is embedded here; the post that follows refers to a story I did in January 2015 for an hour-long special called “A Conversation Across America”.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring KARE-TV’s “Breaking the 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.

One girl’s card to “Mr. Phil” (7/11/16, KARE-TV): I live in Atlanta, Ga. and have, in my life, spent maybe a week in the Twin Cities.

But I have found myself drawn to a 30-minute local newscast coming straight from Minnesota’s strongest station.

KARE-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul is regarded by many as possessing one of the most talented groups of storytellers in country, both in front of and behind the camera. Earlier this year, the station debuted a new show called “Breaking The News”, which offers an alternative way of looking at the major news in the area — and, sometimes, around the country.

The show delivers, I find, consistently thoughtful takes and treatments. Take the story above, about a third-grader who wrote a card to the “lunch man” at her school named “Mr. Phil”. That man is Philando Castile, whose death has sparked protests nationwide. In this piece, the protests get pushed aside to allow for one girl’s voice, which, in its unintentional innocence, reminds of the humanity in everyone. “Breaking the News” host Jana Shortal conducts a tender interview with the girl, 8-year-old Leila Ramgren, and photographer (and one-time Telling the Story podcast guest) Ben Garvin captures the interview with a set of cameras that enable the emotions to shine.

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PODCAST EPISODE #42: Ellen Crooke, TEGNA; Scott Livingston, Sinclair

Play

If you work — or wish to work — in local television news, you will want to hear this hour of audio.

Last month John Kirtley and I hosted and directed the NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, at which a sold-out crowd heard from a bevy of the best storytellers nationwide. One of the highlights was a panel discussion featuring two people of tremendous influence at the nation’s largest broadcast media groups: Ellen Crooke, VP of News at TEGNA, and Scott Livingston, VP of News at Sinclair.

I have known Crooke for more than a decade; she has hired me twice, and I fully admit to being a tremendous admirer of her passion for storytelling and desire to change the landscape of TV news. I met Livingston for the first time at this workshop, but I am a huge fan of his photojournalistic mindset and the storytelling culture and teamwork that exists at many of his stations.

During this panel, both offered tremendous insights into:

  • the current TV news landscape and what’s being done to improve it
  • the ways in which both enterprise and in-the-mix journalism can be done better
  • the types of journalists who stand out to them, and the ways in which young journalists can make themselves valuable in a newsroom

Among the highlights:

  • Crooke on the state of local news: “There are times when we look at our local news product and say, 80% of it, I’m not interested. Twenty percent of it is extraordinary, but there is too much that is the assembly line and the factory, and we’re experimenting with ways to break that assembly line.”
  • Livingston on building a storytelling culture: “It is a privilege to tell stories that matter. It is our responsibility to tell a story that’s relevant. So we go back and ask, ‘What’s the ‘why’? What’s the ‘So what’? What are the questions we need to ask?'”
  • Crooke on what journalists can do to position themselves for the future: “Embrace ambiguity. We are going into a new territory in our industry, and it’s the people that forge into the ambiguity that are going to change our industry and move our industry forward. If we only do what we know and what we’re comfortable with, we will never change.”
  • Livingston on building trust and establishing transparency: “We want to be transparent. We want the viewer to be able to watch the piece, go to the web, and here’s the PDF; here’s the court document so you can see for yourself.”
  • Crooke on one thing every newsroom gets wrong: “I see us hiring people from outside our business because we want to be different … and then we suck them into our vacuum of sameness. We don’t let them change us. I just see it happening over and over again.”
  • Livingston on what keeps him up at night: “It’s our future in late news. In morning news, we’re doing great. But with late news, because of all the devices, everything thinks they know everything before. Also, I think we all need to be prepared for the post-network world. That’s why we are trying to touch people on other platforms: so we create such a sense of belonging with our brand that our network lead-in becomes irrelevant.”

I hope you enjoy this segment called “A Look at the Landscape”, and I urge you to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the rise of journalism podcasts

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 man inside: four months as a prison guard (6/25/16, Reveal): A few weeks ago, I posted an entry on this blog that recommended three podcasts from which any journalist would benefit.

Now I already feel like I left that list incomplete.

The recent podcast boom has brought an extraordinary amount of new audio series from reputable journalistic sources, including (and perhaps particularly) the Reveal podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

A friend recommended it to me, and I pressed play on this episode, that profiles Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer as he goes undercover for four months as a private prison guard. (Bauer’s written piece for Mother Jones is a riveting read.) I recommend listening to this episode uninterrupted, because once it begins, you will quickly be absorbed into the tremendous storytelling and horrifying statistics and stories regarding the prevalence of private prisons in our country today.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2016 (so far), audio/video edition

Every week, I will 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.

We are halfway through 2016, which means the continuation of an annual tradition: the “Best Of (so far)” editions of my 3 Great Stories segment.

I posted my three favorite written stories of the year so far last week. This week, my three favorite audio/video pieces from January through June, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

Government mistakenly declares Minnesota man dead (5/10/16, KARE-TV): This story, from talented KARE-TV investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe, is hard to believe.

But it’s not warm and fuzzy. It’s serious and concerning.

Lagoe looks into the case of a Minnesota man named Steven Monno, one of 12,000 people each year who are wrongly declared dead by the Social Security Administration. Monno and his sister attempt unsuccessfully to beat the bureaucracy, so they enlist Lagoe and the investigative team to help straighten out the situation.

Lagoe indeed straightens it out, but he also unfolds a widespread issue and envelops this personal story in a national context. One can hear a certain amount of disbelief in his voice, as if he spent half the time saying to himself, “Really? This happens?”

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Our 3 most popular posts of 2016 (so far)

Allow me to present two important reasons for this post:

  1. We have reached the halfway point of 2016.
  2. I am on vacation this week.

I can think of no better time, then, to run the blog world’s version of a clip show: the three most popular posts from 2016 that have appeared on the Telling The Story blog. Here are the links, with excerpts from each piece:

PODCAST EPISODE #37: Jed Gamber, WBFF-TV & Catherine Steward, WTVF-TV

Awards season is underway in local TV news.

Over the next few months, some of the most prestigious associations in journalism will present lists of winners and honor some of the best reporters and photojournalists in the field.

Photojournalists Jed Gamber and Catherine Steward are off to a great start.

This past week, Gamber and Steward each received one of the highest honors in the craft: being named NPPA Regional Photographer of the Year. Gamber captured the crown for the East region for his work at WBFF-TV in Baltimore, while Steward topped the Central region after a stellar year with WTVF-TV in Nashville. The award they won prizes consistency and versatility and honors an entire year’s worth of powerful storytelling.

Watch their work, and you will quickly see why: these two photojournalists care about awards far less than they care about their audience.

Gamber and Steward are my guests of this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

They discuss questions of technique, teamwork, and communication, but they speak with such obvious and heartfelt passion. They so clearly believe in the power of storytelling to reach an audience, and they bring that purpose into their work. Any storyteller can learn from what these two have to say.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2016 (so far), written edition

Every week, I will 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.

We are halfway through 2016, which means the continuation of an annual tradition: the “Best Of (so far)” editions of my 3 Great Stories segment.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year so far next week. This week, my three favorite written pieces from January through June, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

Brotherhood (3/23/16, Bleacher Report): Early on in “Brotherhood”, Howard Beck’s infinitely engrossing long-form story about the friendship between two basketball superstars, one of those stars makes a poignant statement.

“In our sport, or sports in general, everyone wants instant oatmeal,” says LeBron James. “Put it in the microwave, hit 30 seconds, you got a meal. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, it doesn’t happen like that.”

Now replace “sports” with “journalism”. In this era, many audiences — and news bosses — demand “instant oatmeal” from journalists, seeking and investing in clickbait and easy answers over more layered, complicated work.

Stories like this prove what one can get by waiting for a splendid meal.

Beck presents a fascinating portrait of two players — James and Carmelo Anthony — whose friendship and rivalry have provided a powerful undercurrent to the NBA’s past dozen years. This piece made headlines for a different “instant oatmeal” quote, where James muses how he would love to, one day, join forces with Anthony. But that quote comes at the end. The rest is a beautiful blend of smile-worthy memories, did-you-know-that stories, and revealing quotes from two of the league’s best.

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NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop: Day 2 (and Awards) Recap

This past weekend, along with my good friend John Kirtley, I had the privilege of directing and hosting the NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, which brought 200 attendees and more than a dozen renowned speakers to Atlanta to discuss visual storytelling and meaningful journalism.

Here is a Tweet-by-Tweet look at the presentations, advice, and all-around festivities of Day 2 of #NPPASE:

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.