3 GREAT STORIES: Starring a pair from 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 volunteer (1/18/18, The Marshall Project): I have long admired the Marshall Project’s gripping coverage of the complexities around criminal justice. This piece, from staff writer Maurice Chammah, displays so much of what makes the site shine.

Chammah tells the story of Scott Dozier, a Nevada death row inmate who waived his legal appeals and, essentially, requested he be killed by the state. The problem? The state wasn’t prepared, and officials have spent the past year seesawing over Dozier’s case. Chammah finds a powerful subject and case study in Dozier, but mostly he exposes the chaos in the world around the inmate, particularly, in Chammah’s words, “states that want the harshness of death sentences without the messiness of carrying them out.”

(more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #59: Eric Mennel, senior producer, Gimlet Media

Play

My first podcast of the year was inspired by a podcast I found late last year.

I have listened to Gimlet Media’s StartUp Podcast on and off since its inception. This past December I rediscovered it thanks to a five-part series called StartupBus. The premise? Per Gimlet’s web site: “This past summer, 20 strangers got on a charter bus headed from New York to New Orleans. For three days they had one goal: Build and launch companies from inside the bus. And then? Compete against each other.”

Sound like a reality show? It did to Eric Mennel. The Gimlet senior producer pitched StartupBus as an episode, got on the bus, and realized after two days he had struck audio gold. He turned it into a five-part series, with one episode for each day of the competition.

Think about the challenge. Mennel faced the curse of few limits; he had plenty of time and roughly two dozen people who could potentially become main characters in his story. He needed to find them, figure out the main stories, remain open to new events, record it all, and then – upon returning – winnow an absurd amount of audio into 150 minutes of content.

Mennel succeeded. He joins me on Episode #59 of the Telling the Story podcast.

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the value of photos in TV storytelling

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.

Stains on the sidewalk: picturing Baltimore’s murders (1/9/18, WBFF-TV): Turns out a photo can make for some poignant video. Turns out a year’s investment in a project can pay off in six stellar minutes.

Reporter Paul Gessler and photographer Jed Gamber of WBFF-TV spent twelve months tracking the mission of Amy Herbert, a photographer with a school project. Her plan? Document each Baltimore homicide from the previous year, exactly one year later. Herbert graduated but continued the work. Gessler and Gamber continued to check in. They found moments and scenes that are displayed in their final product: a powerful piece to kick off 2018.

(more…)

I’m back in J-school. And I’m back to being unsure of myself.

I arrived on the University of Georgia campus with a steadily growing to-do list.

Pick up paper towels. Run to Target. Try to go to bed early. Check my work e-mail in case of an emergency.

I had just driven 90 minutes from midtown Atlanta to downtown Athens. I work full-time as a TV reporter but this past August began a 2 ½-year MFA program in narrative nonfiction at UGA’s Grady School of Journalism. Each semester kicks off with a mandatory weeklong residency on-campus; this past Sunday, we all converged on campus from across the country. The program directors threw us a welcome dinner, and on the walk back, I asked a classmate about his plans for the night. He said he would head to the hotel bar and hang out as late as anyone wanted.

Not me. I planned to make my Target run and retreat to my room for a hopeful eight hours of sleep.

My classmate shook off that idea. He heralded the week as a chance for us hungry writers to revel together in our ambitions, to encourage and inspire each other. He closed with a line that would flatter any hopeful Hemingway: “This is like Paris in the Twenties!”

I needed to hear that … because my first semester felt like Times Square at rush hour.

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring leftover gems from 2017

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.

Terry Crews: How to have, do, and be all you want (12/10/17, Tim Ferriss Show): I spent much of December catching up on podcasts, and I couldn’t stop listening to this one.

The Tim Ferriss Show often features engaging guests, but actor/former NFLer/furniture designer (?) Terry Crews captivates from Minute 1 to Minute 100. Ferriss knows how to prod a guest into a revealing story, but in this case he recognizes when to sit back and let Crews dominate. The guest provides piles of anecdotes about his childhood in Michigan, struggles with family and Hollywood, and words of inspiration for anyone needing a boost. (more…)

Pondering over pancakes: a story of gratitude to open 2018

I could have eaten anywhere.

I could have walked a half-mile to the birthplace of General Tso’s chicken. I could have hopped on the D train to America’s oldest pizzeria. New York City overflows with restaurants, and I had just touched down. But I left my hotel, walked to 57th and 9th, and opened the door to an old friend.

Morning Star Restaurant does little to stand out. Its white awning and blue lettering seem faded. Its pancakes require a healthy pour of syrup. But one summer, 16 years earlier, I ate there repeatedly. I popped in before, during, or after my shifts as an intern at WCBS-TV.

In college I deified New York. I lived with my parents in suburban New Jersey and itched to someday call The City my home. For three months, three days a week, I traveled 40 minutes by bus and 20 minutes on foot to reach the station. I passed the bars on Eighth Avenue and envied the adults on the other side of the glass. They drank, smiled, and percolated in perfectly tailored shirts and ties. They had “made it”.

I couldn’t enter the bars. But I could wolf a stack of pancakes at Morning Star. Sixteen years later, I felt the urge to do it again, this time in triumph.

(more…)

MMJs, NPPA, & UGA: my most popular posts of 2017

A thin layer of pink spreads above the Phoenix horizon. The sun has begun to set, the mountains have turned from sandy orange to muted brown, and the natural light has begun to fade from the window of my hotel room. Lines of cars stretch down Central Avenue, but I cannot hear a sound from the 18th floor.

I sit in antiseptic calm. I wish to return to the chaos of home.

Four inches of snow have pounded Atlanta, cancelling my flight home after a week in Arizona. I will try again the airport tomorrow, but for now I slink back for an unplanned night at a new hotel. I open my laptop and write this entry.

I rarely fall into free time. I typically carve it out, particularly for this blog. February 2018 will mark five years of Telling the Story, and this past year has been my busiest. I began a new role at work, an MFA program at the University of Georgia, and the anticipation of what will keep me even busier in Year 6: our first child.

But I enjoy writing these entries – and interviewing peers and colleagues for the Telling the Story podcast – because of the community they create. I appreciate the e-mail sign-ups, the comments on Facebook, and the notes and Tweets of appreciation. I value the chance to contribute to the continually evolving conversation about journalism, storytelling, and the media industry.

The most popular posts of 2017 reflected that conversation. Here is what saw the most clicks in the past twelve months, with an excerpt:

(more…)

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: How do we measure impact as journalists?

As part of my MFA program at the University of Georgia, I write. A lot. And I enjoy it. I relish constructing a three-dimensional scene with verbal imagery. I read two books a month and deliver 350-word responses, which allows me to weave narrative into my work and ponder its process and impact. I have decided to share those pieces here when applicable, such as this entry about Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

“We’ve all heard the complaints about television news.”

The man with the gray beard smirked and sighed, his boutonnière the same red velvet color as the podium.

“It’s superficial. It’s sensationalist. It’s trivial.” The compliment? “But it isn’t all ‘Action This’ or ‘Eyewitness That’. They’re not all Ron Burgundy.”

The crowd laughed. The Hillman Foundation this year awarded national journalism prizes for seven formats. Only the broadcast honoree needed to force a smile through a roast of his profession.

I watched the video online and prickled at the cheap shots. I value my job in television news. My goals far exceed Ron Burgundy.

But I know it has shaped my work. I fear the channel-click. I craft my stories to never lose their grip on the viewer. Jon Stewart once said, “I am very uncomfortable going more than a few minutes without a laugh.” I dread going more than a few seconds without a “moment” – a beautifully composed shot, turn of phrase, burst of natural sound, or anything that will snap a viewer back to attention.

(more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #58: Carolyn Hall & Sierra Starks, hosts, Women on Deadline

Play

Our jobs as journalists almost always begin with listening. We listen to our communities for story ideas, our audience for feedback, and our interview subjects for a piece’s deeper meaning.

But how well do we listen to the concerns of our co-workers?

Last month the Harvey Weinstein accusations and #MeToo hashtag refocused attention on issues that have never left: sexual harassment and gender and power imbalance in the workplace. I appreciate the strength of every woman and man who has come forward. I hope their efforts do more than capture a momentary spotlight; I hope they achieve systemic change.

But change begins with communication, and I choose to point my comparatively tiny spotlight to a pair of journalists who are amplifying the voices of women in TV news.

Carolyn Hall worked for many years as an elite photojournalist. Sierra Starks has swung from magazines to TV and now reports and fill-in anchors in Monterey, California. They are the hosts of a new podcast: Women on Deadline, which emphasizes *her* experience in TV news. By Episode 3, they had tackled the challenges of solo video journalism, the issues that creep into many local newsrooms, and – in the most revealing episode for this reporter – the extension of #MeToo.

Hall and Starks join me on Episode #58 of the Telling the Story podcast.

(more…)

REPOST: The search for Evan Gattis, and the journey of journalism

The following was originally posted in 2013, when Evan Gattis was a rookie with the Atlanta Braves. This week, with the Houston Astros, he became a World Series champion.

Snooze.

I awoke to the sound of muffled radio static on the hotel room’s alarm clock. I had not bothered to find a station before I went to sleep the previous night; I was exhausted, and I doubted I would miss much by scanning the AM dial for the finest station in Abilene, Texas. I also knew I would not be listening for very long when I awoke.

Instead, I did the first thing I could think of: reach over and hit the button on top.

Snooze.

I didn’t intend to go back to sleep. I couldn’t. I was up for a reason: to drive ten hours, in one day, to interview two people, both of whom were integral to the life of Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis. A month earlier, Gattis made the Braves’ Opening Day roster as a 26-year-old rookie. Two weeks after that, he was named National League Rookie of the Month.

But that was not what sent me to Texas. I had arrived in America’s second-largest state to shine the spotlight on Gattis’ other claim to fame, the story that had captivated Braves fans in Atlanta and baseball fans across the country. After completing high school and committing to Texas A&M as a highly-touted prospect, Gattis left the game and did not return for half a decade. In the meantime, he traveled the state and the country, working odd jobs at golf courses, ski resorts, and even Yellowstone National Park. He followed a spiritual advisor to New Mexico, and he lived like a nomad, on a search for purpose and identity. Gattis went on a journey, to be sure, and came out of it a Major League baseball player.

How fitting, then, that I would need to take my own journey to properly tell his story.

I got out of bed in that Abilene hotel room and took a shower. Then I heard that muffled AM static. I walked over and looked at the radio clock, flashing a time I generally only saw in the afternoon.

4:44.

I wanted to hit Snooze again. But not this time. It was time to hit the road.

(more…)