27Aug
journalism file

The Telling The Story collection: advice for college journalists

We have reached 18 months since I first launched the Telling The Story web site.

Among the many highlights for me has been the opportunity to reach and inspire younger journalists, particularly those in college.

With that in mind, and with most college students heading back to school over the next few weeks, I wanted to use this space this week to offer a collection of posts that have focused most directly on aspiring journalists in college:

Ten years later: what I learned (and didn’t learn) in J-school: “Maybe I needed ten years to understand the importance of those four years at Medill. For so long I wondered why Northwestern had not better prepared me for the “real world” of journalism. But here’s the thing: the only place to truly learn those “real world” skills is the real world. And like it or not, you learn those skills very quickly when you start your career.

Instead, my professors and leaders at Northwestern focused on teaching what I would not automatically learn as a professional. Through everything mentioned above, they ingrained in me a sense of the tradition and power of journalism. What we do is important. What we do is valued. What we do is a time-honored touchstone of society. These may sound like bromides or motivational ploys, but I believe them to be critical. Journalism is always changing, but journalists must always remember the importance of what we do.” Read More »

25Aug

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring carillon bells, typos, & James Foley

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 voice of Baylor (8/20/14, KCEN-TV): Maybe this story started with an unfair advantage.

It is about the carillon bells that ring atop a magnificent building at Baylor University. It is also about the woman who plays them, but the bells are clearly the stars of the show.

Because once they start chiming, they have a hypnotic effect.

Reporter Chris Davis and photojournalist Bryan Wendland produce a story of nearly four minutes length. Given the feature-like subject matter and relative lack of substance, they could have easily told the story in half the time.

But half the time would miss the point.

This story flies by, mainly because everything flows so beautifully: Davis’ short sentences, quick sound bites, nicely timed edits and beautifully framed shots, and, of course, the bells, which provide the constant soothing energy that moves the piece.

In many ways, the bells have the effect on the viewer that they have on everyone in the story. That’s pretty impressive. Read More »

20Aug
Squirrel Fry

Squirrels, Steve Hartman, & storytelling through details

Every Saturday morning, when the weather is nice, I take a walk around the block.

Of course, living in the heart of Atlanta, my block is a city street that features high-rises, an office complex, and a hotel. But it leads to a massive park, and it is a great gateway to a number of enjoyable routes.

I have walked down that street numerous times … and then, on a recent Saturday morning, I saw it differently.

Before that day, I barely acknowledged the yards and grass in front of the buildings; I noticed the green swaths in front of me, naturally, but I never gave them a second thought. I simply kept listening to whatever was playing in my earbuds, enjoying the wide view of the street, and moving along.

But on this day, I decided I would pay attention. I would look around for details, wherever I could find them, that I would not otherwise notice.

And when I looked at the yards, I saw squirrels.

Lots of them.

Chowing down on grass blades and acorns.

The following Saturday, I looked again — and, once more, I saw the squirrels.

Now I see them whenever I walk by. And I always think to myself, “How did I never notice them before?” These are living creatures, existing en masse right in front of me, yet they never registered in my mind or my eyes.

These are the kinds of details that pass by journalists and storytellers every day.

A common complaint about TV news in particular is a seeming inability to be relatable. Stories fly by as mere wallpaper to a viewer’s day, mainly because the viewer cannot seriously connect with those stories’ subjects. The people in these pieces become cartoons — stereotypes or archetypes with little substance.

The best storytellers find a way – even amidst the tiny sliver of time allotted for a package — to let the details provide the depth.

I was reminded of this over the weekend. I had been researching the great Steve Hartman of CBS News and stumbled upon some archived classics from his series, “Everybody Has a Story”. This was a long-running segment where Hartman would choose a state, town, and person at random — from all across America — and turn that person’s life into a meaningful, captivating three minutes of television.

Those stories were always relatable, and they thrived on details.

Take a look at this one. In a broad sense, it is a story about a soft-spoken veteran who fought in the Gulf War and helped to liberate Kuwait.

But Hartman does not arrive at that theme until nearly halfway through the piece. Along the way, Hartman pokes fun at the “chatty cowboy” and his camera-shy wife, takes joy in their energetic son, and retells the story of how he proposed to his future wife by mail.

By story’s end, Hartman has meshed the major theme with the more colorful details into a beautiful, multi-layered portrait.

Could the story have worked without including the marriage proposal? The energetic son? Sure. But it would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable or moving.

Print reporters often seem to be better about noticing more meticulous details, maybe because they do not have to worry about capturing them on camera. But the best TV journalists, from feature reporters like Hartman to those who cover harder topics, succeed at storytelling on both a macro and micro level. They hit on grand schemes while dropping all sorts of impactful nuggets throughout.

To put it another way, on the long walks of their stories, they make sure to remember the squirrels.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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18Aug

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Ferguson, Alabama, & Edward Snowden

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 front lines of Ferguson (8/15/14, Grantland): The startling and tragic events in Ferguson, Mo. have brought about some truly powerful reporting. I have read numerous pieces this week that have brought to light the pain, shock, and tension of the situation.

This one, from Grantland’s Rembert Browne, stuck with me the most.

I normally enjoy Browne’s more frivolous work, like when he hilariously recapped episodes of 24 this summer. But he can pack an emotional punch, and he does so here by intertwining his personal reflections with the front-line events in Ferguson. Browne describes himself early on as a “black boy turned black man who finds it increasingly miraculous that I made it to 27″. That point of view shines through throughout his descriptions of the protests and police response.

The Internet provides a variety of voices and perspectives for anyone willing to hear them. This week was a major example. Read More »

13Aug
Hiroshima 3

How I spent my summer vacation (and used it in a story)

My older friends in broadcasting like to tell me of a time when traveling was a natural part — nay, a benefit! — of the job.

Apparently, a time once existed when one could wrangle a trip to a foreign country to do “slice-of-life” stories. I do not totally believe this, but I don’t totally *not* believe it.

These days, traveling for a story — if you work for a local news department — is a much rarer sight. I got an enormous opportunity this past February when I went to Sochi to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics, but I can count on one hand, in my five years in Atlanta, how many times anyone at my station flew internationally for the job.

I love to travel, especially to foreign countries. And when I do, I try as hard as possible to separate myself from work. I set my Outlook away message; I rarely use my phone because of the lack of wi-fi abroad; and I take comfort in the fact that I can do very little for our nightly newscast while I am out of the country.

But those trips, ultimately, always affect my work. They open my eyes to other cultures, enhance my perspective as a whole, and even give me added photography practice.

Last month, for the first time, one of my trips directly paid dividends on the air. Read More »

11Aug
times square

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring James Brown, Times Square, & airports

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 whitewashing of James Brown (8/5/14, Huffington Post): Each of the “3 Great Stories” this week were alerted to me by others, each through social media.

I read about this article from one-time “3 Great Stories” honoree Tina McElroy Ansa, who Tweeted about it a few days ago. I became a big fan of Ansa’s when I discovered a speech of hers on The Moth, and she recommended a powerful piece here.

Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard pens an op-ed for the Huffington Post about the startling lack of black voices behind biopics of black figures. Using the new James Brown movie as a starting point, Howard dissects an all-too-familiar situation =:

Indeed, all the producers, writers, and the director of the James Brown movie are white. No black people were hired until a few weeks before the cameras started rolling, the actors. In fact, several of the people involved in this whitewash are British.

The opening of Get On Up has triggered several articles to this effect, and they make powerful and valuable statements. Howard does several things here: (A) fight for his idea about Brown’s legacy, (B) lament the “Hollywood apartheid” against black filmmakers, and (C) provide enough background and hard data to make both points. Read More »

6Aug
Matt and Paul

10 pieces of journalism advice from Paul Crawley

I try to use the Telling The Story blog — and accompanying podcast — to provide advice journalists and storytellers often do not receive.

Or, if the advice is similar, I try to find a unique vessel for it.

My latest podcast guest, the newly-retired Paul Crawley from my station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, is such a vessel.

As I recorded the podcast, I could not help the appreciate the perspective Crawley had gained from more than 40 years as a TV reporter, the final 36 of which came at 11Alive.

I felt like the wisdom deserved to be written, as well.

And so, much like I did after my podcast with Michael Driver, I want to offer the ten greatest kernels from a guy with a lot to give:

Thank goodness for the Internet: “The Internet was the second biggest communication revolution behind the printing press. Prior to the printing press, only a handful of people knew what the Bible said.”

But you have to use it right: “The problem now is that there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to sort through it all. We still have to worry about verifying it ourselves. That’s when somebody makes a mistake and it gets perpetuated by everyone.”

And be sure to utilize your own memory: “I remember I was at a news conference not long ago where a long-time politico trying to make a comeback announced for sheriff. And in the back of my mind, I remembered he had voted down police raises at one time. So I just sat in my car and started Googling and came up with all this great stuff. I went into the press conference and tore him to pieces.” Read More »

4Aug

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring health care, ideas, & hot air

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.

Newly insured, many now face learning curve (8/2/14, New York Times): Cutting through the political muck can be difficult these days.

As a news consumer, one often needs to search through a variety of opinion pieces and commentaries, knee-jerk and otherwise, before hearing about the “reality on the ground”, so to speak.

Credit to writer Abby Goodnough for offering an example of journalism that informs.

While political foes continue to fight over the Affordable Care Act, newly insured Americans must ignore all that and learn the ins and outs of their new health care. Goodnough presents a thorough, well-researched story about the challenges faced by all involved. She peppers her story with powerful individual anecdotes like this:

Last week, Salwa Shabazz arrived at the office of a public health network here with a bag full of paperwork about her new health insurance — and an unhappy look on her face. She had chosen her plan by phone in March, speaking to a customer service representative at the federal insurance marketplace. Now she had problems and questions, so many questions.

“I’ve had one doctor appointment since I got this insurance, and I had to pay $60,” Ms. Shabazz told Daniel Flynn, a counselor with the health network, the Health Federation of Philadelphia. “I don’t have $60.”

Denver seniors keep adventuring into their 90s (7/27/14, KDVR-TV): Score one for Friend of the Blog Anne Herbst and her reporter partner, Kent Erdahl.

They produced my favorite feature story of the week: a long-form piece on a group of 90-year-old women that challenge themselves by taking on new — and often adventurous — activities.

Erdahl and Herbst do a number of things well here, but I specifically want to credit them for their inclusiveness. They could have easily focused on one woman for the sake of simplicity, but — both through Erdahl’s writing and Herbst’s photography — introduce us to numerous members of this thrill-seeking team. They wind up settling on a woman who is losing her vision due to macular degeneration, but they never forget that this story is about, not individuals, but the group.

Where ideas live (8/3/14, Medium): Finally, from the world of think-pieces and alternative media comes a powerful rumination on the storage of ideas.

Writing for the web site Medium, John-Michael Oswalt discusses the ever-increasing avenues for documenting how we feel. “It started with a real journal,” he writes, and “then came Blogger and Live Journal … Soon after there were more than enough tools for writing and video (and podcasting).”

Oswalt does not necessarily conclude whether all of this is good or bad, but he raises some fascinating points and, in doing so, provides a glowing example of when all those idea-documenting methods produce a positive result.

Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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30Jul
Paul Crawley

PODCAST EPISODE #20: Paul Crawley, reporter, WXIA-TV

Play

Of all the qualities and personality traits I will miss about Paul Crawley, I will miss one the most:

He is, every day, on time for work.

More than that, he is early for work.

Rare is the day at 11Alive when our 9:30 morning meeting actually begins at 9:30. Typically it kicks off at 9:35 with a sparse crowd in attendance, and then most reporters arrive in the next 5-10 minutes. They can show up a little late because they generally remain secure in the fact that (A) they will still have a job tomorrow, and (B) as long as they show up with strong story pitches, all will be forgiven.

Paul Crawley plays by the same rules, and given his longevity and continued value to the station, he could probably get away with pulling into the 11Alive parking lot at 10 AM each day.

But he shows up before 10, and even before 9.

Crawley arrives at 8:45 AM every morning. He then spends the next 45 minutes making calls, scouring local media web sites across metro Atlanta, and filling up a notepad page with potential stories for the coming day.

Not surprisingly, he almost always contributes more story ideas than anyone else at the table.

On July 31st, Crawley will retire from WXIA-TV in Atlanta after 36 years at the station — and more than four decades in the industry. He has won seven regional Emmys and an Edward R. Murrow award, covered just about every beat imaginable, and recently volunteered to become a backpack journalist … after three decades of working as a traditional reporter.

Crawley is my latest guest on the Telling The Story podcast. Read More »

28Jul

3 GREAT STORIES: The all-Grantland edition

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 web site Grantland.com covers a lot of ground … with various degrees of success.

An off-shoot of ESPN’s web site, helmed by its most popular writer, Bill Simmons, the Grantland site is a hub for creative writing on sports and entertainment. At its best, it features some of the sports world’s most perceptive and insightful writers (particularly Zach Lowe, who runs circles around most basketball analysts) and does as good a job as anyone in joyfully tackling the frivolity of show business. At its worst, it often seems hypocritical, transparently searching for the type of clickbait (promoting “‘hot takes’ … dunks, GIFs and more” in its sports coverage) it elsewhere claims to disavow (regularly parodying those same knee-jerk hot sports takes).

But Grantland’s contributors do one thing particularly well: analyze themselves.

Many of the site’s columns involve turning the lens inward, performing the classic storytelling trick of exposing the process of journalism. The writers often insert themselves into stories and discuss their thought process about the very story they are covering. Again, sometimes this comes off as stale and self-promoting. But often it provides a great window into how the media works — especially in the highly-scrutinized worlds of sports and entertainment.

This past week showed three examples of Grantland at its best:

At least one real, authentic moment of humanity with Cameron Diaz (7/23/14, Grantland): Take this story, in which writer Alex Pappademas covers the site’s “Rom-Com Week” — yes, a week devoted to romantic comedies in the movies — by chatting with one of the genre’s more notable actresses, Cameron Diaz.

The problem for Pappademas? His interview with Diaz is a bit of an awkward mess, patrolled by PR folks and unable to produce the kind of honest insight he had desired.

So he focuses his article on just that: the awkwardness.

He sets the tone by sprinkling his first few paragraphs with sentences that read like mental note-jotting, treating himself almost like a detective going to interview a key witness. Throughout the description of his allotted time with Diaz, he documents numerous moments of ridiculousness, exposing more about the process than about Diaz.

It’s an enjoyable — and informative — ride. Read More »

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