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 »

23Jul
appalachian trail

Letters and life lessons along the Appalachian Trail

The following post has little — at least directly — to do with journalism or storytelling.

Just life.

P1080279

I found myself with a rare opportunity this past week. Having filled in for a coworker on the Saturday morning shift, I was given as compensation a day off the following Monday.

That meant a day off … during the week … with no responsibilities or errands to run.

I instantly headed for the mountains.

P1080281

I arrived in Atlanta five years ago and quickly became enamored with hiking in north Georgia. Having grown up in the far less scenic state of New Jersey, and spent my early adult years in the relative flatlands of Chicago, Sioux City, Ia., and Buffalo, N.Y., I reveled in the majesty of the mountains, filling my early Atlanta weekends with whatever hikes I could find. By my third summer down South, I had hiked nearly every major trail in Georgia — and some, to boot, in South Carolina and Tennessee.

But in recent years, I had begun to slack off, facing more pressing commitments on the weekends and simply losing some of my early hiking momentum. Aside from that, my knees had become a nagging concern, which made me more hesitant to take on the mountains with the same cavalier spirit of years prior.

Earlier this month I downloaded Bill Bryson’s classic travel book, A Walk in the Woods, in which Bryson and an old friend attempt to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from start (in Georgia) to finish (in Maine). This is a classic “holy grail” trip among hikers; every year hundreds of hikers take half a year off and make the trek. Bryson, I soon discovered, is every bit as masterful a writer as I had heard, and he presents the famous trail as a truly fascinating, fulfilling experience.

Turning the pages of his book, I quickly regained my desire to scale the north Georgia mountains.

And I suddenly found myself with just the day to do it. Read More »

21Jul

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Malaysia Airlines & Tom Emanski

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.

After the crash (7/18/14, New Yorker): In the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, more questions existed than answers.

The best reporting involved a certain amount of restraint — namely, resisting the temptation to jump to conclusions.

Credit the New Yorker’s David Remnick, then, for this column the following day. He provides perspective by interviewing a former PR man for Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin, choosing to take a macro view of the crisis in Ukraine rather than specifically dissecting the crash. And before U.S. government officials — and even President Obama — weighed in with their thoughts, Remnick warned of the dangers of assuming before investigating:

But let’s stop here and register the proper cautions and caveats: There has been no investigation, no conclusive proof. (And there won’t necessarily be a proper and convincing investigation, either, considering the deliberately chaotic and militarized state of eastern Ukraine these days, and Russia’s clear interests.) We shouldn’t pretend to know for certain what we don’t.

Read More »

16Jul
ted land

PODCAST EPISODE #19: Ted Land, reporter, KING-TV

Play

When I started in broadcast journalism, I encountered a very vocal school of thought from more experienced colleagues regarding backpack journalists — or, more simply, reporters who shoot and edit their own stories.

I was told repeatedly that the rise of backpack journalism would (A) be a passing fad in larger markets and (B) bring down the quality level of TV news as a whole because (C) backpack journalists could never do as good a job as two- or three-person crews.

More than a decade later, all three of those predictions have proven spectacularly wrong.

For starters, more and more large-market stations are making room for reporters who do it all. Cost is one reason, obviously; one employee is cheaper than two. But stations can get away with that now because the overall quality of backpack journalism has increased dramatically over the last few years. Check out this winter’s award-winning stories in the NPPA’s quarterly solo video competition. They are strong pieces done by more than a dozen backpack journalists.

And at the top of the ladder, the best backpack journalists can produce work every bit as good as that of larger crews.

The latest example? Ted Land.

This month he begins his new job at the prestigious KING-TV in Seattle. But last month, he received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for writing in small-market TV, all thanks to stories he produced at WSBT-TV in South Bend — by himself.

Let me elaborate. The “small-market TV” category covers reporters, both solo and traditional, who work in any television market outside the top 50. In the category of writing, a backpack journalist bested an entire nation of competition.

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

14Jul

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring LeBron, Seinfeld, & a special friendship

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.

LeBron: I’m coming back to Cleveland (7/11/14, Sports Illustrated): Sometimes telling a great story is simply about having the thing that everyone wants.

For two weeks, LeBron James had it.

Every sports fan — and plenty of non-sports fans, too — wanted to learn where the NBA’s greatest player would spend the rest of his career. Would he stay with the Miami Heat, the team with which he won two championships over the last four years? Or would he take his talents elsewhere?

James decided to go to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and he announced his decision with a poignant, well-thought article on SI.com. He gave the scoop to Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins, who transcribed James’ comments and turned them into a cogent work of writing.

The web site will likely draw record traffic this weekend, and it should. LeBron James gave everyone a reason to click. Read More »

9Jul
photo (2)

Some short thoughts on long-form journalism

I am noticing a promising trend.

More and more, media outlets appear to have prioritized long-form journalism as an important asset moving forward.

It strikes me every time I look for pieces for my weekly “3 Great Stories” post. I see long-form articles that feature creative presentation, graphics, and multimedia incorporation. In many ways, such stories indicate how media can build unique, enriching content for a digital audience. With these stories, the written text itself could work in a newspaper or magazine, but the entirety of it — with all the other forms of media thrown in — could only work online.

Here now, a few short thoughts on long-form’s future:

The market and audience appears to be there. Look at how many web sites now cater to long-form enthusiasts, from BuzzReads to Longreads to the Browser. Even more amazing, the Browser actually charges for its curation — $20 a year, which won’t break the bank but is still, at least, something. Major media outlets are investing in ways to tell long-form stories to an online audience, with the New York Times and New Yorker regularly producing innovative work. Read More »

7Jul

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the value of buried treasures

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.

New York’s shadow transit (7/2/14, New Yorker): I am a big fan of buried treasures.

Not the Scrooge McDuck kind, mind you, though those are great too …

No, I’m referring to the storytelling kind.

Find me something I have never seen before, and present it to me in a compelling fashion, and I will offer my full attention.

In this case, Aaron Reiss of the New Yorker delivers this fascinating look at the “shadow transit” systems that operate throughout New York City, enabling the poor and underserved to navigate the Big Apple. Reiss spotlights each system, one-by-one, borough by borough, even into New Jersey. The whole thing is a great history lesson, both well written and craftily presented for a Web audience. Read More »

2Jul
bg photo

The theory and reality of “the right to write”

I was recently told about a group of friends in New York who get together regularly to discuss Socratic questions.

Essentially, they meet at a bar or restaurant, and one member of the group will toss out a question, typically about matters of philosophy or life. Then, the group discusses the question.

It’s a simple idea — and, in the right light, kinda cool.

Sometimes I think it might be a worthy idea for journalists. I have lamented before how we can easily get caught up in the day-to-day grind of the business without examining its larger questions and possibilities. Maybe we all need to take a little time, individually and collectively, to think big.

I read an article this past weekend that got me thinking big … or, perhaps more accurately, thinking Socratic.

Roxana Robinson of the New York Times wrote a column for the newspaper’s Opinionator blog, entitled “The Right to Write”. She discusses a seemingly simple question: “who has the right to our stories?” Read More »

30Jun

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Kendrick Lamar, Jeff Bezos, & the subway

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.

Kendrick Lamar, Hip-Hop’s Newest Old-School Star (6/25/14, New York Times): In terms of traditional print journalism, few outlets are doing it as well right now as the New York Times.

This is not meant as a backhanded compliment, or an indication that somehow the capital-T Times is not advancing with the lowercase-T times.

But when media critics ponder how storytelling can survive in such a frenetic landscape, they should point to articles like this, where Times writer Lizzy Goodman uses her backstage access to rapper Kendrick Lamar to pen a multi-dimensional, poignant, and powerful portrait.

Similar artist profiles often read like press releases; you can smell the transaction of access for favorable coverage. Not here. Goodman parallels Lamar’s no-frills music with his similar approach behind the scenes, and she documents numerous revealing moments — such as when, while on tour with Kanye West, the two hip-hop stars only meet once, and it seems like a far bigger deal for their entourages and videographers than for the artists themselves. Read More »

25Jun
Hooch sunrise

The all-around wisdom of “Think Big, Start Small, Act Now”

I do not remember much else from the book.

A few years ago, I read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which pushed forth the idea of a green revolution that could jump-start the American economy. The book received middling reviews, including this beauty of a line from Slate reviewer Gregg Easterbrook: “There are so many buzz phrases in Thomas Friedman’s new book that it practically vibrates in your hand.”

These days, long after having read the book, I have retained only one of its buzz phrases — and it has nothing to do with green energy.

It has everything to do with life and how to get the most from it.

The phrase comes from not Friedman but one of his interview subjects: Barnabas Suebu, the governor of the Indonesian province of Papua. (I should confess, I did not remember his name either until Googling his quote just now.) Talking about his efforts to effect change on his province, Suebe espouses the following philosophical gem:

“THINK BIG. START SMALL. ACT NOW.”

That statement has stuck with me. Read More »

© Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved