Notes from New Orleans: A personal look at Hurricane Katrina

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast and became one of the most startling, devastating stories of the decade.

When it happened, I was unemployed … and ready to book a flight to New Orleans.

I wanted to do whatever I could to help, but two factors kept me away. The Red Cross had requested only volunteers with medical training, which would have left me useless. Also, shortly around the time when I would have bought my ticket, I received and accepted a job offer to work in Buffalo, NY and needed to turn most of my attention to that.

But I kept New Orleans on my mind. Three years later, I booked a flight to go down for a week and help rebuild a home … but then cancelled the flight when a different hurricane, Gustav, placed the region on alert.

Finally, in the winter of 2009 — a perfect time to vacate Buffalo for warmer temperatures — I succeeded. I re-booked flights and signed up to volunteer with the St. Bernard Project, which still does tremendous work with residents displaced from their homes. With nothing to stop me, I headed down South.

And I will never forget what followed.

My week in New Orleans filled me with emotions: anger and admiration, frustration and inspiration, horror and humility. I twice almost cried — once out of extreme sadness, once out of immense joy. But I knew I wanted to document these feelings, and not just with my camera.

So I wrote. I used the now-forgotten Facebook feature of Notes to write six daily posts from the Crescent City. They provided my friends with as much of a window as I could provide; they provided me with an outlet to share my experience with those closest to me at home.

It was one of the first times where I truly understood the power of social media to make an impact.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, here are my six notes from New Orleans, edited slightly for content, time, and grammar (I cringe sometimes when I see my old writing). I think you will see how my emotions deepened over the course of the week, all the way until its poignant end. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Dee Barnes, Dr. Dre, & Stephen Colbert

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.

Here’s what’s missing from Straight Outta Compton (8/18/15, Gawker): The past week brought a fascinating example of a shifting narrative.

The movie Straight Outta Compton had arrived with much fanfare and positive reviews, as well as a new album from hip-hop legend Dr. Dre. But many began pointing out what the movie had left out: Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women.

The most notorious victim? Dee Barnes, who hosted a hip-hop show called Pump It Up. Barnes has rarely been heard from since her run-in with Dr. Dre, but she amplified her voice in a serious way this week with an opinion piece for Gawker about her experience. She came forward with a honest look at what she went through and continues to face.

In doing so, Barnes provided some much-desired context to a movie based in history.

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Instagram, Vine, Periscope: the trifecta of elusive social media for journalists

One of my favorite posts on this site — for not the quality of its writing but the entertainment of its content — is an entry from two years ago titled, “10 Turn of the Century Predictions, and 10 Lessons Learned“.

In it, I examine the crystal ball work done by the staff of Entertainment Weekly in 1999, as they spotlight ten “companies and visionaries leading the electronic charge”.  These range from innovations in music (POP.com) to gaming (godgames.com) to interactive television (mixedsignals.com).

Don’t worry if you don’t recognize the three web sites I just mentioned; they no longer exist.

Some of Entertainment Weekly‘s predictions turned out remarkably right, and others proved woefully wrong. My conclusion, upon re-reading the issue? “It should remind us what we thought the media landscape would look like — and how similar yet different it actually appears today.”

I think of the article — and my subsequent post — when I encounter the new forms of media expected to transform my job as a journalist.

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Many individual journalists I know today still struggle with both how to incorporate social media and which ones to incorporate. Most have invested at least somewhat in Facebook and Twitter, with both providing some return in terms of followers, shares, and conversations. Beyond that, for most in my field, it’s a crap shoot.

None of these options, mind you, existed when I started in the businesses a dozen years ago. But a journalist, already working with a limited time frame and hard deadline, must constantly make choices as to which audience needs to be served. Do I spend a few minutes crafting a Facebook post? Do I take a minute here and there during the day to update Twitter? Do I shoot an iPhone video and send it back for the web site? Or do I eschew all of it and use that time to research and develop my daily story?

That does not even get into a trio of social media options that seem to be beyond most journalists’ reach: Instagram, Vine, and Periscope. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Ferguson, Dr. Dre, and the Perseid meteor shower

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.

Ferguson: the other young black lives laid to rest in Michael Brown’s cemetery (8/7/15, BBC): What an inventive, informative way to commemorate the one-year mark of the killing of Michael Brown.

Jessica Lussenhop, senior writer for BBC News Magazine, visits St. Peter’s Cemetery in north St. Louis County, where “there is still no headstone in the place where 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr is buried”. But, Lussenhop discovers, the cemetery is home to many with similar stories:

If one walks in any direction away from grave number four, there are many more pictures of black men and women who died in their teens or early 20s. Some are grinning in school portraits, or giving the camera their most serious expression. Some stones include a baby picture, or a composite photo of the deceased with their children. One marker is etched with a photo of the young man’s beloved truck.

Within a roughly 30-metre radius of Michael’s grave there are at least 15 homicide victims. The youngest was a 15-year-old. Most of them were shot. There are also deaths by suicide, cancer, car accidents, but for those under the age of 30, the predominant cause of death is homicide.

The difficulty of telling a story like Michael Brown’s comes from the temptation to immediately intertwine the individual incident with the massive context and history surrounding it. Lussenhop succeeds by seeking out the numerous incidents that provide such context; she turns in a appropriately rich story as a result.

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PODCAST EPISODE #34: Ben Garvin, photographer, KARE-TV

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When I first started this blog, many newspaper photographers were staring into a future of cutbacks, layoffs, and competition with everyone’s iPhones.

Ben Garvin surveyed the landscape from his perch at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 2007 he was named Minnesota Photographer of the Year. In 2011 he was named Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Despite the accolades, Garvin knew he was not immune from the large-scale changes occurring across the industry.

But this past year, he found refuge by switching lanes.

Garvin still works as a still photographer, but now he does it for a TV station: KARE-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

And he does it with an innovator’s spirit. Last week I shouted out Garvin in my 3 Great Stories segment for a sweetly touching piece about a grandfather and grandson spending the day together at Vikings training camp. Technically Garvin produced a video, but it consisted strictly of still photos with audio weaved in from Garvin’s interviews.

Garvin is my guest on Episode #34 of the Telling The Story podcast.

Speaking to me from a swing on his porch (!), Garvin discusses a variety of subjects: the ability to be a hybrid in today’s media world; the importance of photographs in social media; and the versatility required to succeed on a higher level.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring police, jail, & train tracks

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.

Ray Tensing: passenger from another stop says UC officer shouldn’t have questioned him (8/4/15, WCPO-TV): Our jobs as journalists often involve editing an overwhelming amount of interviews, documents, and video into one cohesive, compact story.

But sometimes, the best move is to let the video run.

Former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing is currently charged with shooting and killing a 43-year-old man named Sam Dubose, whom Tensing had pulled over for a traffic stop. In this story, a passenger from a separate stop comes forward with an unedited cell phone video in which, he says, Tensing mistreats him.

The resulting story makes for fine TV news, but the unedited video truly provides an education and unique look at how a traffic stop can play out. Kudos to WCPO-TV for posting that as well.

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Interns, Part 2 (or the time I almost became famous)

“CLASSIC!”

That was the inside joke that rang regularly through the WCBS-TV sports office.

The room looked like nothing I have seen since in local television news. It was a traditional edit bay surrounded by multiple TVs showing different events, but it also included three rows of stadium seating so that nearly a dozen staffers could watch at once.

We interns were relegated to the middle row. On a given night, we would monitor the major New York sporting events — which, during the summer, typically meant Yankees and Mets games — and log the highlights. We would then report back to that night’s anchor about which ones he should use during the 11 pm sportscast.

Occasionally that anchor was a New York broadcasting legend: Warner Wolf.

By 2001 Wolf had worked in broadcasting for 40 years. He had developed a renowned catch phrase: “Let’s go to the videotape!” As an intern, I marveled at his ability to go off-script for highlights; Wolf stiff-armed the TelePrompter and simply wrote a few words on a piece of paper to guide him through the show.

Wolf had also, by this stage, become one of the few remaining examples of a full-blown New Yorker on local New York news. He neither looked nor spoke like a modern assembly-line anchor; he wore a thick accent and a brash yet kind-hearted demeanor.  This showed up behind the scenes, too; Wolf did not say much but, when he did, always commanded the room. Every now and then, Wolf would ask one of us interns to run down to the cafeteria and get him a sandwich; he would always give us enough money for our meals, as well.

And he would always ask for the same thing:

“I want a tomato sandwich … with a slice of cheese … and a bag of Lay’s potato chips … CLASSIC.”

His voice would then rise comically:

“That’s CLASSIC. None of that sow-uh cream s*** … none of that baw-be-cue s*** … CLASSIC!”

Wolf would then leave the room, and the inside joke would begin. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Bill Cosby, Beijing, & the Vikings

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.

“I’m no longer afraid”: 35 women tell their stories about being assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the culture that wouldn’t listen (7/26/15, New York Magazine): Strength in numbers has rarely seemed so personal.

This piece, written by Noreen Malone of New York Magazine with a portfolio by Amanda Demme, may go down as the definitive story about the many accusations of rape facing comedian Bill Cosby. At the very least, it became a viral sensation this past week for its sheer volume: 35 Cosby accusers stand both together and individually, offering their personal recollections while painting a brutal picture of the once-beloved actor.

Two facets of this story stand out. First, the research: one does not simply get 35 women to come forward publicly about this kind of subject. This undoubtedly required time, effort, and trust, which all show in the resulting piece.

But I also admire the thought that went into how the publication would present this. Everything is done both powerfully and tastefully, right down to the cover photo: the 35 accusers all sit on individual chairs, with an empty seat at the end. Malone, meanwhile, provides poignant context throughout her article, which is a difficult but important read.

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PODCAST EPISODE #33: Katie Stern, photographer, KOMO-TV

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If you follow the Telling The Story podcast, you have heard several guests describe the process of covering a huge story.

But I have never interviewed a guest who had to cover such a story while dealing with the massive personal tragedy it brought.

Everyone at KOMO-TV went through it last March, when the station’s helicopter crashed in downtown Seattle, killing photographer Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner. The journalists and employees in the KOMO newsroom suddenly needed to bring the news of a major story while processing their own emotions.

Katie Stern had worked at KOMO for nearly a decade when the crash occurred. She sprung into action and spent the morning as the roving photographer, collecting B-roll and gathering interviews around the scene; then she set up for live shots with reporter Denise Whitaker. All the while, she fought back tears and, she says, at one point could not keep a steady shot because her hands were trembling.

Stern is my guest on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

I received the immense privilege of listening to Stern last month when she spoke at the NPPA Northwest Storytelling Workshop. She shared the stage with Bill Strothman’s son, Dan, and the duo reflected upon the experience with composure and eloquence. Their presentation kept the audience silent and attentive; we were all confronted with the potential of finding ourselves in a similar scenario.

But regardless if any of us ever cover a personal tragedy, journalists everywhere can take major lessons from Stern on how to cover tragedies in general.

“I think that talking about trauma and journalism — and how the two are forever intertwined — is so important,” Stern said on the podcast. “Slowly we’re starting to talk about it more. I think there’s a stigma that comes with showing any kind of emotion as a journalist, and I’m really hoping we can wash that away.”

I completely agree.

I greatly appreciate Stern’s time and appearance on the Telling The Story podcast, and I hope you find her words meaningful and instructive.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring DeAndre, Elsa, & Chattanooga

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.

DeAndre Jordan’s round trip (7/14/15, ESPN.com): Last week I smothered praise upon Grantland NBA writer Zach Lowe for landing such a huge interview in the wake of DeAndre Jordan re-signing with the Clippers.

And while Lowe’s interview remains a great get, two of his colleagues at ESPN came through this week with what will go down as the definitive story behind Jordan’s big decision.

Ramona Shelburne and Tim McMahon, who cover the Clippers and Mavericks, respectively, used all their source-power to put together a day-by-day chronicle of what went on behind the scenes. Jordan signed with the Mavs, had second thoughts, met with coaches and teammates from the Clippers, and set off a frenzy of social media activity that had the whole basketball-following world ablaze. Shelburne and McMahon talk to nearly every key player in this story (with the notable exception of Jordan himself, who has yet to say much), and they produce a tremendous read.

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