Monthly Archives: April 2013

3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring big data, Disney, and JFK

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.

In many, if not most, of my commentary posts, I often focus on the craft of storytelling as opposed to the research.

But I often find, especially when reading print pieces, I am drawn to those that specialize in information — especially when the information is instructive about a particular topic.

This brand of story would seem to play much better on a print or web-based medium. The authors do not have to worry about providing a visual element (although they can, especially on the web), and they can instead focus on finding the most digestible way to convey their content.

I selected two stories this week that fit that bill. One discusses the rise of “big data”; the other takes a look behind the curtain at Disney. The content in these pieces is engrossing, but it is enhanced by authors who present their information in an accessible manner.

The Rise of Big Data (May/June issue, Foreign Policy): This is a looooooong read on the web.

But it works. (That said, I assume it works much better in the actual magazine.)

Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger detail the ways in which “big data” has become a ubiquitous part of almost everything in society. I have been reading about big data for quite some time, but this is the first article that really provides a comprehensive look at the industry, its application in day-to-day society, and its potential down the road.

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PODCAST EPISODE #1: Jon Shirek, reporter, WXIA-TV

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Let the next chapter begin.

Two months after kicking off the Telling the Story blog, I am proud to introduce the Telling the Story podcast. This will continue the discussion about how journalists — and all of us — reach the world. Each episode of the podcast will feature an esteemed storyteller, answering questions and conversing about both the craft of storytelling and its role in the changing media landscape.

I could not be more thrilled to begin the podcast with one of my favorite storytellers: WXIA-TV reporter Jon Shirek.

Jon is a friend and colleague of mine. We have worked together for four years at the NBC affiliate in Atlanta; of course, I arrived just as Jon was beginning his fourth decade at the station. He is, I would say, the most respected and veteran storyteller in a newsroom that houses many great ones.

He also recently made a big change. Five years ago Jon was asked to become a backpack journalist, meaning he would have to shoot and edit his own stories instead of working with a photographer. He warily accepted the challenge, and he continues to crank out terrific work.

This is no small feat. Young journalists today are told in college they will have no choice but to shoot their own stories. Jon had been working with a photographer for several decades before he was asked. To learn the skills while remaining a great storyteller has been an impressive achievement, one that often gets taken for granted in the WXIA newsroom.

“I think it has made me a better reporter in a lot of ways,” Jon told me. “It has helped me economize my approach to stories so that I have a better idea, while I’m talking to somebody, the direction the story needs to go.” That said, he notes, “I am still a work in progress. I cannot pretend to be a photographer after five years.”

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Jon Shirek on how “good storytelling will always be good storytelling”

Tomorrow, we begin a new chapter at the Telling the Story blog.

The Telling the Story podcast.

I am excited to bring the discussion to audio form, starting with a great first guest. Jon Shirek, a reporter and my colleague at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, joins me for a 30-minute discussion about backpack journalism, the changes in local news over three decades, the crafting of storytelling, and the challenges of leaving a journalistic legacy.

His one sentence that sums it all up? “Good storytelling will always be good storytelling.”

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Covering the tragedy in Boston

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.

By the end of last week, several people I know who had been following the week’s tragic events in Boston told me the same thing:

“I don’t know what to believe anymore.”

That sentiment came to these people — and many others, it would seem, judging by Twitter and the blogs — after a week of being burned by speculation and incorrect reporting by the news media. From my vantage point, this week seemed like a tipping point for major story coverage; more often than not, by week’s end people would only believe what authorities and officials told them. FBI press conferences became the first official reports to be accepted and widely spread, as opposed to leaks of those press conferences.

For the most part, those who discuss journalism marked the week’s reporting as a low point for journalism. I will offer, in this space, three examples of strong reporting during the chaotic week:

The Saudi marathon man (4/17/13, The New Yorker): Amy Davidson chronicles the story of a Saudi Arabian who was incorrectly targeted as a person of interest in the bombing of the Boston Marathon. In doing so, she offers a poignant look at how one life was affected by the targeting of police and the massive coverage of media. Davidson leaves us with more questions than answers, such as this one at the article’s end:

And yet, when there was so much to fear that we were so brave about, there was panic about a wounded man barely out of his teens who needed help. We get so close to all that Obama described. What’s missing? Is it humility?

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Storytelling podcasts I love … and an announcement!

Let me start with the announcement first.

Later this month I will debut the Telling the Story podcast. This will add to the content already on the Telling the Story blog, and it will allow me to discuss storytelling in a different fashion.

For each podcast, I plan to interview a respected journalist and storyteller to expound upon many of the subjects I discuss on the blog: storytelling process, the changing role of the journalist, great stories and pieces, et cetera. I have not yet decided how frequently I will record the podcasts, but I will likely determine that over the next few weeks.

As this site enters its third month, I am excited about its current growth and look forward to adding the podcast to its arsenal. I hope you all enjoy it as well.

To celebrate that announcement, I thought I would offer three recommendations for podcasts that provide great storytelling. Give these shows a whirl, and then come back here later this month.

99% Invisible

The 99% Invisible podcast bills itself as “a tiny radio show about design”, which reminds me of when Seinfeld used to call itself “a show about nothing”.

Both assertions are true in a very, very loose sense.

Yes, 99% Invisible has tiny roots — it is a PRX public radio show that has relied on Kickstarter campaigns for financing. And yes, it technically deals with design … but in fascinating ways you would never imagine.

(Oh, and just so we’re clear, the 99% reference has nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street.)

Take last week’s episode: “The Modern Moloch“. We all drive cars and accept them as unavoidable components of modern-day life. But have you ever thought about how they were first received in the 1920s? Have you ever thought about how cars were once derided as death traps because they killed too many pedestrians playing out in the roads? Have you ever thought about the similarities between the automakers’ response to such criticisms and the NRA’s campaign against gun control?

In short, did you ever think a story from nearly 100 years ago could be so relevant today?

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring memorials, the NCAA, & Marv Albert

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.

This was a tough week to choose three great stories.

I read, watched, and listened to a lot of wonderful pieces this week. Perhaps I now spend more time seeking out terrific work because I write this entry every week, but more and more I find myself impressed and encouraged by the journalism — and simple storytelling — I see on a regular basis.

Here are this week’s 3 Great Stories, but I may soon need to increase the number:

Former sailor writes out Afghan casualties’ names from memory (3/27/13, Military Times): Everything about this story is beautiful: the camerawork, the audio, the opening music, the subject matter, and the person being profiled. The thing I like most? Photojournalist Colin Kelly lets this story breathe; he lets you soak in every minute of his subject’s quest. I don’t want to reveal too much about this story … just that if you watch it, you will be touched.

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Covering the recovery of Louisville’s Kevin Ware

I walked into work last Monday morning not expecting to hit the road for three days.

I had, of course, already heard about Louisville men’s basketball player Kevin Ware. I had seen the gruesome clip in which he snapped his tibia during Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament game. I also knew he was a local athlete for us at WXIA-TV in Atlanta; Ware went to high school in Conyers, Ga., roughly 30 minutes east, and I knew we would be covering his recovery over the next few days.

I just did not think we would travel to do it.

Yet as soon as I sat down at my desk Monday, my producers greeted me with the proposition of flying to Indianapolis, where Ware had just undergone surgery. By 3 PM photographer Steven Boissy and I had checked in at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; by 6 PM we had touched down in Indy. I spent the next three days reporting live from the hospital in Indianapolis and the campus of Louisville; we flew back to Atlanta Thursday morning, 12 hours after Ware himself had done so (he joined his fellow Cardinals for the Final Four in Atlanta this past weekend).

I had not road-tripped like that for a story in quite some time. I found myself both surprised and impressed with how the process had changed — mainly, how it had shrunk.

Like everything else in TV news coverage these days, the on-the-road live shot can now be a much physically smaller affair. We did not need to rent a live truck in our various Midwestern cities; instead, Steven brought one of our station’s TVU packs, which use 3G and 4G networks to essentially send a super-crisp Skype shot wherever we desire.

Steven fit the pack and all of its cables in one checked bag … along with all of his clothes.

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert, & Roger Ebert

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.

I am breaking formula with the 3 Great Stories segment this week in a few ways.

One: Only one of the three stories was published this week.

Two: Every story was written by the same person.

Three: That person is no longer alive.

I loved Roger Ebert for the same reasons most did: he reviewed movies in an accessible way, and he authored reviews that stood out on their own merit as great writing. I decided to honor his passing by posting three of my favorite Ebert pieces. Only one, by the way, is a movie review.

Casablanca (9/15/96, Chicago Sun-Times): Casablanca may be my favorite movie of all-time. Ebert’s review of Casablanca may be my favorite movie review of all-time.

(Truth be told: I really do not keep track of movie reviews. I only remember maybe a handful I have read. This is one.)

This review is unique in that it was written in retrospect; Ebert wrote the piece more than a half-century after Casablanca premiered. As such, he writes about the movie in an atypically analytical way; he clearly has watched the movie numerous times, and he breaks down scenes and performances on a much grander scale.

I simply love his use of language here. Ebert refers to the film’s plot as “a trifle to hang the emotions on”; he says the movie “plays more like a musical album”. He writes with affection about a classic film, and as a result he authors a classic review.

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5 lessons from the NPPA’S best video stories of 2012

Last week was a national celebration of storytelling … and you may have missed it.

The National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA, announced the winners in its annual Best of Photojournalism video and editing competitions. This year’s judges selected breathtaking stories from some of the finest video journalists in the country. Most of the winning pieces are timeless; you could watch them two months from now or two years from now and be just as moved as if you watched them today.

Watching the winners this week, I felt one thing above all: I wish I had done better.

I don’t mean “better” in the sense of winning or losing. I have fared very well in past NPPA competitions, finishing in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in the past three years in their standings for solo video journalists, or reporters who shoot their own stories. Since I joined in 2010, I have picked up an outstanding amount of photojournalistic techniques, gotten to know some talented colleagues, and found myself inspired by those colleagues’ stories.

No, what I mean is more insular: I wish I had done better work this past year.

I take great pride in the work I produced in 2012, but as I watched this year’s NPPA winners, I could not help but think about how much further I can grow as a photojournalist.

I should mention that I do not always prioritize the NPPA way in my daily work. As a solo video journalist, I must focus on every part of the reporting process: interviewing, researching, writing, shooting video, and editing. The NPPA tends to reward, I find, a certain style of story: one that emphasizes shooting and editing first while still valuing the other elements. They typically exalt the more stylistic, emotional stories above the investigative, information-heavy ones. This, of course, makes sense: the NPPA, after all, is an association of visual journalists, and they should not feel compelled to give out awards for writing and researching. But the NPPA philosophy does not always mesh with a newsroom’s philosophy or a particular day’s assignment.

That disclaimer aside, I greatly value the association for what it does so well: provide visual journalists a resource to continually improve their visual skills.

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring blind dogs, disabilities, and the national pastime

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.

Three stories.

Three extremely different examples of storytelling.

One story takes two minutes to watch; the second, roughly ten minutes to read; the third, nearly an hour to hear.

One story is light and heartwarming; the second, informative and mind-expanding; the third, serious and soul-shaking.

One story succeeds through its sweet visuals; the second, through sheer research; the third, through a mix of thorough reporting, detailed interviewing, and personal storytelling.

Each story works, and works well. You may find yourself talking about all of them this week.

Blind Lab Has His Own Guide Dog (3/25/13, NBC’s Today Show): Here’s the thing: I actually did not like a lot of the storytelling in this piece.

Mainly, I could not stand the music, and the story did not need it.

But every time I thought about turning this story off, I was pulled back in by (A) the cuteness of the dogs, or (B) the unfolding of the story. NBC’s Annabel Roberts brings this joyful piece from Wales, U.K., and with the exception of the music, she wisely lets the dogs do the, um, talking.

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