Monthly Archives: September 2013

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Mariano Rivera and Louis C.K.

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.

How do you tell the stories that tell themselves?

These days, it seems, you don’t.

When great moments happen, people share the moments themselves in ways they previously could not. So when Mariano Rivera cries after his final pitch at Yankee Stadium, people can now share the clip from the TV broadcast with each other online. (That’s what I did, frankly …) Same goes for when Louis C.K. drops another instant-classic comedy bit on a late-night talk show.

But moments demand stories, and stories demand storytellers.

So, what is the solution? Below, I offer three examples of how to work with a moment to tell a unique story:

Mariano Rivera says goodbye in an emotional final appearance at Yankee Stadium (9/26/13, New York Daily News): In the case of Mr. Rivera, a writer cannot possibly describe or capture the moment as well as the moment itself.

But the writer can provide context.

Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News does that here. Since we already know the who, what, when, and where of this moment, Feinsand does the natural thing and finds the two missing links: how and why. He takes you through the thought process of manager Joe Girardi, who orchestrated the moving moment of having longtime Yankees Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte remove Rivera from the game. He recounts the post-game comments of all three players involved, who provide a sincerity and openness rarely seen in pro athletes.

Many columns after the game focused on what Rivera could have been thinking during that moment, without actually figuring out if they were right. Feinsand goes to the source, and thus he provides an example of where straight reporting is valuable and complimentary to the action itself.

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Advice from professors: what college journalism students need to know (Part 1)

A few years ago, a colleague of mine retired after nearly four decades in local TV news. He stood up at his retirement and, amidst a tearful salute to friends and family, said the following about his co-workers:

“I will miss you so much. You are caustic, sarcastic, and extremely sharp.”

He meant this all as a compliment, and everyone else in the room seemed to take it that way.

I felt a bit puzzled by it. My colleague, essentially, was honoring us for our cynicism.

Many would argue journalists need to be cynical. We need to question, probe, disbelieve, and distrust in order to investigate and uncover powerful stories.

But, I would argue — and I think my colleague would, too — journalists need to blend that cynicism with idealism.

So often, the latter disappears over time. A journalist in any medium must combat a whole host of soul-crushing negatives: the drying of industry dollars, the demand to do sensational stories, the declining value of nuance, the importance of ratings and eyeballs at almost any cost.

But deep down, one would think, most journalists begin with — and would love to uphold — a certain sense of idealism about what they can accomplish.

That idealism often gets cultivated in college.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the new iPhone, Netflix, & the Apple Store

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 have always been fascinated by how big-name corporations try to predict the future.

This is especially true when it comes to technology.

With the tech world changing so rapidly, I continually find myself interested in how the big names in that business try to stay ahead of the curve. Some — like Apple — always seem to be on the right side of that wave. Others always seem to be playing catch-up.

I read three articles this week that offered an enlightening window into two major companies: Apple and Netflix. If you use their products, you will enjoy these pieces.

The secret of iOS7  (9/19/13, I, Cringely): The best tech writers are able to present their own visions of the future. In this case, technology journalist Mark Stephens — known by his pen name, Robert X. Cringely — delivers his predictions about Apple’s predictions.

Cringely dissects the release of Apple’s new iPhones and iOS7 operating system, positing a beautiful theory on where the ground-breaking company might be headed next:

Here’s what I think is happening. At the very moment when Apple critics are writing-off the company as a three- or four- or five-hit wonder, Apple is embracing the fact that desktop computers only represent about 15 percent of its income, making Apple clearly a mobile technology company. As such, it is more important for Apple to expand its mobile offerings than its desktops. So Apple in a sense is about to make the Macintosh deliberately obsolete.

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PODCAST EPISODE #9: Tomas Rios, paid-lance sportswriter

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Full disclosure #1: A month ago, I had never heard of Tomas Rios.

Full disclosure #2: I invited him to appear on my podcast off the strength of one article — a piece he wrote last month called “A Brief History of Bad Sports Writing”.

Full disclosure #3: I was very impressed with the result.

In the article, Rios takes aim at the “hot take” brand of journalism that has, he says, infested the sports media landscape. He traces it back to its evolutionary roots, bringing the reader on a journey from Grantland Rice to Dick Young to various modern-day writers, whom Rios willfully calls out by name.

Rios is my guest on Episode 9 of the Telling The Story podcast. We go deep into the discussion of modern sports journalism, and he holds back just as little in our podcast as he does in the article. Rios and I don’t agree on everything, but I admire the critical way in which he views the field, his work included.

But I also delve into another subject with the 29-year-old, whose work has also appeared on the Slate and Deadspin web sites, among others:

He talk about life as a freelancer.

Rios is a self-described “paid-lance sports writer” — that is to say, he is a freelance writer who no longer works for free. He began his career writing mainly about combat sports (UFC, MMA, etc.) and did so regularly until he found himself in a verbal showdown with comedian and UFC announcer Joe Rogan.

Or, as Rios puts it, “[Rogan] went on some crazy psychotic online rant and used some homophobic slurs against me and used his pull behind the scenes to cost me some work.”

Rios left the writing scene for a while but came back more determined. He says he has become an infinitely better writer today, and he says he has finally reached a point where he can give up his day job and actually make a living as a freelance writer.

His — like that of every freelancer, I suppose — is a unique story. It is worth hearing, especially for young writers trying to forge their own career path.

Among Rios’ other notable sound bites from the podcast:

  • On the influence of the “hot take”: “More and more reporting is failing to put things into the proper context. [It’s] putting them inside of these narratives that are easily digestible and allow us to make judgments about the people involved.”
  • On finding your voice as a writer: “I really don’t think about the audience very much. In my earlier writing, I felt like I had to pull back on what I wanted to say a little bit … and now, I just try to write as organically as I can.”
  • On his advice for young writers: “One thing they should be looking for in terms of their writing is good editing.”

Listen to the podcast at the top of the page or download it and listen to it later. And subscribe to the podcast – and rate and review it – on iTunes!

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

PODCAST PREVIEW: Tomas Rios: Hot takes are “the most ubiquitous form of sportswriting”

This episode of the Telling The Story podcast requires a bit of reading in advance.

Several weeks ago, a freelance sportswriter named Tomas Rios — who generally writes about MMA, UFC, and combat sports — unveiled a piece for Pacific Standard magazine called “A Brief History of Bad Sports Writing”.

Check it out.

In the article, Rios essentially takes several legends of sportswriting history to task, criticizing the early 20th-century likes of Grantland Rice for deifying athletes and the mid-century likes of Dick Young for holding athletes to unfairly high standards.

How have those legends affected today’s sportswriting? Says Rios, it has plagued the medium with a disease called the “hot take” — namely based on the judging and moralizing of athletes’ off-the-field decisions.

“What you end up with now in sportswriting is,” Rios says, “because writers have seen that it will land you that feature columnist’s spot, they start to mimic it. And all of a sudden it’s become the most ubiquitous form of sportswriting.”

I invited Rios to be my guest on the podcast this week because I found his article both thorough and passionate; he provided well-thought analysis in a genre that often lacks it. I figured I would bring him on for an even deeper conversation.

Rios did not disappoint.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Twitter, dahlias, and the broadcast clock

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.

As I chose the stories for this week’s “3 Great Stories” segment, I was struck by how different they are.

One is a print piece that takes an actual event from last week and spins it into a rich commentary.

One is a broadcast piece that required months of preparation about a seemingly frivolous topic.

One is an audio segment that lifts the curtain on an important — and rarely noted — journalistic tool.

The one common thread? Each piece is an obvious labor of love.

You can tell, in each case, the author has spent a great deal of time — much of it likely outside of work — delving into the topic of his story. In all three cases, I would argue, that extra time made a positive impact.

Twitter and the death of quiet enjoyment (9/13/13, The Awl): Unlike the other stories listed, I don’t believe this one would have succeeded at all without the author’s passion.

Brent Cox (a writer I have mentioned before) makes a difficult argument here; he discusses movie theater etiquette in the age of Twitter, social media, and constant communication, and he does so by introducing terms (“quiet enjoyment”, “the Conversationalists”) and convincingly backing them up with sound reasoning. He does very little research here; he mostly concocts this story from his own experience and, again, his obviously large amount of thought about the topic.

Without any research on which he could fall back, Cox pens a story that holds up and inspires thought. He fills the article with insights and paradoxes, all about our seemingly conflicting desires to be left alone while staying in constant communication. As he describes it:

We want to be alone, but included. Actually, most importantly, we want to be included, and in fact we cannot properly enjoy the viewing of our favorite (broadcast, and not Netflix’d) TV shows unless there is a conversation in which to be included—even if the “conversation” is a tweet left hanging in the wind.

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10 turn-of-the-century predictions, and 10 lessons learned

As we all attempt to predict the future, we probably should remember that we generally do not predict the future very well.

I received a reminder of this last month.

I spent a long weekend at my childhood home and, amidst catching up with friends and family, was also asked to do some overdue cleaning. As a child I saved virtually every magazine I received, but now those magazines were simply taking up space in my parents’ basement. My parents kindly encouraged me to examine the magazines and throw out which ones I no longer wanted.

(By “kindly encouraged”, I mean that my parents basically said, “Throw out the magazines, or we’ll throw ’em out for you.”)

As I combed through the magazines, most of which went straight to the trash, I noticed a stray section of an old Entertainment Weekly that, for some reason, I had ripped out of the magazine and saved separately. The section was titled “EWinternet: 10 for 2000” and consisted of a Top Ten list of “companies and visionaries leading the electronic charge” at the turn of the millennium.

I was intrigued. I felt as if I had just unearthed a time capsule.

But, like most time capsules, this one wound up being painfully outdated.

As I read this list, I remembered the various 21st-century predictions made about the world of journalism. Some have come true, but some have become laughable — massive misjudgments about a landscape that constantly evolves.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring sports, maps, and bratwurst

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.

When I first started this blog, I felt nervous about this particular segment.

Would I be able to find “3 Great Stories” every week? Stories that would offer me a new perspective on a familiar subject? Stories that would hit me emotionally as well as informationally? Stories that I would want to share even if I did not write a weekly column about them?

(In the first installment of this segment, you may recall, I only found two great stories.)

As this blog rolls into its seventh month, I am no longer nervous.

In fact, writing this segment is now one of my favorite parts of the week.

I have developed a process and rhythm for finding and absorbing great content. I subscribe to various RSS feeds and bookmark stories that pique my interest. I try to read and watch whatever I can during the week, but knowing how busy I often feel, I typically wind up waiting until the weekend to look at the bulk of the stories.

I love that part.

I love sitting down at my computer, clicking on story after story — print, video, audio, and otherwise — and taking them all in.

Between our busy schedules, our dwindling attention spans, and our penchant for the quick and brief over the measured and deep, we often now have to work to find great storytelling. But amidst the flood of information bombarding our minds, I am constantly flooded by powerful stories.

And I appreciate that such storytelling is still out there, in abundance, waiting to be seen.

Man and Superman (9/6/13, The New Yorker): For all the attention Malcolm Gladwell gets for his books, I still tend to prefer him in small doses.

At least, doses smaller than books.

In this case, Gladwell submits another powerful thinker about the blurred lines of athletic doping. He examines our castigation of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong amidst our reverence for Kenyan runners, who Gladwell finds are genetically predisposed to succeeding at the sport, and Tommy John, who thrived in Major League baseball largely thanks to bionics. At what point does science end and cheating begin?

I, for one, believe cheating begins once somebody breaks a rule. But Gladwell takes on the rules themselves. In doing so, he offers a beautiful example of how to cover a current news story with in-depth, well researched perspective.

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PODCAST EPISODE #8: Jeff Reid, producer, “Black in America” & “50 Years of Change”

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Can local TV stations produce compelling documentaries?

Allow me to make the argument against that idea:

  • Documentaries require significant topics.
  • Documentaries require significant resources.
  • Documentaries require significant talent.
  • Documentaries require significant vision.

Now, I would never argue that local news stations lack the vision, talent, resources, and topics to do compelling work. But very few have enough of each to commit to producing a hour of worthy television — that is, an hour beyond the numerous hours of newscasts they already produce.

And yet, last week, my station premiered a documentary, “50 Years Of Change”, about the Civil Rights events of 1963; it received praise from both viewers and local leaders. It is a product on which I had the privilege to work, and of which I am very proud. It aired on our station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, last Wednesday, and an abridged version has been made available for schools to show their social studies classes.

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Jeff Reid: “This is one of my finest hours”

A week ago, I spoke of my pride for taking part in “50 Years Of Change”, an hour-long documentary about the Civil Rights events of 1963. It premiered last week to great acclaim from viewers and local leaders.

Now, allow me to introduce you to the man behind it.

Jeff Reid has been a co-worker of mine at WXIA-TV in Atlanta for more than a year; he joined us after spending 15 years at CNN, spearheading their documentary department and producing the much-discussed “Black in America”. He manages our enterprise content, meaning he oversees the production of long-form stories and investigations.

His other big mission? Get a few documentaries under our belts — and make them great.

In the recent history at our station, we had done the occasional single-topic newscast and even a documentary or two, but we had not tackled a topic as heavy as the Civil Rights movement — and we certainly had not filled an hour doing so — until “50 years Of Change”. For his part, Reid had never produced a documentary with so little time and staff; he spearheaded this one with a team of 8-10 people in barely a month.

Reid discusses the process with me on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

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