Monthly Archives: October 2013

PODCAST EPISODE #10: Rachel Hamburg, Stanford Storytelling Project

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At the end of a lengthy and optimistic answer about how young journalists can succeed professionally, Rachel Hamburg — a 2011 Stanford graduate — took a step back.

“As a 25-year-old hoping to make a career out of this, I think it’s a little bit scary,” she said. “And it’s OK to be scared.”

Then she broke into laughter — the type that occurs when, looking at the difficult journey ahead, all you can do is laugh.

The majority of young storytellers and journalists face the challenge of channeling their enthusiasm and skills into a stable, long-lasting career. Many industries have obvious and time-honored career paths; journalism is not one of them. It is a constantly changing field where new tools and vehicles pop up almost annually.

Hamburg is off to a great start. She freelances with innovative storytelling programs like Mashcast, and she currently serves as the managing editor for the Stanford Storytelling Project, which provides storytelling training for students in any field.

She is also my guest on the tenth episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

I chose Hamburg as a guest because she represents a unique viewpoint. She produces traditional media, in a sense; the Stanford Storytelling Project team regularly delivers episodes of an hour-long, “This American Life”-style podcast called “State of the Human”. But she also has relationships with cutting-edge journalists and does not limit the power of journalism to its traditional forms. She is a new college graduate who also, through her job, advises current students.

And she does all this while trying to figure out her own future.

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Rachel Hamburg: “You have to be a hustler” as a young journalist

My favorite part of the Telling The Story podcast is the final part.

This is where my guest, young or old, offers advice and insight for young journalists entering the field.

At age 32 I consider myself somewhat in the middle — still (I hope) on the younger half of my career, but definitely far beyond the inexperienced journalist I was in college. As a result, I always enjoy the “time capsule” lessons my guests hope to impart on those who are just beginning their careers.

In this case, my guest actually is a young journalist.

Rachel Hamburg is 25 years old and barely two years removed by Stanford University. She may also wince at the idea of being called a journalist in the traditional sense; she participates in journalism, and storytelling, on very innovative and abstract levels. Currently she works as the managing editor of the Stanford Storytelling Project, a thorough and multi-platform college storytelling program in which, among other things, students produce an hour-long radio show and podcast called “State of the Human”.

The podcast is extremely impressive: almost like a college-level “This American Life”, filled with youthful sincerity and detailed attention to the individuals interviewed by the students.

I enjoyed my entire interview with Hamburg, but I specifically appreciated our back-and-forth at the end, where we reached the section about advice. She spoke about the challenges of entering this industry — and the need to which, as a young journalist, “you have to be a hustler.”

“You just have to kind of make it work these days,” she said, “and I don’t know if that’s going to change. But I still think it’s very possible — and I think there are lots of ways for it to be possible, thanks to crowd-funding and stuff like that.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring two tales of heartbreak and one of the World Series

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 most powerful stories I saw this week were also the most heartbreaking.

Some people have true difficulty reading tales of heartbreak; they struggle with the depressing content, particularly when that content does not include a call to action or a way to channel their anger or frustration.

I understand that completely, but I try to look at it differently. I try to appreciate these stories for their place in our wide world; I cannot necessarily do anything about them, but I can at least be informed and aware of them.

I have included two such stories this week, along with a far more frivolous essay about the World Series, for good measure …

Hidden city (10/21/13, New Yorker): Even in terms of difficult stories, this one is a struggle.

New Yorker writer Ian Frazier puts together nearly 10,000 words about the rising number of homeless in the Big Apple. I — like many, I’m sure, who read this piece — was stunned by that fact. I grew up in the shadow of New York City and still visit it 3-4 times a year. I see fewer traces of homelessness every time I go, but obviously I suffer from the same bias as many quoted in Frazier’s story.

I take this problem personally, having once chronicled my own by-choice 24-hour stay at an Atlanta homeless facility. Frazier tells the story without much dressing or fanfare; he simply tells it as it is, which is plenty horrifying already.

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10 headlines in 10 months on Vine’s influence on journalism

Journalists may very well remember 2013 as the year Vine entered their lives — and their professions.

The six-second video service was launched by Twitter this past January. In the months that have followed, journalists and storytellers have tried to figure out the most effective ways to use it.

And while many have predicted Vine’s dominance on the journalistic landscape, just as many have doubted its potential as a journalistic tool.

Ten months in, Vine is still a major — and fascinating — work in progress.

Here now, a month-by-month look at how the service has infiltrated our world, gaining supporters, skeptics, and followers along the way:

JANUARY: Six reasons why Vine is a killer news tool (Pando Daily): A mere four days after Vine’s launch, blogger Hamish McKenzie presents a list of reasons why journalists should love it. Among those reasons? “People will actually watch the video.” Media companies, engaged in a constant fight to expand their viewership and readership, no doubt feel the same way and take notice.

FEBRUARY: Using Vine to cover breaking news (Fast Company): This article spotlights Vine’s first big journalistic breakthrough. When a terrorist attacked the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkish journalist Tulin Daloglu used the service to upload clips from the aftermath. This happened barely a week after Vine’s launch.

MARCH: How journalists can use Vine (PBS Idea Lab): Here is a great time capsule of where the marriage of Vine and journalism stood, roughly two months into the service’s existence. Idea Lab author Joanna Kao describes its plusses and minuses, offers tools for journalists looking to incorporate it, and acknowledges its steadily rising popularity. That said, she also acknowledges one major limitation: “You thought providing context was hard? Try doing it in 6 seconds or less.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring a fallen star, Conan, & hockey in Iowa

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.

Last week I spoke of wanting to include more pieces of straight-ahead reporting in this column, as opposed to pieces of opinion and analysis.

Two of the stories chosen this week are strong examples of such storytelling: taking newsworthy items and presenting them in a creative way.

The third is a clip from Conan O’Brien.

(Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess …)

For Victor Page, reality of fall from stardom difficult to grasp (10/15/13, Washington Times): Interestingly, this story is labeled as “analysis/opinion” by the Washington Times.

But I found it a powerful example of enterprise journalism about a one-time local legend.

Nathan Fenno writes about the fall from grace for former Georgetown basketball star Victor Page, who is currently in jail. Despite signing an agreement to do the interview with Fenno, Page insists on getting paid and forces the writer to talk with the player’s former agent instead.

This is a tough, sad read.

But Fenno allows that sadness to speak for itself. He does not interject his own opinions or flowery words; he realizes the power in simply recounting his futile attempts to get Page to speak.

And when he does finally find Page’s agent, Fenno has to break the bad news of Page’s imprisonment. It is one of several brutal exchanges.

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The underdog beauty of The Basketball Jones, er, The Starters

Five springs ago, I stumbled on a pot of audio gold.

I was living in Buffalo, N.Y. and needed good listening material to accompany my 20-mile bike rides along the Niagara River (yes, you can absolutely ride a bike in Buffalo … during the spring and summer.) I started listening to podcasts and downloaded a handful for my rides; I loved the NBA (and still do), so I searched whatever podcasts I could find on the sport.

That is how I discovered The Basketball Jones.

Everything about it screamed “well-kept secret”. The hosts, J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas, followed a familiar path in terms of topics — recapping the previous day’s action and offering their respective takes — but they did it in such a unique way. They were conversational yet intelligent, relaxed yet witty; they were, to borrow an oft-used expression, the types of people with whom you would want to watch a game.

In short, they did what every professional studio show tried — and usually failed — to do.

On top of that, they both lived in Canada. This fact made them even more endearing to me, for two reasons. First, I had grown quite fond of the Canadian spirit after living in Buffalo, five minutes from the border.

The second reason? It made them seem like even more of a long shot to break their “well-kept secret” status.

Five years later, that status has been shattered.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring shutdowns, games, and iPhones

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.

In the future, in this space, I would like to focus more attention on storytelling through straight reporting.

Recently, while searching for stories for this column, I have found myself gravitating toward pieces of analysis, in-depth research, and opinion. To be frank, these are the pieces that (A) typically catch my eye, (B) get shared more on social media, and (C) truly increase my understanding of stories in the mainstream.

I often, as a result, overlook the value of straight-ahead reporting.

Readers and viewers rely on the media for a seemingly simple need: to be kept properly informed. During stories like this month’s government shutdown, journalists must struggle with trying to provide an appropriate amount of context with the story’s nuts and bolts. How do they do this objectively? How do they maintain the trust of both sides of a divided audience? How do they explain a complicated matter to a population often too attention-divided to listen?

I give major kudos to the reporters who toe these lines the best, and I want to make a stronger effort to use this space to support that.

But I also believe, with stories such as the shutdown, people can benefit most by developing a wider understanding. They should stay updated on day-to-day events, but they should also make an effort to learn why those events are occurring.

Perhaps this is why I most appreciate stories like the ones below, not just on the shutdown and debt ceiling fight but even on the launch of the new iPhone. After each piece, readers walk away with a greater perspective on what’s happening right in front of them.

Understanding the game being played in Washington (10/4/13, Harvard Business Review): Want a perfect example of that perspective?

Check out this article.

Justin Fox explains the current debt ceiling fight through classic game theory. He describes the actions of the President and Congress through the lens of a game — a lens that actually brings everything much more into focus.

Early on, Fox demurs that he wrote the piece out of “an attempt to find a way to think about the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling fight that didn’t make me want to bang my head against a wall.” But, he goes on, “My reading made the dynamics at work in Congress and at the White House a bit clearer — and thus slightly less maddening, if not less ominous.”

If you are looking for a crash course on how we got here and why our political leaders are making their current decisions, this is it. I also like how Fox, in addition to writing a thorough and easily digestible article, responds thoughtfully to the entry’s comments. Good journalists should relish the chance to defend and explain their work, as Fox does here.

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Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera

It’s a sad but true hurdle about working as a TV news reporter:

People act differently — often way so — when they know they are being recorded.

Generally, this rears its head when trying to gather information on touchy subjects. Sources and contacts will often divulge far more after an interview than during it, and they feel much freer to provide information when they know they will not be taped saying it.

(This happens before interviews as well. Journalists everywhere can recall countless times when they spoke with someone on the phone, received valuable insight or information, and then asked that person to say the same thing in an on-camera interview, only to be told, “Whoa, whoa … I can’t say that on camera.”)

But the gaze of the lens does not just affect a story’s flow of information. It affects a story’s flow of emotion.

People get nervous or hesitant for a whole host of reasons once they know they will be recorded. For the most part, they simply do not have experience with having their actions documented, and often they respond by behaving how they feel they “should” behave, instead of how they genuinely want to behave.

For storytellers like myself who specialize in emotional stories, this creates a giant challenge.

But when you surmount that challenge and capture genuine emotion — and put your viewers in a position to appreciate that emotion — you feel tremendous about what you can achieve in this business.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring storytelling through photographs

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.

Being on vacation has a way of making you appreciate our golden age of photography.

I just returned from a week in Italy — my first time visiting the legendary and exquisite cities of Rome and Florence — and was again reminded of how easily I can capture the moments of my life. For all the photos I took of the profound scenery (like the one above), I also took a large amount with the goal of recording memories. And because I possessed a strong digital camera with a 3,000-photo memory card, I did all these with great ease and little concern for whether I would run out of film.

To be honest, I didn’t really need the camera or the memory card. I could have taken all those photos on my cell phone.

But for all the free-wheeling sharing of photography that occurs today, I still find myself frozen with awe when I see a truly beautiful picture. I have begun subscribing to feeds that curate photography in a powerful way, and on certain weeks, those feeds provide some of the most memorable stories I see.

Without further ado, here are three great photography posts from last week. Are they newsworthy or timely? Not necessarily. Instead, they are timeless, as a great photograph should be.

Daily life: September 2013 (10/2/13, The Big Picture): I have mentioned The Big Picture many times, and they deserve a mention in any column that touts excellence in photography.

Entries like these are huge reasons why.

The editors at The Big Picture obviously possess keen eyes for photos, but they also possess the ability to properly curate those photos. Witness their monthly “Daily Life” series, specifically this week’s post showing images from the past month. The 34 photos have little that tie them together, apart from two qualities: they all fall into the category of “daily life”, spanning an array of places across the globe to do it, and they all feature masterful craft behind the camera.

Put them all together, and you have a rewarding product.

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Advice from professors: what college journalism students need to know (Part 2)

Last week I posted Part 1 of my two-part series, “Advice from professors: what college journalism students need to know“.

As I said then, of all the professors who responded to my survey, Northwestern University’s Michele Weldon and the University of Alabama’s George Daniels provided the most in-depth answers.

This week, I have printed their mostly full responses below. The professors, who cover very different subjects at their schools, talk about the state of journalism in 2013, the positive and negative trends facing the industry, and their advice for young journalists as they enter the industry.

1. The state of journalism in 2013 is _________. Why?

George Daniels, University of Alabama: The state of journalism is looking better than it was a few years ago. Thanks to people like Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos, great newspapers are being purchased and given new life. As Gannett and Belo become one and as Local TV LLC (formerly New York Times TV stations) joins Tribune, these larger groups will have a larger national footprint. This can only mean that Tribune and Gannett will be able to do more award-winning journalism reaching more eyeballs. On the radio side, National Public Radio is putting out some great work every day, launching new initiatives like its CodeSwitch Project that recently presented a golden opportunity for NPR to showcase diverse stories that would not otherwise be told.

These are all examples of journalism that is looking great, better than it does when we were only hearing about staff cutbacks and ethical lapses and lots of bad news. I’m excited about what I see and what is to come.

Michele Weldon, Northwestern University: The state of journalism in 2013 is vibrant. There are more outlets for content than ever before and an enormous audience hungry for quality stories in multiple forms. Whatever platform you want to deliver your content, whatever kinds of stories you want to tell — you can do it all if you can do it well.

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