Monthly Archives: November 2013

My Thanksgiving thank-you column

I started this blog nine months ago not knowing what to expect.

I was not sure whether anyone would read it; I was not sure I would be able to commit to it; and I was not sure if doing it would ultimately feel as rewarding as I hoped it would be.

Nine months later, I am happy to answer “Yes” to all three questions.

Developing the “Telling The Story” blog has been a great experience so far. And while it has mostly been a solitary experience — I run a relatively autonomous ship over here — it has allowed me to engage with people in a variety of ways across the media landscape.

At this time of taking stock and giving thanks, I would like to give my thanks — both verbally and through links — to the many people who have helped enrich both the blog itself and my personal experience in writing it:

Thanks to my bosses. This blog exists in part because of the blessings of the higher-ups at my full-time job. I am proud to say that I have done some of my best work yet for 11Alive/WXIA-TV this year, and I think I have improved as a storyteller because I constantly examine storytelling in this space.

Thanks to my podcast guests. I am greatly appreciative of the 13 individuals who have taken their time to be interviewed for my Telling The Story podcast. Of those 13, eight of them had never met or spoken with me before, and in many cases I was pleasantly surprised with how quickly they responded and set up an interview.

Case in point: my most recent guests, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the filmmakers behind the powerful documentary American Promise. I watched the film on a Saturday night, contacted them Sunday morning, heard back less than an hour, and interviewed them that Tuesday.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the importance of exposure

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.

Success as a storyteller comes in many different forms, but to me, it partially occurs when one exposes new or underrepresented viewpoints to a wider audience.

This, at times, is a truly difficult task. Sometimes, I feel, as media consumers, we rely so much on our own eyes and experiences that we naturally give shorter shrift to the filtered, seen-through-the-news experiences of others.

This week’s 3 Great Stories are all pieces that provide powerful insights that do not usually break through to the mainstream.

This is why poor people’s bad decisions make perfect sense (11/18/13, Huffington Post): A quick piece of background: this past week, through a leadership development program, I participated in a “simulated society” exercise, where dozens of us split up into regions and participated for a full day in an alternate world where people were randomly assigned to varying levels of money, power, and location. I was grouped in the poorest, we-have-nothing region.

And it was shocking.

It was shocking to see how people responded when placed outside of their comfort zones. Even in a game format, I felt emotions that I never imagined I would feel if I faced that situation in real life. And in the poorest region, our priorities were so much different than those of the other regions. We were essentially playing a different game — a much more urgent, desperate game.

With that experience under my belt, I possess even greater appreciation for an article like this one from Linda Tirado. She details her experiences as someone who self-describes as poor, and she discusses a similar mindset in real life to what my group saw during our game. I won’t spoil much, but this is a strong piece that gives exposure to a viewpoint rarely found in traditional news.

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PODCAST EPISODE #12: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, American Promise

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One of the biggest challenges of storytelling — particularly when dealing with stories of emotion — is determining what to leave out.

As a reporter for a local news station, I will regularly shoot several hours of video for a story that lasts several minutes. I realized early in my career I would never be able to tell someone’s full story — only as much of that story as I could fit into the allotted space. A news director of mine once crystallized the appropriate mentality: it’s all about eliminating the “good” in one’s story and keeping the “great”.

Of course, sometimes you don’t even get to keep all of the “great”.

And sometimes, as in the case of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, you shoot 800 hours of video for a two-hour documentary — a documentary in which you are two of the main characters.

Brewster and Stephenson are the husband-and-wife duo behind American Promise, currently playing in select cities and premiering on PBS in February 2014. The documentary follows two young boys from Brooklyn, both black, whose parents enroll them in a prestigious, mostly white collegiate prep school in Manhattan. Brewster and Stephenson began filming in 1999, when both boys — Idris and Seun — were starting kindergarten.

They stopped filming after the boys’ graduation from high school — 13 years later.

To make matters trickier, one of the boys, Idris, is Brewster and Stephenson’s son.

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PODCAST PREVIEW: American Promise filmmakers: “You lose audiences” when you preach

Imagine you are a filmmaker and documentarian who aims to make pictures with powerful themes.

Imagine you are also a parent with strong views about education, and you are a person of color with even stronger views about how race plays a giant role in education.

Imagine you decide to make a documentary that explores this topic.

Imagine you do so by putting a microphone on your son, as well as his best friend, and following the two boys through their schooling … for 13 years.

Imagine you finish this task by receiving various grants throughout the year and launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to pay for an editor and original score composer.

After all that, imagine finally sitting down to edit the documentary — this collage of experiences that are both personal and powerful, and from which you have developed major conclusions about life, race, and parenting — and having to keep so much to yourself.

Such was the challenge for Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the parents and filmmakers behind American Promise. The documentary is currently in select theaters in 35 cities, and it will air as part of PBS’s POV series in February 2014.

In the film, Brewster and Stephenson follow their son Idris and his best friend Seun from kindergarten to graduation. The young boys start their educational experiences at prestigious (and mostly white) collegiate prep school Dalton on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Only one completes his education at Dalton; the parallels between Idris and Seun as they grow are simply fascinating.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Veterans Day and an Atlanta documentary

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 generally try to avoid using this space to promote the work of my colleagues at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. It would almost be too easy; the reporters at my station constantly impress me with their thought-provoking and emotional work.

This week I made an exception.

One of the “3 Great Stories” of the week is a long-form documentary that ran on our station on Friday. We tackled a harrowing topic in a big way, and our work made a tangible impact.

But first, I found myself divided on two terrific stories involving veterans — stories that would seem to contrast each other in terms of mentality.

Help veterans by taking them off the pedestal (11/10/13, The Atlantic): Veterans Day brings with it a cavalcade of celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations of those who served in the U.S. military. It also typically brings, from a storytelling standpoint, reflexive pieces that unquestionably honor those who risk their lives in our country’s name.

Rarely does one find a story that questions that mindset — and does so with thought-provoking effectiveness.

But that’s what Alex Horton, a one-time infantryman in Iraq, does here.

Horton makes a compelling argument that, by putting veterans on a pedestal, our society is unintentionally hindering them. We tend to view veterans, Horton says, in one-dimensional terms — either as sacrosanct heroes or risky choices to serve us in civilian life. I particularly appreciated an early paragraph where he recounts discussions with members of the Greatest Generation:

I once talked to a World War II veteran about the experience of attending college after coming home, and asked if it was jarring to sit next to those who never served. I wondered if veterans huddled together under the umbrella of mutual understanding and thought less of civilians who never shouldered a rifle. His answer was surprising. They were proud of their time in uniform, he said, but for many, the war interrupted their lives, and education was a return to normalcy. Instead of a victory lap, they were more interested in getting back on track.

Very deep stuff here … bringing complexity to what is often viewed in simpler terms.

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PODCAST EPISODE #11: Alexa Keefe, National Geographic photo producer

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I am hooked on exquisite photographs.

I subscribe to several blogs that curate great photography — I wrote about them in a recent entry — and I find myself constantly coming back to them as I scroll through the various feeds and media that dominate my daily reading.

And I am absolutely not alone.

Alexa Keefe is a photography producer for National Geographic and curates the “Photo of the Day” series for the magazine’s web site. And with every picture she posts, thousands of viewers share it.

Keefe is my guest on this week’s Telling The Story podcast.

She has worked as a photo archivist and editor, but now Keefe is responsible for curating beautiful content in an era where photographs are more ubiquitous than ever. In doing this, sites like National Geographic have thrived. On the podcast, we discuss why.

“With the ubiquity of photographs on the web now, I think the focus has shifted toward curation,” Keefe said. “There’s just so much to look at, so much to consume, that I think we need that more and more.”

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Alexa Keefe: Photography “speaks to how visual we are”

Take a look at this study, which came out last month.

According to Ipsos, when Internet users (read: nearly all of us) share content online, more often than not, they share photos.

In fact, 43% of said users have shared a photo on social media. This is 17% higher than how many users have used social media to share an opinion, status update, or link to an article.

Photography is more ubiquitous than ever, and it has really only become that way within the last decade. Digital cameras, camera-phones, and social media have all fueled the movement.

So, with photos all around us, where does that leave the truly great ones?

That is what I asked Alexa Keefe, a photography producer for National Geographic and this week’s guest on the Telling The Story podcast.

Keefe curates the famous magazine’s daily web series, “Photo of the Day”. She delves through thousands of photos to find the 30 or so that fill up a given month, and she often chooses the most exquisite ones around.

But, you may be surprised to hear, even a photo purist like Keefe can respect the rise and current glut of amateur photos.

“I think it really just speaks to how visual we are, just looking at a picture …” Keefe says. “I think that’s been the amazing thing about digital photography.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring some old favorites

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.

Having written this weekly column for eight months now, I can safely say I have developed a few favorites.

These are the web sites, podcasts, newspapers, TV stations, writers, broadcasters, reporters, and storytellers that I visit for great content — and usually provide it.

This week, all three of my “3 Great Stories” happen to be penned by repeat offenders.

Inside Israel’s quest for cyberwar supremacy (11/6/13, Worldcrunch.com): I have written about Worldcrunch before, and in this case, I found a fascinating article on the go-to web site for news translation and curation.

The piece comes from Le Nouvel Observateur, France’s most-read weekly magazine, and is translated from the original text of its writer, Hadrien Gosset-Bernheim. It gets behind the walls of the Israeli Defense Force’s cyber-espionage team … or, at least, it tries to.

Gosset-Bernheim does not receive a whole lot of specifics as to how the cyber-espionage team works, but he does shed light into its importance for the IDF. He provides a well-rounded look into a subject that might prove surprising and enlightening to American readers; that would seem to be Worldcrunch’s goal in translating such an article for an English-speaking audience.

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The joys and perils of writing for free

As I write this entry, the sun has not yet come up on a Saturday morning.

This has become my habit. Typically, after a long workweek and a nice Friday night out, I fall asleep quickly and wake up early, seemingly before the rest of the world — or, at least, ahead of the sun.

I get up, write my blog entries for the week, and then begin my weekend.

And I do it all for free.

This, of course, was the choice I made when I started this blog. I did not have a problem with it then, nor do I now. Eight months in, I have truly enjoyed watching this site develop; as I Tweeted last week, it has now been read in all 50 states along with 88 countries. Meanwhile, I possess a steady, satisfying full-time job in journalism that fulfills me financially as well as in other ways.

In short, I do not feel cheapened by giving these entries away for free.

But then there’s this.

Last week Tim Kreider wrote an article for the New York Times entitled, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”. He bemoaned the number of writers and artists willing to do their job for free, especially when asked by others (not necessarily when self-publishing blogs). Kreider is a terrific writer in his own right, peppering his column with vivid imagery and painfully funny anecdotes. Here is a choice example:

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.

Kreider’s column drew more than 650 comments and more than a few follow-ups from around the Internet. One such “Here, here!” came from my old guitar teacher, Michael Kovacs, who criticized a similar atmosphere in the music business:

I am not going to say that all new Music sucks. … I am not going to say that nobody goes to live shows … But I will say this: the value placed upon Music has, by all quantitative measures, reached a low point that nobody had seen coming. … No medium can truly grow when the makers of it are not given some affirmation of its value by the outside world.

This is the point I would like to examine.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the art of the “reveal”

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.

Think about a time when you had a big surprise to tell someone.

When you finally saw that person, did you blurt out the surprise right away, or did you make the person wait a little bit?

Chances are, you did the latter. Sometimes, of course, we cannot contain ourselves, but mostly we — consciously or not — try to raise the level of anticipation before we share our big news. Perhaps we ask, “Are you ready?” Perhaps we drag out our words (“Iiiii juuuust waaaanted to tell youuuuuu I’M HAVING A BABY!”). And most likely, perhaps we provide a little prologue or story before our announcement.

At that point, we all become storytellers.

The “reveal” is a time-honored journalistic tradition, to the point that it can often seem lame or stale. (e.g. “What Johnny didn’t know was …”) But the best storytellers know exactly how to tease and build the moment to give their reveals the most punch.

Here are a two examples from last month that do just that (and one stunning photo gallery about fall foliage):

Cut and run (11/1/13, Radiolab): This entire segment from NPR’s Radiolab is tremendous, but I will tell you the moment when I truly appreciated the storytelling here:

I had listened to about five minutes of the story, which is essentially a lesson as to why Kenyan runners always dominate long-distance running. The show’s producers and reporters kept teasing out the answer, providing possible (and then debunked) explanations and expressing their own bewilderment, while keeping their real hypothesis in the distance. I was listening while sitting at my computer, and I realized at that moment that, if I really wanted to learn the answer, I could probably just Google it and be done.

But I didn’t want to Google it. I didn’t want to spoil the big reveal. I wanted to stay on the Radiolab ride, because the story until that point had been so interesting and well-told.

Turned out the reveal was pretty great — and also gruesome. Ladies and specifically gentlemen, please do not listen to the back half of this segment on an empty stomach.

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