Monthly Archives: May 2014

LESSONS LEARNED: On the job at 11Alive

I am on vacation — and out of commission — for the next two weeks, so I wanted to use this space as a vehicle for reflection.

Since I started the Telling The Story blog last winter, I have written extensively about lessons about storytelling. Many of those have been learned through my own work as a reporter for WXIA-TV/11Alive in Atlanta. Here are three of the moments that stand out to me, along with brief snippets from the posts themselves:

Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera: Last April I was introduced to Tad Landau and Mary Wood. They are not famous; they are not what my producers would call “a big get” as far as stories are concerned. But they do share a beautiful friendship — and an unusual one, at that.

Landau is a firefighter for DeKalb County in Georgia. Wood is an elderly woman in his district whose 911 call two years ago was answered by Landau’s team.

The 911 call turned out to be a somewhat false alarm, but upon arriving at Wood’s house, Landau met a woman with little means or support and no living family in the area. She needed help in many ways but did not feel she could turn to anyone.

Landau changed that.

He became a friend and de facto aide for Wood, coming by her house regularly — often on shift breaks with his team — to make peanut butter sandwiches and help her sort through bills. He continues to visit faithfully and, if he does not see Wood on a given day, he hears from her on the phone.

On this surface, this was a nice story about an unique friendship. But I knew it would only work on television if I could capture that friendship organically on camera — a challenge made even steeper when I learned from Landau that Wood was very nervous about it.

But once we started rolling, it all came together.

Wood turned out to be a firecracker of a personality — an irrepressible octogenarian who quickly got used to my presence and, at least outwardly, did not worry whatsoever about being recorded. And when she saw Landau, she started glowing — no inhibitions at all.

In fact, she took advantage of my presence, making sure she said repeatedly on-camera how much she appreciated this godsend of a gift in her life.

A few days later, I attended Wood’s 90th birthday party — which Landau had organized — and again found her totally unfettered by the presence of a camera. She stole the show, and more importantly for the story, the pair allowed their friendship to shine through in a genuine fashion.

I simply did my best not to fight it. I got to know Wood by spending time with her, and I allowed both people to get comfortable with telling me their story. Then I got out of the way; in the story, I acknowledged their various on-camera winks and nods while staying in the background when those beautiful, organic moments arrived. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2014 (so far), written edition

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 on vacation — and out of commission — for the next two weeks, so I figured I would use these weeks to post “Best Of” editions of my 3 Great Stories segment.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year so far next week. This week, without further ado, my three favorite written pieces from January through May, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

A star player accused, and a flawed rape investigation (4/16/14, New York Times): Wow.

This is how you research, write, and present a piece of investigative journalism.

Instantly one of the most widely spread articles of the year, Walt Bogdanich’s in-depth look at the Jameis Winston rape investigation produces incendiary highlights throughout. From interviews with relevant parties to a timeline of the events in question, Bogdanich offers a thorough look at what was done — and what was missed — throughout the aftermath.

No wonder the article has invoked such a reaction — both from Florida State, where Winston just led the football team to a national title, and from readers, many of whom followed the Winston coverage intently last fall. (more…)

A storytelling lesson, from the heart of the country

I had nothing.

I was driving this past Thursday up to Jasper, Ga. — population 3,684 — with a potentially great story on my hands. We had learned of a woman who was born with congenital heart disease but had beaten the odds — and open-heart surgery — to play tennis in high school. She never received her letter jacket, though, but would get it in an honorary ceremony … 38 years after the fact.

If everything went well, I would leave Jasper that day with a touching moment — a woman earning a small victory after a lifetime of hardship. It would undoubtedly make for a great ending.

But everything until the ending? I had nothing.

Let me explain. I spoke with the woman in question — a lovely lady named Fredia Watkins — the day before. I wanted to interview her before the big ceremony, get some B-roll that would give viewers a window into her personality, and capture the necessary footage to compellingly tell her story to set up the climactic moment.

But Fredia did not want to do the interview at her home. Her husband recommended we do it in the conference room of his workplace, and we agreed to meet there the following morning.

A quick but important note: conference rooms are the most sterile, uninteresting places in any office. From a videojournalism standpoint, they are the opposite of what you want.

And I did not want this. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring India, Michael Jackson, & therapy dogs

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 struggle some weeks to fill this space.

Namely, I struggle, amidst the ocean of journalism, media, and content available online, to find three pieces from a given week that obviously stand out.

This week, I had no trouble.

The following are three great stories from last week, each of which pushes the bar higher in its own way:

Hopes of a generation ride on Indian vote (5/15/14, New York Times): The New York Times is really figuring it out.

For years online content providers have tried a slew of different methods of creating distinct forms of journalism and storytelling. Many advances have focused heavily on technology — interactive maps and graphics, reader polls, etc. — but few have offered a blueprint for aiding the reader in a natural way.

The above article is an example of when online storytelling techniques elevate an already powerful story.

Times writer Ellen Barry gracefully captures the mood of the Indian electorate, in the days and months before this past week’s momentous national elections. Her work receives a great boost from the screen-wide photos and video provided by Daniel Berehulak. This feels like a magazine article, but it brims with vibrancy and emotion because of the layout — and power — of the visuals.

It is an all-around terrific piece. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #18: Thomas Lake, senior writer, Sports Illustrated

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Last week I wrote a tribute to the amazing — and newly retired — Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith. I mentioned how I first read one of Smith’s famous long-form, back-of-the-magazine epics as a teenager; I then rediscovered him as a young journalist.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

One of Smith’s successors at Sports Illustrated — and one of the finest heirs to his long-form legacy — had a similar experience and has reaped the benefits of a rewarding relationship with this sportswriting icon.

That young journalist is Thomas Lake.

His career has taken him from daily newspapers to regional magazines to, currently, the most prestigious sports magazine in the world. And roughly midway through that journey, Lake got a major assist from his future SI colleague.

Lake discusses Smith’s influence, his own work, and advice for young journalists on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring veterans, sad-vertising, and Weezer

Many media outlets seem to be investing in dressing up their online content.

When I check out the links that get most frequently Tweeted or sent my way, I typically see in-depth articles that have been jazzed up for the web. Publishers now use full-screen headline images, embedded links and graphics, and just about every other trick in the book to make web stories feel different.

Here are two examples from this past week … and one article about the band Weezer:

Still paying for the Civil War (5/9/14, Wall Street Journal): Example #1 comes from an unexpected place: the Wall Street Journal.

But look at how a seemingly “old guard” company dolls up this story by Michael M. Phillips. Beyond the full-screen headline, a different photo appears after every few paragraphs. It makes for a unique — and pleasing — presentation.

The article itself is fascinating. Phillips looks into a rarely reported fact: how the U.S. government pays billions annually to military veterans, their spouses, and their children. He focuses on the head-turning story of Irene Triplett. Her father married so late in life to a woman so young that their daughter Irene is today 84 years old—and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls.”

That’s right: Irene’s father fought in the Civil War. Because of that, Irene still receives $73.13 a month.

Phillips puts together a compelling story about how the cost of a given war extends far beyond the war itself. (more…)

Saying goodbye to Gary Smith, this era’s greatest sportswriter

I think of it as a rite of passage.

When I turned 13 years old, I achieved a religious milestone: my bar-mitzvah, in which a Jewish boy, upon that pivotal birthday, becomes a man. And I cherished it.

But unbeknownst to most of my loved ones – and, to be sure, my rabbi – I had experienced, earlier that year, another giant leap forward that represented, to me, a sign of growth and maturity.

I subscribed to Sports Illustrated.

And, in the process, I cancelled my subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids.

(Technically, my parents paid for these subscriptions, but let’s not worry about that.)

I could not contain my excitement. An aspiring sportscaster and avid sports fan, I could not wait to start reading a grown-up sports magazine. Like any teenager, grasping at adulthood before reaching it, I wanted to spread my wings in every avenue possible, even in the seemingly frivolous category of magazine readership.

My enthusiasm for the sports themselves, however, was still childlike. When I opened Sports Illustrated each week, I zoomed to the quick hits, short articles, and entertaining pieces that focused on the games and players, as opposed than the stories that surrounded them.

Then I found Gary Smith.

And I read the article that altered my view on sports, sports journalism, and writing – permanently. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring perspective on serious matters

It is often said that, in the modern media world, perspective and complexity are difficult to find.

Perhaps more accurately, those qualities fail to catch on as much as simplicity and virality.

But certain stories lend themselves to a little perspective — particularly those that become universal enough to require more than a standard news cycle.

Here are three great stories from last week, on some topics that are anything but:

Bomani Jones’ brilliant take on Donald Sterling (4/29/14, Dan LeBatard Radio Show): How interesting this must be for Bomani Jones.

The sports columnist wrote an eloquent, thorough story back in 2006 about the racism of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The article received little attention.

Now, by simply letting fly with improvised but heartfelt comments on a radio program, Jones’ thoughts on Sterling have indeed reached the masses.

The Sterling issue is at once remarkably simple yet deceptively complex, and in this 12-minute interview on the Dan LeBatard Show, Jones explains the complexity behind the simplicity, describing why he is not impressed with the far-too-late movement to remove Sterling from the NBA.

And last week, when the initial shock of the Sterling tapes began to fade as a news story — but the urgency and controversy required more coverage — perspectives like Jones’ began to rule the day, making for a much deeper discussion. (more…)

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