Commentary

The following are reflections on the evolving world of journalism, my experiences in the business, and the future of storytelling.

I’m back in J-school. And I’m back to being unsure of myself.

I arrived on the University of Georgia campus with a steadily growing to-do list.

Pick up paper towels. Run to Target. Try to go to bed early. Check my work e-mail in case of an emergency.

I had just driven 90 minutes from midtown Atlanta to downtown Athens. I work full-time as a TV reporter but this past August began a 2 ½-year MFA program in narrative nonfiction at UGA’s Grady School of Journalism. Each semester kicks off with a mandatory weeklong residency on-campus; this past Sunday, we all converged on campus from across the country. The program directors threw us a welcome dinner, and on the walk back, I asked a classmate about his plans for the night. He said he would head to the hotel bar and hang out as late as anyone wanted.

Not me. I planned to make my Target run and retreat to my room for a hopeful eight hours of sleep.

My classmate shook off that idea. He heralded the week as a chance for us hungry writers to revel together in our ambitions, to encourage and inspire each other. He closed with a line that would flatter any hopeful Hemingway: “This is like Paris in the Twenties!”

I needed to hear that … because my first semester felt like Times Square at rush hour.

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Pondering over pancakes: a story of gratitude to open 2018

I could have eaten anywhere.

I could have walked a half-mile to the birthplace of General Tso’s chicken. I could have hopped on the D train to America’s oldest pizzeria. New York City overflows with restaurants, and I had just touched down. But I left my hotel, walked to 57th and 9th, and opened the door to an old friend.

Morning Star Restaurant does little to stand out. Its white awning and blue lettering seem faded. Its pancakes require a healthy pour of syrup. But one summer, 16 years earlier, I ate there repeatedly. I popped in before, during, or after my shifts as an intern at WCBS-TV.

In college I deified New York. I lived with my parents in suburban New Jersey and itched to someday call The City my home. For three months, three days a week, I traveled 40 minutes by bus and 20 minutes on foot to reach the station. I passed the bars on Eighth Avenue and envied the adults on the other side of the glass. They drank, smiled, and percolated in perfectly tailored shirts and ties. They had “made it”.

I couldn’t enter the bars. But I could wolf a stack of pancakes at Morning Star. Sixteen years later, I felt the urge to do it again, this time in triumph.

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Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: How do we measure impact as journalists?

As part of my MFA program at the University of Georgia, I write. A lot. And I enjoy it. I relish constructing a three-dimensional scene with verbal imagery. I read two books a month and deliver 350-word responses, which allows me to weave narrative into my work and ponder its process and impact. I have decided to share those pieces here when applicable, such as this entry about Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

“We’ve all heard the complaints about television news.”

The man with the gray beard smirked and sighed, his boutonnière the same red velvet color as the podium.

“It’s superficial. It’s sensationalist. It’s trivial.” The compliment? “But it isn’t all ‘Action This’ or ‘Eyewitness That’. They’re not all Ron Burgundy.”

The crowd laughed. The Hillman Foundation this year awarded national journalism prizes for seven formats. Only the broadcast honoree needed to force a smile through a roast of his profession.

I watched the video online and prickled at the cheap shots. I value my job in television news. My goals far exceed Ron Burgundy.

But I know it has shaped my work. I fear the channel-click. I craft my stories to never lose their grip on the viewer. Jon Stewart once said, “I am very uncomfortable going more than a few minutes without a laugh.” I dread going more than a few seconds without a “moment” – a beautifully composed shot, turn of phrase, burst of natural sound, or anything that will snap a viewer back to attention.

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REPOST: The search for Evan Gattis, and the journey of journalism

The following was originally posted in 2013, when Evan Gattis was a rookie with the Atlanta Braves. This week, with the Houston Astros, he became a World Series champion.

Snooze.

I awoke to the sound of muffled radio static on the hotel room’s alarm clock. I had not bothered to find a station before I went to sleep the previous night; I was exhausted, and I doubted I would miss much by scanning the AM dial for the finest station in Abilene, Texas. I also knew I would not be listening for very long when I awoke.

Instead, I did the first thing I could think of: reach over and hit the button on top.

Snooze.

I didn’t intend to go back to sleep. I couldn’t. I was up for a reason: to drive ten hours, in one day, to interview two people, both of whom were integral to the life of Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis. A month earlier, Gattis made the Braves’ Opening Day roster as a 26-year-old rookie. Two weeks after that, he was named National League Rookie of the Month.

But that was not what sent me to Texas. I had arrived in America’s second-largest state to shine the spotlight on Gattis’ other claim to fame, the story that had captivated Braves fans in Atlanta and baseball fans across the country. After completing high school and committing to Texas A&M as a highly-touted prospect, Gattis left the game and did not return for half a decade. In the meantime, he traveled the state and the country, working odd jobs at golf courses, ski resorts, and even Yellowstone National Park. He followed a spiritual advisor to New Mexico, and he lived like a nomad, on a search for purpose and identity. Gattis went on a journey, to be sure, and came out of it a Major League baseball player.

How fitting, then, that I would need to take my own journey to properly tell his story.

I got out of bed in that Abilene hotel room and took a shower. Then I heard that muffled AM static. I walked over and looked at the radio clock, flashing a time I generally only saw in the afternoon.

4:44.

I wanted to hit Snooze again. But not this time. It was time to hit the road.

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Years ago I interviewed Maury Povich. It taught me about finding my voice

I was 23. I was unemployed. And I feared Maury Povich.

Those are my excuses for one of my first failures in journalism.

I had left my first TV news job without a new one. I U-Hauled home from Sioux City, Iowa and sought freelance gigs while living with my parents. I found a taker – New Jersey State Golf Association Magazine – and an assignment: walk one round with Povich, the talk show host with a 1.0 golf handicap. I arranged to meet at his home course: Hollywood Golf Club in Deal.

Deal hugs the Jersey Shore, but we never went there. “It’s very wealthy,” my mom said years later. “They don’t go to the same beach where we go.”

They don’t play the same golf courses either.

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Want to shoot better-looking interviews? Use your hand

To anyone who uses a camera in TV news: would you like a simple tool to help your shooting without giving you anything else to carry?

Have I got your attention?

It’s your hand.

Right?

The next time you get ready to interview someone but you’re unsure about the lighting, put your hand out. Stretch your arm and open your palm so you can see all of its features.

How does it look? Is it shiny? Is it backlit? Does the light flatter your skin – make it smooth, soft, the same shade up and down – or accentuate the folds and wrinkles?

Here’s the problem: our chief photographer does this and gets made fun of. Our chief photographer has won major awards. Our chief photographer has shot pieces that look like they should be presented on a golden platter.

Why does he get teased? Because it looks silly? Because it seems too easy?

What’s wrong with easy?

Does it work? Then easy is the way.

But why does he really get teased? Because the people who tease him might not value what he’s doing.

Lighting may not seem like it matters anymore. Most young MMJs I meet haven’t been taught the basics. And who would teach them? College professors have much larger points to make, and news managers at any level don’t have the time to dig so deep.

Except lighting is a bedrock. Learn it, and it’s an instant upgrade. Learn it, and your stories will have that indefinable quality that just looks good. But it’s not indefinable. It’s good lighting.

And it doesn’t require actual lights. Lighting is everywhere, in every shot. It’s in a bulb on the ceiling or the sun in the sky.

So when our chief photographer opens his hand to test an interview, he’s showing respect to one of the key factors that determine the quality of his shot. And he’s doing it in three seconds, with no extra gear.

I saw him do it nine months ago. I’ve done it about nine times since. I can usually guess the lighting by looking around, but sometimes it’s unclear. So I put out a hand. And it answers the question.

Maybe the lesson here is to value lighting. Or maybe it’s to stop teasing chief photographers. Most likely it’s this: when you see people who know more than you, and they’re doing something that looks strange, ask them why they’re doing it. Learn first, then judge. Or learn first, then think critically about what you’ve learned, and judge last. But don’t judge like a final decree. Absorb the information and understand why you’ve chosen to incorporate it – or why you haven’t. And don’t get too attached to either direction.

So try the hand. Or not. But don’t worry about looking silly. Worry about telling a great story.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

More time to tell a story? Better make it count

I woke up and didn’t know where I was.

The room was pitch-black. My alarm had just disrupted five hours of uninterrupted sleep. I spent five seconds scanning for context clues until I remembered:

“I’m at a hotel. I’m on St. Simons Island. And I need to leave immediately for the beach to shoot a sunrise.”

TV news journalists often must execute their assignments within an immovable window of time. At my station, we hold a morning meeting at 9:30, match reporters with stories by 10, and then expect those stories to air sometime between 5 and 6:30 PM. Deadlines loom over every decision: “Should I get these extra shots? Do this extra interview? Actually sit down for lunch? Only if I have enough time.”

Long-form storytelling pushes back those boundaries. In my new role, I produce a story a week while handling a variety of other responsibilities for my station and company. I largely set my own schedule, and I know my assignment long before the day it is due. When I ask myself if I should take an extra step in service of the story, I often do not need to consider time as a factor.

So I often answer, “Yes,” arriving earlier, staying later, and working weekends far more than I did before. I pace myself and make sure to balance my hours when I can, but when I see the potential to tell a powerful story, I relish the chance to do so.

That’s what led me to this hotel on the Georgia coast. I had learned about a man from metro Atlanta named Douglas Stephens, who in 1981 threw a beer bottle into the ocean with a message inside. Thirty-six years later, the bottle had been found, and the man who discovered it was planning to return it to its original owner.

I had to be there.

So despite having just returned to Atlanta from a work trip Thursday evening, I prepared to leave again nearly 24 hours later. I packed a bag, gathered my gear, and set off on a five-hour drive — half of it in darkness — for the coast. I arrived on the island at 11:30 PM and went to sleep just after midnight, bracing myself for a busy Saturday.

I could have planned a much longer rest; the two men weren’t planning to exchange the bottle until 12:30 the following day. But I knew, to tell the story right, I needed to do more. I woke up at 6 AM so I could shoot sunrise on the beach just before 7. I drove to the nearest UPS Store to print photos and then headed back to the beach to capture them on video. I arranged a 10:30 interview with the man who found the bottle, Ryan Burchett, at his home in nearby Brunswick. Then I asked him to keep wearing his wireless microphone while I drove ahead to the meeting spot to put a similar mic on Douglas.

When the meeting happened, it brought smiles to all involved. I stood back and captured the moments, knowing I had done everything possible to produce a story worthy of them.

The piece would run the following week (you can watch it above), and I knew I would need to spend several days beforehand putting it together. But in this moment, I didn’t think about that. I said goodbye to Douglas and Ryan, packed my gear, ate a triumphant lunch, and began the five-hour drive back home.

And when I went to sleep that night in my own bed, I refused to set an alarm.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

I asked 100 Atlantans what’s missing from local news. Here’s what they said.

I am a big believer in the power of my profession to inform, elevate, and connect communities.

I am also a big believer in the philosophy of “Let’s do it and see what happens.”

But local TV news too often finds too many reasons to keep doing the same old stuff – and thus turning off the people we’re trying to reach. We race around our region producing reports, but we rarely stop and get a sense for the people who will watch them.

Last week we unveiled a segment on WXIA-TV called “Untold Atlanta”. Our goal is to tell the stories we are not telling enough.

But we will never find those stories if we don’t ask … or listen. So that’s what we did.

On two days in late July, we set out to interview 100 Metro Atlantans and ask each person one question: “What are the stories we’re not telling?” I wanted to shake hands, have conversations, and get to know more people than I would otherwise meet in a 48-hour span.

And if it didn’t work out? “Let’s do it and see what happens.”

We mapped out ten locations across the region, all situated in environments we deemed target-rich for productive interaction. We did not want to waste time seeking people out; we wanted to engage in conversations and hear from as many voices – and as many different types of voices – as possible.

(We made sure to attempt this experiment on two of the summer’s most sweltering days. The high temperature averaged 91 degrees, as I was reminded by the beads of sweat that would populate almost immediately after getting out of the car. Maybe next time we’ll try this in October.)

What did people say? We fit as many as we could into this video. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

And if you’d like to know more or submit a story idea, check out the Untold Atlanta page on 11Alive.

We’ll do it. And we’ll see what happens.

I can’t wait.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

I’m a journalist, and I’m going back to school. Here’s why.

In my career as a journalist, I have gone through numerous job interviews, as both interviewer and interviewee. I have never heard the following question:

How come you only have a Bachelor’s degree?

Most aspiring journalists try to enter the workforce as soon as they graduate, and they are not required to continue their schooling. Most news managers value experience and performance, and they expect their employees to develop in the “real” world, not the academic world.

Yet here I am, more than a decade removed from my last class at college, going back to school.

This week I officially became a student again, beginning a low-residency MFA program at the University of Georgia’s Grady Journalism School. For the next two years, I will attend several weeks of on-campus classes and meet remotely with various mentors and instructors as I earn my postgraduate degree in narrative nonfiction.

I will also continue to work full-time, marching forward as a reporter at WXIA-TV in Atlanta.

Does it sound like a lot of time? Does it sound like a ton of responsibilities to juggle at once? Does it sound like the type of effort that may go unnoticed by potential employers?

It sure does. But I welcome the challenge.

In my first years in the business, I often toyed with the idea of one day returning to school, but I never truly considered it. I faced more immediate career demands, wanting to establish myself as a journalist and advance to a market and station where I could — at least in the short term — settle down. (I also was scratching to afford rent and food, let alone five semesters of grad school.) Even after arriving in Atlanta, I never sought out additional education because I assumed it would require me to sacrifice my full-time job.

But in the past few years, my feelings began to change. I learned about programs at top-rated schools that catered to working journalists, and I watched several of my peers take advantage. I developed a passion for teaching, and I knew I would likely need a postgraduate degree if I ever wanted to join academia full-time. I came upon a program at UGA that hit every other check mark: it focused on in-depth and long-form nonfiction writing, featured a faculty full of journalism success stories, and required students to be on-campus for just two weeks a year. (It also offered a price tag that wouldn’t put me into debt.) I discussed the idea with my wife, and we decided I should apply.

So here I am, back at school … minus the lunchbox and No. 2 pencils.

I do not plan to use much of this space to discuss my UGA exploits, and I do not necessarily encourage other journalists to follow my path. This program enters my life at a near-perfect time both personally and professionally; I did not apply for it until I knew I could handle it.

But I do want to convey a broader lesson to my fellow storytellers: think beyond the usual.

Our business often forces its participants to think small. We face daily deadlines and increasing responsibilities, and we exert so much effort at work that we feel tempted to push aside any outside pursuits. But this can be short-sighted, especially in an media environment that demands versatility and flexibility. We should feel encouraged to stretch ourselves and take ownership of projects that take advantage of our skills and knowledge. Such a mindset, for example, is what led me to start this blog, develop a podcast, and write a full-length book about solo video journalism.

And I’m not alone. Last month I spoke on a panel with MMJ all-stars (and former Telling the Story podcast guests) Anne Herbst and Sarah-Blake Morgan. I realized we had more in common than simply shooting and editing our own reports. We have also built fulfilling projects outside of the newsroom. Morgan is one of the founders of the successful MMJane Facebook group, and Herbst runs an annual Women in Photojournalism conference. They didn’t ask for permission, and they didn’t worry about feeling overwhelmed. They used the same flexibility that helps them succeed as MMJs and applied it to new avenues.

I cannot speak for Herbst or Morgan, or for any of the other journalists who have pushed their limits to follow their passions. But I can tell you how I feel to have followed mine. I have been rewarded by every project I have tackled, from the blog to the podcast to the book. I approached each one methodically, thinking big and then taking the small steps to reach my goals. Beyond that, in each case, my work outside the newsroom has benefited my work inside the newsroom.

I expect those rewards to continue as I begin towards my MFA degree. I cannot say what this next big challenge will bring, but I am excited to see how it colors my perspective and improves my production as a storyteller.

I would encourage any journalist who feels the same to follow a similar path, no matter how you choose to do it.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

Why go to workshops? It’s about thinking big

For the month of June, I am taking off from the blog and podcast to focus on a variety of career goals. Among the highlights: I am speaking at several workshops, of which there seem to be plenty this month, and I would encourage any journalist to attend one. Why? Read below.

I frequently get asked to speak at workshops and conferences about journalism.

I rarely turn them down.

I enjoy the workshop experience for a variety of reasons. In a speaking role, I appreciate the chance to (I hope) inform and inspire those in attendance. I relish the relationships I get to build and the ideas that develop from discussion.

But beyond those benefits, I find workshops valuable for one main reason: I love the passion and enthusiasm that always emerge.

Rarely does our business make time for education. We are expected to learn on the fly, develop our skills in the daily crunch, and make all of our deadlines in the process. These requests are not unreasonable; in fact, I have always found I learn more by doing rather than watching.

But I still find great value in watching. And when I go to workshops, I always come away with a handful of tricks and tools I plan to incorporate into my own work. I went to my first conference in 2014 when I was invited to speak at the Ignite Your Passion workshop in the Twin Cities. (I had never attended one in my early years as a journalist.) I stayed after my presentation for the remaining speakers, getting to witness the great team of reporter Boyd Huppert and photojournalist Jonathan Malat. They described their execution of a story I still remember today: a piece about death, love, and regret around the subject of towing trailers

I left the Twin Cities with an immediate burst of motivation. I wanted my work to be that complete and rich; I wanted it to shine at the next level.

I take bits of inspiration from every workshop I attend. I have already spoken at four this year, and I have left each feeling like a stronger journalist.

I have also left with a renewed belief in what we do.

I wrote in my book, The Solo Video Journalist, about the importance of thinking big. We are given so many incentives to focus on the day-to-day rather than the larger possibilities. Workshops provide a tremendous reminder to expand one’s ambition – and an opportunity to surround oneself with journalists who have a similar outlook.

Earlier this month I interviewed on my podcast John Wilson, the chief photographer at KSL-TV and an organizer of the NPPA Rocky Mountain Workshop in Salt Lake City. He encouraged people in the area to sign up for his workshop, but he mainly encouraged people to “go to A workshop”. I could not agree more. I will speak at the Rocky Mountain and Sound of Life Southeast Storytelling workshops in June, and I fully recommend both to anyone looking for some rejuvenation and training.

But good workshops are rarely hard to find. If you haven’t been to one, I would highly recommend it.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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