Commentary

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

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.

Rereading and rewriting: the importance of giving a news script a second look

Earlier this month, I watched a local TV news story I found genuinely compelling and innovative. I e-mailed one of the photographers to learn more about their process; in his response, he mentioned how much time his team had received to produce the piece:

Two weeks.

“Two weeks?!?” I thought. “I’m lucky when I get two days!”

Time, for most journalists, is always at a premium. Local TV crews, solo or traditional, must typically produce several stories in an eight-hour span. When I mentioned above about getting to spend two days on a story, I was referring to the infrequent chances I receive to do long-form pieces; typically, I work under the same daily crunch as the majority of my colleagues.

And I must always resist the urge to take shortcuts, specifically on my scripts.

I can write a standard TV report very quickly, but when I do, I sometimes struggle to capture why the story matters. That’s why, in almost every occasion, I take a few minutes to reread the script. I try to block out the looming deadline and focus on the words that will ultimately compress and convey my story to my audience.

Those few minutes often make a massive difference.

First, they give me a chance to confirm my facts. Especially on breaking news or issue-based stories, I want to make sure I accurately report every detail. Rereading my script enables me to double-check.

Second, the extra pass allows me to tighten. I can see where I have repeated myself, overlapped with one of my interviewee’s sound bites, or simply used too many words instead of a concise alternative.

Mostly, I reread my script to make sure I am telling the best possible story. I try to remind myself of why the piece matters and how I can best express that. Then I scan my structure to make sure I have lived up to my story’s themes; if I have not, I use whatever time is available to regroup and rewrite — not the whole story, perhaps, but at least a sentence or two.

I use this approach in the daily mix but also for my longer assignments … including my most recent one that aired earlier this week.

I was assigned a powerful graduation story: Andee Poulos had suffered a brain injury at age 14 that put her in a coma. A doctor told her parents she might never eat, drink, walk, or talk again. But she did. This past Saturday, two months shy of her 21st birthday, Andee walked across the stage and accepted a diploma as a high school graduate.

The synopsis is touching, but the details went way deeper. Andee and her family have lived this journey for six years; I was tasked with condensing it to four minutes. My first script felt way too cluttered; I had tried to fit in so many details that I struggled to maximize the ones that mattered most. I often feel this way about stories of such complexity. When I learn so much about a topic, I naturally want to provide my viewers with the same level of knowledge. In doing so, I often fail to present the story in a digestible way … unless I give my script a second look.

My second look at Andee’s story made it much stronger.

I found myself better equipped to tighten my script, remove the details that felt superfluous, and accentuate the themes and personalities that gave extra meaning to Andee’s triumph. When I sat down afterwards to edit, I felt much more confident into my material. Here is the result:

This is a long-form example of a daily scenario. The pressures and deadlines of local TV news are not slowing, but the standards of local TV journalists should not drop. We must push ourselves whenever possible … starting with our words.

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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.

She sounds like she’s smiling: Saying goodbye to “B”

Television newsrooms have a way of draining one’s idealism and optimism.

Journalists often see their big dreams swept under by waves of daily deadlines and demands. They watch too many co-workers depart for other industries, unwilling to withstand the toll and frustrations of the business. They see an industry changing and tightening while their stations’ ratings struggle to sustain. Their wide-eyed smiles turn into weary looks of acceptance.

But not Birnur Richardson.

She worked at my station in Atlanta, WXIA-TV, for more than three decades. She edited video for our morning show, taking the overnight shift to do it. Such a schedule often drains people more than deadlines, but not the person we all called “B”. No matter my mood in the morning, I would walk into the newsroom and receive the greeting of her smiling face. When Birnur retired last year, it left a hole in our building impossible to fill.

Birnur passed away this past weekend.

Unbeknownst to many of us, she had been battling aggressive cancer for several months. I was stunned and saddened by the news, as were many of my colleagues.

I am struggling today to find the words to explain the rarity and beauty of B’s spirit. Thankfully, several of my colleagues have put forth poignant words of appreciation, and I would like to share them with you.

Bumble B: Fellow reporter Jerry Carnes entered the 11Alive orbit at the same time as Birnur. I can honestly picture and relate to every memory he shares, such as this one:

Years passed. B drifted to the morning shift, and eventually, so did I. A newsroom can be a solemn, grumpy place at 3 a.m., unless you employ Birnur Richardson. Nothing could [faze] her. Editing glitches, computer problems, system breakdowns. She handled it all with polite professionalism. And if you had an issue, somehow she would break away from her job of editing two-and-a-half hours of videotape to help. Never, not once, did I ever hear B speak a cross word to anyone. Ever.

A difficult day for 11Alive: In a Facebook post the morning after B passed, reporter and morning shifter Jennifer Leslie offered her own memories — as well as photos displaying B’s delightful smile:

I will never forget how kind and loving she was after my boys were born. She was the first to grab and squeeze them during their newsroom visits, and she ALWAYS asked about them. She was an incredible role model who raised the most impressive children. She had a full plate but always had time for those around her.

Finally, I urge you to watch this five-minute video made last year for B’s retirement. I actually never saw it last year, but when a co-worker posted it earlier this week, I watched and nearly cried. Even while describing the mundane details of life on the morning shift, B cannot help but smile. And when video plays over her voice, she sounds like she’s smiling.

I will always remember that smile. I will always remember B.

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.

5 lessons from the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism 2016 video winners

Every year I watch the video winners of the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism awards.

Every year I go back to the same thought:

The building blocks of storytelling are absolutely important to a great piece of journalism, but they require the foundation of a story worth telling.

If we cannot get in the door with meaningful material, we cannot expect viewers to appreciate the various techniques on which we pride ourselves. Last year I profiled several BOP winners on this site and drew lessons from them. In my introduction, I wrote: “The best stories I saw last year demanded my attention, and I watched zero of them on television. I watched all of them online, via links and recommendations from colleagues and friends. I arrived upon them organically and, when I clicked on the videos, found myself instantly engrossed.”

Ditto for 2016. In general, the stories that won BOP awards — and stood out in public as well — were triumphs of content over technique.

Here are five first-place winners and the lessons I took from them:

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Mighty Ivy, Jerry & Susie, and finding three dimensions in tragedy

“Find the emotion.”

TV reporters and photojournalists hear that refrain often. Our medium, after all, lends itself less to in-depth analysis and more to visceral video. As such, we often receive assignments that offer the greatest potential to witness raw feelings.

But rarely are we asked to push beyond those feelings.

We are told to put our most emotional moments at the front of our stories, not set them up with context. We are sent to horrific scenes and given little time, both on site and in newscasts, to get a sense beyond the basic. We are pushed to keep things moving.

So often, though, such a philosophy produces reports that only connect on a surface level – and, while powerful in the moment, are almost immediately forgotten.

I want my stories to be remembered. More importantly, I want the people in my stories – the ones who open themselves to news coverage at extremely vulnerable times – to be remembered.

This past month, I received two specific opportunities to tell such stories. I tried to produce pieces that would provide both powerful moments and the depth and poignancy to earn them.

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MMJ Survey leftovers: burnout, a shout-out, & a look (way) back

The MMJ Survey has been catching quite a bit of attention.

In the past few weeks, I have released the results of — and written several pieces about — the MMJ Survey, in which nearly 100 solo video journalists in local TV news said how they felt about the job and industry. I conducted the survey in part because I had never seen anything like it before; I know how unique the MMJ life can be, and I wanted those in the role to feel enabled to make their voices heard.

Thankfully, I have been able to amplify those voices far beyond this blog.

In the past few weeks, I have written a column for one web site and been interviewed for a column on another. I want to share them here, and I will return with the regular rotation of columns and podcasts starting next week.

An MMJ Life | Battling burnout (TV News Storytellers): I was able to reach such a large swath of solo video journalists for my survey by posting on a pair of Facebook groups. One was MMJane, a group exclusively for female MMJs; I interviewed their administrators, Sarah-Blake Morgan and Katie Eastman, on my most recent podcast episode.

The other group is TV News Storytellers, whose founder Matt Mrozinski joined me last year on the podcast.

Matt and I spoke about me writing a column about the survey, and I chose to isolate the very real issue of MMJ burnout. I went through it as a young journalist, and I write in this piece about how I got through it.

MMJs love their jobs, often don’t feel safe (NPPA.org): This article, written by Tom Burton with the NPPA and News Photographer Magazine, tackles another glaring result from the MMJ Survey.

It talks about safety.

Burton interviewed me about the survey and seemed particularly interested in the concerns of many MMJs about being placed in potentially dangerous situations. That said, we covered a variety of topics, and Burton hits most of them in this write-up.

The cameraman who works alone: I was not interviewed for this piece, and I have no idea from where it came.

I just know this: it’s from 1964, and it’s outstanding.

Amanda Emily, the historian extraordinaire for TV News Storytellers, unearthed this chapter from Fred Mooke, then the managing editor at WTVJ-TV in Miami. Mooke discusses the rise of the one-man band … more than five decades ago.

I don’t want to spoil any of it. But solo video journalists out there need to give it a read. It’s amusing, to say the least.

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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.

The MMJ Survey: What MMJs want non-MMJs, managers to know

Last week I posted the results of the MMJ Survey. I heard from nearly 100 currently solo video journalists about how they view their job and industry, and I wrote an accompanying column with eight revealing takeaways.

In three days, that column became the fifth-most popular post in the history of my blog.

It also became the source of countless messages, both online and in person, about the importance of providing a voice for such an overlooked position.

I believe strongly in developing that voice for solo video journalists. It’s why I speak so passionately about MMJs at workshops and conferences, and it’s why I wrote an entire book, The Solo Video Journalist, to provide the kind of specific guidance that is lacking for the position.

I want to use this post to give more space for those voices to shine.

The MMJ Survey ended with a series of open-ended questions that pressed respondents to speak out about their position. While I cannot publish every answer, I present below the most frequently heard themes from today’s solo video journalists.

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The MMJ Survey: 8 revealing takeaways about solo video journalists

For too long, the job of a “TV multimedia journalist” has been defined and viewed in its simplest terms … at least by those who have never worked as one.

Outsiders typically view the MMJ as a two-for-one combo package of reporter and photographer. Technically this is true; a one-person crew, by definition, handles the responsibilities traditionally assigned to multiple people.

But solo video journalists face unique challenges not experienced by – and not immediately obvious to – their colleagues in more traditional roles.

I have worked as an MMJ for my entire career, and I currently do so for the NBC affiliate in Atlanta. But I have devoted much time away from the newsroom to shining a light on this widespread yet often overlooked position. I have written about the challenges on this blog, interviewed renowned MMJs on my podcast, and recently authored a book, The Solo Video Journalist, that serves as a how-to guide for one-woman and one-man bands.

My latest offering is aimed not just at MMJs but also everyone else in the newsroom.

In January I conducted the MMJ Survey: I crafted a list of questions designed to get a better understanding of how solo video journalists view their jobs. I heard from 96 MMJs, with diversity in age, gender, and market size. They offered responses that often showed a clear consensus – and unearthed some conclusions that may surprise their newsroom colleagues.

Here are eight takeaways from the MMJ Survey:

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The MMJ Survey: Full results

In January 2017, I released a survey for solo video journalists to better understand how they view their jobs and their industry. I heard back from 96 MMJs, all of whom answered anonymously.

Below are the results to the survey’s multiple-choice questions. Most of these questions were accompanied by open-ended follow-ups, which are not included here due to complications with transfer from the Google Forms apparatus. For insight and analysis, check out the following article:

For more information about the data and survey, you are welcome to reach me by e-mail.

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5 little-known stories that show the greatness of Brenda Wood

For nearly eight years, I have worked in the same newsroom as an Atlanta TV legend.

But I have only witnessed a fraction of what makes her one.

Brenda Wood has been the foundation of the 11Alive newsroom for two decades; she has been an institution in Atlanta for nearly three. Her last day Wednesday marks the end of a 40-year career in television news – one filled with more honors, distinctions, and trailblazing moments than most of us can hope to accomplish.

Through my much shorter time at 11Alive, I have shared many conversations with Brenda while admiring the command and vision that set an example for so many in our newsroom.

Only recently did I learn the extent of that vision … and how far it goes back.

I was fortunate to interview Brenda for nearly an hour for my Telling the Story podcast. In that time, we covered many topics, and Brenda told some fascinating stories about how she developed into the woman she is today.

Those stories, to me, illuminated what makes her so special.

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