11alive

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.

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.

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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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Atlanta icons & an Alabama firefighter

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.

#GoodbyeBrenda: 11Alive bids farewell to an Atlanta icon (2/8/17, WXIA-TV): This past week, my newsroom in Atlanta lost a legend.

Longtime anchor Brenda Wood officially retired from local TV news, signing off Wednesday for the final time. I have used this space quite a bit in recent weeks to commemorate Wood and her work in Atlanta.

But I can think of no person better to honor such an icon than our newsroom’s other storytelling standout.

Jon Shirek is a phenomenal writer and a generous soul; I have interviewed him both on my Telling the Story podcast and for my book, The Solo Video Journalist. In this story, he does his homework and encapsulates the career of our colleague with sensitivity and admiration.

It’s a fitting tribute. After all, Wood never lacked command as an anchor; Shirek never lacks it as a writer.

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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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SUPER BOWL STORIES: Hello from Houston!

I have been fortunate to receive some dream assignments through the years.

My current one was once an actual dream.

I don’t watch as much football as I did when I was a kid. To be fair, nobody watches as much football as I did when I was a kid. I loved the NFL, and — growing up in New Jersey — I particularly loved the New York Jets.

In fact, one of my first journalistic exploits came when, in seventh grade, I started a weekly newsletter called The Jet Weekly. I even convinced my friends to write regular columns.

My football infatuation didn’t stop there. In high school I wrote full-length magazines previewing the upcoming NFL seasons. I turned down the volume before Jets games and did the play-by-play into a microphone (and recorded the audio on a cassette player). I simulated seasons from start to finish, and I never missed a game.

But as those years have grown more distant, so has my devotion to the NFL. In my career, I transitioned from a full-time sports guy to a full-time news guy (who, through some extraordinary assignments, gets to dip his toe into sports every so often). In my life, I went from a two-time fantasy football champ and NFL Red Zone devotee to someone who watches the occasional game. I no longer view the league through a lens of infallibility, and I often struggle to separate my enjoyment of the sport with the controversial baggage it carries.

I still, though, enjoy the game. And I particularly love the way a winning team — in any sport, including the NFL — brings together a city.

It’s happening right now in Atlanta. And it’s why I’m spending this week in Houston.

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MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Every entry from the Rio Summer Games

I’m back!

I’m back in Atlanta, I’m back to my normal routine, and I’m back to work at 11Alive.

The Olympics suddenly seem so long ago.

But the 2016 Summer Games remained a remarkable event, both for viewers at home and for those of us who got to experience it on the ground in Rio. I’m taking the week off from blogging, but in the meantime, here’s a look back at every entry of mine from these past Olympics:

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MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: I’m my own boss. And I’m working myself wild.

I have always fancied the life of an entrepreneur.

“I have good ideas,” I think to myself. “How romantic would it be to seize one of them, start my own business, and be my own boss? Wouldn’t it be nice to have all the control?”

Then I talk with friends of mine who run their own companies, and I immediately come back to reality.

The entrepreneur’s life is as daunting as it as rewarding. Such a person must serve as a company’s permanent last line of defense, working to exhaustion to push forward his or her product. One must possess an extraordinary drive and passion to do it well. When I remember that, I more greatly appreciate my non-entrepreneurial existence.

But at the Olympics, I get a taste of what such a life would be like.

And, it turns out, I’m a pretty demanding boss.

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