writing

MMJs, NPPA, & UGA: my most popular posts of 2017

A thin layer of pink spreads above the Phoenix horizon. The sun has begun to set, the mountains have turned from sandy orange to muted brown, and the natural light has begun to fade from the window of my hotel room. Lines of cars stretch down Central Avenue, but I cannot hear a sound from the 18th floor.

I sit in antiseptic calm. I wish to return to the chaos of home.

Four inches of snow have pounded Atlanta, cancelling my flight home after a week in Arizona. I will try again the airport tomorrow, but for now I slink back for an unplanned night at a new hotel. I open my laptop and write this entry.

I rarely fall into free time. I typically carve it out, particularly for this blog. February 2018 will mark five years of Telling the Story, and this past year has been my busiest. I began a new role at work, an MFA program at the University of Georgia, and the anticipation of what will keep me even busier in Year 6: our first child.

But I enjoy writing these entries – and interviewing peers and colleagues for the Telling the Story podcast – because of the community they create. I appreciate the e-mail sign-ups, the comments on Facebook, and the notes and Tweets of appreciation. I value the chance to contribute to the continually evolving conversation about journalism, storytelling, and the media industry.

The most popular posts of 2017 reflected that conversation. Here is what saw the most clicks in the past twelve months, with an excerpt:

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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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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.

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…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2013, 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.

Having done the “3 Great Stories” segment every week since starting this block in February, I now face the challenge of picking my favorites.

But I have picked them, and here they are.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year next week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite written pieces of 2013, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

#3) After Bloomberg (8/20/13, The New Yorker): He is routinely mocked for being bland and boring, but New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is sneakily candid. He regularly weighs in on national topics and critiques the President, among other leaders, and yet he does not get the notoriety for outspokenness that a Chris Christie might receive.

In his final year of office, one would expect, his candidness will lead to numerous in-depth retrospectives — hopefully as memorable as this one.

Ken Auletta of the New Yorker produces this 8,000-word gem about Bloomberg, and it is special because it blends the mayor’s own words with the appropriate context and commentary. Auletta writes with an obvious point of view, but he generally uses it to color Bloomberg’s words, not overpower them. This paragraph is a perfect example:

I asked Bloomberg if he could imagine joining the President’s Cabinet. In theory, he said, “it would be fascinating to be Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, jobs like that. Secretary of the Treasury, you want someone who’s a real economist”—and someone “who is maybe less opinionated.” Bloomberg thinks of himself as a team player, as long as it’s his team.

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PODCAST EPISODE #9: Tomas Rios, paid-lance sportswriter

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Full disclosure #1: A month ago, I had never heard of Tomas Rios.

Full disclosure #2: I invited him to appear on my podcast off the strength of one article — a piece he wrote last month called “A Brief History of Bad Sports Writing”.

Full disclosure #3: I was very impressed with the result.

In the article, Rios takes aim at the “hot take” brand of journalism that has, he says, infested the sports media landscape. He traces it back to its evolutionary roots, bringing the reader on a journey from Grantland Rice to Dick Young to various modern-day writers, whom Rios willfully calls out by name.

Rios is my guest on Episode 9 of the Telling The Story podcast. We go deep into the discussion of modern sports journalism, and he holds back just as little in our podcast as he does in the article. Rios and I don’t agree on everything, but I admire the critical way in which he views the field, his work included.

But I also delve into another subject with the 29-year-old, whose work has also appeared on the Slate and Deadspin web sites, among others:

He talk about life as a freelancer.

Rios is a self-described “paid-lance sports writer” — that is to say, he is a freelance writer who no longer works for free. He began his career writing mainly about combat sports (UFC, MMA, etc.) and did so regularly until he found himself in a verbal showdown with comedian and UFC announcer Joe Rogan.

Or, as Rios puts it, “[Rogan] went on some crazy psychotic online rant and used some homophobic slurs against me and used his pull behind the scenes to cost me some work.”

Rios left the writing scene for a while but came back more determined. He says he has become an infinitely better writer today, and he says he has finally reached a point where he can give up his day job and actually make a living as a freelance writer.

His — like that of every freelancer, I suppose — is a unique story. It is worth hearing, especially for young writers trying to forge their own career path.

Among Rios’ other notable sound bites from the podcast:

  • On the influence of the “hot take”: “More and more reporting is failing to put things into the proper context. [It’s] putting them inside of these narratives that are easily digestible and allow us to make judgments about the people involved.”
  • On finding your voice as a writer: “I really don’t think about the audience very much. In my earlier writing, I felt like I had to pull back on what I wanted to say a little bit … and now, I just try to write as organically as I can.”
  • On his advice for young writers: “One thing they should be looking for in terms of their writing is good editing.”

Listen to the podcast at the top of the page or download it and listen to it later. And subscribe to the podcast – and rate and review it – on iTunes!

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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.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring The New Statesman and nuance

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.

On a recent trip to my childhood home of New Jersey, I was discussing with my father the ways in which people consume media these days.

He and I do it very differently.

My dad sticks with a few sources and does so very traditionally; he reads the New York Times, subscribes to Time, and watches the news on TV every night. In doing so, he stays well-informed on a variety of issues both local — to the New Jersey/New York area — and national/international. In addition, by skimming each source thoroughly, he often exposes himself to subjects he would have never otherwise seen.

I, on the other hand, am all over the place. I have not subscribed to a physical newspaper in eight years, but I canvas the web for news outlets I respect and subscribe to their RSS feeds. My “newspaper” is basically my Feedly stream, and I check it multiple times a day. I usually find out the rest of the day’s big news, like so many these days, through new-media word of mouth: noticing what my friends and colleagues share on Facebook and Twitter.

I could write a whole column (and perhaps will) about the conversation between my father and me; I love hearing his opinions and comparing our perspectives.

In this case, I thought about it just now as I sat down to write this story. I realized that, in choosing this week’s 3 Great Stories, I had somewhat followed both of our models of media consumption.

In classic new-media fashion, I was tipped last week to a thought-provoking article about John F. Kennedy, written in a magazine I had never previously read: The New Statesman. I enjoyed the article and have included it in the selections below.

But then, based on my enjoyment of the source, I clicked on a link to another column and — similarly to my dad’s reasoning — began reading numerous articles I would have missed had I not visited the site and looked around. I now subscribe to the feed of The New Statesman — an offbeat choice, by the way, in that it is a English magazine that can often be very Brit-specific in its tone and issues. I happened to enjoy the intellectual and nuanced style of writing, appreciating the writers’ abilities to take singular issues and make universal points.

Call it a meld of old- and new-world media consumption. Both mentalities have their merits, and in this case they made for a delightful hour of reading and learning.

The Camelot delusion: John F. Kennedy’s legacy 50 years on (8/15/13, The New Statesman): This was the article that got me hooked. Naturally, it is the one piece from this UK magazine that deals with American affairs.

And, of course, it delves into one of the more widely discussed topics among U.S. historians: the success, failure, and legacy of the JFK presidency.

Nearly a half-century removed from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, historians disagree almost as staunchly on his legacy as they do his murder. Some describe him as a well-meaning crusader who lit the match for greater victories that came after his death. Others call him vastly overrated, a president whose tangible successes never matched his oratory skills and celebrity.

I enjoyed this take on JFK from David Runciman, in which he examines the arguments of several historians and critics while offering his own. He approaches the subject with a distinct opinion but respect for all sides — a novel and appreciated way of writing during this age of histrionics and hemming to one side of an issue.

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PODCAST EPISODE #5: Andrew Carroll, author, “Here Is Where”

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To this point, the Telling The Story podcast has focused on short-form storytellers.

I have interviewed a multimedia journalist, a former sports anchor, a television photographer, and a newspaper photographer. Each person produces his or her work quickly, usually on deadline, in the often ephemeral format of daily media.

Not this guest.

Andrew Carroll joins me on the fifth episode of the Telling The Story podcast. He is a two-time New York Times best-selling author who has just released a mammoth, 450-page tome called Here Is Where, which tells a giant handful of forgotten stories from America’s history. In researching and putting together this book, Carroll has produced a phenomenal piece of storytelling.

I wrote about Here Is Where several weeks ago in a book review that focused both on Carroll’s storytelling and his themes. The book left me spellbound by its conclusions about the role of history in present society.

Here is what I wrote at the time:

Here Is Where is absolutely worth a read. It is the first book I can remember that captivated me with its content while truly making me think about larger, cosmic concepts and connecting me with history in a way that seemed real and palpable.

Carroll is nearly as good a podcast guest as he is a storyteller. In the podcast, we cover a ton of ground, touching on a variety of subjects including:

  • The importance of history, and particularly these forgotten stories: “There are still all these great stories around us, and they connect us in ways we don’t even realize.”
  • The best advice he was ever given: “Don’t write to be published. Write because you love to write. Write because it changes your view of the world. Write because it makes you more attentive to what’s around you.”
  • On the pros and cons of modern media: “I do wonder overall how much the art of conversation is being lost … because the art of conversation is so much a part of writing.”

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Andrew Carroll: “Every writer has to be a reader”

If there is such a thing as the Telling the Story Blog trifecta, Andrew Carroll has completed it.

I first mentioned the author and his book, Here Is Where, on my 3 Great Stories segment.

Then, after reading the book last month, I wrote a commentary in the form of a review about the masterpiece he had produced.

Now, I am proud to introduce Carroll as my latest guest on the Telling the Story podcast.

Carroll is a two-time New York Times best-selling author whose most recent work, Here Is Where, is a look at the forgotten stories from America’s history. The author road-tripped across — and even beyond! — the continental United States to fulfill the mission.

Come back to tellingthestoryblog.com Wednesday at 8 AM to hear the full podcast with myself and Carroll. We talk about a variety of subjects, delving into the overarching themes of his book and examining the storytelling process one chooses when facing the mountainous challenge of writing a 450-page book.

Carroll also offers his advice for young writers. His first pearl of wisdom? If you want to write well, you need to read. A lot.

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How to become a better writer in two easy lists

One of the greatest things about maturing as a writer? You write so much that you have seen every cliche around, and you know not to use them.

One of the toughest things about maturing as a writer? You write so much that you must continue to write creatively without using cliches — or the creative lines you have already used.

Writers and journalists of any kind — be it video, audio, photography, or print — must make a conscious and continual effort to avoid repetition in what can be a repetitious job.

For sure, every story is unique; this is one of the great joys of working in journalism. Less unique, however, are story types. This year alone, a journalist may have already attended so many press conferences or city council meetings or sporting events that he or she struggles to find ways to cover them creatively.

I welcome any outside perspective that encourages me not to get too comfortable as a storyteller.

In the past few days, I have come across two such perspectives I feel compelled to share.

On Friday, Washington Post writer Carlos Lozada wrote the article, “To be sure, journalists love cliches”. After an introduction where Lozada intentionally uses cliches to write about the importance of not using them — a technique that, frankly, seemed a little cliche to me — he gets to the good stuff. Lozada produces a lengthy list of banned phrases and, as he writes, “Things We Do Not Say” in the newsroom.

Among his targets:

  • Be that as it may
  • Needless to say
  • [Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0 or 4.0 …)
  • At a crossroads

(Believe me, this is a mere taste; Lozada writes at least 50 of these …)

Print out this list, and make sure your scripts and articles include none of its items.

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