wxia

Embracing the unpredictable, and producing better stories

The pitch was a slam dunk.

We had been seeking potential stories for our November ratings period — promotable pieces that would provide those moments everyone shares and discusses the following day. Since I specialize in those emotional epics, I had been tabbed with securing them.

And then the e-mail came in.

A 92-year-old World War II Veteran, who happened to be the e-mailer’s father, would soon receive the chance to fly in the very type of plane he flew during the war. The man, named John Tarabula, was celebrating 69 years of marriage to his wife, Jo.

The e-mail caught the attention of many in the 11Alive newsroom, and I volunteered to do the story. No matter what happened on the actual flight, we assumed, the piece would practically write itself.

It didn’t.

I arrived at the Tarabula household the morning of the flight, planning to interview John and Jo and shoot some footage of the couple before heading out to the airfield.

Within minutes, I learned John had no intention of going up in that plane. (more…)

Tom Brokaw, Brenda Wood, and learning from legends

An icon was in the building, and everyone knew it.

Technically, he was on the phone, but that did not matter to the 20 students in the Broadcast Writing class at Northwestern University.

We were juniors in college, we were aspiring anchors and reporters, and we were about to speak to Tom Brokaw.

The whole situation had taken everyone by surprise. We had arrived at the TV lab for our usual class, only to be greeted by the chair of our broadcast department, Joe Angotti.

“I think we’re going to be able to get Brokaw on the phone,” he announced.

Angotti, I should mention, was once Brokaw’s executive producer at NBC Nightly News. We students already knew that fact and revered Angotti accordingly, but we never expected this.

The man can just summon Tom Brokaw on an ordinary weekday afternoon? What other mystical powers does he possess?

But our questions about Angotti quickly gave way to our excitement about Brokaw.

He’s calling? Right now? About what?

And then, once the A/V folks in the journalism lab had patched Brokaw’s call to the classroom’s speaker system, we waited until …

“Hello?”

That voice — part gravel, part gravitas — confirmed our hopes. Tom Brokaw was on the line. (more…)

10 pieces of journalism advice from Paul Crawley

I try to use the Telling The Story blog — and accompanying podcast — to provide advice journalists and storytellers often do not receive.

Or, if the advice is similar, I try to find a unique vessel for it.

My latest podcast guest, the newly-retired Paul Crawley from my station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, is such a vessel.

As I recorded the podcast, I could not help the appreciate the perspective Crawley had gained from more than 40 years as a TV reporter, the final 36 of which came at 11Alive.

I felt like the wisdom deserved to be written, as well.

And so, much like I did after my podcast with Michael Driver, I want to offer the ten greatest kernels from a guy with a lot to give:

Thank goodness for the Internet: “The Internet was the second biggest communication revolution behind the printing press. Prior to the printing press, only a handful of people knew what the Bible said.”

But you have to use it right: “The problem now is that there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to sort through it all. We still have to worry about verifying it ourselves. That’s when somebody makes a mistake and it gets perpetuated by everyone.”

And be sure to utilize your own memory: “I remember I was at a news conference not long ago where a long-time politico trying to make a comeback announced for sheriff. And in the back of my mind, I remembered he had voted down police raises at one time. So I just sat in my car and started Googling and came up with all this great stuff. I went into the press conference and tore him to pieces.” (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #20: Paul Crawley, reporter, WXIA-TV

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Of all the qualities and personality traits I will miss about Paul Crawley, I will miss one the most:

He is, every day, on time for work.

More than that, he is early for work.

Rare is the day at 11Alive when our 9:30 morning meeting actually begins at 9:30. Typically it kicks off at 9:35 with a sparse crowd in attendance, and then most reporters arrive in the next 5-10 minutes. They can show up a little late because they generally remain secure in the fact that (A) they will still have a job tomorrow, and (B) as long as they show up with strong story pitches, all will be forgiven.

Paul Crawley plays by the same rules, and given his longevity and continued value to the station, he could probably get away with pulling into the 11Alive parking lot at 10 AM each day.

But he shows up before 10, and even before 9.

Crawley arrives at 8:45 AM every morning. He then spends the next 45 minutes making calls, scouring local media web sites across metro Atlanta, and filling up a notepad page with potential stories for the coming day.

Not surprisingly, he almost always contributes more story ideas than anyone else at the table.

On July 31st, Crawley will retire from WXIA-TV in Atlanta after 36 years at the station — and more than four decades in the industry. He has won seven regional Emmys and an Edward R. Murrow award, covered just about every beat imaginable, and recently volunteered to become a backpack journalist … after three decades of working as a traditional reporter.

Crawley is my latest guest on the Telling The Story podcast. (more…)

5 lessons learned from 5 years reporting in Atlanta

Last week I celebrated a very special anniversary:

My Atlanta-versary.

I have officially lived and worked in Atlanta, Ga. for five years. I have not lived anywhere this long since high school, and I have enjoyed the chance to truly settle down and plant roots in a major U.S. metropolis.

(That chance, by the way, is by no means a guarantee when one dives into the field of broadcast journalism. I have appreciated that fact from the moment I arrived in ATL.)

In both journalism and life, my time in Atlanta has been pivotal.

My first few TV jobs came with a seemingly endless variety of responsibilities and opportunities. I worked in both news and sports, filled numerous roles in each department, learned my strengths and weaknesses, and developed my identity as a journalist and storyteller.

When I was offered a job at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, I noticed a few obvious differences. I would only work in news, not sports, and I would be surrounded by a staff of veteran journalists, most of whom largely served specific roles had logged far more miles than their newest colleague.

My life outside the newsroom also changed dramatically. Always one to explore the regions where I lived, I found myself bombarded by the excitement of a bustling big-market city. Even five years later, Atlanta never fails to keep me busy and engaged, with opportunities to blossom socially and civically.

Combine those changes with the natural maturity of an adult in his late 20’s and 30’s, and it adds up to an invaluable half-decade in the Peach State.

So what exactly have I learned? I could never fit it all into one article, but here are five major lessons from the last five years that have strengthened my work as a journalist: (more…)

My favorite entries of 2013

From a career standpoint, I will remember many things about 2013.

I did a great deal of traveling, took part in several extraordinary long-form projects, and continued to grow as a journalist and storyteller.

On top of that, I started this blog.

I have greatly enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to develop the “Telling The Story” blog, particularly because of the dialogue it has generated. I look forward to continuing it as 2013 ends and 2014 begins.

For now, here is a look at my favorite entries from the year that was. I will take next Wednesday off for the new year, and then I will ramp up the content for 2014.

Without further ado, my five favorite pieces from 2013:

Introduction: The Storyteller’s Manifesto — This is the piece that started it all. If you want to know the spirit behind this blog, this is the entry to read.

Ten years later: what I learned (and didn’t learn) at J-school — Upon my ten-year anniversary of my final class at college, I look back on my evolving feelings on what I learned there. This got a lot of reaction from my friends in both the journalism and Northwestern University communities.

The search for Evan Gattis, and the journey of journalism — This is one of those examples of my behind-the-scenes journey as a storyteller. In this case, the journey involves a trip across the state of Texas to tell the story of a rising Major League baseball star.

The Emily Bowman story, and finding honesty amidst heartbreak — Thousands have read this story that looks at another of my pieces for WXIA-TV, this time on the tragic story of a Georgia teen named Emily Bowman. It’s worth a read to learn more about the inner conflicts often faced by journalists.

5 lessons from the Best American Sports Writing of 2013 — I posted this entry earlier this month. Journalists can always learn from other journalists; here, take a look at what I learned from some of the best written work in sports journalism.

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PODCAST EPISODE #13: “Best Of” Advice Edition, 2013

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This year has been a blast.

Since launching the Telling The Story podcast in April, I have interviewed twelve great journalists and storytellers about their work.

With the year wrapping up, I decided to take a look back.

I compiled some of the best moments from the past year into a “Best Of” advice edition of the Telling The Story podcast. Hear from eight terrific storytellers about their thoughts on what makes a great storyteller, such as:

  • Jon Shirek: my first podcast guest and my co-worker at WXIA-TV in Atlanta
  • Anne Herbst: a versatile news photographer and now assistant chief photographer at KDVR-TV in Denver
  • Matt Detrich: a longtime staff photographer at the Indianapolis Star
  • Andrew Carroll: the author of the fascinating new book, Here Is Where
  • Roman Mars: the esteemed host of 99% Invisible, and my most popular podcast guest to date
  • Erin Brethauer: multimedia editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times, and — for a week this year — the overseer of the New Yorker’s Instagram account
  • Tomas Rios: a self-described paid-lance sportswriter whose work has appeared in Slate and Deadspin
  • Rachel Hamburg: a recent graduate of Stanford and the managing editor of the Stanford Storytelling Project

It’s a solid group of storytellers, and they offer some great advice.

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My Thanksgiving thank-you column

I started this blog nine months ago not knowing what to expect.

I was not sure whether anyone would read it; I was not sure I would be able to commit to it; and I was not sure if doing it would ultimately feel as rewarding as I hoped it would be.

Nine months later, I am happy to answer “Yes” to all three questions.

Developing the “Telling The Story” blog has been a great experience so far. And while it has mostly been a solitary experience — I run a relatively autonomous ship over here — it has allowed me to engage with people in a variety of ways across the media landscape.

At this time of taking stock and giving thanks, I would like to give my thanks — both verbally and through links — to the many people who have helped enrich both the blog itself and my personal experience in writing it:

Thanks to my bosses. This blog exists in part because of the blessings of the higher-ups at my full-time job. I am proud to say that I have done some of my best work yet for 11Alive/WXIA-TV this year, and I think I have improved as a storyteller because I constantly examine storytelling in this space.

Thanks to my podcast guests. I am greatly appreciative of the 13 individuals who have taken their time to be interviewed for my Telling The Story podcast. Of those 13, eight of them had never met or spoken with me before, and in many cases I was pleasantly surprised with how quickly they responded and set up an interview.

Case in point: my most recent guests, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the filmmakers behind the powerful documentary American Promise. I watched the film on a Saturday night, contacted them Sunday morning, heard back less than an hour, and interviewed them that Tuesday.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Veterans Day and an Atlanta documentary

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 generally try to avoid using this space to promote the work of my colleagues at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. It would almost be too easy; the reporters at my station constantly impress me with their thought-provoking and emotional work.

This week I made an exception.

One of the “3 Great Stories” of the week is a long-form documentary that ran on our station on Friday. We tackled a harrowing topic in a big way, and our work made a tangible impact.

But first, I found myself divided on two terrific stories involving veterans — stories that would seem to contrast each other in terms of mentality.

Help veterans by taking them off the pedestal (11/10/13, The Atlantic): Veterans Day brings with it a cavalcade of celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations of those who served in the U.S. military. It also typically brings, from a storytelling standpoint, reflexive pieces that unquestionably honor those who risk their lives in our country’s name.

Rarely does one find a story that questions that mindset — and does so with thought-provoking effectiveness.

But that’s what Alex Horton, a one-time infantryman in Iraq, does here.

Horton makes a compelling argument that, by putting veterans on a pedestal, our society is unintentionally hindering them. We tend to view veterans, Horton says, in one-dimensional terms — either as sacrosanct heroes or risky choices to serve us in civilian life. I particularly appreciated an early paragraph where he recounts discussions with members of the Greatest Generation:

I once talked to a World War II veteran about the experience of attending college after coming home, and asked if it was jarring to sit next to those who never served. I wondered if veterans huddled together under the umbrella of mutual understanding and thought less of civilians who never shouldered a rifle. His answer was surprising. They were proud of their time in uniform, he said, but for many, the war interrupted their lives, and education was a return to normalcy. Instead of a victory lap, they were more interested in getting back on track.

Very deep stuff here … bringing complexity to what is often viewed in simpler terms.

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Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera

It’s a sad but true hurdle about working as a TV news reporter:

People act differently — often way so — when they know they are being recorded.

Generally, this rears its head when trying to gather information on touchy subjects. Sources and contacts will often divulge far more after an interview than during it, and they feel much freer to provide information when they know they will not be taped saying it.

(This happens before interviews as well. Journalists everywhere can recall countless times when they spoke with someone on the phone, received valuable insight or information, and then asked that person to say the same thing in an on-camera interview, only to be told, “Whoa, whoa … I can’t say that on camera.”)

But the gaze of the lens does not just affect a story’s flow of information. It affects a story’s flow of emotion.

People get nervous or hesitant for a whole host of reasons once they know they will be recorded. For the most part, they simply do not have experience with having their actions documented, and often they respond by behaving how they feel they “should” behave, instead of how they genuinely want to behave.

For storytellers like myself who specialize in emotional stories, this creates a giant challenge.

But when you surmount that challenge and capture genuine emotion — and put your viewers in a position to appreciate that emotion — you feel tremendous about what you can achieve in this business.

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