Monday, November 30, 2009

Virtual handout on reporting/writing profiles

Hey all, Jacqui sent an edited version of a presentation on profiles that she gave at the Nieman Narrative conference in 2003.

For those who missed our video session with her today, I'll blog on it Tuesday. But the doc she sent along covers a chunk of what she talked about today.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reading list for Monday's videoconference

Hey all, here is info on Jacqui's session Monday, including stories she'd like us to read.

Monday, 4:30 p.m., big conference room

TOPIC: Profiles

  • definition of profile (character rather than resume)
  • core elements of good profiles
  • some types of approaches to profiles
  • some reporting/interviewing techniques especially useful in profile reporting
  • doing these types of stories on people on the 'fringe.'
  • also: come ready to ask questions/participate. Jacqui has an exercise she wants us to do; no advance work required, she says, but will require us talking to each other, etc.

READING LIST: Jacqui's reading list for this session. Read these before the session if you can because she will be using them as examples:

Terri Schiavo:

For the other links (which for some reason I could not post here), go to this wave:!w%252B2hhd9i8VA

If you're not on Wave yet, please ask someone who is to print out the stories.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Picture book news story

This is super cool.

There's not that much text here, but it's a complete story. I love the use of photos, creative fonts and the poem-like quality of the writing.

I'm not totally sure how this page was built for the Web. I'm not sure if the writing is handwritten (the author is also an illustrator) or if it was done with a program that creates computer fonts using your handwriting.

Regardless, I'm sure this would take some time to create. Kind of like the slow food movement the story tells us about.

Any ideas on how difficult it is to create a page like this online?

I'd say it's worth it because it's a use of the Web to tell stories in a creative, new way. And as a bonus, this was one of the paper's top-viewed pages.

The skinny on breaking news writing for the web

A few days ago I linked to our Harley contract coverage, during which Cathy took some suggestions from Jacqui Banaszynski's webinar on writing breaking news from the web.

Here is a condensed look at what Jacqui talked about (and here is a link to a more thorough handout Amy got when she was at Poynter). Mike H., Jeff, Cathy and Lyzz were in the webinar, so any of you guys are invited to add/comment on what I have here. (And I suggest you check out that document, which will have more detail than I'll go into here).

From Jacqui:

In good web writing, form follows function -- so if the function in breaking news is to let people know exactly what's happening as quickly as possible, there are specific ways to do that. She breaks them down into:
  1. Priority -- be clear about what's most important; avoid dramatic writing; consider gathering key elements into a summary before going into detail
  2. Efficiency -- people online are snapshot readers, scanners, so make key news easily found and digested; use labels and links; consider arranging stories horizontally instead of vertically (that's a web-page-design challenge)
  3. Clarity -- context and significance are crucial; info needs to be literal and explained; don't assume readers know background; be specific, because vague terms subdue meaning
  4. Brevity -- lay out info in scannable bursts; use sentence structures that are easily absorbed (think subject-verb-object, and beware of clauses and a lot of modifying phrases
  5. Audience-think (or, writing with common sense) -- anticipate readers' questions and answer them at/near the top of the story; if you don't know something yet, say you don't know it and (at least imply) that you are trying to find out, instead of writing around it; invite the reader back and let them know when you'll post again (if you know).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What good editors do, by Stephen King

Like so much of what we discuss in here, King is talking about fiction writing/editing (specifically, editor Gordon Lish and writer Raymond Carver), but what he says certainly applies to our newsroom, or any newsroom:

In King’s opinion, “a good editor should improve the writer’s work by doing a number of useful things: posing questions the writer should have answered and didn’t, suggesting places where thematic concerns can be reinforced to make a more pleasing whole, and pointing out (gently) infelicities of language. What an editor should never do is superimpose his or her own beliefs about style and story on the author’s work. An editor should be an expert midwife, not a surrogate parent.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why can't we resist finding out what happens next?

You gotta watch this (scroll a bit down the page to see the video). You can watch the whole 30-minute video, of course, but if you fast forward to the 10:45 mark, you'll see/hear Ira Glass, brilliant storyteller on the radio show This American Life, tell a story about a story.

In between playing snippets of the story, he reveals why TAL stories are so damn compelling -- no matter what they're about -- and even better, he dissects why.

The story he's playing gets to a point of what's going to happen next when Glass turns off the tape and says, "At this point, nobody turns off the radio." And then he asks why. If you think about the facts in the story, he says, "This is actually not that interesting of a story. ... And yet, suspense has been created. Why? How does that happen?"

He breaks it down until about the 20-minute mark. It's gold.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jacqui/Monday: On profiles

Hey all (and in case you haven't seen the e-mail Amy sent out Saturday),

A quick reminder that Jacqui's next videoconference with us is 4:30 p.m. Monday, for an hour. She will talk about profiles -- how to identify, how to report, how to write short -- and will touch on doing profiles on people some would identify as being on the "fringe" (see this blog post).

If you want to do some reading beforehand, I sent Jacqui some of the links that come up when you click the "profiles" tag on this blog.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A lot accomplished in a minimum of space

I started reading this story because I saw the headline about a fatal shooting at Ferrum College, which is a) near where I used to live outside Roanoke, Va. and b) near Virginia Tech, which has had a string of tragedies in recent years. (And, for baseball fans, c) Ferrum is the alma mater of Billy Wagner, who was pitching there when I was covering sports in Roanoke. Pardon the digression.)

But I'm linking to the story here because I think the writer, Brigid Schulte, did a nice job of taking the two people at the center of the story and starting each in motion, one after the next, with enough background that they are people and not just names, and then bringing them together -- all in five paragraphs.

And in the sixth graf, I think she artfully brings out the questions that everyone is or will be asking, but does it without assigning blame or beginning to create a good guy-bad guy setup. Importantly, I think it attempts to defuse emotional reaction (think: comments section) to what happened by straightforwardly telling you that the story is going to cover that ground.

If she didn't do that intentionally, then what she wrote at least works toward doing that job, and is worth noting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Writing breaking news for the web

Several of us, including Cathy, watched Jacqui Banaszynski's webinar a couple days ago on writing for the web.

This morning, Cathy has put into practice some of what she learned from that seminar on the Harley contract breaking news story. Check it out.

I'll blog more about Jacqui's webinar and the concepts she laid out, including the ones Cathy is using in organizing the Harley coverage. But briefly, what Cathy is doing now is delivering news to people quickly, in an organized way, with cues like subheads to guide them. The presentation makes it easier to absorb and understand what's going on, for a scanning online reader, than if all of that were being delivered graf-after-graf. More traditional stories may/will evolve as the day goes on.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Covering what some consider the 'fringe' demands our best

This story hit home with me. It's not a great narrative, or even a great feature story. It's The Washington Post's ombudsman explaining why he thinks the paper was doing its job when it did a takeout on one of the most visible leaders of the "Birther" movement.

The Post caught flack for story because many people -- readers (and journalists, too, I'm sure) -- think the "Birther" people are wackos, and giving them ink gives them credibility, and giving them credibility is wrong and could even be dangerous.

We caught the same kind of flack a couple weeks ago when we put a Twitter gadget online to pull in tweets from an anti-health-bill rally in D.C.

"why are you covering this like it's a legitimate story?" AdamBeck5 asked. I responded (on behalf of the YDR account): "There were York County voices in a national debate about a huge issue that might be resolved in a couple of days. Seemed timely."

The Twitter widget is its own animal; it's basically just a ticker of opinions and thoughts on a particular topic. But I think it's critical for us to remember that, when we report on controversial issues, people or organizations, we ask questions that need to be asked and answered, and we tell stories about why people are acting in the way they are. If we do those stories well -- if we have context, if the tone is right, if we aim to shed light on the issue and the actors -- we are doing our job.

In fact, in a way, we are doing the best work we can possibly do. People are doing things, trying to accomplish things -- why? what does it mean? who agrees with them? who opposes them? What does this tell us about our society and culture?

Sometimes we assess a policy stance or a line of thought or a course of action -- e.g., the "Birther" movement -- as being so off the charts that to treat it seriously is to undercut ourselves as serious journalists. My argument here is that we do exactly the opposite; we make ourselves indispensable.

The key is to get it right. And to do that, the reporting has to be deep; the writing must tell a true story, keeping spin and lies out; and the piece must not have, as its goal, to discredit its subjects. And to do all that, we have to shed the idea that we're wasting our time on a fringe element that we shouldn't be "legitimizing." We are, in fact, doing good journalism.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Time-waster ... or maybe something more

Don't know if any of you have fooled around with Scribd, a site where you can upload your own documents, read or download documents from others and do social networking/sharing stuff. But if you're in one of those web-surfing moods where you're just poking around at different sites, check it out.

I put a couple things on there from brown baggers I've done. Apparently a more than a few people have found them. Also, on Scribd, you can subscribe to others so their docs show up in your feed. This morning, I discovered I have a subscriber from Italy and one from Spain. Can't imagine how they found me, or that they're all that interested in the YDR's narrative writing efforts, but anyway, it's cool.

Some people also publish fiction on the site.

The other thing about Scribd is it could be useful as a way to discover sources (or information or leads) for stories. It's searchable, so you can plug in whatever term you're dealing with and see if something useful comes up.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

No fair if police are going to write their own narratives

In the official, official report, the Florida cop wrote this:

"Officer Ashe was driving home in Pasco County when he observed an alligator blocking the roadway. He attempted to use his vehicle to scare it out of the road. The alligator became agitated and bit his bumper causing approximately $500 worth of damage. Report will be routed to City Claims/Risk Management."
But here is a St. Petersburg Times story about the initial report he filed. Maybe he wanted a byline in the paper?