Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When you write, pay attention to small things; they matter

Where a word appears in a sentence can affect what the sentence means. Take this sentence from today's Washington Post:

Grosvenor, 79, announced his retirement before a standing-room-only crowd -- fittingly -- in the Grosvenor Auditorium at the Society's headquarters, just a few blocks from the White House.

 Because the word 'fittingly' comes right after 'crowd,' so, to me, what the writer actually said was that it was fitting that Grosvenor announced his retirement before an SRO crowd. That could be true.

 But what I'm betting the writer wanted to say was that it was fitting that Gilbert Grosvenor announced his retirement in an auditorium with his family's name on it. Had the word 'fittingly' come after the word 'in,' that's what the sentence would have said.

 No doubt some would say I'm being too picky. Please share.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Things I didn't know about myself

I talked to a high school class last week about journalism ethics, the tough questions journalists face all the time, and about ethical problem-solving. The students had to write mini-reports about me and about the discussion. The teacher, with a kind note of thanks, mailed me the reports.

Most of them got it right, or at least close: They picked out a quote or an issue that we talked about and wrote about that.

Then there was this lead sentence:

"Most people have at least one thing they struggle with in their jobs, but few struggle with their morals the way Scott Blanchard does."

Thus wounded, I slink away, defenseless. Think of me what you will.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Am I 'in'?

Granted, it's not often we get the time to work on a story where these questions would come into play, but I thought this was great stuff from The Washington Post's Hank Steuver. He shared questions he asks himself to figure out whether he's spent enough time with his source.

Stuff like: Have I seen them with wet hair? Have I seen them shop? Have I seen the inside of their fridge?

Keep the list around (or the link to it). Might come in handy sooner than you think.

Monday, October 18, 2010

'How will I coach?'

A column with conflict and no resolution -- but that's the point. It's about a college football player, paralyzed during a game, and his high school coach's reaction. Good stuff.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Great editor doing what you might not expect

A few posts ago I mentioned the great editor Jan Winburn, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and said I wasn't sure who she was working for now. Turns out she's at CNN. I came across some tips she's writing for CNN's iReport boot camp.

I am fascinated by that. I kind of chuckle at the idea of an "iReporter," as CNN calls it, because I always think that that's what we used to call a "source," or, even more plainly, "people who saw something happen."

But now, in a time where journalists are regularly told that anyone can do their jobs (ability, skills, training and experience notwithstanding), we bestow titles upon them as though that disguises the fact that they are the same people reporters have always interviewed about breaking news, and they are doing exactly the same thing they would do if they were interviewed by a reporter -- they're telling their story. Somehow, the fact that they're submitting their own piece to a news organization, instead of talking to a reporter, makes all the difference.

Except now that story might be unfiltered by a journalist -- presumably one with ability, skills, training and experience, who could gather information and distill it to produce a strong piece of journalism. So instead of a well-reported and written story, you might get, "The tornado was unbelievable, and I even saw a cow flying through the air, LOL." OK, maybe that's hyperbole, but still.

And that brings us to Jan Winburn, who has edited some fantastic pieces for the Sun and AJC, and from whom any reporter and writer, at any stage of their career, has much to learn. She's providing tip sheets to "iReporters," but really, they're the same insight you'd get if you went to a writing seminar with her. And her tips (see link above, for example) lead to an exercise CNN asks its "iReporters" to do ("tell the story of an object that reveals something about someone you know.")

I'm not criticizing the effort, and I don't think that working journalists have a monopoly on reporting and writing skills. It's democratic to believe that anyone who wants to work to become a better reporter and writer can (and maybe even should) do so, and the more that do, the better journalism will become. I just hope CNN's "iReporters" -- and anyone else who may think the ability to type and hit "enter" puts their journalistic skills on par with people who do it for a living and care about doing it well -- truly understand and appreciate Winburn's coaching.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Interactive timeline: Different way to tell a story

Newspapers are pretty good with timelines, whether in print or online. But often they're simply text lists of a sequence of events. Some sites out there allow you to create an interactive timeline, as we did with the Snyder v. Phelps case below, showing how Albert Snyder and Westboro Baptist Church wound up before the Supreme Court. How does this work for you as a new way to tell this particular story? How could it have been better?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Laughs & more

I've touted this blog -- called Hyperbole and a Half -- to a couple people in the office, because it's funny as hell. But I figured I'd note it here as well, because it's really a form of storytelling.

 Check out, for example, this post. It's a straight-up narrative that reads like a graphic novel or comic. At a couple points, art alone picks up the narrative. It has dialogue. Conflict-resolution (although the resolution is less a dramatic conclusion than it is a gentle letting-you-come-down-from-laughing-so-hard ending).

 There has to be a story or two out there to approach this way, whether with art or photos. Be on the lookout.