Friday, April 20, 2012

What I learned: Bill Landauer on letting sources talk

We've all heard that interviewing tip: In conversation, human beings are uncomfortable with silence and often will say something to break the silence. Here's how that played out for Bill Landauer, who worked with Teresa Boeckel and Sean Adkins on Are we ready, which won first place in investigative reporting (Division II) at the Keystone Press Awards.
During the Are We Ready project, I learned from Teresa Boeckel the importance of letting someone talk in an interview. I've never been sure if it's just instinct or if she's aware she's doing it, but when Teresa asks questions afterward she just stops talking and stares at the subject for a few moments, even at the end of a conversation. People like me are quick to want to insert language into an uncomfortable silence, but as we interviewed our local emergency team, Teresa stopped talking, and eventually someone would restate something they'd said, but in a more clarifying or telling way.
What other interviewing tips to you have? (And check out all entries in the "What I learned" series.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What I learned: John Hilton on avoiding cliches

YDR staffers who won Keystone Awards learned about everything from blending in to dealing with roadblocks to having difficult conversations with sources. Religion reporter John Hilton's story about the result of a fire at a local church was part of a Thanksgiving-day series on people who were thankful even though they'd lost something or experienced a difficult time. It won first place in special projects in the Keystone Awards.
This story came about soon after an exercise on trite writing in which the entire newsroom participated. We were shown a photo and asked to write 150-200 words in the most trite phrases we could produce. Competitive as I am, I was determined to win the gift card at stake. And I can admit now that I cheated a bit, searching the web for trite words and phrases to boost my entry.
I didn't win the gift card, but I gained a new insight into predictable writing. To this day, I am thinking about that exercise with every story I write. I force myself to try new words and phrases and to avoid the tritest of the trite. Sometimes the results are rejected by an editor, but it's still a good learning exercise.
I love John's effort to avoid cliches even if it means trying a word or phrase that doesn't work. Why settle for writing the same old stuff everyone else is writing?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What I learned: Bill Landauer on observation

Bill Landauer's story Doc rodeo won honorable mention for personality profile in the Keystone Press Awards. (Jason Plotkin's art was pretty dang good, too.) In another installment about what YDR staffers took from their honored work, here's Bill about what he learned while doing that story:
 The Doc Rodeo story reinforced why often as a reporter you need to just shut up and keep your eyes open. Most of that story came from watching, not from questioning. Doug Olle, the physical therapist, had access to the ring that Jason and I didn't have. We were allowed to hang with him on the sidelines, but we couldn't go into the ring. So we interviewed him first for a few minutes, then ran around trying to keep up with him, running in and out of exits and dodging bull calfs to watch him watching the riders. We could chat with him, but he was busy. Hours into the rodeo, he seemed to forget we were there, so after he sewed up a guy's mangled chin, we got to watch him talking shop and relating to the cowboys on a personal level, which was what we were hoping for.
 Observing and taking good notes, and then deciding to use just the best of those descriptive notes in your story, is a key to excellent work. (Plus, it can give you good material to use if your subject isn't talkative, or if you don't have a lot of time together). Anyone else have a good story to share about how observation played a role in a story?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What I learned: Kate Penn on sound

More shared wisdom from York Daily Record/Sunday News staffers whose work was recently honored in the Keystone Awards. Photographer Kate Penn won first place in the video storytelling category for her video "Equine smile restoration." From Kate:
This video reinforced the knowledge that sound really drives video. "Equine Smile Restoration" features the sound of grinding horse teeth, whinnies and coaxing. These sounds layer with the subject's smooth voice telling his compelling story of being laid off and changing careers. This video reminds me that if you slow down and take the time to capture compelling audio, the story can tell itself. Also, people love weird animal stories.
Maybe that last line is all you really need to know about this one. But seriously ... you can see how Kate's attraction to the sounds she encountered, and her decision to use that sound to help build the video, paid off. What sensory things do you encounter in your work that you can use to help tell stories?

What I learned: Chris Dunn on blending in

Photographer Chris Dunn won second place in the photo story category of the Keystone Awards for Football fanfare. Here's her insight, adding to our collection of what our staffers learned from working on their winning entries. From Chris:
Shooting a photo package about one Friday night football game at West York meant I had to “embed” myself with the football players, the cheerleaders, the fans, the coaching staff, the marching band, everybody. Photographers have to be able to blend in effortlessly and gain enough trust from the people they’re photographing. So covering all these aspects of the game and the before-and-after was a good exercise not only in trying to show what a high school football game demands of everybody involved, but also in having to work with a lot of people in not a lot of time.
I'm always amazed to hear photographers talk about becoming inconspicuous, given that they're usually draped with equipment and often right in the middle of whatever they're shooting. What tips do you have for blending in?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What I learned: Leigh Zaleski on finding connections

Latest post in an effort to collect and share some wisdom from staffers whose work was recently honored in the Keystone Awards. Features reporter Leigh Zaleski won first place in the feature beat reporting category. Her beat entry: Food. From Leigh:
People have various connections to food. Other than sustenance, it might be their passion, livelihood, heritage, joy or enemy. On this beat, I sought to draw such connections, looking deep to find meaning and understand what role food played in each story. I learned that while details in stories are different, people share similar relationships to food. Being aware of and striving to portray those relationships helped me to become a better storyteller.
 I love the thought process that began with "other than sustenance..." and allowed Leigh to think about -- and then find stories about -- how food means different things to different people. Who else has a beat or a topic they cover that offers such opportunities for connections?

What I learned: Erin McCracken on difficult conversations

Third take on what our staffers learned from pieces they worked on that recently won Keystone Awards. Erin McCracken won first place in the feature story category for Fighting to conceive, about an obese couple trying to have a child. From Erin:

I learned to navigate uncomfortable conversations. I had to ask the Flickingers about their weight, menstrual cycles, sexual history, etc. At times, they were hesitant to answer. But at our first meeting, we agreed on why the story mattered: It might help the Flickingers find a solution and/or help others with similar struggles. When things got dicey, I reminded them about that goal to shift their focus from what they were sharing to why they were sharing it. 
Great advice to anyone who struggles -- and if you're in this business, you inevitably will -- to help people feel  comfortable, or at least willing, to share the kind of sensitive, personal information that resonates with readers. Anyone else have any success stories like Erin's?

Friday, April 13, 2012

What I learned: Sean Adkins on roadblocks

Second installment from our staff's Keystone Award winners on what they learned. Business reporter Sean Adkins was part of a team that won first place in investigative reporting for "Are we ready?" -- a look at evacuation plans, and their weak spots, for Three Mile Island and Peach Bottom nuclear power plants.

One of the most difficult tasks in telling a good story is weaving hard facts together with a strong narrative. Even more challenging is to persuade sources to give you important information amid the backdrop of a national story.
     We started reporting the "Are We Ready?" package weeks after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.  Initially, my nuclear sources were quick to point out that such a crisis befalling either Three Mile Island or Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station was remote.
      Once those interviews were in my notebook, those same sources appeared a bit skittish about speaking any further on the subject.  My guess is that they were simply waiting for that particular news cycle to expire.
   In one case, a source took issue with the fact that I reported, at the time, emergency sirens surrounding one of the nuclear-powered plants did not have a battery back-up. That source questioned why I hadn't focused on the most positive aspects of a recent meeting that found favor with the plant's operating record.
    The information about sirens made it into the "Are We Ready" package.
    Would my source have been more accepting of my reporting/questions if Fukushima had not taken place?   I don't know.  Maybe.
As I recall, Sean (and Teresa Boeckel and Bill Landauer, the other reporters on the project) kept going back to sources until they got what they needed. Persistence pays.

What I learned: John Clayton on trust

 The York Daily Record/Sunday News won 22 Keystone Awards in judging announced Thursday; many of those were writing/reporting awards, and by many different staffers.

I asked those staffers if they'd tell me, in 50-75 words, something they learned about storytelling (or generally about writing or photography/visual work) as they worked on the piece that was honored; or how they are trying to be better storytellers now than they were a year ago.

I'll share them on the blog as they come in with the hope that they create a kind of online roundtable about what we can learn from doing great work.

 Here's sports reporter John Clayton. He won first place in the sports story category for Stand strong, a profile of William Penn football player Anderson Novalin, who grew up in Haiti.

To me, this story reinforced the importance of trust. Anderson had seen some awful things in Haiti -- dead bodies, people being killed, etc. -- and he had to trust me before he was going to share them. I had to put in time ... Anderson was pretty shy during our first sit down. But over time he opened up, and I was able to get the important events/scenes that made the story work.

 An excellent point about earning the trust of the person you're working with to help make a story deep and true. Anyone else have a similar experience to share?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

David Sedaris on writing: ‘Write every day ... with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane’

Bestselling author David Sedaris is coming to York Tuesday, April 17. He’ll read and talk about his writing at 7:30 p.m. After the program, he’ll sign books and chat with fans. Get details and tickets.

Sedaris got his big break in 1992 when he read his funny holiday essay "SantaLand Diaries" on NPR. Since then, he’s written seven books and short story collections. If you’re a writer or possess a sense of humor, you should read some Sedaris, if only to study his style.

During an April 3 phone interview, I chatted with Sedaris about his career and experience living abroad. Read the interview. But the conversation inevitably turned to writing. (You can’t fault me for trying to get some free advice!) Here is some of his (serious and playful) advice:

On voice:

Sedaris started writing when he was 20, mostly through diary entries. He said it was where he developed his voice. His humorous observations became the subject of many of his stories. Sedaris said he tries to maintain his voice regardless if he’s writing a book that millions will read or just jotting down something in his diary, which, for now, only he will view.

"I would die if anyone read it," he said of his diary. "I said to (my boyfriend) Hugh, ‘If I die, you can read it. There is nothing in there I haven’t said to your face at one point or another.’ "

On self-editing:

Like many writers, I sometimes spend way too much time analyzing a word or sentence. Sedaris said he’s even more meticulous. His pet peeve is repeating words. He tries to vary his phrases. He said that during his speaking tour this spring, he’ll probably spend a lot of time reading his new stories aloud in his hotel room.

"My editor says I’m being too hard on myself," Sedaris said. "I want to perfect these stories."

On giving advice to aspiring "writers":

Sedaris said he meets a lot of people who "decide one day that they’re going to be writers." He gets letters and clips from college and high school students. Sometimes, they claim to be in the Sedaris style.

"I’ve never written the word ‘gonna,’ " Sedaris pointed out. "(With) beginning writers, it’s so clunky ... and unbalanced. That’s normal. One thing that beginners don’t understand is that there is a rhythm to it."

Sedaris said that his biographical stories are probably not any funnier or weirder or better than anyone else's.

"There are 35 years of writing behind it," he said. "I think maybe that’s one of the differences."

Everyone starts somewhere, Sedaris said. He added that if he goes back to read his early writing he would "never stop throwing up."

Sedaris encounters even more people who want to pump him on information about how to become a famous, published author. That, too, makes him queasy.

"There is such a difference between wanting to write and wanting to get books published," he said.

Read, read, read:
"People who write have to read other people’s writing," Sedaris said. If not, he added, "you can’t grow. You need to know what else is out there."

His recommendation: "Write every day and read everything you can get your hands on. Write everyday ... with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane."

Sedaris said that if you find a voice you like, experiment with that style. But don’t try to be a carbon copy. He said that he loved Raymond Carver’s use of short, simple sentences.

"I got his book in the library and I thought, ‘I can do this,’ " he said. "Oh, God. It’s so much harder."

Sedaris said that when he edits early drafts of stories, he can tell if he’s been reading a strong stylist like Joan Didion.

"(I became) aware of how good I wasn’t," Sedaris said of his writing. "I had things to compare it to."

On realizing his passion:

In his late 20s, Sedaris attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I met people who were actually profoundly talented at visual art," he said. "I realized ... I’m a hard worker, but I’m not really talented. These people think about art every moment they’re awake. And I think about art for 45 minutes every day. I thought about writing the rest of the time."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

'Is this your first Kinkade?'

Some things just blindside me. For example, an artist named Thomas Kinkade just died. This was apparently big news. And in one of the stories, I read a line that said it was estimated that a Kinkade painting was hanging in one of every 20 U.S. homes.

I'd never heard of the guy. 

So naturally, when a Susan Orlean profile of Kinkade from 2001 showed up in my Feedly, it became my lunchtime reading.

What a reward. Orlean's use of detail and dialogue creates a profile of Kinkade before you actually meet him in the story. And when you do meet him, she lets him characterize himself with long, interview-y quotes that might not work were they not set up so well. 

But the greatest parts, I think, are Orlean's descriptions. A gallery, she writes, is set up to make you feel like "you had entered Thomas Kinkade's world, where it is always a dusky autumn evening in a small but prosperous English town."

 Kinkade paintings, she writes, are difficult to tell apart "because their effect is so unvarying -- smooth and warm and romantic, not quite fantastical but not quite real, more of a wishful and inaccurate rendering of what the world looks like, as if painted by someone who hadn't been outside in a long time."

 Of Kinkade himself, she writes: "If you see his paintings before you meet him, you might expect him to be wispy and pixie-like, but he is as brawny and good-natured as the neighborhood butcher. He has the buoyant self-assurance of someone who started poor and obscure but has always been sure he would end up rich and famous."

Go read for yourself. It's time well-spent.