Visit from the POTUS

Yesterday was the busiest day I’ve seen at The Times thus far. Not only was it the day all the state primary votes would be counted, but it was also the day a certain U.S. president was coming to visit.

And in the middle of it all was a surprise sonic boom heard ’round the Sound.

It’s an understatement to say we all kept busy. Even I, a lowly intern, wasn’t bored for a second. The minute I got to the newsroom that morning, I was immediately whisked off to the Westin Hotel downtown, where Obama was expected to visit for a private fundraiser for current U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the incumbent in the primary race. Hours before he arrived, mobs of protesters surrounded the hotel. Some of them wanted to open the U.S.-Mexico border and let all immigrants in. Some of them wanted the government to stop spending money on stimulus bills and bailouts. Some of them wanted the president to resign.

And some of them just wanted to sneak a peek of Barack, known in the newsroom as the POTUS (President of the United States).

Alas, even I didn’t get to see the guy, save for a glimpse of his silhouette in the back seat of a black SUV with tinted windows.

I did, however, get to see my name tacked onto the end of the front page story in the next day’s paper for contributed reporting. Plus, I got to see a photo I took on my cellphone on the newspaper’s home page!

And later at night, as the entire Metro staff was busy with election coverage, I went to Rainier Valley to cover a shooting that made it on the top 10 most read list today.

How can it get any better than this?

The nighttime police scanner: a hypothetical ethical dilemma

Today I pulled the night shift at The Seattle Times. On days when exciting things aren’t happening nonstop, it’s common for the reporter on the night shift to find him- or herself stationed next to the police scanner, listening for anything big. That’s me tonight.

It sounds boring, or perhaps to some it sounds depressing, listening to crimes happening in real time. But to me it’s actually fascinating. You get a glimpse into people’s lives all over the city, people who aren’t exactly having the best day–and it helps you feel what they feel. Crime reporters rarely feel empathy when they’re reporting; if they were empathetic all the time, they’d probably be emotional wrecks. But every once in a while, it’s good to sit by the scanner, keeping my normally detached self in check and allowing myself to feel emotions the victims of crimes feel.

I’m rarely emotional about the deaths, fires and car crashes I report on regularly. But as a fellow intern and I were chatting about the night shift earlier this evening, we asked a question we couldn’t answer: If something were to come up on the scanner that made us far more emotional than usual, could we in good conscience report on the incident?

More specifically, we discussed what would happen if, while we were alone in the newsroom, a victim on the scanner was someone we knew. Would it be a conflict of interest to report on the story?

What’s particularly difficult about this hypothetical issue is the time at which it happens: it’s late at night, and you’re the only one in the newsroom. All other reporters and editors have gone home. Were it during the day, you could easily pass it on to another reporter sitting near you if you felt uncomfortable covering a friend’s tragedy. But you’re alone, and someone has to cover the news. Is it too inconveniencing to ask any coworker to come in, especially considering that few Seattle Times employees live downtown, gas is expensive and there’s a lot of traffic in the city? Is it better to try your hardest to fight back the tears or nagging worry and do your job?

Please weigh in. This is something many young reporters–especially those in entry-level jobs covering the cops beat at night in small communities where everybody knows everybody else–might run up against.

Flying with the Blue Angels

A story assignment I got yesterday was perhaps the most fun assignment I’ve ever had.

I’ve been told that if someone gives you the opportunity to fly with the Blue Angels, you don’t say no. But initially, I did say no. I’ve never been big on risktaking, and I’ve never derived much pleasure from an adrenaline rush.

Then I learned I’d be riding in a chase plane alongside the Blue Angels and since photographers would be hanging out of the plane’s open side, there wouldn’t be any funny business. So I said yes.

Boy, I’m glad I did! My flight earned me a front-page centerpiece story in today’s paper and a biography and mug shot of myself to boot. Plus, the experience reminded me once again why I love this job so much: it lets me meet people from all walks of life and do things I’d never get to do were I not a member of the press. It enlightens me to perspectives I previously didn’t understand or wasn’t aware of. And it lets me begin sentences with conjunctions and end sentences with prepositions!

Another thing I love about this job–something few people mention when they wax poetic about the life of the reporter–is the feedback I get after I’m done with my work. The positive feedback reminds me that I’m making a valuable contribution to society, while the negative feedback (when it’s logical) makes me think about what I can do better in the future. I get plenty of both kinds of feedback here at the Times, more than I’ve ever gotten.

However, there’s always the occasional angry comment that isn’t useful to me, and I got several of those today. More than half the calls and e-mails I got this morning and afternoon following my page A1 debut concerned the headline. People were angry it called the Blue Angels “daredevils,” as it implies they’re reckless rather than practiced.

This morning I suggested to an editor that tomorrow’s front page read, in 100-point bold font, “REPORTERS DO NOT WRITE HEADLINES.”

Here’s a question I’ve been mulling all day today: as transparent organizations, how far should newspapers go to make readers aware of the news-gathering and -editing process? Is it necessary for readers to know the specifics, or is it just necessary for them to know the news?

In my thesis, I interviewed newspapers to find out about their copy editing practices both in print and online, and I came to the conclusion that newspapers should make these editing practices clear to readers, if only in a small box at the bottom of their web page. Readers who spot a mistake in a staff blog and ask, “Don’t you people have copy editors?” should know that blogs are not, in fact, copy edited at many newspapers.

In the same vein, I think people who angrily ask reporters why they chose specific words in a headline should know reporters don’t, in fact, write the headlines that adorn their stories.

A family tradition

Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman told us interns some great stories as he led us on a tour of the city last month. One of them concerned Frank Blethen, the paper’s publisher.

Years ago, a reporter investigated a few claims of unfair hiring practices at Nordstrom. The reporter found out the department store, founded in Seattle, treated minorities unfavorably and often denied them job opportunities. When Nordstrom caught wind of the Times’ intention to publish the expose, someone from the store called Blethen and demanded he pull the article, threatening to pull all the Nordstrom advertisements from the paper until further notice.

Many newspapers run by national corporations might have considered this a quandary. Blethen, whose great-grandfather founded the Times in 1896, needed all of one second to fashion a response. His answer to Nordstrom was, as Boardman said, “two words, and the second one was ‘you’.”

Nordstrom pulled their ads as promised, though a few months later, a meager number of Nordstrom ads once again began to appear in the paper. The store’s advertising presence in the Times has never been as great since that fateful article, but Blethen considers the loss in ad revenue well worth it.

While I know The Seattle Times, like other newspapers, has taken a financial hit in recent years, you’d never know it. Everyone here is jovial, friendly and enthusiastic , and I have heard not one word of post-layoff sadness or bitterness escape anyone’s lips. Breaking news appears on the website fast, no sweat. Even with a decrease in copy editors, investigative stories are always impeccably researched and fact-checked, not to mention mindblowingly thorough.

The newsroom environment here is by far the most positive and exciting I’ve witnessed. Why? I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I’ve heard several people say the fact that the Times is family-owned makes all the difference. Some say they’ve received job offers at bigger, more prestigious papers all over the country, but they turned down the offers because head honchos at other newspapers don’t look after their newsrooms the way the Times publisher does. Frank Blethen and his ancestors have all felt fiercely protective of the Times product and the company’s promise to expose the truth, so much so that they sometimes sacrifice profit to make sure the Times is the best it can be.

And in these a-changin’ times, someone who values the truth over money really stands out.

Hard news, soft news–it’s all good

Western Washington University students work on the Viking 45, their entry in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The car gets 100 miles to the gallon. Photo: Sophia McCloy.

This job is the first one in which I’ve truly been a general assignment reporter. Before that, I always had a certain beat. At the Santa Cruz Sentinel, my first internship and my first time working in a newsroom, I was supposed to cover everything but ended up mostly writing feature stories. At the Oregon Daily Emerald, I covered crime and health. At Monterey County Weekly and Palo Alto Weekly–two newspapers at which I worked simultaneously two summers ago–my clips were mostly of the arts and entertainment variety.

So when I got to the Seattle Times and in my first week alone covered four beats–science, crime, health and obituaries–I knew this internship would be an entirely different experience.

The subjects I cover have only increased since then. I’ve worked on stories about land usestate and federal politics, the environment and education. I couldn’t be happier. I always thought beat reporting was more interesting and more rewarding, but I should have known better. Even as a kid, I loved learning–not necessarily in-depth learning about one specific subject, but instead learning a little about a lot of things. As early as high school, I waxed poetic about the benefits of a well-rounded education. In college, while so many around me believed a liberal arts education was overrated and specific technical training was more beneficial, I maintained that I had an edge over other journalism majors with my multiple interests and varied extracurriculars.

It makes sense, then, that I so enjoy general assignment reporting. I get to learn something new every day. It matters little whether I’m calling the police station for information on a shooting in a state park or whether I’m visiting sleepy, pleasant Bellingham to chase the heartwarming story of some college kids who built a car from scratch and may win $10 million for their troubles. I always walk away from my workday satisfied.


As if it isn’t cool enough that I’m actually getting paid to work at the Seattle Times for the summer, I also get daily sage advice from the best in the business, advice I’m sure I’ll remember throughout my journalistic career. Aside from the small gems I get from editors daily (I call them “gems,” they call it “bashing”), I also get hour-long, noncritical advice from people from all over the newsroom once a week.

Every Thursday at noon, the interns come into the Fishbowl–the large meeting room in the middle of the metro department so named because its walls are all glass–for brown-bag lunches. Every week, there are two or three employees from various departments waiting to tell us all their secrets and give us amazing tips. My first week, two of the most lauded investigative reporters here told us all about how to get the big scoop and do meticulous research on watchdog stories. The next week, we heard from the online desk and learned about how the Times website works.

The talks come at a good time during the week. For three and a half days, we’ve been slaving away working on daily stories and getting ripped apart by our editors, and we start to wonder–briefly, mind you–why we like doing this. Then Thursday afternoon comes, and I come away from the brown bag lunches totally refreshed and inspired, wondering  how I ever doubted my career choice.

This week’s brown bag was particularly inspiring. It was all about how to tell a story differently than you’ve been trained to do–how to get attention with unconventional but entertaining prose. Staff writer Eric Lacitis got stuck covering a mundane story about a black bear that was spotted in Seattle. The typical approach, boring as it is, would be to capture the shock factor: “Oh my gosh! A bear! In the city!” You’d proabably talk to people who were surprised or scared for their lives and quote them. But Eric, brilliant writer that he is, took a different tack. He sided with the bear.

“Give this teenager a lot of credit,” read the first graph. “He’s a black bear, estimated to be 2 years old. He’s lost, confused, lonely, scared and likely was kicked out of his home by his mother.”


Here’s another one. The reporter was assigned to write about a woman who faced trial for homicide-by-abuse for the death of her adoptive son. Rather than use a newsy lead, like “The trial begins next Wednesday in the case of Carole DeLeon, who was charged….”, she painted a startling picture based on a one-sentence line hidden in the police report.

The lead: “The night before Tyler DeLeon turned 7, he was so thirsty he ripped a hole in the screen of his bedroom window to eat snow.

“By the next evening, Tyler was dead. He weighed just 28 pounds, the size of an average 2-year-old.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued and I’m going to read that entire article.

These examples have led me to conclude that the inverted pyramid in hard news stories is highly overrated. Sure, it’s important to get the most important information out there as soon as you can at the top of the story. But sometimes it’s equally important to show, not tell, right up front so that readers can get a visual idea of what’s going on. That expression–show, don’t tell–shouldn’t just be reserved for long-form magazine articles or novels or creative writing. Reporters, one of the staffers at the brown bag today observed, get so focused on detaching themselves from the story that they confuse lack of bias with lack of emotion. We’re human, and so are our readers–we have to relate to them by piquing some sort of emotion in them.

Some more storytelling tips I got today:

  • If you have a point you want to make, come up with the four things that’ll get you through it coherently. (For example, one reporter wanted to write a column ranting about annoying chickens that shouldn’t be in cities. So he took a look at the basic facts about chickens, the reason they ended up in Seattle in the first place, the people who liked keeping chickens in coops in Seattle and the people who really, really didn’t like chicken enthusiasts.)
  • Find a character to focus on. Sometimes there are more than one. Sometimes it’s not a person, but a building or a creature–like that bear.
  • Get a backstory that explains who that character is–or maybe highlights the difference between the character’s backstory and who the character is now.
  • Write lists when they’re compelling. In a story about the crazy things people steal and smuggle to other countries, reporter Craig Welch listed them: 200,000 pounds of geoduck, monkey blood, badminton birdies.
  • When you sit down to write a story, think about the five things you remember about the story that most stand out in your mind. They stand out for a reason–they’re interesting and readers will probably think so too. So highlight those five things. It’ll get people to say, “Hey Mabel, look what I just read–you gotta check this out!” (Throughout the brown bag, the reporters kept calling this “the Hey Mabel effect.”)

News flash: Journalists aren’t doomed

College journalists who haven’t entered the workforce yet have been trained to fear the very worst after they’ve secured a diploma, but Rich Gordon sees a much cheerier picture.

According to Gordon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the modern era of journalism should be defined as a changing job market rather than a shrinking one.

“All is not lost,” Gordon said in a Skype interview with our Power Journalism class last week. “As jobs in newspapers decline, opportunities for all kinds of other platforms are growing.”

My association with the changing nature of the newspaper has always been a negative one. After all, I go to school to learn about print journalism, I practice print journalism, and my dream to be a classical music critic can only exist if print newspapers hang in there. But now I have hope. There are other, equally rewarding ways to earn a salary, like starting a classical music blog, freelancing or working for an online arts publication.

Gordon’s predictions come from the fates of other companies like Kodak, companies who may have lost out in the transition to digital but who reinvented themselves to fit into the 21st century.

“If you go to their website right now, you’ll see that they’re hiring,” Gordon said. “Not for the jobs they had 10 years ago, for different kinds of jobs.”

But in case you were so brightened by Rich Gordon’s news that there’s no longer any need to worry, think again: as the newspaper must reinvent itself, the new wave of journalists must do so too.

These days, Gordon said, “Every journalist needs to be able to create content in multiple forms on multiple platforms.” Translation: don’t know how to work a video camera? Learn. Never had to take your own pictures while interviewing people on assignment? Get used to it. Never recorded interviews with the intention of actually posting them for audiences to listen to? Too bad.

Knowledge of multiple forms of media is a must, but the most valuable skill a journalist can have is knowledge of all things computers: HTML, videomaking programs, networking and more.

Computer literacy is, in fact, so valuable in the modern newsroom that Northwestern’s journalism school has just introduced a nine-month program in which computer science majors work with journalism graduate students to learn about the media industry. According to Gordon, when these computer whizzes graduate, they’ll all be a shoo-in for any Web design job at a major newspaper.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well the other way around. A journalist like me, who has next to no experience with Web design or computer programming, could never learn everything I’d need to know in a tech job at a newspaper in nine months. Still, Gordon might have talked me into buying a copy of “HTML for Dummies” to get a leg up on the competition.

How local is too local?

I’m pretty sure that, of all the news in my home county newspaper, about .00001 percent of it mentions the street on which I grew up. I’m not terribly disturbed that more news about my street isn’t regularly published, not only because hardly anything newsworthy happens on my street and also because there are thousands more streets competing for attention in the rest of the county.

But seriously, how cool would it be to know why that ambulance roared by my bedroom window at 2 a.m. the other day?

A while ago, it occurred to Adrian Holovaty that people of the 21st century crave information they don’t have, probably because so much of it is at our fingertips that we’re intrigued when it is not. He created EveryBlock, where residents of 11 densely populated cities across the U.S. can check out the latest news, police blotters, photos and more from their own backyards. While each city has a main portal site where news from all over converges, locals can use filters to only display an area, neighborhood or even street of interest.

Some newspapers have observed this trend of megalocal news coverage from both locals and professionals like Holovaty with interest, wondering how they can incorporate the really local into their own general news. They know they need to pull readers in, especially in the face of plummeting revenue, and what better way than to talk about what’s going on at the neighbors’? But newspapers probably won’t gain anything focusing on superlocal coverage, at least not without losing other vital parts of the paper.

Some non-newspaper websites that have tackled local-local news, as it is sometimes called, by going straight to the source: the locals themselves. These websites serve as portals for discussions on street- and neighborhood-specific issues between its residents and is not necessarily newsworthy. (Every neighborhood has its stereotypical old grouch who always finds something to complain about, hot-button issue or not.) However, some of the issues brought up on these sites can’t be gleaned from town hall meetings, police briefings or other public events reporters have access to–thus, these sites should clearly be on a reporter’s radar.

The question that remains, then, is how a reporter who finds pertinent, newsworthy local information on such websites should use it. The best way is to use these online discussion panels as a starting point for a larger story, perhaps even one that connects with a national issue. (For example, my hometown paper has of late focused on the locals’ angry reception of the downtured California State Prop 8.) Seeing these discussions at least gives a reporter an idea of the general public feeling and can show the reporter how a story might go based on personal and phone interviews with similar locals.

I’ve given references to my very localized hometown newspaper, one that gets all its international news from wire services, one whose reporters cover nothing but news that occurs inside Santa Cruz County lines. So what of huge papers with bureaus all over the U.S. and the world, like the New York Times? Can they benefit from websites like EveryBlock? Only to a very small degree, I think. Since their readership expects thorough coverage not only from within the city but throughout the entire country and world, their Bronx beat reporter should make efforts at crowd-sourcing through sites like these. The guy stationed in Tel Aviv needn’t bother.

Stuffy news sources step it up with video

In 2004, the video was as much of a novelty as was the blog–in terms of covering the election.

But traditional news was already losing its grip on public interest and advertising revenue four years ago, and newspapers in particular knew they had to change the way they presented the facts to the public–but how? It should have been an easy answer–after all, it wasn’t as if the video camera was a brand-new invention at the turn of the 21st century–but the video didn’t burst onto the news scene in one day. It’s slowly crept from novelty and experiment in 2004 into what we now view as the norm on any newspaper’s web site. No matter what newspaper it is, if it has any credibility at all, some video will be featured above the fold–er, at the top of the screen.

The New York Times, though its dusty old-guard reputation precedes it, picked up on the video craze fairly early and has now officially gone video crazy. With every hour, it isn’t just the headline story that changes on, it’s also the featured video! The New York Times now has a membership on YouTube and has in just one year posted more than 700 videos to its profile. Here’s one of the latest videos, dealing with the topic that hasn’t yet escaped the forefront of Americans’ minds: the 2008 election.

Just viewing this one-and-a-half-minute clip shows why the New York Times has so violently embraced the video as a source for news: it tells the story of a revolution in The Bronx better than text and any amount of photos could.

PR, personalized

As the 21st century dawns and the blogosphere takes over, journalists at print newspapers aren’t the only professionals who are worrying.

Public and media relations journalists don’t quite know how to handle the new phenomenon either. Gone are the days when a standard, canned news release sent out to the same e-mail list day and and day out suffices as “public relations”. Because blogging is all about injecting personal opinion and using filters to skip to what you really want to read about, public relations has to be about personalization too. As PR expert and blogger Steve Rubel put it, “For the first time, public relations means relating with the public.”

Unfortunately, anyone who’s been in the PR industry for more than five years probably doesn’t have formal training in blog-speak. They’re used to the standard news-style press release; how do they approach bloggers and customize their response for each and every one of them? How, some might think, is it possible to cultivate a relationship with someone whose face they’ll never see and whose voice they’ll never hear?

PR professionals have to resign themselves to the fact that connecting with people in the blogospohere is simply more difficult than typing up a few paragraphs and hitting the “send” button. They also have to get used to the fact that their role is no more significant than the perhaps thousands of other commentators of a blog, and their carefully-crafted messages might get lost in a sea of comment threads. A white paper released by the PR firm Edelman shows how these new obstacles can actually be used to a PR company’s advantage.

The white paper points out that bloggers don’t want to hear things that don’t obviously interest them, so strategic communicators can’t simply send a them press release that’s “scattershot” because it’s designed to interest everybody at once. Sending the kind of information that might pull a blogger in requires research–reading the blog–and selection–picking the elements of a general release the communicator thinks will be most valuable to the blogger.

Suddenly, with the advent of blogs, strategic communications has just gotten a lot more strategic, and I believe that’s the way it should be. After all, public relations journalists have always striven to connect with their contacts and build a relationship of trust, and what better way than to do it through blogging? Whereas in a traditional PR situation communicators might not know much about the convictions of their clients, in the blogosphere it’s increasingly more possible to intimately get to know your target audience. Companies should take advantage of online buzz by using it to direct the buzz in their favor.

The same applies to communicators of the future, even if they’re not strategic communicators and even if they don’t plan a future in PR. Every journalist should understand not just the power a blogger holds, but the power anyone who comments on a blog can hold. Were I to pick three blogs where I commented on a post and left a link to my blog, I may be able to double my traffic level in a matter of days depending on the popularity and audience of the blogs. (Now that’s power journalism!) I myself am not a strategic communicator, but in blogging, all communicators have to think strategically.