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Archive for June, 2009

Awards, external praise don’t motivate me

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

So, today I have resolved to go back through all the stories (or at least the headlines of the stories) I wrote during the past year to see if any of them are worth putting up for my paper to submit to the state press association contest.

I usually don’t do this. And this year, as in the past, I had resolved to ignore such contests. But my editor sent about three reminders to local reporters, and then, before I left Friday, he made another pitch to us to get him our suggestions. I figured, whatever. If nothing else, I should pause to reflect on this past years work?

My issue with such contests goes deep. I’ve never entered my work in any, and any awards I have won have been the result of other people submitting it. I think it’s great some people use these contests as a way of setting a goal for their work. And I can see why people get a high from winning them.

I am just not motivated by external praise. Sure it’s nice to win, but I never have been that disappointed when I didn’t or overwhelmed with pride when I did. I trace this to childhood: I was always one of the top in my class, super involved in everything and a hard worker. I received a lot of certificates and awards throughout the years. I haven’t kept a single trophy or certificate. If you asked me, I would have to do a great deal of searching just to produce my high school diploma or college degree. I think they are stashed in a bin in a storage unit back in Ohio.

As far as my work today, I don’t need validation from a panel of judges sifting through hundreds or thousands of other peoples’ best work in hopes they find my gem. Besides even if they do, it’s probably one of a hundred gems they’ll award. Few prizes, especially ones a person in my spot could hope to compete for, are really that “special.” I mean, the Pulitzer is one thing, but a regional award? Think about it, there are four different circulation size contests in my state, and a dozen-plus categories for each. Multiply that by 50 states, and soon the certificate seems even less special. Besides, a community-serving story’s value is not diminished by not winning a Pulitzer or other award. Great journalism doesn’t need a gold star to be great.

I get enough positive feedback from the community I cover to know I’m doing OK. This week I received two phone calls, two e-mails and one thank-you card, each thanking or commending me for stories. I care a lot more that my community finds my stories relevant and helpful than a panel of strangers who don’t understand where my work fits in here. Maybe our community is better about contacting reporters than most, but I feel my work is appreciated by the community.

It often seems awards are a crap shoot. I often see “award-winning” stories/packages/Web sites highlighted that are not that impressive or even that good. (Maybe that’s because the definition of award-winning is so broad, see my comment on the number of awards.) I find myself wondering if all the entries were not great so they picked the best of the discard pile or if my taste is just way off. I always decide I just must not have the same vision. All the more reason to not enter contests: I hear enough from my community to know I’m on the right track, which means my vision might not line up with contest judges but it does with my readers.

Finally, I’m my own biggest critic. When I read old stories, and often when I read stories in that day’s paper, instead of thinking about the Sunday enterprise I worked very hard on, “I love this story,” I think, “I should have…” I don’t know if others feel that way. But it’s always been a challenge for me. When I was job hunting, I struggled picking clips to send. I knew I was at least as good as other kids at my school, but when I looked at what I’d written I couldn’t find seven stories I loved. Even today, when I have a far greater stack of stories to choose from, I don’t know if I could find seven I loved. It’s not that I’m a bad journalist. I have room to grow. But I think I’m good, especially given my age, my resources and my amount of output. But I am hypercritical. I can always find some quote I wish I’d left out, some angle I wish I’d over- or underplayed or some paragraph break I’d reconsider (this is especially true if bad editing ruined it for me). So it’s hard for me to even find stories I think are good enough — even if judged against a stack of similar also-rans — to bother entering in contests.

As I said before, I don’t object to people who thrive on such competition. Sure, it’s nice to earn some cash or even some solicited praise. Removing myself from the competition probably does those who thrive a favor. Fewer entries means better odds. They should thank me. ;) The bottom line, for me, though, is I get enough of a high out of knowing I worked hard and did a service to my community. I guess I’m one of the lucky folks who doesn’t need much more.

But I realize it’s not about me. So I’m going through the 534 stories that carried my byline or tagline over the past 12 months to see if any of them are worth considering. Whether I find awards validating or not, they reflect well on my bosses and my paper. Even if I don’t care, they do.

Indy Star’s ‘info stream’ like friendfeed for its reporters

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I just came across an interesting feature that I think is new, or at least new to me, on the Indy Star site.

Scanning the education section of the site, I noticed under the refers to education reporter Andy Gammill’s blog and twitter there was a new link: “Andy’s info stream.” I think it’s new because I look at this page almost daily (Indy is the largest paper in the state and the J&C’s sister paper), and I have never noticed it before.

This is what I found when I clicked the link:
indystar reporter info stream

Pretty cool if you’re interested in what the reporter is writing, reading, working on, blogging about, twittering about, etc.

I tried to find similar pages for other reporters on the site, but I didn’t see any even for other blogging & twittering reporters, like their politics columnist Matthew Tully. A quick Google search turned up a page for racing reporter Curt Cavin and music reporter David Lindquist. Lindquist’s list even includes recently played tracks from last.fm, which seems like a neat addition for his beat.

Other papers have pages set up about the reporter, with links to recent bylines, etc. But this is the first I’ve come across that compiles essentially everything that reporter is already doing and puts it together on one page. You can even subscribe to that reporter’s info stream. It reminds me a lot of friendfeed, where the reporters could pick what they want added (i.e. their blog, twitter, bookmarks, music, etc.). Except it’s sleeker and it’s hosted on the news organization’s site.

As a reader, I find this information fascinating. At least for Andy’s stream because he covers the same topic as me and often writes about things I’m also writing about. I already subscribe to his blog and follow him on Twitter, but for readers who don’t want the hassle of subscribing and belonging to tons of services or who just want a clean interface to quickly see what the local reporter is doing, this could be a cool tool. And once the widget (as this appears to be) is set up, it’s not like it takes a lot of work to keep fresh. The reporter is already producing the content to go there daily.

On the other hand, I can see how some reporters would be apprehensive about a feature like this. Most print reporters I know (columnists excluded) didn’t get into this business to be a personality, which is what this feature kind of creates. And even if all the feed pulls in is information you’re already posting, I could see their unease at their online life being aggregated like this for every reader. However, because I think the news train is headed in the opposite direction of such reporters — who are also the hold outs refusing to see the utility of blogging and twittering or trying such tools for their beats — I don’t feel bad for them.

In my case, all this information is already out there. It’s already mostly streamed on friendfeed, Facebook and Twitter. So I think this feature is pretty cool. It will be even cooler when they get a list of all the reporters posted. It also would be great if you could pick which of those reporters streams you wanted to have all appear in one mega info stream (like the people you follow on Twitter — I could pick the education and politics people but leave the sports folks behind), or if you could see what everyone at the Star is saying/reading/blogging all in one time line (like the public time line on Twitter). It might be pretty telling about the organization en masse.

A few tips on outlining stories

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

For most daily stories, the time it would take me to outline the article isn’t worth it. I can write about a crash, a fire, a school board meeting without really thinking through the direction I want to head: Start with what happened, and it gets less important from there.

But I also write a lot of daily enterprise. When I’m working on these stories, I’ve found having a direction saves me time. It’s worth the five minutes to outline a story if it saves me 20 minutes of trying to just get started. The usefulness of outlining stories is almost directly related to the length of time I’ve been reporting and how much information I’ve gathered.

Sometimes, a story just comes to me and flows without much effort. Other times, I’ve reported so much I’m overwhelmed by everything I’ve gathered. Deciding what to include, or not include, and what I need to do more research on, and then, how to arrange all of that information can put me at a deadlock, as I was on Friday, when I was writing two A1 stories for the weekend papers and had been working on one for an hour but had just two paragraphs written.

I’ve talked to my editor before about this, and he suggested the way he writes is to do each chunk as he reports it. That’s a great idea. I’ve tried it — with limited success. I know some reporters have to have the perfect lede before they write the second paragraph. I can write a bad lede just to get me started and come back when the first draft is done. My problem is I need to be able to see where it’s going before I start writing. I need to have everything reported and ready to be compiled. That’s why outlining a story works for me.

On Friday, in an effort to get the stories written, did just that. I posted a picture of my “outline” on Twitter. Kate Martin commented on it, which made me realize, this might be a method worth sharing with the wider community.

story outline

I don’t know if I originally saw this outlining method somewhere or invented it out of necessity (or genius?). But I do know, it’s effective. Here’s how it works:

  1. Gather all the story notes. I flip to the pages in my notebook(s) if they’re written or print the document off the computer if they’re typed or transcribed.

  2. Highlight the facts you want to include. I also highlight and star the quotes I like. I use different color highlighters for each person/source to make it easy to identify quickly who is speaking and where the info came from.
  3. Write each of those ideas/facts/quotes on a Post-it. I don’t write the whole thing out just the general point and who said it/where it came from so I know where to quickly find it in my notes. (Remember, those are color coded.) You also could probably just as easily do this on the computer, in a Google Notebook like program. But I find taking a break from staring at the screen helps me process the information better. Note: I cut up a regular size Post-it into about four flags each to be less wasteful. I’m actually not wasting office supplies anyway. I usually buy my own Post-it notes because I don’t like the plain-vanilla yellow in that shot.
  4. Group related topics/information/quotes together. I usually do this on my desk, or if your desk isn’t cleared enough, a sheet of paper works well. Usually at this stage, I can eliminate duplicate or tangential information pretty quickly: I can tell the areas I have the most information on and those I don’t have enough. If I don’t have enough and it’s important, I know it’s time to do some follow-up reporting.
  5. Within the group, arrange the information. This is what my boss does when he writes chunks. You’re just putting the information together in a logical sequence, and again cutting things that don’t fit or need to be there.
  6. Arrange the groups. At this point, I pull out the anecdote or fact I want to lead with and/or those I want to end the story with. (In my example above, I had just written a place-holder “Lead ???” at first because I didn’t know yet how to start.) Then, I put each group down in a sequence that makes sense for the direction of the story.
  7. Re-arrange the groups or the facts within the group. I add back in anything I took out that feels like it’s missing. Or I take out anything that feels unnecessary. This is the entire point of using Post-its, which you can quickly and easily reconfigure.
  8. Write. Organizing the story was the hard part, so once I have that figured out, I can just write through by filling out the full quotes and facts I abbreviated on my Post-it notes.
  9. Read and rewrite. Once the story is written, I go back through at least once more. Read it, proof it, clean it up, double check the names and numbers, clarify anything that needs more explanation.
  10. File the story. And move on to the inevitable next story.

After I outlined my story Friday, I finished writing all 23 inches in 20 minutes.

Do you have any suggestions to improve my method? Or better tips to try to improve organization/writing? Let me know. I’m definitely game for suggestions to make me write better and more efficiently.