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QOTD: … decide that you are not going to stay where you are

July 10th, 2009 at 9:24 pm

“The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.”
—John Pierpont Morgan

A pun-filled story that was a bit too “well done”

July 9th, 2009 at 10:02 am

I meant to post on this weeks ago when this story first aired on the local TV station, but I got busy and forgot. I was reminded of it again today and since I’m off work today (I’m working Saturday and avoiding the newsroom so if there are any lay offs today there I’m not witness) I thought I’d share my ROTFLMAO moment now. It’s still funny.

The reason I want to share this is its over-the-top, pun-filled groan-inducing writing. I have never seen so many puns in one story before, waaay too many not to be intentional. And the reporter says them (you can watch the video) without even cracking a grin and acknowledging the absurdity.

The story is about how bakeries are coping with the economic downturn. A hint at what’s to come: The title is Bakeries rise in the recession. Subhead: Pastry chefs whipping up dollars.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I’m not going to copy and paste but instead link to the entire story. (For any professors/readers who come across this post after the story has been killed out of the system, I did save a copy if you’re interested it.)

But I am going to bold and bullet each of the bakery-related puns/cliches I could spot.

  • … one type of business is rising to the top
  • whip up dollars
  • … just scraping by
  • … earning money during the recession is frosting on the cake
  • … Quality takes the cake
  • … Creativity is O’Rear’s special spice
  • … is mixing it up
  • … share their secret success ingredient
  • … with a sour economy, there’s a demand for something sweet
  • … each cook up a variety

With the title and subhead, that amounts to a dozen (not a bakers dozen, but close) in one 340 word story. Check out the story and see if I missed any. And comment to tell me what you think. Am I overly critical? I realize it’s not a story about murder or anything, but just seems a bit silly to see a professional organization producing stuff like this.

A list of 100+ education reporters on Twitter

July 7th, 2009 at 11:32 pm

For months, I’ve had in mind finding all my education reporter peers across the country on Twitter. I decided this afternoon it was time to finally put together what I’ve gathered and to see how many more I could find. What follows is a somewhat comprehensive list of education reporters on Twitter. I say somewhat because there are a few exceptions:

  • Anyone who hasn’t updated in 2009. For all I know they’ve been laid off/fired/quit/changed beats/etc. and abandoned the Twitter account. Who wants to follow someone who hasn’t updated in seven-plus months anyway?
  • Anyone with protected updates. I can’t tell when the last update was. Besides, it’s obviously a private feed not about advancing their work if they’re not letting the world see. That’s fine, but not really useful to this purpose.
  • Anyone who doesn’t state they are an education reporter in their bio. In some cases, I know the person so I included them anyway. But mostly, there really isn’t a good way to find someone who doesn’t put this in the bio short of cross-referencing staff lists with Twitter, which isn’t worth my time.
  • Also excluded were group/organization Twitter accounts and those for an agency not a news organization.

It sounds like a lot of exclusions, but they didn’t add up to many of the ones I actually was able to find.

Aside from suggestions by my own followers, I compiled this list largely by scanning the search results on site:twitter.com “education reporter”. I have updated this list to include individuals who identified themselves as belonging here.

So what is the purpose of spending several hours on my day off putting this together? Honestly, it was kind of selfish. I think it’s interesting to see what other peers on this beat are covering. In many cases, we’re writing about the same things. We struggle with the same FOIA-ignorant officials and try to wrap our heads around similarly incomprehensible state test data. And I figured extending my own network to include more of those folks could help me with ideas, trends to look into, and just some camaraderie.

Oh yeah, and I was curious how these people were managing their Twitter feeds and whether I shouldn’t modify my own tack. (For those who don’t follow me @meranduh, I tend to veer from posting about mundane or insightful thoughts on current stories/meetings/topics to the strange things I see on the streets of Lafayette to pictures of my nephew to details of my mundane days.) Unsurprisingly, there was wide variance in how reporters handled their Twitter account. Some were just an RSS feed or a list of links. Some didn’t include a single education-related post. Some had few posts of any type. Some included lots of links to their sites, and some offered none. All of them used real names, if not in the username (which many did) then in the name field. Most identified their news organization, but many left off the URL or their own site’s link. Many were like mine, a mix of the biz and life. Others were clearly representing their company as part of the overall brand. I even came across one that had both a personal and business Twitter account. The takeaway? There’s no right way to Tweet your beat, but there are lots of different ways to do so.

One more unrelated trend I noticed: We all stink at coming up with original beat blog names. Every one linked from a Twitter profile (my own included) is some cliche/pun on something school related. Not that it matters, but it amused me.

OK, so behind the cut is a location-based list of the 120+ education reporters I found on Twitter. (I realize the link still says 90, but so many people had already linked it, I changed the title but not the link.) Location is by state/country, and then it’s alphabetical by username. Also, if the user didn’t provide a link to a resume/site/employer, I tried to provide a link to the organization where he or she works. Finally, if I added other details to fill out a lacking profile, I italicized that change.

If I missed you or your education reporter, send me a message @meranduh and let me know.
Read the rest of this entry &raquo

Awards, external praise don’t motivate me

June 27th, 2009 at 10:23 am

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

June 10th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

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

June 7th, 2009 at 9:45 am

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.

I am bad at being on furlough

May 18th, 2009 at 11:27 pm

I don’t know about other people, but being on furlough is hard for me. It’s not just the “uh, how will I pay my bills this month?” difficulty you’d expect. What’s harder for me is to be excommunicated from my colleagues and my daily routine. Even leaving town isn’t enough to make cutting off communication easy. Maybe it’s because this is an insanely busy time on the education beat, but it’s hard to walk away, not look back and genuinely not care for five days. Monday was day one of my second five-day furlough this year.

See, even though I’m not in the newsroom, or even in the city, I’m still following the news. I mean, as I said on Twitter in someone’s reply to me posting about some of the education news that broke today, “I can’t like, not, read news. One of the perks of what I do is I’m interested in it — not just in getting paid to be interested.” That is to say, I would have to step away from all media and people for a week to really not “work.” And that’s beyond a furlough, it’s punishment: Reading newspapers, magazines and Web sites is something I enjoy. Education is a topic I’m interested in reading about, or I wouldn’t be wasting my time writing about it. Plus, I process the world in a such a way that I see story ideas everywhere. I was talking to my mom about her job, and I commented, “Wow, that would be a great basis for a story: What’s the stupidest rule your company ever instituted?” (For the record, I’m pretty sure hers, which she is planning to leave, wins: They have to get a manager to sign off on each potty break!)

So today was a test of my ability to step away. … And I fail.

If I didn’t have computer access, it might be easier. But as I did, I wanted to check in at jconline and see what’s going on. It’s my community, and I’m interested in the news about it. Although some young journalists probably don’t feel this way, I’m not paid to be interested in the news where I live, I just am. I would read the paper/Web site where I live even if I didn’t work in local media. Plus, most of the education news was stuff I wrote last week. But there was one story following up an event I previewed. I posted a link to on Twitter because to me it’s interesting a community rallied behind laid off teachers to raise $98K to save some of their jobs. I’d be interested in that whether it was local or a few states away. It’s a cool story. Then, there was an announcement from the state superintendent about graduation rate incentives I was genuinely interested in because I knew it was coming. It’s a topic I’m interested in, so I’m going to read about it.

So, I was flipping through my RSS feeds, Twitter and my daily list of sites I visit out of habit this morning. And I came across a blog posting that said one of our local school superintendents was going to be hired by another district. This created a dilemma. No one else at the J&C would be reading that site to see that blog post. So, we’d almost certainly get scooped. In a normal week, I’d post that information and link to the blog from my schools beat blog. But that blog is off-limits this week. Part of me thought when I saw the posting, “Well serves them right for not paying me for a week!” But the bigger part of me said, it’s wrong to know and withhold that information and intentionally let us get scooped. Because even though I’m not working this week, people still associate our education coverage with me.

So, I forwarded the blog post to my editors from my personal e-mail and moved on with my day. Then, I got a curt note back saying not to have any further communication while on furlough. To be honest, that annoyed me. Would it be better had I not just forwarded them the note the same way I’d have forwarded it to anyone with an interest in it? Should I have forwarded it to my contact at the paper located in that city, because I am allowed to contact that person but not my own colleagues? Should I wait a week and a half until I return and it’s old news to say, oh yeah, by the way, I knew this was going to happen last week but I didn’t tell anyone.

I understand the purpose, I guess. They can’t call me. I can’t work. They feel like they’re following the letter of the law. Blah blah blah. Whatever.

But they’re ignoring the reality of the Web and the realities of this business.

For example, I posted the link to the blog post with a message on who was reporting it from my Twitter account. Does that constitute work? I think some of my followers would be interested in it. I pass on links to interesting stories, education and otherwise, nearly daily. But what if people I work with follow me on Twitter, which they do, or are friends on Facebook, which they are, and one happens to see my updates in their news feed. Are they breaking protocol? Am I??

Which is to say, what am I supposed to do with all the lines between work and my life that just blend?

I don’t consider my personal Twitter account work-related. I don’t want them to either. I was on Twitter before they’d heard about it. Any benefit the company gains from links I post or community interaction or sourcing or anything is purely tangential to my being there because I enjoy the conversations and community. Am I not supposed to post anything from the J&C this week because it might be construed as “work”?

And what about Facebook? Just today, I got a friend request from a colleague. Whether or not that person knew I was on furlough is irrelevant. Should I ignore it until I return next week? Should I accept it because, well, again, my Facebook persona is mine. But what if we happen to mention something related to work? Will I or they be in trouble?

And in reverse, what if someone I know to be on furlough contacts me through one of those channels, as has happened. Do I ignore their chat window? Do I block them on gmail from seeing my status? Do I not read their tweets? Do I skip over their facebook updates?

And what about my colleagues who are also my friends. My new roommate is a co-worker. My best friends in this city are, too. Is talking about work taboo? If I wasn’t out of town, would lunch or dinner together be off-limits? How far do you take this?

Also, I can’t, or rather don’t want to, shut off each of my dozens of google alerts that come to my personal e-mail account about the districts/cities/people I cover. It’s inconvenient. Plus, as I said above, I am interested in what’s happening here and in the topic I cover. Beyond work, It’s something I’m interested in following. I can, and did, put on an e-mail responder on my work e-mail and temporarily stop forwarding it to my blackberry. That was easy. But turning off everything else is more complicated and cumbersome to turn back on later.

And should I block jconline from my phone or any computer? It’s my natural compulsion when I am idle waiting on someone to check out the mobile site for news. It’s the natural site I start typing in the address bar when I sit at a computer. It just is.

All of this doesn’t even hit on the fact that, let’s be honest, if I came back from an 11-day absence without a clue as to what happened while I was gone, my boss would probably be pretty annoyed with me. (The furlough is just this week. But I’m off through next Tuesday because Memorial Day and then I’m working the following Saturday.)

I get the point of the furlough. Keep jobs, save money, blah blah. But it’s bad for the people left behind and it’s bad for those doing the leaving. I’m in Ohio now, then going to Florida for a week. But even that doesn’t make up for the guilt that I feel leaving behind all my work for colleagues to pick up. It sucks. I know it sucks because like all my co-workers, I’ve been helping pick up the slack since the first furloughs were announced earlier this year. I am glad to have job, which is what I tell everyone who asks how much it sucks (which is a surprisingly large number of people). Compared to the alternative, it’s great. But it’s hard to just really step away and not care. I do care. If I didn’t care, I would quit. Because, as I’ve said before, I don’t get paid enough to not believe in and enjoy what I do. And since I’m getting paid even less these days, the fact that I do — on most days — like what I do is one of the top incentives to stick with this and see this business through the rough days.

I’m going to try to be a better furloughed employee. I feel like Bart Simpson writing, “I will not have contact with co-workers while I am on furlough. I will not have contact with co-workers while I am on furlough. I will not…” But as such, I am wondering who will tell the features editor that I ran out of time last week to do the column that’s due this Friday and is supposed to run next Monday? All the news I had to chase last Friday, which kept me hours over when I wanted to leave, made me forgot to send her a note. So she’s going to be pretty upset when she looks for it Friday and it’s not there. But, I guess the right response, given my experience earlier today is just to say, even though it feels — and is — completely irresponsible, “oh well, it’s not my problem.” At least until next Wednesday when I get back. But, that’s the problem with a furlough. You can’t just dip in and dip out of this business. It doesn’t work that way, especially when your job and your life are all tangled up in the Web. I don’t make the rules. I’m just trying to get the hang of following them.