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Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Journalism in six words

Monday, April 28th, 2008

How would you sum up journalism in six words? Poynter asked this question a few weeks back (maybe not even). I meant to comment on this earlier, but now’s as good a time as ever. You can go vote on which if the finalists you think is the best six-word summary of/motto for journalism.

Here are the top 10 finalists to choose from:

  • Doing more with less since 1690
  • We’ll always have Paris … or Britney
  • It’s how I change the world.
  • Get it right, write it tight
  • They’ll miss us when we’re gone
  • Feed the watchdog, euthanize the lapdog
  • Who, what, when, where, why, Web*
  • Facts, schmacts … how is my hair?
  • Dirty commie latte-sipping liberal scum
  • Please stop griping, now start typing

I bolded my personal favorites. The asterisk is the one for which I actually cast my vote.

Also, on the Poynter story there are several honorable mentions. Here are my favorites among those:

  • We’re sorry about all the trees

  • No news is not good news
  • How many inches is the truth?
  • Seek the truth, not the money
  • We don’t make this shit up
  • Dead wood floats. So can we
  • A journalist’s work is never done
  • History’s first version, updated every minute
  • It beats working for a living
  • Speak truth to power, or else
  • But this IS my day job!
  • Mainstream media: We’re your grandfather’s blog
  • Filling the space between the ads

So, what’s your favorite? (Vote at the Poynter story. Right now it looks like “Doing more with less since 1690” is leading, followed by “They’ll miss us when we’re gone.”)

I didn’t submit any to the contest, but here are a few humble attempts I just came up with:

  • Been there. Done that. Rinse. Repeat.

  • Every day something new to learn.
  • Speak up or hold your peace.
  • Who’s watching your government?
  • Nothing is worth more than today.
  • Tomorrow this will be forgotten.
  • I couldn’t make this stuff up.
  • As read about on Romenesko.
  • Blogs: Repurposing real journalism since 1997.

Have any contributions or ideas for your own six-word motto for journalism? It’s harder than it seems.

QOTD: The universe is made of stories

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
— Muriel Rukeyser

Everyday problems can be great stories

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Maybe it’s the way Indiana handles its testing, or maybe it’s the nature of the education beat. But I spend a lot of time reporting on standardized tests — results, impact and changes they are undergoing or forcing schools to undergo.

One thing that keeps coming up as I report those stories is how student transience, that is kids moving frequently, was causing some schools to do even worse than they otherwise would. It’s uncontrollable, administrators would tell me, and it’s impacting us big time.

It’s not that I didn’t believe them. I know it’s bad when you move around a lot. I didn’t experience it because my mom planted us firmly and didn’t budge until we’d all crossed the stage at graduation precisely because she’d been subjected to more schools than I have fingers AND toes. (Yes, that’s more than 20 schools before she crossed the same stage I would nearly three decades later.) The impact wasn’t lost on her, and it’s something that continues to affect her everyday life even today. How could it not?

But how big of a deal it was in my community, and whether the schools were making a bigger deal than necessary, was a question I had from the very first time it was offered up as an excuse reason for some of the low numbers. It was something I wanted to look into. And finally, after initially proposing the idea this fall, I got to work on it at the beginning of this year.

On Sunday, that enterprise package ran on A1 as the anchor to our annual Grading Our Schools package (which is the annual performance reports detailing how each and every school in our coverage area performed on just about every possible thing the state measures).

I think it was one of the stories I’ve worked hardest on possibly ever. It required requesting data — it actually required schools to collect and compile that data for me — and cross-referencing it against what data I could get elsewhere. (I spent a lot of time creating and looking at spread sheets this past month.) It required getting into classrooms and talking to teachers, several I didn’t even end up using. It required leg work to find a family to help tell the story. It required patience to find an outside expert to discuss the issue. And it required a whole lot of concentration for me to finally rein everything in last week and focus the story. And then, it required killing quite a few of my darlings to tighten it and make my point.

It’s not 100 percent my favorite story I’ve ever written. But it may be my favorite story I’ve reported. If that makes sense. Yes there are other things I’d like to have had time to do with it. A multimedia component tops my list (though there were graphics in print, which didn’t get posted online?). Like all enterprise here, I had to work it in between my daily assignments. Even this past week when my editor laid off of me quite a bit on daily copy and let me wrap it up, it wasn’t my sole priority. But I think it accomplished what I hope it would. It’s just nice to see something I worked so hard on come to fruition.

All I had to do to find teachers and principals willing to open up to me was mention the topic of my story. Their anecdotes came pouring out. They all knew exactly what I was asking and why I was asking about it. This isn’t just the topic of a story to them, this is a real problem they are struggling with everyday. So there’s another lesson in this: Everyday problems can make for some of the best stories.

Sure, it’s not a government corruption exposé or anything. But it is an underreported and understudied problem, that does lead to real consequences, not just for the schools but for the kids, even long after primary school ends. My mother being exhibit A above. What I hope it accomplishes is that it makes at least one parent stop and reconsider moving her child or even one community member step forward and volunteer to help those kids. It is a problem that has been ongoing for, well, probably forever.

(As a side note: Sunday was another first for me. It was the first time I’ve ever had an all-Meranda front page. I know it’s not as big a deal when you consider our size means fewer stories on covers. But still a pretty cool feat.)

Not just “another weather story”

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Raise your hand if you hate writing weather stories.

I don’t know what it’s like in other regions, but in the Midwest, at least the parts I’ve lived in, it’s hot in the summer, which is about July-September, and it’s cold, well, the rest of the year. I hate the cold as much as the next guy. (I do like wearing sweaters though.) I also hate the summer heat. (Dude, I live on the second floor of an old house lacking a/c.) Sometimes I think, can’t we have a mix of overcast and sunny, high near 72 all year, kthnx.

But, then, I do like variety, which we definitely get. We get spring showers (and floods) and winter blizzards (and freezing rain) and summer days topping 100 degrees on occasion. Because I was raised in this climate, however, it’s normal for me to wake up freezing and go to bed burning up or vice versa. I don’t find it that weird to see snow and t-shirts in the same week. It hasn’t even gotten cold enough for me yet to pull out my wool winter coat.

That makes writing about the weather seem all the worse. It’s like writing about traffic lights changing colors. Everyone knows it’s going to happen, and they can kind of figure out for themselves what comes next.

But it seems like every time you’re set to expect anything more than a dusting or a drizzle, it’s time for a weather story. And when a snow storm hits or the heat bests the average, it’s time to dust off those coping tips and talk to someone about snow shoveling pitfalls or hit up the local pool. Or the photogs favorite: Weather photo galleries and feature art.

Just today, when talking over my assignments for Sunday morning, the frigid weather was mentioned as something to watch. Cue an internal eye roll.

So here’s my next question, this one’s for the readers. How many of you hate reading weather stories?

I don’t think there’s a solution. I mean, weather is the old standby universal experience. When there’s nothing in common to discuss, you can always talk about the weather.

That said, I’ve decided I’m going to temper my eye roll over this necessary evil and instead resolve to take a cue from today’s IndyStar, where I just stumbled upon this entertaining topper to an otherwise routine weather story:

Call the Indiana battle between seasonably cool and downright cold the meteorological version of a legendary George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight.

The cool air is like Foreman, slugging away until exhausted. The cold air is like Ali, playing the rope-a-dope until it’s time to score the knockout.

This weekend should give the decisive weather boxing victory to the cold. The National Weather Service predicts Saturday night’s lows around 3 degrees below zero, the coldest in Indianapolis since minus-6 on Feb. 16, 2007.

There will be purists who will say it’s showing off and doesn’t help tell the story better or get to the point until the third graph. Yeah I noticed that, too.

Yet, I applaud the writer for taking the time not to roll his eyes and then write “another weather story.”

But I’m still not writing anything more than a “what to expect today” web update about the weekend weather unless it causes some type of havoc. I have some pride.