Making the Morning Papers

For those avoiding the 24-hour news cycle, the So-Called President of the United States recently launched a scattershot volley against his perceived enemy, the Press. In the rambling press conference (and I use the term generously), he asked a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, shot down a Jewish reporter to claim he’s not anti-Semitic, asked (but didn’t answer) what Uranium is, and harped on his above/below average Electoral College victory. Most my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are reactions to how unhinged the man sounded, speaking as a representative of the American People.


A few years ago, I worked as a reporter/editor for a hyper-local media startup. While I’ve semi-seriously sworn to never return to that world, accusations of media bias always raise my hackles. Not because I don’t believe the media to be biased, but because it’s an dismissive accusation that very clearly shows the accuser knows nothing about the industry. As so many people don’t understand how the media works, I thought I’d take some time to explain (loosely) how the news is made.

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Note: I’m speaking mostly from my limited and untrained experience. If it’s a topic that interests you, seek out people who are still committed to journalism. I’ll stick to broad strokes, however, as a few of my colleagues may read this and have corrections. (Former colleagues, feel free to chime in with anything I’ve missed or mangled).

So, you’re a journalist now. Congratulations! I hope you like coffee, research and sifting through government propositions.

1. Plant the Seed

First thing you need is the seed of a story–the initial idea. Not all of these are going to be Woodward and Bernstein meeting Deep Throat. Odds are far, far better that you’ll be looking at the upcoming town meeting agenda, or someone will send you a press release for something that’s relevant to your audience. Sometimes, it’s something in the dozens of pages of police reports you receive every day, or you’re walking down a street and a shop sign catches your eye. Regardless of the origin, you need a story that will interest and illuminate your readers. If it affects them, you need to figure out how.

2. Gather Ye Sources While Ye May

Next, gather your sources. These are critical. Your job is not to explain how something works, your job is to find someone who can explain it to you. Partly, because you’re not the expert on the topic at hand, and partly so you can cover your ass: Anything you print, you are responsible for; if you invented it or later learn that your source was a fraud, that could end your career.

A great place to find sources is relevant public events. There, you could get quotes from speakers, and sometimes connect with experts who you could interview on-the-record. As in, they will speak with you and are willing to have you print their name with whatever they say. If you’re at a public meeting, it’s fair to quote anyone whose name you can copy down in time. I spent a lot of time Googling people and searching directories for people who spoke too quickly and left too soon. There were quotes I’d toss out because I couldn’t attribute them to anyone, and the words lost impact coming from “Area Woman.”

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Documents are also great resources for some stories. You need something that’s public record–police reports, government documents, books or papers written by one of your relevant sources. Press releases will do for some stories. We are seeing more stories citing peoples’ Facebook pages or Twitter accounts (which is a bit of a grey area between document and real person speaking), but if I’m honest, I never loved social media as a source. Ideally, you want a document that your readers could conceivably go and request from the relevant owners. You might dig up some stats around here, too, which are useful for the big-picture learners.

3. Great, We got Sources. Time to Write, Right?

Probably not. Take a few minutes to check out what the competition wrote. Make sure what you’re saying is still relevant, or adds something new. If it’s a breaking story, this usually goes out the window, because people are looking for info now. If it’s an older storie, this is part of the research, and you may need to find more sources. If it’s an exclusive story, awesome; you’re taking a bit of a risk, though, because everyone’s going to be repeating what you write now.

Important: This is ‘make or break’ time for the story. If you don’t have any sources, it’s not a story; it’s an interesting thing you heard. The types of sources you have will also make a difference: If you’ve just got documents, it’s a procedural story, and you need to keep to what’s in those docs. If all your sources contradict the initial story seed and you still have a story, it’s just not the one you set out to write (happens a l0t), but you must write accordingly. If you’ve just got links to other newspapers, you’ve got an aggregate story, and you need to credit those other folks (and also vet those sources: Random Loud Dude with Blog doesn’t have the same cachet as a major newspaper).

4. Business Time

Everything checks out? Cool. Now it’s time to write. Synthesize the sources, the stuff you can back up, the data and the documents into a single, cohesive story. One of the things that blew my mind, coming from a narrative fiction background, was that a news story is like prose written backwards. The thing you want to lead with is the most interesting piece. The hook is the seed of the story. My rookie mistake was that I’d “bury the lede,” or put the most interesting info at the end of the tale and try to build to it–like I was leading a character to a pivotal moment in their life.

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Something to consider: word choice matters. If someone’s been accused of a crime, but not tried or charged, it’s “alleged”. Calling someone a criminal before their trial is libel. In one of my early on-the-job lessons, another editor explained that the “money phrase” for police reports is “arrested and charged,” because if you’ve got a police report that says they arrested someone after an incident, that phrasing is indisputable. The charges may later be dropped, but the fact remains that at one time, the police arrested the person and charged them with something (I’ll get into story updates later).

5. This Part Sucks

You’re not going to enjoy this next part: Editing. I always enjoyed more clinical detachment from my news output than my literary, but it’s still not fun. You’ve got to make sure that the story is fair, that it’s well-written, and you’ve got to make sure that, if someone tried to sue you for libel, you could back up every word in the piece (this is way easier if you’ve got rock-solid sources).

Cool. You’re still not done. You’re too close to the project now. You’ve got to take a step back, and (ideally) let someone else read over this thing. This is where someone can tell you that you’re a little biased one way or another, or that your premise is flawed and you need to head back to step one and adjust. I always did this for stories that were hit on controversial topics. For a meeting summary or a police blotter, I’d usually wander off for a few minutes to clear my head.

6. Start Spreading the News

 

Now, we go to press. I also had to make sure it got scheduled to post at times people would read it, promote it on social media, plan out the day’s newsletter, etc.

On to the next story, right?

Wrong. A lot of stories have follow-up. A second side to the story you couldn’t get at until the original story ran (a lot of times, someone wrote in to say “I represent the opposing side, let’s chat about the story”). You’re now connected to this story, so expect to pick up every detail about it going forward.

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6. Stop the Presses

You made an error and have to print a retraction.

It happens, it sucks, but accept it and move on. You’re a human being, and your sources aren’t always perfect. But it’s not the end of the world: Update the story, re-promote it with the new details, dig deeper and talk to new sources. (There is a fine line between update and follow-up. I’d usually try to do both: if there was a new article, I’d link back to it from the old one).

Lather. Rinse. Repeat until your paper goes under and you have to find a new job.

Speaking of burying the lede: I’ve never really watched much of the Simpsons. These were just perfect gifs for the post.


“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “what about op-eds and stuff like that?” That’s not really journalism, per se. There is an ongoing industry debate about how to separate opinion content from journalistic content. It’s important because some news outlets (I’m thinking of Fox News, you may be thinking of MSNBC) blur the lines. The talking heads are expressing clear opinions about journalistic facts–which is only really confusing if you have a hard time differentiating fact from opinion.

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This is edging into a topic for another time, but here’s the short version of my opinion: As a journalist, your job is not to express an opinion, but to provide the information others will need to form their own. But it’s unreasonable to expect that a journalist gathering resources doesn’t have an opinion. This is why external editing is so crucial: someone else can tell you where you’re erring on one side better than you can.

Before you go (if you’ve made it this far), one last note: Journalists aren’t chasing one story at a time. The upshot is that any story that’s not panning out will probably fall by the wayside.

Where The Colors Go

c010e1e7e267177883ae3dbab2d24bc5If someone handed me a black-and-white outline for a famous painting and colored pencils and asked me to fill it in, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t create great art. I probably wouldn’t get most of the shading, but I’d at least have an idea of where the colors were supposed to go.


I’ve been thinking about the importance of video games as art today–I buy wholeheartedly into the notion that they are a form of art, but some is more pop-art than anything else. While I love movies, TV and books, I think there’s something unique to video games that other media struggle to do (books probably come closest): they put you in someone else’s head, and force you to live with the consequences of your decisions. Not all games really focus on this, but I’ve noticed a lot of indie games do a fantastic job of putting those choices on you, and punishing or rewarding you for them.

This thought, in light of the current political scene in the US, suggests to me that there aren’t enough politicians playing really good indie games. After being forced to make those difficult decisions, you get a whiff of what it would be like to live through a loosely related scenario. Granted, I’m not likely to understand what it’s like to live as the captain of a steam ship sailing on a vast underground ocean, or be a border agent for a closed-off authoritarian nation, but I have become emotionally invested in the outcome of the life of a character in those scenarios. It’s a simulation, it’s entirely fake, but it’s not without stakes: If I die, I have to at least endure the frustration of going back to the beginning.

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The most concrete, and possibly not a great example of this, would be This War of Mine, a slice-of-life simulator where you’re leading a group of residents in a war-torn city through harrowing moments of everyday survival. Food is limited to what you can loot or scavenge. Non-player characters will do the same to you. Sometimes a member of your household will steal your cache and leave. After you’ve sent one of your characters to an elderly couple’s home and tried to decide whether to attack them and take their stuff or leave them alone and just grab whatever’s outside (so that your group doesn’t starve), you start to think how awful it is that these innocent people are being forced into the scenario by military actions beyond their control or choice.

Then you start to look at the world around you, and realize that there are real people in that scenario. People are being ejected from their homes to become refugees from Syria, for example. That’s also the reason this might not be a great example: it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you might actually meet a refugee. At that point, you’re almost certainly never going to fully comprehend the horrors they have endured. Simply playing a video game will never make you fully qualified to even understand what they’ve gone through. You can’t really walk a mile in their shoes from the comfort of your computer chair. But, you will at least know where the colors go.

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This is also why it’s important to read diversely, and to experience as much art that takes you out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s head. I’m not going to claim that I know about revolutions because I played Civilization and Red Faction, nor that reading John Lewis’ March trilogy will make me an expert on the civil rights movement. Hell, even listening to/working on a podcast with LGBT characters doesn’t qualify me to speak to what it’s like to live as part of that community in this political climate. But, I can at least say I’m making some small effort to understand. I’m trying to learn what the shape and color of that is, even if I’m looking at it through blurred glasses. (Not that I want a pat on the back or recognition, I just feel right trying to better myself).

 


This was all swirling through my head when I landed on another notion: I don’t think it’s possible to make complex decisions without taking emotion into account. A decision like that of how to help the refugees from other countries has an emotional component, even if there is hard data that supports it. I was thinking (and likely with bias) about how the liberal decision to take refugees in comes from a place of compassion, while the conservative decision to ban them comes from a place of fear.

Perhaps we need to send the Republicans a few copies of This War of Mine?

Catching Someone Else’s Fire

Somewhere between the 2016 Election and the Women’s March, I caught myself wondering where I got the activist streak that’s been growing in me for the last several years. I was entirely apolitical in High School, following my mother’s example to a certain extent.

People who follow me on Facebook today might know that I’ve got some very intense views (Speaking of which, I am extremely anti-Trump and pro-feminism. Meaning that if you’re not into that sort of thing, this is your polite invitation to leave us be).

The answer to the question surprised me: I learned from my friend Peter’s example.


My third (of five) years in college caught me at at bit of an odd time. Coming out of a relationship and a religion that made up the bulk of my identity, I was trying to figure out who I was going to be. This meant I needed new friendships, new goals, new probably everything.

One of the friends I made, Peter, was a year or two younger than I was. He wore glasses and a beard, a black, zip-up hoodie with a sausage on the back. He sat a couple of rows ahead of me in my medieval lit class. I don’t remember how we even started talking, but within a few weeks, he was part of my core friend group. There were six of us, in all. Pizza, beer and zombie movies became a regular thing–every week or two.

Nostalgia could drag me away from the thread: He talked about his activism pretty casually, but never dragged me out to his meetings. A number of his activist friends became my friends, but no one ever asked me why I never showed up for the causes (hell, no one even tried to convert me to them). I watched the campus news reporting on Northeastern’s janitorial staff landed a better contract, saw the work the Justice for Janitors group had done. Never thought about it beyond “hey, good for Peter and his friends.”

One night, after Scott Brown was elected briefly as a Massachusetts Senator, he and I went out and had a few depressed drinks. We talked more politics, we drowned our political sorrows. It was the first time I really cared about a political thing. We stayed out most of the night, met up with a mutual friend and had a few more drinks.

We graduated, we worked on a few projects together. We kept up the pizza and beer, we talked all night on a few occasions. Eventually, he moved away from Boston. We stayed in touch (not as much as I wished we had, but when we chatted it was always as though the miles were not there).

Somewhere in there, I started attending the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center charity walk annually. Somewhere along the way, my Facebook feed started to fill up with more and more political posts. At some point in the intervening years, I’d started to pick up those activist tendencies.

Peter passed away in 2014. A few months before my sister and cousin did (it was a rough year). I was grateful to have known him, to have had years of his friendship, and to shared jokes with him. I have many fond memories of him, but it wasn’t until this year that I realized the impact his life had on me. I don’t have the fire he had, or the experience, but I will do what I can to honor that impact.

I share this story mostly to encourage you: you never know who’s watching. The sarcastic, goofy dude from your English class could pick up your advocacy lessons without being taught.