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.

The Hippest Miner

One of the things I forgot about running after Daylight Savings Time is that my favorite spot, the reservoir, has no lights around its track. While it’s generally fairly clear, I’d really rather not take the track without some way to see what’s around me–I’d really rather not go swimming in this weather.

I can solve this with a head lamp, which I strapped on over my headphones and handkerchief–now less to soak up sweat and more to keep my head warm. Combined with the gloves, which I wound up not needing, I got the distinct impression that I looked like a really hip miner.

Undeterred by the fact that I would, technically, be appearing in public so dressed, I set off. I had been sick all last week, so this was my first trip out in several days. Ever since I ran out of C25k programs, I’ve been doing roughly the same half-hour program each week, and I fully expected to fail this time because of the time off. Even altered my route slightly, so it would be a little shorter. I was a little surprised to complete the full half-hour, just a bit slower than usual.

That is, I was surprised until later that evening when my bladder woke me up. It was a long walk to the bathroom on sore stems…

Witness This Ringing Endorsement

The wind whips up slightly, kicking up gentle clouds of sand which skitter across the track toward me. Soft, fluffy wisps of airborne dust rise to about chest height. This isn’t exactly a sandstorm coming my way–if I weren’t running, it might even look kind of pretty.

Still, I close my mouth and hope it doesn’t get behind my glasses.

One of the things that initially drew me to running was the low cost of entry. At the time, I was freshly unemployed. The prospect of a gym was beyond me, I could probably spring for some cheap running shoes, and was going to go for a free app to get me started.

Shortly after, I think I picked up the armband for my phone. It was a matter of convenience, really. I was starting to realize something practical about running: you need more than just shoes.

This is another story of me figuring something out the hard way…

In May, my girlfriend and I went with some mutual friends to Virginia’s Outer Banks. We had a week, and I was determined to enjoy myself and also get back into good habits–I had re-re-re-started my C25k program about 3 weeks prior. Expecting beach-weather, and beach-quantities of shade trees, I bought a hat and picked up a couple of bandannas on the way down.

Real talk for a minute: I am amid the long, drawn-out process of balding. Despite my best efforts and mostly my own denial, the hair on my head is thinning. For a while now, it’s done little to shield my scalp from the machinations of our nearest star. The combination of Fair British Isles skin and ineffective shade cover means I sunburn my head a lot. The bandanna was an effort to prevent that while running on the beach.

However, when I wear them now, I wonder what I did without them. They trap head sweat, so I don’t come home with stinging eyes. They somehow make my headphones and glasses fit together better. Come Winter, it’ll keep my head a bit warmer than nothing. While I feel a little silly, I simply tell myself that I’m a pirate exercising and I feel better about the world.

And, I don’t roast my dome.

So, I guess this post is mostly an endorsement for bandannas while running.

Getting Back To You

Hi.

It’s been a long time. I think nearly a year since the blog dropped off. I’ve been thinking about it, though. About picking up where I left off, about how to do it, about how I kind of missed it.

Yes, I know the image of a roller-coaster is cliched. But it’s fairly apt in this case: the year has been fraught with various and sundry highs, and some steep lows. I could detail them, like two people catching up on months apart with a laundry list of details. But I always feel as though those conversations always end with more months apart.

We have time, I realized, we have months for this conversation. It’s not coffee and catching up, it’s starting to run into each other. It’s rekindling a friendship.

At least, I hope so. In the time I’ve been away, I haven’t necessarily gotten any better at keeping promises.

 

Apparently this is also my 100th post on this blog. I’m going to pretend that’s more impressive than it is.

Your Mileage May Vary

Dust is once again collecting on my shoes. As I squint in the fading sunlight, I can hear my breath over the sounds of the highly under-rated Harvey Danger. After several months off, and several weeks of another take on the Couch to 5k program, I am getting close to where I was around this time last year, when I was in better shape than I am today. But, I have clawed my way back today.

Over the sounds that wall me into my own head, I detect the crunching of someone else’s footsteps. After a few endless seconds, a figure in red passes me on the right–then one in blue. The man and a woman–around my age–pass me handily. I want to speed up, but I already know how it will feel at the end of the run.

Then I start thinking about comparisons: I never feel it’s wise to compare myself to others. I know that where I am at my stage of life is a result of a complex, indeterminable series of variables and interpersonal connections. There are an immense number of factors that can have immeasurable impact on a person. The mere flap of a butterfly’s wings, metaphorically, can put me in a different place than someone else who starts the same thing at around the same time.

So, why can’t I make that connection with running? Because here I am, comparing myself to two complete strangers. For all I know, they’ve been running since high school. For all I know, they’re running an entirely different program to me: shorter sprints, compared to my longer runs. For all I know, a million other things are different.

A few paces ahead of me, Red and Blue stop at a bench–she adjusts her socks. I pass them handily. It’s not for another quarter-turn around the reservoir until they pass again, then stop and leave the path.

Perhaps with a little more time, I’ll let myself off the hook.