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April 27 2012

14:39

Kevin Sack on kidney transplants, kickers, the myth of the daily/narrative disconnect and “The Little Mermaid”

For our latest Notable Narrative we chose Kevin Sack’s “60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked,” a New York Times story about an unprecedented chain of kidney transplants. We admired the story as a deft and moving example of explanatory narrative, and because Sack, a two-time Pulitzer winner, chose an unlikely protagonist, with deeply touching consequences. How did he pull it off? Here’s our recent telephone conversation, edited for length and clarity:

You were dealing with a huge amount of complicated information. Could you talk a bit about how you organized it, and how you presented it in such a graceful, moving way?

To report “60 Lives,” the New York Times’ Sean Patrick Ferrell, Kevin Sack and Nicole Bengiveno scrubbed in for six surgeries.

It sounds a little silly to say that a story like this wrote itself, but to some extent the material was so compelling that it made the job a little bit easier. There were certain things that I knew were going to have to be included in the roughly 5,000 words I was allotted. Pretty much from the beginning I felt there was going to be a certain logic to writing it in a roughly chronological way, or at least with an emphasis on the first link in the chain and the last link, and with the rest of the story composed of equal parts explanation of how the chains work – the medicine, and what I witnessed in the operating rooms – and the history of these chains, and the best human stories that I could find from within the chain. Before I started reporting, I assumed that at every link there would be a great narrative tale. By definition there had to be: Somebody’s giving up a part of themselves for a loved one. How uninteresting could it be? The challenge was gonna be to find out about as many of those links as possible in the time allotted, given the other things I was going to have to accomplish, and then picking out the best tales. When you look at the story there’s only a handful of stories in it, out of the 30 transplants. There were a lot of great stories left on the cutting room floor on this one, sort of by necessity.

The biggest decision I had to make in terms of how to structure and write it – I longed to simplify the story by focusing on a smaller number of people. I was concerned all along that even if I minimized the number of characters there would be too many characters. I didn’t want it to get bogged down in a long list of names. People wouldn’t be able to keep it straight. And the stories would start to dilute each other. Ultimately I decided that that was wrongheaded.

What do you mean?

The central character was the chain itself. And by definition the chain consisted not of a handful of people but of 60 people. What made it miraculous was that there were 60 participants and that these kidneys flowed relatively seamlessly from one link to the next. And so I decided that to focus on a central character kind of undercut what the story was all about. Once I wrapped my head around that, I think I got more comfortable with the notion of doing it the way I did, with a number of central characters. I kind of dip in and out of each of their tales rather quickly, mainly because I have to. As I was reporting the story, Amy Harmon’s great piece about the autistic couple in love ran, and I was envious because she was able to tell a story that essentially was about the socialization of autistic people through the eyes of a single couple. I was a little jealous and wanted to find a way to do that, but then quickly decided that the point of the (kidney) story is that there were 60 characters, not that there were two.

Where did this story come from?

I’m certainly not the first person to write about these chains. There was a New England Journal of Medicine article in, I think, ’09 that was about the first of these chains that were structured this way, with a Good Samaritan starting a donation to the waiting list and then non-simultaneous operations. So there was a flurry of stories after that, about these chains. I was covering Obamacare at the time. We were sort of in the thick of legislative battle, and it wasn’t something I was going to be able to get to at that point but I filed it away as being interesting.

I had a change of jobs back in the fall, where I got assigned to this new team of reporters created by Jill Abramson to do enterprise stuff on lifestyles. It was sort of broadly defined, and my part was that I going to continue to write about health-related issues. I had a list of story ideas that I put in front of my new editor, Adam Bryant, and he quickly got interested in the kidney-chain story. So I went out to see sort of what had been written, whether there was any room left to do something interesting, looking for, you know, an angle that would sort of give us a reason to do it, and to do it in a big way. My third or fourth call was to Garet Hil, whom I’d started to hear about and read about. He was in the middle of what was going to be the longest chain ever constructed. So I suddenly had my angle. I took it back to Adam and to others at the paper and there was a lot of enthusiasm about it and resources put into it quickly.

Such as?

A very quick decision to make it a big multimedia project. So: photographers assigned, graphic artists assigned, interactive designers assigned, a video journalist assigned. And sort of involvement from people on the masthead at the paper in terms of getting their attention and early signoff, an assumption that we’d probably do it at two pages long. All those things were in place pretty quickly.

Where in the chain was the transplant process at that point?

They were exactly halfway through. I found out about it in early November, and they were in the middle of this long bridge, as they call it, between donations. This was a point where a recipient had been transplanted – their paired donor had yet to donate, typically for some sort of logistical reason. This was the longest pause in the chain. It was from I think late September to early December, almost two months.

Which people in the chain? Could we look at it that way?

Identify which ones?

Yeah.

I think it was No. 16, Rebecca Clark. Yeah. John Clark, No. 15, had received his transplant, and his wife, Rebecca Clark, did not donate until Dec. 5. He had been transplanted on Sept. 28. My initial concern was, Well I’m not gonna be in on the beginning of this and that’s gonna be awkward, to do a narrative that way, because I’m gonna have some stuff that’s much more vivid than the rest of it. In retrospect, I think it ended up being an advantage. First of all, it cut the time of the project in half. For a project like this it was relatively quick: 3 1/2 months from conception to publication.

Wow.

And also, it made what I did see fresher, I think. It wasn’t that difficult to go back and reconstruct the first half of it. And the timing worked out kind of just right, because once I found out about the chain from Garet it gave me a month to get my ducks in a row before surgeries actually started again. So I was able to spend that time reconstructing the first half. I went to New York and spent a day with him at his office on Long Island. I interviewed a lot of doctors and people in the field, read a lot of journal articles, and also was able to get the rest of our team up and moving. They started collecting names and IDs and photos of people in the first half of the chain. Which was a process. So the timing worked out nicely.

I spent most of December kind of running. We had a sort of interesting decision to make: We had a meeting in New York with all the people involved – we had to make decisions about where we were gonna go in terms of actually being at the hospital and watching procedures and interviewing patients. Part of that was gonna be driven by who we thought was interesting given what I knew at that point about the chain, and part of it was gonna be driven by pure logistics. I knew that I wanted to be present for the end of it because I was going to highlight the last recipient. And there also was this great flurry of procedures on the penultimate day at UCLA. There were six surgeries from dawn to dusk that day. So I figured that would be a great place to be, and then fly with the last kidney to Chicago for transplant. But I was worried that what if the chain breaks before we get there, which definitely was possible.

One of the first things I did the first month was, Garet shared all the emails that he sent and received relative to the first part of the chain, and you could see all these different points where things had broken down for one reason or another, and he had had to repair breaches. So I knew that this chain that’s supposed to be 30 transplants long could end up being 17 transplants long and if I was going to be there for the last three or four I’d have nothing to write about. So we decided to pick a surgery early in December, when the chain first started back up, to go and eyewitness, and to focus on those participants so that if disaster struck we’d have something.

I don’t know if you’ve looked at all the stuff online or not –

It’s killer.

We ended up doing a video piece about Cesare and Josephine Bonventre – he’s from Brooklyn, she’s from Toronto, they’re mentioned briefly in the print story because they’re the only example in the chain of a compatible pair, meaning she could’ve donated to cousins, she could’ve donated directly to him, but by donating down the line instead he was able to get an even better matched kidney. Which is kind of the next wave in these chains: It expands matching potential by including compatible pairs. So the day before the surgery I went with a photographer (Nicole Bengiveno) and videographer (Sean Patrick Ferrell) to his place in Bensonhurst and interviewed the two of them at length, went with him to his final dialysis treatment at a clinic in Brooklyn – again, with cameras in tow – and the next morning we all showed up at the hospital at 4:30 in the morning and watched them from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, including both their surgeries. Then we had something in the can that we could use to construct the story if we had to. They’re sort of highlighted on the interactive graphic.

You guys do interactive so well.

It’s great to work with them. It’s real value added to what we do, particularly for a story like this that’s so graphic in nature.

The permissions on this must have been tricky, getting all 60 to participate – well, 59 – for their names to be used, for their photographs to be used. How did you handle that logistically? And why didn’t that 60th person, the one in silhouette in the grid, want to do it?

HIPAA obviously prohibits hospitals from releasing these names or anything about these folks without their express permission in the form of a signed, written waiver. There are 17 hospitals involved. So I went to each of the hospitals. From Garet, I had sort of a spreadsheet that showed the course of the chain with some detail: the gender of the donor and recipient, the year of their birth, a code name – no real names – and the hospital that they were gonna be at on the day of the surgery. That’s pretty much what I had. So I was then able to go to the hospitals, explain the story to them, get them to go to the patients, get the waivers and then put me in touch with the patients.

Wait a minute, though. It’s a miracle that you got any of these people, much less 60. Anytime you have other people asking permission for you, you know how that goes –

Right. The one advantage that I had in this case was that the people doing the asking had incentive to get people to yes. If they got people to yes it meant that their hospital might be mentioned in the story. And these were the PR people who were usually involved. So most of the hospitals were eager to pursue it. And I obviously did some coaching, to fully explain the story to people and what we were doing and how the information would be used. The other advantage that we had, a lot of people who go through this process become real zealots about it – they want to spread the word. They feel that they’re saving lives and that (Good Samaritan donation is) an underutilized strategy and if more people knew about it more lives could be saved.

The person that said no was one of the first that I pursued, because I was basically going in order. I called this hospital in New Jersey, Saint Barnabas, and they were just sort of stunned that this person had declined. They thought maybe he was just having a bad day. They thought it was uncharacteristic and unexpected that he would say no, so I sort of maintained hope. We continued on and you can imagine what it’s like – it’s sort of clerical. You send out these requests and some come back pretty quickly and others you have to follow up on three and four times and eventually they started to come through. But yeah there are 59 pictures and one blank.

It does speak to some people’s reluctance and fear about this whole thing –

Right. I mean, obviously I have no sense for his reasoning for not wanting to disclose. It could be any of a number of things; I respect all of them. I was surprising that such a high percentage of people were willing to put their names and faces out there. Sometimes people just don’t want others to know that they’ve been ill or – I mean there are all kinds of reasons for them to not join in. They just cherish their privacy and understandably so. But there was a bit of a mission-oriented feeling for this, I think, for a lot of the participants.

Beautiful writing. There’s this one sentence: “On and on the chain extended, with kidneys flying from coast to coast, iced down in cardboard boxes equipped with GPS devices and stowed on commercial aircraft.” That’s a whole procedure that you just managed to collapse as one gorgeous sentence. You’ve collapsed time, you’ve made procedure easy for the reader to follow.

one of Sack's notebooks

One thing I did that I don’t always do, even for long narrative projects like this, is, I outlined. I sort of methodically over a period of days went through my notes, kind of made a list of key points and key scenes and key characters, and then roughly organized them. And pretty much followed that structure. It certainly was deliberate, to try to write it in a restrained manner because the material itself was so strong and emotional and so potentially prone to purple prose. You do enough of those and you come to realize that if your material’s good enough you just don’t need to overwrite it. Not that there’s ever a reason to overwrite anything, but you know what I’m saying. Beyond that, I really do feel like I just sort of followed the outline and constructed these scenes. I had to show discipline in terms of what we included and excluded. The original draft was not that much longer than the final one – I think just a few hundred words, and lots and lots of editors touched it before it got in the paper. I must say, all made really good suggestions and improved the story.

There’s one interesting tale about all this. The last line of editing is (Executive Editor) Jill Abramson. On the Friday before publication – and I think it was the Friday that she was rushing out the door to fly to Beirut to console Anthony Shadid’s widow and children – but before she got on the plane she ordered that I change the kicker on the story.

Oh!

So here we are, it’s been through umpteen levels of editing at this point and everybody’s signed off on it, and the executive editor is ordering up a change at the last minute. The issue was – the initial kicker had to do with this story that the final recipient, Don Terry, tells, that I just found irresistible, about how in late November, before he knows that he’s getting this kidney, he’s out with his cousin and her two young children, and they go to this sporting good store because they know Santa is gonna be there for photographs with kids. And the kids get on Santa’s lap and then as a goof Don and the cousin get on Santa’s lap and Santa says, “So, young man, what do you want for Christmas?” And Don says, “Well, Santa, the only thing that I want is a kidney. That’s all I want.” And Santa sort of plays along, looks him in the eye and says, “I think you’ve been a good boy this year. I think you’re gonna get that kidney.”

Ugh.

And two weeks later he gets the phone call from the transplant surgeon saying: “You’ve got the kidney.” Jill thought it was too much, that it was over the top and melodramatic, even though it happened and was real. Her point was exactly yours. The rest of the story had been written in this restrained sort of underwritten way, to some extent, and this was going to be jarring to the reader. This was all communicated to me through deputies but I think her sense was that I’d just sort of gotten to the end and I just couldn’t help myself.

(laughter)

I just couldn’t get all the way through without letting one rip.

That’s awesome.

So I sort of resisted and kicked the dirt a little bit, but in the end it didn’t matter because she’s the executive editor and I’m not. But in retrospect I think she was probably right.

I think so too.

And we found a decent alternate.

You found a great alternate. It’s forward-looking, whereas a Santa ending would’ve been a dead end.

I hate to say it but sometimes the executive editor of the New York Times can be a smart person.

So, the response to this piece – what has been the impact so far?

Well, they got a nice surge of offers of Good Samaritan donors both at the National Kidney Registry and at transplant centers individually. The National Kidney Registry had 426 donor registrations, Good Samaritan donors, in February, when the story ran. That compares to 120 in January, 81 in December, 79 in November, 70 in October. And then they had 300 patient referrals to member centers. These are patients coming in with paired donors, and that was more than three times the usual number. There was lots of sort of media follow-up. Diane Sawyer did a big piece on ABC. Lots of local TV. BBC did a piece.

And then there was a recent conference involving the debate about whether to create a national registry.

There was this consensus conference near D.C. where a bunch of specialists got together – surgeons, transplant coordinators, nurses, patients, insurers – to discuss the future of the field and look at ways to increase the number who get transplants this way. One of the key things on the table is whether there should be a single national registry, which the mathematicians and to some extent common sense tell us would presumably increase the number of transplants made possible. The bigger your pool the more potential matches you can make. A committee of this group recommended doing exactly that, which for the moment is likely to mean exactly nothing. It’s purely a recommendation. It’s a sense of direction of a committee of this group.

There’s a lot of transplant politics involved. These different registries compete with each other. They have different philosophies. They’re all virtually unregulated by the government at this point and there’s nothing constraining them from operating the way they want to. It’s not my sense that there’s going to be much change anytime soon. Garet Hil, the guy that’s featured in my story, has the most successful of these registries and he doesn’t see much of a reason to change the way his is working. He feels like he’s got a model that’s getting transplants done, and he’s concerned that any sort of merger, particularly a merger that puts him more at the mercy of government regulation and oversight, is going to decrease the number of transplants he can accomplish.

Speaking of Hil, this isn’t a traditional narrative in that we’re not following one or two main characters, we’re not using a ton of dialogue, but you are following, as you said, the arc of the chain itself and then looking at these little narratives along the curve. But there’s this sort of overarching hero in Hil – the former Marine recon ranger with a background in quantitative math, who started the registry after his own kid got sick. Another writer might’ve decided that that guy was the narrative and folded the chain around his story. It was a riskier and much more complicated piece of storytelling, what you did.

I think I was driven by my interests – and they were varied – in this subject. I was completely captivated by him. I think he’s a fascinating guy. But I thought there were other fascinating parts to the chain. And to some extent, because he very much deliberately distances himself for ethical and legal reasons from the participants in the chain, if the story had focused more on him it would’ve been at the cost of the other parts of the process, which were all pretty darn compelling. I mean, until I wrote the piece he didn’t have names for these people, for the most part. So more of a focus on him would’ve meant it would’ve been harder to humanize the chain. It would’ve been more about the math of what he does and his personal story.

When you described him as “Disney-hero handsome” which Disney character did you have in mind?

The one that I really had in mind – it ends up being the wrong one to have had in mind because as I thought about it more, he’s not a hero, he’s an oaf. In “Beauty and the Beast” I’m thinking Gaston, who is Belle’s pursuer. I’m extremely familiar with the story right now because I’ve just watched three performances of my stepdaughter in a middle-school production. But yeah, he’s got the same sort of cleft chin. Lots of hair. And he’s not heroic at all – he’s an anti-intellectual. Surely there were other heroes. Prince Eric maybe? In “The Little Mermaid?” I don’t know. Don’t you find Hil Disney-hero handsome?

Uh-huh.

He’s happily married.

Good for her, is what I can say about that. I love how you de-glorified Ruzzamenti by mentioning his carousing, and his “unsmiling presence at work,” and his “surliness,” and his inattention to his parents and grandmother. He’s real.

That’s what I loved about him. He’s such a quirky guy and would be the first to tell you so. We had a really good time interviewing him. I talked to him a couple of times by phone and then spoke to him at his home when we flew out to UCLA for the last part of the chain. He lives in Riverside, which is an hour or two away, so it was convenient. He’s just a real character. I’m not sure that I give the reader a real way to understand him because I’m not sure that I completely understand why somebody, who by his own admission may not be the sunniest or most giving person every moment of every day, becomes an incredibly giving person at this one moment.

Maybe it’s redemption. Maybe if you’re an ass your whole life and you get the chance not to be, you take it.

Yeah. I think there’s certainly – he didn’t want me to overemphasize the notion of his Buddhism and its impact on his decision, because I think he feels he had this in him before he discovered Buddhism, but there’s a certain karma for him. I don’t think he felt, “I’m gonna go do a good thing and it’ll pay off in the next life,” but I do think he has a sense that the good things you do in life at some point have an impact.

The play-by-play of Conor Bidelspach’s kidney removal was so descriptively written: “The slush in the blue bowl turned fruit-punch pink.” And you wrote about a plastic bag knotted shut “like a goldfish brought home from the pet store.” Clearly you’re the father of young children.

(laughter)

You were there for that, though, obviously. You scrubbed in?

Yeah, from beginning to end I saw six different procedures at three different hospitals: the nephrectomies, which is the kidney recovery, and then the transplants. In each case I had photographers and video journalists in the O.R. with us. We scrubbed in, we were in scrubs, with masks and hairnets and note pads and cameras. The doctors seemed to be completely unfazed by the fact that we were there. They’ve done the procedure 100 times a year. And I think two of the hospitals required that we have TB tests. One of them required us to sign various waivers in case there was any havoc in the operating room, any trouble that we caused. But it was all fairly smooth. We just sort of took turns stepping up on a little stepstool just behind the surgeons, peering over into the abdomens as they did their work. With the nephrectomies, there were these screens all around the operating room, showing what’s going on, because it’s all done laparoscopically and there’s cameras inside the cavity, showing what’s happening.

Interesting that you wrote that someone “poured” a kidney. Interesting verb.

I’ve got this vague recollection that that wasn’t the first word I used. An editor may have come up with that choice. I may have said “emptied” or something like that.

“Poured,” with reference to a human organ, is odd in a good way. Unexpected in a good way.

It definitely helped to see the procedures multiple times. The first time out you’re just sort of absorbing it and each time you see it you may think a little more in metaphor and imagery.

Getting back to a conversation you and I were having earlier: We were talking about long-form narrative versus daily reporting.

I’ve never seen the disconnect between hard news writing and narrative reporting and writing. I try to use the same skills. If I’m covering a hard-news story I’m looking for the same narrative elements and the same imagery and the same way of describing something metaphorically that I would when I’m reporting a narrative. I mean, I have the same opportunities to use it, depending on the story and how much space I’ve got. It’s always seemed to me that even the hardest news story is helped by narrative elements. Obviously you deal with them in different ways depending on your format. But I’ve just never seen the distinction. Both ways of telling a story are equally credible in terms of getting at the truth, which is ultimately our goal and our mission.

*Photos courtesy of Kevin Sack

September 16 2011

19:48

Jill Abramson, executive editor, New York Times, and her social media "confession"

MarketWatch :: (Nice ...) Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of the New York Times, has a confession to make: Apparently, she is flunking Twitter 101. As Abramson let slip at what can be described as a media mixer on Thursday evening in Midtown Manhattan: “I don’t keep up with Twitter all day long. I am just a beginner. My kids tell me how terrible my tweets are. They give me a Twitter [grade of] F.

Continue to read Jon Friedman, www.marketwatch.com

July 05 2011

20:58

Accountability - Jill Abramson: "In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion"

Poynter :: The most recent game of deleting and changing online news was played last month, when The New York Times removed a quotation by incoming Executive Editor Jill Abramson that said, in part, “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion. In noting the deletion, some bloggers speculated whether the Times was trying to hide something, presumably Abramson’s worship of false idols. The Times said the line was dropped for a fresher quote.

[Steve Myers, Poynter:] A witness’ account in a developing news story disappears when it’s replaced by the version that appears in the next day’s paper. You remember a story saying one thing – and maybe you blogged about it – but now it says something else.

How news sites could improve accountability by tracking story changes, but probably won’t ...

Continue to read Steve Myers, www.poynter.org

June 27 2011

05:01

(New York) Time(s) machine: Jill Abramson's integrated newsroom laboratory

New York Time(s)Machine :: Did you know that New York Times integrated newsroom is a product, at least in part, of a months-long study by Jill Abramson, last year? In an unusual move, she stepped aside for 6-months to focus on digital operations and strategy. It seems like a good idea that she took the time to prepare herself in this way for the duties of executive editor, which she will assume in early September, writes Earl Wilson, public editor, New York Times. 

[Bill Keller:] We really want this to be one newsroom, and it is part of the way there, not all of the way there. ... There is still a digital rhythm and a print rhythm, and they don’t feel synchronized.

By the way, when asked whether the temporary shift meant that he might be retiring early, Bill Keller answered, “No.”

Continue to read Stephanie Clifford, mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com

04:47

New York Times' integrated newsroom - standards "to survive" in the digital age

New York Times :: When Earl Wilson queried Jill Abramson about online content, which just disappears, she affirmed that The New York Times’s standards for publishing corrections are as strict online as in print. “Our policy, when an error occurs in an earlier version of a story, is to acknowledge it, so the notion that we are covering up or hiding our errors is wrong,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Indeed, in the online world, the chances of a serious error in The Times going unnoticed or uncorrected are pretty slim.

[Earl Wilson:] Enforcing and publishing a clear set of standards would go a long way toward ensuring that time-tested news values survive in the digital age.

The NYT integrated newsroom - continue to read Earl Wilson, www.nytimes.com

June 14 2011

14:48

What the next New York Times editor learned about the Web

Incoming New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson spent six months recently focusing on the online operations. During that time, she tells AdAge, she learned a number of things — such as the Web staff was not as integrated as it should be, the online competitive landscape is greater than she realized, and The Times needs to be more competitive online in the early mornings.

She said:

One thing I tried during the six months was to only read online. As I read more and more early in the morning I felt like everyone else was playing to win the morning, and we weren’t enough. Many sites, whether Politico or Bloomberg or another site, by like 6:30 in the morning were full of fresh stories. If breaking news had happened overnight, we covered it, but basically early in the morning we were an echo on the web of the six stories that were on the front of the print paper.

I think that in order to have an integrated newsroom, all the people who work on the news report have to feel that they have a real career track here. I think for our digital employees, especially web producers and some of the web editors, they felt like they loved their work but where were they going to go? They’d never covered cops for metro, that sort of thing. In the end my plan for the newsroom was that we dispersed the web producers and web editors and put them on the desks, so web producers that were working on business news now work for Larry Ingrassia, the business editor, after they had worked for a web editor.

Part of what I did was I went and visited a lot. Bill Keller came up with a great word — neo-competitors. That’s what he thinks sites like Politico and Huffington Post are. I went and spent a day at some of those. I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising but the largeness of the competitive field came to surprise me.

Our night note, the competition report which has been put out forever, would only mention what was on the front page of the Washington Post, maybe something from the Journal’s website, but never any mention of a Politico or a HuffPost or a Bloomberg. That has changed.

 


June 05 2011

05:16

New York Times: Jill Abramson takes over a more diverse staff than the average U.S. newsroom

Poynter :: When Jill Abramson becomes The New York Times’ first female executive editor in September, she takes over a more diverse staff than the average U.S. newsroom. Minority journalists make up about 19 percent of the Times’ staff, compared to about 13 percent in the average U.S. newsroom. Mallary Jean Tenore, Poyner, asked Abramson today by phone why a diverse staff matters and she responded.

[Jill Abramson:] I think that when you have a diverse staff you get a diverse reaction to news developments and angles on things that have happened that you might not have thought of otherwise.

Continue to read Mallary Jean Tenore, www.poynter.org

June 03 2011

18:37

On CNN - New York Times' Jill Abramson: transition to online media is "thrilling but challenging"

Mediaite :: Last night, Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of the New York Times gave an interview to CNN’s Jessica Yellin. The increasing digitalization of news is an issue for her that is changing journalistic practices, but at the helm of a paper that has made its mark as just that, a paper, Abramson was optimistic about the future of print. Although she refused to speculate how much longer we will be reading actual papers, she called the transition to online media “thrilling but challenging”.

Continue to read Lizzie Manning, www.mediaite.com

June 02 2011

16:15

Meet the new boss: Jill Abramson’s NYT ascent and its potential impact on the digital side of the Times

The New York Times will have a new leader in the newsroom. Jill Abramson will replace Bill Keller, who is moving to a writing job at the paper.

I’m sure Times Kremlinologists are already developing their theories about the move and its timing — let the #______MakesYouStupid jokes begin — but from our perspective, we’re most interested in the impact the new leadership will have on the Times’ digital strategy. Keller’s eight years in the top job have witnessed the complete disruption of the traditional business model for American newspapers, but the Times’ brand equity, market positioning, and quality have all given it a major advantage over its peers.

The Times has invested heavily in digital initiatives in the Keller era — I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I suspect their investment has been greater than any other American news organization. But that makes sense, since the Times has more to gain from the web’s easy distribution model than any other newspaper whose content is more tied to geography. The Times has national and global appeal, and fits perfectly with a medium that lets Times journalism reach that broad audience. From its large digital news operation to its massive adoption of blogs to its R&D Lab, the Keller era leaves the Times about as well positioned for a webby future as any of its peers.

A pro-digital mindset has never been unanimous among Times leadership, which has obvious and deep roots in print culture. The recent hubbub over Keller’s Twitter column was only the most recent iteration of the internal conflict. Maybe you remember two years ago, when a few Times reporters livetweeted a Times digital staff meeting, which led to a backlash from editors and other staffers?

Well, today, the announcement of Abramson’s ascent was semi-livetweeted by @nytimes, the newspaper’s recently humanized 3.2 million-follower Twitter account — Instagram photos and all.

We can only guess what Jill Abramson’s promotion will mean for the Times’ digital strategy — but to the extent that she’s carved out an outward-facing identity on the subject, it’s been notably pro-web. It was Abramson who took time away from her editing gig last year to immerse herself in the Times’ digital operations, which Keller said was Abramson’s initiative. (That move began on June 1, one year ago yesterday, and was supposed to last six months. The Times press release on the move quotes Arthur Sulzberger as saying: “Over the past year, she has immersed herself in our digital strategy and led the effort to fully integrate the newsroom.” So it would seem elements of the immersion lived on past the six-month span.)

Last fall, Abramson told New York she wanted to build incentives for staffers to become more web-oriented. “When you have a front-page story,” she said, “everyone is like, ‘Wow, great story!’ I’d like to get to a place where the celebration when something goes on the home page is as pronounced.”

Jennifer Preston, former Times social media editor, chimed in after today’s announcement: “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she’s fearless. We’re lucky.” She added “Jill has always been highly supportive of our real-time Twitter publishing/curation efforts.”

And for those looking for more tea leaves to read, check out Abramson’s two most recent Talk to the Newsroom features, both from 2009, where she hits on some webby subjects. You won’t find much revelatory — no secret web strategies lying in wait for the right moment. Like the Times’ staff, we’ll all have to wait and see how she shapes the Times’ digital transformation.

15:42

New York Times: Jill Abramson to replace Bill Keller

New York Times :: Jill Abramson, a former investigative reporter and Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, will become the paper’s executive editor, succeeding Bill Keller, who is stepping down to become a full-time writer for the paper. Dean Baquet, the paper's Washington bureau chief, was named a managing editor

Thursday, June 2,2011 - 10:36 am EDT

Continue to read Jeremy W. Peters, www.nytimes.com

May 10 2011

16:50

Life in the cave: highlights from Boston University’s “The Rebirth of Storytelling” conference

What does it take to make a great story? Boston University’s “The Power of Narrative” conference, held on campus April 29-30, aimed to offer some insights. The event included the kind of writing techniques and “show don’t tell” advice you’d expect (and hope for) at such a gathering. But beyond hearing about the mechanics of narrative nonfiction, the 200-plus attendees also got ideas and advice on other parts of living the storytelling life. How do you sift through topics and dig into a massive undertaking? How do you carve out time to see a project through? What does it take to get published?

The weekend intensive offered thoughts from an array of magazine and book veterans, from Susan Orlean to Gay Talese, with a side of Hampton Sides and Ken Auletta. Dayton Duncan, who worked on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” spoke for visual storytelling, while New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson represented daily news. Harvard’s own John Stauffer, who has written several narrative histories, bridged the worlds of academia and popular nonfiction. Isabel Wilkerson spearheaded the event in her role as director of BU’s narrative nonfiction program.

Gay Talese discussed his December New Yorker piece, in which the (then) 78-year-old reported on opera singer Marina Poplavskaya from three continents – a 21st-century global recasting of his legendary feature on Frank Sinatra.

He also shared his reservations about a particular kind of narrative reporting. As an example, he brought up the work of Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone contributing editor whose narrative on Gen. Stanley McChrystal contributed to McChrystal resigning his leadership position in Afghanistan. While accepting the piece as accurate, Talese differentiated Hastings’ style from his own. Suggesting that Hastings may have caught McChrystal’s team off-guard, Talese described how, in a similar situation, he would return to his subjects before filing a story and ask exactly what they meant. “I want to reflect what people mean, not what they say,” he explained. “That kind of journalism isn’t worth it.”

For those hoping to follow in these veterans’ footsteps or to blaze new trails, here are some tips culled from the weekend’s presenters:

Date before you marry. Talking about the importance of finding a project that both moves you and offers enough material, Susan Orlean described committing to stories that she later regretted choosing, and admitted to switching book topics mid-stream more than once. (She advised that taking this tack with publishers might not be conducive to a writing career.)

Isabel Wilkerson, discussing her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” described interviewing more than 1,200 people before choosing the three central characters for her narrative. (For more on Wilkerson’s book, read our March interview with her.)

Give voice to the invisible and the dead. Dayton Duncan, who has written nine books in addition to his work with Ken Burns, addressed the creation of suspense and forward motion in “Out West: A Journey Through Lewis & Clark’s America.” Describing Lewis and Clark’s first loss and burial of an expedition member, Duncan noted that the first man they lost would also be the last. But to recreate how the trip felt to those on it, he let his readers agonize along with the characters in the book over whether and when the explorers might meet up with death again.

While Duncan focused on bringing the dead to life, Talese described the idea he had early in his career of reporting on the private lives of ordinary people. Aiming to treat these invisible characters with the complexity and significance that fiction accords everyday people, he became a self-described “master of the minor character.”

Rock the intro and the finale. When it comes to a book manuscript, Kate Medina, executive editorial director at Random House, described what she wants to see: “Go for something big, and write it the best you can. Write it in your natural voice.” Writers should strive for clear writing, clear thinking and a big, bold statement that’s backed up – a story that makes readers think or feel something they haven’t thought or felt before. Start with something riveting to draw readers in, she suggested, and pay attention to the very end. When readers finish the last page and put the book down, Medina wants them to think, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

Live dangerously. Wilkerson talked about re-enacting the long drive one of her characters made from the deep South to California. Her subject’s trip had taken place during an era when finding a motel or hotel willing to let African-Americans stay was difficult. Wilkerson’s parents rode with her in the car. As the trip dragged on, Wilkerson became exhausted, and her parents grew more and more fearful. At one point, her parents said they would be more than happy to tell her what those years were like, but as far as re-enacting the trip with her, they wanted her to let them drive or let them out: “You must stop the car.”

Get a cave of some kind. Wilkerson talked about how she “went into the cave” on starting her book, entering the world of people who had lived the migration. Hampton Sides, author of “Hellhound on His Trail,” invoked the “pain cave” that he descends into when he begins writing. (This cave is apparently metaphorical, as he does his work at a local eatery that lets him run a tab.)

Talese, it turns out, had a real-world cave dug underneath his Manhattan brownstone to create a place to write where he would not be disturbed. This hideout has apparently been finished and polished in the years since it was first excavated (he recently wrote a tale for New York magazine on how he came by the rest of his digs), but having a bunker mentality about creating the space and time to work seems to be a requirement.

February 23 2011

17:00

The context-based news cycle: editor John O’Neil on the future of The New York Times’ Topics Pages

“There’s are a lot of people in the news industry who are very skeptical of anything that isn’t news,” says The New York Times’ John O’Neil. As the editor of the Times’ Topic Pages, which he calls a “current events encyclopedia,” O’Neil oversees 25,000 topic pages, half of which — about 12,000 or so — include some human curation.

While the rest of the newsroom is caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, constantly churning out articles, O’Neil and his team are on a parallel cycle, “harvesting the reference material every day out of what the news cycle produces.” This means updating existing topic pages, and creating new ones, based on each morning’s news. (The most pressing criterion for what gets updated first, O’Neil said, is whether “we would feel stupid not having it there.”) A few of the Times’ most highly curated topics include coffee (curated by coffee reporter Oliver Strand with additional updates by Mike White) and and Wikipedia (curated by media reporter Noam Cohen),  as well as more predictably prominent topics like Wikileaks and Egypt.

The Topics team includes three editors and two news assistants, who work with Times reporters. “People give us links to studies they’ve used for stories or articles they’ve looked at, and this is something that we do hope to expand,” O’Neil said.

But half of the topic pages are “purely automated,” O’Neil said. And O’Neil is even contemplating contracting the number of curated topic pages, as people and events drop out of relevance. (The Topic pages garner 2.5 percent of the Times’ total pageviews.) O’Neil said he had read a statistic that roughly a third of Wikipedia’s traffic came from only about 3,000 of its now more than 17 million pages. “We’re concentrating more on that upper end of the spectrum.”

In a phone conversation, I talked with O’Neil about why the Times has ventured into Wikipedia territory, how the Times’ model might be scalable for local news organizations, and why creating a “current events encyclopedia” turns out to be easier than you might think. A condensed and edited version of that conversation is below.

LB: How did the topic pages develop?

JO: Topic pages began as part of the redesign in 2006. Folks up in tech and the website realized they could combine the indexing that has actually gone on for decades with the ability to roll up a set of electronic tags. The first topic pages were just a list of stories by tag, taking advantage of the fact that we had human beings looking at stories every day and deciding if they were about this, or were they about that. Just that simple layer of human curation created lists that are much more useful than a keyword search, and they proved to be pretty popular — more popular than expected at the time.

LB: What’s the philosophy at the Times behind the topic page idea?

JO: Jill Abramson’s point of view when she started looking at this: When she was a reporter, she would work on a story for days on end, weeks on end, and pile up more and more material. You end up with a stack of manila folders full of material, and she would take all of that and boil it down to a 1,200-word story. It was a lot of knowledge that was gained in the process, and it didn’t make it to the reader. The question was: How can we try to share some of that with the reader?

My impression is that people find these pages terrifically useful. Not everybody comes to a news story with the knowledge you would have if you’d been following the story closely all along. News organizations are set up to deal with the expectation [that people] have read the paper yesterday and the day before.

LB: How do you go about transforming news stories into reference material? What does the process look like?

JO: What we found, as we did this, is that the Times is actually publishing reference material every day. It’s buried within stories. In a given day, with 200 articles in the paper, about 10 percent reperesent extremely significant developments in the field. Now we can take a small number of subjects, like Tunisia or Egypt or Lebanon or the Arizona shootings, and keep on top of everything, set the bar higher. We can really keep up with what the daily paper’s doing on the biggest stories.

LB: As you note, there’s a lot of wariness among “news” folks  around putting  effort into topic pages. For instance, when I talked with Jonathan Weber of The Bay Citizen, the Times’ San Francisco local news partner, about topic pages, he told me: ”people are looking for news from a news site….We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.” How would you respond to that?

JO: Our experience has been that that’s never been entirely true, and it’s becoming less true all the time. Look at the pound-and-half print New York Times, and think how much of that is about things other than what happened yesterday. Even in the print era, that was a pretty big chunk.

Then again, it makes sense for folks at a place like The Bay Citizen to be more skeptical about topic pages. A blog, after all, is all about keeping the items coming. And a site focused on local news would feel less need to explain background — hey, all our readers live here and know all that! — than if they were covering the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance.

LB: So what about the Wikipedia factor? Why should the Times be getting into the online encyclopedia business?

JO: I think Wikipedia is an amazing phenomenon. I use it. But there’s no field of information in which people would find there to be only one source. On Wikipedia, there’s the uncertainty principle: It’s all pretty good, but you’re never sure with any specific thing you’re looking at, how specific you can be about it. You have to be an expert to know which are the good pages and which are the not-so-good ones.

Our topic pages — and other newspaper-based pages — bring, for one thing, a level of authority or certainty. We’re officially re-purposing copy that has been edited and re-edited to the standards of The New York Times. It’s not always perfect, but people know what they can expect.

LB: What’s the business-side justification for the Topic Pages?

JO: We know that the people who come to the topic page are more likely than people who come to an article page to continue on and look at other parts of the site. It helps bring people to the site from search engines.

It’s also brand-building; it’s another way people can form an attachment. People can also subscribe to topic pages. (Every page produces an RSS feed.) We’ve begun to do some experimenting with social media. There are lots of people who want to like or follow or friend The New York Times, but a topic pages feed gives you a way of looking at a slice of this audience. It turns the supermarket into a series of niche food stands, so to speak.

LB: The Times obviously has a lot more resources than most local news outlets. Is developing topic pages something of a luxury, or is it something that makes sense to pursue on a more grass-roots level?

JO: At the Times, less than one half of one percent of the newsroom staff is re-purposing the copy. That makes it of lasting value, and makes it more accessible to people who are searching. If you think about a small regional paper, three editors would be a huge commitment. On the other hand, the array of topics on which they produce a significant amount of information that other people don’t is small. There’s a relatively small number of subjects where they feel like, “We really own this, this is key to our readership and important to our coverage.”

If people think of topic pages as the creation of original content on original subjects, it never looks feasible. If you think about it as re-purposing copy on your key subjects, I think it’s something more and more people will do.

May 21 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Facebook circles the wagons, leaky paywalls, and digital publishing immersion

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Should Facebook be regulated?: It’s been almost a month since Facebook’s expansion of Open Graph and Instant Personalization, and the concerns about the company’s invasion of privacy continue to roll in. This week’s telling example of how much Facebook information is public comes courtesy of Openbook, a new site that uses Facebook’s API to allow you to search all public Facebook updates. (Of course, you’ll find similarly embarrassing revelations via a Twitter search, but the point is that many of these people don’t know that what they’re posting is public.)

We also got another anti-Facebook diatribe (two, actually) from a web luminary: danah boyd, the Microsoft researcher and social media expert. Boyd, who spends a lot of time talking to young people about social media, noted two observations in her first post: Many users’ mental model of who can see their information doesn’t match up with reality, and people have invested so much time and resources into Facebook that they feel trapped by its changes. In the second post, Boyd proposes that if Facebook is going to refer to itself as a “social utility” (and it’s becoming a utility like water, power or the Internet, she argues), then it needs to be ready to be regulated like other utilities.

The social media blog Mashable has chimed in with a couple of defenses of Facebook (the web is all about sharing information; Facebook has normalized sharing in a way that users want to embrace), but the din has reached Facebook’s ears. The Wall Street Journal reported that the issue has prompted deep disagreements and several days of discussions at Facebook headquarters, and a Facebook spokesman said the company is going to simplify privacy controls soon.

Meanwhile, tech investor and entrepreneur Chris Dixon posited that Facebook is going to use its web-wide Like button to corner the market on online display ads, similar to the way Google did with text ads. Facebook also launched 0.facebook.com, a simple mobile-only site that’s free on some carriers — leading Poynter’s Steve Myers to wonder whether it’s going to become the default mobile web for feature phones (a.k.a. “dumb” phones). But The New York Times argued that when it comes to social data, Facebook still can’t hold a candle to the good, old-fashioned open web.

Are iPad apps worth it?: The iPad’s sales haven’t slowed down yet — it’s been projected to outsell the Mac, and one in five Americans say they might get one — but there are still conflicting opinions over how deeply publishers should get involved with it. Slate Group head Jacob Weisberg was the latest to weigh in, arguing that iPad apps won’t help magazines and newspapers like they think it will. He makes a couple of arguments we’ve seen several times over the past month or two: App producers are entering an Apple-controlled marketplace that’s been characterized by censorship, and apps are retrograde attempts to replicate the print experience.

“They’re claustrophobic walled gardens within Apple’s walled garden, lacking the basic functionality we now expect with electronic journalism: the opportunity to comment, the integration of social media, the ability to select text and paste it elsewhere, and finally the most basic function of all: links to other sources,” Weisberg says. GQ magazine didn’t get off to a particularly encouraging start with its iPad offerings, selling just 365 copies of its $2.99 Men of the Year iPad issue.

A few other folks are saying that the iPad is ushering in fundamental changes in the way we consume personal media: At Ars Technica, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps notes that the iPad is radically different from what people say they want in a PC, but they’re still more than willing to buy it because it makes complex computing simple. (The term Forrester is using to describe the tablet era, curated computing, seems like a stretch, though.) Norwegian digital journalist John Einar Sandvand offers a similar take, saying that tablets’ distinctive convenience will further weaken print newspapers’ position. And the Lab’s Josh Benton says the iPad could have an effect on the way we write, too.

Slipping through the Times’ and WSJ’s paywalls: New York Times editor Bill Keller gave an update late last week on the plans for his paper’s much-anticipated paywall — he didn’t really tell us anything new, but did indicate the Times’ solidified plans for the wall’s implementation. In reiterating the fact that he wasn’t breaking any news, though, Keller gave Media Matters’ Joe Strupp a bit of a clearer picture about how loose the Times’ metered model will be: “Those who mainly come to the website via search engines or links from blogs, and those who only come sporadically — in short, the bulk of our traffic — may never be asked to pay at all,” Keller wrote.

In the meantime, digital media consultant Mark Potts found another leaky paywall at The Wall Street Journal. Potts canceled his WSJ.com subscription (after 15 years!) and found that he’s still able to access for free almost everything he had previously paid for with only a few URL changes and the most basic of Google skills. And even much of that information, he argues, is readily available from other sources for free, damaging the value of the venerable Journal paywall. “Even the Journal can’t enforce the kind of exclusivity that would make it worth paying for — it’s too easy to look elsewhere,” Potts writes.

Another Times-related story to note: The paper’s managing editor for news, Jill Abramson, will leave her position for six months to become immersed in the digital side of the Times’ operation. The New York Observer tries out a few possible explanations for the move.

Going all-in on digital publishing: Speaking of immersion, two publishers in the past two weeks have tried a fascinating experiment: producing an issue entirely through new-media tools. The first was 48 Hour, a new San Francisco-based magazine that puts together each issue from beginning to end in two days. The magazine’s editors announced a theme, solicited submissions via email and Twitter, received 1,500 submissions, then put together the magazine, all in 48 hours. Several who saw the finished product were fairly impressed, but CBS’s lawyers were a little less pleased about the whole ‘48 Hour’ name. Gizmodo had a Q&A with the mag’s editors (all webzine vets) and PBS MediaShift and the BBC took a closer look at the editorial process.

Second, the Journal Register Company newspaper chain finished the Ben Franklin Project, an experiment in producing a daily and weekly newspaper and website using only free, web-based tools. Two small Ohio newspapers accomplished the feat this week, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a look inside the effort. What she uncovered should be an inspiration for people looking to implement change in newsrooms, especially ones that might be resistant to digital media. A quote from the daily paper’s managing editor sums it up: “When we started out, we said, ‘We’re going to do what? How are we going to do this?’ Now we’re showing ourselves that we can operate in a world that, even six months ago, used to be foreign to us.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two developments and a handful of other pieces to think on:

— Yahoo bought the online content producer Associated Content for $100 million this week. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined what this deal means for Yahoo (it’s big, he says), and considers the demand-and-advertising-driven model employed by Associated Content and others like Demand Media.

— If you follow NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter, you’ve heard a ton about fact-checking over the past couple of months. A couple more interesting tidbits on the subject this week: Fact-checks are consistently the AP’s most popular pieces online, and Minnesota Public Radio has unveiled PoliGraph, its own fact-checking effort.

— Poynter’s Rick Edmonds compares two of the more talked-about local news startups launching this summer, Washington D.C.’s TBD and Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat. He’s got some great details on both. Poynter also put together a list of 200 moments over the last decade that transformed journalism.

— If you’re up for a quick, deep thought, the Lab’s Josh Benton muses on the need for news to structure and shrink its users’ world. “I think it’s journalists who need to take up that challenge,” he says, “to learn how to spin something coherent and absorbing and contained and in-the-moment and satisfying from the chaos of the world around us.”

— And once you’re done with that, head into the weekend laughing at The Onion’s parody of newspapers’ coverage of social media startups.

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