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July 01 2013


When building new news products, lightweight experimentation is key

Joey Marburger went into some detail for Source on the creation of The Washington Post’s The Grid. The Grid is meant to be a dynamic and interactive platform for staying up to date on breaking news stories, including an “even mix of photos, instagrams, tweets, articles, videos, animated gifs, quotes, and other content types.”

Marburger explains the collaborative process of building the front and back ends of The Grid and also offers some thoughts on responsive design — but most useful is his explanation of why flexible prototyping is important to building a product that can be widely and productively repurposed.

The media industry has to try new things. When we started conceptualizing The Grid we had no idea where it would take us. Prototyping unlocked more ideas and furthered the concept of The Grid to where it is today. It allows us to try new designs, test new features quickly, and above all, move fast. The Grid changed the culture of how we develop products in the Washington Post newsroom. Yes, the product has been successful, but many more products have been successful because of it. The cultural needle has shifted and that is what technologists do. They change how we work.

June 21 2013


Pinned: Story trailers, a notable narrative, writers on rejection, writers on Twitter, Michael Hastings’ tips for young journalists

Pinned this week, for your storytelling pleasure:

Inspired: Story trailers. Esquire made not one but two (a 46- and 20-second version) for Chris Jones’ “Animals,” a taut narrative about the Zanesville, Ohio, zoo massacre. And Georgia’s Macon Telegraph just launched one for “Searching for Shorty: The murder of an unknown man,” a narrative coming this Sunday by enterprise reporters Amy Leigh Womack and Joe Kovac Jr.:

Kovac makes these himself. We asked him how he does it, and why, and here’s what he told us yesterday:

This was actually the third “trailer” I’ve done for stories in the past year and a half. They’re all fairly pedestrian, done with half-a-decade-old iMovie software on the Mac in my kitchen. (Not low-budget, but rather no-budget.) “Killing in the Country: The Death of Trevorius Thomas,” for instance, incorporates audio I recorded on my iPhone at the funeral; I used a photo I snapped at the scene as the backdrop. I made “Phantom on Emery Highway“ on a Sunday night. I filmed it through an open sunroof with a point-and-shoot camera. The idea was to follow the same route that police thought the hit-and-run driver took. Which I did. The clip ends at the spot where the man was killed. I had hoped to film it at 3:30 a.m. to capture an accurate depiction of what the traffic might have been like when the man was run over. But I figured late on a Sunday was good enough. I’ve tried to be as careful as I can on these not to go over the top with the effects and bells and whistles that iMovie offers. As a novice on video, I think sometimes there’s an urge to “use all the toys.” I’ve tried to keep the trailers simple. As we might say in a print newsroom, Write it straight.

Joe Kovac Jr.

Joe Kovac Jr.

I’m pretty much a shade-tree mechanic when it comes to video. At best. I can write “grabber” copy well enough and I think that’s why I use it instead of voiceovers. I’ve made most of these in my spare time, off the clock. But I’ve found that distilling a 5,000-word story into a minute or so of video really makes you focus as a writer. On “Killing in the Country,” about a drug deal gone bad, I made the trailer the weekend before I started writing. It was agonizing, tedious, making the text match the sound, learning the iMovie ropes trial and error. So much of it is timing. But bottom line, it forces you to find the heart of the story. But again, low-budget as it may look, it was painstaking. The “Killing in the Country” clip took … well, let’s just say longer than I’d have liked. Hours.

I wouldn’t want to do trailers on everyday features, but on a piece I’ve spent a few weeks or months reporting it can be worth it. The hope, of course, is that the videos will drive readers to our site for the stories. Hard to gauge whether it works. It’s still kind of cool.

Notable narrativesThe Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen wrote a remarkable piece recently about a mother, a son and schizophrenia. A passage:

It has been 10 years since he began thinking his classmates were whispering about him, four years since he started feeling angry all the time, and two years since he first told a doctor he was hearing imaginary voices. It has been 20 months since he was told he had a form of schizophrenia, and 15 months since he swallowed three bottles of Benadryl and laid down to die, after which he had gotten better, and worse and, for a while, better again, or so Naomi had thought until an hour ago, when they were in the therapist’s office and Spencer said that his head was feeling “cloudy.” 

“Wait —” she said, interrupting. “You described it as a cloudy feeling?”

Cloudy was the big, flying red flag that she had learned to dread. It might simply be a side effect of one of his five medications. But it could also be the quiet beginning of her firstborn son falling apart again, of hallucinations, or a dive into depression, or some other dimension of his illness that Naomi has yet to fathom.

“Yeah,” Spencer said. “Cloudy. It feels like these winds are blowing inside my head.”

Inspired, Part 2: Twelve famous writers on rejection, which in this fractious writing universe appears applicable across disciplines (“To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game.”—Anita Shreve) and Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a new book about the habits of 161 creative minds. From the website of the author, Mason Currey:

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself 3,000 words each morning (250 words every 15 minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for 33 years during the writing of more than two dozen books; George Balanchine, who liked to do his own laundry and who did most of his “work” while ironing; George Gershwin, who worked for 12 hours a day, from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers.

Recommended: At NewYorker.com, Thomas Beller wrote about writers and Twitter:

Writing on Twitter brings the energy of a début to every phrase. You could say it imbues writing with a sense of performance, though writing has always involved performance in the sense of performance anxiety. The question for the writer who is leaving multiple pages crumpled on the floor—literally or figuratively—is for whom is that line, or paragraph, unsatisfactory? Who is the appraiser of one’s own unpublished, or even unwritten, work?

The editor Ted Solotaroff wrote an essay called “A Few Good Voices In My Head,” in which he talked about managing this feeling of having an audience. His prescription is summed up in his title: a couple of trusted voices with whom a writer will engage in a dialogue—sometimes literally, more often not. Twitter is messing with this equation: I have many more voices in my head than I ever had before.

Cartoontorials: It’s not that big a deal but really, people, isn’t it time to stop double-spacing after a period in your first drafts? The typewriter imperative is over.

GearThese notebooks, spotted by former Arizona Republic reporter Jamiee Rose. Not so great for reporting, maybe (we prefer the long narrow classic ones: easily tuckable or back-pocketable), but just fine for sketching out story notes and structures.

In memorium: Let’s just agree that this was one crappy week. Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings died at 33 in a Los Angeles car crash; the actor James Gandolfini died suddenly at 51, while vacationing in Italy; the Oregonian announced a publishing scale-back plus layoffs and the publisher referred to the newsroom as a “content organization.” (“Kill me,” tweeted Gene Weingarten.) Worth remembering as we shake off a tough one: Hastings’ 10 tips for young journalists, which in the hours after his death circulated widely beyond his year-old reddit AMA. They included:

By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)


Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever. 

Join us on Pinterest for more good stuff, and find the burgeoning “Pinned” archives here.

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June 14 2013


Pinned: Dan Zak, 40 Towns, Chimamanda Adichie, TED Radio Hour, writing advice, Walter Lippmann

Pinned this week week for your storytelling pleasure:

Highly recommended: In schools, the complexity in assigned reading is dropping, NPR reports: “A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.” Pair with yesterday’s engaging Dan Zak piece in the Washington Post, on the news illiteracy and apathy of prospective jurors in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case:

The efficiency of the American jury system, Mark Twain once wrote, “is only marred by the difficulty of finding 12 men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”

Yet it is the most democratic demonstration we have, says Randolph Jonakait, a professor at New York Law School and author of “The American Jury System.”

“That we take ordinary people off the street and ask them to decide the fate of other human beings — that’s truly remarkable,” Jonakait says. “And it says something about our belief or our faith or our willingness to use ordinary common sense in making the most important decisions people are ever going to make.”

R39, a landscaper, wrote this on his juror questionnaire: “I don’t really care about what happened.”

When pressed in court about this sentiment on Wednesday, R39 says: “I’m not a person who cares that much about other people.”

When court went into recess late Wednesday afternoon, 75 jurors had been dismissed and 20 remained in the potential pool. Once the pool reaches 40, these potential jurors will be subjected to a round of more detailed questioning that will drill down into personal matters and opinions unrelated to pretrial publicity. The judge announced Thursday that the jury would be sequestered for the duration of trial, which is expected to start next week, at the earliest, and last two to four weeks.

Through Thursday, 34 potential jurors had been questioned individually, sitting in the same cushioned chair, in front of the same congregation of media, answering the same convoluted questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

De la Rionda is asking B86 on Tuesday if she could disregard hearing that Trayvon had been suspended at school.

“I could try,” says B86, auburn hair tucked behind her ears.

Does “try” mean you can?


“ ‘Probably’ means you’re not sure? Does it mean ‘maybe’?”

“I’m not sure. . . . I can’t guarantee anything.”

“We are inspired by the honesty of the potential jurors,” Trayvon’s family said in a statement Wednesday.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 9.30.23 PMGear: “Keep Calm and Revise” — just put it on your wall already. You’ll feel better. Bonus: a “bloody-writer” crime scene notepad, for the days when that doesn’t work.

Inspired: “I learned how to read from comic books, but also how to see.” + 40 Towns, the literary journalism website and work of Jeff Sharlet’s students at Dartmouth + TED Radio Hour exploration of storytelling, with novelist Chimamanda Adichie, filmmaker Andrew Stanton + Creatavist, The Atavist’s new DIY multimedia storytelling tool, which WBUR is using to manage Whitey Bulger trial coverage.

Cartoontorials: on finding your own voice (but loving Michael Paterniti’s!); on the professionalism of sticking to your assigned word count; on the definition of narrative journalism (in case you forgot).

Tip sheets: Writing advice from famous authors (Orwell: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”) + Edmund Wilson’s checklist on how to say NO.

Walter Lippmann: a board devoted to the two-time-Pulitzer-winning columnist, author, founding editor of The New Republic, and namesake of our Nieman Foundation headquarters, Lippmann House. A deep thinker on the interplay between public opinion and the news, he argued that the masses make up their mind before studying facts, and that most people operate in willful ignorance, without bothering to think critically. He made those arguments in 1922. (Sound timely? See: Zak; Zimmerman; news, above.)

May 09 2013


Why Charles Ramsey’s interview is great (and it’s okay* to think so)

Everybody loved the Charles Ramsey interviews on freeing Amanda Berry, one of three young women abducted in Cleveland a decade ago and apparently held captive all this time. Then of course, people hated it. Or some did, anyway, raising questions about the meme of the “hilarious black neighbor.” Until details about the story had time to emerge—what went on in that house, and how such secrets went undetected for so long—all the attention was on Ramsey, and his unfiltered recounting of the excitement on Seymour Street. You’ve seen the video and heard the audio, but here it is in text form:

“Yeah, hey bro,” Ramsey told the dispatcher. “I’m at 2207 Seymour. West 25th. Check this out—I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eating my little food, right? This broad is trying to break out the fucking house next door to me, so there’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit. So we’re like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s the problem?’ She’s like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter…’ She say her name is Linda Berry or some shit. I don’t know who the fuck that is, I just moved over here, bro.”

“Sir, sir,” said the male dispatcher. “…You have to calm down and slow down. Is she still in the street?”

“Seymour Avenue,” Ramsey said.

“Is she still in the street or where did she go?”

“Yeah I’m looking at her right now. She’s calling y’all! She’s on the other phone.”

They went on for a bit, with Ramsey getting frustrated and the dramatic tension (hello, narrative) rising. A short while later the TV news crews arrived, and Ramsey’s story got longer and more detailed, with discrepancies:

I went to McDonald’s and I’m at home and I hear this, ‘Help, let me out!’ This girl screaming. Now we don’t have that on our street because everybody on this street knows each other, so when you hear something like that you come running to see what’s going on. I thought it was a kid got attacked by a pit bull. And I looked at that girl and I said, ‘You look familiar!’ And I’m prying the door open and she’s trying to get out, and she climbed through the bottom of it and soon as she got out she said, ‘My name is Amanda Berry, call the police.’

You heard screaming? the reporter asked.

I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of her house, so I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out, I’ve been in here a long time,’ so I figured it was a domestic violence dispute so I opened the door and we can’t get in that way because…a body can’t fit through, only your hand. So we kicked the bottom and she comes out with a little girl and she says, ‘Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry.’ When she told me, it didn’t register until I got to calling 911… I thought this girl was dead, you know what I mean? And she got on the phone and she said, ‘Yes, this is me…’

And when did you see Gina?

About five minutes after the police got here. See, that girl Amanda told the police, ‘I ain’t just the only one, it’s some more girls up in that house.’ So they went up there 30, 40 deep, and when they came out it was just astonishing because I thought they were gonna come up with nothing.

How long you lived here?

I been here a year! I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music.

And you had no indication?

Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against their will. Because how he is, he just comes out to his back yard, plays with the dogs, tinkering with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. He’s somebody that you look at and look away because he’s not doing nothing but the average stuff. There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.

What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine…

Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she’s homeless or she got problems. That’s the only reason she’s running to a black man.

[The interview over, Ramsey flashed the thumbs-up.]

Why this is great and people love it: First, true originals mesmerize. Unfiltered, unmanaged, Ramsey was authentically who he is. Second, he told a story. His account of the escape is straight up narrative. The elements are there: a compelling character with an original voice (“Yeah, hey, bro…check this out;” “so they went up there 30, 40 deep;” “We eat ribs and whatnot”); there’s a clear structure (chronological), dialogue (which is key), and the aforementioned dramatic tension; it’s got what Tom Wolfe calls status details—food from McDonald’s, assumptions about a pit bull attack and a domestic violence dispute. And then the underdog hero utters a Hemingway’s-iceberg line of dialogue:

“Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

So the story becomes transcendent.

If you’re writing the long-ball narrative you wouldn’t want to omit what happened next, which was that Ramsey, inevitably, went viral. Why? Did the public love him for his storytelling skills? His authenticity? His gutsy instincts? Yep. And was that okay? Absolutely. There was nothing, on Day 1, not to love. This was “a wonderfully vibrant interview with a man who helped kick down a door and rescue three women and a child,” said Neely Tucker, a veteran Washington Post reporter and author of Love in the Driest Season, when we informally polled a few journalists on the topic. “It was precise, exciting, emotional, visually telling, and told with great pacing and narrative detail. All in two minutes, live, on camera. Anybody who’s bothered that the narrator is black and probably not rich is saying more about themselves than him.”

*Things got tricky when the inevitable autotune opportunists and meme-weavers bundled Ramsey with the viral videos of other crime-scene witnesses, all of whom happened to be black. The personal you-go-dude! feelings for Ramsey, conflated with images of expressive stylists like Antoine Dodson, morphed into something else. Not ugly, exactly, but ugly adjacent, if you took the view that the meme-drivers were laughing at, not with. Ramsey moved “from bystander and guy on the scene into ‘Internet object of affection,’” as Justin Ellis, an assistant editor of Nieman Journalism Lab, one of Storyboard’s sister publications, puts it. “I don’t know if that’s just the Internet chugging along or if there’s something else to blame. People want to celebrate him, which is great, but it’s hard to ignore the familiar trappings/scenario of ‘black person achieves Internet fame through local TV,’ which can feel exploitive at times and condescending or even casually racist at others.”

A narrative that already contained those trace elements of race/class (“pretty white girl;” “black man’s arms”) now had an overlay of social media influence, triggering confusion (was it not okay to like this guy’s interview?) and raising coverage questions: How will—or should—this aspect of the story be presented in the long view, or even in the short one? We asked other colleagues and here’s what they said:


Greg Moore

I have not watched a lot of the Internet stuff having fun with Charles Ramsey’s manner and I don’t plan to. I am from Cleveland and I know lots of people like Ramsey. On the street, he is likely being lauded for “keeping it real.” And part of the fascination with him is his originality and lack of self-consciousness. That’s partly why he could do what he did in saving those three women. He was on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning talking about the case, grappling for the right word here and there and sometimes clearly not understanding the question. But there was no mistaking his meaning and his grit when he did. Lamenting that he had shared ribs with the alleged perpetrator and even tried to salsa dance to some of his music, he ruefully noted something like this: If I had known what was going on in that house, don’t you think we’d be having a different interview right now? With Ramsey, you darn tootin’. Sometime people have to laugh to keep from crying. That’s a little bit of what is going on. This stuff is so bad and we are so relieved. But we all need to be listening to what this brave man is saying and not how he says it. I don’t think the reaction is so much racist as it reflects the lack of real familiarity with the strata of America. There are lots of people who talk like Ramsey and are damn funny, too. And there are many I grew up with who don’t play; who do the right thing and are fearless. Simple applause for Ramsey should be enough. He is a genuine hero, quirks and all. McDonald’s needs to put him in a commercial and one of those public-minded dental clinics should give him some new choppers for free. That’s the best way to show gratitude for such courage and community mindedness. And it is okay to chuckle at the unvarnished way he puts things? (Because it is really nervous laughter about how little we know about real people living real lives in communities across America). If we really understood his world, we’d know he is just keeping it real. And we are damn lucky he is. — Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, and Pulitzer Prize board member


Callie Crossley

First, of course, so glad he did what he did. Having said that, I wondered why a lot of the response to him has been all about the “funny” delivery. Have to say I’ve seen it before in portrayals of black men who happen into the middle of a breaking story—Antoine Dodson a prime example. For a while he was all the rage in pop culture, even garnering a record contract. But in his case and in Charles’ the serious substance of what they were saying got subsumed by their mannerisms and affect. I’m fascinated—not in a good way—by the fact that Charles’ commentary about race in Cleveland has stopped being reported as part of the story. “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty ran into a black man’s arms”—that’s pretty deep, and I think should have inspired journalists to ask him to explain what he meant. I’ve only heard one report focusing on this piece of the story, and I can’t remember if it was a TV or radio story. The piece picked up on his statement and went on to talk about the deep racial divide in Cleveland. But, that is the ONLY report I’ve seen dealing with it. As I see it, this is another example of journalists who are reluctant to pursue a legitimate racial angle to a story, even if it is a part of the main character’s story. And of course there is a class angle here. Reporters are also not so comfortable dealing with that issue. By the way, in the black blogosphere, a lot of folks are referencing In Living Color‘s satirical sketch: Reporters arrive on the scene of a breaking story and there are two witnesses, one a black professional in a suit and tie and another a black woman in what we used to call a housecoat, with curlers in her hair, and not in great command of the King’s English. Of course all of the reporters rushed past the guy and went to her for a “colorful” recitation of the events that had transpired. This is not exactly the same scenario in Charles Ramsey’s case—he was the only witness—but you get my drift. — Callie Crossley, host of the WGBH Radio show “Under the Radar.” Friday night at 7:30, Crossley will lead a Basic Black discussion called “What Can We Learn from Charles Ramsey?” It airs on WGBH-TV, Channel 2 in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland narrative unfolded. When Anderson Cooper spoke to Ramsey about all this, Ramsey said, “It’s about cojones. It’s about cojones, on this planet.” Cooper then asked whether he hoped to receive the FBI reward for helping free the women. “I tell you what you do,” Ramsey said instantly. “Give it to them.”

April 03 2013


Intercontinental collaboration: How 86 journalists in 46 countries can work on a single investigation


On Thursday morning, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists will begin releasing detailed reports on the workings of offshore tax havens. A little over a year ago, 260 gigabytes of data were leaked to ICIJ executive dIrector Gerard Ryle; they contained information about the finances of individuals in over 170 countries.

Ryle was a media executive in Australia at the time he received the data, says deputy director Marina Walker Guevara. “He came with the story under his arm.” Walker Guevara says the ICIJ was surprised Ryle wanted a job in their small office in Washington, but soon realized that it was only through their international scope and experience with cross border reporting that the Offshore Project could be executed. The result is a major international collaboration that has to be one of the largest in journalism history.

“It was a huge step. As reporters and journalists, the first thing you think is not ‘Let me see how I can share this with the world.’ You think: ‘How can I scoop everyone else?’ The thinking here was different.” Walker Guevara says the ICIJ seriously considered keeping the team to a core five or six members, but ultimately decided to go with the “most risky” approach when they realized the enormous scope of the project: Journalists from around the world were given lists of names to identify and, if they found interesting connections, were given access to Interdata, the secure, searchable, online database built by the ICIJ.

Just as the rise of information technology has allowed new competition for the attention of audiences, it’s also enabled traditional news organizations to partner in what can sometimes seem like dizzyingly complex relationships. The ICIJ says this is the largest collaborative journalism project they have ever organized, with the most comparable involving a team of 25 cross border journalists.

In the end, the Offshore Project brings together 86 journalists from 46 countries into an ongoing reporting collaboration. German and Canadian news outlets (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, and the CBC) will be among the first to report their findings this week, with The Washington Post beginning their report on April 7, just in time for Tax Day. Reporters from more than 30 other publications also contributed, including Le Monde, the BBC and The Guardian. (The ICIJ actually published some preliminary findings in conjunction with the U.K. publications as a teaser back in November.)

“The natural step wasn’t to sit in Washington and try to figure out who is this person and why this matters in Azerbaijan or Romania,” Walker Guevara said, “but to go to our members there — or a good reporter if we didn’t have a member — give them the names, invite them into the project, see if the name mattered, and involve them in the process.”

Defining names that matter was a learning experience for the leaders of the Offshore Project. Writes Duncan Campbell, an ICIJ founder and current data journalism manager:

ICIJ’s fundamental lesson from the Offshore Project data has been patience and perseverance. Many members started by feeding in lists of names of politicians, tycoons, suspected or convicted fraudsters and the like, hoping that bank accounts and scam plots would just pop out. It was a frustrating road to follow. The data was not like that.

The data was, in fact, very messy and unstructured. Between a bevy of spreadsheets, emails, PDFs without OCR, and pictures of passports, the ICIJ still hasn’t finished mining all the data from the raw files. Campbell details the complicated process of cleaning the data and sorting it into a searchable database. Using NUIX software licenses granted to the ICIJ for free, it took a British programmer two weeks to build a secure database that would allow all of the far-flung journalists not only to safely search and download the documents, but also to communicate with one another through an online forum.

“Once we went to these places and gathered these reporters, we needed to give them the tools to function as a team,” Walker Guevara said.

Even so, some were so overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and so unaccustomed to hunting for stories in a database, that the ICIJ ultimately hired a research manager to do searches for reporters and send them the documents via email. “We do have places like Pakistan where the reporters didn’t have much Internet access, so it was a hassle for him,” says Walker Guevara, adding that there were also security concerns. “We asked him to take precautions and all that, and he was nervous, so I understand.”

They also had to explain to each of the reporting teams that they weren’t simply on the lookout for politicians hiding money and people who had broken the law. “First, you try the name of your president. Then, your biggest politician, former presidents — everybody has to go through that,” Walker Guevara says. While a few headline names did eventually appear — Imelda Marcos, Robert Mugabe — she says some of the most surprising stories came from observing broader trends.

“Alongside many usual suspects, there were hundreds of thousands of regular people — doctors and dentists from the U.S.,” she says, “It made us understand a system that is a lot more used than what you think. It’s not just people breaking the law or politicians hiding money, but a lot of people who may feel insecure in their own countries. Or hiding money from their spouses. We’re actually writing some stories about divorce.”

In the 2 million records they accessed, ICIJ reporters began to get an understanding of the methods account holders use to avoid association with these accounts. Many use “nominee directors,” a process which Campbell says is similar to registering a car in the name of a stranger. But in their post about the Offshore Project, the ICIJ team acknowledges that, to a great extent, most of the money being channeled through offshore accounts and shell companies is actually not being used for illegal transactions. Defenders of the offshore banks say they “allow companies and individuals to diversify their investments, forge commercial alliances across national borders, and do business in entrepreneur-friendly zones that eschew the heavy rules and red tape of the onshore world.”

Walker Guevara says that, while that can be true, the “parallel set of rules” that governs the offshore world so disproportionately favor the elite, wealthy few as to be unethical. “Regulations, bureaucracy, and red tape are bothersome,” she says, “but that’s how democracy works.”

Perhaps the most interesting question surrounding the Offshore Project, however, is how do you get traditional shoe-leather journalists up to speed on an international story that involves intensive data crunching. Walker Guevara says it’s all about recognizing when the numbers cease to be interesting on their own and putting them in global context. Ultimately, while it’s rewarding to be able to trace dozens of shell companies to a man accused of stealing $5 billion from a Russian bank, someone has to be able to connect the dots.

“This is not a data story. It was based on a huge amount of data, but once you have the name and you look at your documents, you can’t just sit there and write a story,” says Walker Guevara. “That’s why we needed reporters on the ground. We needed people checking courthouse records. We needed people going and talking to experts in the field.”

All of the stories that result from the Offshore Project — some of which could take up to a year to be published — will live on a central project page at ICIJ.org. The team is also considering creating a web app that will allow users to explore some (though probably not all) of the data. In terms of the unique tools they built, Walker Guevara says most are easily replicable by anyone using NUIX or dtSearch software, but they won’t be open sourced. Other lessons from the project, like the inherent vulnerability of PGP encryption and “other complex cryptographic systems popular with computer hackers,” will endure.

“I think one of the most fascinating things about the project was that you couldn’t isolate yourself. It was a big temptation — the data was very addictive,” Walker Guevara says. “But the story worked because there was a whole other level of traditional reporting that was going and checking public records, going and seeing — going places.”

Photo by Aaron Shumaker used under a Creative Commons license.

March 28 2013


Just one question … for Michael Graff, on the death of Earl Badu

Big buzz earlier this month when Michael Graff‘s story on the suicide of former University of Maryland basketball walk-on Earl Badu hit SB Nation‘s longform wing:

You know the wish can’t come true, but people say it all the time to hide their own fears, so you’ll open with it, too: You wish he could just be happy. It would be easier that way. You could just hang curtains around everything else — the past, the future, the end — and you could look down through a tunnel at him and say, Freeze. Stay right there. And he’d remain locked in this memory, the little guy with the big heart playing in the final minute of the final game of a storied arena.



The piece, edited by Best American Sports Writing boss Glenn Stout, managed to resonate in spite of—because of?—almost no access to, or cooperation from, Badu’s family and friends. So from Graff, who lives in Greensboro, N.C., and also writes for Our State magazine, I wanted to know: How’d he do that?

Here’s what he said:

I was in my office in September writing about the symphony, of all things, when I read a brief on the Washington Post’s website that said Earl Badu committed suicide. The report showed that he jumped off an overpass and “onto Interstate 695.” I couldn’t believe it. Anybody who knew about Maryland’s 2002 national championship team remembered Earl. He was the Terps’ all-time Rudy. I remembered the basket he scored late in the last game at Cole, and I remembered just how loved he was by the fans. And now all I could picture was this scene with cars swerving around his body.

I waited. In mid-November I sent a half-hearted pitch to my editor, Glenn Stout, and said, basically, “Here’s an idea. I don’t know if I can get it. But if you think you’d want it, I’ll try.” Glenn said go.

I knew I had these two moments in time, moments that most humans never experience—a big shot, and a suicide. All I had to do, I figured, was fill up the 10 years in between.

Throughout December, I struggled with access. I live in North Carolina. And coaches and athletes from big places like Maryland have a lot going on. So it’s easier for them to work with writers they know, especially on hard stories like this. I was way behind. But I figured I had one thing going for me: I cared about it.

I started in the athletic department. I was honest in my requests. I told everybody up front that I was going to write about the suicide. Then I let them decide whether they wanted to participate. I didn’t want to mislead anyone.

I requested public records. The incident report showed that the suicide took place in two locations—the house and the top of the bridge. His parents were involved; other people were involved. Also, he didn’t jump onto the road. He jumped into a ditch.

The biggest blows came when Badu’s parents and Juan Dixon, his best friend on the team, decided not to participate. I contacted an old friend of mine who knows Juan and his brother Phil personally. That friend called the Dixons, and they said they wanted to be respectful of Earl’s family. I had Earl’s parents’ address from the police report. I called them twice. I left two messages. Then I mailed them a letter. When their attorney called me on Jan. 7, I was actually in my truck and on my way to their house. I decided to leave them alone, at his request.

I talked to Glenn throughout the process. I told him I was having a hard time filling up the middle. He said, “The unknown is part of the story.” That stuck. (Ed. note: The unknown, in fact, can serve as the theme of a story, as Alan Huffman showed in his recent “Why’s this so good?” breakdown of a Carol Smith piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) The lack of access forced the story to become deeper than the space between two moments in time; it became a story about the space between life and death.

In a way, the main character became suicide, not Earl.

I put myself in every place I could see him. I drove to the courthouse. Basic Internet court-record searches showed his legal trouble, $300,000 in debt to Alan Cornfield. Those troubles came to life in scenes in court documents. One of them was the scene of Earl on a cell phone in court, telling the judge to let him finish the call.

I drove to the house. I wrote what I saw and felt, turned around, and got the heck out of there. At the edge of the neighborhood, I started recording more notes. I recorded them all the way to the top of the bridge, where I stopped. I got out, walked around, put my hands on the wall and looked down. I hurried back to my truck. I put a notebook on the armrest and, with my hand shaking, I wrote this: “Jumping takes courage.”

I kept calling people. I found some of his old high school coaches and teammates. The farther out I got, the more people talked. They told me about the Earl they knew. They loved him.

I spent three months with this story, off and on and between other things. I went to bed with it and woke up with it. After a while, the question changed from “How do I get the story?” to “Why am I doing it? What’s the greater good?”

I guess in a small way, I wanted to change the way readers saw the next person they passed. Obviously, we enter every situation carrying our own life experiences. It’s easy to look at every end-of-the-bench player and think of him in a Rudy type of way. If he’s not great at basketball or football, we think, he must be a “good student,” or a “hard worker.” I’ve seen sportswriters lead players into those answers for years, and I’ve watched how they’ve shaped those humans. It’s not fair; we’re more complicated than that.

Suicide as a character, then, is a tornado that spins all over the place. It isn’t a solitary act. It spins onto a basketball floor. Into the eyes of fans. Into the words of sportscasters and writers. Into the pressure to make money. Into a courtroom. Onto a bridge. It makes teachers and friends and family and bosses and everybody who’s ever been in contact with the victim feel connected in a really bad way.

That’s why I waited until the end to introduce the other people in the story. Not many people cared that Andre Collins hit that last shot. But he did. It wasn’t Earl.

Nobody even knew about Rodney Welsh and Janet Stout, two people whose names were sort of hidden in the police report. But Earl changed their lives that day. Rodney, especially, still can’t sleep at night because of it. I thought that made it important to write about them, and to do it at the bottom—as real endings to those two stories that I introduced at the top.

One night in February, about a week before the deadline, I dreamed about Earl. I dreamed he was in a room, something like a dressing room inside an arena. He was leaning against a pillar, talking to his mom. And out of nowhere, Earl turned to me and he said, “This is all about a girl.”

I woke up stunned. Had I gone wrong? I was one week away from turning in the story, and I didn’t have a girl anywhere. All I had was money. That actually helped me let go of some blocks and turn this in.

Reporters believe we need to know everything about a story before writing it. We hold stories or never publish them because a source won’t call back. But sometimes not knowing is just part of it. Especially with suicide. And I know this from personal experience: It didn’t matter if I talked to every person who came into contact with Earl in his life, I’d still have one source missing—the main one, the only one who knew what it was like to live with that despair.

I wrote the first draft in first person. A friend who’s an editor read it and had hesitations with my character that way. That’s when I decided to try the whole thing in second person. I think I was able to be more honest that way. The global “you” made it easier to talk about, which I guess is sort of telling. I turned it in at 2 a.m. the day of the deadline. Glenn wrote me three emails before 9 a.m., and we were on the phone working through revision notes by 10. The first version ended with Janet Stout. Glenn liked that, but he said he wanted me to try a few others. If they didn’t work, we’d stay with Janet.

A few days later, I sat down in my chair in a corner of the living room with a cup of coffee. My neighbor is a single mother. Her two boys were in their driveway playing basketball. They’re about 10 and 12. They call me “Mr. Mike.” They don’t have a goal. They make hoops with their arms. The one making the hoop counted down the seconds: “5-4-3-2-1.” The other one shoots. Then they switch. I got my laptop, sat in the chair, turned around, closed my eyes, listened to their shoes and voices, and wrote the ending.

kruse-m1Michael Kruse is an award-winning staff writer on the enterprise team at the Tampa Bay Times. He recently gave a TEDx talk and had a story make the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. His “Just One Question” column has covered stories by Lane DeGregory, Gene Weingarten, and others.  

March 25 2013


“Post Classic”: The Washington Post integrates its print edition into a new iPad app

What if you had an old-school newspaper newsroom where the digital producers were at the core of the operation, and the task of putting together the print newspaper was the side job?

The Washington Post’s Cory Haik, executive producer for digital news, says that’s “exactly what we are trying to do,” with the new iPad app the paper launched Monday as a step in that “one web” direction. (Disclosure: I freelance regularly for Post.)


But the Post is also trying to find ways to bring along less digitally oriented readers. The new app includes a print replica edition — so you can still read the daily paper in its entirety from A1 to the back page — but with the display of each story still optimized for the tablet, rather than frozen in awkwardly static PDFs or in ungainly digital presentations. (The replica includes puzzles, comics, and Sunday magazine, plus a 14-day archive so you can dig back into recently published material.) Plenty of newspapers offer a replica edition for the iPad, but most are separate from their “traditional” iPad apps. (Can we say “traditional iPad app” yet?)

“The app features the new ‘Post Classic,’ which yes, is an entire replica of the broadsheet newspaper,” Haik told me in an email. “This was something users had been asking for since our first version of the iPad. They wanted the complete Washington Post. The mobile teams worked hard to create something that delivered across the board. It’s more than a PDF reader — we thought a lot about the UX and flow from the ‘Post Classic’ version into our iPad reading experience.”

(Coke Classic jokes are left as an exercise for the reader.)


The app also represents a move to Newsstand for the Post, which means Apple will get a 30 percent cut of any subscription revenue generated using in-app purchases. (The app is free in the Apple Store for now, but the newspaper is rolling out a paywall this summer.) The Post’s decision to go that route had less to do with money, though, and more to do with giving readers what they want. Haik explains: “It’s part of Apple and delivering on the platform. We have to meet our users where they are.”

Not everyone is thrilled about the move. Commenters in the Post’s announcement about the app have already expressed annoyance that Android users are being left out. Here’s Haik: “As for other native tablet apps, those are surely conversations that are active. It was just time for an upgrade to our iPad product and Newsstand was a natural step for us.”

The meet-the-audience-where-it-is mentality is also what prompted the Post to bring its moderated commenting system, The Forum, from its politics iPad app to the new flagship app. “Our goal was to create a ‘lean-back’ and synthesized view for an iPad audience looking to digest the conversation without all the noise,” Haik said. In other words, it’s a way to foster engagement without subjecting Twitter-averse readers to the firehose of that platform.

“When we think about building out social, it’s important to think about users who are not on social as well,” Haik said in a later online chat. “And [The Forum] can be customized, but we tried to do the heavy lifting for folks.”

Other notable aspects you’ll find on the app: live video and live chats, photo galleries, sports scores, and the ability to read offline.

“We have an entire producer crew that is dedicated to desktop and mobile platforms — 24/7,” Haik said. “Right now there is a big focus on making sure the app is ready at night and then throughout the day.”

October 06 2011


The Newsonomics of f8

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Is it declaration of war, or of peace, or is Mark Zuckerberg saying he just really Likes us all very, very much?

“No activity is too big or too small to share,” the 27-year-old proclaimed at the recent f8 announcement. “All your stories, all your life…. This is going to make it easy to share orders of magnitude more things than before.” (f8 sounds, oddly, like FATE, but I think my paranoia is kicking in.)

“Excuse me, have we met?” is one response.

Another response to Facebook’s Ticket, Timeline, and News Feed initiatives is to go dating. Some quite influential publishers are road-testing the new features, while others ponder a light commitment.

In 2011, U.S. dailies’ digital ad take will be about $3 billion and Facebook’s $2 billion.

They should be aware that Facebook is bent on world domination — having targeted businesses now run by Amazon, Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Flipboard, Pulse, Pandora, Last.fm, and Flickr, as well as legacy news and information providers — in the latest move. (Forget debating Google’s “do no evil” mantra; Google’s sin may have been that it thought too small.) That’s audience, though not business, domination, as Facebook’s EMEA platform partnerships director, Christian Hernandez, told PaidContent. “[f8] is not a commercial decision.” Got it. And Google just wants to help us better organize our info.

Facebook’s f8 signals a next round of digital disruption. Remember Microsoft’s decade-old bid to become the hub of our entertainment lives, as evidenced by its futuristic Consumer Electronics Show displays? Facebook has taken that metaphor — and updated and socialized it.

This unabashed push to remake the digital world in its own image would seem like laughable megalomania coming from many other sources in the world. But it’s not megalomania if others act like you’re not crazy. In fact, our story takes strange turns as this megalomania, so far, seems quite magnanimous to publishers, as Facebook looks to some like the best available date, compared to the other ascendant audience resellers (Apple, Amazon, and Google).

As leading-edge publishers move away from destination-only strategies, they seek to colonize other habitable web environments; Facebook now looks like the friendliest clime, allowing publishers to keep all the revenue from ads they are selling within their Facebook apps. In addition, Facebook is providing aggregated data on user engagement — active users, likes, comments, post views, and post feedback.

Buy-in from such brands as the Washington Post, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Yahoo helps to place Facebook’s push into the “normal” scale of corporate behavior.

Why are news players playing along? What do they think is in it for them?

Let’s look at the newsonomics of f8 and of the new social whirl.

“Rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook.”

Let’s start with the stark, Willie Sutton reason: you work with Facebook because that’s where the audience is. In the U.S., Facebook claims more as much as seven hours of average monthly usage; globally, that number is four hours plus. It’s where would-be readers hang out.

Worldwide, it claims an audience of 800 million.

If Facebook is the hang-out mall, newspaper and magazine sites are grocery stores. People go there when they need something — to find out what’s new — and then leave. The comparative average monthly usage of news sites runs five to 20 minutes per month.

So exposure to audience is the no-brainer, here. The question is: to what end?

Step back from the flurry of news company announcements, or from the behind-the-scenes 2012 strategies-in-the-making, and publishers cite three top goals:

  • Lower-cost development of audience, especially audience that may become core customers.
  • Digital advertising revenue growth.
  • Establishing a robust, growing stream of digital reader revenue.

So how might f8 innovations help those?

Let’s start with brand awareness. It’s a digital din out there, a survival-of-the-feistiest time. Consumers will come to rely on a handful or two of news brands, goes the theory. So best to be high in their consciousness, and Facebook omnipresence in people’s lives offers that possibility.

Adam Freeman, executive director of Commercial for Guardian News and Media, explains Guardian’s digital-first strategy here this way:

Our digital audience has grown to a phenomenal 50m+, but, with the best will in the world, chances are we are never going to outpace and outstrip Facebook’s audience size. So we see an opportunity in that — rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook. There is an untapped audience within Facebook who may not be regularly encountering Guardian and Observer content, and we think our app increases the the visibility of our content in that space.

Of course that brand consciousness needs to be acted on, which leads us to…

Lower-cost traffic acquisition. Online, publishers have invested in search engine optimization and search engine marketing. SEO makes them more findable in organic search; SEM pays for high-level brand placement. In addition, they’ve done deals with portals over the years; the current Yahoo deals of swapping news stories for links is a major one for many.

Against, though, Facebook is simply social media optimization (“The newsonomics of social media optimization”).

It’s another route to pouring newer customers into the top end of news publishers’ audience funnel, hoping a few tumble out the bottom as paying, regular readers. And any readers can be monetized with advertising.

SMO’s relative economics are better than SEO or SEM. Not only is SMO cheaper than SEM, some publishers say it “performs” better. That performance is best measured by conversions (registrations, more pages read, digital sub buying), while for others the jury is still out. And, at best, audience development multiplies off these new relationships.

“These new Facebook users aren’t necessarily finding the brand in traditional ways, nor do they necessarily hold longstanding brand affinity,” says Jed Williams, analyst at BIA/Kelsey.

Their social graphs, curators/editors, recommendations, etc. are doing the pointing for them. So they do arrive at the very top of the proverbial funnel. And, as they interact with the publisher, with them in turn comes their social network. Potentially, the exponential network effects take off, and new audience continues to breed even more new audience. Original audience targets emerge, and the funnel continually expands. At least in the best case scenario, it does.

Sale of paid products: If you are now selling digital subscriptions, you’re doubly interested in customer acquisition. Now publishers can discover the percentage of new audience they can convert to paying customers, though that’s not an easy proposition to figure out. That percentage will be tiny, but it may be meaningful.

Out of the chute, digital circulation efforts have focused strongly on longstanding customers. Publishers have wanted to keep their print customers paying. They want to reduce print churn by taking away customers’ ability to get the news they get in the paper for free online. They want to change the psychology of long-term readers, giving them a new understanding: You pay for news, in print or digitally.

Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

That’s round one, 2011-2012, of the digital circulation wars. Round two necessitates bringing in new customers, especially younger ones who don’t have print habits and may not have much news brand loyalty.

That’s a key place Facebook fits in. It’s a potential hothouse of new, younger customers.

“It isn’t obvious that we can be successful with premium content on social,” notes Alisa Bowen, general manager of WSJ Digital Network. The Journal, while not participating in the f8 launch, already has a significant trial in place. The same holds true of the spate of other recent WSJ innovations, like WSJ Live and its iPad apps. “WSJ Everywhere,” Bowen says, “tests what we’re doing for people who never come to the website.”

As publishers create more one-off tablet and smartphone products (“The newsonomics of Kindle Singles”), Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

Advertising revenue: Facebook is still so bent on building audience that it is providing publishers their best ad deals. Publishers can sell ads for display within their Facebook apps — and keep all the revenue. No revenue share, thank you. (At least for now.)

Data: “In addition to serving adverts from our own partners in the app, we have highly detailed but anonymized data from Facebook covering demographics and usage,” says Freeman. “We also have our own analytics embedded in the pages on the app, which will help us understand how our content is used and shared within the Facebook Open Graph.”

Learning about social curation. Social filtering will be a standard feature of all news (unless we opt out) by 2015. It’s not hard to see why. It’s old village world-of-mouth, jet-propelled by technology. How social curation will work is a huge question; how can it best co-exist with editorial curation, for instance? That kind of learning is one other benefit f8 partners tell me they hope to gain.

The Facebook dance is a cautious one. News publishers’ experiences with web wunderkinds have not, in general, been great ones. Witness the ongoing battles over revenue share percentages, customer relationships, and customer data access that have characterized the soap-opera-like Apple/publisher public spats. Amazon’s new Kindle tablet re-lights the question of publisher/Amazon rev share and data sharing.

September 13 2011


How CNN, WaPo, msnbc, NYT and Gawker use Most Popular features

Poynter :: Mallary Jean Tenore talked with editors at CNN Digital, The Washington Post, msnbc.com, The New York Times and Gawker about the way they’ve designed "Most Popular" features, the information they share on them, and what they have (and in some cases haven’t) done to help readers understand the information.

She published her findings and the key ways news sites are using Most Popular features, along with editors’ thoughts on what works well in this article.

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

May 18 2011


Dorothy Parvaz freed by Iran

We’re thrilled to hear this morning that Iran has freed detained journalist (and 2009 Nieman fellow) Dorothy Parvaz. Alan Cowell and J. David Goodman reported in The New York Times that, without advance notice, Dorothy called her fiancé, Todd Barker, from customs as she arrived back in Doha, Qatar. A wonderful surprise for him, no doubt, and we’re happy to read the good news again and again in accounts on Al Jazeera Englishthe Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times websites.

Thank you to those Storyboard readers who helped raise awareness of Dorothy’s detention worldwide.

April 28 2011


Going small: the fragile world of a single constituent

Our latest Notable Narrative is a story from The Washington Post about Clarence Cammers, a Wisconsin man who asks a question at a town hall meeting with his congressman.

So many of the narratives we choose focus on high drama: violence, natural disasters, illness or financial ruin. Here, the Post’s Eli Saslow offers a different kind of tension. Cammers is a lifelong Republican who is not sure that his congressman – also a Republican – is fighting the right battle in the budget wars. After four decades of working, he is now on disability for a knee injury and must painstakingly calculate the smallest of expenses each month.

His Social Security payments have not included a cost-of-living increase in the past two years, even as life has become more expensive. Elkhorn electric bills are up 30 percent over last year. The assessed value of his home has dropped 14 percent. Gas is $4 a gallon, groceries cost $110 each week instead of $80, and the town is charging an extra $2.50 a week to haul away his trash. So Clarence clips coupons, cuts back on dinners at Chili’s, drives less and spends more time at the desk in his basement, managing the budget.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Cammers manages to live within his means and has little tolerance for deficit spending on a national level. But his 32-year-old son Tim’s severe attention deficit disorder and apparent inability to be independent worry him. He puzzles over what he sees as the options: ever-expanding debt and taxes or cutbacks to any kind of a safety net for his son?

Saslow has not written a policy piece. Instead, he brings forward one constituent without trying to make him represent the entire country. It is the vividness of these people and their dialogue that makes them lovely and sad: the father forced onto disability after four decades of work, the son, who does not come across as an entirely sympathetic character yet seems incapable of living on his own. With this portrait of quiet anxiety, Saslow shows how what we know about people from the outside fails to represent even the smallest part of their full lives, and in bringing a father and son to life, he sidesteps entrenched ways of talking about the budget and gets to the heart of pondering what kind of country we want to be.

March 14 2011


What we’re watching: a town washed away, satellite images and covering conflict

With Muammar Qaddafi’s efforts to suppress armed rebellion in Libya and the events unleashed by the massive earthquake in Japan on Friday, it’s a wonder that those of us not involved in the immediate coverage or relief can do anything but sit and watch these images in horror, hoping for the best possible outcomes in the face of tragedy.

Japan Earthquake Aftermath” and “Libya’s Escalating Conflict” from Alan Taylor of the Atlantic’s “In Focus.” Ongoing curation of unforgettable single photos – a moving combination of human and epic images.

Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami,” by Alan McLean, Matthew Ericson and Archie Tse of the New York Times. Dramatic interactive sliders use GeoEye imagery to show before-and-after damage done to six Japanese cities as a result of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

Street-Level Footage of a Town Washing Away,” from Japanese television (via @geneweingarten). Gene Weingarten writes, “The anonymous videographer here is going to be remembered as a modern Zapruder.”

12 Must-See Stories about Covering Conflict,” from MultimediaShooter.com. A roundup of links to Magnum, VII, and other photojournalists and organizations reflecting combat in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Coming Home a Different Person,” from The Washington Post, winner of the Documentary Project of the Year Award from Pictures Of the Year International (POYi). Dramatic visuals, personal stories, and a lot of context fill out our developing understanding of traumatic brain injury and its effects on those fighting in battle or caught in the crossfire. (Those credited for the project include Whitney Shefte, Marvin Joseph, Alberto Cuadra, Christian Davenport, Kat Downs and Marc Fisher.)

And in a quick switch from suggested viewing to suggested reading, those reporting on Mideast unrest or the aftermath of the earthquake might want to return to Nieman Reports’ Winter 2009 issue “Trauma in the Aftermath,”a thought-provoking take on covering conflict and tragedy.

March 08 2011


What we’re reading: death in all its guises

A week into March, we’re anxious for spring, but the narrative stories we’ve unearthed lately consistently offer up darker themes that go against the promise of the season. We’ve rounded up a few that focus specifically on death: murder on campus, suicide at work, death in combat and perhaps most surprising, a delicately crafted obituary for a rat. So as not to leave you in a winter funk, we’ve added two posts on craft to the end of the list: a primer for profile writing and an essay exploring the first use of cinematic scenes in writing.

What made this university scientist snap?” by Amy Wallace of Wired. “Bishop stood near the loading dock, unarmed. On her way down from the third floor, she had ducked into a restroom to stuff her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and blood-spattered black and red plaid jacket into a trash can. The 45-year-old assistant professor had also phoned her husband, James Anderson, and instructed him – as she often did – to come pick her up. ‘I’m done,’ she’d said.”

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice” by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. “Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. ‘Please don’t mention my son,’ he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.”

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?by Joel Johnson in Wired (via @longreads). “It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter. The nets went up in May, after the 11th jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.”

S.F. kids spend recess toasting the best rat who ever lived,” by Steve Rubenstein from the 2002 archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (via @gangrey). A sendup of a classic obituary, this tribute to a classroom pet parodies the form while delivering a touching eulogy.


Profile Writing: The Basics” by Chris Jones, Esquire correspondent. Jones offers some fundamental rules, including that “Good features often have a ‘theme’ as well as an ‘idea’ – they’re about something, but they’re also about something else, if that makes any sense. They’re about beauty or art or the fragility of life. They’re inspirational or devastating. They’re not just a story; like fairytales, they have a moral, too.”

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar” by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared?

February 23 2011


Awards season begins: narrative highlights from ASNE and Polk awards; announcement of CRMA finalists

Looking for some quality narrative journalism you might not have noticed before? As awards season for newspapers and magazines gets underway, we wanted to share links to stories recognized for their writing and storytelling. Here are some of the more narrative categories and entries from the 2010 Polk Awards in Journalism, the list of finalists for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Awards, and the winners of the American Society of News Editors awards for the best journalism of 2010.

Earlier this month, the City and Regional Magazine Association and the Missouri School of Journalism announced the 2011 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalists. There are a lot of narrative contenders in many of the categories, but here are the candidates for feature story and for writer of the year. Winners will be announced at the CRMA 35th Annual Conference to be held April 30-May 2 at The Drake Hotel in Chicago. (Click on the article titles to read the stories.)

Feature Story

  • 5280 Magazine – Lindsey Koehler “Gone
  • Atlanta Magazine – Thomas Lake “The Golden Boy
  • Chicago Magazine – Bryan Smith “The Long Fall
  • Philadelphia Magazine – Ralph Cipriano “The Hitman
  • Texas Monthly – Michael Hall “The Soul of a Man” (link is to excerpt only)

Writer of the Year (specific stories were not mentioned, but we have included a link to a story from each writer)

The American Society of News Editors last week announced the winners of its annual awards for outstanding writing and photography for 2010. Some of the stories are projects that we’ve covered before, but here are a few with a strong element of storytelling that you might not have seen yet.

The staff of The New York Times won the Online Storytelling award, for “A Year at War,” which recounts the life of a battalion with “intimacy and deep understanding.” Michael Kruse won the Distinguished Writing Award for Nondeadline Writing for a collection of stories, including his celebrated monkey piece. Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times won the Community Service Photojournalism award for her exploration of the effects of gang violence on the innocent: “those wounded or killed because of a quarrel in which they had no part, victims lying in hospital beds or relatives and friends standing by their loved ones’ coffins or sitting all alone asking, ‘Why?’ ”

William Wan of The Washington Post won the Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity for “his stories that provide insights that add to readers’ understanding and awareness of diverse issues shaping society and culture. Wan writes about a proud U.S. Army soldier whose Islamic faith is the target of ongoing hostility within his own ranks. Another piece details unusual Saturday afternoon church services at a Giant supermarket, where worshipping occurs in the community room and sometimes in the aisles. He also reports on Major League Baseball’s quixotic training program in China.”

And just this week, Long Island University announced the 2010 George Polk Awards in Journalism. Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone won the award for Magazine Reporting for “The Runaway General,” the story of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and America’s conflicted mission in Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” project, spearheaded by Dana Priest and William Arkin, took the prize for National Reporting. The “Law and Disorder” collaboration between PBS’ “Frontline,” ProPublica and The Times-Picayune covered suspicious shootings by police in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and won the award for Television Reporting.

For more, see the complete list of ASNE winners, the Polk Awards press release, and all the 2011 CRMA finalists.

February 02 2011


Time’s David Von Drehle on narrating tragedy and the evolution of his Tucson story

Yesterday, we posted our first Editors’ Roundtable, in which a group of word wizards did their magic on a piece of narrative nonfiction. Our debut story for consideration was The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy,” written by Time magazine Editor-at-large David Von Drehle. While the prospect of having a group of editors poke around in a story might unsettle some writers, Von Drehle was curious to see what they would say and eager to talk with us about his piece. I interviewed him last week, before the editors’ comments had posted. What follows is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity.

Can you talk about how you got assigned this story and what reporting, if any, you did for it?

The shooting was on Saturday morning, and I would guess within an hour or so, I got a call or an e-mail – I think it must have been a call from Michael [Duffy]. He’s in Washington, and I live and work in the Kansas City area. He didn’t know what the story would be then, but he was pretty sure it would become big and important. He wanted me to be paying attention and getting myself ready to write.

By that Saturday night, I think he was pretty sure it would become the cover of the magazine. So that first day I was looking at that. And of course there was this enormous political firestorm among what I call “the cabal” in the article.

My reaction to that, the idea that this was a politically motivated act, was pretty extreme skepticism, just because I tend to believe in the Occam’s razor approach to events. The thing that happens most often is probably going to be the thing that happens again. Usually these kinds of mass shootings are products of mental illness rather than political motivation, and so I guess I spent a lot of Saturday going against the flow of where folks thought the story was going. Really that whole weekend was mostly spent just trying to sort out in my own mind what had happened, what it meant, and what was significant about it.

I did not go to Tucson. We did immediately send several people down there. My job in those first days was to figure out what had happened and what it really meant, what the takeaway should be. That was not an easy process. That was where being on a weekly deadline instead of a daily deadline was an advantage. I grew up in the newspaper business – I’ve only been in magazines for about four years. I definitely felt the advantage of not having to write my piece the first day.

You didn’t end up with a traditional news feature that says, “Here’s what happened.” But it’s also not a traditional narrative where you just build it from the inside out. It has a unique style. At what point did the story acquire that style?

This was a really interesting case in this ongoing figuring-out process that we’re doing at Time, trying to get clear in our own minds and for our readers “What is the function of a news magazine today?” Is it a digest of the past week’s news? Well, yes, it is a little bit a briefing. Is it a place for the tick-tock, the behind the scenes, the fly-on-the-wall stuff that was the meat and potatoes of Time and Newsweek for many years? Yes, a little bit of that, too – there still is some room for that. But where we really can bring value is in a story like this, where we can put the news and the meaning in a big frame with a new kind of angle, a new way of looking at it, and bring that all together in one place.

That was what I had in mind. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew it was not just going to be a tick-tock, though it needed to have some of that: “Here’s our sense of what happened there.” And it was not just going to be an analytical piece, but that it would have analysis in it. And that it would need to have a takeaway, where people would leave with an understanding of “What does this say about the times we live in and the meaning of life?”

That’s a big throwaway line, but one of my favorite editors that I’ve learned so much from over the years, Gene Weingarten, always taught us that really every good story should somehow be about the meaning of life. So I sort of tossed that off, but when you try to turn that into a real story, you are kind of  smashing several different genres, several different well-known styles, all into one. That’s kind of the challenge, the trick of it.

As part of that, you talk directly to the reader, using lines like “go ahead and cry.” That kind of second-person address can be a little dangerous. Can you talk about it as a srategy?

A couple of people have asked about this piece, “How long did it take you to write it?” One answer is that it took from Saturday morning to Wednesday night. But as far as the actual typing of words, the composing of sentences, it was really Tuesday before I started getting words on the screen. So it took all day Tuesday and then Wednesday morning finishing up the draft.

This theme emerged of “What is normal in America now, and why is our discourse distorting reality so much?” As I realized that was the theme, and that was what we were going to talk about, part of that was to speak to our readers. Time has a very broad cross-section of ordinary middle America, and the piece needed to enlist them in this idea that there is a normal American discourse that goes on where people are able to disagree civilly and are able to participate in a political process that is vigorous but not overheated and not violent.

As the writer, I was aware that people who buy our magazine and read it are basically – that’s them. They’re interested enough in events, but they’re not out on the political blogs 24/7. Most of them are not lighting up comment boards. So I decided that the way to kind of say to the readers, “I’m talking about you. You, my audience, are evidence of the case I’m trying to make,” was to come out from behind the curtain in a couple of places and speak directly to them.

I’m the father of a 9-year-old girl, and so the story of Christina Green spoke to me in some very emotional, powerful ways. That moment seemed like one where it just seemed right to momentarily erase the screen between the writer and the audience and say, “Look, of course I know what you’re feeling. You know what I’m feeling. Anybody would feel that way.”

Still, you’re right. It’s dangerous. It’s not a technique you would want to use all the time, but it seemed to me to underline the theme of the piece. That’s what you’re always trying to do as a writer: to get your sentences and structure to match your idea. It seemed to reinforce rather than distract from the theme. I actually wrote “Go ahead and shed a tear.” It was Duffy who made it, “Go ahead and cry,” which is so much better. In that vein of giving credit where it’s due to editors, he didn’t change much in the story, but he did change that, which made it a lot better.

What other edits did he make?

A few word changes. One paragraph was taken out, because it was biographical stuff about Loughner that was duplicated in another story in the package, but otherwise, no. A word here and there. That cry line was the biggest change.

If I recall correctly, in the lede, I said, “So much of the story is ugly and twisted that it’s best to start with something beautiful and good.” I had said that “So much is ugly and twisted that I want to start with something beautiful and good.” Duffy rightly suggested that since that was the only use of the first person, “Let’s take the first person out of the lede.” He was absolutely right about that, too. He’s an outstanding line editor.

Does he edit most of your work?

Yes. It changes if I’m moving into a different specialty. Mike runs the Washington bureau and is an assistant managing editor. So he runs my life, controls my schedule and edits the newsy stuff. But if I go off to do a science piece or a financial piece, I might end up being edited by someone else.

What exactly do you do at Time?

My title is editor-at-large. I don’t edit anything, so I don’t know why it’s editor instead of writer.  I am very much at large. Because of my background and Time’s appetite, probably about half of my time is spent on political stuff, broadly defined. Otherwise, I have always thought of myself as a generalist. So of the stories I’m working on right now, one is about neuroscience, one about history, one about monetary policy.

You were fed material for this piece. Do you usually do your own reporting?

I like to do all my own reporting. The Time tradition until just a few years ago was that there were people who reported and people who wrote, and they were two different things. Reporters would send files to New York, and then the writers in New York would write the stories.

For a variety of reasons, not least the very high cost of doing things that way, they’ve gone more and more in the direction of having people who report and write their own stories. And that’s part of the reason that I ended up at Time, because I like and can do both pieces of that puzzle.

In my newspaper career, being an anchor writer on a big breaking story was one of the skill sets that I developed and liked. So when we have a breaking news story, when we’ve got to pull in stuff from a number of places and people, I like doing that and know how to do it.

The reason I’m a journalist is that I have a short attention span, so variety is what I love. A long story this week, something 300 words next week, monetary policy, then going next to education, next to sports.

Is there anything else you want to say about the piece?

I’ve been pleased and a bit surprised. It did strike a chord. We got more mail on it than Time’s gotten on anything in years, so that’s intriguing to me. I think I did manage to put into words something that a lot of people were starting to feel. I wasn’t sure when I hit the done button what the reaction was going to be.

I’m never sure what the reaction is going to be, but after more than 30 years in the business, I know that sometimes it’ll be something that I like but it’s going to disappear without a ripple, because nobody else is going to care about it. There are other things that I think are completely benign and they set off a big firestorm because there’s something in there that I didn’t even realize was going to trip people up. This one I didn’t really know what to expect, and so I was surprised and pleased that a lot of people found it worthwhile.

I really had in mind lessons that I had learned from Gene Miller at The Miami Herald and then underlined for me by Mary McGrory at The Washington Post. Mary had the greatest line. She did this extraordinary work on the Kennedy assassination, and John Kennedy had been a friend of hers.

The line went something like “In the face of great emotion, write short sentences.” That’s a rule that’s served me well. Sentences get longer and longer when you’re working fast, when you’re working with a powerful story. The best thing you can do to get hold of what you’re doing, to get it under control, is to shorten your sentences.

In a later e-mail exchange, Von Drehle added a coda to an earlier answer:

I didn’t quite close the loop on a point I wanted to make. I started to say that people have asked how long the piece took to write, and that one way of answering that is to say I started Tuesday morning and finished Wednesday morning. But the main thing I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t have good writing without good thinking, and so the process of thinking through the piece, getting the idea clear in your head, is as much a part of the writing as the actual typing (or should I say keyboarding). Thinking may look to the outside world like sitting around, or cooking dinner, or driving to pick up the dry cleaning, or working out on the elliptical. But all those things may be part of the writing process if your brain is in gear.

January 10 2011


Narrative on deadline: stories on the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords

Doing narrative stories on the heels of breaking news generally precludes the kind of lyricism often associated with the best examples of the form. Yet it can be a good way to get a framework established on a confusing story – such as the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords over the weekend.

Building a story from social media, NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin started a Storify timeline just two hours after the shooting began. Early on, NPR and several other outlets mistakenly posted that Giffords had been killed, which is reflected and then corrected in Carvin’s Storify account. (There has been a lot of discussion of the error since, including criticism of NPR and the station’s apology.)

The next day, The New York Times and The Washington Post sites posted text narratives of that deceptively sunny morning outside a Safeway in Tucson. In “Tucson shootings: How Gabrielle Giffords’s event for constituents turned to tragedy,” the Post’s Philip Rucker and Marc Fisher give readers some background on Giffords and her normal schedule, recapturing the feel of what started as a mundane event. When the shooting begins, readers feel the shock and horror of the moment. “A Single, Terrifying Moment: Shots Fired, a Scuffle and Some Luck,” Adam Nagourney’s piece in The New York Times, focuses more tightly on the chaos and violence, opening with a dramatic struggle between bystanders and the gunman as he attempted to reload.

And hours before the Post and the Times had posted their narratives, The Arizona Republic’s Jaimee Rose and Mary Jo Pitzl had turned on a dime to get their own angle by following Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’ brand-new intern, who may have saved her life. “Daniel Hernandez, intern, stays by Gabrielle Giffords’ side,” the brief story of events from Hernandez’s view, added a new perspective on not only the shooting but our understanding of Giffords’ condition in the moments just afterward.

We’ll continue to compile storytelling approaches to the tragic events of this weekend. Please send us links to any related narratives you see.

December 10 2010


Facebook as narrative: The Washington Post tries it out online and in print

This morning’s Washington Post print edition carried a story built out of an annotated Facebook feed. The piece was posted to washingtonpost.com last night with the title “A Facebook story: A mother’s joy and a family’s sorrow.” While I’d seen the Post and other papers structure stories around Twitter and Tumblr feeds, and Slate’s mock presidential feed has had a long run, I had yet to see a reported piece told via Facebook status updates.

Here’s a glimpse of what the story looks like online:

I spoke with the story’s editor, Marc Fisher, this morning about the project. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Where did this story come from? How did you first find out about it?

The reporter for the story, Ian Shapira, heard about it through his wife, who heard about it through her work.

What did you use to put the story together? Was it an existing tool, or something the Post’s developers put together?

We actually had to develop something expressly for this, so it took an enormous number of work hours on the part of both the designer for the web and the print designer as well. So neither was done with any template, really. Both had to experiment to get the Facebook look down right.

The challenge with print was to make it legible. That went through several iterations. And the challenge online was to make it look plausible and recognizable. We struggled with how much in the way of links to have in there. We couldn’t pick up the entire Facebook page as is, so we had to recreate the links on that page.

It’s a story told via a Facebook feed. Does that feel fundamentally different than the long-form narrative the Post has done so often and so well in the past, or is it just a question of presentation?

It is fundamentally different, because the narration is provided by the original source. We had a little bit of a struggle early on in the project about just how much of our voice would be in the story. I was pushing all the way through for us to be very much on the sidelines and providing just the necessary bits of context, so that people understood who these characters were.

One of the gifts that Shana left behind was this extraordinary narration that she provided in great detail. This is the blessing and the curse of Facebook in that people are narrating their lives in this very intimate and granular sort of way, which creeps out some people and is literally fascinating to many others. That really was one of the main reasons we did the piece.

It was a way to get people talking about how people are portraying their lives on Facebook. The story in and of itself has a power, and there’s almost a voyeuristic appeal to it. But I think what makes it worthwhile beyond that is the questions it raises about just how much we’re living on Facebook and whether and to what extent that displaces human contact.

Did you at any point consider doing the story straight and just quoting some sections of the Facebook feed?

My thought from the beginning was that we would do it in the form of a Facebook page. The reporter wanted originally to do it as more of a traditional narrative, and then he very much embraced this idea. There was definitely debate about it in the early stages, all with an eye toward how to tell the story best and how to push the envelope on using Facebook as a storytelling tool.

It’s a story about a death. Social media has a reputation for being light and entertainment-focused. Did you worry about bridging those two ideas, or were you hoping that any tension between them would heighten the impact of what is ultimately a heavy story?

It is a heavy story, but it isn’t so much a story about death as it is love and loss. It’s a tough story, and we’re hearing form a lot of people that it hits them hard. We debated over quite some time whether to leave the death as a surprise in the narrative or to give it away at the very top, and we decided to let the story take its natural course, the way it had in real life, that that was truer to the story.

There is an inherent power to this story, but I think what was equally appealing to us was the chance to talk about what Facebook means and to use this as a vehicle for getting people to think about what kinds of stories we tell on Facebook.

There are real issues about what happens when someone dies on Facebook and who owns the page and how long it stays up. There are lots of users who believe that the page belongs to the person’s friends and should stay there as a memorial, and there are relatives who in a number of cases are fighting with Facebook to get control of someone’s page or to take it down. These are real issues about who owns someone’s story. That came up in the construction of this piece.

We decided we would not do the story unless the family endorsed our doing it in this way. They were totally on board and supportive, but they might not have been.

I was just predicting last week to our sister site, Nieman Lab, that we’d be seeing a lot more stories built out of Twitter and Facebook feeds in 2011, and here you didn’t even wait for January. I was also hypothesizing that these new forms of storytelling might be clumsy for a while. Did anything about the process or the end product feel messy or awkward to you?

It’s a little different, because the restrictions of the form made it more difficult. You can’t go in and edit or change the basic text of the story, because it’s her words, and we didn’t feel we had the right to play with that the way we would with our own copy. The version that’s in the print paper is heavily condensed, but we didn’t change anything that she wrote. The version online is much more full, though it, too, is shorter than the original. It is a more difficult and more time-consuming form to work in, because what we can bring to the story really had to be super-condensed into these little annotations we included between her status updates.

It’s a restrictive form, but if you have the right kind of story – and it has to be a narrative; it has to be something that is very tightly told. Not every story lends itself to this, but I think there are these human dramas and revealing tales that take place on Facebook, and we should be exploring ways to use them to tell them in a compelling way online.

Telling it in print is probably not going to be an everyday kind of thing because of the space considerations. But as an online storytelling tool, I think it has tremendous power and promise.

What else should we know about the project?

For people trying to do this at home, it really was remarkably time-consuming, and the designers – Grace Koerber on the online side and Greg Manifold on the print side – put in lots of long nights trying to make this work. There is no template for this. The upside is that no one can steal our copy on this because it doesn’t transfer, so they’re actually going to have to link to us. But the downside is that it was many dozens of hours of work.

December 06 2010


Twitter as story: a work in progress

Stephen Colbert mocking the national Christmas tree’s Twitter account shows that the frivolousness of the plucky social media tool is still up for debate. No doubt Twitter’s popularity offsets some of the mockery, and it has contributed to newsgathering and crisis reporting. But does it have any storytelling potential?

Twitter has been a home for crowdsourced fiction, sometimes with involvement from storytelling superstars. Neil Gaiman launched a Twitter story more than a year ago in partnership with BBC Audiobooks America. Even before that, comic bloggers and artists over at Monkey on My Back solicited text for comics via Twitter, and then created the visuals to complete the story. More recently, the Toronto International Film Festival has joined with Tim Burton to launch a Tworror story that is currently being crowdsourced to completion.*

We’ve previously noted conceptual artist and Storyboard contributor Peggy Nelson’s development of a “Twitter movie.” And a few users, such as @VeryShortStory, have created truly minimalist stories in 140 characters or less on Twitter:

On the nonfiction side, news organizations are learning how to use Twitter not only as a newsgathering tool to troll for sources or to find specialized information but also to curate tweets for a kind of snapshot of a moment in time. (See The Washington Post’s coverage of victory and concession speeches after the November elections.) These collected tweets tend to reflect a series of opinions or to recreate the experience of a community without necessarily telling a story in which there is movement from A to B.

But in October, TBD used Storify to show how curated tweets can engage the devices of fiction – suspense, forward motion and characters – in a story that unfolds close on the heels of real events. Images paired with tweets reconstructed the first hours of confusion after a death outside a nightclub in D.C. This TBD piece may be a game-changer in showing the narrative potential of social media.

So what are the differences between the fictional and the nonfiction storytelling on Twitter? The self-consciousness of doing crowdsourced fiction in a fixed time period tends toward action narratives – or maybe that’s ACTION! NARATIVES! – without much breathing space or opportunity for future readers to enter the story by making connections themselves. As contributors compete for the attention of project curators, their tweets tend to drive stories toward ever more improbable and outrageous outcomes.

The encapsulated nature of shared Tweets does lend itself to projects audiences are used to reading in book form with minimal text-per-page ratios, like children’s stories and adventure comics. But it will likely take a while to suss out how to apply Twitter to stories that need a slow-building, longer arc.

Crowdsourcing tweets that already exist seems to have more immediate potential for nonfiction storytelling. Curating tweets in the wake of news events fosters creation of a story with less self-consciousness in the voices that emerge. And the real-time nature of Twitter preserves reactions from newsmakers and audiences to events, sometimes before they’ve been swamped by a common interpretation or spun out of self-interest. Twitter’s conversational language provides some of the material for the natural trivia that can make fiction work (humorous asides, what’s for breakfast, what’s on TV), fleshing out the action and surprises necessary to any story.

If Twitter continues to build its user base, journalists will have an expanding pool of  millions of voices and characters on hand with individual stories authors can weave into a larger nonfiction narrative. We’re not there yet, but as more and more people get used to watching news unfold via feeds, it’s easier and easier to imagine.

And as for that Tim Burton project, it ends today. If you don’t read this post in time to contribute yourself, you can at least find out how the story ends.

*Hat tip to Megan Garber at Nieman Lab for pointing out the Burton project to us.

June 11 2010


February 25 2010




Jonathan Stray checks for the Nieman Journalism Lab the real sources of the recent breaking-news story about the China/Google hacking case and finds that”

– Out of 121 unique stories, 13 (11 percent) contained some amount of original reporting. I counted a story as containing original reporting if it included at least an original quote. From there, things get fuzzy. Several reports, especially the more technical ones, also brought in information from obscure blogs. In some sense they didn’t publish anything new, but I can’t help feeling that these outlets were doing something worthwhile even so. Meanwhile, many newsrooms diligently called up the Chinese schools to hear exactly the same denial, which may not be adding much value.

- Only seven stories (six percent) were primarily based on original reporting. These were produced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Tech News World, Bloomberg, Xinhua (China), and the Global Times (China).

- Of the 13 stories with original reporting, eight were produced by outlets that primarily publish on paper,  four were produced by wire services, and one was produced by a primarily online outlet. For this story, the news really does come from newspapers.

So how are we going co cover real news without original reporting?

And who is going to pay for real reporters?

And real journalism?

Let’s get real.

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