What I learned at SPJRI

The 2010 SPJ Reporters Institute was a great experience. Not only did I learn from some of the best in the journalism industry, but I met and interacted with roughly 30 of the best young reporters around. Below, one guy’s take on what we learned and what it means to the future of journalism:

Session 1: FOI and document-driven newsrooms, with Charles Davis (Executive Director, National Freedom of Information Coalition)

Davis’ main point was simple: journalists should constantly seek documents. Why? Simply put, they can be the backbone to countless big stories. And, best of all, they don’t pick favorites. They don’t speak in soundbites. They are what they are, and they say what they say. It is up to the journalist to get them. This means making FOI (Freedom of Information) requests all the time, even when the data isn’t something the reporter is aggressively seeking for a story. At the very least, filing FOI requests keeps both the reporter and the records-keeper sharp, and it lets agencies know that they need to be aware of the press. And in a day and age where more and more red tape seems to keep information obscured, watchdog journalism is as important as ever.

Session 2: Ethics, with Adrian Uribarri (SPJ Ethics Committee member)

The biggest thing I can say about ethics after this session is that it’s good to have others in the discussion. Put another way, no one has all the ethical answers, which is why newsrooms need to communicate. How does one cover a star athlete in a rape case? Should the press accommodate the government when they cry, “national security?” These and other questions come up on a regular basis, and it’s up to the reporter to act with a solid ethical compass. A good start is the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, but it’s also up to newsrooms to develop good, working policies for their specific coverage areas. Ultimately, all journalists should be aware of why they’re doing something, not just that they’re doing it.

Session 3: Diversity in the newsroom and news world, with Kenny Irby (Poynter Director of Diversity)

Like with ethics, the issue of diversity is best discussed with large, diverse groups. Because there are no easy answers. From the session with Irby, the key points a young journalist should know are:

  • Diversity is not just about race — differences in education, religion, sexual orientation and other areas matter, too
  • We are NOT in a post-racial world, despite many advances. That means that many divisions still exist along lines of color
  • It’s important for reporters to go into “different” areas, areas in their community they are less comfortable and familiar with. There are stories there, and ignoring them is doing a disservice to your coverage area
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about race, or other issues of diversity. No one will get anywhere without discussion

Session 4: Multimedia and the “all-platform journalist,” with Stacia Deshishku (CNN Director of Coverage)

Learn as much as you can, and don’t be afraid of FlipCams. In a nutshell, that’s what this presentation was all about. At CNN, a transition is being made to incorporate more “all-platform journalists,” essentially jack-of-all trades who can do all of their reporting from a car or coffee shop. Gone (to a degree) are the days of the big news team and the bulky satellite truck. Young reporters who embrace new skills will be valued. But don’t worry if you don’t know “everything” now…Deshishku said CNN was surprised to learn that most of its APJ applicants DIDN’T know everything, indicating that we all have weaknesses and things to learn. In CNN’s case, training the APJs in the areas they lacked was the solution. More and more newsrooms may be going this direction, with an emphasis on training young journalists before throwing them into the wild. From someone who was essentially thrown into the wild, I can only hope this will become reality.

Session 5: Writing tips, with Dr. Roy Peter Clark (Poynter vice president and senior scholar)

First, let me say that Dr. Clark is one of the more engaging speakers I have ever seen. Especially because he plays a mean rock ‘n’ roll piano. But he knows a thing or two about writing, too. His big point was that word order matters. In particular, the words right before periods and at the end of paragraphs matter, because these areas are “hot spots” that stick with readers. An example, from Macbeth: “…the queen, my lord, is dead.” Notice how this sentence could have been worded in several different ways (“the queen is dead, my lord;” “my lord, the queen is dead”). However, Shakespeare made sure to put an important item at the beginning of the sentence (“the queen”) and the most important item (“is dead”) at the end. This structure can be applied to longer sentences, and it serves to keep the reader engaged. (Clark was one of my favorite presenters, and I could go on and on about his suggestions. However, this is a blog post, so I don’t want it to get too lengthy. I will say he has a book out that discusses his writing tips in detail.)

Session 6: How to get story ideas, with Lane DeGregory (reporter at The St. Petersburg Times)

Another one of my favorite sessions from SPJRI, largely because it was so useful and because DeGregory is so personable. Her tips are simple, but effective: talk to strangers, read the wall (where fliers reside), sit the bench (people are worth observing), make unique friends, celebrate losers (they often have more compelling stories) and (my favorite) — hang out at bars. These are just a few of her many tips, but the theme is clear: people, the everyday variety, are your sources. The world isn’t all about politicians and celebrities. If you’re willing to listen, folks on the street corner have great tales. And great tales often can be linked to bigger picture issues, which always makes a journalist happy.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to see your comments on anything here.

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  • http://www.cincinnatimagazine.com Aiesha

    Thanks for this, Mike! It’s really helpful info for everyone who couldn’t attend the event. Your work is appreciated.

    adl

  • Tauhid Chappell

    Excellent post! Will Tweet this one out to my followers :-)


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