Posts Tagged ‘New York City’


Unconventional convention coverage

This weekend, I’ll be giving a talk in Charlotte, North Carolina to a group of journalists who will be covering the Democratic National Convention there on September 3-6.

I’m no expert, but I have covered three national political conventions. In 1980 I covered the Republican National Convention in Detroit when Ronald Reagan was nominated. I also covered the Democratic National Convention in New York City when President Jimmy Carter was the nominee.

Then in 2008, I was part of a team that covered the Democratic National Convention for The Rocky Mountain News.

Here are a few lessons I learn from those experiences.

1. Think Big. At the Rocky my editor assigned me one big topic: race.

During Barack Obama’s historic campaign, race was one of those big lurking topics that surfaced over and over again.

So I spent time leading up to the convention interviewing people in settings as various as an African-American barber shop to an Ethiopian restaurant where many of the city’s cab drivers hung out.

I even found a German scholar visiting Denver that summer whose specialty was the American civil rights movement.

So don’t be afraid of tackling large topics as a mini-beat during a convention. Perhaps it could be immigration or the Tea Party or income equality. You’ll be surprised how far this approach can take you.

2. Don’t overemphasize the obvious stories like traffic or parking problems. Cover them sure, but don’t lose track of the big picture. I think back to how news coverage of the Woodstock music festival focused mostly on traffic jams, permits and Port-O-Potties. Not many reporters grasped the cultural significance of what they were seeing, not until much later.

3. Designate a Wild Card reporter. Every day will deal at least one completely unexpected good story. Plan on it by designating a reporter and a spot on your budget.

4. You can’t start too early. At the Rocky, our coverage plan started very early that year. It’s not too late though to do great work in advance of the convention.

5. Think beyond the printed page or the broadcast.. A national political convention generates more stories and content than you can’t possibly fit into the print edition or a broadcast, even with a generous news hole or time frame. Use your web-only space to the maximum to capture all these stories. Doing so will make your print edition or your broadcast even better and the readers/viewers will be thankful.

6. Be careful what you tweet. Social media was still relatively new in 2008 when the Rocky decided to run a stream of reporters tweets live on the web page. This worked out fine until one reporter, thinking he was tweeting a friend, used an expletive. There was no way to remove it, so the editors told all of us “Tweet something.” That way the offending tweet quick moved down stream and out of view.

7. Keep your skepticism alive. Question stories just like you would any other day of the year. In 2008, I covered a press conference where police announced they had arrested three men on drug and gun charges in a case with “federal implications.” A local television station reported that police had arrested the men in connection with an alleged plot to kill Obama.  That seemed like a huge story at the time, but as it turned out, federal authorities knocked down the story. This only became apparent through persistent questioning that evening.

8. Tap your sister news organizations. In Denver, the Scripps newspapers from around the country provided additional reporters who help supplement our coverage. That made a big difference.

9. Go remote. Sometimes the best stories are far from the convention floor. For example, when Obama gives his speech in the stadium, I was watching it in the living room of an elderly African-American woman who told me she never thought she would live to see that day.

10. Expect the unexpected.  One night during the convention, I was driving back to the office when I pulled behind an odd looking police patrol car. At first I thought it was one of the other agencies that were helping Denver out that week.

But then I noticed the motto on the side of the patrol car “To Serve and Project.” The windows on the back seat of the vehicle were actually video images by a conceptual artist who was trying to make a statement about immigration enforcement. I followed the car until it parked, then interviewed the driver and got a great story. Conventions are chock full of such stories.

11. Stay frosty. Conventions in recent years are mostly scripted and staged to death. But occasionally, the unexpected happens as it did in Detroit in 1980 when Reagan made a last minute decision to name George Bush as his vice-president.

I remember watching Walter Mears of the Associate Press writing fluidly through all that tumult in the smooth clear prose that made him a great reporter. When events get crazy, try to channel your inner Walter Mears.

12. Have fun. Conventions are about the most fun you can have as a journalist and still get paid for it. Go to the parties. Take in the spectacle. Work hard crazy hours but relish every minute of every long day and night.

I also asked two friends who covered the convention in Denver for the Rocky in Denver for their advice.

Sara Burnett is an excellent reporter who now works for the Denver Post and will be covering the conventions again this year. Here are some of her recommendations:

1. Wear comfortable shoes. Seems trivial, but when I think back on the 2008 conventions in Denver, a handful of memories stand out: Traveling with the Obama campaign from Montana to Denver on the campaign plane, having a prime seat to watch him make history at Invesco Field at Mile High, and the long, hot and painful walk to the Pepsi Center on the first day of the convention. I thought my sandals were comfy enough. Which would have been true if there had been any kind of transportation available. But every shuttle was full and every cab taken. So I walked, with what felt like a 20-pound laptop bag in 100 degree heat. By the time I got through security and to our workspace I wanted to cry because my feet hurt so bad. So wear comfortable shoes.

2. Have clear delineations of work. We split up the teams of reporters to include: The presidential candidate; the VP candidate; the “other candidate” (Hillary Clinton); the Colorado delegation; the parties, concerts and celebrities; fundraising and fundraisers; protestors; police; Republican response and economic impact on your city (to name a few). Know in advance what each person is supposed to do but also be ready to be flexible, and have a few people who are there to cover whatever breaks that you didn’t expect.

3. Don’t be overly focused on the convention hall. Many of the best stories don’t happen during the highly scripted made-for-TV evening programming. In 2008 I went to a really interesting Q&A with David Plouffe that happened in the middle of the afternoon, for example. Another big story for us was a mass arrest of some protesters.

4. Get to know the sources you’re going to be covering well in advance and have a database of their cell phone numbers, etc., so you can reach them easily and so that you can be sure they will return your calls when you need them to. There will suddenly be national news outlets and the Anderson Coopers of the world there – and if something huge happens, people’s natural instinct is to talk to the reporters/anchors they see on TV before they talk to you. Having a relationship with them before the convention starts will help get that return call.

4. Have alternate forms of communication. Especially in or near the convention hall you may have cellphone reception problems. have a laptop or ipad or whatever else you need ready in case your phone doesn’t work.

5. Go to some parties. As journalists in a host city, by the time the convention finally starts, 90 percent of your work has already been done. So don’t let the craziness of that week overwhelm you. You will be tired but you should be sure to go to some parties. Develop some new sources (or improve relationships with existing ones). Meet people you’ve always wanted to meet. And have some fun.

Next, here is some sage advice from M.E. Sprenglemeyer, another excellent Rocky alum who now owns and edits a weekly paper in New Mexico.

ME did some extraordinary reporting during the last presidential campaign. He took the bold innovative step of moving out of DC where he served as the Rocky’s Washington correspondent and move to Iowa for the year.

It provided him with invaluable insight into the campaign as well as access to the candidates.

ME’s basic advice to reporters covering this convention is this: think unconventionally. Here are a couple of his   suggestions as well as an observation of my own.

1. Think outside your Rolodex. One of the things that made ME’s pre-convention coverage brilliant was the way in which he expanded the pool of people he interviewed well beyond the conventional cast.

No where was this more apparent in a series of 10 stories he wrote for the Rocky called “Unconventional Wisdom,”

The frame of the story was simple yet large: interview people, famous and obscure from previous Democratic conventions for their insights and advice to  the current candidates. (Remember this was when Hillary Clinton  and Barack Obama were in close competition.)

2. Look for the not-so-obvious people. One of ME’s favorite stories from this series was his profile of a soldier whom Obama cited in a pivotal speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Click here for a link to that story:

It turns out that Obama kept in touch with that soldier, Seamus Ahern, long after the convention and got a fair amount of his information about the war from that exchange.

So look for that person who is “one off” the principal newsmakers and don’t be surprised if you find a great story.

3. It’s not too late. Many of you have been planning for the DNC for over a year. With the convention now just over a month away, you can’t do some of the things ME did in the lead up to the 2004 convention.

But there is still time to do these projects. Perhaps a single story interviewing people from past convention. Or perhaps focus on one convention that seems relevant to this race. ME is convinced he could start work on Monday on a story like this and have it done in time for Sept. 3.

Credentialed journalists are assigned to a coveted bit of real estate, a place to write their stories. But spend as little time there as possible. Don’t be a spectator to the same event that every other journalist in the room is watching.

5. Avoid writing anything that a person watching the convention can get by watching television. Your readers/viewers expect something more from you. There are so many stories at a convention. Find one that the national networks overlooked. Give people something they didn’t see.

6. Analyze the Speech. To prepare for covering Obama’s acceptance speech, ME watched and read several decades worth of acceptance speeches from past convention.

Presidential campaign speech writers are a small fraternity. They are a bit like film makers or jazz musicians in the way they borrow riffs from one another. It’s not plagiarism so much as paying homage to great speeches of the past.

By doing this advance research, ME was able to deliver on deadline a crisp analysis story that pointed out those allusions to speeches by other candidates.

7. Find a green delegate. Many news organizations do mini-profiles of the delegates from their coverage area. This is a sound practice. But ME suggests going one step further: focus on seeing the convention through the eyes of a first-time delegate. They are more likely than most to retain a sense of wonder about the convention. This is a valuable point of view to explore.

Finally, here is some advice from my friend Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

Mickey is a photo-journalist turned lawyer who has done yeoman’s work this year representing journalist who were arrested or detained  while doing their jobs covering various Occupy street demonstrations this year.

If you are covering protests outside the convention hall, here are links Mickey offers with some practical suggestions for journalists trying to cover the story and not become part of it.

NPPA list of resources regarding rights: https://www.nppa.org/member_services/advocacy/restrictions_on_public_photography.html

CPJ blog on what to know regarding covering conventions: http://cpj.org/security/2012/07/what-to-know-““about-covering-the-conventions.php

RCFP hotline: http://www.rcfp.org/reporters-committee-announces-political-convention-g-8-hotlines-journalists

RCFP new app: http://www.rcfp.org`/reporters-committee-launches-rcfp-firstaid-mobile-app-reporters

If you are arrested in the line of duty,  Mickey will be here in Charlotte to represent journalists if they do get in trouble for doing their job.

Keep in mind also that SPJ has a Legal Defense Fund that can make grants of up to $1,000 toward the legal defense of people who are arrested in the course of covering a story. Here is a link to our LDF website:

 

 

Nobody asked me, but… On Alec Baldwin, Carl Kasell and other important SPJ and journalism topics

1) Alec Baldwin needs to take a chill pill, judging by his altercation with a New York Daily News photographer on a public sidewalk outside New York City Hall last week.

In the chatter that followed the incident, Baldwin tried to describe the photographer as a papparazzi, those folks who follow celebrities around snapping pictures of their every move.

But in fact, the photographer in question is a veteran photojournalist who was on assignment that day outside City Hall where Baldwin was picking up a marriage certificate.

As for Baldwin, I think my friend and colleague Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, did a great job of airing out the issues in this open letter to the actor.

2) Eddye Gallagher deserves a tip of the fedora this week. Recently, she agreed to fill a vacancy on our national board and on June 16 the SPJ board appointed her as interim Region 8 Director after Scott Cooper resigned.

I first got to know Eddye when she attended the Scripps Leadership Institute a few years ago. If you talk with folks in our Fort Worth chapter, they describe her as a human dynamo who is responsible for many good things the chapter has accomplished in recent year.

Me, I’m just glad to have Region 8 represented again and to welcome Eddye onto the board.

3) Politics should not trump programming in public television. 

I understand that people should have the ability to have their say about what goes out on the air. That’s why it’s called “public” broadcasting.

But still, it was disturbing to read this report recently about a controversy involving Alabama Public Television.

It’s hard to say with precision what happened, because the station’s former director is not saying much. But this is certainly a situation that deserves a close watch going forward.

4) Who says there are no heroes anymore? I met three of mine in one evening recently while attending our Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter’s Hall of Fame banquet.

-Sander Vanoucur is a journalist I’ve admired all my life, from when he served as one of the panelists in the first Kennedy-Nixon debates through the Watergate era, when he wound up on President Nixon’s enemies list. He’s a bit frail now, but sharp as ever when you talk to him.

-Carl Kasell is a National Public Radio rock star for his role in the popular news  quiz program “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” But I came to admire him for all those years in which he delivered my first of news each day NPR’s top-of-hour newscasts.

-Brian Lamb revolutionized public access broadcasting when he created CSPAN. But for me, I’ve long admired his deadpan and thorough interviewing style. His program, “Booknotes,” served as a template for much of the programming I’ve done with SPJ through the years.

5) Another tip of the fedora to Michael Koretzky, our Region 3 Director, for helping kickstart our SPJ webinar series earlier this month.

Michael put together a great program called “Weird Careers in the Media” which was an updated version of a talk he gave at one of our national conventions a few years ago.

Now as then, the “virtual” room was packed with more than 100 people tuning in from around the country to listen and watch the webcast.

I fielded several emails from attendees who said they found Michael’s talk incredibly useful to their own job hunting strategies.

So stay tuned, we’ll be producing more webinars in the months ahead.

6) Holly Fisher is an excellent interviewer, doing a series of interviews with journalist who won this year’s SDX Awards. Here’s a link to a podcast, a recent conversation with Corinne Reilly about an award-winning story she wrote for the Virginian-Pilot.

Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.

-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.

-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.

-Also in  October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.

-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.

-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.

I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.

Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.

But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.

I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.

So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.

And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.

First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.

What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.

Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.

What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.

A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.

Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.

And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.

Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.

But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.

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