Posts Tagged ‘Rocky Mountain News’


SPJ president: After Aurora theater shootings, visions of covering tragedy at Columbine

Following is an essay that first ran on northjersey.com on July 20:

Oh no. Not again.

It’s hard for me to describe the heart-sinking, knot-in-the-stomach feeling I had upon hearing the news about the mass killings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Like anyone, I am saddened by this senseless tragedy. But the killing of 12 moviegoers and wounding of dozens more triggered an immediate response in the back of my brain.

Columbine.

I was a reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News on April 20, 1999 when two teenagers went on a killing rampage, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

That day was the start of my spring vacation. As was my habit, I tried to disconnect from the news on my time off. It was a bright, beautiful day and I had a ticket to go see the Colorado Rockies play a baseball game at Coors Field.

That game never happened. I vividly remember stepping out of the shuttle bus in downtown Denver on my way to the ball park when I saw a strange sight, people hawking my newspaper.

The Rocky had put out a rare extra edition with news of the massacre and headlines set in the kind of type size normally reserved for war and natural disasters.

I bought a paper and stepped back onto the shuttle, rode it all the way back, walked a few blocks to the newspaper office and reported for duty.

By dusk, I was out in a suburban neighborhood in Jefferson County, talking with people who were neighbors of the houses where the two killers and their families lived. Everyone I talked to was in a state of stunned disbelief.

I don’t mean to exaggerate my role that day. I played a relatively small part in helping to report on a huge, heart-breaking story that was unlike anything my colleagues and I had ever covered before. It was a story that would consume all of us for the months and years that followed.

Besides the fresh sorrow I felt for the families of these latest victims, I’ve been thinking about my colleagues in Denver newsrooms, several of whom also covered Columbine.

They know, as I do, that this is the start of a long, grueling assignment.

Reporters have this instinct, when news happens, we answer the call. Sometimes doing the work is a kind of solace and means of coping with the tragedy we are covering.

But we are human beings as well and not immune from the suffering we’re reporting on – nor should we be.

Like everyone else, our hearts go out to friends and families who are living through this latest nightmare.

 

Postcript: On July 20, I also discussed media coverage of the shootings on SPJ member Jim Bohannon’s talk radio program in Washington, D.C. Here is a link to the podcast. My conversation with Jim starts about 40 minutes into the program.

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:

 

 

Pushing back against the journalism brain drain

The email from Mr. Anonymous arrived in my mailbox one recent morning.

He wanted me to look into overcrowding in one of the local high schools where some classes had as many as 40 kids, he claimed.

“PLEASE INVESTIGATE THIS as you are our only hope,” the anonymous tipster wrote. “YOU CAN HELP OUR STUDENTS. PLEASE DO SO.”

The story will get done. But the email and its plaintive plea made me wonder: What would happen if I was not covering this inner city school district?

I don’t have a lot of competitors on my beat. Sadly, with the cutbacks that newspapers have been forced to make in recent years, there are many school districts and city halls that are not getting the attention we once paid to them.

Later that same morning, other emails followed with news of more layoffs of fellow journalists in Los Angeles, St. Louis and Dallas. It would appear that the cuts that have decimated our industry in recent years are far from over.

I can relate closely to the situation of my colleagues who lost their jobs, having been in that position myself when the Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009.

As troubling as the numbers are for our industry, there is a secondary kind of loss under way.

Within SPJ’s ranks in recent months, we’ve seen some of the best and brightest people leave the field of journalism for jobs outside the profession.

I think of former SPJ President Clint Brewer, one of my role models, who has taken a job with the state of Tennessee.

I think of Darcie Lunsford, formerly the president-elect, who has taken her bright personality and considerable skills into the Florida real estate business.

I think of Ian Marquand – the heart and soul of our Montana chapter – who also has taken a job in state government.

These are all bright people who have taken a new path on which I am sure they will excel. I’m sure we all wish them well.

All three have committed to staying with SPJ and helping out wherever they can, and I’m sure they will.

But it does make me wonder: What’s to become of our profession and our organization if we keep losing such bright minds and strong leaders?

Well, here’s one thing I believe we can and should do. There are plenty of bright and talented people in our business, many of them just starting out in their careers.

And there are others whom I’ve admired for years who for one reason or another have never joined SPJ.

We need to start reaching out to those folks and bring them into SPJ. We need to replenish our ranks with people like Clint and Darcie and Ian who can and will make a difference.

Here’s what I’m going to do: I’ve been compiling a list of 100 people who fit this description. Over the next 100 days, I’ll be writing a series of letters asking them to join SPJ.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do. Think of three people in your own world who you think would make excellent SPJ members and perhaps even leaders.

Call them. Email them. Write them. Ask them to join. (Here are few good reasons to join.) If you think a phone call from the SPJ president will help, email me their names and numbers. I’ll be happy to make those calls.

Let’s find these folks and make SPJ as strong in the service of journalism this year as it has been since 1909.

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