Lessons from J-School

Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph, and the signs of sorrow are still in the air.Henry Anatole Grumwald

Namesake of a Colorado city, Horace Greeley launched the New York Tribune in 1841. He is known for popularizing the advice, “Go West, young man, go west.” This photo shows his statue in Greeley Square Park in New York City.

The first time I heard about Twitter was in 2008. I was in Texas working for FEMA in the early aftermath of Hurricane Ike. An enterprising reporter had used the relatively new technology to transmit reports to her editor from an area where other means of communication were impossible. Centuries earlier, reporters used an earlier technology, dthe telegraph to transmit news from the front lines of the U.S. Civil War.

In early 2009, I was at the FEMA regional office when a co-worker showed me how he could fit a meaningful message into 140 characters. The allocation seemed generous compared to headlines in legacy media. Those not only had to fit into very precise spaces, but also needed to have the right configuration (never end the top line with a preposition!).  

Many of the lessons I learned as a student in journalism school and later as a professional reporter and publicist have application in the world of digital communications. Among them are the following:

Establish a beat. As a reporter for The Durango Herald, I had the city beat, meaning I picked up accidents and arrests from the police blotter, covered city council and county commissioners’ meetings and so on. And, since The Herald was a small paper, I also wrote features, which gave me to opportunity to delve into other topics.

The beat I cover on this blog includes topics of professional interest, especially writing, editing, and the creative process. I also write about topics that demonstrate fluidity with a range of topics and that allow readers to get to know me better. 

I’m a little envious of a recent post by user experience designer Caitlin Geier. She wrote a post explaining why she is pursuing a doctorate related to computer gaming and what she expects to learn. She says she’ll blog from time to time with progress reports. The post sets up a framework for a consistent, ongoing blog and it sill leaves opportunities for writing about other items of interest. I think it’s genius.

Do your homework. Unless they want only to be entertained, most readers want to be informed. So it makes sense that they would want to read items by writers who know what they’re writing about. When I do an interview, I research my subject to gather some new or little known information, and to help me formulate questions that may yeild poignant quotes.

Similarly, when I helped arrange interviews with FEMA program specialists, I expected journalists to do their homework. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed a budding journalist to take a supervisor’s time with biographical questions when the answers were easy to find online.

In addition to interviews, other research, along with fact checking, can help assure that writing is fact-based, accurate, truthful, and newsy. 

Let sources tell the story. When writing something involving interviews, it’s often good to allow the subjects to tell their own stories. The writer can serve as a narrator, summarizing where necessary, filling in gaps, and making transitions. 

Get to the point.  For hard news, the inverted pyramid can work as well online as it does for newspapers. This format starts with a lede that answers the five Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why? From there, it goes from the most to least important point. Features, creative nonfiction, and analysis may start differently. But even an anecdotal lede should give the idea of the story that will follow.

Write with a clear and consistent perspective. Newspapers usually include news and features, which are traditionally written from a neutral or objective point of view, and editorial pages that are home to opinion and analysis. These are usually supported by paid advertising, which may be on the same pages as articles or in separate inserts. Magazines often contain advertorials, which look like news and features, but are actually told from the point of view of an advertiser, and they are labeled accordingly. Advertisers also use direct mail to convey their messages.

All of these formats have parallels in digital communications. Wherever information is presented, writers need to be transparent and readers should be able to tell what kind of content they’re reading. Readers bear some responsibility, too. For example, they should know that organizational self-interest is usually the main motivation behind news releases and many websites.

Use available technology well. In the late 19th century, the telegraph, telephone, typewriter, and cameras helped to shape modern American journalism, just as television news coverage changed the public conversation around the time of the assassination of President John F. Kenney and the Vietnam War. Today, social media continues to expand the channels for journalists to collect and distribute information (and misinformation). 

Write well. Good writing is clear and lean. Better writing that’s better is interesting, too. Sloppy writing can diminish the credibility of a reporter, source, or brand. 

The Elements of Style by William Stunk, Jr., and E.B. White is my favorite resource for writing well. Inspired in part by this classic, my rules for writing includes the following: 

            Write grammatically. In most cases, use complete, coherent sentences. 

            Be concise. Prefer simple vocabulary, using gut if appropriate instead of utilizing intestine.

            Be consistent. Don’t sneak editorial commentary into a straight-news piece; don’t end a third-person item with a statement written in second person—unless a visual cue like a change of typeface or a box is added. 

            Avoid clichés. At least for the foreseeable future, don’t deliver the latest news without a rapier wit.

            Avoid fluff at all costs. Fluff obscures meaning and includes unnecessary words and detours.  It’s a dirty word among writers and an insult to readers.

As for Twitter, even though the platform is in widespread use now, I still don’t use it much. As a journalist, I prefer to get information in more complete and in-depth packages. I also find it has the same sort of intrusive quality as direct mail, and great potential for misinformation.

The guest editor for this post was Crystal Payton, whom I met when we both worked at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where she is an external affairs officer. In addition to often overseeing FEMA messaging in the aftermath of disasters, she has collaborated with her husband, Leland Payton, in publishing more than a dozen books, mainly about Ozark history, lore and ecology. Their blog is http://beautifulozarks.com/lens-and-pen-blog/ Their latest book, Lover’s Leap Legends: From Sappho of Lesbos to Wah-Wah-Tee of Waco, is on their website, hypercommon.com.