Goodbye to Emily, One of My Fave (and Best) Interns

I have a long and storied history with journalism interns. Back when I started as a beat reporter at age 21, sometimes sources would confuse me for the intern, and the intern for the reporter.

During the Texas Tribune early days, “Dan the Intern” became a real team member, so much so that I worked him into my The Office parody video to introduce the TT.

But then, Dan The Intern got back at me by calling me out in the very first HuTube vlog.

So, I tend to have a fun time with prodigious and puckish interns. Which brings me to Emily. Emily Siner started as an NPR intern last fall, but graduated to editorial assistant (a much better hourly rate) when we couldn’t afford to lose her when the semester ended. She’s become indispensable in short order, explaining Bitcoin better than I ever could, being a true partner for our online and on-air work and most importantly, always always asking interesting questions about the world. Curiosity — and follow through — are basically the whole game, in journalism. Emily also has a boyfriend named Matt, and y’all know I basically love all Matt’s.

Emily at her final digital news editors meeting.

Emily at her final digital news editors meeting.

Emily is headed to Nashville Public Radio, which means she’s staying in the family and going to eat delicious food. Wishing you many fun and educational adventures, Emily.

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Teaching Storytelling With The Help Of A Well-Written Breaking News Piece

The details students recalled from Wade Goodwyn's Moore, OK tornado story.

The details students recalled from Wade Goodwyn’s Moore, OK tornado story.

This quarter, Matty and I are team-teaching a digital journalism lab for Northwestern’s Medill Journalism School, which runs a DC program. During Monday’s class, I walked through some broadcast storytelling tricks that I’ve learned over the years, and most recently at NPR.

One of my favorite broadcast voices and writers is Wade Goodwyn, our Dallas-based national correspondent.  He’s not just someone I look up to — I’m also really lucky to count Wade among my sometimes-drinking buddies.

Wade was sent to Moore, Oklahoma just after a 1.5 mile wide tornado destroyed the town last spring. The feature he filed for the next morning’s Morning Edition program was so simple, and yet so brilliantly executed a piece of broadcast storytelling that Poynter spent time and space unpacking it line by line.

So I played it for the class one time and once the story ended, I had the students write on Post-its the individual details, scenes, characters or lines they remembered. The repeats — like a description of pink insulation dust glistening on a victim — got stuck on top of one another.

All this to say Wade’s writing was so powerful and well told that the students filled up an entire window with details they remembered from a four-minute piece. I hope Wade gets to see how his words lingered in the minds of his young listeners, and taught them some valuable lessons about great writing.

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“The best thing about the kind of job I have is that I’m always partially doing what I enjoy, even when I’m working, and the worst thing is that I’m always partially working, even when I’m doing what I enjoy … As long as you’re happy and you’re not burning yourself out, you’d be a fool not to realize that it’s a very fortunate way to live.” -my NPR colleague Linda Holmes, who writes about pop culture

“In an era when rents are spiking, book advances shrinking and magazines shuttering, New York may no longer be a necessary destination for the young writer, she acknowledged. It may not even be a feasible one.” – on writers breaking up with New York, in today’s New York Times

Weekend At Harvard With The Nieman Fellows

Just got back from the tremendous pleasure of spending the weekend wandering the campus of Harvard and the streets around Cambridge with some of my favorite people and colleagues. It was all part of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard’s 75 year anniversary, for which they invited back the decades of former fellows whose careers and lives were transformed by their 10-month experiences as fellows at Harvard.

Nieman alumni include the indefatigable Lincoln biographer Robert Caro, more than 100 Pulitzer Prize winners and altogether amazing, globe-trotting, muckraking journalists around the world. It was just preposterous to even get to meet some of these people in such a relaxed setting. They are ALL SO INTERESTING.

My friend Kara Oehler (co-founder of storytelling tool Zeega) and I both got invited to speak about innovations in storytelling before about 400 Niemans, with New Yorker Editor Dorothy Wickenden as our moderator. AGAIN — PREPOSTEROUS. But we just ate it up and had a great time. And god, the weather was just perfect and the whole scene — tents out on the lawn of Harvard’s Lippman House and outdoor bluegrass concerts in the park near Harvard Square and little babies of Nieman fellows taking tentative steps in the grass — it felt like a vortex.

NPR represents itself well in the Nieman family. So many of my colleagues are former and current Niemans that it was a special treat to spend time with them outside of work and meet some of my colleagues for the first time, in some cases. Here’s a shot of me with some of the NPR Nieman fellows, but it’s missing ATC producer Alison MacAdam, my radio editor Uri Berliner and a few others, who we couldn’t wrangle into one photo.

At the Walter Lippman House at Harvard, hanging with the NPR Nieman fellows past and present: Clockwise from left: Howard Berkes, Marilyn Geewax, Sylvia Poggoli, David Welna, Margot Adler, Dina Temple Raston, Jonathan Blakely and me.

At the Walter Lippman House at Harvard, hanging with the NPR Nieman fellows past and present: Clockwise from left: Howard Berkes, Marilyn Geewax, Sylvia Poggoli, David Welna, Margot Adler, Dina Temple Raston, Jonathan Blakely and me.

A huge thank you to the curators at Nieman who put on a memorable weekend and were so generous to invite me to be among this special group. I’ll remember this for many years to come.

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Footnotes From Our Time In West Virginia

No cell phone service, no problem.

For me, the best parts of the job are a.) being out in the field, discovering people/places that are new to you, and b.) doing that discovery as part of a team. It’s pretty sweet that they pay me to go random places, but it’s even better with a photographer partner-in-crime. Luckily for me, NPR photojournalist John Poole was game to go out into the country to explore the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia.

We booked themed hotel rooms at the remote Mountain Quest Inn, which is part of a 350-acre farm run by a nuclear physicist and his spiritualist wife. Their hobbies include taking photos of mist formations, or myst, as they call it, since their “myst” shows up as a result of human energy brewing with the dew.

Theme room options include: The Nautical Room (waterbed and regular bed), Universe Space (where you can “Take a trip to the far reaches of space,”) Safari Room (Serengeti mural and mosquito-netted beds) and so many more.

We got lost twice trying to find the place since the quiet zone is cell service and wifi free.

The trip, by the numbers:

Miles driven: 711
Stoplights in town: Zero
Number of times lost: 3
Deer spotted: 7, one dead
Roadkill counted: 4
“Groundhog/woodchuck-looking” animals: 2
Llamas: 2
Goats: 2
Cross-eyed cats: 1
Conversations with people suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity: 3
Yard sales: 1
Dollar General Stores: Two
Roadside Phone Booths: One
Total hours without service: 27 long ones
Trips down the new zip line at Snoeshoe Ski Resort: One (I went, John decided to hang back and take a picture)

Books referenced while talking in the car: Unknown, but a lot, including The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond

Films referenced: 5
Sherman’s March
Vernon, Florida
Ace Ventura Pet Detective
Winnebago Man
The Sheriff of Gay Washington

International places discussed: 10
Libya, Mongolia, Poland, Russia, Eastern Europe (generally), Holland (because of the tall people), China, South Africa, New Zealand, Hawaii

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AAJA 2013: Baby in the Big Apple

Eva and Momma time in the hotel room.

Eva and Momma time in the hotel room.

Just back from a really fun and satisfying time in New York for this year’s Asian American Journalists Association annual convention. I’ve been part of AAJA since I was in 10th grade, thanks to a reporter for The Dallas Morning News who called to interview me about a student council project, I think. Whatever it was, I mentioned after the interview I wanted to be a journalist one day and she immediately encouraged me to join the organization. Since then, AAJA has been responsible for making connections that have shaped my life.

In 2002, AAJA hosted its national convention in Dallas, and that’s where I met Sudeep, who became my best friend and is responsible for introducing me to my husband Stiles. Stiles is not Asian-American by blood but often identifies with my peeps, so he joined AAJA in 2008 and has since been a much more involved member than me. He consistently reminds me to renew my membership, he has attended more AAJA conventions than I have in recent years, and he speaks on more AAJA panels than I do. He trumped me in New York, speaking on three panels to my one. I’m so proud of him!

This year, the programming really kicked things up a notch with fab workshops and thoughtful panelists. I loved seeing writer (and Twitter user) Jay Caspian Kang totally go anti-Twitter at a conference where social media networking was predictably de rigeur. Kang called Twitter a “circle jerk” and said he thinks less of people who tweet all day, saying it undermines your seriousness as a writer. That argument is for a whole different post — bottom line, exposure to unexpected points of view makes these confabs more interesting.

I regret not getting to spend more time with old friends, since that’s what is always so great about attending the annual AAJA confab. It feels like family. But I was a little time and resource constrained because of my actual family. The traveling baby, Eva, came with us (she’s a journalism convention pro now). She got to try some halal truck food, visit FAO Schwarz, have lunch with my old friend Tim, get overwhelmed by the lights and the tourists in Times Square, go shopping on Fifth Ave and take lots of her usual naps. She also enjoyed exploring the hotel room and goofing off, as you can see.

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Notes from Eden

Somewhere above 9.200 elevation on Powder Mountain. See if you can spot my crew — the tiny dudes in the photo.

Somewhere above 9.200 elevation on Powder Mountain. See if you can spot my crew — the tiny dudes in the photo.

Just got back from rural Utah. More specifically, a place called Eden. Wandered high up in the clouds. After riding a rock crawler to nearly 9,000 feet elevation, I followed Summit Series leaders Jeff and Thayer to a point so high I panicked about how I’d “hike” (in my running shoes) back down.

“Hand eye coordination is not my thing,” I kept telling the guys.

But hey, it was for an interesting story about how Team Summit recently closed the purchase of said mountain, the largest skiiable mountain in North America. Note to self: If you get to hang out on a peak overlooking four states for your job, don’t complain.

Tune in for the piece later this month. For the purposes of this personal blog, some notes from the road:

- I drove a Ford Expedition for the first time, because Avis apparently ran out of smaller vehicles. It felt like driving a bus. I was white knuckling it for most of the ride north into the mountains, but eventually I loved it and stopped being scared that I’d accidentally maul an elk.

- Speaking of rental cars, while standing in the garage awaiting my oversized vehicle, I looked across the way and saw a familiar-looking attractive man. I thought to myself, that guy looks like a Romney! Just as I was running through the names of the five Romney boys in my head, a car attendant popped out and said to him, “First name?” and he responded, “Tagg.” TAGG! He’s it.

- Last time I was in Utah was in 2011, when I covered the National Governors Association meeting in Salt Lake and became buddies with the legendary Washington Post scribe Dan Balz. We had some beers with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, I taught Dan how to tweet a photo and we’ve been friends ever since. The mountains brought back memories of that random weekend.

- On the mountain, the Summit folks live and work in what feels like a dream summer camp for grownups. They have a cook that makes only gluten-free, Paleo diet approved foods at meals they all share and eat together. They also have an ashram, fresh juice each morning, a trainer, and all the skiing and snowboarding they want while it’s in season. Basically I was wondering why I still live in a sometimes soul-depleting urban environment and not on a mountain, instead.

- Almost missed my flight home due to unanticipated traffic, an evil GPS and the slowest possible milk scanning device ever. I’m still nursing Baby Eva and pumping while I’m away, which means when I go through security, each bottle must be scanned with a special device individually. I was the last person to be let on board before takeoff.

- How about that Delta Airlines? I love their cookie snacks, but I also really enjoyed their quietly subversive in-flight safety video. I watched it all the way through because I realized they were hiding little visual gags in there throughout.

Tough Week, Or The Toughest Week?

Satirical news source The Onion summed up the past week well:

“Maybe next time we have a week, they can try not to pack it completely to the fucking brim with explosions, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies, weeping, and the utter uselessness of our political system,” said basically every person in America who isn’t comatose or a complete sociopath. “You know, maybe try to spread some of that total misery across the other 51 weeks in the year. Just a thought.”

Pal Justin texted this to me, halfway through this week from hell: “What does it say when a justice of the peace murdering a district attorney and his family is at the bottom of the news totem pole?” (I’m not even sure that story made it into our newscasts. Nor did the sentencing of the Travis County District Attorney for DWI. She’s serving 45 days in jail. Normally I would think that was a big story, too.)

Oh, and then, last night the week was capped off with a destructive earthquake in China:

“As Boston celebrated last night, the week from Hell managed to end with one more tragedy: A 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit southwestern China’s Sichuan province on Saturday. Right now, 156 people are said to be dead, and an estimated 5,500 are injured, making the earthquake the country’s worst in three years. We’re just hoping marathoner and West, Texas resident Joe Berti wasn’t around.”

Journalism and social media both got a reminder to just chill out and take a breath. Reddit sleuths went down as many bad trails as promising ones, implicating innocent people in the process. The New York Post was particularly egregious in its fact ignorance, reporting 12 people were killed on Monday and that a Saudi national was a suspect. (Neither of these reported “facts” proved true.)

Oh, and our newsroom was split into two buildings, producing our afternoon show, All Things Considered, from 1111 N. Capitol, and the morning program, Morning Edition, from 635 Massachusetts Ave. As tragedy struck blow after blow, we were struggling to coordinate news reporting and broadcasting while in between the final phases of our staff move. By Friday, the old building and its parts were getting dismantled around us. The moving and salvage crews outnumbered NPR staff. Yesterday, in the middle of our efforts to report a manhunt that shut down the city of Boston, the TVs got cut off. This prompted a move to 1111 half a day early.

President Obama called it a “tough week.” I’d call it a curl-up-in-fetal-position-and-rock-back-and-forth-week.

As you reflect and process and drink heavily (you deserve it), consider consuming any of the following:

Your kids, your parents, your friends, your lovers: Hug ‘em tight. Hug ‘em tight.

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On The State Of The News Media, And The Reporter Who Quit

This week, the fine folks at Pew released their annual State of the News Media report and the findings were grim (again) for those of us who still want to make a living doing journalism. One third of Americans surveyed said they abandoned a news outlet because it failed to provide “information they had grown accustomed to,” a majority of those people aren’t aware of the business-side meltdown of the news industry, and meltdown is not an exaggeration — budget cuts and layoffs “put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew reports. Local TV news is being kept alive by traffic and weather, but that’s not expected to last long. A full 85 percent of MSNBC programming is talk — commentary rather than produced pieces of reporting and interviewing.

In response, Slate’s Matt Yglesias made a compelling argument that while the producer-side/revenue problem still exists, the abundance of choices for news and information outside of the realm of “traditional media” makes this a better time than ever for consumers.

“Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…

The recent improvements in news distribution are astonishing. You don’t need to go to a specialty shop to find out-of-town newspapers or foreign magazines. Just open a browser. You can check on Israeli news sites when a new government is formed or during an American presidential visit and ignore them the rest of the year. The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life.”

Yes, Yglesias ignores the effects of a vastly downsized professional journalism workforce on state and local communities, where the disappearance of watchdog reporters is likely felt the most directly. That is the conceit on which we started NPR’s StateImpact network in 2011 and The Texas Tribune in 2009. (Good god, has it been THREE years!?) The local news problem continues to vex us and is worth its own post (or book), so I’m tabling that.

A few days after the report was released, the Twitterverse led me to the personal post of Allyson Bird, a former newspaper reporter, about why she left the news business on her own volition. She writes that the response was huge — 165,000 pageviews in the first day after posting — and sparked a raw conversation among other journalists, both still in the biz and out. As my friend Joey says, “No journalism gets more read and talked about by journalists than stories about journalists.” We are egotistical maniacs.

“I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied,” Bird writes. Later, she hits on the notion many of us working journalists know well — that your good work is only rewarded by more work: “Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.”

Bird’s been lauded and lashed by fellow journalists, all who seem to have strong opinions about her piece. I have just a few thoughts to throw out in response, mainly cause I like that we’re having this collective conversation and hey, Friend Matt created WordPress so we could all be publishers, so, why not.

As a journalist who did sign up for that $16,500 salary out of school to work nights and weekends and face constant condescension from a misogynist GM in Waco, Texas, I and many others like her empathize with the part about dissatisfaction. For me it was temporary, but what constitutes satisfaction differs from person to person. Being able to feed and house yourself comes before bylines, and in conversations about declining diversity numbers in newsrooms, one reason that comes up is salaries so low that entry level folks would need wealthy families or second jobs to support.

Bird partially blames the 24 hour news cycle for overworking reporters, but we’re beyond a survival of the fittest phase in the news biz — it’s mutation of the species. There’s no point in lamenting the multitasking required of reporters today, because most have proven they’ve mutated as necessary to keep up.

The wide readership of and thoughtful social response to Bird’s piece, one she published without the distribution platform of a mainstream news brand, is “Exhibit A” in favor of the digital revolution that is blamed for killing mainstream news. That Bird wrote a single post, published it herself, and it led to a national conversation is Yglesias’ point:

“A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival. Time would compete with NewsweekTime doesn’t compete with Newsweek anymore: Instead it competes with every single English-language website on the planet. It’s tough, but it merely underscores the extent of the enormous advances in productivity that are transforming the industry.”

Incidentally, for the writer herself, this kind of exposure could lead her right back into paid journalism. Already she’s booked on WYNC’s The Takeaway, which will only lead to more exposure.

I want to think journalism is a meritocracy and that I work not-demanding hours a fantastic national news organization because of my skills and hard work, but just as it is in life, who makes it and who doesn’t can be quite capricious. Those of us who have jobs we love and get paid for it should be grateful, strive to keep growing and pay it forward, as our predecessors did.

The exciting thing about journalism today is it calls for a kind of entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking that it didn’t back when finances were more stable. But it is an entrepreneurial spirit that led to amazing startup news organizations like the one I’m proud to have helped launch, creation of new storytelling methods or projects that streamline data journalism  and the invention and funding of simple tools to provide greater context, like DocumentCloud. 

Newsrooms will keep contracting. But the wheels of invention and progress keep moving forward. For their sake and ours, I hope the creators and problem solvers out there will still want to create and solve problems even if the prospect of profit remains unseen. Allyson did, and it’s proven anything but unsatisfying.

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