It’s the Freakin’ Weekend

Guests giving a high five to Trump.

Every year the U.S. Embassy throws a big July 4th party for its friends in the other embassies, business folk in the American Chamber of Commerce and other associates, like us journalist types. The location has changed each year, and this year it felt like a giant car show in the Hyatt because sponsors parked Teslas and GM vehicles all over the place. Tito’s Vodka was also sponsoring and everyone knows it is my favorite beverage so, I just kind of parked it near the Tito’s station.

You know what was never busy though? The gazpacho station. I still don’t really get gazpacho.

The Trump selfie stations were a huge draw, as Korean guests really enjoyed going to get their pictures taken with the life-sized cardboard cutouts of the American president and his wife. (An embassy official was stationed near there to monitor for crude gestures at the selfie station, but she admitted that Koreans weren’t the concern, it was the Americans they had to worry about.)

Too Soon?

“The only people left at this party are the journalists and the arms dealers.” -Friend John

Ouch. That’s a reference to this episode, which you may have read about. (I have to say there’s a little bit of envy in the drama factor of this story. In all my years reporting, no one has ever approached me with a lucrative arms dealing opportunity.)

Look Ma

You’re now reading the musings of a bonafide member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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The Most Memorable Stories I Got To Tell In 2016

“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr

Sake from paper cups on the Shinkansen with my mom, photog and fixer, in February.

Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)

Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).

I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.

Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.

We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.

Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.

I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.

Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.

Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.

The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.

The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.

Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.

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Processing My Weird Week In #Ferguson

Moments before SWAT officers swarmed our car, fixing their rifles on us.

Moments before SWAT officers swarmed our car, fixing their rifles on us.

I was as far as once can be from a conflict zone — Aspen — the nights Ferguson, Mo., first erupted over the fatal police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown. Busy meeting about the future of the internet, the details of why the QuikTrip in a St. Louis inner suburb burned were hazy to me.

When I got home on Wednesday night, August 13, a fast-moving flood of tweets indicated police were moving in on protesters — and journalists — in a siege that seemed like something out of a wartorn nation.

I was born in St. Louis and lived there until age 13. I even moved back to Missouri for college. Ferguson is not the community I called home, but greater St. Louis certainly is, so I sent an email saying I’d be happy to help in any way. The next day my editor called. “You ready to go to Ferguson?,” he said. And, he said, buy a one-way ticket.

I got there on early Saturday morning to looted businesses. After a night of calm on Thursday, the chaos returned Friday. On my first day on the ground I found myself sitting uncomfortably on the floor of a church, surrounded by already work-weary journalists, listening to Gov. Jay Nixon announce he was imposing a curfew on the town at midnight. The curfew would be indefinite.

The curfew didn’t work. Both nights it was in place (it only lasted two nights), a curfew seemed to only increase the tensions that many young black men said had been simmering all their lives. Before I left, my next door neighbor Miss Essie, asked if I could just stay home, instead. Miss Essie, who is black, has a 24 year old son. She said she saw what happened to Brown as something that could easily happen to her own 24-year-old son, Nate.

Monday, the National Guard moved in. I never did get used to the weird juxtaposition of heavily armed military staging in a suburban shopping center full of big box stores. And Monday is when I got caught between a line of protesters and police, flames flying across the windshield of a local girl’s car I’d ducked into for safety. A series of pops — fireworks — were followed by the launching of smoke grenades. Then I saw a flame flying at the police line, which they later said was a Molotov cocktail. Then the loudest blasts I’d ever heard at close range went off. Tear gas and gunshots, fired almost simultaneously.

I was still ducking there, stunned, when suddenly an armored vehicle blasted its lights at the car where I hid. The rest of the press had gotten pushed back before the tear gassing began. But because I’d sought cover in the car wash, and then a stranger’s backseat, I got separated from my media brethren and was stuck in a dangerous zone. In a matter of seconds, the masked tactical unit — at least a dozen men — raised their rifles and pointed them at the car. The girls in the front seat had their hands up as soon as the lights blasted us. I dropped my phone and rolled down the window. “I’m press! I’m press!” I screamed. One of the armed men gestured to let us drive out of the melee, while the rest kept their guns trained on us.

But rolling down the window meant getting the worst of the gas wafting. It burns your eyes. It burns your nose. It burns your throat. It wasn’t until we were out of the most dangerous zone that other strangers could help us, handing us water and warning us not to rub or touch our eyes, or it would make it worse.

“My life just flashed before my eyes,” said Orrie, the driver who so generously gave me cover and navigated numerous police barricades to get me back to the command center, aka Target parking lot, safely.

I composed myself to file a report for our overnight newscast. Then I drove home to wash my eyes out some more and start reporting again on Tuesday. And again on Wednesday. And Thursday. Today, after a relative calm held for a few nights in a row, I got to come home. Being safely home has never felt so good.

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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

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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An Open Letter to My Drinking Buddy About Our SXSW 2012 Plan

The brisket from Franklin BBQ makes me so, so happy.

Dear Justin,

It has been SO LONG (okay, like three weeks) since we’ve hung out and partied together! And South by Southwest has consistently been a real championship-level debauchery event for us. Now, because SXSW itself has gotten so out of control in recent years — WTF, there’s a list and a line to get into places like Buffalo Billiards?!? — I’d love to use this time to do off-campus, meaningful connecting with some of the coolest journos and digital media folk around.

There’s also a lot of pure Austin stuff I want to do, since the last time I was in town was so short (and most of it was in Fredericksburg.) Here is my to-do list of SX and not-so-SX stuff:

1. There is a new Bush’s Chicken down on Brodie near Slaughter. Hello?! Bush’s Chicken, a staple of my post-college diet when I lived in Waco, features the best combo of chicken trips, crinkle cut fries, yeast roll, white gravy and a 32 ounce giant sweet tea drink for UNDER $7.

2. I am going to the screening of HBO’s Game Change at the LBJ Library next Sunday. The authors of the book that inspired the movie, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, will be on hand for Q/A, and YOUR employer, The Texas Tribune, is putting it on. Hope to see you. I think I will bring our favorite movie critic, Chris Vognar, if he is free.

3. We are eating the following meals for deliciousness sake: The “Regular Dinner” at Maudies. The #2 at Dario’s. The Democrat and the Fried Avocado Tacos at Torchy’s. The fatty beef brisket at Franklin BBQ. Steak Frites at Justine’s. Beef Noodle Soup at Coco’s Cafe. Chicken Tikka Masala at G’Raj Mahal. The Love Cleanse Green Juice at Whole Foods. Assorted Dim Sum with the dim sum group at Shanghai. Family-style everything at Asia Cafe. And as for new restaurants, I still haven’t tried Contigo, which Hannah raves about.

Continue reading →

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Stuff I Love: Creative News Interactives

On Saturday after I spoke on a panel called “News as Infotainment,” two lovely ladies from Frontline (FRONTLINE!) came up and asked me for examples of interactive and “infotainmenty” news presentations I really loved. I didn’t have time to go over them in person, so here you go, ladies:

New York Magazine: It’s Time to Play ‘Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi?’


The ramblings and rantings of the actor, the pundit and the dictator have collectively compelled us as a nation, and while the three men are from vastly different backgrounds, the words that come out of their mouths are strangely similar. As the magazine wrote, “To demonstrate just what a struggle it is to distinguish between the mad ramblings of an entertainer, a despot, and a newsman another entertainer, we’ve put together this quiz. If you get them all right, you are some kind of savant.”

 

Vanity Fair: Qad Libs

Qaddafi is leading to all sorts of creative inspiration. Vanity Fair’s “Qad Libs,” based on the childhood word game “Mad Libs”, allowed readers to “create a realistic hard-line speech by inserting your own bizarre words into the colonel’s actual defiant address.” The magazine allowed readers to fill in a string of nouns, adverbs and adjectives in their interactive form to create their own Qaddafi rants. Amazingly, every customizable rant seemed right on.

 

Budget Puzzles, by The New York Times, Sacramento Bee, American Public Media, and more


In response to the nations gazillion trillion dollar deficit, and the frightening shortfalls of state governments around the country, media companies have followed in The Times’ footsteps with interactive budget puzzles that allow the user to find ways to balance the budget. Poynter’s recent piece discusses the limitations of these puzzles (the game writers get to set the parameters of what to cut or revenue to increase) but this is a great way to make real the budget troubles of governments, teach readers about the decisions that have to be made and allow for audiences to prioritize what they think is important.

 

The Chillout Song, by Ze Frank (my hero)

Frank’s project teaches us a beautiful lesson about how technology and social sharing can enable human connection. As you’ll read in the story he lays out, he received an email from a girl named Laura who was stressed out and felt hopeless; she asked for a song to help calm her nerves. Frank asked her to describe her feelings, which then led to a sketch of a song that he then asked his audience to record themselves singing. It led to a gorgeous result, no pitch correction required, that you can now purchase online.

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This is NPR…

Josh Ritter, photo by Andy Carvin

Some initial observations:

-Diving right into work means traveling on the fourth official day on the job. We’re off to God’s country to talk journalism with a member station. Looking forward to the team adventure, especially since my partner-in-crime is Ken Rudin, resident political junkie and jokester.

Josh Ritter tiny desk concert on my first day! It was the same day I received a package of bacon-flavored chocolates from Stiles, and I had planned to use the chocolate as an “in” to talk to Ritter, but totally forgot when it was time to report to the fifth floor for el concert.

-Still not quite over sitting in the newsroom right behind the newscast folks, the voices we hear every half hour with updates on the latest headlines. Paul Brown! Jack Speer! And wait for it… Lakshmi Singh!

-But here’s one oddity I could do without: hearing NPR programming in the bathroom stalls. The ladies room has speakers built into the ceiling so you don’t have to miss a single second of NPR programming, not even during your bathroom break.

-Everyone here is more organized than I am.

-Unrelated to the new work environment, but it must be said. Really missing my Starbucks baristas, Mike and Orlando, at the 10th and Congress location in Austin. If you go by there and see them, please tell them I say hi.

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Reality Check

So, you want to be a journalist?

They forgot to mention having to cover those Saturday job fairs in Spartanburg, SC.

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