Archive for January, 2013

Alan Mutter makes a point that I’ve been hearing editors make most of my career: Most newspaper stories are too long.

I’m sure he’s right. But some newspaper stories are too short. And story length is way down the list of problems facing the newspaper business.

I remember when I was at the Des Moines Register, Jim Gannon, who I believe was executive editor at the time, decreed that no story could be longer than he was tall. He was 5’10”, as I recall, so a story couldn’t be longer than 70 inches. 70 inches! Register reporters were writing so long that Gannon’s idea of introducing some discipline was to limit stories to 70 inches (and newspaper columns were wider then than they are today). (more…)


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I was annoyed the first time I met Tom Harkin. We were supposed to meet outside the Fremont County Courthouse in Sidney, Iowa, and he was late. I don’t remember how late, but late enough that I was annoyed.

He was a freshman congressman, a Democrat swept into a Republican district in the 1974 throw-the-bums-out vote after Richard Nixon’s resignation. I was a summer intern for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. Harkin was traveling around the district, as he usually did on congressional breaks, and would be stopping in Sidney, so I was supposed to interview him for a story.

He showed up eventually, apologizing for the delay, and we sat down to talk at a picnic table outside the courthouse, which had already closed. It was a warm summer day when it would have been more comfortable to talk indoors or to give me a quick interview and hop into his air-conditioned car to head for wherever his evening stop was. But we talked until I ran out of questions, easily a half hour, maybe closer to an hour. If he had a next stop on his schedule, I am sure he was even later for that. But I had waited from him, and he was generous with his time.

I don’t remember the issues we discussed. What I remember is his passion and sincerity. He really cared about people and this was a classic liberal who wanted to use the power of government to make people’s lives better. I remember being impressed and wondering whether he would get his ass kicked in the next election in a district that historically belonged to the Republicans.

But I also wondered if he had staying power. He had the right mix of charm and fight, I thought, to have a successful career in politics. And already I could see that he had mastered the art of constituent service. An aide drove around the district holding “office hours” in small towns, listening to complaints and helping people work out their problems with the Agriculture Department, Social Security Administration or whatever corner of the federal government was troubling them. (Harkin’s staff helped my father-in-law get a passport when the State Department balked because of his lack of a birth certificate, a problem that hadn’t kept him from going overseas in the Navy during World War II.)

Well, Harkin did have staying power. He carried that Republican district four more times and then in 1984, he ran for Senate in a state that had two conservative Republican incumbents. He beat one of those Republicans, Roger Jepsen, in 1984 and won four more Senate terms. Harkin announced today that five terms is enough. He’ll retire rather than seeking re-election in 2014 (he’d have won easily again). (more…)

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Journalists should treat information we gather on social media the same way we treat information gathered any other way, or an assurance from Mom that she loves you: Check it out.

My #twutorial series hasn’t been updated since late October, but I always planned to do a post on verifying information gathered in social media. Given the errors some journalists made in reporting on the Sandy Hook massacre and in the original reporting on Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend, this feels like a good time to stress accuracy and verification.

The most simple and important advice I can give is that Twitter is like any other information source — documents, anonymous tips, news releases, press conferences, interviews, databases — it can provide valuable information or deliberate lies or innocent errors. Your job is to verify the information that looks useful. As with all the other information you gather, you can verify lots of different ways, and no single technique works for everything.

Some of the tips I provide here will be specific to Twitter or to social media generally. Some will be general verification tips applied to Twitter. And I’m sure I won’t cover all the ways you could verify information from tweets. As with all reporting, resourcefulness is essential. Develop some verification techniques of your own (and please remember to share them in the comments here). (more…)

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Narrative journalism will survive the Manti Te’o hoax. In fact, the sports stories that spouted and perpetuated the lies of the hoax were not narrative journalism. They were shallow journalism.

Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden imagines that the backlash against sportswriters who failed to check out things they were told about Te’o’s fake girlfriend may “lead to fewer narrative stories, period, and that would not be such a great thing.”

The notion that coverage of the fake girlfriend’s death was narrative journalism is as bogus as her car crash, her leukemia, her Stanford enrollment or her death.

Here are a couple of key passages from Layden’s lament (Layden responded to my post on Twitter; I have embedded our Twitter exchange later in this post): (more…)

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For a reporter seeking information about someone who died, the lack of an obituary, or even a death notice, should be a red flag.

But sometimes (clearly a small percentage of deaths) the red flag doesn’t mean the person wasn’t real; it’s an indication of how the newspaper business has changed.

This blog post isn’t much at all about Manti Te’o, though it grew from the post I wrote yesterday about linking and its role in the journalists’ falling for the dead-girlfriend hoax. I said that journalists should provide relevant links in their stories, and the lack of an obituary to link to should have alerted reporters parroting the story of Lennay Kekua’s death that more research was needed.

“Who dies without an obituary?” I asked. (more…)

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This is a guest post by Jeff Edelstein, columnist at the Trentonian (who’s appeared in this blog before), prompted by these tweets and an email exchange following my blog post about linking and the Manti Te-0 story:

I asked him if he’d like to write a guest post about his fact-checking experience. Here it is (links added by me):

Jeff Edelstein

Jeff Edelstein

It was my first job in journalism. Fact checker for New Jersey Monthly Magazine. I was 19. (Yes, yes, this is about Manti Te’o. Bear with me.)

So yeah. A fact checker. The job was exactly what it sounded like. I checked facts. An article would be assigned, the writer would write, it would go through at least two edits, and then it would land in my hands. Sometimes the author was kind enough to provide phone numbers and relevant materials, other times I had to call the author and beg them for phone numbers and relevant materials.

Fact checkers are not universally loved. (more…)

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In the discussion of journalists’ failures in the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, I have suggested that journalists should have looked for an obituary of the purported girlfriend. And that has raised some questions about how obituaries and death notices are handled by newspapers today.

A comment by Rob Pegoraro on my post earlier today and tweets by Maureen Boyle have raised questions about whether everyone has an obituary (responding to Rob, I acknowledge that it probably happens, but say that at least a death notice usually gets published).

(The link above is to a piece by the late Jim Naughton, A Death Notice for Obituaries, written in 2010, which prompted a response from me.) (more…)

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Last year I blogged about four reasons linking is good journalism. Make it five.

Journalists who practice thorough linking to provide context and attribution for their stories (two of the four reasons I cited) would have learned pretty quickly that crucial facts about Manti Te’o‘s purported girlfriend couldn’t be verified.

Or journalists following Craig Silverman‘s advice on using an accuracy checklist (or using my checklist, adapted from Craig’s) would have found lots of red flags and no verification. (I’ll concentrate on linking here, but I see points on both of our checklists that might have helped a journalist see that something was wrong.)

If you care about accuracy in journalism and if you want to see an excellent example of journalism (exposing several shameful examples of journalism), read the Deadspin investigation of the Notre Dame football star’s fictitious girlfriend. (more…)

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  1. On occasion, I tweet about my travels. On occasion, my flights are delayed (or encounter other problems). A delay always prompts more tweets than a routine flight, both because I have more to say and because I have more time on my hands. So my tweeps have on occasion alleged that I jinx my travels, a claim I dismissed for a while, but finally embraced.
  2. Eventually, my travel tweets prompted an unidentified wag (I still don’t know who, but I’m flattered, so thanks!) to launch a spoof account last summer, @WhereIsButtry, retweeting my tweets about travel.
  3. Apparently @WhereIsButtry used a service such as If This Then That to automatically retweet when I tweeted words such as flight, plane, landed, delayed, Dulles (the airport I usually fly to or from) or United (which has a hub at Dulles, so it’s my most-used airline). Of course, I learned of the account immediately, because its tweets always turn up in my mentions.
  4. RT @stevebuttry: A spoof account. I am deeply honored. Thanks, unnamed humorist. RT @WhereIsButtry: RT @stevebuttry: Boarded flight for T…
  5. Most of the @WhereIsButtry tweets do recount my travels, which usually are uneventful.
  6. RT @stevebuttry: No complaints about our Christmas Day flight. On time & uneventful. (@ Washington Dulles Internatio… 4sq.com/12Nse1l
  7. But occasionally the retweets reflect my whining about delays or other travel troubles (which I presume was the point, beyond merely mocking my excessive tweeting about my travels).
  8. RT @stevebuttry: I was way wrong about flight delay being minor. We sat on the runway a long time, took off more than an hour late. May m…
  9. RT @stevebuttry: US Airways screwed us out of our flight home. (@ US Airways Special Services) [pic]: 4sq.com/MHPeX8
  10. But the best @WhereIsButtry tweets come when the trigger words appear in tweets unrelated to my travels. For instance, the Olympics prompted me occasionally to use “delayed” in other contexts:
  11. RT @stevebuttry: RT @BGrueskin: #NBC just televised delayed feed of Lee surrendering at Appomattox
  12. RT @stevebuttry: Tape-delayed, highly produced Olympics are on TV, but @mimijohnson is watching live bears catching salmon: …
  13. RT @stevebuttry: RT @White__Knuckles: If Paul Ryan had used the phrase “No more tape delayed Olympics” in his intro speech today, Romney …
  14. I quickly noted the non-travel tweets getting retweeted, which, of course, brought a retweet.
  15. RT @stevebuttry: Apparently one of the trigger words for @WhereIsButtry tweets is “delayed,” resulting in this non-t… bit.ly/Qq20cy
  16. “Arrived” is another word that triggers the retweets, but I don’t use it just when I’m traveling (it was at the end of the NewsVroom tweet, but was automatically shortened).
  17. RT @stevebuttry: The author’s promotional copies of Gathering String print edition have arrived. http://amzn.to/S8wHci http://pic.twitter.com/vKQBe9Dp
  18. RT @stevebuttry: RT @TH_ashley: This is awesome! Wish @TimesHeraldPA had one of these. RT @TheNewsVroom: NewsVroom h… http://pic.twitter.com/XAUefZap
  19. “Landed” is another word I don’t use just when I’m traveling (it was shortened out of the @dcborn61 retweet): 
  20. RT @stevebuttry: As @tbd gives up the ghost, here’s @mjenkins’ tale of how she landed that username (we started out … zombiejournalism.com/2010/0…
  21. RT @stevebuttry: True. RT @donw: @mimijohnson oh I meant that @stevebuttry landed you, of course. Men mourned your unavailability and env…
  22. These two used “plane” in the travel sense (the first was at the end, automatically shortened; the quote was “it’s a plane”), but they weren’t about my travels:
  23. RT @stevebuttry: Enjoying a starry night in the Georgia mountains, @mimijohnson says, “In the city, every time I think I see a star, it’…
  24. RT @stevebuttry: RT @dbrauer: @stevebuttry read it on the plane. Agree. All was to deliver Rupert’s cross-ownership payload.
  25. When I was tweeting during the Online News Association in September, I used three different trigger words: delayed, flights, landed:
  26. RT @stevebuttry: .@dickc says #nbcfail tweets about delayed broadcasts boosted ratings because people knew what was coming up to watch th…
  27. RT @stevebuttry: RT @sadandbritish: For @stevebuttry RT @azizansari: I bet Endeavor was supposed to have a bunch more flights but United …
  28. RT @stevebuttry: After @MarsCuriosity landed, crowds in Times Square chanted “Science! Science!” #ONA12
  29. RT @stevebuttry: Where Buttry isn’t. RT @WhereIsButtry: RT @stevebuttry: After @MarsCuriosity landed, crowds in Times Square chanted “Sci…
  30. After my nephew Brandon died in November, I was at ceremonies when his body returned on airplanes to Dover Air Force Base, Del., and then to Shenandoah, Iowa. The setting made inappropriate retweets inevitable:
  31. RT @stevebuttry: The ceremony on the flight line was in the nor’easter’s driving wind, rain and cold. Chaplain called the rain God’s tear…
  32. RT @stevebuttry: Brandon’s family watches as the military prepares to bring his casket off the plane. flic.kr/p/dtbQ5U
  33. I guess “United” triggered this retweet.
  34. I’m not even sure what word triggered this tweet, maybe “drive”?
  35. RT @stevebuttry: RT @DylanByers: .@EzraKlein publishes the post that will almost certainly drive the gun-control discussion going forward…
  36. Yesterday, I used a trigger word in a completely unrelated context, praising a former colleague:
  37. RT @stevebuttry: If you’re looking for a top-flight photojournalist, check out @jwestcottphoto. He’s creative, class… jaywestcott.com/onward/
  38. Really, I don’t deliberately work these words into tweets unrelated to travel. But if you use automated services, you should be aware that things may not work the way you planned. If the point was humor, that might be just fine. But if not …

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I doubt this will present any conflicts in my blogging here or my work for Digital First Media, but I believe in disclosing potential conflicts. So I’ll disclose (as I’ve done a couple times before) that my oldest son, Mike, is the former chief of staff for Chuck Hagel, who was nominated today by President Barack Obama to be Secretary of Defense.

Mike’s first job out of college was in Hagel’s Senate press office, and he worked for Hagel seven years (with a year off to work on a political campaign), from 2000 to 2008, chief of staff for nearly the last year. Mike remains a good friend of Hagel’s and they talk regularly. Update: Mike was on CNN this morning, discussing Hagel’s nomination and confirmation.

I don’t know the senator well myself, though he has been friendly when we’ve met, and we have an autographed copy of his book, America, Our Next Chapter.

When I was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, my editors and I sought to avoid conflicts, but were not always successful. I would never write stories that were primarily about Hagel, but if a story I was working on turned out to have a Senate angle where we needed a comment from Hagel, I would give my editors a heads-up. They never called me off a story but I would call someone other than Mike to seek the quote. Of course, that arm’s-length effort became kind of silly when I would get Hagel on the phone and he’d start with some sort of humorous remark about Mike. (more…)

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Journalism isn’t narcissism, as Hamilton Nolan noted correctly in his Gawker headline. But as Nolan elaborated, I heard an old theme that I think has misguided lots of journalists. Journalism also isn’t machinery. Journalism is practiced by humans, and journalists and journalism professors who deny their humanity diminish their journalism.

Nolan found fault with a New York Times piece by Susan Shapiro, an author and journalism professor he dismissed as “teaching a gimmick: the confessional as attention-grabber.”

Shapiro encourages her feature-writing students to “shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile or naked.” Nolan counters that journalism students instead need to be taught to write other people’s stories:

Your friends, and neighbors, and community members, and people across town, and across your country, and across the world far and wide are all brimming with stories to tell. Stories of love, and war, and crime, and peril, and redemption. The average inmate at your local jail probably has a far more interesting life story than Susan Shapiro or you or I do, no matter how many of our ex-boyfriends and girlfriends we call for comment. All of the compelling stories you could ever hope to be offered are already freely available. All you have to do is to look outside of yourself, and listen, and write them down.

I believe both journalists are right. Journalists need to tell the important untold stories of their communities. Most journalism should be outward-looking. But personal insight can and often should be part of the process of listening and writing down other people’s stories. (more…)

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A Poynter column by Jill Geisler and a blog post by a George Mason University journalism student reminded me of a blog post I wrote more than seven years ago.

I strongly recommend reading Jill’s Don’t wait to thank someone great, in which she tells how Andy Potos and Jim Naughton shaped her career and why she is glad she expressed her gratitude before last August, when Naughton died and Potos suffered a brain injury.

I looked for some key quotes to use from Jill’s piece, but decided just to encourage you to read it. The best lines come near the end and they’ll have more power if you read them in context.

Then a blog post about a new webcast, Late Night Patriot, gave me some unexpected credit. I spoke almost a year ago to Steve Klein’s classes at George Mason and something I said helped prod Jake McLernon to work on his webcast idea. In a blog post by another Mason student, Ryan Weisser, Jake, also known as “Jolly J,” credited me:

“Buttry telling us that if you have an idea, you’ve got to work with it, just motivated me to start something new,” said McLernon, a senior majoring in communication from Herndon, Va.

I was pleased that I was able to give Jake a push. We don’t always hear from the people we are able to help with advice, motivation or instruction. I thanked Jake in a tweet and he responded.

Jill’s post and the exchange with Jolly J brought to mind a blog post I wrote when I was writing a blog about newsroom training for the American Press Institute. Since those posts are no longer available at API’s site, I’ve been trying to rebuild the Training Tracks archive. So here’s my post, originally published July 15, 2005, about thanking mentors:

Many years ago, I spent some time covering agriculture. I remember quite a few farmers getting eloquent and a bit emotional talking about the satisfaction they felt in watching the seeds they planted in the spring grow into a mature crop.

Trainers, writing coaches, editors and other newsroom mentors sometimes don’t get that kind of satisfaction. Some of the seeds we plant blossom elsewhere. Or we move on before they do. Or we didn’t even notice where they took root. We may never see or learn what became of our advice or example. Life gets busy for us and the people we help and they or we forget to stay in touch. (more…)

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