Matthew Hansen is the only person in the trio of Omaha World-Herald metro columnists I didn’t work with in my two stints at the World-Herald, which ended in 2005. But I met Matt last year when he did a story on the funeral of my nephew, Brandon Buttry. I was already a fan and friend of Mike Kelly and Erin Grace, the other two columnists, and I’m quickly gaining admiration for Matt.
I was pleased to see him get some praise from New York Times media columnist David Carr today for his work on tracking the source of a viral photo (above) that showed flames shooting from an Omaha manhole (as the photo went viral, people said it showed a series of flames, but Matt debunked that). Carr’s column tells an interesting story, but Matt’s own column is better.
I’m writing this mostly to encourage you to read Matt’s and Carr’s columns, but I’ll make a few observations, too:
- Reddit is way more important in social media than most journalists understand. Matt reported in January that the photo had been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on Reddit. I am as guilty as anyone of overlooking Reddit (did it last week in my social media workshop at the Farmington Daily Times, though I noted its importance in the coverage of the Sikh Temple shootings last summer and in a speech last fall).
- Journalists should explain our work more often. Matt’s tale of how he tracked down the photographer (Stephanie Sands) is more interesting than the actual story about the photo (though that is interesting). Some newsrooms and journalists resist discussing our work, but when it’s interesting, we should tell those stories.
- Resourceful and persistent journalists usually find the reward is worth the pursuit.
- Even good journalists (and Carr is one) sometimes miss the mark. Here’s how he ends his column: “All of which serves as a reminder to reporters — and those who read their work — that if journalists take their eyes off the screen, leave their cubicle and actually go out and talk with people, they might discover something that is interesting as heck.” Nearly all the reporters and columnists I know (and I suspect those Carr knows as well) regularly take their eyes off the screen leave their cubicles and go out and talk with people. That gratuitous shot at his colleagues (and dismissal of the value of digital research, which also played a part in Matt’s success on this story) had no place in the story Carr was telling. Matt’s success with this story wasn’t just that he got off his ass and talked to people. It was that he pursued the story from multiple angles (online and in person) until he got the right story. And that he told the story even better than the New York Times did.