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Archive for the ‘No Train No Gain’ Category

This continues my series on professional networking.

If you don’t think promotion should be part of journalism, I understand. I did little to nothing to promote myself or my work in the first 20-plus years of my career. And I had a good career: rewarding mid-level editor jobs and senior reporting jobs at metro newspapers, top editor of a smaller newspaper.

I can’t think of a single self-promotional thing I did for the first two decades of my career, unless you count some internal boasting in newsroom chit-chat or an occasional humble brag to make sure the boss knew my role in a story.

I didn’t do anything to actually promote myself (that I can recall) until 1997. And I think my career since has benefited greatly from self-promotion, and from overcoming a strong journalistic resistance to promotion.

I decided in 1997 that I wanted to train journalists and get paid for doing so. I thought I had something to teach journalists after all those years of work, and I thought I would like training, and I could use the money. And no one would know that I was available to do training if I didn’t promote myself.

So I developed my first website, promoting my training services and posting workshop handouts online. I was taking a web design class under Father Don Doll at Creighton University, and my website was all about me and my training services.

York News Times logoBut that was early in the history of the web and well before Google, so I also developed an amateurish flier promoting my services (design was never a strong suit of mine). I mailed that flier to newsrooms and press associations around the Midwest and landed three training gigs: with the York News-Times (a Nebraska daily not to be confused with the New York Times), the North Dakota Newspaper Association and the Minot Daily News. Since I was a former Minot editor and well known to the folks at NDNA, those gigs came through a mix of networking and promotion. But I didn’t know anyone at York, and that first training gig came from the amateurish flier. (more…)

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Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev

Yes, I was nervous when I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev.

In a Facebook group, a journalism professor this week asked a bunch of veteran journalists for help with a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”

The resulting discussion thread was interesting and uplifting: lots of excellent journalists confessing to their own nerves and discussing how they gained the confidence (and the skill) to overcome the nerves and/or to interview effectively in spite of them. I’ve asked their permission to share some of their advice on my blog.

I posted that advice separately. I’d welcome your advice, too, either in a comment on this blog or by email (tell me what you’re doing now and please send a photo you have rights to): stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

Today’s installment will be my advice on interviewing (not just nerves, but techniques, too). Here I’m updating and reposting the handout from a workshop on interviews that I haven’t led in years. But it was a popular choice back in my writing-coach days. I posted it more than a decade ago on the No Train, No Gain website, but I’ve updated it a bit (the Word doc I had it on was dated 2003).

In my response to the discussion thread, I suggested that effective preparation would help the student struggling with nerves. (more…)

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Few techniques helped me more when I was a reporter than when I learned the value of writing as I reported. It challenged my discipline, but when I succeeded at incorporating writing into my reporting process, I found that it improved both processes.

With today’s digital formats, many journalists have to write as they report: liveblogging events, covering breaking news stories as they unfold, reporting routine beat news or even investigative stories over time as you nail down important developments.

But this was one of my most popular and effective workshops back when I was doing lots of writing and reporting workshops. And I think lots of reporters still cling to the old linear process of reporting first, then writing, when breaking stories don’t force them to write as they report. I think learning the value of writing when you report, even if it’s not a breaking story, will help improve your writing and reporting, as well as helping you succeed in situations where digital formats demand better integration of your different work processes.

So I offer this old workshop handout, not much updated except for this intro, because I think it might still have value.An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I often paired this, either in the same workshop or in companion workshops, with my teaching about Using Story Elements. The process of writing as I reported and the mentality of thinking in terms of story elements were critical to whatever success I achieved as a reporter.

I addressed both the process and the use of story elements in telling how I wrote the homecoming and twins stories, two of the best narrative efforts of my career. (more…)

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This is an updated writing workshop handout from one of the workshops I first presented in the 1990s, about using story elements. An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I didn’t add a lot of digital tips to this one, but I updated the reference to my age by more than a decade. The International Center for Journalists has translated this post into Spanish.

I used to like teaching this workshop in combination with Writing as You Report. The combination of my storytelling process and using story elements drove much of whatever success I enjoyed as a reporter.

Think beyond the 5 W’s

Don’t limit your inquiry, or your thinking, to the basic questions of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, action, dialogue, theme.

Elements shape reporting

The story elements shape not only your writing but your reporting. For instance, you can answer “who” with a name and some basic details, perhaps age, hometown, occupation: Steve Buttry, 60, an LSU journalism professor. However, if you’re developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air Force brat, preacher’s kid, Yankee fan, cancer patient (and survivor), unpublished novelist, father, grandfather, husband, former editor, former reporter, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise guy.

“When” may be a place on the map, “where” a point on the calendar or clock. Setting is a place and time where the writer transports the reader. Setting demands description. It evokes the senses. It demands relationship in time and place to surrounding places and to the events that came before and/or after.

Plot is not a set of events, but a series of events, each flowing from the one before and leading to the next.

Conflict demands resolution, or explanation of the pursuit of resolution or the inability to resolve.

Elements shape lead

Story elements may help you write your lead. Which is the most important element for this story? Perhaps that should be the focus of your lead. What is the climax? Perhaps that’s where you should open the story.

Does the intersection of two elements (a character in a setting, the setting of a climax) bring the reader immediately to the point of a story? Then establish both immediately, link them clearly and develop them simultaneously. Is one element secondary to another but still essential? Then introduce the secondary element but keep its development clearly secondary, so you don’t shift or confuse the focus.

Use dialogue, not just quotes

If a quote just gives the reader information, perhaps you should do that in your own words. Use quotes if a character is speaking as a character, telling her own story, giving his opinion, showing emotion, using colorful or distinct language.

Too many journalists confuse quotes with color. Colorful quotes provide color, but quotation marks don’t make information more colorful and don’t turn a dull sentence bright. Paraphrase when you’re giving information or when you can say something better than the person you’re quoting.

Use dialogue, though, to give voice to your characters, to bring a scene alive to your reader.

Video, audio and official transcripts can be effective tools for capturing dialogue and bringing the characters’ actual voices to your stories.

Where recordings or transcripts aren’t available, ask people to reconstruct dialogue for you. “What did you say then? How did she respond?”

Consider non-human characters

Sometimes in a news, feature or issue story, you can make a character of something other than a person. In a medical story, a disease might be the primary character. In a religion story, a church might be a character. When you treat an institution or something intangible or inanimate as a character, you develop it more fully. You are more conscious of the actions of the character, of conflicts with actual people or other institutions or objects.

Consider mythical characters

You can create a mythical “average” character to bring statistics to life. A mythical average person of a certain demographic can allow you to discuss statistics in terms of what is likely to happen, or not happen, in the person’s life.

If you can find someone who is almost or exactly average, you can use the real character to bring life to demographics and statistics.

Gather detail on setting

As you are reporting, you do not know whether setting will be the key element or an important secondary element. So gather information as though it will be. Go to the crime scene or the disaster scene. Interview the character in her environment: home, workplace, school, church, place of leisure or recreation (hopefully more than one).

When you can, a moving interview is effective: start out in the workplace, go out to eat, ride home in the character’s vehicle, ask him to show you the house and the yard.

Video and photos can be important tools for helping place the reader/viewer in the setting.

Learn plot details

If plot may be important, make sure you know the sequence of events. Ask characters to show you who was where when critical events happened. Have them walk you through the events if possible. Seek documentation that may clarify or verify what happened and when and who was present. Watch any videos that may be available.

Look for contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s accounts and see if you can resolve them. They may not mean anyone is lying, but may indicate the different ways people perceived an event, or they may show how confusing it was.

Decide how long your story should be

The success of some news sites specializing in long reads and the phenomenon of binge-video-watching demonstrate that people will stay with a story that’s well told. Decide whether your story justifies binge-watching or reading, and use story elements to hold your readers/viewers’ attention.

But many times, either the nature of the story or your editors’ expectations or limits of print space or broadcast time will require you to work quickly in establishing story elements. You may not have time or space to develop all the elements. After you’ve gathered all this information, identify the most important elements, the most compelling characters, the key moments, the most telling details. You may develop one character fully but have only a few words to establish minor characters.

Watch how quickly a good television commercial establishes a character or setting, or how quickly it resolves a conflict. Read my post on learning narrative techniques from songwriters.

Other writing workshop handouts

Make routine stories special

Strong from the start: advice for writing leads

Getting personal: Learning and telling life’s most intimate stories

Make Your Story Sing:  Learn from songwriters how to tell stories in just a few words

Finding and developing story ideas

Organizing a complex story

Make every word count: Tips for polishing and tightening copy

Grammar matters

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Leading my workshop on Making Routine Stories Special. Photo by Bryan Cantley

Leading my workshop on making routine stories special. Photo by Bryan Cantley

I’m updating some old workshop handouts that I think will be helpful in teaching journalism, maybe in some of my classes, maybe in some of yours. “Make routine stories special” was my most popular workshop about a decade ago, when most of my training focused on traditional writing, reporting and editing skills as well as leadership.

In a meeting of Digital First Media editors in New Haven last year, Tony Adamis of the Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y., suggested that some tips in improving coverage of routine news would be helpful, and I promised to dust off this handout and update it. Well, that evening I learned about upcoming upheaval at Digital First Media that would bring the end of my job. So it took me a while to get around to it, but here it is.

What I’ve done here is grab an old copy of my workshop handout from those days, dated April 2003, update it with some newer tips on making routine stories special and add some links. I’ll also update references to the journalists who provided some advice for this workshop when I was doing it originally more than a decade ago and provide links, where I could find them, to the journalists today. Where I could not learn what some journalists are doing today, I have cut them out.

In most cases, I could not find the stories referenced still online, but I’ve linked to stories where I could. I welcome your help in updating this with new stories and links illustrating these techniques as well as new tips for covering routine stories.

After my tips, I’ll tell the anecdote I used to use in the workshops, a story involving the cap I’m wearing in the photo above. So here are my updated tips for making routine stories special: (more…)

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A complex story should not be challenge to the reader or viewer, however challenging it is for the writer. Careful work in organization of your reporting, digital production and writing will help readers make sense of stories that deal with cumbersome economic or technical issues, or with soap-opera tales that present multiple characters and confusing turns. These techniques will help keep the complex story clear.

Use digital storytelling tools

Reporters with long print experience tend to think they need to squeeze everything into the text story that they love to write. Digital First journalists need to think about the best tools for telling each part of the story.

The bigger the story, the more different digital storytelling tools you should consider. But an important part of organizing the story is to avoid overwhelming the reader or viewer with every fact and every tool you might use. Choose the most important information and then decide which tools share that information the best. Much of the success in a complex story is in those difficult decisions of what to leave out.

Videos and photos

For the strongly visual aspects of the story, use the best visual storytelling tools. Instead of writing a sidebar on a topic with visual appeal, or squeezing it into your text story, make it a Tout video or a longer video and give it prominent play in the package.

Or tell a story in a photo gallery. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an effective photo gallery saves you a lot of writing and lets the writer concentrate on the points that are best conveyed in words. (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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