Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Journalistic work

What it Was Like Interviewing Dan Rather at Poynter

Me and Dan.

Last week I got to meet legendary journalist Dan Rather. I wasn’t nervous in the days leading up to the interview, but then an hour or so beforehand, I could feel my stomach start to turn. At the same time I felt as excited as a little kid on Christmas morning, and was reminded of why I love my job so much.

I had spent a good deal of time researching Rather’s career as a journalist, and I had gone over the questions I planned to ask him with my editor, so I felt prepared. But I still couldn’t help but think: Rather has interviewed some of the world’s most powerful figures. He knows what a good interview entails, so you better make this a good one!

By all accounts, I think the interview turned out well. Rather was late, (through no fault of his own), but I still got to talk with him for about a half-hour. When he saw me, he gave me a warm handshake and smile and apologized for being late. He started off asking me if I worked full-time at the institute — a question that lots of people ask me, I think because I look young enough to be an intern. After I quickly told him about my job, Rather said, “OK, let’s get to work!”

I only had time to ask him five of the questions I had prepared, in part because he offered such detailed responses to each of them. Toward the end of the fourth question, Rather was called to the dinner that was being held at Poynter to honor him. Instead of rushing out of the interview, though, he said: “I’m going to let this young lady ask one more question because she was so patient while waiting for me.” So I asked him about social media — something he’s started to gain an appreciation for but doesn’t regularly use as a journalist.

Me and Ted Koppel, who spoke at Poynter in September 2009.

Not surprisingly, Rather shared many traditional views of journalism, but also seemed to see the promise in emerging technologies. His responses helped show just how much the industry has changed — and in some ways how it’s remained the same — since he began his career as a journalist in 1950.

It was a real treat and honor to talk to Rather, and I’m so glad I was given the opportunity to do so. Rather is one of a few well-known broadcasters I’ve been lucky enough to meet throughout the years. (See pictures for more details.)

Here’s a link to the story I wrote about the interview, and here’s a link to the full transcript. For those who are interested, I’m also including a list of the questions I planned to ask Rather, knowing I’d probably only have time to answer about a quarter of them:

State of the news industry

–Last year, you called upon President Obama to form a commission to help save journalism jobs and create new business models to keep news organizations alive. You’ve been vocal in recent years about the “perilous state of America’s news industry,” saying “American journalism is in need of a spine transplant.” What do you think is most at risk in today’s news industry?

–If you could, how would you change evening network news?

–You’ve criticized news ownership, pointing out that many news organizations are now run by large, corporate entities that have interests and agendas that run contrary to the interests of the public. Along these lines, you’ve said “the news stops with making bucks.” What do you think needs to be done to change this problem? And hasn’t news always, at least in part, been about ratings and money?

The Internet

Met Bob Schieffer at a 2008 book signing in Dallas when I was interning at The Dallas Morning News.

–You said in a Huffington Post story that until recently, you had no idea what Twitter was. “Much of what we tweet, or post, or chat away at under the guise of news, are distractions,” you wrote. Lots of journalists nowadays, though, use Twitter to report and disseminate stories. How important do you think social media is to today’s journalism?

–In a Washington Post column last year, you wrote that newspapers are the foundation on which hard news rests. More specifically, you said: “The old news model is crumbling, while the Internet, for all its immense promise, is not yet ready to rise in its place and won’t be until it can provide the nuts and bolts reporting that most people so take for granted that it escapes their notice.” Can you say more about why you think the Internet isn’t ready to rise up to the old news model? What will it take for it to rise up, and do you think it ever will?


–At the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you said the news is now filled with “so-called political debates, where the one thing assured not to happen is genuine debates and where the questions the public really cares about seldom seem to get asked.” What do you think needs to be done to improve political coverage?

–Along these lines, how effective do you think PolitiFact, and other efforts to fact-check political news, are?

Me and Tom Brokaw, who was the Providence College commencement speaker in 2006, the year before I graduated.

–You were a correspondent during the Civil Rights movement and have said that your desire to report on these injustices was one of the reasons you decided to become a journalist. What’s missing in today’s diversity coverage?

–You’ve gone from anchoring a nightly news broadcast to managing a more niche show, “Dan Rather Reports,” on HDNet. On the show, you focus on international coverage and investigative stories. How do the stories you cover now differ from, or compare with, the stories you covered for CBS?

–When major news stories break today, what are your first instincts?

Killian documents

–What did you learn from the controversy over the Killian documents?

–You said in a UC Berkeley interivew last year that you didn’t realize the power of bloggers until a group of conservative bloggers questioned whether the Killian documents were falsified. What role do you think bloggers play in today’s news media industry?

Craft of journalism

–You’ve talked a lot about courage, saying “courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.” What makes a courageous reporter in today’s world?

–What do you think would be a healthy “news diet” for consumers? What sources and resources should they turn to?

–You’re known for some of your classic expressions, which I remember from the 2004 elections. (ie “George Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a delta cotton field”; “There’s no question now that Kerry’s rapidly reaching the point where he has his back to the wall, his shirttail’s on fire and the bill collector’s at the door”; “This presidential race has been crackling like a hickory fire for at least two hours”;  and “John Kerry’s lead is as thin as turnip soup.”)… Your voice really comes through in those expressions. How important is it to have a voice as an “objective” journalist?

Additional questions

–You recently traveled to Iraq to interview General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in the region. How is covering this war different from the other wars you’ve covered?

–If you could interview one person, who would it be? What would you ask?

–What’s been your most challenging story to report?


Recent Poynter Online Stories about Student Journalists, Online Startups and More


The Poynter staff have recently had their pics taken for promotional materials. Here's the one they took of me at my desk. (No, that AP Stylebook wasn't strategically placed there!) Photo by Jim Stem

I’ve gotten to write some fun stories lately about innovative college students, online news startups and news consumers donating to good causes they hear about in the news.

Here’s some of my most recent Poynter Online work:

“Texas Tribune’s Launch ‘Just the Beginning’ of Databases, What’s to Come,” Nov. 4

“CoPress Pushes Innovation, Shows Value of Open-Source Platforms,” Nov. 2

“Nola.com Grows Audience, Continues to Attract Expats Post-Katrina,” Oct. 28

“Huffington Post’s ‘Impact’ Lets Readers Donate to People in the News,” Oct. 25 (I interviewed Arianna Huffington for this one.)

“Ex-Unity Pres.: NAHJ, NABJ, AAJA, NAJA Should Not Merge,” Oct. 21

“Why So Much Interest in Fox News-Obama Feud?” Oct. 13

Feel free to share your feedback!

Updates from the Past Few Weeks

It’s been a crazy past couple of weeks, but I’m now settled in my new apartment and will have more free time for my blog. Work has been busy, too, but in a good way. I’ve been mostly editing stories and Webinars and haven’t had as much time for writing lately, but I’ve found a little time to write stories and moderate live chats in recent weeks. Here are some recent examples:

Washington Post Scrambles to Deal with Furor over ‘Salons'”

“Archived Chat: How Did a Seattle P-I Restaurant Critic Become a Cook?”

“Archived Chat: How Do I Teach Students to Integrate Multimedia Tools into Storytelling?”

Check back this weekend for some updates on my new apartment. …

Story Behind Go! Cover Photo of Kissing Interracial Couple

go_coverI wrote a story for Poynter Online this week about a Go! cover photo of an interracial couple and the racially charged comments it generated.

To find out more about the issue, I talked with editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, including Kurt Greenbaum, editor of social media, about how they handled the comments:

When you’re trying to foster a conversation about race, how do you choose whom to include and whom to exclude?

It’s a question that reporters and editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have asked a lot since launching the paper’s ‘A Conversation about Race‘ blog in January, and one that generated quite a bit of attention last week.

In a ‘Conversation about Race’ blog post on Friday, Post-Dispatch reporter Doug Moore wrote about the controversy surrounding a photo of a interracial couple that appeared on the Post-Dispatch‘s weekly Go! magazine. The photo generated negative comments from readers, many of whom said they were disturbed that the paper would run such an image.

[Read on for a Q&A with Greenbaum ….]

Story Behind the ‘Copy Editor’s Lament’ Song

Christopher Ave, Credit = Tim Barker

Christopher Ave, Credit = Tim Barker

Earlier this week my editor sent me a link to a song that one of Poynter’s faculty members found via Twitter. After hearing the “Copy Editor’s Lament” song, I couldn’t help but want to write about it.

I interviewed Christopher Ave, the man who wrote and recorded it, and wrote the piece shortly thereafter. I felt as though I could relate to the song and to Ave’s reason for writing/recording it, which made the story that much easier to write.

I especially like one of Ave’s quotes: “A lot of us in journalism sort of chuckle at copy editors’ slavish devotion to style, but you know what? They can really save your butt.” So true.

You can read the story here:

Christopher Ave has publicly referred to himself as a human safety net who double-checks facts, corrects punctuation and fixes grammatical errors.

He’s not a copy editor, though.

He’s a journalist and musician who wrote and recorded a first-person song, “Copy Editor’s Lament,” about a copy editor being laid off.

“AP Stylebook is my bible/Helped me stop a suit for libel/But nothing ensures my survival now/And I don’t know what I’ll do/After I’m through/Killing my last adjective,” he sings.

Ave, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s political editor, said the song isn’t a tribute to a particular copy editor, but rather a musical testament to the value of all copy editors — those who have been laid off and those who are still in newsrooms.


Reporting on the New York Post’s Editorial Cartoon

I chose not to include the whole cartoon so as not to further offend those who may be upset by it.

I chose not to include the whole cartoon so as not to further offend those who may be upset by it.

Last week I reported a piece with my colleague Steve Myers about the New York Post‘s editorial cartoon, which many are calling racist:

“Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, doesn’t think Wednesday’s New York Post editorial cartoon was penned by a racist. But he does think it was a ‘misfire,’ a ‘cheap form of editorial cartooning’ that fails to carry any real commentary or message and is common in major publications today.

The New York Post cartoon attempted to create a punchline out of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package and a homicidal chimp in Connecticut. It depicts a police officer who has just shot a chimp and another saying, ‘they’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.'”


Voices/Perspectives of African Americans Flourish on The Root

In timing with the 100th anniversary of the NAACP and the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln this week, I wrote an article for Poynter’s diversity blog about The Root. An online magazine, The Root features content from leading black writers, as well as information about genealogy. I found the site to be particularly interesting because it provides what most main stream organizations don’t — a place for voices of African Americans to flourish.

In doing research for the article, I found that news organizations are not giving diversity much play. I interviewed Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, who said stories about “race, gender and gay issues” only accounted for an estimated 1 percent of the coverage the center tracked between 2007 and 2008.

The low percentage, Jurkowitz said, is likely due to the fact that the center only tracks stories that appear on the front pages of newspapers or in the first half of newscasts.

Click here to learn how The Root is trying to make up for that scarcity of diversity news.

Do you know of any other news organizations that have created niche publications, online magazines, etc., to help provide a space for diverse voices?

The Story Behind NPR’s ‘A Changing Frontier’ Series

While surfing the Internet the other day for diversity-related stories, I came across National Public Radio’s five-part series on the U.S.-Mexican border. I was particularly struck by the way that NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien described the tension that exists between the U.S. and Mexican cities that straddle the border. They are so close geographically, but in theory, they are worlds apart.

Intrigued by the series and interested in learning more about the reporting process behind it, I e-mailed Beaubien with some questions and later talked with him on the phone. When I asked him to sum up his series in one word, he used the same, aforementioned word that kept running through my head as I read and listened to the series: tension. “Since doing this series,” he said, “I sometimes picture the border as an elastic band that’s pulled just to the brink of snapping.”

You can read my Q&A with Beaubien on Poynter Online.

Responsibilities Rise as Copy Desks Shrink

Mallary Tenore/Poynter Online

My editor asked me to write an article about “the future of copy editing” last week after hearing talk of copy desks shrinking nationwide. She said she thought I would be especially interested in the topic, given that I am going to spend the next year copy editing for Poynter Online and News University. (I’m going to keep freelancing on the side, but my primary duties will revolve around editing.)

I agreed, but wondered how I would approach the article. “Future of” stories can be tough to write because you have to approach them with a clear focus so you don’t end up with a simple round-up of people’s guesses as to what the future will be. I didn’t want to write an article that was preachy or not grounded in research and reporting, so I made some phone calls and spent five days talking with copy editors, top editors and others for the story. It took me longer than usual to find a focus for the piece, and it wasn’t until after I wrote the first draft and sat down with my editor that I realized what I wanted the message to be. I conveyed this message in the nut graf of the story:

Those in charge of hiring copy editors aren’t so quick to call copy editing a dying profession, but they know change is on the horizon. The future they envision for copy editors includes a merging of responsibilities, a greater focus on editing blogs and multimedia and an understanding that even with fewer resources, the basic fundamentals of copy editing still need to be upheld. Outsourcing, meanwhile, has reminded them of the importance of knowing a coverage area at the local level so they can catch mistakes that might otherwise find their way onto sites like “Regret the Error.”

The stakes are no doubt high for copy editors, who are the last folks to see a story before it gets published. If a mistake slips through, the copy desk is usually blamed. Now, there are fewer people to blame, but greater responsibilities to be had. Copy editors are being asked to do page layout and design in many newspapers, meaning their sole focus is not editing. Some copy editors I talked to for the story said they fear that accuracy could be jeopardized with fewer people to catch mistakes.

Outsourcing copy editors is another risky undertaking, they say, because outsourced workers won’t know the communities being written about. I’m learning more and more that to be a copy editor, you have to know a community as well as, if not better than, reporters do. Copy editors need to know how to spell city council members’ names, and they need to know which streets run parallel and which ones intersect. They realize the value of such details. It’s their careful attention to detail and accuracy that make copy editors such valuable assets to the newsroom. They’re the unsung heroes of news operations, the folks who never get a byline but who “save” reporters and editors from making themselves look silly or careless.

In reporting the copy editing story, I found that many copy editors don’t think the newsroom understands all the work they do. John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun, alluded to this in my interview with him when he asked: “Will copy editors find it within themselves to immerge from their customary anomyinity and make a persuasive case for the value of what they do? If not, then they’re going to lose out.” I didn’t have room for this quote in the article, but it struck me as an interesting question.

I raised a question yesterday in the comments section of my piece about the dialogue that copy editors and reporters have — or don’t: “I’ve talked to a lot of copy editors at mid to large-size papers who say they have little interaction with reporters when editing their stories,” I wrote. “Sure, assigning editors talk with reporters, but it seems like it would be smart for copy editors to do the same. Maybe then more people in the newsroom would better understand the work they do. What’s the conversation like between copy editors and reporters in your newsroom?” Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section of my story by clicking here.

The responses I’ve gotten in the comments section of the article and in personal e-mails has made me realize just how passionate copy editors are about the work they do, and how much they are trying to ensure that the value of their work will not be undermined in the future. My article didn’t reveal what the future of copy editing will be, but I hope it at least provided readers with a sense of where the future is headed. As the kicker of my article says: For now, this much is true: The stakes for copy editors aren’t getting any lower.

I’d like to continue writing copy editing stories and am open to your ideas. What questions do you have about copy editing that you’d like to see me pursue?

Committed to Commenting … Or Not

I often wonder why some articles receive more comments than others. If I receive three comments on a Poynter Online article, I consider that to be pretty good. I thought the article I wrote about journalists paying it forward last week would receive at least a couple of comments, given the subject matter of the piece and the question/”click here” link at the end: “Click here to share your stories about how fellow journalists have helped you.” Yet, it was a centerpiece story for three days on Poynter Online and it didn’t receive a single comment.

The lower number of comments on our site compared to other Web sites may have something to do with the fact that the majority of our users are journalists. My colleague Amy Gahran wrote a thought-provoking piece about journalists commenting on the Web, called “Journos: Do You Post Public Comments? Why/Why Not?” She writes that: “In almost every blog and public forum where I participate, I’ve noticed that generally few of the commenters are journalists working for mainstream news organizations.” She raises a valid point that a whopping 17 readers expand upon in the comments section of the piece.

Another recent Poynter Online essay, “Hazarding a Guess on Race” by Sally Lehrman, received 14 comments, which is a lot for a Diversity at Work item, or any article on our site for that matter.

Drawing from your own experiences, what compels you to want to comment on an article/multimedia piece, etc.?