The Story That Got Away

Reporting isn’t an exact science. In fact, many stories that we work on behind the scenes never come to light. Sometimes you can work for weeks, months, or even years developing a story, but outside factors can knock it down before it ever gets published.

We all have our stories that got away. Here’s mine.

Screen shot 2015-04-29 at 3.45.41 PMIn spring 2014, I covered one of the most bizarre and mortifying stories of my career. A woman in the tiny, rural community of Wimer, Ore., was accused of killing to handymen on her farm – one in late 2012, one in 2013 – and feeding their remains to her pigs. Susan Monica’s strange behavior made the situation even more surreal – she would appear in court bald or wearign a wig, she was prone to outbursts toward her attorneys or the judge, and once, she shouted that she wanted her pigs butchered and given to a local community center.

Over time, it got even more unusual. Monica wrote letters to the local newspaper and did a jailhouse phone interview with another TV station. She ranted, claimed innocence, and also tried to be tight-lipped.

It also got heartbreaking. I interviewed an estranged family member of one of the victims who asked how this could have happened, and why no one had ever reported him missing. Every detail that came out added more layers of strange to the whole ordeal.

Then, the strange finally caught up to me.

One afternoon, I was returning to the station from covering a story, when my assignment editor zeroed in on me.

“Steven, we need you here. Susan Monica is on the phone.”


“Susan Monica is calling us from jail. You need to talk to her. You’re the only reporter here.”

Apparently a senior member of the newsroom had advised our assignment editor to send a letter to Susan Monica in jail, asking her to call us for a jailhouse interview. Now it was actually happening.

I wasn’t prepared for this. How could I be? It’s not often that an accused serial killer calls you from jail. I didn’t know if there were legal problems with this. I didn’t know if I would now be considered a witness; would I be questioned by police about this conversation? Could this cause a mistrial?

I looked at my news director, who gave a half-shrug, with a look as if to say “you’re the only one.”

I took a deep breath, and I sat down at the phone, putting it on speaker so our producers could hear and hand me questions. I attempted to conduct an interview with Susan Monica, who was half-coherent, with her story changing every minute. First, the killings were in self-defense. Then she denied killing anyone. Then she said she shouldn’t speak, on advice from her lawyer.

After going around in circles for more than 15 minutes, Monica casually dropped a piece of information.

“They knew where one body was,” she said. “One of the detectives was out there two years ago.”

That caught my attention.

“Why were they out there?” I asked.

“To look for a body,” she said.

Everyone gathered around the phone was wide-eyed. Even my news director looked shocked.

I had to repeat it just so I could understand it. “He was out there two years ago looking for a body?”


“Why were they looking for a body?”

“I won’t get into that.”

The conversation quickly ended after that. But suddenly, I had a trail to follow – was the sheriff’s office at her farm two years earlier looking for a body? And why hadn’t they found anything?

The trail heated up a week later, when I got a random phone call in the newsroom. It was from a man who claimed to be a neighbor of Susan Monica’s. He told me in 2012, he had been watched as Monica was burying what looked like human bones on her property. He told me he had called the sheriff’s office, who then sent a deputy out to investigate. The neighbor told me the deputies went out and claimed not to find find anything. He told me he was 100 percent certain he was human bones.

I now had two sources, but they weren’t strong ones; an accused killer and a neighbor who refused to go on camera. I needed proof. Did this deputy screw up? Would one person still be alive if those first set of bones had been found? Or was this deputy out there for a different reason altogether?

I called my contact at the sheriff’s office and asked about these statements. I asked if she could look up any records of deputies responding to her property from 2012. She said she couldn’t look it up, because it was an active investigation, even though my inquiry was about a response from two years ago. She didn’t say that no one had been out there, she only said she couldn’t tell me. Reading between the lines, I knew this murder case and that 2012 call were related. But journalism is not about what you know, it’s about what you can prove.

I had one final ace up my sleeve – a public records request. Government agencies are required to release records to the public if requested, including police reports. With the sheriff’s office circling the wagons and sources refusing to talk, it would be my last legal chance to find this information.

So I filled it out in full, requesting documents of any responses by the sheriff’s office to the home of Susan Monica in 2012, including dispatch logs, police reports and transcripts. All I needed was confirmation that yes, someone was physically there on the farm. If we were going to hold the sheriff’s office accountable, this system was our tool to do it.

I mailed it off to the sheriff. A week or two later, I got a letter in response from the county’s attorney.

My public records request had been denied. The attorney cited the open investigation against Monica as the reason for the denial, and that protection extended to any previous encounters deputies had with Monica.

And with that, the trail went cold. There may have been other avenues to explore – like finding a former deputy willing to go on the record, or trying to fight it in court. But a short time later, I got a new job, leaving behind an unfinished investigation.

This month, Monica was finally in court, and the facts came out, proving that a deputy was indeed there in 2012. Still no word from the sheriff’s office at to why no one found anything.

How I Got the Job: Evan Bell

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: Evan Bell, photojournalist for KATU in Portland.

0jRApzX6When did you start looking for your first TV job?

About a year after graduating. I went to school for history but had dabbled in editing and always had an interest in news production.

When did you first get an interview, and what was it like?

Very soon after applying. Being a small market, the reality hit home that you wouldn’t be getting rich but would have numerous opportunities to learn and gain experience.

When you moved on to your second job, what changes did you make to your job approach? 

Not a whole lot. Just made sure to learn all the new systems and work flows. Highly important not to fall into the trap of feeling like you have experience and therefore do not need training.

What were some of the biggest changes you saw going from a small market to a larger market?

Truly just learning a new workflow and meeting a higher set of expectations. In a small market, it often feels like as long as you get something, anything, on air then everyone is happy, on a bigger stage, you had better make sure your scripts are sharp and editing very clean or you’re going to hear about it.

Looking back, is there anything you have changed about the process?

Most changes simply come from experience. Knowing a junk interview from a good one. Knowing the best ways to gather great sound/visuals and how to weave those to tell a great story.

The best overall advice I could give is that once you’re settled into your first job, seek out award winning reporters/photographers work and learn from them. See how they weave visuals, nats, interview sound and reporter track to make their story work. Be true to your subject matter and don’t take your viewers for granted.

How I Got the Job: David Heil

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: David Heil, director for Desert Adrenaline Multimedia LLC.

Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.32.20 AMWhen did you start looking for your first TV job?

I started looking for my first TV job before I even graduated.  During spring break of my senior year I hit up a broadcasting job fair and also hand delivered my resume to the coordinating producer at Fox Sports Arizona. I kept in touch with those contacts as I finished up my degree, and once I got back home in September 2010, I hit them up and started the hunt for a full time job.

Do you remember what you included on your first tape/work sample?

I don’t remember a whole lot of my first tape. When I applied for MCTV I included some newscasts, but mostly just had clips of the sports broadcasts I did, along with a copy of the one theater performance we recorded/edited with GUTV. Fox Sports Arizona didn’t need a tape, and other than when I started doing high school sports, I haven’t ever needed a tape since then. Though instead of having a tape with my examples of work, I display them on my YouTube page as a kind of “work samples” that I’ll update from time to time.

Did you have to change anything about your approach to the job search?

My first “TV job” once I left college was doing freelance work for Maricopa College Television (MCTV). And I realized that I wasn’t going to make enough money doing just freelance at first, so I had to pick up another job and worked at Petsmart for six months, then for my dad who was self-employed at the time and did home remodeling. What ultimately got me the part time work with Fox Sports Arizona was that I emailed the coordinating producer once a month for about six months. Persistent, with just a dash of annoying. But I kept the emails short and very proper.

What happened in your first interview?

So much has happened since then, it’s really hard to remember. I know that when I got work through MCTV, they brought me in, and it seemed more like a formality then anything. Asked me some questions, what I’ve done before, what I want. The big one was when I first started working for Fox Sports Arizona. And that one went really smooth. They brought me in, I talked with the executive producer at the time, talked with him and the coordinating producer. They asked me a bit about my background, college and where I wanted to ultimately go. All I remember was saying that I really wanted to be a sports director, but first I wanted to learn and work all the other positions in the truck so I knew how to do everything. Then I could be an effective director and leader.

Did you ever turn down a job offer? Why?

I’ve turned down freelance work. Either too busy, or wasn’t going to get paid enough for the frustration. But I can’t ever recall turning down a work offer. I only applied and worked towards the jobs that I wanted to get. Which wasn’t a lot, so it took longer to finally get employed.

When and why did you decide to form your own production company?

I decided sometime around the beginning of the summer of 2014 that working as a production assistant for Fox Sports Arizona wasn’t going to take me in the ultimate direction I wanted to go, which was sports directing. If I stayed on with Fox Sports Arizona I would ultimately have become an editor, broadcast engineer, or a producer. One – I’m not a huge fan of post production Two – Most engineers are the station/office making sure everything is working and the broadcast is getting out without any problems. And I rather be in the truck, on the front lines so to speak. Three – I don’t know or care enough about the actual teams to be a great producer. The interesting thing about sports directing, is that as long as you understand the sport, you can direct and learn and get really good. To be a great producer, you need to know the story behind the team, and create a storyline for each production.

In addition, I was getting really good at the Tricaster and web streaming and I wanted to explore that option more. I knew Tricaster and webcasting were the future, and I didn’t want those skills to get rusty. Well, Fox Sports Arizona was dropping pretty much all their Tricaster work. In addition, I was tired of doing the work for other companies. When I did freelance Tricaster work for other companies, I’d only get a fraction of the cost to put on the production, and I was doing a lot of the work to make it happen. That might be a bit egotistical of me to say, but it’s what I believed, and still do to a degree. So when I went full freelance again, I decided I was going to start up my own business, with two guys I did a lot of work for in the industry and we would go out and find our own gigs, instead of working for someone else. And it’s very interesting and stressful to be on the ownership side of things, versus just showing up and working the Tricaster.

As of November of 2014, we started Desert Adrenaline Multimedia, LLC.  And things started slow but are now just picking up. My partner finds the work, I crew get the equipment and figure out the over all logistics, my other partner brings the creativity to the team and is also really good with the Tricaster.

Gregg Popovich and Lessons for the Media

Every new reporter should have to interview someone like Gregg Popovich.

The San Antonio Spurs head coach has always had a reputation for being a little salty with the media. But his issue typically isn’t with reporters themselves – it’s about the idiotic questions Pop gets asked.

Just take a look at a few exchanges from after the Spurs’ loss to the Clippers in Game 1 of their playoff series:

REPORTER: When you intentionally found DJ, Deandre [Jordan], it helps the Clippers a little bit in that it helps them set up their defense and it slows the game. Do you weigh those sort of factors in when you’re choosing to make that sort of play?

POP: I do.

REPORTER: (continuing) and tonight you didn’t seem to go to it a lot. Just wasn’t in the strategy tonight.

POP: No. (Shrugs).

That was immediately followed by this exchange:

REPORTER: Coach, there seemed to be, like, some good ball movement with your team a lot of times, there was some other times where it kinda seemed erratic, out of control. Can you talk about that, please?

POP: What you said is correct. I mean, how long do you want me to talk about it?

Fed up, Pop finally called out the reporters:

POP: Maybe I can help everybody by just making a statement. Would that help? Because these questions are unbelievable.

Let’s take a look at just those three exchanges. We had a “yes-or-no” question, a non-question, and a “talk about it” question.

That’s some weak stuff right there. You guys are professional NBA reporters; step your game up!

I love that Pop does this on a regular basis. Media, especially sports media, has become so lazy over the years. They expect their interview subjects to do their jobs for them. That’s why we get these half-assed “can you talk about this?” questions, or statements masquerading as questions “coach, it looked like Smith was rebounding well tonight.”

Pop’s only doing his job. You ask a yes-or-no question, you get a yes or a no for an answer. If you sentence doesn’t end in a question mark, you’re not getting a response at all.

Every reporter should have to go through an interview with someone like that, because it teaches you the hard way that you need to prepare good questions if you want to write a good story. There’s nothing like getting shut down by a coach in front of a room full of people to kick you into gear.

Because ultimately, it’s your job as a reporter to get the story. Coaches and players are made available by teams after games, but they are not obligated to give you the perfect quote. Their job is to play the game, not write the story. If all you are getting from them is “yes” or “no,” don’t get mad at them for not giving you a quote; maybe you should be rethinking the questions you’re asking.

But for the entrenched reporters who have been in sports media for years, that seems like too much work. Earlier this year, when Marshawn Lynch repeated the same phrase time after time in press conferences before the Super Bowl, sports reporters tore him to shreds. “How dare he not answer our questions? If it weren’t for the media attention, he’d be nothing! (shovels pile of Fettuccine Alfredo into mouth in the press room.)

Maybe you should be asking him questions worth answering.

(And in the cases where you develop good questions and people like Lynch still won’t answer, go around it. The Seattle Times wrote a great feature on Lynch without getting an interview. Hell… Woodward and Bernstein took down an administration by talking to people around the main sources. What’s your excuse?)

If this is the lazy state of sports journalism these days, then my students are going to have their pick of jobs every June.

How I Got the Job: Justin Bourke

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: Justin Bourke, reporter and anchor for KENS 5 in San Antono.

JUSTIN-BOURKE-250x250When did you start looking for your first TV job?

I first started looking right out of grad school. I thought I was a hotshot because I had good grades and my professors liked me. I was not. Now I’m too embarrassed to even look back at that original reel.

I was lucky enough at the time to intern at the same station where the VP of news the ownership company happened to work. I made a point to introduce myself and have some of my professors put in a good word, and she generously agreed to send my website out to some of her news directors. I heard back from two ND’s pretty quickly, one in Des Moines hoping to fly me out for an interview, another in Burlington, VT. The Burlington station offered me a job … but it was bureau job. So I started applying to places online, and within a few days got a message back from a Medford station. No bureau, an opportunity to anchor, and it was in a cool place I’ve never been to. Sold. A couple of phone calls and a weekend of hair pulling and hang-wringing later, I was packing my car and headed to Oregon.

Do you remember what you included on your first tape?

I followed the basic formula: montage of standups (starting with the good, hard news stuff); three packages (my election coverage was pretty good so I focused on that); a sprinkle of anchoring here and there. The big thing was that I reached out to a friend with a nice DSLR camera. We wrote a bunch standups on big stories that were going on at the time and shot them all in a couple of days. The videography popped, which is probably why people actually responded. I also made a website through Pixpa and made it all pretty with the demo tape front and center.

In retrospect, the packages were way too long. I should have kept them to 1:15-1:20 tops.

How many rejections did you get?

One. I interviewed in Des Moines and the ND was kind enough to inform me that he selected another candidate.

Did I get ignored though? Oh God yes. I can’t even count the amount of applications that simply didn’t get responses. Get ready because there are going to be A LOT of those.

Did you have to change anything about your approach to the job search?

My approach was pretty typical. I milked every contact I had while firing out applications on I actually ended up going with a job I got through TVJobs. The big thing I noticed is that small market news tends to move fast. ND’s reach out quickly, interview quickly, and accept/reject you even faster. I would say the whole process typically lasted about a couple of days.

What happened in your first interview?

I had two interviews in person, one in Des Moines and the other in Burlington. Both lasted a couple days; lots of getting to know the station and only a little bit of actual question and answer. The interview for the job I ended up taking was done over the phone. I remember thinking that all of them were far different from interviews in any other industry. It wasn’t so much talking about “your greatest strengths and weaknesses” but more a lengthy conversation about the market, my experience, and the industry as a whole. The best advice I can offer: go over your work so you know exactly what your highlights are, do TONS of research on the market, and do what you do best as a reporter – talk.

Did you ever turn down a job offer? Why?

I turned down two. One was, those stations had two anchors famously quit on-air, so I applied thinking it was low-hanging fruit. I ended up getting an immediate response and an offer with barely an interview at all. The whole thing seemed off.

I turned down another offer because it was a bureau job. I ended up deciding I’d rather get the full newsroom experience rather than roughing it on my own.

When did you get an offer? How did it happen?

The offer I took came very quickly, we had one or two phone interviews. It was a bit terrifying because it gave me two days to pack everything I owned into a 2-door car and drive 50 hours to a place I had never been. I didn’t even have time to find an apartment. I ended up couch surfing for my first few days while I found a place. In retrospect I’m glad I went through that. It prepares you for all the times you’ll have to leave your comfort zone and fly by the seat of your pants in day-to-day work.

Looking back, what would you have changed about the process?

Negotiation, negotiation, negotiation. I was so excited to get my first reporting job that I barely negotiated a thing. I sent the contract out to a few mentors to make sure it checked out before signing it, but that was it. My advice is to not be afraid. And keep in mind money isn’t the only thing you can negotiate. There are opt-out clauses and other perks like moving expenses or clothing allowances. And once it’s signed, it’s signed.

What ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ Can Teach Journalists

Imagine if Alton Brown was your news director…

“One contestant will have to cook with this potato masher duct-taped to their hand!”

If I have one guilty pleasure, it’s the Food Network. And the best show is “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which takes the creativity and pressure of “Chopped” and goes completely psychotic with it.

If you’re not familiar with the format of the show, four contestants are asked to cook a certain dish. But each contestant is given $25,000 to bid on sabotages that derail their competitors. Some sabotages include being forced to cook in a tiny kiddie kitchen, replacing all cooking tools with tin foil, and replacing fresh ingredients with frozen, canned, or junk food varieties (imagine cooking Chicken Parmigiana using only the chicken you can get out of a can of soup). No matter what sabotage you get, you have to keep cooking.

At the end of each round, the contestants’ dishes are tasted by a judge who has no knowledge of what transpired in the round. They don’t know how the contestants were sabotaged or where the food came from. They only care about what’s on the plate. If the dish doesn’t cut it, the contestant will be eliminated. The winner leaves with whatever money they have left over from the bidding. Truly it is cutthroat.

It doesn’t matter if you have a masher duct-taped to your hand (or if it gets stuck in an oven handle), you need to keep cooking.

As I binge-watched “Cutthroat Kitchen” on Netflix this weekend, I realized “this show is a great lesson for journalists!”

Sabotages will always happen in journalism. Maybe a reporter turns in a sub-par article. Maybe your live camera breaks down 10 minutes before the newscast. Maybe a photographer forgets to attend an event and has no photos. Or maybe a source calls back and recants their story at 2 p.m. Believe me, these things happen.

But how you react to it makes a huge difference in your ability as a journalist.

You can complain about it, or you can make a Vietnamese-style shrimp scampi!

We can’t run a crawl during out 5 p.m. newscast telling viewers “sorry our video isn’t very good; our camera battery died during the shot.” We can’t run a box on page one of our newspaper saying “sorry this story didn’t turn out well; our reporter waiting until the last minute to get interviews.” As much as we’d like to explain away the problems in our news gathering, we can’t, because our audience DOES NOT CARE.

They don’t care that a reporter got busy juggling other stories. They don’t care that our 30-year-old equipment broke down. They don’t care that a plane flew overhead just as our interview subject said the most important thing. THEY. DON’T. CARE.

The only thing that matters is what’s on the plate.

Our audience are just like the judges on Cutthroat Kitchen. It doesn’t matter if we had to make a deviled egg with an ostrich egg. We still need to deliver, or else we fail. Do the judges get something they can eat? Do our readers get an article that engages them? Do our viewers get a package that grabs their attention?

They don’t care how they get it, as long as they get it.

Journalists could learn a lot from the attitudes of some of the show’s contestants. Despite being forced to grind a garbage bag of peanuts to make peanut butter, they still adjust and make the most of it. They change plans, adapt, shift ideas, and deliver something of high quality, even with limited resources. Then as judges give their verdicts, the contestants keep their mouths shut about the sabotages they endured, knowing that it won’t make a difference in the end.

When difficulties arise, rather than focus on what you can’t do as a journalist, focus on what you can do. Make up for a weak story with a strong layout. Cover up a poorly-lit soundbite with b-roll. Use graphics or info boxes in place of missing photos. Play to your strengths, instead of dwelling on your shortcomings.

Because you never know when you may have to make ice cream in a traffic cone while wearing a dog cone. That ice cream better still be good, and your news presentation should be the same.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Editor’s note: You have to be ready for anything in the news business. And by ready, I mean prepared. You’ve got your gear, your questions, the presence of mind to act quickly, and the stubbornness to not take no for an answer. The best example of that comes from my colleague Scott Lewis, from his days as a one-man-band reporter at KDRV in Medford, Ore. His story inspired me as a reporter, and I hope it teaches you something, too. Take it away Scott:

Johnny Cash performed at the Jackson County Fair, and reporter Scott Lewis was determined to get an interview.

Medford, Oregon isn’t exactly a huge town, so it was a huge deal to hear Johnny Cash was coming to perform.

Weekends provided a minimally staffed newsroom, and I wore the hats of assignment editor, reporter, photographer, editor, producer and anchor. Since the concert fell on a Saturday, I thought I’d try to pre-arrange an interview on the night of his performance. After many phone calls, I heard several versions of the same answer: “no, thank you” and “sorry, he’s unavailable” and other variations of NO WAY. As a reporter, that sounded a lot like “…so you’re saying there’s a chance?!”  Later efforts produced the same non-results, right up to the week of the concert.

On the night of the show the early newscast was over at 6:30 p.m., and the concert was scheduled to begin at 7. Johnny Cash and the Carter Family were performing nearby at the Jackson County Expo, which seemed appropriate for a cowboy. It was also the largest venue available at the time (a guy named Bob Dylan played here once also; that’ll be another story.)

The TV station had state-of-the-art field gear for the time, which included a massive Ikegami camera, heavy Sony 3/4″ video tape deck, and thick six foot coiled umbilical. Combined it weighed 40 pounds I’m told. The Ikegami produced fantastic video, as long as there was adequate light. At night and in dark spaces, the video was marginal to unusable. We did have light kits in suitcases available, but they were hardly portable or friendly to spot news. One alternative that few people ever chose was to wear the scuba weight-belt-sized battery around your waist to power the ‘portable’ light that was then attached to the camera. It was heavy, it was unwieldy, it was way too bright for most uses, and did I mention it was heavy? I chose to wear it that night.

Although I wasn’t granted an interview, they did agree to let me get some concert footage. While the lights were still up, I gathered some b-roll and a few interviews from the mostly-local, and clearly enthusiastic crowd. The lights went down, the crowd went wild, and I got some decent video of June Carter from backstage. At that point I had enough to put together a nice VOSOT for the late newscast. While changing my location backstage, and walking in near darkness, I noticed two figures coming my way, including an unmistakable figure: it was The Man in Black! As we approached I simply nodded acknowledgement, then he said “how you doing tonight?” Naturally, I took that as an INVITATION for an interview, so I quickly responded “GREAT! Would it be okay if I asked you a few questions?” His handler quickly shook his head no, but Mr. Johnny Cash said “sure!”  I powered up the deck, turned on the light, and started rolling. He was relaxed, friendly, and conversational. Nevermind his answers may have been delivered hundreds of times; it was the first time I’d heard them, and probably the first time for most of our viewers. Not more than two or three minutes later, I turned off the light, thanked him very much, and had recorded video gold.

He took the stage shortly after, sang, engaged the crowd, and I shot one more song. It would have been fun to stay for the entire concert, but the late newscasts were a solo-affair then, with one person producing, AND anchoring news, weather and sports.

When I returned to the edit bay, I realized that as a reporter, I couldn’t really add anything of value by writing copy or inserting MY voice into the story. What unfolded instead was a natural sound package, with Johnny Cash talking, his fans talking, and Johnny Cash singing. It turned out to be an easy story to assemble (since it effectively told itself,) and aired in all the newscasts the following day as-is.

Here are some of the lessons I learned: persistence can pay off. “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” If I didn’t have the stupid heavy battery belt, there would have been no video. I had 10-15 seconds to turn on my equipment and start the interview. If it had taken any more time than that, his manager would have hurried him along, and I’d only have a story of how I “said ‘hi’ to Johnny Cash” one night. That’s not really good TV.

The Wide World of Info Boxes

When we think of a newspaper front page, we think of three things: headline, text, and photo. It goes to the basic essence of what a story is – every book we’ve ever read has a title, words to read, and something to look at.

But with only those three things, it’s just that – basic. Sure, you can do some good things with just those three elements, but why not add a little more to your story? Let’s give our readers something to help them understand the story a little better. Let’s push the limits of storytelling.

The best way to do this is with info boxes.Screen shot 2015-03-26 at 11.47.42 AMTake a look at a newspaper front page. When you really start to look closely, you notice the extras that the editors have added to compliment the story. As readers, we take them for granted, because they are always there, always helping us better understand the story. But in journalism school, when we make the transition from readers to editors, we lose sight of that. Editors need to make a conscious decision to add info boxes, so that readers can unconsciously understand the story better.

And from a design perspective, a page looks much better when there are elements that compliment each other; items that do things on the page that the other items can’t.

Disclaimer up front – more info boxes does not necessarily mean a better-looking page. You can still clutter the page by trying to cram too much in there. But an info box or two, combined with a strong headline, dynamic photo, and well-written story can make all the difference for your readers.

Also – when using these things, keep them UP AND OUT OF THE WAY. Info boxes should not make the story harder to read. If a layout is like this:

DEPP1It forces the reader to jump over the pull quote to continue reading. It’s also confusing as to where the eye travels: does it stop reading in the second column and go to the third, or jump over?

But when a layout is like this:

depp2It’s much cleaner and makes more sense to the eye. The pull quote is moved UP AND OUT OF THE WAY. It’s easy to read and follow the text. DO NOT PUT PULL QUOTES IN THE MIDDLE OF COLUMNS.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of info boxes you can add to your page, along with their advantages and drawbacks.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.02.32 AMThe most common one is called a pull quote. This is when a strong quote from the story is pulled out of the text and made larger so that it jumps out to the reader. If the quote is strong enough, it’s an easy way to draw the reader in to the story. Find quotes that have powerful words, like “heartbreaking” in this case.

The problem with pull quotes is that they are TOO easy to use, and editors often use them as a crutch. It doesn’t require any thinking on the editor’s part, just “slap a pull quote on there, I need to fill the space!” In many cases, the pull quote doesn’t really add anything to the story except filler. Remember, when using info boxes, follow the advice of “Newspaper Designer’s Handbook” author Tim Harrower: “Information over decoration.” Add to the story, don’t just take up space.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 11.18.40 AMAnother of the most common types of info boxes is the date/time box. It does exactly what you think: gives the date and time of an event. Whether it’s a sporting event, show, presentation, or speech, your readers will ask the same questions: “What? When? Where???” Don’t make them search through the text to find out when President Obama is visiting – pull that information out and make it easy to find. If the surviving Beatles are getting back together and giving a free concert, I want to know immediately where and when it’s happening. If I have to search for it, you’ve failed as a newspaper.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.36.19 AMAnother example is called a tease. It’s a promise to the reader of more information if they “turn to page A8” or “go to” This is most effective when it’s used to connect readers to a related story in a different section – such as a related editorial – or to drive their print readers to the web site for video, social media, and web-exclusive content. You always need to keep your readers glued in to your content. Every lead story should have some kind of tease to let readers know that they can find more, either by going online, deeper in the paper, or in tomorrow’s issue.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.11.22 AMRemember to keep your boxes visually interesting, while also giving information. A perfect example of that is a map. In print media, it can be hard for readers to understand exactly where something is happening. Addresses mean nothing without context. A map allows readers to visualize exactly where the event took place, or how far apart things are from each other. Any story that has to do with a location, or mileage, or directions should have a map. It doesn’t need to be elaborate – just some pinpoints and major roads should do it.

Screen shot 2015-04-02 at 11.14.27 AMSometimes a complicated story needs to be condensed down. As we showed last week in our breakdown of the Sacramento Bee’s drought front page, sometimes you need to put your information into a format that people with short attention spans can understand. Bullet points are great at that. When people pick up a front page and see a story that angers, upsets, or confuses them, they don’t want to wade through the mountains of text to get the details. Editors should try to serve up that information on a silver platter. As an editor, ask yourself “how does this affect me as an average person? What would I be worried about? What questions would I have?”

When using bullet points, remember:

  • Answer questions
  • Keep it short
  • Put it on the front page where it’s easily visible

Sometimes you have more information than can fit in the body text of the story. In that case, pull it out and put it on the page!

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.10.57 AMLists aren’t just for Buzzfeed. They are easy to digest, and give some good complimentary info to a story. This list was alongside an Arizona Republic story about the threat to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The story itself focused heavily on the Colorado River and what was being done in Arizona. But a reader might think “I wonder what other rivers are endangered?” Well, look no further, because there’s a list there to answer that question! It’s short, it’s simple, and it gets the job done.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.12.20 AM

And sometimes you just need to answer simple questions. I love this info box made by the Northwest Herald, because it answers the typical questions everyone has during an election. “Who are these people?” (More candidate info is on, “Where and when to I vote?” (Polling times are listed), and “How do I know who wins?” (follow us online for real-time info).

Your audience will always have questions, and your job is to answer them as easily as possible. Sometimes the best way is to just lay out the Q&A yourself.

Again, a single page with all of these on it might be too cluttered. But a tease and a map, or a list and a pull quote, or bullet points and an agenda, can make a big difference in the look and feel of your page.

There are so many more types of info boxes that aren’t listed here. Use your imagination! If you were reading the story, what would help YOU understand? It’s a big world of info boxes, and it’s time to start exploring them.

Page elements courtesy of Newseum, Tim Harrower

How I Got the Job: Pat Stumbaugh

Everyone takes a different path to their first media job. Some people land their first choice right out of college. Others need to apply to dozens of places before landing an interview. There’s not a perfect way to get the job you want, but it can help to learn from the experience of others. In our feature “How I Got the Job,” we talk to some of the best people working professionally in media about what they did to get a foot in the door, and what it took to finally sign the contract. This week: Pat Stumbaugh, director for KATU in Portland.

IMG_4231When did you start looking for your first TV job?

I started looking for my first job when I was still at Gonzaga University, February (before graduating in May) to be specific. My goal was to have something lined up and ready by the time I graduated.

Do you remember what you included on your first tape/work sample?

It was a little bit of everything. I had some reporter stories filed, some weather segments, VOSOT’s I shot and edited, segment blocks I produced or directed. I was applying to mostly producer and director positions, so I would tailor each resume tape specifically for that position, but would also add some extra segments to show that I had other abilities outside of the position I was applying for.

How many rejections did you get?

I applied to tons of jobs all over the west coast and beyond. I listed each market I was interested in working and living in, then found each of the local stations in those markets and bookmarked their jobs opening page. I probably had a list of over 100 stations. I applied to at least more than half, and heard back from less than ten from what I remember. Of the stations I received preliminary interviews with, I was further pursued by two.

Did you have to change anything about your approach to the job search?

I found that trying to contact the actual person hiring, rather than just the HR office representative who posted the position, worked better in receiving a call for an interview. With each job I applied, I would also mail the news director a copy of my resume and a DVD of my work personalized for that station and position.

What happened in your first interview?

I had an initial interview over the phone with a station in Palm Springs, Calif. We talked a good deal about my experience at Gonzaga, more specifically what I learned from producing a live newscast (it was for a producer job). They asked me everything from how I stack a show to how I would deal with live reporters who couldn’t get their stories in on time. A week later, they flew me out for an in-person interview. I was nervous beyond belief, but tried to stay calm and confident in my abilities. I thought it would be a day of questioning, but it was quite the opposite. They clearly already knew all they needed about my experience and what I could offer them, they were just seeing how I interacted with their staff, from fellow producers to production techs, to see if I would be a good fit.

Did you ever turn down a job offer? Why?

I was offered a producing position in Palm Springs at about the same time I had a final interview for a position at a local Spokane station. Spokane wasn’t able to make a decision quite yet before I had to notify and sign paperwork for Palm Springs, so I ended up withdrawing my application to the Spokane station. Since then, when applying to other jobs, I have turned down offers from stations I personally didn’t think I would be a good match with.

When did you get an offer? How did it happen?

After flying out for my interview in Palm Springs, they called me back three days later and offered. After some negotiating, I decided upon working with them, which happened to time out well with graduating Gonzaga.

Looking back, what would you have changed about the process?

I honestly don’t think I would have changed much. I still apply to positions very similarly now as I did back then. I’ve worked several positions in broadcasting, including producer, master control operator, web editor, desk editor, and now director. When graduating Gonzaga, I was interested in several different aspects of the industry, so I applied to a plethora of positions. Having worked so many different positions since college, I have been able to narrow down my passion in directing.

Dick Pics and the NSA – John Oliver’s Great Interview With Edward Snowden

John Oliver interviews Edward Snowden in Russia for “Last Week Tonight.”

“This is the most visible line in the sand for people. Can. They. See. My. Dick?”

And with that, comedian John Oliver manages to land an interview with “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history” (Oliver’s words), AND easily explain the National Security Agency’s domestic spying programs.

What a coup.

It’s the latest example of “comedians doing better journalism that journalists.” Oliver flew to Russia to interview Snowden, the man responsible for the 2013 NSA leak. In the program, Oliver tried to explain the Patriot Act and its controversial Section 215 which allows widespread spying on American citizens, but found it hard to boil down such a big issue. Enter Snowden.

In the interview, Oliver lets Snowden talk about the reasons behind his actions (and gets Snowden to say he “misses Hot Pockets”), but he also challenges Snowden on whether his methods were safe, whether the journalists he’s worked with are competent, and whether his actions have actually made a difference.

And that’s where the interview takes a turn for the brilliant. After Oliver confronts Snowden with man-on-the-street interviews with people who didn’t know who Snowden was, the pair discuss the challenges of helping people understand such a complicated issue. After all, if the topic is too complicated (and believe me, it is), how will people care?

That’s where the dick pics come in.

Oliver and Snowden go program-by-program and explain how they allow the government to “see your dick.” Whether it was the NSA intercepting your dick pic, or Google sharing the dick pics you sent via Gmail, Snowden laid it all out, and Oliver kept him on track by constantly referring back to “what does it mean for my dick?” It was the most entertaining, simple, and surprisingly thorough method of condensing a complicated issue to the American people I’ve seen in recent memory.

Whether you agree with Snowden, think he’s a hero or traitor, or just think he should have gone about things a different way, you can’t deny the impact of his actions. And thanks to Oliver, people can have a  better understanding of why it’s so important. It’s what good journalists should do.

Just watch it, already:

Video courtesy "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"/HBO