San Diego U-T’s grand design on design

If you work for a newspaper and you’re not looking at the front pages of the San Diego Union Tribune every day, what are you doing?

The newspaper consistently does a great job of creating visually-interesting story packages and dynamic front pages, even with a broadsheet format.

The broadsheet is the traditional size of a newspaper, typically with long, vertical pages. And most in many cases across the county, it’s how you picture your parents’ newspaper.

Headlines, text, photos, you know the drill. Newspapers have looked similar to this for the last 50 years. And quite frankly, it’s a bit boring. What sets one newspaper apart from the rest?

But then came the rise of the alt-weekly, or alternative newspapers. You know them as papers like LA Weekly, the Village Voice, and Willamette Week. These papers adopted a different approach to covering the news – offering unique viewpoints, investigations, magazine-style profiles, and a sometimes-snarky take that appealed to readers wanting something other than the mainstream. And from a physical standpoint, they took up a tabloid size – a more square, boxy shape that emphasizes large pictures over text.

The success of the alt-weekly had led other traditional newspapers to take on a similar tabloid format. The Oregonian, for example, recently switched from a broadsheet to a tabloid format, which allows it to create dynamic front pages that help increase pickup on newsstands. Slowly, other newspapers have followed, emulating the alt-weekly’s artistic cover stye:

B9yX_xzIgAA65wz tumblr_ln3b6kcZlC1qa5y9j VillageVoiceCover_October_2011_FINALThey’re dynamic, they’re exciting, they’re fun, and they’re powerful. Tabloid-sized newspapers give the reader the most important story in an engaging way – like the cover of a magazine. Also, tabloid-sized papers typically don’t need to be folded, so their entire cover can be displayed on a newsstand.

With so many options with a tabloid-size, why even keep a broadsheet?

But in my opinion, the problem with broadsheet isn’t because of the size, it’s because the people who design it are stuck in the past. They see a traditional size and think it should be laid out traditionally.

I disagree. And so does the staff at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

CA_SDUTThe designers at the UT consistently show that you can still use the front page to create a unique layout, even with a long, vertical size. They’ve realized that it doesn’t have to be “Banner headline across the top. Square photo. Boxes,” like every other newspaper of the past 50 years. They are embracing the idea that the borders of the newspaper are just like the frames of a canvas; you can fill it with whatever you want.

Take a look at the issue above. The lead story about the corruption charges against FIFA officials could have been your standard “mugshot” story. Instead, the UT went a different route – they created an illustration of a hand holding a red card, and used the space inside for the headline. Even the placement of the headline is very unique – it runs to the right of the actual text, against the rules that we have always been taught.

(By only nitpick is that the word “probe” in the headline isn’t covered up by the finger. It would have made it perfect)

When it comes down to it, the rules that journalism designers have been taught are largely arbitrary. Some of them are necessary – such as AP Style rules to create uniformity and rules about diligent fact-checking – but other design rules just box in journalists from being creative. If we followed rules to the letter, like “headlines must always look a certain way and be a certain length,” we deliberately take creativity out of our hands.

And for what? Readers don’t know the rules anyway. Find out whether a rule actually has a purpose (like double-checking sources) or whether it’s “just always been that way.” If it’s the latter, why follow it?

Design rules were made to be broken. And as the San Diego UT has shown, breaking those rules will help you break the mold.

c551b4193d6393ab17b91e231ccefef6-1 Sand-Diego-U-T

How I Got the Job: Stephanie Golson

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: Stephanie Golson, producer with KING 5 News in Seattle.

photo-1When did you start looking for your first TV job?

I started job searching while a senior at Gonzaga University. I coupled it with an internship at the NBC Affiliate in Spokane hoping that might turn into a job. I was hoping to stay in Spokane so I focused on networking through my professors who’d previously worked at stations I was interested in.

Do you remember what you included in your work sample?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t make a tape for my first job! Since I was looking for producing jobs, the news directors I’d been in contact with just wanted to know that I could write well. So I focused on sending packets of writing samples instead.

How many rejections did you get?

I was extremely lucky, I actually got two offers at the same time from stations in Spokane. Those were the only jobs I had applied for since I was still in school.

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

Honestly no, I was very fortunate to have a job lined up before graduation.

What happened in your first interview?

My first interview lasted an entire day and was pretty intensive. I started by meeting one-on-one with each of the managers (news director, executive producer, assignment desk, etc), then I did a writing test and stacked a rundown. It was intense but it helped me get an idea of who I’d be working with and what workload I could expect.

Did you ever turn down a job offer? Why?

Yes, because I had two offers to weigh. I’ll admit the first thing I thought about was the money, but what ultimately helped make up my mind was the schedule. One station offered me overnights, the other nightside weekends. I picked the latter.

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

I got a call from the news director at the CBS affiliate in Spokane who rattled off the numbers; money, contract years, hours, etc. I went in for another meeting and signed a two-year contract.

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

As young as I was, I didn’t know how to negotiate. Looking back I would have pushed a little more for concessions on my contract.

The Joy of Play-by-Play

1556223_10100106261962253_408326921_o

My game prep, prior to calling a high school basketball game.

One of my favorite jobs came in the summer of 2008. Each day, I would wake up in my apartment in Spokane, head to the campus of Gonzaga University to print things for free (I’m still paying off my loans – sue me), have a quick chat with friends and professors in the broadcast building, then drive to my job.

I would travel away from the river, down through the dirty industrial part of town, past dingy used car lots and places selling cemetery headstones. I’d drive over railroad tracks and into the fairgrounds parking lot. Once I got out, I grabbed a briefcase full of files, then make my way up a rickety metal staircase. Eight, nine, ten, sharp left turn, up more steps, and headed into a box.

Inside, I went to a sliding metal window cover, pulled out the rusty latch – SHHNNNKK! – and slid up the shutter.

Out of that window in the press box at Avista Stadium, I looked out over a perfect green baseball field, with an immaculate, caramel-colored infield dirt. Sometimes a grounds crew member was watering the grass. Sometimes a pitcher was out early warming up. Sometimes it would be completely empty and silent. And each day, I knew it was going to be a great day.

My time as a radio play-by-play announcer for summer league baseball remains the best summer job I’ve ever had. I’ve always loved play-by-play, being able to paint a picture for the audience, tell a story, and share in the excitement and enthusiasm of every game. To me, it’s the greatest job on earth.

And I love each step in getting a broadcast on the air. I love pouring over notes and doing research online for hours to complete my prep for the game. I love filling time in the 7th inning during an 8-run game. I love the rush you feel when your mic goes live at the start of a broadcast. I love buzzer-beaters, touchdowns, and spotting things on the sidelines. And I love the wave you feel through your body when you sign off and put down your headset.

What’s better than that?

When I was in college, I lived for play-by-play, but when I gradated and got a job as a news reporter, I never thought I’d be able to do it again. Then one day, our station decided to air live high school football and basketball games on our digital channel. Then another stroke of luck – the regular play-by-play guy was gone one week. “Steven, could you fill in?”

It meant the opportunity to call dozens of football and basketball games. Rivalry games, blowouts, game-winners. What a ride. Every Friday night from August to February was a blast. I’ll be forever grateful to Chris Breece, Chris Leone and Brandon Kamerman for giving me the chance to step into the booth again.

Seattle+Seahawks+v+Tampa+Bay+Buccaneers+3ZgK7bAV4TDlBelieve it or not, it’s always been hard to put into words exactly what play-by-play announcing means to me. But this morning, Al Michaels went on the Dan Patrick Show to talk about, among many things, his career, influences, and his thoughts on his profession. For anyone who is interested in sports announcing, it’s a fascinating listen.

Check it out on PodcastOne (begins around the 15:40 mark)

Some highlights…

On radio vs. TV play-by-play:

“Radio is more fulfilling for an announcer, because you’re painting the picture…”

On why hockey is the hardest sport for a radio announcer:

“In baseball someone is always at the plate. In football, somebody has the ball. In basketball, somebody has the ball … In hockey, it’s hard to follow it in your mind’s eye, because possession is changing every couple of seconds.”

On why you can’t call a Super Bowl differently than a regular game:

“You just have to trust your instincts … don’t script it in your head … Once you’re on the air, you’ve been there for a ton of games. Do it the way you’d normally do it.

On whether he ever gets too ‘into’ the game:

“To me, less is more. Early on in my career I would get overly excited sometimes, and then I’d hear it back and go ‘ah, shut up! Stop it! You’re annoying!’ Nobody ever got in trouble for saying less, than more.”

On whether he goes over his calls in his head after games:

“There’s always something you think about in the car on the way back, that you missed.”

The whole thing is worth a listen. Michaels sheds great light on the position of a play-by-play announcer, and captures why so many people fall in love with the gig the moment they gaze out from the press box at that magnificent field.

How I Got the Job: Scott Perry

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: Scott Perry, photojournalist with KDRV in Medford, Ore.

10959824_10100964591807463_8812325570580129099_nWhen did you start looking for your first TV job?

I started after graduation. I didn’t know where I wanted to go.  I knew I wanted to do something in video production. I applied for photographers, editors, production assistants,  and directors. I didn’t know anyone in broadcast. It was all up to me to figure it out and I had to work in retail part-time to pay off student loan debt.

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

I was very limited in samples as a new graduate and I didn’t have any internship samples. I included two outdoor family event commercials and a college news package.  I felt as though these work samples showed off my composition and editing.

How many rejections did you get?

Just one, but I hardly had any call backs. The single rejection I did get was for a position at a money management firm.

I applied to television jobs for more than a year with no progress and was desperate for a full-time position. I had a phone interview. Quickly realized I was making a mistake and after that I changed my whole job search. I didn’t want to be stuck in a job I would regret.

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

I had to look beyond where I was currently living and move. I had the support of my fiancée at the time to move together wherever I could get a job.

I printed a map of the United States. Circled all the states I was willing to relocate. Searched for all of the stations within the nearest state first. Found their websites. Sent resumes to any open positions to stations below market 100.

I felt any station above market 100 wasn’t going to call me back because I lacked newsroom experience.

Days after the management firm interview, I landed my first interview with a news station.

What happened in your first interview?

My first interview was over the phone. The news director asked me tough questions and I was sensing he didn’t like my answers. I probably came across rehearsed. He asked if I was planning to work at the station and then leave to a higher market? At the time, I hadn’t thought that far. I just wanted a job in broadcast.

At the end of the interview, I took full advantage of asking the news director why people like working at the station and if I could advance in the company? I think that last question put him at ease that I wasn’t thinking about station-hopping. I found out later the photogs before me kept leaving after a few months. 

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

I had a second interview on a Friday through Skype with one of the executive producers and the head photographer. It felt more relaxed than my first. I remember being asked if I can be first to a breaking news scene before a reporter? I said, “Yes! I’ll be first on scene.”

On Monday, the news director called me. He asked how I felt about the Skype interview and he offered me the job.

Then I said, “I’m getting married in three weeks!”

I left that part out on the first phone interview just so I wasn’t immediately disqualified.

The news director laughed and pushed down my start date a week later.

(A good note for Skype interviews, I placed two table lamps near my laptop as a key and fill light and found a non-distracting background to place myself. I had earphones plugged in to eliminate the microphone echo.)

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

I wished I reached out to companies before graduation. Then again, I felt I’ve gained so much from this journey. Naturally I’m shy and quiet.  Working as a photog has brought me out of my comfort zone. Still, I wish I was fearless. I guess that’s something you don’t learn until you knock on people’s doors asking for an interview.

Reporters and their politics

GEORGE-STEPHANOPOULOS-618On Twitter, Bryan Navarro wrote to me: “Is it OK or not OK for journalists to donate to politics? What about publicly expressing any sort of political opinion?”

Good question, Bryan. I debated answering this on Twitter, but realized that my opinion on this would only fit into a Norm Macdonald-esque tome. So here are my thoughts:

In high school, I had a social studies teacher named Mr. Dyal. He was an inspiration to me. He challenged me (and all of his students) to do great things, and made us think differently about the world.

At the end of the school year, he would close his class by encouraging us to make a difference in the world. “Experiment in this fragile experiment called democracy,” he would say. “And vote.”

Mr. Dyal knew that every voice makes a difference. We have the power to change things through our decisions.

To me, it shouldn’t make any difference that you are a reporter.

I have heard arguments that journalists shouldn’t even vote in elections, in order to preserve their objectivity. Some have argued that just the act of voting influences the way they view a story, and damages their credibility.

I think that’s a bit extreme.

Journalists are still human beings. We want the world to be a better place, and ensure our future and the future of our children. And in the U.S., we have the ability, because, like Mr. Dyal said, every vote counts. If we take a strict stance of non-interference, I don’t believe that benefits the bigger picture. As citizens, we have a right to vote, and I believe it’s our duty to exercise that right.

To those that would say voting gives reporters a bias, I would counter that everyone has a bias. We all have opinions on things, either positive or negative. And as my broadcasting professor Dan Garrity once put it, we can never eliminate our biases, only identify them. If reporters admit their personal biases to themselves, it reminds them and pushes them to be as unbiased as possible in their own reporting. I may agree with Candidate A’s platforms, but I’ve still got to interview Candidate B for my story on the 6 p.m. news, and I’ve got to make it fair. As reporters, we have a higher responsibility to our audience.

But that higher responsibility comes with limits.

While I disagree with the idea of a journalist not being able to vote, I do think they need to take reasonable precautions against publicly siding with one side or the other.

Journalists live in a world of “full disclosure.” We want records unsealed, information made public, and questions answered. Reporters shine a light on the dark places of the world to help people stay informed.

But we shouldn’t shy away when that light is shined back at us.

Being a journalist means living up to our responsibility to our audience. Like it or not, we’re not private citizens anymore. We are public figures, trusted with sharing information fairly and accurately. And when journalists get close to a story, whether it’s financially or ideologically, they should disclose that fact to their audience, too.

George Stephanopoulos is going through this identity crisis right now. Stephanopoulos, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and now chief anchor of ABC News, has admitted to donating $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation between 2012 and 2014. Even if his intentions were pure – he said the donations were to further the causes of AIDS research and deforestation – Stephanopoulos should’ve recognized that his involvement in the charity would call his reporting on the Clintons into question. His previous work with the Clinton administration complicates it more. But what’s more, he didn’t disclose this information to viewers until now.

The magnifying glass is on him right now. Despite all of the work he’s done at ABC News, his credibility is being called into question.

And in the end, our credibility is all we have. Being a fair reporter means sacrificing your ability to publicly support or oppose something. If you strongly feel something is wrong, do your diligent reporting and let the facts of a story prove it (or allow the facts to change your mind). Our responsibility is to inform our audience as clearly as we can. If something is interfering with your ability to be impartial, it should be avoided. And if you are unsure whether you’ve crossed a line, your audience should know, to help them understand the whole picture.

Vote at the ballot box, but not in the press box.

How I Got the Job: James Churchill

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: James Churchill, video assistant with the Seattle Seahawks.

1555537_10151857047546574_305369281_nWhen did you start looking for your first media job?

After I graduated, I came back to Seattle and returned to my job pumping gas into airplanes at Kenmore Air while I tried to line something up. I believe I started sending out resumes and applications maybe a month or two after I was home, so probably the late Summer of 2009.

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

Well, I didn’t want to be on-air talent so I didn’t have a tape per say, but I did have a few episodes of shows that we had done at GUTV at Gonzaga University. I wanted to be a director so I figured it’d be best to have a few full samples. I had a newscast, a baseball game, and a comedy show handy if anybody had wanted to see them but I never actually had to show them to anyone.

What was your first job interview like?

My first interview was at a TV station in Seattle in 2009 for a job as a news assistant. I never thought I had a chance to even be considered for the job when I applied because I figured it was too big of a market for some recent college grad, but alas they gave me the interview anyways. They showed me around the studio and newsroom first and then brought me into an office and asked a handful of questions. The common theme was “why do you want to do this?” And that’s a fair question as the hours would have been rough, and the pay would have been terrible, but I just wanted to get my foot in the door in a major market and try to work my way up the ladder. When the interview ended I felt like I had answered to questions honestly and sincerely but I received notice a few days later that they had gone with someone with more experience and would keep me in mind if another position opened up. That was the last time I applied or interviewed at a TV station.

What skills did you practice in college that you now use as a video assistant?

I’d say the skills that I use the most right now that I learned in school are the ability to manipulate cameras quickly (we use ENG cameras primarily). For example, when we shoot practice we try to have all three cameras match perfectly so as you switch from one angle to another you don’t notice anything goofy (like a bad white balance, or someone is on the wrong filter and it’s too dark). In the fall, we tend to have a lot of days that are partly cloudy and we have to constantly adjust our cameras between sun and shade settings in unison. It sounds easy, but if you only have a few seconds before the next rep in practice, you have to be quick.

Other skills that I value from school include, working as a team under tight deadlines. Learning to deal with criticism (whether constructive or otherwise) and quickly putting things behind you and moving on to the next task.

Was there anything about the position that surprised you coming into it?

To be honest I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started. I just wanted to get paid to have a camera in my hands and I’d do whatever I was told in order to make that happen. I always figured it would be in news or something similar but dumb luck took me another direction.

First, football practices are very regimented and precisely timed, so don’t fall behind, or you will have many people that aren’t happy with you. Beyond getting over the initial fear of screwing up in the tower (and the fear of actually being in the tower), I quickly realized how much of my job now is based around managing our video system, which marries various video clips with game or practice data. It’s taken me years of working with it to become comfortable with it and I’m still learning new tricks every day. There are responsibilities beyond video that they give to us as well. For instance, on a road trip, the four of us are responsible for creating meeting rooms complete with computers, projectors, speakers and whatever else they might need to feel like they are at home. On gameday, while my three coworkers are shooting the game (along with our counterparts from the other team), I sit in the coaches booth and print off still images of the presnap and postsnap (that goofy tablet Bill Belichick is always carrying around, that’s me). Any given week, I’m probably only shooting for about eight hours and that probably surprised me the most once I started working here.

What is your advice to a student wanting a career in an athletics video/media department?

Every major college, pro football, pro hockey, pro (and probably minor league) baseball, some pro soccer, and pro basketball has an analytical video positions of some sort. I started shooting college football, but also shot college softball, basketball, soccer, baseball, and MLS before I started working in the NFL. Bottom line, do anything that’s available, and you’ll make plenty of connections in the process.

Creating a shared journalistic universe, Avengers-style

Journalists … assemble!

After the credits rolled in 2008’s “Iron Man,” Tony Stark returns home to find a mysterious man waiting for him.

“You’re part of a bigger universe,” the man says. “You just don’t know it yet.”

The man reveals himself to be Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.”

And with that, Marvel studios made a statement: these movies weren’t self-contained anymore. They were building a shared universe.

From there, each movie told a story, then kept viewers moving forward to the next thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After Iron Man defeated the bad guys in his sequel, the end of the movie tantalized viewers with a shot of a mystical hammer, setting up 2011’s “Thor.” The end of “Thor” set up “Captain America,” which then set up “The Avengers.”

Each movie told its complete story, then told viewers that there was more to come. With the exception of a couple of stumbles (I’m looking at you, “Iron Man 2”) the movies never forfeited the plot of the current movie for the sake of setting up the next one – the movies told their story and teased what was to come.

And it’s worked. Not only are the movies really fun, the 11 films have grossed nearly $8 billion since 2008.

Like most geek-centric things, I saw the journalism connection in that.

There are two major questions every news outlet asks – how do we attract viewers, and how do we keep them? For the former, in the simplest terms, you attract viewers by giving them something they want to see. I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that if the quality is good, people will flock to it. Yes, there is much more to it than that (you’ve got to market it and distribute it in the right way), but the quality will always be major factor. Iron Man was an unknown property in 2008, but the movie was good, and people saw it.

As for the question about how to keep viewers, we again need to look at the Avengers model – keep giving your audience a reason to come back.

Stories don’t just begin and end. They’re not episodes of a TV show where everything is back to normal at the end. Stories are living things – they evolve, change, and update. So should your coverage. Update with the changing story, then promise your audience something new to come as you follow it.

When you work on a story, you should always be asking yourself – “what’s next?” That does two things – it helps you develop follow up stories to explore the topic fully, and it helps you find ways to keep the viewers sticking around to find out more. Tell your story fully, then make sure your audience knows there will be more in time.

I had an example of this during the summer of 2014. Several vacant buildings and warehouses had been intentionally set on fire by an arsonist, causing major damage. If we had just done the initial story on the fires themselves, our coverage would be over in a day, and viewers would have no reason to come back. But we found ways to forward the story. We did a story on the owners of the buildings and how the fire impacted them. We did a story on the increased police patrols to catch the arsonist. We did a story on the community response, and found a non-profit that removed their newspaper recycling bin out of fear it would be a target. As the arsons continued off-and-on for weeks, we presented maps of all the places that were targeted, and looked at patterns. We examined the psychology of an arsonist.

We drove viewers to our Twitter and Facebook pages for real-time info, then sent those readers back to the newscast and web site when we had in-depth stories ready. When a press conference was set to announce the arsonist’s arrest, we covered it live, live-tweeted it, then promised and delivered more in-depth stories for the newscast and web site.

In short, we kept the story moving forward. We promised something more, then when we delivered it, we promised something else, and so on.

There’s always a balance to it, though. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized at times for trying to shoehorn too much into movies to set up future installments. Same goes for journalism, if you do too many angles on a story, some viewers may get burned out. Don’t force an angle of a story when it’s not there. Follow the story as it naturally develops, and continually push your audience to the right spot to receive it.

Even if it seems like your garden-variety, day-turn story, find ways to keep your audience with you. Follow the story live on Twitter, then push those viewers to your newspaper for a richer experience. Once they are there, push them back to social media to continue following the evolving story. It’s a cycle.

Just like superhero movies, newspapers can’t exist on their own anymore. If you want to keep your viewers around, you need to give them a reason to keep coming in. Journalists are part of a bigger universe. It’s time we knew that.

How I Got the Job: Emily Wood

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: Emily Wood, reporter for WLWT in Cincinnati.

HEAD_SHOT_400x400When did you start looking for your first TV job?

I started immediately after I graduated. My final quarter project was to create a resume tape and I may be aging myself but I used a combination of VHS tapes, yes, you heard it right, V-H-S tapes and DVDs. I used a wonderful online site TVjobs.com to search for openings (tip: I split the cost/shared login information with a friend). I also researched markets I really wanted to work in and checked each station’s website for openings.

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

My best work! If your favorite story/great video/solid writing is a lighter feature, use it. News directors have seen and heard it all content wise, show your talent in its best form. My reel started with a 30 second montage of stand-ups. It was a combination of static shots, moving active show-and-tells and some creative editing. I followed it up with three packages, only three and I’d be lucky if the person watching made it through the first one. I remember at least one was a feature, the other two slightly harder or more informative news.

How many rejections did you get?

Oh plenty! I still have two or three rejection letters, and those are just the ones I know about because they wrote me back. I saved them all because it reminds me how subjective this business can be. I have no idea how many stations tossed my DVD or trashed my resume. Treat it similar to a relationship. It’s not a question of how good you are or how good the station is, it’s really how well you think the two will work together. You have to be compatible and getting a rejection just means it wouldn’t work out and you are better off.

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

Not really. I had great advice from my professors and instructors. I was prepared for rejection and how long it could take. In all I think I sent out 30 packets of resumes/tapes, enough that the woman at the post office knew me by name. Every week it was, “So what city are we applying to today?” I kept my search broad; I applied to stations in Hawaii, Alaska, the Midwest, the Southeast, the East Coast and West Coast. Be willing to move!

What happened in your first interview?

My first interview was a phone interview and I was so nervous. The initial call came when I was driving in the car with my parents to visit family. I’d been answering every phone call especially those from an unknown area code. I will never forget telling him I was driving and making my mother nervous since I was on my cell phone. He appreciated my honesty and we set up a time for a more formal interview later that week. The station could not afford to fly me out so the entire interview was over the phone. He asked a lot of questions, many of which I cannot remember but I do remember telling some personal stories. Keep in mind, you are being considered to be a story-teller so don’t make it all professional talk.

Did you ever turn down a job offer? Why?

I did. I had two offers at once so I had to make a really tough decision. They were both far from home, Oregon vs. Washington, $20K/year vs. $21K/year, Market 140 vs. Market 122 (I still have the pro/con list I made). My deciding factor was talking to current employees at each station. I got the best feeling and had the easiest conversations from my future co-workers at the smaller station for less money. Never let market size or salary solidify your decision. Best thing you can do before accepting a job is talk to people who already work there. I simply asked the news director to give me some names and contact information.

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

It was two months before I got my first phone call, then another month for my second and before I knew it I had two offers on the table. Both were offered over the phone and I was elated but then freaked out about having to make a decision.

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

Nothing. I loved my resume, my reel and my cover letters. I took the time to craft each letter to the specific market and the specific station I was applying to. It takes time but it’s well worth it and a preview of what you have to do every day as a reporter — pitch stories! Looking back it would have been nice to fly out to see each station and feel “wined and dined” but I know I made the right decision and Oregon was the perfect fit for me.

Comparing news homepages during big news

Friday, charges were issued to Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. It’s the latest development in what has been an emotionally-charged situation in Baltimore, with another added twist now that officers are being charged with Gray’s murder.

In breaking news situations, people will turn to whatever medium will get them information the fastest. Tweets will grab people’s attention, but in complicated cases like this, web sites will provide the most information and be the most flexible when it comes to updating breaking news.

But none of that means anything if the home page doesn’t keep the reader hooked. It’s a tough task; you need to convey information, grab people’s attention, and keep them clicking on your site. When someone heads to your website, they will decide in seconds whether they will keep reading.

With that in mind, let’s compare today’s coverage of the charges on the homepages of CNN and The Guardian.

CNN’s page presented it as straightforward as they could:

Screen-Shot-2015-05-01-at-11.12.39-AMThe big, bold headline grabs you the moment the page loads. “OFFICERS CHARGED.” Anyone will know what it’s referring to, unless you’ve been on Mars, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears.

The headline and picture combo works, too. The big hammer headline says “CHARGED” and the picture shows the person doing the charging. A deck makes it clear this is about the Freddie Gray case, and a second deck clarifies that the person in the picture is prosecutor Marilyn Mosby.

CNN (in the efforts of cross-branded promotion) also gives a link to their live stream at the top of the page, so people who are interested in watching can follow along with video.

By itself, CNN’s version is pretty good. But the problem is that, CNN deploys this same layout EVERY DAY. Giant scary headline with a big picture, no matter what the lead story is. Don’t believe me? Here are some other examples, with varying degrees of news value.

Screen shot 2015-05-01 at 11.14.08 AM cnn.com-large cnnWhen everything looks exactly the same, nothing stands out. Similar sized pictures and headlines for stories that can’t be any more different hurts your ability to connect to readers. Save your large headlines for the stories that need it, not filler content about Putin’s struggles.

Here’s how The Guardian covered today’s news:

Screen-Shot-2015-05-01-at-11.17.51-AMThe Guardian takes a less dramatic approach to the news. The headline and picture aren’t as big, but they are still significantly larger than anything else on the page, which suggests to the readers that the story is important.

What I also like is that The Guardian takes a more comprehensive approach to the story, by presenting multiple stories examining different sides. The “breaking news” is today’s news about the charges being filed. There’s further news stories to read about a second prisoner speaking out, and details about Gray’s cause of death. They’ve also linked to an opinion piece about the case. The Guardian does a great job of grouping their related stories together; you don’t need to search around to find more on the topic you want.

But there are definitely some flaws with the layout. The very first words in the headline are “Freddie Gray,” yet the picture is of the prosecutor. Mosby’s face might not be recognizable to readers, so they may be left wondering if the picture is for an unrelated story. I also find it awkward that the weather is given a prime position at the top of the page, suggesting its importance alongside stories of Freddie Gray and Ben. E. King.

But The Guardian and CNN take very different approaches to news, and these layouts reflect those attitudes.

The big thing about covering big news on your web site is to walk the tightrope. Emphasize its importance without sensationalizing it. Give information on the home page, but not so much that it overwhelms your readers.

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.”

…what?

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.