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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten: Top Ten


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Ten: Top Ten

By Wendy A. Hoke

John Allen, Vatican correspondent National Catholic Reporter and CNN

Q: What’s it like living abroad and writing for an American news outlet?

A: The mainstream American press generally doesn’t take religion, let alone the Vatican, terribly seriously as a news beat, so it can sometimes be difficult to get the attention of American editors and producers for stories you may think are important.

The main challenge is that reporters have to be terribly self-disciplined, with a strong internal editor, because the kind of fact-checking and question-raising that normally goes on in newsrooms on other beats just doesn’t happen on this one.


Kai Ryssdal, radio host of American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and “Marketplace Money”

Q: What goes into the writing process when you know at least a segment of the listening audience is going to be tuned in on their way home from work?

A: After the morning editorial meeting, I let it sit in the back of my brain and bubble around. Around 11:30 to 12, I get a sandwich and listen to the stories and the commentary that are in and then I start to write...

I’m at my most creative under pressure, and I find I can’t get it right if I try to work from the top of the show down. So I work my way up so that by 20 to 25 minutes past 1, I’m working on my opening and commentary. I’ll do a table read with the senior producer to make sure it sounds good, but otherwise it goes from my computer to the airwaves.


Jim Amoss, editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Q: What lessons did you learn in the struggle to put out the paper under such dire circumstances (of Hurricane Katrina)?

A: I learned in a visceral way just how vital newspapers are to communities. Maybe that notion would not be so big 20 years ago, but it’s a lesson being driven home daily to us. Newspapers are, in so many ways, the glue that binds communities together.

We’re (New Orleanians) a strange case and part of this one big ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder partaking collectively of great big therapy session. We’re (the newspaper) not the therapist, but the moderator and facilitator for many different conversations.


Chris Nolan, editor of Spot-on.com

Q: How would you advise seasoned journalists to become more familiar with technology and the way people get their information?

A: Start by reading your own online Web pages. Many newspaper Web pages are unattractive and difficult to use, but the Examiner folks have been constantly tweaking their site and making it more attractive. Some of coolest sites are from magazines. Vanity Fair is brilliant and really well done.

The second thing is to look at your kids. They’re not reading newspapers, but they are reading. Look at and learn from how they use cell phones and text messaging. Kids are not going to grow out of it; they take it for granted. The ability to collect and gather news is dispersed, and I can’t articulate that any more clearly.


Dana Priest, Washington Post

Q: Your stories (about CIA secret prisons in Eastern Europe) were a lesson in the value of painstaking reporting, cultivation of sources, patience and well-crafted narrative. How did you spend your days working on this and also reporting on regular beat stories?

A: This beat is one in which you have to sew together scraps, not even big pieces of fabric. A scrap is so little you don’t even know how it’s important, but it can lead to something that leads to something that leads to the name of the thing.

You have to pay attention to those things, those little scraps of information. There’s no way my brain can handle it all, so I put as much as I can somewhere in notes, in categories because I never know when something takes on meaning. This really involves paying attention to what people say, keeping it all organized, even while you’re working on a daily.

...While you’re waiting for those pieces to come together, you have to have something else to do, such as dailies or work on another big project.


Hannah Allam, Cairo bureau chief, Knight-Ridder

Q: What advice would you share with journalists interested in an overseas assignment?

A: Definitely have language skills. I speak French and can get by in Arabic. Watch foreign media — BBC, Irish Television, Voice of America. On my laptop I have bookmarked Yahoo Iran and Yahoo Iraq, and I also receive an e-mail bulletin of Al-Jazeera in English.

To avoid parachute journalism, focus on the region and get your hands on anything you can read about this area and its history. Read its literature and poetry because that gives you something in common and can turn an interview into a conversation.


Jack Shafer, Slate media critic

Q: You tend to be critical of trend stories. Why?

A: Whenever a civilian reads a news story about something he knows lot about, he’s appalled at the thinness. I try to approach every story with the skepticism I think a civilian expert would have.

Whenever you write a trend story, show me the data. Don’t show me the press release. Show me some demonstrable uptick in usage or occurrence. Where there is no data, it doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a story. Some are anecdotal stories, but that doesn’t always make it a trend..."


Lester Holt, NBC “Today” Weekend Edition

Q: Do you see differences between network and cable news?

A: I straddled the line for a number of years. I was at MSNBC, and then added NBC, and now I’m just with NBC.

Cable by its nature has to keep the story going. The viewer is invited into the process. As I learn something they learn it. As a result, sometimes it’s rough around the edges.

Broadcast news has the luxury of time to prepare shows. There are fewer surprises in broadcast news. When something big is breaking, however, I love when MSNBC calls. I’ve been doing some of the reporting on the crisis in the Middle East.


Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent, National Public Radio

Q: You never went to law school or J-school and dropped out of Boston University. How does that help or hurt your career as a legal affairs reporter? Have you ever felt compelled to complete your degree?

A: I never felt a necessity to go back to school. I never was a great student. I was a much better reporter. I was a journalism major in college, not that it made a huge difference one way or the other.

Most people are quite surprised to find out I’m not a lawyer. But in this job I think it helps because most people listening are not lawyers. That’s the challenge, to take this complex material and make is accessible to the public. I probably know more about constitutional law than most lawyers. I know nothing about contract law, which is what many practice.


Rick Bragg, writing professor, University of Alabama

Q: What do you do when the editor wants the story straight?

A: Some editors will insist the lead be straight. When Susan Smith was convicted of killing her two young sons, it hadn’t rained in a long time and it was hot, miserably hot outside. It wasn’t the very second the gavel came down but right about that time it thundered and started to rain. I looked up at the ceiling and said, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for my lead.”

I wrote a gothic lead about how at the minute her fate was decided in this town that had suffered so, the heavens opened up. The editor told me this story would lead the paper tomorrow and the lead story in the New York Times will never be like that.

I was dictating the lead over the phone and when he said no, I handled it in a mature manner. I beat the phone to bits. He told me, “We think the lead should be ‘Susan Smith was found guilty today of the murder of her two sons by a jury of six men and six women.’ ” I said, “No, hell no! Give me 15 minutes to come up with something.”...

So I wrote something that read, “A jury of Susan Smith’s friends and neighbors have decided they cannot kill her in retribution for drowning her two sons, but instead have sentenced her to life in a cage to remember.”

You have to compromise. They got it straight, but with some color and only one phone had to die in the process.

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