Category Archives: Journalists – General

Our images of crime victims

Back in December, I said I would remain deliberately vague for now about my book project. That’s still the case, but I’ll drop a little hint about what’s on my mind by talking about the lecture I’ll give today.

I’m honored to be invited back to the Syracuse University College of Law and to a class I helped create about 10 years ago on law, politics and media. It’s an outgrowth of a program that combines the strengths of SU’s journalism, public affairs, and law schools. And under the direction of my former colleagues it excels at exploring the issues at the intersection of these powerful forces.

My talk builds on the work that I did on a series about the ways in which we fail crime victims with tough-on-crime policies. I will look at how news coverage of crime distorts our views of the realities of violence and its victims — who they usually are (namely, poor people of color, not the more famous victims we see in the news advocating harsher laws) and what they really need (crime prevention and healing services, not just a focus on how much to punish offenders). News is defined by what’s unusual, and so we are fed a diet of scary aberrations. That influences public opinion and policy aimed at preventing less likely crimes and ignores the most common forms of  violence and their victims.

I’m not entirely pessimistic. I’ll talk about the solutions-journalism approach that informs the surplus of quality journalism these days on criminal-justice policy. But myths, which often start with news coverage, still dominate much of our thinking. For proof of that, we need to look no further than President Trump’s emphasis on crimes committed by immigrants, which runs directly counter to the facts about that population’s propensity to commit crime.

I’m not saying yet there’s definitely a book to be written on this topic — that’s still in the talking and preliminary-research stages — but stay tuned.

Glass half-full

In the first two parts of a three-part New York Review of Books series on the quality of journalism online, Michael Massing has amassed a thoughtful collection of reported anecdotes that serves as an unusually detailed snapshot of the current state of the industry. Part one evaluates the quality of first-generation online journalism and declares it kind of “meh.” Part two asks how digital startups of more recent vintage have fared. His verdict: disappointing and uneven, with such heralded innovations as longform narratives “stillborn.” (Massing says his third part will appear later this year.)

While I appreciate Massing’s focus on editorial quality instead of the usual hand-wringing about the commercial prospects of online publishing, I see his take on things as entirely too pessimistic — at least when it concerns the criminal-justice journalism that I pay close attention to.

I’m not a preternaturally positive guy, especially on the topic of quality journalism. After all, consider: a decimated business model in traditional publishing; stagnant wages and free-falling freelance rates; the ascendance of the most vapid forms of journalism as product-promoting PR, celebrity-celebrating fluff, and listicle-churning clickbait. I regularly see friends and former colleagues laid off, fellow freelancers abandoning journalism for gigs as sponsored-content writers, and newsroom morale rotting in a stew of idiotic corporate Dilbert-itis and quality-killing staffing losses. In crime news specifically, it’s far easier to find exploitative, mindless scare stories aimed at fueling rage and resentment than to see stories deeply reported and emotionally powerful that offer solutions and understanding.

But here are some snapshots of my own that show why developments in the past year or two justify optimism:

SO MUCH GOOD STUFF

Here’s last week’s City and Regional Magazine Awards‘ crime-heavy winners list. That’s not surprising, considering what any major journalism awards list looks like year after year. There is such a surfeit of deeply reported, meaningful journalism and so many ways to find it — from curated sites and feeds, and from daily newsletters like those from The Marshall Project and The Crime Report — that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. And equally impossible to take seriously the frequently made claim that “the media” (as if it’s just one, monolithic thing) don’t care about substance.

I recently abandoned my unpaid work in keeping my own list of standout stories, simply because the volume overwhelmed me and was seriously cutting into my productive time to earn a living doing this work instead of just talking about it. (I still post links to such stories several times a day on my social-media feeds, though I no longer feel obligated to read and critique more than I can fit into my schedule.)

Last week’s conference of Investigative Reporters & Editors drew about 1,800 journalists to several days of high-level seminars on producing public-interest, accountability journalism. Judging from my Twitter feed, the conference continues to grow and has lost none of its power as an inspirational gathering of the craft’s leading practitioners.

The point is: If you claim this kind of journalism is going away, then you’re just not looking for it.

SO MUCH FRESH TALENT

On Saturday night, one of my former students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Julie McMahon of the Syracuse Post-Standard, won AP New York state honors as young journalist of the year. She also won first places for beat reporting (she covers the cops beat) and for features. Here is her winning story, a powerful story about a gunshot victim’s recovery. In just her first few years as a pro, she has shown she has the brains, skills, and work ethic to carve out a significant role for herself in a business (both generally, and specifically at the Post-Standard) that has been declared all but dead.

She is hardly alone in that. Look, for example, at the winners and their work in the recently announced Livingston Awards, where important criminal-justice stories dominate.

SO MANY AMBITIOUS STARTUPS

Though The Marshall Project gets most of the attention, as the boldest crime-focused digital-journalism startup — and deservedly, as its stellar team consistently produces smart, deep storytelling on the most important policy topics — crime stories with true merit regularly sprout at such sites as The Intercept, Reveal, Vox, Yahoo News, Vice, The Atavist, TakePart, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, Matter, Texas Tribune (and many other regional digital-news outlets), podcasts such as Life of the Law and Criminal, and many others. Not to mention old-timers like Politico, Slate, and Alternet.

Will they all survive while sustaining the current output of ambitious journalism? Of course not. But think back just a few years, to a time when all we ever heard was naysaying about the potential for any seeds to sprout in the Web’s fallow soil. Here we are, awash in good stuff by new players, at traditional and digital-native operations alike, and by young and not-so-young journalists making a living at it.

Massing’s point is broader than my crime-specific take on the business. But, from what I see happening in the journalism of science, politics, sports, culture, and business, crime journalism is no outlier. Though the business models continue to struggle for footing, we’re creating the necessary precursor for any successful business and industry: a quality product that draws an audience and serves the public interest.

Tools of my trade

When hackers yesterday and today took down Evernote and Feedly, I hardly knew what to do with myself. So of course I quipped about it on Facebook — and then started thinking more about the ways in which my craft’s essential tools have changed so dramatically during my career.

For an old guy who started out writing and editing on manual typewriters and mainframe computers, today’s tools and vocabulary mark a radical shift in work habits and efficiency. I know, not exactly a blinding insight. But, on the off chance that this illustrates the methods journalists might use to report and organize large projects, here’s my current toolkit, roughly in descending order of importance to me, and omitting the most obvious (phone, email, web browsing, a camera, and Word):

Todoist has largely replaced the traditional calendar to help me track what must be done on any given day in any particular project. I still do put appointments (with email and popup reminders) on an online calendar (Google).

Scrivener allows me to compile all my notes and source materials on any given story, making the drafting of stories (before I switch to Word to work with an editor) far more convenient and failsafe.

FileMaker Pro lets me compile databases of research (news and scholarly articles, my own notes on them and on my interviews) and contacts so that no matter how I might try to search for background materials, I can easily find them.

ExpressScribe is a handy transcription tool for my recorded interviews. Once I’ve transcribed the notes, I turn them into a PDF and catalog them in FileMaker and place them in a Scrivener project.

Hootsuite makes it easier to post updates across all of my social-media feeds, which I use to build the proverbial author platform.

Speaking of social media, Twitter and Feedly (for RSS feeds) are my primary sources of links to news and new research. Facebook helps, too, though its opaque algorithms for what might appear in the news feed make me distrust it.

WordPress makes building a portfolio site and maintaining a blog easy for me.

LinkedIn‘s search tools are great for finding existing and new sources and contacts, though I hardly use it as a news feed. Google+ is even less critical to my work, but I post my updates to them all because people following me or looking for the kind of information I share might prefer them so I must be there.

Evernote is my preferred method of keeping lists of ideas and links that aren’t to-do items (though Evernote does that, too, I prefer Todoist) or extensive notes that I want to index in my database and project files.

Genius Scan makes it easy to snap an image of a document to convert to a PDF.

Quicken helps me keep tabs on my freelance finances — the money coming in or, more often, going out — so that tax time is much less of a hassle than it used to be.

Carbonite provides me the peace of mind to know that if I were to lose my computer hard drive and an external drive at the same time, I’d still have all my essential files.

I have a new digital recorder, after mine died during a recent interview on an out-of-state trip (I used my iPhone as a backup recorder, which worked fine, but I still need the recorder to capture phone interviews and to have a tool that’s much more likely to get through prison security than a phone). Olympus makes an inexpensive earbud that plugs into the recorder while I hold the phone to my earbud-filled ear, which makes for usable but not production-quality audio (especially if I make the mistake I did recently of conducting the interview while walking at my treadmill desk; the slight jiggling movement made for crappy recording quality!)

With the exception of the recording devices, I use these tools on my MacBook Pro and my iPhone, either or both.

And yes, I also break out pen and reporter pad or legal pad now and then. Next to my treadmill desk is a large cork board where I tack index cards showing my ideas and plans for the current year-long project. There’s nothing like the analog beauty of red and black markers to retrieve information at a glance.

Prison project in capable hands

I practically threw my credit card at Beacon Reader when I heard that it was crowdfunding an extensive series of stories by Shane Bauer on America’s prisons. In my post two months ago, I focused not just on the topic’s relevance to my work but also on my admiration for Bauer’s work. Still, I was willing to wait, and not demand a refund, when Bauer announced he was taking a job at Mother Jones.

My patience paid off with yesterday’s announcement by Beacon about Bauer’s replacements to produce “The Legacy of Mass Incarceration.” In choosing two journalists with an impressive track record of reporting and writing on the topic, Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville, and in a series of transparent emails to subscribers sharing updates and opt-out information along the way, Beacon has retained my loyalty. I eagerly await the start of this series and urge others interested in quality journalism on criminal justice to support it. 

Meantime, browse the pair’s work at NBCNews.com and The Nation that Beacon shared:

 
 
 
 

An investment in quality

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 1.34.28 PMI just got around to reading David Cay Johnston’s piece in the latest Columbia Journalism Review, which makes the same point I made in this post last October, except with considerably more reporting and thought. The topic: how Gannett has syndicated USA Today in its regional newspapers, deepening those newspapers’ national and international content while at the same time — at least in Rochester, where its Democrat & Chronicle is my and Johnston’s local paper — investing in watchdog reporting on local government. Since I wrote my post, on the first day of Gannett’s experiment, the D&C has sustained its quality, proving this was no gimmick.

I don’t pretend to know if this heralds a new era of quality — investing in the product, rather than slashing staff and other expenses, to reverse the industry’s decline — but if it’s a doomed effort, at least Gannett will have gone down fighting instead of surrendering.

Corporate journalism has its faults, of course. In the same issue of CJR, former FCC commissioner Michael Copps paints a damning portrait of the agency’s unholy alliance with a television and broadband industry hellbent on gutting the quality of its journalism amid a consolidation binge. But no matter how promising the latest innovations are in crowdfunding, non-profit ownership, and self-publishing, there’s no real substitute for a vibrant, profitable industry that can sustain itself by producing meaningful journalism in the public interest.

Crowdfunding a prison series

Shane Bauer, whose fine work in writing about solitary confinement I praised here, has embarked on a new venture: a year-long reporting effort aimed at American prisons, but only if he receives $75,000 in readers’ pledges through Beacon, a months-old crowdfunding site for journalists. A pledge of at least $5 per month unlocks not only Bauer’s promised series, but also all other stories on Beacon. Pony up at least $125, and Bauer throws in an autographed copy of A Sliver of Light, his new book on his experience as a prisoner in Iran. Bauer and Beacon explain it in detail, and then there’s this story in the Times today by Sydney Ember.

Based on Bauer’s track record as a reporter and writer, and on his compelling and necessary topic, I’m in. It’s easy to be skeptical of such funding schemes (for another example, see Big Roundtable), but I applaud their creativity in seeking a model that will provide journalists with a way to make a living at this kind of work. Anything that divorces journalism from the tyranny of low-CPM web ads and click-bait recycling of others’ original reporting is worthy of serious readers’ support.

“Turn every page”

In a previous life, I started and ran a grant-funded program meant to tempt journalism students to taste the sweet wonders of legal reporting. When that bombed, I broadened the focus of the guest lecture I gave each semester in all the reporting classes at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. Instead of instruction in covering the courts and police, I showed how using documents — any documents, not just legal or even just governmental — enriches reporting and provides a needed supplement to interviews.

I usually started that talk with a Robert Caro anecdote. (No, they didn’t know who he was, for the same reason they didn’t think they’d ever need to know about legal reporting — because it didn’t have an exclusive focus on fashion, celebrities, or sports.) I’d been told the story by a lawyer friend in Austin who attended a Caro lecture at the LBJ Library. It worked, in my lecture, because he made the same point I wanted to make: This ain’t rocket science. Just take the time to ask for and read the documents and you’ll find stories.

Caro retold a version of the same story in a newly published Q&A at the wonderful Nieman Storyboard site. It appears in part 1 (here’s part 2). He starts with this:

I was thrown into investigative reporting when I really knew nothing about it. I was 23 years old, and I told my editor that I didn’t know anything about it, and he said, “Just never assume a damn thing.” He said, “Turn every page.” That’s really what I’ve tried to do.

He goes on to tell of a juicy nugget he found about LBJ’s fund-raising machine and how it illustrated a central mystery about his subject, whose power and effectiveness in leading the Senate stemmed from the cash that flowed through his hands. The interview, conducted by the Washington Post‘s Anne Hull, covers much else about Caro’s lifelong quest to tell the story of LBJ and his times, focusing on his work habits and methods, including his ability to get people talking. But it’s that key point about documents — so prosaic, yet so easily overlooked by superficial and deadline-pressed reporting — that resonates the most with me.

The Nieman post includes this hour-plus video. I didn’t watch it. I prefer the document.