It arrived in the mail this week. Landed in our mailbox. The one at the curb, not in the computer.
Imagine that. I cannot recall the last time I received a “picture postcard.” This one was from Lake Placid, and it was sent by a friend who surprises us from time to time with a note or a phone call.
Those are nice surprises. We like them and enjoy them. They make us smile. Kind of like the nice surprises that thoughtful writers strategically place in their stories. A detail here. An anecdote there.
Roy Peter Clark, of The Poynter Institute, is a longtime proponent of these. He teaches writers how to reward readers with these little gems, which he calls “gold coins” — #32 on his list of 50 Writing Tools: “Place gold coins along the path. Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.”
We spend a lot of time these days talking technology. Using it. Teaching it. Adapting journalism to it. That’s all great. We need to do that and should be doing that.
But amid all of the disruption we experience in the journalism profession today, one constant remains. Stephen Cvengros said it well in a tweet when he was named vice president of content for Syracuse Media Group back in September. “Always remember media friends: It is ‘Journalism first.’ “
That is always good to hear.
It’s also good that postcards are still in circulation. And that some people still send them.
The final strategy of our “Think Like an Editor” book ends with “Strategy 50: Keep Asking Questions.” We chose that ending because, as we wrote, it’s a theme of the entire book: “Good journalists – passionate ones – ask the right questions.”
We firmly believe: “Questions are liberating, not confining. They release your creativity and unleash your curiosity.”
At the midpoint of our academic semester, now is a good time to revisit Our Final 10 Questions. They are posed in a way for journalists to focus their minds and keep improving their products and themselves.
- How have I added value to the work I do and what I produce?
- What purpose is my work serving in my community and for my audience?
- How can readers and consumers act on my work?
- How have I been creative?
- How have I inspired others, whether they are peers and colleagues or readers and consumers?
- What do people need to know and how can I deliver it to them?
- How can I embrace and involve my audience?
- How have I had fun?
- What have I learned?
- How can I work better with my colleagues?
Each question is accompanied by the briefest of explanations, such as the one about having fun: “If you’re bored, your audience is bored.”
We invite you to join us in the never-ending effort to do good journalism and enjoy doing it. For journalists, every day is different. That’s half the fun of it. The other half is what we make of each day.
For roughly the past 30 days, we have taken our own advice, which we wrote in our last blog post: It’s acceptable to have an unexpressed thought.
We have not posted to this blog since that entry.
During that time, we thought each day about what we might write. But, we also were well aware that there sure is a lot of information blogging around the universe.
So why start expressing now?
- A week ago, on my way to campus, I watched a woman get out of her car and move an orange construction cone that stood between her and her destination. (No matter that the cone, positioned in the middle of a lane, was there to prevent car tires from dipping into a handsomely sized pothole – a caution no longer visible for the poor drivers coming along after her.)
- Days ago, while inching closer to an intersection after waiting in a long line through several cycles of a traffic light, I watched in amazement as two cars in front of me nearly sideswiped each other because they simultaneously came upon the idea to bypass the light by driving diagonally through the gas station to our right. (Never mind that cutting a corner that way is illegal.)
- Today, I witnessed acts of kindness as several cars ahead of me stopped to allow other cars into the long line as we all waited to cross what has been a one-lane bridge because of renovations the past five months. (So a few cars further back probably didn’t make it through the light until one more cycle.)
You can tell a lot about strangers just by the way they drive. And you can tell a lot about people by the way they handle situations involving ethics.
Ethics was today’s topic in my editing class.
- Is it unethical to taste a few grapes while walking through the produce section of the grocery store? Is that any different from tucking a package of steaks under your jacket?
- Do you accept an offer of free coffee when interviewing the owner of the shop? What about pastries from a bakery? Does it matter if the owner is a manager of a chain or a gentlemanly proprietor of a mom-and-pop?
- If you are on the police beat and going through the arrest blotter, would it be OK to pretend you didn’t see the name of a friend or family member who had been arrested in connection with a DWI? A DUI? Shoplifting? Does the crime matter?
Can you guess how some of those drivers out there would answer these ethical questions?
Decisions about ethics should be made carefully and thoughtfully, with benefit of the wisdom of others and of past experiences. We learn from our own mistakes and our own small victories. We pass it along.
Or, do we? Picture the new newsroom model that’s been coming into view. Layoffs and let-gos of years – in some cases decades – of institutional knowledge. The unraveling of a system of checks and balances that traditionally put information through layers of fact-checking and editing. Elimination of time to think, to polish, to question, to proofread, to ask the all-important question, “What’s the story?” Or, even to ask, “Is this really news?”
Is anyone out there even available to discuss an ethical question, situation, dilemma that arises? Do content creators have a system for handling ethical issues?
Does anyone even care?
Based on the answers I heard in class today, yes. People do care. And they are the up-and-coming next generation of thinkers who will work as journalists in redesigned newsrooms, in reconfigured roles, and with reconstructed sets of tools and technology. No different in many ways from previous evolutions of journalists through the years. Except for one thing: fellow journalists.
As more newsrooms adopt the back-pack journalist model, the all-in-one content producer and the leaner one-person layer that gathers and publishes, someone had better keep careful watch over the ethics of it all. If these high-tech, fast-paced times lead to inattentiveness to right and wrong, a moral compass, and gut instinct, then we will all be living in a state of deep regret – if, that is, anyone remains who passed all of that along.
One of my all-time favorite lines from a TV sitcom was delivered by the character Frasier Crane to his wife, Lilith: “It is acceptable to have an unexpressed thought.”
That sure says a lot, especially today when we are exposed to so many thoughts from so many directions, such as reader comments on stories and streams of tweets.
But there is another segment to consider as well – people who apologetically speak their opinions, usually followed by the word “but,” as in the following:
- “I’m sorry, but … “
- “I don’t mean to be rude, but … “
- “Nothing personal, but … “
These people, as well-meaning as they might be, do end up being personal, are rude and are not really sorry for what they’re about to say. They just say it.
If anyone has ever said something similar to you, then you know the feeling. Social civility is in jeopardy, and it has nothing to do with social media. It has to do with familiarity and the casual way in which people approach one another.
- Boundaries? None.
- Bright lines? Don’t exist.
- Respect? Not so much.
In “Think Like an Editor,” one of the strategies is devoted to “getting along.” A good place to start is in remembering the adage, “Think before you speak.” We all have said something at one time or another that we regret later. That’s human nature. We learn from those experiences. Perhaps we become more patient or more cautious or more empathetic.
But that’s the part that seems to be changing now: no regrets. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, true. That sense of entitlement can positively empower people. It also can make for some awkward moments.
We can’t change human nature. But we can try to maintain social civility – one unexpressed thought at a time.
Perhaps no word brings more tension to a classroom discussion than “teamwork.” It makes students cringe.
First reactions usually go something like this:
- I prefer to work independently
- I don’t have time to meet
- My last team project was a disaster
These are all valid reactions. I can relate – in academic and professional settings.
WHERE TO WATCH US:
But for all the failures and failed opportunities that I have experienced, I have enjoyed even more successes when working with others. That word – others – is key.
If you want to be a good team player, you have to let go of yourself and your own needs and put your energies into others and their needs. My co-author says it well in the video that accompanies this post. And had he included me in the video … … I would have responded to one thing he says in it. At one point, he describes how his strategy of “giving in” leads to a positive reaction from his teammates: “I’m getting my way more than I expected or more often than I expected.”
I know what he means. But I would have elaborated to ensure that viewers, too, understand. “My way” does not mean selfish gain. It means: “I was heard.”
Everyone desires and deserves that kind of respect. And it happens best in personal, face-to-face communication. Not by text message. Not by email. That’s probably the biggest factor in teams falling apart: No one meets. Instead, partners start communicating electronically. We all know what happens next: MIScommunication. Eye contact isn’t there. Nuances are lost. The message doesn’t get across. People are not heard.
You’ve probably seen this saying on a T-shirt: There is no “I” in TEAM. It makes sense. When you can lose yourself to your partner, you are part way there. If your partner will not let go of self, you will have a challenge. Your best strategy is to approach every conversation and decision with respect and selflessness, even if your partner is making it personal – because there’s nothing more personal than “I,” is there?
No surprises. That’s something I say a lot when discussing stories that are being planned for publication.
What I mean:
- Create a plan
- Communicate it
- Keep updating editors as circumstances warrant
What constitutes a surprise:
- Plan gets tossed
- New plan is adopted
- None of that is communicated in real time
That type of surprise is unwelcome because it goes against everything about a reporter-editor relationship that works. And, if you’re a multijob journalist working without an editor, such drastic changes gone unchecked can take you far off course. And that could mean serious consequences for you and your audience.
WHERE TO WATCH US:
Think of it this way: If you create a blog about fashion, that’s what your audience would expect. Same if your blog showcases your baseball expertise. The audience would not want to be surprised with content of a different nature. They are depending on you. And if they want something else, they know where to go for that, too.
But, remember that your audience is human and can get bored from time to time if you, yourself, are bored. That’s where the good kind of surprise comes in, and here’s how you can bring those surprises to your audience:
- Research extensively to unearth new information – and new sources – that otherwise would go uncovered
- Ask follow questions in your interviews to gather the kind of intricate detail that leads to descriptive examples and lively anecdotes
- Take time to write what you have gathered so you can tuck into your copy all of these gems and present them as little surprises for your readers
This is how you bring fun to your job every day as a journalist – by bringing “what’s new” into the lives of others. Every story you write won’t be a happy one. But every story will be a joy to read if you remember to follow these basic steps.
And, to repeat what we have said before, be sure you don’t confuse fun with being silly or careless. This discernment needs to come from within, and it is a skill that you can personally nurture. Some tips worth another look:
- Be engaged, interested and occasionally entertaining – but use your common sense
- Remember that your audience is varied in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, you name it. What’s funny to you might not be humorous to them.
- Don’t have fun at the expense of someone else
- Don’t make jokes about the news
- When in doubt, play it straight
- Stay away from jokes involving these hot buttons: sex, religion, politics
- Don’t put “fake copy” or stories in electronic queues where they might end up getting published
You can have fun with your approach, and in little ways at work every day, if you don’t get carried away.
Laugh with class and caution. And know when to back off and play it safe and straight.