sourcing: a dance

Start the waltz with a phone call, maybe an email.
The first steps: Sometimes with a secretary  sometimes with a voicemail, and sometimes “I am currently out of the office” automatic reply.

Follow up, follow up, follow up.

Finally, reach the source–the first twirl.

“When can we meet? Are you available today or tomorrow?”
“Oh, you don’t have time until next week?”
“And you won’t have the data until the week after that?”

Again, again, again. Beginning to get dizzy.

Show up at the office. Time for the interview.
“So you’re saying that you need to reschedule?”
The first misstep. Clumsy! Hide that frustration. A proper performer never shows that she’s made a mistake.

But the waltz goes on, following this same pattern, twirling and missteps–weeks, weeks.

A proper performer never shows her exhaustion.

She’s not the only one. Everyone’s tired, everyone’s busy, everyone’s booked. She reminds herself to be understanding. Still, she wishes that she didn’t have to draw out this waltz for so long. She wants a quick tango, then to move on to the next one. She would rather sit down and write.

Dizzy, feeling ditzy. But: Follow up, follow up, follow up.

BOOM (a comparative study in reporting)

*Note: another blog post brought you by graduate school! Too blessed to be stressed, everyone.

Take a look at two different articles on Texas’ natural gas boom, and chances are, you’ll be first be struck by the photographs. Both stories are visually stunning, even though they are printed in different platforms.

The piece in Texas Monthly, called “‘Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money’” has photographs taking up entire pages. You can see oil rigs and pump jacks juxtaposed in front of blank blank blue skies, or maybe a sunrise lighting the landscape in gold. It’s a compelling contrast–nature and machine, that is–and there’s something beautiful about it.

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Copyright Jeff Wilson Photography

Now, turn to the piece from the Center for Public Integrity. The portraits are grim, people staring solemnly into the camera. One woman holds up the mask that helps her breath. Machines make an appearance in this photos too, but the sky is no longer painted in blue or gold; it looks more like mud than anything else.   The Center for Public Integrity makes great use of multimedia on the web, showing different frames that move as you scroll down. There’s a horse galloping behind dead trees. There’s a rusty swing in an empty playground. The visitor can’t help but wonder, ‘where are the children?’ Perhaps the title of the story will clarify: “Big Oil, Bad Air.”

Copyright, Center for Public Integrity

Copyright Center for Public Integrity

You don’t even need to read a single word before you realize that these two stories have very different takes on the oil boom.

…But you do decide to read the stories, after all, because you’re curious. Good. The differences don’t stop at the photos.

Bryan Mealer, the author of the Texas Monthly piece, does not just report the facts. He writes from the first person and doesn’t shy away from a literary style of narrative. Mealer begins with his own experiences with the oil boom as a child, but remains a part of the story arc throughout the duration of the article. It’s personal, but not self-indulgent, which adds to a sense of suspense.

Mealer interviews several people who have received the financial fruit of the boom–oil men, people who found work after years of being unemployed, others from the Hispanic town of Cotulla who finally saw money being poured into their schools. It’s a celebration economic prosperity! When Mealer does interview people who have been negatively affected by the boom, it seems to be more of an obligation or an afterthought. “Oh, by the way, this person lives in a tent. The wealth gap is growing increasingly large. But, you know, winners and losers, right?” This isn’t to say that Mealer’s story is completely without nuance, though. After he begins with story of his father losing  his wealth after an oil boom, the whole article gives off a foreboding feeling that those indulging in oil-soaked cash are gambling with their livelihoods.

Let’s switch gears and consider the research piece from the Center for Public Integrity (CIP). It begins with an anecdotal lead too, but in a completely different manner. There’s a distance between the narrator and the subject–that’s called third-person narrative voice–and it gives a sense of authority over the entire article. Once you’ve finished the lead, you might notice something else that sets it apart from Mealy’s story: the content.

Sure, both are about the oil boom in Texas, but the CIP story (authored by three people) is focused on a consequence of the boom that Mealy barely mentions: the environmental impacts, both immediate and long-term. CIP is highly critical of the environment policies of both Texas and oil companies. Yet it manages to avoid moral judgment and prop up its sense of authority by providing statistics to back up its research. The article has breadth and depth, covering  both the science between the detrimental environmental effects of the industry and the regulation of the industry (or lack thereof). CIP interviews numerous people suffering from the immediate health consequences of the oil boom. Further, any dissenting viewpoints seem only to be included in order to sharpen CIP’s own argument rather than offer a legitimate perspective.

But that’s all right, I think. CIP is not trying to avoid debate; on the contrary, they are trying to stir up objections from the dominant ideology. Plus, with such thorough research, CIP does make a convincing case.

So, which story is more persuasive? You should read them and decide for yourself, Reader. You could even learn something new.

look up, look up!

Anonymity is contentment.
When I was studying abroad in Cambridge, on a given lazy Sunday I would take the train on my own to London. Then I’d take the Tube to whatever stop seemed compelling: just me, my Oyster Card and a city running on the energy of millions of strangers.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

Self-portrait in Hampstead Heath, London. January 2012. Feeling content.

On a cold but crisp January day,
Walking with feigned purpose,
You can see the whole of London on Parliament Hill.
It’s crowded,
But the people don’t recognize you.
They don’t even look.
How refreshing, how energizing
To observe an entire ecosystem of humans
And languages and words
And trains, boats, buses
And trees, bushes, ponds
To feel like you’re involved in it all, but removed from it too.
No need to live up to expectations in the city.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn't mind. September 2011.

First time in London, and I found myself properly lost on Abbey Road. I didn’t mind. September 2011.

In high school, I had a fantasy that I would move to New York City. I’d go in college, of course, as any respectable eighteen-year-old would do. I had never been to the Big Apple before. This wasn’t uncommon in the Ozarks. People didn’t have a lot of money in that neck of the woods.

But I didn’t move, of course, because reality stopped by and forced me to look down. My feet were planted firmly into the Missouri soil, and I couldn’t afford to relocate.
(Technically, I couldn’t afford to attend a small liberal arts college and spend an entire year abroad, but I suppose $30,000 in student loans is better than $100,000.)
The desire to live in the city–to look up at a skyline of glass buildings instead of looking down at dead grass–never left. What a thrill it would be, to live in a space miles larger than I am, made of multiple histories, cultures, lives, stories. The thought scares some. It vitalizes me.

In two days, I’ll finally be in New York City. I’m going for a conference in business journalism, and I’m eager to learn what I can. But I’m also pining for that city sensation,
the paradox of being both a part and apart.

let’s talk leads

Today’s blog post is brought to you by: Blog Posts I am Assigned to Write in Graduate School! Read on if you’d like to learn a thing or two about journalism and the art of starting a story, because I’m about to deconstruct three leads.

Lead Numero Uno: 

You and your wallet have a big stake in huge tax-dodging deals being crafted by big American companies, like Burger King merging with Tim Hortons, the Canadian  coffee and doughnut chain.

From David Cay Johnston’s “Corporate Deadbeats” – Newsweek, 4 Sept. 2014.

Well, look at that. No time wasted getting to that second person pronoun “you.” Not a typical move by journalists, but a good one for Johnston to make. This article is about a merger, and most of us lay people who don’t have a degree in finance start snoozing at the first sign of a business story. Business a tough beat because it involves so much specialized knowledge and vocabulary, and many average readers are turned off by that. Right away, though, Johnston implicates the reader, tells her why this story is so important. Just because you don’t understand the legal lingo of a merger doesn’t mean you’re not affected, Missy. In addition, Johnston spends the rest of the article effectively arguing his point–that the average person’s wealth is tied up with these giant corporations.

Verdict: A+. A good start.

And on to Number Two: 

Barely a year removed from the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York faced a crossroads. Congress had set its sights on reform. The biggest banks in the nation had shown that their failure could threaten the entire financial system. Lawmakers wanted new safeguards.

From Jake Bernstein’s “Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash” — ProPublica in association with This American Life, 26 Sept. 2014

This lead starts a fantastic story about Carmen Segarra, a former bank examiner and current whistleblower of the New York Fed. She made secret recordings of conversations between executives, who spoke about how “perceptions” are more important than the realities of the banks they were supposed to be regulating. It’s a fascinating piece of investigative writing… but does the lead live up to the rest of the article?
Close, but not quite. It sets up the scene and an intriguing conflict right away, as any good story should. But remember that bit about business reporting I wrote earlier? This lead doesn’t necessarily draw the typical news reader in. It sounds like a business story, directed at business-oriented readers, which is a shame–this is a story that everyone needs to read (or hear, if you prefer). If an organization like ProPublica aims to democratize the news, they should write in a way that does so.

Verdict: B+. Good writing, but keep the audience in mind.

Final lead:

“It’s a funny day to be on the air,” mused 96.5 The Buzz morning host Afentra on Monday.

From Tim Engle’s “96.5 the Buzz hosts ‘thrilled’ to have jobs after $1 million ‘porn star’ verdict” – Kansas City Star, 29 Sept. 2014
This lead is different from the first two for several reasons: it comes from a straight news story, it’s from a local newspaper, and it’s about porn stars. Two morning show radio hosts were sued after they put together a list of Kansas City’s porn stars–except that one woman, the one doing the suing, wasn’t a porn star at all. (I would know. I went to college with her.) She won her case, and now these radio hosts owe her $1 million in damages for defamation.
But what’s even more shameful is that the Star began their article with a quote. To make it worse, the attribution of choice was “mused.” Mused? What’s wrong with good old “said?” Here’s the real problem with beginning a news story with a quote–besides the fact that it sounds clunky, instead of inviting the reader, it confuses the him by making him guess who’s speaking. If the quote had more of an impact, it’s okay to break the rules–but here, the quote is seriously lacking in punch.
Verdict: D. Sorry KC. I’m still a devoted reader, anyway.

interview with a reporter, perpetually stuck under the weather

“Whoa whoa whoa. Kasia. Where have you been for the past week? Not one post. You promised consistency.”

Yeah, I know, Imaginary Blog Critic, but I’ve been sick.

“All week?”

Yes! Since last Sunday. Going on Day Eight.

“You couldn’t have whipped a brief post while you stayed home, in bed?”

See, that’s the thing. I haven’t actually taken a day off yet, unless you count after 11 a.m. Friday.

“Well, that’s dumb.”

Yeah, I know. Probably the reason I’m still not healthy. I’ve been fueling myself with loads of tea for the past few days, but my nose is still runny, my throat is still scratchy and my cough is still… cough-y.

“So why didn’t you just suck it up and stay in bed until you were better?”

A few different reasons, Critic. I’ve got meetings, I’ve got classes, I’ve got interviews, and most importantly, I’ve got deadlines. There are 24 hours in a day, and the news won’t patiently wait for me to catch up. When you wake yourself up in a coughing fit at 4 a.m., Nyquil’s failure has killed your trust in modern medicine, and the to-do list written in your planner has made its way to your dreams, you might as well get up and be productive, right? And feeling ill makes it that much more difficult, because it seems as thought the pace of any progress is like moving through molasses. My motivation suffers, my energy suffers, and my quality of work suffers (case in point: “cough-y”).

So here’s my question, Imaginary Blog Critic (and non-imaginary blog readers): how on Earth does one handle being a reporter and graduate student while being sick?

at the crossroads of literature and reporting

I should be studying my business reporting textbook. It’s called Show Me the Money, which is a great title, and I don’t want to be embarrassed tomorrow by showing my lack of knowledge during Business Terms Bingo.

I used to have a Tumblr, but I deleted it before journalism school required a social media peer review. Too many personal thoughts, too many journal entries, too many paragraphs that belonged in a diary instead of in the public forum on the Internet. It was strange to delete something that became a record of my Self for the past five years. I was sad, but only for an hour. Delete the baggage. On to the new. It’s healthier that way, after all.

But I miss having a space to write about my personal thoughts. Feeling stressed, conflicted, so anxious that I haven’t eaten in three days… let the word vomit spill on Tumblr, and feel a little better.

Now, I need to curate my Brand.  I’m a reporter. I need to work.  So I create an image of myself online.
It’s terribly dishonest.
I feel as though there are sharp rocks in the bottom of my stomach.

I wrote my first full-length book when I was six years old, I think. I told my father that I was going to grow up to be a writer. He said, “Do you know what a journalist is? You can be a writer, but you should be a journalist.”
And here I am. Studying for my master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. Same place where my father received his PhD.

If I’m going to construct this Brand for myself, I don’t want to be dishonest. I come from a literary background. I spent my childhood in the company of books instead of other kids. I studied literature in my undergraduate years. I read novels that I’ve torn through four times before instead of copying down business terms from Show Me the Money.

Reading, for me, means visceral pleasure. So does reporting, though. Trying to write about socially significant current events in a way that doesn’t flatten them ain’t easy, but the challenge gives me an adrenaline rush.
I don’t think literature and journalism are mutually exclusive.
Literary devices create ambiguity and represent complexities in a way that the Standard Model–featuring that old friend/fiend objectivity–can’t.
I’m going to use literature to build a new kind of journalism. I’m going to figure it out. No gimmicks, I’m not a hack. I’m going to figure it out.

I’ll start here, with this blog. I’ll still write about reporting and the news, but I’ll play with words and structure.
It might even get personal. Build that Brand. Turn myself into human capital, as one might say in Business Terms Bingo.

Okay. On to the new.

linguistic weapons: ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh?

France, always the blazing non-conformist, has recently decided to stop calling ISIS by the name ISIS… or ISIL, or the Islamic State. Instead, its foreign minister recently announced that the French government would begin calling the group “Daesh.”

Why am I writing about this? A great question, my Discerning Reader. Here’s the reason: words matter, and names mean a great deal.

Let’s break it down.

  1. ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham is an Arab word referring to a giant piece of land in the Middle East near the Mediterranean.
  2. ISIL stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Europeans came up with the word “Levant,” which an area in the Middle East that roughly overlaps with the territory considered Al-Sham.
  3. In June, the group dropped the last two initials from its acronym and began calling itself the Islamic State, or IS.
  4. Daesh actually comes from an acronym too, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. But even before France decided that it would use Daesh, the group’s enemies in the Middle East have been using the word since April. It’s meant to be derogatory because it sounds a whole lot like the Arab words “Daes” (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and “Dahes” (“one who sows discord”).

I’ll continue to call the group ISIS for continuity’s sake, but here’s the bottom line: By calling themselves the Islamic State, ISIS is trying to legitimize themselves as their own nation, literally taking down borders between Iraq and Syria and putting up their own.

Here’s the bit on the Vice documentary on ISIS which shows militants taking down the barbed wire that divided Syria and Iraq by way of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

(Side note: If somebody knows how in the world Vice got such unprecedented access to ISIS for this documentary let me know. Did they know people? Did they pay ISIS? I mean this is the organization that has been beheading journalists… how Vice managed to get this footage just floors me.)

Most nations and news organizations refuse to call ISIS the Islamic State, thereby refusing to recognize the group as a legitimate state. But when France, Iran and Syria call ISIS Daesh, they’re taking it one step further. It’s as if they’re mocking ISIS, spitting in its face. 

Semantics, everyone. Words working as weapons.