Blogs and Beagles by Russ
March 22, 2009, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Russ

I was lucky enough to be assigned Jim Brady as my alumni mentor. He’s one of the SOC’s most accomplished alums – until very recently, the executive editor of Washington Post Newsweek Interactive. In fact, it was the day after I was notified he’d be my mentor that he announced he was leaving the Post.

AU SOC alum Jim Bradys pet beagle, Fred. (credit: Joan Brady/fredandhank.typepad.com)

AU SOC alum Jim Brady's pet beagle, Fred. (credit: Joan Brady/fredandhank.typepad.com)

I can’t tell you what he’s planning to do next, but I can tell you what he’s doing now – driving cross-country with his wife Joan and two beagles, Fred and Hank.

They did something similar in 2003, and Jim sent emails to a circle of friends that grew larger and larger as they drove. This time, he started a blog – Fred and Hank Mark America – and it’s grown bigger and bigger.

It may be the antithesis of David Johnson’s suggestion to keep these as brief as possible, but it’s very effective – Jim started as a sportswriter at the Post and he evidently has not lost any of his writing skills. I’ve never found the deep South this fascinating.

I know I’ve talked with several of my classmates of our general disdain for the bubble-gum flavored blogs that are all puppy-dogs and smiley faces, but in this case I’m pretty sure that’s half of the blog’s charm. Cute pictures of beagles have also helped build his following: the original political blogger Andrew Sullivan apparently has a soft-spot for beagles, calling Jim’s blog “Beagle Crack.

To be fair, the blog is so much more than cute dog pics – it’s a travelblogue and great record of where our country is today.

So I take back everything bad I’ve ever said about bubblegum, blogs and puppy dogs.

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.

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Jane Hall Responds by Russ
March 5, 2009, 11:36 pm
Filed under: Russ | Tags: , ,

We’ve been talking about one-source stories a lot over the past several days – on the blog and among ourselves on the Observer staff – but it’s nice to have an expert chime in.

Last week, Jane Hall’s Advanced Reporting class submitted 15 profiles of advocates for our most recent issue. They all relied on one source – the subject of the profile. Unfortunately, those of us editing this week (Anna, myself and Meera) had some concerns about some of the pieces and we only ended up running a few of these “Profiles in Advocacy” – (Tracy Sherman by Arliene T. Penn; Kathie DiCesare by Alyssa Wolice; Stephen Chapman by Katie Litvin and Kira Sonberg by Frankie Soloman.)

In an earlier post, Anna explained our decision in a little more detail and suggested some ways to make the system work smoother for future collaborations with outside classes hoping to contribute to the Observer. I responded with some more discussion of the problem with one-source stories and some thoughts on when we might actually want to use a one-source item and how to make it work.

Jane Hall got back to the three of us who edited her students pieces with some thoughts on how it went and on the discussion we’ve been having here on the AmericanObserved blog. As you may be aware, Jane Hall happens to know a thing or two about good writing, media ethics and integrity, so, with her permission, here’s what she had to say:

As a longtime journalist, I agree with you–although I don’t agree that a Q. and A. is the only way to do a single-source thumbnail interview, as some suggest.

My students’ issue pieces, which will not come in until the end of the semester, will, of course, have multiple sources and interviews.  I made the decision to let these be single-source in part because, frankly, so many of them were having difficulty getting the person to be interviewed;  and this was a way-station on the way to deeper reporting on their beat.  I certainly push them to report–and that’s certainly what I did as a journalist–I definitely subscribe to “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

But I don’t agree with the idea that you can’t have a series of thumbnail sketches, clearly formatted as such, of advocates talking about their issue and why it’s important to them.   I think actually part of the problem was the tone of the pieces, which I told the students about.  (By the way, these were submitted without heavy editing–that’s what we said we were going to do to give you the opportunity to edit.)

At any rate, I’m glad that you thought several of these were good;  and it’s great for them to be published.  And, next time, as I think we would all agree, it would be much less painful for both you and my students if the people who are going to edit that week are the people who have signed  off on the idea, including art, sourcing, etc.”

As I’ve said before, we don’t want this to just be two people talking to themselves in the dark lonely Internet space – it’s supposed to be a discussion. So, do you have any thoughts on what we’ve said, or what Jane replied? Any other SOC professors who’d like to pipe up on what they think of a one-source story and when it is, and is not, appropriate to use?

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.



But We Really Want To One Source It! by Russ
March 4, 2009, 11:52 pm
Filed under: Russ | Tags: , ,

With all that said… it’s not impossible to have a one-source item.

There are some instances when you are focusing on a single person, who is speaking very personally about who they are and what they believe. Who would the second source on that be? We did eventually decide to publish a few of the profiles that stuck closely to that format and were as close to safe as we could get with a one-source story. But, as Wendell Cochran advised Anna and I this week, something like that really deserves to be clearly marked and formatted as one person’s account, preferably in a simple question and answer format.

Here are two good examples of how proper context and format can make a one-source item okay to use and even a bright point:

  • “Questions For…” – the New York Times Sunday Magazine weekly feature. As you’ll note at the bottom of each entry it clearly states: “INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY DEBORAH SOLOMON.” It’s deceptively simple, but Solomon knows how to ask questions and she knows how to properly edit them to great effect. Sometimes she asks the questions and gives the space for a subject to be funny, and sometimes her questions help it be informative, without getting too heavy. Even on heavy subjects. And sometimes things just get combative.
  • “5 Questions” – The Concord (N.H.) Monitor’s regular feature is more akin to what appears in the average newspaper, though few do it with the skill that the tiny but prestigious Monitor does. Straying from the straight profile format, the Monitor uses “5 Questions” to explore just about any issue. It’s a quick, but reputable, one-source way to explore the story-within-the-story as they did yesterday morning. It’s also good for a quirky, but relevant moment – like fist-fighting New England town officials or controversial historically-themed Bobbleheads – that might not warrant a full-blown article but readers shouldn’t miss knowing about.

With their quick-hit style and personality-oriented subject content, these types of items lend themselves to the online, multi-media format that we’re trying to work in.

I think it would be worth trying something along these lines – trying to find a key character in a story or an issue that we’re trying to build into a package, and briefly shine the spotlight on them, and only them. But do it right, with proper context and format.

It could add some color to our coverage and thanks to the brevity of the format, it won’t kill us trying to put it together

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.



If Your Mother Says She Loves You… by Russ
March 4, 2009, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Russ

Anna brought up the issue of one-source stories and she’s right: things would’ve been a lot easier if we had laid the rules out before hand. We should’ve been more alert about the source issue.

Letting any story run on it’s own, without more than one source is dangerous. Even if it’s an ostensibly open-and-shut profile of a subject you have no reason to think would be problematic. Ask the New York Times. They got burned running a one-source profile of later discredited author Margaret Seltzer, apparently, on the belief that if a major publishing house vetted her background and published a heavily-pushed memoir based on that, there wasn’t enough reason to doubt the story when she repeated it to the paper. Turns out there was.

The Times standards editor summed it up (at least according to Gawker, my only source…) succinctly and correctly:

“Single-source profiles of people who are not already well known quantities are traps we have fallen into twice in the past year or two, and that’s too often. Until publishers start fact-checking their own nonfiction books, and that’ll be the day, we should remember that profiles of unknown authors should always include reporting from other sources — not just surrogates of the profilee like agents, publishers, lawyers, etc. — to verifiy the most important facts. But even when there’s no book involved, the same rule applies. If we can’t find ways to check key facts, names, graduation claims, etc., we should hold the story until we can verify them, and if we can’t, we should be suspicious. Live and learn….”

If the Times can’t trust a pre-vetted author, who can we trust? Some of the profiles we recieved from Jane Hall’s class were well-written and well-reported – as far as they went – but we made the right decision… didn’t we?

Tell us what you think.

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.



On Contributions by Anna
March 4, 2009, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Anna | Tags: , , ,

This week the American Observer tackled the weighty issue of lobbying in D.C… or rather, lobbying in general, including the new laws and a history of modern advocacy.

Unfortunately, as Russ mentioned earlier this week, several of us were tied up in editing and choosing decent advocate profiles from a giant pile sent to us by Jane Hall’s Advanced Reporting class. Out of the 15 or so that were submitted, we chose to publish four. Kind of sad, huh? Well… I think we could have curbed our problems with the articles if we had laid out the following guidelines:

  • Contributions have to be well-sourced. All of these profiles had a single source, which, had we published them without editing, would have sounded as if the American Observer was advocating them, too. We can’t have that.
  • We need to know EXACTLY what the stories are before we agree to receive contributions. Apparently Professor Hall told her students it was okay to only speak to one person as the source for the piece… had we known that, we would have said no from the beginning and saved everyone a lot of time and work.
  • Art is required. Since the beginning of the semester, we decided to make the Observer more magazine-y and multimedia heavy. That means art. Give us a photo, a graphic, whatever… just give us SOMETHING.

So that’s what I think. As managing editor for the past week, I was very involved in the entire process, so consider it a word from the experienced, and now the wiser.

Cross-posted to American Observer and Escapador.



Everybody Say, “Hi Anna!” by Russ
February 28, 2009, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Russ

“Hi, Anna!”

As devoted readers may have noticed, Anna Tauzin is now officially joining me in the AmericanObserved blog. The goal has always been to make this a conversation – Anna and I have many off-line conversations about the Observer and so I’m very glad she’ll join me on the Web. She’s been involved with a lot of the technical aspects of our publication, particularly creating Flash and other multimedia packages – like this one – and so she’ll add a lot to the conversation here.

Anna is quite a prolific blogger on her own, sometimes about the Observer and sometimes not. And that’s great. The stuff she has to say about the Observer can easily be added to the AmericanObserved blog, and the other stuff can exist as it did before, or ideally as part of another group blog that covers other topic areas.

Anyone else who has something to say about the Observer – whether it’s six-times-a-week, once-a-week or just once – is welcome to join. Drop me a line and I’ll add an account for you.

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.



Tricky Lobbyists by Russ
February 28, 2009, 4:17 pm
Filed under: Russ

I’ve begun doing a first read on some of the profiles of “advocates” we’ve received this week from Jane Hall’s class (if anyone is interested, please join in – there are quite a few and most need to at least be sent back to the author for at least a little rewriting, so the earlier we can do this the better) and I’ve noticed a couple of trends we should all keep in mind when we’re working on this week’s issue about advocates and lobbyists.

1. The advocates being profiled are apparently really good at advocating. Some of these people are very convincing, and that’s important to convey, but we shouldn’t let them use us to do their convincing.

We need to state what they are doing – who they advocate for, and what positions they support – but we need to make sure we’re not just accepting their position as fact and republishing it. Some of the pieces I’ve read so far veer away from being profiles and into a plain recitation of the position the person is advocating for. We all know to not to do this, but it’s important to keep an especially close eye out for it this week.

2. Their positions are getting lost in the profile. I’ve found some of the profiles have gone completely the opposite direction – they assume everyone knows what the person is advocating for.

One profile I’ve read is an otherwise very good piece about a woman who advocates for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the piece she tries to educate more people about what some of the lesser known but still serious symptoms are… but we aren’t told what she’s talking about. We all mostly know what PTSD is, but it would be helpful and add to the already strong piece if we had that extra detail

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.