Thursday, May 8, 2008

How to Incorporate New Media in Feature Writing

Yesterday was my last day of classes, and we spent part of feature writing talking about how multimedia techniques -- blogging, photos, audio slideshows, brief video interviews -- should be incorporated into this particular class in the future.

As is my wont, I left it all pretty loose this semester, mandating blogging, photos, slideshow and video but not linking these activities to particular assignments. When you feel like it, you know? The level of compliance has varied, some students doing a lot and some students doing a little. No one will suffer for having only done a little.

When asked for their opinion (that most daring of pedagogical novelties), the students gave me some. Though sometimes one can over interpret nods, winces and general body language, I'm thinking several students agreed with Matt when he said I should waste *no* class time on having the students do multimedia. It diverts from what the class is about: writing.

Also, as someone else said, my expertise is in writing, not in multimedia, and my stumbling efforts at that kind of "making" are a waste of time in that way, too.

Other students -- though I think not a majority -- indicated they liked having the multimedia required, although they said I should have the requirements much more structured: for the immigrant story we take a picture; for the travel story we do a slideshow; for the final profile we do a two-minute interview on video. Tighten up the checklist, in other words.

Other suggestions: introduce multimedia elements into the Intro to Media Studies course, supplementing the theory part; have a multimedia course at the sophomore level that everyone in the major could take and journalism minors must take; make every Media Studies major create a blog in the first MS class he or she takes, the expectation being that every class will require posting.

One student -- was it you, Cameron? -- said he felt the content of 19 out of 20 blogs was self-indulgent bullshit, and my requiring that the class blog simply piled it all higher and deeper. But he (or someone) allowed that it would be legitimate for me to require not "fresh" posts but comments on existing posts. That would be purposeful.

And thus we arrive at our last assignment (albeit a new assignment) for this class. Students! Start your engines. Comment on this post. Add. Subtract. Amend.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How Mean is Too Mean?

I've heard those who teach feature writing say that one of challenges of creating feature writers is that if their basic reporting teachers have done a good job of teaching students to write basic "fact" stories, it's difficult for those students to embrace the freedom and playfulness that some feature stories require.

Irony, mockery, paradox, attitude and point of view are all saleable commodities if you are a feature writer or -- perhaps, more common -- a writer for a magazine or snarky website. Here is a link to a pretty famous arrest report posted at Smoking Gun, where public documents that describe the embarrassments of both the famous and the obscure are posted.

Poor bride apparently drank too much at her wedding reception and blotted her copybook.

It's a police report I sometimes use in basic reporting class as an exercise in the summary lead because so much of an outrageous nature is described that it takes some thinking to boil it down to 250 words, with a hundred words at the top that make sense if that's all an editor uses. Students want to tell the tale chronologically, but readers don't have the time nor publications the space for such languid telling.

(Online, of course, has the space, but readers have even less patience, and the demand for telling it quickly and succinctly is even more urgent.)

I gave the cop report to my feature writing class and asked them to "have some fun" with it. I told them to see if they write something -- factual, of course; no making things up -- that would be so brash, have so much attitude, be so unkind that I would tell them to draw back, tone it down, show some respect.

Here are the results (Audrey and Cameron to come??):


A wedding celebration turns into drama as the bride, Adrienne Samen, ends up on supposedly, the happiest day of her life, in jail.

On Saturday August, 16 2003, the Police from South Windsor, Connecticut was called for breach of peace. But what they didn't know is that they were about to meet with a crazy bride.

After leaving the reception with plates and food all over, even in the parking lot, according to one of the staff members Kerrie Smith, the uncontrolled bride was seen yelling at everyone in the street and shouting obscenities. The police tried to calm her down and stop her twice, but all they got was her middle finger in their face. Then, if it was not enough, the drank and outraged bride, called Agent Dobler, Lopez and everyone around "c--- s-----" and "f------ a------."

She, then was transported to the station and, still under the influence of alcohol, instead of signing her name at the end of the form, wrote down "stupid people arrested me because."


I wonder if Mrs. Samen thought while zipping up her white gown that after the wedding she would be getting handcuffed not by her husband in bed but by Officer Caleb Lopez outside of Mill on the River Restaurant. I was under the impression that this special day was the BRIDES. Appeasement only given to the princess of the universe. So if Adrienne Samen decides that she wants to spend her wedding day throwing dishes and yelling obscenities at strangers, police officers and the gods, well, so be it! No one can stop the force of a woman on her wedding day, except maybe the South Windsor, Connecticut police department.


For one new bride, an evening in jail probably wasn't something she had included when planning her wedding day. Neither was threatening to harm her new husband hours after they said "I do."

Newlywed Adrienne Samen was arrested Saturday in her wedding gown while walking down the street after leaving food, broken plates, and well-dressed family members in the parking lot of Mill on the River.

Restaurant staff member Kerrie Smith told police that Samen "flipped out" when she asked one guest to leave the restaurant after going behind the closed bar area without permission.

Afterwards, Samen then started yelling at everyone and proceeded to throw food and plates around with some ending up in the parking lot. Samen left the restaurant as the wedding guests spilled out into the parking lot.

While she was taken into custody, Samen proceeded to shout vulgarities like "c--- s-----" and "f------ a------" at the officers and attempted to kick the cruiser's windows in when she was seated inside.


A bar, a bitch and a wedding may be unwise to mix. Yesterday, this led South Windsor Police to an angry, drunken bride on her wedding night.

Adrienne Samen, draped in her white wedding gown, created quite a stir following her wedding yesterday. When police found her walking the streets she greeted them with a courteous middle finger along with a string of obscenities. Ah, nothing quite like a happy bride on her magical night.

Samen initially became outraged yesterday at Mill on the River when some of the wedding guests were told they were not allowed behind the bar because it had closed, police said. This led to an outburst in which Samen turned into a junior high student who had just been told she was grounded. Her ensuing hissy fit included throwing plates and food all over the restaurant.

This incident, combined with her actual wedding, apparently did not tire her out. She still had enough energy to attempt to kick out a police car window and bite one of the arresting officers. Maybe she did not have enough to eat at the reception.

Samen was charged with Breach of Peace and Criminal Mischief, police said.

5) Ending what is supposed to be the happiest day of your life sobering up in a county jail cell is the sad, sorry reality for newlywed Adrienne Samen. But the way her marriage seems to be working out thus far, maybe the crazed bride will get another shot at it one day. Following her wedding reception Samen joined guests and friends for a few rounds of drinks at Mill on the River Restaurant in South Windsor, Connecticut. What turned into a simple celebration of the coming together of two love birds ended in a frenzy of kicking, screaming, and ultimately a $1000 bond, and a court date for Breach of Peace and Criminal Mischief in the 3rd charges. When police arrived on scene they came upon an intoxicated Samen stumbling drunkenly down the street slowing traffic and slinging obscenities at anyone who met her path. In her wake lay broken plates and glasses and food, as well as a company of stunned guests. “She was flipping out,” said Kerrie Smith, staff member at the Mill on the River. “Flipping out” could be considered putting it lightly as she hailed insults at arresting officers Robert Dobler and Caleb Lopez “c---suckers, f---ing assholes


Approaching what literally looked like a piece of white trash on the street, two police officers met Adrienne Samen and her middle finger as she walked down Ellington Road in her white wedding gown. A shouting Samen was escorted to the police car in hand cuffs where she continued to act obscenely by kicking the glass of the rear door.

Instead of hearing wedding bells on what was supposed to be the happiest day of Samen’s life, she heard police sirens. Instead of enjoying her wedding reception with her husband, she spent it in jail. This “bridezilla” was charged with Breach of Peace and Criminal Mischief in the 3rd on her wedding day.

According to the police report Evelyn Vitale, mother-in-law of the bridezilla, said that Adrienne had been drinking and that she had never seen her like this. But how much alcohol would it take for a woman to spit on her wedding ring, slam it down on a table, insult everyone around her, and lastly ask a police officer how long she would get for killing a Marine?

This mess all started during her wedding reception at a restaurant called Mill on the River when Samen became upset with one of the staff members, Kerrie Smith. Smith had repeatedly asked guests to stay away from the closed bar area of the restaurant, but when no one would listen Smith asked a guest to leave. This sent Samen over the edge.


Brides are often typified as blushing, but it usually isn't alcohol that induces the pinkness of the cheek. Adrienne Samen defied all bridal convention on her special day when she was found wandering 989 Ellington Rd by police on August 16, 2003, her face plenty red. And if her treatment of the officers is any indication, she was anything but demure, exhibiting her shit-kicking prowess by first throwing plates and food at Mill on the River, where she had been partying all evening, then turning her rage on the knights in the black cruiser who arrested her for Breach of Peace.

According to a police report filed by reporting Officer Carlo Lopez, he and his partner Agent Dobler were not only subjected to a slew of vulgarities, Samen also tried to bite the forearm of the latter. Despite her failed attempt at escape by kicking the glass of the cruiser's back window with both legs, officers Lopez and Dobler were eventually able to get her through the door of the police station. There, Samen continued to embody the lyrics of Lesley Gore's "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To" by removing her wedding ring, spitting on it, and slamming it on the table. This was all followed by more obscenities.

Lopez said that when he gave her the rights form to sign, she wrote simply, "stupid people arrested me because." Perhaps she will be able to finish that sentence when the videotape of her actions is released; an inevitable outcome of what will promise to be if not the happiest, the most memorable day of Samen's life.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Editor of Catholic San Francisco Drops By

Dan Morris-Young visited the class today. I think the visit was a success. What I'd hoped for was that he'd make writing for his newspaper attractive; that is, I hoped the kind of stories he was interested in getting from our students would be stories the students would welcome the opportunity to do. Journalism is not a career, right? It's an excuse.

If his ideas were dull -- religious; narrow; implicitly unbalanced; doctrinaire -- I would not have blamed the students for tuning him out even though a real clip (as we used to call them back in the day) is useful. When it comes to pitching stories to editors, clips are like rabbits: They breed.

I'd talked with him several times before, and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about -- I mean, he sounded like a real journalist, a pro -- but I didn't want to pump him beforehand about exactly what stories he was going to suggest. I didn't want to appear to lack faith! Didn't want to appear *rude.*

To sum up, I liked his story ideas. What hot current issue (he seemed to say) couldn't be turned into a story simply by asking kids, and faculty, at a Catholic college -- no matter what their religious inclination -- what their opinions are and why? Gay marriage; abortion; stem-cell research; the war -- he seemed game for anything, though that could have been his sales pitch. Hope not. Won't know till students actually turn in some copy.

What I'd like to know, of course, is whether or not the kids "read" what he was offering the way I did. Or was I projecting? I've encouraged them and offered extra credit -- even if their stories don't make print. Now I'll keep my mouth shut.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why I Worry about Student Journalists Doing Long Profiles

I worry because even supposedly hardened and experienced political reporters are influenced by superficial acts of friendship that are actually transparent acts of manipulation. (I'm copying from Atrios here.)

Tucker Carlson writing in his book about the 2000 campaign:

McCain ran an entire presidential campaign aimed primarily at journalists. He understood that the first contest in a presidential race is always the media primary. He campaigned hard to win it. To a greater degree than any candidate in thirty years, McCain offered reporters the three things they want most: total access all the time, an endless stream of amusing quotes, and vast quantities of free booze.


I saw reporters call McCain "John," sometimes even to his face and in public. I heard others, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as "we"- as in, "I hope we kill Bush." It was wrong, but it was hard to resist.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

One of the Things We Will Be Doing in Class Next Week

I'll ask the class what they think these six leads mean, and why?

I admire Britney Spears.

We admire Britney Spears.

You admire Britney Spears.

You know I admire Britney Spears.

You know we all admire Britney Spears.

I know you all admire Britney Spears.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Young People Creating Content Online: Lots of It

This is from Pew Research.

Some 93% of teens use the internet, and more of them than ever are treating it as a venue for social interaction -- a place where they can share creations, tell stories, and interact with others.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that 64% of online teens ages 12-17 have participated in one or more among a wide range of content-creating activities on the internet, up from 57% of online teens in a similar survey at the end of 2004.

Girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. Some 35% of all teen girls blog, compared with 20% of online boys, and 54% of wired girls post photos online compared with 40% of online boys. Male teens, however, do dominate one area -- posting of video content online. Online boys are nearly twice as likely as online girls (19% vs. 10%) to have posted a video online where others could see it.

The survey found that content creation is not just about sharing creative output; it is also about participating in conversations fueled by that content. Nearly half (47%) of online teens have posted photos where others can see them, and 89% of those teens who post photos say that people comment on the images at least "some of the time."

However, many teen content creators do not simply plaster their creative endeavors on the Web for anyone to view; many teens limit access to content that they share.

A subset of teens are super-communicators -- teens who have a host of technology options for dealing with family and friends, including traditional landline phones, cell phones, texting, social network sites, instant messaging, and email. They represent about 28% of the entire teen population and they are more likely to be older girls.

Friday, January 25, 2008

UK's Independent tries to evolve

Posted by Paul Bradshaw 12:18:44 PM
The Independent's New Site: The Real Change Isn't Technical
The Independent's new site design offers many good features -- but that huge banner ad space up top is overkill.
U.K. daily The Independent has relaunched its site. (Here's the official announcement.) At first glance there's nothing spectacularly new or innovative. However, a deeper look reveals some intelligent changes -- particularly on the business side. Here are the headlines:
  • RSS feeds more prominent. There's now an orange feed icon for each home page section.

  • Also more prominent placement for: "Most popular" content (read, e-mailed, commented), videos, podcasts, blogs, ("Just posted" and "Catch up with our experts"), photo galleries, polls, etc. Which is as you'd expect.

  • "Editor's Choice" is even more prominent, appearing just below the top-level navigation. In comparison, "Most popular" lies below the fold. The "Day in a page" drop-down menu (presumably for people who missed the news that day and want to catch up) remains, but moves to the bottom of the home page.

  • Sharing and usability. There's the now customary "Digg it / Stumbleupon / Facebook / delicious" box on every article (plus "change font size / print / e-mail").

  • "In the News" navigation option reveals the big stories of the moment. Not as striking as Sky or The Guardian, which can include those stories as a navigation choice in their own right.

  • Open House: An "online debating chamber where our diverse stable of columnists and commentators come together to discuss the issues of the day -- and invite you to join in." Looks like an attempt to clone commentisfree.

  • New IndyBest microsite brings together "The Independent's ever-popular weekly 50 Best features and the daily 10 Best series." Are they annoyed ShortList came up with the idea first?

  • Weather now is more customizable.

  • Niche news. This is the most noteworthy change. The Independent now targets niche markets with new online-only sections including Art & Architecture, Fashion, Gadgets & Tech and Health & Wellbeing.

  • "Offers" classified ads now has its own page and navigation button, as does Student. Also, Environment now makes it to the Inde's top level of navigation -- just as The Guardian prepares to invest in its own environment coverage.

  • Mapping. The Inde's property service and automated quotes from Xelector now are integrated into editorial pages.

...The final verdict? Clearly the Inde has its business head screwed on, while managing to tick all the boxes a newspaper should have been ticking last year in terms of technology.

Editorially, however, it's still trailing its broadsheet competitors in terms of making the most of the possibilities of the medium. The Telegraph is doing exciting things with databases and Flash, and The Guardian excels at blogging and podcasting.

Still, at least The Independent prints links to other sites in its newspaper -- something its competitors have never done well.

For the record, here's what the Inde looked like on January 4, before the revamp.

An Immigrant Story.

I started browsing the Nieman nonfiction archive for stories about immigrants and found my old hometown paper had run a series. Here's the link to one of those stories.

Here's part of the lead, plus a methods box.

Leonardo’s dressed neatly in black jean shorts and a tucked-in white T-shirt. He’s boxy and built like a linebacker. His hair is thick like a dried paintbrush.

He works in construction. Most of his T-shirts are marked with white paint.

But not this one. This one is clean. He wants to look good.

Leonardo is at the DMV to see if he can get license plates for his car, even though he doesn’t have a driver’s license, and even though he is not in the country legally.

Other Hispanics in the Roanoke Valley pay strangers hundreds of dollars to help them get fake Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses. Leonardo has seen others get license plates some way, somehow. Usually through someone in Rocky Mount, he’s been told.

But he has already spent almost $600 on license plates that didn’t arrive.

Leonardo’s at the DMV in Crossroads Mall because he wants to do it right, or as right as he can under the circumstances.

Leonardo paces near the entrance, looking at the vanity plates on the wall. Man, he thinks, do those vanity plates look good. How about one of those?

Nah, he decides, just something simple. He just needs the plates. Until Christmastime 2008.

By then, he’ll be done working in the United States. By then, he’ll be home. With his wife and daughter in Mexico. With a new truck and a new home.

About this story (The Methods Box)

This is the last installment in The Roanoke Times' "Land of Opportunity" series. In this story, and in some previous installments, we have chosen to not fully identify subjects because such details could increase the risk of their deportation.

In this story, the subject is identified only by his first name, Leonardo. The reporter, Evelio Contreras, spent more than five months following the lives of Leonardo and his roommates in Roanoke. All of the subjects in the story spoke only Spanish, with the exception of government officials. Contreras translated the quotes into English at the time of reporting.

Contreras accompanied Leonardo to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Crossroads Mall to observe if he could obtain license plates. Contreras translated the conversation at the DMV, as well as the described documents, because Leonardo does not speak English or read in any language.

"I did not provide any answers Leonardo didn't have," Contreras said. "When we arrived at the DMV, I didn't see any translators — I didn't ask, either — so I decided to translate for him."

Contreras, 24 and a community sports reporter, brings a relevant background to this story.

"He [Leonardo] reminds me of my father, Evelio Sr., a 63-year-old semiretired construction worker living on the border of Texas and Mexico. He's not a U.S. citizen but a [legal] resident alien. He's from a different generation of Mexican construction workers.

"My father wasn't big on words but work. Leonardo approaches life similarly."

Hit us with some champagne and push us in the water. This blog is ready to go.

Here's our first blogging assignment for the class. Comment at this blog on this question: How hard was it to find a suitable topic for your first story?

If you want to tell compelling stories, how important is spending enough time getting a real good subject? This is what Ira Glass has to say.

All you visitors. Here's the assignment:

January 23/Week One: Introduction to the course/Interviewing/Focusing your idea.

Assignment: A story of at least 500 words based on an interview with an immigrant or alien (preferably a refugee) who has been in the country no more than two years. Most of the story will reflect your interview with your subject, but I want two additional sources: a secondary written source and a brief comment from a USF professor or staff member who has expertise that is relevant to the experience of your immigrant. Such information is good preparation for asking the tough questions in an interview. Such supplementary information is particularly useful if you think you have been told something that is not true. Read Blundell, Chapter 1.