Posts Tagged ‘ Small Town Reporter ’

Rethinking “Privacy”

2011.07.29
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RECENTLY, ONE OF MY FAVORITE blogs switched their commenting software from one which featured anonymous “handles” to one which can also link readers under their real names. It has caused me to rethink what I thought I took for granted about privacy — and explain why I now post solely under my real name.

In 1996, I was irate with a local politician who had left a “How’m I Doing?” flyer on our door. I told her exactly how I thought she was doing, and was about to toss it in the mail, when Ann pointed out that I hadn’t signed my name to it.
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See Augie? It IS A City!

2011.03.20
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IN 2008, A LOCAL CITY councilmember proposed changing our urban appellation from “City of Sonoma” to “Town of Sonoma” — reflecting the bucolic values to which we cling with blue-jean-and-Stetson stubbornness. That task proved a quixotic one, but good for a fortnight of local wag-stoking.

And now, this from the travel section of this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, page P6: a nice piece about Sonoma Valley’s Glen Ellen touts the hamlet/burg/village as “an alternative to the bustle of modern Sonoma.” (Italics added.)

There it is, in black and white. Our little Anatevka-among-the-vines has gone from “Slownoma” to “Gonoma.” Next: Public WiFi, traffic jams and sunglasses.

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Sign In A Radio Newsroom, c. 1993

2011.03.16
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SAW THIS WHERE I FIRST interned as “Neal Ross.” I was naive enough then to think it merely humorous.

Cub reporter: “If it’s news, I report it.”
Old journalist: “If I report it, it’s news.”
Newsman Emeritus: “If I don’t report it, it didn’t happen.” When I report it, it’s history.”

(Thanks to “Bob” for the correction.)

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Pithyism #38N122W

2010.12.14
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NOTHING HAPPENS IN THE WORLD without someone from Sonoma County being involved in some way. (Those who know, know.)

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5 Thoughts: Veni, Vidi, Wiki

2010.12.14
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1. NO REPORTER (OR FORMER REPORTER) can resist two-centsing the Wikileaks Affair. Yet my opinions are still raw and untempered; this movie isn’t over yet, and any real proclamations of herohood or villainy are thus still naively premature. This unfolding fact is some comfort to those of us on the fence: who dislike Mr. Assange’s person and motives, applaud Wikileaks qua Wiklileaks, think some doors work better when closed, are appalled by their government’s heavy-handed attempts to quash fair journalistic game, roll their eyes at the kneejerkisms of “both” “right” and “left,” and feel the “hacktivist”(1) response is both counterproductive and self-seeking.

2. It’s hard to deny that Mr. Assange comes off as a petulant, smash-everything egotist even in his own writings — a reflexive anti-authoritarian who got lucky with a similar and better-connected discontent. That is not a valid criticism against the leaks themselves or what’s revealed in them, and I wonder about the commentators who think it is. Read more »

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How The World Works

2010.10.21
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“WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU MISS a deadline?” asked the high-school student shadowing me in my capacity as newspaper reporter.

“You don’t,” I replied.

“No, I know,” he said. “But what happens if you do?”

I just looked at him. “You don’t,” I repeated. “You just don’t.”

And sometimes, life really is that simple.

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Writing News: The Interview

2010.08.12
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HAVING LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY “DONE this in my sleep(1)” on occasion as ahem an award-winning reporter for the Sonoma Index-Tribune and Sonoma Sun (and freelancer for the Novato Advance, Petaluma Argus-Courier and The Bohemian) and being somewhat-to-greatly rankled by what passes for “news” these days outside of local outlets and the Daily Show, methinks it urgent to spread some of the skills needed to excel in The Game. Let’s start with the Interview.

The goal of the Interview is to extract information from someone who has it: whether they’re an eyewitness, a neighbor, a mayor, a relative, a senator or just a bunch of old guys reminiscing about Frank Sinatra in the backroom of an old Sonoma bar at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday. You will want to have the following:

- Tape recorder (smaller the better, and with a counter)
- Pad and pen(cil)
- Relevant and brief questions (what, when, where, how, maybe why, and — most importantly — “Anything else you want our readers/listeners to know? Anything I should have asked you, or that you’d wished I’d asked you?” This often yields the best quote of all.)

(Make sure that either tape or pad includes “the scene.” Include lots of color and context, body language, etc., but don’t go overboard at the expense of the nut-o’-story(2); include at least three relevant details. Some disdain tape recorders, but if you’re like me you’ll want people to tell you things in their own words — and you’ll want to quote them accurately. The counter’s for noting what point in the Interview contains The Quote.)

Two types of Interview there are: Field and Telephone.

Field Interviews are, by their nature, unpredictable; this is where your tape recorder is paramount. Identify yourself to the interviewee and give them a graceful way out: “I’m Clark Kent with the Daily Planet; mind if I ask you a few questions?” Keep as open and friendly a face as possible(3). If they consent, begin recording with something like, “This is Clark Kent of the Daily Planet on today’s date, and we’re speaking with …” Let the interviewee speak (and if necessary spell) name and title into the recorder; it both indicates consent and is a good way to break the ice.

If your interviewee is an emergency responder at the scene of something horrible, look for the guys in the white helmets (fire) or in a vehicle on the radio (police or also fire). Remember that while California Penal Code section 409.5d gives you legal access anywhere (your state or country may vary), you are a low priority to those trying to bring things under control. Keep your questions brief and to the point (that’s also a good general rule) and stay well out of the way (I usually back against a tree or something).

Interviewing witnesses and families can be dicey: some folks want to be in the newspaper and some don’t. Don’t push it; some may have a beef with the paper, or reporters in general, or be drunk, or indefinably weird in a way which makes you wish you’d studied finance. Be professional, as though you’re doing something serious (you are). Sometimes that can be contagious.

Interviewing someone who’s been traumatized by tragedy is invasive and, occasionally, necessary. Use extreme care. There is no other advice I can give you.

Other types of Field Interviews (e.g., press conferences, meeting interviewees at their office) are similar enough to the Telephone Interview as to make a good segue.

Telephone Interviews are easier in one way than Field Interviews, if you’re typing the conversation directly into your word-processor (typewriters, not so much). You’re limited in that you can’t see your interviewee’s eyes or body lingo, but if they’re not answering the phone you get to tell the secretary or voicemail “If I don’t hear from you by 2 p.m., I’ll have to write “Could not be reached by presstime.” (You’d be surprised how often this actually works, especially for those whose newsworthiness depends on public image.)

* * *

As nothing else comes to mind at present, I hope this helps those either curious about The Game or eager to play. As Edward R. Murrow said, “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.”(4)

———-

(1) Much to either the amazement or confirmed suspicions of my former editors, if they’re reading this.
(2) Picked this up from a former editor-in-chief, who referred to the summing-up paragraph of any story as the “nut graf.” Being a hick, I don’t know if that’s a universal term.
(3) On the other thumb, I used to work with a guy (also award-winning) whose favorite tools were gruffness and insouciance. Whatever works. It’s my nature to befriend people, so I go with that; also, I’ll come right out and say “Explain this to me so that I can see it the way you do.” It seems to me that a successful reporter should pretend to be the dumbest guy in the room — and pay close attention to the people trying to explain things.
(4) He also said “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful,” which is even more important. Your byline is your reputation — cherish it!

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5 Thoughts: Fiction- v. News-Writing

2010.07.05
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1. YOU STOP WRITING A NEWS piece when you run out of facts. But when do you stop writing fiction? When you run out of story, I suppose.

2. In news, the most important information goes up top. In fiction, it’s in the reader’s head — at least with genre pieces. There has to be some connection between the reader’s mind and the writer’s expression in terms of shared assumptions or expectations. A science fiction author knows his readers are unfazed by three-headed alien bankers, so doesn’t need to waste valuable real estate on justifying same beyond adhering to strict internal consistency. Someone writing for a general audience needs to adjust their bankers, but touch not the consistency!

3. Both news and fiction require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the writer. The newswriter must disbelieve her own narrowness of perspective; the fictioneer, the narrowness of his publisher’s pocketbook. And both must believe that they offer an important, if not indispensable, message.

4. The task/mechanics of newswriting can be visualized as assembling a Tinkertoy set: all the pieces are there, and it’s the writer’s task to assemble them in as compact and easily recognizable a form as possible. Fictioneering feels more like holding one end of a handful of ropes which fade into the misty distance; the idea being to draw in the slack and tighten the lines until the sails fill of themselves.

5. Dialog. In fiction, it advances the plot or builds character or atmosphere. In news … well, it can also advance plots and build (or tear down) character and atmosphere. Perhaps news and fiction are less dissimilar than they appear (no FOX or MSM jokes, please); the difference may be whether we corroborate with our senses or our emotions.

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Bad, Bad News

2010.06.09
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YES, THAT WAS MY EMAIL which KQED’s Michael Krasny read during his second hour this morning, which program concerned the effect of bad news on man-in-the-street audients. The show is worth a listen — archive available at http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R201006091000. (I riffed on the concomitant effect of bad news on the reporters who witness it.)

Many listeners discussed the heartbreak of our instant-everywhere media and the dangers of being desensitized by a flood of horrible real images about which one can do nothing or too damn little. Some said they’ve switched off radios and TV sets and canceled newspapers; some severely curtail their media intake to the non-visual or (more often) The Daily Show. One woman addressed the desensitization issue thus: When she sees the faces and names of American soldiers killed most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan (A”H, PBUT and rest in peace), she “goes into a little prayer for them” — she tries to connect her inner spark-of-what-some-call-God to theirs, to their lives and those surrounding them, and to the hole left by what was formerly their presence.

She says that helps. I believe her.

One of the most difficult aspects of living a “religious” or “spiritual” life is reconciling the universal amazingness of God with the frustrative pettiness of some humans. (“Monotheism isn’t for wimps,” as my old buddy Sputnik sometimes said.) It’s the sort of thing which worried Job, at least until God said, “That’s just the way it is.” It worries me too; these days I’m finding it difficult to keep from turning my eyes away from the horror. (Granted, I’m sort of dealing with a lot right now.) But this morning I discovered that not only am I not the only one who feels that way — I’m not alone in thinking that’s unacceptable. I don’t want to be ignorant of what’s going on in the world; I don’t want to be paralyzed by the knowledge either.

Maybe the answer, an answer, or anyway what my tool-using Mr. Fixit primate brain will substitute, isn’t to switch off but to find something you can do something about. Wherever you live, someone needs help — find them and offer it! (In Sonoma Valley, you can do that through FISH, or friendsinsonomahelping.org; if you don’t have something similar near you, start one. )

Even if we can’t directly affect what enrages us, we can channel that rage to productive ends. It may be hard work — but isn’t anything better than paralysis?

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Shameless Plug, Drainwise

2009.08.27
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ALL I REALLY HAD IN mind was helping out my colleagues — I didn’t know I’d also be helping myself.

I’m referring to today’s North Bay Bohemian article titled “There to Be There: Police chaplains ride the thin blue line of compassion.” Aside from this blog and an occasional email, it’s the first thing I’ve written since I got sick back in November, and the fact that my friends (and, more importantly in this case, the subject) are pleased with the results is both gratifying and mystifying. The gratitude is probably obvious, but the mystifying-ness may require an explanation.

Newswriting has always been an effort for me, partly because I was trained in the journalistic arts by some very ethical, dedicated and talented people (i. e., Ed LaFrance, Darryl Curtis, David Wesley Page, Bill Hoban and, chiefly, the late Mr. Robert Lynch). It’s a sort of exquisite agony to know that whatever I write will be read by people who want to know what’s going on; the internal monologue usually goes something like this: “Did he really say that? What was her inflection? Have I checked the facts enough? Why isn’t this quote more quoty? Did I really catch the essence? Do I know enough about this to sound authoritative? Is there more to this than I’m aware? How do I know I know?”

If I’m making this sound hard, it is. If I’m making it sound hideous, then I haven’t fully explained the absolute, timeless, all-encompassing, immediate, pulse-pounding thrill and joy which underlies it all. Because truly, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do — sometimes I think there’s nothing else in the world that I even know how to do. And after nine months of semi-isolation and attendant self-doubt, it’s nice to know I can still do Neal Things.

In any case, the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service means a great deal to me. Poor health forced me out of last year’s academy, and while at this point I don’t know if I’ll be able to enter this year I want to help however I can. I hope the article fulfills that need, and I hope you enjoy it too!

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How To Write

2009.06.27
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SUCCINCTLY.

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A Tip of the Yarmulke to Lou Gehrig

2009.04.15
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In the entire time I covered the Sonoma City Council, I only took the podium thrice: once to ask for clarification, once to offer my then-employer‘s help with disseminating something of civic importance, and once when the mayor declared 1/17/01 as “Neal Ross Day” when I first left the Index-Tribune. (Geeez.) Tonight will be the fourth:

—–

Mr. Mayor, members of the City Council and of the public, thank you. I’m Neal Ross Attinson, 21 France St. #1, perpetual part-time rabbinical student and former full-time reporter.

It’s a busy night, so I won’t take up too much time, and anyway I?m more comfortable sitting over there writing than standing up here talking. But I was told that a few people wanted to know where I’ve been for the past few months, and since most of those people are integral to the city in some way it seemed appropriate to address you tonight.

Many of you know I was covering the city and public-safety beats for the Sonoma Valley Sun until incapacitating abdominal pain took me off the job in December. Without going into details (which are available at my blog, metaphorager.net — for the record, m-e-t-a-p-h-o-r-a-g-e-r), suffice to say that after five months, 40 pounds, two surgeries and six hospitalizations there’s no relief and no clear diagnosis yet. But we haven’t given up.

Last Wednesday, my pharmacist informed me that my health insurance had been canceled, and two days later I learned that I was no longer employed by the Sonoma Valley Sun. That being the case, I wanted to thank some people without whom I wouldn’t be here now.

A Yiddish proverb says, “Life is with people.” A reporter has to be (or pretend to be) the dumbest guy in the room in order to learn as much as he can. If he’s not dumb, he soon learns that everyone he meets is his teacher. I was going to read a list of my teachers during the past eleven years … but instead: If I ever wrote anything with any degree of accuracy, compassion or insight — or if, while talking with you, my eyes (or yours) lit up with an “Ahhh…HA!” gleam — I owe you the shiniest of apples. To those people whose tragedy and privacy I invaded in order to tell the public their stories, I offer my apologies, as well as my gratitude for your trust.

Most of all, I thank Ann, my wife and best friend of 20 years, for not giving up — and for not letting me give up. The Talmud says that a man only lives through the merit of his wife; if that’s true, I should live forever.

Thank you, Sonoma Valley, for letting me write about you — and thank you, Mr. Mayor, for letting me speak. Good night.

———-

I must say that feels very weird to do this. Since a reporter has to know “everyone in town” (as Mark Twain points out to great tragicomic effect near the aft end of Roughing It), it makes sense that people might wonder where he went and why he isn’t coming back. But I don’t usually think in terms of “everyone in town” (rather, the 100 to 200 people who are engaged with it) knowing me. One never knows where the teacher will be next…

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