Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is a project of Atlantic Public Media (APM), which began life as the founding organization for the public radio service for Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, which went on the air in 2000. APM's office is upstairs in the radio station and we still work closely with WCAI/WNAN/WZAI under the parental wing of WGBH. This year, our little radio station was the only one in the country to win the duPont-Columbia Award for Journalism, no mean feat for a toddling station with an annual news budget of $12,500/year. It happened because reporter Sean Corcoran and News Director Steve Young worked really hard with limited resources and told important stories with heart and skill. So, we invited our downstairs neighbors to join us on Transom to talk about local news and how do it... with high quality and on the cheap. We start with Steve who talks about the overall philosophy and practice of local news on public radio. Next, Sean will talk about the on-the-ground job of reporting and how he produced the twenty stories which make up the series, "Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands." (Sean worked with the Steve as an independent producer, by the way, an interesting model for other stations around the country.) We hope you'll visit us at Transom to talk about Localness and News--one of the most important discussions facing public broadcasting.
Better Cheddar: Rethinking Local News
“A poet’s hope: to be,
like some valley cheese,
local, but prized elsewhere.” – WH Auden
Let’s face it: we local public radio journalists don’t get much respect out there in the big bad world. We’re usually third or fourth on a source’s call-back list. At press conferences we get shouldered aside by the boys with the big TV cameras. And who ends up on those weekly media news roundups? Print reporters — even on public radio shows, for God’s sake.
Then there’s the fact that every September – as regular as turkey vultures winging south for the winter – public radio program directors fly into some exotic city for the PRPD conference, meet at some fancy hotel complex to once again discuss why we are irrelevant and not worth what we’re paid. Lately the word is that we’re even worse than irrelevant. The “Audience 2010” report compiled by public radio numbers guru David Giovannoni says that local news actually damages listenership, like some kind of virulent, flesh-eating bacterium. The PRPD’s paradoxically named “Local News Initiative” implies much the same. The LNI wonks put together a focus group consisting of news and talk NPR junkies from nine markets across the country. They were apparently put in a room and subjected to hours of local news. As they emerged, the wonks recorded these folks saying things destined to break the heart of any news director. “Boring…” “A turnoff…” “Redundant…” “Amateurish…” “I always can’t wait for them (their beloved NPR station) to get back to NPR…” etc.
The truth is out: we are ciphers. We write on water.
I confess I use the word “we” a bit carelessly here. I actually am one of those above mentioned program directors. I’ve had my share of room service crabmeat salad and Chardonnay. But I am one of the few program directors, I think, who doubles as news director. And I must be one of the only PDs in the system who still occasionally files to NPR (any others out there please raise your hands). In addition to the usual PD tasks, I edit every script that comes in and do most of the news production and mixing. And I conceive of and oversee all of our local news projects. Radio reporting is still in my blood and always will be.
Yet I fully acknowledge that there are persistent, troubling questions about the role of local news on pubic radio. I believe this is so because our mission is ill-defined, perhaps even at times ill-conceived. Giovannoni and the good folks at PRPD bear no ill will; they call it as they measure it. So this manifesto will be my reflections on how news is currently done on local public radio and then I will relate lessons learned in my own small corner of the world.
A Look in the Mirror
The most astonishing and depressing statistic that I’ve seen lately about local news comes not from “Audience 2010” or the PRPD’s LNI but from a survey of station news departments conducted last year by NPR itself. According to this survey, over half of NPR stations do not edit the stories that go on their airwaves. There is no excuse for this. If a station can’t afford or find an editor – someone who understands good journalistic practices and ethics as well as NPR-quality audio editing, mixing and feature production — they shouldn’t be doing news. Memo to station GMs and PDs: if your reporters aren’t getting edited, your listeners are being badly served and your station is in grave peril.
Quality (and quality control) and credibility matter more than anything else in our business. They matter in themselves, of course. But they’re particularly important for us because of the context in which we local stations place our news. We face a very high bar. Our stories are placed on the same page, so to speak, as some of the finest radio journalists in the world and are listened to by an educated and well-informed audience who takes journalistic excellence for granted. There is simply no room for amateurish reporting, bad audio, ineffective voicing and convoluted, flabby writing.
In fact I have to admit that when I read that statistic, a part of me was relieved. If that LNI focus group was subjected to unedited spots and stories, no wonder they nearly lost their lunch. But I also know the problems are deeper than that. So I’ll move on to the more contentious issue of content.
I’ll start off with something bordering on sacrilege: I believe most local stations should get out of the business of trying to be the primary source of breaking news in their area. By “primary” I mean both using original reporting and trying to be the first to air a story. There are many good reasons for this but first and foremost is cost. Think of the traditional beat reporter as a kind of first responder. Breaking news events – like emergencies – are unpredictable. Just as a fire or police department has to be equipped to deal with multiple 911 calls on a given day, so does a newsroom. You need people in place, people who sometimes sit around the firehouse playing cards (metaphorically speaking, of course) waiting for the next alarm to come in. This gets extremely expensive. In fact, it’s prohibitively expensive at my station and I suspect many others. I would argue that as an institution, a public radio station is simply ill-equipped to be a “first-responder” type news organization. The Cape Cod Times, for example, serves the exact same population as we do. They have fifteen fulltime reporters and photographers, three bureaus and half a dozen editors. That’s what it takes to adequately cover a market of even our small size.
But let’s assume for a moment that cost isn’t a factor and you can afford a newsroom full of that many reporters and editors. There’s another cost: airtime. Breaking news is also unpredictable in that it’s often not there when we need it, especially in small to medium markets, especially if we’ve created a large hole to fill day after day. Put another way: suppose your firefighters get bored and stop playing cards and go out and start lighting fires of their own (which, sadly, as we all know, actually happens sometimes). Stations with news holes have to fill them with something. As a “news hole” veteran myself, I can testify that the quality of news goes down in inverse proportion to the size of the hole. Or more precisely, the importance of the news decreases. This is a key point.
Beyond quality issues, beyond cost issues, lurks this nagging issue of importance. David Giovannoni, in fact, once wrote a brief essay entitled “The Importance of Importance.” In it he strongly suggested that local news often fails the “importance” test with the NPR audience. Why is this? NPR listeners, as we’ve all been told, see themselves as global citizens. They value NPR because of its high-mindedness, its erudition, its civility and its ability to bring perspective to world events. Local news is, well, local. There are some PDs who think the word “local” itself is pejorative and discourage its use on the air. So let’s look at that word for a minute.
“Local” means nearby, familiar, parochial. “Local” is where we live; it’s the people and things we see every day. “Local,” in other words, is what we already know, or think we know. It’s not that we don’t care about “local,” it’s that it doesn’t engage our curiosity or imagination the way NPR does. This view is summed up quite well by one of those LNI focus group listeners I mentioned above: “If I want to know about what’s going on in my town I’ll buy the local paper. I don’t need to hear about it on my NPR station.”
But what if in fact you don’t know your local community as well as you think you do? What if there are people and stories in your own backyard you’ve never come across – stories that are familiar yet surprising, nearby yet unusual, parochial yet challenging and enlightening?
In 2000 I came to work for WCAI – a station on the Cape that was just barely on the air. I loved my previous job in Vermont but in part I wanted to find out if I could do journalism in a different way. I was seduced into coming. I was a long time fan of Jay Allison, WCAI’s founder. Prior to my interview, Jay’s co-worker, producer Viki Merrick, sent me a CD of a bunch of things she called Sonic IDs. I still don’t know whether she sent them as a sales pitch for the station or some kind of strange Rorschach test for me. Either way, it worked. Sonics are self-contained, self-explanatory mini-stories about working life and history here. There are voices of hairdressers, sea cooks, lobstermen, housecleaners, trash haulers, restaurant workers, sailors, beachcombers, marine scientists, etc, etc. The CD (which I still keep on my desk at home) told me that here was a station that already had its hands deep inside the community even before it went on the air. That intrigued me.
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I didn’t come here to produce more Sonics. For one thing, they’re far harder than they look. We have over 700 of them now and each is touched by Jay and Viki’s particular genius, a genius that I, alas, don’t share. Rather, from the start I wanted to dig into community with more of a civic mission, utilizing my strengths as a newsperson and traditional journalist. This led inevitably to the darker sides of Cape life and a number of series on housing issues, the plight of the fishing industry, transportation and traffic, the tensions between the (large) gay and straight communities here, tourism and the economy. It culminated in our 20 part series “Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands.”
Throughout the life of the station I’ve had no fulltime reporters. I did a lot of reporting myself and somehow found and, when needed, trained many other freelance reporters and producers. Of course we followed the news and chose particular stories to follow when they occurred. We won a number of awards for our news coverage, in fact. But in part because my annual news budget is $12,500 a year, I’ve had to choose my shots with great care.
There is a commonality between our reporting and the Sonics: in neither will you find any phone tape. I confess I have a serious aversion to phone tape in covering local news. I know its uses well and its necessity at times. NPR and such legendary producers as Jay and Ira Glass use it brilliantly and effectively. But in covering a small community such as ours, I see little or no need for it. I see it as a symbol of a desk reporter – and we, for one, can’t afford desk reporters. Our governing philosophy – whether it’s our Sonics or our journalism – is the reporter in the field, microphone in hand, recording the personalities, the sounds, the authentic voices, the vivid history, the moving stories of our shared community.
Three Humble Suggestions
First, we all have to figure out how best to accomplish our mission as radio journalists while dealing with relatively scant resources. That’s a fact of life that will likely not change. Choose your shots carefully and be resourceful. So, for example, at WCAI we established a good relationship with the Cape Cod Times, the newspaper of record here. An editor from the paper chats with our morning host for a few minutes every weekday about the day’s news. Is this a perfect solution? No — but it allows us to use the resources of the Times newsroom to inform our listeners of the day’s most important local stories at virtually no cost to us.
Second, talent matters, not how many reporters you have on payroll. Keep your ears open and your eyes out for talented independent reporters and producers. Even this tiny peninsula has an amazing number of them. Settle only for ones you believe in and trust and then give them rope. I discovered Sean Corcoran almost by a fluke. He was a print reporter at loose ends. But I read his clippings and knew he was the real deal: a reporter who knew how to cultivate sources and get people facing difficult times to talk to him. I knew he could tell their stories eloquently and in the context of a broader story. It didn’t matter that he had no radio experience; I knew I could train him in all that. Then I begged, borrowed and scrimped to pay him for six months to gather tape and do research and write the scripts before a single story went out on the air.
Third, think big. At times, think audacious. Do bold, ambitious projects. Don’t be afraid to get underneath the skin of your community. Don’t be afraid to piss people off — as long as, of course, your reporting is honest and fair. Don’t be afraid of adhering to our prime journalistic mission: to shine light in dark corners. To give voice to the voiceless, to hold the powerful accountable.
Sean Corcoran will be along in a few days to give his on the ground reporter’s view of tackling such a complex and challenging subject as hidden poverty in a prosperous community. We both believe the series touches on difficult issues facing the nation as a whole today: the decline of the middle class, the growing gap between rich and poor and the shame and bewilderment that many of the (mostly white) “nouveau-poor” feel these days.
I will be happy to continue this discussion and answer any questions you may have.
Thanks for listening.
Sean Corcoran’s Manifesto, February 2007
On The Ground Reporting
“Manifesto” is much too strong a word for what follows. As a writing form, a manifesto demands declarations and strong opinions. That’s not really my thing. I’m a journalist, the type who mostly keeps his opinions to himself when outside the newsroom. It’s rare that I employ the First Person when writing. I am the explainer of other people’s proclamations, experiences and stories. I ask questions and sort things out. If I saw the monk Martin Luther nailing his lengthy manifesto to the church door, I’d ask him for his top three theses. If Karl Marx handed me a copy of his Communist Manifesto, I’d probably thumb through it looking for the executive summary.
But there is at least one thing I can declare, one solemn truth I recognize. It is the foundation for everything that follows, and it may seem elementary when you read it, but it cannot be overstated:
Don’t lie. Good journalism is based on honesty and truth. Don’t break promises. Don’t say words or sounds came from someplace they didn’t. Do the digging. Society needs miners of truth. Exercise your First Amendment rights because your neighbors do not have the time or inclination to do so. But do not lie and expect to get at the truth. Have integrity.
That’s enough about that.
I’m 33 now, and I worked as a newspaper reporter for nearly a decade. A few years ago I made the decision to look for opportunities in public radio. As a storyteller, I recognized that great emotion and understanding could be conveyed with sound, voice and even silence. I remember returning to the newsroom one evening after interviewing a survivor of The Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island, where 100 people died during a rock show. I listened to the interview tape and became teary as the man recalled how he waited all night for his friend to emerge from the ruins. The agony in his voice was so powerful, and I thought to myself, “I don’t think I can convey this emotion. I wish I could play this tape for my readers so they’d really understand what this man experienced.”
Not long after that I found Transom.org while searching for information about audio recorders. I was on staff at a newspaper at the time, and I hoped to buy a recorder and put together a freelance radio piece. I learned that if you are assigned a story by a local public radio station, they typically give you equipment. In my case, I was introduced to Steve Young, the broadcast director of WCAI, The Cape and Islands NPR Station in early summer 2005. I gave him a few newspaper clips and he gave me a flash recorder, a lecture on collecting sound and a chance to do great radio.
One of my first assignments was creating a sound piece from a local fair, and soon I was producing longer, sound-rich features such as this one about a parrot rescue. I bought a Mac and learned to edit tape by pointing a microphone at my dog. Eventually Steve Young asked me to report and write a series of stories, and together we assembled a 20-part series together called “Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands.”
So it was just a year or so ago that I was making the rookie radio guy mistakes — talking over interviewees or chuckling at their jokes; doing interviews with music playing in the background; or switching the microphone from hand to hand at the worst of times. Experience eliminates most of these. What’s really important in all journalism mediums is the writing, and good writing requires good reporting.
Doing the Digging
Details, description and sound are the lifeblood of radio stories, and they need to be collected from places and people. Often the hardest thing for a new reporter to do is walk up to a stranger and start asking questions. It takes courage and confidence to ask someone for an interview, but it is necessary. I’m still learning to write, but I picked up much of what I need to be a good reporter in my first three months at The Berlin (N.H.) Reporter, not too far from the Canadian border.
It was my first newspaper job, and as part of my reporting duties each week I was sent out into the January air to do Man On The Street. I would approach people and ask a question written by my editor, take notes on the response and then get a picture. Some people wouldn’t even look at me. Some answered my question but declined the photograph. Others talked up a storm and posed for my camera but then refused to give me their names. I needed 10 people, and on the coldest days I truly earned the $9.50 an hour I was making.
Here are a few things I learned about interviewing strangers on the street: Don’t wear sunglasses. Look respectable. Men, wear a tie. Smile, speak clearly about who you are and quickly get to the question. “My editor sent me out here…” Look people in the eye. Bring a pencil because pens freeze and don’t write well in the rain. Grocery store parking lots are great places to find sources because there’s good foot traffic and people stop to load their trunks. Apologize for intruding, and recognize that you are. Be grateful when people agree to talk to you because no one has to. And trust me about the tie.
In radio, the bulk of our time often is spent doing more formal, scheduled interviews, particularly when we are reporting longer news-features such as those in Two Cape Cods. Most people are not used to dealing with journalists and microphones, so they are nervous. I explain that we’re basically going to have a conversation, and it will be edited. I hold the microphone. I ask them to say their name and our location, and I try to relax them. “Now,” I say, “I’m going to ask you the hardest question of all. You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. … How old are you?”
I keep my questions short and mostly refrain from talking about myself or telling my own stories. I don’t pretend I know more than I really do, and I allow myself to appear ignorant. I smile when it’s appropriate, but I try not to laugh. I nod along and acknowledge that I am listening and understand, but I almost never give my opinion.
I welcome silence and let it give people time to think. When questions are hard, people may not answer right away. I wait and record the silence. Sometimes it gets uncomfortable and it’s easier to let the person off the hook by suggesting a response or restating the question in a different, less challenging way. Don’t do it. Wait for an answer. If the person doesn’t want to answer or doesn’t understand the question, they can say so. Even when I suspect someone is finished speaking, I wait a few seconds before continuing with a new question. I’ve talked over too many good quotes not to.
I am constantly thinking about the story I am working on, its questions and themes, and the different pieces I need to put the script together. I listen for tape that might begin or end the story, and I note the time when I hear it. I’ll have to set the scene for listeners, so I ask people to describe where we are and why. I pay attention to natural noises I might use or that may need explaining. I look for details. In my notebook I take note of odors, facial expressions, belt buckles and bumper stickers. I ask questions such as: “What are you looking at? What’s that sound? Can you show me? Can you take me there?”
In this example, I had no idea what I would use for a sound scene until my source told me how he drove his truck off the road because of his diabetes. “Can you show me the truck?”
And here’s what I got when I asked a former foster child to show me the house he grew up in.
It’s great to have shorter stories told within a longer piece, so I often ask questions to elicit anecdotes. I find I am most successful doing this toward the end of an interview, when the person is relaxed, talking and thinking easily. An example of this paying off can be found here, when at the end of a 40-minute interview I asked a food pantry administrator about clients who stood out in her mind. It’s some of the best tape in Two Cape Cods, in my opinion.
It typically takes about 30 minutes for the diamond quotes to emerge. I often recognize them when they’re spoken, but not always. The quotes that often find their way into my final script are ones I repeat to my wife or editor. I also like to use tape that made me laugh or weepy when I replayed it, or quotes that came back to me at odd moments after the interview was over.
Here is an example of an interaction that stuck with me for several days after I met three elderly sisters at a food pantry. We almost didn’t use the tape because one of the sisters is a touch off-mike for a moment, but I am very glad we worked it in.
At the end of the interview, I always ask if there is anything we didn’t talk about, anything I missed or anything they wanted to say. These are my catch-all questions, and they’ve served me well.
Putting the Pieces Together
Here’s a discouraging truth worth acknowledging among friends: Writing is hard. It’s hard for just about everyone, not just you.
Writing takes concentration, organization and confidence. And all along the path to completion we are confronted with important choices and questions. There are temptations and short-cuts to avoid, rules of logic and form to follow. Questions of conscience and morality are common. All the outlining, deleting and revising — it’s exhausting work, writing.
Before you decide to pursue work in public relations, let me comfort you with this: The more you write, the better at it you become. For me, each story is like a puzzle. My job is to gather the pieces — chunks of quotation, explanation and reaction — and organize them into an understandable form. I work to be clear about what is being said, its context and its significance. The better pieces I’ve gathered during the reporting process, the easier the writing will go. I have many tools at my disposal to help me: theme, strong verbs, rhythm, alliteration and detail are just a few.
I almost always create an outline. We outline because it’s best to have a road map; it makes writing easier, and we all want that. We revise because distance and time helps us recognize the flaws in our work. Even a day away from a story is enough to freshen my perspective. A week is perfect.
It’s particularly important to get to the point. Get to the theme and purpose of the piece quickly. Every writing rule is made to be broken, of course, but meandering around giving background and context is almost always a bad way to start, particularly in radio. Let your listener know what you are up to. If there is a question you’re going to answer, ask it. Put your best tape first and move the story forward.
Answer lingering questions, but don’t over explain things. Be wary of statistics and using too many numbers. Read aloud as you go and consider the rhythm and flow of the writing. Note places in the script where you want to pause. Be sensitive and thoughtful. Use tape of people making music when it’s appropriate.
Carefully selected details can help the audience visualize a person or scene, but they also must be used sparingly. Anyone can load a script with descriptions of people’s outfits and the color of walls, but details must have meaning and purpose or the piece will be confusing and overwrought. When in doubt, don’t use it. If it feels like too much, it probably is.
Sometimes a little detail can serve many purposes. Garth Petracca is a chef I used in a story about Dennis in Two Cape Cods. I used his “checkered pants” to transition and re-introduce Petracca at the end of the piece, a task that can feel clunky and awkward. In this case, the detail reminded listeners who Petracca was without having to restate his title and significance, and it offered them an image.
All this from the Couch
As mentioned above, writing is hard, and it’s a particularly tough task for a freelancer, mostly because the “newsroom” is both lonely and too close to the couch. In newsrooms of varying sizes, reporters return from interviews and tell their editors what happened. Questions are asked. Themes appear. When stories are filed, an editor may walk over to the reporter to discuss revisions. For freelance writers working at home, such feedback can be rare.
Ironically, while every writer needs an editor, young writers often fight changes that are suggested. An editor’s job is to make the work better, and we need to let them. We must not be “married to our copy,” as the expression goes, and instead trust the editor. Yes, sometimes we have to restructure things and develop new transitions. Often we are asked to “kill our darlings,” to use another writing expression, cutting away places where we thought we were being particularly witty or poignant. It hurts. But the editor is coming at the material from a fresh perspective; and I’ve never come across an editor who was deliberately trying to sabotage a story. So unless a suggested change is inaccurate, I usually make it. It took a few years for me to come around to this way of thinking, though. I used to battle with the best of them.
It is the fortunate reporter who finds steady work with an enthusiastic, supportive editor who’s willing to do more than assign stories and rewrite the top. I was writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines on Cape Cod for only a few months when I met Steve Young, my aforementioned editor, the broadcast director of WCAI and my fellow guest on Transom.org.
Steve recognized the value of Two Cape Cods, and he says he looked to me because I’d done investigative journalism projects before. Steve knew a series about hidden poverty couldn’t be done over the telephone, by attending municipal meetings or by quoting statistics. It required knocking on strangers’ doors and approaching people outside food banks. Sensitivity, tenacity and all the other traits described above were needed because oftentimes people don’t want to admit they are poor. What mother wants to tell a reporter she couldn’t turn the heat on this winter because she couldn’t afford the oil? Who wants to open their refrigerator and point to the block of government cheese? The truth, though, is important. Cape Cod has problems, and the best way to get at them is through the stories and voices of the people who live here.
I would like to invite the Transom.org audience to discuss the series “Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands,” as well as the job of reporting in general. How do YOU approach long-term reporting projects? What is your writing process like? What tact do you to take to make people feel more comfortable during interviews? Let the discussion begin…