WCAI’s Sean Corcoran & Steve Young

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.

Steve Young’s Manifesto – Better Cheddar: Rethinking Local News
Sean Corcoran’s Manifesto – On the Ground Reporting
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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.”

Community

WCAI office
WCAI in Woods Hole, MA

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.

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

a
Sean Corcoran collecting tape

“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.

a 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.

a
Garth Petracca, Food Services Coordinator

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.

Conclusion

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…

Sean Corcoran

About
Sean Corcoran

Sean Corcoran's began his reporting career deep in the trenches of American journalism -- Berlin, N.H., not far from the Canadian border. Raised on the North Shore of Boston, Sean spent 10 years as a reporter at various newspapers throughout New England before moving to Cape Cod in 2005. He is the senior reporter at WGBH's Cape and Islands NPR Station in Woods Hole, Mass., where he produces investigative series. Sean considers himself a public service journalist, and he has won several national print and radio journalism awards, including the Alfred I. dupont-Columbia University Award. Sean lives on Cape Cod with his wife Linda, an editor at The Cape Cod Times newspaper, and their 4-year-old son Seamus.

More by Sean Corcoran

Steve Young

About
Steve Young

Steve Young is an award-winning radio reporter, producer and editor. He's reported for NPR, Reuters International, the Voice of America and a number of print publications. He's covered such major stories for NPR as gay marriage, education funding, welfare reform, the environment. In 1990s, he founded Vermont Public Radio's news department and became its first news director. In 2000 he accepted the job as Broadcast Director for WCAI the Cape and Islands NPR Station to help start a new NPR station for the Cape and build on the work of founder and legendary producer Jay Allison.

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  • Jay Allison

    2.17.07

    Reply

    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.

    Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands" is available for broadcast by stations at the PRX
    http://www.prx.org/series/16834

  • Steve Young

    2.17.07

    Reply

    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 (MP3 Audio) 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."

    Community


    WCAI in Woods Hole, MA

    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.

    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.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    2.20.07

    Reply
    a wisp of hope

    I just listened to the entire series back-to-back. In my kitchen. It’s awfully cold out and it’s hard to think about people being forced to live outside. And others fearful of ending up outside.
    There’s a lot to respond to here
    but I just wanted to start with that.

    Thanks for the series.

    Note to readers who haven’t heard the work: The common denominator of all of WCAI’s work is a thoughtfulness that comes through i Sean’s voices in the series (and Steve’s relaxed voice when he guest hosts)

    Perhaps it’s that thoughtful quality that keeps me from being completely depressed after listening to the series. Though you apparently made no effort to sugar coat or end on a forced positive note, I somehow come away with a strand of hope.
    Where does that hope come from? The stories and situation are dire! Much of it is the quality of Sean’s voice. I interpret it as being calm but not brutally dispassionate and removed.

    Hope comes from sensing that the first step toward dealing with problems is bringing out the information this way. Hope comes from hearing that the story is not being told in a hit-and-run flashy way for someone’s brief entertainment. And it’s also not being told in a way that sets policy makers against each other to spend valuable time attacking and defending rather than problem solving.

    Having just listened to the whole thing, I experienced it as a powerful comprehensive documentary. Could you release it that way as a CD or DVD?

    Do you think perhaps the problem with local news is that a close-up daily turnaround rarely allows for long views and this level of thoughtfulness?

    As a listener I find myself satisfied with the way your local hosts talk to newspaper editors to cover so many local stories. The editors can step back and talk in a different voice from their straight reporting, allowing a brief glimpse behind the scenes of printed news stories. I like that the approach is allowing you to put your resources into a more documentary approach.

    Do you think that making the Series pieces 5 rather than 3 minutes, and making the series as long as it was was crucial to the thoughtfulness factor?

    thanks

  • Steve Young

    2.20.07

    Reply
    Hope

    Nanette —
    Thanks for all your compliments and thoughtful comments and thanks for taking the time to listen to the entire series. It is a bit of a brutal trek! During the first airing, a listener from New Jersey who vacations here (and listens to us on-line when in NJ) wrote to say that he was so disturbed by the series he and his wife were reconsidering plans to move up here permanently. Happily (I think!) they decided to move here anyway.
    That’s an interesting point about Sean’s voice. I do think that his voice and manner (and most importantly, his writing) make the series sound less harsh — without as you say sugar-coating it. As he discusses in his piece (in this space next week), I think his calmness also helps with sources because he takes the time to listen — really listen — and his manner isn’t manifestly exploitative. As his editor, I heard a great deal more than made the air, of course, and I was struck by his patient and generous interactions with sources. This is a skill that isn’t taught in journalism school. It’s also a skill that tends to wilt under the pressure of constant deadlines.
    Along those lines, this was a story that had not been reported before — though pieces of it were. Because of this, we gave ourselves the luxury of six months to get it right before we aired it.
    I do think that allowing five minutes gave the pieces more thoughtfulness than, say, three. But like many reporters (myself included) Sean tends to write long and so as editor I had to make sure we stuck to the discipline of five minutes — knowing we had another nineteen stories to give range and depth to the series as a whole.
    Finally I want to mention that despite the series’ bleakness, our listeners were very, very supportive. The word that people kept using was that this was an "important" story to tell, even if sometimes hard to listen to. Frankly, it’s rare to hear that about our work as journalists and of course it’s gratifying. Steve Young

  • Jim Russell

    2.20.07

    Reply
    What is Local

    Thanks for an excellent statement of how to report local news in a provocative, evocative way. Some years ago, a reporter working for me changed my thinking entirely about "local news." He said, "Local news is what matters to local people." That opens up the entire world of subjects and stories, as seen through the lens of local residents. I think that is the bridge between the "global" view of an NPR and the strictly local news of the firehouse and city hall.

  • mfitzgerald1809

    2.24.07

    Reply
    Re: advice from Steve Young

    I’ve worked in local newspapers my whole career, but I found great inspiration in Steve’s observations and advice. Thanks much for the dose of wisdom.

    Mike Fitzgerald

  • Sean Corcoran

    2.27.07

    Reply

    Editor’s Note: Reporter Sean Corcoran joins News Director Steve Young at Transom to continue our conversation about local news. Sean’s manifesto covers the on-the-ground reporting for WCAI’s duPont Columbia Award-winning series "Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Cape and Islands." He talks about the nuts and bolts of the job–how to do it and why.

    On The Ground Reporting

    Sean Corcoran collecting tape

    "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.


    Garth Petracca, Food Services Coordinator

    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.

    Conclusion

    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…

  • Laura Kwerel

    2.28.07

    Reply
    Great Stuff

    Hi there– I just wanted to tell you that I learned SO much from your manifesto…like more than I’ve learned in journalism school, and supposedly I’m going to a good one. And thank you for mentioning that writing is hard. Every time I hear that from someone like you, who seems to write so easily, it really gives me courage.

  • Thomas Marzahl

    2.28.07

    Reply
    Excellent jumping off point

    I sure hope this will spawn a lively discussion on the importance of doing local news, and doing it well, on Transom.

    As someone who’s spent a large part of his professional career in journalism abroad in Europe, I find stations like WCAI/WNAN to be potential role models for broadcasters beyond our borders. The concept of local often just doesn’t exist on the radio over there, or when it does, it’s limited to traffic, weather and cultural events.

    To think what you can do with $12,500… Steve, have you always only had this much money? Or did you have to raise additional money to bring Sean in for the series? And what kind of response did you get from local funders when you told them what you wanted to do… these are not the kind of stories that people on the Cape would necessarily want to have broadcast. Was there reluctance?

    And are there people out there who have begun a local news show – from the ground up – and who can speak to its development? I helped oversee the difficult birth of a program that is apparently still going fairly strong in the Midwest, and that gets by on a shoe string of a budget, too.

  • Steve Young

    2.28.07

    Reply
    Development

    Thomas —

    Thanks for your excellent questions about costs and local response. I’ll try to keep this short as this is rightfully Sean’s time. First to address your question about my budget, it actually began at $15K six years ago and it was cut by $2500. But yes we did have help from "soft" money – what David Giovannoni refers to as "non-listener sensitive" sources. These were all relatively small amounts from local foundations — most of whom could only afford to give us a one time gift. We did have one local bank, God bless ’em. Our stipend from WGBH for news reporting — outside of my salary (for which I’m very grateful of course) — is that $12,500. Period.

    Giovannoni talks about the importance of "listener-sensitive revenue" because he believes that foundations and non-profits don’t have the same agenda as contributing listeners and underwriters. I think this is debatable but there is no question that when Giovaannoni speaks, people listen — for good reason. Ultimately, a news department has to be cost-effective and at least somewhat accountable. We can’t be doing reporting that people don’t want to hear. That’s just the hard fact of it.

    I can’t honestly say whether our listeners as a whole liked or disliked our series on hidden poverty. I can say that since the series aired our fundraising went up by 25% and our Arbitrons a similar amount. Of course this wasn’t all due to the series — not by a long shot. But we received many, many letters of support and have added a handful of underwriters as a direct result of the buzz created by the series (and of course the duPont award).

    I firmly believe that our audience wanted this story told. But even if they didn’t, as a journalist and as a citizen of these parts I believe it was a story that simply had to be told. Not telling it would have been lazy and negligent of us. We wouldn’t have been doing our jobs. Steve Young

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.06.07

    Reply

    Well, people who might be curious about Sean’s orientation or methods have had many questions answered by the manifesto. Last but not least was the last paragraph, turning the microphone back away from himself. Perhaps that says a lot.

    Do you bring your dog with you? Does that help you make a connection across any barriers or harshness of the subject matter?

  • Sean Corcoran

    3.07.07

    Reply
    The dog

    Nannette,

    Thanks for the question about my dog, Fea, who I am always happy to write about.

    Yes, I have brought Fea on assignment in the past. She is particularly good to have for "man on the street" work because many people are attracted to little black dogs. Still, I typically work without the dog because holding a leash, a notebook and a microphone is not an easy task.

    As an aside…I learned of Fea’s value when it comes to getting people to trust me about 10 years ago when we were hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Hikers often have to hitchhike from the trailhead and into town to resupply, and I always got a ride fairly quickly. Despite my long red beard and dirty appearance, women of all ages would pull over, look down at the dog wearing her little red pack, and say, "What a cute dog. She must be very hot standing by the road. Can I give you a ride?"

    Worked every time.

    -Sean

  • Jay Allison

    3.07.07

    Reply
    station / independent

    Can you guys tell us a little about your working relationship? I’m particularly interested in the advantages and disadvantages to both the station and the reporter in the fact that Sean worked on this as a freelancer/independent. Is it a good model for other stations? How would it have been different if Sean had been a station employee?

    Also, how did you balance laying out the stories in advance with discovering it as you went along? How did you arrive at the stories–more premeditation or improvisation?

  • Steve Young

    3.08.07

    Reply
    Working together

    Jay, thanks for those interesting questions. Over the years, all but one of our reporters have been freelancers. This was not by choice. We’ve simply never had the budget to hire a fulltime reporter (the one reporter employee we had for a while was part time — which is why we ended up losing her). But I have worked with hired reporters in the past. So here are my thoughts. I’ll try to be brief.

    I’ll skim over the obvious, like the fact that freelancers are cheaper (no benefits) and that they always move on (a huge and heartbreaking disadvantage). I’ll instead observe that in my experience the very best reporters (such as Sean) have independent spirits anyway and the very best relationships I’ve had with reporters were more collaborative and less rigidly hierarchical than the normal boss/employee model. Put succinctly, it’s easier to be collaborative with someone you edit than with someone you supervise. Using freelancers eliminates office politics, internecine squabbles and jealousies and the abuse of power by the boss. The philosopher Elias Cannetti once wrote that every command — no matter how small – carries within it a death sentence. I’m not sure this brings out the best in people.

    On the other hand, most reporters would prefer to have job security and Lord knows I would prefer not to lose reporters I’ve come to trust and rely upon. The ideal situation, in my opinion, is to date each other for a while before getting married. Unfortunately this contradicts the typical corporate model of hiring only when the strategic plan calls for it. This is a prescription for bad hiring (and a bad marriage).

    Regarding your question about process, Sean and I listed the pathologies of poverty, so to speak, during a series of meetings before Sean went into the field. On paper, at least, we matched each symptom with a town. These pairings were mostly calculated, though some were random. For example, Provincetown was the most obvious place to talk about the devastating decline of the small-boat commercial fishing industry, Mashpee had the Wampanoag, etc. On the other hand finding affordable housing on the Cape isn’t limited to Sandwich, nor finding affordable child care to Wellfleet. It was essentially a case of writing up a detailed plan in advance and then deviating from that plan as Sean found compelling stories in sometimes unexpected places. The choice to set a story in every town was deliberate. We wanted to make the point that hidden poverty exists literally in every community. As a practical matter, this made Sean’s job harder, as I’m sure he’s willing to tell you.

  • Ibby Caputo

    3.09.07

    Reply
    Purpose and results

    Sean, I really enjoyed reading your manifesto. Thank you. I’ll be graduating from journalism school in May, and many of the things you talked about – particularly in the ‘putting the pieces together’ section – I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Before I came to journalism school I thought I knew what a story was, but I’ve learned – and at times it has been quite a humbling thing to learn – that my idea of what makes a good story was way off. A big shocker for me was that stories have to have a purpose (!) and result (!)

    You said in your manifesto that it is important to get to the purpose early on when putting together the actual piece, but when do you define the purpose for yourself? In other words, do you know what your purpose is before you start reporting? And does your purpose sometimes shift while you are reporting? Do you ever just go out there and wing it? If so, then how do you go about fishing for the purpose in your material and how do you come to a result?

    Any thoughts you have on this subject I’d love to hear. Thank you, Ibby Caputo

  • Sean Corcoran

    3.13.07

    Reply
    Focus and Theme

    Hi, Ibby,

    Thank you for the questions. I’ll do my best…

    One might say I have a "purpose" when I start the reporting process in the fact I usually have a topic I want to explore and write about. For example, I may decide I want to do a story about the lack of primary care physicians in a certain area. So, there’s my topic. Now I need to flush it out and let it evolve as I report.

    Before I even start reporting, there usually are some questions that come to mind to help focus me. I know I need to find out WHY it is so difficult to find doctors. I also need to know the consequences when people are unable to get a primary care physician. And I might be curious if there is a trend at work here, i.e., are doctors leaving the area? Or, has it always been this way? These are the initial questions that come to mind, so I’ll make sure to ask about them during the interviews and see where they take me.

    When we talk about focus, we also are talking about theme. Every story needs a theme. It holds the story together and gives it direction. It makes the story easier for the reader or listener to understand and follow. Often the theme or focus becomes clear early-on in the reporting process. Perhaps more often we develop one theme and decide to change it when we talk to more people. Other times we are "winging it," as you say, and don’t figure out the specific theme we want to concentrate on until we’re doing our outline or writing our lead. Then, when writing, for the good of the overall story, we have to lose different "pieces" we’ve collected because they just don’t fit the theme. That can be hard to do, but we must make those tough choices. In the above example, I could focus on the insurance reimbursement issue and feature a conflicted doctor who may be considering leaving the area. Or, I could lead with an over-crowded emergency room scene and discuss the impact on emergency services. Then again, I might decide to lead with the sick stakeholder’s story who has been looking for a doctor for months. The more reporting I do, the more storytelling choices I have.

    One more thing: In terms of "winging it," when I interview people, I don’t have all my questions prepared in advance. I have those general questions in mind that I know I want to get to, but mostly I have a conversation. I am interested in other people’s experiences, observations and analysis. I may consider myself knowledgeable about a topic, especially if I have been reporting on it for some time, but I suspect that if I went into the field thinking I knew all the ins and outs of an issue, I would be in big trouble; it would limit my questions. Our sources are the ones that make us experts on topics, not the things I’ve learned from reading or listening to other journalists.

    Whatever theme or focus I choose, it is important to give it to the listener/reader early on in the piece. There is an argument to be made that not every story needs a "nut graph," but it’s safe to say that MOST every story needs one. The last thing we want our audience thinking is, "What’s the point? Why am I listening to this?"

    I hope that helps. Let me know if I need to be more clear.

    Sean

  • Viki Merrick

    3.14.07

    Reply
    Testifyin’

    I’m chiming in here to say that living within the light cast from CAI, most of the people I come across in the street want to talk about this series. Pulling back the curtain has resonated with every walk of citizen in these parts. I mean it – every walk – rich or poor, phd or GED.

    I think this is due to the combined dogmas (dogmi?) of Steve and Sean. I love this from Steve:

    >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.

    It’s honest fuel to fire up an earnest storyteller/reporter like Sean:

    >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.

    Here, I’ll just say it out loud: I’m from Cape Cod and I’m Proud.

    Sean and Steve – can you both talk a little more about using sound to create visual vs writing. talk some more about that. My thought is inspired by Sean’s turning point of wishing he could use tape to tell the story of the RI fire. Does sound trump words?

  • Samantha Broun

    3.15.07

    Reply
    Write on

    Viki’s question is does sound trump words? I’m curious about that too. And, if and when sound does trump words, why?

    I also wonder Sean, as someone trained in print journalism, if you would talk some more about the difference in writing for print verses radio. Has that been an easy transition for you? Or not…

    And, a related question, Mark Kramer’s manifesto was all about voice. Do you find you have a different ‘voice’ as a reporter if you’re using words (print) rather than sound (radio) to tell the story?

  • Steve Young

    3.16.07

    Reply
    Sound writing

    Those are great questions. I’ll add my nickel while we await Sean’s reply (it’s St. Pat’s Day and he’s a fine Irish musician as well as a fine reporter. The green beer is flowing! We may have to wait till next week for his reply).

    I got together with a bunch of station editors at NPR last summer and I think it was Jonathan Kern who said that good writing can save bad tape, but good tape can’t save bad writing.

    When I train print reporters such as Sean in radio reporting, the first thing I tell them is that actualities should be either emotion or opinion. Tape is illustrative – not fact-based which is different from the way quotes are used in print. In news reporting, we still need the observant eye of the reporter to help us out. Their writing, interwoven with the tape, is what creates a vivid, compelling narrative. I think that’s one reason why we reporters have such a hard time creating Sonics. We’re used to using tape as part of the narrative, not as the entire narrative.

    I’m curious how people feel about the way tape is used in the classic NPR news style which is kind of summarized by "30 seconds to tape, 30 seconds out of tape" plus the obligatory 5-10 second sound scene. Has that form become too much of a cliche? What would freshen it up? NPR has adopted the practice of allowing the reporter to occasionally break down the "fourth wall" and interject themselves on-mic within a feature. We do it at our station too. I have to say, reporters seem to LOVE it…

  • Sean Corcoran

    3.19.07

    Reply
    Voice

    Great questions, and I’d be interested to hear Viki’s and Samantha’s thoughts about them, too…

    I cannot say that sound trumps words. For me, being able to create a sound scene for my audience or use a source’s own words are just more tools I have at my disposal as a storyteller. Sometimes sound helps me with a transition. Other times I use it to create a mood. But just like in print I often have to put aside great quotes or interesting facts because they just don’t move the story along, in radio I also have to cut great sound and emotional acts. (It can hurt.) It all depends upon what the particular story needs and the "pieces" I have to work with. Sometimes it’s more powerful to cut the source’s quote and accompanying scene and paraphrase because I can retain complete control over the rhythm of the piece. But other times, no one can say it better than the source herself. It’s really a case by case thing for me.

    Now, to answer the question: "Do you find you have a different ‘voice’ as a reporter if you’re using words (print) rather than sound (radio) to tell the story?" I would say, no.

    I’ve always tried to write in a very conversational style. And I’ve always read my print stories aloud before passing them along to my editor. So, because I try to be aware of such things as the importance of varying the length of sentences, having clear and clean transitions and using strong verbs, I think that’s helped my transition from print to radio writing.

    What is completely new to me is voicing my stories. I’ve had very little coaching in this area, so I’ve kind of relied on instinct to help me determine when it’s appropriate to use my voice to add emphasis without sounding bias or overwrought. I try to boil the voicing down to one thing: Be clear. I pause when I think the listener needs a second to let something sink in, and I try not to be afraid to say things such as, "Now, here’s where things get complicated…" Or, "Consider this statistic…" I’m the listener’s only tour guide throughout the story, so I use my words, my pauses and my inflections to let her know when I’m going to take a turn.

    Sometimes, though, I’m not as clear as I want to be. And that could be the case here, the Monday after a fine St. Paddy’s Day weekend. If so, let me know and I’ll give it another crack.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.19.07

    Reply
    print versus audio collaboration and editing

    Very interesting! -and clear, too, Sean and Steve.

    Could you two talk about the specific processes of editing and collaborating for radio versus print?
    who starts?
    What steps are involved?
    do you work serially, one after the other?
    and/or shoulder-to-shoulder?
    is there a rhythm or some other other aspect that varies, between the radio and print assigning and editing give and take?

    thanks

    and are you still using Cool Edit?

    thanks, Nannette

  • cstifter

    4.06.07

    Reply
    trusting your audience to "get it"

    Steve Young, I knew ye back when…nice work, dude.

    So terrific to hear your thoughts on this just when I am banging my head pretty hard on the same things out here in the rural wilds of the California Sierra. We’re covering stories of rural conservation: small town development, ranchers being priced off their land, enviros and rednecks sitting down to find they have some values in common. But the subject is unfamiliar enough I guess that a state new show asked us to "hand hold" our audience, do more writing than I’d like, explain the mechanics of things more than I think is useful.

    And we’re also grappling with the idea that we (the producers) are already part of the story because we chose these stories to tell. We’re focusing on collaborations that are working, not on the years of conflict that have ripped factions apart. It seems harder to tell the story of what is working sometimes. News likes conflict, but people like inspiration, too. They want to know how others are making it work in their little towns.

    And we have a 400 mile mountain range to cover. We’re doing our best with the funds we have, trying to be somewhat representative of all of it through the specifics of just a few stories that we are funded to tell.

    In the next piece we do, I’m working to carve out distinct characters and their connection to their place while spotlighting the current moment in which settlements were made and the "stakeholders" are all about to move forward together. It’s tricky stuff. Needs good writing, but I hope not the usual NPR mostly writing with a few pieces of bad tape saved by more writing.

    And yeah, NO phone sound.

    Congrats on all the good work and having enough energy to talk about it and share your thoughts, too.

    Best,
    Catherine

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