Ira, and the Fate/Future of Journalism

It’s always inspiring to listen to an excellent storyteller, but it’s particularly interesting when the story they are telling is about your future.

Not my future in particular, but that of the industry I’ve been lulled into loving. Ira Glass, creator and host of This American Life, the radio program that introduced me to the power of radio, was in Keene, N.H., this weekend, and I went down to see him. Ira was there to talk about his program, and about the failings he sees broadcast news.

Those failings may not have been his theme, but they were certainly what I heard most clearly. Broadcast news, he said, is all about telling you what’s important. It’s about making sure you get what it is about this event that make it news. TAL, however, is about connections — connecting the listener to the person on the other end of the interview, making you hear what they are saying and care. It tells the same story, but instead of telling its global ramifications it distills it to the implications for one person. And sometimes that isn’t all that grandiose.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about better ways to tell stories, better ways to get people to connect with the information I put out on a daily basis. This talk was a great window for me into ways to do that. And it has given me ideas for how to improve what I’m doing at the Sun. The goal of journalism is still to inform, but if the audience turns you off that goal isn’t being met. I’m looking for ways to keep people tuned in, ways to keep people connected. Thank you, Ira, for the ideas.

SHAMELESS PLUG (Not for me, but for Ira): TAL is doing a live broadcast on May 10 where they beam the performance into movie theaters around the country. They did the same thing several years ago and it was AWESOME. The closest theater to me that is carrying the show is at the Catamount Arts Center in St. Johnsbury, Vt.  I’ll be there. Will you?

Police and Things

One job of reporters is to go to the police, go to the courts, and find out who has been arrested or charged with what. It is not a popular task. The police logs are probably what generate more complaints than anything else we do. All the time we get requests from people who get arrested and charged and then don’t want their name to show up.

“Can you just leave me out?” they ask. The answer is invariably no.

But then there are the exceptions. The child of a school board member showed up in the log, which prompted me to call the cops and ask what happened.

Clerical error, it turns out: the kid had several speeding tickets, and the state had considered revoking his license but didn’t. He got arrested erroneously for operating after suspension. If it hadn’t been for my call his name would have appeared, but because he was the child of an elected official I had to double check.

Then this week one of our reporters got arrested. He’s a diabetic, and he got pulled over late at night and arrested for driving while intoxicated. He got back to the station and took a breathalyzer test, which he passed at 0.00. The police called me to let me know there were no charges, so his name also will not appear.

It’s fair, and its unfair, and there isn’t any way to get around it. The paper has no interest in printing the names of people who are arrested erroneously and not charged. The police log isn’t about embarrassing people. It is actually about holding the police accountable — if no one asks who they arrest they can do so with impunity. The individuals who are named are in some ways just a byproduct.

But if it isn’t the son of a public official or one of our reporters we would never think twice about printing the name of someone arrested. It’s only when we check back to get the details of the story that these people are offered this extra layer of protection. If your arrest isn’t a story the log goes in the paper without question. Granted, there have not been a flood of phone calls about erroneous reports, but still, two is enough to make me wonder.

The newspaper may be printed in black and white, but all through it are shades of grey. Readers would do as well remembering that as the reporters who create it. There’s no such thing a perfect fairness.

New Hampshire On Fire

The last few weeks have been crazy when it comes to murders and police shootings. Dalton, Greenland, Lancaster, Keene, Springfield — too many to handle. It was a year ago this weekend that Conway had its own such incident with Krista Dittmeyer. I’m due to do an update on that for Tuesday. To date no one has been charged. It is nice, however, to not have that media storm in my back yard. The rest of the state, however, seems to be falling apart, and it’s not even summer yet.

For the latest on the handful of incidents lately, one great source is the Attorney General’s office. I check this page every day. Lately, however, it’s been a little too busy. Just look at April, which isn’t even over yet. Not cool.

Lacing Opinion into the News

I got some flack today from a selectman for a story I wrote that appeared in today’s paper. The story in question wasn’t about any action in particular, it was more an analysis piece on the first meeting of the new selectboard. There is only one new member, but a lot changed as a result of the election. The personalities on the board are not something I want to comment on as such things are hardly hard news, but sometimes the facts make impressions of personality quite clear.

One board member does not make motions. She seconds other people’s motions, but she does not make her own. I can not recall her ever making one, but I could be wrong there. I checked the minutes from the first few months of 2012, however, and in those meetings she did not offer one motion. I put that fact in the story to contrast with the newest board member, who on her first day made several motions.

I offered the fact up to show the comfort the new board member seemed to have with her new seat, but it didn’t get over well. I got two phone calls today, one from the board member and one from a sibling, raising issue with the story. The sibling understood what I was doing after a brief discussion, but the board member didn’t seem to. At one point she said I was thrusting my opinion into the story. I asked her where. Which line was she referring two? I was citing the minutes, I explained. Those numbers are fact.

Those numbers exemplified the point that the newest selectman came ready to jump into the fray in a more vocal way than the last new inductee. That analysis was backed up by the statistics. Was it me intertwining my opinion with facts? I don’t believe so. If one selectman is quiet and the other vocal is it opinion to point that out? Again, I don’t believe so.

And further, I don’t believe being vocal equals being a good elected official. It isn’t even one measure of what makes a good elected official. But it certainly is measurable, not just in opinion but in fact.

When No Time Is Right

In the news world timing is everything.

A story about Michele Bachmann would have little resonance nationally right now, but 500 words on Tulsa, Oklahoma, race relations would fit on most front pages. News has to be new; if it isn’t the latter it isn’t the former. It’s basically the definition of the industry.

Sometimes in the media world, however, timing hurts more than it helps. A few weeks ago I saw a trailer for a movie called Neighborhood Watch about, well, a team of neighborhood watchers. It was a comedy, its schtick was these guys thought they were tough but really weren’t. It probably seemed like a good idea before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by a man serving on the neighborhood watch. All the sudden being “timely” was no asset.

That’s what happened today at the Conway Daily Sun. Last week there was a police training exercise where officers from several departments went through scenarios built on actual events to hone their skills. We sent a reporter and a photographer, thinking the training would make a neat feature. In one scenario an officer wound up getting shot because of circumstances and some decisions the officer made. It seemed like the quintessential incident to build a story around. The officer hopefully learned the lesson, and it makes for a intriguing slice of life piece on people in uniform.

That story was slated to run tomorrow. Then last night a man shot five policemen in Greenland, N.H. One of them, a police chief from a small town with two weeks until he retired, died. All the sudden the interesting slice of life story took on a much sharper edge. I went into work with the thought we would kill the story, at least in the short term, out of respect and to give people some time to process what had happened. A week, I thought, would be fine, but a day was not enough.

I got overruled on that thought, and we modified the story to reflect the incident. There were also a host of concurrent stories that highlighted local connections with the victim. The timing, in some ways, couldn’t be better. In other ways it couldn’t be worse.

I’m not sure how to best deliver horrible news. Today my story ran on the small child who was beaten and raped in Albany, N.H. When is a good time to read that? As a newspaper reporter I have a duty to inform, but at the same time I want to be sensitive to my readers’ stomachs. That doesn’t always happen.

I talk to the police weekly, sometimes even daily. But today I didn’t want to call. I drove to the courthouse and noticed the flag in front of the police station flying at half-staff. The fraternity is mourning the loss of one of their own. It didn’t seem to me to be the time to be prying.

But that’s the job. Luckily it wasn’t my story, because on the heels of last week’s piece I wasn’t in the mood. I very much enjoy catching wasteful spending or pressing politicians about policy issues, but beaten children and dead police officers are not my thing. The problem with a newsroom, unlike other jobs, is that story you heard around the watercooler is the one we have to delve into. Whether it’s amazing or grim, we get immersed in it. Wherever I went today people had two questions: How did that happen to that poor child? And can you believe what happened to the poor police officer?

The bad news comes. Sometimes there is no way to time it. Sometimes it seems to come in waves. I haven’t even mentioned the triple shooting in Dalton, N.H., about an hour from Conway. Two dead in that one. How are we supposed to time this news? I’m not sure there is a way to.

Some Days More Than Others

Some days work sucks.

Not because the boss is riding you, or because you spill your coffee. Some days are worse than that. Some days you swing by the court just to check in and the clerk hands you more than 20 pages of documents. Some days those documents all have to do with one thing — the man who beat a two year old child so badly his intestines leaked fecal matter and nearly half his blood into his abdominal cavity. Some days you have to go back to your desk and read about it, line by line, word by word, so you can explain it to the community.

Those days suck.

That was today. The child is now in his father’s custody, out of reach of his mother’s (hopefully) ex-boyfriend, who, if I was reading the account right, police allege sodomized the two-year-old boy in the woodshed while the mother slept.

My job may have sucked today, but at least I’m not the ER nurse who police interviewed who had the traumatized child put in his arms. At least I’m not the pediatric surgeon who repaired this poor boy’s insides. I can’t say with certainty the man alleged to have punched, burned and raped this small child did it, but someone did. Luckily I only have to read about it in black and white. That poor boy had to live it.

Not much gets to me in this job. It was almost a year ago that the 20-year-old Krista Dittmeyer wound up first missing then dead. That was a tragedy, but the picture prosecutors painted at the arraignment of the three men arrested in connection with her murder left Dittmeyer looking less than angelic. She was a drug dealer, according to the senior assistant Attorney General, which makes her murder far less mysterious. Had she been a 20-year-old drug dealing male, wearing a hoodie and baggy pants, it wouldn’t have garnered much attention. Her child, thankfully, was never injured, even as her mother found herself floating in a pond.

Not this time. This time the mother slept while the child was raped and beaten. That hurts. That weighs on me in a way Dittmeyer never will. This child’s dangerous game was not of his choosing. He didn’t get airlifted to Maine Medical because of risky choices he made. His mother made decisions that contributed to the situation, he did not. He was two. TWO. He learned at two something many of us will never know: what true ugliness looks like. And the fact is he did nothing to deserve it.

I read about this boy this afternoon and I hated my job. I hated the sheets of paper I was holding, the words I was reading and the person who did this to this child. I hated it, and my hatred changed none of it.

Thankfully, I got a reprieve, a breather, from this story. The weekend paper is aimed at tourists, it isn’t the place for stories of toddler rape. I’ll write that story up for Tuesday, when all the tourists have gone home. Hopefully by then I’ll have steeled myself enough to reread the account.

Ugliness is out there. It doesn’t help to shy away from it, but facing it isn’t going to be easy either. Some days it’s OK to hate your job. Sometimes it’s the only sane reaction.

On the Big Screen

On Thursday evening I gave a talk to about 25 people at the Conway Public Library on my reporting trip to Iraq last year. A friend of mine has a son in the library youth program, and his son asked if I would be willing to come speak. It was open to the public, and there was a pretty good turnout. It was my first formal revisit of the trip, and in order to give it I had to root back through my posts while I was there to remind myself of the experience.

Every story I told reminded me of another story, and every vignette sent me directly into the next vignette. It was my attempt of sharing everything I couldn’t cram from that three week experience into the radio stories and blog posts. I had a fantastic time, and my friend tells me it was well received by the audience as well.

I’m bouncing a few of these types of projects around as we speak, although none of them are as comprehensive or with as solid a foundation as that one was. There have been a number of changes at NHPR since last year, and though I still feel welcome to contribute I doubt I could find the same level of support I found then.

That has me mulling around just what the next such project should look like. Like I said, I’ve got a few, but none of them are on the same scale. It is hard, however, to imaging matching the pace of reporting on U.S. troops in the midst of a country that had been a top American enemy for more than a decade.

And besides, I’ve been enjoying rocking the local paper. Day after day I’m churning out interesting stories on real issues. The past year and a half have taught me a ton about the practice of journalism, and I intend to keep those experiences coming.

I do foresee, however, some cool projects on the horizon. Keep your eyes open.