Evolution of a newsroom

The editorial meeting on Oct. 1 began with a New York Times piece about the NY Giants.  Our Cleveland Stater adviser Dr. Kumar shared the article with us to illustrate a few things.  The umbrella under which our examination of the article took place was that of “good writing.”  The focus on the story was on what had currently been a losing season for the Giants.  So right off the bat, a challenging scenario for the reporter on the sports beat.  But as a true newsperson does, the writer did their due diligence and got a story anyway.  The headline read something like “Nowhere to go but up for NY Giants” and spoke to what the reporter observed – that despite the chips being down the team, support staff and fans were hopeful that better times lay ahead.

One of the points that emerged from our taking a look at the article was that sports journalism has a penchant for breaking the rules that the rest of us (i’m not a sports guy) tend to follow.  The language is different, the approach is different and you can get away with stuff that you can’t in a straight-up news story.  Now take that with a grain of salt though – those of us more straight-laced reporters can get playful too.  But, to use an analogy that i’ve found applies to just about any other endeavor you can think of, good journalism is like cooking.  You’ve got to know your basics inside and out before you start playing around and experimenting.  You’ve got to know why you do things the way you do before you start not doing them (and you’ve got to have a good reason too).  Essentially, that’s the meaning behind the phrase “writer’s voice.”  That’s the difference between the strategic ritual we learn while picking up our craft, and sharing a well-tuned piece of writing with our audience.  It’s not hard to find a story seed, attend an event, talk to someone, type up their quote…that’s the rote part of it that becomes second nature.

It’s only after you carefully consider each word, re-arrange chunks of material for flow and thematic continuity, re-write…and then re-write again.  And again.  And again.  And, if we’re being completely honest, time spent staring out the window or going on contemplative walks in the cool autumn air clutching a steaming cup of rich, dark coffee.  It’s only then that your article transforms from a cut-and-dry “this is what went down” to a real story.

So anyway, the NY Giants and the lessons learned therein.  Another point brought to our attention was the headline – a no-nonsense summary of the story.  In journalism these days, with the influence of the vast and myriad “news sources” out there, there’s a tendency towards what i like to call “mystery headlines.”  These are headlines whose goal seems to be that of enticing you to read without telling you anything.  Don’t get me wrong, a good mystery headline for a feature or enterprising article can work quite well.  But when you’re dealing with the news, the idea is to distill the story down into a few words – selected to grab a reader’s attention enough to spur them to read the rest of the story.  In that way it’s kind of part of the inverted pyramid.  If you didn’t go any further than the headline, you’d still have at least some idea what the story is about.  Generating a great headline requires editors to really read a story carefully and identify the most compelling part of it.

Lastly, we were advised to take note of the structure of the story.  In it, the writer provided terrific observations about the most recent game.  Included were little details of the sort that immediately informs you that the writer was present.  The descriptive observations were vivid and particular to the moment.  Additionally, the story was sourced through numerous people.  Through what the writer learned from those people, their story emerged into thematic blocks.  And, in true 101-style form, the writing followed the beloved claim-paraphrase-quote format.  An oldie but always a goodie, this flow of information never lets a journalist down.  After all, what is a news story but a writer’s report on what they learned through observation and gathering information from others?  The goal we all strive for is to really own our stories, and to tell a compelling story.  As our adviser put it to us: your story is like show & tell.  It shows evidence through sources and quotes, and tells a story through observation and narrative.

As is our tradition this fall, the editorial meeting began with my follow-up to ideas and issues from the previous meeting.  The night prior, i’d spent a considerable amount of time pouring over old notes and generating new ideas for challenging the staff.  If i have any sort of goal for my tenure are EIC, it is to push my staff forward and give all of us a chance to evolve.  So for instance, i knew in advance that some of the story ideas were solid, but they needed a bit more oomph to get them going.  On my notes for the meeting is an italicized bold phrase: “convince me.”

Ultimately, the story turned out well.  [Pardon the hieroglyphics embedded in the font; we’re working on it! – ed.]  That reporter followed up for the coming edition with coverage of the event.  i’m looking forward to reading how it turned out.  The edition set to hit newsstands next Thursday, Oct. 24 has shaped up to be a terrific volume.  We’re covering Homecoming weekend and previewing Halloween in its pages, and the staff is eager to knock their stories out of the ballpark (or the football stadium, to keep the analogy from the intro going).

For the most recent edition, i picked up a story about a scholarship’s approaching deadline.  It’s my philosophy that there’s a story in every little blurb you read or hear, so i approached this one with a mind towards finding out what made this scholarship important.  After making contacts among the first line of stakeholders (program director), i read up on the person for whom the scholarship is named.  As it turns out, that in itself was a story worth telling.

Information he provided led me to speak with two professors, one of physics and the other of computer & electrical engineering.  i was also put in contact with two students currently participating in the program.

And then i wrote, re-wrote, re-arranged, edited, copied, pasted, deleted, inserted, cleaned, tweaked and fiddled with it until the final deadline and got it in just under the wire Monday night.  Yes, i am a procrastinator of the highest order.  To the Nth degree!  But, a deadline is a deadline is a deadline.  Gotta respect that.  Tuesday morning is press day and we’ve got to have those stories polished and ready to set.

During press day, i suspect the staff is hip to my crankiness by now.  In my defense, i grew up reading stories with Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson.  That’s the way a newsroom is supposed to be, right?  A curmudgeonly editor under pressure to get a publication to newsstands and a room packed with disorderly reporters with whom to get it done.  Certainly, there’s no supervillains threatening to destroy campus, and i have no personal vendetta against any local vigilantes, but basically it’s the same thing.

At the end of the day (the long, arduous day that includes the following morning and early afternoon), we get the job done.  A new edition of the Cleveland Stater goes to the printer – 12′ wide, 250K MB photos and all.  It shows marked improvement over the previous edition and i am happy.  Sure, there’s some things we could have done better, mistakes we made and things we recognize we could have done better, but that’s what the next edition is for.

Yeah…i know i’ve used this trope before.  It’s a classic.

ed-wood-screenshot

The next one will be better.”

As always, thanks for visiting!  Check out our Cleveland Stater on Facebook, and watch for an exiting change to our website in the coming months.  It’s super jazzy and all kinds of snazzy.

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Cleveland Stater, round 2

Last week saw a new edition of the Cleveland Stater, Volume 15, No. 3.  I am pleased to report that the masthead lists me as Editor-in-Chief and not Executive Editor – an oversight contained in my first edition as EIC.

Thanks to the salesmanship of Alberto Paneccasio, one of my two associate editors along with Daniel Herda, last week’s edition was 12 pages.  Alberto sold a full-page advertisement to CSU Career Services that gave us three more pages of material to include.  By the end of press day, that ad blossomed into an additional 1/4 page with the inclusion of a Career Services calendar.

Our editorial meeting began with a discussion about the upcoming School of Communication reunion on Oct. 18-19.  The event is broken down into several segments, and we want to handle everything properly.  This will require extra planning because many of the guest speakers’ schedules are likely tight.  If we want an opportunity to speak with them, we’ll have to coordinate that well in advance.

Side note: i’m relieved that i take notes during our meetings.  These are useful not only for what i’m writing here.  Our next editorial meeting is tomorrow and there are a few things i’m reminded to follow-up on with various reporters.

Earlier that morning i’d covered a “Meet the Experts” speaker in Fenn College of Engineering.  The lecture was in Foxes’ Den Lounge.  When i Googled “Foxes Den Cleveland” to find out exactly where that was, my first thought was “why would she speak at a strip club?!”  Logic naturally took over, brushing that thought aside.  Oh…it’s a student lounge inside the engineering building!  Purposefully arriving early gave me ample time to enter the glass-walled office connected to the lounge and snoop around for info.

Turns out the guy who organized the lecture series worked out of that office, and took a moment to speak with me about the event.  A couple of days later i returned for a follow-up chat and thank goodness for that.  More on it a little later.

Small pockets of science students studied in the lounge before the event began.  i overheard some chatter about “transport” homework and wondered what that was, but not enough to look it up later.  Anyone?  Comments welcome.  A nearby group took notice of the mic check and other preparations and decided that was time to go.  Didn’t even stick around for the free pizza, the aroma of which seemed to summon the local population to the lounge.

The Rascal House must make a killing off of CSU business.  If there’s pizza provided somewhere on campus, it’s from the Rascal House.

The speaker was Susan Davis, the director of the Cleveland Engineering Society.  She talked about co-ops, networking and professional organizations to a group of about 60.  About a third of them wandered off after a couple of slices.  The remaining listeners looked interested in what she had to say.  Having just become a card-carrying member of the Society of Professional Journalists, her bit about professional organizations held the most appeal to me.  i chuckled when she mentioned how people typically don’t recognize the importance of networking or figure out how to do it successfully until they’re in their 30s.  To the array of freshman and sophomores left, that probably seemed a far way off.  Essentially she just pointed out the adage “wisdom comes with age.”

It’s worthwhile to note that her talking points are appropriate for students of any discipline.  Maybe not so much as regards co-ops, which are typically an engineering thing, but the basic idea was that doing more with your time at college than just taking classes is a worthwhile endeavor.  After she concluded i spoke with her briefly, asked a few questions and she elaborated on one of the real-life examples she gave during her talk.

When i circled back around to write this story later in the week, i had spoken with a few students who were in attendance, the speaker, and the organizer – twice.  But while moving some audio files around and sending one to a reporter who’d borrowed my recorder to interview the women’s cross-country team, i’d inadvertently deleted vital parts of the audio.  i had taken notes, but perhaps foolishly relied on the recorded too much – i had audio of neither Davis’ lecture nor my interview with her.  What i did have was a lot of audio from my talk with the event organizer.  He’s primarily a recruiter for the engineering department, has a background in social work and was at one time a reporter for the News Herald.  The focus of the story shifted so that it was more about the events that engineering holds and the broad appeal of the discipline.  In some ways, a better overall story that was about more than just a lecture one morning.

My other story took me to Ingenuity Cleveland.  The arts & entertainment editor pitched a story covering the NE Ohio cultural festival.  Later that night during Castle Age time i realized that the film fest my friend Anthony Snitzer invited me to was at Ingenuity Fest.  In a true “duh” moment, it hadn’t dawned on me that the Ingenuity Film Fest was at Ingenuity Cleveland.  i was going regardless because gotta support your homey, and decided to take a camera, digital recorder, and pen and notebook with me.

Before entering the film fest area, i came across an exhibitor’s table manned by John G.  No freakin’ way!  Way, way back in the day i did some freelance writing for a short-lived Cleveland-centric entertainment publication called Tonight Magazine.  Three editions of a comic created by me and my friend Dan also saw print.  My first article was a profile piece on a local comic book artist who had an autobiographical book out detailing his BMX biking days.  An accident sustained while performing a stunt left him wheelchair bound.  We met in 2001 at an Arabica Coffeehouse in Lakewood and talked for about 45 minutes.  He told me about his accident and his comic book work.  All the friends and colleagues he’d met doing conventions to promote his stuff.  Since then, he’s done a lot of commercial work as well.  Concert posters, SCENE Magazine covers and promotional art for Melt Bar & Grilled all bear the deft pencils of John G.  When i arrived at the table, he was hard-selling his latest comic book Lake Erie Monster to a group of girls.  i backed him up and urged them to pick it up.  They deflected the sales pitch and became a part of the crowd.  i said hello and extended my hand for a shake.

“Doug, right?”  John G recalled.  Wow, this dude remembers my name?  We chatted for a few minutes, i bought one of his poster-sized prints, bid adieu and headed up the stairs to the film fest environs.  It made me happy to see John G, surrounded by his artwork and doing well.  He told me that he’d recently been the keynote speaker at a forum for those who’d suffered sports-related injuries.  Really a terrific guy who is always moving forward.  i feel lucky to have encountered someone like him in my life, who just keeps doing his thing, getting better all the time and evolving.  It’s good to know there’s dudes like him out there, everyday hustlin’ hustlin’.

i located Snitzer forthwith.  Like a friendly port in an densely packed and really uncomfortably hot storm, Snitzer was a welcome sight.  Great guy in so many ways, and as a member of the Turnstyle Films crew he was a terrific “in” to speak with several other filmmakers in the group.  One of them had attended CSU for a year before switching to Virginia Marti College of Art and Design, so he was the story’s link to the school.  We like our stories to have some connection to Cleveland State.

i learned a few lessons during this outing.  First is that i am no photog.  Maybe if i had one of those cameras-for-dummies like the ones Ashton Kutcher hawks on TV.  The cameras available through the Stater are probably really great with all the features and bells and whistles…but i just want to point and shoot.  Fiddling with that thing while trying to take notes and hold a digital recorder to capture audio is challenging.  Another thing i learned: dress as lightly as possible when attending events.  My experience at Gen Con should have taught me that crowded rooms of people + (jeans, hoodie, vest) = uncomfortably sweaty mess.  Next time, it’s shorts and t-shirt all the way.

Growing pains continued on press day.  We changed things up a little, but it was still a long, tough day.  i got there about 7:30 a.m. and left about 7:45 p.m.  Unlike our first press day, i declined to take home printouts of each page to look them over.  i was exhausted and knew that my nit-pickiness was likely to keep me up very late scrutinizing every inch of every page.  Instead, i opted to retire early and head back to the newsroom straightaway in the morning.

Once there, i began examining the pages through InDesign and tweaking things as necessary.  Once Dr. Kumar arrived, he and i plus the two associate editors made a plan of what we needed to clean up and got to work.  i had to leave for my class and then for work right after, so it was left to my associate editors to complete the task.  The control freak in me was a little concerned, because ideally i would like to be the last person to view a page before saving and closing the file – except for Dr. Kumar who gives them a once-over then shoots them off to the printer.

Since publication of this edition, i had an opportunity for a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Kumar.  All of the staff (i.e. COM 426 & 427 students) meet with him for a general update and chance to ask questions.  My meeting with him was very productive.  i have a clearer understanding of my responsibilities and role as both EIC and reporter.  Additionally, we discussed my interest in science/technology reporting and he was a font of information on the subject.  In fact, his own background lay in science so it was doubly beneficial to hear what he had to say.  i’ve already put his guidance to good use and there’s two stories i’m working on related to science that i hope will become really nice pieces.

For the moment however, i have but these two humble articles to share with you via the links below.  While you read those, i’ll head off to complete my preparations for tomorrow’s editorial meeting, followed by more catching up on The Walking Dead.  For me, season 3 is just about to start.  i’m picking up a lot of good pointers on zombie behavior, something keenly akin to my frequent lack of sleep…