“Is a big story worth it?” Spotlight Fellow Jaimi Dowdell explains how you can tell

Investigative journalist Jaimi Dowdell recently published a two-part series with co-author Kelly Carr that examined the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight that has allowed drug dealers, corrupt officials and people linked to terrorism to take to the skies with impunity. The journalists dug through thousands of pages of documents, revealing how planes were registered in ways that concealed the identity of the owners and how licensing of pilots provides almost no guarantee that these people are who they say they are.


Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, published the stories in the Boston Globe, where she was working as a “Spotlight Fellow.” The project grew out of the movie “Spotlight, which chronicled the paper’s work to expose the child sexual abuse scandal associated with clergy in the arch diocese. Participant Media, Open Road Films and First Look Media created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, which provides recipients the ability to do their own investigative work at the Globe alongside the Spotlight crew.


Dowdell, who along with Carr spent more than a year investigating, researching, interviewing and writing these pieces, is one of the featured journalists in the upcoming “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book providing “A View from a Pro” and more. In the book, she offers this advice for students who are trying to figure out if the “big story” is worth the time and energy necessary to tell it:

  • Does this story answer a question? The best investigations and data stories answer a question. Stay away from noun stories. Don’t do a story on “crime” or “salaries” because it just won’t be that good. Seek to answer a question or explain a phenomenon and you’ll be in better shape.

  • Does the story break new ground? Look and see what has been done on the topic. Just because a story was done in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, but how can you move it forward? What is different? Why is this important now or to your community?

  • Does the story have potential for impact? We want people to care about your work. Why should they care about this? Is there room for change?

  • Are there victims or does this affect people? Again, you want people to care about your work and this helps.

  • Does this have a point to it? Keep making yourself write down a sentence or two explaining the story. What is the story? What is the news? If you can’t do it in a couple of sentences you need to go back to work. Keep asking yourself, “Is this a story?” Get feedback from other people. Be honest with yourself because your time is limited.

In closing, she made a key point that is true of all good stories:

“At the end of the day, you need to have a passion for the story and a desire to stick with it. Otherwise, no matter how good the story or how deep the pool of resources you have, the story will fail.”

Student media: The aftermath of Harvey and lessons learned (Part II)

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece from my interview with a couple members of the Rice University’s student newspaper, the Rice Thresher, about their experiences and coverage of Hurricane Harvey.

Emily and Anna_colAnna Ta, a sophomore from Spring, Texas, and Emily Abdow, a junior from Ellicott City, Maryland, are the paper’s news editors and coordinated their coverage as they also braced for the impact of the storm. Once the storm had finished dumping 50 inches of water in the area, and “the whole shock wore off” (to quote Emily), they had to pour a ton of resources into telling the story even as the city of Houston remained under water.

Here are a few of their recent stories in the aftermath of the hurricane:

Late last week, they were nice enough to share some thoughts on what they did, why they did it and what they learned in covering one of the country’s largest natural disasters. (One fix to note from the last post is that the students’ newsroom was NOT damaged by the flooding, but they couldn’t use it to coordinate coverage because flooding made it too dangerous to get there. That’s on me.)

Today we look at what happens when the national media moves on to a newer hurricane and you are still there, looking into what all of this means to your readers. In addition, Emily and Anna were nice enough to do some reflecting on what they learned (and wanted to share with other students) through this experience.

As always, the errors are mine, not the students, so please contact me with any necessary changes or fixes.

Major news stories bring out major news outlets that create major coverage. Once the big bang is done, they tend to leave and move on to the next big thing.

In some cases, critics refer to this as “helicopter journalism,” in which the media fly in, drop down, gather some stuff and fly out. My favorite reference to being on the ground in spirit only was the term “toe tap datelines,” which meant the source did most of the work from the comfort of a newsroom, but showed up on the scene long enough to gather a few details and add an exotic dateline to the front of a story.

In this case, it’s a bit hard to blame the media in some ways for leaving, as they had another hurricane to cover, but it still leaves the question, “What happens when the bright lights go out and the big names go home?”

In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the staff of the Rice Thresher has more stories to tell about clean up, recovery and how students are trying to return to “normalcy,” if such a thing is possible.

“This upcoming issue we have three stories about Harvey,” co-news editor  Emily Abdow said. “One is focusing on the students at Rice whose off-campus apartments were flooded and who have been trying to be students while dealing with the stress of finding a place to live. Another is focusing on all the scheduling conflicts which have arisen as students try to re-plan social events they’d invested a lot of time and money into organizing. A third is about how the Rice Harvey Action Team, which organizes volunteers to go out into the community, is being handed off to a student organization by the administration.”

The stories focus on topics of interest to the audience: Students and their environment. They also show that even as the national news is closing off its coverage with “And now, the recovery begins…” the local journalists know people are still affected by this storm in ways that haven’t been dealt with.

“As the media and the campus moves on, we recognize that even though you can drive through the streets now, all those people were affected aren’t magically going to get completely better,” co-news editor Anna Ta said. “We’re covering those in the Rice community as they have to simultaneously get back into school/work while trying to figure out living/transportation/etc. in the aftermath.”

Even as they continue coverage of Harvey, both editors said they know it can’t be “all hurricane, all the time.”

“We’ve definitely got a few more Harvey related stories planned for future weeks, and I think one or two a week will serve as a reminder that our community, including students and staff, are still dealing with the aftermath without driving people up the wall with endless coverage,” Abdow said.

“It’s a mix, and we’re hoping that will allow us to cover Rice as comprehensively as possible,” Ta added.

In terms of their own experiences with this, the students had a few thoughts they were willing to share with the readers who might find themselves covering a giant story

Emily Abdow:

One of my biggest takeaways from the hurricane is to never forget to be a reporter. At first, because I was such a part of the story, I almost forgot that my role is also to tell the story. Another takeaway is that college journalists have a unique perspective that no other major media outlet has. The Washington Post covered how the Rice University football team finally returned home after being unable to fly into Houston from Australia during the Hurricane.

On campus, we have the ability to talk to those students and tell their stories in a way no one else can. Even though my Facebook feed was inundated with coverage, we had the ability to add something unique, the student perspective. That brings me to my last takeaway: there are so many angles and sides to a story. Harvey was one event – albeit a very major one – but there are so many stories that we can tell about all the people who were part of it and we are continuing to tell those stories.

Anna Ta:

I guess, even when everyone and everything else stops – classes, events, work – you have to keep going as a student journalist. Don’t get swept up in the same kind of coverage everyone else is providing. Tell the stories only you can from the angles that matter to your community.


To continue following the coverage on Harvey and all other things Rice, visit the Thresher here.

“Picked up some Hookers!” (or why knowing your audience matters)


A guy I know who works on classic cars made a social media post a while back that told everyone who follows him that he “picked up some Hookers” over the weekend.

Not one person shamed him online or forwarded the information to the guy’s wife. A lot of people responded with comments like “happy for you” or “so excited,” mainly because his audience was other car nerds.

Hookers, in car parlance, are exhaust headers named for their inventor, Gary Hooker, who constructed his first set of these back in the early 1960s. Headers like these provide your engine with more power because they help move the exhaust gas out of the engine more quickly.

In a more general context, it could appear that this guy was bragging about purchasing the services of prostitutes. In a car context, he was just making the engine more powerful.

And that is why understanding your audience matters.

News writers often cover topics that fall into “beats” when they work for general-interest publications like local newspapers or news magazines. Bloggers often have specific niches as do magazine writers for publications on health or hobbies. Public relations professionals have internal publics, who share an intimate understanding of how an organization works, and external publics, who often lack the detailed knowledge of a company or group. In each case, the writer has to understand what the readers know and don’t know as to best fine-tune the material and clarify the vocabulary.

Too often, we forget that people don’t know everything we know as writers, and thus we lapse into jargon, lingo and “alphabet soup” that can alienate the audience. Here are a couple thoughts to help you refine your writing as you work to reach your readers:

    • Who is reading this? Don’t assume that you know your audience or that the audience is as informed as you are. Go check it out. Web analytics, market research and other similar data can help you figure out who is most frequently reading your work. This can help you determine if mostly local folks who know what “The Dean Dome” is or if the audience contains mostly out of state people who need the formal name (the Dean E. Smith Center) and some information about location and purpose.
    • At what level are they reading this? A student once wrote an incredibly good piece for one of my writing classes on the issues surrounding raw milk. As I read it, I felt like I learned a ton and I suggested she get it published, probably in a local agricultural publication. The student, who grew up on a farm and had frequently read the publication, smiled at me like a parent smiles at an innocent child. “Um… This is really way too overly simplified for farmers…,” she explained.
      For me, a non-farmer, she was writing at exactly the right level: Assume I’m somewhat educated but have spent no time on a farm. For farmers, this would have read like a “See Dick and Jane” book. Know how much your audience knows, how much background the readers will need and how slowly you need to walk into a topic to avoid losing anyone.
    • Avoid alphabet soup for the most part. If your writing looks more like an eye chart than it does a story, you probably have a few too many abbreviations or acronyms in there. Some of these letter-based terms make sense within niche markets. If a business journal notes that a CPA for a B2B marketer uses GAAP, this will likely make sense to readers who know that CPA means “certified public accountant,” B2B means “business to business” and GAAP means “generally accepted accounting practices. However, for most of us, it looks like we would either need to spin the wheel again or buy a vowel. AP suggests using generic terms like “the organization” instead of using an abbreviation or acronym that would be confusing to readers.

(Case in point from “Good Morning, Vietnam.”)

  • Help people out. In traditional media, it never hurts to include a brief definition or some context clues for audience members who might need a little help on an unfamiliar topic. If you’re working on the web, a link or two might make the difference between informed and lost readers. Always give people a chance to figure out what you’re telling them.

At the core of all storytelling is language and shared understanding. For health aficionados, adjusting your carbs might lead to weight loss, while car folks know adjusting your carb will help your engine run better. Somewhere in between, the rest of the world resides, so it’s on us as writers to make sure we make our message clear.