The “Smell It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Smell It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of smell from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. Here’s a simple walk through:

Each year, I change up the smells. I try to find variations in terms of things being “heavier” or “lighter” in terms of the smell or “fresher” vs. “dirtier.” In most cases, I tend to pick something “industrial” from my garage (as long as it doesn’t say on the bottle that breathing it in will cause brain damage or something). I also like to pick between my woodcrafting stuff (wood oils, stain), my wife’s essential oils for the fall (spicy, cozy), cleaning products (citrus, soapy) and some sort of food product. I stick with oils or liquids, as I can’t hide the items well enough and still keep them in a plastic bag to use actual items. One year, I used beef jerky, which was great for the smell, but students kept saying, “This smells like beef jerky” because they could see it. A chunk of cloth with a bit of liquid on it works a lot better.

To make the process fair, I have three bags and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “smell” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they smelled in the bag. Here’s how it works, with a few edits:

 

Once the students get done smelling, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:

IMG_4932IMG_4931

Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same bag and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

The students then list all their words on the board under their bag’s number:

IMG_4936

Once it’s done, we debrief. I reveal what was in each bag and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the bag. (In this case, it was a splash of a hazelnut-vanilla liqueur, a dose of 2-stroke 50:1 motor oil and a sampling of doTERRA (an essential oil made of citrus and spices/herbs).

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

“You are the only thing stopping you from doing great work:” Spotlight Fellow Jaimi Dowdell talks about her two-year project, investigative journalism and how students can succeed in publishing tough stories.

The Boston Globe’s coverage of the FAA’s long record of lax oversight and poor management has become a national story. The two-part series, Secrets in the Sky and Flight plan for Failure,looked at the ways in which planes were registered in ways to hide their origins and how pilots with dangerous track records were given free reign over the skies.

The Spotlight 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.

Jaimi Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, was one of the journalists working on this project. She explained in a follow-up piece in the Globe how she and co-author Kelly Carr ended up spending two years of their lives on this piece.  She also served as a “pro” for the Reporting book and shared info on how to see if a “big story” is worth it. On Tuesday, she was nice enough to give me an interview for the blog, where we talked about the genesis of stories, how she got into this, what matters most in terms of sticking with a story and the advice she had for students. Our Q and A (edited for typos and clarity, most of which were mine) is below:

Q: You mentioned that you developed this “strange hobby” of collecting information on the registration numbers, but I didn’t catch exactly HOW you came to this hobby or what made you think it might make a good story. What piqued your interest for this as a story topic?

A: When I was a trainer for IRE, one of the most common questions I’d get was: How do you find story ideas? My answer was typically something like, “If you aren’t bumping into story ideas left and right, you might be in the wrong business.” It’s a little harsh, but I believe it is true. When reporters open their eyes and operate out of curiosity, I promise they’ll find ideas are everywhere. This project is just one example of how that can pan out.

In the fall of 2015, Kelly and I were poking around a state business registry database looking for information on a couple of companies completely unrelated to this project. While I was analyzing that database we stumbled upon something called an aircraft trust. Kelly’s business reporting background helped us out a lot here and she instantly started doing research on what, exactly, was an aircraft trust.

In the meantime, I downloaded the FAA’s aircraft registry database to see if we could learn anything there. That’s when we discovered that the number one city for aircraft registrations was in Delaware. Strange. Even more confusing was the fact that a Texas town with 2,500 people and no airport was in the top 15 with more than 1,000 aircraft registered. We soon realized that Onalaska was connected to that initial trust we discovered and we wanted to know more. This is what led us to our late-night and weekend searches of airplane registration numbers. Really, it was all about curiosity. No one asked us to do this, we weren’t getting paid, we just needed to understand more about what we were finding.

That’s when we started uncovering examples of U.S. airplanes connected to shady things. It became a bit of an obsession to find more companies and planes.

 

Q: You said this was a two-year project in your write up about the stories. Is this common for the stories you have done that were long-form or investigative pieces or was this an anomaly? Could you walk me through the timeline a little bit in terms of what elements took up what amounts of time and how you worked through this process?

A: One of the reasons this project took two years is because we had other jobs and responsibilities. Had we been able to focus solely on the project I think it would have gone faster. Then again, I think this is how a lot of good projects develop. At first, we had no idea if it would even be one story, but we kept digging and digging and it grew. We picked away and gathered little pieces until we could string together something that was meaty.

I think the key to some of these longer-term projects is to just tackle little things each day or each week. That way if it doesn’t pan out you aren’t out on a ton of time. Just give yourself 10 minutes a day to check in on records requests or make the necessary phone call to move things forward. Sadly, sometimes you’ll have to do it on your free time. If you’re passionate about what you do that won’t be such a big deal. These projects are a gamble and sometimes you need to put in that extra work to show others that the gamble will pay off. It’s also important to always have something to work on that makes you happy. If your long-term project doesn’t make you happy in some way then find another long-term project.

 

Q: In story you both wrote that explained how you came to create this story, you talked about the “obsession” you and Kelly shared about this topic. I often tell students who work on larger pieces that they have to really love the topic and feel strongly attached to it… How important was that element of desire you both had to get to the bottom of this and your overall love of the topic in making this story come to fruition?

A: You’re right. This story never would have happened if we wouldn’t have developed a desire to know more. Aviation is not a hobby of mine and it isn’t something I ever thought I would have dedicated years of my life to covering. But as we kept digging, we kept finding more that alarmed us.

There were many times that we thought about quitting or wished we’d never searched those first N-Numbers. But we knew there was a good chance that if we took a pass on telling this story, it might remain untold. After learning about how the issues we uncovered had impacted people, quitting just wasn’t an option.

 

Q: What were some of the bigger “road blocks” you hit along the way and what made them problematic? How did you work around them or how did the inability to get past them impact the story?

 

A: Some of the examples in the story took a long time to run down. We may have spent a month trying to get documents and back-up information that would eventually become one sentence. In addition, we were dealing with multiple countries so that added a layer of complexity for us.

We did so much research that the sheer amount of information we were dealing with became one of the biggest roadblocks. Figuring out how to manage all the documents, data and interviews was tough on its own. But then we had to figure out how to organize all our various examples without losing the readers in print.

To tackle this, we created a lot of timelines and wrote a lot of memos leading up to the actual drafts. We also had some difficult conversations about which examples and facts really moved the story forward and which ones had to be left out. We cut just about as much as we included which was tough but necessary. Our editor deserves a lot of credit for taking our initial copy and working with us to make it something we could all be proud of.

Another major roadblock was getting information from the Federal Aviation Administration. We worked hard to establish a dialogue with them, but they took a long time to respond to most of our questions. In the extreme, it took the agency 11 months to answer a specific question we’d asked in 2016. In addition, there were a couple of times that their online FOIA system simply “lost” our requests. These types of delays were common and we just learned to work through them. While this made things more difficult, it strengthened our resolve to find information. Persistence is important.

Q: The media has really latched onto this topic after you published the series. What has been the general reaction to the piece and what has been your take on how it might influence policy etc. going forward?

A: The reaction to the series has generally been positive. We’ve gotten some interesting tips that we’re following. In addition, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts introduced the Aircraft Ownership Transparency Act of 2017 earlier this year after we shared our findings with him. That bill is co-sponsored by Peter King and Carolyn Maloney.

Another Massachusetts congressman entered our report as part of the record in a recent subcommittee meeting and asked a representative from the Transportation Safety Administration about the gaps we uncovered in FAA information.

 

Q: What’s next for you (and Kelly if you’re still tag teaming it)? Any big projects on the horizon?

A: What’s next is a great question and I bet I’m like many your students who are currently asking themselves, “What will I do when I grow up?” Right now, I see my goal as finding ways to support what I’ve come to call my journalism habit. In the meantime, I’m following this story and am excited about whatever is next.

Kelly and I are both thankful to the Spotlight Fellowship and The Boston Globe for providing the opportunity and forum for us to share our work. Really good investigative work doesn’t just happen. It’s important that newsrooms and outside organizations like Participant Media, one of the funders of the fellowship, continue to provide the necessary support for reporters to do their jobs the right way.

 

Q: What advice do you have for student journalists who are working on bigger projects that require tenacity and often include roadblocks from administrators or other record keepers? Any thoughts on keeping them motivated and preventing them from giving up?

 

A: The advice I have for student journalists is simple: You are the only thing stopping you from doing great work. You don’t need to be backed by a powerful newsroom or have some lengthy resume to tackle important issues. Some of the best stories I’ve done began at home after work (or after class in college) when I was just curious about something.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be roadblocks – a ton of them. This kind of work isn’t easy, but easy isn’t much fun. Follow your instincts and don’t think you must do it alone. Talk to mentors and professors you trust for guidance. And two is always better than one: Get a partner. While Kelly and I were both nutty enough to follow this through, what made our partnership great was our complementary skills. The combination of both of our strengths allowed us to see the whole picture more fully.

At the end of the day, hard work and resilience is key.

The “Feel It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Feel It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of touch from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. I do this with what has lovingly been deemed “The Box of Doom.” Here’s a simple walk through:

 

Each year, I pick various things for the holes. I try to make them varied in texture, ranging from dry and gritty to wet and sloppy. I usually shop for groceries shortly before the lab, so I look for stuff that’s got an interesting tactile nature (as well as stuff that’s cheap and on sale). I have used peach pie filling, mincemeat, applesauce, sugar, sand, salt, baby formula, powdered milk and a dozen other things to make the holes change from year to year. I also like to mix them up so that the students don’t tip each other off from year to year. The one year a kid was told to go for Hole 3 because it wasn’t bad, he got a surprise: I changed the order around.

 

 

To make the process fair, I have three holes and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “hole” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they felt when they put their hand in the hole. Here’s how it works, with a few edits. I made sure to include at least two students experiencing each hole:

 

Once the students get done cleaning up, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:

IMG_4881IMG_4882

Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same hole and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

 

The students then list all their words on the board under their hole:

IMG_4889

 

After we get all the words on the board, I reveal what was in each hole and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the hole.

 

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

As always, I learn something from every experience like this. Today’s lessons include:

  1. Never buy generic dog food.
  2. Watch out for things in which the smell will create a big problem. That dog food was atrocious.

Hope this was as enjoyable for you as it was for me and my students. If there’s one thing they always say they remember, it’s the “Feel It” Lab.

“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.

READ PART ONE HERE
READ PART TWO HERE

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.”

5 bits of advice for student journalists covering chaos

Over the past month, the level of crime and disaster coverage has really jumped up a notch throughout the country.

We’re running through the alphabet at a pretty brisk pace when it comes to naming hurricanes, with Harvey smashing into Texas and surrounding areas while Irma did serious damage to Florida and many parts of the Deep South.  We had the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that led to a “Tiki-Torch march” on the University of Virginia campus as well as clashes between racists and counter-protestors that left one woman dead and many more injured.

This week, St. Louis was the epicenter of both peaceful protests and violent outbursts, leading to more than 80 arrests Sunday night. The source of this unrest was the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white, former St. Louis Police officer who was charged with murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man believed to be selling drugs, in 2011.

Student journalists are frequently at the forefront of these events, covering dangerous situations for their fellow students. The folks at the Rice Thresher talked last week about their experiences covering hurricane damage around their area, and they continue to cover the aftermath of the devastation. The Cav Daily at UVA was in the middle of the chaos both for the march on campus as well as the events that unfolded the next day. A more becomes known about the city’s efforts, the reporters at UVA continue the coverage.  In St. Louis, both the student reporters at St. Louis University and Washington University covered the protests in the wake of the Stockley’s acquittal.

Covering disasters, crime and mayhem can be scary as hell. I spent most of my professional J time on a night desk or the crime beat, so I’ve seen more than a few things that would make a Billy Goat puke. I also have sent student journalists into situations where danger was palpable and fear was inevitable. Based on that background, and the fact it seems likely you might end up covering something like this, here are five simple tips when you need to cover chaos:

  1. Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. I once went to the scene of an accident where a compact car traveling about 50 mph went head on into a compact car traveling 50 mph toward it. A lot of blood and glass. A TV reporter was on the side of the road, throwing up into the weeds, trying to hold it together for a stand up. In floods, you might find dead people or wounded people. Fights break out at protests and violence spills everywhere. (Tim Dodson’s line about the “chemical irritant” in the air during the “Unite the Right” rally sticks in my head when I think of how crazed a scene can get.) Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.
  2. Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those needs conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of an accident. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand. I interviewed a fire chief once who told me that a reporter wanted to get a shot of a burning building and moved too close to the structure. When one of his firefighters chopped into the roof, there was some sort of explosion through one of the windows, thus raining fire, glass and debris on the startled journalist.

    Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand in the middle of a hailstorm to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.

  3. Paranoia is your best friend. Always make sure you are following up your stories on disasters. Things can change in a heartbeat, literally. When a young boy fell into a creek and was clinging to life, a reporter wrote a tale of how the priest was praying with the family and how God would make everything work out well. Unfortunately, as deadline approached, it turns out the kid was taken off of life support and died. A rewrite of that story was critical. Make sure you check back to see the condition of people involved in disasters, the official cause of fires, how many people are actually still without power following a storm and more. The more you worry that things might be changing, the better off your copy will be. In terms of crime, make sure you are sure on the specific charges, the ID and name spelling of anyone accused of anything and that you have slapped attributions on everything that needs one.
  4. Be humane. When you cover bad things, chances are you’ll run into bad people. When someone does something that harms others and you have to go after that person, you should do so with vim and vigor. However, that crime also affects a lot of good people as well. It could be the wife of a guy who she never suspected of running a dog-fighting operation. It might be the sister of a victim who was shot and killed by an under-trained cop. It could be a parent who just identified the body of her only daughter. Life isn’t easy on these people. It’s also true in disaster stories, where people have watched their homes wash away on TV or they just lost everything they ever loved. It’s a horrible event and these people are traumatized. Yes, you are on deadline and yes, the adrenaline is flowing. However, you need to make sure you act in a way that will allow you to live with yourself the next day. The story is fleeting, but if you are insensitive, rude or in some other way problematic, your impact will last a long time.
  5. Take care of yourself. Covering crises will have an impact on you in some way. How exactly? I don’t know and neither will you. I can’t tell you how you will react to seeing a dead body, a tornado-torn neighborhood or a road strewn with auto glass. One of the toughest student journalists I ever knew ended up almost broken covering a story about a garbage collector who died when he was crushed by his own truck. Why that story got her when others didn’t, I don’t know. However, you need to understand that these things have an impact on you. The DART center (www.dartcenter.org) helps journalists deal with the trauma they experience every day, from war to crime and beyond. In the end, you might just need someone to talk to. However, you can’t do your job if you are really messed up. Take the time to take care of yourself.

5 good reasons to work for your student newspaper (plus one more great one)

Got some feedback on what a number of professors who might be using the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” textbook thought about the blog and one comment caught me off guard a bit:

How about a plug for student media?”

Student media is among the most important influences in my life, both as a student and as a professor. Without my student newspaper experience at The Daily Cardinal at UW-Madison, I would be working in a garage somewhere doing oil changes and wheel alignments. I owe pretty much everything in my life, from my first paid media gig to my full professorship to that little windowless bunker that still smells exactly the same.

If I plugged student media in my classes any more than I already do, I’d be a cross between Lloyd Dobler from “Say Anything” and “Vince from Slap Chop.”

Student media is important, but don’t take it from me. Give Joe Buettner’s piece on his student newsroom experience a read. Buettner is a student at the University of Oklahoma, an alumnus of The Oklahoma Daily and current sports intern at the city’s daily paper. His piece on “Five Reasons You Should Join Your College Newspaper” nails the main elements of everything I could tell you about the experience, the camaraderie, the excitement and more. (Plus, he’s like half my age and he’s done it recently, so it’s not me waxing poetic about the “old days” when Vanilla Ice was cool or something.)

However, since I get the “long view” of student media, let me add one more reason why you should join that has nothing to do with what you get out of it: Your work matters to people.

Look back at the Rice Thresher’s coverage of Hurricane Harvey or the Cav Daily’s coverage of the “Unite the Right” march. (Spoiler alert: I’m getting in touch with Tim Dodson on Friday to talk about the paper’s follow ups on life at UVA these days.) Also look at these pieces:

Beyond these “big” stories are the day-in, day-out pieces that tell people what parking lots are closed, what teams are on a winning streak, who got arrested and who won an award. People read this stuff in student media because in most cases, it’s the ONLY place you CAN read it.

You do a heck of a lot of good for yourself working at the paper, that’s true, but you also have the benefit of knowing you did something that affected other people. It’s as good a reason as any to figure out where on campus the paper is located and give it a chance to change your life.

 

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.

“Don’t be an idiot” and other sage advice for those of you covering hurricanes

Next week, I’m hoping to have a few interviews with student journalists from Texas who have been diligently covering Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. In the mean time, enjoy this legendary memo from the Miami Herald’s Martin Merzer. It echoes two of the things we noted in the book about covering crime and disasters:

  1. Be calm. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter.
  2. Be safe. A dead reporter isn’t much better than a panicking reporter.

You might never cover a hurricane, but you will cover a disaster or a crime, so allow the mortician’s humor to buoy you as you understand the core values here: Preparation, safety, innovation and audience service.

Enjoy this classic in all its glory.

Good “fishing holes” for campus reporters: Five places to find stories that will continue to pay dividends

The saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man To fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” applies pretty nicely to journalism. Last week, we talked about five stories you could do once you got back to campus and hopefully at least a few folks found those to be helpful. However, once those are done, the question of, “OK, now what?” emerges and it can feel like another uphill slog to find good content.

We can’t exactly teach you how to fish here; that job is up to your instructors, advisers and other folk who work with you. However, here are a couple of our favorite “fishing holes” brought to you by the Hivemind:

  1. City Records: Even though it is often an island unto itself, your campus is still part of a larger area, namely a city, town or municipality of some kind. Your campus food services are likely checked over by the city health inspector. Your dorms have to meet codes for structure, electrical work and other similar issues. Beyond the campus itself, you can find inspection records for various properties, including restaurants, businesses and rental properties. Find out which rental company has the most complaints or if a certain restaurant or tattoo parlor has been cited for unsanitary practices.
  2. Job Services: The most common question I answer when students tour is the one my own father asked many, many years ago when I was entering college and choosing a major: “(Fill in name of major)? Can you get a job with that?” Many higher education institutions have some sort of job-placement service either through administration or through individual colleges and schools within the university. Find out who helps people get jobs or at least who tracks the data regarding job placement for graduates that are one, five or 10 years out of school. Which majors have the highest and the lowest rates? What careers yield the best financial return on investment?
  3. Health Care: We’ve all heard it before: “I’m sick, but I’m not going to Student Death…” Although healthcare records themselves are private, more general information on the overall services aren’t. How many people has your student healthcare center seen over the past year or two? What are the main drivers of health-related visits on your campus in that time? Also, what programs are available that go beyond, “Take two of these and call me in the morning” as a solution? Some campuses have therapy animals, mental health services, weight-watcher programs and other things that can benefit student if they know about them.
  4. Student Organizations: Not every story you look for has to cure cancer. In many cases, telling stories and alerting people to things they didn’t know about (but probably would appreciate knowing) works just as well. Grab a copy of a list that outlines every official student organization on campus and see if you can find trends: Is your campus particularly laden with political or environmental groups? Do you see more social or activity-based opportunities? Are there clubs for things you never thought would lead to a club, such as squirrel clubs or organizations for concrete canoe makers?
  5. Budget Office: Follow the money. Always. If you want to figure out where things are going and how people value certain things on your campus, it pays to learn how to read a budget. Save yourself the agony of trying to learn how to do this on a deadline by visiting the budget office when you have no pressing needs, asking to see a fairly benign budgetary document and asking for a chance to talk to a budget specialist about it. This will help you understand how to see where money goes, what certain budget categories mean and how best to track money in a system. It’s not easy, but once you figure it out, you can find great financial stories and be less susceptible to having someone pull the wool over your eyes.

Five random story ideas that you could try during your first week back at school

One of the hardest things about reporting on stories that aren’t event based is trying to find things that could lead to neat stories. We’re going to try to throw out some random, story ideas you could look into at your school. Not all of these will apply to everyone’s campus (public schools have open records rules that don’t apply at private institutions), but consider this at least a jumping off point for you.

If you have any ideas you’d like share, feel free to use the contact function or just post your ideas below in the comments. Here we go…

Who has the most unpaid parking tickets and how much do they owe? This might be a fairly pedestrian (pardon the pun) story or it might be a case of a massive scofflaw on your campus. In any case, it’s always interesting to figure out who has the biggest problems finding a legal space and what they have to say about it.

Who is currently suing your university and why? A quick perusal of your local court records might find some people who truly demand justice or a few folks who likely wear tinfoil hats to bed. Former athletes alleging assault and claims of racial discrimination within the administration could lead to some serious coverage while suits because “the president of the university has taken over my brain” could be downright amusing.

Is your school buying or selling wins? One of the more interesting aspects of college sports is the contractual obligations between academic institutions. Some Division I schools with limited resources and lower-caliber teams will sign contracts for “guarantee games,” in which a football or basketball program goes to a major D-I school to get slaughtered. The rub? The major institution “guarantees” the lesser program a certain amount of money for the privilege of getting killed 94-0 on the field or court. In other cases, it could be a simple promise of a free lunch to get the two programs onto the same field. Pull the contracts and find out.

(A word of warning to schools who try this. Sometimes you aren’t guaranteed a win, as Michigan found out in 2007)

Happy (or unhappy) Anniversary! Take a look back in the archives of your school newspaper to find out what was big news 10, 20, 30 or 50 years ago. You might find out that there was a riot on campus or some racial injustice at the time. You could also discover a rare event, a special graduation or an incredible sports event.

How much for that guest speaker at the union? If you are a public institution, any contract between your university and any outside vendor is a public record, so feel free to pull some of them. It might be interesting to find out how much the “Campus Speaker Series” is costing your campus or see who gets paid the most or the least for their speeches. The same is true of concerts, carnivals or other events that cost cash. Pull those records and see how much stuff is costing or if the “super stars” are asking for anything special in the “rider.” (See the world’s most famous “rider” to a contract here: Van Halen’s 1982 “No Brown M&M’s” document)

Happy reporting! Feel free to send us any links to anything you covered on this list. (We’d love to post it.)