I was a Pulitzer juror and here’s what I learned about great journalism

Reporters aren’t very good at keeping secrets, but I’ve managed to stay mum for a couple of months about some exciting professional news: I was one of roughly 100 jurors who vetted nominees for the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes. For three days in February, I sat hunched over a table at Columbia University’s journalism school reading page after page of powerful work.

I was assigned to the local reporting category, so I saw projects produced by newsrooms of all shapes and sizes. The details of Pulitzer jury deliberations are secret, but the experience gave me lots to think about in terms of what it means to practice excellent journalism. There’s no universal checklist, but the winners that were announced last week shared four common factors I’ve tried to summarize here:

Pulitzer_elements1.) Top-notch journalism relies on three elements: diverse human voices, bulletproof verification and technical proficiency with both language and digital tools. I came to think of it as a stool with three legs similar to the one pictured to the left. This mix is apparent in many of the winning entries, but it’s especially effective in the collection of columns that won the Pulitzer for editorial writing. Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe explored how the booming restaurant business often fails to provide living wages for kitchen workers. Kingsbury uses crisp writing to blend the experiences of these workers with extensive research into economics, labor laws and more.

2.) The rise of digital publishing means journalists have dozens of new tools — and those tools should be used in a way that serves the audience and the story. Video, interactive games and other multimedia features should rise above flashy window dressing to enhance readers’ understanding. Effective multimedia doesn’t have to be expensive, either. The newsroom that won in the local reporting category used open-source tools like Timeline JS to help the community follow a long and complex investigation into corruption at a school district in California.

3.) Strong verbs make confusing topics comprehendible. Zachary R. Mider of Bloomberg News won the Pulitzer in explanatory reporting for his work on tax-dodging corporations. It’s complicated, abstract stuff, but Mider’s lively writing makes it easy to understand. Take, for instance, this story about one particular manufacturing company. Mider builds his lead around verbs like “forged” and “carved” and “sparked.” Such words carry the reader into the piece. He also uses a nice mix of short, medium and long sentences that rely on precise, plain language instead of headachy jargon.

4.) There’s strength in numbers. Many of the winning entries were produced by teams of reporters. In some cases, newsrooms also had outside assistance. A good example is The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina where four journalists won the Pulitzer for public service for their investigation into the state’s high rate of domestic violence. The newsroom received technical, editing* and financial support from the Center for Investigative Reporting; that partnership yielded a database used to identify trends in domestic violence fatalities. Some of that information appears throughout the online version of the investigation — a collection of multimedia narratives that also required teamwork to build. This is a reminder that, while writing is often a solitary task, modern journalists must hone their interpersonal skills the same way they practice storytelling.

Finally, here’s a tip for anyone applying for jobs: White space matters. Each Pulitzer entry includes a nomination letter introducing the project to the jury. That means I read dozens of them in the space of a few hours. The ones with clean fonts and line breaks between the paragraphs were easiest on the eyes. Small details, I know, but both are techniques every new (and not-so-new) journalist should consider when writing cover letters to potential employers.

* Post updated 5/4/2015 to more precisely reflect the Center for Investigative Reporting’s role in the project. More details about the partnership here

Instagram on the campaign trail

At first, I loved Instagram for the way it forced me to find photos in my everyday life and to consider new applications for visual storytelling. Now, I’m loving it even more as users experiment with long captions or full-fledged “instaessays.”

I’ve done a couple of instaessays – one about New Hampshire’s Legislature and one about chance encounters with presidential candidates – but I hadn’t had an opportunity to try journalistic captions. That changed last night when I covered Jeb Bush’s visit to Concord. Here are the results:

Meerkat for President!

Here’s where I confess that I first thought Meerkat was somehow related to Mammal March Madness*. It’s not. It’s an app that makes streaming video almost as simple as tapping out a tweet, and yesterday it collided with the world of political journalism. Hard.

A screen grab from yesterday’s live stream of Trump’s interview with the UL.

The Union Leader has long been a force in Republican politics, something that’s especially apparent during the early months of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Potential candidates stop by the Manchester newsroom for meetings with the UL’s editorial board – the first step towards winning the paper’s coveted endorsement.

Yesterday, that potential candidate was Donald Trump. And the editorial board decided to use Meerkat to live stream the whole thing. I watched for a few minutes, and it looked like at least 50 other people did, too. It wasn’t long before other local news organizations had opened accounts of their own. NECN streamed one of Trump’s campaign stops later in the day, and my iPhone buzzed all night with alerts that other political journalists had opened accounts on the app.

The technology is pretty cool and becoming more common. Meerkat was a huge hit at SxSW, and Twitter recently acquired similar software. There’s also an app called Stre.am that’s gaining traction, although I don’t know much about how it works.

If you want to try it yourself, remember that this is video so all related tips apply: Use an external mic to get the best sound, avoid vertical frames and, as one local reporter suggested to me on Facebook, consider getting a tripod if you’ll be streaming for long periods of time.

I suspect Meerkat and similar tools will become standard fare on the campaign trail – a new window into real-time politicking and a reminder of how fast the practice of journalism is changing.

*If you don’t know about Mammal March Madness, stop reading this blog immediately and click here for deets.

Another week, another essay

Here’s the ninth of the 50 essays I’ve resolved to write this year:

View this post on Instagram

The first time it happened I was in high school, digging drainage ditches at a state park on Earth Day. Al Gore, the sitting vice president, rolled through. I didn’t see him. Only camera flashes and the tidy, dark suits of the Secret Service. It was the beginning of a long and growing list of chance encounters with people who want to be president. A few years later, Gore was the Democratic nominee and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, came to my college campus. I was working for the student paper, thrilled and terrified to tell a big story on a tight deadline. Pretty soon, we had two stories: one about Lieberman’s speech and the other about an unexpected – and unsanctioned – visit by Ralph Nader. He arrived unannounced and rallied supporters who had commandeered a room in the student union. Dennis Kucinich and I once reached for the same carton of rice milk at a health food store in downtown Concord. I was shopping after a long week of following other, better-financed candidates. He looked exhausted. I stepped back and let him have the milk. Then there are the ones with names I don’t remember, average looking guys running for president simply because they can. They often visited the newspaper where I worked, leaving press releases and head shots at the front desk. Once, I collided with one of them near the vending machines. He stopped to grab a snack. Last week, it happened again. I was at my favorite café for a little tea and networking. The first hint was the knot of reporters I recognized from TV. Then a few local politicians arrived. Outside, two men squinted into the late afternoon sun and waved some kind of banner. The bookstore adjacent to the café was hosting Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland who, like all the others, came to New Hampshire to flirt with the presidency. #instaessay #fitn #nhpoli — Meg Heckman www.megheckman.com @meg_heckman

A post shared by megheckman (@megheckman) on

#5: An ode to dirtbags

(This is the fifth of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

Call me a dirtbag now, and I’d probably be insulted – but 15 years ago, it would have been a different story.

In alpine skiing and a few other mountain sports, the term “dirtbag” is an honorific awarded to the quirkiest and most devoted practitioners. Dirtbags measure their self worth by the number of days they spend on skis, and they’ll do just about anything to increase the count. Once, I almost joined their ranks.

I worked for a season at a giant ski resort in Maine, swapping my life as an English major for a job that involved freezing my ass off in one of the few places colder and more remote than the New Hampshire town where I grew up. I had a goal: to ski 100 days, a tidy number I imagined would secure my status among the sport’s elite. It was a faux adventure, just like I was a faux dirtbag. A real dirtbag would not have planned the whole thing a year in advance. Nor would she have enrolled in a college near the resort to earn enough credits to graduate on time. Or visited (twice) to make sure everything, including a bed in a cozy dorm and a job as a ski instructor, was in place.

By most accounts, skiers started using “dirt bag” as a compliment in the 1970s. I couldn’t find any formal etymological research, but it seems to have evolved over the years into a single, compound word. Merriam-Webster defines it simply as someone who is “dirty, unkempt, or contemptible.” The Urban Dictionary is a bit more nuanced, explaining that dirtbags are “committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle.” They’ve become such common alpine archetypes that many mountain towns host dirtbag balls – annual parties that are similar to proms but with flannel and goggle tans instead of taffeta and mascara.

My reasons for embracing the dirtbag lifestyle were varied. There were things I hoped to escape: friend drama, an illness, adolescent ghosts. I was studying journalism, and I dreamed of writing cover stories for Powder magazine. There was also a boy I thought might like me more if I could really ski.

The first few weeks of my new life were cold and beautiful. Every morning I drove 40 miles from my dorm to the resort. I loved that drive, perhaps more than anything else. I wrote poems about the scenery and made lists of the eclectic things I passed: churches, bait shops, regal old homes, a country store selling hard liquor, egg sandwiches and wedding attire. There were almost always logs trucks, teetering as they traced the corkscrew path of the half-frozen river running next to the road.

Skiing was – and is – a big part of my life, but that winter taught me that it would not be my career. When I was 15, I started working as a ski instructor at a mountain near my parents’ house. I loved it, but that homey hill was completely unlike the resort in Maine, a place I came to think of as Disneyland in a Freezer. It was massive, corporate and crowded. My clients were wealthy, stuffing $20 bills in my gloved hands at the end of nearly every lesson and sometimes paying me more to babysit their kids at night. Away from the mountain, it was different. The poverty rate was high in the surrounding county, and I noticed the signs more and more as the winter wore on. In the grocery store one night, I watched a young man with stooped shoulders and a shivering toddler count the change in his hand and reach for a tiny jug of milk. I stood in the frozen vegetable aisle and cried.

Until that winter, I hadn’t been very good at making friends, but the people I worked with at the resort were easy to like. I admired how they came together to face the day, even when the day brought sub-zero temperatures, no lunch breaks and busloads of teenagers from cities to the south. My colleagues weren’t really dirtbags either. They were budding coaches and businesspeople; many of them have built careers skiing, rising to the top levels of the sport. They were serious about their work, but also laid back. I am the exact opposite of laid back. I struggled with things like spur-of-the-moment trips to Canada, skiing out of bounds and skipping class to enjoy a lunchtime scorpion bowl special, but these people seemed to like me anyway. They convinced me to launch myself through a flaming arch during a torch light parade, introduced me to the local dive bars and taught me to (sort of) play pool. And they didn’t take it personally when I left a party early to sit in my room and read.

I made enough in tips that winter to fly to Utah where some friends let me crash in their apartment. The snow was melting in Boston when I lugged my ski boots through the terminal at Logan Airport. I would never admit it to my traveling companion, but I was restless for my adventure to end. By the time it did, I’d skied 86 days. I know because I recorded each one in a meticulously color-coded journal that I wrapped in a sandwich bag and stored in my jacket pocket. The last entry is from mid April. I should have been in class at that little college in Maine. Instead, I was squinting under a cloudless sky at Alta, trudging deep into a rugged, frozen rock formation called the Devil’s Castle. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t scared of anything. Not the terrain around me, not my mortality, not the specter of all the things that might go wrong.

I still ski as often as I can, but I seldom venture beyond that homey mountain where I grew up. That’s probably why I hadn’t heard the term dirtbag in so long. Last year, on a family trip to one of Maine’s other alpine behemoths, I saw signs for the evening’s activity: a dirtbag ball. I sat at a table in a slope-side bar, picking over potato skins. Dozens of young people in flannel shirts and Carhartt pants wandered in, rosy cheeked and thirsty after a long day on the hill. They looked a little like my friends from that winter. They looked a little like me. My brother wanted to stay for the party. I thought for a moment about what might have been all those years ago. What if I hadn’t been so uptight? Spent more time on a chairlift and less with my books?

I paid the tab, went back to our room and went to sleep.

#4: Yakety Yak

When you work in a local newsroom, it sometimes feels like conspiracy theorists, gadflies and cranks have you on speed dial. The phone rings, and it’s impossible to know if the person on the other end wants to have a reasonable chat or, as was the case one December, to complain about an editorial by wishing the staff a “shitty Christmas.”

The oddest caller I remember, though, was a recent parolee who spent his days posting vitriolic comments on our website. He was upset that we had banned two of his online personas from our discussion boards, and he wanted to ask me – the web editor – some questions. How, he wondered, was he supposed to argue with other readers about global warming, gun laws and vegetarianism? Why were we letting other people maintain multiple profiles? And why hadn’t we allowed his third identity to post a particular photo?

My answers were short: Our rules specify one profile per reader, sir.  We didn’t realize other users had multiple accounts, but thanks for letting us know. Yes, I understand you really like that photo, but it’s borderline pornographic. The phone call lasted close to an hour. The guy was nice enough, his voice reflecting none of the anger in his online posts, but this conversation tops my list of reasons why I hate the anonymity of the web.

That editing gig ended years ago, but I still think that, unless you’re working to overthrow a corrupt government, you should connect your real name to any opinions you share online. So I was pretty skeptical when I learned about Yik Yak last fall. Yik Yak is the latest in a growing field of anonymous social networks accessed through smartphones. Users – typically teens and 20-somethings – share short posts about homework, food, professional sports, sex, booze, popular culture, the weather, their bowel movements, their roommates and pretty much anything else that floats through their minds. These posts are visible to other users within a 10 mile radius. It sounded stupid but, after some of my journalism students wrote stories about Yik Yak, I was curious enough to download the app. To my surprise, I didn’t hate everything I saw.

I’ve never posted anything myself, but I do occasionally thumb through the conversations Yik Yak funnels into my iPhone. It’s an odd combination of digital anonymity and the intimacy of sharing physical space, similar to the CB radio my dad used to listen to on family road trips. Transient. Personal. Funny. Crass enough that my mom would dive for the mute button every few dozen miles.

Back in my newsroom days, when it was part of my job to monitor website comments, I would spend hours interacting online or on the phone with regulars like that parolee with three personas. It was headachy work. Each day brought hundreds of new comments, most of them filled with rage. Three editors were responsible for filtering out unsuitable posts, recording our efforts in a shared log. Personal or ad hominem attacks were marked “ad hom.” There was a good chance that a post about the presidential campaign of a young senator from Chicago would earn the tag “racist.” Some comments were so stupid  that one of my coworkers developed the category “adds nothing.”

Scrolling through Yik Yak reminds me of this old system. There are plenty of posts that deserve to be marked “ad hom” or “adds nothing.” For some reason, though, Yik Yak feels different. It’s a community that, while rough around the edges, seems earnest, maybe even hopeful. That’s not to say that there aren’t real concerns around these kinds of anonymous social networks. They can be venues for racists, misogynistic trolls and cyberbullies and, because they’re popular among young people, they’re worrisome for dorm directors, teachers  and guidance counselors.

But hate and stupidity aren’t the only things in this emerging digital space. It can be funny as hell, a window into the minds of tech-savvy Millennials.  I’ve also seen something else amid the poop jokes and double entendres: hints at Yik Yak users’ capacity for compassion. This has been true wherever I’ve logged on. A student at the community college near my house posted about final exam stress and received dozens of encouraging replies. In Boston, someone asked for – and got – advice on which library to visit for an obscure book. In New York City, I saw this: “Fellow yakkers, I’m going through terrible heroin withdrawal please try and talk me out of going to score. I’m trying to stay clean.” In a matter of moments, someone had posted the number for a sobriety hotline.

(Want this kind of writing delivered to your inbox each week? Sign up for my essay newsletter here.)

#3: It’s always like this…

This installment of my essay-writing resolution is a little different. It’s my first attempt at the emergent genre of #instaessays — short, pity dispatches packaged with a photo and published on Instagram.

View this post on Instagram

It’s always like this, bitter cold, with thin winter sunbeams brushing the columns and golden dome. Crowds of people in heavy coats, some tailored, some misshapen, some flannel, trudge through the slush and enter New Hampshire’s State House. This place is old. It was built before the Civil War, before the Washington Monument and before anyone imagined that this lovely, cramped building would, every four years, be a destination for everyone who wants to be president. Inside, it’s like a museum. A hall of flags and old portraits on the walls. A gift shop. Commemorative plaques. There’s road salt on the marble stairs, tracked in by the lawmakers’ boots. And there are so very many pairs of boots, so very many lawmakers. Four hundred in the House and 24 in the Senate. On Earth, there are only three legislative bodies larger than this one. Inside, it’s also a little like a high school – and not just because there are lockers in the basement. Underground hallways connect all the buildings in the legislative complex, funneling everyone together as they move from place to place. In cliques, they stop in the cafeteria for coffee and snacks. They sneak outside for a smoke. They know the details of each other’s lives. Some things do change. Different lawmakers in the chambers and different kids singing the national anthem. Sometimes, the flags on the roof flutter high. Sometimes, they’re at half staff, dipped low in mourning. #instaessay

A post shared by megheckman (@megheckman) on

#2: Sophomoric

(This is the second of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

It’s weird sometimes to work at the same university where I was once a student. Random, distant memories surface almost daily: The coffee cart where, in 1997, I bought my first latte. The accounting worksheets I struggled through while sitting at long, honey-colored tables in the library. The running trails I crisscrossed on days when I couldn’t sit still.

The classroom where I teach (and where I once studied) is named after Donald Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner who founded our journalism program and wrote prolifically until his death at the age of 82. In some of his columns for The Boston Globe, Murray calls this phenomenon “double exposure,” the then superimposed on the now. He’s not the only writer to experience this kind of cognitive surprise. Robert M. Pirsig touches on something similar in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he writes about “lateral truths… knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction.” Sometimes, as I’m walking to my car at the end of a long day, I’ll see something out of the corner of my eye – a student who looks like a friend from my old dorm or a tree I studied under 15 years ago – and, suddenly, I’m displaced. The physical space is the same, but the now is, for a moment, gone.

There was nothing profound or unusual about my undergraduate career. I was a normal kid with average grades, nice friends and typical worries, but it’s still interesting to wade through those memories now. Many of my students are sophomores, so I’ve been thinking especially hard about that time in my own life. Freshman year seems too much like high school, a blur of adolescent anxiety. Sophomore year was different, the borderland between who I was as a kid and the first version of my adult self.  I began to find my voice as a writer and a person. It was when I took my first journalism class, started working for the student newspaper, cold called a boy I liked and asked him to dinner.

I was a devoted journal-keeper back then, recording the things happening around me and inside my head. It’s fascinating, as someone who now teaches writing, to read these journals, to see the change in sentence structure, tone and technique. It’s a little like watching a puppy clomp around the yard. The dog is clearly having fun, but it will be a while before she figures out what to do with her feet. In September, I was whining about a roommate in a way that now makes me cringe. In October, I described the campus in fall, mimicking the way my favorite writers crafted scenes. December’s entries are full of dialogue from conversations I overheard in the dorm. Around New Year’s, I started to sound like me, creating narratives of my own instead of tracing the patterns of those I’d read. In March, I tried a little poetry.

By the time summer came around, I was writing a love story — about journalism, about that boy and about the hint of who I might become.