Three things Pokemon Go reminds us about journalism

  I had some help writing this post.

In case you missed my two posts celebrating feminism in the Star Wars universe, let me issue this disclaimer: I’m a geek, something that predated – by decades – the mainstream coolness of Comic-Con, Peggy Carter and Mr. Spock.

Pokemon, though, was never my scene. Too many rules. Too many obnoxious noises. Too many cartoon creatures teetering between adorable and terrifying.

Still, I joined millions of other people in downloading the app last weekend, motivated not by nostalgia but by curiosity about augmented reality and how it might change the way we tell stories. After several days as a Pokemon trainer, I have a lot to think about in terms of AR. I was also reminded of three truths about journalism:

1.) Look for layers. Augmented reality superimposes information over physical space. (Great explainer here about AR and the origins of Pokemon Go.)  Playing the game requires exploring its digital landscape, a process that can teach us about our surroundings. For instance: I discovered a couple of local historical markers while stocking up on Poke Balls last night. Finding and telling news stories also requires shifting the way you see the world, looking for different lenses through which to view our communities. Practicing journalism and experiencing AR both require embracing new ways of seeing.

2.) You’ll do much better if you leave your office and walk around. Sure, the occasional wild Eevee wanders across my desk, but I’ve caught more – and more diverse – Pokemon while walking my dog or chatting up people downtown. Reporters also find richer, more interesting stories by roving around and talking to people face to face. I know email is a journalistic necessity, but human contact is always better. Besides, my inbox has yet to yield a single Bellsprout, Jynx or Rattata.

3.) Verify everything. In the days after Pokemon Go’s launch, my Facebook feed was awash with headlines reporting the game’s dire consequences: murders, car accidents, exposure to Satanic rituals. Most of that stuff is bogus, something we know thanks to websites like It’s crucial for journalists to engage in this kind of debunking in a world where falsehoods evolve as quickly as a Jigglypuff hopped up on candy. (For the uninitiated: Sugar makes a wild Pokemon morph into a larger and slightly fiercer version of itself. Or something like that. I’m new here, remember? Here’s more from a far more credible source.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear a Pidgey in my attic.

How serving as a Pulitzer juror made me a better journalism teacher

Being invited to serve on a Pulitzer jury is probably a little like getting accepted to Hogwarts: You receive a letter written on really nice stationary with instructions to show up at a certain place and time. And please, it goes on, don’t tell anyone what you’re up to.

My envelope from Hogwarts has, alas, never arrived, but for the second year in a row I was summoned to Columbia University in February to serve as a Pulitzer juror, picking finalists in one of 14 journalism categories.  Last winter, I sat on the local reporting jury. (Details on that experience here.) This time was breaking news.

Pulitzer deliberations are confidential, and jurors’ identities are secret until after the winners are revealed, but my experience has still been a powerful teaching tool, one that’s given me fresh vocabulary to describe what it means to master the craft of modern nonfiction storytelling.

My students have been poking around the new Pulitzer website for a couple of months, identifying strong leads and mulling over what topics make compelling stories. We also talked a bit about the Pulitzers and public service journalism ahead of our Spotlight event earlier this month.

Last week, my editing class watched the announcement of the 2016 winners live:


Then we examined the winner and finalists in the breaking news category and talked about the hallmarks of effective, responsible journalism in the first few hours of a big story. The students liked how the Los Angeles Times’s winning entry used rumor-busting bullet points to list known facts after the San Bernardino shootings. They found the Baltimore Sun’s interactive timeline useful in understanding the events that led to Freddie Gray’s death. We also talked about how the Post and Courier used a mix of screen grabs to illustrate a video showing the shooting of Walter Scott. (When it came to whether or not to publish the video itself, the students’ opinions were mixed.)

All three entries show a mix of urgency and comprehensive follow up. Here’s a little scribble that I used to illustrate this concept:

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In the hours, days and even months after a major breaking news event, readers want – need – coverage that provides context, answers questions and explores possible solutions. Accuracy matters more than speed. Or, as I told my students, it’s better to be dead last than dead wrong.

These Pulitzer-inspired lessons will continue in the fall, too. My colleague Tom Haines is teaching a course focused on environmental reporting, and his students will be able to learn from finalists like InsideClimate News, the Portland Press Herald and ProPublica. I’m teaching entrepreneurial journalism, and we’ll talk about how several of this year’s top entires came from news organizations that didn’t exist a decade ago.

So thanks, Pulitzers. And happy 100th birthday. Here’s hoping for another century of identifying and honoring excellence in journalism.

Learning from “Spotlight”

The Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson and I prepare to chat about investigative journalism Tuesday night at UNH. Photo credit/Hadley Barndollar.

During one of the opening scenes in Spotlight, Walter Robinson (as portrayed by Michael Keaton) uses the term “player-coach” to describe his role as editor of the Globe’s famed investigative team. That characterization is accurate – something I know after working as Robinson’s teaching assistant at Northeastern University.

At the time, Robinson was running NU’s investigative journalism program, teaching students how to dig up stories about gun policies at community colleges, racial disparities in Boston firehouses and more. He’s a master at teaching by doing, and, by watching him, I learned as much about running a classroom as I did about mining documents and cultivating sources. (Robinson is back at the Globe now, and NU’s investigative work continues thanks to longtime TV journalist Mike Beaudet.)

It was an honor to interview Robinson in front of an (over) packed room at UNH earlier this week. We talked for an hour or so about the investigation that inspired the Spotlight movie, the importance of access to public information and why knocking on doors is a better reporting technique than sending emails.

Robinson’s visit was the culmination of a series of lessons built around the Spotlight film. And, judging by the conversations I’ve had with students over the last few days, lots of them are inspired to dig just a little deeper on their next stories.



Learning about solutions journalism

I spent most of Monday at a workshop on solutions journalism. It was a lovely start to the week for more than one reason. We met at the NH Audubon’s Concord property, which meant we got to see this gorgeous creature during a coffee break. More important, though, was the chance to explore a sub-genre that I’ve been curious about for several years.

Our leader was Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, a group that aims to increase the “volume and quality” of this type of storytelling. We spent time discussing what Solutions journalism is and isn’t, but here’s one definition I like a lot:

Solutions journalism can include reporting on responses that are working, partially working, or not working at all but producing useful insights. We can learn just as much from a failure as a success. The key is to look at the whole picture — the problem and the response. Journalism often stops short of the latter.

The notion that this type of storytelling is about presenting a more complete, complex picture is important. I also appreciate the emphasis Rosenberg places on finding compelling characters and structuring “howdoneit” narratives that keep the reader engaged.

I took a lot of notes on Twitter throughout the day. Some highlights:

For examples of solutions journalism, check out these projects.

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

Service, solutions and theology in local journalism


I spend a handful of nights each winter in the basement of a downtown church, pouring coffee and passing out dry socks to men and women with nowhere else to go. I’m among the hundreds of volunteers who, for the last decade, have helped operate a cold weather homeless shelter in Concord, NH.

The people we serve there have been the focus of a sweeping collection of stories, photos, graphics and videos published this week by the Concord Monitor*The series, called Seeking Shelter, has given me a lot to think about both in terms of homelessness and the role of local newspapers.

I’ve learned a lot during my volunteer shifts at the shelter, but the Monitor’s series has taught me more. The city, write reporters Jeremy Blackman and Megan Doyle, is at an “unprecedented moment” in its history:

Concord’s homeless population has been growing for years, driven by a mix of economic instability, rising substance abuse and geography. State and local police have broken up many of the encampments in town, following a number of violent incidents and several deaths.

Community leaders have long discussed finding a more permanent solution, but they’ll need to act fast. Come spring, the shelter where I volunteer and a second one at a neighboring church will shut down for good.

The Monitor has addressed homelessness in the past through daily stories, photos and editorials. But this week’s series takes its coverage to a new level, one that bodes well for the practice of local journalism.

In his book The Wired City, Dan Kennedy** asks, “Can journalism have a theology?” He uses that question to explore the motivations and professional philosophy of Paul Bass, the founding editor of the nonprofit New Haven (CT) Independent. That publication’s journalism, Kennedy writes, is

based on a community-driven vision of conversation, cooperation and respect. It is a vision that sounds a lot like that of many religious communities, and it is the opposite of the top-down, we-report/you-read-watch-or-listen model of traditional news organizations.

I’ve been reminded of this passage as I’ve watched the Monitor’s series unfold this week. All of the players – social workers, policymakers, clergy members and the homeless people themselves – are portrayed as human beings facing complex challenges. Photographers Geoff Forester and Elizabeth Frantz earned the trust of the homeless community in a way that allowed them to document the lives of people who often prefer to remain unseen.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Monitor has explored possible solutions and invited public conversation. Much has been written about the concept of solutions journalism, and the Monitor’s work this week is a good example of the genre. The newsroom also created the hashtag #homelessinconcord to organize online discussion. Tonight, the paper’s editors will host a community dialogue at one of the shelters about the issues raised by the series.

Not that long ago, traditional journalists may have labeled this as something too close to advocacy. It’s not.

Instead, it’s the kind of thing news organizations must do to remain crucial parts of the communities they cover. Kennedy makes this argument in The Wired City, exploring how local editors like Bass can foster as well as cover civic life.

The Monitor isn’t immune to the financial and existential challenges facing newspapers, but this series is an indication that, to the journalists in its newsroom, simple survival won’t be enough. Local news organizations should practice the kind of storytelling happening at the Monitor this week. It will be hard. It will consume scarce resources. And it must happen. No matter what.

Can journalism have a theology?


And it’s embodied in the kind of collaborative, socially just and human storytelling displayed by the Monitor this week.

*I worked at the Monitor for many years, and was a consulting editor there this summer. 

** Dan Kennedy was one of several fantastic faculty members who advised my graduate studies at Northeastern University last year. 

A girl named Ruby

Check out this Kickstarter campaign aimed at creating a children’s book about computer code. The best part? The protagonist will be a girl named (of course) Ruby.* The book is programmer Linda Liukas’s latest bid to make technology accessible to everyone. The project has already brought in more than 10 times its original goal of $10,000, — including a small donation from me — and Liukas plans to use the additional money for a parents’ guide and a mobile app.

Creative teaching like this makes me happy, especially when it means kids around the globe will be introduced to the male-dominated world of programming through the eyes of a strong, smart little girl.

* Ruby is one of the programming languages often used by journalists

Signs of progress

Thanks to Stony Brook journalism Prof. Barbara Selvin* for pointing out something remarkable on the front page of today’s New York Times: The four top stories were written by women, and there are two photos of female leaders. Michelle Obama (whose birthday is today) is pictured in the lead image; Katie Couric and Marissa Mayer are in a smaller pic on the bottom left.

We’re a long way from gender parity in bylines or sources, but this front page is reason for hope. It also hints at something else: Female leadership in newsrooms matters when it comes to treating women as full-fledged civic players, not pretty things tucked away in the style section or, perhaps worse, manhaters out for world domination.  It’s been more than two years since Jill Abramson became the first woman to lead the Times newsroom and, she told public editor Margaret Sullivan, newsroom diversity in terms of race and gender is one of her focuses. Diversity in staffing often translates into coverage that’s more fair to all segments of the community.

Sure, there’s a long way to go, but this front page is worth a few moments of pause — the same sort of pause I take each Election Day to remember that, when my grandmothers were born, women were not yet allowed to vote.

*Selvin and I are both members of the Journalism and Women Symposium. She shared her observations on the group’s fantastic members’ listserv.

This is what modern feminism looks like

I’ll post a more detailed account (and photos) of JAWS CAMP soon, but I just couldn’t wait to share this fabulous blog by Northeastern journalism student Susie Blair.

It’s called Femmedia and, as Blair explains in her inaugural post, she hopes to explore the roots of a media culture that often marginalizes women:

I have a complex relationship with the media; a love-hate dynamic. I rely on the media to educate me on a near-daily basis but, as a woman and a feminist, I often become frustrated with how my fellow women are represented, perceived, commodified, ostracized, and stereotyped.

Blair’s blog, like mine, grew out of a class at the Northeastern j-school taught by Prof. Dan Kennedy. It’s also a good example of a topic that came up a few times at CAMP.  There’s often a perception that younger women aren’t interested in feminism, but that’s not true. Their activism just looks different than that of women in previous generations. Instead of marching in the streets, they’re tweeting, launching publications and blogging.

Rosie would be proud: