Sharing the passion of journalism

On Tuesday I had a pair of guest speakers — Melissa Lyttle (photojournalist) and Lane DeGregory (reporter) — talk about how they reported The Girl in the Window for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. My course is Reporting and Writing for Online Media (syllabus here), but I told our guests I wanted them to focus on the reporting process and the working relationship between the two of them — not the tools.

I couldn’t have found two better exemplars of quality reporting practices. Poynter interviewed both Lane and Melissa and wrote about this story a few days after it ran in August 2008, so I won’t recap everything the two said. But I’d like to list a few of the things I learned from listening to them:

  • Investigative journalism is not dead. Even though Lane and Melissa were writing, reporting and shooting regular daily work throughout, they nevertheless took six months to work on this project and do it justice.
  • Investigative journalism is not always about numbers, corporations, land and money. While one 9-year-old girl is at the center of this story, it also concerns the state’s child welfare practices, adoption, families, parenting and human development.
  • You are only as good as your sources. Because Dani’s case involved a child, and the family court system, there was nothing in police and court records to tip any reporters to this story. Lane had a longtime source at a local adoption and foster-care concern, and that source recognized Dani’s story as one that might interest Lane as a reporter. Moreover, because the source was already well acquainted with Dani’s adoptive family, she was able to introduce Lane and Melissa to the parents and persuade them to give the journalists a chance.
  • Good reporting is hard work, and it’s slow. Not only did the two journalists spend multiple full days with the family, observing their everyday lives, but they also had to drive three hours each way to get to the family’s home. They had to gain the parents’ trust gradually. For this kind of story, there are no shortcuts.
  • Public records (and non-public records) were a large part of this story. I could not have been happier when Lane reached into her canvas briefcase and pulled out a 3-inch-thick wad of white legal pads, each page covered with handwriting. “These are my notes,” she told my students. “I don’t use a recorder. I write everything down.” Then her hand went inside the briefcase again, and she extracted an even thicker stack of papers, with colored sticky tabs poking out all over the edges. “These are the documents and public records,” she said, holding them high. (Journalism students sometimes think the job is all interviews, and some students really despise our required public records course.)
  • The photographer is a reporter. Melissa was with Lane on every visit to the family, from the beginning. There was none of the foolish ownership stuff we sometimes hear about, where some reporters want to keep a story all to themselves until they’re “ready” to bring in the photojournalist, or some photojournalists who sit on a photo story and never work with a reporter because it would ruin the “purity” of their images.
  • Even though the Times was damned stupid about the multimedia potential of this story, they managed a first-class save by not rushing it or throwing together a weak package at the last minute. Lane and Melissa had already been working with the family for three months when an editor thought to ask them what they would have for the Web. Oops … They had nothing. Now, a lot of newspapers would have said, well, we had this arbitrary Easter deadline in mind, and we just can’t be flexible and change that (even though there is NO breaking news angle AT ALL). The Times instead decided to push the deadline back — all the way to August! Lane and Melissa went back and RE-interviewed the same people, gathering 40 hours of audio in the process. Melissa shot video as well.

The result is one of the best multimedia packages of 2008, without a doubt, and I would say one of the tightest and best edited multimedia STORIES ever. (I have to add that when I went to the text story after viewing and listening to all the multimedia, I actually read it to the end. Now, THAT’S some fine writing!)

And guess what? It has received more than 1 million pageviews since it was first published two months ago.

Quality journalism can attract an audience, even today. Count on it.

4 Comments on “Sharing the passion of journalism

  1. Pingback: The Girl In The Window | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

  2. “I don’t use a recorder. I write everything down.”

    This is a needless dichotomy of a statement. Why can’t one do both. I am always amazed at how reporters can trust their ability to write notes that are so accurate.

    I should do an experiment sometime. Maybe it would show an incredibly high level of accuracy based only on note-taking, but with the availability of cheap and easy ways to make sure you are accurate, I can’t believe reporters wouldn’t avail themselves of the opportunity.

  3. @Bryan – I often take written notes only. Why record at a speech or a public meeting? Now, a one-on-one interview … that I’m likely to record. It gives me more freedom to make eye contact and listen more fully.

  4. Pingback: MoJo DoJo » Friday’s Web Wrap-Up

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