Teaching Storytelling With The Help Of A Well-Written Breaking News Piece

The details students recalled from Wade Goodwyn's Moore, OK tornado story.
The details students recalled from Wade Goodwyn’s Moore, OK tornado story.

This quarter, Matty and I are team-teaching a digital journalism lab for Northwestern’s Medill Journalism School, which runs a DC program. During Monday’s class, I walked through some broadcast storytelling tricks that I’ve learned over the years, and most recently at NPR.

One of my favorite broadcast voices and writers is Wade Goodwyn, our Dallas-based national correspondent.  He’s not just someone I look up to — I’m also really lucky to count Wade among my sometimes-drinking buddies.

Wade was sent to Moore, Oklahoma just after a 1.5 mile wide tornado destroyed the town last spring. The feature he filed for the next morning’s Morning Edition program was so simple, and yet so brilliantly executed a piece of broadcast storytelling that Poynter spent time and space unpacking it line by line.

So I played it for the class one time and once the story ended, I had the students write on Post-its the individual details, scenes, characters or lines they remembered. The repeats — like a description of pink insulation dust glistening on a victim — got stuck on top of one another.

All this to say Wade’s writing was so powerful and well told that the students filled up an entire window with details they remembered from a four-minute piece. I hope Wade gets to see how his words lingered in the minds of his young listeners, and taught them some valuable lessons about great writing.

Impromptu Collisions in San Francisco

One of the co-living homes I'm featuring in an upcoming NPR story.
One of the co-living homes I’m featuring in an upcoming NPR story.

Most of my favorite collisions with people come with less than an hour’s notice. That kept happening in San Francisco — a mark of my similarly last-minute friends, and maybe the ethos of the Bay area. I shall award my trip various arbitrary points, below:

+500 This view (from previous post) will never get old.

+60 The purpose of the trip was reporting for our upcoming Bay Area theme week and to attend the TED Women conference. Both went really well.

Why were our TED badges the size of our faces? (With Guy Raz.)
Why were our TED badges the size of our faces? (With Guy Raz.)

+50 When I landed at SFO on Wednesday, I saw on Foursquare that fellow Texas Tribune original gangsta H.O. Maycotte was in San Fran, too. Thank you, Foursquare, for the “people nearby” filter. We met for lunch 30 minutes later in the Ferry Building, right on the water.

Raina's sweet boy.
Raina’s sweet boy.

+ 20 Gal pal Raina and I ran into each other in the lobby of the Jazz Center where the conference was happening. She’s a new mom of a seven-week-old, and her darling, delicious baby was with her. I got to babysit so she had a minute to go to the bathroom. I mainly just stared at him and took pictures.

+75 Impromptu lunch with another gal pal from the Knight Foundation super-friends circuit, Kara Oehler! My producer on the communal living story, Cindy, happened to be Kara’s mentor from more than a decade ago. Kara also used to babysit Cindy’s kids. We three were able to do a delicious lunch at a french cafe in Lower Haight. Love those gals.

+35 Sneaking in some real bonding time with my digital news coworker Dana, who I’ve worked with for years but never spent any social time with. She invited me to join her at TED Women in the first place. We had a swell time getting beers together on opening night.

+ 10 I met interior designer Elizabeth “Beth” Martin while she was freshening up all the fresh flowers in Friend Matt’s condo. She offered a flower arranging tip since I asked — Don’t be too matchy. Soft flowers like peonies and roses should absolutely be paired with woodsy choices.

The amazing Japanese toilet that both excited and confounded me.
The amazing Japanese toilet that both excited and confounded me.

+1,600  Japanese toilets. Thank you, Mr. Toto, wherever you are, for your seat warming, automatic lid-raising technology.

-400 I was too scared to try any of the rear or front washes, and don’t even know what it is that oscillates or pulsates, but I dig having all the options.

Best night of the week was with brother-from-another-mother, Dave. I found him in the Twitter cafeteria.
Best night of the week was with brother-from-another-mother, Dave. I found him in the Twitter cafeteria.

+100 I dropped in on Twitter HQ with 30 minutes notice and didn’t text my brother-from-another-mother Dave to tell him I was in his building until I was actually sititng in “The Perch,” er, Twitter’s cafeteria. That resulted in a quick lunch room gab fest until we met up again for happy hour, during which Dave introduced me and my pal and colleague, host Guy Raz to The Hot Spot, a divey dive dive bar that serves a smooth shot and a beer with a scratch-off ticket. Guy actually won another ticket, only to lose on his second try. Maybe it’s a trap?

-25 Due to too many shot-beer-scratcher combos, we ended up drinking and eating at a random bowling place in the Mission (after first attempting and bailing on a sketchy food place that smelled of urine) and stayed out too late for me to watch Scandal on Matt’s new 4K TV.

Matt was kind enough to update his new TV for Scandal, but none of us made it home in time to watch it.
Matt was kind enough to update his new TV for Scandal, but none of us made it home in time to watch it.

+5 The television is now updated.

My best friend from high school in Plano, Texas, Erin, is 9 months pregnant. So excited.
My best friend from high school in Plano, Texas, Erin, is 9 months pregnant. So excited.

No points, just saying: There were white dudes everywhere. The ratio of men to women seemed to really favor women, at least everywhere I was at. I felt outnumbered by groups of men at breakfast, at bars, everywhere except the TED conference for women.

+500 Reunion with my bestie best best friend from high school, Erin Baudo, four weeks before her due date. I’m so psyched for her little bruiser.

+30 Erin let me nurse my hangover with breakfast at the Zynga cafeteria, where she works.

+50 The three-man NPR tech reporting team — Steve Henn, Laura Sydell and myself — got together in person in one place for the first time. We hung out at member station KQED and got some delicious coffee.

+30 A nice afternoon walk with Code for America’s Catherine Bracy.

+45 Sneaking away during TED lunch hour to shop in Hayes Valley with my pal Tina. Stopped in Chantal Guillion to sample their signature French macarons, had them shipped to a girlfriend in Texas. Should get there Monday.

+24 Pre-gaming one evening with a new friend from the 2013 collection — another Matt — Matt Wilson.

-10 Having to squeeze in so much in four days felt a little too intense.

 +5000 Seeing my favorite toddler this morning after being away from her for almost a week. Swoon.

Weekend At Harvard With The Nieman Fellows

Just got back from the tremendous pleasure of spending the weekend wandering the campus of Harvard and the streets around Cambridge with some of my favorite people and colleagues. It was all part of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard’s 75 year anniversary, for which they invited back the decades of former fellows whose careers and lives were transformed by their 10-month experiences as fellows at Harvard.

Nieman alumni include the indefatigable Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, more than 100 Pulitzer Prize winners and altogether amazing, globe-trotting, muckraking journalists around the world. It was just preposterous to even get to meet some of these people in such a relaxed setting. They are ALL SO INTERESTING.

My friend Kara Oehler (co-founder of storytelling tool Zeega) and I both got invited to speak about innovations in storytelling before about 400 Niemans, with New Yorker Editor Dorothy Wickenden as our moderator. AGAIN — PREPOSTEROUS. But we just ate it up and had a great time. And god, the weather was just perfect and the whole scene — tents out on the lawn of Harvard’s Lippman House and outdoor bluegrass concerts in the park near Harvard Square and little babies of Nieman fellows taking tentative steps in the grass — it felt like a vortex.

NPR represents itself well in the Nieman family. So many of my colleagues are former and current Niemans that it was a special treat to spend time with them outside of work and meet some of my colleagues for the first time, in some cases. Here’s a shot of me with some of the NPR Nieman fellows, but it’s missing ATC producer Alison MacAdam, my radio editor Uri Berliner and a few others, who we couldn’t wrangle into one photo.

At the Walter Lippman House at Harvard, hanging with the NPR Nieman fellows past and present: Clockwise from left: Howard Berkes, Marilyn Geewax, Sylvia Poggoli, David Welna, Margot Adler, Dina Temple Raston, Jonathan Blakely and me.
At the Walter Lippman House at Harvard, hanging with the NPR Nieman fellows past and present: Clockwise from left: Howard Berkes, Marilyn Geewax, Sylvia Poggoli, David Welna, Margot Adler, Dina Temple Raston, Jonathan Blakely and me.

A huge thank you to the curators at Nieman who put on a memorable weekend and were so generous to invite me to be among this special group. I’ll remember this for many years to come.

Last Days in the Old NPR Building: Saying Goodbye With Clever Graffiti

Five furniture auction guys were outside as I pulled up to work today. This afternoon, NPR’s signature show, All Things Considered, will broadcast from our soon-to-be-bulldozed headquarters building for the final time. Tomorrow, Weekend Edition Saturday airs from 1111 N. Capitol, our shiny, gorgeous new headquarters in the city’s Northeast quadrant.

Knowing that our landlord plans to demolish this building has led to some brilliant goodbye graffiti on the walls. A stamp that reads “EVERYTHING WILL BE BETTER,” a familiar trope we’ve heard about the new building, shows up in mirrors and stairwells. “You can see people’s inner monologues about the building as you walk down the hallway,” friend Denise said. I’ve been tickled by the creativity and the doodle skills of my colleagues.

Thank you to my friend and former boss Joel for chaperoning me into a shockingly yellow men’s room for a photo. And whoever wrote the descriptions under emergency signs as if they were high art … I think you are a genius. (Click on any image to start the slideshow)

We employees are moving in four phases. I’m here until the bitter end, next Friday. But digital media — the talented folks responsible for our apps and API and design — as well as multimedia, music and some of the newsroom, like the Washington desk, leave this afternoon. Farewell, 635.

The Lactation Station (And Other Nursing Adventures)

This is how Eva and I spend a lot of our time together.
This is how Eva and I spend a lot of our time together.

Someday when I am old, I will look back on these days of new mommahood, when at least four times during the workday I find myself in a windowless 3’x5′ room, on the other side of the wall from our national security correspondents, attached reluctantly to an electric breast pump while overhearing conversations about the ramifications of unilateral disarmament.

To be clear, I think nursing is awesome. I truly enjoy providing both physical and emotional sustenance for Baby E in one loving act. It’s really no sweat, either, since Eva is my only baby. My Chinese great-grandmother nursed seven (7) babies in total, earning her the respect of many generations and lasting evidence of her hard work — mom tells me my great-grannie could actually fling her drooping boobs over her shoulders. Impressive on many levels, that lady.

But the difference between nursing a baby and pumping milk for a baby is like the difference between visiting Venice and going to the Olive Garden. Pumping is tedious and soulless and in my case, always really awkward when I emerge from the lactation station and make eye contact with the national security guys who surely overheard my pump as they were discussing war and Syria and what not.

I am glad I had a daughter, because maybe one day she will have a baby of her own, and she, too, can experience the wonder and the weirdness that is motherhood.

The Final Countdown Before The Bulldoze

Our current building, which won't exist soon. (photo via Flickr)
Our current building, which won’t exist soon. (photo via Flickr)

The hundreds of us who work at NPR are 51 days away from leaving our current crumbling edifice for a shiny, environmentally-friendly new headquarters on North Capitol Street. The old headquarters will be bulldozed almost immediately to make room for some fancy mixed use development.

With the move to our new building imminent, everyone’s stopped caring about the current one. The facilities guy, Don Gooden, caught me stapling random things to the wall today, my first day back at work after four+ months off with Eva. I said I would graffiti the place next, and then maybe hide some dead bodies in here.

He shrugged, smiled and said, “Do what you gotta do!”

How An Earthquake Got Me Out of A Conference Call

Waiting around after our building evacuation.

Here I was, going into the 51st minute of a conference call about charter schools, when I started feeling a tremor beneath me. At first I thought it was just some effect of the footlong chili cheese dog from lunch, but when the slight tremor turned into a steadier rocking, I looked over at my colleague Ken, who was so panicked that he slammed down his receiver and took off. “Don’t use the elevator,” he said, as he rushed out the door. I took the time to say goodbye to my conference call-mates, find my cell phone and camera, and then went down stairs.

Outside, we were a hapless group of journos standing in the middle of downtown DC, awaiting instructions on what to do next and trying to stand close enough to the building to stay connected to wifi. I found All Things Considered host Robert Siegel reading his Blackberry and learning we were indeed in an earthquake, it measured 5.8 on the Richter scale and centered in Mineral, Virginia, which was about 100 miles southwest of us. And it was he and the rest of the ATC staff that was let back in the building first, since they had an earthquake to consider in time for the broadcast.

ATC Host Robert Siegel was also evacuated.

This fairly-significant quake reminded me of the “best” quake memory I have. It was Easter 2002, and I was with mom in a department store in downtown Taipei, awaiting a dance performance from the Chinese hip-hop boy band I was living with at the time. But all of a sudden there was a rumble, and we were all rushed out into the streets. My journal from that time:

“on Sunday, minutes before Ed and Kenny were going to dance at FNAC (an electroncis store), an earthquake struck, and weeny Kenny blew out of the building….well, everyone else did too, i guess, but anyway, the point is i never got to watch the boys perform. oh well, i guess i get the privilege of seeing them do headstands and funky stretches around the house all the time.”

The whole roommate crew plus my mom found one another near National Taiwan University later that day, and ate a bunch of mango shaved ice. It was awesome. So today, after the earthquake, I immediately craved ice, which, like other great Asian food, can’t be found in DC’s Chinatown.

This is NPR…

Josh Ritter, photo by Andy Carvin

Some initial observations:

-Diving right into work means traveling on the fourth official day on the job. We’re off to God’s country to talk journalism with a member station. Looking forward to the team adventure, especially since my partner-in-crime is Ken Rudin, resident political junkie and jokester.

Josh Ritter tiny desk concert on my first day! It was the same day I received a package of bacon-flavored chocolates from Stiles, and I had planned to use the chocolate as an “in” to talk to Ritter, but totally forgot when it was time to report to the fifth floor for el concert.

-Still not quite over sitting in the newsroom right behind the newscast folks, the voices we hear every half hour with updates on the latest headlines. Paul Brown! Jack Speer! And wait for it… Lakshmi Singh!

-But here’s one oddity I could do without: hearing NPR programming in the bathroom stalls. The ladies room has speakers built into the ceiling so you don’t have to miss a single second of NPR programming, not even during your bathroom break.

-Everyone here is more organized than I am.

-Unrelated to the new work environment, but it must be said. Really missing my Starbucks baristas, Mike and Orlando, at the 10th and Congress location in Austin. If you go by there and see them, please tell them I say hi.

Change is Hard, I Should Know

“Ten decisions shape your life,
you’ll be aware of five about…”
-The Strokes

I get to (finally) make it official. We are moving to Washington D.C., a.k.a. the great nemesis of Governor Rick Perry,  home of the lamestream media, and the land of taxation without representation. (That poor congresswoman doesn’t get a vote! WTF?!)

This means, of course,  I’m leaving the proudest professional project of my 28 years, The Texas Tribune — and Texas, for that matter — just before Valentine’s Day.

One more twist came at the end of 2010, the year I thought would never end. In mid-December, I got an unsolicited call from NPR in DC. They had “done some research” on me and had a job for which they thought I would “be an interesting choice.” A few days later I was at the DC HQ, meeting smart people who cared about journalism, and I wound up accepting the job, which calls for leading the digital side of NPR’s new StateImpact, or the project formerly known as the “Impact of Government.” (There will be someone else heading up the radio side, and I recently learned that the broadcast counterpart is Ken Rudin, longtime NPR Political Director and the original “Political Junkie” blogger.)

IOG will aim to expand state government coverage by eventually hiring 100 reporters, two in each state, devoted to reporting the multi-year effects of government decisions. (The first eight pilot states will be announced in the coming weeks.) Taking on this project means working from Washington, conceptualizing the digital platforms, creating new story forms, helping stations hire and train reporters, etc.

After getting the offer, I spent days talking myself out of and then back into and back out of the opportunity. I would have never been able to stretch and grow across platforms without the vision of John Thornton, the friendship of Ross Ramsey and the trust of Evan Smith, who’s basically the George Clooney character in the “Ocean’s 11” of journalists who came together. I feel a deep, deep attachment to what we’re building here. After all, this is born of our actual sweat and tears. (Many, many tears, in my case. Ask my multimedia partners-in-crime Todd or Justin.)

I wasn’t (and am still not fully) ready to leave our baby, or my real-life friends that helped build it, or the city that quickly became my home. I prefer Austin’s four seasons – mildly hot, medium hot, sauna hot and surface-of-sun hot – over actual seasons. But I decided to take this leap into another public media unknown because I’m sold on what a special opportunity this is to grow and learn, and on NPR’s commitment to being on the cutting edge of web journalism, which is of highest importance to me.*

So off I go. I’m counting on you to bring me a case of Shiner, and if you’re a really good friend, some Tito’s, when you visit. Both are nearly impossible to find inside the Beltway.

*That’s the official line, anyway. I was really most swayed when my soon-to-be boss said that if I went to DC, Nina Totenberg and I “could be BFFs”.

RELATED:

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (July 2009)

Emerging from the Hole (November 2009)