Chinese folk legend holds that in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, the gates of hell open up and the ghosts come out to torment the living. There are all kinds of rituals you can perform to try and keep the darkness at bay, or preventative measures like not letting your kids go out at night and being very careful. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing until my mom and dad, who were in town this summer, said, “Of course you’re having a run of bad luck, it’s ghost month!”
August actually started triumphantly, with an affirming trip to Atlanta where I saw old friends from AAJA and got to talk a little about my dad. Since then, my producers were laid off while we were in the middle of a field shoot, the minivan’s door was ripped off by a Santa Monica Big Blue bus and my spouse narrowly escaped injury and last week I learned a skunk has made a home in the crawlspace under my house! Dealing with him is very tricky since you don’t want him to spray under your house and leave a stink there … FOREVER.
The good news is, we’re almost at the end of the month, and things are supposed to improve once the ghosts go back to their lair. Here’s hoping.
“Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.” -John Oliver
I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would not still be in journalism today had it not been for the mentors I met along the way. One of the most important was Marty Haag. He warned me about Sinclair 15 years ago.
Marty was a legend by the time I first heard his name, which was sometime in 2000 when I went to intern at WFAA, the ABC affiliate which Marty led as news director for more than a decade. He turned down numerous job offers to lead TV networks because he was committed to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, a fact we all only learned of after his death. He was an executive at the station’s parent company, Belo, when I was at WFAA. But because of his focus and exacting leadership, that station was known across the country as a powerhouse and representative of the highest values in journalism. Marty had clear vision, creativity, encouraged risk-taking and empowered his reporters. He is the kind of boss that all his employees wanted to make proud. It’s rare — I have been in the business for a long time now and I have only come across people like that two times since.
I came to know Marty only by chance. I was interning that summer of 2000 and his son, Andrew, decided to intern, too. Andrew and I became friends and together, we went with the WFAA team to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to do tasks such as picking up lunch and cutting tape and running scripts. I was headed off to college that fall (incidentally also Marty’s alma mater). During my senior year a few years later I asked Andrew if, when I came home for the holidays, whether I could meet Marty. He connected us and we all went to eat at their country club because that’s where people from Dallas eat lunch. (True story: When I was on the golf team in high school we were expected to just practice at our own country clubs because it was assumed that everyone had one to go to.)
From then on, Marty and I began one of the great email correspondences of my life. He was quick with the wisecracks and always generous with his advice and wisdom. We met up IRL around graduation to talk about my job hunt. He was retired by then, and teaching at SMU. I had harebrained ideas about maybe just packing up and moving to Nepal to make a documentary. He never seemed to shoot down ideas like that, always willing to imagine what was possible instead of what was not. My more “traditional” notion was to find a job in television news. This is the part of the conversation I remember vividly, and it shaped my trajectory.
Me: Should I just send resume tapes* everywhere throw everything up against a wall and see what sticks?
Him: No. Be targeted in your job hunt. Work for newsrooms with integrity because they will make you better. Don’t work at companies that don’t value journalism. I wouldn’t work at any Sinclair stations, because they only care about the bottom line.**
Marty then proceeded to write down on a Post-it, in pencil, the specific call letters of stations I should work at for my first job and their respective cities. One of them was KWTX-TV in Waco, where I wound up. When I wrote him telling him of my troubles at work (the kind of pedestrian problems the likes of a senior reporter being mean to me), he wrote, “Just keep your head down and work hard and let the work speak for itself.”
I still hear Marty’s voice as clear as day, in my head. It’s powerful how people’s voices really stick with you.
Epilogue, aka, this is no longer about Sinclair
Not more than three months after I started that job in Waco, Marty died suddenly of a stroke over Christmas/New Year’s break. I spent several days afterward at the Haag house with his sons and his beloved golden retrievers and a steady stream of loved ones who flowed in and out of that place. Marty is the first (and only) mentor I’ve had who died and while it cannot compare to what his sons and wife must have gone through, this loss hit me hard.
What I remember about those days at the Haag house was his younger son, Matthew, playing a lot of chess. And at some point when his brother was taking a long time to consider a move, Matthew, then just a teenager, recalled what his father often said to him. “Just make a decision and move forward,” Matthew said, recalling his dad’s advice. He was talking about chess but also about everything.
So many journalists-who-you-know were nurtured, shaped and guided by Marty: Scott Pelley, Russ Mitchell, Andrea Joyce, Leeza Gibbons, Paula Zahn, Verne Lundquist, Dale Hansen (who still talks about him in interviews), hundreds more. A few years after Marty’s death when I ran into Matthew at a bar, he introduced me to his girlfriend and told her, “This is my dad’s last protegé.” There was no one behind me, as Marty died when his son Andrew and I were both only 21.
Today Matthew is a reporter at The New York Times, Andrew is a producer at CNN, and two weeks ago I got to see Andrew in person when I was in New York. I’m sure Marty is so, so proud of them.
Most of the time I find it a huge privilege to do what we do but over the years I have often gotten down in the dumps and unmotivated and plainly just want to do something else. But I often think, what would Marty say, and I either keep my head down and work hard or just make a decision and move forward.
I have never worked at a Sinclair station.
*These were actual VHS tapes, kids
**Now we know Sinclair cares about not just the bottom line but also conservative orthodoxy. Trivia: Marty fired Bill O’Reilly for breaches in journalism ethics back when O’Reilly worked for him in the 1970s.
Every year the U.S. Embassy throws a big July 4th party for its friends in the other embassies, business folk in the American Chamber of Commerce and other associates, like us journalist types. The location has changed each year, and this year it felt like a giant car show in the Hyatt because sponsors parked Teslas and GM vehicles all over the place. Tito’s Vodka was also sponsoring and everyone knows it is my favorite beverage so, I just kind of parked it near the Tito’s station.
You know what was never busy though? The gazpacho station. I still don’t really get gazpacho.
The Trump selfie stations were a huge draw, as Korean guests really enjoyed going to get their pictures taken with the life-sized cardboard cutouts of the American president and his wife. (An embassy official was stationed near there to monitor for crude gestures at the selfie station, but she admitted that Koreans weren’t the concern, it was the Americans they had to worry about.)
“The only people left at this party are the journalists and the arms dealers.” -Friend John
Ouch. That’s a reference to this episode, which you may have read about. (I have to say there’s a little bit of envy in the drama factor of this story. In all my years reporting, no one has ever approached me with a lucrative arms dealing opportunity.)
You’re now reading the musings of a bonafide member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr
Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)
Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).
I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.
Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.
We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.
Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.
I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.
Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.
Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.
The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.
The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.
Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.
I was as far as once can be from a conflict zone — Aspen — the nights Ferguson, Mo., first erupted over the fatal police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown. Busy meeting about the future of the internet, the details of why the QuikTrip in a St. Louis inner suburb burned were hazy to me.
When I got home on Wednesday night, August 13, a fast-moving flood of tweets indicated police were moving in on protesters — and journalists — in a siege that seemed like something out of a wartorn nation.
I was born in St. Louis and lived there until age 13. I even moved back to Missouri for college. Ferguson is not the community I called home, but greater St. Louis certainly is, so I sent an email saying I’d be happy to help in any way. The next day my editor called. “You ready to go to Ferguson?,” he said. And, he said, buy a one-way ticket.
I got there on early Saturday morning to looted businesses. After a night of calm on Thursday, the chaos returned Friday. On my first day on the ground I found myself sitting uncomfortably on the floor of a church, surrounded by already work-weary journalists, listening to Gov. Jay Nixon announce he was imposing a curfew on the town at midnight. The curfew would be indefinite.
The curfew didn’t work. Both nights it was in place (it only lasted two nights), a curfew seemed to only increase the tensions that many young black men said had been simmering all their lives. Before I left, my next door neighbor Miss Essie, asked if I could just stay home, instead. Miss Essie, who is black, has a 24 year old son. She said she saw what happened to Brown as something that could easily happen to her own 24-year-old son, Nate.
Monday, the National Guard moved in. I never did get used to the weird juxtaposition of heavily armed military staging in a suburban shopping center full of big box stores. And Monday is when I got caught between a line of protesters and police, flames flying across the windshield of a local girl’s car I’d ducked into for safety. A series of pops — fireworks — were followed by the launching of smoke grenades. Then I saw a flame flying at the police line, which they later said was a Molotov cocktail. Then the loudest blasts I’d ever heard at close range went off. Tear gas and gunshots, fired almost simultaneously.
I was still ducking there, stunned, when suddenly an armored vehicle blasted its lights at the car where I hid. The rest of the press had gotten pushed back before the tear gassing began. But because I’d sought cover in the car wash, and then a stranger’s backseat, I got separated from my media brethren and was stuck in a dangerous zone. In a matter of seconds, the masked tactical unit — at least a dozen men — raised their rifles and pointed them at the car. The girls in the front seat had their hands up as soon as the lights blasted us. I dropped my phone and rolled down the window. “I’m press! I’m press!” I screamed. One of the armed men gestured to let us drive out of the melee, while the rest kept their guns trained on us.
But rolling down the window meant getting the worst of the gas wafting. It burns your eyes. It burns your nose. It burns your throat. It wasn’t until we were out of the most dangerous zone that other strangers could help us, handing us water and warning us not to rub or touch our eyes, or it would make it worse.
“My life just flashed before my eyes,” said Orrie, the driver who so generously gave me cover and navigated numerous police barricades to get me back to the command center, aka Target parking lot, safely.
I composed myself to file a report for our overnight newscast. Then I drove home to wash my eyes out some more and start reporting again on Tuesday. And again on Wednesday. And Thursday. Today, after a relative calm held for a few nights in a row, I got to come home. Being safely home has never felt so good.
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.
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.
“The best thing about the kind of job I have is that I’m always partially doing what I enjoy, even when I’m working, and the worst thing is that I’m always partially working, even when I’m doing what I enjoy … As long as you’re happy and you’re not burning yourself out, you’d be a fool not to realize that it’s a very fortunate way to live.” –my NPR colleague Linda Holmes, who writes about pop culture
This week, the fine folks at Pew released their annual State of the News Media report and the findings were grim (again) for those of us who still want to make a living doing journalism. One third of Americans surveyed said they abandoned a news outlet because it failed to provide “information they had grown accustomed to,” a majority of those people aren’t aware of the business-side meltdown of the news industry, and meltdown is not an exaggeration — budget cuts and layoffs “put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew reports. Local TV news is being kept alive by traffic and weather, but that’s not expected to last long. A full 85 percent of MSNBC programming is talk — commentary rather than produced pieces of reporting and interviewing.
“Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…
The recent improvements in news distribution are astonishing. You don’t need to go to a specialty shop to find out-of-town newspapers or foreign magazines. Just open a browser. You can check on Israeli news sites when a new government is formed or during an American presidential visit and ignore them the rest of the year. The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life.”
Yes, Yglesias ignores the effects of a vastly downsized professional journalism workforce on state and local communities, where the disappearance of watchdog reporters is likely felt the most directly. That is the conceit on which we started NPR’s StateImpact network in 2011 and The Texas Tribune in 2009. (Good god, has it been THREE years!?) The local news problem continues to vex us and is worth its own post (or book), so I’m tabling that.
A few days after the report was released, the Twitterverse led me to the personal post of Allyson Bird, a former newspaper reporter, about why she left the news business on her own volition. She writes that the response was huge — 165,000 pageviews in the first day after posting — and sparked a raw conversation among other journalists, both still in the biz and out. As my friend Joey says, “No journalism gets more read and talked about by journalists than stories about journalists.” We are egotistical maniacs.
“I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied,” Bird writes. Later, she hits on the notion many of us working journalists know well — that your good work is only rewarded by more work: “Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.”
Bird’s been lauded and lashed by fellow journalists, all who seem to have strong opinions about her piece. I have just a few thoughts to throw out in response, mainly cause I like that we’re having this collective conversation and hey, Friend Matt created WordPress so we could all be publishers, so, why not.
As a journalist who did sign up for that $16,500 salary out of school to work nights and weekends and face constant condescension from a misogynist GM in Waco, Texas, I and many others like her empathize with the part about dissatisfaction. For me it was temporary, but what constitutes satisfaction differs from person to person. Being able to feed and house yourself comes before bylines, and in conversations about declining diversity numbers in newsrooms, one reason that comes up is salaries so low that entry level folks would need wealthy families or second jobs to support.
Bird partially blames the 24 hour news cycle for overworking reporters, but we’re beyond a survival of the fittest phase in the news biz — it’s mutation of the species. There’s no point in lamenting the multitasking required of reporters today, because most have proven they’ve mutated as necessary to keep up.
The wide readership of and thoughtful social response to Bird’s piece, one she published without the distribution platform of a mainstream news brand, is “Exhibit A” in favor of the digital revolution that is blamed for killing mainstream news. That Bird wrote a single post, published it herself, and it led to a national conversation is Yglesias’ point:
“A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival. Time would compete with Newsweek. Time doesn’t compete with Newsweek anymore: Instead it competes with every single English-language website on the planet. It’s tough, but it merely underscores the extent of the enormous advances in productivity that are transforming the industry.”
Incidentally, for the writer herself, this kind of exposure could lead her right back into paid journalism. Already she’s booked on WYNC’s The Takeaway, which will only lead to more exposure.
I want to think journalism is a meritocracy and that I work not-demanding hours a fantastic national news organization because of my skills and hard work, but just as it is in life, who makes it and who doesn’t can be quite capricious. Those of us who have jobs we love and get paid for it should be grateful, strive to keep growing and pay it forward, as our predecessors did.
The exciting thing about journalism today is it calls for a kind of entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking that it didn’t back when finances were more stable. But it is an entrepreneurial spirit that led to amazing startup news organizations like the one I’m proud to have helped launch, creation of new storytelling methods or projects that streamline data journalism and the invention and funding of simple tools to provide greater context, like DocumentCloud.
Newsrooms will keep contracting. But the wheels of invention and progress keep moving forward. For their sake and ours, I hope the creators and problem solvers out there will still want to create and solve problems even if the prospect of profit remains unseen. Allyson did, and it’s proven anything but unsatisfying.
It has been SO LONG (okay, like three weeks) since we’ve hung out and partied together! And South by Southwest has consistently been a real championship-level debauchery event for us. Now, because SXSW itself has gotten so out of control in recent years — WTF, there’s a list and a line to get into places like Buffalo Billiards?!? — I’d love to use this time to do off-campus, meaningful connecting with some of the coolest journos and digital media folk around.
There’s also a lot of pure Austin stuff I want to do, since the last time I was in town was so short (and most of it was in Fredericksburg.) Here is my to-do list of SX and not-so-SX stuff:
1. There is a new Bush’s Chicken down on Brodie near Slaughter. Hello?! Bush’s Chicken, a staple of my post-college diet when I lived in Waco, features the best combo of chicken trips, crinkle cut fries, yeast roll, white gravy and a 32 ounce giant sweet tea drink for UNDER $7.
2. I am going to the screening of HBO’s Game Change at the LBJ Library next Sunday. The authors of the book that inspired the movie, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, will be on hand for Q/A, and YOUR employer, The Texas Tribune, is putting it on. Hope to see you. I think I will bring our favorite movie critic, Chris Vognar, if he is free.
3. We are eating the following meals for deliciousness sake: The “Regular Dinner” at Maudies. The #2 at Dario’s. The Democrat and the Fried Avocado Tacos at Torchy’s. The fatty beef brisket at Franklin BBQ. Steak Frites at Justine’s. Beef Noodle Soup at Coco’s Cafe. Chicken Tikka Masala at G’Raj Mahal. The Love Cleanse Green Juice at Whole Foods. Assorted Dim Sum with the dim sum group at Shanghai. Family-style everything at Asia Cafe. And as for new restaurants, I still haven’t tried Contigo, which Hannah raves about.
On Saturday after I spoke on a panel called “News as Infotainment,” two lovely ladies from Frontline (FRONTLINE!) came up and asked me for examples of interactive and “infotainmenty” news presentations I really loved. I didn’t have time to go over them in person, so here you go, ladies:
The ramblings and rantings of the actor, the pundit and the dictator have collectively compelled us as a nation, and while the three men are from vastly different backgrounds, the words that come out of their mouths are strangely similar. As the magazine wrote, “To demonstrate just what a struggle it is to distinguish between the mad ramblings of an entertainer, a despot, and a newsman another entertainer, we’ve put together this quiz. If you get them all right, you are some kind of savant.”
Qaddafi is leading to all sorts of creative inspiration. Vanity Fair’s “Qad Libs,” based on the childhood word game “Mad Libs”, allowed readers to “create a realistic hard-line speech by inserting your own bizarre words into the colonel’s actual defiant address.” The magazine allowed readers to fill in a string of nouns, adverbs and adjectives in their interactive form to create their own Qaddafi rants. Amazingly, every customizable rant seemed right on.
In response to the nations gazillion trillion dollar deficit, and the frightening shortfalls of state governments around the country, media companies have followed in The Times’ footsteps with interactive budget puzzles that allow the user to find ways to balance the budget. Poynter’s recent piece discusses the limitations of these puzzles (the game writers get to set the parameters of what to cut or revenue to increase) but this is a great way to make real the budget troubles of governments, teach readers about the decisions that have to be made and allow for audiences to prioritize what they think is important.
Frank’s project teaches us a beautiful lesson about how technology and social sharing can enable human connection. As you’ll read in the story he lays out, he received an email from a girl named Laura who was stressed out and felt hopeless; she asked for a song to help calm her nerves. Frank asked her to describe her feelings, which then led to a sketch of a song that he then asked his audience to record themselves singing. It led to a gorgeous result, no pitch correction required, that you can now purchase online.