Remembering Chris and Tim (via CJ Chivers)
In Libya: Remembering Chris & Tim.

Evan Hill of Al Jazeera wrote of the memorial service last night in Benghazi for Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington. Read it here. It includes this:

A reporter from the AFP news agency stepped forward to read from Gustave Mahler’s 9th Symphony,* a selection for Hondros, who was known for his love of classical music.

“Often I think they’ve gone outside / Soon they will get back home again!/ The day is lovely. Don’t be anxious, / They’re only taking a long walk / …. They’ve only gone out before us, / And will not long to come home again. / We’ll catch up with them on yonder heights / In the sunshine / The day is fine on yonder heights.”

To all who attended and participated, thank you. Thank you as well to Evan for writing something down.

*The recommendation that Mahler’s verse be read was made by Stephanie Sinclair of VII, who remembered that Chris had sent her these words some time back, when she was grieving a death in her own family. Thank you, Stephanie.


Odd Anderson/AFP, who rushed to the ceremony after riding back from Misurata on the Ionian Spirit, the vessel that carried Chris and Tim away from the siege.

The Trick of the Story Angle

Think about telling a story to someone. It could be anything: a car wreck you saw, the rude waiter who shocked your dinner party with his behavior, the job that’s just killing you, etc.

Now think again, and ask yourself a question. Why do so many stories we tell have such a negative angle? Consumers of the news, which is roughly about 75-80% of Americans, complain that the news is too negative. The news biz even has the dark, cynical expression: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Think of Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese tsunami, the recent storms in the US.

Human drama, misery, suffering, actions in the midst of chaos, salvation (personal or collective), and rising from the ashes of destruction are recurring themes in human culture. They appear in literature, art, movies, television, music, folk tales and fables, and on and on.

So if human beings are so stuck on misery, does a reporter always have to find the story angle that’s negative? I say the answer is no.

Yesterday an editor asked me to write about Earth Day, which sounded like a mind-numbing topic, and extremely vague. I couldn’t imagine anything with less drama than “a story about Earth Day.” But as a journalist, you have to be willing to find the story worth telling in everything you encounter, no matter how small.

I started by researching Earth Day websites, and almost fell asleep. So I called the organization Earth Day Network to ask a few questions. I had no idea what to ask, since their website was so dense it was hard to narrow it down. In the end, I found out that this organization is doing something called “A Billion Acts of Green.” They are serving as a database for people to log their environmentally friendly actions, which they will take to a once-a-decade UN climate meeting in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.

It seems like there is no drama and no interesting angle in a story like this, until you think of the devastating impact that humans have had on the earth through industry, pollution, and just being humans. That’s the downside, that’s the blood for the lead.

But the real lead here is that there are still people who believe they can change things. Earth Day Network hopes there are at least 1 billion people willing to reduce their carbon footprint. If that kind of optimism can’t be called dramatic, I don’ t know what can.


One View on the Future of the Media Industry

By Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. He is the co-author, with Bill Kovach, of “Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload.”

Five myths about the future of journalism

There are few things journalists like to discuss more than, well, themselves and the long-term prospects for their industry. How long will print newspapers survive? Are news aggregation sites the future? Or are online paywalls — such as the one the New York Times just launched — the way to go? As media organizations plot their future, it’s worth discarding some misconceptions about what it will take to keep the press from becoming yesterday’s news.


Quotes are the Voices in a Story

Reporters often talk amongst themselves about what makes a great quote in a story. For readers, a good quote is a voice that resonates with the topic at hand.  A great quote can make you hear the music of the human voice, even though you’re reading. Without good quotes you can have an article, but you don’t have a real story–just some dry facts strung together.

My favorite quotes are the ones that have emotion, life, and personality. I hate nothing more than doing an interview and only getting quotes that read like a press release. If I wanted to quote a press release, there are a million of them out there.

Think about your spouse coming home from work to describe a dramatic day at the office, but without quoting any of the participants in the incident. The story would lack context and relevance. You would struggle to connect to it. And let’s face it–every story that is worth telling has drama of some kind. That’s why they are told.

When you’re putting an article together, you usually have several quotes to choose from in your notes. Hopefully you have them written down so you can quickly browse through and see what sticks out. That’s part one of getting good quotes: doing good interviews. Remember when you’re interviewing to listen for what sound like good quotes and get those down, even at the expense of other things the person is saying. If you don’t understand something, ask the interviewee to backtrack and repeat whatever they just said that was so great. Nine times out of ten, the repeated quote will be verbatim the same, or better.

Once you’ve done your research and interviews and are ready to write your story and are browsing your quotes, mark the ones you think work best. You’ll have  a different perspective on things than when you did the interview(s). If there is an important point you missed, call the person to clarify. (Always get phone numbers, not just email).

I always write my first draft of my article without quotes. That first draft is my perspective on the story according to what I have heard, read, and witnessed related to the story. Then I go back through the article and start putting quotes in where I want to punctuate and emphasize the story’s main theme. My second draft is always the story according to the people I interviewed. Then I go through one more time and filter out all the repetition, confusing stray concepts, and hyperbole. The third draft is like looking at the story through a pair of binoculars: one lens is what I see, the other is what the voices in the story see. It’s never the entire story, but it should always be a clear view of a certain angle.

The worst mistake you can make with a basic news or feature story is to introduce your first quote too late in the article. I think people need to hear a voice other than the reporter’s early on, or they might stop reading. If it’s an important story, it’s a shame to risk losing your reader to boredom.

For example, this article: is about an extremely important topic of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners. But the reporters don’t let the main character speak until the fifth paragraph. Personally, I am straining to hear that voice from the first sentence because it’s such a compelling story.

Sometimes reporters have to deal with constraints and they can’t pepper their story with quotes. Sometimes it’s a matter of choice or style. There are stories which can even call for a quote as the first sentence. These cases have to be incredibly compelling and necessary, though. Beginning a story with a quote is generally not recommended.

This story about a man in Tanzania who got a cow from an Epoch Times reader is charming and full of lively quotes that bring the main character to life:

You can almost hear him, can’t you? That’s the power of using quotes well: you bring the story and the people in it directly to the reader.


Don’t Write in Spite of Your Life

Yesterday I saw an article on the Internet about a list of the ten jobs with the highest rate of depression. Of course, writers/artists/creative careers was on the list (all lumped together). I have also heard many different talks and seminars in which the speaker discusses how to work around your life to be a writer.

It seems like there’s a message going around that nearly everyone is buying into: if you want your creative life to be your career, you have to deny your current life to “make it.”

This train of thought bothers me. To begin with, I’d venture to guess that every creative person works partially from their life experiences. For me personally, I wouldn’t have the life I have as a writer and journalist if it weren’t for the part of my life that pays (all of) the bills, provides stability, and gives me a robust environment to interact with other people.

Most creative types probably end up feeling frustrated because they want to put 100 percent of their time and energy into their craft. I have had those moments more than once. But on second thought, I am extremely grateful for the life I have, which allows me to also have a life as a writer. The two are in harmony, not in competition. And if someday I “make it,” whatever that means, maybe I will be able to devote my time to this craft full-time. But the moment I am in now is so rich and full of possibilities, I’d be crazy not to savor and appreciate it.

Photographers Can Teach Writers How to See

Journalists and photojournalists (or writers and photographers–however you want to label them) live in intersecting worlds. Although the work they do is ultimately very different, I believe they can help each other.

Palestinian boys in Deir Istiya, West Bank pose themselves for my camera. (Genevieve Long)

Good photojournalists are tenacious and often daring. They are willing to wait for hours to get the shot they need. How often do reporters do that? Photographers are also keenly aware of their surroundings, and move their way into the right space to get the photograph they need or want.

Even though I am a journalist and writer primarily, a few years ago I took up photography to at least learn the basics. The first thing I realized is that most photographers are very committed to practicing.

Gabby Kanahele in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gabby was taught by Duke Kahanamoku how to surf, among others. (Genevieve Long)

During a four-day training session I took, the photographer giving the class told us, “If it’s been one day since you’ve picked up your camera and used it, it’s been too long.” Imagine if writers–other than those who have excelled at their craft–had that mentality. There would probably be mountains more work produced by writers and journalists every day.

Boys in Granada, Nicaragua kick a plastic bottle as a toy. (Genevieve Long)

Many accomplished photographers will also tell you that they carry a camera with them everywhere they go. Ashley Gilbertson does it. Paul McDonough does it. They do it because it’s natural to them to photograph; it’s how they see the world.

The ancient, famed aqueduct remains in Caesarea, Israel. (Genevieve Long)

I love photographers because the good ones can get to the truth just by getting behind their camera and taking a picture. They think and act and move in response to the situation they are in. They look at what is in front of them and find the pictures waiting to be discovered.

Writers could learn from that. I know I have.

Finding Story Ideas that Move You to Action

A frequent question that newer reporters have is, “How do I find good story ideas?” Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question. Also unfortunately, it is often a process of trial and error.

Some writers swear by jotting ideas down in a notebook for future reference. Other people live and die by a specialized RSS feed of news and information that they created. Some people troll the Internet for prolonged periods of time until they find something interesting to write about.

All of these methods are fine, but in my experience they could result in mediocre stories or no story at all. That idea-notebook trick? For me, it’s like taking an idea and putting it in a drawer that I might never open again.

The best answer to this question also happens to be the answer that is the most difficult to accomplish: get out in the world and find good ideas.

The good news is that ideas for stories are everywhere. When I was home for Christmas this year in Washington State, I kept overhearing people in my hometown (which is the state capitol) lamenting the massive budget cuts in state government. Since I was in a town with about 20,000 state government employees, I just had to be in the right type of coffee shop or restaurant and I could literally eavesdrop on conversations so compelling that I knew there was  a story there. People were stressed out about their jobs and the agencies they worked for surviving the budget cuts. Nobody knew what was going to happen, and so many people were so worried that talk about it was literally in the air.

A story like that–state budget cuts bring tension to small town America–is full of human drama and suspense. And I happen to genuinely care about how my home state fares in the current economic crisis. I didn’t write the story in the end, but it’s an example of how to find something interesting and worth describing to others.

During a journalism conference a few years ago, I sat in on a session with a multi-Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Tom Hallman. His one big secret to share with us in finding great stories? Look for the “ahh! factor.” He told us a series of brief stories on different topics, but only once or twice did the audience literally say, “Ahh!” when he was describing the story’s details. Look for that factor, that fascination, when you’re thinking about whether something is worthwhile.

The other great stories I have found in the last few years have mostly come from my participation in the world. I attend events, lectures, discussions, and see who is there. If someone strikes me as particularly interesting at an event, I track them down later and find out more about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. It’s in this way that I ended up writing about interesting characters like Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington, and Afghan-born Sonia Nassery Cole–who recently shot an entire feature film on location in Afghanistan called the Black Tulip (which is unheard of).

Two things to remember when you’re looking for a great story: don’t be afraid to abandon a topic if you can see it’s a dead end, no matter how excited you were initially, and get out from behind your computer or you’ll never become great at what you do. It doesn’t matter if you live in New York City or Provo, Utah–there are stories everywhere, you just have to look for them.