Revisiting my radio speaking days with audio reporting

I’ve read over and over and over again about how smell is the sense with the strongest tie to memory. I don’t think the scientists who tout that fact are wrong, not by any means, but I’m curious what their findings would be about sound.

Sound, like smell, has the ability to snap you back to a moment in time. One Beatles song and I’m in the car on the way back from my junior prom. The opening notes of Bohemian Rhapsody send me flying back to sixth grade, shouting the crazy lyrics with my five best friends. The first strains of the camp-like intro to the Tefilah bring tears to my eyes during services, reminding me just how homesick I’ve been for the synagogue I grew up in.

Sound is powerful. In it we can lose ourselves for minutes or for hours. And it has the unique ability, like visuals, to show rather than tell. These are things I’ve always intellectually known. But because sound is not my primary medium for reporting, it’s easy to forget.

This week, I’ve been working on an audio slideshow and NPR-style radio story. Both projects require me to step into the complicated world of sound editing, and after hours of work, I’m amazed that I only produce a minute or so of product. But boy, is it fun. Maybe I’m just taken with my new skills, but it just sounds so polished! I can imagine hearing it on the radio, and while I’ve been publishing text stories for years now, I’m surprised by this.

I love how the sound is able to add context and background to a piece just by virtue of what it is. You don’t need anyone to explain why a story about instruments needs music, or why a story about cooking is made richer by hearing pans clanking or food sizzling in a pan. In a way, the sound paints a picture, a concept we explored in Thursday’s class on writing for the ear.

In addition to a whole host of writing strategies, A reporter working with audio has to be aware of what kinds of images that sound brings to mind. Does it illustrate the right image, or take the reader in the wrong direction? It’s similar with voice; is your narration adding to the story, or are you being lackluster without realizing it? The pitch and speed of your voice make a difference because those aspects can communicate different things to your reader. Ending every sentence in upstyle makes you sound inquisitive or unsure. Talking quickly can add a sense of urgency or be just plain confusing. And all the sound, voice and natural, has to flow together in a logical way to tell a story that is engaging and accurate.

The voice coaching and writing techniques take me back to my high school speech team days as a radio speaker, only now I have to create the content, not just voice it. I’m finding that although I’m slowly embracing the individual aspects of audio reporting — recording good quality clips, sorting through the sound files, building the tracks — putting it all together into something resembling journalism is a new challenge. Before, it was about demonstrating whether I could do this task or that task, but now, I have to do those things (and do them well) and turn it into a cohesive story, much like I would with text.

I’m looking forward to the day when it doesn’t feel like as much of an undertaking, but something tells me it’ll be a while before I get to any level of autopilot.

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Putting it all into perspective

Many of you who read this know me personally.

So you know I’m a little high-strung.

And you know I can get a little ahead of myself.

Clearly, this semester and Intermediate Writing was no different. Every since I registered for this course I had a picture in my mind of the type of writer I wanted to turn into, the types of choices I wanted to make, and the types of pieces I wanted to publish. Everything I’ve done so far has been in an effort to get to that point.

Well, it’s almost that point. With just about two weeks left in the semester, I got to sit down with Roy Wenzl, a reporter from the Wichita Eagle who came to our class this past week to sub for Jacqui and impart some wisdom. During class, we talked a lot about his series for the Eagle about Father Emil Kapaun. Much of the story was recreated scenes from Roy’s interviews with former POWs from Korea. It was amazingly descriptive and a beautiful, engaging narrative. It’s the kind of piece we all hope to be able to write someday.

Roy was generous enough to use his free time on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with students from our class and talk with them about their stories or whatever was on their minds writing- and reporting-wise, really.

I was very humbled to hear that Roy liked my drafts; it’s one thing to get feedback from professors and Missourian editors, but it’s a nice change of pace to hear from someone who isn’t familiar with your work and only judges what you put in front of them, not past history or personality or anything else.

But aside from that, we talked about maturing as a reporter. In my head, I’ve always thought there was this switch that flips to turn you from a “nuts and bolts reporter,” as Roy termed it, to a “narrative reporter.” Either you have it, or you don’t, and getting there is a challenge regardless.

As a quick rehash, I feel pretty confident about my ability to lay down all the nuts and bolts. I explain things. I could definitely learn to do it better, but for now, that’s where most of my comfort is as a reporter. I don’t think I’m a great writer, and for whatever reason, I feel inhibited in my ability to become a good narrative reporter.

But Roy gave me some much-needed perspective. It doesn’t just happen like *that*. To become a different writer, a better writer, a more mature writer, you have to live. You have to read constantly. You have to take risks and try new things, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.

After a semester’s worth of hard work, I’m still not the writer I eventually want to be. And that’s OK; I’m 22, and I’m off to a good start. But I still have a long way to go, and that will happen as I write more and work more places and try different stories. “Duh, Shaina,” you might be thinking, but I can’t express how much of a wake-up call our conversation was.

Sometimes it’s nice to let go of the expectations of perfection we have for ourselves. It feels like a tight spring in my chest has uncoiled, and it’s freeing me up to take edits more easily and less personally. In two weeks I’ll publish these stories, confident that it’s my absolute best work and best writing to date. I feel more capable and competent with every project I report. From the initial learning to the last-minute polishing, I can see myself grow each time.

Above all, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, even if I haven’t accomplished every single goal. If I did, there’d be nowhere else to go and no way to move forward. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to keep learning and  improving my craft.

And if that’s all I walk away with, it’ll be more than enough.

Small shifts, big changes

Re-blogged from my advanced reporting class blog.

Something that a fellow reporter said in our lecture this week really struck me. She talked about how small shifts in our habits and actions can lead to big changes in how we report and think about journalism.

I realized that this is something I did unknowingly this semester, and it really paved the way for the big changes I’ve seen in my work.

At the beginning of the semester, I set goals for how I’d improve and change during advanced reporting. Each goal was a small shift in how I normally go about reporting, and it will soon result in me publishing my semester-long project. I’ve never done this kind of long-term reporting before, and it has really surprised me in some ways. I didn’t realize I had the ability to stick to one topic for so long, despite my love and dedication for my beat work on education. It’s been eye-opening, to say the least.

For my final post, I’d like to reflect a little on my goals for the semester.

Dig deeper:  I want to focus on depth, not breadth. I want to do is spend more time with sources and subjects and try to let my reporting find the story instead of my story finding the reporting.

I definitely went for depth this semester. I spent months with one topic, trying to get at it from many different angles. Every interview that I geographically could, I held in person. I wanted to try to get to know my sources and be more personally invested in my interviews. I also did what I set out to do: I found my story organically, from my own reporting, and it makes me so incredibly proud.

Details, Details, Details: I want to try to pay more attention to what’s around me and observe so I can add those details to make my reporting come more alive. I need to remind myself to look, take better more specific notes on what I see, hear, smell and feel.

This was harder, but I still think I made progress. While i think my storytelling could use more practice, I made a concentrated effort to pay attention to my surroundings and try to incorporate that where appropriate in my stories.

Write stronger nut grafs:  I want to take the time to write more cohesive, complete and concise nut grafs, and I want to nail them more often than not.

I think this was a rousing success. Not every nut graf is a hit from the start, but I’ve become so much better at drafting stronger ones and being able to edit them more purposefully. Of course I’m still working on this, but I notice a very big improvement from this time last year.

Use more dialogue: Dialogue has that way of making an article feel like a narrative. It gives a much more intimate look at the characters in a story.

I’ve increase my use of dialogue some, but not as much as I would’ve liked or imagined. Part of that, realistically, is the subjects I’ve been reporting on. I think if I’d done more traditional storytelling with a master narrative and single subject, things might’ve gone differently. Nevertheless, I’m paying attention to it now, and awareness is the first step.

Focus on learning: I want to explore how we learn, why we learn the way we do, how teachers and schools manage and support different learning styles, and why there is pressure sometimes to learn in a certain way at a certain level.

This was my initial idea for my project, and although it’s changed and morphed and turned into something different, it was this first thought that got me to that point. The more I talked to sources, the more research and reflecting and questioning I did, the more it became possible to arrive at my central question.

Overall, I’m happy with how my advanced reporting semester went. Between instances of breaking news in education and crime and beat reporting, I set out to have a completely different experience from beginning reporting, and I did. While I still try to play to my strengths of writing clear, break-it-down types of stories, I now know I can do more than that. I want to branch out and become a better storyteller, and little by little, I have.

And even though every aspect of my original goals weren’t completed in their entirety, here’s what I did accomplish aside from what already has been mentioned:

  • I learned I can pick up stories at the drop of a hat. I’m no longer intimidated by writing on deadline or dealing with breaking news. It’s still stressful and exciting, but not paralyzing like it once was.
  • I’ve figured out how I best report: with lots and lots and LOTS of notes. I might go through stages of drafting and note-taking and rewriting, but it works for me.
  • I’m becoming a much more confident interviewer. I have more strategies and tools at my disposal, and I know how to keep sources talking and on-track better than I used to.
  • I’ve also realized the benefit of just having a good conversation and how that can contribute to and work well alongside an interview.

I was able to strike out on my own and come up with my own ideas and ways of covering them. I got more experience juggling the moving parts of any story assignment (graphics, photos, interviews, etc) and I feel like I know where I need to go from here to continue to improve my writing and reporting.