Back to business

Three and a half years ago, I left self-employment to attend graduate school. The one thing I wanted at the end was a job — a regular paycheck.

Now, I’m giving up a regular paycheck to return to my business, Niles Media. And it feels great.

LancasterFairAt the close of Friday, Dec. 12, I will be a full-time independent journalist: a data consultant for newsrooms, freelance reporter and researcher.

There’s a lot I will miss about daily state government reporting, and especially a lot I will miss about the scrappy, wonky nonprofit news website VTDigger.org, where I had the honor of working for 18 months. “Digger,” as it’s known in Vermont, is among the most respected news sources in the state for serious reporting on state policy and politics.

At the same time, I’m excited about contributing to journalism and my community in a new capacity.

I’ll be working with newsrooms that want to explore data to find and tell the stories it holds. As a freelancer, I’ll continue to focus on public policy and civic engagement. I’ll push beyond state boundaries to examine policy issues on a regional scale in the Northeast, blending mediums along the way to tell the story of how policies shape our daily lives. And I’ll pick back up my research on freedom of information laws and press freedom around the world.

Here’s to enterprise.

The view from there: journalism from a policy perspective

cabin(DSCF0034)We get so accustomed to the homes where we live — be it a house, apartment, trailer, condo, shack — that it’s easy to take their appearance for granted and forget they may look different to strangers.

I used to live in a little cabin in the woods of New Hampshire. When I would come back from a walk, approaching the dirt driveway from the hill to its east, it was like looking at somebody else’s home. Instead of the fuzzy pink astilbe flowers, carefully tended hemlock trees and art glass hanging inside the sole window facing north toward the street, I would see the back side of the property: spare lumber, doors and windows that had been collecting for decades under the carport’s low, sloped roof. Piles of old, soggy hay in the woods where I had dumped the previous year’s insulation. (Since the cabin was built on top of sonotubes instead of a foundation, its pipes are exposed to the elements and would freeze in winter without a layer of skirting.) I’d see the roof of the storage trailer caving in and the screens of its windows flapping out — the same storage trailer I routinely forgot about, until coming home from a walk down the hill.

But that hill is where most of my neighbors lived, so the view from the hill is all they knew. They didn’t see the cabin from inside: the deep porcelain double-sink I had installed, surrounded by a handmade counter. The sturdy woodstove set squarely on a perfectly designed tile slab where we burned cordwood from our own woods to keep the cabin toasty even on the most frigid February nights. The paintings and artifacts from around the world that had been collecting for decades on the walls of the cabin — left by them men who built it, the boatbuilders who bought it, and the series caretakers like me who kept leaving the place a little better than we found it.

This fall, I am getting the chance to peer in at journalism from outside the newsroom walls. There is no media theory or philosophy of journalism in a public policy class. No distinction between mass media and independent community media. Heck, there’s no distinction between “media” and “journalism.”

Here, framing is about how to structure a policy issue to attract the attention of reporters. Reporters are myopic servants of single-issue beats who simplify messages to fit the format of their media. Media are no more than businesses that lead with what bleeds and profit from conflict. And conflict is the enemy of compromise. Yet compromise is what solutions are made of.

In other words, the media, while essential, are also an intractable obstacle to constructive policy solutions.

Ouch.

Many criticisms of media I’ve read in the book “Agendas and Instability in American Politics” are spot-on. Some already are the subject of much grappling within journalism — or among some practitioners, at any rate. Such as the quick news cycle, and the way important issues often get bumped when the next big story comes along, never to be picked back up until they break the news cycle again with a controversy. (Yeah, I know the skylight’s leaking, but it’s only a problem when it rains.) We’ve talked in the Missourian newsroom about the value of follow-up reporting, asking “What ever happened to…?”

Other criticisms are insightful observations that help me see things in a new light. Take beat reporting. This system of developing subject expertise by focusing on one beat makes perfect sense to me. But I do see, now that it’s pointed out, how it explains “why a single issue is rarely treated systematically…” The line of inquiry a business reporter will follow covering the nuclear industry, for example, is going to reveal a whole different story than what an environmental reporter might drum up. Point taken. I’ll try to include reporters from other beats in my brainstorming process when I list the stakeholders of an issue I’m covering.

I think one other criticism, in particular, misses its mark at the same time it points to the greatest potential for journalism’s future: “Rarely do … the media focus for long on many aspects of the same issue. More often, things are considered piecemeal.”

Well, of course things are covered one at a time. “Journalism is a corpus,” editor John Schneller said last fall in a newsroom meeting. He meant that no one article can cover an entire issue, but that, taken together, a newsroom’s coverage of an issue can present it completely.

Apparently, the rest of the world hasn’t gotten this memo, which means that it’s up to us to deliver it. And perhaps in another blog post I’ll imagine how we might go about that. But, at the same time I think it’s important to convey this message, I also think we shouldn’t settle for piecemeal.

This is where I believe the promise of new digital platforms is richest. We can only cover the issues one at a time — with individual articles, stories, photo essays, video clips, info graphics and the like. And sometimes we get the chance to publish a collection of those individual “journalism units” as packages. But still, that’s one package, and most likely it only covers one aspect of a single issue. That’s how we deliver depth.

With digital platforms, though, I see no reason why we have to store and archive our reporting in individual pieces, or in the same format in which they are released. When I close my eyes and imagine the journalism I want as a consumer of news, I picture a platform more akin to a wiki page (but much better designed). A topic’s explanation would be continually rephrased to reflect its most current conditions.

This means more than tagging a new article or graphic with “tax incentives” so  someone can search for that tag and see whatever has been published about it. It’s the job of a whole other editor, who would be responsible for folding newly published work into the existing descriptions of the topics included in the reporting. Previous iterations of the overview, and the individual units on which the it is based, would be archived and easily accessible.

This format would let audiences choose between both breadth and depth — and cursory summaries, because those are useful, too — depending on their own needs at any given time.

In other words, journalism would become more truly a corpus, an integrated and evolving body of work — not just a collection.

Specifically, yes or no?

This post also appeared Sept. 23, 2012 on the blog of the Columbia Missourian public life beat, The Watchword.  

It’s hard to prepare for the artful dodge of politicians, I suppose, with anything other than practice. I’m hopeful that the experience of being a panelist at the Missouri Press Association’s gubernatorial forum last Friday, combined with my current studies of public policy, will prepare me to craft questions that require more specific responses than I got last week.

Not quite a debate, the forum was held for press only at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia. I was one of three panelists facing three candidates for governor: current Gov. Jay Nixon, his Republican challenger Dave Spence, and Libertarian candidate Jim Higgins. I joined Bill Miller from the Washington Missourian and Jeff Fox from the Independence Examiner at the panelist’s table. David Lieb from the Associated Press moderated.

I think the format presented part of the challenge to specificity. The forum was broadcast live on radio and television, requiring a strict timetable that David Lieb managed admirably. Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to each question. At Lieb’s discretion, candidates were given 45 additional seconds for rebuttal. There was no opportunity for follow-up questions from panelists. In other words, nothing in the forum’s architecture held them accountable for providing actual answers.

At first, I confess, I was relieved that there would be no time for follow-up questions. That took a bit of pressure off, as I was nervous to “perform” so publicly. By the end, I decided I would have preferred the risk.

Of the three questions I had time to ask, the one most ignored was about racial disparities. I pointed out the persistent achievement gap among schoolchildren, and statewide economic indicators of inequality by race in employment, homeownership and business ownership, as well. “What do you make of that? And what, as governor, would you do to address it?” I asked.

Spence at least acknowledged the racial element of my question, but otherwise responded as if I had asked about education. His fellow candidates followed suit, answering a question about education when I had asked about racial inequities.

In retrospect, I wished I hadn’t set up the question by pointing out the educational achievement gap. Nonetheless, the fact that they didn’t answer the question may have been — at least in part — an answer in itself.

Ironically, my question that was answered most directly was the one that broke a cardinal rule of interviewing: yes or no. “Do you support the tobacco tax increase on the November ballot, and do you think the state’s colleges and universities need more money?” All three answered no to the tax question, and all for different reasons that they explained rather succinctly.

The more open-ended a question in most interview settings, the more complete a response you solicit. However, this is clearly a different setting that calls on different principles of the craft, I learned.

In the flow of the forum, it was hard to decide which question to close with. I had prioritized five questions, but had no way of knowing what my fellow panelists were going to ask until they posed theirs. Mine were not the only questions greeted by vagaries, and most of them revolved around jobs and the economy. Wanting to change the subject, I asked about guns.

Higgins is explicit about his position on the Second Amendment on his website: He opposes gun registration itself as a limit to the right to bear arms. Nixon and Spence both say they support the Second Amendment, so I simply asked them all to explain exactly what they mean by their support. The long and the short of their responses: they support it. No explaining exactly what that means, not even from Higgins.

Now, there’s only so much specificity anyone can deliver in 90 seconds, even if you want to get down to brass tacks. I’ll grant them that.

But specificity is anathema to the campaigning politician, and the skilled ones know how to avoid it. They rely on ambiguities, some would argue, as the only conceivable way to draw support from as many constituencies as they need to win.

Maybe a simple “yes or no” is about as much as you can hope to get from them in a forum like this. I won’t settle my sights on that close a range, but I certainly will be less afraid of asking such a simple question in a similar setting in the future.

And I’d jump at the chance to ask follow-up questions, too.

Punctuated Equilibrium Reporting

a quiet spot in a rock-strewn river

Punctuated equilibrium is a concept from evolutionary biology that a couple of public policy researchers have adapted for their study of policy dynamics. Briefly, the idea is that equilibrium, or status quo, dominates. Not much changes from year to year (or generation to generation), but this relative calm is always interrupted by a flurry of activity in which rapid change occurs. Then, back to equilibrium, the way water seeks to be level. All this is much more articulately explained by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones in their book Agendas and Instability in American Politics.

I’m reading the book for a public policy class I’m taking this semester, which I signed up for in order to learn more about what I want to report on. It will serve me well, and I can serve my audiences better, if I understand not just public policies, but how those policies get made. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and how I think it applies to reporting:

a quiet spot in a rock-strewn river
Cold River, Maine (c) Hilary Niles

Those periods of calm, in between change, only appear quiet. Like a river, beneath the surface are swirling eddies, pools of stillness, broken logs rushing in the current, submerged rocks breaking free from where they were lodged in the banks. In the policy stream, the sub-surface stimuli equate to things like interest groups, party affiliations, new technologies that change our ideas of what’s possible in the world, sudden disruptions from natural disasters or foreign clashes.

It may take hundreds of years for water to wrest a new route out of a river, or for new cultural values to surface as dominant paradigms, but it’s a sure bet: Sooner or later, that river will visibly change, and the critters who live in it or near it will have to adapt to survive.

To cover a beat well, this tells me, don’t be lulled into a false sense of “nothing happening there” by periods in which there is little visible activity in a policy area. Change is inevitable. And it comes, in part, from constant, patient, quiet prodding beneath the surface.

The equilibrium between punctuations is a time for people who desire change to strategize, test messages, build their cases, recruit supporters and otherwise figure out how to get a foothold from which they can start to control the conversation about a social issue. Once they’re leading or refereeing the dialogue, that’s their chance to shape the policies that address it.

None of this is surprising. It all makes perfect sense. But the more explicit awareness public affairs reporters have of policy processes (learning from people who spend a heck of a lot more time studying it than most of us want to), the more we can recognize the policy stream flowing around us. The more we recognize, the better our chances of noticing when the punctuations between equilibrium are building — and the less likely that we’ll get caught off-guard when forces for policy change breach the surface. The more prepared we are for those moments, the better we’ll be able to report on them.

In other words, if we think of our beat as a river, we want to watch it from the bank, certainly. And it’s good to raft and swim. But we shouldn’t stop there. To tell the river’s story well, we need to understand the forces shaping it. We need to dive in, snorkel, explore.

Dispatches from Boot Camp

Boot camp is not for sissies.

This I know, so I am cautioning myself to not get cocky or lulled into a false sense of confidence based on the slow starting pace of this week’s computer-assisted reporting (CAR) boot camp.

It’s run by Investigative Reporters & Editors, which is where I’m also working as a research assistant while in grad school. These folks are, by all accounts, the kings of CAR. They know their business and they know how to teach it, so I trust some mental acrobatics are in store the rest of this week.

But truth be told, I’m grateful for the simple start. It makes the skills accessible to virtually anyone — including me, who needed a refresher in class yesterday on what a “median” average is.

Hopefully, I will have a more sophisticated definition of computer-assisted reporting by the end of the week, but so far this is what I can tell: It’s about accessing, managing and tapping into data. Big Data. Such as FBI crime reports, local health code violations, pensions, figures from any number of industries, and on and on. We started with Excel, are moving into Access, and will end with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It certainly satisfies my geeky side, and offers inspiration. Along with the stories of reporting and innovations that have come out of boot camp alums, my fellow students remind me that the career I have chosen is very real and really significant. Here are three examples of work (that may or may not have been done by boot campers) that used CAR:

Seniors for Sale by Michael Berens, The Seattle Times

Murder Mysteries by Tom Hargrove, Scipps Howard News Service

The Hidden Life of Guns, Washington Post

The other cool part of CAR is the simple stuff: knowing your way around data well enough to get in and out quickly with a story, a lead, a better question to ask. It doesn’t all have to be about the heavy, long-term investigations, Mark Horvit reminded us in lab yesterday. And we’re doing exercises in lab to drive that point home. In this and many other ways, I am appreciating how pragmatic their approach is.

This is the second “boot camp” of sorts I have signed up for in my life, the first being a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation back in 1999. At the time, I not-so-fondly called it Boot Camp for Buddhists. (In retrospect, the term is endearing and, one way or another, I draw on what I learned there almost every day of my life. Well, on the better days, anyway.)

As much as I’m getting out of this boot camp — computer-assisted reporting is clearly useful and can be pretty hard-core — my guess is that even NICAR ain’t got a patch on Mr. Goenka.

After all, even database queries start with taking a deep breath.

The Journalist’s Lament

Friday night, while finishing up emails as my story on a possible recall of Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley was making its way through the copy desk, I asked the newsroom out loud, “Did my description of Dudley’s placid smile make it into the final draft?!”

“Nope,” responded Pavan, my ACE (Assistant City Editor) for the night.

Before my brain had fully formed the question of whether I’d be able to add that one little sentence through the copy desk, Pavan answered — possibly smiling.

“That’s what’s commonly referred to as the journalist’s lament,” he said.

Pavan had had his hands full getting that story out of me in two hours. I had actually wondered at what point he would need to lift the puddle of a story out of my sorry hands and just wrap it up as well as he could. I pictured a variation on an interrogation room, me under the spotlight being questioned by Pavan as he tried to make sense of my notes. This did not help my writing. I started plotting how I could avoid writing on deadline the entire remainder of the semester — again, not helpful.

Taking better notes and managing them better, on the other hand, would help. Here are three lessons I took away from Friday night that I know can help me avoid (although I’m certain it’s inevitable) the journalist’s lament:

  1. Get as many names and phone numbers as I possibly can from people at the event. Don’t just cherry-pick who you think had the most salient points, because you’ll limit the number of quotes you can use (or at least attribute) in your report. And if you can’t attribute them, why bother typing the whole time? Besides, the story will continue so you’ll want all the contacts you can get.
  2. When the meeting’s over, put the laptop away and get out the notebook. I was habituated to the keyboard while sitting down, but of course working the room the machine becomes a liability. Also, I felt like a dork who brought too much equipment and didn’t know how to handle it.
  3. Print my notes out when I get back to the newsroom. Paper is much easier for me to work with — especially when the notes are so scattered — than the screen.
  4. Bonus lesson: Keep putting myself into fast-paced environments so that I have a chance to learn tricks to take notes better.

Covering a high-profile death

I wrote an obituary once for my dear friend Stanley Longstaff, who was also a an inspiring influence in my approach to journalism. Along with many other friends, I had helped his family take care of Stanley for several months until he succumbed to cancer. It must have been the day he died, or the day after, that I sat with his wife at their kitchen table, where we wrote an announcement of his death and a description of his life. It was sad and beautiful and an absolute honor.

Reporting about the death of Ed Robb was very different, but really no less of an honor. As Presiding County Commissioner, Ed Robb was a person whose work influenced the lives of every person in Boone County to some degree or another and whether they knew it or not. It was essential to treat his death, and the people we contacted about it, with the utmost respect. It was also urgent that we get the story, get it quickly, and get it right in the most thorough way possible that day. Thank goodness our government editor Scott Swafford came in to guide us. And thank goodness I got to work with Alexandria Baca on the reporting.

We sat side-by-side at our computers and worked with Scott to get up to speed about Robb’s political history and personal reputation. We brainstormed who to call and what to ask them. Alex and I shared what we learned with one another and have continued to stay in sync about our subsequent reporting and contacts with sources.

I have noticed bylines on big stories in newspapers that say things like, “This story was reported by X, Y and Z and written by W.” Now I get it. At the same time I was feeling sympathy for the friend, rival or family member we reached out to, I also got a rush from the fast-paced and integrated way the three of us worked in the newsroom to cover this unfortunate, breaking news.

As reporters (heck, as human beings) there is no way we can prevent most of the bad things we cover from happening. What we can do is report on them quickly, accurately, thoroughly and respectfully so that the public isn’t left wondering about what happened or what will happen next. Ed Robb’s death was the first breaking news story I have contributed to. I learned a lot about the process, and I feel proud of the work we did together to achieve those goals.

What Makes a Ward?

Writing this story was all about framing it. And this was before we got to the framing conversations in Mass Media Seminar or the News Reporting lecture.

When I walked back to the newsroom after my first Ward Reapportionment Committee meeting back in early September, my mind brimmed with ideas, thoughts and questions. It was clear that the people in the room had been talking about something very specific, but not at all clear to me what that thing was. The conversation seemed coded or veiled. As with any redistricting, I knew a lot would be riding on ward reapportionment — more than what could be explained (to me, anyway) by X neighborhood going into Y ward or the other one getting moved here or there. I wanted to know what was at stake, and for whom. And at the most basic level, I wanted to know which quality makes a ward: diversity or shared interests?

What I found is that it depends on whom you ask, and even then people’s answers may depend on the issue at hand. And whether you call it identity or representation or anything else, it all comes down to access, and that boils down to power.

It took a while to figure all this out. It took, first of all, framing my questions for people very deliberately. Most people were accustomed to talking about wards in terms of numbers and neighborhoods. I had to continually reframe my questions for many people to remind them my story wasn’t about ward maps or the specifics of this reapportionment, but more about the process that informs reapportionment in general.

At first my question of diversity vs. shared interests felt naive. But I trusted it — or at least trusted that I had to understand the answer to that question in order to have real command of the topic, which I would need to write a good article about it. So I kept asking, and in the end felt validated. Nearly all of the people I interviewed brought up the topic themselves, or answered my question with highly formed opinions about the difference.

This article was about something very conceptual, and I tried to ground it as much as possible so that it could be read and understood by people who don’t necessarily spend their free time thinking about these things. I think it is a pretty solid first try.

Next time, though, I will allow more time and plan on more background research and interviews. I wish I could have used more info graphics to illustrate the disbursement of various constituencies throughout the wards. And I will not be as shy about asking the obvious questions, because I continually find that by listening to different people’s answers, I see new perspectives that deepen my own understanding and learn new reasons that these topics are important to them.

First Missourian byline

I wish my first byline for the paper could have been about something less tragic. On my first General Assignment day last week, I noticed on the St. Louis Post Dispatch website that an alumna of University of Missouri had been killed in South Carolina. She was 36.

Jennifer Wilson was from St. Louis, and since she had spent time here we felt it was important to let our community know about her death, as well as its unfortunate circumstances. I tried to reach her Ph.D. advisor, but she didn’t return my phone calls. I understand from someone in the Education Department that she was pretty shaken by the news and might not want to talk, and I understand that.

In the research I did that day about Jennifer Wilson, I was struck by her accomplishments: one scholarship, award and major grant after another, and all for the sake of becoming a teacher educator. Her work reflected remarkable dedication to her field.

I don’t think the article I wrote described this adequately. My impression of this person I had never met was simply not sufficient; I needed sources, and I couldn’t reach them. (A colleague of Jennifer’s at University of South Carolina also did not return my phone call.) I couldn’t write more about Jennifer Wilson because I couldn’t reach the people in a position to express their informed opinions about her.

In this first byline of my graduate school career, I learned how to access a police incident report and arrest warrant (ah, you just ask, but you have to find the right person first and that involved being sent to about five different people in this case). I worked up the nerve to call someone at home who was reportedly and understandably grieving, and I believe I did so sensitively with clear and pure intention. Of course I learned the mechanics of the newsroom’s intranet for posting stories, and I got the experience of sitting down with an editor while she cleaned up my work.

I also took a somewhat painful lesson in the limitations of journalism. It’s right that they’re there — the standards are what define the craft. But it sure is disappointing when you just can’t meet them the way you know they deserve to be met.