Donning the Boss Hat

Originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Quill, the bimonthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists 

Autonomy is part of the appeal of freelancing. As independent journalists, we work with editors as our clients, not our supervisors. We choose our projects and set our own schedules. We may or may not work in our pajamas, or from a lawn chair in the backyard. We’re our own bosses.

But sometimes, that means bossing yourself around.

The joy of working on what you want, when you want to doesn’t always translate into getting done what needs doing; autonomy can also be a pitfall. Successful freelancing, as much as it offers freedom, requires self-discipline.

And sometimes, self-discipline requires a Jedi mind trick — a particularly artful maneuver when you must play both the tricked and the trickster.

As freelancers, we try to take on only work we like. But even great projects often involve tedious phases. Other assignments may serve merely as stepping stones or financial necessities more than they fuel our passions. And aside from reporting, there’s networking, negotiating, public appearances, accounting. Even if you love running your own business, that doesn’t mean you’ll always feel like doing what work requires of you.

This is when I put on the “boss hat” — my term for the ruse I employ to get out of my own skin and into the mindset of a business owner.

Technically, I do play both roles: I am both the sole shareholder and the sole employee of my business. As an employee, I earn a salary. As the shareholder, I may get a bonus if my employee performs well throughout the year. I set up this legal and financial arrangement on the advice of my accountant, and I’ve noticed it facilitates the Jedi mind trick rather well, too.

But you don’t need to engineer a complete internal bureaucracy in order to don the boss hat. Here are a few techniques from my own experience, as well as members of SPJ’s online Freelance Community:

Develop company policies: Rebecca Weber, a full-time freelance writer and writing coach based in South Africa, says she channels most business and marketing decisions through a paradigm of “company policies.” With her business hat on, she instituted certain rules, which now she just has to follow, rather than reconsider perennial issues every time they arise.

“For example, as a norm I ask for more money on the first assignment,” Weber says. “I’m not naturally inclined to negotiation, so knowing ahead of time that I’m going to ask means that I can skip the stage of deciding if I should ask or not. These policies increase my income AND eliminate a lot of stress around money.”

Sign out of social media: This is one of my techniques for keeping procrastination at bay — especially for Facebook, which I find to be the strongest vortex.

I use a password manager and make a point not to learn my password for Facebook. I log out every time I close the website, and therefore have to jump through a couple hoops every time I want to log back in. Even when I choose to engage with that platform in the course of my workday, the added steps make it a more deliberate diversion.  

Pre-set your schedule: This was Hazel Becker’s strategy when she began freelancing full-time after 29 years as a staff reporter and editor. Now semi-retired and chair of SPJ’s Freelance Community, Becker says she would start every workday reading up on her beats, then scouring websites for gigs. She aimed to to send at least one query every day. She spent most Fridays taking care of business, marketing and learning new technology.

The routine came easy, she says. “In those days I had to use the Jedi mind tricks to get in my workout every day. Now that’s my day-starting routine, and actually looking for gigs is what I have to convince myself to do.”

Becker’s role reversal is instructive. As you explore and deepen your sense of yourself as your own boss, remember to be a good one, and also to stick up for yourself as an employee. Consider negotiating a late start time, or a long lunch break for exercise, for example.

Because no matter who the boss is, a happy, healthy employee makes for good business.

You Can, Sometimes, Get What You Want

Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Quill, the bimonthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists 

“Unless you know exactly what you want, you’re sure not to get it.”

I could attempt to diagram that sentence. Instead, I’ll explain how this nugget of advice became a cornerstone of my freelance business — and how it can help yours, too.

The sentence stuck with me for years after meeting a friend of my in-laws one Christmas Eve. Bill is a self-made millionaire — twice so actually, having lost everything around mid-life and rebounding. I know Bill as intense and charming and generous — with gifts as well as wisdom. In telling me his story, he shared the secret of his success.

I could have applied for a full-time job this spring. Instead, I settled into my own new office.

Perhaps the awkwardness of the sentence syntax is part of why it stuck with me. But more so, the advice simply resonated. It articulated in a new way something I had long admired in others and tried to cultivate in my own life: Self-direction. A sense of agency. Firm rooting. Clear goals.

The sentence echoed in my mind years later as I reluctantly realized that my staff reporting position wasn’t satisfying crucial elements of my drive for journalism. I kept returning to that sentence as I grappled with the question: If this job isn’t what I want, what do I want instead?

“Unless you know exactly what you want, you’re sure not to get it.”

I knew I wanted to get it. I just didn’t know what “it” was. But I’m a journalist, a storyteller. We find and choose details that illustrate and symbolize the deeper concepts we report on. So, I got to work.

I journaled. I talked things through with my husband, family, close friends and professional mentors. I compared options (various jobs and freelancing potential), breaking down the good/bad/ugly elements of each. I assessed my resources and strengths alongside anything working against me. Finally, I ignored what “it” might look like and focused instead on the values underlying my sense of success.

Only when I found those roots did I start to imagine the shapes they may take. Going back to the options I had researched, I checked off whether they got me any closer to the “it” I was after.

I’m now in my third year of full-time freelancing. Not every client and project satisfies all five of the criteria I landed on. But, my combined portfolio of work advances them all. There’s still more success to strive for, but I see evidence and feel in my heart that I’m on the right path. It’s amazing, and I wish this sense of satisfaction for you, too.

No matter where you are in your freelance business — successful and loving it, thinking of striking out solo, or somewhere in between — here are some resources I’ve found helpful in any stage. These may help you formulate a vision, bring it to the next level with an action plan, tap the collective wisdom of the SPJ Freelance Community, or simply find the camaraderie we often miss not working from a newsroom:

  • “Lean” business planning is a pared back approach in which you can invest as much or as little time as you’d like. The Internet is riddled with advice on this. I’ve found Tim Berry’s template at www.leanplan.com helpful.

  • A 12-month cashflow lays out the big picture of your financial cycles. SCORE offers a great template at www.score.org/resource/12-month-cash-flow-statement. I’ve added fields to mine to help schedule my editorial calendar around my cashflow needs.

  • On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism is an online book written by SPJ freelance members over the years. It covers everything from introductory issues and business considerations to finances, marketing and other tools. (Note: Access is free, but only available to SPJ members.)

  • SPJ’s Freelance Community is also a phenomenal brain trust. Our Facebook group is 550+ strong, and we host occasional old-school, online chats about a variety of issues. Please join us and chime in!

And if you’re looking for clarity about what you’re after, here are some prompts to help you get started. These may not yield quick answers, so give yourself as much time and mental space as possible to work through them, even if that means returning to them time and again until you’ve arrived at a response that feels complete.

  • If money were no object, how would you want to spend your time?

  • If you could live anywhere, where would you want to be?

  • Where are you “at” with work now — whether freelance or other employment? List specifically what you like about it and what you don’t.

  • How much money do you actually need? How much do you really want?

  • If you were to diversify your offerings — perhaps by working in different mediums — what would be the perfect blend?

  • If you could focus on only one project, what would it be?

  • Who’s your ideal client, and what’s so perfect about them?

This Bread & Puppet poster has served as my motto and guiding star for more than 20 years.

The clarity and support I’ve found from those resources and reflections has helped me stay firmly rooted in my freelance business plan. I’ve even turned down work when money was tight — because some “opportunities” are actually distractions in disguise, and if they lead you too far astray, it can be hard to get back on track. Knock on wood: I’ve found that keeping my focus, to the greatest extent feasible, usually pays off.

I got to see Bill again last Christmas Eve. He beamed when I told him that his single sentence had helped me so much. He knew exactly what I was referring to, and even completed the sentence in unison with me as I recited it back to him. It turns out, that’s one of the first lessons he instills in anyone he mentors.

He then told me the second: Knowing exactly what you want doesn’t mean you’re always going to get it! Be prepared for disappointments. Just return to the drawing board when you meet them, and keep going after your goals.

And I’ll add: What you want may change over time. Return often to those prompts and planning resources to re-evaluate the needs and desires that comprise your path’s foundation. Also, don’t assume that just because something is working, something else couldn’t work better.

As freelancers, we enjoy unique latitude to chart our own course. Give your work the respect it deserves by staying actively engaged with your business. The more you do so, the more likely it will achieve true success — as a reflection of you.

Freelancing Through Upheaval

The following post first appeared in the March/April 2017 edition of Quill, the bi-monthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. 

Upheaval, by definition, uproots. Practices and institutions that that once felt secure suddenly seem flimsy. Even if you didn’t like them to begin with, you may find yourself wishing for them again, for the familiarity. Upheaval, by its nature, isolates.

When in doubt: flowers. I try to keep a fresh bouquet in my office year-round. It elevates the mood of what can otherwise be a lonely room. (photo © Hilary Niles)

Independent journalists work in a constant state of upheaval: We work without roots, often alone. Rewards abound for the risks we take. Yet freelancing through the current upheaval amid Pres. Donald Trump’s transition to the White House has thrown many for a loop.

Cara Strickland, a Spokane-based freelancer and former restaurant critic, writes mostly about food, drink and faith. For now. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to look back on during this time,” Strickland says. “I want to take time to write things that matter, to me as well as to the world.”

Strickland is in good company considering a shift in her mission. Trump’s election brought Hazel Becker out of retirement. For a few years, she’d taken only hourly editing clients. Now, Becker is back to freelance reporting, largely as a show of solidarity. “I have great respect for journalists who are persevering in the face of difficulties getting the information and access they need to do their jobs,” Becker says. “I want to stand with them as a professional journalist doing what we do in the best way we can, working under strict ethical standards that I have adhered to throughout my career.”

But beyond such existential dilemmas, despite snipes that undermine the press and aside from problematic access to government, freelance journalists in times of upheaval face our own logistical challenges by virtue of our location outside a newsroom.

A few of these challenges are outlined below, crowdsourced from two online freelance groups. They’re presented with solutions synthesized from the freelancers themselves; my experience; insights from freelance journalist and writing coach Rebecca Weber; and advice from Raymond Joseph, a veteran reporter from South Africa since 1974, who recently joined Weber for a webcast interview about “Freelancing in the era of Trump.”

1. Editors’ inboxes have morphed into black holes through which only the highest-profile, heaviest-hitting, urgently breaking scoops survive.

With much at stake and news flying furiously, editors are struggling to keep up, too. As always, follow up on your pitches, and consider editors’ needs. Most are not likely to assign high-profile political stories to freelancers, Ray Joseph cautions. That’s especially true for contractors an editor has not worked with before. Plus, newsroom resources may have been re-arranged to handle the current onslaught.

So, pivot. Instead of breaking news, illuminate the implications of pending policy changes. Explain what it means that federal uncertainty is leaving states and businesses in limbo. Hit the streets and work social media to find human stories — then tell them from the bottom up, Joseph advises. This reporting is harder for newsrooms to devote their resources to, when top-down news is so consuming. Fill that gap.

2. There’s no market for light features.

This may be true, particularly for certain outlets or specific beats. But anticipate “Trump fatigue” and pitch accordingly — whether it’s a fresh angle on current events, or an unrelated story to offer momentary escape or rejuvenation.

3. I’ve never done this type of reporting before.

As Cara Strickland says, the current political and social upheaval feels like everyone’s beat right now. “I’ve read amazing pieces lately from people who I know as food or relationships or faith writers,” she says.

This may work for certain topics or in essay form, but be cautious of wading casually into political or policy reporting. If you decide to branch out in this direction, do so systematically: Read widely, source carefully and contextualize fully to avoid getting played and inadvertently misleading your audience. Then when it comes to pitching, be picky. You want to work with reputable editors you trust — not those who are learning the beat alongside you.

Ray Joseph also offers logistical advice for American reporters who may be unfamiliar with reporting through upheaval. First: hone your verification skills. “Don’t rush in to be first,” he says. “No one’s going to remember who was first … but they’ll remember that you were wrong.” Joseph recommends FirstDraftNews.com as a repository of training resources.

He also suggests anticipating your editor’s concerns about verification by demonstrating rigor in your submission. Embed links to source materials; include footnotes to say how you know what you know; be open with your editor about your sourcing and reporting process. Such protocols may be familiar to investigative reporters, but in this era of skepticism amid alternative facts and fake news, they should be adopted by all.

4. Reporting through upheaval is stressful.

Responses to my inquiry show that upheaval’s toll on freelancers is multifaceted. Ubiquitous uncertainty complicates many business considerations (about health insurance, where to live) and throws a wrench in our pitching routines. For those in the thick of presidential and policy reporting, the heightened stress and emotional impact of many stories can be severely draining.

Self-care to stay strong for the long-haul becomes essential. Look for inspiration in great reporting from turbulent times throughout history and around the world. This includes communities close to you whose longstanding challenges you may only just be learning to recognize.

Also, carefully tend to the business side of your reporting. There’s no sense adding financial woes to an already stressful situation.

Most important: Resist isolation. SPJ’s Freelance Community is one of several vibrant online forums where independent journalists around the world share resources, celebrate successes and help each other through tricky situations.

Freelancing is lonely enough. Don’t try it alone.

 

Ignore Policy at Your Peril

Imagine reporting on Disney, but ignoring its parks in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Or investigating Harvard, and skipping the Business School. Covering the environment, except lakes and streams.

You would miss important stories. You’d allow vast stretches of your beat to fly under the radar of journalistic accountability. You wouldn’t do that. It would be irresponsible.

Yet, that’s effectively what much of journalism does by passing over public policy and regulatory affairs.

Of course, some solid policy stories get published in the mainstream press — usually in conjunction with investigative projects that delve into one regulatory morass or another, often to shine a light on rampant dysfunction. But before those regulations get ignored or enforced, or their loopholes slipped through, they get written.

Yet seldom does the regulatory drafting process get covered. Without easy narratives that match familiar story schema, policy and regulation are deemed too dull or too dense to fit within a click-driven, deadline-oriented news cycle. So we ignore them.

That’s a problem — for journalism, for our audiences and for the democracy our work is supposed to serve.

Last week, I spoke with Paul Albergo, Bureau Chief at Bloomberg BNA and adjunct journalism professor at American University’s School of Communications, about why this happens and how to fix it.

Paul Albergo,  Bureau Chief for Bloomberg BNA and adjunct professor of journalism at American University
Paul Albergo, Bureau Chief for Bloomberg BNA and adjunct professor of journalism at American University

“Congress is just one-third of government,” Albergo said. But Congress is relatively easy to cover, so federal government reporters tend to focus on that, or the White House, or the occasional Supreme Court ruling, he said. Too often, the rest of government — the entire executive branch at work under the White House’s jurisdiction, the agencies and offices implementing the laws Congress passes — is shunned.

Regulations are where public policy’s rubber meets the road. And they’re Albergo’s bread and butter at Bloomberg BNA, a Washington-based operation that publishes nearly 200 news and information services covering the law, business, economics, the environment, health care, taxation, labor and human resource, and trade issues.

Yet in the mainstream, Albergo thinks regulatory matters get passed by, primarily because reporters and editors understand neither the regulatory process nor its importance.

POLITICS ISN’T POLICY

“Most people are terrified by the regulatory process,” Albergo said. He feels the American education system from grade school up does not effectively teach how the United States government actually works.

“You would be surprised how few reporters in Washington even understand the whole Federal Register process,” Albergo said.

The Federal Register is the government’s central clearinghouse for presidential documents, rules and regulations, proposed rules, and public notices. But if people don’t know about public comment periods before regulations that affect them are finalized, how can they make their voices heard?

Similarly, Albergo said, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is an unknown entity to most reporters.

Yet it’s the central authority for regulatory due diligence, even reaching into the lightning rod topics of information collection and federal privacy rights. If journalists don’t know about these final steps of regulatory review, how can they ride shotgun on rules that affect their readers, watching for last-minute tweaks and listening for clues of how stakeholders will react to pending changes?

“Most public policy is implemented and affected by these processes,” Albergo said. Yet most Americans aren’t effectively taught about regulatory protocols that, in many ways, parallel the routine of “how a bill becomes a law.”

Although this lack of understanding may not be limited to journalism, Albergo tries to rectify it in his roles as both editor and j-school professor. And it’s challenging from every angle: with students, young reporters and colleagues, alike.

“In my experience, it is a hard sell to get people to focus on a branch of government that no one has taught them about and that they view as impenetrable,” he said.

To be sure, regulatory reporting does present a different set of challenges from, say, roaming the halls of Congress. There, politicians or their aides are more than happy to have an audience for their messages, Albergo said.

But politics isn’t policy. And too often, the two are conflated.

“Politics is a means to end,” Albergo said. “But we’ve made politics an end in our reporting, which is not a good thing.” He said the press does a disservice when it runs all news through a political filter that lacks nuance, refracting only “red” and “blue” responses to every issue.

Politicizing and simplifying — or ignoring — the nuts and bolts of policy development plays into political games and doesn’t allow individuals to connect with a full one-third of their government, Albergo said.

In effect, ignorance of the policy process impedes involvement in it — a lose-lose proposition for both journalism and its audience.

SOLUTIONS

At American University, one of Albergo’s classes is a unique take on something he calls “specialized” reporting. One semester, for example, his students investigated new parking rules in Washington, D.C., interviewing people affected by the regulatory changes and exploring how the city’s parking policies had developed to the shape they were in.

Albergo said the course was fascinating for the students, and it presented a good chance for him to teach a structurally different approach to reporting: Less press conference, more rooting around for stories. Less political strategy, more tactical policy planning. Less personality-driven, more about holding all of government accountable for, well, good governance.

Long-term, this type of in-depth policy coverage requires reporters to know the players — not just legislators, but also lobbyists and staffers, for starters. Reporters must piece together these relationships and competing priorities to understand what’s at stake and how alliances shift. Reporting on regulatory affairs entails keeping track of deadlines for public comment, then rummaging through what can be hundreds or thousands of letters to spot something meaningful. It necessitates learning regulatory and industry jargon so you know what you’ve got when you see it.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s hard,” Albergo said. “And it’s hard when you’ve got a teaching staff that doesn’t understand the importance of that sort of coverage.” Not to mention a teaching curriculum built around tight deadlines and quick turnaround, he said.

Nonetheless, Albergo thinks journalism schools would do well to offer more classes like his for specialized reporting. And they should be willing to start small, “because you’re not going to have a lot of students at first.”

Demand will grow, he said, because the students who get this specialized training will be ready for the jobs awaiting for them. Daily papers and traditional news sources continue to cut back; but specialized, industry-specific business models are surging, with increasing demand from audiences who need to keep track of regulations for their work and businesses.

True, these specialized news services, like Bloomberg’s, are behind some pretty hefty paywalls that charge thousands of dollars a year for access, Albergo acknowledged. That’s a different value proposition than public interest reporting for the masses.

“But those are mostly the organizations that are growing,” Albergo said. “This is where the jobs are.”

Good point.

Although personally, I’m not ready to give up on the “public” in public policy reporting. I believe we can deepen even mainstream journalism’s policy reporting — and its relevance with audiences — with a combination of more interdisciplinary curricula in journalism schools, more sophisticated professional development for practicing reporters, more thoughtful newsroom management, more innovative product design and, above all, more storytelling.

These are some of the thoughts I’ll be exploring in the coming months on this blog. If you’ve got transformative ideas of your own, or examples of great public policy reporting that deserve to be in the spotlight, please share them below or drop me a line.

Thanks for reading!

Narrative Databases: When To Treat Information As Data

Data reporting can take many forms, not all of which serve up charts and graphs and visualizations on a silver platter or mobile device screen. In fact, databases that consume countless hours of wrangling may even remain unpublished. However, insights gleaned from organizing and questioning that information can make headlines.

Computer-assisted reporting (CAR) teaches its practitioners that even narrative information can be “structured” — that is, arranged in rows and columns, similar to the way numbers are put into spreadsheets for calculation. When information is well organized, it can be analyzed. And when analyzed, narrative databases can yield important revelations and opportunities for good journalism previously hidden in plain sight.

$1 Billion+ ... The most accurate available information shows that the state could spend this amount on IT projects over the next five years.
With a “narrative database” approach, I worked with Vermont Public Radio to build a comprehensive database of IT projects across state government. (Illustration by Amanda Shepard / VPR.)

In a project I recently completed with Vermont Public Radio, we attempted to quantify all the state’s spending on information technology. Note my use of the word “attempted.” We did not prevail in our original goal because (long story short) Vermont state government simply does not organize its IT spending data in a way that makes such analysis possible.

Hence, our pivot: If we couldn’t find out all we wanted, we’d find out what we could.

What we discovered was that information about IT spending across state departments is woefully unorganized and inconsistently maintained. The same project may be called one thing by one department, and another by a different office. Some projects were classified as IT-related by certain employees, but not by their colleagues. The department responsible for statewide information technology reported things like implementation costs and operating costs and projected five-year costs, but on different pages of the same report, so no one could see a project’s cost cycle and current status all in one place.

Getting the data into shape was daunting: We had over three dozen fields for about 450 very messy records that required more manual labor to clean than I care to recall. The only way to make sense of this muddled mass was to structure it. Without structure, there was no story — not even lucid questions.

In this case, structuring the data meant rooting out duplicate listings of single projects called various names by different departments. It meant determining which department various projects belonged to when none were listed. It meant asking for information two or three times, verifying answers, keeping track of corrections and merges. It even meant leaving some fields blank when, for example, IT projects we identified through public records requests had been excluded from official cost projections.

Ultimately, the database we compiled was accurate and, predictably, incomplete. Due to the inconsistent methods in which information about each project had been collected by the state, no amount of cleaning on our part could extract reliable calculations from it. There would be no charts, no graphs, no visualizations.

But oh, the story: “Huge Money, Small Oversight: State IT Spending In Vermont.”

(Illustration by Amanda Shepard / VPR. Image by BOBAA22 / iStock.)
(Illustration by Amanda Shepard / VPR. Image by BOBAA22 / iStock.)

In a nutshell, VPR reporter Taylor Dobbs explained that it’s nearly impossible to know how much public money goes toward publicly funded IT operations in Vermont, how successful IT projects are in meeting state needs, or how well state agencies follow defined protocols for procurement.

None of these conclusions would have been possible without structuring the database: shaping the information into rows and columns to see what was missing. Nor could the data work have been done without extensive traditional reporting to acquire and verify the information that comprised the dataset.

For people unfamiliar with data journalism, the methodology can seem deceiving. In many people’s minds, data means numbers: Can it really be a data project if there’s no math involved?

Resoundingly, yes.

And for newsrooms unaccustomed to investigative projects, the stamina required for such an endeavor can be hard to muster. Some projects take a lot of resources and a long time: Is the story really going to be worth the cost and the trouble?

Sometimes.

Vermont Public Radio’s project on state IT spending was a success on many fronts. We had trusted it would be, based in part on the sheer volume of taxpayer money at stake — at least $1 billion in the next five years. The newsroom’s commitment to follow-through also stemmed from anecdotal grumblings at the Statehouse about IT oversight, and several spectacular IT failures for the state in recent memory. We knew there would be a story.

But not every tangle of information is going to be worth picking apart. To assess the potential for a narrative database, ask yourself the following questions (in addition, of course, to universal considerations of newsworthiness and timeliness):

  1. Can the data can be categorized? Without categories, there is no structure. You might have a good story on your hands, but not necessarily a good data-driven one.
  2. Is missing information meaningful? If there will be holes in the final database, the mere presence of that information’s absence may — or may not — point to a story.
  3. Do you know what you’re looking for? Before committing to a structured information database project, you should articulate a good reason to bother. Develop a solid hypothesis, supported by documented evidence and/or reliable leads.
  4. Will the database be worth mining? In the event your lead story doesn’t pan out, you’ll want to know that even an unpublished database will be valuable for the story ideas it can generate.

On the latter point, it’s interesting to note VPR’s choice of what to do with the database our project produced. It absolutely was worth mining for individual stories within the list of pending, cancelled and completed IT projects, alike. The newsroom is in the process of following up with related news coverage.

Available records, interviews and information from dozens of documents comprised a comprehensive database of IT projects within Vermont’s state government, revealing glaring gaps in accountability.

But rather than keep this gold mine for itself, VPR followed its public service mission and opted to publish the database for all to see. We created a pared-back version on a simple Google spreadsheet that can’t be edited, and linked to it from the story. We didn’t get the pie charts we expected, but perhaps more than just our own coverage will stem from our work and this open source ethos.

I believe this type of sharing and interactivity is part of what energized VPR audiences to engage with the story as much as they did. We received generous feedback from a variety of sources that not only reinforced the reasons behind our commitment to covering the state’s IT spending, but that also led to deeper insights and additional leads for related investigations.

You can check out Taylor Dobb’s report here, and the simple database with a not-so-simple history here.

Do you have experience with or questions about treating narrative information as data? Do you have your own related projects to share? Feel free to comment below, or drop me a line.

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.

Approval vs. accuracy: a crucial distinction

The New York Times reported July 15 on a new trend in the cat-and-mouse game that is politics-press relations: quote approval. Want an interview with a high-powered political operative? Only if you run their quotes by them for approval before publication.

It’s absurd, of course. It’s offensive. It’s embarrassing that apparently so many reporters accept it. And as an eloquent essay that acknowledges the nuance of political reporting and still comes out strongly against this “quote approval” game, I appreciated Dan Rather’s July 19 opinion piece for CNN.

What I want to point out here, though, is not outrage, but a very important distinction. It’s between “quote approval” and the “accuracy check,” which we are taught at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’ve had occasion to explain the “AC,” as we call it, in recent conversations with a colleague and a friend, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

It is not the same as quote approval. I bring this up because I fear that in the flurry of outrage about quote approval, one may be mistaken for the other.

The AC is part of fact-checking. Not every newsroom does it, but probably every newsroom should. Beyond making sure you’re spelling someone’s name right, or got all dates and other details correct in a story, the AC entails emailing or calling back your sources to double-check how you quoted them, paraphrased them, or otherwise referenced them in a story. (Keep in mind, this is not a luxury for sources who give interviews for broadcast, so it’s really more of an issue for print- and web-based reporting.)

“But what happens if they take a quote back?” I’ve been asked, along with a lot of other what-ifs. My response to all is: It depends.

It depends on you, the reporter, because you are in charge of what you write. And it depends on your editor, because she is in charge of what gets printed. These levers are not under the control of your source (unless you cede that control by bowing to power plays such as interviews based on “quote approval”). You are not seeking approval for a quote when you check its accuracy. You are checking its accuracy.

The accuracy check is both a courtesy and a method of thoroughness and verification. It’s also good source development, because it builds trust. And it’s good reporting, because it’s one more chance to talk to that source, kind of like a second interview.

More often than not, in my vast reporting experience (I’m kidding about the vast part, but serious about the frequency), the accuracy check yields better quotes and even more information, which you can either find time to fit into the story you’re about to publish, or keep on file for your next follow-up.

Occasionally, people want to tweak the wording of their quotes. Maybe they could have said something more eloquently. Maybe they got carried away when they talked to you the first time. Or maybe it suddenly dawns on them that going public about an issue could have serious repercussions for their personal or professional lives.

In most cases, the benefits of the accuracy check far outweigh the risks, which I see as: potential inconvenience, occasional awkwardness, and rarely a difficult ethical dilemma. This is journalism. And it’s life. It’s full of those risks, no matter what we do. I say we may as well do what we can to make sure we’re reporting about it accurately.

Far from “quote approval,” the accuracy check is a professional practice, not a trick in the old cat-and-mouse game. But, as far as that game goes, I think the press does its best work when we at least try to be the cat.