Monday, November 15, 2010

Sandy Rowe: Lessons from a life in news

One of the luxuries of working for Mizzou is getting to attend interesting campus lectures, including the Missouri Honor Medal master classes on Oct. 28. Below, I've posted my notes from the presentation given by Sandy Rowe, retired Oregonian editor and currently a Knight fellow at Harvard.

Rowe said her perfect newspaper would only have three types of stories:
  1. Kick-ass, original exclusives/investigative stories
  2. Stories on humanity built on character and details, the stories that make you want to laugh or cry
  3. Useful stories of high interest, such as explanatory pieces or news you can use
Her presentation focused on the first type, the most at danger in today's economy. She described these accountability stories as complex, high-risk, high-impact and original reporting. They're rarely about one thing; the best stories are at the intersection of topics and touch on what we value as a society/community. They require layered reporting. Of course, this is costly to newsrooms.

She said it's foolish to think that more money will come into media outlets to fund investigative reporting, and most bloggers don't have the resources or a wide distribution. So, what could keep investigative stories going? Rowe suggests that media have to stop serving their newsrooms rather than their communities first and form partnerships with nonjournalistic organizations, universities, public radio stations and nonjournalistic experts. Northeastern has an investigative seminar in which student stories are funneled to the Boston Globe. So far 16 student-reported stories have appeared on Page 1. Another newspaper formed a partnership with a librarian and three retired lawyers who were willing to do research. Even Facebook could help newsrooms find experts in their communities whom they could network with.

As an editor, she employed "prosecutorial editing" when her staff worked on high-risk stories that made the reporters feel both thrills and pure fear. In editing, she asked herself and the reporter:
  • Could the opposite of what we're writing be true?
  • Is there another explanation for this?
  • What don't I know that might change things?
She argued that investigative stories don't have to be five-part series. They can appear in several formats, including:
  • Breaking news: In "Confusion hampered search for Kims," which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, a team of Oregonian reporters pieced together details that not only provided a harrowing narrative of a family of four stranded and freezing in the Oregon woods but also evidence that rescue agencies failed terribly:
"In the end, the family was found by a volunteer pilot, one of several key breakthroughs achieved by people not connected to the official search. The confirmation that the family was south of Roseburg came from a citizen tipster; and the cell phone evidence narrowing the search was provided by amateur detectives at an Oregon wireless carrier.

Many of the key missteps came in Josephine County. The search-and-rescue coordinator now acknowledges she was overwhelmed by the demands of the search. She failed to call for help from the National Guard, which meant that heat-detecting helicopters stayed on the ground in the crucial two nights James Kim slept in the forest.

Her direct supervisor, an undersheriff in his last week on the job, said he ignored a late-night call from her about the case because he was watching an Oregon State football game on television."

  • Profiles: Oregon's governor and several members of Congress called for the resignation of David Beebe, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, after complaints of high numbers of Asians being rejected at the airport. The next day, Julie Sullivan convinced Beebe that there was more to his story than what had been reported, and she wrote "I have to be who I am," explaining Beebe's character and motivations.

"Last year, 94,000 "customers" approached the counter of the Portland INS. The line of immigrants, refugees, adoptive parents and newlyweds forms outside the stained stone walls of the unmarked federal building on Northwest Broadway as early as 7 a.m.

But Beebe is always there first.

Neighbors can set their watches by the 55-year-old civil servant: up at 3:45 a.m. for calisthenics, out the garage door by 6 a.m., in the office 14 minutes later in a dark suit and silk tie. Beebe is 6-foot-2, 170 pounds of self-discipline who controls high blood pressure through habit. He takes the stairs, never elevators. He takes walks, not lunch. He never has more than a single glass of wine. He trims his lawn Tuesdays and Thursdays, like clockwork."

  • Editorials: "All the lonely people" won the 2006 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. It uncovered the shortcomings of Oregon State Hospital, including a room with 5,000 unclaimed remains, and called for the legislature to fund improvements to mental health care services.
Rowe also suggested reversing the journalistic lens. Instead of localizing national stories, start with a local story. Follow it through; keep reporting on it. Chances are that the story touches onit an issue that will have larger implications and might turn into a regional or national story.

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