I prefer to do interviews at a subject’s home, place of business or a location familiar to the subject. This helps the person to be comfortable and open up to me and it allows more opportunities for good pictures and not just ho-hum headshots.
Be respectful. You are on someone’s turf, so show respect for your surroundings and to people and don’t poke around where not invited and. If there are cute kids around, don’t goochie goochie with them but say hello and redirect your attention to your subject.
Be punctual. Get an early start if you are finding a place you have never been before. Even when I am running on time I often give the subject a phone call when I am getting close to make sure they are home and ready for me, “Hi, this is Chris from the paper coming to meet you at 2:30. I wanted to tell you I am 15 minutes away and looking forward to meeting you.”
Be casual... Don’t make it all a question and answer session, but allow the subject to talk and let the conversation go where the subject wants to take it. Be ready to note good quotes. If a subject offers you something to drink you say yes. This will improve your brief relationship.
…but stay on subject. I have had interviews where the subject was happy to have company and the conversation jumped all over the place except for where it needed to go for too long. This is OK for a while, but in time you have to respectfully and tactful get back to the subject, bring the visit to a close and get back to the office.
Don’t overstay your welcome. On the other hand, I have enjoyed the company of a subject so much I had to remind myself to bring the interview to a close and leave.
Don’t be overwhelmed with the awesomeness of a person, their title or the coolness of the story. Remember, they may be awesome, but you are a Ninja.
File the contact information. You may need them again.
Professional bull rider
Pistol Robinson
Stay alert. Look for small details that can add atmosphere to your story, like sound, movement or a reaction to a question.
I did a story on professional bull rider Pistol Robinson back when he was in high school. I met the rising rodeo star at his parent’s ranch-like home on land outside Alvarado, Texas and we relaxed in rustic chairs on his front porch. At one point in the interview I asked the young cowboy if he had ever been seriously hurt bull riding. He looked long and silently at his right boot perched on the rail and painfully flexed his ankle up and down, the heal of his boot creaking against the wood. After another pause he rubbed his boot and said, “I’m always healing up from something,” I described his answer exactly like that in the story.


Story: A Peaceful Storm

Today I share with you one of the many amazing people I have had the pleasure to meet. I hope you have a wonderful day.

A Peaceful Storm
Christopher Amos
The Alvarado Star
January 7, 2010
There is something special about Stormi.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see she has severe cerebral palsy ­­­– her movements are staccato, her arms twisted, her speech is strained and a wheel chair is her only mobility. However, there is something special about Stormi that might not be noticed unless you know her well, and those that do are profoundly affected.
Stormi Morris’ condition has made life a challenge. However, the Alvarado High School senior did not let that stop her from studying, competition and achieving – as much as possible – with her fully-abled friends and classmates.
With the help of her parents Chris and Lana Morris and a school district accommodating for students with special needs, Stormi has achieved more than many students with similar restrictions. When she tried out for and made the sixth-grade choir, it was a pleasant surprise. Six years later when she made varsity choir and then earned a position with the award-winning Alvarado Honors Chorale, some people were astonished.
Choir director Edward Smith was not at all surprised.
“Stormi has to try harder. She puts in more effort and more hours than any student I know, and that is what varsity choir is all about,” Smith explained. “Oh, yeah. She hits wrong notes and comes in at incorrect times, but so does everybody else sometimes.”
Smith and assistant choir director, Fran Leddy, oversee the choir program throughout the school district, and having a special needs student in the fold has not deterred them from giving adequate attention to all of their students.
“Treating special needs students like peers is exactly what integrating them into life is all about,” Smith said. “To tell you the truth, I believe having Stormi in the choir has helped us as much as we have helped her. The students agree and will not perform without her.”
Her parents would beg to differ on who is receiving the greater benefit.
“I can’t begin to express what the directors mean to Stormi and to us,” Lana said. “All her life she wanted to sing and all Stormi thinks about is singing in the choir. The directors have been so good to her. I can’t begin to tell you what they have done for her.”
She must learn everything by hearing, retain it to memory and be tested orally, because she can’t see or write.
“She is legally blind,” her mother explained. “Her eyes move constantly and she can’t focus on words or music, so she has to memorize everything.”
One day in sixth-grade choir, Stormi began vocalizing words properly for her first time. When her director, Leddy, heard her words, it brought her to tears – not because of Stormi’s progress, but because the words were so profound for the struggling girl in the wheel chair.
The choir was singing a selection from The Littlest Mermaid:
Up where they walk.
Up where they run.
I wish I could be part of that world.

Chris Morris knows Stormi cannot sing like her peers, but he knows his daughter has inner talent that makes up for her physical limitations.
“I know she doesn’t sing like the other varsity singers supposed to, but she has the heart of a varsity singer,” he said while distributing choir concert posters to area businesses before the group’s Christmas concert. “It is all because of the school district and directors like Mr. Smith and Miss Leddy that Stormi has a chance to do this, and choir has given her purpose in life.”
Smith credits Stormi’s parents for their diligence with their child. Her parents, however, believe Stormi is simply a hard working student that has been giving an exceptional opportunity.
“We always told her she can do anything she wanted to do, and choir has made our promise to her come true," her mother said.


Ask, and you will often receive

Jennifer Retter
Ninja Journalist
Today I visited with Ninja Journalist Jennifer Retter, the primary reporter for the Community News in Parker County where I worked years ago. Jennifer is more skilled than I was at her point in her career and is not only an entertaining and informative writer, but also uses her Ninja skills to gain access to stories other journalists will only read about.

We talked about the “story behind the story” – the how-to of getting the great story – and it made me think of a simple yet important point I practice:

It never hurts to ask!

It takes a little personality and a lot of courage, but a good journalist has the guts and gumption to walk right up to a stranger, introduce themself and ask. Many times you will receive.

I was covering an ongoing story of the construction of a new high school campus and was challenged to come up with a new story angle and interesting picture every two weeks. One week the campus’s water well was being drilled with a large tower in a field, so I introduced myself respectfully to a grizzly-looking worker in a hardhat, offered him a cold water, and at some point in the conversation asked, “Hey, can I go up there and take a picture of you on the ground?” I was shocked when he said “yes.” I was also a terrified because it was one of the few days I wore sandals, but I was not going to back down. I would have been safer in high heals, so I secured my camera over my shoulder, meekly ascended a skinny metal ladder to the top of the tower, hooked my arm in the ladder and told the man on the ground to cross his arms and look up at me. Man, it was a great picture, and all I had to do was ask.

On another occasion, I was doing a story about Texas Department of Public Safely Trooper John Forrest of Weatherford, Texas. Forrest, now retired after 43 years of service, had a reputation of making large interstate drug busts. He provided me many opportunities for stories, but the grinning post-bust pictures posing with hundreds of pounds of pot he provided were redundant and corny. I wanted more, so I asked.

I knew I was in trouble when I questioned him about the missing back bumper on his cruiser. “I knocked it off so many times the shop quit putting it back on,” he said as I buckled myself in. He explained his success lies in making as many calculated stops on suspicious 18-wheelers as possible, and then stepped on the gas. We shot down I-20 at an even 90 miles per hour for about 60 frightful second, braked hard into a fishtail turn in the grass median, and sped off the other direction to stop on an 18-wheeler. A few questions later he jumped back into the car, peeled out at 90 miles per hour and did the same thing the other direction. He did this over and over again skidding sideways in medians and speeding down the highway and I was petrified in terror. I took a few pictures of him in the cruiser and at stopped trucks and then asked him to take me back to my vehicle. “We’re just getting started,” he said disappointingly. I have done a lot of crazyass things in my life. But I swore that day I would never ride with Forrest again.

Those are just two of my funny stories about what happens when you ask, but my lesson is just to ask “Can I ride with you?” “Can I take your picture?” “Can I go inside.” “Can I come along?” I asked that last question while doing a story on a band on tour. Very cool.

PS.  In December 2011, a burglar broke into the Forrest home at 1 a.m. The 65 year old underwear-clad retired trooper drew his weapon and commanded the crook to lay down. He didn’t, and Forrest shot him as he lunged at him, but the fool lived to go to jail. Trooper Forrest, you are one badass dude.


AP Style

I have a like-hate relationship with the Associated Press Stylebook. I sure don’t love it, but I like it because one needs a standard to follow so your writing and style is consistent one story to the next, one week to the next, in sync with other writers of your office and with those of other magazine, web news, company newsletter or whatever publishing you do.  It looks sloppy to the reader if your terms, capitalization or punctuation is not consistent or is incorrect.

Buy one, brief yourself with it, keep it near your computer and refer to it often. A new addition comes out each year and in my opinion there are not enough changes to warrant a brand new one each year, but buy one three years old or less and toss the old one when it is over five years old. You can buy a slightly used one for about 10 bucks and a new one cost about $25. The book contains much more than technical word usage, like newsgathering conduct, privacy, media law and copyright infringement. Get one, read it and use it.

The book changes slightly each year because new words come into use, words magically combine into compound words, and trends change the terms we use. When I first studied journalism, the word fireman had just been done away with in favor of fire fighter, because more women were

entering that field. Then fire fighter became firefighter. Another example of term changes is the word Indian, which was put aside long ago and the term American Indian was used for many years. The current AP Style prefers Native American, which I disagree with because Hawaiians and Eskimos are also natives in America. I lost that argument to another editor proofing a story of mine, but I didn’t edit it and left it American Indian. Bad boy.

For the most part, the few things in the AP Stylebook I don’t agree with I still follow. However, I am still not sold on capitalizing the word internet, because nobody can explain to me how internet fits the definition of a proper noun. Even the title AP Stylebook is wrong. What right does the Associated Press have to create their own unique compound word? It should be "AP Style Book."
Hyphenated words are a pain to keep up with. "Cover up" can be "cover-up" depending if it is a noun or a verb. I hyphenate co-worker but some AP Stylebooks differ depending on the addition you have and my 2009 book leaves the word out. To me, coworker looks like it would read “cow orker” at a glance, so I hyphenate it. In the same way, compound words sometimes are used incorrectly.  Here is a link to a list of 190 common compound words. I like this list because cow orker is not on it.
And for gosh sakes, don't use this blog as a guideline to style!

#journalism #reporter


Look Past The Obvious

DQ Down in Flames
Don't let the action distract you from getting the real story or the real picture.

A big lesson came from a blunder I made covering a Dairy Queen that burned. Everyone made it out safely after a griddle fire got out of control, so this was just basic coverage of a business going down in flames. I arrived on the scene quickly and as my nature is, begun immediately popping off a few pictures of firefighters and smoke. Tip: When you arrive on scene of anything, be it a fire or a retirement party, you want to shoot the first few good things you can in case the situation or mood changes and there is nothing good to photograph two minutes later. You can get better pictures later. By the way, I always use a long lens when shooting accident, fires and incidents – remember the Ninja ability of invisibility?
Continuing, after taking my initial shots I snuggled next to two women in the parking lot wearing Dairy Queen uniforms and chatted with them about what happened. Note: Always identify yourself in a friendly way when you approach people to get information. It is bad practice to gather information from people when they don’t know you are a reporter and what they say may appear in print. I jotted down the information from the women about the griddle and shot a couple more pictures of the firefighters going in and out of the smoke. While I shot, one of the women with her hand to her mouth remarked mournfully “What are we going to do, Deb? Where are going to work?”
I wished them luck and hurried back to the office to work on my pictures and story.
It wasn’t until the paper was printed and I read my story that I thought, “What a dumbass I am!” I did not see though walls like a Ninja. I covered the obvious and I let the action distract me from the real story. What I should have featured in my report was standing right next to me and I missed it. I needed to tell the story about the two women. What was it like working at that DQ? How important to them was that job? What are they feeling watching their livelihood go up in smoke? Had I done that, the story would have really rocked the reader and might have even helped those two women get new employment, but I blew it by letting the action keep me from seeing the real story. Fail.
The same is true with a sport event. Sure, you get the picture of the football player crossing the goal line and all that obvious stuff, but don’t forget to look around for the real story – the excitement, the conflict and the passion.
When shooting sports I often capture the action and immediately turn to my note book to record jersey numbers, scores and details, but I noticed in doing so I sometimes missed the chance to get a picture of the drama, excitement and intensity of the game. One time I made a determined effort not to quit when the action stopped and it played off big time.
It was a women’s softball playoff game and I was shooting from the dugout. After coming from behind and tying the game in the last inning, a batter put down a beautiful bunt to score a runner from third. I anticipated the play and got a great shot of the slide at home with dust flying as she scored the winning run. However, I purposefully kept the camera to my face and stepped out from the shelter of the dugout and literally said to the back of my camera, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And it came. The girl hopped up from the slide and leaped high with her fist slugging the air and both legs behind her and let out a wide-eye scream. I captured the picture at the perfect moment leaping in the air and the disappointed catcher kneeling in the background. The dugout emptied, “We won! We won!” and I hopped up and down, “I got the shot! I got the shot!”


Channel Your Inner Ninja

Channel Your Inner Journalism Ninja
I don’t actually call myself a Ninja. However, I often called upon super Ninja powers when faced with freighting deadlines, imposing writer’s block, stubborn subjects that didn’t want to talk and blank upper fold front pages. I felt the supernatural powers come upon me both with creative opportunities and horrible hurdles. In actuality, I believe the supernatural feeling was me believing I was a badass reporter, photographer and writer and I had the ability and experience to get the job done impressively no mater the obstacle – at least in most cases.
I hope you feel adrenalin rushes like I do when faced with creative challenges. By super Ninja powers, I mean abilities that come with experience, confidence and learning from one’s mistakes. Once acquired, abilities can be chosen from like a chest of weapons waiting for your review, approval and selection. Real Ninja abilities, like stealth (knowing when to shut your mouth), passing through walls (gaining access to places normal reporters can’t), invisibility (staying the heck out of the way), the ability to see things others can’t (stop looking at the obvious to find the real story/picture), and the ability to move with lightning speed (consolidating your time and using interview and reporting tips to speed up the process while getting superior results).
I had a long and interesting career as a newspaper reporter, photographer, writer and later editor, and I did a darned good job and have a wall of plaques to prove it. What I liked most was the challenge to get the job done creatively while often overcoming challenging situations and against difficult deadlines. I did a good job because I had good people to learn from in my early years and as I gained experience I also gained confidence. Confidence is a good thing when you use it for good and not evil.
So get your Ninja outfit on and grab your notebook and camera.


Ninjas Have Multiple Skills

I am a strong believer in being multitalented and believe that no matter what your job is, the most useful journalist is one that is proficient in reporting, writing and photography. And I mean various areas of writing and various areas of photography; hard news, features, sports, columns, city beat, even ad photography. You can’t be a Ninja in every field, but don’t excel in one and be a dunce in all the others.

My weakest talent was column writing because I don't normally care to express my opinions in the paper and, most importantly, it cut into my time. After I became the editor in a newspaper group, the corporate owners in another state required each newspaper to have one editorial column a week. They believed (I strongly disagree) the thing readers love most is reading opinions. If you don’t know what columns are, they are regular appearing opinions on relevant subjects. Anyway, I was a bad boy and wrote only one column a month for my paper and I squeezed out a couple good ones and won a 2011 First Place Column Writing award from the North and East Texas Press Association, which helped me win the Sweepstakes Award that year. I found that hilariously ironic.

Excel in your best fields but learn a little of everything: reporting, news writing, feature writing, column writing, sports reporting, photography, page layout (“paginate” is the pretty word for it), editing and even graphics. Having proficiencies in different areas improves the things you are best at and increases job security by making you a more valuable employee. It also makes you aware of the big picture of what goes on with your paper and helps you be a better employee. If your strongest field is one kind of writing, learn other types of writing and for gosh sakes photography. On the other hand, if all you want to do is sports photography, you will be out of a job when a good sports photographer that can write and do a little page layout comes along.

Ninja tools.
I became all of it. It took a few years to learn multiple skills, but I did it with the help of key co-workers I was fortunate to be around.
The most worthless person in my office was a reporter who asked me to go take pictures of the person they just spent and hour with. “You were just there!" I said. Why didn’t you take pictures?” He played to my ego, “You do it so much better.“ Other lame excuses I have heard are “I don’t have a camera” and "I don't know how." Well, get a camera and learn how.
If you are a writer and not a photographer, get a simple camera and start taking pictures.The best way to begin is to look at other good photography and try to emulate those results. I will go in depth in future blog entries and also share steps to instantly being a better photographer. I will also share how to begin in other skills, such as graphics, sports, column writing, features and other groovy stuff. I am not going to move your hand on your mouse and show you what to do, but I am going to tell you how to start.
Back to being versatile.
Whatever you excel at, pursue excellence in that area with vigor. However, cross train in other areas. The best place to start is with your peers because people love to share about what they do well (that is why I am writing this blog), so ask people around you how they do their work. They will eagerly tell you. If you have no one to speak with in a field (or the person doing that job in your office is bad at it), find someone else you can learn from. The internet is a good place to learn, but starting with the people around you is best.

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