Old school journalism

Here are a few old school journalism things I hope our younger photojournalist find interesting or at least entertaining. There are printing processes, equipment and journalism terms that are no longer used while some are still among us but in different ways. I believe we need to know a little about where we came from in this unique profession.

Burn and Dodge
If you are a user of Adobe Photoshop you know about the “burn” and “dodge” tools. The burn tool, with an icon that looks like a hand giving the “A-OK,” darkens an area on a photo. The dodge tool, with an icon that looks like a lollypop, lightens an area. These are taken from dark room lab photo developing where light is shown through a negative onto photo-sensitive paper for a precise time to create the photo.

In days of yore, when a person in a photo lab wanted to lighten an area of a photo they held a little round piece of cardboard on a stick (the “lollypop”) and waved it over the developing paper, creating a momentary shadow and making that area lighter. If they wanted an area darker they would cup their hand leaving only a hole for a spot of light to get through (the “A-OK sign”) and the extra light would darken that particular area. It is cool that Adobe resurrected these terms when developing their famous photo manipulating software.

I never did dark room work and a predecessor of Photoshop was around when I got into journalism professionally, but printing was almost like Benjamin Franklin days when I was first learning journalism in high school.

My high school journalism by-line.
The term “typesetting” is used today when the appearance of a magazine, pamphlet, website page or newspaper is improved using various fonts, colors, type sizes, lines and photo placement. Typesetting, however, was a physical process of placing metal type by hand one line at a time. When I got into journalism in 1973 as a freshman in high school (Yes, Jennifer Retter, respected reporter and Ninja Journalism contributor, humans did walk the Earth back then), typesetting was already “modern” with a big machine called a Linotype. In journalism class, we typed our stories on a typewriter and made corrections and notations on the sheets of paper for the typesetter at the print shop. Such notations were to bold a word, enlarge headlines, make paragraph indentions and any corrections because there were no font selections and no spell checker on a typewriter.

The typesetter at the print shop re-typed the stories on the Linotype and metal letters and spaces fell from the type feeder snugly into a frame the size of the page. It was in this manner that a page was built and later “pressed” onto paper. Used type was melted down to be cast into new type. In another process, chemicals burned photo negatives onto metal and were placed in the frame to be part of the page. My journalism class took a field trip each year to the print shop to see this amazing machine and when I graduated my instructor gave me my “by-line” in metal type.

The term “15” and “30” are way old and few probably know about them. When typing a story to be sent to the print shop, every page had “-15-“ at the bottom if the story was continued on the following sheet and “-30-“ if it was the end. Even my old journalism teacher did not know how that came about as the way to signify to the typesetter when the story ended.

Feet Font
I can’t finish today without telling you why we use serif fonts. Serif means “feet” >and serif fonts looks like this< with slightly larger tips on the letters. This was used in those days of metal type and these tips on the letters insured the type would not wear down before the press was finished. We continue to use serif today as well as sans serif (“no feet”) because we are used to serif fonts like Times Roman and Century and find them easier to read in a body of text.

Here it is larger for you to see the little tips:
Serif Font, Sans Serif Font

You can watch a Linotype in action here.

I would love to read and share more journalism memories, old or new, from Ninja Journalism fans. Email me here.


Jennifer Retter: Using introversion as a weapon

I always enjoyed Jennifer Retter’s pleasant and reserved personality. Now I marvel at it. I hope you too read, learn and marvel – and share Jennifer’s post.

 "People opened up to her in ways they didn't for other powerful figures."
-Susan Cain, Quiet

introversion (n):

Introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits. Their disposition is frequently misconstrued as shyness, social phobia or even avoidant personality disorder, but many introverts socialize easily; they just strongly prefer not to. In fact, the self-styled introvert can be more empathic and interpersonally connected than his or her outgoing counterparts. – Psychology Today

Reporter and photojournalist Jennifer Retter.
People always guess I'm a teacher, for some reason. When I say I'm a reporter, the looks I get are priceless. As a soft-spoken, high-voiced young woman who routinely spends entire evenings reading and sipping coffee, people never guess I spend my 8-to-5s (and more) in a position they're used to seeing someone gutsy play TV.

Despite the lack that reserved and reporter don't go together in the media's perception of the world (and by this I mean fictional media), I've found that the two correlate quite well in the real world. It is highly possible to prefer smaller groups or alone, quiet time and be a successful reporter. Here’s how introversion actually aids the reporting process:

1. Finding the story in the mess

Introverts are listeners. Being introverted doesn't mean you avoid people entirely 24/7, it just means you draw energy from solitude. Being around people is fine, so long as it's not all day everyday and you have recharging time in between. When I'm in a conversation, I listen. I read people well. I'm not caught up in trying to get my point of view in or draw attention to myself. I'm just listening, listening for the important piece of information to catch my attention. That's how I find stories from listening to random people chatting with me about whatever to latching onto a subject's sentence mid-interview and using that as my angle.

Real-life example: I interviewed a local artist with a collection of his works in his hilltop home, which I trudged to planning to ask about his work and leave. Straightforward. However, I observed the sweet way his wife, Rosemary, led him into the room. I saw the way he looked at her and listened to how his voice fluctuated when he spoke to her.

I asked how he met her, thrown into my string of questions about museums. He told me the most perfect love story I've ever heard, about how they met in a hospital and walked down the street together for supplies, only to be photographed by a street photographer. He bought the picture, knowing that very day he never wanted to be separated from that girl. I asked if he still had the photo. He did. I noticed young Rosemary looked not unlike the paintings of girls in his living room. His muse. My story angle.

When the story ran in the paper, I delivered a copy to his mailbox at the foot of the hill. Three days later, he appeared at the newspaper office, handwritten note in hand, asking for a subscription.

"Throughout the years I have been interviewed by [names of five local papers] and I think you did the best job," the note read.

"No one ever asked about Rosemary," he told me.

2. One-on-one

Introverts thrive in one-on-one settings. Imagine, for example, a conversation between two extroverts. Animated, energetic, competing constantly for the attention. Flowing, but surface level. An interview subject who is an extrovert is no problem for the introvert or extrovert reporter, assuming you can get them to shut up in time for your next interview.

Now, an introvert subject is a different story entirely. If you're an introvert, you know that talking to an extrovert can make you clam up and revert to listening. An introvert -- especially an introvert with information you need -- needs to be comforted into sharing their words.

An extrovert can interview an extrovert, sure. But can they interview an introvert with success?

Introverts understand what it's like to feel uncomfortable as the center of attention. An introvert is more likely to delve deeper with a fellow introvert, even if they don't know it. One only gets more uncomfortable to share information if they think the other person isn't listening.

Real-life example: As the city where I work is centered around the school district, I spend a ton of time in classrooms, lunchrooms, at field days, you name it. Introverted adults are tough enough to pull questions from, but introverts kids are notorious for simply not speaking.

At a Girl Scout event, I had to interview a first grader representing her troop at a cookie drop. She saw me, camera in hand, and immediately clammed up. While her mom egged her to talk, talk, talk, I pulled her aside, and had her show me the cookie pile. I asked non-threatening questions – “Which cookies are your favorite? I like Thin Mints… What do those boxes look like? Oh, what a pretty green.” Subtly conveying I was on her side helped, and she smiled for a photo shortly after.

3. Empathy 

When your heart aches, who do you call: the bar-hopper who can fill you on the latest Kardashian gossip or the listener who will wipe your tears and hear what you have to say for as long as it takes you to get it out?

Introverts – especially INFJs, my type (myersbriggs.org, if you don’t know your type) – are huge proponents of empathy. We’re OK with wiping away tears from a close friend for the whole night if it means we don’t have to socialize with strangers at a bar.

So in this respect, the tough stories are the ones an introvert can master. An extrovert’s charm is no match for a tragedy, a death, or anything that involves talking to someone upset. A kind, quiet soul comforts the needy, opening them up to talk.

Real-life example: One of my all-time favorite articles I wrote was also the saddest. I interviewed a family going through a terribly tough time – the mother had been diagnosed with a mental illness and the father had heart problems with medications the family could not afford. Their two children suffered through homelessness and constantly feared for their dad’s health.

I never knew these sources’ names. I simply sat down in a room with the family at a local charity and asked them to tell me their story. With every bump in the road, I felt it, too. When I left, I literally felt as if I had been the one to desperately search for employment from the streets or fear that the next heart attack would be the last. Writing the story, then, came naturally.

No matter what any professor, friend, boss, colleague, whoever tells you about the pitfalls of introverts in public image careers, know that introverts carry their own set of worthy skills that made the reporting process special in its own way. Introverts see the world in a different way; it’s time people start respecting that.


Freedom of the Press

Many of us understand it, but a few journalists erroneously believe freedom of the press is the journalistic right to print whatever you want – a shield against retribution for slandering, printing incorrect information or stretching facts.

My favorite journalism teacher, Millie Thompson (bless you, Miss T), taught the First Amendment in a way that scared it into us. With hands on hips she leaned forward like a coach and gave the class a serious glare, “Freedom of the press, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Do you know what they all have in common? Anybody? Anybody?”

Freedom of the press is a myth if you believe it is a shield.

Here it is in the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Congress shall make no law abridging (to cut short, hinder or curtail) the press. In other words, Amendment One means the reporting of, access to, the printing of, distribution and all the things that make up reporting news will not be hindered by law.

Amendment One is one of the reasons every AP Stylebook has a section on how to execute a Freedom of Information Act request, so if a company, government entity, police department or institution withholds information from you, you have the legal means of forcing the release of that information.

You have the Constitutional right to report the news. However, you or your company may be held responsible in a civil court if you slander or stretch facts, and no amendment is going to protect you then.

That includes printing an advertisement with false information that slanders a company or an individual. Yes, in a paid advertisement. It also includes quoting a source giving false information without you also reporting the opposing side. I attended an informative seminar by the Texas Press Association featuring an attorney who specialized in press law and he put to rest many misconceptions about what some reporters, including myself at the time, thought they could do.

I worked with a young reporter at a daily that believed she and the paper were shielded from the consequences of what she wrote because of freedom of the press, even when she stretched the truth for the sake of a good story. When I prevented her from doing such things she would say “Freedom of the press!” like it was “Shazam!” and would make me allow her to slander. She claimed she was a journalism major, but how do you go through journalism school and not know the First Amendment to the Constitution? She needed someone like Miss T to scare it into her.

I covered another aspect of Amendment One in an earlier post HERE.



Jennifer Retter - The Hardest Story

Jennifer Retter is the primary reporter and photojournalist for The Community News in Parker County, Texas. The TCU Scheiffer School of Journalism graduate is a talented newswriter. However, her gift for speaking with and interacting with the people of her subjects makes her feature stories simply brilliant.


Jennifer Retter
I felt the story developing months before I had the nerve to tackle it. When the time came to tackle it, I gave it my all.

Over the summer, word came through that a well-known teacher in the community had passed away after a short, aggressive bout of cancer. She left behind a husband and four children: three girls and a boy, the youngest. Worst yet, she passed away on the boy’s eighth birthday.

While it was certainly a “newsmaker” in the community at the time, we simply did nothing besides run the obituary and a photo. The reasoning: the last thing a newly widowed husband and now sole parent of four children, we figured, had more important items to take care of then field calls from reporters.

A few months down the road, Homecoming festivities were underway at the local high school and the obvious feature story revealed itself: two of the daughters were nominated for the Homecoming Court.

Here are my tips on how I turned my hardest story into one of my most rewarding stories:

 1. Let your subject ease into the tough topics

Interviewing two daughters about their mother’s recent passing is certainly going to be no walk in the park, but you can at least make tough situations doable by letting your interview subject(s) decide how deep to take the conversation.

For example, instead of drilling in with a mom-centered question from the get-go, I asked about how they received their nominations, then eased into shopping for Homecoming dresses when they appeared comfortable, which naturally lent itself to a comment from them about their mother not being able to help. I let them mention her first, and my follow-up questions only probed so slightly.

2. Come as prepared as possible

After knocking out story after story, I got in the habit of never scripting interview questions. There simply wasn’t the time, and I felt experienced enough to wing most interviews. In fact, I even had a college professor who suggested we NEVER script interview questions; just let the conversation flow.

For a tough or emotionally difficult interview, however, it’s easier to over-prepare. Knowing that tears could flow at any time should be enough to remind you that you don’t want to sit there stumbling if your interview subject gets thrown off by emotion and your follow-up questions may no longer be appropriate. Prep enough soft, underhand toss questions to fill awkward breaks and get your subject feeling comfortable again.

3. Don’t get emotional; this is your job

As journalists, we often face emotionally difficult situations. In my short time as a news reporter, I watched a family sob as their home burned down – while I took pictures of the flames. But doing our jobs means putting that emotion into understanding your sources, not losing it in a breakdown of tears.

In my case, interviewing the two daughters wasn’t what got me first. It was the way the little boy, with the fresh memory of his mother’s death on his birthday, jumped up to shake my hand like a miniature gentleman when I came by.

4. Do the story justice

Unless a family member is a celebrity, it’s unlikely a family like the one in my story would ever see a mass-produced non-fiction account of a dear one’s passing. This is their one shot, and you better do it right.

When I wrote my story about the daughters on the Homecoming Court, I aimed for touching. After meeting the family, I saw their quiet strength and excitement for life during their darkest days. I knew it needed to be a story highlighting how the girls lived on in honor of their mother, who would have been thrilled to see them shine at Homecoming.

We ran with the story the week of Homecoming on the front page. I spent more time writing that story, tweaking every last word, to make sure it stayed true to its mission. After its publication, I was met with community members telling me the piece moved them to tears and a short, incredibly kind note from the father thanking me for making his daughters feel special.

P.S. The elder daughter won Homecoming Queen. We had the privilege of printing her photo again the following week on the front page under the title “All Hail the Queen.” She was pictured receiving her crown with a huge smile on her face as her proud father looked on.

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