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Q&A With NPR.org’s Eric Athas

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Boston on the day after the Boston Marathon bombings. Photo by Eric Athas.

Boston on the day after the Boston Marathon bombings. Photo by Eric Athas.

Eric Athas, a 2008 graduate of the UMass journalism program and a Digital News Specialist with NPR.org working out of Boston shared his thoughts today:
1. Where were you when the bombings occurred?
I was working in our offices, which are more than a mile away from the site of the bombings.
I stepped out to get a coffee when my sister, who also works in Boston, sent me this text message: “What happened at the marathon do you know?” I opened Twitter on my phone and immediately realized how bad things were. I left the cafe and headed back to the office.
On my way I passed by a firefighter who was already gearing up. He yelled to another firefighter, “There was a terrorist attack, let’s go!” Everything became real at that moment.
2. What were your first reactions?  Were you working?
My first reaction was, Who do I know who might be at the marathon and are they okay? Fortunately, friends and family are safe.
Later in the day I went to WBUR and helped with their social media coverage. If you haven’t visited WBUR.org, you should. They are doing an outstanding job covering this story, both on-air and online.
3.  How have you viewed the coverage?  Have you used social media?
When I returned to the office after first hearing the news, I watched television news while scanning Twitter. I already follow a strong set of local sources who I’m familiar with so I had a reliable stream of information to watch.
4. What are your thoughts today?
Of course there are so many questions right now about how this happened and who’s responsible. But I think the victims and their families are in everyone’s thoughts today.

Q&A With Runner’s World Editor Hannah McGoldrick

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This photo was taken from inside the press room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. This was taken when the first press conference with the Boston Police Department that took place across the street at the Westin. We were on lockdown from the moment the blasts went off until about 7 p.m. and were prohibited from leaving the building. The eerie part of this photo is the race clock was still running throughout everything, a constant reminder of how long the disaster was unfolding. Photo by Hannah McGoldrick

This photo was taken from inside the press room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. The eerie part of this photo is the race clock was still running throughout everything, a constant reminder of how long the disaster was unfolding. Photo by Hannah McGoldrick

Hannah McGoldrick graduated from the UMass Journalism program last May and quickly landed her dream job as an associate multimedia editor for Runner’s World.  When the bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, she was inside the press room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.

“We were on lockdown from the moment the blasts went off until about 7 p.m. and were prohibited from leaving the building. The eerie part of this photo (right) is the race clock was still running throughout everything, a constant reminder of how long the disaster was unfolding.”

Hannah was kind enough to take time out of her reporting today to do a Q&A with me:

1. Where were you when the bombings occurred?
I was in the press room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel when the bombings occurred. I had just finished my race recap of the U.S. Elite Women runners, including Massachusetts native, Shalane Flanagan, and filed it to my editor. I was there with two other editors and our web producer, as well as an editor from The Running Times. The press room is where the majority of the media watches the marathon on race day and elites are shuffled into the press conference room right after finishing, so once the building went into lockdown, the majority of the press on the scene was not allowed to leave. We knew about as much information as those who were watching TV from home.

 

2. What were your first reactions?  Were you working?
I was talking with my coworkers when we heard the two bombs go off. At first we thought maybe it was thunder and continued with our conversation. But, when one of the B.A.A. press reps came running into the room to declare the lockdown we knew it was serious and shortly after we found out it was a bomb near the finish line. My first reaction was, is all of our staff safe? We had four staff members running the marathon and we knew two of them hadn’t finished yet and one of them had just crossed the finish line. A Boston Globe reporter was sitting near me most of the day but he had been out at the finish when the explosions went off. He came running back in with his videocamera and was visibly upset, saying he had seen limbs and blood everywhere. We didn’t really know what to do. We tried to collect as much information as possible to get up on our website because we knew people would be coming to Runner’s World for answers.

 

3. How have you viewed the coverage?  Have you used social media?
WBZ was playing in the press room throughout the entire day and when the bombs went off that was our source for information, besides the press people from the B.A.A. We had one editor who was on the photo bridge at the finish when the bombs went off so we were able to get a first-hand account from him. We were cautious about what we put out on our personal and official social media accounts. My editor first made sure we contacted our loved ones so they would know we were OK. It was hard to get information out and to get information in in terms of coverage, but we tried to get the most accurate, and officially confirmed information on our website. We did not need to make any corrections or redactions.

 

4. What are your thoughts today?
Today has been tough. I’m still trying to process everything that happened but I also have a job to do. As a journalist, my job right now is to stay calm and report as many facts as I can confirm. I’m working mostly on the local angle, what local running clubs are doing to help, how people can show support, as well as providing back up and ledes for our news editor. But as a Bostonian and a runner, I feel as though my family has been attacked. I can attest that both the Boston community and the running communities are full of strong, resilient people and we will get through this, but it’s not going to be easy. I am grateful no one from my team was hurt as a result of this tragedy but my heart just breaks for those who were.

UMass Journalism Graduate Finds Himself in the Eye of Storm Coverage

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An onlooker is shown here taking photos of the flooding of a parking lot at the edge of the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J. — Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan.

S.P. Sullivan, a 2010 graduate of the UMass Journalism program,  has been reporting on Hurricane Sandy for NJ.com since the storm hit.  He took time from his busy schedule to do a Q&A via e-mail:

Question:  Tell me about your weekend.  You were in Sunderland this past weekend and had to return to New Jersey.  At what point did you realize you had to head back?

Sullivan:  I was trying to have a relaxing weekend in Western Massachusetts, but I had been in on a conference call between government officials in the county I cover, their Office of Emergency Management staff and municipal officials, so even on the drive up Friday night I was already anxious about the storm. Sunday rolled around and I asked the weather guy at our sister paper, The Star-Ledger, when I should come back. He said things were going to get pretty bad pretty early Monday, and he was right.


Q: When did you start reporting?  What were conditions like?

Sullivan:  Friday, I guess. We knew something was coming, and I had written a story about a major investment a Boys & Girls Club that sits right on the Saddle River made in flood infrastructure for our Hurricane Irene anniversary package, so on Friday I followed up with them to see how they were prepping for the storm. Then I took part in that conference call with the county and wrote a story about country-wide preparations, recording it off my iPhone and embedding an MP3 for anyone interested in hearing how their elected officials were handling things.

I oversee two other reporters in the county, and they each work a weekend shift, so they covered Saturday and early Sunday. I even went on a hike Sunday afternoon.

By Sunday evening, my girlfriend Rosie and I were making a mad dash back to Jersey, and the county was holding another conference call, so I came up with an elaborate scheme where I piped my iPhone into my audio recorder using one stereo cable (the kind you use to listen to your iPod in the car), and then piping the recorder into the car’s audio system using another. That way, I was able to listen to the call through my car stereo as I drove, and then was able to again embed the call in the story I wrote Sunday night after we got back.


Q: Were you filing text/video and images?
Sullivan: We were filing text fast and furious. Each county had its own live blog starting early Monday morning, and I was in charge of the blog for Bergen County, though each of us in the county took shifts maintaining it. That page served as a clearing house for all storm-related coverage in the county, providing time-stamped links to our stories as we filed them, as well as mini-updates from various agencies and photos and stories we were getting from our users via e-mail and social media.

I did manage to get out on Monday afternoon to capture the swelling of the Hudson River (I live in the Palisade Cliffs, overlooking the Hudson), and did a quick story from there. Things were moving so fast that the focus was more on photo than video, so I actually didn’t shoot any video during the storm. It was lots of quick updates and lots of photos.


Q: What role did social media play in your reporting?

Sullivan: Major events like this storm or the tornado in Springfield in 2011 really bring out the value in social media as a tool for journalism. I was able to post quick updates and photos from the field on my Twitter account, which the other staff could then cull for use in our live blog, and on Tuesday, when everybody, myself included, lost power, one of my reporters went to one of the hardest-hit areas and was able to get photos up on Twitter. Internet service was almost non-existent, so he was phoning in dictation to me and I was pulling photos from his Twitter feed for use in his stories.

Then of course there was the instant feedback from people in our communities: We got information on school closures, photos and updates on power outages in parts of the county we weren’t able to get to , all from our Facebook and Twitter accounts, which we maintained throughout the storm. Our live blog became a mini social network of its own, too, with a lot of useful information from readers posted in the comments or emailed to the address we posted on the page.


Q: What’s the experience been like overall?

Sullivan: Taxing. The three of us cover the most densely-populated county in the state, with almost a million residents, so keeping up with the live blog and getting out into the field as much as possible is daunting. Monday night into Tuesday morning was tough, because the majority of our staff lost power, so we were running on battery life and mifi cards. We escaped the worst of it in North Jersey, and many of our reporters in South Jersey couldn’t get online Tuesday morning, so I was even helping out with coverage of the devastation in Atlantic City from my outpost up north.

It was also a lot more challenging to physically cover the storm than it was to cover the Springfield tornado, because the tornado came and was gone in a matter of minutes, whereas the storm was stretched over days. Springfield is also a lot more compact, so getting around Bergen, which has a lot of major highways which were closed or washed-out, was difficult. So it’s been frustrating not getting out into the thick of it as much, but staying glued to a computer trying to get people the most recent updates and important information is a service in of itself. Live storm and election coverage have kind of become specialties of mine, so it’s gonna be a busy week.

Why Is Everyone So Pissed Off?

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“Why Is Everyone So Pissed Off?”

We see it everywhere. From Facebook to Twitter and e-mail: People seem really pissed off — and aren’t shy about being rude and crude in public discussions. Overall, civil discourse seems to be the exception, not the rule. And, well, I’m kind of wondering why. I have my own theories but in the fine tradition of crowdsourcing, was wondering what people think. And, this is research. I’m mulling at least a blog post and possibly a larger piece.

So, have at it. Agree/Disagree? Any research out there you can point me to?

Feel free to weigh in on the comments board here or e-mail me directly.

NPR’s Mark Stencel to visit UMass as first Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence

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Mark Stencel, NPR’s managing editor for digital news, will be joining UMass journalism students and faculty during the week of April 16 as the program’s first Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence.

Stencel’s visit will be highlighted by a public discussion on Wednesday,  entitled “This Just In: News and Context in Digital Time,” where he will analyze the rapid changes occurring in the news business and how these changes affect the future of the business of journalism.  The talk will be in Room 227 in Herter Hall and will begin at 7 p.m.

“Journalism is looking forward to having Mark with us for a week,” said Program  Director Karen List.

“The depth and diversity of Mark’s experience will allow him to add significantly to our continuing conversation on Journalism and its place in society.  And that conversation is a perfect tribute to Howard and the legacy he’s left this program.  We’ll make sure it continues in the years ahead as we bring in a wide variety of journalists, including many of our own distinguished alums.”

Stencel’s bio is extensive and his career has spanned both the digital and print worlds.  His bio reads in part:  “Since Stencel joined NPR in 2009, the network has been recognized as one of industry’s leading digital news services, honored with the 2011 Eppy award for best journalism website from Editor & Publisher, a 2010 National Press Foundation award for excellence in online journalism, two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a Peabody award, and the 2011 Webby and People’s Voice awards for news from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.”

Stencel’s visit is being made possible by funds from the Journalism Program’s Howard Ziff Lecture Series, created upon Ziff’s retirement from UMass in the Fall of 1998. In the early 1970s, Ziff facilitated the move of journalism into a separate degree program called Journalistic Studies (later called the Journalism Department) in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

During his visit, the digital pioneer will visit a number of different beginning and upper-level journalism classes.  Most professors are opening up their classes for visitors but you should check beforehand if you want to sit in.  Mark’s schedule:

April 17

9:30-11 a.m.           Newswriting with George Forcier (DuBois 720)

12:30-2:30 p.m.    All Faculty Lunch to discuss Journalism’s Future (107 Bartlett)

3:35-6 p.m.             Business of Media with Marc Berman (Bartlett 312)

April 18:

9:05-10:30 a.m.           Introduction to Multimedia with BJ Roche (DuBois 767)

11:30-1 p.m.                Lunch at Faculty Club with students

1:25-3:20 p.m.           Magazine Writing with BJ Roche (767 Dubois)

3:35-5:30 p.m.           Newswriting with Mary Carey (767 Dubois)

7-9 p.m.                       Public Talk, “Instanews:  Depth and Context in Motion” (227 Herter)

April 19

9:30-10:45 a.m.             Introduction to Journalism withDavid Perkins and Journalism Ethics with Karen List (301 Bartlett)

11:15-12:30 p.m.            Multimedia Journalism with Steve Fox (107 Bartlett)

2:30-3:45 a.m.               Investigative Journalism & the Web with Steve Fox (107 Bartlett)

The Carnival Takes Off

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I always enjoyed carnivals growing up.  You never knew what to expect — new games, rides, foods just around the corner.   And, such an eclectic group of people that often looked and acted strangely 🙂

I think what David Cohn had in mind when he re-started the Carnival of Journalism was bringing together a diverse group of folks who would exchange ideas and maybe shake things up in the process. Cohn got just that Wednesday when a Google Groups discussion between Carnistas ranged over a variety of topics, spanning over two days and 70 e-mail exchanges.

The extended thread prompted this reply from the rad one:  “This thread brought tears to my eyes 😉  I never want to dictate where the Carnival goes – I just wanted to create a forum where once a month we can tackle the same topic.”

It all started with a relatively simple question from Lisa Williams, one of my favorite “new media” types out there:

I’m a judge for the Online Journalism Awards this year.

When I did it last year, one of the things that captivated me was that the discussions between the judges revealed that our basic ideas of what “good” is when it comes to journalism are changing because of the web and mobile technology.

I’d love to do a question about what we SHOULD be rewarding when we’re handing out prizes for the **Online** News Association — but I need a little help writing the question.

My sense is that the Online Journalism Awards have to be about more than solid reporting or social impact; the winners should reflect what we believe is excellent in the use of the web or mobile technology, too.

A relatively simple question, but the answers prompted a conversation that spanned criteria for contests to what makes for a successful business model to Thomas Jefferson.  It was a classic “online discussion” — starting on one topic and branching off into a variety of areas.

At one point, Chris Anderson commented on the idea that innovation and experimentation were more welcome in academia than in the news industry:  “I might say that academia currently (temporarily?) has more money to do more things than the journalism profession at the moment, and that the ability to ‘innovate’ in academia is primarily (paradoxically?) a consequence of that historical anomaly known as ‘tenure.’ Since we’re going all off topic here ;-)”

Lisa’s reply:  “Off topic forever, baby!”

Lisa’s original query promoted some interesting replies, including:

Mark Plenke:

“Number one for me is using the right storytelling tool for the job. A good site uses text and graphics to explain, video to illustrate and capture action and emotion, audio to bring interviews alive, interactive graphics to illustrate a process and involve viewers, social media and polls to involve visitors and get them to participate. I think understanding this is what makes a great online editor. Too many sites don’t get this.”

Anna Tarkov made a number of interesting points during the discussion, including this:

“I would add that engaging your readers substantively (not just: send
us a photo! like us! follow us!) is important as well as being open
and transparent about the news gathering and reporting processes. This
is still mostly not done, to the detriment of both news orgs and news
consumers.”

Tanja Aitamurto sought some clear criteria:

“Whether awarding exploration i.e. trying out new things, and bringing value to journalism that way or success (usually involves risk taking than the former option): solutions where technology is used in an efficient fashion and increases transparency in journalistic practices.”

Paul Bradshaw:

“I was one of the judges on the Press Association’s Regional Press Awards and as the title was ‘digital innovation’ that’s what we looked for – something that pushed the form forward. I also took into account whether they were having to produce to a deadline (the winner was a piece of live data journalism), how sustainable the innovation was, and how it played not just online but in print as well.”

J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer made some important points along the same lines:

It seems to me that an important component is whether a new idea actually “works.”   Cool tools are nice.  Advances in new processes for doing journalism are great.  New ways to tell stories are still being invented.   But who paid any attention?  Did it actually engage audiences? Prompt interactions? Have impact?  Or are we still at risk of talking to ourselves?

University of Nebraska Dean Gary Kebbel (an ONA judge with Lisa) also weighed in on the opportunities available in academia:

“And although we at the University of Nebraska are trying to get on the innovation path, I’m regularly reminded how, well, academic, our thoughts can be when we try to tell news organizations here’s what they should be trying. But an active combo of innovative J profs who get news and digital tools and who know how to make that into digital news tools – in combination with newsroom editors grinding it out every day with no budget – seems to me a great way to work on creating the new culture of innovation and culture of constant change that we need.”

Geoffrey Samek became passionate when some (me) wondered whether ONA was becoming too focused on gadgety gimmicks:

“Over focus on technology? It is an award focusing exclusively on “online” and a big part of that is technology and how tech changes journalism. ONLINE! Collection and innovative processes that take place in the real world are by definition offline….In a world where tech is flying forward at an exponential rate, journalism’s baby-step technological advances are killing me.

Journalism is about informing the community for positive change by collecting, reporting and inevitably organizing information in compelling ways. Technology has an enormous ability to aid in the organization of information. Tech allows for assembling and displaying information in unheard of ways. When humans use new tech to do that, then they are fully taking advantage of Online Journalism.”

Michael Rosenblum suggested profitability as a criterium, which took the discussion into another direction:

“I will never understand the inherent antipathy most journalists have toward making money.  It is in our DNA, strangely, and it is incredibly self-destructive.  The ‘Internet Revolution’ took place not only on our watch but on our turf.  Most of the primary online start-ups were largely journalism/information based.  Yet we stood by idly as others benefited from 100+ years of our labor to lay the groundwork.  What is Craigslist but an iteration of the newspaper classifieds.  What is Google, in fact, but ‘all the news fit to print’.  Movies are replete with our own image of ourselves: note Russell Crowe as a newspaper journalist in State of Play:  unshaven, generally drunk, drives a crap car, hard working, dedicated but poor.  What is our problem here?  If we OWN the product we can call the shots.  And we CAN own the product.  But we have to embrace the notion of making money and building businesses as a good not an evil.”

A few took issue with Michael’s point, including myself:

“@Michael — I take your point but not sure there is the antipathy you reference today, judging by the number of pieces being written daily in the ‘Paywalls are Stupid’ vs. ‘Paywalls Will Save The World’ debate.  Making money is very much on the minds of journalists these days.  But, to get back to Lisa’s original question, we’re talking about rewarding journalism, not the making of money.  Although, I wonder whether ONA should have a separate award for ‘Innovative Business Models’ — something beyond trying to reinvent the wheel with paywalls.”

And Dan Gillmor:

“I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the percentage of journalists who believe this (‘profit is evil’)  is higher than the percentage of the entire population that believes it.”

And Lisa Williams:

“As someone from the tech industry — where we have few of the internal conflicts about money I observe among journalists, I’m not sure that I would put profitability as a criteria for an award series about innovation.

Many people are under the misapprehension that Silicon Valley startups are primarily concerned with making money. This is not true: they’re about getting big (by growing their userbase). In fact, many “successful” startups lose huge quantities of money for years (*cough* twitter *cough*). The idea is to get big and then sell the entire company to a large publicly traded company at a profit.

That’s not always the same as making money either (witness News Corp’s buyout of MySpace, basically a billion dollars down the drain).

If Twitter was judged on the same basis as the Guardian’s local experiment, it would be history. Most mature companies and industries don’t have the stomach for five years of multimillion dollar investment at a loss that the tech industry does, particularly when there’s no exit market (who will the Guardian sell the Local to?).”

And Daniel Bachhuber:

“Responding to Michael’s point of profitability, I think a better
criterium is “viability”. News organizations should be awarded for
intelligent internal technology investments they’re committed to for
the long term. I’d love there be the proper incentives (e.g.
journalism awards) for news executives to support visions like Matt
Waite’s
.

And, much much more….

The good news?  This discussion will continue.  Lisa will be the wrangler for next month’s Carnival of Journalism.  The topic?   You guessed it….more of the same.

Q&A With Nancy Cohen

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This shelter is at Central High School in Springfield. About 200 people are there They're looking for donations of socks, t shirts, towels, baby wipes. (Courtesy of Nancy Cohen.)

Adjunct instructor Nancy Eve Cohen teaches Reporting and Writing for Radio and Podcasting at UMass.

Nancy is also the environmental reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio and the Managing Editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaboration of 20 public radio stations.

She’s been covering the aftermath of the Springfield tornado, producing several pieces including:

*  This report on tornado survivors for WBUR

*  “Clean Up Crews Get To Work in Springfield.”

An interview with Morning Edition host Ray Hardman

I recently caught up with her to get her thoughts on covering the tornado and its aftermath.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

I drove into Springfield the night of the tornado, a few hours later. There was a torrential rainstorm… every exit off the highway to Springfield was blocked so i wasn’t able to see much, but it prepared me for the next morning.  I knew it might be difficult to get where I needed to be when daylight came…

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

Shocked. I’ve been working in this business for a long time…even worked in a war zone… Sarajevo in 1992, but to see my own community ripped apart stunned me. The sheer force of the tornado was humbling

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

I managed to be in the right place at the right time on Thursday. Some of that was planning, some was assertiveness, some was dumb luck.

I got to one of the Red Cross shelters at 5:00 AM and snagged the last legal parking place. You couldn’t drive anywhere so it was key to stage oneself as close as possible.

When I walked into the shelter people were sleeping. I heard snoring, a few people were crying quietly. A baby was whimpering. A few people walked around wrapped in blankets, smoking.

One young woman said she had just paid her landlord before the tornado hit. Now she had no money and no place to live. A man in a wheelchair described waking up that morning in the shelter and realizing where he was and what had happened. His building was destroyed and he was worried his apartment would be looted. But he had no way to get there and little hope of finding another accessible apartment.

Many of the people had little to begin with and now they had even less.

After interviewing several of the survivors I went outside and walked south until I hit a police block. I talked to the police and they pointed out a man getting out of the car who turned out to be Senator Scott Brown. I had the chance to talk with him for a while. Then Governor Deval Patrick showed up along with Senator Kerry and the mayors of Springfield and Westfield.  I interviewed each of them and then, along with a gaggle of press, followed the politicians as they surveyed the damage on foot.

After the officials left a photographer friend and I talked our way past the police to some of the worst hit places.

I got some incredible interviews with two people who lived through the tornado…one took shelter in a closet inside, but the wind was blowing so hard the door almost blew away. Another saw a roof flying through the air “like the Wizard of Oz”  A building inspector examining the damage said it was a miracle not more people were killed “God Looked over the city and protected the people.”

Today, Friday I went to a new shelter that had been set up. I  spoke with a family who were from Somalia. They had come to Springfield a year ago after spending 12 years in a refugee camp. The 25 year old mother of four told me her new situation– homeless after the tornado— reminded her of being in the camp.  “It’s like when we fled from our country … We feeling like refugee all over again. We don’t have nothing now.”

One woman told me she had broke down crying the night before. ” I finally realized. like this is serious. I can’t go back to my home. Like this is it for us.”

I left the shelter and drove to a suburban neighborhood that was also hit. There was an army of utility trucks installing new telephone poles that had been snapped in half. There were damaged trees everywhere. Big ones. One house had several huge trees broken and splayed across the roof.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

None. This was old fashioned, on foot, on-the-ground from early morning until my deadline loomed.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

I haven’t had time to see a lot of other people’s work yet. I haven’t really stopped, but I’m about to.

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