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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.

Carnival of Journalism: Talking to People IS a Life Hack!

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The question for this month’s Carnival:

“What are your life hacks, workflows, tips, tools, apps, websites, skills and techniques that allow you to work smarter and more effectively?


One of my favorite scenes in the Dead Poet’s Society is when Robin Williams tells his young students to stand on top of their desks.  It’s a lesson on seeing life from different perspectives, and not following the pack and doing what everyone else is doing.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan.  Usually in the middle of his concerts, Springsteen goes into a monologue, saying:  “I want you all to GET UP OUT OF YOUR SEATS…..”

So, how does this relate to work hacks?  Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

When I first saw this question from David Cohn, I thought of one word:  Twitter.   It’s become a place I turn to for information, updates, breaking news, etc.  But as I thought through the question,  I thought I would get radical on my buddy Dave.  I enjoyed Will Sullivan’s post as well, including this section:

  • Only use the “http://five.sentenc.es/” technique for (most) email responses (Or four or three or two sentences)
  • If it’s not time-critical, try to focus on emailing people around 8-9 a.m. in the morning so it’s at the top of their mailbox as soon as they get in, responses tend to be higher because they haven’t developed email fatigue yet.

But what struck me was, well, the lack of the personal touch.

Yes, I’m going to get radical here and suggest GETTING UP OUT OF  YOUR SEATS and actually talking to people!

There, I said it.

Radical, huh?

Now, I’m not sure how much discussion about face-to-face communication came up at the hip kids gathering organized by Mr. Cohn but it’s something I stress often in my Journalism classes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  And, frankly, such suggestions usually freak out 20-somethings.  Well, most people actually.

Yes, put aside your laptop, smart phones, tablets and mind-melds and go talk to folks!

And, you know what?  It works.

Recently, I was trying to deal with a complicated personal issue and my reflex was to send an e-mail.  You know what I did?  I called the person instead.  The discussion went smoothly and things worked out rather nicely.

Would I have achieved the same result via e-mail?  Probably not.

E-mail is actually a terrible form of communication, even moreso in a work environment.  You never know when one word might be received the wrong way, destroying a relationship.  Tone and body language are absent in e-mail — two critical forms of communication, especially in the workplace.

My old boss was fond of saying that if an e-mail goes back and forth three times, end it and go talk in person.  I try to follow that advice but even better advice would be this:  Why send an e-mail when you can actually talk to someone?

There, I said it.

Anyone who has shot photos or video has heard of the phrase:  “Focus with your feet.”   So, the next time you sit down to hammer out an e-mail at work, consider “focusing with your feet.” 

GET UP OUT OF YOUR SEATS AND GO TALK TO THAT PERSON!

Get Rad People!

The E-mail Interview

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In a recent posting on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog, Paul Bradshaw tackled questions over who owns the interview in an era where reporters are increasingly relying on e-mail not only as a form of communication but also as a way to interview sources.

Interestingly enough, the blog post prompted some discussion over e-mail with one of my colleagues.  Citing budgetary woes at publications, he defended the use of e-mail interviews despite the many issues raised by Bradshaw.  In the spirit of Bradshaw’s post, I’m posting most of my comments from the e-mail exchange here:

My take is that e-mail interviews should be a last resort, if a resort at all, and that’s what I teach.  Too many journalists (including our students) use it as a first resort because they’re too lazy to go interview someone in person or on the phone.  Point taken on budgets but I don’t think that is why journalists use e-mail to interview.

The main issue that arises, as this article points out, is one of interview control.  The interviewer loses control to the interviewee when conducting an e-mail interview — that’s what Bradshaw is talking about when he mentions a shift in the balance of power.

Consider that in an e-mail interview, we don’t even know if the person e-mailed is the one answering the questions — it may be some PR person in the office.  And, yes, body posture and ‘stuff’ is important — it can often tell a larger story than what the person is actually saying.  I had one interesting case during the bootcamp where students were able to get the cell phone number of the PR person at Health Services simply because they went to the office and started chatting up her office mate, who gave up the information when asked (which never would have happened via e-mail.)  In the era of ‘text-first, talk later” the value of face-to-face communication cannot be undervalued — especially in journalism.

In Bradshaw’s case, he asks the reporter if it’s Ok to publish the e-mail exchange on his blog *after* the story is published.  Unlike a face-to-face or phone interview, the reporter here has provided the interviewee with the transcript of the interview and evidence perhaps that some key information was left out of the story — so Bradshaw wants to publish the raw information.  There are plenty of bloggers/writers out there running transcripts of their email and IM interviews so it’s an interesting, developing area.  Not sure how you would say ‘no’ here and clearly the reporter struggled on how to handle this.  And, as this case shows, Bradshaw got more mileage out of the reporter’s negative reaction.

On the larger scale, Bradshaw’s example goes to the whole concept of journalistic transparency.  As we continue to move toward a circular form of communication between editor/reporter and reader/user, shouldn’t we be Ok with this form of transparency?  The era of reporter/editor/writer as deity/sage is gone.  It’s all about transparency and letting the reader/user in.  That’s how publications are going to grow their audiences — not by diving behind copyright law.

As for Facebook, it occupies this grey area of public/private, although too many people (including our students) think it’s private.  Twitter is a publishing tool and those on Twitter acknowledge the comments of others via retweeting — Twitter language for attribution in 140 characters.  There is actually a new culture of attribution/acknowledgement arising in the Twitter world.  It’s interesting to watch/take part in.

And, I agree, it will be fascinating to watch the law develop in this area.