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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.

A Day in the Life: News Judgment, Initiative Pay Off for One Digital Journalist

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“There are a thousand stories on a college campus.”

It’s a phrase I often use in my classes.  Usually, the goal is to motivate students to be in a “constant state of journalism.”   What I mean by that is that I want my students to always be ready for a story, always looking for ideas and always ready to shoot photos, video, and interview folks if a story presents itself.  In my first year here, I had one student who shot a great Veteran’s Day photo and ended up freelancing it to one of the local newspapers — and got paid! Since then I’ve had a number of students who have made the ‘state of mind’ pay off.

It’s a concept that just becomes second nature after awhile. And having such a mindset makes you a better journalist once you are out there and getting paid.

So, I was pretty excited to come across this blog post by Eric Athas, a 2008 graduate of the UMass journalism program who now works as a producer for The Washington Post’s web site.   Eric recently found himself in the middle of one of the more horrific stories to hit the Washington suburbs in quite a while.

I’ve stayed in contact with Eric since he graduated and he’s always been a journalist who has an uncanny nose for news.  And, when we talk about the most important characteristic needed in today’s new world of journalism, that remains a key asset.

What’s impressive in what Eric did here is that he didn’t wait for instructions or a press release.  As the events unfolded before him on a sleepy Saturday morning, he took the initiative (and took out his IPhone to shoot video) got out of his car, investigated, and came back with a story.

And, trust me, that kind of initiative is noticed.

ESPNBoston Internship Opportunity

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ESPNBoston is searching for a fall intern, through the Kraft Sports Group.

Application Deadline: August 11.

Commitment:  20 hours a week, for school credit.

Duties:

— Friday night football game coverage, along with select games during the week; duties would include writing, photography and video.

— Upkeep and compilation of contact lists (coaches, athletic directors, etc.).

— Upkeep on our recurring features (Q&A’s, player diaries).

— Keeping track of stats for our end of season awards.

Contacts: Interested candidates should send a cover letter, resume and clips to Brendan Hall at brendanh@kraftsportsgroup.com, or Scott Barboza at scottb@kraftsportsgroup.com.

Good luck!

2010: The Summer Without TV

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One of my former students suggested that I blog about “2010: The Summer Without TV.”  Seemed like a good idea to record my thoughts on this historic couple of months so I will be blogging periodically between now and Sept. 1 — when the glory of DirectTV returns to the Fox house.

Talk of the TV outage began in the Spring when my wife began noticing that our kids:  Sean, 12; Shannon, 10; and Kendall, 7 — were spending more time inside watching TV than outside the house. Spring in New England is a time to be outside, yet they weren’t quite getting it.   We did this once before:  The Summer of 2006 when we were still living in Maryland.  Back then we weren’t dealing with pre-teens and they creatively found out how to have fun.

The TV was supposed to go off on Monday, June 21 until we found out that DirectTV would not shut us off until midnight.  Like animals hunting their prey, it did not take the kids long to discover the TV was still on.  Since then, we’ve cheated a bit after the kids found out that they can get TV off the computer.  Now, they are jockeying for the department laptops when I take them into the office with me.

So, Day 3 began as the others have:  With demands for TV from the youngest.  But, the oldest is reading a book and the 10-year-old is playing with the guinea pig.  So, maybe there is hope for some summer peace and creativity.

As for me, well, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a fan of the idea.  But,  I’ve found a new love for ESPN3 and Hulu.

More to come….

The IPad is unveiled…

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In case you missed it (and it’s  kind of hard to….) Steve Jobs and Apple unveiled the IPad.

Lots of folks out there writing about it:

Mark Potts on Recovering Journalist

*  TechCrunch: Top 10 Reasons The Apple iPad Will Put Amazon’s Kindle Out of Business

*  CNET:  Adobe speaks out about IPad Flash Omission

Welcome Back!

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Sorry for the late welcome back note but it’s been a been a busy week of getting acclimated back to school.   In case you missed Karen List’s welcome back note, here it is:

Hiya and welcome back to class!

“Tuesday Afternoon” is a song by the Moody Blues (ask your parents), and it’s also the time I’ll be in my office in 108 Bartlett this semester to talk with you about any concerns you might have about the Program.  I’m always available to you during my regular office hours (11-1 T/Th) and always by e-mail (klist@journ.umass.edu), but I wanted to set aside some extra time as well.  We want to make sure that Journalism continues to speak to your needs with a solid, vibrant and forward-thinking curriculum.

The Journalism Success seminar still has openings, and if you’re new to the major, this is where you want to be to learn how best to succeed in terms of class work, internships, campus media and more.  Taught by Prof. Steve Fox this semester, the one-credit class meets at 4 on Wednesdays for just five weeks.  Sign up now!

Finally, potential commencement speeches are due by 4:30 Feb. 2 in the Center for Teaching in Goodell. Journalism is proud to have some of the best writers on campus among our students, and the commencement speaker has been a Journalism major two out of the last three years.  If you’re a senior and have something to say about your years at UMass, you should consider submitting a speech.

And please stay tuned for more important announcements in the weeks ahead.


We have some interesting speakers coming up over the next month:

On Feb. 1 at 5 p.m. at the Bernie Dallas Room in Goodell Hall:

Professor Robert McChesney (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and co-founder of Free Press, will co-present a talk titled “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” which is also the title of their new book.

On Feb. 26 at 4 p.m. in the Campus Center (904-908):

Professor Barbie Zelizer (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and President, International Communication Association) will be the guest of the Department and the Center for Communication and Sustainable Social Change and will deliver a talk titled “Journalism and/for Social Change.”


Finally, if you missed it, Sara Cody, one of your colleagues, wrote an excellent column about the future of journalism — take a minute to read it.   If you’re interested in flashbacks to the past, check out Lou Grant — the 70s television show built around the classic crusty old editor is now on Hulu!

Steve

A Wake-Up Call for AEJMC

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I have a song bouncing around my head:  The Rolling Stones “Out of Time.”   After my time here at AEJMC, I’ve changed the refrain to “baby, baby, baby you’re out of TOUCH.”

My former washingtonpost.com colleague and friend Tom Kennedy captured my feelings well during his session yesterday when he suggested that both news organizations and those in academia need to abandon the print-centric focus of journalism.   A simpler version: WAKE UP!

I’ve been somewhat dismayed at the overall print-centric focus of this conference.  Many, including Dan Gillmor and Eric Newton (who were on the same panel as Kennedy), have said that academic institutions are places where innovation and experimentation can and should be happening.

That refreshing thinking has been noticeably absent in many corners of this conference.  We as educators have a tremendous opportunity at gatherings like this to set the agenda on the future of the industry.  Lamenting about the role of Twitter in news delivery isn’t the way to go.

I went to one panel entitled the “Future of Newspapers” where several editors made clear their Web and print products were separate.

I went to one session on narrative, but it was solely focused on the written form.   No mention of video or audio slideshows.

The us vs. them characterizations of bloggers and the twitterverse has dominated many discussions.

This is my first time at AEJMC, so I’m not sure what I expected. I just didn’t expect this.  But as one friend pointed out last night, AEJ has a newspaper division.

Indeed.

As I sat in on the session on the ‘future of newspapers’ there was literally a black cloud hanging over the panel.  But, it’s the wrong conversation.   It’s not about the ‘future of newpapers,’ it IS about the future of journalism.

And THAT is a tremendously positive conversation.  ASU’s Dan Gillmor said yesterday he was jealous of his students.  Damn straight.  We need more of those conversations and less of the ‘How to save the horse ‘n buggy’ conversations.

I spent many years at The Washington Post trying to persuade print-centric reporters and editors about the values of Web journalism.  It’s kind of weird to be back in that position again.   There is a tremendous opportunity for this organization to be cutting edge.  We need to shift the conversations.

Quickly.

Wake up!

Steve Fox

Multimedia Journalism Coordinator, Lecturer

UMass

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