Eleven tools for working smarter

I’m not really an app person, but I’m loyal to a few things that work well. Here are 11 tools that help me as a journalist.

For better reading:

1. Pocket for iPhone. I use this to save links. It’s fast, free and straightforward.

2. IFTTT. (“If this, then that.”) This is a little tool for setting up cause-and-effect relationships on the Internet. I used to check some websites every day — things like government meeting agendas and court rulings. Now IFTT sends me an email whenever those pages are updated. I followed this blog post by Colin Schimmelfing to set up my IFTTT recipe.

3. Circa for iPhone. Come for the beautiful design, stay for the solid news judgment.

4. OneTab for Google Chrome. For when your browser has been overtaken by a thousand and one feral Internet tabs. You will, of course, get around to reading them all someday.

5. Feedly. The way to follow RSS feeds after the demise of Google Reader (rest in peace).

For better reporting:

6. AudioNote. If I could, I would hire my own personal intern just to transcribe interviews for me. Short of that, my current favorite app for recording interviews and meetings is AudioNote. You can take notes while recording (for example, to make note of an important quote). Then, during playback, tap any word in the notes to return to that part of the audio file. This saves transcription time.

7. Gmail’s Canned Responses.
For when you find yourself sending the same type of email over and over. Save your fingers some typing.

8. Evernote and/or Google Drive.

9. Open States (website or iPhone app).
Keep tabs on what’s happening in state government, track bills and find legislators. Built by Sunlight Foundation.

For better writing:

10. Any online timer. Sure, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s a lifesaver on deadline. If I’m really desperate, I’ll go to Write or Die and set it on Kamikaze Mode. That usually does the trick.

11. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5. Not all writing tools are electronic.

There, now you know my secrets. Use them responsibly.

Update 2.5.15: I’m a bit giddy to see that journalismtools.io recently asked 30 journalism experts about this same topic. Check out their responses.


9 things I learned at my newspaper internship

As some of you know, I spent the past spring at The Washington Examiner as a local news reporting intern. I came home tired every day but thankful to be doing what I loved. Life isn’t bad at the bottom of the journalistic food chain when you have great coworkers and a fascinating city to cover.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience, and I came up with this list of 9 things I’d tell someone starting a reporting internship. I’ll forgo the general tips about dressing professionally and not being annoying. This list is all about the journalism side of things. Here’s what I learned:

1. Follow your curiosity. You won’t always get to choose your story topics, but never stop looking for those opportunities. Read as much as you can about the topics that interest you. Read local blogs and location-specific Twitter lists. Read national news, and look for ways to make those stories local. Dig into the history of the places and issues you care about. Start conversations with strangers. There are more stories around you than you’d imagine — and if you’re interested in them, readers will be, too.

My curiosity led me to some unusual stories at the Examiner, including a few features I wrote in my spare time. I’m interested in the criminal justice system and reentry programs for ex-convicts, for example, and I stumbled upon a great feature story about a local nonprofit that works with juvenile offenders.

2. Everybody will talk about what they love. I regularly sought out everyday people for a short daily feature called the “3-Minute Interview.” I interviewed a poet, an expert Scrabble player, a first-time novelist, an award-winning teacher, an 8-year-old entrepreneur and a man who makes his own telescopes. When you get people talking about what they love — in this case, their hobbies and opinions — they will open up and give you really great quotes. Just ask a few good questions, and they’ll take it from there.

3. Call people in the morning, even if you won’t need to talk to them until the afternoon. Like you, your sources are busy, and they get busier as the day goes on. You don’t want to be tracking down a government employee at 3:30 or 4:00 when your deadline is 4:45. I learned this the hard way.

4. Own up to your ignorance. When you’re an intern — especially working on multiple beats, as I was — you don’t usually have enough experience or background knowledge to ask masterful questions. Do as much reading as possible before interviewing sources, but then swallow your pride and be willing to admit that you’re an intern and a beginner. It’s better to ask for clarification during an interview than to send your editors a vague, patchy story about something you still don’t really understand.

5. A good spokesperson or public information officer can work wonders. Be kind to these people. Say “thank you,” early and often.

6. Lead with the interesting stuff. In many cases, you can start your article with the most unusual detail you’ve found in your reporting. In one of my first stories, I wrote about the closure of an upscale D.C. grocery store due to health code violations. My editor took one look at my story and moved the phrase “rats and roaches” — the most colorful of the health code violations — to the very top of the article.

7. Math matters. Once, when I was reporting a story, I paused to add up the numbers in a press release. It turns out that the press release had failed to account for about $3 million of the funding that had been set aside for regional projects. I called a public information officer, pointed out the error and found correct numbers for my story. Don’t ever assume.

8. Write as much as you can as soon as you can. I struggled with one article early in my internship because I thought I should finish all of my research before I started writing. I was soon weighed down with statistics, facts and half-transcribed quotes, gasping for a lede.

But I learned. I wrote nutgrafs and background paragraphs on the bus before covering an event. I scribbled first drafts on my notepad during long government meetings. I even tried transcribing interview quotes on the Metro, with mixed success. This all made deadlines less daunting.

9. Digital distraction is the enemy of good writing. Twitter is a blessing and a curse, and I was sometimes tempted to keep it open all day as I worked, bouncing between blogs and looking for the latest updates to stories. My generation has gotten used to multitasking, and we’re convinced that we’re good at it. But on my better days, I used Twitter as a tool to listen in on what people were talking about, but then I shut it down and got to work on one thing at a time.

Journalists, former interns and current interns: Would you add anything to this list?

New article: “Building Peace in the Heart of Darkness”

One thing I love about journalism is that stories are everywhere — you just have to know how to draw them out. That was the case this spring when I heard about a party in Washington, D.C. that was hosted by the development organization World Relief. I went on a whim, curious to learn more about their work.

At the party, between appetizers and cake, the World Relief staff began to tell me about a new grassroots program making small steps toward peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They spoke excitedly, full of hope and proud of their work. After a lot of research and many interviews, including a long international Skype call, I turned those initial conversations into an article for Christianity Today. Here’s the beginning:

Violence erupted again this week in the fractured Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when at least 20 people were killed in clashes between the government and the M23 rebel militia, breaking a truce that had held since last November.

The fighting paused Thursday (May 23) for the arrival of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the city of Goma in eastern Congo, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ new 3,000-person intervention brigade has also begun to arrive in Goma. The force will be allowed to offensively target and “neutralize” violent groups in the region, an unprecedented step for the UN.

Amid the clamor and negotiations, it would be easy to overlook one new movement, working to heal eastern Congo: Small groups of Congolese church leaders, including influential local women, are volunteering to solve and prevent conflicts one at a time, without fanfare.

It’s a simple idea. But in a nation where political solutions are often given more attention than community solutions, World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, believes these committees, which require the inclusion of female leaders, could be a key to peace. …

Read more in my latest article at Christianity Today, published May 24.

Some good news about journalism

… Isn’t it about time for some encouraging words? A New York Times editor, describing his first days at the paper:

It was a Tuesday in early spring 1993, my second day at The New York Times. I had that nervous newbie look, with a too-pressed shirt and half an expectation that someone would bounce me back onto 43rd Street…

Things turned out O.K. There was a place for me, for the fortunate reason that journalism is a big rambling house with many rooms–not just Foreign Correspondence (trench coats in the closet), but also Graphics, Investigations, Web Video and on and on, all in need of people with special talents and special interests…

To me, my personal newsroom journey proves that if you love some aspect of writing, you need not worry that you are not [Pulitzer Prize winner] John Burns. True, from the outside, which is where I was on that April day, the Burnsian heights seemed unscalable. But the good news for journalistic and literary aspirants is this: when you discover a love for some particular writing thing, as I did, that love transports you to the inside, and the world there doesn’t look nearly so daunting.

– Francis Flaherty, The Elements of Story

[I’ve been reading Flaherty’s book since moving to D.C., and it’s excellent. It’s certainly one of my top three books on writing, in the ranks of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools.]

Tread lightly

There’s nothing eloquent I can say about last week. I’ve tried. At my reporting internship last Tuesday, most of the reporters and editors around me received some terrible news: they will lose their jobs in June as the Examiner becomes a new online political publication.

I stood in the newsroom with the others, in silence, feeling a little awkward as the only person in the room who would not be directly affected. My internship will end before the newspaper shuts down. And I’m only 21 years old, after all. I’ll be OK.

Still, I know I will never forget that moment, when I was blindsided by the reality of making it as a newspaper journalist in 2013. I had heard stories of newspapers dying; I had seen ominous empty desks in newsrooms that had resorted to layoffs or furloughs just to stay in business. I knew that if I wanted to become a journalist, it was going to be tough. I was determined not to let newspaper nostalgia distract me from the good journalism that was happening in the wake of new technology. But it was all hypothetical then — a quiet blue line on a graph.

The same day that my newspaper began its long goodbyes, my friend Melissa wrote that she decided to leave journalism entirely:

I don’t want to spend years chasing bylines (succeeding in journalism by all traditional measures) just to end up drained and unsatisfied—that is, more drained and more unsatisfied than I am now.

Former reporter Allyson Bird wrote a very similar piece on the same day, explaining why she left news:

News was never this gray, aging entity to me. It was more like young love, that reckless attraction that consumes you entirely, until one day – suddenly — you snap out of feeling enamored and realize you’ve got to detach. I left news, not because I didn’t love it enough, but because I loved it too much – and I knew it was going to ruin me.

I couldn’t get those words out of my head. Why did I want to be a reporter when my job and my own dreams could betray me? And so it was that I sat on a Metro train on Wednesday morning, reading Allyson Bird’s blog post on my phone, wearing my fancy professional clothes on the way to my internship, and wondering whether this career I had chosen was worth the cost. A woman next to me was reading the Examiner, crinkling back the paper pages to scan the crime section. Tears came, unbidden.

I had believed in what our newspaper was trying to do; I believed in local news, in keeping power accountable, in the relationships we had built. I loved my job, and I came alive when I reported a story. None of those things changed last week. But I did.

I know that I am chasing a career where nothing is guaranteed. It was easy to declare that I wanted to be a journalist when I was sitting in a college newspaper office, with every byline stoking the bravery burning in me. But for a few days last week, I saw my dream like one of those old video games where the character jumps onto blocks that hang precariously in mid-air. He has to keep moving before they crumble beneath his feet.

The ache that kept me awake after last week’s news has stilled. I see that I cannot place my security in the dreams I adopted when I first decided to become a journalist. My dreams and ambitions must grow with me, and I cannot know what forces in my life or in the news industry may come and redirect my path. But as well as I can, for as long as I am able, I will I am going to live out my calling in journalism — if not for the next 30 years, at least for today — and the gift of doing what I love today is enough to sustain me. I am 21, and I want to be a reporter. Come what may.

Two weeks’ worth of interesting locals

One of the fun things I do at Washington Examiner is a feature called the “3-Minute Interview.” These are short Q&A interviews with interesting people in the D.C. area– from a banjo player to a veterinarian to an elementary school teacher.  They’re great interviewing practice.

Check out my 3-Minute Interviews from the past two weeks:

  • Randy Barrett, banjo player and president of the DC Bluegrass Union
  • Lia Seremetis, founder of a monthly bike gathering that rides around D.C. with music blasting and ends up at a local bar
  • Libby Bryant, vintage valentine collector (published on Valentine’s Day)
  • Jacqueline Simms, third-grade teacher who received a national $25,000 teaching award

I’ve also written these news articles for the Examiner recently:

Transportation group gives tentative OK on narrower D.C. roads, widened Virginia roads

Increased access to Washington Dulles International Airport, narrowed roads in the District and widened roads near Tysons Corner were among the proposals given initial approval by regional transportation planning officials Wednesday. …

First responders train in mental health

Officer Joseph Kirby regularly encounters people with mental health issues while on duty with the Alexandria police, and he uses training he received two years ago to recognize the signs of mental illness and to keep those encounters from escalating…

Poll: Only 6 states less religious than D.C. 

The District has the second-lowest percentage of “very religious” residents in the nation outside New England, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. …