Don't start with yesterday

yesterday today graphic.jpg

One of the difficult habits for beginning writers to break is putting their stories in chronological order. While this may work on occasion, what’s better, in most cases, is starting with what’s happening now.

In modern journalism, timeliness is perhaps the most newsworthy element. Our audience is consuming news all day long, on its own schedule. We don’t really now how up to date people are when they watch our stories. If viewers have already heard about our subject on the radio or online, the last thing we want to do is start the story with something they already know. This kills the appeal of the story. They think: “Well, I guess there isn’t anything new, or else the reporter would have started with that.”

That applied to my story today. My assignment: follow up on California Senator Kamala Harris’ performance in last night’s Democratic presidential debate. She’s from Berkeley, and one of the highlights of the debate was her talking about her childhood experiences being bussed to school as part of the city’s desegregation plan in the late 1960s.

The three elements I wanted to nail down for my story:

  • So what (what difference does it make): because the Bay Area is so into politics in general and Democratic politics in particular, the audience was pretty tuned in to the debate. And because many analysts said a local candidate stole the show, it was a no-brainer to follow up on where Harris went to school.

  • Real people (the people living the story): Harris would be great, but impossible because she was still in Florida. Someone who knew her from that time would be a good second option, but tough - a 30-year-old kindergarten teacher in 1969 would be long retired today. So the realest person I could find was a current school board member who could talk about the importance of desegregation and how Berkeley took a leading role in it with bussing.

  • Show me, don’t tell me (video): again, tough, because Harris isn’t in town. But showing the school where she went and the route the busses took from her neighborhood to the integrated school would work.

Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, one of the first in the country to be voluntarily integrated via bussing.

Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, one of the first in the country to be voluntarily integrated via bussing.

Once I had gathered all of my elements and began to write, my first instinct was to get right to the part of the debate where Harris talked about the bussing. It was certainly the most compelling part of the story. But then, I remembered “don’t start with yesterday.” Most of the audience had probably already watched the debate and read the analysis that mentioned this comment. So, instead, I started with today. Re-arranging the story in this way doesn’t seem like much, but it most likely held on to viewers who would have changed the channel if what they’d first seen was video they’d already seen the night before.

The modern day newsroom is adjusting to the increased number of ways viewers consume news. It’s not only at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on TV, it’s all day long on computers, on phones, on smart devices, at home, on the bus, in the bathroom. To feed this beast, more is being asked of news crews in the field. Here’s what the newsroom asked me to do for this story:

Feeding video back to the station for the 2 p.m. streaming newscast over wi-fi as I’m driving to my next location. Another way technology makes doing more possible.

Feeding video back to the station for the 2 p.m. streaming newscast over wi-fi as I’m driving to my next location. Another way technology makes doing more possible.

Notice the part highlighted in yellow - not only are we now working for the newscasts on TV, there are also additional streamed newscasts on the web that require content. That has consequences. At 1 p.m., I was in scramble mode waiting for my interview to come through and searching the Berkeley Public Library for historic photographs and newspaper stories that might help me show what life was like in the late 1960s when the bussing plan was approved. The extra assignment made me stop all that, and go back to the truck to feed back some video for the 2 p.m. streaming newscast. Sure it’s more. Sure it’s hard. Sure it affected what I was able to gather for the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. shows. So what. This is the new reality and newsrooms have to figure out how to make it happen.

How much time you have left before deadline controls everything you do. This seems obvious, but when you’re in the moment, trying to make editorial decisions, it’s important to remember everything’s a tradeoff. My interview with the school board member came together at 3:15 p.m. - pretty late in the day to be getting started on an interview for the 5 p.m. newscast. But, the interview was necessary, I couldn’t trade that off. What I could trade off was an extended interview to gather lots of information. So I kept it brief - three questions and thank you very much, have a nice day. If I’d had more time, I would have spent it. But I didn’t, so I focused on the one non-negotiable - making deadline.

Takeaways:

  1. Don’t start with yesterday.

  2. As journalism evolves, be prepared to be asked to do more, all day long.

  3. The length of the interview is directly proportional to the time left before deadline.