Friday, June 10, 2011

2011 Western Region Awards Banquet Set for July 27

Save the date:

Date: Wednesday, July 27

Time: Luncheon time TBA

Plaza III Steakhouse
Country Club Plaza
4749 Pennsylvania
Kansas City, MO 64112
For information: Contact Danica Tormohlen

Awards finalist is speaker for the ASBPE Western Region Azbee Awards banquet.

Register online.

Monday, June 06, 2011

How to write like Tom Zind

Award-winning journalist shares with ASBPE his keys to success

Tom Zind finds one of the best ways to produce award-winning stories is to write in short chunks at a time. As an extra boost, he believes getting a little inspiration from sweat and endorphins helps as well.

“For me, many a story owes its lead to a 6-mile run,” Zind said.

Zind, who won ASBPE’s 2010 Stephen Barr Award for his article “A Killer in the Ranks” that appeared in the January 2009 issue of EC&M magazine, addressed the Kansas City Chapter in a meeting on May 18 discussing effective reporting and writing strategies.

He emphasized the importance of thorough reporting. When given an assignment, Zind begins his research by copying and pasting everything he can find on the internet on the topic and dumping it into a file. He then goes through the file and highlights the important information. He finds this process helpful in developing his questions for sources.

“There is no substitute for immersing yourself as much as possible in the story,” he said.

When it comes to the actual interview, he said it’s important to have a conversation with the source and not just a strict question and answer session. He said reporters should lay out their understanding of the topic of the story so as to alleviate concerns the source might have of being misquoted. He said he often gives a summary mid-interview of what he has heard from the source so far to ensure accuracy and demonstrate understanding. Zind, who does not record his interviews, said it’s important to review notes quickly after an interview to help memory of the interview.

“I find interviewing a huge task in multi-tasking,” Zind said.

When it comes to the writing, he discussed the power of the lead, and he personally likes to use anecdotal leads. He says in every story there will be the lead that pops up as being the perfect one for the story. He also said a strong closing is important and to overcome writer’s fatigue and resist the urge to simply end the story.

“The key is fighting through the urge to end it and letting it fall off a cliff,” he said.

The flow and pace of the story are important to Zind, and he said to be sure to use strong transitions with clear and concise sentences that don’t turn into run-ons.

“Fall in love with the period,” Zind said. “Make good friends with the period.”

He said quotes should amplify and explain and not simply parrot what has already been said.

Zind is not a procrastinator and finds his best work comes when he starts his story plenty in advance. He said that in writing, time cures everything.

“Writing a piece of strong journalism doesn’t have to be a rushed job…if you start early enough, it’s amazing what writing some and coming back can do…let it marinate,” he said.

Overall, Zind said the goal is to enjoy the process of writing, and the finished product is simply the cherry on top.

“The goal is creating not just something people want to read, but something they can’t put down.”

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Tom Zind shares his grab bag of thoughts on interviewing and writing

  • Use the active, not passive, voice. By using an active voice you avoid using a “backing in” approach to sentence construction.
  • Use anonymous sources sparingly: Sometimes you must. Usually a judgment call where you weigh benefits of full attribution vs. risks of excluding important information that can’t be gained otherwise.
  • Quote to amplify: Strong quotes don’t parrot. They amplify, explain, make a point in a different way, give a glimpse of a source’s personality, views, etc., that help humanize a story.
  • Pursue sources: Don’t write off any possibilities when it comes to getting an interview with a source. Some may seem a stretch, but it’s always good try make the attempt. Sometimes persistence pays off.
  • Offer context/background: No story exists in a vacuum. Weaving in information that explains the “backstory” – the history of an issue, why it’s important, its nuances – is a good way of fleshing out a complete story that your reporting.
  • Weigh benefits/drawbacks of editorializing/offering commentary: Some stories can benefit from the writer offering perspective that goes beyond what sources are saying. That may seem to violate the tenet of objective reporting, but pure objectivity is a bit mythical.
  • Put yourself in the reader’s shoes: We always have to write with the reader in mind, but it’s more essential than ever today. A business publication audience’s needs and knowledge level are far different from that of a consumer publication readership. Writing and reporting must reflect that.
  • Avoid group phone interviews: Sometimes they can’t be avoided. But they pose challenges with attribution, voice clarity, cross-talk, etc., complicating understanding and good note-taking.
  • Press for interviews, not written responses: Written responses to written questions are in vogue. They protect both sides from misquotes, and allow the PR folks to be more involved. Better to press for direct interviews and offer outlines.
  • Get sources comfortable: Display your knowledge of the subject matter, clearly lay out what you’re looking for and explain why you’re tapping them. By making them feel their insight and expertise is valuable, they’re more likely to open up.

What works (and doesn't work) in creating award-winning articles

Tom Zind shares what worked and didn't work in his award-winning article from EC&M magazine, "A Killer in the Ranks."

What worked, what didn’t, in EC&M story on Iraq
  • Social media: Tapped into social media – electrical contracting industry blogs and online forums – to get a sense of the industry buzz about the issue. One blogger turned out to be a key source in the story within inside information, though she had a bone to pick (something that had to be taken into account), as she had seen the situation firsthand working as an electrician for the primary military contractor in Iraq fingered as the main source of the problem.
  • Personal stories: Ability to weave in a sidebar on two U.S. electricians who signed up to go to Iraq as part of a military contractor contingent charged with cataloging and correcting widespread faulty electrical work.
  • Humanizing: Crafting a lead that immediately humanized and personalized the story – the deaths of two soldiers tragically electrocuted in-theater – drew readers in. It helped with a story that eventually had to touch on lot of technical detail and government speak. Leading with those elements posed problems.
  • Military cooperation: The ease of getting a phone interview set up with high-ranking military personnel on the ground in Iraq, intimately knowledgeable about the story and in the chain of command addressing the issue, proved the importance of following up any lead on a possible source, no matter how unlikely it may seem. Working through a military public-affairs person and supplying a good overview of the story and specific questions helped grease the wheels. The information provided yielded several good quotes and some essential context.
  • Extensive backgrounding: Internet search engines yielded a trove of stories on the topic from the consumer, trade and even military press. The story was mostly “out of the bag” when we took it up, so there was plenty of solid reporting, most notably in The New York Times. Our challenge was to find a new angle with relevance to the electrical contracting industry.
  • Government documents: Openly available (though a bit challenging to obtain) government documents relating to investigations of the electrocutions and the electrical work in Iraq proved immensely helpful. Those documents, which included pages of verbatim Congressional testimony, provided essential and detailed background on the matter.
  •  The “so-what” element: The story would have benefited from a bit stronger emphasis on exploring its broader meaning and implications for the electrical contracting industry. A sidebar did touch on the challenges of military contracting, relevant to many electrical contractors. A general statement from the industry’s trade group was offered, but not used; it probably should have been incorporated, though it offered marginal perspective. But offering readers some idea of how the industry’s voice could help head off repeats of the same problems, or more detail on contractor liability issues when working on government jobs, could have made the story more relevant.
  • Broader industry input: We attempted to interview electrical code experts, some of whom were directly involved in working to address the problems. But confidentiality issues prevented them from talking. A stronger attempt to reach companies involved in military and government contracting, to get their take, as well as other electrical safety and code experts, might have yielded some additional useful information.
  • KBR input: The lead military contractor, KBR, repeatedly refused to offer anything but a short written statement. Because they were implicated so strongly as the main culprit, the story certainly would have benefited from their participation. Perhaps making more calls and trying to do an end run around the public relations department might have produced an interview.