Three things I did in June

Pardon the silence around here. It’s been a busy five or six weeks personally and professionally. Some highlights:

1.) I wrote a couple of pieces for the Boston Globe. Here’s an explainer of New Hampshire’s headachy campaign finance laws. And, for some lighter fare, a look at the Granite State’s quirkiest political memorabilia.

2.) I helped run a crowdfunding campaign so the Journalism and Women Symposium can provide mentorship and professional training to 10 early-career female journalists. We raised more than $15,000 to support this year’s amazing class of fellows. (I also started a Northern New England chapter of JAWS. If you’re local and want to join, drop me a line.)

3.) Have I mentioned that I’m making a MOOC about the New Hampshire primary? The University of New Hampshire will launch it’s first massive, open online course (MOOC) this fall. The class is free and focused on the past, present and future of the primary. It’s taught primarily by political science professors Dante Scala and Andy Smith. I’m doing a lot of the technical production, plus giving a couple of lectures about political journalism. Sign up here.

Up next: Watching my baby brother marry a really great person next weekend and (hopefully) buying a house at the end of the month. In other words, it’s going to be a while before we return to regular blogging.

Campaign technology has changed a lot. Here’s what it means for 2016.

Digital in 2016 will be faster, more intense, and more mobile than it was in 2008, and that has repercussions for how this season’s crop of presidential candidates will behave and how their campaigns will unfold in New Hampshire and beyond.

Here’s my full story in The Boston Globe.

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Learning about solutions journalism

I spent most of Monday at a workshop on solutions journalism. It was a lovely start to the week for more than one reason. We met at the NH Audubon’s Concord property, which meant we got to see this gorgeous creature during a coffee break. More important, though, was the chance to explore a sub-genre that I’ve been curious about for several years.

Our leader was Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, a group that aims to increase the “volume and quality” of this type of storytelling. We spent time discussing what Solutions journalism is and isn’t, but here’s one definition I like a lot:

Solutions journalism can include reporting on responses that are working, partially working, or not working at all but producing useful insights. We can learn just as much from a failure as a success. The key is to look at the whole picture — the problem and the response. Journalism often stops short of the latter.

The notion that this type of storytelling is about presenting a more complete, complex picture is important. I also appreciate the emphasis Rosenberg places on finding compelling characters and structuring “howdoneit” narratives that keep the reader engaged.

I took a lot of notes on Twitter throughout the day. Some highlights:

For examples of solutions journalism, check out these projects.

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I was a Pulitzer juror and here’s what I learned about great journalism

Reporters aren’t very good at keeping secrets, but I’ve managed to stay mum for a couple of months about some exciting professional news: I was one of roughly 100 jurors who vetted nominees for the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes. For three days in February, I sat hunched over a table at Columbia University’s journalism school reading page after page of powerful work.

I was assigned to the local reporting category, so I saw projects produced by newsrooms of all shapes and sizes. The details of Pulitzer jury deliberations are secret, but the experience gave me lots to think about in terms of what it means to practice excellent journalism. There’s no universal checklist, but the winners that were announced last week shared four common factors I’ve tried to summarize here:

Pulitzer_elements1.) Top-notch journalism relies on three elements: diverse human voices, bulletproof verification and technical proficiency with both language and digital tools. I came to think of it as a stool with three legs similar to the one pictured to the left. This mix is apparent in many of the winning entries, but it’s especially effective in the collection of columns that won the Pulitzer for editorial writing. Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe explored how the booming restaurant business often fails to provide living wages for kitchen workers. Kingsbury uses crisp writing to blend the experiences of these workers with extensive research into economics, labor laws and more.

2.) The rise of digital publishing means journalists have dozens of new tools — and those tools should be used in a way that serves the audience and the story. Video, interactive games and other multimedia features should rise above flashy window dressing to enhance readers’ understanding. Effective multimedia doesn’t have to be expensive, either. The newsroom that won in the local reporting category used open-source tools like Timeline JS to help the community follow a long and complex investigation into corruption at a school district in California.

3.) Strong verbs make confusing topics comprehendible. Zachary R. Mider of Bloomberg News won the Pulitzer in explanatory reporting for his work on tax-dodging corporations. It’s complicated, abstract stuff, but Mider’s lively writing makes it easy to understand. Take, for instance, this story about one particular manufacturing company. Mider builds his lead around verbs like “forged” and “carved” and “sparked.” Such words carry the reader into the piece. He also uses a nice mix of short, medium and long sentences that rely on precise, plain language instead of headachy jargon.

4.) There’s strength in numbers. Many of the winning entries were produced by teams of reporters. In some cases, newsrooms also had outside assistance. A good example is The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina where four journalists won the Pulitzer for public service for their investigation into the state’s high rate of domestic violence. The newsroom received technical, editing* and financial support from the Center for Investigative Reporting; that partnership yielded a database used to identify trends in domestic violence fatalities. Some of that information appears throughout the online version of the investigation — a collection of multimedia narratives that also required teamwork to build. This is a reminder that, while writing is often a solitary task, modern journalists must hone their interpersonal skills the same way they practice storytelling.

Finally, here’s a tip for anyone applying for jobs: White space matters. Each Pulitzer entry includes a nomination letter introducing the project to the jury. That means I read dozens of them in the space of a few hours. The ones with clean fonts and line breaks between the paragraphs were easiest on the eyes. Small details, I know, but both are techniques every new (and not-so-new) journalist should consider when writing cover letters to potential employers.

* Post updated 5/4/2015 to more precisely reflect the Center for Investigative Reporting’s role in the project. More details about the partnership here

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Instagram on the campaign trail

At first, I loved Instagram for the way it forced me to find photos in my everyday life and to consider new applications for visual storytelling. Now, I’m loving it even more as users experiment with long captions or full-fledged “instaessays.”

I’ve done a couple of instaessays – one about New Hampshire’s Legislature and one about chance encounters with presidential candidates – but I hadn’t had an opportunity to try journalistic captions. That changed last night when I covered Jeb Bush’s visit to Concord. Here are the results:

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Meerkat for President!

Here’s where I confess that I first thought Meerkat was somehow related to Mammal March Madness*. It’s not. It’s an app that makes streaming video almost as simple as tapping out a tweet, and yesterday it collided with the world of political journalism. Hard.

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A screen grab from yesterday’s live stream of Trump’s interview with the UL.

The Union Leader has long been a force in Republican politics, something that’s especially apparent during the early months of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Potential candidates stop by the Manchester newsroom for meetings with the UL’s editorial board – the first step towards winning the paper’s coveted endorsement.

Yesterday, that potential candidate was Donald Trump. And the editorial board decided to use Meerkat to live stream the whole thing. I watched for a few minutes, and it looked like at least 50 other people did, too. It wasn’t long before other local news organizations had opened accounts of their own. NECN streamed one of Trump’s campaign stops later in the day, and my iPhone buzzed all night with alerts that other political journalists had opened accounts on the app.

The technology is pretty cool and becoming more common. Meerkat was a huge hit at SxSW, and Twitter recently acquired similar software. There’s also an app called Stre.am that’s gaining traction, although I don’t know much about how it works.

If you want to try it yourself, remember that this is video so all related tips apply: Use an external mic to get the best sound, avoid vertical frames and, as one local reporter suggested to me on Facebook, consider getting a tripod if you’ll be streaming for long periods of time.

I suspect Meerkat and similar tools will become standard fare on the campaign trail – a new window into real-time politicking and a reminder of how fast the practice of journalism is changing.

*If you don’t know about Mammal March Madness, stop reading this blog immediately and click here for deets.

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Another week, another essay

Here’s the ninth of the 50 essays I’ve resolved to write this year:

The first time it happened I was in high school, digging drainage ditches at a state park on Earth Day. Al Gore, the sitting vice president, rolled through. I didn’t see him. Only camera flashes and the tidy, dark suits of the Secret Service. It was the beginning of a long and growing list of chance encounters with people who want to be president. A few years later, Gore was the Democratic nominee and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, came to my college campus. I was working for the student paper, thrilled and terrified to tell a big story on a tight deadline. Pretty soon, we had two stories: one about Lieberman’s speech and the other about an unexpected – and unsanctioned – visit by Ralph Nader. He arrived unannounced and rallied supporters who had commandeered a room in the student union. Dennis Kucinich and I once reached for the same carton of rice milk at a health food store in downtown Concord. I was shopping after a long week of following other, better-financed candidates. He looked exhausted. I stepped back and let him have the milk. Then there are the ones with names I don’t remember, average looking guys running for president simply because they can. They often visited the newspaper where I worked, leaving press releases and head shots at the front desk. Once, I collided with one of them near the vending machines. He stopped to grab a snack. Last week, it happened again. I was at my favorite café for a little tea and networking. The first hint was the knot of reporters I recognized from TV. Then a few local politicians arrived. Outside, two men squinted into the late afternoon sun and waved some kind of banner. The bookstore adjacent to the café was hosting Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland who, like all the others, came to New Hampshire to flirt with the presidency. #instaessay #fitn #nhpoli — Meg Heckman www.megheckman.com @meg_heckman

A photo posted by megheckman (@megheckman) on

Catching up…

In case you’re following my resolution to write 50 essays in 2015, here are installments seven and eight.

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#6: Nuts!

Read the sixth installment of Inbox Essay here. (ICYMI: I’m writing 50 essays in 2015 and sharing them with the world via a newsletter and this blog. Subscribe here.)

#5: An ode to dirtbags

(This is the fifth of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

Call me a dirtbag now, and I’d probably be insulted – but 15 years ago, it would have been a different story.

In alpine skiing and a few other mountain sports, the term “dirtbag” is an honorific awarded to the quirkiest and most devoted practitioners. Dirtbags measure their self worth by the number of days they spend on skis, and they’ll do just about anything to increase the count. Once, I almost joined their ranks.

I worked for a season at a giant ski resort in Maine, swapping my life as an English major for a job that involved freezing my ass off in one of the few places colder and more remote than the New Hampshire town where I grew up. I had a goal: to ski 100 days, a tidy number I imagined would secure my status among the sport’s elite. It was a faux adventure, just like I was a faux dirtbag. A real dirtbag would not have planned the whole thing a year in advance. Nor would she have enrolled in a college near the resort to earn enough credits to graduate on time. Or visited (twice) to make sure everything, including a bed in a cozy dorm and a job as a ski instructor, was in place.

By most accounts, skiers started using “dirt bag” as a compliment in the 1970s. I couldn’t find any formal etymological research, but it seems to have evolved over the years into a single, compound word. Merriam-Webster defines it simply as someone who is “dirty, unkempt, or contemptible.” The Urban Dictionary is a bit more nuanced, explaining that dirtbags are “committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle.” They’ve become such common alpine archetypes that many mountain towns host dirtbag balls – annual parties that are similar to proms but with flannel and goggle tans instead of taffeta and mascara.

My reasons for embracing the dirtbag lifestyle were varied. There were things I hoped to escape: friend drama, an illness, adolescent ghosts. I was studying journalism, and I dreamed of writing cover stories for Powder magazine. There was also a boy I thought might like me more if I could really ski.

The first few weeks of my new life were cold and beautiful. Every morning I drove 40 miles from my dorm to the resort. I loved that drive, perhaps more than anything else. I wrote poems about the scenery and made lists of the eclectic things I passed: churches, bait shops, regal old homes, a country store selling hard liquor, egg sandwiches and wedding attire. There were almost always logs trucks, teetering as they traced the corkscrew path of the half-frozen river running next to the road.

Skiing was – and is – a big part of my life, but that winter taught me that it would not be my career. When I was 15, I started working as a ski instructor at a mountain near my parents’ house. I loved it, but that homey hill was completely unlike the resort in Maine, a place I came to think of as Disneyland in a Freezer. It was massive, corporate and crowded. My clients were wealthy, stuffing $20 bills in my gloved hands at the end of nearly every lesson and sometimes paying me more to babysit their kids at night. Away from the mountain, it was different. The poverty rate was high in the surrounding county, and I noticed the signs more and more as the winter wore on. In the grocery store one night, I watched a young man with stooped shoulders and a shivering toddler count the change in his hand and reach for a tiny jug of milk. I stood in the frozen vegetable aisle and cried.

Until that winter, I hadn’t been very good at making friends, but the people I worked with at the resort were easy to like. I admired how they came together to face the day, even when the day brought sub-zero temperatures, no lunch breaks and busloads of teenagers from cities to the south. My colleagues weren’t really dirtbags either. They were budding coaches and businesspeople; many of them have built careers skiing, rising to the top levels of the sport. They were serious about their work, but also laid back. I am the exact opposite of laid back. I struggled with things like spur-of-the-moment trips to Canada, skiing out of bounds and skipping class to enjoy a lunchtime scorpion bowl special, but these people seemed to like me anyway. They convinced me to launch myself through a flaming arch during a torch light parade, introduced me to the local dive bars and taught me to (sort of) play pool. And they didn’t take it personally when I left a party early to sit in my room and read.

I made enough in tips that winter to fly to Utah where some friends let me crash in their apartment. The snow was melting in Boston when I lugged my ski boots through the terminal at Logan Airport. I would never admit it to my traveling companion, but I was restless for my adventure to end. By the time it did, I’d skied 86 days. I know because I recorded each one in a meticulously color-coded journal that I wrapped in a sandwich bag and stored in my jacket pocket. The last entry is from mid April. I should have been in class at that little college in Maine. Instead, I was squinting under a cloudless sky at Alta, trudging deep into a rugged, frozen rock formation called the Devil’s Castle. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t scared of anything. Not the terrain around me, not my mortality, not the specter of all the things that might go wrong.

I still ski as often as I can, but I seldom venture beyond that homey mountain where I grew up. That’s probably why I hadn’t heard the term dirtbag in so long. Last year, on a family trip to one of Maine’s other alpine behemoths, I saw signs for the evening’s activity: a dirtbag ball. I sat at a table in a slope-side bar, picking over potato skins. Dozens of young people in flannel shirts and Carhartt pants wandered in, rosy cheeked and thirsty after a long day on the hill. They looked a little like my friends from that winter. They looked a little like me. My brother wanted to stay for the party. I thought for a moment about what might have been all those years ago. What if I hadn’t been so uptight? Spent more time on a chairlift and less with my books?

I paid the tab, went back to our room and went to sleep.

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