Playing with noise

University of New Hampshire cheerleaders perform at the 2015 homecoming game against Elon University. Photo/Meg Heckman

University of New Hampshire cheerleaders perform at the 2015 homecoming game against Elon University. Photo/Meg Heckman

I’m teaching a digital reporting workshop at UNH this fall, and it’s been fun to dust off storytelling tools that I haven’t had occasion to use in any of my recent freelance work. Students in the course are spending the first half of the semester learning the basics of documenting stories with images, sounds and video. (Also on the syllabus: Social media curation, basic data visualizations and a bit of mapping.) Later in the term, they’ll continue to refine those techniques by covering beats in our community.

This week’s focus was on short-form audio storytelling. I assigned the students to create audio postcards from UNH’s homecoming festivities and publish them on SoundCloud. Yesterday, I brought my parents to the football game and, when I saw how close we were to the cheering squad, I decided to create an audio postcard of my own:

I used my iPhone to record the track. (An external mic tossed over the front of the bleachers would have been a good idea. The track isn’t horrible, but you can hear the guy next to me crunching his paper popcorn bag at a few points.) The sound was edited in FinalCut with the video setting turned off. (The students are using Audacity because it’s free.) The photos were taken with my Nikon D5100 and toned/cropped in iPhoto.

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Date this house (aka Inbox Essay returns today!)

Inbox Essay makes its triumphant return today. As a reminder, I resolved back in January to make 50 essays in 2015. The project took a longish hiatus this summer, but regular publishing resumes right now. This week’s installment looks at digital dating/house hunting/identity building. Read it here.

And here’s an archive of past essays and more about why I decided to do this.


What I did on my summer vacation

Bought a house. Danced with my brother at his wedding. Unplugged just a bit. Packed, unpacked and repacked boxes. Pulled weeds and planted perennials. Seared things on the grill. Swam across Goose Pond. Found new places to run in the woods. Remembered how late summer in New Hampshire smells like over-sweet fruit and sounds like crickets. Wrote stories for the Boston Globe about political memorabilia and the end of Jefferson-Jackson dinners. Also: A little feature for the Concord Monitor about the rise of #wedding hashtags.


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.


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


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.


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 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 @meg_heckman

A photo posted by megheckman (@megheckman) on


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