Friday, June 30, 2006

Everything I needed to know about Journalism, I learned watching Superman, Part II

I have negotiated with my wife that we will go see Superman Returns on Saturday at some point. I do get like a kid when some link to my youth shows up.

This is like an itch I can't scratch until Saturday night.

But while I wait, I will probably watch Superman: The Movie on DVD tonight.

I'm listening to the soundtrack to the new movie now -- $9.99 on iTunes. Loves my iTunes.

Driving back home from work tonight, after getting on our Web site LAST night a scoop about the firing of a city administrator and after getting a breaking story on our Web site, very detailed, about the same time as our "competition" about the resignation of a county council chairman today, I listened to the soundtrack to the original and it reminded me of another journalism rule I learned watching the original.

Keep your cool
During the scene where Superman makes his debut, Lois is involved in helicopter crash. It's full of beautiful little moments. The most priceless for "civilian" watchers is probably a tie between Clark running down the street looking for a phone booth to undress in, and gazing up and down at the "new style" phone booth, with no door, only three walls; and Superman emerging from a superspeeding spinning revolving door in costume for the first time, to be greeted with fashion approval -- from an apparent pimp.

"Say Jim, that is a BAD outfit!" the pimp says.

Ever polite, Kal-el of Krypton says, "Excuse me," and flies off.

The scenes add a little humor to the whole deal, defusing the tension a bit.

But there is a priceless journalism gag to me, and a valuable lesson.

A TV reporter taping the whole thing says, "I cannot believe it -- he got her."

Always masters of the obvious, the TV folk. I laughed then, and laugh my butt off now.

And the lesson.

Superman swoops in, scoops up Lois and keeps on flying up.

"Don't worry miss. I've got you."

"You've got me? WHO'S GOT YOU?" Lois asks.

It is NOT an obvious response on her part. She's totally in character -- Journalists should not lose their cool. She's asking a question, trying to get an answer.

She is in a horrific situation, but she tries to get the story. She's trying to keep her cool.

The culmination of the scene bears this out. She's as flustered as flustered can be. But when he snags the helicopter and drops both it and Lois off at the top of The Daily Planet roof, what does she do?

She asks a question.

"Who are you?" It comes out in spurts, but what is she doing? Her job.

Superman has reassured her that flying is still "statistically speaking," the safest form of travel. He flies away.

THEN she faints. Only after she's tried to do her job.

Keep your cool.

This trait of an always on the go Lois Lane is consistent throughout the movie. When he has reversed time and saved her life, after she had in fact, died, what does Lois do?

She screams at him. But like a reporter might. "WHERE WERE YOU? DO YOU KNOW HOW I SPENT MY DAY?"

Things like that. Knowing she's probably broken the journalistic rule about having feelings for her subject, she still is, at her core, wanting questions answered.

If he had spelled it all out, saying I went to Jersey to stop one a-bomb, San Andreas to fix the fault, fixed the train trestle in the Rockies and built a makeshift Hoover Dam to stop a flood, sure, it might have placated her anger.

But it also would have been A-1 above the folder with a banner hed in an extra edition of The Planet that night.

Lois, you GO girl.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Everything I needed to know about journalism, I learned by watching Superman

When I was 13, I heard a promise, repeated and repeated and repeated.

“You will believe a man can fly.”

Superman: The Movie, I know now, was being hyped and marketed and it had a catchphrase that stuck.

Unlike a lot of marketing moves, this one was 100 percent successful. When the movie came out, I saw it, and I believed a man could fly.

Flash forward a bit. It is 2003 or ‘04. Having just completed a round of tailgating with friends before a football, I get my sideline photo pass, grab up my cameras and head to Williams-Brice Stadium to cover a USC football game. As a graduate, but a journalist as well, I had to tread the line and not show any partiality. I had so many USC hats, I had to leave them all behind.

I grabbed a blue hat given me for Christmas or my birthday one year, from thorn-in-my-side oldest sister Anne.

I thought nothing about the hat that day, just that it was not a USC hat, so I’d be safely innocuous. If there was a too-loud cheer in the press box for a good play, suspicion would immediately fall on me if I wore the garnet and black of my beloved Gamecocks.

So it was, I thought, going to make me safe.

But it stood out in another way. It must have struck a chord with one of the Richland County deputies guarding the gates.

“Are you Superman?” he asked. I blinked, having forgotten what hat I was wearing. It was a blue hat, but with the stylized red and yellow 'S" shield of Superman.

“No,” I said. “But I am Clark Kent."

The beginning bit about the movie does lead to the latter bit about the football game. I write for a lot of reasons, but most were set well in stone when my main career goals were to be a Jedi Knight or at least a pilot.

Another movie put me on the road to being a writer.

But when the decision was made to be a writer, it was Superman: The Movie that set in stone for me what kind of writer I was going to be.

Everything I needed to know about journalism, I learned by watching Superman.

You quiz most journalists my age, and they’ll say All The President’s Men is their favorite journalism movie. More artsy types will throw Citizen Kane out there.

There was a movie way back in which Humphrey Bogart plays a reporter or an editor. Can’t remember. Just caught the tail end of it.

“This ain’t the oldest profession in the world, kid,” he tells a lacky. “But it’s the best.”

Still holds true today.

Superman: The Movie is about criminal masterminds and earthquakes and a certain son of Krypton. But you could pull out all the special effects and still have a GREAT newspaper movie. And any reporter around 40 years old who doesn't list Superman: The Movie as an influence is lying.

The fastest typist I’ve ever seen

When I “matriculated” to the University of South Carolina’s College of Journalism, the dean doing my advising was clear. I either had to pass a typing test registering me at 35 words per
minute, or I’d have to take a typing course.

Because something so mundane as a typing course was actually listed on our degree requirements, some dismiss journalism as a trade, a craft, not worthy of being taught like professions at colleges or universities.


It was a practical thing we needed. We had to make the choice.

In Superman, Editor-in-Chief Perry White hires Clark Kent on the spot, replacing Lois Lane on the “city beat” for a variety of reasons.

“Not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy pro-style, but he is in my 40 years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.”

I tried the typing test, and with mistakes, couldn’t hit that minimal mark. So I took a course that included some shorthand lessons for taking notes. I remember about three of the shorthand notes, and have made my own shortcuts to be able to keep up.

But when computers began to come along, typing programs were early on one of the things they started out with.

I plugged along at about 40 words per minute when I was transcribing something. Probably a little faster, but they gig you a point here and there for misspellings and typos.

But I tried my hand at a Mac typing program, on a goof. It had a nice different test.

It had an open field and said, “Type whatever you want.”

Victory – 135 words per minute doing the kind of typing that I would really be doing. Not secretarial transcribing, but writing. I clocked a little bit faster about five years later when I bought my first computer, and it came with Mario Teaches Typing.

Speling, spealing, schpelling

“What are you writing, Miss Lane?” Jimmy Olsen asks the Daily Planet’s star reporter.

“An Ode to spring – how do you spell massacre?”

Later in the same exchange – “There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist,” Olsen says.

A later dig at the same piece she’s handing in comes from Perry White.

“There’s no ‘z’ in brasierre,” he says, looking at it for like two seconds and throwing it back at her.

What a fascinating Ode to Spring that piece must have been.

Just the facts, ma’am

Journalism has changed over the years. It once existed to tell people what was happening. But now newspapers, the bigger they are, have abandoned that as a principle and are more interested in talking about trends. Some try to make people FEEL things, some try to make people think a certain way about what is being covered.

I’ve never liked that approach, and I don’t do it in my paper.

Because of Perry White.

Did he read Lois’ piece on the East side murder, she asks. “This could be the basis of a whole series of articles, ‘Making Sense of Senseless Crimes’ by Lois Lane,” she says.

He wasn’t buying it.

“Lois, you’re pushing a bunch of rinky dink, tabloid garbage, and The Daily Planet …”

She’s not paying him much attention, however.

To me, Perry White is saying a newspaper should be about what is happening, not why it is happening. Sometimes why stuff needs to be done, but it must follow long after what has happened.

She still tries to push a story in that same conversation.

“It’s got everything,” she says. “It’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got the ethnic angle.”

“So’s a lady wrestler with a foreign accent,” he says, shutting her down.

Writers may think they have the elements to make a story rise above the average, but that is generally just the reporter trying to push a piece past what it is, at its essential level.

The readers won’t always get what you’re pushing.

“It’s too good to be true,” says Lex Luther, after going over Lois’ “I spent the night with Superman” story in which too much information is revealed. “It’s too good to be true.”

“It’s too good to be true,” says his gun moll, Eve Teschmacher. “He’s 6-foot-2, has black hair, blue eyes, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and TELLS the truth.”

Brevity is something to be desired in the industry, and it’s a goal I fail at miserably. But also, sometimes, you can boil something down too far.

The article explains why Superman is Superman, and reveals a weakness. (He can’t see through lead.)

Only Luther picks up on that. Teschmacher was just looking at what was a hunky Boy Scout she was probably thinking of tempting if the opportunity presented itself.

She missed what Lois was saying with her article.

“Some people can read ‘War and Peace,’ and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story, while others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper, and unlock the secrets of the universe,” Luther tells her.

She still doesn’t get it. “Lex, what has chewing gum got to do with the secrets of the universe?”

He just rolls his eyes and tells her she’s right.

But he says, “Voila,” moments later. Somehow, by reading Lois’ piece, he’s figured out that a certain meteorite that landed in Africa was from Krypton, and it’s radiation to Superman. How? I guess I’m one of those who thinks War and Peace is just a simple advernture story.

But he was right. With the revelation about kryptonite and the lead weakness, it’s also clear that while some people will not get what you’re trying to say, others will get a WHOLE lot more out of it than you can imagine.

Get the story

During a corral of his reporters after Superman’s first appearance, Perry White shows a good insight into papers.

One day, the paper can be about one thing or a million regular things. But sooner or later, something so big is going to come along that all other considerations are put aside.

Trying to fire up his troops, Perry White says, “Whichever one of you gets it out of him, is going to end up with the single most important interview since … God talked to Moses.”

Don’t be na├»ve

When Superman allows Lois to interview him, he says he’s here “to fight for truth, justice and the American way.”

“You’re going to end up fighting every elected official in this country,” she says.

“I’m sure you don’t mean that, Lois,” he says. Then he tells her he never lies.

Except for that whole secret idenity thing. Sources withhold important information to protect themselves. Even the invulnerable ones have something to protect. (Clark can withstand an H-bomb, but Ma Kent? Not so much.

Even the best dump their notebook

Sometimes everything you hear shouldn’t be included in your article. I’m REAL bad about this.

But that whole, “Can’t see through lead” thing ought to give Lois pause.

She doesn’t know all the ramifications, because of the "going back in time" thing Superman did. But because she told the world that Superman can’t see through lead, Superman almost died, Lois almost died, the West Coast almost slid off into the sea, and that kid with the bad skin condition almost fell off the Golden Gate Bridge with his classmates in the school bus.

If it wasn't for Miss Teschmacher's mom living in Hackensack, who knows how many millions would have died?

We’ve got a couple of phrases for using everything. Notebook dumping is a nicer one.
Diarrhea of the typewriter is an old-style version.

Even Lois Lane does it.

The pay sucks

After her big interview/date with Superman, Lois hears the knocking at her door.

Clark shows up for the “real” date on her book.

Lois has a really nice penthouse apartment, but it’s impossible to believe that she affords it on a reporter’s salary.

Evidence Clark’s words to her as they leave.

“I was a little nervous about this, but then I decided, gosh darn it, I’ll show her the time of her life,” he says.

The good bit is fading away as the door closes behind them.

“I was figuring maybe we could go for a hamburger or whatever you like,”

The pay sucks.

There’s a whole lot more. Some bits are in Superman II.

When they find out about a nuclear bomb in Paris, Lois is sent to cover the story, not Clark.

“If Paris is going to go kablooey, I want my best reporter in the middle of it,” Perry White tells Clark.

Management appreciates your abilities, but not your life, apparently.

Also, a big story can be sitting in front of your nose and you miss it.

It takes the trip to Niagara Falls for Lois to see past the glasses at what ought to be pretty obvious.

Some reporters are willing to risk their lives for a story. Lois jumps into the Niagara River, headed to the falls. Clark does some impromptu saving without stripping down to the cape and tights.

I don’t think the potential payoff on that story is worth the risk, myself.

But the most important bit came from two characters -- the quintessential journalists in the movie. Lois and Perry both end on the same note.

"Gosh, how do you get all the great stories," Jimmy Olsen asks.

"A good reporter doesn't get great stories, Jimmy. A good reporter," she says as she walks into White's office, who's saying the same thing to Clark.

A good reporter makes them great.

I’ve gotten a nice life out of this profession, even though the pay sucks. When you get up to the editorial level, you do OK.

When you marry a beautiful publisher of the best large weekly in the state, who’s pulling down some serious bread, you find it’s much easier to have what is called “a real life." But the other rewards of the job are still the reason to do it.

There’s nothing more rewarding than a scoop, that’s for sure. Except maybe another scoop. But even if you don’t get the scoop, being allowed past police lines some of the times, looking at murder scene photos, standing next to a fire truck while a mill burns, spewing acid residue into the air, getting whipped in the face by hurricane force winds, it’s just all fun.

And come to think of it, when I cover stories like that, I can actually get hurt if something else comes along. Unlike a certain Last Son of Krypton.

But anyway, in honor of Superman starting up in a few days, I figured I’d finally get around to penning this.

I’m not Superman, but I am Clark Kent.

I’m almost 6-foot, have black hair, blue eyes, I seldom drink and never smoke, and I tell the truth.

I fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

With a pen.

Best weapon available.

More later, maybe.

P.S. This is 2,167 words long, and it was done in 20 minutes. That’s
108 WPM. Must be some kryptonite nearby slowing me down.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

I'll remember Pop, Auntie Bridey

I've run a particular column in the counties I've lived in, at a
certain time of year. When the American Cancer Society raises money for
Relay for Life, I run this column.

I do try to make the point that news stories many times are universal.

I have been on two Relay for Life teams, both with different
newspapers. I helped create the team at The Cheraw Chronicle. I helped
create a team at The People-Sentinel in Barnwell County. (I have been
told that Allendale County, one of the smallest, poorest counties in
the state, has one of the best Relay events. It raises more, per
capita, than any other events in the state.)

Anyway, I ran this column a few weeks back on the News & Reporter's
editorial page. A woman came by my office Thursday. She had an English accent,
but she too was born in Ireland and emigrated to find work.

She said she thought reading this column was like reading her own life.
(I guess, except for the part about dying of cancer.)


I'll remember Pop, Auntie Bridey

I've got his naturalization certificate in a cruddy plastic frame, because I haven't had a chance to buy a nice frame yet.

John Patrick Guilfoyle, 41, white, fair complexioned, blue-eyed, brown gray hair, 5' 10”, that's basically all the information you can find on it, other than on Oct. 31, 1957, he became a citizen of the United States.

But it's got my grandfather's picture on it, one of the few we have in the family, and I wanted it, cruddy frame or not.

I'm still not as old as he was when he became a citizen of the United States. It's not necessarily a memory of him. It's a thought, a reminder of someone I knew a long time ago, but never really got to know at all.

He immigrated to the United States from Ireland, had a family, and worked in a repair shop of the New York City subway system.

He was the only grandparent I ever had. His wife died before I ever saw her. My mother's parents lived in Ireland and died when I was young.

The memories I have are few and rare, but all pleasant. He'd come visit every Wednesday. We'd run home just a little quicker those days, scream, “C'mon, c'mon c'mon” to make the elevator door close that much faster, so we could get up to our apartment and find him sitting on the couch, by the window. If it was summer, he'd have his radio by his side, listening to the New York Mets. No matter that he could turn on the TV and watch the game any day of the week. Better on the radio, he thought.

He had a little nonsense rhyme for each of us. For me - “Stephen, Stephen, cut the bread even.”

Sounds silly to you, I'm sure. Sweetest words I ever heard. It's been about 30 years since I heard them.

I've got her picture in my wallet, in a little memorial card. Bridget Kristine Enright Williams. My mother's sister. She was born in Ireland. Like any Irish person who wanted to work, she had to leave Ireland. She moved to England, however, and went to nursing school.

Because there were too many Irish girls named Bridget at school, the damned English turned my Auntie Bridey into Kris. I'd always hear about her in letters my Aunt Catherine wrote to my mother. I'd always smile a little, knowing I had an Auntie Bridey out there somewhere.

Aunt Kris is so generic, so basic. Auntie Bridey is so lyrical, so musical.

She moved to England, got a new name to everyone else but me, got a job, married a man and had two children.

She visited us - in 1989 I think - and I finally got to see her. I was away at college most of her visit, but I remember a long night spent at the Spartanburg Amtrak station, the heater in my old Impala working overtime as we waited and waited and waited for the train to show up so
they could head up North for a few days.

Her husband was Welsh, and she made a great Welsh pot roast at the house once. Vegetables are a communist plot, but somehow my Auntie Bridey convinced me to ask seconds on the carrot-based dinner. I saw her for just a few days, then I had to go back to college. I came back
a couple of weeks later to drive her and her husband and kids to the airport. It was a big car.

In 1990, we put Mom on a plane and got her to England. Two of her brothers also live there. Two others flew in from Australia. It was the worst kind of family reunion. They all made it, just barely, before Auntie Bridey went.

My grandfather, Pop, as we called him, died of cancer. Lung cancer possibly from the asbestos in the brakes of the subway cars he worked on his entire life. My Auntie Bridey died of cancer. This nasty little disease barked up both sides of my family tree and took something from
me that I never really had a chance to know.

One of the ways to honor people like that is by buying luminaries as part of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life efforts. It's a way to raise money to fight cancer. I bought one for Pop and one for Auntie Bridey this year.

That's what cancer has left us. A certificate, a dog-eared memorial card. I have memories. Just pictures on paper and in my mind that fade. Nothing to hold or tell a joke to. Nothing to smile at, nothing that smiles back.

The real horror of cancer is it takes away things you don't even know you had, things you never had a chance to get. I have a million pleasant memories. I'm a millionaire in remembrance, but I'd rather be poor in memories and rich in hugs from Auntie Bridey, and “Stephen, Stephen cut the bread evens” from my Pop.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Sucker punch?

About the fire, there was this -- Great Falls gasping for air.

I like the writer. He's a helluva writer. Just got put into the position of being the featured news columnist. Until this column, he hadn't really taken a stand on anything. He tells great stories, and that's what he did. Until that.

Usually, it's best to just leave well enough alone. Usually. But my paper had to respond.

Great Falls sucker-punched

We've heard back from the community. They are giving us a big "Hell yeah" for our piece.

This was the first column the writer penned about Chester County since he got his new gig.

You know what the say about first impressions.

He's written two more times in column form about the incident.

Suddenly, the town that's like a prize fighter who needs to be put out of his misery is now a town with "big heart."

Has the town changed so much in just a couple or three days?

Funny enough, there was another column in what The Herald calls The Chester County Herald. It's just a page, once a week. In a bullet item brief, the columnist takes an unnamed "Mr. Reporter" to task, using a quote from the first Herald piece last week. "The only action in town is the fire destroying its heritage." Little Miss Shirley didn't like that. (Her stuff isn't available online.)

It's kind of funny, actually. One of the tragedies of the fire, for this lady, was not being able to go to the salon in Great Falls and get her hair done, apparently.

But the community is also letting The Herald know. Here's a letter to the editor they ran.

We got thanked for putting up a BUNCH of pictures on the web to let former residents know what is going on. Another said she could practically smell the hydrochloric acid in the fire from our coverage. That's unabashed response.

While I was at the Red Cross shelter, I was asked if The Charlotte Observer was present. I'm usually loath to send a person to another paper, but I was busy, so I pointed the reporter out. The shelter volunteer went on her way. I caught up with the volunteeer later and asked why she wanted The Observer.

She didn't like the paper's coverage. The pictures were all negative, she said. A woman in her "night shirt" was on the front page of the local section. An old man looking confused on the inside page. It didn't show anything positive going on in the middle of the troubles, and she just couldn't hold back.

So I said, "Oh, I wish you'd have told me. I'd love to watch that."

Here's the second editorial we did about the Great Falls fire. Unlikely hero.

The TV stations had coverage in pretty much the same vein.

I've seen it for years now.

I imagined myself after college going to bigger and bigger dailies, but I started looking for work during a recession, which newspapers tend to tighten up in advance of official notice. It took me a while to find a job, and it was at a weekly, 50 miles from a decent movie theater or bookstore. I thought I couldn't stand it, going in, but I have absolutely loved it.

I'm still at a non-daily, 12 years later.

Here's the thing. People will fawn over big papers and TV usually. Then they will open up a piece and usually hate it for being negative.

Everything in a big newspaper's piece has usually been in a GOOD weekly already, just in pieces, here or there, as things happen or get ready to happen. A big newspaper sometimes tries to come in and get the local newspaper to show them their work, and to ease their way.

Yet people don't realize they've already gotten the stuff in the big "package" before, all along, once a week in their mailbox.

And they get it without the usual negative spin.

My paper isn't a bulletin board for the cheery only. We do hard, hard stuff. We covered some very outraged people during this fire.

We just didn't make a character judgment about the town while people were in the moment.

Our paper is here for the long haul, and it wants to represent its readers and the community. It isn't parachuting in when the scanner goes off and running off when a "bigger" story rears its head elsewhere.

You hear a lot about the newspaper industry "dying" and circulation declining.

Don't look at just the headlines when you see those things. Daily circulation is either declining or having such meager growth that it is actually losing ground in growing communities.

Weekly papers, non-daily papers, community papers? Their circulation is growing. Fast.

Wonder why?

Busy day

I woke up earlier than usual Tuesday, June 6, 2006. Around 6 a.m.

(I guess that makes it 6 6 6 06. SCARY.)

We had a big fire in Great Falls. I couldn't leave our office, but made some phone calls to get it in the papers by deadline. Our publisher took some pictures on his way in to work. So we got it first. We actually had our first UPDATE about the fire on the web before other papers had their first story.

All during a day when I wrote 10 other stories (couldn't get them all in, of course), had a candidate for governor AND a candidate for a state house seat drop by for a little "pre-primary" chat, ALL while dealing with moving from paste up to digital transmission of our pages as .pdfs. Down a reporter, and our Great Falls editor, whose town was in trubba, was on vacation.

So I got to the fire locale by about 7 p.m., it was still burning, stayed till after 9 p.m., and was up until 2 a.m. writing what I think is the most complete story so far on the fire.

The next morning, I woke up about the same time as day before, so I was a litle light headed. But Patricia told me to send out links and share the story to friends, so I did.

I put up the photo gallery that morning from home, and before heading back to work.

As the fire chief said, "I'm so tired."

We've had the most compete coverage of any paper in our online edition. Getting it just two days a week in print is a bit of a drag.

The fire continued for almost a week. It's out now, an investigation is going on. We are the only newspaper so far to print a story about what happened at that same mill two years ago. We reported it two years ago, and reported the possible ramifications in our Wednesday paper.

It's been, as I said, a busy two weeks. We had both regular and special primaries on Tuesday this week, a runoff will be held as well as an election protest. A company that in many ways put the town on the map annouced it was closing two plants by February and 760 jobs will be lost.

Had to get all that, too.