Current Location: Georgia.
Current Gig: Curator, Storyful
Quick and Dirty Resume: Dropped out of college to be a minor rock star. Took a semi-logical step into writing music and theatre reviews. Graduated to Peabody-winning teams at CNN, and rocketed into the digital age.
Six-word memoir: From country girl to digital darling.
Favorite fictional character: Mmm, tough one. Literary, Cirocco “Rocky” Jones from John Varley’s Titan trilogy. Visual, probably Temperance Brennan, aka “Bones.”
Favorite tech tool: Another tough one. My iPad, my Canon collection, my TiVo, any one of an ever-expanding collection of apps. And lately, the iPhone has moved into the mix.
What happens during your average day?
Since a serious auto accident in March, my average day has resembled that of an invalid more closely than that of a working journalist. But when not recovering from broken bones and surgery to fix them, the average day looks a little like this: Coffee and breakfast, a little attention to my four-footed friends. Dog outside and coffee in hand, I’m checking and answering email, Twitter and Facebook. Emails will include Storyful updates, so there’s my first look at what I may be working later in the day when I step into my office. I’ll also use Flipbook, Zite, Pulse or my own Google reader set to check up on the world.
Errands, lunch, playing ball with the dog. Maybe a nap if I got up quite early. Then, to work. I have one of those signs with “WILL RETURN” and a clock face with manually moveable arms on my office door. Right next to the dart board. Once the dual screens are up, I do a fairly thorough read-in of what my colleagues in Dublin have been doing and get ready for the night. Currently I maintain what we call “Pro wires,” which is one of our client tools — the one that keeps an eye on the world and tweets out verified sources and videos from the world’s hotspots along with key information and the locations of our curated Twitter lists. In a breaking news situation, I’d be doing some of that list curation on the spot, hunting down journalists and citizens on the scene. Our motto: There’s always someone closer to the story. We maintain curated lists for every country and some specified topics; on slower news days I’ll work on those lists, culling out names that no longer need to be there and adding ones that do.
I keep the rest of my team up on what’s going on with current stories, breaking stories and general news with an eye toward futures. Those other folks are curating video for our clients, seeking info requested by clients, maintaining our public website, among other things. Sometimes I handle those tasks as well (we all do — it’s a small team, and we all know one another’s jobs). At the end of my day, I’m handing over the works to our one-woman Asia team, who’ll take care of business and later be joined by Dublin.
Why did you choose to get involved with online media?
I was looking to move up in the world, back in 1995, and had already been working on bringing the weekly newspaper I worked for into that nascent digital age. The possibilities were unlimited, and completely fascinating for a gadget/tech geek like me. A friend told me CNN was looking for folks to work on its soon-to-be launched website, so I jumped at the opportunity, landed the job and became a CNN.com original, helping launch the site in August that year.
Covering a story can be difficult, particularly in a hostile situation where people close to the story may not look kindly on journalists or reporters. What was the situation like in Ovett, Miss., where you covered community anger against a feminist retreat, and how do you handle hostile reporting situations more broadly?
Whew. That was a tough one. Camp Sister Spirit [a feminist retreat founded by lesbian activists] was this little acreage in the midst of very rural Mississippi. They’d had dead dogs hung on their mailbox, shots fired across the property and some out-and-out direct threats. But here’s the thing about country folk like that, particularly in the south — they are, as the saying goes, the salt of the earth, and right friendly too. On the way into the camp, I can’t tell you how many pickup trucks I passed, seeing the driver lift a hand from the steering wheel in the traditional drivers’ wave. And I waved right back, from the wheel of my own pickup. Inside the camp, the atmosphere wasn’t so much fearful as it was cautious, wary. Outside the camp, I really wasn’t afraid either. The officials, who very well could have been some of the same people firing shots and hanging dogs from the mailbox, were officially concerned, promising they were doing all they could to protect the camp and its residents. The neighbors, well, they didn’t much care for the lesbian part, but allowed that as long as the lesbians kept to themselves that would be fine. I doubt they said the same thing without a journalist present.
But y’know, I don’t even think I’m qualified to talk about being in a “hostile” reporting situation, not when my colleagues are being shot at and killed in places like Syria and Libya. I’ve reported from spots where the people didn’t much like me, as an individual or as a journalist, and some of em talked real big. But when push came to shove, they couldn’t even muster the shove, let alone fire a gun or a rocket in my direction.
You were a graphic designer and journalist before the whole idea of “design thinking” was popular. What lessons have you learned from design that assisted you the most in journalism?
Interesting question. In design, I look at the whole picture … Even the text becomes just an element on a static page. But when design jumped off the printed page and into HTML, the entire package became fluid. And that included the words. Every piece of the “page” is alive now, or at least potentially so. I always want to provide as much information in a story as possible — to provide the context a reader needs to understand the story, why it’s important, what it means. That’s awfully hard to do in print, and, of course, some people don’t need it, and others don’t want it. But online, a hyperlink, an interactive graphic … any number of items can provide that kind of detail without being “too much.” A reader who already gets the context isn’t bogged down in detail. A reader who doesn’t quite get it has that info at the tip of his or her fingertips. Understanding that freed me to design a story almost like I would design page — getting in the basic info, teasing the additional info. In effect, the text is no longer a design element. The words themselves are.
You describe yourself as an accidental “journalist, Buddhist, and dog-owner.” How did each of these things come to pass?
Ha ha. Let’s see.
The accidental journalist: You may recall I dropped out of school. I was majoring in accounting. The rock star thing was fun, but it was minor and not paying the bills. For that I had the proverbial “day job.” I was also doing a radio show. So one day in the late ’80s the editor of a new bi-weekly newspaper asked if I’d be interested in doing music reviews. I had been writing all my life (never even thinking I could make money from it), and I knew music, so I said sure. I wrote some theatre reviews, too, and then had an irreverent op-Ed column. One day I was the only person around when some news story happened, and I covered it. Love at first sight. Dropped all the other stuff and became an actual reporter.
Dog owner: I’ve had dogs before, but never on my own. Last fall I started thinking maybe I was ready for that. Wasn’t in a hurry. Hell, I have a cat who fetches. But I was out walking one day and met a woman with three dogs. One of them was just the coolest canine I’d ever met, and when she said he was a foster … Well, that was it. So now I have a 75-pound puppy.
Buddhist: I’m one of those spiritual but not religious people. Studied a lot of religion, found virtually all of it to be sadly lacking. Long story, short: Ran into an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in 20something years and we got to talking. Turns out she’d become a Buddhist. Further turns out that our respective outlooks on life were awfully similar, and hers was guided by Buddhism. Turns out I was a Buddhist and didn’t know it.
If you had a million dollars dedicated to improving media, you would …
A million bucks wouldn’t begin to improve media the way I’d like to improve it, so let me answer this two ways. First, if I had the unlimited resources needed to really make a difference, I’d make sure no journalist ever had to depend on someone with a point of view or an agenda for his or her salary again. Journalism should be free and independent. It’s a service provided to people who can’t be there themselves to ask the questions or look under the rocks or in the closets. And I don’t mean celebrity closets. Let the usual commercial interests fund that.
And if I only had a million dollars dedicated to improving media, I’d use it to start funding one organization that is free and independent, answerable to the citizens and made up of journalists who understand that they are citizens themselves, with the hope of bringing in more funding soon, because a million bucks just won’t go that far.