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JWF Fellowships to the Poynter Institute for Print, Broadcast and Online News Journalists

Poynter Experience

Reports from:Samantha Wright Allen | Chris Flak


Samantha Wright AllenSamantha Wright Allen
Prince George Citizen

By the end of the jam-packed week at the Poynter Institute, I had two dog-eared yellow notepads full of scribbled notes, an aching hand and hit-list of tips I could take back with me.

The instructors jokingly call it a "mind spa" and while it was anything but relaxing, it was a place devoted entirely to thoughtful reporting and creative storytelling.

In one of his first sessions Tom French - one of the many Pulitzer Prize winning instructors - disavowed us of the idea that writing is magic, something you either have or you don't. No, he said, it's a process.

Every seminar seems a conversation about how to do the craft, that process, a little better: how to hone curiosity, develop ideas, adopt interview techniques, embrace the "pre-writing" process, create outlines for focused pieces and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

"You're writing from the minute you get the idea," reporter extraordinaire Jacqui Banaszynski told us - a reassurance I've already invoked for longer pieces that are stuck in my mind and in the disjointed scramble of scenes, quotes and notes on the page.

I found her "literary forensics" session so helpful, where one actively highlights specific sections or words - like verbs, quotes, clauses - with a goal of making the sentences active and the writing tight. While I may not have a highlighter in hand with daily deadlines, I am far more aware of simple things like word choice. Her story generation seminar was also gold.

While much of the Summit on Reporting and Editing focused on longform, investigations or series, the approach could also translate to deadline writing. Most importantly, you left those particular sessions inspired and more ambitious to tackle enterprise projects still on the side of the desk, pushed off again for those daily deadlines. It gave me the ability to separate information-focused reporting that deserves a quicker approach for the daily file from the journalism that begs for a narrative and more time from you and the reader.

Instructors also delved into data journalism, ethics and immersion reporting. The few sessions on social media and online storytelling were engaging but could have received more focus. It gave me an arsenal of new apps to play with and ways to improve how my newsroom presents pieces online.

Much of the value in those six days comes in the conversations between sessions with the other participants, each from a different part of the world, but mostly the United States. The instructors are approachable and generous with advice.

As budgets tighten and newsroom numbers dwindle, Poynter too seems to be feeling the effect. It doesn't offer as many courses and ours combined reporters and editors from traditional newsrooms and those in the communications field. Thankfully the approach still comes entirely from a journalistic lens, its value in the universality of storytelling skills.

I use the lessons from the course every day but most importantly I left inspired to improve with the techniques to walk that path. Something special happens in those St. Petersburg classrooms where it fuels the fire just a little more. I am grateful to the Webster Foundation for this opportunity and for the Don Matheson estate for making the fellowship possible. I am a better journalist because of that generosity.




Chris FlakChris Flak
CTV News Vancouver

The seminar that resonated most with me was focused on resilience, which frankly I really needed. I learned "resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity and trauma." What could possibly be more appropriate? A quotation from Eric Greitens really spoke to me: "don't expect a time in your life when you will be free from change, free from struggle, or free from worry. To be resilient, you must understand that your objective is not to come to rest, because there is no rest. Your objective is to use what hits you to change your trajectory in a positive direction." I realized I could use this to help me focus on moving forward in both my personal life and my career, but I needed something a little more tangible. What could I do on a day-to-day basis to help me achieve this resilience? I was reminded that I am responsible for my own life, my actions, my happiness and results. Be willing to fail and be willing to begin again. Take time for reflection. Break big challenges down into smaller parts. Think of the worst case scenario and how to improve it. And take time to breathe. Slow down long enough to catch your breath and figure out what to do next. This is exactly what I needed.

Next came a workshop on how to have difficult conversations. Most of us admitted we need help with conflict resolution in the workplace and had purposely avoided having difficult conversations hoping the problem would just go away. In TV management, at times you deal with demanding hosts who are often incredibly insecure, jaded producers who are bitter about working too hard for not enough money, and bosses with expectations so high they sometimes seem unachievable. I learned you must decide how serious your conversation needs to be and split it up into one of three categories: yellow, orange, or red. "Yellow" may include missed deadlines, a bad attitude, or poor dress. "Orange" comes with an action plan to tackle bullying, harassment or other inappropriate behaviour. And finally "red" addresses issues of the most serious nature like plagiarism or dangerous behaviour. It's crucial to prepare for your conversation, make your expectations clear, offer solutions and schedule a follow up. But perhaps the most important lesson: address the issue by pursuing "radical candor". The person at the centre of the discussion needs to know specifically what he or she is doing wrong. This may sound simplistic, but it can be really hard to do. Since this seminar, I have had a number of difficult conversations with employees, and while I still don't think I'm great at it, I'm much more confident than I was before.

One of the most valuable elements of the fellowship was reading feedback that had been submitted by my boss and colleagues in Vancouver. None of us had seen this feedback until several days into the fellowship when our brilliant lead instructor Butch Ward presented us with an envelope containing eight evaluations from people I trust and respect. For whatever reason, I think all of us were preparing for the worst, but overall I was surprised how complementary it was. People said I was a great motivator, a proficient and visionary leader, and an effective communicator. The biggest things I need to work on: delegating more duties, and giving more feedback. One person said "I just wish Chris had more time..."

Ultimately the entire point of taking the Poynter fellowship was to make me a better manager and force me to think about what kind of leader I'd like to be. When thinking about the best bosses I've had over my decade-long career, they are all inspiring, supportive, engaged, thoughtful, passionate, decisive, demanding, while possessing vision and integrity.




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