Q&A: Jeff Schwaner, News Leader (Staunton)

By |2018-11-15T14:21:09+00:00November 15th, 2018|

Jeff Schwaner, watchdog and reporting coach for the News Leader in Staunton by day and poet by night, is our Q&A this week. 

Jeff talks about what being a reporting coach entails, how poetry and journalism are alike, the ingredients for good reporters, his favorite poetry lines, what makes a story compelling and more.

Please introduce yourself and tell us what you do.

I’m the storytelling & watchdog Coach at The News Leader in Staunton. If that sounds to you like an almost mythically cool job title, you are not alone. Not with this newsletter’s audience, at any rate.

I work with our small but dedicated beat reporters on their long-term, large-scale projects. Many are watchdog but not all. Depending on the reporter and the story, I can just be a light touch on a story, give reporting guidance or structural advice, issue a challenge to write a story in a certain way, or get down on style at the sentence level.

Much of what I do is calibrated to the individual reporter in the context of that specific project, though I also work with them on the longer-term things. How many ways can you tell this story? What is the best way to tell this specific one? Are you in fact even telling the right story? In many cases the ‘right story’ comes from asking more questions of the first version of the ‘right story,’ then asking more of the next version, and so on.

I also write a few project-size stories myself a year, as well as data and watchdog stories. I have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing these stories, too, which I appreciate.

How does one become a newsroom coach and are there others like you out there? I think you’re the only one I know of in Virginia.

I am indeed. It’s part of the USA Today Network’s newsroom structure — we’re one of over 50 small newsrooms in the network, which comprises something like 108 papers in total. My first day on the job in 2015 was the first day of this new structure, so for the News Leader’s staff I was their first coach.

Each of the three years I’ve been here has seen my role evolve. And honestly it took about a year to earn the respect of the beat writers. Some of that was working closely with them with the end result being a better story. When a reporter gets recognition, from readers or their peers (hopefully both) after publishing a story that their coach really made them work on, those results help build respect and trust.

I also keep metrics for each reporter – I look at average engaged time, page views, story count. Those numbers, paired with knowing how much time was spent by the writer on certain stories, helps with another aspect of coaching. Are you spending the right amount of time on the right stories? Some stories demand a quick minimal viable product to get the important news to the reader in a timely way. Others demand more time, more questions, more planning and better storytelling.

As I think about it, probably each reporter has a Schwaner-meter that filters out the stuff I say that doesn’t help them and pays attention to what they think really does help them. I’d like to think that I’m attuned to those metrics, but usually they tell me straight up when that needle is moving in the wrong direction.

And, of course, in a small newsroom (I suspect in every newsroom these days) roles evolve in two ways — to the need of the moment and to the longer-term goals. For me that’s developing reporters who best serve their community while making each story an opportunity for them to learn and utilize something new.

Since you work in the guts of what does and doesn’t work in stories, give us three things you’ve found that help most reporters.

Attention. Reporters think their work is important, and it is. While much of my work as a coach focuses on the reporter’s most important work, I back-read a lot of stories and will let a reporter know when I read something that’s great. Likewise, I’ll let them know if I see they are falling into patterns of storytelling, exposition that signal to me they are sleepwalking through a story. Certain structures can hypnotize you into thinking you are telling the story, but you’re really just following a structure that is comfortable for you.

Space. Today, I worked with a reporter on a watchdog story where I felt we had to go sentence by sentence through the first ten paragraphs to really set up the rest of the story. But sometimes it’s better to give the reporter space. Yesterday, I spent a few minutes on the phone with a reporter after reading a draft. That person had all the elements in the story, but not in the right place. It was a short, efficient phone call – move this stuff around and then go with what you’ve got. We didn’t need to go over each word in the story.

Writing is a solitary act, even in a loud newsroom where people are fighting over Tuesday donuts! and a writer cannot always respond authentically to challenging questions in the very different medium of a person-to-person talk. They may respond better simply by jumping back into the story. We put a lot of responsibility on reporters in this newsroom. I try and gauge when I can give them space to do what they most need to do. How they respond to me is secondary to how they actually use what I say to make a better story.

Fearlessness. Because of the digital nature of composition, we can take great leaps from one draft to the next. A few times I have looked at a reporter’s final draft of an important story and said something close to: “This is 90% percent great and 10 percent missing. Let’s talk about what’s missing.” It could be context, it could be reporting, in at least one case it was just a feeling I had that the reporter was holding back something — “and then you’re going to rewrite the entire story.”

You can’t do that without a certain fearlessness. But it’s leveraged by the fact that we lose nothing by trying something like that. In the case I mention above, a very good story was turned into a great story, which turned into some public forums, which really made a difference for people in the community. The story won a quarterly award among the USAT Network as well.

Do you think reporters could stand to lend more artfulness (so to speak) to their day-to-day writing?

Sometimes the artfulness in writing is simply knowing the right way to write for the right container.

I think it goes without saying that even in the age of data and Twitter, narrative has flexed its muscles. But you can bury your lede by setting it up too much. And artfulness here is often not choosing the wrong word more than it is choosing the “perfect” word.

As someone who studied poetry and has always considered myself a poet by vocation (not by livelihood), I think of it this way: with a poem, I write a very limited number of words and hope that people may remember a phrase, an image, even a line or two word-for-word, all the while knowing that what they take out of that line and poem is very personal. With journalism it’s exactly the inverse — you write thousands of words and the aim is that nobody remembers any of those words but meanwhile you know exactly what you want them to take out of that story.

At bottom, the writing has to serve the story’s aim. And as a writer that’s a humbling thing we all have to deal with. With some of my own work I’m used to my editor (William Ramsey, the news director) regularly going over all the good aspects of a final draft of mine before matter-of-factly noticing that he hadn’t mentioned my killer opening section at all, which therefore must not be necessary. And that section will get cut, because he’ll be right. Mostly.

How does one straddle between poetry and journalism? Is it a Jekyll and Hyde situation—Yeats by night, Seymour Hersh by day—or do the two compliment and play off one another?

They really play off each other. I learn the importance of being able to use very few words to make an important turn in an investigative story. I learn the impact of numbers, facts, context, plain speech which often can be used to better effect in a poem than any attempt at more poetic texture in language. Part of writing poetry is reporting, too. It’s just reporting a more personal set of observations.

Put another way, poetry amplifies, journalism focuses. And I enjoy the healthy tension of those different responsibilities to the reader. But they are not exclusive in their tools or effects.

And I think any reporter who reads books, watches movies, encounters other forms of storytelling, performance, and language can draw from those other sources to help make their work sharper, more powerful, better paced, more accessible.

There’s definitely a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect that involves appreciating the difference between the two. I’ve been working on one data story for over a year. Still not published. Last year all November I was spending 50 hours a week creating spreadsheets from raw data. Sunk in the middle of a huge long-term project where I was not even sure what the data would tell me, it was a Hyde-like romp to be able to walk away from that at night and write an entirely self-contained 8 line poem that didn’t have to double check its sources, ask other reporters for help, conquer software and pitch potential titles to an editor to make sure it was on the right path.

Poetry line that’s applicable to journalism: A.R. Ammons, who was a poet I worked with at Cornell, has a line that is a mantra for me, as a poet and a person and a coach. The line is: “Firm ground is not available ground.” I think it’s a fine mantra for journalists, to whom no good story is handed on plate. It’s a good recognition to have when undertaking anything difficult. Out on the boundaries you’re more likely to find the person who wants to talk, the data nobody has looked at, the point of view nobody’s seen. The footing is not as sure, but once you have your balance you can get roots down deeper and faster and grow something special.

In small newsrooms, people often say, “we don’t have the time, or resources” for watchdog journalism. What do you say to that?

Ha! We say that ourselves. But then we do it. Because it’s the core of community/local journalism. It can grow from daily coverage but also informs daily coverage. Part of my job is working with the beat writers to build watchdog into their daily/weekly/monthly routines. Sometimes the difference between a straight / daily news story and a strong watchdog piece is simply asking another question, and then another.

You get to create the perfect reporter in a lab, what are the ingredients?

I’d prefer to create a whole newsroom staff in a lab, so that way we’d have a mix of various skill sets and experiences helping to keep each other honest. Good things come out of that: conflict and dissonance are creative energies. But limited to a single mad scientist experiment I’d say: 1. Loves to learn; 2. comfortable with either data or people; 3. Not afraid of words. 4. Respectful rulebreaker. 5. Synthesizer of facts, technique, real-world skills.

Favorite poet:

 Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, author of my other life mantra: “The one who has arrived has a long way to go.” Every journalist should have that on a T-shirt or coffee mug.

Favorite poem and favorite line:

Outside the lines I mentioned earlier, I have never forgotten Milton’s line “They also serve who stand and wait.” And the first line of the first poem in Transtromer’s first book goes like this: “Awakening is a parachute jump from the dream.” (Then there’s pretty much any of a dozen lines by Cummings.)

See some of Jeff’s investigative work for the News-Leader here. Read two of his poems here.