J-School in a night: SPJ W. Washington presents a crash course in journalism

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Left to right: Natalie Singer, Sara Lerner, Lauren Foster, Genna Martin and Sandy Whittington

 

SPJ Western Washington held a two hour crash course in journalism on February 11, with sessions on ethics, pitching, photography and story structure, open to all levels of experience. The sessions were taught by a panel of local journalists, writers and photographers.

Crafting a successful story pitch: Advice from Natalie Singer-Velush

Natalie Singer-Velush formerly worked at the Seattle Times and has written for national publications including the Huffington Post. Now, as the Executive Editor of ParentMap, she receives about 200 email pitches a week. Like many editors, she doesn’t have time to even open most of them. She offered some tips on successfully pitching to editors like her.

First, Singer-Velush said, pitches should be in the form of an email. Pitching to an editor in person is also fine, but cold calling an editor with a phone pitch is a bad idea.

Singer-Velush advises writers should be able to answer six questions before pitching a story.

  1. What piques your curiosity about the story? Trust what interests you about the story — it might be what hooks a reader or editor. Also, this is something to guide you if you ever become lost in the reporting or writing process
  2. What is new about the story — why does it need to be told now? Most stories have been done before — what’s the new angle for this one?
  3. Why will readers care about the story? Even if you think it’s interesting, there’s no guarantee readers will
  4. How can this story be told digitally? Your pitch might have better chances if you can identify components that would lend themselves to digital storytelling. It also never hurts to think about headlines, SEO, social media. If you can, identify what types of images could go with the story
  5. What are some sources you’ll contact, and questions you plan to ask them? Editors will feel more confident in your ability to carry the story if you know where you’re going with it
  6. What is the scope of this story? How much time will it take to produce? How much space do you think it deserves? It’s important for this to be clear from the beginning

Singer-Velush offered more advice on pitching:

  • The email subject line is precious real estate, because it will decide whether an editor even opens the email. Every word counts. It should pique the editor’s interest, shouldn’t read like spam, and shouldn’t contain any spelling or grammatical errors
  • Write your pitch email using the voice of the publication you’re pitching to. If the publication is light and humorous, make the pitch light and humorous (but not too much). This shows an editor you understand the voice of the publication
  • If you’re pitching a radio story, and you’ve never done one, make sure to explain what skills and experience you have that are relevant or transferable

  • Pitching can be intimidating, but don’t procrastinate and put it off. Keep the pitches flowing. Find a way to give yourself regular reminders to pitch your stories
  • Become a member of Media Bistro. There’s an annual fee, but students get a discount, and it’s well worth it for the freelance opportunities and career resources
  • If you get repeatedly rejected by one publication, it’s not necessarily a sign to give up. Singer-Velush remembered getting email pitches from the same person for two years before she finally accepted one she liked
  • Don’t take it personally if an editor doesn’t respond to you — it’s never personal
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A photo by Genna Martin, taken from a Seattle PI photo story:  Heather Bowers blows a bubble while visiting the Post Alley Gum Wall the day before the wall will be completely cleaned for the first time in 20 years, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. 

Genna Martin teaches the elements of photography

Genna Martin is a staff photographer for the Seattle PI, who joined in 2015 after working for three years at the Everett Herald. She taught a session on the basic elements of photography, with examples from her own photojournalism work and others’.

When covering a scene or putting together an image gallery, Martin said, it’s best to have a variety of images:

  • Wide shot. Shows the overall area. Subject of the shot is small
  • Medium shot. The subject with some environmental detail
  • Detail shot. Important, but easy to forget. Can provide visual variety, and help tell the story
  • Action/transition shot. Useful as a transition image when telling a photo story
  • Portrait. Any sort of photo that highlights a particular person. Find a clean background, line up the photo, and wait for just the right moment

Martin said the three most important components of a good photo are  content, composition, and light.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

— Robert Capa

  • Content
    • Shows what the story is about. Position yourself to take the best image possible, and wait for the right moment.
  • Composition
    • Who or what is the focus?
    • Work your angles, make sure the frame is filled, use the rule of thirds
    • If you’re taking photos of people, get close. Martin quoted the great photojournalist Robert Capa, who said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
    • Martin’s advises photographers to put their subjects at east. Tell them who you are and what you’re doing, then tell them to ignore you. You might have to wait 15 minutes, but eventually they’ll forget you’re there, and you can take a photo without camera awareness
  • Light
    • Find where your light sources are
    • The best light is in the evening; the harshest is midday
    • When Martin is assigned to take a photo of someone in an office, she said she puts the subject next to the biggest window she can find

 “Your iPhone takes great photos — if you take great photos with your iPhone.”

Improving as a photographer

Martin had a few pieces of advice for improving at photography. The first is to just look at a lot of good photos, and study the great photographers of the past. It’s also important to get a lot of practice. Take your camera with you everywhere you go, experiment with different light conditions. Use your friends as test subjects, if you can.

Finding stories, and other technicalities

Martin said she comes up with 80 percent of her own story assignments at the Seattle PI, sometimes turning to Reddit for ideas.

As far as the technical side goes, she’s found that using a combination of a 24 – 70mm and a 70 – 200mm lens is sufficient for almost every scene. As for using your phone camera? “Your iPhone takes great photos — if you take great photos with your iPhone,” she said.

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