This weekend the UMass Journalism Department had it’s first Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence – NPR Managing Editor Mark Stencel. Along with a public talk on Wednesday April 18th, he spoke to several journalism classes including my multimedia class.
Right after brief introdutions, Stencel launched into presenting to us a multimedia package from NPR entitled “‘Suicide by Cop’ Leads Soldier On Chase Of His Life.” But not before saying, “Never do a live internet demonstration, it never works.”
Luckily for us, it actually did work.
The package includes a video and a 20 minute long radio piece, but for our lecture Stencel mainly focused on the video piece.
The piece was not your typical interview-style video. It was told in voice overs and photographs, enunciating the story of an Irag War veteran who had a traumatic brain injury and decided to kill himself one night in the North Dakota farmland. He left his home in a Tacoma pick-up truck with an assortment of firearms which eventually led him into a high speed police chase and a stand off with law enforcement that lasted several hours. Eventually Savelkoul surrendered and has been treating his brain injuries and getting his life together ever since.
The video is told through North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Megan Christopher’s point of view. The end of the narrative has a tearful Christopher recalling the standoff’s end.
At the end of the presentation a tearful Stencel commented that the video “gets [him] every time.” It was easy to see why – the piece was emotional and personal, and all without including commentary from Savelkoul himself.
After we watched the video, we dissected it. This was unlike any guest speaker experience i’d ever had. We weren’t getting lectured at; we were getting actively tought.
There were several things Stencel pointed out to us about the video. First was that the video gives away a lot in the first two minutes; showing professionally photographed shots of Savelkoul which proved he did not kill himself like many predicted he would at the end of the video.
The video also included many factual details. It didn’t just tell us he had a gun, it told us he had a 9mm pistol. Stencel commented on the importance of being detailed, saying “If you’re writing a story about a dog, make sure you get the dogs name.”
He also gave us some general formatting guidelines NPR follows for multimedia pieces, such as rarely ending any piece on a direct quote. But, Stencel noted, “Ending a story on a quote is very powerful in print.” Which I completely agree with. I’m a fan of ending articles and papers with quotes (and sometimes starting them with quotes too), but when that same technique is used in videos it sometimes feels cliche and unnecessary.
We also delved into a discussion about social media, which lead to Stencel mentioning NPR’s “The Baby Project.” This was a 3 month blog authored by pregnant women in their third trimester. The women talked about their experience and doled out their advice and tips through articles on the blog. To find these women, though, an extensive multimedia campaign was launched – including finding women through Twitter and Facebook to take an extensive survey in order to be considered.
“We are public radio,” says Stencel, “we want to look and sound like the public.” This is exactly what things like “The Baby Project” and social media allow NPR to do. Social media platforms are great for relating and connecting to your audience, something that NPR clearly has a grasp on.
Meeting someone like the Managing Editor of NPR is definitely a real treat and I feel really fortunate that I can learn from someone as successful and experienced as Stencel. I guess all the money i’m pouring into this school isn’t for nothing…