Diversity fellows: What we learned at SFJ14

Mariecar Mendoza WatsonDenisePhoto (1)

The Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellowship winners, Mariecar Mendoza and Denise Watson, reflect on their time at the 2014 SFJ annual conference:

During a time in the media industry where metrics and analytics rule many newsrooms, it’s refreshing to know that there is a still a smart, creative group of enthusiastic people who champion the art of storytelling.

What’s more, they’re focused on storytelling about music that moves, food that strengthens bonds with loved ones – or helps folks with their gastrointestinal tract.

That’s the biggest takeaway I got from my first Society of Features Journalism conference, hosted in Nashville this summer.

When I was a teen, I always dreamed of being in the same room with arts and entertainment writers and editors who understood the importance of what most newsrooms scornfully dub “fun journalism.” This year, not only got nearly a week with them, but I got real time with them to bounce around ideas – steal a few ideas, too – and find out how they’re dealing with this digital world that has everyone working on so many platforms at such a fast pace.

Tommy Tomlinson, a writer for Forbes, probably summed up what features writing means to me when he told the attentive crowd of SFJers: “I like to write big stories out of little moments.”

There was no escaping that we’re in a digital world that thrives on web clicks and by no means did this conference talk about the industry’s digital push with disdain. Going “digital” is what has sparked departments everywhere to rethink how they do journalism.

But what is doing journalism in this digital world?

It’s still about telling stories about moments in your community, in your state, in your world.

SFJ’s conference was inspiring, uplifting and all those sappy words that features writers are told not to overuse in their stories. It gave me a refresher course in mobile video, narrative writing and metrics, but it reminded me that there is still a reason to do journalism – and more importantly, features journalism.

Mariecar Mendoza is a features digital director for the Los Angeles News Group. She is one of the 2014 Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellows.

—–

The conference, particularly the sessions with writers Tommy Tomlinson,Peter Cooper, and Robert Hilburn, reinforced my mantra: Journalists still have an important role to play in society.

It goes beyond the obvious, such as giving readers information they need to navigate their lives. What Cooper, Tomlinson and Hilburn did was speak to the idea that writers, particularly with narrative, connect people.

Tomlinson’s presentation on “Ode to Billie Joe” was brilliant. One of the first questions he asked, “How do we become storytellers?” sent me back to listening to my grandfather’s World War II stories while sitting with him on his front porch.

Tomlinson then answered his own question by saying that he became a storyteller through music. That is also true for me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve gravitated toward music and musicians who told stories through their songs – Billy Joel, Elton John, Joni Mitchell – even when I was too young to understand the lyrics. Their words and their voices, I knew instinctively, meant something. And that something is why so many other people love and relate to the same song, such as Joel’s “The Piano Man,” or Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”

By dissecting the music, Tomlinson did what I’ve seen Tom French do in presentations, and it is a great practice for writers. Analyze the song in order to find out why it rings true and how you can use those same tricks in your writing.

Why does the first line of “Ode” catch you? The alliteration of “dusty, Delta day,” particularly at the end of the sentence.  The contrast of the shock of this man’s death woven into the day-to-day goings of this family is authentic. Often, crap happens but life can’t stop. And the unfolding of the action throughout the song, the listener realizing that the narrator has a connection to the dead man, is the wonderful narrative arc of the story.

Hilburn reminded me of all the research that is necessary to paint an accurate portrait of a subject. You can have all of the facts in the world, stitch them together and you can still be off in your assessment. But, for family members, who should know the subject in and out, to compliment a writer for his authenticity is high, high praise.

Cooper was not only entertaining, but refreshing in that he didn’t come into the business from journalism school. But he was led here by what leads so many writers. As he said, “We are in the passion business. We want to make people feel something.”

He’s shown that time and again with his work, and that is always inspiring to me.

I also loved the tips he gave about not writing a true budget line when you can’t possibly know the story (I’ve been there so many times), and how not to tell your editor where you are going and what you are up to.

What writer wouldn’t like that advice?

 Denise Watson has been a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot for 22 years

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