Creativity can still be nurtured in newsrooms, says Geisler

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Jill Geisler

By Greg Braxton
2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — The business of journalism is such a relentless beast filled with deadlines and constant pressure that it can have a negative, even stifling impact effect on creativity and attitude.

In a session spiced with good humor and energy during the Society of Features Journalism conference, senior Poynter Institute faculty member Jill Geisler, who specializes in leadership and management, spoke on how to nurture creativity with newsrooms, and how to heighten it without sacrificing the demands of producing news.

“We’re often so tied up on the product,” said Geisler in an address that was mainly geared to editors. “We have to be as good at growing and nurturing people as we are about the product … you want your most creative people to be engaged in the workplace.”

She provoked laughter among the attendees when she said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun,” noting that “play” is important to people who are creative.

“Set up a climate where playfulness can or can’t happen with creative people,” said Geisler, who also said that editors should not be reluctant to use “tough love” when necessary.

Geisler provided several tips, including leading “with Feedback Glasses,” instructing editors to have continued meaningful interaction with their reporters and staff so that there is an understanding of mutual goals, which will fuel motivation between both parties.

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Reporter talks about profile story that turned tragic

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Leonora LaPeter Anton

By Greg Braxton

2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — Personality profiles can be the most insightful, involving pieces in print journalism, providing in-depth glimpses into fascinating figures while simultaneously allowing writers time and space to display their craft.

But every so often, the process produces results that can be unexpected, and, in some instances, even tragic.

Tampa Bay Times enterprise reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton encountered that delicate situation with her award-winning 2012 profile of a woman suffering from persistent genital arousal disorder, a rare debilitating disease that produces unwanted sexual feelings and responses. The intricately detailed story which exposed the humiliating ordeal of Gretchen Molannen also proved to be a troubling experience for both Molannen and the seasoned Anton, who detailed their encounters during a gripping session at the October conference for the Society for Features Journalism.

Before the story with Molannen was published in late November, she committed suicide. She took her life on Dec. 1, the day after the story appeared online.

Choking up at times as she recalled the experience, Anton defined the experience as a journey between her and Molannen, two people that always had a trace of possibility that something horrible may happen.

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Editors use their beats to find inspiration for books

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Diane Cowen

By Carlos Frías
2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — In the 40 minutes it takes Diane Cowen to commute from the Houston Chronicle, she’d considered, conceived and came home ready to celebrate the idea for her first book.

Cowen, the Chronicle’s food and religion writer, burst through the door, heading for her computer, and called out to her husband, “I’m going to write a cookbook!”

His response? “OK. What are we going to have for dinner tonight?”

They went out to dinner.

She came up with the idea for “Sunday Dinners,” a book that examines the Sunday mealtime traditions for famous families of faith such as Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, simply by thinking about her beats — something she suggests any reporter can do.

“I thought sarcastically, ‘I guess I could write a cookbook for religious people.’ I literally laughed out loud in my car and then… I thought, ‘That is not a bad idea,’ ” she said during the Society for Features Journalism panel examining how books can spring from the newsroom.

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Tompkins revs up the story machine at SFJ conference

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Al Tompkins

By Carlos Frías
2013 SFJ Diversity Fellow

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — To watch Al Tompkins concoct story ideas is a free association spectacle.

Government shutdown, you say? Tompkins, a Poynter professor and journalist of 35 years, sees FHA loans that aren’t being processed, veterans’ disability checks getting held up, the flu spreading wildly without the CDC open to warn us, border patrols shutting down and food stamps not getting processed.

He can do that with just about any topic, conjuring story ideas simply by asking how a big, public event affects five areas: money, family, safety, health, community.

With that filter, writers and editors can devise local angles to big stories. And not all of them have to focus on malfeasance.

“Part of our job is to investigate wrong-doing. Part of our job is to investigate right-doing,” Tompkins said. “There are people who do good work and we should hold them up when they do. … People are hungry for that.”

The core of reporting, he said, is to forget our stereotypes — that politicians are all crooked, that the elderly are all frail, that “kids today” all know nothing.

“It’s not all like you think,” Tompkins said.

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Your SFJ testimonials wanted!

A scene from our awesome 2012 silent auction.

A scene from our awesome 2012 silent auction.

As we gear up for our annual conference this fall at Poynter, we want to hear from our members past and present — and from any past conference attendees — about how the Society for Features Journalism has helped you.

We would love to hear why you attended the conference and what’s the best idea you picked up at a recent SFJ conference that you put to use in your newsroom?

As the features editor of The Roanoke Times, I’ve attended five conferences and have felt recharged at each one. It’s a great way to network and meet other features editors and learn from one another. It’s also nice to have the time away from the daily pressures of the office to evaluate our jobs and challenges, and get advice if needed.

Thanks to the Show & Steal sessions, I’ve brought back great ideas to reproduce at my paper, including asking readers for their hilarious Scared of Santa photos. And you’ll never fail to find something amazing at our annual silent auction to benefit our diversity fellows program.

Now it’s time for you to share your testimonial. How did the conference help you in your job? Leave your comments below or tweet us at @WeareSFJ. We may share some of your thoughts in our conference program this year.

— Kathy Lu

2013 Diversity Fellowship Winners: Greg Braxton of L.A. Times & Carlos Frias of Palm Beach Post

Greg Braxton

Greg Braxton

The Society for Features Journalism has awarded Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellowships to two minority journalists to attend the organization’s 2013 annual conference.

Greg Braxton, entertainment reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and Carlos Frias, columnist and features writer at the Palm Beach Post, will receive all-expense paid trips to attend the conference Oct. 9-12 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Braxton has been a journalist for 35 years. A graduate of the California State University at Northridge, he started as reporter at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He moved to the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked since 1982. Braxton has primarily covered television at the L.A. Times since 1992 and has been part of three Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at the paper. He has continually examined the issue of minority representation in film and television and says, “There is much more work to be done in the industry on this front, and I fully intend to keep reporting on it. Participating in this fellowship will help provide me with added perspectives and insights that no doubt will assist me in that endeavor.”

Carlos Frias

Carlos Frias

Frias is a graduate of the University of Florida in Gainesville. He has been a staff writer at the Cincinnati Enquirer, the St. Petersburg Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has worked at the Palm Beach Post since 2004, focusing on long-form narrative journalism and previously on special projects in sports. He won the International Latino Book Award for best debut book for “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba” in 2009 and first-place awards from SFJ for general and specialty features in 2011. Of his job, Frias says, “Features allows us to tell the stories of amazing people in amazing circumstances and ordinary folks in extraordinary times.”

The Diversity Fellowship offers an opportunity for journalists of color to gain a broader experience in features and underscores SFJ’s commitment to diversity within our newsrooms. Applicants were judged on the quality of their work samples, their interest in features journalism and their commitment to diversity issues. The society’s membership is open to any features writer interested in sharing and learning from a community dedicated to advancing storytelling in our society.

Deadline extended for 2013 Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellowship

Deadline to apply for the fellowship has been extended a week (giving you time to finish your taxes AND your application!). Please encourage your colleagues look into this wonderful opportunity.

When: Oct. 9-12, 2013, at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Sponsor: Society for Features Journalism

Who is this for: Journalists of color who produce arts and features content for news organizations or those interested in pursuing careers in arts and features.

Application deadline: April 22, 2013

About the fellowship: The Society for Features Journalism is committed to developing news-gathering staffs representative of the multicultural communities its members serve. Toward this goal, SFJ is sponsoring the Penny Bender Fuchs Diversity Fellowship Program for journalists of color in conjunction with its annual conference at the Poynter Institute. Programming will have heavy emphasis on multimedia, leadership and writing.

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