The Casey Interviews: Patrick Boyle
Some journalism is so well done—the writing so compelling and clear, the topic and context so important and the story so responsibly reported—that, well, it deserves a medal. The annual Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism honor the best written, photo and multimedia journalism covering children and families. They are awarded by the University of Maryland Journalism Center on Children and Families and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
So what's it like to be a judge for this prestigious award? To have the honor (and pressure) of selecting the 11 winners?
SparkAction's Alison Waldman had an opportunity to find out. She spoke with several of the 2011 judges, who shared their thoughts about what we should be reading, what makes a great and responsible story, and where this type of journalism is headed. (Hint: it's not where you think.)
Our series celebrates journalism on youth and families and 2011's extraordinary winners!
READ MORE OF THE CASEY INTERVIEWS:
Judge, Magazine Category
Alison's first interview was with Patrick Boyle, Communications Director with the Forum for Youth Investment and a veteran journalist on youth issues. Before joining the Forum, Patrick was the managing editor of Youth Today, the national newspaper on youth development work.
Boyle reflected on what makes a reader keep going, how to tell a great story from a good one, and some advice he got from a Congressman years ago...
Alison Waldman: You judged the Magazine entries. Tell us, are they all stories of crisis or did some positive themes emerge?
Patrick Boyle: There were one or two stories that are positive—those stories didn’t win. Part of the reason is I think it is more challenging to do these stories in a way that is award-winning. I want to be careful not to come off as confirming the old cliché that journalists only like bad news.There are lots of uplifting and award-worthy stories about heroes, people overcoming obstacles, et cetera. But doing an uplifting story usually doesn’t take nearly as many resources—time, passion, money, doggedness—as does exploring injustice.
Award-winning feature and news journalism usually requires extraordinary effort. The truth is not obvious, and people might even be working to conceal it.
"I want to be careful not to come off as confirming the old cliché that journalists only like bad news."
Also, award-winning stories often break new ground on an issue that needs more attention, whereas for many happy stories about success the ground has been broken and the problem would seem to have been solved, at least for the person who is profiled. So, we see plenty of success stories in the media, some of which win awards, but most of which stand simply as very good stories.
AW: A lot of these topics are powerful in themselves, like the scandalous Catholic legion cult, homeless youth and children with schizophrenia. How do you distinguish a good writer from a good story?
PB: That’s a great question. Basically, you read the story once and you’re wowed by it, and then you actually stop and think, ‘how much of this is the writing and how much is the story they’ve been handed?’
That’s not too hard to determine for those of us who have been around for a while who are judges—we’ve been there. I know the experience of having people in a newsroom give me a lot of ‘’atta boys’ and pats on the back for a good story, but all I did was show up and the story was just a fun story. That’s a big part of journalism—you get a lot of congratulations when you just happen to be at a town board meeting where someone throws a chair at somebody.
So the question becomes what kind of deck did [the reporter] get dealt and what did they do with what they had? For an award like this—which among people covering kids in journalism, are about the most prominent besides a Pulitzer—it’s easy to say that you have to do something special here.
AUDIO: Listen to Patrick give examples of what made his favorite entries so special:
AW: What does a powerful piece of journalism have to do?
|"Hope or Hype in Harlem" in CityLimits, 2011 Casey Medal Runner-Up|
PB: I think it has to hit people in the gut. It has to stir something in the reader, no matter how you do it. That’s probably why some of these Casey winners might seem like a lot of negative stories, but you can do that with a very uplifting story as well. You want to make people say, ‘wow’, or think about it when they put it down.
There were a few of these that did that but I have to say that while there was a lot of really strong reporting in this stack, there were very few stories that made me want to pick them up again and read them if I got interrupted, just to read them. Most of these I read because I’m a judge.
Sometimes, I wanted to read them because I just wanted to read them. The Harlem Children’s Zone story is an example of that. It was one of the honorees. That was such a compelling analysis … If you can make people feel mad, glad, cry—all that kind of stuff—if you can stir something in people, that’s what you want to do.
There’s no reporting or writing technique for that, it’s just how your story comes together.
AW: One of the winning stories that really stuck with me was a multimedia story, the video and photo essay about the victims of gang violence. I thought about it for days. What are your thoughts on the emergence of multimedia journalism?
PB: Multimedia has simply given us new ways to tell stories, and ways to tell stories with the depth and complexity that we haven’t before, which is great.
The problem has been that it has driven some people away from reading text. My hope is that multimedia reaches people that print stories wouldn’t have reached. That if not for the multimedia, I wouldn’t have read the story of the victims of gangs, or I wouldn’t have been effected by it the way I was. As long as it’s not a replacement for print, it can be really powerful.
AUDIO: "Is it hard to write--and judge-- journalism on child and youth issues?"
AW: Spoken like a dyed-in-the-wool print journalist.
PB: I expect that at some point in the future purely printed stories will be unusual. But a challenge with kids' stories is you can't always tell them with multimedia. If you’re going to a juvenile prison, or if you’re going down to Mexico where a lot of kids have been deported ... a camera or tape recorder is going to make your job a lot harder. It may not be legal. There may be confidentiality issues. So there's always going to be a reason for print journalists to do what they do.
My worry is there are fewer and fewer reporters now who really understand youth issues and who are used to talking to kids, and the lack of them is going to hurt the daily journals.
Patrick's concern with the state of "good journalism" today:
AW: What was it like to be a judge? How do you handle the power and the glory?
PB: The power is uncomfortable. It’s fun to be judge for a number of reasons, and part of it is, frankly, ego. But then you get the entries and that's when, for me, I had a sense of, "Oh damn, I’m a judge!" I felt an incredible sense of responsibility. I’ve entered many of these contests, I’ve won some, I’ve lost some and I know how much it means to the journalists. I put a lot of time into it—probably too much—because I wanted to be fair.
Here's how Casey Medals work: [the judges] get together and we talk, do a little bit of debating and this year there was largely agreement in our category. It’s fun to talk with other accomplished journalists and talk about standards and get other people’s points of view. It’s a really healthy exercise.
"No matter what the story is, you always know why you’re reading a good story about kids, because it really does matter ...Everybody gives a damn."
AW: What is your advice for aspiring journalists who want to work in the child and youth beat?
PB: I’ll pass on some advice that a former Congressman, Otis Pike (D-NY), gave me many years ago, in my very first journalism job. I was interviewing him, and one of my allegedly clever journalistic tactics was to toss out names. So I asked about Jimmy Carter, who was President at the time, and Ted Kennedy.
Pike was gracious; he said to me, with a smile, "You’re not going to have a great career if you just follow all the popular people and all the big stories. You’ll stand out more if you chase what no one else is chasing."
So, my advice to reporters is to stay far from the crowd as much as you can. As a journalist, if you look around and you're alone, nobody else is with you, you’re probably on the right track. You need to blaze your own path. It doesn’t have to be an incredible path—you don't need to rediscover fire—it can simply be a different way to tell the story.
The second piece of advice is you don’t rise to this level of accomplishment on 40 hours a week. Reporters know that. When most of us start out, we’re doing 40 hours a week because the workload is so high. But when you really find something you like, take it home. If it’s really labor of love, it's going to take time and that’s the way it is.
Journalism is one of the few professions where you can get out of the line of sight of your bosses and go home and keep working the way you think you should be working, and put in as much time as you think is worth for you. Remember, at the end of the day, your name is on it. Put as much as you can into it and don’t let your bosses get in the way.
Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant at SparkAction. Email her at alison[at]sparkaction.org.