The act of witnessing: “Telling the truth isn’t just a career … it’s a calling.”
KPCC, Southern California Radio
8:30 a.m. Pasadena, California, June 28
At 5 a.m. Digital Producer Elina Shatkin is already at her desk at 89.3 KPCC working on news stories for radio and web. She is a hybrid reporter who spends half of her day producing radio scripts and the other half working on web packages. She races the clock, which hangs above her work space in giant red numbers, ticking down the seconds. Just under that is an analog clock, just to drive the point home. Her phone, also with an ever-present clock, sits near her keyboard. She has 20 minutes to review the audio from her interview, put together a radio script and get to the morning meeting upstairs. The staff will decide what news stories will make the cut that day, a universal, usually twice-daily routine in all newsrooms regardless of medium.
When I arrive she has just talked with a Port of L.A. spokesperson for a breaking story about a cyberattack in Europe that has shut down some shipments coming into L.A. In a room already stunningly quiet and acoustically sound for radio, she types quickly, focusing on the work in front of her and tunes out everything else. I know that look, and so does every other journalist on the planet; head down, noise out. Deadline looms. Tick. Tick. Tick. The clocks on the wall count down.
We head upstairs to the morning meeting, several minutes late. She is aware of the time. She has a six-month-old who is teething, a fact she mentions in passing in the elevator. (I pause to ponder the plight of working journalists with children, constantly on micro-schedules, but that is for another post.)
In the movie The Paper the theme of clocks and time are everywhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie takes viewers through a day in a newsroom. When I walk into the sunny, splashed-with-yellow-paint main newsroom of KPCC, clocks are everywhere in screaming, red digital numbers. I am reminded of that movie.
Prior to joining the station, Shatkin (whose station bio says she “is a fan of dogs, bicycles, dark chocolate and bad Russian accents”) was the arts and culture editor at Los Angeles magazine, a restaurant critic for L.A. Weekly and a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Like many reporters, she made the leap from one medium to another and learned new skills along the way. She gives me a crash course on radio script writing to pass along to my students.
“One of the first things is that writing for radio is very very different than writing for print, and that took me some getting used to,” she said. “Writing basic news stories for radio, the wording is much simpler … As a written journalist I was used to packing a lot of information into sentences so there would be three or four facts in a big sentence. But in radio, the basic rule that was given to me was one thought per sentence when you’re writing a radio script and that’s very different than a written journalism story.”
I am struck by her willingness to learn new skills, something I see repeated over and over again in newsrooms across the country.
Something she said stuck with me more than anything else, and I’m summing up: At what cost comes journalistic speed? Newsrooms around the world hurryupfast to get a story finished, as if it were one word, and what do we, as consumers, lose from that?
Plenty of push back is happening in the industry to lobby for more in-depth reporting. (For example Narratively and others like it.) A few news outlets never lost it. But in newsrooms around America on my #followmylede trip I’ve seen dozens of stories that, echoing Shatkin’s sentiment, could have had better nuance with reporters on the ground.
At KPCC, promotional signs read “we speak Angeleno.” I imagine reporters, editors, social media managers, editorial cartoonists and anyone involved in news wants to know their public like that.
Yet I think of Shatkin, back in the shadowy downstairs at 5 a.m., sitting alone in a soundproof room. It is there in the quiet that her point is driven home. There is no commotion. Nothing to hear or see or witness. Just the tick, tick, tick of the clocks on the wall.
Next up in the #followmylede series, on the streets of San Fransisco with Street Sheet.