Serial: Hold All Comments ‘Til The End

Courtesy of Serial

Courtesy of Serial

Of course I listened. I listened obsessively, like basically everyone with a smartphone, the whole time fighting an urge to flood social network feeds with every possible thought that occurred to me about the most talked-about podcast ever.

I held extended comments until the end for two reasons: (1) I wanted to comment on the whole body of work. (2) I’m a member of the public media family, and this family has a bad habit of eating its own young prematurely — so I didn’t want to prematurely comment.

But it’s over now. So here goes:

Marketing. Serial is public media’s first inorganic success. It is the first public media product to succeed not because of the quality of its storytelling or its journalism — and it is generally-speaking quality journalism and quality storytelling — but because of the quality of its marketing. Dig past all the next-big-thing headlines and you’ll find signs of a choreographed launch: placement in Slate and industry media leading up to the release of its first episode on the already-successful (duh) This American Life. We forgave Serial its faults because it was already a cultural commodity — and this is where I found the Serial-to-House of Cards binge-watching analogy to be the most apt: we didn’t all follow every plot twist and detailed point of HOC, but we powered through anyway because everyone was watching.

Earned opinions. Serial was at its strongest when it earned opinions about a verifiable set of facts. I think it’s what made the show’s non-chronological-yet-chronological narrative structure work — and it’s what kept me coming back. For instance, “Route Talk” is my favorite episode. In it, Sarah Koening laid out all of the finer points of the cell phone records, piece by piece. Finally, when all of the evidence was on the table, producer Dana Chivvis comes in and essentially says, ‘I’ve gone over and over this, I know this evidence as well as anyone, and I think the most logical explanation is that Adnan’s phone was in Leakin Park.’ This show’s forward momentum came not from probing the inner emotions of an alleged killer, but from facts — from twisting what Koenig called “the Rubik’s cube of this case” through as many permutations as possible and highlighting the permutations that made the most sense. It’s what Mike Pesca calls an “earned opinion” — when a journalist knows a subject as well as anyone and has tried to see it from as many points of view as possible, sometimes the greatest service a journalist can offer is their perspective on seemingly inscrutable facts. It’s not a journalist telling you how she feels per se, but rather taking a body of evidence like a set of disorganized dots and showing the most logical way to connect them.

‘Eyes like a diary cow.’ Listeners deserved to know “The Deal,” so to speak, “With Jay,” with Adnan, with Hae; with any of the principals in this case. We deserved to hear Koenig’s admission that she cared about this case because was intrigued by Adnan — the “nice guy”-turned-(supposedly)-violent-killer. It’s an admission that produced the best Adnan-Sarah exchange of the podcast, at the end of Episode 6: “If I’m going to spend a year finding out he’s a nice guy, I might as well piss off.” But Serial was at its weakest — and most seriously troubling — when it tried to see past Adnan’s explicit motivations, past his brown “dairy cow” eyes and into his psychological state of mind. At best, it was boring. At worst, it felt like Koenig was just vamping, riffing off speculations about what was going through his 17-year-old head 15 years ago with psychologists who never met the guy. Episode 11 should’ve never aired; it’s title “Rumors” should’ve been a giveaway. I so desperately want to separate the Serial that picks apart the timeline of the state’s case, so meticulously lays out the just-as-damning evidence against Adnan, explores the biases that skewed his jury and ultimately leaves so many questioning whether our legal system actually works; from the Serial that ham-handedly explores the same questions Nancy Grace asks every night at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Race. In nearly every story I’ve ever covered, race has been a factor. Sometimes it’s far in the background, and mentioning it would make no logical sense. Sometimes it’s obviously a factor, and leaving it out would put an unaddressed elephant in the room. It’s a judgment call. Journalists deserve some deference in making it, even when we do find ourselves “stomping around” in communities we don’t know at first. If and when I make the wrong call one day, critics will be right to speak out — but I hope they’ll be more specific than Jay Caspian Kang’s dismissal of SerialI thought the whole of the facts and Koenig’s body of subsequent reporting didn’t support his argument. I don’t want to shut the door on the conversation about the intersections of race, culture and Serial, because I admit to cringing in a few places at how Koenig handled this moment or that — her conversation with Adnan’s mother in Episode 10 comes to mind. But Conor Friersdorf is so on the money here: “Critiques shouldn’t hinge on whether the journalist ‘feels like’ an interloper, or was disabused of ignorance in the reporting process.” And journalists who actually do go wrong on issues of race don’t need a bludgeoning. They need a clear explanation of what they did wrong and an understanding of how to do it right the next time.

Did he do it? As a juror, I also vote to acquit — but who knows. From Episode 12, I gather Koenig, Chivvis and fellow producer Julie Snyder worry like I do that no case could stand up to this scrutiny. They cite their private investigator as saying this case is not ordinary — it’s problematic in a way that isn’t normal for a criminal case like this. But on this score, too: who knows. I’m worried one of two things just happened: (1) We all just spent two-and-a-half months rapt by a podcast that, by its nature, lends equal weight to so many pieces of evidence in the case when really, there are some pieces of evidence that are more important than others — the fact that Jay did know where Hae’s car was, for instance; a view of Serial that ultimately suggests Adnan is guilty… or (2) we all just spent two-and-a-half months rapt by a podcast that was focused on all the wrong evidence because the right evidence was never collected (see: the end of Episode 12); a view of Serial that suggests Adnan is not guilty. And also suggests we all just basically sat around listening to a washing machine for two-and-a-half months expecting it to play Jingle Bells.

Structure. Serial played out like a paint-by-numbers picture: Episode 1 laid out all the basic outlines in black and white, and each successive episode has added a new shade of color to different slivers of the narrative. There’s obvious merit to this approach. I also can’t help but think of how Serial would sound different if it actually played out chronologically — not in the “we followed our reporting from the very beginning up to the present day” sense, but if the reporting team, say, began their podcast with Hae’s disappearance. Of course, this is just a thought exercise at this point, but I think there’s a case to be made here that the emulators who (as seems both right and inevitable) follow on Serial‘s success might actually try a more traditional beginning-middle-end structure with better narrative results.

The really tricky thing for emulators here is that Serial‘s greatest strength (see: ‘Marketing,’ above) obscures whether Serial truly worked as a narrative. It was so popular that Sarah Koenig could have gone on about what nail polish Hae was wearing and it would’ve been the most-listened-to 20 minutes of podcasting that’s ever existed.

Don’t mistake any above criticism for overall dislike: On the whole, I really did love Serial. On balance, the amazing outweighs the cringe-inducing. I really can’t wait for Season Two. I’ll listen with just as much devotion. I only hope through discussion of the podcast’s high-points and low-points, we purveyors of public media can learn the right lessons from Serial about the work we do and the work we will do.

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I’m Moving To Seattle!

Seattle, from Lake Union. Seattle!

Seattle, from Lake Union. Seattle!

The bluest skies I’ve ever seen — some-thing some-thing… And the hills the greenest green — some-thing some-thing

I can’t be the first to lean on Perry Como to deliver this exact news, but the man had good lyricists and the words are resonating with me as I slowly break some life news to more and more people:

I’m moving to Seattle! Some charitable souls convinced the capable, experienced team at KPLU to hire yours truly to report on youth issues and education policy. It’s a really exciting opportunity to report across platforms — on the radio and on the station’s cool platform for online feature reporting, Quirksee.

When it’s time to leave your home and your loved ones, it’s the hardest thing a boy can ever do…

The move will be bittersweet. Thrilled as I am to tackle a new challenge, I’m parting company — in a physical sense, anyway — with some fantastic people in Indiana. I work with some truly amazing, funny, smart, talented and driven individuals at WFIU & WTIU and I’m blessed to call them my friends. Public media friends, keep a close eye on the work these people are doing. They’re fantastic.

Equally difficult will be letting go of StateImpact Indiana. I often tell people who ask that I feel a sense of paternal ownership over that project — I did help launch the blog two-and-a-half years ago — but of course, it’s not my baby alone. It’s the result of hard work by my closest colleagues at WFIU. It’s the result a talented team NPR who ably shaped the project’s editorial vision and offered training to the project’s reporters that truly changed the trajectory of my career. I cannot thank them enough for trusting me to tackle a challenge so great.

Seattle! Can you see Mt. Rainier, coming out from under the clouds?

Seattle! Can you see Mt. Rainier, coming out from under the clouds?

Like a beautiful child, growing up, free and wild…

I’m excited to make this move. KPLU has a great digital strategy in place and I love how their work sounds on the air.

On top of that, one of my dear friends out there keeps selling me on Seattle as “Minnesota West.” The parallels are certainly hard to miss — water, pine, lots of Scandanavians and lots of former Vikings winning rings on the Seahawks. But I’m not moving out there for familiar sights, sounds and scents — I’m moving out there for the new ones. It’s time for a new adventure, a new place and a new challenge.

I love you all! See you soon, Emerald City.

Full of hopes and full of fears,
full of laughter, full of tears,
full of dreams to last the years
in Seattle.

In Seattle!

The Ballpark Of My Childhood Had A Roof Made Out Of Teflon, Or: Why I’ll Miss The Metrodome

The original Metrodome Roof. You know, pre-collapse. (Kyle Stokes)

The original Metrodome Roof. You know, pre-collapse. (Kyle Stokes)

It was April 14, 2001. I was finishing up sixth grade. And against the grey of the Metrodome’s Teflon roof, Carlos Lee had lost a pop-fly.

Only God knows how I’d have found my love of baseball if he hadn’t.

At the crack of the bat, I watched as Lee (or was it his White Sox teammate in center field, Chris Singleton?) looked up, slid to his left, scanned the Teflon sky for the hovering ball, then panicked. He raised his arms helplessly as if to say, Where is it? Where is it? A second later, 30 feet in front of Lee, the ball bounced hard on the AstroTurf in left field. Base hit.

I was one of more than 26,480 people in the Metrodome that Saturday night. My family’s seats down the third baseline were awful. But after a decade of fecklessness, the Minnesota Twins had won seven of their first nine in 2001. So 26,000 turned up on a Saturday night, as excited about the team’s early tear as they were skeptical. Can this little team be for real?

My dad, my youngest brother and I standing in the upper deck of the Metrodome after the Minnesota Twins played their last regularly-scheduled regular season game there on October 4, 2009.

My dad, my youngest brother and I standing in the upper deck of the Metrodome after the Minnesota Twins played their last regularly-scheduled regular season game there on October 4, 2009.

The Twins won 9-4 that night. Cristian Guzman and Doug Mientkiewicz homered. Luis Rivas tripled, then scored on a Corey Koskie groundout. A.J. Pierzynski doubled. David Ortiz singled and scored.

But the most gleeful cheers rose from the blue plastic seats that night when Carlos Lee lost the ball in the Metrodome roof.

I’m telling you — we went nuts when our building cost their left fielder an easy put-out.

So this is what it means to play baseball in Minnesota. I was 12, and I was hooked. Continue reading

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How I’ve Put Free, Simple Data Viz Tools To Use In My Reporting

One highlight of my Online News Association 2013 Conference experience: sharing the stage with some talented journos to deliver a lightning talk about what we can learn from the StateImpact project. The whole speech was a blur, but I guess I gushed about Google Fusion tools a little bit — there’s Twevidence:

.@kystokes “I can’t code, but I can do (#Google) Fusion Tables. I love this stuff.” #ona13centerstage #ONA13 @vanessagene — David Smydra (@smydrad) October 19, 2013

@smydrad Nice! Would love to see stories you’ve used it for, @kystokes? — Vanessa Schneider (@vanessagene) October 19, 2013

Happy to oblige, Google Geo Media Program Manager Vanessa Schneider. (She, along with Amanda Hickman, gave an #ona13 talk on Google’s data visualization tools. I’m sorry to say I missed it live, but thankfully, there’s audio of the session here.)

Guys, Google Fusion Tables are amazing. They take some getting used to. There are growing pains. There are certainly quirks to feel around. But thankfully, there are tons of great resources on using them — like this primer from StateImpact Oklahoma‘s Joe Wertz.

Clearly, the system has its limitations. You can’t pull off heat maps or data apps like this or this with Google Fusion Tables without some heavier lifting. Displaying two layers of data is a possible, but a challenge. But don’t get caught up in that. With relative ease, Fusion does make a bunch of ambitious, time-consuming, unruly projects in Microsoft Excel seem doable — even on deadline. Here are three favorite examples:

  • Election 2012 Stories. These maps of contributions to the political campaigns of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the state’s top elected education office required more work in Excel than on Fusion tables — the data needed lots of cleaning. But I love these so much more for the stories they drove — about the GOP incumbent’s rising national star (“rising” at the time, anyway) and the grassroots effort that drove the Democratic challenger’s improbable upset.
  • Layering Points & Polygons. To tell the story of which charter schools “compete” for enrollment with traditional public schools, we really need to layer two different datasets — polygons of traditional district boundaries and points representing the addresses of the charter schools. That’s not functionality endemic to Fusion Tables. But I got unreasonably excited to find a free tool that displayed two separate layers of data at once. It not only visualized the data, but led to one of the story’s central points: only one in ten school districts in Indiana has a charter school within its boundaries (but those districts account for one-third of the state’s total student population).
  • ‘The 165 Story.’ In the midst of a controversy over how Indiana’s high-stakes academic performance ratings for schools were calculated — a controversy that focused largely on one charter school — I put together a map that visualized an analysis of the numbers showing the impact of the changes were much broader than the media was discussing. Instead of a handful of schools, we showed that 165 schools saw their “A-F grades” improve because of the change. The map isn’t all that different from the election projects in substance, but once again, they became interactive centerpieces of the broader stories I hoped to tell.
  • Test Score Resources. The crack development team that built the StateImpact platform was prescient enough to include plugins for sortable tables driven by Google, but we’ve done a couple of visualizations of test score data by district — and we’ve found they have a long shelf-life. (Here’s another and another for good measure.)

As I allude to above, much of the real lifting here comes in acquiring the data and cleaning it up in Excel before uploading it to Google Fusion Tables. If you have questions about that, leave me a comment. While you’re at it, leave critiques for the pieces, because honestly, I still feel like I’m building this airplane as I fly it.

I’d be remiss to wrap up this post without a shout-out to former StateImpacters Matt Stiles, Jessica Pupovac and Elise Hu, who all preached the Google Fusion Tables evangel during their time with the project. They taught me what I know.

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Why We Can’t & Shouldn’t Pay College Athletes

The idea of paying college athletes over-the-table is almost as old as the idea of paying them under-the-table. The New York Times floated the idea in ’87, with the SMU “Pony Excess” scandal still fresh.

It’s a well-intentioned idea. But it’s an idea that has never translated well to paper.

Until Johnny Manziel came along, apparently. The financial and economic facts of college sports were no different before or after the scandal surrounding the Heisman-winning sophomore QB lended, somehow, new salience — and new momentum — to a movement to “reform” (and that is the word now, “reform”) the NCAA and its “archaic” rules. Inexplicably, Manziel’s cleats stamping across TIME‘s cover next to the headline “It’s Time To Pay College Athletes” has given new spark to the notion that we can build a plausible, equitable system for compensating college stars.

Manziel TIMEThe problem is that it has never been plausible precisely because putting student-athletes on salary or stipend creates more equity issues than it solves. You can’t pay athletes in a way that’s fair to both revenue sports (read: football and men’s basketball) and non-revenue sports. You can’t escape the inevitability that female athletes would, either individually or in the aggregate, bring in smaller paychecks than male athletes. “When you try to work out a plan like this, the concept quickly falls to pieces,” Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine.

But put the hard numbers aside for a second. Let’s talk principle. The bargain for all college students has always been simple: Put off, for four years, your ability to earn a living. Your college experience expands your earnings potential over those four years. Take the short-term financial hit, but your diploma, physical proof of your endorsement by a venerable, trusted brand in education, will pay off over the long term. And I know, you already know this stuff — this is well-covered turf, this is ECON 101.

What we’d pay Johnny Manziel — money that couldn’t even be called beer money next to the salary he stands to make in the NFL — is what we used to call “opportunity cost.”

Yes, if we paid the athletes, they wouldn’t be the only students to earn money from their college during college. Paying the starting small forward on the basketball team, you might argue, wouldn’t be any different than the RA in your residence hall on work study. But while The Times weeps for the small forward, the RA probably needs the leg up.

The average law firm pays rookie attorneys $100,000 a year — that’s their opportunity cost. And a hell of an opportunity cost it is for a young lawyer, who likely paid about that much to earn their law degree in the first place. The NFL minimum for a rookie linebacker is $375,000; the NBA’s rookie minimum, more than $473,000. Even college athletes who don’t go pro start their post-college lives with a degree and roughly $27,000 less in college loan debt than the average student — which is to say $0 in debt — thanks to full-ride scholarships from their colleges. That’s slowly becoming a bigger and bigger deal as the cost of earning a degree increases for the rest of us.

Sure, many student-athletes arrive on campus with legitimate, tragic financial needs. “Impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home,” writes Taylor Branch in The Atlantic. You might set aside Chait’s point that many students arrive on campus with legitimate, tragic financial needs. Unencumbered by an athlete’s practice and game schedule, you’d be right to think a poor non-athlete is probably in a better position to get a side job while earning his degree. But that doesn’t mean the athletic department’s analogous solution for a poor student-athlete — or for any athlete — is to advise them, “Go get yourself an endorsement deal.”

Yes, the system has its quirks. Manziel’s bizarre half-game suspension puts those idiosyncrasies on display. And there are common-sense rule changes the NCAA could make: Create an academic red-shirt. Prevent coaches from jettisoning a player for any reason before they earn their degree, even if it takes five years. Ensure, as Ramogi Huma suggests, that college players’ scholarships truly cover the full cost of attendance. (They often fall a few thousand bucks short.)

But the answer is not to ignore a truth that seems inconvenient for proponents of paying college athletes: we already do pay them, on average, five-figures a year in tuition and fees — about as much as Johnny Manziel apparently didn’t make signing footballs.


UPDATED, Sept. 10: Now Pinkel’s in on this too? For crying out loud.

“I’ve changed my view on this over the past few years just because of the amount of money now that’s in college football,” the Mizzou head football coach said in a post on his website. (Why does he need a website?)

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A-Rod a-ssault.

Ryan Dempster threw the pitch we all wanted to see Sunday night: the one that plunked the disgraced cheater in the ribcage. I think we all wanted Alex Rodriguez bruised because we’re sick of this story — not just the story of A-Rod or Biogenesis’, but the slowly-unfolding train-wreck of a story that is the Post-Steroid Era.

Maybe A-Rod’s fall from grace — emblemized by a 3-0 fastball in the ribs — is about catharsis. But if this is a cathartic moment for baseball, why does it feel so much like schadenfreude? It feels more like a violent detox as all the crap left behind by PEDs flushes out MLB’s veins after a decade-and-a-half. All baseball has to show for coming clean is national television audiences that barely trump hockey (hockey!) and a legion of listless fans desperate for good storylines.

You want to know why baseball ratings are in the dumps? Because nobody knows what they’re rooting for anymore. All they know is which guy they want hit by the first fastball they see.

Where I’m ‘Church Shopping’

The Cathedral in New Ulm, Minn. (U.S. National Archives/Flickr)

The Cathedral in New Ulm, Minn. (U.S. National Archives/Flickr)

I’m nodding along so hard with Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s Belief Blog, who writes young Christians are “increasingly drawn to high church traditions — Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. — precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

See: my earlier post on this topic. (I’ve been out of town the past few Sundays, so my church hunt has momentarily stalled. Summer’s not an ideal time to church-shop, anyway… But I’ve narrowed the field to two potential churches.)

Now On The Record: My Rules About Going ‘Off The Record’

Courtesy WTIU

Courtesy WTIU

I think more journalists should be as clear as possible about the ethical codes governing their reporting process; too often, too much is left unsaid.

In particular, I think many people who act as sources for journalists may have false notions about the difference between doing an interview “on the record” and having an “off-the-record” conversation — or, more insidiously, the difference between a “background” and “off-the-record” conversation.

With that in mind, I’ve appended a section to my Ethics page about how I view “going off the record” in which I outline a few rules for sources to know: Continue reading

Shots Fired

First, watch this video. We don’t know who shot it or why this person put it on the web.

Then, consider when this shooting happened — and where — in Columbia, Mo. From The Tribune:

Police have released very few details about a shooting at Tenth Street and Broadway that injured three people early Saturday morning in downtown Columbia… A news release said the incident happened at 12:26 a.m.

(That’s two blocks from the most iconic college bar in my college town at the exact time it was full of college students — to say nothing of the quarter-mile walk from the front doors of my school. It’s maybe half a mile from the place I called home.) Continue reading

Church Shopping

St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. This is where my parents were married and where my grandparents still attend — it's the place I've felt most comfortable attending services in the past decade, in which I can't say I've had a true church home.

St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. This is where my parents were married and where my grandparents still attend — it’s the place I’ve felt most comfortable attending services in the past decade, during which I can’t say I’ve had a true church home.

I’ve been a Submarine Christian — the kind, we joke, that surfaces only on Easter and Christmas — for the better part of a decade now, a longer period of time than I can now fairly explain away by recalling my parents’ discontent with my childhood church home or busy weekends in college.

So let’s get heavy now, shall we? As I resolve here and now to stop thinking about church-shopping and to start actually church-shopping, I’ve been thinking a lot about the profound disconnect between how comfortable I am identifying as a Christian and the cumulative discomfort I’ve felt every time I’ve attended a church service in roughly the past six years.

It’s very possible this is all my fault — that, aside from being lazy about rolling out of bed on Sunday mornings, I’m just a picky customer. I don’t want rock bands, coffee shops or T-shirted pastors sitting cross-legged on a stage. I’m too progressive for most traditional Protestant denominations (which, I grant, works greatly to narrow my search) but I’m not progressive enough to reject some very traditional notions about church liturgy and even some traditional notions about church doctrine.

Look, I’m going to be fine. I know part of finding a church home is for me to put in a reasonable amount of effort. But why is it that I believe every word of The Apostle’s Creed, yet have also come to shorthand my frustration with my church search by simply telling people who ask, “I love Jesus, but I don’t always love Jesus’ people”? Continue reading


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