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How a Poynter veteran helps journalists generate fresh COVID-19 pitches Date: 09/23/20

Al Tompkins

By Bara Vaida

Journalists are drowning in deadlines and information overload with this pandemic. So how are they to keep up with enterprise stories to put this moment into context? One place to look is Al Tompkins’ daily email for journalists. Each morning, Tompkins, who is a senior faculty member at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, publishes a free email for reporters, packed with COVID-19 story ideas and angles.

To write it, Tompkins draws upon his 30 years in broadcast and investigative journalism, as well as his previous experience authoring Poynter’s (now discontinued) morning general news email called “Al’s Morning Meeting.”

In this Q & A, Tompkins talks more about his COVID-19 daily email, how he finds story ideas and his thoughts on how the pandemic could change journalism.

Q: What was the story behind launching “Covering COVID-19: A Daily Coronavirus Briefing for Journalists?”

A: When the pandemic started ... it was clear that one: I wasn’t going to be traveling - I usually do 60 cities a year (teaching for Poynter) - and then two: it became obvious that this was going to be one of the biggest stories of our lifetime and that it was going to get confusing and that journalists were going to get overwhelmed. Journalists get sick of covering the (same). Story. We run out of steam … so I suggested to my bosses that we launch a daily column to help journalists think through how to cover this story. Journalists need help to get pointed towards things, and (slicing and) dicing it. I don’t want to just say: “Hey, you ought to look at that.” I try to point at how they did it. Or why the study results were what they were. Like, I read the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions COVID-19 inoculation playbook, so that I could find stories that probably wouldn’t make it into the news cycle on the first day. I try to find out what else is in this (study) that we are going to need to think about.

Q: How do you find so many different story ideas every day?

A: I choose stories (based) on (topics) I think the public would like to know about:  Money, Family, Health, Safety and Community. Those are the big five. If it has to do (with one of those), it’s a surefire hit.

Q: Are there other topics you look for?

A: The three other kinds that have potential … and are riskier. One is moral outrage or injustice. The problem with that is it can be divisive. (One person’s outrage may be different from another’s) The next one is just curiosity. The coolness factor (like) that is really interesting. And the third is (a) trending (story).

Q: So how do you put together your morning email? What are your favorite resources?

A: My first question is, what is up? Then the second is if something is going on today, what is something that will be useful to (journalists) tomorrow. I have to try to stay ahead as much as I can. … Just because the New York Times did something doesn’t mean there isn’t a story that you can do … so don’t miss the easy stuff. Look beyond … the fold (beyond the front pages) to things that maybe got buried and overlooked. I look for unusual stories like an NPR podcast that isn’t on the NPR (front) news page. On Thursdays, I go to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and look there (for stories.) I look at STAT and The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I look at newsletters from professional groups, like newsletters for surgeons and nurses and prison guards and political officers. Firefighters have a website called Firehouse. There are all kinds of things like that, which are affinity sites. Like ESPN has had stuff and I look at Facebook pages in groups where journalists share stories that they did. I use things like Google News and Google Alerts. Some of my stories come from readers. Readers who will say, did you hear this or that?  I’m also really interested in business stories. … The angles are endless.

Q: Any trends in what you’ve been seen over these months?

A: I pointed to this (Sept. 18) morning email, but I have noticed there is spectacular work being done. I pointed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s work collecting data at local schools. It is almost heroic that a local news organization would take on a project like that. That has to be resource intensive. But it is filling a gap that the government, for whatever reason, has not stepped into. We have seen this across the country ... the states are unwilling and unable to build databases. So the news organizations that recognize there is a need for it have stepped up and I think it is sincerely important work.

Q: Any other trends?

A: News organizations mostly have not fallen for the nonsense. 2020 is the year we got over false equivalency. I could look at (all of the current) policy, environment and wildfire stories and, say, that there was a day in my life where everything had an opposite and equal side and I think we have gotten over that for the good. We have stopped pretending there are equal opinions on all sides. While I think it is good and responsible, the danger is that we’ll stop listening to people who don’t believe us. That is hazardous as well. We can’t turn away from people who aren’t willing to listen to us. We have got to understand what is getting in the way of changing their mind. I think the big issue (here) is that we are dangerously close to becoming a society where changing your mind is (considered) a sign of weakness, rather than maturity. We punish people for changing their mind.

Q: How can journalists help change people’s minds?

A: Part of what reporting assumes is that if we give you good information, that you’ll make good choices. That just doesn’t seem to be the way it happens. (People make decisions) … based on, what does this mean to me? Not is this good for society or if it is real. We constantly misjudge that people armed with good information will make good choices … So we have to keep reminding people how this affects their life.

Q: Isn’t that part of the problem with COVID-19 is that many people don’t know someone close to them that has gotten really sick, so the only effect they know is restrictions on their lifestyle and so they don’t think this is real?

A: One of the things we learned was that until we started getting cameras and reporters inside the hospitals, (people questioned if this was real.) Look back at Nicholas Kristof’s (work) in the New York Times in April. He spent days inside hospitals, where they were seeing these full wards and people intubated. Until then, we had not (really seen the virus’s impact).  The old saying: ‘Seeing is believing is true.’ (But) seeing isn’t understanding, though. To understand, we have to report. … You can have all the Dr. (Anthony Fauci) press conferences you want, but until you walk into the hospital and you see the bodies being buried … it is just noise and it is happening to someone else.

Q: Our interview is happening a week after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and it is interesting to compare Americans’ response to 9/11, which was to pull together as a country, compared to this pandemic, which has been to pull apart. Why do you think that is?

A: One of the interesting things about this pandemic (compared with) 9/11, was that with 9/11, there was something to be done. We could be patriotic and support the military, donate blood and send money. But in this case, we are being told the best thing is to stay home and wash your hands. (People feel) there has to be more than that. … We as humans believe, for every problem, there has got to be something that we can do. So it is incredibly frustrating that there is nothing, except stay home and wash your hands, and wear a mask … so if there is nothing I can do, it can’t be real … if you don’t see it, then you can start to believe alternative (stories), that someone is trying profit from this, and put a microchip in you.

Q: What about mental health story ideas? This seems like a huge topic.

A: I do try to focus on mental health. It is so needed and necessary. We know that suicides are rising. The effects of the pandemic have exacerbated existing problems, … and ... no matter the outcome of the election, there will be a lot of people (who) will be really upset. How will that play out? I want to be there to try to help sort through it for journalists. And journalists are so busy keeping up with the hourly changes (in this story). … Everything is constantly breaking news. It’s Friday, and the whole world unravels every Friday. Journalists are just exhausted. That makes me want to do (this) column. Anything … to help journalists do their job.

Q: How do you think the news business is going to change with this pandemic?

A: People will say, we can do (reporting) at home, so why not? Some say they love it because, I don’t have to do the hour commute coming to and from work ... but what do you lose? You lose a lot. You lose that we don’t have interactions with someone else, unless it is scheduled … There aren’t those serendipitous conversations in the hallways. There is a cost. … We end up only talking about things that are pressing … we lose nuance and context. My fear is that once this (pandemic) is over, that we will have forgotten the value of going (places to report).

Al Tompkins spent 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer, investigative reporter, head of special investigations and news director before joining the Poynter Institute as a senior faculty member for broadcast and online. He is the author of “Aim for the Heart,” a textbook about multimedia storytelling that has been adopted by more than 100 universities worldwide. Check out Tompkins’ daily email and Poynter’s COVID-19 resources.