By Alexis See Tho
“It was an organized chaos,” recalled Mark Potts, a video editor at the Los Angeles Times, describing the scene in the newsroom when photographs, videos and Twitter posts poured in from the San Bernardino shootings two years ago.
Potts and his wife Hailey Branson-Potts, who is also a journalist for the L.A. Times shared the drama of covering a breaking news story of global significance with Tsinghua University’s multimedia reporting class. Branson-Potts and Potts were part of the Times team that received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, the top award in American journalism, for breaking news reporting.
“In the back of your head, you’re thinking, this is what I went to school for. You train and work your whole life so when you get into these situations, you don’t mess it up,” Potts added.
The prize-winning young journalists spoke to Global Business Journalism Program students in Professor Rick Dunham’s Multimedia Business Reporting course on March 1. Branson-Potts worked for Professor Dunham as an intern in the Washington bureau of the Houston Chronicle, where she covered the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, among other national stories.
The December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, made international headlines when 14 people were killed an American man and his Pakistan-born wife. U.S. President Donald Trump has cited the shooting as a reason why he is seeking to restrict immigration to the United States.
Branson-Potts did live reporting on Twitter from the shooting scene, talking to the police and interviewing victims’ family members. And for days she stayed put in San Bernardino to get more information on the ground. It’s important to always be ready for moments like that she said.
“I have a ‘go-bag’ in my car,” Branson-Potts added, where she keeps a pair of jeans, comfortable shoes, make-up and supplies for at least a day.
But there are some areas that cannot be prepared ahead of time and only real-life experiences can be the teacher. Branson-Potts was answering a student’s questions whether news organizations train journalists on how to face situations such as the shooting.
“There’s no psychological training in newsrooms,” said Branson-Potts, who have worked and interned at news organizations such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and the
She added that although her editor did ask how she was coping when she was on the ground in San Bernardino for days, the answer would always be “I’m fine.”
“You don’t want to be pulled out of the story,” Branson-Potts said.
Although she has worked for big names in America’s newspaper industry, Branson-Potts’ first taste of the world of journalism came when she was 15 when she worked on the printing press for her hometown newspaper, the Perry Daily Journal, one of Oklahoma’s smallest daily newspapers.
“They only printed 2,000 copies everyday, but it was real experience (for me),” Branson-Potts said. She advised students to find as many opportunities as they could to work in newsrooms.
“When we hire young people at our paper, we don’t care what grades they made at school, we don’t care what classes they took. We care about their resumés and the stories they produced as an intern,” she said.
For shooting and editing videos, Mark Potts’ greatest education came from watching bad movies during his student days while working at a movie theatre.
He added that a journalist’s work attitude is of utmost importance. “I approach things like there’s nothing below me,” he said, “I’ve done videos for subjects that secretly…I don’t want to cover. But I go in there and say, ‘I’m going to make a really good video. I’m going to cover this like I’ve covered the inauguration and a protest.’”
For both of them, they repeat the mantra: There’s no story that you’re too good for.
I have been fortunate to be able to experiment and innovate over the past six years at the Houston Chronicle. As I look back on my tenure at Texas’ largest newspaper, I am particularly proud of these accomplishments:
Launched in December 2007, Texas on the Potomac developed into a valued “brand” in Texas journalism — THE place to go for news about Texans in Washington or national news of interest to a Texas audience. We proved that high quality journalism and “clicks” are not mutually exclusive. We built a large and loyal audience not only in our home base of Houston, but in Austin, Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth and in more than 20 countries around the world including Finland, Norway and Korea.
2. Reinventing Washington bureau coverage for a regional newspaper
Chronicle editor-in-chief Jeff Cohen hired me to reinvent the Chron Washington bureau, and I took the challenge to the next level. I reimagined how a regional newspaper should cover the nation’s capital. Rather than duplicate the wires or the national newspapers, we tailored our national stories to our local audience. We offered analytical coverage explaining the importance of the events that were unfolding in Washington. And we covered the Texas delegation and Texans on the Potomac like they had never been covered before. We broke news story after news story on the web and then offered value-added coverage for print. We had a robust social media presence, too, offering comprehensive coverage to readers interested in Houston and Texas politics on whatever platform they preferred. All while seeing our staff shrink. And shrink.
3. Helping to launch the careers of so many talented young journalists
It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with so many talented interns from across the globe. Our former interns have gone on to journalism greatness (already) at the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call and many other news outlets, large and small, print and broadcast … and digital. I hope my interns learned as much from me as I learned from them. The interns’ talents and enthusiasm prove to me that there is a future in journalism. To all my interns: You have inspired me.
4. Teaching cutting-edge training programs for journalism students and midcareer professionals
Through my role as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute — the educational and charitable arm of the National Press Club — I was able to teach thousands of aspiring journalists, midcareer journalists, journalism educators and professional communicators the skills they needed to survive and thrive in today’s rapidly changing multimedia world. Whether the subject was writing for the web or building a community and brand via Twitter, I embraced the turbulent times and tried to help others navigate through rocky seas. That training has trained me for the next chapter in my life.
Before Texas on the Potomac came along, there was a void in “mainstream media” coverage of Latino politics and national policy issues of interest to Texas Latinos. With the help of my TxPotomac compatriots and superb La Voz de Houston editors Aurora Losada and Silvia Struthers, we provided comprehensive coverage of important issues such as immigration, health care, border policy, U.S.-Mexico issues, Voter ID, voting rights, redistricting, education and other matters of particular interest to our Latino audience. We gave special attention to Latino elected officials and representatives of heavily Latino districts across Texas. I often wrote stories that appeared in print only in Spanish in La Voz.
6. Award-winning coverage of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign
Texas Associated Press Managing Editors gave only one journalism award for coverage of the 2012 elections. It was to our Houston Chronicle team for coverage of Rick Perry’s disastrous White House run. I was proud to have created “Rick Perry Watch” on Texas on the Potomac, the forerunner of our robust “Perry Presidential” web site. Our coverage combined breaking news, ahead-of-the-curve analysis, multimedia storytelling and interesting items culled from other outlets. The result was the most comprehensive daily report on an ill-fated campaign, one that became a must-read for political reporters covering the 2012 campaign.
“First, readers were lucky to have a newspaper willing to dedicate the staff to cover Perry’s bid as an intensely local story,” the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors wrote in their citation. “Just as important, the overall level of work was superb.”
7. Starting a monthly lunch with the Texas delegation
When I arrived as Chronicle Washington bureau chief, there was widespread grumbling in the Houston-area congressional delegation about the Chronicle. To improve lines of communication, I created a monthly, bipartisan lunch with our local lawmakers and the Chronicle reporters and editors. It gave Houston-area House members a chance to tell us what they were working on and what their constituents were talking about, and gave us a chance to ask questions and develop in-depth stories. It also provided opportunities for some bipartisan legislative efforts on issues such as energy, transportation . All in all, it allowed all of us to better serve our joint constituency — the news consumers of Texas and the voters of the Houston area.
I owe bipartisan thanks to Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Gene Green of Houston for rounding up lawmakers from Houston — and more recently South Texas — each month.
8. Reaching one million monthly page views on Texas on the Potomac
When I created Texas on the Potomac, I asked how we would judge success. I was told 100,000 page views per month.
Well, we twice hit one million page views — once during the Republican National Convention in August 2012 and again in November, the month of the election. The doubters have been vanquished. Even with very little publicity, we built a franchise. It also helped that I taught our tremendous team of interns the science of search engine optimization.
9. Winning all those “Jesse” Award nominations — if not the award itself
I’ve been the Susan Lucci of the Houston Chronicle. Year after year, I’ve been nominated for the “Jesse” Award for outstanding Houston journalism but I never took home the statuette. Reporter of the Year. Editor of the Year. Innovation of the Year. Blog of the Year. Multimedia Journalist of the Year. And some more that I can’t remember right now. Congrats to all the winners! As they say, it’s an honor just to be nominated.
10. An emphasis on teamwork
The Chronicle is one of the ten largest newspapers in America and has drawn, over the years, some of the most talented journalists in America. I hope I contributed to that sense of teamwork — the “we” rather than the “me” — that leads to great journalism. My DC colleague Stewart Powell has been the consummate professional and a willing teammate on Houston stories. Energy expert Jennifer Dlouhy has “taken one for the team” numerous times — I’ll remember those emails at 10:30 on Sunday night as she gets a head start on the week ahead.
Special kudos to super-editor George Haj, who has the best news judgment of any editor I’ve ever worked with, Jacquee Petchel, the best investigative and projects editor in the USA, now teaching the next generation at Arizona State, Ernie Williamson, the best election night editor there ever was, Alan Bernstein, who has a deeper knowledge of Houston politics (and Chron politics) than anybody else in town, Peggy Fikac, the hardest working reporter in Texas, Dwight Silverman, the tech wizard and my favorite web consultant, and Patti Kilday Hart, my partner in journalistic crime in Dallas, Austin and Houston.