A Pulitzer-winning couple tells GBJ students what it’s like to cover a mass shooting in real time

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Mark Potts speaks about the L.A. Times’ video editing process for coverage of the San Bernardino shootings at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

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.

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Professor Dunham uses the coverage of the San Bernardino shootings as a “best practices” case study for using social media in reporting. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

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
Houston Chronicle.

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Hailey Branson-Potts explains to the class her first few live tweets from the scene of the San Bernardino shootings. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

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.

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The Hailey and Mark Show (Photo by Alexis See Tho)


Pulitzer Prize winner Ken Herman encourages Tsinghua journalism students to ‘try different things’

Ken Herman (center) talks to Global Business Journalism Program students, flanked by Rick Dunham (left) and Sharon Jayson (right).

Ken Herman (center) talks to Global Business Journalism Program students, flanked by Rick Dunham (left) and Sharon Jayson (right).

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ken Herman encouraged students in Tsinghua University’s Global Business Journalism Program to experiment with the many new technological tools available to today’s reporters.

“Try different things,” Herman, a columnist at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas, said in a lecture on May 12. “Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep trying and you’ll get better.”

Herman and his wife Sharon Jayson, a longtime reporter for USA Today, spoke to Professor Rick Dunham’s Data Journalism and Multimedia Business Reporting classes at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. They told the stories of their award-winning journalism careers and advised students to master traditional news writing, audio, video and social media.

Jayson’s three-decade career has included stints as a television news reporter and anchor, a radio station reporter, a radio network Austin bureau chief and a newspaper journalist in Washington and Austin.

“I love journalism,” she said. “I’m glad to go to work every single day.”

Herman, who covered George W. Bush both during his days as governor of Texas and president of the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1977 for a series of stories in the Lufkin (Texas) News investigating the death of a young recruit in the U.S. military. The series led to congressional hearings and changes in American military recruiting practices. For the past six years, he has written a newspaper column that sometimes covers serious policy topics and often uses humor to make his points.

“I feel it is important to tell people what is going on in their government – or just entertain them,” he said.

Herman was one of the first print reporters to supplement his reports with multimedia elements such as video and audio. He said that some of his early efforts at video journalism were “pretty bad.”

“Make mistakes,” he said. “I certainly did. But you’ll learn how to do it and you’ll get better.”

Jayson, who specialized in coverage of younger Americans and human relationships during her decade at USA Today, said she knew she wanted to be a reporter from the age of 12, when she worked on a newspaper at her school. She encouraged the students to follow their passion in life, like she did, even if it does not lead to material wealth.

“Don’t just accept something because you think you’re going to get rich,” she said.

Ken and Sharon in Tian'anmen Square, with the Forbidden City in the background.

Ken and Sharon in Tian’anmen Square, with the Forbidden City in the background.


Ten tips to improve your news photography from a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

Larry Price spoke to Global Business Journalism Program students on April 21. (Photo by Gaelle Patricia Chekma)

Larry Price spoke to Global Business Journalism Program students on April 21. (Photo by Gaelle Patricia Chekma)

Every year, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrate some of the world’s best journalism. Just hours after the 2015 Pulitzer winners were announced, my Global Business Journalism Program was fortunate to play host to a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for photography. Larry C. Price, a University of Texas graduate who won the Pulitzer while working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Philadelphia Inquirer, dazzled my Multimedia Reporting and Data Journalism students with tales from his latest project, a multi-year investigation into the use of child labor in gold mining. His work — entitled “Tarnished” — was published in eBook form by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Here are ten tips I culled from Larry’s lectures and the subsequent Q-and-A period. They are not a definitive list of “ten top tips.” They are just a collection of tips that I hope will be useful as you attempt to improve your photographic skills.

One of the many vivid photos from "Tarnished." This is from Larry Price's trip to a gold mining area of Burkina Faso.

One of the many vivid photos from “Tarnished.” This is from Larry Price’s trip to a gold mining area of Burkina Faso.

1. Always remember that you’re a storyteller.

Whatever publishing platform you’re on, and whatever visual medium you’re using, journalism is always about one thing. “It’s all about the stories,” Larry says. “Stories are as old as language. They’re everywhere. And journalism tells them.”

2. Look for something new — or a new take on an old image.

“Find something that hasn’t been done,” Larry says. “Or find a different spin on it.”

He says colleagues have sometimes discouraged him from shooting certain images, saying, “it’s been done.”

“My response is, ‘I haven’t done it,'” he says. “If somebody’s told the story, tell it differently.”

His example: a recent trip to Paris and a photo shoot at the Eiffel Tower.

The eBook "Tarnished" is available online from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

The eBook “Tarnished” is available online from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

3. Get up early. Stay late.

Larry doesn’t use artificial lighting. As a result, he is looking for the best natural light available. “If you want your multimedia productions to look good, shoot them early in the morning or a few minutes before sunset,” he says.

That means long days of work and short nights of sleep.

4. Get close.

Every photographer has her or his own signature. For Larry, it’s close-ups. “I love tight facial portraits,” he said. “Force yourself to get close.”

Another favorite subject for his close-ups: “Hands and feet. That’s what it’s all about.”

5. Get personal.

To make a subject comfortable with you — especially if you are going to shove your camera into their face — is to develop a personal relationship with them. “I spend a lot of time getting rapport established before I take out a camera,” Larry says. “I develop that rapport so it doesn’t get uncomfortable to your subject.”

Of course, you can’t always do this when news is breaking, but it can help improve your image if you have a bit of time to prepare.

6. Keep shooting.

“When I’m in the field, it’s constant activity,” Larry says. “Digital allows you to shoot, review, delete a lot.” Don’t let your guard down when you’re on duty: You never know when the next great photo opportunity might come. “You can’t ever relax,” he says. “It’s a never-ending cycle of feeling guilty.”

On his most recent trip to Burkina Faso, Larry returned with 37,000 frames. “I always have a lot of failures,” he notes. “I shoot a lot of pictures.”

7. Minimize your vertical shots.

Horizontal photographs work best on digital platforms, whether that’s a mobile device or a computer. And if you’re taking video, make sure it’s horizontal. “Never shoot vertical video,” warns Larry. “It’s useless. Half your space is wasted.” He rarely takes vertical stills, except for portraits. But he likes the square format popularized by Instagram. “Square is a very good portrait format — a little more artsy,” he says.

8. Stay natural.

Great photographers don’t cheat with editing programs that alter reality. “I don’t do a lot of Photoshop with my pictures,” he said. “I don’t exaggerate the colors or anything.”

9. Take good notes.

You need to have the spelling of names, correct ages and the locations of cities or villages. Larry always uses two notebooks. He also records the GPS coordinates of everything.

10. One old-fashioned photo composition rule.

“Don’t ever put people in the middle of the frame,” he says.

Matt Haldane has a front row seat for Larry Price's lecture at Tsinghua.

Matt Haldane has a front row seat for Larry Price’s lecture at Tsinghua.


Congratulations to 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Lisa Falkenberg, who exposed injustice in Texas justice

Lisa Falkenberg gets a hug from Chron colleague Tony Freemantle after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. (Photo by Steve Gonzales)

Lisa Falkenberg gets a hug from Chron colleague Tony Freemantle after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. (Photo by Steve Gonzales)


What a thrilling way to start the day! On the morning I will host two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Larry Price in my Global Business Journalism classes at Tsinghua University, I wake up to news that my longtime Houston Chronicle colleague Lisa Falkenberg has won the 2015 Pulitzer for commentary.

Thoroughly deserved. Lisa’s compelling columns exposed deep injustices in the justice system. The scales of justice in Texas are weighted … and not in favor of the individual.

Many in Houston will note that this is the first Pulitzer Prize in the history of the Houston Chronicle. Yes, that is a historical footnote worth noting. But let’s not forget that this prize was given because Lisa described in a compelling and clear nature the deep, systemic flaws in the local criminal justice system. To honor Lisa, let’s have more than champagne. Let’s fix the perversions of justice that take place in Texas.

I can now say that I once covered an election from the cluttered cubicle of a Pulitzer Prize winner, when she was on maternity leave.

Have a great celebration with Mizanur and the family, Lisa. And let’s see if we can do something about the ills you exposed.