How one freelancer jumped from anonymity to The New York Times

Gaby Dunn

nyt2In 2010, when Gaby Dunn (@GabyDunn on Twitter) moved to New York, she had big ambitions but few contacts in the journalism business. So the Emerson College grad created the 100 Interviews Project, a Tumblr blog in which she interviewed 100 people she knew existed but had never met before over the course of a year. She interviewed a sex therapist, a rocket scientistsomeone who was left at the altar, and many others.

The project caught the attention of industry pros including best-selling author A.J. Jacobs and a New York Times editor, landing Dunn a book agent and plum freelance assignments. Ebyline recently caught up with this up-and-comer to find out she why embarked on a year-long interview blitz, how she built her platform from scratch, and what’s she been up to since. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

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Avoiding ‘story killers,’ finding genius moves with NYT’s O’Leary at #BUNarrative


Amy OLearyAs online publishers chase clicks, some rely on gimmicks to boost traffic, while others use more innovative formats. During a standing room-only breakout session on Friday afternoon at the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston, New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary explored these boundaries.

In Genius Moves, Cheap Tricks and Story Killers: An overview of some of the latest techniques, approaches and strategies, O’Leary shared examples and solicited audience reactions to several others. Publishers are “trying to figure out how to monetize journalism,” she told attendees. “It’s a scary landscape with a lot of unknowns and people are trying a lot of things, which is exciting.”

Here’s a look at the stories and strategies O’Leary shared.

Story killers: Clichés are a common story killer, said O’Leary, citing tear-jerking backstories about Olympians who’d lost close family members and wind chimes as the opening image in a video as all-too-common tropes. “That sad music comes up, there’s a sad person sitting on the couch,” she said of the latter.

Another potential story killer is what O’Leary calls “death by a thousand choices,” where the reader can choose to navigate through a multimedia package by clicking on different images without any guidance on where they should go next. “Anytime you’re giving people the option to click on [different multimedia elements] you’re telling them it’s not totally essential,” she said. “When you don’t interweave in a tighter way, multimedia becomes a distraction.” Digressions can add interesting layers to a story, but interrupts distract the reader.

Cheap tricks: For O’Leary, infographics, listicles and headlines that pose a question or use a superlative often fall into the category of cheap tricks that can be very effective—or fall flat—depending on their execution. By appealing to the “lizard brain,” sites like Buzzfeed attract thousands of clicks from listicles that “you probably clicked on even if you didn’t want to,” she said.

A better appeal, she continued, is to the curious brain where the writer builds a narrative question into the front of the piece to pique the reader’s interest. Of Slate’s top 10 stories of 2012, four of them used a headline in the form of a question. Content mills also use the question format to generate traffic, so it’s important that the article actually answers the question instead of filling the reader with empty hope and, ultimately, frustration. The current craze for infographics, animated GIFs and graphic narrative (O’Leary mentioned as a cool example of drawing readers into a story) appear to the visual brain, but not all infographics are well executed, especially if they lack a clear narrative. “You can find infographic hell on Pinterest,” quipped O’Leary.

Genius moves: The single factor that all mind-blowing multimedia work shares is the element of surprise. “The beautiful thing about surprise is it can happen on so many levels,” said O’Leary. Stories can use unique visuals or format to surprise and delight readers. O’Leary pointed to “Glitter in the Dark,” a Pitchfork profile on Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Two New York Times digital stories from 2012 also fit this category: “Just One More Game …” a piece about the addictiveness of gaming that used an interactive visual to mimic its subject and “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a multimedia piece that incorporated video, flyover graphical illustrations, slideshows and a written account of the avalanche.

“Snow Fall” was heralded in many journalism circles as a major achievement of online storytelling, but O’Leary revealed that some of the reporters who worked on Snow Fall felt the multimedia could have been even more tightly integrated into the narrative. Two more examples, Whitney Jone’s “First Love and 27 Other Firsts” and “Alma,” a web documentary about a Guatemalan woman in a gang, sparked debate among attendees over the fine line between gimmick and genius. “The best stuff is always when people haven’t seen it before,” said O’Leary. “Our new CEO says ‘The next Snow Fall will look nothing like Snow Fall.’”

Introducing Newsdesk


Infographic: A history of the wire service


To help celebrate the launch of Ebyline’s News Desk custom wire service we wanted some way to visualize the timeline of journalism innovation. The more we researched the histories of the various big news agencies—AP, Reuters, AFP, UPI—the more apparent it was that the wires have done more to consistently pioneer new models, new technologies and new products than anyone else in the journalism biz.

They seized on the invention of the telegraph to replace steamships and homing pigeons (no kidding), were the first to use radio for news, developed the distribution of stock market quotes that we rely on today and have generally been much more open to improvisation and invention than their clients. Of course, there have been some famous gaffes, rivalries, bankruptcies and indignities.

We’re happy to include the good, the bad and the bizarre in our graphic history of the wires.

What Does the Ryan Holiday Media Prank Teach Us?

fact checking

Ryan Holiday, the 25-year-old author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, lied to multiple journalists in order to prove that he could influence the media. In response, the Society of Professional Journalists tweeted:

Journalists: 1) Crowdsourcing is fine. 2) Fact checking is still a thing. 3) Heard of Google?

Several of the outlets involved in the Ryan Holiday case have rigorous fact-checking standards, which speaks to the quality of the outlets represented. It also speaks to the quality of the editors that represent those outlets. Not long after news broke, Dave Thier reported that all of the outlets involved in the Ryan Holiday case offered an editor’s note or removed Holiday’s quotes altogether.

Ebyline asked the New York Times if the paper has created a more vigorous fact-checking process in response to the incident. In an email statement, Eileen M. Murphy, vice president of corporate communications for the New York Times, responded:

Our fact checking process is already quite vigorous.  While we have no written guideline that would say specifically to verify a source like these online “experts,” it is one of those givens that fall under the broad guidelines of the 1999 Newsroom Integrity Statement and the ethics handbook.  The freelancer who made this error has been reminded of these policies.

So, is there a way for journalists to avoid being hoodwinked by sources?

Mary Ellen Lowney, Chair of the Communications Department at American International College, says that relying on web-based sources raises the level of risk when a reporter quotes someone in an article. “You believe what they put on the Internet is right,” said Lowney.

“Be more thorough, one on a web-based source, or two, you don’t know well,” said Lowney.

Lowney added that the risk of being deceived remains, but it happens to almost all journalists.

With more news outlets turning to same day deadlines, and editors requiring multiple articles at once, journalists should consider themselves the first layer of fact-checking for an article. Going back to the basics of fact-checking that most reporters learned in J-school could help avoid these issues in the future.

“Check and double check; that’s the time to fact-check,” said Lowney. If you come across a questionable item, Lowney suggests calling another source to verify it and checking public records if you don’t have a reliable source available.

According to Alec MacGillis at The New Republic in “The Hard Truth About Fact-Checking”

Every reporter still working at the smaller papers should be, at bottom, a fact-checker.

This Week’s Headlines: Movie Theater Shooting, Yahoo’s New CEO

First off, our hearts go out to the victims of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. earlier today. Not surprisingly, the reaction in social media and traditional media tops our list of media and publishing headlines this week, even eclipsing the buzz about Yahoo’s new CEO. Here’s a look at this and other timely stories:

  • Colorado Theater Shooting: How it Played Out Online: Mashable highlights user-generated images and tweets from the scene of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. As the friends and family of victims reacted to the news in real time, the effect was chilling. We can only imagine if passengers on the Titanic or witnesses of the Kennedy shooting had been able to tweet or Instagram.
  • USA Today launches internet video guide: USA Today has announced the launch of “TV on the Web,” a daily programming guide to online videos and podcasts. PaidContent reports that this is the first internet video programming guide from a large mainstream newspaper. The guide will appear online and in print, pointing readers to online content curated by USA Today editors and reporters.
  • Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back: Reporters love getting juicy quotes from political candidates, but the New York Times reports that advisers to Romney and Obama are stamping out this practice, instead insisting approving and amending quotes before they’re published. Obviously, this puts political reporters in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, they need to maintain relationships with key players in the political arena if that’s their beat. On the other, getting quote approval could be seen as pandering and a threat to journalistic integrity. (HT to @editortim for tweeting this link to us.)
  • Yahoo to Pay Mayer $100 Million Over Five Years: This week, Yahoo! announced former Google VP Marissa Mayer as its new CEO. We won’t get into the controversy over Mayer being pregnant, but we found this WSJ article on Mayer’s compensation to be interesting, especially in light of our recent posts about wages.
  • Times Names Buffalo News Editor as Its New Public Editor: Speaking of women in high places, the Times announced Margaret M. Sullivan as the paper’s fifth public editor. In addition to writing a column for the print newspaper, Sullivan will engage with readers online and through social media. She starts September 1.