Reporting the News as a Multimedia Journalist with Marion Callahan
In this episode of On Record PR, guest host Sarah Larson goes on record with Marion Callahan. She is a multimedia reporter for The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times and Burlington County Times as a multimedia journalist. She’s tackled tough topics ranging from wars overseas to battles here at home, including the toll of addiction in the Philadelphia suburbs.
About Marion Callahan
She’s a journalist, audience engagement leader, and a local watchdog reporter dedicated to informing and creating connections in our communities. Marion has worked as a news and features reporter at The Morning Call, a police and municipal reporter at the Miami Herald, an education writer at The Charlotte Observer and an international war correspondent with the Stars and Stripes in Heidelberg, Germany. Today, she works for the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, The Intelligencer in Doylestown, and the Burlington County Times in Burlington, New Jersey.
Sarah catches up with Marion to find out what’s happening in the news business, what she’s been up to lately, and how people can best work with her. We are all in the midst of the pandemic and still working from home.
Why don’t we take a step back and tell our listeners how you got started in the news business. What drew you to it?
I started in seventh grade. I have always wanted to tell stories. I used to enjoy making up and telling stories that I wrote down as a child. As I became exposed to reporting and journalism, I craved being a part of the newspaper industry since middle school and began writing for my school newspapers. As soon as I could, I began freelancing for a newspaper in South Florida called the Sun Tablet. I walked into the newsroom, and I saw the chaos and the energy. I knew I needed to be part of it.
Sarah Larson: Those were the days, weren’t they? Those were the days when there were dozens of people in the newsroom. The wire was humming, the police radio was squawking, and the editors were yelling at the reporters. It’s not like that anymore.
Marion Callahan: Unfortunately. Very different.
You started much like I did, exclusively in print, but as we know in recent years, that job has changed dramatically as reporters are now expected to be print, visual and audio storytellers. Describe for our listeners today, what it means to be a multimedia reporter. What is it that you are trying to do?
Multimedia reporting is about telling stories in every way possible. The idea of multitasking is no longer something extra that a journalist does. It’s part of what everyone does as a modern storyteller. We don’t just go into a room with a notepad and a pen. I’m looking at grabbing information through audio and video, telling stories through photographs, such as still photographs and slideshows. I take a look at the situation and think, “Am I going to create one video, or do I have to create a one-minute video for Twitter?”
Not only do we think about how we’re gathering the news, but we think about how we are going to get to our readers because our audience is different. It’s no longer waiting. Most of our readers are no longer waiting for the paper in the morning. They want to read news 24 hours a day. We have to find a way to reach them, and we have to think creatively to do it and in many different storytelling forms. It’s been a difficult challenge, but I’ve embraced it, as tough as the past few years have been.
For the benefit of our listeners, I think I know why that has been tough. The assignments themselves aren’t necessarily tough. I know you have the skills to gather the audio and to shoot the video. With the reduction in the size of staff over the years, are you going to the scene with the videographer? Are you going to the scene with the photographer, or is that all on you now?
No, and I miss them dearly. We had a video team, and we had a photography team. We were always partnered, sometimes partnered with other reporters, and our paper no longer has that visual team. I miss that, but now I’ve had to assume those roles. When I go out on an assignment, I often have a tripod, video camera, and a still camera with me. A couple of years ago I was handed a Nikon D750, which was foreign to me. I’ve had to figure out how to use it. Not only am I doing that, but I also bring two phones because I know I will be recording interviews for podcasts as well. This is because much of our audience now likes to listen to news, and we want to give as many authentic voices from the frontlines as possible. To do that, we have to be prepared to capture them in many different ways.
Tell us a about how you identify the stories that you want to report on. Where do you get your story ideas? Where do you get your story tips?
I get them from all over the place. I live in this community. I live in Bucks County. My kids go to school here. I have a couple of different jobs in Bucks County, so I feel very connected to this community, and I feel very fortunate that people share their experiences with me. They share what needs they observe in the community. Through recording in this county for well over 15 years, I’ve built connections with people in the nonprofit industries, people in education, in government, and just everyday people in our community. Business owners reach out to me to not just tell their stories, but to tell the stories of those who are unrepresented or underrepresented from communities. There aren’t many vehicles for those people to get their voices heard. I pay particular interest in achieving that goal.
Let’s talk about working with small businesses or small nonprofit organizations. If someone thinks they have a story idea that they want to pitch to you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
To put it in context with what’s happening today, I’ll give you an example. I love to write and tell stories that reflect on the needs as well as on what is happening in the greater community. For example, with the pandemic, it clearly had an effect on all populations, but it most definitely had a severe impact on the homeless. During non-pandemic times, they could go from Burger King to Walmart and find shelter, find air conditioning, find food, and find a place to shave and use the bathroom. When COVID happened, that all shut down. I thought it was very important to tell that perspective almost immediately. I worked with an organization called ‘The Coalition to Shelter and Support the Homeless’ and also Lower Bucks, ‘Advocates for Homeless & Those in Need (AHTN)’. They had resources for, not just those who are homeless, but other people in need in the community. We had the ability to tell personal stories, and at the same time, share these stories for the wider community to access. That was a goal. Through both of those nonprofit organizations, I got to share that perspective.
Can you tell our listeners about how many stories you do on a typical day?
Today, I filed two stories and about 12 photos. On social, I share those stories through Facebook, Twitter, and through our business accounts. I don’t necessarily average about two stories a day, but I try to work on at least one story a day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be print story. It can be an audio or a visual story, or just a photograph of something happening that reflects what’s going on in our community.
Sarah Larson: So many things for journalists today to balance. I would imagine your email box gets pretty full.
Marion Callahan: Yes.
What’s the weirdest, most inappropriate, or strangest email pitch you’ve gotten lately?
Much of my information is public, but I get a lot of work phone calls on my personal phone. Around the clock, I’m getting texts and messages, and many of them start off with, “You have to call me. This story has to be told.” I’m thinking, there’s a fire down the street, or something critical is happening. In almost every email, there’s this sense of urgency, and sometimes, it’s just somebody reporting that someone is not following social distancing protocol in a local supermarket.
You have to sift through and present the information that is truly urgent. I’ll get emails from someone telling me that they can’t go to their local park, or if they are at their local park, they’re not allowed to use a certain piece of equipment. I have to let them know that I’m sure that is very important in their world, but unfortunately, I’m juggling other stories that are more critical to get out into the public right away. Early on in the pandemic, some of these stories included what to do if you have nowhere to go or if you feel like you might have COVID, what are the resources to reach out if you’re struggling for food, if you’re concerned about your child’s mental health. Those types of stories have to take priority.
Sarah Larson: I think that is a good point to highlight. I think for businesses, organizations, and even for our clients. When you and I worked together, starting at The Intelligencer back in the early 2000s, we had three bureaus to cover, Central and Upper Bucks County, and Eastern Montgomery County. We had 20 reporters and five photographers. That world does not exist anymore. The level of news, and the threshold of storytelling, I would imagine, has risen because there are so few people left to report the story.
Marion Callahan: No, you’re absolutely right. If there’s anything that’s tested us, it’s this pandemic. In the very beginning and in the early days, I was working around the clock. I think we all were. I’m trying to link readers again directly to sources on the front lines. Resources to help them make safe decisions, whether it was related to masks, testing or guidance for what to do, if they felt like they had the virus.
As you know, guidance is constantly changing. Even in the early phases, I felt like I was playing whack-a-mole with all these stories. Whereas, like you mentioned, 15 years ago, I would’ve been sharing these responsibilities with 20, 30, or 40 others in Bucks County. Now, there are so many topics that are critical that need coverage. You have to take a deep breath, focus on one, two, or three at a time, and then keep moving forward. Just try to do the best you can to deliver the most authentic news on each story.
Sarah Larson: I would think that makes it even more important for you to develop relationships with people in the communications field like people at nonprofits, people in the government, and people in the chambers of commerce businesses. They can really get to know how you work and learn how to get story ideas to you without overwhelming you. At the same time, they can try to get the stories told that people still think need to be told.
Marion Callahan: I wanted to answer that question in another way as well. When people reach out to me – and I think many public relations professionals have gotten to know me – they understand that I am very drawn to human interest stories. I believe reporting, writing, and crafting pieces that give people a front row seat into the life of someone living different experiences, enhances our understanding of what’s happening around us. I’m really drawn to telling stories. Can I give an example of one group?
Sarah Larson: Absolutely. I was just about to ask you.
Tell us some of the stories that you have enjoyed the most or that you’re the proudest of.
Especially with this pandemic, it’s been so important to get ahold of people who are experiencing COVID on the front lines, and to get a sense of what’s happening outside of our doors. We couldn’t leave our houses, so it was very hard to get a sense of what was happening around us. I did speak to a paramedic who was afraid to go home, and an administrative assistant who was frustrated and didn’t know where to send patients. Doylestown Hospital’s chief medical officer was trying to figure out where to put people if the surge was to come.
One of the pieces I’m most proud of during this time, was a profile that I did on an ICU nurse who was definitely on the front lines during the worst of it here in the county. She basically gave us an inside view of Doylestown Hospital’s critical care unit.
Through her words, emotions, she described the human toll of COVID-19. She saw how it divided loved ones in the final moments, and how it put healthcare workers beside dying patients, holding their hands and reminding them that they’re not alone, when they could not be with their loved ones. Telling that story through her eyes resonated with people on all sides of the spectrum. Very early on, there were questions as to the validity of a lot of things, but you really can’t question the validity of some of these experiences. I think that hit home with many people on what was happening in our local community.
Sarah Larson: That story was incredibly well done. I enjoyed that story very much. You did a wonderful job on that. It was true Marion Callahan reporting, taking a national trend and a pretty weighty issue that had lots of policy ramifications as well, but telling it through the human toll. I always used to say that being a reporter is like becoming an expert on an incident, on a daily basis, on whatever topic they throw you.
Marion Callahan: I always try to remind people, especially on social media where I’m posting stories, I’m doing my best to get the information to you, with guidance and sources that are making decisions at this time. What could happen in a week? Will that story change? Will the guidance change? If it does, I’ll bring that information from the sources, not from me. I am simply the vehicle to put the camera in front of them, and to put their words on the paper to get that information to the wider community.
I’m flawed. I’ve made mistakes. A couple of times, I had been writing so many of these stories that I see a typo. I know we’re not perfect, especially with fewer people on the ground, but we do our best. I like to hear feedback, and when I’m doing something wrong, I like for people to call me out on it. I think people know that I will own up to it, and I will do better the next time.
That brings me to another question that I wanted to ask. How has the relationship between you as a reporter and the public changed over the years? The national conversation has not been kind to journalists, right? “The enemy of the people,” “Fake news,” or, “You’re trying to bring America down.” Do you get that as a local reporter when you go out to cover things?
Sometimes, I do, but I have to say I’ve become closer with the community. That’s ironic in some ways because there aren’t that many of us walking around Doylestown, Perkasie and Quakertown trying to find stories. I do share my stories on social media. Because there’s fewer of us, more people know who I am. More people do reach out to me through personal channels like Facebook or through work.
In some ways, I feel I’ve gained a lot of trust through my stories because I’m certainly committed to telling stories with accuracy, fairness, and getting both sides of an issue. We, as reporters, are building a brand in ways that 15 years ago we didn’t because there were so many of us. A reporter was a reporter, but now with fewer of us, they see our face more. We’re definitely more present with Zoom interviews and with podcasts. I appreciate that trust, and I hope to preserve it. I hope that trust will grow between the community and me. I’m very much dedicated to telling stories that reflect our community. I can only do that if the community cares and opens up to me, and allows me to tell some very sensitive stories on some topics that maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I might not have had that access to.
Sarah Larson: It’s a very intimate thing to invite a reporter into your life at either the best moment of your life or sometimes the worst moments of your life, and tell that story. I know you and I share an appreciation for people who are willing to do that and share the stories of the human condition, bringing us all together. It’s such a moving experience.
Marion Callahan: Most definitely. I value that trust. I’m definitely sensitive to many of the situations and to some circumstances that I run into. I always say that I’m a human before I’m a reporter. I don’t care how great a story is. If a source feels forced to tell, then it’s not worth it for me. I make sure to put the people first. I think most of my sources understand that, and I think that helps build trust as well.
I would agree. Looking 10 to 20 years in the future, using our crystal ball to foretell the future, where do you see local journalism going? Maybe we can’t even look out that far. Let’s look at three to five years, and five to 10 years. How are things going in the local journalism industry, and where do you see things going over the next few years?
I see the community being a greater part of our conversation. Ten or 20 years ago, we pretty much set the agenda for what people read. We told the stories. We would go out and find the quotes. Now, it’s much more interactive, which I like. I think that’s one of the reasons why people are coming to me more frequently with their stories is because they’re a part of it. They’re not just part of the story, they’re part of gathering the information and sharing it.
I know that the lines have blurred. With Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram we post a story, and there’s interaction. Through that interaction, you can see where the story is developing, or you can see where the questions are. I think we’re going to see more interaction. I think we are going to see more of what I like to call “citizen journalists,” or engaged readers because we can’t function without engaged readers. I want to bring them onto the podcast, onto our Zooms, and onto video interviews to remind our community that it’s not us telling the stories, it’s the communities that are involved in bringing these issues to light.
Sarah Larson: The newspaper used to be called “a community’s daily conversation with itself.” But today, I think it’s more a minute-by-minute conversation with itself. The more people who get involved in that conversation, the better off that conversation is going to be.
Marion Callahan: Absolutely. The more people who understand that we are accessible, that we’re human, that we live in these communities, that we want them to be part of our work lives, and that we want to do our best to reflect many different perspectives, I think the better off we’ll be.
That’s a good segue into how people can get in touch with you if they want to follow up, if they have a story idea they want to share, or if they just want to say, “Hey, great job,” or, “Hey, here’s a story you should be telling.” What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
I would say through Facebook. I can also provide my email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. On Facebook. I have a page called @MarionReports. That’s where most people engage with my stories and provide questions, criticisms, and praise every once in a while. Facebook is the most dominant way that people reach out to me. I’m happy with that.
Marion, I’m so thrilled that you could join me today. I very much enjoyed our conversation, and I’m sure our listeners have too. We look forward to hearing from you many more times in the future and hopefully having you back as a guest when we have more to talk about.
We’ve been talking with Marion Callahan, multimedia reporter and journalist for The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times, and Burlington County Times.
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