By Jeannine Hunter, News Producer, Washington Post
Long before sunrise Easter morning, Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris was hard at work. His Twitter followers received updates about the atmosphere inside the historic Shiloh Baptist Church in D.C. where President Obama and his family worshipped. Harris tweeted and took pictures before and after the worship service the Obamas attended, filed an update for one of the newspaper’s blogs and contributed to the paper’s Easter coverage. Later, he created and uploaded a video clip.
These actions are steps many writers deploy nowadays as part of their newsgathering and storytelling, and the award-winning journalist took time to discuss incorporating them into his work. Harris, author of “Career Diary of a Newspaper Reporter: Gardner ‘s Guide Series,” covers individuals and issues in communities around the greater Washington , D.C. , area as well as religion and race relations.
NABJDigital: I attended a sunrise service so I was awake early Sunday morning and noticed your tweets before 6 a.m. Is this common for you on big news days?
Hamil Harris: I have never missed reporting and writing about President Obama going to church since he was elected. I guess it is like a self-appointed beat. It all started on the eve of the inauguration when the President attended 19th Baptist Church. I knew that the church would be packed, because our people just can’t keep secrets.
The key is getting there early because the fire marshal will stop people from going in at a certain point. Usually the President goes to church at least twice a year, the Sunday before MLK Day and Easter. In January, he worshipped at the Metropolitan AME Church and last Easter he worshipped at Allen AME in Southeast [both in Washington , D.C. ]. In both cases, I got to the church before 7 a.m. because some people arrive as early as 4 a.m.
ND: How long have you worked at the Post?
HH: I have been working for the Washington Post since January of 1992. My first big story was the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. I was part of a group of reporters who reported that day. My anecdote about a man in wheelchair who came to the inauguration, Marshall Hull, was the top of the story [that appeared on the front page].
ND: What devices do you regularly carry with you, i.e., a Flip Cam, a digital camera, BlackBerry, etc.?
HH: I normally travel with a Cannon G-12, a flip camera, an iPhone and a Blackberry. I also carry a digital tape recorder and in my car I have a larger camera and a laptop. I often feel like somebody in Special Forces. You have to be prepared for any scenario. On Easter Sunday, I had a G-12, a Flip [camera] and the two cells. The photo pool was not allowed in the church. In fact, only once has the White House allowed photographers to witness the President at church and that was at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in January 2010.
ND: How has incorporating video into your newsgathering change how you interact with interviewees?
HH: It can be complicated. You have to have strong relations with people. God has blessed me to have good contacts. You have to prepare people for video. Sometimes people will talk but they don’t want to be on camera. I always try to use the camera as a tool but I don’t let the camera control me. I am still the storyteller. The camera is just the seasoning of the story.
ND: How have creating video clips, filing content for Washington Post’s blogs and using other social tools impacted you professionally? I’ve noticed that you use different techniques to cover a variety of stories such as fires that swept through the D.C. region earlier this year or your recent feature on female boxers. Watch video of Ladies Night at Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center in Landover, Md.
HH: My cell phone camera has become my best tool. It can put me on the scene immediately. I love to tweet photographs and to place them on Facebook. This is helpful during a big story. But you still want to save the good stuff for the paper. So many times I am miles away from the newsroom or the bureau. But because of the smart phones I can roll.