Hit the Slopes

Everything from the bunny hill to the double black diamond

Final project: Husband-and-wife team bring ski journalism online

It’s a ski bum’s dream: Any given week in the wintertime, Heather and Greg Burke could be on top of a mountain anywhere in the country or world. In late March, they spent a few days at Big Sky Resort in Montana. In mid-April, they flew out to Austria to explore European ski resorts.

Both are right at home on a ski mountain, at their most comfortable suited up in winter jackets and ski boots. They’ve skied for their whole lives, both since age 3.

The husband-and-wife team works together to produce content for their ski review websites, FamilySkiTrips.com and LuxurySkiTrips.com, as well as Boston.com’s Ski Guru blog. She writes, and he takes pictures. In the off-season, the two run a marketing agency.

Heather and Greg Burke at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming this winter. Photo courtesy Heather Burke.

Heather Burke started as a ski journalist 15 years ago after a long career selling real estate near Smuggler’s Notch. While staying at home to raise her children, she started writing about skiing on the side.

“I wrote tips on what to pack when you brought your kids to [ski] camp, and then I started writing reviews about ski resorts and who had good programs for kids in New England,” Burke said. “As the kids got a little older, we did start taking them out west for a week of skiing each year.”

On those trips, Greg Burke didn’t start out as a photographer. He has no formal training in the field.

“Originally I just carried Heather’s bags,” he said. “But then I started taking pictures because it seemed to fit with what Heather was doing.”

Greg Burke grew up skiing at Gunstock Mountain Resort on weekends with his family. At 18, he was teaching skiing at Gunstock. Right out of college, he was working as group sales director for Sugarbush Resort, and then moved on to marketing director positions at Smugglers’ Notch and Waterville Valley.

Heather Burke also grew up skiing Gunstock, but at age 12, she moved to Smugglers’ Notch, where her family ran a ski lodge. She taught skiing there while in college, and then sold real estate around the resort after graduating.

The Burkes’ websites, FamilySkiTrips.com and LuxurySkiTrips.com, are based in Kennebunk, Maine, but they have skied all over the country.

They said they were disappointed with this year’s season, especially in New England.

“It started very slowly, and, as you see, is coming to an abrupt halt,” Greg Burke said. “We didn’t get out as much this year as we would like.”

SIDEBAR: Conor Odell, a Northeastern sophomore who snowboards, said he was disappointed with this winter's short ski season. For more students' thoughts on the 2011-2012 ski season, click on the picture.

Heather Burke blogged about the lackluster weather on Boston.com this season. She said her ability to follow current weather conditions kept the Ski Guru blog up-to-date.

“I can stay very current with the conditions and what’s going on in the ski industry. Whereas in the past, even when my column in the newspaper was due on a Monday, it wasn’t actually in print and circulated until the following Sunday,” she said. “Sometimes the articles would look outdated, like I’d written it a week prior.”

Heather Burke is one of two writers for the Ski Guru blog. The other is Boston.com Staff Writer Eric Wilbur, who blogs about sports. Wilbur said he tries to update the Ski Guru blog four to five times a week “if [he’s] lucky,” but enjoys writing for it.

“Heather and Greg are true ambassadors to the New England skiing industry,” he said of working with the Burkes. “Their knowledge and passion for the sport is obvious, and their energy is the same.”

SIDEBAR: Northeastern students talk New England snowsports.

Besides the Boston.com blog, the Burkes spend a lot of time creating content for their own websites. The two embraced the journalism industry’s move to the Internet early on, and have witnessed the field’s evolution.

Greg Burke recalled a 1994 seminar in Aspen, Colo., he attended that discussed the possibilities of the Internet.

“This guy stood up for three days and told us all about this Internet thing that Al Gore had invented,” he said. “But he said this was the future, when none of us had even heard of the Internet at the time. I listened and absorbed.”

Using knowledge gained from the seminar, he and Heather Burke dove right in, starting FamilySkiTrips.com in 1998 and adding LuxurySkiTrips.com in 2008.

The two are very up to speed with digital media, but Heather Burke remembers the days of print journalism’s prominence.

“I used to get paid by word count, and articles used to be 1,500 to 2,000 words, and that was something I’d work on for months, and then the editorial process would go on for additional months,” she said. “Now, blogs are 500 words. They’re posted immediately, and it’s changed dramatically.”

Burke said she prefers blogging over writing for newspapers and magazines.

“It’s so fresh, it’s so current,” she said. “I observed something today and I can post it. It’s live immediately. I miss the days when I was paid generously per word for a magazine article … but the blogging is really fun because it’s my voice. It isn’t heavily edited, and it’s not that long, tedious process that I recall in old print journalism.”

However better online journalism is, it’s still difficult to monetize, Greg Burke said.

“Over the last 15 years, the whole media has been constantly evolving and updating, and keeping up with it all is an extreme challenge,” he said. “Where it leads from here is a good question.”

Digital media has democratized the entire news business, making things difficult for professional writers and photographers, he said.

“Anyone can blog,” Heather Burke added. “There are a lot of people out there, so it’s hard to sort out from the professionals, the well-researched, well-written blog versus just chatting.

Despite the hardships, the Burkes are determined to stick with it. Greg Burke said that if journalists can keep up with electronic media, they can maintain their relevance to the world. Heather Burke added that there’s always a demand for good writers.

But most important is the passion for the work, she said.

“If you love something,” she said, “you can make it.”

To see other features on digital media pioneers, visit the class blog and check out the Google Map of where the class’ reporting reached.

What skiers do in the summer

By the time the end of April comes around, it’s usually a sad time for skiers. Resorts close. Skis are packed away and placed in storage. Out come the sandals and the running sneakers for the summer months.

There is, of course, the rare skier who can take a trip out to Europe for some more skiing during the summer. Even some ski resorts in the western United States stay open into the early summertime, so at least a few people ski year-round (or at least try to, as much as possible, given the overly mild winter this year). Skiing in the Southern Hemisphere is popular as well, because our summer is their winter.

Then there’s also the interesting sport of pond skimming, a popular option towards the end of ski season. Refusing to accept that ski season has come to an end, many skiers keep their skis on and “ski” across a pond of water and slush. If anything, it reminds me of a slip-and-slide – for skiers.

The sport’s popular with snowboarders as well. Many local resorts have special  days for pond-skimming. Sugarbush had pond skimming in the last week of March, for example.

Mountain biking is also popular with skiers because it’s a very physical, full-body sport, much like skiing. Kevin Jordan at Examiner.com’s Denver branch writes that skiers enjoy mountain biking because of the similarities to skiing: the terrain shifts quickly, the body positioning is constantly changing, and foot-eye coordination is a necessity.

Jordan writes that the two sports are very “dynamic,” and,

We move different parts of our body at different times when we ski or bike. For instance, when skiing through the trees we might have to making a blocking pole plant to avoid an obstacle. Even worse, we may have to reach out and grab the trunk of tree to make a quick turn before that unforeseen cliff below. Just like in biking, we may have to move our feet first to begin to pedal. We might move our shoulders or tip our upper body/incline first to initiate a turn on our bikes.

I personally am a runner in the ski off-season, but there’s plenty of variety for active skiers. Best stay in shape to prep for next season (though it’s sadly quite a few months off).

Ski safety: Why you should invest in a helmet

In class yesterday, we discussed new tools for journalists. One that caught my particular attention was Visual.ly, a database of Creative Commons data visualizations for use in blogs such as this one. While perusing the site, I stumbled across this graphic about the necessity of wearing helmets while skiing:

Some of this information blew my mind. Skiing can be a really dangerous sport. That’s especially true for extreme skiers: while riding in unexplored, ungroomed terrain, there’s no ski patrol to come and help them. Unexpected avalanches and other risks pose a daunting possibility of danger for extreme skiers (who chose to do it anyway).

Skiing can be dangerous even for the average downhill skier. Bad skiing conditions can lead to poor visibility and make staying out on the slopes a risky business, sometimes even fatal.

This year the ski season in Colorado ended with 20 skier deaths, a record high for the state. Both young skiers and older skiers are at risk of injury; skiing is as equally challenging and risky for everyone.

Helmets, as the graphic above states, can be lifesaving. There’s a high risk of injury in the sport – almost two-thirds of skiers and snowboarders have gotten injured while on the slopes, according to the graphic, but 65.7 percent of injured skiers who wore a helmet said the helmet prevented greater injury than if they had been injured while not wearing a helmet.

All this just reconfirms my own personal thoughts: Whenever I’m on the slopes, I wear a helmet.

Graphic (cc) Essential Travel and republished here under a Creative Commons license via Visual.ly. Some rights reserved.

It’s winter again at Killington Ski Resort

As of one hour ago, Killington Ski Resort had 19 inches of fresh snow, with more on its way. The resort reopened its K-1 Gondola and 35 ski trails. It started snowing at Killington yesterday morning.

The official Killington Twitter feed tweeted yesterday to its followers, “Dear @KillingtonMtn followers, wish you were here. #stillsnowing.”

Recent pictures on Killington’s Twitter feed show the enormous amount of snow as well.

Killington and Jay Peak are the only resorts in Vermont still open. Jay Peak reports it picked up a foot of new powder from the same storm that’s reinvigorated spring skiing at Killington.

Staff at Jay Peak wrote on the ski resort’s home page this morning,

PHRASE OF THE DAY: Dropping Ropes. That’s what you can do when you pick-up a FOOT of new snow overnight….and it’s still dumping. Patrol has reopened 18 trails since this storm started yesterday, including the likes of JFK, Kitzbuehel, Upper Can Am, Upper Quai, Ullr’s, and Power Line, just to name a few. The Bottom Line: Get up here.

Killington and Jay Peak join a small group of ski resorts that are still open. In New Hampshire, Loon Mountain remains open, and Wildcat Mountain is planning to reopen April 14. In Maine, Sugarloaf and Sunday River are open, and Saddleback with reopen April 14 like Wildcat.

UPDATE Wednesday, 4/11 evening: Ski the East has a video report about skiing in fresh powder at Killington.

Ski season not over yet – hello, spring skiing?

Usually once March swings around, it’s spring skiing season in the northeast. Ski resorts stay open until about some time in April (while some out west stay open through May or June). But this season’s especially mild winter has been hard on New England ski resorts.

And snowmen, too.

Katie Johnston wrote on Boston.com a few weeks ago:

Spring skiing is not a huge money maker for most resorts, but record high temperatures in March have made an already shortened season even shorter. Ski industry trade groups in New Hampshire and Vermont estimate that skier visits at some resorts fell by as much as 20 percent from last season, when it snowed early and often.

But as Boston.com ski blogger Heather Burke noted earlier this week, there’s still seven New England resorts toughing it out. Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Saddleback, Loon, Wildcat, Killington and Jay Peak were all still open for business this week. Burke wrote that Sugarbush will reassess the lack-of-snow situation and make a final determination this week about staying open or not.

Some resorts are determined that if the season has to end early, it’ll go out with a bang. Or rather a bang for you buck:

Viva la 2011-2012 ski season! (Typed while wearing a T-shirt and flip flops, with all the windows in the apartment  thrown open, and all the trees outside in bloom. Sigh.)

Photo (cc) Flikr user 0¢ (“Zero Pennyworth”) and republished here  under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Nieman fellow Wu Nan on Chinese journalism

For class last Thursday (March 29), we sat in on a talk with Wu Nan, a Chinese journalist who’s worked for both Chinese media outlets and the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese edition. She’s currently a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, no doubt to honor her contributions to investigative journalism in China.

Wu said the censorship is “frustrating,” but investigative journalism is “very addictive.” It’s work that can change lives and hold the government accountable, she said.

Wu gave the example of Sun Zhigang, a young Chinese man who moved to the city to look for a job but lost his identifying papers. The police arrested him, and two days later he was dead, beaten to death. A large newspaper investigation into the incident caused an outrage among the public, and the government was forced to acknowledge that it had been wrong. Twelve people, including many government employees, were sent to jail, receiving sentences from 3 years to life in prison.

Most Chinese investigative work is done by economic papers because they are better off financially and face  less censorship from the government, Wu said. But with the rise of Chinese social media site RenRen and microblogging site Weibo, people can get messages out before the censors can stop them.

Wu said the sheer size of the digital media industry is too big for the government to over-regulate or shut down. In China, there are 420 million Internet users, 270 mobile phone users, and 250 million Weibo users. Chinese tech companies make good money – the total market value is 25 percent of the value of Apple, Wu said.

She said she sees future for investigative journalism in China. In response to a comment questioning the validity and journalistic integrity of Chinese state media, Wu said no one really trusts it.

“We don’t watch that anymore,” she said. “I think the young Chinese generation is questioning.”

Wild forms of skiing

Skiers are certainly a crazy kind of people. They’re always pushing the limits of the sport, despite the numerous ski-related injuries and deaths that occur every year.

Perhaps the most daring skiers are “extreme skiers” who take helicopters to the top of ungroomed mountains and forge their own paths down the slopes.

Often they’ll ski on extremely steep slopes without fear, despite the many possible injuries they can incur from “free skiing.” To name a few: knee sprains, wrist fractures and shoulder dislocation, as well as the more serious life-threatening injuries.

Equally as terrifying is the more mainstream sport of ski jumping. An Olympic sport since 1924, the sport traces its historical origin to a Norwegian skier who jumped 9.5 meters in 1808. Decades later, an Austrian skier developed the typical modern form: knees bent, head bowed, body lurched forward. Using that form, the skier managed to jump over 100 meters, the first in the world to do so. Today, Norwegian skier Johan Remen Evensen holds the world record for the longest ski jump. He jumped 246.5 meters in February 2011.

But if you’re not a risk-taker or thrill-seeker, there’s always the bizarre but interesting sport of canoe skiing, which Ski the East recently featured.

Skiers Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson went canoe skiing one weekend. Click on the link for more pictures. Photo (cc) EmberPhoto.com.

A couple of skiers decided to take canoes out along a Vermont river and took an overnight trip. They went skiing in unmarked wilderness – with canoes in tow. They’d canoe down the river, their ski equipment piled in the front of the canoe, find a designated place to ski, and climb up the mountain just to ski right back down.

Canoe skiing is probably the most interesting form of skiing I’ve heard of, but it certainly captures that adventurous skier spirit that lead to the creation of extreme skiing and ski jumping.

Guest speaker Kristen Lombardi on non-profit journalism

On Thursday, March 22, Kristen Lombardi of the Center for Public Integrity visited class to talk about her experience as an investigative journalist working at a non-profit. Lombardi’s been a reporter for 17 years, with long stints at The Boston Phoenix and The Village Voice. She start at the Center in 2007, where she said she focused on long-term, in-depth investigative reporting.

Lombardi’s first major story was The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal, which exposed the risks of longwall mining operations in Pennsylvania, which coal companies were advertising as “clean.” The story is a few years old, but it’s still a very good read, with multiple long-form text stories, videos, audio slideshows, pictures, and downloadable documents related to the investigation. Lombardi said she spent a year on the story, even moving to the area for two months, during which she achingly tried to get people to talk (and eventually, they did).

But Lombardi is best known for her work on Sexual Assault on Campus, a long investigative piece that exposed the lax policies and punishments colleges had for those accused of sexual assault. Lombardi said the Center spent $250,000 on the piece, even compiling their own research data via surveys with colleges and universities across the country. She spent 18 months on this piece, and it garnered a lot of media attention. Many Center of Public Integrity media partners picked up the story and localized it, for example.

Lombardi said she enjoys investigative reporting, but it’s hard to find newspapers that still have investigative teams. Times are hard and budgets are tight for major newspapers; many have cut their investigative teams in the last few years. Lombardi saw an opportunity to continue her passion for investigative journalism at the Center after she left The Village Voice. She said that, if she were working at a paper, she wouldn’t have been able to dig as deep into her stories or spend as much time on them. One major difference in her work, however, is her exposure to the business side as well as the editorial. She is expected to attend events and speak with donors to pull in money for the Center.

The non-profit model is certainly interesting, but I don’t know if I believe it can last. Lombardi herself conceded that the non-profit journalism model is “non-sustainable,” given that it lives off donations. I honestly would prefer to work at a for-profit newspaper than a non-profit (though I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with working at a non-profit). I just think the for-profit model gives the paper more editorial freedom – you don’t have to answer to donors. Donors do not control the paper. Instead, the readers control what they read with the demand for certain kinds of news coverage. And isn’t that the whole point of the press, to provide a service for the community, as the community demands it?

The mind-bloggling word of online ski communities

Besides the use of puns in headlines, I’ve learned a lot while maintaining this ski blog. If there’s one thing that stands out, it’s that information comes from all sorts of places for the blogger/aggregator of niche news.

My absolute favorite, especially because of its local angle, is Boston.com’s the Ski Guru blog. It’s part of Boston.com’s special snowsports section, and it’s usually updated at least 3-4 times a week.

Main page of The Ski Guru blog.

Snow sports journalist Heather Burke maintains The Ski Guru blog. Sometimes Boston.com sports blogger Eric Wilbur contributes. This blog follows everything from updates in weather to the number of open trails at local resorts. It’s my go-to place for New England ski news; I quote Heather Burke a lot in my blog posts because I love her writing style.

Heather Burke works with her husband Greg Burke, who takes pictures to accompany her writing. The two also collaborate on FamilySkiTrips.com and LuxurySkiTrips.com. Greg Burke’s pictures are phenomenal. The heavy use of visuals on the blog is a huge plus for me.

A few other sites I visit are Ski Magazine‘s and Skiing Magazine‘s websites, because they’re the most well-known publications in the industry. I don’t frequent these sites as much because I prefer the local edge. The writing at both sites is fantastic (obviously, since both are established journalistic publications).

The design is a little more dynamic than the Ski Guru blog, but that’s to be expected because both are more than blogs on the Internet; they’re bona fide print publications as well. I like how the home page of each of these sites divides stories up into categories (gear, ski resorts, fitness and nutrition, mountain culture, to name a few) so you can find exactly what you’re looking for.

I also recently found Ski the East, a Vermont-based skiing site run by young skiers. The whole point of the website is to advocate the joy of “skiing the east” since so many skiers seem to favor the western U.S. The writing at Ski the East is a little less journalistic and a little more humorous – something of the flippant, rebellious tone of a young person.

A ton of content on Ski the East is user-generated. There’s a news section as well, which features everything from profiles of skiers to an interview with the governor of Vermont. A lot of the content, however, is promotional for Ski the East gear and the Ski the East Freeride tour, with legs at multiple New England ski resorts (the most recent being Jay Peak). While it’s not journalistic, Ski the East is the best at involving its community. Rather than featuring content from Ski the East writers, user content is featured on the home page.

There’s also On the Snow, a site that reminds me of Ski Magazine or Skiing Magazine’s website. A lot of the content is less blogging/news than it is locations of local ski resorts, charts about local ski conditions, and the like. On the Snow does have a news section, but it’s a national and even global focus rather than a geographic focus on New England. Also, I don’t like its design as much as Ski Magazine’s, but it may just be a personal thing.

See more ski blogs in the Blogroll on the right sidebar.

Final project outline

I’ve looked into two different story ideas for my final project.

The first is a profile on ski blogger Heather Burke, who is the main writer of Boston.com’s Ski Guru blog. She’s a member of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association, the North American Travel Journalists Association, and the Eastern Ski Writers Association. She’s the editor of LuxurySkiTrips.com and writes for FamilySkiTrips.com.

The second is a profile on the young people who bring Vermont-based ski web site Ski the East to the general public. They’re all avid skiers and they engage the Ski the East community like nothing else – users regularly upload pictures, videos, etc.

I’m favoring the first idea because it’s geographically closer. We’ll see where it goes.