Friday, December 4, 2009

what we lose? FACTS

If you've ever wondered if the blogosphere, Citizen J, and all else that masquerades as news can fill the void created by the ever-shrinking news industry, today's Boston Globe column by Ellen Goodman is a must must-read. Interested in how journalism is changing? Wonder what the almost-news is doing to the real news? Read it here: short, smart, and to the ever-loving point.

As more and more folks look to blogs, right wing talk shows, shout-out TV shows, and ridiculous email forwards for "news", we replace facts, the cornerstone of actual journalism, with opinion, and often moronic and unsubstantiated opinion at that. I don't know about you, but I'd really don't much care what someone's cantankerous, rightwing uncle has to say about the Obama administration, no matter how quickly his blah-blah goes viral.

The scary thing is that when all the noise becomes confused with boring-old fact based reporting -- the belief in truth, or any semblance thereof flies right out the window. From Goodman's column:

... Facts - along with their enforcers, editors - have long been the guides and saviors of my career, which is 46 years long.

Now I’m planning the next phase of my life. This may be why I’m struck by how much hard facts have softened in this time, how much less they seem to matter.

“Truthiness’’ has exploded alongside a new media that is decidedly not mainstream, that flows into as many rivulets as there are cable channels, points on the radio dial, and unvetted bloggers.

It’s now possible to find a group somewhere in Googleland that will agree with anything. Any outlier can find a tribe and a “fact’’ - Global warming is a hoax! Evolution is a fraud! - that reinforces his own belief.

There is a sense that we don’t need science or editing or fact-checking as long as we have crowd-sourcing. We don’t have to build opinions on facts; we can build facts on opinions.

Well, you can't, as Goodman points out. She ends the column thus:

Those of us who have spent our lives in journalism wake up to daily reports of troubles: newsrooms cut, papers bankrupt. My first employer, Newsweek, no longer covers news. My second, the Detroit Free Press, has cut back home delivery. I have watched my third employer, The Boston Globe, grow and shrink.

Hardest of all is to witness the evaporation of a profession that’s been the vetting agent for the “reality-based community.’’ A craft that has struggled to be right as often and rigorously as possible.

In a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll last month, readers were asked what professions are likely to disappear. Of the likely candidates, 28 percent chose tobacco farmers, but 26 percent picked newspaper reporters. Only 3 percent thought fact-checkers would become extinct.

Well, I have “news’’ for you. When the reporters go, so do the facts. And their checkers.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

social media tips for journalists

Here are some practical tips for using social media to enhance your reporting and make more efficient use of your time, courtesy of Mashable. The story features five journalists and how they use Facebook, twitter, etc., in their daily routines to expand their reporting power -- finding story ideas, for example, and sources.

No black holes. Pure efficiency. Read it here. bk

first v. right: when news goes viral

Andrea Ragni, a former capstoner, forwarded this link to a ZDNet post by Ed Bott that illustrates everything that can go wrong when the first value of (internet) news becomes being first with the news. Clearly, being there first has always been important to news organizations, but add the blogosphere, and you've got yourself a real pickle.

Case in point, the so-called "Blak Screen of Death" Story that made its rounds all over cyberspace earlier this week:

On Friday, November 27, an obscure computer security company, Prevx, publishes a blog post accusing Microsoft of releasing security patches that cause catastrophic crashes in Windows PCs. The inflammatory headline reads: Black Screen woes could affect millions on Windows 7, Vista and XP. The post lacks even the most rudimentary technical details and is maddeningly vague. It goes unnoticed over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend.

Early Monday morning, November 30, Jeremy Kirk of the IDG News service sends a story out on the wire that is picked up by IDG flagship publications PC World and ComputerWorld. Conveniently, the story is posted at 7:05AM Eastern Time, ensuring that it will be at the top of news sites as Americans drag back into work after the long holiday weekend.

Here’s the first headline as it appeared at PC World and ComputerWorld early Monday morning: Latest Microsoft patches cause black screen of death According to the accompanying story, the patches “cause some PCs to seize up and display a black screen, rendering the computer useless” for millions of Windows users. The security company “hasn’t contacted Microsoft yet” and “Microsoft officials could not be immediately reached for comment.”

The story is echoed by dozens of other publications within an hour, some pointing specifically to PC World as the source. The rush of coverage catapults the accusations into the mainstream. At some point that morning, Microsoft’s security team goes into “fire drill” mode.
And on and on. You can guess the punch line: the black screen of death? Not a problem. Never was:

After two full business days of relentlessly negative coverage for Microsoft, the noise from the echo chamber is deafening. More than 500 separate posts on mainstream tech sites and in blogs have amplified the original story, most of them simply repeating the accusations from the Prevx blog post with no original reporting or fact-checking. The story has now taken on a life of its own.

Finally, on Tuesday evening, Prevx backs down completely from the story, publishing a formal retraction and apologizing to Microsoft. Another follow-up post the next day from Prevx CEO and CTO Mel Morris tries to deny any responsibility for the damage. He includes this hilarious bit of understatement: “Regrettably, it is clear that our original blog post has been taken out of context and may have caused an inconvenience for Microsoft.”

From Andrea: "Ed Bott makes a good case for the reality that some journalists, especially in tech, are jeopardizing accuracy for the sake of real time reporting – in some cases not talking to any sources…craziness!"

Clearly. bk

the beginning of the end: outrage redux

Just when you thought journalism was back earning the respect it deserves, there's this from the Dallas Morning News: Section editors of several sections will now be reporting to the advertising SALES MANAGERS of those sections. They call it business/news integration.

Words fail. I mean it: words fail. So here's a link to the story in Dallas' alt-weekly (along with a transcript of an interview w/an editor at the DMN. Here's an excerpt from the story:

As of yesterday, some section editors at all of the company's papers, including The News, will now report directly to Carr's team of sales managers, now referred to as general managers. In short, those who sell ads for A.H. Belo's products will now dictate content within A.H. Belo's products, which is a radical departure from the way newspapers have been run since, oh, forever.

Those sections mentioned in the memo include sports, entertainment, real estate, automotive and travel, among others.The memo doesn't mention Business or Metro by name, but there are references to "health/education" and "retail/finance"; these are not defined in the missive. Says the memo, Carr's sales force will "be working closely with news leadership in product and content development."

Friday, November 20, 2009

beginning, middle and, um, end?

ProPublica columnist Stephen Engelberg muses on why some stories take on lives of their own -- and others die a slow death on the bottom of page 18. Back in June a joint ProPublica-Washington Post story revealed that the Obama administration was "strongly considering criminal charges in federal court for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and three other detainees accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.’’

No notice whatsoever. Either in Congress or the blogosphere.

But this week, the story erupted anew -- and caught fire:

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that Mohammed and four others would be tried in New York federal court, the journalistic and political worlds exploded. Republicans and some Democrats condemned the idea as misguided, naïve and downright dangerous. Families of the 9/11 victims were outraged.

The question of why and when a particular development ignites broader passions is one of journalism’s enduring mysteries. Reporters and editors are notoriously poor at forecasting when a story will erupt. We’re steeped in our material and can lose the sense of how our work might be perceived by the wider public.

The problem of not being able to predict what will catch and what won't, engelberg writes, might be one reason why low-on-resources news orgs may be backing away from investigative reporting. That lack of predictability may be due to one of the truths of journalism. We never know the ending:

But we have also been too early – or too late – and watched seemingly compelling stories get lost in the clamor of viral videos, cheating starlets, mendacious beauty queens. Investigative reporters are the wildcat oil prospectors of journalism. We sink a lot of wells, and it’s sometimes a surprise when we hit a gusher. This uncertainty is an essential aspect of investigative reporting. And it’s why cash-strapped news organizations are backing away from it. No one can say how a story will end. And no one can really predict what it will accomplish. It makes the field alluring and sometimes maddening.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

chronicling journalism education

The Chronicle of Higher Education tackles journalism education this week. Three point-and-clicks (there's more on the site):

Carlin Romano, a former journalist and philosophy professor at Penn, advocates a "Philosophy of Journalism":
Why, at a time of breakneck technological and social revolution in news and newsrooms, do deans and presidents permit ossified philosophy departments to abdicate their responsibility to cover the world by not thinking about the media? How can it be that journalism and philosophy, the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth, are barely on speaking terms?
Be sure to read what he has to say about why they are not on speaking terms.

Media scholar, frequent News Hour analyst, and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn Kathleen Hall Jamieson advocates teaching university students to be "citizen journalists" in the best possible sense:

As partisan outlets proliferate, students raised on faux news will enter our classrooms cocooned in their own biases and conditioned to mistake ridicule for engaged contention. By creating an appetite for critical engagement, universities will challenge those insular tendencies. Drawing on their experiences in our classrooms, labs, and libraries, and mining the rich resources of the Web, our students will become citizen-journalists. In that role they will sort fact from fabulation and unmask abuses of power and the public trust.

Building on their talent for producing substance rather than sound bites, universities will host Web pages filled with accessible insight and argument about topics of national and international concern. Uncluttered by advertising and unbeholden to a commercial model, the nonprofit New York University Times and Wharton Journal will take their place alongside The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. At Berkeley and Princeton, political scientists will publicly parse politics and policy. At Swarthmore and Stanford, English majors and art historians will critique exhibits, films, novels, and television programming. And the Annenberg Public Policy Center's, which debunks distortions in national political advertising and debate, will be joined by university-based sites monitoring state and local politics.

After noting that he would prefer newspapers without a government to government without newspapers, Thomas Jefferson added, "But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." One of our goals as educators is increasing the disposition of our students to read widely and think and communicate critically. What better credentials for the citizen-journalist? And what better home for their journalistic work and for our own than in an institution dedicated both to free and open inquiry and to the generation and communication of knowledge?

Nicholas Lehman, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, notes that while the news industry implodes, j-schools are thriving. his point is that "...journalism schools, because they are in universities, are an ideal place for journalism to find its way toward producing work that truly explains societies to their citizens":

The main problem in journalism today lies on the supply side, not the demand side. It is true that the unfettered, ungoverned Internet can offer up all sorts of misinformation to readers. But it is also true that, unlike traditional news media, the Internet provides a means for instant correction and counterargument. (Our leading font of durable journalistic misinformation is talk radio and television, not the Internet.) Online encyclopedias, auctioneers, and retailers have found pretty good ways of establishing trust across large communities of strangers; that is within journalism's reach, too. The Internet almost certainly has expanded the audience for genuine news more than it has expanded the audience for misleading news. The world's top news organizations have attracted enormous global readerships, far beyond what they have ever had before, and millions of secondary sites, from aggregators to one-person blogs, are heavy direct and indirect users of material produced by those organizations.

Because the barrier to entry is so low, the Internet is also a great medium for journalistic experimentation; we don't have to wait around for big, tradition-bound organizations to innovate. The real difficulty is that the Internet doesn't support the kind of journalism that covers production costs, because almost all Internet journalism is free to readers and bargain-priced, compared with print, for advertisers. Opinion journalism, of the kind invented by pamphleteers in the 1700s, thrives on the Internet. Original reporting does not. So even if every single person under 30 woke up every morning with a gnawing hunger for news, it's not at all clear that the hunger could be satisfied, especially if it's a hunger for local news.

Therefore journalism schools ought to explore, and are already exploring, the possibility of becoming significant producers of original news reporting to make up for the loss of the reporting that economically devastated news organizations can no longer afford. Journalism schools and departments are practical-minded, often to a fault; they are oriented toward sending their students out to report under faculty members' direction. The advent of the Web has made publication and distribution of the fruits of students' reporting easy and inexpensive. Anyone in the world who has a good Internet connection can log on to the Columbia School of Journalism's Web site and find at least two dozen journalistic sites operated by our students and faculty members. The efforts include local-news sites about Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and upper Manhattan; subject-matter sites on charter schools, religion, and the economic crisis; and media-related sites for magazine, radio, broadcast, and digital journalism.

What journalism and the public most need right now is serious, continuing coverage of matters of public importance: city halls, school systems, statehouses. Journalism schools are not fully equipped to provide that now, but the logistical and financial difficulty of equipping them to do so would be far less than the difficulty of creating and sustaining new news organizations built from scratch. Like teaching hospitals, journalism schools can provide essential services to their communities while they are educating their students.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

now, if only they'd pay us

Editor and Publisher reports on a new survey showing that "74% of adults -- nearly 171 million -- in the United States read a newspaper in print or online during the past week."

The survey also found that:

79% of adults who are employed in "white collar" jobs read a newspaper online or in print; that 82% of adults with a household income of $100,000 or more read a newspaper in print or online; and 84% of adults who have college or advanced degrees do the same.
Clearly, good journalism is still very much in demand. If only we could get paid to do the work.

the cover shot

Sarah calls it sexist and degrading. Newsweek calls it interesting. In either case, she posed for the picture.

Read what Politico has to say here.

Read Newsweek's official statement here.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

spot us the money made the New York Times this week. Read the story, on an island of trash some 1000 miles of the coast of Hawaii, here.

What's interesting is that the travel expenses for the story were partially subsidized by, which we wrote about last year, here and here, just as it was kicking into gear.

The idea is this: a reporter pitches a story, and it goes out to, well, bid. Readers interested in seeing the story get done, contribute the bucks to make it happen.

An interesting take on financing journalism in this new age, yeah? bk

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

you can't HANDLE the truth...

In the wake of the Ft. Hood shootings last week, Tech Crunch columnist Paul Carr addressed the issue of citizen journalism with regard to the first reports of the massacre -- tweets from the Twitter account of one Tearah Moore, a soldier from Linden, Michigan who is based at Fort Hood, having recently returned from Iraq.

To read the whole account, go to the link above. But the upshot is that the tweets were bullshit. Moore was actually tweeting from the hospital -- rather than the room where the massacre took place.

He uses this as an example of his point that first, citizen journalism -- isn't. And that the real-time web is turning us all into egotists. He writes:

In the actions of Tearah Moore at Fort Hood, we have the perfect example of both kinds of selfishness.

There surely can’t be a human being left in the civilised world who doesn’t know that cellphones must be switched off in hospitals, and yet not only did Moore leave hers on but she actually used it to photograph patients, and broadcast the images to the world. Just think about that for a second. Rather than offering to help the wounded, or getting the hell out of the way of those trying to do their jobs, Moore actually pointed a cell-phone at a wounded soldier, uploaded it to twitpic and added a caption saying that the victim “got shot in the balls”.

Her behaviour had nothing to do with getting the word out; it wasn’t about preventing harm to others, but rather a simple case of – as I said two weeks ago – “look at me looking at this.”

and ...

And so it was at Fort Hood. For all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved.

What’s most alarming about Moore’s behaviour is that she probably thought she was doing the right thing. Certainly, looking at her MySpace page and her Twitter account (before the army finally forced her to lock it down) we see the portrait of a patriot. Someone who clearly cares a great deal about others, and who – despite the rhetorical question “remind me why I joined the army again” on her profile – is proud to serve her country. In tweeting from the scene, and calling out the media for not reporting the rumours from inside the base, I’m sure she genuinely believed she was helping get the real truth out, and making an actual difference.

And that’s precisely the problem: none of us think we’re being selfish or egotistic when we tweet something, or post a video on YouTube or check-in using someone’s address on Foursquare. It’s just what we do now, no matter whether we’re heading out for dinner or witnessing a massacre on an Army base. Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.

As I’ve already said – and I’m even starting to bore myself now – the answer isn’t censorship (which won’t work), but rather in our social evolution catching up with the state of technology. We need to get back to a point as a society where – without thinking – we put our humanity before our ego.
And that we should realize that not everyone with a cellphone, despite the best intentions, is trained to be a journalist. The debate -- between Carr and Jeff Jarvis, a longtime advocate of citizen journalism -- continued Monday on New York's NPR station WNAC. By all accounts, Carr won. Go here to listen to the podcast. bk

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

the death of narrative?

Is the internet killing storytelling? Ben Macintyre, writing on the London Times Online, thinks so:
Click, tweet, e-mail, twitter, skim, browse, scan, blog, text: the jargon of the digital age describes how we now read, reflecting the way that the very act of reading, and the nature of literacy itself, is changing.
The piece came to my attention on NPR this morning, via Daily Beast Editor Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, who again bemoans the death of narrative journalism as internet driven delivery systems -- and attention spans -- grow ever quicker, ever shorter. The irony, of course, is that The Daily Beast is online. And recently Brown announced a plan to speed up the publishing process by putting out quick, digital books. But back to Macintyre:

Addicted to the BlackBerry, hectored and heckled by the next blog alert, web link or text message, we are in state of Continual Partial Attention, too bombarded by snippets and gobbets of information to focus on anything for very long. Microsoft researchers have found that someone distracted by an e-mail message alert takes an average of 24 minutes to return to the same level of concentration.

The internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing.

But this new method of reading is still at odds with why we read -- especially when it comes to journalism. When it comes to news, Macintyre writes, the stories that are compelling are "not the blunt shards of information, but those with narrative."

He goes on to suggest that the solution may be technology itself -- some sort of machine that "can combine the ease and speed of digital technology with the immersive pleasures of narrative." As an example, he offers Japan's keitai shosetsu, or thumb novels: books that can be uploaded to mobile screens a page at a time.

Until then, he writes:

Narrative is not dead, merely obscured by a blizzard of byte-sized information. A story, God knows, is still the most powerful way to understand. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word, in the great narrative that is the Bible, was not written as twitter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

one, two, three strikes you're out...

... of the pressbox.

As a dismal sign of the times, Murray Chass on Baseball lists the 29 newspapers (out of 60) that cover major league teams that are sitting out the World Series. Clearly, a cost-cutting measure by struggling newspapers looking to cut costs by pooling coverage. Bad idea.

A few years back, we took a tour of Fenway Park (had a hot dog atop the Green Monster, thank you very much) and were allowed into the pressbox -- tiers of computer hookups, telephones, and comfy chairs. Because there were often more sportswriters than seats, there was another room behind it for the overflow, with big screens tracking the action from several angles. Surely not the best way to cover a game, but still.

Here's Chass' list of those papers whose baseball beat guys are also watching baseball via the tube -- their own:

These are the newspapers that traveled during the season but are not covering the World Series:

Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal Orange County (Calif.) Register
Arizona Republic Palm Beach (Fla.) Post
Atlanta Journal & Constitution Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Baltimore Sun Pittsburgh Tribune Review
Cincinnati Enquirer Providence (R.I.) Journal
Cleveland Plain Dealer Sacramento (Calif.) Bee
Contra Costa (Calif.) Times St. Paul Pioneer Press
Dallas Morning News San Francisco Chronicle
Dayton Daily News San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News
Detroit Free Press Seattle Times
Detroit News South Florida Sun Sentinel
Fort Worth Star Telegram Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune
Houston Chronicle Tampa Tribune
Minneapolis Star Tribune Worcester (Mass.) Telegram.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

life follows capstone: an update

Almost three years ago, capstoner Liz Weeker wrote two investigative pieces on women Iraq War vets. In the first, for her magazine class, she wrote of the new military face of Post Traumatic Stress disorder: women.

Her capstone piece ran a lot deeper: the inability of the VA to develop programs to specifically treat these women, whose issues were often very much different than their males counterparts. What she found was that the VA had yet to catch up.

An article in today's New York Times suggests the VA still hasn't gotten it right -- not only with programs geared specifically for women, but with even recognizing the diagnosis. From the piece:

For some women with post-traumatic stress, like Angela Peacock in St. Louis, the V.A. has been a godsend. She said that the doctors who helped her detoxify from drug and alcohol addiction saved her from suicide.

Many others, however, insist that the military, the V.A. and other established veterans organizations have not fully adapted to women’s new roles. The military, they say, still treats them like wives, not warriors.

Some therapists, case workers and female patients also say that because military regulations governing women’s roles have not caught up with reality, women must work harder to prove they saw combat and get the benefits they deserve.

V.A. officials, including Ms. Duckworth, say there is no systemic bias. V.A. statistics show that as of July 2009, 5,103 female Iraq or Afghanistan veterans had received disability benefits for the stress disorder, compared with 57,732 males.

But the V.A. did not provide the number of men and women who had applied, making a comparison of rejection rates impossible.

At best, women are caught in the same bureaucratic morass as men; the backlog for disability claims from all veterans climbed to 400,000 in July, up from 253,000 six years ago. At worst, women are sometimes held to a tougher standard.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

et tu, new york times?

Jerry Seinfeld once famously quipped: "Isn't it amazing that everything that happens on a given day just fits the pages of the New York Times?"

Does that mean, in Seinfeld-speak, that come December less and less will be going on? At first fear, yeah. But a quick look at some numbers makes you think, well, maybe not.

We'll start with the backstory. According to a piece in the New York Observer last week, the gray lady is cutting 100 jobs by December 7:

It's the first time the Times has had to cut jobs since 2008, when they also cut 100 jobs. Earlier this year, reporters and editors voted to cut their salaries, in the hope that newsroom cuts could be avoided. Mr. Keller said today's decision "is happening sooner than anyone anticipated."

The paper has a newsroom of approximately 1,250 people.

Buyouts are the first option, and if they don't reach 100 volunteers, the paper will resort to layoffs.

You can read a copy of the letter editor Bill Keller sent to his staff via the link above. The Observer gets the goods.

As it did today, getting its hands on a copy of the entire 61-page buy-out package, which supplies names, numbers -- and a revealing look at the number of folks employed to put out the paper of record. Take a look:

Editors at the Book Review: 14

Reporters at Metro: 50

Size of the Opinion/Editorial Department: 49

Size of Sports Desk: 57

Critics in the Culture
Department: 18

Editors at The Times Magazine: 21

Average age of the Obituaries Desk:
58 years old

Size of Thursday Styles: 7

Size of Business Desk: 85

Size of Washington Bureau: 45

Size of the Dallas Sales/Advertising Staff: 4

Size of Week in Review: 5

Total size of Art Department: 113

Size of Dining: 5

Size of Metro: 103

Number of Pressman Journeymen at the College Point plant: 106

Newsroom layoffs and buyouts are always tragic. But 57 on the sports desk? bk

Monday, October 26, 2009

tweeting 101

Coming soon to a j-school near you: The art of the tweet. And not just for twits.

Okay, getting too cute.

Mashable reports that Australia’s Griffith University has made Twitter-Ed part of the curriculum for j-students. This is true. You gotta love this quote:

According to a senior lecturer at the University, “Some students’ tweets are not as in depth as you might like.” The solution? Make Twitter writing practice a compulsory part of the course curriculum for would-be journalists.

No depth in 140 characters? Imagine that.

According to the report, the university cooked up the class in response to employers who want hires who do social media -- and know how to tweet.

Now we've all heard that Twitter has provided up-to-the-second dispatches during disasters and important global events. But I just can't imagine a job listing that reads: Reporter: Provide resume, clips and tweets.

On the other hand, how stoked would you be if you were a j-kid and were required to write, oh, a 20-word final? bk

Friday, October 23, 2009

Copyedit this! AP Style with a side of silly

Finally. A reason for learning all those tedious AP Style rules: in-jokes. If you are on, you can catch up-to-the-minute antics from the Fake AP Stylebook folks. All of it, tongue-in-cheek.

A favorite:
While it's tempting to call them "baristi" because of the Italian roots, the plural of "barista" is "journalism majors."
HEADLINE WRITERS: Avoid adding LOL and OMG gratuitously.
This is pretty good, too:
If you start a sentence with an action, place the actor immediately after or you will anger Christian Bale.
And this:
Do not use "nonprofit" as an adjective. Use "broke."
Many of the tweets are in response to questions from fellow twits. To play, go here. bk

Monday, October 19, 2009

all the news that fits?

Interesting dish from Baynewser on the San Francisco Bay Area's new non-profit news site -- and the New York Times plan to go local in San Francisco. According to the story, though the NYT"promises that readers will get 'local stories as only The Times can report them,'" there is talk that the actual reporting may be, er, outsourced:

.. Times President and General Manager Scott Heekin-Canedy tells PaidContent that, in fact, the Gray Lady would like to find an outside organization to actually supply the content.

"Our preference is to find a local partner to produce this," Heekin-Canedy said. "This doesn't really fit within our staffing model, our staffing resources for the New York Times newsroom."

There is no confirmation that the partner will be the forementioned Bay Area News Project -- though that's the word on the street. If so, does that mean that local stories as only the Times can report them -- is reporting done by interns?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

on the other hand: consider the non-profit

By now you have clearly heard of the plan to save journalism hatched by wealthy investor F. Warren Hellman, KQED-FM, San Francsico's NPR station, and UC Berkeley's journalism school. (If not, read about it in this piece by Richard Perez-Pena in The New York Times last month.)

Funded by a $5 million grant from Hellman, the project will combine the labors of the j. school interns and KQED-FM's staff to produce the kind of Bay Area news that has begun to disappear with the shrinking of the local daily newspapers.

Innovative, yes. Especially at a time when the news industry is desperate for solutions to keep it on life support. But still: Do we really want to turn investigative news-gathering over to interns? Or will their contributions be more like the stuff we read in the free weeklies that used to sit in our driveway for days? Does KQED-FM have the staff to adequately vet their stories and supervise their work? And what kind of credibility problems could arise when the whole project is funded by one donor. Will he keep his hands off?

In the words of one of my esteemed colleagues:
It's great to see people thinking of new ways to fund news
organizations, but I'm not sure this combination offers long-term
financial stability...a wealthy investor whose wealth fluctuates with
a troubled stock market, a cash-strapped public university, and an NPR
station that has had numerous funding problems over the years despite
being in one of the country's wealthiest areas. (See the stories on
KQED's financial problems related to its headquarters.) And while
corporate owners present all kinds of accountability issues, this
combination presents a whole different set of potential accountability
In a less serious vein, but kind of not, the SF Weekly posts this somewhat snarky list of how Hellman's approach is likely to save journalism. No.5 reads as follows:

• Bank on the fact that college interns and former journalists will do anything to look important

one case for a public press

Two of the most talked about proposals for saving journalism are going not-for profit -- either supporting news orgs with philanthropic donations or with tax dollars. For each proposal, there are pros and cons, not the least of which is whether or not such support might constrain the credibility of the news-gathering process. (More on this to come.)

In this week's The Nation, William F. Baker, former president of WNET in New York, our largest PBS station, makes his case for a government-supported public media, making a comparison to Britain's BBC:

Total federal support for American public broadcast media in 2007 was about $480 million. That might seem sufficient or even impressive until you compare it with the BBC, which serves a nation with one-fifth the US population but which received the equivalent of $5.6 billion in government money in 2007. When it comes to public media, the United States is decisively outspent by the governments of most other major democracies. Japan, whose population is less than half the size of the United States', spent the equivalent of $6.8 billion for public broadcasting in 2007; Germany, with one-third the size, spent about $11 billion; and Canada, a tenth the size, spent $898 million. Even Denmark and Ireland, with populations smaller than New York City, far outspent the United States per capita, with respective budgets equivalent to $673 million and $296 million.

The amount the government now sets aside for public broadcast media is about what it costs the military to occupy Iraq for two and a half days. Taking into account the hundreds of billions lavished on the interim survival of our elite financial institutions, funding our news infrastructure won't be a hardship. Just a small fraction of the $45 billion--that's billion with a "b"--Citigroup alone has received since October 2008 would give NPR and PBS all the money they need.

Unlike the benefits that come from bailing out investment banks and insurance conglomerates, a stronger investment in public media would give all citizens a concrete and valuable service. Turn on cable TV news to find out about an event overseas, and you are likely to see a panel of well-coiffed pundits sitting in a studio in New York, Washington or Los Angeles debating what might be happening on the other side of the world. Switch to the same story on the BBC, and you are likely to see a correspondent on the ground where the event is actually taking place. The BBC's forty-one permanent foreign bureaus are more than twice the number maintained by ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS each. This isn't a difference of national character; it's simply a matter of money. For commercial TV, paying pundits is a lot cheaper than doing the real work of reporting. And for public media, chronically small budgets often make extensive original reporting too expensive, even for respected shows like NewsHour.

Interesting. bk

Monday, October 12, 2009

narrative journalism at its best

Or, why the desire to be a reporter -- even these days -- still burns brightly.

Former student Melissa Segura (SCU 2001), a reporter for Sports Illustrated, sent me a link to this recent New Yorker piece about the execution of a possibly innocent man in Texas. As she wrote in her email:

You may have already read this, but, for me, was the best story I've read in
years. Not only is the subject matter gripping, but the reporting and
structure, nearly perfect. Get comfy. It's long but worth it.

Couldn't agree more. There are so many layers to this story, all of which required a rich tapestry of detail and background. Because we come to know the characters so well, and because the writer, David Grann, did such a compelling job explaining both the science and the law, we are engaged every step of the way. bk

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Want to be a novelist? Start as a journalist.

I just came across this old post from popular fiction writer Jennifer Weiner ("Good in Bed", "In Her Shoes"), who offers 10 tips for aspiring novelists. I especially liked tip No. 4, which advises would-be writers to try the real world first:

4. Get a Job (not an MFA)

This is pretty controversial, and will most likely earn me the enmity of writing professors, students, and MFA graduates everywhere. But I think if you want to be a writer, you're probably going to be better served by going to work (or by traveling, if you've got the financial wherewithal to do so), instead of spending two years and tens of thousands of dollars getting a degree that announces to the world that you are an official, academe-sanctioned, card-carrying practitioner of fiction.

When I was finishing up with college, lo these many years ago, I had an English degree, which meant that I was qualified to do precisely nothing, except compose lovely paragraphs, and speak knowledgably about French feminist literary theory (don't laugh. I'm going to kick ass on Jeopardy! Someday. Maybe). I was lucky enough to have John McPhee as a professor, and he was generous enough to give me the best piece of advice ever - go into journalism. "You'll see a different part of the world. You'll meet all kinds of people. You'll be writing every day, on deadline" - which, of course, turned out to be invaluable when it came time to write fiction. Best of all, you'll be getting paid to write, instead of paying someone to tell you that you can.

So off I went to Central Pennsylvania, where I spent two and a half extremely instructive, occasionally frustrating, desperately underpaid years at a small newspaper called The Centre Daily Times, where I covered five local school districts, plus the occasional car crash, fire, zoning board meeting, and wild-bear-on-the-loose story. Looking back, I think I was a fair-to-middling news reporter. It just didn't interest me, the numbers in the budget stories confounded me, and I always wanted to be way more descriptive than the space, or my editors, would permit. But I was a darn good features writer, because in my years at the paper, I learned how things looked, how people talked, how people interacted with each other, how they looked when they lied (cover politics, even in the micro level, and you'll get to see plenty of that).

I'm now a convert. I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It's not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it's great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don't grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses. And writer's block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn't done yet because your Muse hasn't spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer's block is a luxury no working journalist can afford - which will help you avoid it when you're a working novelist. Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates - myself included - could use. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited - of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you've written even stronger. Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines - you'll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter's dragging and your title's ill-conceived - you'll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Your editor will adore you.

And if you can't be a journalist, or aren't inclined, or can't get hired? Go do something that's going to take you out of your comfort zone, putting you in contact with different kinds of people, perhaps in a different part of the world. Be a waitress at the snootiest boite in town, and pay attention to how your customers look, how they talk, how they tip. Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny. Just do something that takes you out into the world. If at all possible, avoid working in a bookstore, or in publishing. Remember, the point of this exercise is to take you out of your comfort zone, out of the comfortable life you've made inside your own head, out of a workplace full of people Just Like You. You're looking for challenges, for adventure, for new faces and new places. Plus, if you've followed Part Two of this plan, you're most likely single, and will want to get out of town anyhow.

"But if I got an MFA, I'd get to spend two years just concentrating on my writing!" True. But remember: a writer writes, whether or not she's in school for writing.

And I think that in the end, staying out of writing school gives you more to write about. Saves you money, too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

sometimes it's funny ...

... when people who clearly have never worked in a newsroom pontificate about journalism. In this case, specifically, a TechCrunch piece by MG Siegler, on new WaPo rules relegating tweets to the social media no-no list.

Seigler finds this laughable:

Obviously, WaPo is doing this to try and maintain what it perceives to be its journalistic integrity. That’s great. But as we’ve discussed recently, the idea that any kind of reporting lacks any kind of bias on some level is laughable. It’s fine if you want your organization to only present the facts with no opinions, but the notion that those reporters do not have their own opinions is absurd. WaPo can try to hide those opinions all they want, but they exist, regardless.
I find Siegler, well, naive. (Maybe he is confusing columnists with reporters and editors?) Sure journalists have opinions, but good ones who want to keep their jobs, not to mention their reputations, don't interject same into their reporting methods -- or final stories, unless they are validated by things called facts. That's objective journalism. Let's review: objectivity does not mean some silly kind of artificial balance. Nor does it mean neutral. And yes, point-of view journalism can be, and often is, objective journalism, so long as the news-gathering has been fair, thorough and multi-sided. In other words, the reporter (even one with opinions) went into the story willing to be proven wrong. (I could go on. Better, just plug objectivity into the search box, above.)

The twittersphere problem is that tweets can lead to the perception of bias on the part of the reader. At a time when the whole industry is on shaky ground -- and the public itself is starting to question what we do -- do we really need another reason for news-consumers to distrust the news? Ugh. bk

Sunday, September 27, 2009

journalist, defined

In a piece in the Atlantic on the ways in which political hitmen armed with keyboards and DSL lines are sometimes shaping the debate, national correspondent Mark Bowden ends with this ode to the character of the journalist:

There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy. Even an eager and ambitious political blogger like Richmond, because he is drawn to the work primarily out of political conviction, not curiosity, is less likely to experience the pleasure of finding something new, or of arriving at a completely original, unexpected insight, one that surprises even himself. He is missing out on the great fun of speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor. This is what gives reporters the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. A reporter who thinks and speaks for himself, whose preeminent goal is providing deeper understanding, aspires even in political argument to persuade, which requires at the very least being seen as fair-minded and trustworthy by those—and this is the key—who are inclined to disagree with him. The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist carries an authority that no self-branded liberal or conservative can have. “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote. Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful precisely because it does not seek power. It seeks truth. Those who forsake it to shill for a product or a candidate or a party or an ideology diminish their own power. They are missing the most joyful part of the job.

This is what H. L. Mencken was getting at when he famously described his early years as a Baltimore Sun reporter. He called it “the life of kings.”

In a more ironic vein, you also gotta love what New York Times media critic David Carr has to say about the character of a journalist in this column about a former newsman who quit the newsroom for corporate comm -- and came running back:

Journalists, for all their self-importance, are often a little naïve about the way the real world works. Sure, being a newsie is a grind, the hours are not great and the public holds us in lower esteem than the women who work the poles at Satin Dolls down the road from the Tick Tock in Lodi, but it beats working by a mile. Every day is a caper, and most reporters are attention-deprived adrenaline junkies who care only for the next story. Journalists are like cops, hugging the job close and savoring the rest of their life as they can.

The skills of finding out what is not known and rendering it in comprehensible ways has practical value in other parts of the economy, but the thrill of this thing of ours is not a moveable feast. The difference between a reporting job and other jobs is the difference between working for The Man and being The Man, a legend, at least, in your own mind.

more thoughts on j-school

The Chronicle Of Higher Education reports that applications to Journalism programs have spiked -- despite the uncertainty of the industry.

The piece also reports on the efforts of many programs to build multi-media skills, which may be an attraction to many prospective students. But the piece also addresses the problems inherent in over-emphasizing the process at the expense of journalism values, especially when rapid changes in technology might render obsolete on the job anything a student learns at school. From the piece:

Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia, says basic skills like accuracy and fairness are more important than ever at a time when inexperienced reporters are rushing to post news updates on the Web, often with little editorial oversight.

"I don't want us to lose focus on the standards of good journalism in our rush to embrace all the latest technology," says Mr. Goldman, who wrote for The New York Times for 20 years.

"I want to give students a consciousness that there's a need to be thorough and not just be first—to consider the importance of fact-checking, copy editing, spelling, and grammar, and to make sure they are armed with all those tools as they write and put things on the Web."

[Barbara B. Hines, president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication] of Howard, says journalism professors are struggling to integrate constantly changing multimedia skills into already jammed curricula without sacrificing attention to the nuts and bolts of good journalism.

If technology is overemphasized, she says, "students will be whizzes at singing and dancing and making the equipment work, but they may not understand why zoning is important in a community, or how a city council functions."

Michael J. Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, at Iowa State University, agrees.

"Many journalism schools, to please industry, started creating courses that were merely about presentation, and they forgot about content," says Mr. Bugeja, who would rather see most technological training take place on the job.

"Too often, when the technology is overemphasized in the curriculum, it gives the impression that you can do journalism sitting down in your pajamas," he says. "You can't do that."

follow the money

In case you wonder where it goes, Columbia Journalism Review's Michael Massing offers this:

While doing some recent research on the news business, I came upon this remarkable fact: Katie Couric’s annual salary is more than the entire annual budgets of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered combined. Couric’s salary comes to an estimated $15 million a year; NPR spends $6 million a year on its morning show and $5 million on its afternoon one. NPR has seventeen foreign bureaus (which costs it another $9.4 million a year); CBS has twelve. Few figures, I think, better capture the absurd financial structure of the network news.

This is not a new development, of course. It’s been unfolding since 1986, when billionaire Laurence Tisch bought CBS and eviscerated its news division in order to boost profits. (For a sharp, first-hand account of this process, see Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News, and the Danger to Us All, by former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton.) But the issue seems worth revisiting in light of the recent naming of Diane Sawyer to replace Charlie Gibson as the anchor of ABC’s World News. We don’t yet know how much Sawyer is going to be paid, but it will no doubt surpass Gibson’s current estimated salary of $8 million. Sawyer will thus be perpetuating the corrosive, top-heavy system of the network news.

What Massing finds most baffling is the fact that, with all the ink that's been spilled, pro and con, about Sawyer's ascendancy, no one seems to find any outrage in her estimated salary. And at a time when network news (dubbed by some the Metamucil Hour) grows increasingly irrelevant. bk

Monday, September 21, 2009

all about the numbers.

Good, bad, indifferent. Some quick hits:

Read here about a newspaper bailout bill now working its way through Congress. Is Obama a fan?

San Francisco Chronicle Editor-at-large Phil Bronstein goes on HuffPo to combine two words you rarely see in the same sentence: "future" and "print" and to offer his take on the above.

Finally, the bad news: journalism jobs are disappearing at three times the rate of other jobs throughout the economy, says Editor and Publisher.

But, but, but. The audience for news isn't going away. Still need people to do the jobs. We can sit and moan or we can put the thinking caps into overdrive. I vote for door number two. Ideas? bk

Friday, September 18, 2009

will all those who think journalism classes are about writing, please stand up... and then go away.

I just read this piece on Poynter by Ernest Wilson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, decrying the absence of journalism schools in the public debate on the future of news, but more importantly, castigating them for not teaching for the future.

That makes me crazy. Unless of course -- and it happens -- those who know nothing about journalism consider courses in same to be writing (Or blogging. Or video. Fill in the blank) courses. Learn how to craft a lead. Learn the inverted pyramid. Shoot good video. Make sure you spell names right. All important, sure. But only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

If that is what people consider to be journalism education, well, no wonder we aren't taken seriously. Or asked to contribute to the larger debate. And if that's what you learn -- or teach -- you've got it so wrong.

From day one, students (at least in my class, and I would hope others) learn why journalism matters, how to do it responsibly and ethically, and most important, how to look creatively toward an unknown future. These students, the ones who walk into an intro class, will be the leaders of the industry some years down the line. They are the ones who will be equipped to direct tomorrow's newsrooms. That's what journalist education is -- and should be -- about: as Mitchell Stephens once suggested, to critically question journalism and envision how to make it better.

I see that. My students see that. Doesn't anyone else? Journalism education isn't writing. Or even, truly, craft. It's about much more more.

From Wilson's piece: Several years behind the times?

Finally, our profession needs to raise its sights much higher and link our teaching and research to broad issues of media, democracy and societal changes, and eschew the self-referential, inward-looking focus that marks too many academic exercises. The leadership of journalism and communications schools must step forward with a more coherent, sweeping vision of what our profession can become, and mobilize the non-stop vitality that the current crisis demands of us. Done properly, we can help our students and the public interest. If we fail, then like much of the media industry today, journalism schools will continue a long, slow descent into less and less relevance for addressing the major issues of our time. We must rise to the task of helping save journalism, and in the process saving ourselves. The stakes couldn't be higher.
Haven't many of us already been doing this? Just ask my students, aka "the architects of the change" who early on, are tasked with coming up with a blueprint for the newsroom of the future. Many of them have come up with forward-thinking ideas that far surpass anything many of those in the field have yet to propose. Get angry. bk

Monday, September 14, 2009

we've been dissed

Badly. Really, people don't like us. At least that's the message from the latest Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Read the full reporte here.

Among the rock-bottom lows: the public's view of press accuracy has hit a two-decade low; well over half the respondents consider the news biased; and not even a quarter of the respondents consider the news to be independent of powerful influences. From the report:

Just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate. In the initial survey in this series about the news media’s performance in 1985, 55% said news stories were accurate while 34% said they were inaccurate. That percentage had fallen sharply by the late 1990s and has remained low over the last decade.

Similarly, only about a quarter (26%) now say that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased, compared with 60% who say news organizations are politically biased. And the percentages saying that news organizations are independent of powerful people and organizations (20%) or are willing to admit their mistakes (21%) now also match all-time lows.

Is this something a little bit of media literacy can cure? I have a feeling a lot of folks have a hard time distinguishing between commentary and reporting. And if they spend their news dime listening to those right-wing hooligans who bloviate on radio and TV, well, no wonder they consider the news to be biased. And in fact, among those who had the worst impression of the press itself, the majority were Fox News watchers.

Not surprising. Ever since Fox news went on the air pitching itself as "fair and balanced", a lot of people (smart enough to know that the slogan was just a clever name) assumed that every other news source tilted right or left as well, and went looking for it. And as political talk radio has proliferated, I can't help wondering if a good portion of the news audience only listens to he who preaches to the choir. Which also tends to taint your view of journalism. If, in fact, you consider that journalism.

Interestingly, runner-ups who saw bias in the news were those who got their news predominantly from the internet. Again, is it because they can't distinguish real reporting that has been vetted, that is based on objective news-gathering methods, from blogs and opinion essays? Hard to say. My definition of objective journalism is this: No horse in the race. And it has to do with methods, not whatever appears in the finished story. For a reporter -- overworked, underpaid and, see above, clearly unloved -- to purposely tank a story to fit an agenda is like some overpaid tall guy in the NBA purposely missing a layup.

All of which points to another reason why maybe media literacy should be a requisite in college, if not high school. You need to know how much work, and integrity (there, I said it) goes into producing a news story. bk

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

what it takes to cover war

In the wake of the deaths in Afghanistan of reporter Sultan Munadi and a British paratrooper sent to rescue him, NYTimes war correspondent John Burns writes about reporting from a war zone: what it takes to do it right, and why newspeople make the choices that they do -- often in the face of sharp criticism, as in this case, from their readers. And no, it's not about selling papers. It never is.

... The New York Times, and other major news organizations, have no choice about covering these wars, and covering them comprehensively, if we are to be true to our tradition; with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers committed to battle over the course of the wars, more than 5,000 servicemen and women already dead, and closing in on a trillion dollars of American taxpayers’ money spent, how credible would be our claim to be one of America’s leading newspapers if we absented ourselves?

In fact, we have done the opposite, spending large sums of money, at a time of severely straitened finances for all newspapers in America, to cover the wars as fully as any publication. And a large part of doing that has been taking every reasonable precaution to protect our correspondents, photographers and local staff. Until recently, the larger risks were in Iraq, where we built what amounted to a fort for ourselves in Baghdad, with blast walls and gun towers (happily never used), armored cars, and our own guard force to protect us within the walls and beyond them. As the war in Afghanistan has worsened, we have turned our attention to improving our security there, too.

But just as we have to cover these wars, we have to go out of our compounds to experience the conflict at first hand if our reporting is not to quickly descend into “hotel journalism.” Some of that, indeed much of it, has been done on embeds, where our protection comes from the military units we cover. But an essential part, too, comes from going in search of the war that embeds don’t reach – the “other side” of the war, often enough; the war as it is experienced by ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, the civilians who have done most of the dying. That was what Stephen Farrell was doing when he and Sultan set out on Saturday for the site of the fuel-tanker bombing south of Kunduz. Claims by local people put the number of civilians killed by an American F-15 Eagle bombing strike at 80 to 90, making it, if those figures were true, one of the most tragic incidents of its kind in the war. Getting to the site – to the site of any such incident –- is all the more important for the fact that rumor and ill will – and the general “fog of war” –- have played so large a part in obscuring the truth in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And then there’s the other inevitability, the one that led to the death of Sultan. The Times has some New York-based reporters who speak Arabic; to my knowledge, none who are conversant in Dari and Pashtun, the two principal languages of Afghanistan. If we are to tell the story of the wars, we have to engage local staff who can accompany us as interpreters and drivers, and who can “scope out” the landscape, political, geographic and cultural, to help us fix the context of what we see and hear. That’s not an option, it’s a necessity, and one that is common to all major news organizations at war...

Look! Here's Jeremy...

Check it: As we speak, Jeremy's piece on "Six Ways Obama Can Take Charge on Health Care" tops's home page.

And here's word from another former student, posing a good question via my inbox:
Not sure if this is worth a discussion in comm 40 or not, but these reader comments are really out of control on our Web site. (And others' sites.) Take, for example, our story on the New York Times reporter being freed in Afghanistan:

One of the "most-recommended" posts, determined by readers, was:
"100 reporters aren't worth the life of one brave soldier."

Sickening. Maybe 100 reporters covering the awful conditions at Walter Reed? Of course, there were the typical "I hate NYT" tripe. I'm sure none of them has read the paper, though. Is this a sign of our citizenry becoming more militaristic/fascist, less educated, or maybe both?
Or is it just another sign that the ease of the internet has given everyone -- especially the ranters -- a soapbox? When it comes to the internet, we have no choice but to take the good with the bad. It's just more work wading through.

I am reminded of a quote by writer Alberto Manguel, who once said, "A library that has everything becomes a library that has anything."

Friday, September 4, 2009

First thing we do, we kill all the aggregators

Mark Cuban has another idea to save newspaper, reports's Daniel Lyons: Kill the aggregators.

Most blogs (like this one) thrive by poaching someone else's work, linking to it, then riffing on it -- at no cost to either blogger or reader. (See, I'm doing it now.) Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks and co-founder of HDNet, has a simple idea to stop the pilferage and drive readers back to the original source: Block the links. From Lyons' story:

Cuban's advice: declare war on the "aggregator" Web sites that get a free ride on content. These aggregators—sites like Drudge Report, Newser, and countless others—don't create much original material. They mostly just synopsize stuff from mainstream newspapers and magazines, and provide a link to the original.

Think about this for a minute. The aggregators and the old-media guys are competing for the same advertising dollars. But the aggregators compete using content that the old-media guys create and give to them at no cost. This is insane, right? It's like fighting a war and supplying the enemy with guns and bullets.

But this, we are told, is how the Internet must operate—it's the spirit of the Web, where everything is freely shared. Cuban says that's hogwash. He says the media companies should kill off these parasites by using a little piece of software that blocks incoming links from aggregators. If the aggregators can't link to other people's stories, they die. With a few lines of code, the old-media guys could snuff them out.

Of course, the block only works if every outlet agrees to do it. And it seems to me that such collusion could play fast and loose with the first amendment. But he had another idea for saving journalism -- saving journalism being synonymous with journalists making money. Read about it here, a simple plan to turn the newspaper's site into a supermarket where you can buy anything from DVDs to flowers to special reports, deliverd to your desktop or your doorstep. That plan, it just could work.

Of course, there's another way to put aggregators out of action, but they have to do it to themselves. Simply load up the site with lots of moving junk: ads, pop-ups, slides, videos. All of which can lead to a prolonged and ugly date with the spinning beachball -- and web-rage, too.

Oh wait. That's just me. bk

Thursday, September 3, 2009

laura ling and euna lee ...

.. explain what they were doing in Northeastern China, and how they came to be arrested and imprisoned in North Korea in this L.A. Times op-ed. In the piece, they write about the story they were covering -- the plight of North Koreans who defect to China -- and in the process, provide a little insight into why journalists take risks.

It's about the story. From their piece:

Our motivations for covering this story were many. First and foremost, we believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored. One of us, Euna, is a devout Christian whose faith infused her interest in the story. The other, Laura, has reported on the exploitation of women around the world for years. We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The difference is in the writing...

A good analysis of the difference between paper and screen, especially when it comes to magazine-style journalism, by Josh Tyrangiel, Managing Editor of The reporting may stay the same, but the writing goes shorter and quicker -- think inverted pyramid -- and long form won't fly. bk

what we lose. again.

While I was gone, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that more layoffs are imminent.

This past spring, the paper deleted about 150 jobs, citing weekly losses of $1 million. Apparently, not enough. From the story:

The Guild said the Chronicle's management may be willing to tolerate "some" additional losses, but that "the company clearly intends to reduce the gap to as close to break-even as possible during the fourth quarter."

Guild officials said they were told that the continuing decline in revenue is "worse than expected, mostly because of the weak economy and ongoing problems of the news industry," according to management. The Great Recession aside, newspapers have been suffering in recent years, as classified and other advertising shifts to the Internet, to other sites or at much lower prices, and as many younger consumers appear to have lost the newspaper-reading habit.

Guild representatives in Friday's discussions included Michael Cabanatuan, Gloria La Riva, Carl Hall and Doug Cuthbertson, according to the Guild, while Calvin Siemer, Annette Vedanayagam and Suzy Cain represented management.

Hall confirmed to the Business Times via email that the union expects additional job cuts, "hardly a scenario that gives our members confidence that our sacrifices earlier this year are paying off." He said the Guild understands how tough times are, but that staffers at the Chronicle and other dailies wonder how many more jobs can be eliminated "before nothing is left" and newsrooms are wrecked beyond repair.

For a refresher on what we lose if the Chron goes under, go here. A better-than-average rant, if I say so myself. bk

newspapers. journalism. not synonymous

The results of an Associated Press Managing Editors report shows that those newspaper reporters most likely to be shown the door are between the ages of 18 and 35.

Many reasons for this, including union rules that, when layoffs are necessary, mandate that last ones hired are first ones fired. The irony, though, is that the young guns not only pocket lower salaries -- which helps the bottom line -- but also are more cyber-savvy, which is crucial for an industry that not only has no choice but to figure out how to migrate from paper to ether -- but also needs to engage a new generation of readers. And yet.

From the story:

Retaining younger workers may be more important than ever as the Internet reshapes the way stories and photographs are assembled and presented. While many older journalists are adapting, the adjustment presumably isn't as difficult for younger workers who have grown up with the Internet and may have honed their digital skills in college. Having the viewpoints of younger workers also helps newspapers identify trends and issues affecting younger generations.

What's troubling, though, is that even the venerable AP still thinks of journalism in terms of newspapers:

With less money coming into newspapers, a large number of employees are seeking better opportunities in other industries that offer more job security, according to the survey.

"Newspapers have lost of lot of their mojo," [newspaper analyst Ken] Doctor said. "If you are 25 or 35 (years old), you are going to be part of an industry that is going to thrive in the future. That is not the way newspapers are perceived right now, rightly or wrongly."

Maybe one problem is that the old guard still thinks of journalism in terms of product, rather than process. Seems to me, if we want good reporting to survive, we need to keep the so-called youngsters, the architects of the change, on board. And, probably, replace the word "newspaper" with "journalism." The former may be dying, but that doesn't mean the latter should as well. bk

Monday, August 31, 2009

what J-School can't teach...

.. family connections. You know where this is going.

Former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager has just been hired by NBC's Today Show to be a regular education correspondent, HuffPo (and others) reports.

Among her qualifications, says Executive Producer Jim Bell: her communication skills.

She "just sort of popped to us as a natural presence, comfortable" on the air, Bell said. Hager will work out of NBC's Washington bureau.

"I think she can handle it," he said. "I think she knows something about pressure and being under some scrutiny. When she came here for a handful of appearances, she knocked it out of the park."

He expects her first story, most likely concerning education, to be on sometime next month.

A first television job on "Today" is, in her father's world, sort of like a run for president as a first attempt at elective office. Hager said that people on the show "have always made me, whenever I've been there, feel very comfortable."

Not to be a party-pooper, but I can't help wondering where she learned how to report. Or isn't that necessary anymore? As Salon's Glenn Greenwald suggests, at a time when actual journalists are losing jobs right and left, this new hire may be just the latest sign of the American public's hunger for royalty. That's something J-schools just can't teach. bk

Friday, August 28, 2009

jlinx: back in action

Just back from the Sun Valley Writer's Conference. More later.

In the meantime, came across this quote from Anna Quindlen on Today's Word on Journalism:
“Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description.”

A reader had written to Utah Journalism Prof Ted Pease, who runs the blog, asking what the quote meant. Pease threw the question out to his readers, who responded here.

Among the best:
It’s a diagnosis like schizophrenia or Swine Flu. If you’re a reporter, it’s just in your blood… --Amy
Quindlen intended to say, I believe, that journalism is an affliction, and its practitioners are addicted to it. If so, I would disagree with her in one respect: Journalists are many, but not all are afflicted. Only the good ons are. -- Hugh

Sunday, August 16, 2009

going ordinary: what we lose

Some time back, I read a piece in The Nation by Scott Sherman about how the Wall Street Journal had changed with its new ownership under Rupert Murdoch. Not surprisingly, the editorial perspectives of the two publications could be described as polar opposites.

And yet, Sherman has a keen appreciation for ways in which the Journal excelled:

At its best, in an epoch that future historians will view as a "golden age" for US newspapers, the Journal's front page excelled at various forms: explanatory reporting on politics, economics, science and social trends; deeply researched profiles of companies and executives; and investigative reporting. The Journal pursued General Motors, Mobil Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Texas Instruments, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Apple and hundreds of other corporations, which inspired Ralph Nader to proclaim that, aside from its "Pleistocene" editorial page, the Journal was "the most effective muckraking daily paper in the country.... the main reporter in our country of corporate crime." (Nader's words prompted Robert Sherrill to read an entire year of the Journal's corporate crime coverage for a Nation cover story in 1997.)

Finally, there was a remarkable tradition of immersion journalism: Alex Kotlowitz spent twelve weeks with a teenage boy and his family in the Henry Horner housing project in Chicago; Judith Valente lived for two months, around the clock, with a family whose son was wasting away from AIDS; Tony Horwitz took a job at a poultry plant in Mississippi to document the brutal conditions inside. This is not to say that Page 1 was flawless or that the Kotlowitz-type narratives were dominant. But they were never absent from the medley, and staffers clearly recall the words of former managing editor Paul Steiger, who led the paper from 1991 to 2007: "Go find stories with moral force."

What Sherman laments is that the paper, under Murdoch, has become ordinary. As have so many newspapers -- many of them ordinary to begin with -- which have jettisoned all vestiges of distinguished journalism in the interests, perhaps necessarily, of the bottom line. As reporters scramble to do more with less, pages shrink, and online readers refuse to click past a screen-and-a-half, what we lose is narrative journalism, solid enterprise reporting, and features that allow a writer's voice to peep through.

Even some alt-weeklies, at the expense of losing readers, are jettisoning popular columnists with both a voice and a following in favor of generic junk -- written by ad reps, underpaid assistants or even readers.

I was reminded of all this last week when I listened to Daily Beast Editor Tina Brown discussing Gay Talese with NPR's Steve Inskeep. In discussing a recent interview with Talese in The Paris Review, she mourns the scarcity of narrative journalism in today's media, and mentions what Talese brought to the table: an obsessive curiosity along with an obsession with getting it right -- during a moment in time in journalism when writing was savored.

Talese, she said, never wanted to be a page one writer because then,he said, you have to stick with the news. He wanted to dominate the story, and, like all good narrative journalism, found the truth in the details. bk