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

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"if your mama calls you sonny, check it out.."

Gordon Young tackles the difference between reporting and blogging on his, well, blog, Flint Expatriates today. His post covers the difficulty when reporters are told by the bosses that they have to blog as well. That's what's happening at the Flint Journal.

It's more than an issue of a reporter wearing two hats. When reporters also blog, there's often a line being crossed, one that's sure to confuse the reader -- and possibly erode the credibility of the news itself. And the blogs themselves? Not very fun. From Young's post:

Reporters are trained to be objective and scrupulously keep their personal bias out of a story. There's an old journalism adage that if your mama tells you she loves you, back it up with another source. The best bloggers blend facts with opinion. They are passionate about a subject and that comes through in their posts. They frequently use the hard work of real reporters as fodder for their riffs and digressions on a subject. At times, they can act as unofficial ombudsmen for newspapers, calling them to task for mistakes. At other times, bloggers can come off as wacky cranks — fun to read but not exactly reliable.

As you can imagine, it's hard for a reporter to play both roles at the same time. In many ways, the role of blogger and reporter are mutually contradictory, although good bloggers do some reporting of their own.

Young also lists some suggestions for newspaper bosses: ways to provide varied forms of content, while still keeping the lines clear.

All in all a good post. But here comes the riff, which is what bloggers -- as opposed to reporters -- do. I disagree to a certain extent with the implied definitions of "objectivity" and keeping personal bias out of news story. Yes, when we're reporting we need to keep personal opinions out, especially the ones we started with. But once the reporting has been done, reporters can't help vetting all the information they've gathered and ultimately having an opinion of their own.

I think that when it comes to reporting, the METHODS should be objective, in that you report the story with eyes open, from every possibly side. But, once you've done that, if you're a good reporter, the story itself most likely will -- and should -- have a point of view. I see that as objective journalism. But by the old (and let's hope, outdated) definition, it's not.

My definition of journalistic objectivity: no horse in the race.

Monday, August 10, 2009

quick hit: up from the ashes?

Interesting news out of Seattle, proving that once again, the reports of journalism's death in general, and newspapers in particular, may have been greatly exaggerated.

The New York Times reports that, since the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle's remaining daily newspaper has begun to turn a profit. When the PI went out of business, many of the subscribers just re-upped with the Times.

Meanwhile, several of the online news site that have sprung up since the PI closed up shop, are doing well.

From the story:
... But The Times has improved its prospects by picking up most P-I subscribers and managing to keep them so far. It says its daily circulation rose more than 30 percent, to more than 260,000 in June, from about 200,000.

Oddly enough, what remains of The P-I is also faring better than expected. The Hearst Corporation kept the paper’s Web site alive as a news operation with a small staff, heavily reliant on more than 200 unpaid bloggers who write on things as diverse as their neighborhoods, cooking and marathon running.

Industry analysts called it a long-shot experiment, but has kept most of the reader traffic it had as a newspaper site. Hearst will not say whether it makes money, but it says that audience and revenue are ahead of projection.

SeattlePI’s news staff of 20 people, down from The P-I’s 165, covers only a few subjects closely, like crime, the aerospace industry and transportation, while offering links to news on other sites. Michelle Nicolosi, the executive producer, said the site, rather than resembling a traditional news organization, “is trying to be Seattle’s home page.”

Other news sites populated by former P-I staff members have also cropped up, expanding Seattle’s already-vibrant range of alternative news choices, and turning the city into something of an online news laboratory.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Whether or not you have been following the great MSNBC-FoxNews-GE (and now, the New York Times' Brian Stelter) Feud, there's one question that should give us all the uh-oh feeling. It's not about what Keith Olberman calls Bill O'Reilly -- or vice versa.

The real question: what is a corporate sponsor doing interfering with the journalism -- whether news or opinion -- that plays on any given station in the first place. Well, okay. The sponsor's job is to make money. That's what they are doing when they lean on one side or the other. Nothing prevents them from pushing their edge. But. Why would journalists listen? Or be expected to fall into line?

And why aren't the rest of us pissed off? Clearly, journalism ethics are involved here. And,as for the corporate sponsor, if you are making money off of journalism, well, like toothpaste -- don't you want it to be a credible product?

Background, among other places, here, here and here. bk

Monday, August 3, 2009

Facebook Journalism

Mashable has a great post today on using Facebook as a reporting tool, something capstone kids discovered a couple years back. Go here for some practical tips from Leah Betancourt on finding story ideas, finding sources, and testing out questions.

You'll also find food for thought on two crucials: ethics and verification. bk

Let the specialists do it.

More on the future of journalism from TechCrunch, in response to Michael Arrington's "what if", which involved the top tier reporters and editors from the NYT walking ... and starting their own news org.

In his rejoinder, Paul Carr riffs on a junket to the beach, a god-knows-why juice cleanse, and most specifically, the future of journalism. While he concedes that " life-casting and unpaid blogging most certainly isn’t it," he writes that "the days of the profitable generalist news-gatherer are dying, but the days of solid reporting and a strong, trusted editorial voice must never be allowed to perish."

Carr thinks Arrington's "what if" can't work:
It’s a nice idea, but one that overlooks the fact that a superstar hack takes days - or weeks - of legwork to get to the bottom of a single story. Without content from workaday photographers or wire-feed-re-writers, the New New York Times would be three pages long and published weekly. Good journalism is a slow, labour-intensive business. And what about unglamourous local stories?

He sees the future of journalism in aggregation, in something more like, well, TechCrunch:

Because while TechCrunch might be ‘just’ a blog it’s also, as I’ve discovered in the past few weeks, a hell of a professional journalistic machine. Whatever the cynics might think, it’s a place where sources are built up, facts are checked, lawyers are employed and writers are encouraged to go out and get the real story behind the story. It’s also on something of a hiring spree at the moment - looking out at traditional media and cherry picking those (ahem) who it thinks can bring more value to the brand...

Right across the Internet there are countless other sites that employ the same standards for other niches - from music (Pitchfork) to politics (FiveThirtyEight) to farming (I have no idea) - each of which can afford to dedicate more time to their very specific field of expertise than the New York Times could, even if it doubled its staff.

And so if I were the New York Times, I’d realise that in the face of such solid niche competition, my days as a news-gatherer were over. I’d lay off all of my journalists, shut down the presses ... close the doors and thank God for giving me such a good innings. Then the next day I’d round up maybe 20 or 30 of my best editors and I’d launch a brand new site. A site... which would use those skilled human editors to aggregate the best specialist reporting from around the web into one all-encompassing news source.

His take on blogging, tho somewhat beside the point, is also intriguing:

There’s a horribly pompous misconception amongst bloggers that they are somehow ‘taking on the mainstream media’. “Those old losers just don’t get it!” they cry. “We bloggers are on the scene first, asking tough questions before the mainstream media have even put their shoes on”...

When it comes to a certain type of highly visible breaking news, no-one can argue that social media kicks the mainstream media’s ass. At any given disaster, there’s possibly a 0.01% chance that a professional journalist or photographer will already be on the scene, compared to 100% odds that there’ll be some dude with a camera-phone there. And as for asking tough questions: yep, bloggers are pretty good at that too...

And yet... after camera phone dude helps us establish that the plane has crashed, who can we trust to tell us why it happened? While bloggers can own the first five minutes of any breaking story - a plane crash, a fire, a burglary - it’s always going to be the professional reporters who own the next five days, or five weeks...

Meanwhile, looks like he hated the cleanse. bk

Saturday, August 1, 2009

To J School or Not to J-School

That's the question that Michael P. Ventura, writing for the Village Voice, attempts to answer, via convos with Columbia's newest crop of j-school grads. If you're weighing the options, read his story here.

Still undecided? Go here. bk

The New New York Times according to TechCrunch

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has a vision of the financial future of journalism that involves the top writers and editors of the current NYT... walking. Read his 'what if" here.

He also includes some intriguing info re Politico, which is making money by offering a print edition of its online site, and AOL, which is silently building a newsroom on the cheap:

A couple of weeks ago I met the Politico guys just before they taped their Charlie Rose segment. I watched them live from the green room at the show, and read Michael Wolff’s excellent Vanity Fair article on the young company. Their news room is 100 strong and they have more people in the White House Bureau than any other brand. They have roughly the same traffic as we do - 7 million monthly visitors - but they’ve been around just half the time. How did they do it? The site was founded by well known political journalists who bailed to start their own company. They took their personal brands and credentials with them, and the readers followed. Today they are profitable - largely because they launched a three-day-a-week print version of the site. Amazing. Print isn’t dead (yet). Just the overhead is.

And earlier today I got a glimpse at what AOL is up to - they are hiring all the journalists being fired and laid off by the newspapers and magazines. And they now have a news room 1,500 journalists and editors strong. Amazingly, failing old media is throwing away their most valuable assets. And AOL is eagerly picking those assets up for a song. Before anyone knows it, AOL may be the most powerful news outlet in the world.

Journalists still matter. A lot. Especially the good ones.

i think i can, i think i can...

Who says investigative reporting is dead? Or is solely the province of dinosaurs? Go here to read what 25-year-old Michael Schmidt -- he's been a reporter for two years for the New York Times, where he paid his dues as a news clerk and an intern:

In June, he broke the story that slugger Sammy Sosa was on the infamous list of 100 baseball players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.

Today, he added two more names -- Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz -- to the list in a bombshell story that already has Boston Red Sox beat writers talking.

Moral of the story, at least for Schmidt: you can. bk