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.