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