Monthly Archives: February 2009

Weekend Video Jam: Loose Walk

The saxophonist Dexter Gordon, born 86 years ago on Friday, was one of the first big booming voices of the bebop age and a pretty big fella himself at 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Gordon played in Duke Ellington’s band in the early 1940s and then for Billy Eckstine before falling in with bop crowd that included Charlie Parker and Lester Young. He also was an influence on John Coltrane.

An expatriate in Paris and Cophenhagen for 15 years, Gordon also led his own quartet and returned to the U.S. for the last 15 years of his life. He died at the age of 67 in 1990.

Here he leads a live version of Loose Walk, a Sonny Stitt number. While the visual quality is a bit soft, the sound is the distinct, clear hard bop that exemplified Gordon’s long career:

‘Anybody left with the heart of a journalist?’

While many of the now-displaced staffers of the Rocky Mountain News ruminated fondly about their experiences over the years, I found it interesting that two sportswriters were among the few offering openly bitter critiques about the demise of the Denver paper, which published its final print edition and stopped updating its website on Friday.

Sports columnist Dave Krieger, among the handful of fortunate Rocky staffers to be hired by the Denver Post, hurled some heavy unbridled invective at Scripps Co. executives in a final salvo rounded up by the Columbia Journalism Review:

“Honestly? The corporate suits come in and cry their crocodile tears, then whiz on home to continue collecting their seven-figure salaries, pleased to have rid their shareholders of the albatross that was a helluva newspaper. Scripps is in the best financial shape of any newspaper company in America, save the Washington Post Co. Dean Singleton, who survives in Denver, is in far worse financial shape, in much deeper debt, but he fought for the market and Scripps didn’t. Scripps turns tail and runs because it is as committed to the public service of journalism as teenagers to this spring’s fashions. It has learned it can make more money in niche cable television channels. It has every right to make that call. It’s a free country. But the question is whether everybody left in the journalism business is simply in it to make a buck. Certainly, for a while there, it was a really good buck.

“Gannett taught everyone how to make margins that were out of sight. But now that it’s a struggle, is there anybody left with the heart of a journalist? Or are they all just profiteers, happy to move on to more profitable schemes when the going gets tough? Journalism has a constitutionally protected role in our Republic. We need people in charge of it who are more than profiteers. Yes, I know. Times are tough. The old model doesn’t work. I get all that. Nevertheless. We need publishers with vision and conviction and courage and it’s beginning to look like all we have are profiteers born on third base.”

Denver Broncos beat writer Jeff Legwold said the company “quit on us; they quit on everyone in the newsroom.” Both he and his wife, a Rocky reporter (pictured below in a video centerpiece featured on the last homepage of the Rocky Web site), are now out of work, along with more than 200 newsroom employees.

picture-11

With the Seattle Post-Intelligencer teetering on the brink of a similar fate there’s been plenty of “future of journalism” discussion in that region. Like Denver, Seattle is one of few remaining two-newspaper cities in America and both have been operating under Joint Operating Agreements that are artifacts of a pre-Web news economy. The Denver Post  and the Seattle Times aren’t in great shape, either. Major metropolitan dailies everywhere have been taking the biggest hits in the last few years as newspaper revenues and circulation have plummeted.

I can understand Krieger’s rage because so many of us who’ve worked for newspapers have been learning how long the industry has been in decline, and how belatedly it has come to the Web. I’m happy he’s still got some job security in that business, and that he’s not having to scramble to pay the bills like so many of his former Rocky colleagues.

But as one paper has closed and others are certain to follow, it should be fairly obvious that it’s imperative to think differently about what it means to be a journalist in this age. Having the heart of a journalist is fine and necessary, and those instincts and values should not be scuttled in a rapidly changing media environment. But we also need to have a better practical head to grapple with the future of our profession.

It’s easy to launch a tirade at heartless corporate media executives and accuse them of not caring about the journalistic product. But journalists, whether they work in newsrooms or not, need to get real about the business that they’re in, and get on top of how it’s changing.

For starters, it’s time to get rid of the aversion we’ve long had to the business side of a news operation. This is a notion that died hard for me — I frequently snorted that the ad people should sell the ads, and we’ll write the stories, and that’s just fine by me. After making my online migration four years ago, I saw clearly that this attitude can no longer prevail.

Former Seattle-area newspaper journalist Mark Briggs, now a new media entrepreneur, advocates that journalists tear down the news-business wall in remaking their careers and the work they do:

“Smart, ethical professionals with good values practicing serious journalism can build trust with an audience just like monolithic corporate news companies did.

“The wall isn’t what matters. It’s the work that makes the difference.”

While I’m shaking off this bug . . .

. . . help yourself to some more sober, somber and hopeful links about the newspaper business and the media industries.

There’s no way to sugar-coat the latest news about the news even as I try to remain upbeat about journalists reinventing their careers.

The San Francisco Chronicle could be history. Far too many old media types remain clueless about Web journalism. And the debate over paid online journalism content rambles on.

Media historian Paul Starr bids adieu to the Age of Newsapers and fears an era of corruption will result.

It’s a long, mournful piece, although not quite as much s Gary Kamiya’s that I blogged about on Monday, but I haven’t had time to absorb it all with this very bad cold that’s growing worse.

On the more hopeful spectrum, Mark Cuban offers his thoughts on how the cable and satellite industries can save newspapers. At the We Media conference underway in Miami, here’s a bold assertion that creative destruction needs to shake us out of our institutional doldrums.

Longtime Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports columnist Art Thiel ponders his future as his newspaper is facing closure, and manages to inject some humor into an otherwise rotten subject:

“I think I could be a pretty good pool boy for a wealthy widow.”

Off to get some chicken noodle soup and some rest . . .

Kvetch of the Week: The death rattle that lives on

I was so busy last week continuing to build a sports journalism site, making a freelance deadline for another publication devoted to sports journalism and meeting with fellow journalists involved in an online news startup that I missed one very big development:

The news is dying.

Most shockingly, the news was given its fatal prognosis by a Web journalist.

Damn! And I’m just getting started! What about the long list of journalism-related things I’ve got to do this week? Should I just forget about that and check into a hospice?

Gary Kamiya, the executive editor of Salon.com, one of the first sites to produce serious online-only journalism unleashed a long, tortured essay last week that’s the latest winner of the Kvetch of the Week sweepstakes:

“If newspapers die, so does reporting. That’s because the majority of reporting originates at newspapers. Online journalism is essentially parasitic. Like most TV news, it derives or follows up on stories that first appeared in print.

“There’s no reason to believe this is going to change. Currently there is no business model that makes online reporting financially viable. From a business perspective, reporting is a loser. There are good financial reasons why the biggest content-driven Web business success story of the last few years, the Huffington Post, does very little original reporting. Reported pieces take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, require specialized skills and don’t usually generate as much traffic as an Op-Ed screed, preferably by a celebrity. It takes a facile writer an hour to write an 800-word rant. Very seldom can the best daily reporters and editors produce copy that fast.”

I don’t dismiss lightly the perspective of someone who’s been doing online journalism for quite a while, and I too miss what newspapers have been because I worked for them for 25 years.

But neither do I have the urge to lament what’s passing on.

On Sunday Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns the Inquirer and Daily News, both of which employ (for now) people I know, was the latest newspaper company to file for bankruptcy protection. There will be more.

And I’m awfully sorry about that. I’m also concerned about developments at my former paper, where there’s a new publisher who penned an open letter to readers over the weekend spelling out further consolidations in print sections and more.

There are no guarantees that online news will ever be profitable and that journalists like me will be able to make a decent living working on the Web. It’s discouraging at times as I am confronted with this reality. But to raise a white flag now is ludicrous.

And so is the inclination to cling to sentimental notions of the way things were mainly out of fear for the future:

“With all their flaws, traditional media institutions served as unifying forces in society. No one wants to go back to the days of network TV or the old Time magazine, when the media served as a quasi-official info-nanny telling citizens what to think. But a society without any shared sources of trusted information will be in danger of fragmenting. The old media acted as an institutional check on individual passions and prejudices. It served a Lockean function, upholding the social contract. The new world could be a Hobbesian one, a war of all against all.”

For quite a while there is going to be a media identity crisis, and there is going to be constant haggling over how to pay for the news, and there will be those who say that the funding issue misses the point.

Some weary over the arguing, but I believe it’s a good thing. It confirms that the news ain’t dead yet. Indeed, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

More signs of hope amid the chaos in journalism

Call me a member of a cult of insane optimists, but I’m constantly encouraged by what displaced journalists are thinking about and doing to recast themselves in their profession. And I’m hopeful about the opportunities that await for the most resourceful journalists even in a terrible economy that’s growing worse.

Every week more and more examples come to light, so I’d like to round up a few new ones here that keep me inspired to forge ahead:

• A laid-off editor at Atlanta’s Creative Loafing stood in the unemployment line and got a stirring reminder of a story that journalists have been ignoring for far too long:

“But the threat of layoffs might be scary enough to get the media finally to take seriously the kinds of questions that have dogged American families for decades.

“Why, for example, why does Georgia’s unemployment insurance top off at $330 a week — one of the lowest rates in the nation? Where’s the safety net for those of us whose lives are turned upside down when companies toss aside loyal employees in a desperate response to new technology or changing markets? Wouldn’t we all be better off if workers whose skills needed upgrading got generous help with training? And, for heaven’s sake, why is my ability to get health care insurance held hostage by my employment status?”

That editor, Ken Edelstein, also believes that “Web-based journalism could leave citizens better informed than ever.”

• A veteran Philadelphia newsman is at the helm of two-year-old startup that recently was named one of the best sites in the country devoted to urban design and planning issues:

“In two years, PlanPhilly, the pipsqueak on a shoestring budget, has hijacked the city’s hottest beat. Thank goodness someone has.”

Note the story’s headline: “Once and Future Journalism.” That really sums it up well, doesn’t it?

• Deb Halpern Winger at the excellent Advancing the Story blog hears Scripps TV digital director Chip Mahaney talk about the very tough job market for journalists and the skills they need but also the possibilities they can create for themselves:

“The bad news is, few people have figured out a sustainable business model for online journalism. But that’s also the good news. There’s ample opportunity to try. The Internet has knocked over almost all the barriers to creating a journalism business. You no longer need a printing press or a broadcast tower. What kind of news coverage do people want, and how can you convince people that this coverage is worthy of their support?

It’s not the tools, but how you use them

When I first made the switch from print reporter to Web producer, I never thought I’d acquire the initial technical skills that seemed so daunting.

That first month on the Web felt like purgatory, indeed the ninth circle. I was convinced I was not put on this earth to do HTML coding or understand the bizarre quirks of a non-user-friendly content management system (aren’t they all?). Was I just another “printie” sent to the Web side to die?

When I finally licked the essentials of posting stories, blogs, photos and other content, Webworld had another surprise in store. My steep learning curve had only just begun.

Nikki Usher of the Online Journalism Review writes that the most valuable skill set goes far beyond mastering the toolbox:

“It’s not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it’s whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.”

Not every journalist is going to be great at all the multimedia bells and whistles they may learn. I can vouch for that. She mentions the “Standing Up for Journalism” pilot I attended at the Poynter Institute in November where I learned audio and video skills that I found especially valuable. I haven’t managed to place my pinkie in the lens of a video camera yet, but give me some time!

But I know what my Web strengths are. After my initial freshman hazing period, I got to be very good at understanding what journalism works best on the Web and how the tools and the Web itself have altered the nature of that journalism. Most importantly, I was able to use my new expertise to help translate these concepts to other print-oriented journalists grappling with a formidable new way of thinking about their work.

Not only did this breakthrough re-energize me, but it prepared me for the substantive work of being an online journalist. Usher again:

“Multimedia training doesn’t need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, “not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution.”

“Journalists don’t have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.

“The truth is that most skills boot camps don’t turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.

“But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.”

You must get skills you don’t have. University of Florida professor Mindy McAdams has begun a series on multimedia proficiency for reporters that I think is ideal for any journalist new to the subject. Here’s her introductory post.  There are plenty of easy how-to tips on audio and video as well as starting a blog that she details in 101 format.

Here’s a helpful introduction to Web services by Shawn Smith at New Media Bytes that reporters would be wise to get acquainted with. I would add all journalists can benefit.

And if you’re as intimidated by all this Web stuff as I once was, the folks over at the Old Media, New Tricks blog are very good at explaining it in language you can understand.

Gina Chen of the Save the Media blog writes passionately about the need for journalists to embrace new media. It starts with the tools, of course, but there’s so much more to learn from there.

I learn from these sites, and many others, every day. I’ve listed some in my blogroll under “Online-J Tips.” The sooner you start playing around with the tools, the sooner you will gain the understanding and insight needed to do good journalism on the Web.