Monthly Archives: March 2009

Kvetch of the Week: All hail the grim reapers

Naming this week’s winner was especially tough, given the plethora of candidates on either side of the old media vs. new media tug-of-war that competes for the emotions of journalists in transition or those who are soon to be in new career mode.

The pro-print cranks are back with a vengeance, clinging even more desperately to their ink-stained view of the world. Or proclaiming that the fate of democracy hangs in the balance.

So are those who think the print cranks are sentimental saps who have no one to blame but the people who’ve led their industry off the cliff. And who haven’t done democracy any great favors lately.

While I’m firmly in the new media corner, some of the poobahs of the movement have sounded even more utopian as the labored breathing of the printed press grows worse. Some lofty and worthy ideas are occasionally undermined by hyperbole and self-importance.

A friend’s first impressions of reading “What Would Google Do?” nails this perfectly, and she’s not from the world of journalism or new media: “The author is wonderfully impressed with himself.”

Fortunately, we have a nice little (and rare) piece of satire on this subject from Paul Dailing of the Huffington Post, who has decided to be a “Death of Newspapers” blogger. Unlike Dan Kennedy, I don’t think this treatment is unfair at all. If good journalists are supposed to question grand pronouncements from politicians and other public figures, then they also ought to scrutinize the visionaries who have positioned themselves as the gurus of a rapidly transforming profession.

Like any good satire, Dailing’s little ditty contains some serious shots that haven’t resulted in much blowback from the intended targets. If that’s not the case please correct me, but for now enjoy the new Kvetch of the Week, albeit one that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek:

“I’ll join the ranks of Jeff Jarvis, Paul Gillin, Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky in competing to see who can use the most jargon to describe something everyone knows is happening.

“Apparently, it’s very simple. The more you self-reference, pick feuds and talk about the failure of TimesSelect, the better you’re doing. If you make it sound like you’re the one who figured out newspapers are dying, you win.

“I mean, the point’s not to fix anything. It’s to describe the problem more dramatically than the next guy.”

Their methodology is finally exposed:

“Basically, imagine a group of people watching a building burn down and bickering amongst themselves about whether it’s a conflagration or an inferno. It’s like that, but with consulting fees.

“Talk about how everything online is wonderful, everything paper is crap and then use the online to pimp your upcoming (paper) book. Bonus points for talking about how much you love the New York Times at least twice per blog post. It’ll help your credibility. You love the Times, but . . . ”

And Dailing “quotes” one of the sages, an ex-newspaper hand, who explains how he got all geeky and then lays out a euphoric future for the news that is all sunshine and daffodils — except for those doing the news:

” ‘This computer thing,’ my editor said to me one time in 1983, ‘I don’t get it.’ And I think about that conversation a lot. It’s a perfect example of how newspapers have botched everything connected to everything new ever. Granted it was one conversation with a 72-year-old man back in the era of Flock of Seagulls, but that didn’t stop me from making it the title of my upcoming book, ‘This Computer Thing, I Don’t Get It,’ coming out in October from Obsequious Press.

“In TCTIDGI, I talk about how people will still create professional-level journalism will still exist in an environment where there’s no incentive to create professional-level journalism. It’ll all be done online, for free and will be better . . . somehow. The best and brightest journalists will pull out all the stops for no pay, I swear.

“Really, reporters don’t even LIKE having health insurance.”

Here’s the link again, and the comments section is interesting too.

A good week for watch-dogging on the Web

I hope those folks who believe that only newspapers can best serve as the platform for sound investigative reporting were watching a couple of developments this week that ought put a dent in that theory.

That they are sort of close to home to me is only incidental, since the examples I’m about to cite have been nationally recognized.

First, the former investigations editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has gotten off to a strong start with a Web site devoted to investigative journalism in the Atlanta area and Georgia. Jim Walls, who was part of my buyout group last fall and who guided several award-winning projects that made a difference, has a clear objective for his Atlanta Unfiltered venture:

“The Internet is overflowing with opinions. Facts? Not so much.

“This site is about restoring the balance. We dig up and share public records on ethics and transparency in  government and public institutions — all with minimal interpretation.”

Here’s more on Atlanta Unfiltered from former Creative Loafing Atlanta editor Ken Edelstein, who reently was laid off and has started his own Atlanta-oriented site. Jim Romenesko picked up the story and it’s gotten plenty of props throughout the journosphere.

And as the NCAA basketball tournament headed into the Sweet 16, two of the best basketball writers I know broke a bombshell story that could bring down one of the top programs in the country.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote a detailed piece following a six-month investigation alleging that the University of Connecticut men’s basketball program violated major NCAA rules. UConn is one of the favorites to win the national championship and didn’t seem distracted last night in beating Purdue to advance to within a game of the Final Four.

The writers used Freedom of Information Act reqests to get phone records and other material to build their story, which of course, ran only online. Wojnarowski was a long-time newspaper writer who  joined the sizable Yahoo! sportswriting stable with Wetzel, a former editor of mine at Basketball Times and who’s never written professionally for a daily newspaper.

These are only two examples of Web watchdog journalism, and there is a valid concern that the institutional structures of newspapers that nurtured serious reporting work like this are taking down too much with it.

But to man the barricades as though nothing better were possible than what is evaporating now is delusional. It also sends a damaging message to journalists thrown out of newsrooms but who are still committed to doing this kind of reporting.

Another big hit for my old newsroom

The news today that my former employer is slashing the size of the newsroom again — by 30 percent, or 90 full-time positions — drives home a rather obvious reality I’ve lived through since I left there eight months ago. As excited as I remain about developing a career beyond the newsroom, it’s also imperative for journalists, especially at newspaper companies, to get real about their prospects in the profession and beyond.

There will be another time for a post along those lines. For today, I’m just taking in what’s been announced at my old place. It’s staggering. Perhaps this is what major metropolitan dailies should have been bracing for all along, but it doesn’t make these departures any easier to absorb.

While I try to stay upbeat on this blog and do believe that in time non-newsroom journalists can find the same kind of challenging work and make a living wage that they once enjoyed in newsrooms, right now it’s hard to envision that. They’re stepping into an economic recession that’s deeper and the prospects for a quick recovery are gloomier than when I walked out into the Great Wide Open in September.

I’ve been plugging away at a number of possibilities and projects and know that I will get to a more stable place in my work and my life.

This can be discouraging at times, especially today when I see so many people I’ve known and worked with who are going through the same agony of deciding their futures in a heartbeat. You don’t sleep, you can’t eat, you’re unable to think about anything else but figuring out how the hell you’re gonna dog-paddle in the deep end of swirling waters you’ve never swum in before.

I’ve enjoyed the latter, but that’s just me. I’ve embraced the messiness and chaos, mainly because it’s inevitable. Some people I know who will be affected by this latest round of cuts are routine creatures who never imagined they would have to do anything else in their careers.

A former colleague who was shocked when I told her last summer that I was leaving said to me: “I’ve never known anything but newspapers.”

Well, neither had I, but she’s facing a similar situation today — and thank goodness it’s another buyout round and not layoffs. I hope she’s over the shock. I hope everyone there is.

For the most part I’m undeterred about the plans and ideas I have in mind. They’ll get me where I want to be, eventually. I’m happy to be where I am in so many ways.

But for the moment I’m just sad and heartbroken.

Kvetch of the Week: Move over, old man

About halfway through an otherwise uneventful “Talk to the Newsroom” live chat with readers, New York Times assistant managing editor Richard Berke got a virtual earful from a young journalist fanning the journo-generational wars that on occasion get lost amid the ongoing rows over old media vs. new media and paid vs. free content.

All of those disagreements have some overlap, but “Josh, New Orleans” wants to pin the blame for his decision to give up a newspaper career on the likes of Berke and others in mid- to late-career mode:

“I’m sorry for the bloviating, but here is my point: Newspapering as we knew it — its economic sustainability and moral righteousness — died sometime in the last decade. Yet the people who sank the ship, namely those of the baby-boomer, Woodward-and-Bernstein era, are still at the helm, and giving up their lofty newsroom positions only with cold, dead hands.

“I understand that youth is ill-served in management, often, but unlike those currently in charge, we haven’t already proved we’re incapable of steering newspapers back to cultural and economic viability.

“My question is, both cheekily and seriously, when will your generation quit and let my generation try all these ideas we have about how the news should be presented?”

That’s some good high-quality kvetching from someone so young. Especially the “cold, dead hands” part. Nice touch.

To his credit, Berke handles the matter tactfully, but does push back a little:

“But please, not the glue factory, not yet. Don’t wag your finger at me as if I were a disgraced Wall Street executive who wrecked the company and is now grabbing a fat bonus. Sure, I wish newspaper executives had made wiser decisions years ago that would have put us in a more robust financial position now. I wish we had better anticipated how dramatically our business model would change — and how technology and the web would turn our profession upside down. In our defense, we are journalists, not soothsayers.”

Read the entire chat here. Josh chimes in about halfway down. Berke also links to an analysis of this issue from Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab, who urges the young to get beyond an institutional mindset (one that is supposedly more entrenched in my generation).

When I get a little blue about the state of my profession, it’s when I feel caught between the resistance of the mid-career print types who sneer at the Web and the digital native kids who think they have all the answers.

Another playground spat in the journosphere

There’s a fresh new techies vs. printies tiff brewing with the future-of-journalism set, triggered by San Francisco columnist Mark Morford’s diatribe today that new media evangelists Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson and Dave Winer, among others, don’t have any more of an idea about how to transform journalism than the newspaper folks.

19snak6502
"I'm coming after you Shirky!"

Well, I thought that was largely a given, but it didn’t take long for that trio’s defenders to strike back. Jay Rosen, on Twitter, quickly produced a response from computer and technology executive Luke Wignall who shot back at Morford: “Don’t be mad at the geeks. Be mad at the newspapers.”

I’m not trying to go all Samuel L. Jackson here or anything, but:

Enough is enough!

It isn’t as though there aren’t very serious issues to be discussed here (along with a lot of very self-important hot air). I find enormous insight and truths in them. In most of these disputes, I see so much that’s worthwhile to absorb that it’s impossible to take sides.

But that’s what some of them appear to want more than anything.

And this is utterly useless and absurd as a profession continues to lose hundreds of its most experienced, devoted practitioners, many for good, nearly every week.

What do any of these “thought leaders” (a cringe-inducing phrase if there ever was one) have to say to directly to these journalists: Not a whole hell of a lot that’s particularly helpful right now.

While the futurists and their high-minded ideas gain traction in the online journalism world, they’re mostly that — ideas — and many of them are seemingly good ones. Good enough to follow and think about in a time of great experimentation in journalism that’s bound to increase in the coming months. I’m certainly all for that and am engaging in some new explorations of my own to see what’s going to work. Or what won’t.

Conversely, from Morford’s corner, there’s quite a bit to worry about as once heavily-resourced newspaper newsrooms are gutted, as we have seen in Seattle this week, to next to nothing. For example, the online-only Post-Intelligencer now will have just one full-time sportswriter to cover a major league city. And he had to take a big pay cut for the privilege. Nice.

I want print-oriented journalists to make the migration to the Web, and am helping those like me who have been put out of newsrooms. I want tech-savvy people to have a greater say in how news organizations are run. Hell, I think the geeks ought to start running them, given what’s happening with the legacy media. And the hardened, out-of-touch attitudes that still prevail.

But most of all, I want all these people, with their breathless jeremiads and unstinting certitude about the future (Shirky does have a number of new media critics of his own) to step back a little from the abstract and take account of the journalistic toll that’s absolutely staggering.

I wish they would read the various and eloquent farewell columns today in the San Antonio News-Express, including one from sports columnist David Flores, who was one of many in his newsroom to be laid off:

“But life has a way of throwing us curveballs that wreck our best-laid plans and humble us. As the late John Lennon so famously sang, ‘Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.’

“If the only constant in life is change, then the challenge comes in seeing change as an opportunity to grow and learn.”

(Thanks to Joe Ruiz for passing along this link on Twitter.)

And I wish everybody would read this from former journalist John Zhu, who was thinking about those in his former profession this week when layoffs were announced at the Raleigh News & Observer, another good regional newspaper with thinning ranks. I was going to save this for another time, but I think it’s appropriate to excerpt here and now. I don’t agree with all of this, but for journalists like me caught in the crossfire of this latest new media dust-up Zhu’s sentiment is pitch-perfect:

“Whenever another one of these lovely news tidbits comes along, it really makes all the pontificating about journalism’s future seem insignificant to me when I read that X number of people have just lost their livelihood. Maybe that’s why the ‘save journalism, not its institutions’ thing doesn’t sit well with me in some respect. It’s a fine idea for a discussion over the broad general direction of journalism (and a direction I agree with, just to be clear), but at the same time, it is kind of saying, ‘It doesn’t matter if these big news orgs that employ so many go under and their employees end up on the streets.’ It’s easy to say you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, unless you are the eggs.

“Yes, innovation and revolution are messy processes, and not all players will survive. But if given a choice between ensuring society gets better journalism or ensuring people stay employed so they can support their families, I think I would pick the latter every time. Call me shortsighted, curmudgeonly, or whatever you please, but that’s my human nature. In a ‘grand scheme of things’ way, I can talk about how it doesn’t matter if existing companies go under, as long as the journalism void gets filled, but I find it impossible, not to mention distasteful and undesirable, to remain so detached when one gets down to the nitty-gritty of considering the consequences and impact on employees’ lives that inevitably accompany an institution’s demise.”

Tough noogies and self-help for journalists

I shouldn’t have read The Economist’s leader on the “jobs crisis” over lunch yesterday. A few snippets:

“An American who loses his job today has less of a chance of finding another one than at any time since records began half a century ago. . . .

“Morever, many of yesterday’s jobs, from Spanish bricklayer to Wall Street trader, are not coming back. People will have to shift out of old occupations and into new ones. . .

“The bare truth is that the more easily jobs can be destroyed, the more easily new ones can be created.”

Ouch.

All very sobering realities for displaced journalists, who aren’t exactly getting a lot of sympathy for alluding to their plight so frequently. Even in the wake of the closures of newspapers in Denver and Seattle, and the possibilities of more in Tucson and San Francisco right around the corner.

Over coffee this morning, I read media economics expert Robert Picard tell the journalistic set to get over itself in a post entitled “The Overblown Journalism Employment Crisis:”

“If you look at newsrooms you can see the problem. Most journalists in newspapers do everything BUT covering significant news. They spend their time doing celebrity, food, automobile, and entertainment stories. Look around any newsroom, or just the lists of assignments or beats, and you soon come to realize that 20 percent or fewer of the journalists in newsrooms actually produce the kind of news that most people are concerned about losing.”

“Maybe it’s about time that journalists stop whining about their troubles and initiate some internal discussions about how their own newsrooms are structured and operated.”

Ouch.

I don’t dispute that my profession has gotten terribly self-absorbed with the implosion of the newspaper industry, and using the powerful megaphones at its disposal to tell the world about it. But I wonder if Picard realizes how the trenches of a newsroom are organized and commanded.

Hint: It’s not by those whiny workaday journalists, even those few who might have the time to sit around the ol’ newsroom campfire and brainstorm new structures and operations that would most likely be ignored by management.

Lesson here: Refrain from reading such gloomy stuff while eating or drinking.

Mark Potts, aka The Recovering Journalist, offers a useful guide to what to do if you’re laid off. Perhaps the most valuable suggestion goes beyond the obvious and the practical to simply taking a deep breath, relaxing and viewing what might be a traumatic time as an opportunity for something better:

“Don’t freak out. You’re going to get through this. If you can hack it financially, take some time for yourself before plunging into finding a new job. You’ve been through one of life’s most traumatic experiences. If you can get away and take some time off to decompress, do it. It will really help your mental health and ability to move forward. And you may never get a chance again to take a mid-career break like this, for yourself or to spend time with your family.”

A former journalist reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog echoes that refrain:

“If I had stayed at the newspaper, I might be jobless with a rotted-out pension and a house that wasn’t worth its mortgage. Though I am still worried about providing for my child in this dismal economy, I am more confident than ever that I made the right decision when I abandoned my safe career to taste the broader glories of life. Because, as is now so overwhelmingly clear, nothing is ever truly safe.

“If this recession serves as anything, hopefully it will be a reminder that you should never compromise your ambitions in favor of the chimera of financial security. If you are inevitably going to end up in the poorhouse, you might as well get there by chasing the wildest of your dreams.”

Mary Ann Chick Whiteside, who’s taken a newspaper buyout and who also considers herself a recovering journalist, points to yet another survey of journalists like her by yet another journalism professor gauging the attitudes of what he calls the “lost generation of journalists.”

What he may be uncovering might not be the steady drumbeat of despair we’ve been accustomed to accept. Here’s the link if you want to participate.

Some help for entrepreneurial journalists

As the news about the news business begins to delve into journalism startups and independent alternatives to the mainstream press, the role of displaced journalists in this chaos is gaining more attention as well.

A former print journalist who’s made the migration to online news with a special eye on the entrepreneurial skills journalists must have is Seattle-based Mark Briggs. His Journalism 2.0 blog, in fact, is devoted to the subject, and I’ve linked to it frequently here. He addresses more than “big think” issues with practical suggestions, including his thoughts on the changing market for freelance journalism, legal protection for independent journalists and how they can use Web tools to most effectively practice their craft online.

On Thursday at 1 p.m. he’ll be the guest of a live chat hosted by the Poynter Institute entitled “How Can Journalists Survive Beyond Legacy Institutions?” Here’s the link for the chat and more on Briggs’ background and ideas.

As I wrote yesterday, online journalism experiments are entering a new stage with the creation of the online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer and plans for a news site involving former Rocky Mountain News staffers. The latter has a partially paid business model that has engendered some doubts, but this is the nature of the new media world that will mark the rest of our careers.

I began reading James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” last night and in an early chapter, while explaining the beginnings of the automobile industry, he writes:

“. . . the early days of the business are characterized by a profusion of alternatives, many of them dramatically different from each other in design and technology. As time passes, the market winnows out the winners and losers, effectively choosing which technologies will flourish and which ones will disappear. Most of the companies fail, going bankrupt or getting acquired by other firms. At the end of the day, a few players are left standing and in control of most of the market.”

This is the essence of entrepreneurialism, of course, and of my new industry, the online journalism field. I currently am a freelance writer for two startup enterprises whose creators want to build them up and sell them off, then move on to other ventures. I’ve also begun a new task for a tech/media startup helping journalists learn to use Web linking and aggregating tools. All of these things I will write about later in more detail as they take root.

There’s plenty of innovative, creative and challenging work on my plate, and it’s requiring me to think quicker on my feet than I ever did as a reporter. Entrepreneurial journalists are going to have to think and act as effectively as the people who hire them out, and these are skills that quite frankly many of us, myself included, have not cultivated after many years in a newsroom.

So I’m glad that there are people like Mark Briggs out there, who’ve been in our shoes and want to help us get started.

Here are some other links on entrepreneurial journalism I’ve been collecting. Among my favorites are how this is the age of the “standalone journalist” and why this might be the best time of all to be a journalist. There are plenty of good how-to links as well.