Monthly Archives: April 2009

If we’re going to have journalism prizes . . .

I’ll be frank about this up front: I’ve never been a big fan of awards, prizes and honors for journalists.

And not because I’ve won exactly two awards in 25 years, neither of them instigated by me. I couldn’t care less if I had won nothing at all.

Not long ago, I argued heatedly with a someone who submitted my name — against my wishes — for a media award given by a non-journalistic organization. Thankfully, I didn’t win. Like Susan Lucci, I’m anticipating a long and rewarding tenure of seeing someone else’s name next to that award.

Please, not me!
No please, not me!

While the recognition is nice, I didn’t get into this profession to win awards. In fact, my aversion to self-promotion is so great that I hesitated to start this post in this way.

So pardon me for sounding contradictory because I am also happy for those people who won Pulitzer Prizes yesterday, especially those whose work I’ve become familiar with. Doug Blackmon, a reporter who worked at my former newspaper and who is the Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, won not a journalism prize but one for non-fiction for his book about blacks in the post-Civil War South.

In the first year online news outlets were eligible for Pulitzers, the fact-checking site PolitiFact, operated by the St. Petersburg Times, won for national reporting. A member of the PolitFact team, news technologist Matt Waite, is the co-author of a new book with a college friend of mine, SPT reporter Craig Pittman, about the erosion of Florida wetlands due to overdevelopment. That stemmed from an award-winning series in the Times.

As I was watching, listening to and reading media accounts of the journalism Pulitzers and the mournful backdrop of the declining newspaper industry, I was taken aback by how maudlin this was being presented.

Especially regarding Paul Giblin, the East Valley Tribune (Ariz.) reporter who was part of a Pulitzer-winning team but got laid off last fall, months before the good news came down yesterday. Understandably he’s got mixed feelings, but he also has been busy writing for a startup news site devoted to state government and public policy issues.

Even the New York Times, which won five Pulitzers, couldn’t celebrate for long. Not with horrendous details laid out today of its increasingly dire financial situation.

As more journalists get laid off, take buyouts and early retirements or are otherwise shooed from their newsrooms, it ought to be apparent to those dispensing awards that relaxing their newspaper-oriented rules is imperative.

I don’t mean relaxing standards, of course, but merely the guidelines for online entries. And not just for online news organizations, but also in accepting the work of reporters and journalists going solo with their own blogs and sites, and doing solid, public service reporting. Said Patti Epler, the laid-off East Valley assignment editor now working with Giblin online:

“It shows you can still do significant work, even in the face of declining resources, if you put your mind to it. It’s almost like I’m glad we’re not at the Tribune anymore because we’re doing our own thing and it’s pretty cool. And even though we’re not making any money, journalistically and professionally it’s really great and satisfying.”

These are the Pulitzers for journalism, and not just for newspaper journalism. In this case, awards can be a good thing, especially if they spur the kind of journalistic work online that still hasn’t captured the kind of revenue models to pay for itself.

For starters, the Pulitzer folks at the Columbia University need to get over their hang-ups over aggregation. While cluttered sites that traffick in outside links may seem tawdry to print bluebloods, this is the reality of news Web sites now, and probably forever. If there’s original reporting on a site, it should be judged on its own merits, and not be punished for the mass of links that surround it on a Web page.

If Arianna Huffington publishes just one groundbreaking, impactful and originally reported piece of journalism on her plethora of sites that Pulitzer judges believe to be prize-worthy (and that might be the first one!) then the fact that HuffPost is rife with endlessly cheesy links (a shirtless Obama!) shouldn’t detract from that.

So many newspapers that have won the latest Pulitzers (as well as those that didn’t) have more wire service material in them now than ever. Is someone at the Columbia J-School calculating percentages for print? I think not.

Secondly, the Pulitzers should be expanded to include more multimedia journalism than what exists now (hope I’m not stepping on any ONA toes here). There should be more recognition for journalists like Waite and the database developers who are ushering in new approaches to journalistic storytelling. Ideally this could accelerate badly needed online innovation in mainstream newsrooms. Ideally.

Apparently quite a number of online outlets didn’t even bother submitting Pulitzer entries; surely that needs to change as well. Especially when a leading media ethicist says online journalism is gaining “increased legitimacy.”

These ideas are just off the top of my head and may turn out to be unworkable. I just think if we’re going to have Pulitzers, and journalism awards in general, they can be useful in this period of jarring change. But they need to reflect the dramatically different ways that citizens are getting their news, which in turn is transforming how journalism is done.

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Meanderings between ‘old’ and ‘new’ journalism

I’ve been keeping in touch this week with former colleagues who are about to leave my old newspaper, and some who remain under what can politely be termed as extremely trying circumstances. For most of the time since I took a buyout nine months ago, I’ve been focused on the many opportunities that have kept me busy and happy as I carve out a new career in journalism.

This week, however, it’s been difficult to do that. When you’re at a place for so long (in my case, nearly 19 years) it’s hard not to feel another part of yourself dying along with a rapidly hollowing-out institution. In less than three years, the size of that newsroom will have been cut in half. While this is not new in the industry, that was my newsroom, and it absolutely breaks my heart. It’s beyond devastating; it makes me angry in ways I haven’t felt in a while. But I won’t fulminate here because that’s not the point of this post.

I write this not just because I worked there, but also because I grew up wanting to work nowhere else. I idolized the big names and the big issues that the paper took on in a part of the world that didn’t always welcome them. Local media commentators are deploring the loss of much more than 70 or so journalists, as bad as that is. The voice of an institution is on the wane.

Not long ago a former journalist blogged about what he’ll miss the most about newspapers. I agree that what’s diminishing, if not vanishing, is that one place where many voices could be found, read and absorbed, unhurried and undistracted, in my case by nothing more than the quiet din of baseball play-by-play on the TV. As bullish as I am about journalism on the Web, the most conveniently arranged RSS feeds and aggregated collections of links cannot replace the comfort of pulling apart the Sunday paper to read the best of what these voices had to display in a typical week.

As these voices continue to disperse out of newsrooms, the collective heft they represented will be lost forever. We can start blogs, get on Twitter and sharpen our voices — I’m enjoying discovering one I didn’t have in my newsroom — and try to create new communities around them. (I’ve been writing for a Georgia online news startup and other ex-AJC writers have begun a site devoted to Southern life and culture.)

I’m thinking in particular of the Atlanta arts community that must be reeling to see the names of the art, music, theater and entertainment critics, as well as some extremely talented and versatile takeout writers, taking the latest AJC buyout. The film critics, whose faces the paper once had plastered on city buses to promote their work, are long gone.

I’m not trying to sound sentimental or nostalgic. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge what we’ll be losing and missing before we can create something viable and enduring on the Web. Without understanding what’s been left behind, it’s impossible to move forward.

That’s why I was encouraged to read Syracuse Post-Standard reporter and blogger Gina Chen’s recent post about “old” journalism standards that should not die. She’s a working journalist fighting the great fight inside a newsroom and one of the strongest voices for blending old and new media:

“The Web is a free-flowing place in many ways, and it’s a place where people can experiment with video and podcasts and telling stories different ways. That’s all good, but to last journalism still needs quality. What does that mean? To me, that means whatever medium you’re using, you should strive to do the best work. Readers initially might be attracted to a new feature — videos, podcasts, slide shows,  etc. But as these proliferate, readers won’t gravitate to the ones poorly done.”

Her blog is filled with how-tos and concepts for journalists new to the practice of new media. Unlike some others in the journosphere, she doesn’t shake her finger at “printies” and tell them how clueless they are. She understands the importance of updating the profession for the digital world and believes seasoned journalists have a big stake in this immensely important transition.

So does Kara Swisher, who’s been a Wall Street reporter and is one of the most influential technology writers in Silicon Valley and beyond. Early last year she bade farewell to the Dead Tree Society, and this week renewed her tough-minded advice to print journalists to quit kvetching about the Internet:

“Some day we won’t be arguing about it. We won’t be discussing the system. You didn’t get up this morning and say ‘I just signed onto the electrical grid today’ — you don’t care! Journalists have to embrace what’s happening, instead of griping about it.

“We’re a very low-cost way of delivering news. The idea that old media can’t participate in this? They’re giving up way too early.”

A vision for journalism, if journalists will buy it

I had barely begun to absorb Brian Solis’ beautifully laid-out framework for a realistic future for journalism when I got word of more catastrophic losses at my former newspaper.

I throw Solis’ name around without first reference identification not to be a name-dropper. Journalists probably don’t know who he is, and I didn’t either until I got immersed in the world of online media a few years ago.

But Solis is the kind of new media figure that journalists need to know about — people outside their fields who have more influence, ideas and innovative approaches to journalism than what’s been fomenting (or more precisely, what hasn’t) inside traditional newsrooms.

Solis is a public relations executive and an expert on the subject of convergence in media as it applies across the communications spectrum — public relations, advertising, marketing and yes, journalism. He’s acutely aware of how technological change has drastically altered all of these knowledge industries, and how professionals in them can use it to their advantage. Instead of the alternative, getting run over and defeated by it:

“I guess I’m saying that at a time when traditional routes to journalism careers are being questioned, exceptional journalists can create their own destiny. Their future is in their notepads (or laptops), ready to escape from paper to online and the real world.

“The connection with readers, once established, multiplied, and fed, is seductive and unquenchable.

“Personality, motivation, determination, and the ability to embrace risk and venture into unchartered and unpredictable territory is the only way to champion change and influence the direction of professional adventures.”

A bit further down he writes:

“If you are a journalist, it’s now your responsibility to create a dedicated tribe that supports, shares, and responds to your work and personal interaction in both the Statusphere and also at the point of origin. It’s the only way to build a valuable and portable community around you and what you represent.”

This is not an entirely new set of realities he’s articulating, and neither are his solutions, which to many print-oriented journalists smack of quackery. The comments at the end of the post are rife with such skepticism:

“I used to follow the blogging journalists who have adapted to a new way of presenting their personal opinions and calling it news, because, after reading thousands of self-promoting pieces, their personalities and opinions became the overriding theme — not the news and not a balanced view. The names you name are big, huge, and ego-driven personalities, not journalists. They are driven by their need to be known for who they are and how important they believe they are, instead of the issue they have chosen merits their (oh so valuable and expensive) attention.”

And this:

“Who is going to pay for journalism?

“You list a bunch of people on Twitter and what they provide but you don’t explain what they’re getting in return.

“It’s great that these people are sharing and building relationships online but you miss the point that syndication without monetization is worthless.

“This is the problem with you new media folks: you talk about audiences, sharing, relationships, conversations. Touchy feely stuff.

“But when it comes to what’s really needed to save journalism — a business model that makes PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM a viable profession — you have absolutely nothing to say.

“So here’s a suggestion: in your next post, please explain HOW the statusphere can save journalism.”

And still more:

“It’s not about getting all warm and fuzzy with your readers/viewers/followers/audience — it’s about HOW TO MAKE A LIVING while doing it!

“As an experienced journalist who spent more than a year looking for a job after being downsized, I can state unequivocally that all the blogging etc. I did during that time did not keep me from burning through my retirement funds or going on food stamps to take care of my family.

“The average journalist doesn’t expect to get rich — but we gotta keep a roof over our heads and we gotta feed the kids.

“Until you can demonstrate a way that your ‘statusphere’ can result in an income someone can live on, you’re just blowing smoke up our collective posteriors.”

Let’s toss in one more crabby zinger:

“So let me get this straight, all journalists need to do is bang the crap out of Twitter and Facebook, and then money will roll in?”

They’re taking this well, aren’t they? Ask some of them to think outside the confines of their insular newsrooms, and it brings out the worst in them.

What a bunch of incurious grousers! They truly do reflect the fear and willful ignorance of a dying newspaper industry that has shielded itself, and its journalists, from the whims of the market. A market that has been blown wide open by the Web and technology that makes information a cheap commodity, rather than the scarcity it was during the days of newspaper dominance.

Public relations folks — whatever you think of them — have a much more finely tuned ear to these trends and we ought to learn how they are reaching out to consumers if we want anybody to read our journalism in the future.

Solis provides only what I said at the top — a framework — for how journalists can leverage the Web to continue in their profession. Like the Web itself, it’s a much more interactive process, as opposed to the passive nature of our lives in a newsroom. He’s asking journalists to get off their hard-boiled butts and play a more active role in reshaping their profession. This isn’t an assignment that’s going to be handed to you by an editor; you’ve got to make it work. Even more so if you’ve been handed a pink slip by an editor.

Also, ignore Solis’ cringe-inducing phrases — “statusphere” and “news ecosystem” drive me up the wall — as well as his penchant for celebrity name-dropping. He does less of it than other new media evangelists. Pay attention instead to what he says about the new skills and techniques that journalists need to employ (they’re not so new, except to us) to reach and engage their audiences online. I’ll bet you haven’t been hearing too much about that from print-oriented editors, except in pangs of desperation as they lurch from one failed strategy to another.

As another commenter states:

“I think the point of the article isn’t really about how the money will roll in for journalists, but how in the face of media evolution do we preserve the integrity and placing of journalists as a reliable source of information, a.k.a. good journalism.”

Precisely! Look, it isn’t that I haven’t had the same concerns as these ink-stained wretches. Where’s the money going to come from? How long can I hold out until I get paid something substantial? Is this idea going to pay off? Is it going to pay at all? I have asked these questions frequently of someone who wants me to help launch a sports media startup that we both agree has great potential. Gotta pay the bills, know what I mean? I think about this constantly.

But some of my crotchety fellow journalists are convinced that the world owes them a living, since they’re doing the oh-so-important work of preserving democracy. Or whatever.

Nobody owes you anything! If you haven’t noticed, thousands of journalists keep getting laid off. A few folks I used to work with got the bad news last week. Newspapers were all they had ever known. They were all I had ever known, too, for my entire 25-year career in journalism.

It is very sad news when journalists who really, really wanted to make it work have decided that they cannot. I may face a similar fate very soon, because we are probably at the early stages of a very big gap between the demise of the print economy and the maturation of the Web economy. I’m in my late 40s, at the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, and I don’t see many online business models emerging before my so-called Golden Years that will sustain the kind of journalism that once flourished at newspapers.

There are no guarantees, even with the Web skills, energy and faith in the future that I have. Actually, there is one. If journalists continue to whine and contemptuously look upon new ideas as “touchy feely” or “warm and fuzzy” then their work, and their profession, is guaranteed to decline further.

Before taking a brief respite . . .

I’ve been busy with an array of freelancing and contract work this week and will be for the next week as well, so I won’t be posting here again until the week April 13. I’m freelancing the Women’s Final Four for a number of print and online outlets and have thrown together an impromptu blog that is the first big step toward creating the ultimate sports-oriented site I have been planning for a number of months.

That sport is the one that I covered thoroughly in my newspaper days and have for nearly 20 years, and its growth and emergence has been amazing. In this second career I’m attempting to blend that experience with the dynamics of the Web, which allow me to drive down deep into a niche in ways I could never have done for a daily print publication.

As I’ve preparing to take on this challenge I’ve kept in mind a recent Wall Street Journal piece by Mark Penn about the staggering career prospects for lawyers and other professionals (including journalists) in an economy that’s probably going to be sawed off even more drastically than first imagined. Penn might not have been a very good political strategist for Hillary Clinton but he’s one of the few people to make this point that really struck a nerve with me:

“We are totally unprepared for this new phenomenon. We have safety nets for the chronically unemployed, for the fast-food workers let go (oddly they may be the only ones keeping their jobs in this recession), and for the manufacturing plants that have been shuttered. The stimulus will create construction jobs galore. But we have nothing for the tens of thousands of displaced advertising creatives and newspaper writers and editors that are among the newly unemployed. They can’t build roads — all they learned how to do was to write ads and draft editorials.”

It doesn’t sound very encouraging, does it? Some might think it sounds whiny — how tough can a bunch of overpaid, overeducated knowledge workers really have it? But it also can serve as a reminder of how persistent and resourceful we’ve got to become to weather the economy as we try to do the work we love doing the best.

A friend who recently broke one of the biggest stories in the sports world — allegations of recruiting violations with the University of Connecticut men’s basketball program — has been demonstrating this ethic during his career.

I’ve known Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports since he was an editor at Basketball Times, a small monthly publication where I’ve freelanced for 18 years. He has never worked at a daily newspaper, and after he left BT 10 years ago he jumped into the nascent online media world. After one gig after another dried up, and even after he had published a book detailing the influence of the sports shoe companies (i.e., Nike) in basketball, he still needed some steady work for a while. He got it at — wait for this — a casino.

He explains that and more in a good Q and A about his career with Real Clear Sports, offering his thoughts on the journalism profession as well. He thinks communities will be the poorer with the demise of newspapers (he lives near Detroit). But he’s a vigorous advocate for the online nature of his work, especially after UConn coach Jim Calhoun tried to dismiss Wetzel’s reporting by referring to him and his co-author, Adrian Wojnarowski, as a couple of “bloggers:”

“Sure, we’ve been fighting it from day one. I started on the Internet in the late 90’s, and you couldn’t get press passes. When I started here, I was the first sports writer, and it was a battle to get credibility, and that battle doesn’t end.  It takes time. But I don’t take it as an insult. You can call me a blogger. I’m good with that.

“You didn’t hear him refuting the story, did you?  Call me anything you want.”

Dan’s the real deal, and so is the work he’s done and the way he’s done it. Even after his “Glory Road” fame (he helped coach Don Haskins write his autobiography and also penned the movie screenplay) he hasn’t changed. He’s a hard-nosed, tenacious journalist, who passionate about what he does and is unflinching in how he goes about it.

I think he’s a great example of how journalism careers do and will continue thrive on the Web. So much of that success depends on the individuals committed to doing it.