Monthly Archives: May 2009

Beyond cheerleading about journalism’s future

Online journalism advocates are brimming with plenty of “can-do” optimism about the future of the profession, and for the most part I concur that better times are ahead. However, we’re in the midst of a very hellish present, with no way of knowing where the bottom of this transition period may be, and whether it has been reached.

So the lack of “how-to” ideas to accompany this enthusiasm — even a few generalities that go beyond the abstract — has me a bit chastened right now.

I’ve long enjoyed Robert Niles’ posts on entrepreneurial journalism at the Online Journalism Review. Blogging this week off the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, he states that “journalists must emerge from a culture of failure in order to survive.” And this certainly sums up how many of us feel:

“Telling journalists ‘you can’t do that,’ when they seek to find a way to make their work profitable, or at least economically sustainable, is an example of the culture of failure from which we were trying to extract these 15 journalists. I want more journalists to get the message — you can do it.”

Well, I do believe I can do it, too. I’m glad not to be in an environment (aka, a newsroom) where being told “no” is commonplace. But I’d like to get a better understanding of how to go about pursuing “yes.” After nine months of my post-newsroom life, I’m finding the Great Wide Open more daunting than I first imagined.

I’m not asking anyone to hold my hand or offer step-by-step instructions, because as yet there are few certifiable models for journalists to “make their work profitable” in an entrepreneurial setting. At least in this stage of journalism’s transformation to the Web.

A period of grand experimentation is just underway, and I am taking the long view that it might be after my working days are over that we’ll have better answers as to what will pay off. And pay.

However, I’m growing just a bit weary of the rah-rah that is difficult for newspaper-hardened journalists to absorb right now. I realize staying relentlessly positive is a vital component of the entrepreneurial spirit, and that the “culture of failure” that feasts in newsrooms, and that shaped my habits for many years, isn’t helping me here right now.

But I’m finding as I have dabbled with new ways of doing the news — and I’ve been doing this from almost the first day since I took my buyout — is that the lack of capital isn’t the biggest concern. Interestingly, there’s a myopia at work that supposedly is the province of “old” media.

I write this at a quirky time in my career reinvention process. I just received word that a news startup I’ve been involved with is on hiatus because it could get no one to pay for the journalism we have been producing for some months. I’ve been told that this is merely the end of the “first phase” of the project, and I do hope this is correct. I sincerely wish that this service does take off someday, because the concept is good and the work is needed.

But starting an ambitious venture with no capital in a woeful economy, then blaming the economy when something doesn’t pan out, doesn’t sound very “can-do” to me. Using the economy as a crutch comes right from the script of newspaper executives justifying the latest round of layoffs.

Some editorial and business models won’t work regardless of the economy, and despite how good and right an idea may sound at inception. Someone who’s had me work up the outlines of an editorial model for a media startup he’s convinced will work now wants to hash over details. I do agree it is a great idea, but much remains to be discovered through market research, sizing up the competition and identifying a viable audience. Even before we get to the possibilities for generating revenue, this is going to take more than a “jump in, the water’s fine” approach to make it happen.

Because this person is someone who truly values my best judgment, I’m not going to hesitate to offer it if I think he’s wrong. Or if the idea just seems to be a non-starter. This is new terrain for me, and the greatest challenge is working with ideas people who are convinced theirs will work. Even when they’re told they won’t. They don’t take “no” for an answer very easily, which can be good. Or bad.

Niles is only partially right when he writes that:

“Journalism is not doomed; people can make money publishing online. All that needs to change to make that happen is journalists’ toxic attitudes toward themselves and the value of their work.”

It’s not as simplistic as journalists shedding self-defeating ways of thinking, I’m afraid. And I wish Niles would elaborate on where these online revenue streams might be tapped. Because even the most learned new media cartographers are having trouble detecting these lucrative waters.

And I wonder what he would say to media sages who’ve been kicking journalists when they’re down. The Knight boot camp took place just as media economist Robert Picard argued that what journalists do doesn’t have very much value. That prompted Jeff Jarvis to pile on gleefully that those newsroom vermin are even overpaid to boot.

This is total disconnect from how journalists really live. Picard’s under the assumption that workaday journalists can “become more involved in setting the course of their companies.” Jarvis clucks that the days of “inflated paychecks” for journalists are over. I think I missed the memo somewhere: When did they ever begin?

It’s easy to vivisect the value of journalists from the comforts of the Oxford lecture circuit. And it’s even easier for a journalist-turned-consultant and Davos junketeer to pontificate from the comforts of his own echo chamber. To this gimlet-eyed sportswriter hell-bent on saving democracy, these disquisitions are little more than theoretic twaddle.

Ideas are great, and Picard and Jarvis do have some compelling thoughts on how journalists have to rethink their value. But it’s harder to put ideas to the test than it is to state them. And it’s harder still to offer journalists a tangible framework on how to break free psychologically from the ravages of a decaying industry. Putting simple faith in a “can-do” philosophy isn’t enough.

Still, I do hope the folks at Knight continue to encourage budding news entrepreneurs this way:

“It was about changing minds. We wanted the campers to see themselves not as beaten-down employees in an ailing field, but as sharp thinkers, entrepreneurs in a thriving marketplace.”

More tales of journalists and reinvention

Some of the latest links from the world of journalists-in-transition, and the state of the profession as it relates to where they are in their careers. I’m trying to keep this forward-thinking, if not always as hopeful as I’d like to feel about where we go from here:

“What would I do if I weren’t a reporter?:” Tracy Gordon Fox went from covering crime for the Hartford Courant to studying to become a nurse, and now is an emergency room volunteer at a Hartford hospital. “I’ve come to realize that the work habits I had developed as reporter — taking copious notes, staying focused, finishing what I started — had translated into good study habits. And my experience in dealing with people as an observer has been very helpful in my current role.”

Like daughter, like father: Former Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Sam Fulwood III writes about being on the job-hunting path with his daughter as she graduates from college. “So far, the reinvention thing hasn’t worked out for me. It’s not so easy for sober and serious reporters to Twitter and Facebook our way into the affections of folks Amanda’s age, let alone the editors and publishers now clamoring to win their attention.”

Tweeting and branding: Dan Baum’s recent flurry of Twitter posts about being fired from The New Yorker is the kind of stuff that makes old-school journalists like Fulwood cringe. How Baum is employing this tactic to recreate his career is something that “branding” experts are driving home constantly. “He’s significantly elevated his personal brand, and his exercise highlights the increasing need for journalists to take charge and market themselves.”

Baum’s using Twitter to promote his new book, and that’s fine. But perhaps my reluctance to follow his example is because I’m struggling to figure out how to use these tools to get my work distributed without being crass and clumsy. I’m not saying that Baum is, although detailing why someone lost a job and Tweeting on about a former employer isn’t entirely professional. Then again, Baum’s getting an awful lot of buzz in the journosphere as a result.

I will not blog for thee for free: When the Queen of the Future of Journalism (aka Arianna Huffington) approached blogger and writer Dan Lyons (aka the Fake Steve Jobs) about writing for her hot ‘n saucy Huffington Post, she naturally dipped into her Leona Helmsley persona: “As you know, we famously don’t pay our bloggers.” To which he replied, “As you know, I famously don’t work for nothing.”

From expendable to experimenters: A student journalism blog at the University of Maryland, remarking on recent comments by Sen. John Kerry about new professional paths for laid-off journalists, poses a very obvious question: “Does this mean that the very journalists who were pushed off by failing print media will be the ones who redefine what journalism is and how it’s delivered in the aftermath?”

The very obvious answer, my young successors, is yes, it does mean precisely that. Because as you’ll see in the examples below, the institutions that once nurtured this journalism have largely squandered that responsibility.

A newsroom of their own: Some former Rocky Mountain News journalists are forging ahead with their own online news site after investors bailed out of a subscription -based model that didn’t come close to its aims. The idea here is enticing, but funding it is another issue that seems to hold little tangible promise right now.

Keep those clicks coming back: One of the leaders of online news ventures, Joel Kramer of MinnPost.com, writes about learning how to read traffic numbers to keep readers returning for more. “Frankly, we’re not sure exactly why our reader loyalty has grown so rapidly. Nor are we sure yet how to keep that momentum, or how to capitalize on it to help us achieve our business goal: breaking even by 2012 on revenues from donations by individuals, advertising and sponsorship.”

Kramer is a cold-eyed realist who’s plunging into the actual work of post-newspaper journalism that new media sages wax rhapsodically about. But he understands the odds are long and the challenges are steep for his enterprise to make it. He’s worth reading and following more than any of the gurus because he’s putting theories about online news into practice.

The rebirth of the news business: The Economist is optimistic about the transformation from print to digital but has no new ideas on how online journalism can be properly funded to meet this demand. “In the absence of profitable alternatives, it may be that expensive, worthy journalism on subjects like the war in Iraq will increasingly be supported by charity.” The Editors Web Log offers a critique of this critique.

“It’s the public, stupid:” That’s one of Geneva Overholser’s observations to attendees at the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. But here’s my favorite, one that I wish that journalism’s feuding doomsayers and utopians would heed but probably won’t: “Resist the urge to pronounce. This is not a duel. It should be a debate about the next steps for journalism in the public interest.”

Getting closer to where I want to be

I’ve been reluctant to say much about this, but I’ve been absent from regular blogging here in the last week or so because I’m nearing the launch of the sports site I’ve had in mind since I left my job nearly nine months ago.

By the first of June it should be up and running, at least in some barebones form. I didn’t imagine this project would take as long, from conceptualizing it late last summer to reaching the point of setting up a site, selecting a theme and a name, etc.

Sharpening the concept proved to be more difficult than I imagined. It seems rather simple now, as I went around in my mind and took many detours that led me back to my original idea. Perhaps it’s necessary to do this to test your idea against others, explore other possibilities and see what makes sense.

Stay tuned and bear with me over the next few weeks as I likely won’t be able to post much here. With all the dreary infighting cropping up again in the journosphere over micropayments, funding journalism and saving newspapers, it’s just as well. This squabbling is literally depressing me, with the print doomsayers and digital utopians ensnaring too many of us non-partisans directly in the crossfire.

I’ll give just a couple examples here:

• Frank Rich’s Sunday column in the New York Times about the future of news and specifically, how to pay for it. And Michael Wolff’s snarky tirade in reply, telling the entire newspaper industry to just go ahead and die.

• Rupert Murdoch’s plan to charge micropayments for some Wall Street Journal content, and Jeff Jarvis’ snarky tirade in reply, telling ol’ Rupe to bring it on.

And so it goes, the endless loop of competing absolutists raging on, firmly embedded in their trenches, happy to continue this jostling while the rest of us try to figure out how to navigate the rough waters of media transformation.

Today I have been heartened a bit more by postings from two people whose work I’ve come to admire; one a journalist, another a blogger.

• A sports blogger who writes passionately about the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team here in my city, raises the question: “Can Blogging Ever Replace Journalism?” It’s a thoughtful piece, exploring the pros and cons of both disciplines, and carving out the shared space for both to do the news and serve the public.

• A copy editor-turned-professor talks to a copy editor-turned-public relations officer about her career transition. Since staying in journalism is looking increasingly remote for many of us, myself included, her perspective is invaluable.

The big displaced journalists’ news roundup

I’m going to try something a little different here and offer a regular roundup of links related to displaced journalists and career reinvention. In light of the continuing butchery of newsrooms, there’s so much material that I’ve been gathering lately but that I’ve done nothing with on the blog, usually due to a lack of time to sort through them.

The trendy word for these roundups is “curation,” and it sounds a bit pretentious, like a lot of the new media jargon does. But like art museum curators who are well-versed in their subjects, journalists with expertise in their areas of specialty and some Web savvy can learn rather easily to “curate” the news. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for several years in my time as a Web editor and producer and never knew what to call it.

So why not start a curated blog post with a link about . . . Web curation?

From wire/copy editor to curator: Two of the most obsolete positions in print newsrooms contain within them the skills and news judgment to filter the Web. Helping people wade through the Web, identifying relevant links on a topic and explaining their importance to readers is an updated description of a job many journalists have been doing for years. My question: Yes, but how many of these folks are still employed in newsrooms?

Learning to add value: New media pioneer Jeff Jarvis ditches his usual jargon with a heartfelt plea to journalists to think hard about how they can make their work more useful to readers. Doing more original reporting is part of this equation. Nice concept, of course, if you can convince your superiors to let you operate this way. In whittled-down newsrooms, this kind of journalism is rapidly becoming a luxury. For freelancers, getting paid for the true value of this work is a pipedream. I speak from harsh experience.

Are you a “complete journalist?” Former newsaper journalist-turned-entrepreneur Mark Briggs defines that term with five elements he maintains are essential to do good work on the Web. They are multimedia skills to accompany, not replace, the ethics, news judgment and passion that the best journalists have always valued.

Fired in the press box: Columnist David Steele was one of three Baltimore Sun staffers laid off while covering an Orioles game last week. He recounts his gut-wrenching experience, including his inability to send a goodbye e-mail to his colleagues after getting the news. His login and password had already been cancelled.

From buyout to broke: Former Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Delma Francis has a chilling tale of her life since leaving that paper and not being able to find work. As a fellow buyout-taker, this one had me reeling. Francis calls herself the poster child for the middle class unemployed.

A brutal reprieve for the Boston Globe: That newspaper figures to be gutted heavily after the local Newspaper Guild chapter agreed to pay cuts, furloughs and relinquishing the lifetime job guarantee for nearly 200 newsroom employees. It’s still publishing, but that’s about all.

David Simon: Dead-Wrong Dinosaur: I’m no fan of Gawker, the jewel of media mogul Nick Denton’s snark Website empire, but this headline summing up Wednesday’s “Future of Journalism” hearing on Capitol Hill is spot-on. Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” is a former Baltimore Sun reporter outraged at what’s happening to newspapers. But his prescription for “saving” them, and his doubts that bloggers — citizens and journalists — can effectively report on their communities are skillfully dissected. Without the snark.

Another big newsroom farewell

Sorry for the gloomy tone in my last post; I just didn’t have it in me to blow sunshine up anyone’s bell bottoms last week.

On Friday I cheered up quite a bit visiting with former colleagues who departed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the latest round of buyouts. Like my group’s farewell party in August, we huddled at Manuel’s Tavern, a famously warm and eclectic Atlanta watering hole, with journalists passing around cold pitchers in one room while in the next a birthday party featured a calypso band.

The circumstances were not pleasant, of course — 70+ more people out the door (including some layoffs) following my buyout group of 73 eight months ago, which followed the departures of around 50 journalists a year before that. A newly reorganized newsroom is less than half what it was two years ago, and I truly feel for those staying behind and soldiering on.

But for those who just departed, it was time to celebrate their work and recall the camaraderie we shared, especially during some very rough recent times.

That’s what I miss the most about not being in a newsroom. And it’s what absolutely tore me up a few months ago while I wrote this “Life After Newspapers” essay at the request of the University of South Carolina School of Communications. Perhaps my thoughts sound terribly naïve and idealistic and are totally divorced from the scenarios that many journalists face after they leave newsrooms. If so, I stand guilty as charged. I’m trying to take the long view, but the attitudes of many of us understandably are being shaped by the rather grim realities of the moment.

So I cannot possibly imagine what the Boston Globe newsroom has been like this week, or what it will be like for the next few weeks as negotiations between the New York Times Company and the Newspaper Guild continue.

The Guild is the only one of seven Globe unions that hasn’t agreed to major concessions that likely will include massive job cuts. Could the future of that newspaper company really hinge on Guild objections at removing the “lifetime guarantee” job status for 170 journalists?

In my 25 years in newspapers, I never worked for one that had a newsroom union. So I have no idea what it’s like to be in a place in which labor issues are an integral part of the newsroom culture. For that matter, having a job with permanent security is something I never even fantasized about.

I’m sure there are quite a few Globe veterans who never thought a day like this would arrive. Their union negotiated for, and won them, this distinction that obviously is antiquated. Blame whomever you please, if you think you must; I’m not trying to assign it here. What’s happening in Boston is at best a no-win situation for everyone.

But Alan Mutter’s point is well-put: There’s no such thing as a guarantee. Certainly not in this industry, and in most others as well. It’s a frightening prospect that so many of us have had to contemplate in recent months.

I hate it that there will be no happy farewells for those working at the Globe, whether it stays in business or not.

Fighting through the blues about the news

This is a post I’ve resisted writing. I’ve been in a funk lately, one of the few true periods of melancholy I’ve had in this new stage of my career.

A couple of freelance writing opportunities that looked promising haven’t panned out, and they probably were never going to be as good as they initially sounded. It’s good to give people with ideas the benefit of the doubt, but I foolishly set aside my own ideas for too long waiting to find out.

I also spent too much time last week feuding with a curmudgeon – I really don’t like that word – convinced that there’s no hope for journalism on the Web. Not even 20 years of the Internet, and already it’s time to give up? Silly me, I tried to argue that the Web is in its infancy. There’s no way to counter an airtight, absolutist view, but I persisted to the point of frustration.

If that wasn’t dour enough, two appalling and deplorable stories emerged this week – in Chicago and Baltimore – that have me wondering about the morality of some of the people running the newspaper industry.

Is it not enough that they’ve run the industry into the ground? Must they also humiliate journalists and strip them of their dignity too?

One of the laid-off Sun staffers was too kind calling the machete-wielders mere “jackals.” I can think of quite a few other words but I’ll refrain.

I’m just glad Molly Ivins isn’t around to see this. Not long before she died, three years ago, she famously began a column this way:

“I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying — it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”

If she were here, she might describe what’s been happening as mass murder-suicide. It’s hard to call it anything else.

Later today, more than 70 of my former newsroom colleagues are leaving my old paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for good. Just like I did eight months ago, with buyouts in hand. I’m happy for them, because it’s a great chance to enjoy life and recreate their careers. But I’m also sad and angry that a number of others were summarily laid off a couple weeks back.

A redesigned paper has been all the rage this week. I wish more was being said about the people leaving and all the work they’ve done. And what’s going to be missing after they’re gone.

The future does march on and my former paper and others like it are facing horrendous odds in securing it. It’s too easy to claim that they have no one but themselves to blame for failing to prepare for it, because many journalists are guilty of the same thing. We shouldn’t need the prodding of editors to gain digital fluency and better understand how our readers consume the news.

I’ve got a lot of work to do in that regard, and I’ve generally been excited and re-energized by many of the things I’ve undertaken since leaving my job.

But right now I’ve just got the blues about all this, and it’s going to take a little while to chase them away.