Monthly Archives: June 2009

What I should have told a recent journalism grad

I felt rather buoyed this morning after e-mailing a reply to a thoughtful young professional journalist seeking my impressions of her news start-up. Wrote I:

“I do see that there is, and will continue to be, a vital role for journalists to use their news judgment and training to filter through information on the Web and present it with intelligence and insight for readers/viewers, just as old-school editors have done for many years.”

Oh, so earnest is all that! A short while later I came across a despondent print journalism grad who wrote into Salon’s Cary Tennis for career advice. How about this for an old-school response that has made me insanely envious:

“If you are a true journalist, the world is going to kick your ass. If you are a true journalist, you are supposed to be having a hard time. This is how the world makes writers. It kicks their ass long enough that they start finally telling the truth. They just finally give up and start bleating out little truthlets.”

That’s just the first graf. Kid, you still there? Well, listen up. The rest is a classic stream-of-conscious ramble, including this riff from an amazingly long gonzo-ish graf that must have been banged out on mescaline:

“We think of Sartre. We read Boswell. We picture the harsh levity of a drunken Samuel Johnson and think to ourselves, well, things could be worse. We think of Samuel Pepys on London Bridge getting blown by whores. We think of him singing with his wife and friends in the parlor. We think of him being treated, again, for another venereal disease. We think of Neanderthals scratching on the walls of caves. We think of their flutes 18,000 years old, the music they must have played, the fears they must have had; we wonder if they thought about us, their descendants, trying to figure out our VCRs.”

Kid, don’t leave now. We’re just about to reach the crescendo, where we confront the current state of the profession and figure out what the hell to do about it:

“We stand paralyzed before the fire, like animals watching their habitats burn. I can see what’s happening but am also somewhat paralyzed, doing an essentially 19th-century thing in this 21st century medium. . . .

“It’s a weird world but it’s interesting and fun. Fuck the little stuff. Don’t worry about your career. Find a story and write about it, and stay off the streets if you’re drunk.”

My media affliction, identified; seeking a cure

Just as I unwound from Friday’s rant about media coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, Doc Searls applies a salve to what’s been ailing me:

“Most of us can’t help falling into conversational black holes. But we can help getting sucked into celebrity obsession.”

As I’ve been thinking about what I wrote yesterday — and posted on some other blogs — I realize I got sucked down the even more tempting rabbit hole of obsessing about celebrity obsession. My enmity for pop culture is at the heart of this.

My reaction also was triggered by a fear that my profession was headed down the Pigalle path of OJPalooza. And with the cause of Jackson’s death to be speculated upon for weeks, and his personal physician gone missing,  I’m sure cable news, Huffington Post and other outlets suffering from post-election reader/viewer drops will get a big boost. How nice for them, how dreadful for those of us who at least occasionally try to glean some news and intelligent insight from them.

And then the New York Times explicates how “TMZ was far ahead in its reporting depth.” Stop the inanity!

Help me! I’m getting obsessed again! Searls’ main point about the Jackson attention is that it is one great big time and energy suck:

“I submit that obsessing about celebrity is unhealthy for the single reason that it is also unproductive. Celebrity is to mentality as smoking is to food. (I originally wrote “chewing gum” there, but I think smoking is the better analogy.) It is an unhealthy waste of time. And time is a measure of life. We are born with an unknown sum of time, and have to spend all of it. ‘Saving’ time is a rhetorical trick. So is ‘losing’ it. Our lives are spent, one end to the other. What matters most is how we choose to spend it.

“The Net maximizes the endlessness of choice about how we spend our time. It also maximizes many kinds of productiveness. Nearly all the code we are using, right now, to do stuff on the Net, was written by many collaborators across many distances. Some were obsessing about what they were producing. Others were just working away. Either way, they chose to be productive. To contribute. To work on what works.”

Thanks for the prognosis, Doc.

No old/new media divide for junk journalism

As millions wondered Thursday about the fate of Michael Jackson, a leading Web entrepreneur groused on Twitter about that darn mainstream media:

• “@latimescitydesk confirms TMZ report that Michael Jackson is dead. 30 minutes later CNN will not give TMZ credit. very odd.”

• “Why wouldn’t @CNN reference the reports from LATimes and TMZ that Jackson is dead? They could say ‘unconfirmed by CNN…’ “

To which another self-styled “technology evangelist” replied:

• “Old media arrogance. Simple as that. If they don’t report it, it’s not worth citing.”

And back to our entrepreneur, with his nose still out of joint:

• “finally, almost an hour later, CNN reports on CBS and LA Times reporting michael jackson dead–but no credit to TMZ.”

As it turns out, TMZ, a celebrity news site, did get this right. And first. But that’s beside the point.

TMZ's 24/7 coverage on MJ incudes live-streaming
TMZ's MJ coverage, with all the multimedia bells and whistles.

Consider what’s being discussed and argued about here. Giving credit where credit is due — about the death of a celebrity. No small celebrity, to be sure, but a celebrity whose tabloid life has long been the subject of morbid media fascination. From the celebrity as well as the mainstream press.

We have individuals on the new media vanguard, frequent commentators about the future of journalism, who in this instance (and many others) would rather kick old media in the pants for its supposed “arrogance” in not giving TMZ credit for a “scoop.”

The “old media” may not have gotten this story first, but who really cares? Is this the sort of story we want serious news organizations to hotly pursue in these times of newsroom layoffs, slimmed down news holes and shrinking aspirations for what they cover? I certainly hope not.

Neither do I think are there any “lessons” for breaking news to be drawn. And is “traditional media showbiz coverage” endangered? Yawn.

Fans and news cameras outside Michael Jackson's home, a common assembly after a celebrity death. (The Guardian)
Fans and news cameras outside Michael Jackson's home, a common assembly after a celebrity death. (The Guardian)

My indifference isn’t because because I loathe pop culture. But Michael Jackson hasn’t even undergone an autopsy and media wags are obliviously performing an inquest on a genre of journalism that has seriously devalued the profession for most of my time in it.

The same newspapers that in recent months and years have been gutting local arts, books and cultural coverage also have been wasting resources chasing down stupid celebrity and “fark” news for decades. CNN, chided a week ago for allegedly being slow to cover the Iranian protests, is now getting lectured for not giving props to a gossip blog with a reputation even in Hollywood for shaky factual accuracy.

Long before the primacy of the Web, there was the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, when I was in high school. Local television news outlets rushed to record stores (yes, we had vinyl back then, digikids!) to find an ample supply of blubbering middle-aged women clutching albums featuring the King. The weeping was ceaseless — this was the heart of the Deep South, too — and so the cameras rolled, and we were treated to this outpouring of grief for days, weeks and months. We were led to believe this was really important news. It crowded out everything else.

A Graceland candelight vigil 30 years after the death of Elvis. (BBC)
A Graceland candelight vigil 30 years after the death of Elvis. (BBC)

As the Web was hitting its early stride in the mid 1990s, we were subjected to the O.J. Simpson soap opera that in my estimation is when mainstream media credibility took its fateful post-modern nosedive. That was followed by the global sobfest over the tragic death of Princess Diana, who a decade later is still not allowed to rest in peace.

And now we have Michael Jackson, whose lifespan neatly coincides with the approximate time that the mainstream media has thrown itself on the altar of popular culture.

His death is noteworthy, and I’m not arguing against covering it. Pete Hamill has stated that he’s not against celebrity journalism but “it must be journalism.”

But what we’ve gotten instead, far more than any serious reporting that explains our obsession with celebrity worship, is the conscious pandering to empty souls who wait outside a hospital and speak of a departed pop star as if he were family.

With all due respect to the Tweeting individuals cited at the top, “old media” is far more out front in this regard than the digital savants imagine.

In other news, the entire staff of journalists at a newspaper owned by Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi has been arrested. Where is the perspective when it’s truly needed?

“We’re already saying, Neda who? Stick a fork in this protest movement. It’s feeling done. Sad how the trivial can change history.”

Rekindling the single-minded pursuit of passion

I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks working on the creation of two sports Web sites — one of my own and another startup idea with a friend. Both revolve around topics I’ve written about extensively during my newspaper days, and that I have dabbled with on the Web.

These topics brought out the passion in me to a point where some former colleagues wondered — sometimes within my earshot — that perhaps I was a bit too narrow in my interests. Who’s going to read this? Who cares about those “small” sports? Reality, as they defined it, was being crowded out.

Then reality did bite, and it chomped down rather hard on my little dream creation. After a couple of years of changing supervisors and the gradual chipping away of my hybrid beat, the only job I ever wanted — and one I had invented myself — was going away altogether. In one of many newsroom reorganizations at my former place in recent years (far too many to count), I was going over to the Web side of the operation.

I welcomed the change not only to learn some valuable Web skills, but also because I had become burned out and beaten down by the constant merry-go-round in the newsroom. The passion had been drained out of me, and so for most of the four years I worked on the Web site, I buried those passions and poured my energies into the world of online journalism.

While I’m glad I did the latter, I have regretted putting aside the sports passions that marked my work as a reporter. Since leaving the paper 10 months ago, I’ve been stoking those fires anew. While it’s impossible to feel the same surge of excitement at reporting and writing on a beat for the first time, I’d be foolish to toss away the the contacts, expertise and ideas I generated over the years. Especially when so many people I’ve gotten to know on those beats have been asking me if I’m going to “come back” someday.

Well, yes, I can say that I am making a comeback. I’m very close to relaunching my old beat on the Web, but in the split-up, niche ways that the Web demands. Which I think is ideal. Instead of writing for a mass audience, I’m honing in on those readers who are intensely interested in the subject and will aim to provide content and value they cannot get anywhere else.

The obvious question here is this: So, are you going to make money off this?

Clearly, not at the start, and while one of the sites has a business model in mind, it’s one that hasn’t been tested. So I’m not making any assumptions about cash rolling in.

There’s no magic bullet here to fame or fortune as a blogging journalist. If you go into a blog with that in mind, you’re bound to fail. Without the passion for your topic, there’s no way even a non-commercial blog has a chance of being noticed, or of giving the writer an ounce of satisfaction. I believe that’s probably why so many blogs go away as quickly as they were begun.

When I read this week that a leading NFL-oriented fan blog was being purchased by NBC Sports, I thought it was a fantastic victory for the idea of media convergence that I wholeheartedly support. But I truly love the story of Mike Florio, a West Virginia lawyer who started because of his unquenchable passion for the sport of pro football:

“I try to create the place where I would want to spend my time if I was on the other side of the screen. Where would I want to get my information about the NFL? What stories would be interesting to me and how would I want it to be presented? Would I want it to be just a cold, dry recitation of the facts, or would I want it to be something that makes me think, that makes me upset, that stirs my opinions and makes me laugh from time to time?”

Isn’t that a great mission statement for anybody starting a blog? Isn’t that what journalists have been trained to do all along?

All along, Florio kept his day job as a lawyer, but now he’s going to give it up to write full-time for his site, which he began seven years ago.

When Alex Ross, the respected classical music critic for The New Yorker, toots another critic’s horn, that’s truly high praise. Pierre Ruhe, until recently the full-time classical music critic at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my former paper, has begun an Atlanta arts site with fellow ex-AJC critics Catherine Fox (visual art and architecture) and Wendell Brock (theater) after all three took recent buyouts. Ross, who like many of us has both feet planted on either side of the media divide, raises the usual questions about whether such ventures can sustain the journalists who started them. Any journalist worried about what is being lost with the decline of newspapers should keep this in mind:

“I’m generally a fan of the wacky world wide web, but I don’t believe that it will put traditional journalism out of business, any more than television replaced movies or recording replaced live performance. The false either/or of Internet vs. print should be put to rest. And publications should emphasize their strengths and not their weaknesses.”

Andrew Sullivan’s passion for rounding up the best news content on the Web and posting it on his well-read blog, The Daily Dish, has made him an indispensable curator and commenter on a number of major news topics over the years. But his work last weekend in conveying on-the-ground developments from Tehran following the controversial Iranian presidential elections is earning raves all across the blogosphere, and not just from fellow political and current affairs junkies. The terrific Open Culture site claims Sullivan “has been embarrassing America’s traditional news media” and adds:

“I ask, somewhat facetiously, would we really miss the beleaguered newspaper industry if it went away? Not this week, we wouldn’t.”

Of course, Sullivan has been a traditional journalist for many years, blending that background with blogging. And he’s a rare paid, full-time blogger too. But if you have some time and want to understand his journalistic transition, his “Why I Blog” piece for The Atlantic last fall is a classic, if lengthy, manifesto.

It also oozes with the kind of passion that’s necessary for anyone to have a chance of making something happen on the Web.

Creative directions for self-directed journalists

Some mostly positive tales of journalists carving out new post-newsroom paths for their work, a hopeful assessment of the increasing maturity of the Web, plus a couple of childish kvetches or two from the usual suspects:

• At PBS MediaShift, Simon Owens writes about a group of British soccer journalists who’ve created an online news collaborative, covering specific teams and sharing in an ad network. Rick Waghorn, the site’s creator, thinks the concept might be tried in the U.S. as well:

“What you could do is rather than being a Tuscon reporter who flies to LA one week and New York the next, instead you can just swap your content with your network partner in that city.”

There are no guarantees, of course, but ideas like this are starting to get tossed around on these shores. Disclosure: I’ve been having informal discussions about being involved in similar projects, but the tricky issue is, naturally, how to pay for all this. As Simon says: “But given that many reporters are finding themselves laid off in a market with a shrinking number of employment opportunities, such a gamble may be their only hope of staying in the game.”

• Some former newspaper photographers are doing likewise on the multimedia front, selling their work to non-governmental organizations and other non-profits. For those still working in newsrooms but not confident of their longevity there, jumping into new ventures carries some risk:

“Another award-winning newspaper multimedia producer who asked to remain unidentified says he’s produced a project for one corporate client, and now has a lucrative project offer from another. He says he’s in a quandary about whether to quit his job. On the one hand, he expects to be laid off sooner or later. On the other, he worries about finding enough freelance corporate work to support his family.”

• A young online journalist who’s been a great help to me over the last couple years is taking the leap. Shawn Smith has been planning this move for some time, learning about Internet and social media marketing and search engine optimization. All of these fields may seem hopelessly complicated for printheads like me, but if you want to continue doing journalism on the Web, you’ve got to familiarize yourself with them. Smith insists he’s not leaving journalism behind but instead, “I’m going after a dream of mine that I think I have a real shot at achieving.”

That’s what I like to hear. Congratulations and best wishes, Shawn, whose beginning blogging series is aimed at journalists and is something I highly recommend. His advice to those wanting a career on the Web is to go a lot further than that:

“And another thing, if you don’t have a blog, facebook, twitter, youtube, delicious, digg, stumbleupon and reddit account, get it now or you don’t even meet the status quo. No one is going to teach you. You have to learn it yourself …. that is until I publish an e-book this summer.” 🙂

• Don’t be a blockhead by being a volunteer journalist. So says Jeffrey Seglin, a contributor at the new True/Slant collaborative, which does pay journalists some change not only to write, but to interact with readers and provide compelling content:

“Your work has value. If you start giving it away for free, then it diminishes that value and makes it harder for others to charge for their work as well.

“Forget all the talk about ‘new revenue models.’ You either get paid or you don’t for your work. If you decide to or agree to write for free, you go into that relationship knowing precisely that ‘free’ is the ‘new revenue model’ to which you agreed.”

Romenesko follows up: “The obvious question for Seglin: Did pay you for this essay?” It hasn’t yet been answered.

• Internet curmudgeon Andrew Keen made a killing off Silicon Valley, only to renounce the Web universe as hopelessly amateur, undermining the work of professionals, including journalists. But BBC technology blogger Rory Cellan-Jones argues that Keen’s pronouncements may be outdated:

“What is now becoming clear is that it’s much harder for amateurs to get an audience. Who, for instance, are the most successful bloggers? Well, many of them are actually old-fashioned professional journalists working for mainstream media organisations which pay them to blog.

“The professionals have woken up to the power of Web 2.0 – and are moving in to colonise it.”

• The decline of newspapers has meant a staggering loss of work for full-time editorial cartoonists, as Daryl Cagle has been tracking, and whom I wrote about here last time. (And now the dean of the Canadian brethren has been unceremoniously let go after nearly a half-century.) Those penning comic strips and creating crossword puzzles for newspapers are facing grim prospects too. New York Times puzzle editor and NPR “Puzzlemaster” Will Shortz tries to explain it away:

Honestly, most people are making puzzles cause they love it — they just love the process – and they’re anxious to see their names in print. They’re not doing it for the money.”

Just like Arianna’s army of volunteer bloggers. They wouldn’t think of being compensated for it! No! Please! Forget that Seglin guy! He’s a bloody fool!

Shortz does pay his freelancers $200 for a daily puzzle and a cool grand for the Sunday Times, “but since he publishes the work of more than a hundred puzzle makers a year, nobody’s making a real living at this except him.”

• Speaking of which, the Queen of the Future of Journalism really got the Rosenbaum treatment from a former editor, someone in her employ for barely a month, and in the august pages of The New Republic. What was supposed to be a review of her new book turned instead into a full-blown jeremiad against her whole life, and not just the many opportunistic career reinventions she’s undergone. A snippet of Isaac Chotiner’s helplessly entertaining screed:

“The truth is that The Huffington Post is not just supplementing a print media that has long been dominated by newspapers. It is also helping to destroy newspapers. The trials of print media have been explored at length recently in a number of settings, both print and digital, and for good reason. But some tough questions must be asked also about the powerful digital interlopers. . . . If print media disappear, what on earth will digital media write about? What happens, as newspapers keep closing, when the new media can no longer rely on the reporting that Huffington has for so long pilloried?”

Chotiner is off-base suggesting that news aggregators are destroying newspapers, because that industry’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.

• One of Arianna’s biggest new media goombahs, the man who was the subject of Rosenbaum’s ire, isn’t merely content to bash the journalistic establishment. Jeff Jarvis has found a new dying industry to kick while it’s down. To him, Detroit = newspapers:

“The mass market is dead, replaced by the mass of niches. I don’t want the same car you want. I want choice. Hundreds of microfactories can give it to me.”

Really, GM, this guy’s not bluffing. Give him his hundreds — no, thousands — of microfactories, because nothing less will sate him. Ignore this warning, and you’ll be subjected to an unyielding barrage of breezy sloganeering and utopian verbiage that will make your head explode. Don’t believe me? Try reading his book.

As the ranks of volunteer journalists grow

MSNBC cartoonist Daryl Cagle, who’s dutifully been chronicling the diminishing numbers of his fellow political sketchers, lets a Huffington Post contributor have it for carrying on Queen Arianna’s Newspapers Are Dead drumbeat:

. . . they crow about how they are the next new big thing in journalism – although they operate on round after round of venture financing, without a sustainable business model, stocked with content from volunteers.”

Cagle’s passionate defense of his tribe, however, didn’t get much sympathy in the comments section — of his own blog!

His point about HuffPost’s venture capital-backed business model is a salient one. Huffington is pledging to spend some of the new money on an investigative reporting fund and has hired a top Washington Post editor to direct the project.

Which is all very well and good. She still doesn’t know what business models will work for online journalism, but is convinced it won’t be via subscriptions, which she claims are ideal for “weird porn” and little else.

I do believe Queen Arianna is serious about bolstering journalism in the digital age, though the recognition she’s getting is causing more than a few stomachs to churn. She’s been willing to entertain prospects that few old media entities will touch, including, most notoriously, requiring an intern to pay for the privilege of working for free.

What will she do when this pile of money runs out? Will she link to some “weird porn” on HuffPost to generate real revenues? Talk about page views!

It’s easy for her to sit on the high-profile pedestal she enjoys, with some of the precious few venture capital dollars that are being dispensed these days, and make her typical sound-bite remarks. She’s got the indefinite ability to keep buying time and spend money to find something that will work. Many other journalists freshly ejected from newsrooms don’t have that luxury.

A large group of bought-out journalists from the Newark Star-Ledger is forging ahead with a local news site that has done well with page views, but is unlikely to provide a living wage for the forseeable future:

“Not only is no one getting rich, but also no one has come close to cracking the code on a sustainable business model. Even absent trucks, newsrooms and administrative costs, making the calls and reporting is an arduous, expensive endeavor.”

I would love for this storyline to play out happily and heroically, but I know better, having been involved in a similar startup that is on hiatus because of a lack of funds. How much time do you give some of these folks before they’ve got to start looking for gainful employment? When they have to curtail or end their volunteer journalism is when a venture like this collapses, and I truly hope that doesn’t happen.

While the treatment in the New York Times is nice, that’s not going to pay the bills, either. All the new media gurus who flap on and on about this being a wonderful time to experiment with the future of journalism are in the same exalted spot as Queen Arianna. With their consulting gigs and academic tenure they’re not under the gun to decide whether they can afford to be part of that future. The bad economy is only a temporary cover for what remain speculative ideas that have yet to be truly tested.

I don’t mean to sound impatient; we’re still at a very early stage of a huge transformation in media. And not just in journalism, as other media professionals are experiencing the fallout even more harshly.

So we’re the “Lost Generation” then? That’s rather a self-absorbed phrase. It is sinking in about what we’re losing (aside from our jobs), and the gap between the journalism that’s vanishing from newspapers and what might fairly replace it online may be deeper and take longer to bridge than first imagined.

It’s a sobering time for reflection as well as preparation for the future, whatever it may hold for many of us who thought journalism was going to be a lifetime pursuit. Yet I can’t imagine what freshly minted j-school graduates are going through.

Their task might be even more Sisyphean than those of us Boomers who’ve at least had a couple or three good decades in the profession.

Which is about the time it might take for journalism to reach the Digital Promised Land.