Explaining a long hiatus

Ink-Drained Kvetch is back, with a new look and feel and what I hope is a fresh outlook as I resume posting about journalism, media and digital trends and how mid-career types like me are adapting to them.

My absence here was far too long and not intended, but I found out the hard way what many bloggers discover — these things are easy to start and hard to maintain.

My last post was a few months after I had begun working as a local editor at AOL’s Patch community news initiative, and what happened after that became the most consuming job I’ve ever had. I loved it in so many ways, but it was unlike any job I’ve ever had.

That position was eliminated in January, quite a few months ago, but I also encountered another common blogging experience: Not feeling like you have anything worthy to say.

One of the reasons I posted less and less often here was that I preferred doing the news rather than writing about doing it. There are so many sharp, perceptive people out there commenting about these matters, people whose insights have been invaluable to me.

But I’ve learned, as I skimmed through old posts, that writing here did help me in my work, and in my understanding of what was happening in news and media innovation.

So I want to revive this blog as I embark on yet another phase of my journalism and media career. I’ve got several options I’m exploring and know that coming back to these topics here will be helpful in these prospective endeavors.

Ink-Drained Kvetch also was the first blog I ever started, launching shortly after I left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008. So much has happened in my profession and industry since then, and I remain as energized about these challenges as I’ve ever been.

So I decided to give the blog a face lift with a new design, and I’m updating my links and blogroll to reflect what’s transpired in these six years. WordPress.com has gotten so much better too, with snappy themes like the Twenty Thirteen look here, and improved dashboard features that make blogging simpler and more enjoyable.

I was up all night — until 5 a.m.! — retooling this site, and I’m not quite finished. I haven’t done an all-nighter like that in years but I was so happily immersed in the process. You know the feeling when you’re perfectly in your element: You forget to eat and bring in the cat. I’m paying for it today, but I feel like I’m starting over again, and in many ways I am.

It remains hard as hell to continue doing a living in a business that you love, and especially a business that has been brutal to so many practitioners who have loved it even more. What I learned from my last job was how to become resilient in truly profound ways. The Patch experience also rekindled a love for local news, and I saw the possibilities to revive community journalism and civic engagement — and that is best done in independent fashion.

Indeed, it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover the joys of the work I did at the start of my career,  when my perspective was that this was a stepping stone to bigger and supposedly better things.

I’ll be writing about all of that very soon.

The utopia of the engaged elite

In his final retort to Jay Rosen during a recent online journalism debate at The Economist, Nick Carr tries to throw water on all the clucking that we’re in a golden age of journalism:

“Outside the new-media hothouse, people do not have the luxury of spending their waking hours tweeting, blogging, commenting, or cobbling together a Daily Me from a welter of sites and feeds. They are holding down jobs (or trying to find jobs). They have kids to raise, parents to care for, friends to keep up with, homes to clean. When they have spare time to catch up on the news, they often confront a wasteland. Their local paper has closed or atrophied. The newscasts on their local TV stations seem mainly concerned with murders, traffic jams and thunderstorms. Cable news shows present endless processions of blowhards. America’s once-mighty news magazines are out of business or spectres of their former selves.”

And there’s this:

“I understand how a member of the plugged-in elite would assume the internet has improved journalism. If you spend hours a day consuming news and producing opinions, the net provides you with endless choices, diversions and opportunities for self-expression. For the news junkie, the net is a crack house that dispenses its wares for free. But if you look beyond the elite, you see a citizenry starved of hard, objective reporting. For the typical person, the net’s disruptions have meant not a widening of options but a narrowing of them.”

I’m not totally on board with Carr’s blanket assertion that “net has eroded journalism’s foundations.” And his last sentence deserves a fuller critique than what I’m examining here.

Those building blocks have been under assault for a few decades in the old media world, with corporate excess and poor management far more devastating than any technological developments that have driven down the cost, and value, of content.

While I’m not in the plugged-in elite, I do see the potential for reshaping solid journalism on the web. I agree that Rosen, perched safely in tenured academia, does get carried away — willfully, I think — with his certitudes about new ways of doing the news. It’s easy for him to get excited, since his livelihood doesn’t depend on whether those experiments succeed or not.

Since leaving print behind three years ago, I’ve been involved in a few very limited efforts, most of which never had a chance and in fact never got off the ground. Currently I am making a living with one of the more ambitious projects to date, and this opportunity was not easy to come by after two years without steady employment.

While I remain hopeful about the possibilities — as well as the necessity — for something to work, I also operate with the daily reminder that none of this is guaranteed.

Is Net Neutrality on the line?

All bloggers, writers, media professionals or anyone else using their online presence to do business should keep a close eye on what The New York Times reported yesterday: That Google and Verizon may be close to making a deal whose effects could dash the whole idea of Net Neutrality:

“At issue for consumers is how the companies that provide the pipeline to the Internet will ultimately direct traffic on their system, and how quickly consumers are able to gain access to certain Web content. Consumers could also see continually rising bills for Internet service, much as they have for cable television.”

The concern for content creators, as well as consumers, is that corporate media that already uses branding and professional search engine optimization advantages could push independent sources further on the fringes, marginalizing if not outright silencing a variety of voices on the Web that haven’t existed in old media. Northeastern University communications professor Dan Kennedy, hardly a Chicken Little commentator, calls this “The closing of the Internet:”

“Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.

“Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.”

Google, which has been an advocate for Net Neutrality, says the Times report is wrong; CEO Eric Schmidt, by the way, has been a technology advisor to the Obama Administration, which supports Net Neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission has called off what had been private discussions with Google and Verizon in wake of the revelation of the meetings. Self-described “Google fan boy” Jeff Jarvis has some conflicted thoughts.

Some critics, like tech writer Henry Blodget, claim this isn’t about Net Neutrality but rather the ability of Internet Service Providers to charge what they can for premium traffic:

“Net-neutrality zealots don’t own pipe companies. They haven’t spent billions of dollars building the networks that carry all those bits around.  They HAVE spent (collectively) billions of dollars building the bits that get carried around–so of course they’d like to keep that bit-carrying as cheap as possible.

“In other words, it’s obvious why most of the net neutrality folks are humping for net neutrality: Because it’s in their economic self-interest to do so.  And there’s nothing wrong with humping for your economic self-interest: Everyone in this country does it all day long.”

Ditto for Jeff Eisenach on the conservative Daily Caller, pointing out that private investment has fueled much of the growth of broadband. Much of this issue, in fact, hinges on whether the FCC has the authority to regulate broadband services.

On complicated matters like these I generally defer to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has its own concerns about how the FCC has gone about this piece of business.

Assorted journalism links for May 27

Lots of good links from around the journosphere that I’ve found especially helpful, intriguing or worth paying attention to for other reasons:

A writer’s search for journalism in the age of branding — Maureen Tkacik is a young journalist, but her battered, whirlwind experiences make her sound like my jaded generation of printies. She does wish we would dispense with some outdated notions about holding ourselves outside of a story.

For me, an enduring frustration of traditional journalism is that what training you do get centers on the imperative to discount and dismiss your own experiences in pursuit of some objective ideal, even as journalism simultaneously exposes you to an unusually large variety of experiences. The idea that it might be a good thing to attempt to apply insights gleaned from those experiences to future stories—let alone synthesize it all into any sort of coherent narrative—rarely comes up, unless you’re a columnist. This can be an especially torturous dilemma during the inevitable low point at which the journalist—this one, anyway—comes to believe that the only feasible course of action (given the state of journalism) is to secure a six-figure book deal, and commences filling her off-hours in a feeble attempt to ‘write what you know.’ I know a lot of things, taunts the endless negative feedback loop, but none of them is how to make six figures.”

More than a few readers, by the way, suspect Tkacik isn’t as serious about her ideas for journalism as she is building her own brand. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

(h/t Kyle Whelliston)

• Death of a newspaper career — Oregon print journalist Adam Sparks stopped taking the newspaper after returning from vacation, and eventually he stopped going into his old office at the Register-Guard in Eugene — by choice:

“It’s scary to lose your job and have your livelihood taken away, and, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a bit terrifying to be stepping away voluntarily without a landing place lined up. I’ve had my career goals in place since high school, and it’s unsettling that, after all this time, I have no specific aspirations. I’ve got a lot of ideas, and have already encountered a few possibilities, but this is still a giant leap into the unknown, without a parachute or a safety net.

“There’s a reason it’s called a ‘comfort zone,’ and a reason most people don’t seek to leave it.”

Sparks has started his own news site, and is seeking freelance work. Welcome to the diaspora.

3 Underrated but essential skills for journalists — Mark Luckie of the fine 10,000 Words blog says they’re math, design and interpersonal skills, the often-caricatured unHoly Trinity of  the ink-stained wretches. I could definitely improve in all three, but the “people-person” reference didn’t help articulate his final point. Any good grizzled editor would strike that as a lame and vague reference and ask, not entirely sarcastically: “What does that mean?”

I think the point  is to better serve readers. You do that by having conversation and exchanging ideas, typically now via blogs and social media. As for “the ability to communicate with a total stranger,” this is not a new skill. It is about building relationships, as that cliché goes, and it is the essence of good reporting and source-building, no matter the platform. Traditional journalists who successfully have done that in print and “old media” — with sources, officials and readers — are doing it in the digital realm.

An investor’s tips for budding news entrepreneurs — On the heels of the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp comes some smart advice from early-stage investor Robert Arholt. I especially like his remarks on the advantages of bootstrappers who want to stay independent:

“They continue to hold their destiny in their own hands. Having investors means bringing in not only capital, but additional perspectives and goals.”

Thoughts on redefining journalism, Part 2

A recent commenter on a post I wrote here some time ago clarified some thoughts I was trying to make on “redefining journalism” by reminding me it wasn’t necessary to go that far:

“In my opinion it isn’t a matter of ‘redefining’ journalism. The definition hasn’t changed.

“It is, as has been somewhat indicated, a matter of changing how we pursue and execute the craft.”

Last week Salon co-founder and “Say Everything” author Scott Rosenberg laid out one of the most succinct definitions of who’s a journalist, and what it means to be doing journalism today. It might make traditionalists squirm, but it’s not a redefinition at all. Rather, it’s an understanding that what journalists have always done isn’t limited just to those of us who’ve done it for a living.

It’s one of several compelling media and journalism pieces I’ve been reading in recent days and excerpt below:

No more bouncers at the journalism club door:

“The law should stop trying to protect journalists, and instead protect acts of journalism. Any time someone is pursuing an accurate and timely account of some event to present to some public, he or she should be protected by the law in whatever ways we now protect professional journalists.”

How to Save the News:

“A decade ago, Jon Stewart was not known for political commentary. The news business has continually been reinvented by people in their 20s and early 30s—Henry Luce when he and Briton Hadden founded Timemagazine soon after they left college, John Hersey when he wrote Hiroshima at age 32. Bloggers and videographers are their counterparts now. If the prospect is continued transition rather than mass extinction of news organizations, that is better than many had assumed. It requires an openness to the constant experimentation that Google preaches and that is journalism’s real heritage.”

The Atlantic’s James Fallows demystifies — without coming across as too much of a fanboy — Google’s experiments to bolster journalism online. Fallows goes beyond interviewing the usual Holy Trinity of Google executives — Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin — and talks to the engineers, former journalists and others in the Google trenches. A very long piece, but worth taking some time to read and absorb.

Do journalists need to learn to be programmers? Yes and no:

“I think the ability to mark-up some HTML and understand why <span>, <div>, classes and IDs are important for CSS and Javascript is essential for anyone publishing on the web.

“But my answer is that no, journalists don’t all need to be able to write programs, but the ability to think like a programmer is an invaluable skill.

London-based information architect Martin Belam, who’s been a developer for The Guardian’s lauded website, offers a relieving thought to former print hacks like me who are overwhelmed merely by dabbling in this stuff. Still, there’s a big jump in conceptual thinking involved here that goes far beyond mastering basic HTML and CSS.

What Web Media Can Learn From Print:

“When you hear someone say they like ‘holding” a paper in their hands what they really mean is that reading online sucks. It doesn’t have to be that way. The most popular news sites on the Web look horrible and do little to promote actual reading. It amazes me that when pundits talk about the fact that people skim instead of read online that they assume that that can’t change.”

Web designer Bud Parr says Web publishers who can create a better online reading experience will thrive. But we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.

Fear, loathing and privacy on Facebook

Bipartisan Congressional action on anything — much less social media privacy?

The latest furor over the most recent Facebook changes comes as a House Democrat and Republican are soon to introduce legislation that would regulate what information Internet companies could make public and allow users easier opt-out procedures.

In truth, this bill has been in the works for almost a year, but the timing of making it available for citizen comment as many Facebook users are up in arms over “instant personalization” is interesting, to say the least.

I’m becoming increasingly disturbed by Facebook’s deceptive explanations for what it has been doing, and more than irritated by founder Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that nobody wants privacy any longer. Speak for yourself.

His company is scouring every possible avenue for revenues, and I’ve got no problem with Facebook making money. I don’t post anything there that I want to keep private. The same goes for Twitter, my blogs and other places where I post online. It’s exercising simple common sense.

But I and millions of others signed up for Facebook with the understanding that we could control what information got out on search engines and to the general public.

Now Facebook is taking away those options as it becomes an even more dominant — if not the most dominant — figure on the social media landscape. Under Zuckerberg’s ethos, you ought to believe that you should want to share so much more information, photos, etc. with your friends than you’re already doing. This of course, serves Facebook’s bottom line interests.

My bottom line is this: Facebook has betrayed the original trust it offered to users who signed up under their real names, with closed networks and required confirmation to add friends.

Facebook is a terrific place for me to stay in touch with former colleagues, old friends and family members out of town. As an avid social media participant, I love seeing how individuals consume and share news and other information, and I respect the power and command Facebook has created within one vast, self-contained environment.

That’s why Facebook is banking that so many millions of users simply cannot do without it, and therefore won’t take action to delete their accounts. Even though there are growing reasons to do so.

But while I’m unsure about the wisdom of government intrusion — and where it might go from here — Facebook has crossed a line that doesn’t appear to concern Zuckerberg.

To help cut through the confusion and Facebook’s facile language about privacy issues, I suggest following the updates from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s an amazing resource.

So is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, especially, as Chrys Wu reminds us, with this being Privacy Week.

I think I have locked down information from my account that Facebook has no business distributing without my permission, and that I can still control. But there’s no way of knowing for sure.

Or what Facebook will do next.

Journalism/Media/Web links for April 27

8 Ways for Entrepreneurial Journalists to Think Like Business People:

“Many, many businesses have failed where the income statement showed things were great, but they didn’t have cash. Cash flow is ‘the lifeblood of your business.’ ”

Bias Or Balance: Media Wrestle With Faltering Trust:

“Five or 10 years ago, the conversation about trust and the media would have triggered different results. But people no longer volunteer so many complaints about reporters making up stories, as they did in the wake of the scandals involving Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today. And concern over how stories are slanted no longer comes just from conservatives. It comes from all quarters.”

72 Marietta — I Still Love You:

The Journal and Constitution hated each other then — a deep, healthy hatred that was a beautiful thing. The first time in history when the Constitution out-circulated the Journal was on Aug. 17, 1977, when the morning rag reported Elvis Presley’s death. I never forgave Elvis for dying on Constitution time.”

Terry Gross: What I Read:

“I really don’t keep up with bloggers. I suppose I should feel guilty about that but my goal in life is to get away from the computer. Time spent reading blogs takes away from the time I should be spending preparing for guests. It’s hard when you’re doing a show like Fresh Air and you’re talking to musicians, theater people, actors and experts on every subject. You have to make peace with the fact that you can’t keep up with everything. It’s more information than you can possibly absorb.”

Think Again: The Internet:

“Today’s Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the ‘freedom to connect’ lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights. Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world.”

Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information:

“The new connections features benefit Facebook and its business partners, with little benefit to you. But what are you going to do about it? Facebook has consistently ignored demands from its users to create an easy ‘exit plan’ for migrating their personal data to another social networking website, even as it has continued — one small privacy policy update after another — to reduce its users’ control over their information.”