Tag Archives: new media

Newsroom mystiques and blogger critiques

• John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News, leads off Monday’s media links parade by expressing the range of emotions of those who’ve left newsrooms in his Confessions of an Organization Man. I know the feeling well, and all I can say is this wild swing becomes a permanent part of a displaced journalist’s mindset: 

“I call myself a ‘free agent.’ And to be sure, I like the sound of it. Free. Agent. The kind of person I had always wanted to be. Self-reliant. Self-directed. And I’m intrigued by what may come.

“Yet there is a sense of loss, and not only for my own situation. I wonder what will happen if we end up in a media universe of free agents. I see more clearly what the journalists who come behind me might miss. Many won’t be able to experience the benefits of being part of an organization with a mission much larger than their own, with a history and traditions.”

For anyone else trying to get a handle the exciting but formidable challenges ahead, I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s book “Free Agent Nation.” It’s designed for freelance and self-employed professionals in all fields, and I’ve found great advice and encouragement in what Pink has to say.

The power of the newsroom: Howard Weaver, until recently a longtime news exectuive with McClatchy Newspapers, is good at spotting the common ground that’s possible for remaking journalism. Between the curmudgeons and the utopians, he finds plenty of room, in fact:

“Many of the people predicting the imminent death of printed news or counseling companies to shutter newspapers and spend all their money on the web are drinking their own bathwater. They have a vision – many times a clear and compelling vision – of what the shift to a digital, networked world will look like, but they’re in danger of leaping to conclusions that aren’t there.”

The decline of the newsroom: In a Q and A with Reason’s Hit & Run blog, “Say Everything” author Scott Rosenberg contends that not only is the well-staffed, well-resourced newsroom a thing of the past, but its supposed heft has been something of a myth all along:

“I don’t fully buy the newsroom argument that ‘We have resources that bloggers don’t.’ That’s an accident of history and an accident of the media business model. The truth is, sadly—and I say this as someone who worked for years at a newspaper—that most people who know a subject really well, when they read an account of their field in a newspaper, are if not appalled at least disappointed. There’s always something wrong. With occasional exceptions of journalists who just happen to be really great.”

Who are the “real” reporters?” Over at Mashable, Scott Schroeder piles on with the reminder that the blogosphere is not a monolith:

“The newspaper industry acts as if all the blogs were the same. A blog can be a lot of things, but if we look at those that bring news, then it is a cheap, flexible, scalable, news publication platform. In other words, every blog is exactly the same as New York Times, only more scalable and more flexible. There are blogs with one writer who writes about his/her cat once a week. There are blogs with a full staff who write 20 posts per day. Some blogs only do opinions. Some do rumors, some do original reporting, some do reviews, and some mix two, three, or four together.”

When errors fall through many cracks: The New York Times still employs layers of editors to look over copy, but somehow several sets of eyes missed the many mistakes Alessandra Stanley made in her Walter Cronkite obituary. Clark Hoyt, the paper’s ombudsman, has detailed a process that reveals a set of priorities with as many flaws as the article in question:

“The Cronkite episode suggests that a newsroom geared toward deadlines needs to find a much better way to deal with articles written with no certain publication date. Reporters and editors think they have the luxury of time to handle them later — and suddenly, it is too late.”

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik made the transition from the print to electronic world, and now with his employer’s growing emphasis on the Web is truly a multi-platform operator. He’s also got a healthy, well-rounded perspective on what’s necessary for journalists to take forward:

“Despite the snark and dismissiveness of some of my online peers, some tremendous reporting occurred in the old models that are now cracking apart, and that reporting was read and seen by mass audiences. Yet I’m also very intrigued because of the ways advances in technology have reduced the barriers to entry into the field — every person can be his or her own network — and are altering the way people help shape the news they consume.”

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Readings: Massing, nichepapers, “Free” bashing

On Fridays I like to serve up some long-form material on digital media, suitable for weekend reading. As always, journalism on the Web is a hot topic, and particularly Chris Anderson’s snippy interview this week that has even a few online evangelists a bit incredulous.

Good news about news on the Web: At The New York Review of Books, longtime political journalist Michael Massing offers a prodigious assessment of the evolution of news into a print/Web hybrid. He points out the Internet’s shortcomings — including it being “a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications.” But after examining the work of Andrew Sullivan and Talking Points Memo, among other pioneering political bloggers and news sites, Massing likes much of what he sees happening online:

“The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.”

Massing admits all this is unsettling, and remains concerned about how good journalism will be funded. But his lucid, empirical argument is a refreshing alternative to the either/or shouting into caverns of the digital divide.

Niches as news institutions: Web media entrepreneur Umair Haique, writing on the Harvard Business School blog, goes beyond railing against old media tendencies to charge for online news. “The Nichepaper Manifesto” argues in favor of news structured into distinct, dynamic and inviting ways for readers to interact and respond — via a curating method he calls “commentage.” And he claims that the “superior economics” of this idealized model will be the foundation for the future of news:

“Nichepapers do meaningful stuff that matters the most. The great failing of 20th century news is that monopoly power became a substitute for meaningful value creation. At root, that’s the lesson that newspapers are learning the hard way.”

However, Haique doesn’t address the economics of how this news is to be created and which is at the root of the raging debate over “Free.”

Hate to interrupt your triumphalism: Blogging superstar Cory Doctorow’s takedown of “Free” is more devastating than Malcolm Gladwell’s. Doctorow’s not a defensive print journalist but an author who has posted his new science fiction novel online for free. Ultimately he can’t embrace Anderson’s thesis because of what he leaves out:

“Also missing in Free is the frank admission that for many of the practitioners threatened by digital technology, the future is bleak.

“For while it is true that Madonna and many other established artists have found a future that embraces copying, there will also be many writers, musicians, actors, directors, game designers and others for whom the internet will probably spell doom. And for every creator who loses her livelihood because she is unsuited to the digital future, there will be many more intermediaries – editors, executives, salespeople, clerks, engineers, teamsters and printers – who will also be rendered jobless by technology.

“It is possible to be compassionate about those peoples’ fortunes – just as it is possible to mourn the passing of mom-and-pop bookstores, the collapse of poetry as a viable commercial concern, the worldwide decline of radio serials, the waning of the knife-sharpening trade, and a million other bygone human activities – while still not apologising for the future.”

Come on, just say the “J” word: In a contentious interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, an annoyed Anderson insisted he doesn’t use the words “journalism” and “media” any more. The same for “news.” In fact, he proclaims that “the words of the last century don’t have meaning.” Because there’s no need to rely on time-honored sources or methods to find out what’s happening in the world:

“It comes to me, which is really quite common these days. More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters. We’re tuning out television news, we’re tuning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news. It’s news that matters. I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted by those I trust. So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.”

His “journalism as hobby” line naturally has some old print tribes up in arms. But general readers ripped into Anderson when he chirped about how much he gets his news from Twitter, and sounding like someone who thinks milk comes from the supermarket instead of the farm.

“Oh dear, Chris, get back on the planet:” Roy Greenslade, media writer of The Guardian, admonishes Anderson for his semantic stubbornness:

“I count myself as a passionate advocate for new ways of practising journalism. But I do believe there is something called journalism. I do believe we there is still something called news.”

After rave reviews of “The Long Tail” (which I read and liked), the response to “Free” has been mixed from the start. I think he’s largely correct in assessing how individuals are consuming and sharing news, and that journalism increasingly may be left to hobbyists. But I was surprised by his smugness and agitation when challenged to back up his claims. Then again, new media gurus aren’t used to having their views challenged.

I haven’t read Anderson’s new book (it’s not “Free,” but a hefty $26.99), so I’ll reserve a more complete critique for later. For now, he smacks of an old media pontificator who doesn’t like being upbraided, even in the slightest.

And Anderson’s embrace of a postmodernish verbal relativism — which goes beyond mere vocabulary — leaves me stone cold. Words do have meaning, and how they’re used matters even more.

New-look NPR.org a welcome sight for sore eyes

Some recurring eye troubles that in recent weeks have had my optometrist prescribing one medication after another to alleviate inflammation also have prompted me to step away from the computer for longer spells.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve been muttering to myself about the decline of newspapers. So much easier to read! Nothing to turn on and boot up. Etc., etc.

Yet what’s in them, generally speaking, is more watered-down and less interesting than ever, especially as the possibilities of how the news can be organized on the Web continue to amaze. They’ve remained only possibilities in many instances, however, because of the tendency of news sites to clutter up their main pages.

So when I first started tooling around the redesigned NPR.org site, my eyes feasted on the simple, horizontal and clean look, the well-organized visuals. How easy it was to roam around and find something without having to strain, or type in a search phrase that may not yield what’s being sought. Prominent subject tabs across the top and down the left sidebar have helped solve this issue tremendously. As opposed to the former vertical arrangement of the NPR home page, this new point of entry is a vast improvement. Picture 1

I like the philosophy behind the redesign and how NPR really means to make itself as a multi-platform organization. It’s doing more than talking about it in some abstract future.

I haven’t yet dug down deep to try out the bells and whistles and many other features on the NPR site, and I’m not sure how other mainstream news organizations — especially newspapers — can, or will want to, learn anything from this.

But I do hope that as the digital realm becomes the increasingly dominant distribution system for news consumers of all ages, media organizations will appreciate that some of us aren’t always going to find mobile devices, as they are available now, an ideal way to get the news, and to share it with others.

This isn’t to retrench into my old print foxhole. I’m not alone in finding it occasionally difficult to read what’s on cell phones, PDAs, Kindles, etc. for the simple reason being that the viewing screens are just too darned small.

While Spokane multimedia journalist Colin Mulvany admits to loving his iPhone, he longs to have a larger “touch tablet” at his disposal, a prospect I find immensely appealing:

“My 47-year-old eyes struggled to read the text. If only my iPhone was 2 or 3 times the size. I would be able the browse with out squinting. A touch enabled tablet, with an unlimited data plan would allow me to view text, multimedia and video in ways the smart phone struggles with today. This is a market segment that is only getting started.  It has the strong potential to disrupt not only newspapers, but magazines as well.”

The implications that such a tablet would have on the future of print publishing, already in a precarious state, would be even more pronounced. More importantly, Mulvany imagines how coming mobile advances, and the devices created around them, might further transform the journalism profession:

“New high-speed 4G cell phone networks are now being rolled out. Soon the pipes for all this future multimedia content will open wide. It will change how journalists tell their stories. For many of today’s journalists, this new paradigm will be the deal breaker. For others, these new opportunities will present unique challenges that will drive the future of digital journalism to new and exciting heights.”

Just get me one of those touch tablets, and I’m on board with this.

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.

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.”

Kvetch of the Week: ‘F**k new media’

So says the head of the Columbia Journalism School’s “Reporting and Writing 1” curriculum that covers the essentials of . . . well, what do you think?

Professor Ari Goldman was reacting heatedly to plans to include more digital components in his course. New York Magazine takes it from there:

“F**k new media,” Goldman said to his RW1 students on their first day of class, according to one student. Goldman, a former Times reporter and sixteen-year veteran RW1 professor, described new-media training as ‘playing with toys,’ according to another student, and characterized the digital movement as ‘an experimentation in gadgetry.’ “

“Goldman’s official take on the situation is considerably more measured, and he insists he is not against new media. ‘They need to know the ethics and history and practice of journalism before they become consumed with the mold they put it in, because the mold will change — the basics won’t,’ he says, explaining his outburst.”

I don’t disagree at all with Goldman’s conception of the fundamentals. I’ve often wondered how current and recent journalism school students have found the time to ground themselves that way while learning the tools of the trade, which consist of a lot more than the notepad and audio recorder I used most of my newspaper career. His kvetch resonates, to a point.

But to say that mastering multimedia and other skills is nothing more than “playing with toys” suggests that Goldman is more hostile to the world of “gadgetry” than he lets on. It’s not the tools, but what you do with them. This shouldn’t be hard to understand.

Columbia academic affairs Dean William Grueskin says of the revised curriculum, “Where the thinking needs go is from a skill set to a mindset.” This is certainly a big issue for mid-career journalists trying to add Web skills to their print repertoire. And the divisions that pervade the professional ranks are taking place on campus as well:

“We have, clearly, two camps: the new school and the old school,” says Duy Linh Tu, the coordinator of the new-media program and Grueskin’s right-hand man.

Either we figure out a way to blend in the new realities with the best traditions of journalism or we can forget about upgrading the profession for the future. That’s a rather important task that isn’t getting done anywhere fast enough — in the newsroom, on campus or among freelancers and journo-bloggers in their jammies.

It’s not the tools, but how you use them

When I first made the switch from print reporter to Web producer, I never thought I’d acquire the initial technical skills that seemed so daunting.

That first month on the Web felt like purgatory, indeed the ninth circle. I was convinced I was not put on this earth to do HTML coding or understand the bizarre quirks of a non-user-friendly content management system (aren’t they all?). Was I just another “printie” sent to the Web side to die?

When I finally licked the essentials of posting stories, blogs, photos and other content, Webworld had another surprise in store. My steep learning curve had only just begun.

Nikki Usher of the Online Journalism Review writes that the most valuable skill set goes far beyond mastering the toolbox:

“It’s not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it’s whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.”

Not every journalist is going to be great at all the multimedia bells and whistles they may learn. I can vouch for that. She mentions the “Standing Up for Journalism” pilot I attended at the Poynter Institute in November where I learned audio and video skills that I found especially valuable. I haven’t managed to place my pinkie in the lens of a video camera yet, but give me some time!

But I know what my Web strengths are. After my initial freshman hazing period, I got to be very good at understanding what journalism works best on the Web and how the tools and the Web itself have altered the nature of that journalism. Most importantly, I was able to use my new expertise to help translate these concepts to other print-oriented journalists grappling with a formidable new way of thinking about their work.

Not only did this breakthrough re-energize me, but it prepared me for the substantive work of being an online journalist. Usher again:

“Multimedia training doesn’t need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, “not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution.”

“Journalists don’t have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.

“The truth is that most skills boot camps don’t turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.

“But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.”

You must get skills you don’t have. University of Florida professor Mindy McAdams has begun a series on multimedia proficiency for reporters that I think is ideal for any journalist new to the subject. Here’s her introductory post.  There are plenty of easy how-to tips on audio and video as well as starting a blog that she details in 101 format.

Here’s a helpful introduction to Web services by Shawn Smith at New Media Bytes that reporters would be wise to get acquainted with. I would add all journalists can benefit.

And if you’re as intimidated by all this Web stuff as I once was, the folks over at the Old Media, New Tricks blog are very good at explaining it in language you can understand.

Gina Chen of the Save the Media blog writes passionately about the need for journalists to embrace new media. It starts with the tools, of course, but there’s so much more to learn from there.

I learn from these sites, and many others, every day. I’ve listed some in my blogroll under “Online-J Tips.” The sooner you start playing around with the tools, the sooner you will gain the understanding and insight needed to do good journalism on the Web.