Tag Archives: online journalism

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.

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Fresh and familiar takes on journalistic change

Because of my ongoing Web site-building project, I haven’t been able to post here as often or substantively as I would like. But below are some recent links to journalism and media topics that have been on my mind as I work toward a launch date that’s just around the corner.

(Some shorter, quicker notes I’ve been posting on my latest experiment in thinking out loud.)

There’s not an awful lot that’s new here for those well-versed in the online journalism field, but the constant drumbeat of change is perhaps driving the need to restate the obvious, or extend continuing debates:

An Epitaph for American Journalism:

“We need an aggressive, dynamic, highly technical kind of entrepreneurial journalism. One which will both teach and honor people who build new websites, create new companies, know how to finance them, grow them and sell them.

“Journalism has for far too long derided the business side of the business as ‘dirty’.  That is wrong. Plain wrong. Journalism is first and foremost a business. And without the income, there is no journalism at all.

“We have to abandon our notions of the noble ink-stained wretches forever in search of ‘the truth’ and embrace and learn to love making money.  (Turns your stomach to hear that, doesn’t it, you old ink-stained wretches?)  Too bad.”

Forces beyond anyone’s control:

“When the history of the decline and fall of newspapers is written — and wouldn’t it be grand if some genius came up with something to save us all! — there will be lots of blame assigned to complacent journalism executives. But I hope people understand that there were huge technology-driven social forces at work that couldn’t have been turned back by anyone.”

(via Andrew Sullivan)

Auletta on Internet disruption:

“When I hear people in traditional media today whine about, ‘Oh, woe is me, they’re doing these terrible things,’ I have no sympathy for that at all.”

Wild guesses won’t solve journalism crisis:

“With all due respect to my dedicated and talented colleagues, we need to try something different. Next time, we need to hear from people we don’t know, exploring things we don’t know about and examining potentially useful solutions we have yet to consider.”

Narrative is dead! Long live Narrative!:

“We needed a way of communicating that encouraged the evaluation of facts instead of the balancing of rhetoric. It’s a shift that requires a radically different theory of the press. . . Narrative isn’t under assault. The economic hegemony of mass media is, and with it go the fortunes of journalists who made a living via an advertising subsidy that went away.”

Guest Kit: ‘Life After Newspapers:’

“Something came over me, and I felt the urge to shout. So I did, tentatively at first, and then louder until I was screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘FREEDOM!’ over and over like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Then I remembered: in the very next frames of film, Gibson has his guts slowly spooled out of his body by the executioner. But, damn, this sense of liberation feels good. While it lasts.”

Journalistic minds shouldn’t think alike

A few links I’m finding helpful as I begin a critical week for a media startup project that’s soon to bear fruit. More details on that later; for now, some good reads about journalism, media and work, and the importance of shedding old ideas and ways of working that just don’t cut it any more:

New opportunity for laid-off NPR staffer: “Get out there! Feeling sorry for yourself and cursing the company for not placing more value on you is a waste of energy. Journalism (nay, any job) is not indentured servitude. We do it because we love it and we’re good at it. Re-purpose yourself. Meet people, exchange ideas and be ready for whatever the next big thing is. Take advantage of learning opportunities and be patient. Young people are the key, but don’t think because you’re not young and/or in school you don’t matter.”

No more pity parties for journalism: “It’s actually harder to get the more traditional journalists to sort of break their chains. It’s interesting. It is extremely liberating. It’s very absorbing. I mean, I just think it’s much more fun to be in a position where I can try to come up with a formula that works rather than just be part of a system that you are aware is crumbling around you — and to be unable to do anything about it, which is where a lot of journalists have been. It’s incredibly frustrating and it’s also a really bad environment in which to do journalism.”

Leaving a ‘traditional’ paper for a startup: “I feel, and still feel, that the newspaper business is in serious crisis. I’m not content to cling to a deck chair and go down with a sinking ship. We’re trying to prepare for the next incarnation of journalism. If this venture is going to work, it’s going to work because serious, talented journalists were brave enough to take the risk.”

Life and work after journalism: “I like to hire reporters. They know how to write, they know how to think, know how to go out and dig things up. And they know how to move quickly. To me, it’s still a noble profession.”

Working hard is overrated: “Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen.”

Seizing opportunities in niche journalism

When I read former washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady’s Q and A on the Columbia Journalism Review site over the weekend, I kept nodding my head, over and over. He was making quite a name for himself as a leader in online journalism as I was making the transition from print to the Web in the middle of the decade. In my former online newsroom, as in his, quite a buzz was building over the possibilities. I was excited to be part of the cutting edge of news innovation. And then . . .

“But a lot of other organizations were starting to hire people, more videographers, more database developers, and were putting more emphasis on getting the journalists who were at the newspaper doing stuff for the Web site. I feel like that’s taken a step back with the financial tsunami that’s hit in the last year. It seems like there’s less innovation going on across the board in newsrooms right now. That’s probably the biggest concern, is that the recession set the transition to the Web back. . . .

“And I guess that’s the other thing I’m starting to see across the industry right now, is that the Web side collectively at news sites seems to have a lot less freedom than it did two or three years ago, largely because it’s a victim of its own success. Web sites grew, revenue at the Web sites grew, it became increasingly clear that the Web was the future, and I think at that point there was a decision made at a lot of newspaper companies that the newspaper has to run this thing, it’s just gotten too important. And I’m not sure that was good for innovation.”

Brady left the Post several months ago, as the separate print and Web operations were to be merged. He’s now a consultant for The Guardian, one of the leaders of news innovation that’s trying to tap into a Web-heavy news consuming audience in the U.S. One of his main points of contention is that general interest news products are ill-suited to master the niche orientation of the Web:

“You can certainly build traffic through your areas of expertise. But I don’t think that producing a paper that’s great at 30 percent of the subjects it covers and OK at the other 70 percent really has much of a future on the Web, because it’s just too hard to compete.”

For journalists outside the newsroom structure, this is a marvelous opportunity to really carve out that niche now, sooner rather than later. I’ve written about this many times before, here and here, so forgive me if this sounds like old news. Newspapers just aren’t able, or willing, to devote reporters to go deep on beats as they once did. So many of them are scrambling to be generalists more than ever. The old saw about newspapers favoring breadth over depth has become more pronounced.

There simply isn’t an excuse any longer for a post-newsroom journalist not to have a blog devoted to their beat, to their niche. Never has there been a better opportunity to do this. If you’re looking for work, even freelance work, this is even more imperative. And yet, I’ve had conversations with journalists like myself, people I know well and who know how much I preach about this topic, who still don’t contemplate doing this. They blog for “fun” or post online the same kinds of stories they would for a newspaper.

One of the best examples of local, niche-oriented blogs in my city defined the growing trend of niche journalism this way:

“Be it laid-off writers or verbose jerks like me, the rest of us will be left with the unenviable task of figuring out what the population wants to read. Many of us will fail trying, overwhelmed by the demands of new media, too inflexible to experiment, or because we just can’t write worth a darn. However, enough will succeed and before we know it, a new, more diverse world of media will have emerged.”

Some other good reads on the topic are here and here and here.

Great advice from bootstrapping journalists

On Wednesday I posted here about a young, enterprising journalist who has taken it upon himself to carry on a local news tradition abandoned by a venerable newspaper in his community.

He’s hopeful but realistic about his venture, and he should be. Mashable! profiles some veteran journalists who’ve done the same thing, and their perspectives are very similar after trying their hand at “indie” journalism (hat tip: Shawn Smith). Some typical words of advice:

It’s a tremendous amount of hard work. If you want a nine-to-five job don’t do it. Advertising won’t be able to support you unless you have very high traffic and that will take time to build. The noise level is huge and getting louder, it is ever more challenging to stand out and build traffic.”

“I say do it. Not everyone will succeed, but I really believe that business is about gut instincts, hustling, and taking risks. Launching your own product is a part of how the market works — it respects people who have an idea and figure out how to make it a reality.”

This is what I’ve come to believe after a few months of dabbling with my own local site. As people like Tracy Record at the West Seattle Blog have commented here and elsewhere, it’s a full-time commitment like nothing else. It’s got to be an all-consuming passion/obsession.

I’m still in a testing-the-waters stage as I balance this project with some freelancing and contract work for others. Someone wants to help me monetize my site, and I love the chance to cover news that’s not being done in my area.

“The biggest startup cost is most likely going to be your time.” This by far is my biggest concern. Where to find the time to do what needs to be done on so many fronts?

I’m flattered that my take on journalism bootstrapping has been described as “nuanced, pragmatic.” Because while doing local, or hyperlocal, news sounds simple enough, it is fraught with complications and obstacles that can be cold shocks to former newsroom journalists.

But I suspect quite a few of us would rather be trying experiments like this than clinging for dear life inside a decaying media institution.

Getting a jump on journalism bootstrapping

A young journalist who lost his job when his newspaper was shuttered earlier this year is now the proud sole owner of that organization’s Web site. Another example of hyperlocal news, and journalism bootstrapping, has been born, and it has some built-in advantages that give him a boost starting up.

Nick Sloan, 24, purchased the Kansas City Kansan from Gatehouse Media and will be a one-man news operation, covering suburban Wyandotte County. It helps that this is Sloan’s home turf, and that he’s got an established and recognizable news brand — “The Voice of Wyandotte County Since 1921.” He’s also retained two major advertisers. Still, he’s philosophically realistic about what he’s getting into:

“I’m not looking to get rich off of this. At the end of the day, if I make enough to satisfy what I need to do, I’ll call it a success. I’m not being paid by anybody to do this. I have to earn my entire way and for now I’ll have to be reporting and selling. It’s going to be fun, but we’ll see what happens.”

There’s no story too small to cover — students of the month, thefts from cars and the fate of a library. Sloan’s clearly got the energy and background to succeed. He’s going to need it. As you can tell from the frequency and wide-ranging topics of the posts, this is more than a job; this is his life.

Earlier this summer I raised the issue of whether the prospects for hyperlocal news were overhyped. This was the wrong question to ask, as I think back on it now, and much too abstract. One of my beefs with the current discourse about the future of journalism on the Web is that it has been hijacked by utopians spouting esoteric jargon that even they probably don’t understand.

The people down in the trenches experimenting with models that fit their communities and their ideas of doing the news are being lost in the discussion, except when the sages are looking for examples of their theories in action.

It’s important to outline the possibilities for hyperlocal news, and to offer words of caution. But it’s also unfair to fold any single effort either into insanely optimistic projections of success or into a dismissive argument that they are unlikely to reach their readership or earning potential.

Each project deserves to be looked at on its own merits, in the context of the unique community and niche it serves.

Clay Shirky — a wise, but occasionally maddening guru in my book — touched on the topic of news experimentation yesterday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Dan Kennedy writes:

“And he’s also right to say that, no, newspapers really can’t be replaced. When you think through the dilemma on his terms, it’s clear why that can’t happen — never again will commercial enterprises be compelled through scarcity to subsidize journalism at a high cost and at little benefit to them.

More than anything, though, he’s right that we have to try. It won’t be one big thing; it will be many little things. We’ll fall short. But it’s better than doing nothing. And the challenge couldn’t be more exciting or important.”

Some light posting on the horizon

A major deadline looms for a sports media project that is nearing fruition after months of discussion and planning.

While I like to post something here most weekdays, I won’t be able to meet that frequency for the next several weeks.

Examining issues relating to media professionals and how our work and careers are changing is an important and ongoing topic. I consider it a vital exercise in professional development.

Now I’m putting much of that new training, education and understanding into practice like never before.

So please stay tuned.