Tag Archives: reinventing journalism

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.

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The long, slow grind of solo journalism

Former Cleveland Plain Dealer travel editor David Molyneaux is continuing his passion for writing about faraway places as a freelancer. With two failed Web ventures and other hit-or-miss experiences behind him in the last year, he remains generally optimistic that he’s on the right track to establishing a viable niche:

“It’s still not there. I’m still trying to make a dollar here, make a dollar there, sell a freelance story here, get on the phone, try to market — that hasn’t ended. Small time publishing, it has possibilities, but no guarantees.”

It’s a familar tale, and will continue to be oft-told in the coming years from others like him. Patience, persistence and taking the long view are vital ingredients to success in these ventures, and I admit there are times when they’re in short supply for me.

But I’ve got someone interested in talking with me about joining forces in a news site I’ve recently begun, from a marketing and monetizing standpoint. The editor of another blog covering the same sport has asked me to be a guest writer for his site. Barely two months after starting this blog, I’ve drawn some encouraging attention.

There are no guarantees, as Molyneaux pointed out, but his story is one that is important to keep in mind. He’s packed a lot into the last year, as I think I have done. There are times when, despite so much churning, one feels as though mere spinning in place is all that is accomplished.

I’ve learned to understand that this is a customary feeling to have. Great ideas don’t always yield desired results, but the key is not to dwell on them. In a large newsroom culture, the feeling of defeat deepened if a story idea fell flat. It could work against you in the eyes of superiors and when the time came for evaluations. Taking a risk that backfired could be a career-changer, and not in a good way.

The brave new world of solo journalism, despite the long hours and long odds of success, doesn’t punish its practitioners that way. That’s why I think so many of us soldier on, especially those of us who are newsroom refugees. The feeling of creative freedom can very well be fleeting if we can’t figure out a way to make a living from this.

But it’s absolutely worth it to find out.

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.”

The big displaced journalists’ news roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: All hail the grim reapers

Naming this week’s winner was especially tough, given the plethora of candidates on either side of the old media vs. new media tug-of-war that competes for the emotions of journalists in transition or those who are soon to be in new career mode.

The pro-print cranks are back with a vengeance, clinging even more desperately to their ink-stained view of the world. Or proclaiming that the fate of democracy hangs in the balance.

So are those who think the print cranks are sentimental saps who have no one to blame but the people who’ve led their industry off the cliff. And who haven’t done democracy any great favors lately.

While I’m firmly in the new media corner, some of the poobahs of the movement have sounded even more utopian as the labored breathing of the printed press grows worse. Some lofty and worthy ideas are occasionally undermined by hyperbole and self-importance.

A friend’s first impressions of reading “What Would Google Do?” nails this perfectly, and she’s not from the world of journalism or new media: “The author is wonderfully impressed with himself.”

Fortunately, we have a nice little (and rare) piece of satire on this subject from Paul Dailing of the Huffington Post, who has decided to be a “Death of Newspapers” blogger. Unlike Dan Kennedy, I don’t think this treatment is unfair at all. If good journalists are supposed to question grand pronouncements from politicians and other public figures, then they also ought to scrutinize the visionaries who have positioned themselves as the gurus of a rapidly transforming profession.

Like any good satire, Dailing’s little ditty contains some serious shots that haven’t resulted in much blowback from the intended targets. If that’s not the case please correct me, but for now enjoy the new Kvetch of the Week, albeit one that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek:

“I’ll join the ranks of Jeff Jarvis, Paul Gillin, Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky in competing to see who can use the most jargon to describe something everyone knows is happening.

“Apparently, it’s very simple. The more you self-reference, pick feuds and talk about the failure of TimesSelect, the better you’re doing. If you make it sound like you’re the one who figured out newspapers are dying, you win.

“I mean, the point’s not to fix anything. It’s to describe the problem more dramatically than the next guy.”

Their methodology is finally exposed:

“Basically, imagine a group of people watching a building burn down and bickering amongst themselves about whether it’s a conflagration or an inferno. It’s like that, but with consulting fees.

“Talk about how everything online is wonderful, everything paper is crap and then use the online to pimp your upcoming (paper) book. Bonus points for talking about how much you love the New York Times at least twice per blog post. It’ll help your credibility. You love the Times, but . . . ”

And Dailing “quotes” one of the sages, an ex-newspaper hand, who explains how he got all geeky and then lays out a euphoric future for the news that is all sunshine and daffodils — except for those doing the news:

” ‘This computer thing,’ my editor said to me one time in 1983, ‘I don’t get it.’ And I think about that conversation a lot. It’s a perfect example of how newspapers have botched everything connected to everything new ever. Granted it was one conversation with a 72-year-old man back in the era of Flock of Seagulls, but that didn’t stop me from making it the title of my upcoming book, ‘This Computer Thing, I Don’t Get It,’ coming out in October from Obsequious Press.

“In TCTIDGI, I talk about how people will still create professional-level journalism will still exist in an environment where there’s no incentive to create professional-level journalism. It’ll all be done online, for free and will be better . . . somehow. The best and brightest journalists will pull out all the stops for no pay, I swear.

“Really, reporters don’t even LIKE having health insurance.”

Here’s the link again, and the comments section is interesting too.

Tough noogies and self-help for journalists

I shouldn’t have read The Economist’s leader on the “jobs crisis” over lunch yesterday. A few snippets:

“An American who loses his job today has less of a chance of finding another one than at any time since records began half a century ago. . . .

“Morever, many of yesterday’s jobs, from Spanish bricklayer to Wall Street trader, are not coming back. People will have to shift out of old occupations and into new ones. . .

“The bare truth is that the more easily jobs can be destroyed, the more easily new ones can be created.”

Ouch.

All very sobering realities for displaced journalists, who aren’t exactly getting a lot of sympathy for alluding to their plight so frequently. Even in the wake of the closures of newspapers in Denver and Seattle, and the possibilities of more in Tucson and San Francisco right around the corner.

Over coffee this morning, I read media economics expert Robert Picard tell the journalistic set to get over itself in a post entitled “The Overblown Journalism Employment Crisis:”

“If you look at newsrooms you can see the problem. Most journalists in newspapers do everything BUT covering significant news. They spend their time doing celebrity, food, automobile, and entertainment stories. Look around any newsroom, or just the lists of assignments or beats, and you soon come to realize that 20 percent or fewer of the journalists in newsrooms actually produce the kind of news that most people are concerned about losing.”

“Maybe it’s about time that journalists stop whining about their troubles and initiate some internal discussions about how their own newsrooms are structured and operated.”

Ouch.

I don’t dispute that my profession has gotten terribly self-absorbed with the implosion of the newspaper industry, and using the powerful megaphones at its disposal to tell the world about it. But I wonder if Picard realizes how the trenches of a newsroom are organized and commanded.

Hint: It’s not by those whiny workaday journalists, even those few who might have the time to sit around the ol’ newsroom campfire and brainstorm new structures and operations that would most likely be ignored by management.

Lesson here: Refrain from reading such gloomy stuff while eating or drinking.

Mark Potts, aka The Recovering Journalist, offers a useful guide to what to do if you’re laid off. Perhaps the most valuable suggestion goes beyond the obvious and the practical to simply taking a deep breath, relaxing and viewing what might be a traumatic time as an opportunity for something better:

“Don’t freak out. You’re going to get through this. If you can hack it financially, take some time for yourself before plunging into finding a new job. You’ve been through one of life’s most traumatic experiences. If you can get away and take some time off to decompress, do it. It will really help your mental health and ability to move forward. And you may never get a chance again to take a mid-career break like this, for yourself or to spend time with your family.”

A former journalist reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog echoes that refrain:

“If I had stayed at the newspaper, I might be jobless with a rotted-out pension and a house that wasn’t worth its mortgage. Though I am still worried about providing for my child in this dismal economy, I am more confident than ever that I made the right decision when I abandoned my safe career to taste the broader glories of life. Because, as is now so overwhelmingly clear, nothing is ever truly safe.

“If this recession serves as anything, hopefully it will be a reminder that you should never compromise your ambitions in favor of the chimera of financial security. If you are inevitably going to end up in the poorhouse, you might as well get there by chasing the wildest of your dreams.”

Mary Ann Chick Whiteside, who’s taken a newspaper buyout and who also considers herself a recovering journalist, points to yet another survey of journalists like her by yet another journalism professor gauging the attitudes of what he calls the “lost generation of journalists.”

What he may be uncovering might not be the steady drumbeat of despair we’ve been accustomed to accept. Here’s the link if you want to participate.