Archive for July, 2011

Maybe it’s my print bias, but I have never liked that staple TV news convention, the live shot, in which a reporter on the scene tells someone in the studio what the news was. It seems artificial, creating the illusion of action (It’s live! On the scene!) through something that carries both the risk of unexpected errors or intrusions and also unproductive time — you have to go, you have to set up, you have to wait for your segment. And I have heard that situations like the one depicted above are not uncommon: While you are doing your live shot, something happens, but you can’t go cover it. (Although, as Mark Joyella notes in a post for Mediaite, this one produced some funny TV.) In this example, it’s an overcovered story, with hundreds of reporters on the scene, so this reporter’s situation poses no real loss to the public (but a loss to the reporter’s ego, and to whatever need the station management felt to “brand” the story with its own reporter). One would hope if something really important were happening, the reporter would excuse himself from the shot. In a time of dwindling staff, a better solution is needed, one that doesn’t tie up reporters just so they can talk on a live feed.

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Really Big Words toy for kids
Writers often are told never to use a big word when a small one will do. We’re told to aim for an eighth-grade reading level (that’s middle school, not even high school). But that’s a guideline or rule, not a law, so you will see and hear big words in news stories fairly regularly. Each year the New York Times prints a list of the words that its online readers have had the most trouble with, as measured by their use of the site’s dictionary function, and the 2011 version of the list provides, as usual, some examples of why you can’t always tell what the typical reader is going to consider to be a word beyond his or her everyday understanding. For instance, at No. 10 is “recognizance.” Really, recognizance? One would think many of those who didn’t learn the word in school at least had heard it used in a sentence by the judge explaining that they were being released on their own. (Along those same lines: “incarcerated” appears at No. 42.) And at No. 22: “cronyism.” Cronyism?! I cannot, as an editor, ask a writer to avoid using “cronyism” when confronted with a case of someone important surrounding himself with unqualified friends and supporters instead of people who know what they are doing. What would you say instead that takes less fewer than 16 words? And No. 49: “juggernaut.” What, did people think this was like a space program to send explorers into the jugger?

Sometimes I have sympathy — just a little — for the point of view of one writer years ago who opined (verb, meaning he expressed an opinion) that God forbid readers should have to grab a dictionary. “A what?” Exactly.

The Nieman Journalism Lab has loaded the words and stats into a spreadsheet, if you want to take a closer look at them in a different order than the Times presented them.

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what not to do
Web designer Brad Colbow points out a number of common news site features that range from irritating to enraging, and he titled the post “This is why your newspaper is dying.” They might be why people get frustrated with news sites (not just newspaper-affiliated sites) online, but they have nothing to do with the economics driving newspapers to cut staff and features, which derives almost entirely from advertising declines. Still, he has valid points on the user-unfriendliness of the practices he highlighted, and if you are among the unfortunate, overworked few in a position to reduce them on your site, you should look into ways to do it. If you are in a position to drive changes needed to reduce the less serious but chronic ones (articles that have no links to source material or related sites, even if they are mentioned in the story, for instance, or graphics shoveled from print to online with no adaptation for the new medium), chances are there are people on your staff who already have suggestions.

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The Reynolds Journalism Institute has a good news/bad news report on engagement. The good news is that newspaper editors “overwhelmingly say they think audience engagement has become an important part of practicing journalism. The unsurprising part is “they’re often not sure what that means or how to go about it,” but the bad news is “Not even half of respondents said that they use social media to listen as well as share information, that they interact with readers in comments sections, or that they use their analytics reports to help make news decisions.” Not even half? I’m not saying you have to go diving into comments and mix it up, though constructive interaction is a good thing, but at a bare minimum you should be paying attention to the comments on the website and in social media, and the analytics reports are as much a tool as your circulation sales numbers are — you don’t do a story just because it will get big numbers, but the numbers inform your decision on story play and promotion.

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Clay Shirky has produced another piece of what should be required reading for journalists, this time arguing the benefits of different news organizations trying many different things to either raise new revenue or reduce the cost of reporting. Much of the argument repeats the plain-English explanation of the economic underpinnings of the news industry and why those underpinnings no longer make the sense they did decades ago, but it bears repeating because of the many who still focus only on what the newsroom has lost and on so-called buzzwords that don’t fit traditional notions of journalism. Shirky rounds it up aptly:

“If we adopt the radical view that what seems to be happening is actually happening, then a crisis in reporting isn’t something that might take place in the future. A 30% reduction in newsroom staff, with more to come, means this is the crisis, right now. Any way of creating news that gets cost below income, however odd, is a good way, and any way that doesn’t, however hallowed, is bad.

“Having one kind of institution do most of the reporting for most communities in the US seemed like a great idea right up until it seemed like a single point of failure. As that failure spreads, the news ecosystem isn’t just getting more chaotic, we need it to be more chaotic, because we need multiple competing approaches. It isn’t newspapers we should be worrying about, but news, and there are many more ways of getting and reporting the news that we haven’t tried than that we have.”

7/11/2011 UPDATE: The Economist has an interesting series of stories on the evolution of the news industry. Particularly interesting is the installment Coming Full Circle, which argues that the Internet, “by undermining the mass media’s business models, that technology is in many ways returning the industry to the more vibrant, freewheeling and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era.”

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USA Today graphic
You might giggle at the sight of a weather graphic that makes it look like the sun is horny, and you might be ashamed at having the mind of a 12-year-old boy on such matters. But if only someone at USA Today had that, the paper wouldn’t be enduring several days of ridicule. As design consultant Charles Apple notes, citing several other examples, you need a dirty mind to be an editor in this business. Actually, it will help you in any business that involves putting words and images out for anyone else to see.

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As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I can sympathize with those who don’t like the use of “brand” in journalism conversations because it originated in marketing and advertising. The same applies to other words that have come into common use, such as engagement. But the world of journalism and all media has changed, so new words are needed. Got a better word to replace any of the ones you hate? Pitch it out there. Complaining about the existing word doesn’t help if you don’t have a better alternative. The buzzwords gained traction not because of an evil plot but because they are accurate, as Steve Buttry explains in greater detail than I could.

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The July column by South Carolina journalism instructor Doug Fisher, “It’s not rocket science, but …,” echoes thoughts I have had recently. The essential gist of the column is that for most of his life, basic journalism didn’t change all that much, and it really was pretty basic:

“But after helping to write a second edition of a convergence journalism textbook, I’m not so sure anymore. Less than five years since the first edition, the changes continue to be swift and amazing.

“The first edition tried to help journalists get over the reluctance, almost fear, some had of dealing with the changes roiling the business. We talked a lot about how to repurpose content, handle quick audio and still photos with digital recorders and cameras, and blog.

“Now, blogging is so 2007. In most newsrooms, it’s routine for many beat reporters. The journalist without a digital camera and recorder, even if both are just part of a smartphone, is becoming as rare as the snail darter.

“In the second edition, we’ve added dozens of pages on social media and journalism, business models, interactivity and other emerging topics, and we probably could have written more.”

My own thoughts along this line were spurred by the time I have spent the past month or so helping fill a gap in the editing schedule at the News & Messenger in Northern Virginia. Discussion of the website and Facebook, for instance, is routine and takes place throughout the day. But I know that’s not the case in every newsroom, and there is uneven progress — for example, some print newsrooms have instilled video as part of the normal routine, while others struggle just to remember to get raw video from things such as accidents or fires. Still, it’s a long way from the day 15 years ago when I felt the need to circulate a memo to my own reporting staff in Winston-Salem explaining why getting news first on the Web (which in the newsroom could be viewed from just four PCs set in common areas) was a good thing.

RELATED: Somehow I missed the declaration of Social Media Day, but I love this L.A. Times piece in which journalists say how social media has changed their jobs. From NFL columnist Sam Farmer: “It has made press boxes much quieter because everyone saves their best wisecracks for Twitter.”

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In a fairly egregious error, a North Carolina newspaper identified a vine that some say has grown up a pole into the form of Jesus on the cross as kudzu. I can tell just looking at the thumbnail image that it isn’t kudzu (the paper later corrected itself and identified it as trumpet vine), but come on. No one could tell before publication? Not the reporter? The photographer? The editor or page designer? You might not know what it is, but if you drive down rural Southern highways you ought to know what it isn’t. North Carolina ought to deport those involved northward.

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