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Archive for April, 2012

Niagara Falls
This morning brought me a good composite illustration of the evolving media landscape, at least a snapshot of it, that is so challenging for traditional news organizations to adapt to.

On Facebook, a journalist friend vented about local sites’ aggregation practices, which several times a day summarize and link to news her staff has reported: “It’s my reporters doing all the hard work! Am I looking at this wrong?” It’s a type of heartburn, but keep it in perspective: It has been going on since the first time a radio talker read the news on the air.

Nieman Journalism Lab reports on how NPR is trying a new strategy for rolling out new shows, aiming to simplify the process and lower the cost while also making use of social media. My first thought was it just shows that NPR, perhaps because it relies on grants and donations rather than advertising, has been somewhat insulated from the economic issues confronting print and commercial broadcast news organizations because it has been several years since I became used to hearing the idea of “fail fast, fail cheap.” But my second thought was that it illustrates one problem for traditional media: We don’t like to do anything just one time. I don’t mean stories, I mean columns, features, shows, sections, segments. We’re used to the idea of stand-alone news and features, but anything that we would do more than once, but not at least weekly and not for the foreseeable future, is a giant barrier. Any traditional news source is tremendously structured and formatted. The idea of predictability is roundly accepted as a plus, that people want to know what they are getting before they even try. Try telling a newspaper editor (not to pick on newspapers; this is just an example) that certain stories should run in larger type. At best, he’ll convene a committee to discuss it for a few weeks, and if they tend to agree they’ll run off test copies on the press and discuss it some more. So in that sense, even though many organizations have been preaching “fail fast, fail cheap,” almost no one really practices it. “Fail fast, fail cheap” means you go ahead and do it, and if it clear quickly that it isn’t working, you stop.

Finally, John Robinson explains what I would call the cognitive dissonance in a Pew study of news habits, which reported that “31 percent of people ages 18-24 get no news on an average day, and 22 percent of 30-34-year-olds get none either.” The nut of John’s argument:

“The 18-24 year-old age group is the ‘if-the-news-is-that-important-it-will-find-me’ generation. Those folks are on Facebook. They get news every time they log on. Their friends tell them the news in their worlds. (And for you not on Facebook, don’t think that they talk about what they had for breakfast.) This generation doesn’t immediately call it news the way we old-timers do, but when they watch, say, the president slow jammin’ the news, it is news. When they see the ‘Trending Articles’ foisted upon them by Facebook, that’s news. (Well, some of them are.)

“But if you ask them where they get news, the answer is Google and Yahoo and Jon Stewart and Huffington Post. It’s rarely actual, traditional, mainstream news organizations. The news may originate there, but they don’t identify those as the sources. And that’s one of the problems with using the generic term ‘news’ in a survey.”

And that right there is the larger issue: Not just young people but almost everyone now picks up news everywhere throughout the day. It used to be far more structured; the morning paper (or, before that, the afternoon paper), the evening TV news and whatever people talked about during the day that was passed on by word of mouth or that was big enough to warrant a news break on TV or radio in the middle of the day. It’s all atomized now, or it’s increasingly so.

A further illustration: Although I started my day with the morning paper, all of the above was stimulated by things I found online — starting with Facebook.

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A damp Wednesday morning in a small town in central North Carolina. People file into a tiny church (seating capacity approximately 100) for the funeral of a beloved writer, who was my wife’s mentor. A woman sits down next to me. She is a writer, from Winston-Salem. We three chat. She asks whether I, like my wife, am a writer too. I explain I am in the netherworld between newspapers and online: “I have a website where all of my company’s newspapers, which include the Winston-Salem Journal, can share th–”

“You ruined a perfectly good newspaper,” she says.

“I didn’t do it.”

“Ruined.”

Somehow I don’t feel up to a discourse on the economics of advertising, especially classified advertising, and how little any newspaper reader actually pays of the total cost of producing a newspaper.

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Late in the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times” — the SPJ Virginia Pro chapter held a viewing Saturday night at the University of Richmond — Times reporter David Carr tells a room of journalists in Minnesota something like (the quote may not be exact because I’m going from memory): “Don’t think about all the people who are gone. Think about the fact that you are still here.” It’s partly encouragement, partly a warning not to succumb to survivor’s guilt. It can also be taken — whether or not Carr specifically meant it that way — as an instruction to newsroom leaders: If you spend all your time thinking about the beats your news organization used to cover and all the bureaus everyone used to have but doesn’t anymore, you’ll paralyze yourself. You can’t stretch your current resources to make up for what has been lost and will never return. You have to think about what you have and what you need to do to best achieve your newsroom’s goals. Change the entire beat structure if that’s what it takes to get people to stop thinking of how things used to be done.

Back in the mid-’90s when I was an assistant state editor (a job that no longer exists at that paper), there was a reporter we had who was covering a county by herself against daily competition from three other papers. She seemed overwhelmed and was turning in briefs that were a day behind the competition, and she was not getting many stories because she was always trying to catch up. I and another editor (in hindsight, it was overkill to have two of us do this) pulled her aside one day and told her she needed to choose her battles. She couldn’t, all by herself, outreport all of her competition, so she needed to set her own agenda, pick what she thought was important, and if she got beat on something, well, evaluate how important that is on a case-by-case basis. We made her cry, which was not the goal, but she changed her approach, found her footing and became the reporter we all believed she could be. The situation currently facing newsrooms is not very different: You can’t do everything you want to do, so choose your battles.

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Regret
The category of “don’t do this on Facebook (or Twitter)” is a large one. While many examples stem from what I guess you might call youthful exuberance or failure to consider the nature of the first two Ws in World Wide Web, not all of them do, which is a good reminder for everyone who laughs off those mistakes as things they would never do. One such tale comes in Jay Rosen’s Anatomy of a Facebook Fail: Mine, in which he explains how he came to post a brief comment on Facebook that he wishes he hadn’t. Skipping to the caveat that any of us could tape to the bottom of the computer screen:

“… that’s exactly why I should have waited to post my comment: so I could examine it with a cooler eye. And that’s what it was: a comment (38 words) not an attempt to report on the episode.

“Still, I have 8,000+ subscribers on Facebook. I knew I was commenting publicly. I teach journalism and I study the Internet. I know a lot about how to avoid these things. That of course makes it worse.”

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Most journalists seem to take it as a given that what is accurate and fair is true. But whether you agree apparently depends on what you mean by “true,” which became clear after several items in the news in the past month.

First came reports – such as this one from NPR – about “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a story drawn from the experience of John D’Agata, a writer, and Jim Fingal, who had been assigned to fact-check an essay by D’Agata. From NPR’s description:

“Ten years ago, D’Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D’Agata wrote an essay about the tragedy — but in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.”

D’Agata fudged or fabricated details large and small, and distorted timelines and sequences of events. He defended his departures from accuracy by saying his version was “more dramatic” and that his essay was written in pursuit of a greater truth, an artistic truth.

Next came the horrifying (for journalists), full-show-length retraction by public radio’s “This American Life” for running a report by writer/performer Mike Daisey about Apple’s factories in China, which, similar to D’Agata’s essay, mixed and matched facts, locations, times and events without much regard to accuracy. Although clearly remorseful in the retraction episode, he remained stubbornly insistent that his error was only one of labeling, that ultimately he conveyed a larger truth that was important for people to feel connected to.

Neither of the above episodes would have caused a ripple of alarm if either had simply been labeled fiction. Much fiction is largely based is fact. You don’t have to watch very many movies or TV shows to understand that “based on a true story” has a wide variety of meanings, from “this is nearly entirely what really happened” to (more often) “there’s a nugget of reality here, but not a lot.”

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine summed up what I feel about the two stories:

“You need not take a journalist’s oath to tell the truth. You need only be born to a mother such as mine, who told me and my sister often–very often–that ‘there’s nothing worse than a liar.’ It worked on us. My sister became a minister and I became a journalist.”

Then a third item entered the news, giving a twist to the idea of “truth vs. accuracy.” It turned out that the season-opening scene in AMC’s “Mad Men” last month, in which men in a New York advertising firm drop paper bags filled with water onto black civil rights protesters below, was drawn directly from the facts in a 1966 New York Times story – right down to one of the protesters, after coming up to the agency to find out who was dropping water bombs on them, saying, “And they call us savages.” That line of dialog, as it turned out, came in for harsh treatment from some TV critics. Said one, “When she said that, it just rings so false.”

How much truer can you get than reality? Must you fabricate to discover truth?

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I supposed it’s appropriate that the meaning of those lines by John Keats “is disputed by everyone,” as englishhistory.net put it.

If only a journalist had been there to document what Keats intended.

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