Archive for the ‘Broadcast media’ Category

Sometimes it’s easy to feel down about journalism. It’s a little too easy. Yes, the collapse of advertising and the rapid pace of technological change are problems, but there is a lot in journalism still worth celebrating. Among them:

Technology. Yes, the industry is having trouble keeping up with what new technology is doing to the business model for news, but look at all that technology is making possible. At one extreme is the kind of rich storytelling experience exemplified recently by the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” (FYI, good info on that package from The Atlantic Wire). Even in small newsrooms with nowhere near that level of technological ability, new tools are enabling new forms of storytelling.

At the very basic level, technology allows reporters to be untethered from their desks yet still be able to reach sources at any time and also file stories and photos from almost anywhere, and it opens the possibility for new, deeper, stronger ties between news organizations and their communities. Technology is making access to records faster and easier, and giving us databases where once there only were farflung file cabinets of paper, if the information existed at all. It is easing and speeding communication of all kinds. All of this is good news if you believe an informed public is inherently a good thing.

Bosses worth working for. I have been lucky because I can count on one hand, and still hold a cup of coffee, the bosses I’ve had for whom I would not happily work again. One of my editors I actually did work for twice. There are editors out there who make their staffs feel good about their work, and some even make the workplace fun. Not only that, there are good publishers. True, I’ve met my share of underhanded, unimaginative or timid publishers, but I’ve met many more who believe that good journalism is good business in the long term. Just in the past month I met two who specifically said they want their news staffs to feel free to butt heads and do stories that might upset local officials. A good boss makes a world of difference, and there are a good number of them out there.

Staffers worth supervising. Journalists fancy themselves as crusty and cynical, but it’s hard to find a more optimistic group. Look at how they have watched their newsrooms dwindle, but see how many of them remain hopeful about the future of the business. In all my travels visiting newsrooms, spending time with a news staff has always left me feeling energized. Journalists just want to do a good job, and their job, when done well, helps the public.

Strivers and innovators. Although the traditional business model faces many problems, there are many people and organizations constantly trying new things. Just visiting the Nieman Journalism Lab site every now and then will give you some hope. If you’re like me, you can feel frustrated at either the pace of these efforts or the slow adoption of some innovations, but at least there are people trying new things. With enough people trying in enough places, good things have to result.

Thinking about things such as these make me feel better — as light as a feather, as merry as a school-boy, maybe even as giddy as a drunken man, Dickens might say. I should try to dwell on them more often.

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I don’t use this blog to comment on issues outside of the news media, so I won’t address the gun-control debate that has come after the elementary-school shootings in Connecticut, but one that I first came across last night through a conservative friend’s post on Facebook, and which I subsequently came across multiple times, is the argument that the media should refrain from ever again using the name or photos of a mass killer because that would rob him of the infamy he craves.

(Among the places I have seen this are the website created by a mass-shooting victim’s family; Steve Buttry’s blog; and by David Brooks in a segment of NPR’s Dec. 14 “All Things Considered.”)

I’m sympathetic to the argument, but ultimately I think it would be futile, for three reasons.

First, the one thing that people on all sides of the gun debate would agree on is that the people who have carried out mass killings are deeply unhinged. Is the argument, then, that although they are unhinged, they will pause in their determination to kill, put down their guns and go home quietly once they realize they won’t get their name on the national news? Explain that to me. Even if a craving for infamy is part of their motivation, and I think that’s an open question, you’re assuming a crazed mind can draw the straight line from a national boycott on that publicity to the futility of seeking that publicity.

Second, how exactly is this boycott to be carried out? As anyone in any news organization can tell you, the news media are as organized and monolithic as a herd of cats. In my last job, I couldn’t even get the editors at four newspapers in the same company that had a congressional district in common to have just one reporter instead of four do the quarterly story on the district’s campaign finance reports. How you could convince even the majority of major national news organizations – let alone not just the broadcast and 24-hour cable networks and all of the nation’s largest papers but ALL. OF. THEM, down to the smallest of the hundreds of mainstream print, broadcast and online news outlets that are out there – is beyond me.

Which leads me to the third, decisive reason: A huge number of people don’t really want you to keep the killer’s name secret, no matter what they think right now. My conservative friend asked me my take on the media’s role in this and other news events, and my take on the media’s role is that people get the media they deserve, which is demonstrated by the media they choose. (For instance, if you want to live in a world where science is optional and math doesn’t matter, there are outlets for that.) What the media does at a time of tragedy is try to answer the questions that the typical person has; if we don’t answer them, we get calls and email asking why, and people will seek out media that answer those questions. In greatly simplified terms, the nature of a free market drives media to answer those questions in order to retain audience, which pleases advertisers. If even one news outlet uses the name, that organization will see a surge in its audience, and one by one others will wonder why they are withholding a name that is rapidly becoming common knowledge.

In the 1990s, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal ran a story revisiting a decades-old killing in which a woman took her young children down to a creek and one by one drowned them. It was chilling and riveting. Among the calls that came in to the newsroom was one by a woman complaining that the whole story was so awful it never should have been printed. The veteran reporter who answered the phone asked the woman, “Ma’am, did you read the story?” She answered firmly, as if scolding him, “I read every single word of it.” He replied, “Then you must have really enjoyed the story.” She hung up on him – but he was right.

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Following are the notes I have passed to my colleagues on the Online News Association’s 2012 conference (and for more check the ONA Newsroom):

J-Lab’s “pre-convention” sessions on Thursday produced the information I thought was most immediately useful. In one, editors from The Seattle Times and KQED talked about their efforts to create a network of community news partners. The Times’ model was low-maintenance (requiring only “1 or 2 hours a week”) and easily replicable. KQED’s was much more difficult to get going and maintain.

The Times has 55 local blogs – from neighborhood blogs of the sort like the Church Hill People’s News or the West of the Boulevard News here in Richmond to single-issue blogs on things like beer or bicycling – signed up as “community news partners.” Essentially the blogs agree to let the Times aggregate their RSS feeds; the Times’ editors have a dashboard built in WordPress to let them choose what stories they think are interesting, and the headlines (ONLY the headlines) then appear on the Times’ website, with the links pointing directly to the blogs. The partners agree to give the Times exclusive access to any photos that they get (the Times’ hope is that in a giant, breaking-news situation one of the blogs will have someone there first). The Times agrees to let the blogs do the same kind of headline-linking to the Times’ site and agrees to provide any of its photos to the blogs for free upon request (with credit given). UPDATE: I forgot to mention that each Sunday the Times publishes a page of excerpts from top blog posts.

The Times has gotten news stories – including A1 stories – that otherwise would have been missed (the Times includes a note with the story saying the information appeared first in X blog), and there is survey evidence that the partnerships have improved the newspaper’s image among local residents.

KQED’s partnerships are much more complex because the station wanted full, content-producing (audio and video, since KQED has both a radio station and a TV station) partnerships. That meant avoiding any site that advocates policy positions (the Times has no problem as long as the blog is transparent about its advocacy) and providing training to get content that meets its broadcast standards.

I think the Times model actually exposes a vulnerability that newspapers ignore at their peril. If a TV station were to seek such an extensive, low-maintenance network, it could greatly enhance its website as a community hub, build on the station’s promotional and community-engagement efforts (which already exceed what newspapers do) and effectively corner the market on community news. Assuming newspapers continue to throw up paywalls and TV stations do not, the newspaper site retreats into niche status (though the niche is elite, high-information readers), while the TV station that harnesses the blog network cements itself as the go-to place for “what’s happening now?” information.

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Amy Webb, Webbmedia Group’s Tech Trends (Storify coverage, and video of the session)

Amy’s job is to spot trends in technology and media so she can help her clients adapt to disruption. The bulk of her talk was on the broader process for how her company does that. But for ONA she devoted a lot of attention to the issue of online video by news organizations, who she says are awful at online video. The problem we have, in her view, is that we are content-oriented people, so we focus on the content, not the online experience. That is backwards of how it should be. She says you should focus on creating an online experience, not on the content. As an example she pointed to is HuffingtonPost Live: The video is extremely forgettable at this point, but the online dashboard provides a web-native experience, geared for the multitasking that people do online. She says that the video inevitably will improve, but having the best video-exploration experience puts the site in the driver’s seat.

Key quote: “Don’t replicate the TV experience.” People online don’t want to just sit and only have the video play.

Near-term trends she sees for news/content:

–“Atomic”-based news. That is “atomic” in the sense of news being broken into its component bits for better personalization. In other words, for any given story, there is a basic story for the casual reader, a version with more context for those with a higher level of interest, and an expert-level package. This is made possible by rapidly improving algorithms, such as are used by Google and Amazon, tracking the user’s history and interest.

–Algorithm-created content. This would be the automated translation of spreadsheet-based information into full sentences and paragraphs. The algorithms are increasingly sophisticated and produce better and better results. I think something like this could be huge, cost-wise, for such things as sports and cops, so you could hire data-entry people instead of writers. (10/9 UPDATE: This is a company that sells the software.)

–There’s a huge opening for verticals targeting women – but NOT “mom blogs” or “mom” anything, which is overdone and misses the majority of women. She means mainstream topics but reported with a female audience and women’s particular concerns in mind. In the bulk of news, women are an afterthought or absent, so women are hungry to see themselves reflected in the world of news and information.

–Apple vs. Android: Google has a new version of Google Maps coming for Android phones (you may recall that Apple booted Google Maps from the iPhone, with poor reviews for its replacement – one tech guy I talked to in SF says his iPhone can’t even map his home address in NYC). It’s called Google Now. She thinks it will be huge for Android and tilt the field against Apple. Quote: “Google Now will make Siri look like somebody’s high school project.”

–Wearable technology. She brought in a prototype of a purse that recharges your phone. You just drop the phone inside. There’s no plugging it in, no special place to put the phone. She says you probably also will see the same technology incorporated into clothes so that you will have a phone-charging pocket.

Longer-term trend:

–Augmented reality. You may have seen the online demonstration of Google glasses, a pair of glasses that gives the wearer a display of information about things the person looks at. She has seen similar technology in contact lenses.

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The opening day’s keynote speaker was José Antonio Vargas (Storify coverage, video), the former Washington Post reporter who revealed his illegal immigration status. His main point was an argument to stop using the term “illegal alien.” He made a good point, partly on the legal/semantic issue of it being a civil violation to be in the country without documentation, not a criminal one, and partly on the basis of this: “In what other context do we ever describe a person as illegal?” Someone who drives at age 14 has broken the criminal law but is described as an underage driver; someone who drives drunk has broken the criminal law but is described as a drunken driver; neither is an illegal driver. He advocates using the term “undocumented immigrant,” which is both more precise and accurate.

(Poynter rounds up some of the counterarguments.)

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The Friday lunch “keynote” was an interview of Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo. Excellent interview. (Coverage, if you’re interested, or video.) One big bit of news: Twitter is developing tools to make it easier to curate event-oriented tweets. Also, pretty much all of Twitter’s development efforts are targeted at mobile users. Tweetdeck is its desktop tool and the only thing for desktops that is contemplated. (Costolo actually referred to it as something like “Twitter Pro for journalists.”)

UPDATE: Jeff Sonderman at Poynter.org has a list of 12 bite-size takeaways from the conference, largely different than mine.

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It’s not at all surprising that Phoenix TV station KPHO is running an ad poking plans by Gannett properties The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV to charge for online news (I would embed it here, but embedding has been blocked on that one). What’s surprising is no other TV station in a competitive market has run such an ad (as far as I know). The ad claims that KPHO’s website has “even more” information than the Gannett site, azcentral.com, which sounds patently ridiculous on its face — but how many people who aren’t devoted daily newspaper readers know that? I know some devoted newspaper folks whose first instinct when local news breaks is to go to the leading TV station’s website, not the newspaper’s site. This ad just takes aim at that type of impulse and seeks to build on it. It is the leading argument in my mind for why no news site should be 100 percent behind any sort of paywall. If you have competition that’s free, you need to offer at least breaking news, something to keep them coming to you for free so that you can then attempt to lure them to pay for your fuller coverage and extras.

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As a rookie reporter, I once had the idea of doing a first-person feature about learning to ride a horse, and I called around to a few places. Once place I called, I asked about scheduling a visit, and the person was kind of nonchalant, sort of “Yeah, just come out, we’ll work something out,” sounding not very interested. I called another place and they scheduled something firm. So I never followed up on the first place, wrote my story entirely based on the second — and after the story ran, the first place called my boss and complained about how they had set aside time, scheduled a trainer to wait for me, etc. etc. I was mortified, and it burned a hole in my psyche, and ever since then I have been absolutely mystified — and mortified — by many reporters’ continuing habit to treat public interaction as if it’s a video they can just hit pause and stop on without worrying about how the people on the other end feel or what they are thinking. Last night a reporter told me another reporter would call me today. Still waiting. I work in the business, so I’m like a battered spouse — I’ll forgive anything. But be warned, reporters, whether they read your newspaper regularly or watch your TV show, they think it’s important to have been contacted, and they anticipate the promised follow-up. If you fail to follow through and treat people with this kind of indifference, most people will just write you off, if they are that lenient, and your colleagues with you. You dig your own industry’s grave.

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Stijn Debrouwere helps explain “the mess the news industry is in,” going over tangible examples of how the way people — primarily young people, but not just them — have changed the way they look for information and where they look. It’s a post solidly in the mainstream of examinations of industry disruption, which continue to be useful for helping traditional journalists look past their immediate source of distress: layoffs/buyouts and budget cuts (the latest example, from AdAge about a situation at the Washington Post). Those problems are just symptoms resulting from what Stijn calls the “death by nibbles.” He also does address the issue of what journalists should be doing, including stressing storytelling and personality; “joining the revolution” by considering alternate ways of distributing information, ways that you would not call journalism; become less boring (seriously, that is a huge issue); and “Do stuff that does still matter.”

5/8/12 UPDATE: It’s interesting to compare the above with what the CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Co. — which is seeing circulation gains — says are big ideas changing the media industry. One of the two he cited for content can, I think, wind up getting dismissed:

“Differentiate your content: Invest where you can be ‘the best in the world.’”

Don’t let “best in the world” send you off a cliff, particularly if you run a small newsroom. No one is saying a 20,000-circulation paper or small website needs to compete with the New York Times — or even the Deseret News. But what exactly is it your audience expects you to be best at? Probably not the food page. Town council coverage? Local youth sports? Much more likely. Put your efforts where they can make a difference.

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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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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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This is what it has come to: I can’t see an Oscar-winning movie without finding parallels in journalism’s changing landscape. In this case, while watching “The Artist” I was struck by the remark by the lead character, a star of silent film as talkies begin to sweep the movie industry, quoted in a newspaper that he would not do talkies because he was an artist. He dismissed the emerging technology of film as crass and lowbrow, less worthy of notice. The sentiment was very familiar; I’ve heard or read it a thousand times from traditional journalists about the idea of (pick any): blogging the news, aggregation, raw video, frequent (or sometimes any) web updates, Facebook, Twitter, engaging with reader comments, and probably a few that I can’t recall right now.

The at the end of “The Artist” you get, in the only spoken lines of the whole movie, why he really dismissed talkies. In case you haven’t seen it, without giving the whole thing away I will just say it came down to an ability. But the way he coped with that and adapted to the new medium was a different skill that had not been utilized by the silent films. He could act, but in the new world acting was not enough. But he had something else to add, and the combination worked.

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You’ll spend 18 minutes very well if you watch the talk by Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” on the topic of what we learn by being wrong. In particular, it’s useful as a manager to remind yourself that different people see things differently, and your perspective might not be the best for understanding what’s going on. Or that events have changed beyond your plans, so you need to adjust. As a reporter or editor, you have to keep this in mind all the time so you don’t automatically ascribe motivations to people. As Schultz says, “It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.”

Her talk reminded me of the time I have most audibly been on the receiving end of someone assuming he was right and I was wrong. It was at the 2004 Republican National Convention, the night that Vice President Dick Cheney spoke, but the keynote speaker that night was a Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, whose speech rained fire and brimstone on the Democrats. I was there to serve as the editor for the Media General Washington Bureau staff covering the convention, and at some point as the fury of the speech became clear, the bureau chief, Marsha Mercer, looked and me, and I looked at her, and she said something like, “This is the lead, isn’t it?” There was no other way to see it, I thought. What Cheney eventually said that night was utterly expected. So Mercer wrote the story, I read it over, and I filed it. We packed up and headed out of the media area attached to Madison Square Garden, and my cellphone rang. A night editor at one of our papers was calling to ask, more or less, if we were out of our minds. “It’s the vice president’s night,” he said, and we simply should not have relegated the VP to the bottom half of the story. I wondered about it overnight and the next morning, when it was clear that almost everyone had done what that editor said we should have — led the story with Cheney’s speech. But for the next solid week, the only thing about the convention that got much discussion was Miller’s speech. I think you could make the case either way that night, but at that moment people making the different decisions felt just as sure that they made the right call and that the others were clearly wrong.

My point isn’t that Marsha and I were proved right, but that as an editor you have to remember that people have different perspectives, and even if your reporter has written a story completely opposite of how you think he or she should have, you have to understand why before you launch into a critique of what’s wrong with it.

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