Thursday, November 25, 2010

A rose by any other name ...

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked in the intro to the quote in that headline. Journalism programs around the country are trying to figure that out, and ours may be among them.

Two developments on this front over the past week have been getting a lot of attention.

In one of them, faculty at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University voted by a wide margin -- 38-5 -- to change the name to "The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications." The vote, which took place earlier this month according to a report in Northwestern's student newspaper, sparked a lot of criticism among alumni and Chicagoland observers.

In the other, a panel at the University of Colorado Boulder on Nov. 17 recommended "discontinuance" of the School of Journalism at the institution. In reality, the term "discontinuance" is a piece of bureaucratic jargon within the UC system that doesn't mean journalism instruction will cease, but rather that the organizational framework of the program will change. Nevertheless, when the proposal was first floated during the summer it drew a lot of outcry from both proponents and opponents. (As an aside, the dean who is at the center of that particular firestorm, Paul Voakes, is a good friend.)

Colorado's action is more substantial than merely re-labeling a program, of course, but is rooted in the same phenomenon: that upheaval in the legacy journalism industry means colleges that prepare students for journalism careers need to re-think their approaches, including how they label and present themselves to the outside world.

I'm following these situations with particular interest because of a similar discussion happening within my own department, which is the "Communication/Journalism Department." Some faculty members believe, fairly adamantly, that having "Journalism" as part of the program's name is a serious impediment to student recruitment efforts.

As a journalist or journalism teacher for all of my adult life, I bristle at the suggestion, of course. Throw journalism under the bus? Yikes!

But in truth, it's hard to argue with their logic. In the public mind, journalism = newspapers, and newspapers are dying, ergo, why in the world would someone go to school to study in a Journalism program?

I can't predict where the discussion will end up, either at Fisher or in the larger academy. But the fact that the conversations are happening so earnestly says something about the state of journalism and journalism instruction today.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Town-Gown" journalism projects

A short Twitter exchange with two former students inspired me to compile a list of exemplar sites where colleges are getting engaged in community news coverage, something that's been interesting to me for a while. And having compiled the list, I thought it would be good to post it here as well.

This idea is something that Len Downie and Michael Schudson raised in their Reconstruction of American Journalism report as an idea that could help add some valuable elements to the news ecosystem. These projects take various forms but generally entail online presentation of student coverage of the community, sometimes in collaboration with local media and sometimes in collaboration with local community members in a hyper-local format. Some of the projects in this list have been around for a while while others are new.

The context of the Twitter exchange was that I mentioned to these former students that this had been a topic of some extensive discussion at the AEJMC conference in Denver a few weeks ago. I attended about three different panels on the topic, and it seems to be something the industry and the academy are interested in bringing about in a lot of places. So this is by no means an inclusive list;
I'm sure there are many more out there and would welcome additions to the list in the comments. But to get things started, here are a few high quality student-community collaborations that have come to my attention either at the sessions I attended in Denver or earlier.

Chicago Talks (project of Columbia College, Chicago)
The Local: East Village (New York University)
The Local: Fort Greene (Brooklyn) (City University of New York)
New York City News Service (City University of New York)
New England Center for Investigative Reporting (Boston University)
My Missourian (University of Missouri)
Reese Felts Project (University of North Carolina)
Multi-Media Urban Reporting Lab (Philadelphia) (Temple University)
We-Town (Elizabethtown, Pa.) (
Elizabethtown College)
Latina Voices (Columbia College, Chicago)

Additionally, there is the recently announced Patch-U, offering student collaboration with the string of hyper-local sites operated by AOL.

(In Denver I also heard about projects affiliated with Louisiana State University and University of Colorado Boulder but didn't write down any URLs and couldn't find them with Google searches. The LSU one sounded a lot like the CUNY City News Service one, partnering student journalists with media outlets in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other places in the state.)

I think these projects offer a lot of promise for helping the next generation of journalists develop skills in settings outside of traditional newsrooms, which is where progressively more journalism is going to be done. They are especially valuable as in-the-newsroom internships and summer jobs wither with the declining fortunes of legacy news organizations.

They also offer value for news audiences in the communities they cover. Downie and Schudson liken such news operations to the medical field's teaching hospitals, where medical-professionals-in-training help meet the needs of their surrounding communities.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Students and the News

I just finished reading the first week's worth of entries in the news-blog assignment for my intro reporting class. This ongoing assignment's purpose is to get students -- many of whom might not be naturally inclined to do so -- to read and critically react to news reports.

It's not a heavy, time-consuming assignment. They are required only to post four blog entries a week, each with a link to a story and a brief --like 4 or 5 sentences short -- reflection on it in the context of what we're talking about in class at the time. For this first one, the blog instructions were to "Select stories from your regular reading of news Web sites and describe what qualities make them newsworthy." The assignment also requires posting a comment on a classmate's entry.

By and large, the entries were well-done, with good story selection and good reflection on what was chosen. A few missed the mark, but it was the first assignment after all.

One of the best parts of reading the responses to these assignments is that a few students each week manage to find really interesting stories that I've somehow missed. I think my favorite in that category this week was a Sept. 10 story in USA Today about weddings planned for Sept. 11. Of course, summer Saturdays are prime days for weddings, and this year Sept. 11 was on a Saturday. But the idea of matching a joyous anniversary with one that forever will be the anniversary of such a horrific event is something some embrace, while others shy away from it.

I'm already looking forward to seeing what the students come up with over the course of the coming week.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I'm on Facebook. Now what?

Over the weekend I finally set up a Facebook account, about 2 to 4 years behind nearly everyone else that I know. And behind about half a billion people worldwide, which by any definition makes me a late adopter.

Now I'm trying to figure out: What do I do with it?

That's a serious question, by the way, not an attempt at humor, sarcasm or facetiousness. I'm genuinely unsure of what utility this program is going to have for me, which I suppose is why it took so long for me to join. I wasn't sure -- and still am not sure -- that the observations I might post about my life are interesting to anyone else, or vice versa.

The main rationale for finally signing up is just so I can experience something that is becoming so integral to the modern communication world, and so I have the ability to "like" and follow some group pages that I feel I ought to be following (such as several associated with Fisher). But where Facebook is going to integrate into MY communication world is something I still haven't figured out.

Now, I'm not exactly a social media Luddite. I've been on Linked-In for years, on Twitter for a little over a year, and maintain/occasionally contribute to a couple of other blogs besides this one. I see value in all of these things, especially Twitter, which I use as a surveillance device to keep track of some people whose ideas I find illuminating. I like knowing what they are thinking about and writing about (in their own tweets and blogs, primarily).

But Facebook doesn't seem geared to that sort of instrumental communication. One of the first things to appear on my wall was a posting from my daughter musing about what sort of take-out food to order. Unlike information I might get from other sources, this makes no sort of difference to my life, even if it has consequence for her. Whether I know this about her, or not, has no impact on our relationship. The types of news that would be important for me to know about her life, for good or for ill, I hope would come to me through some venue other than Facebook. In the meantime, whether or what she orders for dinner is of no consequence to me.

In a similar vein, my own first posting was an observation about the incredibly banal topic of the weather, which I made mostly out of a feeling that I had to post something. That posting did draw a comment from a cousin who now lives in New Orleans and whom I've seen maybe once in the past 30 years. The fact that Facebook helped us reconnect after all that time is a source of some value, I must admit. And on his page I saw posts from a couple of his sisters (also my cousins, of course) to whom I could reach out and "friend" so that we also could reconnect.

But even if I manage to connect with people such as my southern cousins, or co-workers from long ago (a couple of whom have sent me friend requests), I'm still not sure what being a part of Facebook is going to add to my communication mix, or what difference it's going to make to my life. Maybe it's just too early to tell. I was sort of a late adopter of Twitter, also. I finally joined last summer after the annual AEJMC convention, mostly to "follow" several good friends from other colleges who were talking it up when I saw them at the conference. And I have found Twitter to be very worthwhile since then, following them and many other smart people whose tweeted insights are interesting and valuable to me. Maybe eventually Facebook will find a similar niche.

I also guess that like so many other things in life you also get out of a social network what you put into it. As soon as I figure out what that ought to be.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Great example of news as conversation

Here is a great example of how old-line journalism organizations can use the power of social media to tell stories in new ways.

The Washington Post is collecting and presenting -- well, more like curating and passing through -- tweeted responses to the question "Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?" Essentially, this involves nothing more than putting a window on the site where the responses carrying the hashtag #wherewereyou stream by.

I'm not sure when they started or how long they plan to continue. It first came to my attention yesterday afternoon when I saw a friend's tweet with that hashtag. I added my own recollection, clicked on the hashtag to view others, and found several tweets with reference to what the Post was doing. So I switched to the Post site just in time to see my own tweet float by. My wife saw my tweet, added one of her own, and I saw hers.

So it's been going on for at least about 24 hours. I'll bet tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of tweets have been made on this topic. Just stopping to read them for a few minutes is bound to bring some really poignant ones. I can't imagine a better example of the principle that "news is a conversation."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Random curation

Some random jottings about some really interesting reads I've found recently, and links to all (trying to follow the model of summary and curation of good stuff that's out there) ...

The Memphis (Tenn) Commercial Appeal had a good two part series about the evolving state of newspaper journalism both in form and content and in its business model. Not a lot of depth, but a really good summary of the changing state of the industry.

The blog Journalism Lives had a great summary of all of the different types of tasks that fall under the heading of journalism these days. They include the mobile maven (creating content delivered via mobile devices), the multimedia backpack reporter (who creates content for various platforms), the Jack or Jill of all trades (responsible for overseeing nearly everything having to do with a given site), and the more specialized online content guru and online engagement specialist. These jobs exist in traditional and untraditional media organizations, large and small. I've basically just listed the labels here; the post is worth a deeper read.

Finally, there is the advice for up-and-coming journalists from Bob Niles of the Online Journalism Review and from NYU professor Jay Rosen. (Rosen's piece is really long. The history lesson on the relationship of the media and the public is worth reading. But if you want to cut to the chase, a bullet list of specific ideas is near the end of the posting. ) At the heart of what both Niles and Rosen are saying is this idea: effective journalism today means becoming engaged with a topic through engagement with the audience.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoughts on a new school year

One of an educator's truisms -- to the point of pretty much being a cliche -- is that the end of summer is bittersweet. For while it is sad to see the summer's slower pace replaced by the whirlwind of activity that defines a semester, it also is good to get back into a routine and reconnect with the life of the academy.

It helps that at St. John Fisher we get an extra week over many Rochester area colleges that start classes tomorrow. Our classes don't begin for another week (Tuesday Sept. 7), but even still the school year in essence begins this week with a bunch of meetings and activities.

One of the characteristics of working in a small program is that I have a long roster of courses that I teach: Introductory Newswriting, Advanced Newswriting, Feature Writing, Copy Editing, Media Law and Senior Seminar. It's great having a variety of material to work with and bring to the students. The downside is that I can't teach all of them every semester. (It would be nice if I could, but that would involve cloning!)

This semester's offerings are the intro course, which I teach every semester, the law course and Senior Seminar. The "sweet" part of the "bittersweet" transition to autumn is that September comes in the form of a fresh start and opportunity to improve on past work.

I've been working on revisions to each of the courses I'll be offering, including adding more multimedia components to the intro journalism course, finding ways to make the law course more vibrant with more discussion and application, and redesigning the dreaded senior seminar research project to help the students grasp what it means to design a project more effectively before getting started on it.

On the administrative side, we'll be finalizing some adjustments to the curriculum that we began talking about last year (to take effect for students entering the program a year from now). We'll also be implementing some ideas for attracting new students and enhancing the experiences of returning ones. We have an updated computer lab with brand new iMacs and a newly renovated, state-of-the-art television studio, which is very exciting indeed for the students and faculty who will be using both of these facilities.

All in all, looking forward to a fantastic year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Digital barrage may not be good for us

Ignoring for now the irony that I found it through Twitter, I think this New York Times story about research into excessive use of digital devices has some interesting and important points.

As the article points out,

when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.
The author notes other research as well about how "processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued."

This makes a lot of sense to me. If the flow of incoming information is constant, how can the recipient ever make sense of larger patterns in it? I get my best ideas and insights when I'm not actively thinking about anything in particular and not taking in more information, such as when I'm walking, driving, mowing the lawn, or taking a shower.

I don't own any sort of digitally connected mobile device like an iPhone or Blackberry, and in a similar vein to the ideas in this article, I really don't want to. I feel no need or desire to be that connected, that constantly updated on the world beyond my reach. That's not to say I'm a Luddite or want to live under a rock. I check e-mail at my home and office computers quite frequently, read my Twitter feed a few times a day, get RSS feeds from a number of locations into Google Reader and engage in other digital monitoring, such as looking at online news sites.

But the difference is that I'm not concerned about getting any or all of it immediately as it comes available. If it takes me a while to get an e-mail or if I read tweets that are a few hours old, that's fine. And the research noted in this article seems to say that being unplugged for a notable part of the day this way is crucial to become more effective at understanding the information that does come my way.

The article reminded me of another piece I saw, and blogged about here a few months ago -- a Frontline report called "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier." A quote in there from MIT professor Sherry Turkle summed it up nicely: "There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you are thinking about only one thing at a time."

That's worth stopping to ponder.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Non-anonymous comments

The Buffalo News published an article today that by its nature had "controversy" written all over it. It was a follow-up to a horrific incident a week ago in which eight people were shot, four of them fatally, after a party at a downtown bar. All were African-American. Today's follow-up reported details about the criminal records of seven of the eight victims.

What was of special interest to me, given my recent research into online audience postings, was the comments section of the article.

If there ever was an article that seemed ripe for racially fraught diatribes in the online commentary, it was this one. A typical anonymous online commentary thread on such a story would descend into such vile race-baiting that many readers would close the screen in disgust.

Of the 25 comments posted as of Sunday evening, a few were racially tinged. One mentioned "racial profiling." Another listed several of the crimes associated with the victims then added "These crimes may not be a big deal in the black community,but in the rest of civilized society they are a HUGE DEAL and are not tolerated or accepted!" A later posting called that comment "inappropriate and racist." There were some other sharp disagreements among the commenters, especially on the appropriateness of such an article so shortly after the deaths when loved ones are grieving for those they lost.

But all-in-all the comments were restrained, on point and polite in spite of the controversial subject matter and the disagreements among the contributors.

Why? Likely because all of the commenters had to attach their real names to the comments, similar to a signed letter to the editor in the printed paper. The Buffalo News earlier this month began requiring such identification. That requirement probably led to fewer comments -- only 25 on the story, compared to many dozen that typically get attached to controversial stories at sites where anonymous comments are allowed. But it seems as if it works to raise the bar in terms of quality of comments.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dropping the newspaper

I woke up this morning for the first time in nearly 24 years of living in Rochester without a delivery of the local Democrat and Chronicle -- the paper that brought me to Rochester when it hired me as a copy editor in 1986. Yes, a hardened print guy has cut his ties to the printed product -- though not for any of the reasons that popular opinion has about the death of newspaper as a function of content or format. As I explained it in an e-mail to a good friend who's a high-up news executive there:
In the end, poor customer service won out over my desire to continue receiving the paper in print. Despite literally dozens of complaints over a period of months, I could NEVER get the paper delivered in a timely fashion. Despite the 5:30 a.m. delivery promise, the delivery time kept creeping later. First it was a little after 6 a.m., then more like 6:30 and most recently the carrier had been arriving at close to 7 a.m. Once school starts in the fall, my wife, my daughter and I all will be getting up by 6 a.m. and out the door by around 7 a.m. So a paper that arrives that late does us no good.

And in a final, ironic twist on the poor customer service, I actually wanted to keep getting the paper until my credit-card pre-paid monthly subscription ran out in early September, and told that to the customer service person when I called Friday afternoon to take this action. But she canceled it immediately anyway. So, no paper this morning. Or, probably, ever again.

Being without a paper to read in the morning will take some getting used to. It also means I'll most likely visit the website more often, although I really dislike the site because of the clutter and "visual noise."

I still maintain -- as I wrote about in a post a few months ago -- that the newspaper industry should take a serious look at moving away from advertising-supported print models to reader-supported e-new models that get rid of all the junk related to a typical site in favor of a clean, unvarnished presentation of well-written, well-curated news. Yes, that's a "pay wall" -- but what the customer would be paying for is the convenience of format. This is similar to how people now pay for apps, and consider them to be worth the money, because of the functionality they offer. A better designed news site is likely worth paying for, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Numbers in the age of social media

Just finished looking through the list of 20 people involved with journalism to follow on Twitter, as suggested in an article in the Society for Professional Journalists' Quill magazine. A good number of them I have been following for a while, and I may add many or all of the rest to my list as well.

But as I was clicking through to each individual's profile to learn more about them, I took a peek at how many followers each has, a number the Quill exposure should help to expand. Many are in the 3,000-4,000 follower range, a few top 10,000 and one -- NYU professor Jay Rosen -- has 35,000.

What occurred to me as I looked at the numbers was that the circulation of the first newspaper I worked at was around 20,000. And that was 30 years ago; it's probably smaller now. So even if we take Rosen out of the equation for a moment, about a quarter of the people on Quill's list have single-handedly built a readership base of nearly half what my first paper had as its readership. (And Rosen far surpasses it.)

Of course, your average recent college grad can't be expected to do quite as well as some of the established individuals on Quill's list -- though Quill did include at least two people whom I follow and thus recognized as recent grads: Suzanne Yada and Vadim Lavrusik, both in the 4,000-follower neighborhood. And my friend and former student Craig Kanalley, while he didn't make Quill's cut, has a following of around 3,500 a just a year out of grad school (and just two years after finishing at Fisher.)

But the Quill list offers some great examples of the ability of social media to help people become digital media entrepreneurs. If you're a smart, effective communicator with interesting things to say, the audience will find you. And you will reach them.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Preservatives" protect status quo

Just finished reading through Jeff Jarvis' trenchant analysis of the recently released Federal Trade Commission report on ideas for preserving journalism. Jarvis is one of the sharpest analysts of the trends in the emerging news ecosystem, and I'd highly recommend this particular piece.

The comments are good, too, although one in particular caught my eye as potentially coining a new political term.

In a comment about how the general gist of the report seemed to be protecting the status quo, a commenter named Dave Chase wrote:

This is another example where traditional political labels don’t work. The labels “conservative” and “liberal/progressive” are inaccurate in describing the perspective of the power structure in the D.C. system. The proper title would be something like “preservatives.”

In other words, when you have progressives who don't stand for real change, but want to take the conservative approach of protecting entrenched interests that match their views, smush the words together and you get: preservatives. Great term, Dave! Hope it catches on

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New collaborations validate research from past

I'm not a fan of "tout" pieces, particularly ones in which the author basically tries to say "see how smart I am," and I have never (consciously) written such a piece -- until now. Fair warning and disclosure: that's basically what this post amounts to, once you near the end. So if you similarly dislike such self-promotion, feel free to stop reading at any time.
* * *

One thing that's become pretty clear on the news innovation front is that collaborative work between citizen journalist operations and traditional mainstream ones is becoming more popular. It seems as if both sides are seeing the merits of such partnership projects, which are being announced with increasing frequency.

The value of such symbiosis is something I explored in my dissertation five years ago.

A Poynter Online column by Mallary Jean Tenore marking the debut the Bay Citizen, a San Francisco project that went live today, cites four emerging trends among news startups, including "A working relationship with a mainstream news organization." (The other three are community engagement, a hybrid business plan, and an experienced staff.)

The New York Times is in on several such projects, including Bay Citizen as well as the Chicago News Cooperative, which kicked off last fall, and The Local: East Village, a collaborative with New York University set to begin this fall.

Similar projects have been reported on by the Online Journalism Review, which in February covered a collaborative effort involving some at Hearst papers, and Nieman Lab, which similarly reviewed a project in Charlottesville, Va. back in October.

Then there is the new Washington, D.C. site backed by Allbritton Communications, called

And last but definitely not least, one of the most prominent projects that J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism has been sponsoring this year -- called The Networked Journalism Project -- has five large news organizations from around the country each working with at least five hyper-local news sites or producers in their communities.

I think all of these are terrific projects. I am especially encouraged because they provide evidence against a line of argument prominent in the journalism blogosphere that traditional news media deserve to die, and that we would be better off (or at least not worse off) without them. (OK, that's hyperbolic. No one is really saying that, at least not in so many words. But a lot of blog postings and tweets sure lean in that direction.)

I hold the opposite view because I remain convinced that in our complicated society with powerful institutions that need to be called to account, we need credible, professional journalism. It ought to be augmented by participatory and hyperlocal efforts, no doubt. But that's why one of the chapters in my recent book Public Journalism 2.0 (co-edited with Burt St. John of Old Dominion) is titled "A Place for the Professionals."

These new journalistic collaborations also validate a point I made in my dissertation five years ago (here comes the self-promotion), which is that traditional news organizations must assert leadership that helps to organize, highlight and present a broad range of citizen views for the most effective form of accountability journalism.

Traditional media offer an ability to lend worthwhile prestige and credibility to bloggers, individual hyperlocal reporters and the like -- including the hyperlocal sites at the heart of so many of the recently announced projects. The view that because the network (read: blogosphere, or social media-sphere) makes effective knowledge of the world theoretically possible means that participation in it makes such knowledge inevitable is just plain wrong -- some observers' views notwithstanding. (In my snarkier moments, I refer to those attitudes as the "blogging-will-save-the-world" mentality. Or the "I can learn everything I need to know from Facebook and Twitter" world-view.) The word gatekeeping has bad connotations of keeping information away from people. But its value lies in making information exposure manageable. Which may be why filtering is the more popular term these days.

The dissertation itself was built around two primary pieces of research done in October 2004, at the height of that year's national election. One these was a content analysis of online news sites, later republished as an article in Newspaper Research Journal, while the other part was a case-study of the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, which at the time was doing some really innovative things to engage the community in its election and other public affairs coverage.

What follows (further warning: at some length) are some of the observations, and conclusions, made as a part of that dissertation about the value of presenting citizen content under the umbrella of the traditional news organization -- which seems to be coming to pass with greater frequency in the news collaboratives that are now coming on the scene.

Excerpts from: The Fourth Estate in the Networked Age
Dissertation done at State University of New York at Buffalo
Jack Rosenberry, 2005

"Online papers can provide a sense of authority and direction for information such as links to online sources. Louis Bloom of Camano Island, WA does the kind of work that exemplifies disintermediated, citizen-directed democratic action that proponents of cyber-democracy find so valuable. Bloom files Freedom of Information requests with the state government to get the names of state employees, the agencies they work for and their salaries, then posts the information on a World Wide Web site. He writes on the site that he does this to expose nepotism and cronyism in state government. This is cyber-democracy in action, at least in the sense of providing interesting and valuable political information for widespread use, even if it lacks a forum for its discussion or mobilization of action upon it.
"But realistically speaking, how likely is it that Bloom’s work would become widely known or accessed under most circumstances? Those most likely to locate the fruits of his labors and use them are those who are already politically savvy and knowledgeable. But reporter Rich Roesler, who covers Washington state government for the Spokesman-Review, has made sure that anyone who looks at his blog on the paper’s Web site knows about Bloom. Roesler encourages readers to look at Bloom’s site and offers a link to it near the top of the page where Eye on Olympia is posted. Further, this exposure is persistent; unlike a one-time report in the print paper, the publicity for Bloom’s work is on Roesler’s page day in and day out. People will not miss out on accessing Bloom because they happened to not read the paper the one day he was profiled, or because they misplaced the paper clipping with the URL in it. The way Roesler directs readers to Bloom’s work exemplifies how Kovach and Rosenstiel say journalists have to help readers find the “good stuff,” and another example of journalists adding authority, structure and facilitation that makes cyber-democracy work better. "

* * *

"Arguably, motivated and interested citizens would find these links on their own. But motivated, interested citizens can attend City Council meetings, too. Nevertheless, newspapers cover City Council because not everybody can or will attend the meetings, and the journalists see it as their job to improve the public’s access to what happens there by reporting on it. The online paper provides the same sort of public service, based in technology, when it collects and presents valuable links to the public."
* * *

"But critics of cyber-democracy ... note that the power of the network can be harnessed through settings that provide a certain degree of management, editing and gatekeeping. Such online interaction works best when it is fostered by such facilitation, research such as Dahlberg’s indicates. But who should the facilitators be, and how are they to be found? Anyone can post a Web page with his or her political views, invite and even moderate discussion. But what credibility will they have with respect to the community at large? What level of traffic will they achieve? What impact will they have on the political power structure?

"This is where a new role and function for journalists could emerge, using the interactive power of online journalism to reclaim their eroded Fourth Estate role in ways that are not possible under traditional source-message-channel-receiver models of mass communication. Online and off, journalists already can and do fulfill important roles regarding surveillance and social cohesion/construction of common knowledge. Combining these with sponsorship/facilitation of discourse and extension of the forms by which political information is presented can add up to a more powerful impact on public opinion and a more powerful process for reconnecting the public with public life.

"Two crucial features separate this model from basic notions of cyber-democracy. One is the framing and backgrounding of basic information provided by the news coverage. The other is that the involvement of the paper, a community institution, gives the information exchanged and expressed there a certain traffic level and institutional authority that makes the interaction more meaningful than would be accorded to independent agents who are doing the same thing—but who may or may not be working with accurate, credible information and whose work may or may not even be noticed by any sort of larger public, much less institutional decision makers.

"This new conception builds on theories that are well-established in the literature, such as computer-mediated communication’s ability to merge characteristics of mass and interpersonal communication, the opportunity (some would say obligation) provided by interactive presentation for journalists to adjust their role with respect to the audience, and cyber-democracy’s capacity to foster discourse but its accompanying need for structure and facilitation to do so effectively. By integrating the theories, weaknesses associated with each that undermine their practicality can be mitigated by strengths of other models. "

Friday, May 21, 2010

The REAL Twitterers

A family of wrens has taken up residence in our back yard, and after a short time of watching and listening to them, it's pretty clear why a cartoonish wren is the symbol (mascot?) of Twitter, the website:
  • The word "twitter" is very much an onomatopoeia for a wren's warble. (If you're not familiar with their song, you can hear some in this short video.)
  • They're very small -- less than 5 inches long -- kind of like 140 characters is a small amount of space.
  • But despite their size, they crank out the volume. The decibel level coming from such a diminutive creature is truly impressive. I could hear them over the sound of the power mower!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kaizen journalism instruction

Back in the '80s, when I read a lot from magazines like Inc. and books such as Tom Peters's In Search of Excellence, the approach that was all the rage was Japanese management methods. William Ouchi, for example, developed Theory Z to supplant Douglas McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y about employee motivation.

Another big area of focus was how Japanese corporations had adopted principles of kaizen, or continuous improvement. (Toyota, its recent problems notwithstanding, used this principle to turn itself into a company whose product reliability was downright legendary.)

Ever since learning about this principle, I've realized its value in terms of making my work better, first in the newsroom and now in the classroom. I've never taught a course the same way twice. Sometimes the semester-to-semester adjustments are minor tweaks, and other times they're more significant revisions. But as the pace of change in the industry accelerates, looking to continuously improve journalism courses becomes even more crucial.

Here are some lessons learned this semester that I'll be using, kaizen-style, to improve fall course offerings.

One of my big changes in the recently finished academic year was to experiment with true multimedia journalism in what had been a print-centric advanced newswriting course. Students were required to report and present on multiple platforms -- text, photo, video, flash graphics -- and collaborated with an advanced Web design course to create a site where it all could be presented. As with many new projects, there were some rough spots, notably with the video, but overall a success.

But the biggest take-away from the course for me was that so much of what I tried to bring across in that advanced elective course really belongs in the mandatory introductory newswriting course our program offers. This would provide a baseline knowledge that could be expanded upon in the upper-level courses, both in journalism and other courses within the program.

I'm looking forward to making the adjustments.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why social media is crucial to journalism

Two recent research studies that I ran across today -- appropriately enough, through Twitter -- are all the evidence anyone in journalism today should need with regard to how important social media and mobile access are for the future of the craft.

Study 1: From the University of Maryland.
UM students were asked to go without media for 24 hours and write about the experience in a group blog, which was analyzed. Many students described the experience in terms of an addiction that had gone unfulfilled. The university described the study in a news posting and summarized some additional details (again, appropriately) in a blog posting. (I especially like the Wordle summary.)

Study 2: From the Pew Research Center.
For teenagers, online text messaging has become the dominant form of social interaction -- surpassing even face-to-face contact with close friends.

Findings such as these are so important because these are the news consumers (I am deliberately avoiding the term "readers") of the future. Understanding and addressing these media usage habits is necessary for anyone developing future models of journalism

Saturday, April 17, 2010

AP Style changes on Internet terms

The Associated Press in the newest edition of its industry-standard Stylebook will be changing its style on Web site to "website," catching up with the way the rest of the world thinks and writes.

I saw several tweets* praising this move for its common sense, and have to agree. But I also saw a tweet (re-tweeting another author) advocating for making "internet" lower case as well.

That one, I must disagree with. There is only one Internet. That makes it a unique entity that deserves the status of a proper noun, and proper nouns are capitalized. In my opinion, there's not even room for debate on this one. Internet needs to be capitalized in all usages.

The same for World Wide Web as a descriptor of the largest and most commonly used part of the Internet, for that matter. It's also a unique entity and therefore a proper noun.

For anyone who cites "consistency" as the reason to maintain lower case with either of these terms, let me cite some precedents for adjectival forms being lower cased even when the nouns they draw from are proper. AP style says "congressional" goes downstyle as an adjective (e.g. congressional committee) but I would hope no one would use that as grounds for saying its OK to write "congress" just to maintain parallel capitalization.

I'm all for guarding against excessive capitalization in journalistic writing and it's time for "Web site" to go. But let's not jump overboard.

- - - - - - - -

*Note that I'm fine with "tweet" in lowercase as the noun and verb for activity on Twitter. But for the same reason as Internet I would maintain that the name of the site should be capitalized as a proper noun. As should Facebook, IMO, even though it likes to confuse things by having a logo with a lower-case "f".

Friday, April 9, 2010

More on making up for lost journalism

I keep coming up from behind on this story, for some reason. Probably because I collect a whole lot of great stuff in GoogleReader, then let days pass without reading it and coming upon it later.

But Steve Outing made a really insightful reply to the same Alan Mutter piece about non-profit journalism that I used as a jump-off point for my last entry (immediately below).

Outing points out that a lot of the "lost capacity" in newsrooms -- calculated at $1.6 billion by Poynter's Rick Edmonds -- isn't exactly irreplaceable accountability journalism but the type of commentary and redundant functions easily found elsewhere in the new journalistic ecosphere:

"Of all that lost for-profit journalism that used to be published by newspapers, lots of it is no longer needed. Newspapers have lost plenty of movie and book reviewers; foreign and Washington, D.C., correspondents; sports reporters who travel across the country to cover every away game; and on and on. I don’t mean to belittle the loss of those jobs, but the Internet has made available plenty of credible replacements.

"Is it necessary that my hometown paper have a professional movie reviewer, when I can read a wide range of professional and movie-goer reviews on my laptop or phone? I’m not the only person who’s stood in front of the multiplex theater deciding what movie to see by checking the reviews and trailers using Flixster on my smartphone. … That the local metro paper no longer has a correspondent in D.C. is lamentable, but there are plenty of replacements just a few clicks or finger-taps away. … Foreign news coverage? I’ve never had such a wide range of sources available to me, for free, no less.

"In other words, plenty of that $1.6 billion in lost newspaper journalism is not going to be replaced; it already has been by other parties.

Those are important, and relevant, things to consider as we talk about what's being lost as newspapers decline. For more read Outing's complete post.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Paying for just the journalism, revisited

I'm a little late to this party, but want to react to Alan Mutter's post from a few days ago (March 30) about non-profit news funding, which drew a lot of (mostly negative) attention. Mark Coddington in this week's Nieman Lab Week in Review examines the controversy and curates a bunch of links to other posts about it.

Most of the debate -- especially in the comments at the end of Mutter's post -- centered on the likelihood and practicality of charitable donations being able to fund journalism to the tune of $4.4 billion a year currently spent on newsrooms. Mutter used that figure based on some calculations by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute a few months ago.

But one of the comments -- which was made and ignored, garnering no reaction from other commenters -- pointed out that $4.4 billion amounts to $44 each from 100 million households nationwide. From my perspective, an even better way to look at it is that amounts to about $100 a year from each of the 44 million subscribers who currently pay to receive a daily newspaper, a figure remarkably similar to what I calculated and discussed in a post right here a few weeks ago.

It seems as if no one is putting any time or effort into figuring out how to get people who are now paying more than $200 a year for printed newspaper journalism to pay a fraction of that, say roughly half, for comparable online journalism. I'm repeating myself from the earlier post, but I don't think the issue whether paywalls will succeed is lack of willingness to pay for content. If it were, no one would pay for print, either. The real issue is that the weak content and crappy interface of most online news sites isn't worth paying for.

The newspaper industry's moguls should be working on create an online user experience that comes very, very close to reading the newspaper on paper with online delivery of interesting story selection, decent design and good writing. Then they should price it basically to cover just the overhead of paying for the journalists who will produce it. If this were to happen I'm convinced people who are still willing to pay for print would pay for this improved online version -- especially if it were to cost LESS than they were paying for the physical version.

Why is no one talking seriously about this? Develop an interface to the news worth paying for, and people probably will do so.

Monday, March 15, 2010

State of the News Media highlights pro-am collaboration

The annual State of the Media report from the Pew Research Center and Project for Excellence in Journalism was released today. This project each year offers a treasure trove of information, statistical and narrative, that does exactly what the name says it does: provide an overview of the state of the news media.

It documents in very stark terms just how bad off the newspaper industry is, with numbers on plummeting revenue and circulation. As the report's overview put it:

"For newspapers, which still provide the largest share of reportorial journalism in the United States, the metaphor that comes to mind is sand in an hourglass. The shrinking money left in print, which still provides 90% of the industry's funds, is the amount of time left to invent new revenue models online. The industry must find a new model before that money runs out."
The six major trends highlighted in the introduction to the report also offer valuable perspectives:

  • As we learn more about both Web economics and consumer behavior, the unbundling of news seems increasingly central to journalism's future.
  • The future of new and old media are more tied together than some may think. One concept that will get more attention is collaborations of old media and citizens in what some call a "pro-am" (professional and amateur) model for news. Yet how traditional news organizations cope with such partnerships, the rules for what is acceptable and what is not, remain largely uncharted.
  • The notion that the news media are shrinking is mistaken. Reportorial journalism is getting smaller, but the commentary and discussion aspect of media, which adds analysis, passion and agenda shaping, is growing -- in cable, radio, social media, blogs and elsewhere.
  • Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial account of events.
  • The ranks of self-interested information providers are now growing rapidly and news organizations must define their relationship to them.
  • When it comes to audience numbers online, traditional media content still prevails, which means the cutbacks in old media heavily impact what the public is learning through the new.
Some other highlights from the overview that stood out for me:

"Citizen journalism at the local level is expanding rapidly and brimming with innovation. This year's report includes a new study of 60 of the most highly regarded sites. The prospects for assembling sufficient economies of scale, audience and authority may be most promising at specialized national and international sites -- efforts like ProPublica, Kaiser Health News and Global Post.For all the invention and energy, however, the scale of these new efforts still amounts to a small fraction of what has been lost."

"Yet the energy and promise here cannot escape the question of resources. Unless some system of financing the production of content is developed, it is difficult to see how reportorial journalism will not continue to shrink, regardless of the potential tools offered by technology."

"Old media are trying to imagine the new smaller newsroom of the future in the relic of their old ones. New media are imagining the new newsroom from a blank slate and news ecosystem.Among the critical questions all this will pose: Is there some collaborative model that would allow citizens and journalists to have the best of both worlds and add more capacity here?"
I think it's significant that Pew and PEJ recognize the importance of an emerging pro-am model for news. How exactly that relationship takes form is an open question at this point, but clearly the additional eyes, ears and perspectives of citizen journalists can offer a useful supplement for shrinking legacy operations. Equally clearly, "volunteer journalism" isn't sufficient to do the job alone, any more than volunteer EMTs could be expected to provide all of the emergency care in a community. (See analogies in posting about the "fifth estate" a while back.)

Figuring out the connection points may not be easy, but it will be necessary.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Virtual editions and news-payment models

One thing that’s become apparent about the imploding newspaper business model is that the decoupling of advertising and journalism lies behind it.

The most intelligent and articulate examination of this was New York University professor Clay Shirky’s talk at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab a few months ago. In it, Shirky describes how advertising-supported journalism in the public interest is a historical anomaly, which existed for about half the 20th century simply because newspapers were literally the only way for advertisers to reach audiences for certain purposes. The rich stream of revenue supported all kinds of effective public-service journalism, a revenue stream that is now shrinking dramatically. This is because as soon as the interactive nature of the Internet made it possible to bypass newspapers, advertisers did so. As Shirky colorfully but accurately puts it, Best Buy never signed up to help pay for the Baghdad bureau in the first place.

So increasingly the question becomes: how can the industry get audiences to pay for the journalism, rendering the advertising support less crucial. Usually this is called erecting a “pay wall.” The conventional wisdom has become that pay walls just won’t work because simple economics states that the ability to charge a price for something is related to scarcity of the good, and there is no scarcity of journalistic information out there.

But something that I recently saw got me thinking about all of this, and led to some ideas for how getting people to pay for the journalism might work in a typical metro market – exactly the markets being hit worst by the collapse of newspaper business models.

This came about as I was looking at a virtual edition of my hometown newspaper and [disclosure] former employer, the Rochester N.Y. Democrat and Chronicle. The D&C, a Gannett property, doesn’t make this virtual edition widely available. Curious about it, I asked a former colleague, who told me that it’s used for some special purposes such as the NIE program. But when a huge snowstorm hit Rochester a week ago, making it difficult to deliver printed papers in a timely manner, they disabled the login wall and let anyone who was interested take a peek. I really liked what I saw, which led to the thinking described in this post. (This is what the login page looks like; it's the best I can do as far as offering a look at the product.)

On the screen, this virtual edition looks exactly like the printed paper in one part of the screen; clicking on an element such as an article or photo puts it into an adjacent space in expanded form for easier reading. I don’t think there is anything unique about this; I believe products such as Times Reader from The New York Times work similarly.

Now, I’m an old-time newspaper guy. I’m still a seven-day print subscriber to the Democrat and Chronicle. But as I sat there looking at the virtual edition, what came to mind was how close it was to reading the paper in print. It had the same typography, layout and organization. The experience was essentially the same: scan a full page, focus in on one element of it, i.e. an article of interest, and read it. Flip through the pages; find another article of interest. It was even printable; I printed out the day’s crossword puzzle just to be sure.

“I’d pay for this,” I thought – perhaps even as much, or close to as much, as I pay for the print edition (about $18 a month, charged to a credit card for ease of payment). The virtual edition even would have certain utility that my print paper doesn’t, which includes that it could have a later deadline, could be delivered more reliably (my print paper NEVER comes on time), and could save me a walk to the end of the driveway in the snow.

And that’s what set off my thinking about newspaper business models. The D&C has a print circulation of around 125,000 daily, and a bit more on the weekend (145,000 Saturday; 183,000 Sunday). If every one of those subscribers were paying the same $18 a month as I am, that’s about $25 million in annual revenue. (That is a very rough guesstimate, since there are various pricing models for the paper including weekend/holiday-only subscriptions, single-copy sales, etc.) Since the “rule of thumb” in the business is that circulation revenue is about 25 percent of total revenue, that puts gross annual revenue for a paper such as this one at somewhere around $100 million a year. That’s an even rougher number, but for purposes of this “thought experiment” these general ballpark figures are sufficient. The salient point is that this paper, and others comparable to it, have nine-figure revenue streams and still have undergone layoffs, reduced the size of the paper (both width of the page and number of pages), and been forced to do other economizing because it’s an expensive business and advertising support for those expenses has declined dramatically.

But suppose we tried to construct a model based around a virtual edition where audiences interested in getting just the journalism could do so in efficient manner, and had to pay for all of it – but not pay for a great many things that are baked into the cost of producing a print newspaper. Any discussion of pay walls generally is infused with a comment or two along the lines of “It costs money to do good journalism – reporters and editors deserve to collect a decent paycheck, y’know – so giving content away for free is something news organizations literally can’t afford any more.” No argument there. So would what would it take, in terms of costs and revenues, to do good journalism and get readers to pay for all of it?

Well, let’s run some numbers and make a few assumptions – the first of which is that the virtual edition would be the ONLY way to get the news. It would not be offered on paper or on the Internet. People who want news from the organization traditionally known as “the local paper” would have to get the virtual edition of it. Period.

Would a substantial part of the audience be willing to subscribe in this manner? Well, given how much these virtual editions can be made to look (if not feel) like the traditional paper, and given how comparable the reading experience is, I think a lot of people would. (Assumptions about attrition rate are stated below.) Not having it available in print or other online venues creates the scarcity for the product that is currently lacking from the business equation. It would make sense to maintain an accompanying Web site, but it basically would become a portal and promotional tool for the virtual edition and a repository for good multimedia work (interactive graphics, videos, databases) that would be behind the same pay wall erected for the virtual edition.

Losing the ink-on-paper version means giving up a big revenue stream – the revenue that’s currently keeping the industry afloat, in fact. But ditching the printed product also means losing huge amounts of costs: ink and paper, of course, but also all of the capital equipment costs (presses, plate-makers, stuffer/folders, trucks, real estate to house it all) and the costly wages of all of the people who run all that equipment.

But the key fact here is that print advertising is a shrinking revenue stream, a trend that’s not likely to be reversed as circulation declines continue – driving down rates—and as advertisers get even more savvy about reaching audiences without the printed paper. The revenue already is out of balance with the costs, so lopping off the presses and ancillary costs associated with them is where we start in making the costs of the journalism smaller so that it can pay for itself.

The other major assumption is that advertising wouldn’t be a part of the mix. This reduces revenue further but cuts additional costs in terms of sales and administrative staff, advertising designers, etc. Remember, what we’re trying to do is make this model as lean as possible: just the journalism, and then get people to pay for it directly.

Now suppose … just suppose (and here’s where my “thought experiment” really begins) … that three-fourths of the subscribers in a typical market Rochester’s size -- rounding off, roughly 100,000 -- were willing to pay half what they pay in print to get a virtual edition. Using the cost of my print subscription as a benchmark, that would generate a little less than $11 million in revenue ($9/month = $108/year x 100,000 = $10.8 million). Note that this is allowing for a 1/4 attrition rate from current subscribership because some people just aren’t going to make this jump, though cutting the price in half is designed to keep as many of them as possible. What we’d end up with is probably about a tenth of the current revenue stream supporting this paper. So would $11 million a year be enough to do good journalism?

Well, let’s make a few more assumptions. A standard “rule of thumb” for newspaper staffing is to have one journalist for every 1,000 units of circulation. Research has shown that this varies widely, with the ratio generally less for smaller papers and greater for larger papers. (Of course, this research was done before big papers such as those in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York started cutting newsroom jobs by the hundreds.) A 1-to-1,000 ratio seems like a reasonable place to start, so our 100,000 circulation virtual edition would need 100 journalists.

The mean salary for newspaper reporters is around $40,000. But let’s assume a slightly higher average given that some of those 100 journalists are going to be editors, who tend to be paid more. So let’s work with $50,000 as an average salary -- recognizing that there would be lots of variability around that mean. Editorial assistant "news clerks" probably would earn in the $25K range; senior editors might approach or surpass $70K or $80K.

And even if press operators and ad sales reps are no longer a part of the staff, this news organization is going to need some level of support beyond the journalists: info technology people to tend to the computers, a human resources staff, a finance and accounting group to manage the subscriptions, etc. This can be a fairly lean group, but let’s assume another 30 people, and let’s assume the same average salary. So that’s 130 people x $50,000 each (on average) for a payroll of $6.5 million.

Benefits vary by industry, but a typical benchmark is that benefits are about 30 to 35 percent of gross salary; if we pegged it at around 31 percent of the payroll that would add $2 million, for a total of $8.5 million in personnel costs.

That would leave $2.5 million out of the $11 million in annual revenue for overhead: office space, utilities, computers and other equipment, wire services, travel, etc. This is a pure wild guess, but nearly a quarter of a million dollars a month seems like enough to support the activities of 130 people doing this work.

This is a break-even scenario, of course, whereas commercial entities require a profit margin. So let’s go to a $10 per month subscription (actually, $9.95 might be more appealing, but $10 makes the math easier) and assume the same cost structure. Revenue climbs to $12 million; with costs of $11 million the profit margin is about 9 percent. That’s below the license-to-print-money-along-with-printing-newspapers environment of a few years ago, when newspaper industry margins were in the 30 to 40 percent range. But 9 percent is respectable … well above retail and many other businesses.

Now, this has been a chain of conjecture built upon guesses supported by assumptions. But that’s one of the nice things about “thought experiments;” they can take some flights of fancy. But as fanciful – made up – as some parts of this are, I have tried to be fairly realistic and reasonable about how the numbers would work. I think something like this is deserving of serious consideration in journalism’s future.

When I meet people and they learn that I teach journalism, they often ask my opinion/guess about the future of the newspaper industry. My typical, admittedly flippant, response is that my crystal ball is as clouded as everyone else’s. But I think I’m going to change that to talk about some of these ideas. Part of the problem with the pay wall discussion is that it assumes payment would be attached to the type of news now typical on the Internet. No one is going to pay for access to a Web site that, for many news organizations, is a cacophony of links and images, loads slowly because of all the blinking/spinning/moving ads, and is impossible to navigate.

Giving readers a virtual version of the paper they’ve come to know and respect, on the other hand, could well be something they would find worth paying for. The value added – what makes it worth paying for – is the familiarity of form to go with the content.

It might even be “meatier,” and thus provide more value added. Many papers have shrunk their printed product because of the costs of paper. What's usually trimmed is high-quality syndicated material, such as news analysis pieces from the wire services or syndicated columnists, that the organization has paid for but just has no room to place in the shrunken paper. Adding pages to a virtual edition using such material wouldn’t cost anything more than the time of the copy editor assembling them. This means the disappearing Op-Ed pages and dramatically shrinking wire reports common across the industry could grow back to where they were a few years ago for many papers .

And, maybe best of all, this model would be very amenable to tablet delivery. A lot of commentary has been made lately about the impact of Apple’s new iPad on the news industry. But an even stronger model, in my view, would be to use a dedicated tablet that the news organization would supply for free or at a deep discount in return for a certain subscription guarantee – say 2 years, akin to wireless phone plans that include the phone hardware for little or no money. This would answer the portability question, and make the virtual paper equivalent in nearly every respect to the current printed one.

Think it could happen?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

College-pro collaboration in journalism

In their report titled "The Reconstruction of Journalism," one of the ideas proposed by Len Downie and Michael Schudson was that journalism schools ought to be contributing to the news mix to a greater degree. As they describe it:

"Universities, both public and private, should become ongoing sources of local, state, specialized subject, and accountability news reporting as part of their educational missions. They should operate their own news organizations, host platforms for other nonprofit news and investigative reporting organizations, provide faculty positions for active individual journalists, and be laboratories for digital innovation in the gathering and sharing of news and information."

To be sure, this is already happening; elsewhere in the report the authors point out examples from institutions such as Berkeley, Missouri, Columbia, and Florida International.

A new one coming on the scene is a cooperative venture of New York University and The New York Times. The Local: East Village is set to launch in fall 2010, and will consist of NYU students and faculty producing the coverage, which will appear under the Times' brand on its site. As NYU professor Jay Rosen describes it,

"It’s about innovation; it’s about the classic virtues, like shoe leather reporting. It combines the discipline of pro journalism with the participatory spirit of citizen journalism. It’s an ideal way to study the craft, which is to say it’s an entirely practical project. It’s what J-school should be doing: collaborating with the industry on the best ways forward."

NYU apparently has had some kick-back from some stakeholders about this; Rosen mentions that near the end of his posting that "not everyone is thrilled" about the plan but says any problems that arise will be dealt with in course. (Read Jay's full post.)

These collaborations are terrific ideas, in my view, and could really contribute something valuable to the new ecology of journalism. Downie and Schudson make an interesting analogy to other types of professional training, where the faculty are practitioners and contributors to the field:

"In addition to educating and training journalists, colleges and universities should be centers of professional news reporting, as they are for the practice and advancement of medicine and law, scientific and social research, business development, engineering, education, and agriculture."

That's a very powerful idea for what journalism schools could contribute to the craft and society at large. I'm excited for the faculty and students at NYU and I'll be looking at the NYU-NYT collaboration to see how it plays out. I hope it's a real success and becomes a model for other colleges and news organizations. Maybe, if I'm fortunate, I'll be involved in something like this one someday.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Addition by subtraction

Tracy Boyer at Innovative Interactivity offers a good summary of what must have been an interesting talk by Brian Storm, founder and president of MediaStorm, at the University of North Carolina recently. Two of the bullet points pulled out from the talk offer terrific advice for creating better presentations online -- and maybe in other venues as well. Boyer cites Storm as saying (among many other things):

  • We work from a subtraction process … we take out what isn’t interesting.
  • We use text because it is the non-emotional way of giving information. Viewers read the text in their own voice.

I love the idea of strengthening your work by looking for whatever isn't interesting, and removing it. And, while I'm a big fan of the power that interactive multimedia can add to a story, the idea that there are some things best told in text -- best experienced by the readers via their own voices in their own heads -- is a really under-appreciated aspect of journalism in the contemporary age.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pyramid Power

An entry in the Knight Digital Media Center's Online Journalism Review by Benjamin Davis proposes an intriguing way to think about news presentations, something he calls the digital media pyramid. Significantly, it's shaped like a standard pyramid because it's meant to update the traditional news formulation known as the inverted pyramid.

In the inverted pyramid, the width is a metaphor for importance -- wider at the top means more important, narrowing as it goes down to less-important material. In the digital media pyramid I'm guessing the width is a metaphor for breadth of the presentation, or perhaps the number of elements or individuals contributing to it? (I presume the width is a metaphor for something, otherwise what's the point of the visual representation. I'd welcome clarification on this.)

As Davis puts it:

"The basic premise of the Inverted Pyramid remains sound, but the device desperately needs to be adjusted for the fast-moving digital world. ... The 'Digital Media Pyramid' does not replace the analog-based Inverted Pyramid. It simply enhances it by bringing it into a 21st century digitally dominated information universe."

Mostly it adds a number of considerations to the mix that journalists need to account for in an online environment, including cut-and-pasted and linked material; artwork and ads (often auto-generated ones that appear almost seamlessly with the text); and the ways in which reader content and sharing through social networks and other resources extend the presentation.

At the risk of sounding like a fan for reductionism, I like models such as this that sum things up with a visual shorthand for something that has a lot of moving parts. So I was intrigued to read about it and think it might offer a useful frame for talking about the differences between digital and traditional storytelling. I highly recommend checking out Davis' entry for much more explanation and detail than I have offered.

An also-interesting postscript was added by digital journalist Mark Luckie, who blogs about online and digital journalism at 10000 Words. In a comment on Davis' entry, Luckie points out that

If the digital age has taught us anything it is that storytelling is no longer linear. A pyramid, whether it is inverted or "digital," is still linear.

(His comment brought to mind another Web site with some other visual depictions I recently used in a lesson about nonlinear storytelling, Mazzba Productions' summary on Web Content Design.)

While I certainly understand Luckie's point and, and I am intrigued by Davis' thoughts, I want to offer a humble (and very brief) defense of linear thinking and the traditional IP construction.

Certainly, news presentations at the macro-level are nonlinear. But most of them always have been, even in print newspapers. As I love to tell my students, I usually start with the comics and sports and double back to the "A" section of hard news only when I'm on my second cup of coffee. Few, if any, people read the paper from page 1A to the final page in order, starting every page at the upper left and going through to the end. Random access is the rule.

A key difference, of course -- and what Luckie really means -- is that non-linearity is now the rule at the individual story level, as well. Many Internet news presentations consist of several individual parts, and readers may choose to access some, all, or just one of them, and readers who do look at several of them can choose the order of reviewing them. Journalists who don't account for this take the risk of creating weak presentations that confuse their readers.

But below a certain level of granularity in the presentation, the information MUST be presented and processed linearly. A text block, even if it's only 200 words, isn't read by looking at the sixth paragraph first, then the fourth, before doubling back to the lead. It's read in order. A video, even a short one, or a narrated slide show, runs from beginning to end as the producer put it together. We haven't become completely disattached from our linear storytelling roots when it comes to the components that comprise the overall presentation, even for non-linear presentations.

And in my classes I still teach the inverted pyramid as something more than the historical curiosity that Davis frames it as. It's still a simple device for organizing the facts of a story, especially for breaking news on the Web, and powerful in that simplicity.

If there's one fact that stands out from nearly every reading on Web usability, it is that on-screen reading is slower and more difficult than ink-on-paper, so online readers scan presentations, absorbing short chunks of text best. That seems almost tailor-made to IP presentations, getting the basic ideas and facts up front for the readers. Then, the Digital Pyramid can take over in terms illustrating how the rest of the mix enters in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Good, the Not-So-Bad and the Ugly in Multimedia Presentation

My students have been finding some excellent -- or at least pretty good -- examples of multimedia presentations, such as these from the Miami Herald, New York Times and Times again.

Then, there are the truly awful ones out there, such as this one found and tweeted by my friend Serena Carpenter of Arizona State. In my re-tweet of it I said it looked like a cliche ransom note assembled out of letters cut-and-pasted from newspapers and magazines!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Clever switch in Super Bowl ad

This sharp-eyed observation comes courtesy of my wife, Missy.

It concerns an ad for Flo TV that first aired during the Super Bowl last week. The spot, titled "Spineless," shows a young man being dragged along on a shopping trip with his girlfriend, and missing "the big game" as a consequence. Just to sharpen the point, for most of the commercial he's walking around with a red bra draped over his shoulder.

When we saw the game during ESPN's telecast of the Syracuse-Louisville basketball game on Sunday, Missy noticed that the big-screen TVs in the background of the stores they walk through, as well as the FloTV sample screen close-ups, showed basketball action. Remembering that it had been a Super Bowl spot, she was a little incredulous. They didn't have basketball action in the background during the Super Bowl, did they? she wondered.

So, we found an online version of the ad as it was broadcast during the Super Bowl and, sure enough, the sports clips in that one are football. Same commercial in general regarding dialogue, actors and all ... but customized for the sporting event it appears within. Very clever use of post-production technology to target an audience.

So, now that we've noticed this I'll be looking for it during NBC's telecasts of Olympic hockey to see whether it has skaters in the scenes rather than cagers or gridders.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Important Date in Journalism History

See posting about why Feb. 9 is an important date in journalism, particularly for the practice known as civic or public journalism.

(The link is to a post I made at another blog to which I occasionally contribute, that of the Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group of AEJMC)

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Myth of Multitasking

Frontline had a very interesting documentary the other night about the impact of digital technology on a wide variety of things in our lives.

In the built-in irony department, I had recorded this Frontline episode on DVR, then watched it with my laptop in front of me, and I'd be lying if I said my attention never wandered from the show to look at my e-mail or Twitter. But mostly the laptop was there to take notes for this posting.

The show's opening had producer Rachel Dretzin talking about her home with her husband and son on two different computers, and younger kids playing a game on her i-Phone. The scene looked a lot like our house much of the time; in fact as I watched the program, with laptop at hand, my daughter was on the other computer, working on a project of her own.

But my favorite part of the program was the juxtaposition of quotes from an MIT professor and MIT student, demonstrating what I call the myth of multitasking.

When I teach classes in computer labs I have very strict rules for use of the computers, basically forbidding them being used for ANYTHING other than assigned classwork. If I catch students violating that rule, I dismiss them from class and mark them absent. I think the students are sometimes resentful of this stern, zero-tolerance attitude. But I stand by it because I agree with the MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, who said that students do themselves a disservice by believing that they can pay adequate attention when multitasking. I'm with her in thinking that "There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you are thinking about only one thing at a time" (Turkle quote).

I wholly disagree with the counterpoint statement by a student named Lauren that: "I feel like the professors here do have to accept that we can multitask very well and that we do at all times. If they try to restrict us from doing it, it's almost unfair because we are completely capable of moving between lecture and other things and keeping track of the many things going on in our lives."

She portrays it as some kind of new generation gap; older people can't do this but younger people can, with no adverse impacts on their ability to absorb and process the information. But I consider it a hubristic display of a generational "third-person effect" for her to say that she and others of her generation can do it because they're young and the older generation just doesn't get it.

I just don't think it's possible to do for Lauren -- and others, including likely many of my own students -- to pay attention to multiple things at once as effectively as they claim they can. If you're writing an e-mail during class, you can't possibly absorb the ideas of a professor's lecture; it's the words of the e-mail that are running through your brain, not the words of the professor. If you're writing text messages or reading Facebook updates you can't be paying enough attention to a classmate's comments to respond to them in a discussion. I've even dismissed students from class for playing solitaire during a lecture. What the student would probably call multitasking to me seems more like a choice that playing a game is something he'd rather be doing than paying attention to the teacher.

Students may not like my lab rules, but I'm standing by them because in my judgment multitasking is a pure myth.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Employers seek mix of traditional, modern skills

Arizona State professor Serena Carpenter has completed a really interesting study that highlights the importance of students learning both traditional journalistic skills and modern technological ones. (Full disclosure: Serena is a friend and collaborator; she contributed a chapter to my recently published volume Public Journalism 2.0 And, as a further aside, as a researcher, I especially admire the creative approach she took to the methodology -- a content analysis of postings on the Web site Journalism Jobs.)

The study, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator and summarized on AEJMC's "Hot Topics" site, says that on the traditional-skills side, solid writing, working under deadline, editing, teamwork and communication skills, and familiarity with Associated Press Style all still matter both for traditional media organizations and non-traditional ones. But also important to both types of organizations are skills such as content posting and management, image editing, blogging, video editing, and social media knowledge. (Interestingly, though, the non-traditional news organizations rate the tech skills as less important than the non-tech ones). But when it comes to these non-traditional news outlets, something that Serena calls "adaptive expertise" -- things such as creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving -- takes on added importance.

In my view, these findings are interesting and important ones as we try to figure out how we should be teaching today's college students to be tomorrow's journalists. The challenge this presents, naturally, is how to fit all of this instruction into our courses.

(As I wrote that I couldn't help but recall the phrase used by my first real journalism "boss," the crusty managing editor of the Buffalo News during an internship I had there more than 30 years ago, who described the task of an editor trying to fit all the news into the newspaper as "fitting 10 pounds of s#%t into a 5-pound bag." But I digress.)

This old-vs.-new milieu was a topic of some discussion at some sessions I attended at the AEJMC convention in Boston last summer, also. To what degree should we as educators be providing what amounts to trade-school training in software packages and other technical skills? How much of a distraction can that become to our traditional role teaching reporting, writing and editing, not to mention topics such as accuracy and verification, ethics, law, etc.?

In programs such as ours, with one main journalism course, what can we drop out of the current curriculum to make sure all of the new aspects are covered? When the industry is saying "teach all of the traditional skills and values" and also "make sure your graduates are technically skilled and capable" at the same time, it's hard to determine the answer to that question. At what point does the emphasis on the new attenuate the old, diminishing it to the point of damage? Or, to put it another way, how do we fit 10 pounds of ... stuff ... into a 5-pound bag?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Journalism and short-attention-span politics

One of the central ideas we've been talking about in my advanced journalism class so far this semester is the changing nature of journalism, especially how it's evolved away from a traditional top-down, institutionally controlled model for selecting and creating the news report.

The central concept behind the change is "on demand." Audiences have embraced, and come to expect, accessing media presentations in an on-demand way. With an entire library of songs on an iPod, music lovers can program their listening rather than waiting for their favorite song to pop up on radio. DVR makes it exceptionally easy to time-shift television viewing so you can watch what you want, when you want. Netflix delivers movies right to you, or even lets you watch them online (saving even a walk to the mailbox).

With regard to journalism this means a shift way from the "institutional" model, in which readers/viewers were locked into absorbing a presentation based on what the journalists said ought to be in it -- delivered to the doorstep at 6 a.m. or to the TV screen at 6 and 11. (Usually this is referred to as the gatekeeper model). Now, with access to a far greater range of choices for reporting and presentation, audiences can create their own reports through aggregation (e.g. Google and Yahoo collections), surfing to their favorite sites, subscribing to RSS feeds, following media organizations on Twitter and mobile updates, etc. Journalists don't determine the news report an individual consumer sees; consumers determine it for themselves. (And, increasingly, they help create it. But that's another matter.)

On balance this is a good thing, but not without a certain down side. With so many choices, it's nearly impossible to avoid attenuating our attention to any one of them. As we get lost in the "flow" it becomes difficult to pay sufficient attention to complicated matters. That's the subject of an interesting column by Charles Blow in today's (Sat. Jan. 30) New York Times.

The column is mostly about how President Obama presents his thoughts to the public on important ideas of the day, reflecting on the recent State of the Union address. But at the end, Blow has some idea about how that connects to news ecosystem and the way citizens access and react to the news of the day. Blow's comments include:

  • "Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks. Sad but true."
  • "We subsist on Twitter twaddle ... (where) thoughts are amputated at 140 characters."
  • "The most trusted 'newsman' may well be a comedian (Jon Stewart), and stars of the 'most trusted news network' (Fox) may well be a comedian’s dream."

Blow's comments remind us that it's important to make sure that somehow -- despite the emphasis on in-demand, in-the-moment, flow-related journalism -- reporting and presentation don't become so reductionist that they harm rather than help our society's ability to address important issues of the day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Incivility in reader forums

Back when the Democrat and Chronicle introduced a revamped Web site with lots of new social media tools back in 2008, I found idea of participating in online discussion about community and national issues really intriguing. I became active, for a while, in the online forums that were a part of the new site.

Now, joining in these online conversations isn't for the thin-skinned or faint-of-heart. Most of the participants are anonymous, and hide behind that cloak to make rude, insulting comments about other participants with whom they disagree. I won't even use the word "discussion" to describe what goes on there because to me, that word implies respectful give-and-take with the goal of reaching common ground, or at least a civil conclusion about agreeing to disagree. NOTHING about the exchanges in most of the D&C's most active forums is respectful, civil or directed at finding common ground.

I was posting under my real name, with a photo, so the insults could be (and were) directed at me by name. I'm not particularly thin-skinned, so the rough-and-tumble nature and even the insults didn't really bother me. And I tried really hard to cultivate civility. I never returned fire with the insults, and tried to encourage other participants toward more respectful behavior. To absolutely no avail.

After swimming upstream against this I eventually got tired of it, and stopped participating. I still look back in occasionally, and the same rude individuals are at it. I guess they find it fun; I found it crashingly boring to watch people hurl insults rather than try to engage in civil discussion.

Which brings me to a recent column by Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison. He notes that anonymity seems to be at the root of the problem with uncivil discourse in newspaper forums. His column was a follow-up to an earlier column in which he'd asked for feedback about the paper's coverage of Haiti. He reported that among those who chose to give comment via e-mail "None of [them] were mean-spirited (even the two who disagreed). Is it a coincidence that all of those civil people are reachable (and somewhat accountable) through a return e-mail?"

On the other side: "Of the 20 anonymous comments attached online to the column asking for feedback on earthquake coverage, most were negative. Several comments devolved to personal attacks, both on me and those readers who said anything positive"

And when he asked for comments about the comment feature itself, "Dozens said the online comments are so vitriolic and mean-spirited that they have stopped reading them. Many said it appears that the online comment option -- aimed at providing a community forum to discuss stories and issues important to central Ohio -- devolves so quickly into name-calling and hate-mongering that it's not worth their time."

The italics there are mine, not Marrison's. I emphasized those passages to raise the point that it appears I'm not the only person who'd like to have a civil discussion online but finds it a waste of time when the dominant ethos is anonymous name-calling. It appears if newspapers really want their story-comment sections and open forums to be places where productive discourse can occur, they will need to get rid of the anonymity.

There's a piece of academic research in here that I actually started work on a while ago; even did some lit review and collected some data. Reading Marrison's column reminds me that I ought to get back to it. It appears to be a topic worth further exploration.