Sunday, October 30, 2011

What I Learned at the Journalism Interactive Conference

Ways in which technology offers myriad opportunities to reinvent journalism dominated the conversation at the recently concluded Journalism Interactive conference, held at the University of Maryland on Friday and Saturday.

The discussion about new technological tools in social media, search, presentation (e.g. data visualization software), and other innovations went beyond the all-to-typical “gee-whiz” hype about these tools I’ve seen in many past conferences to really emphasize how to teach students to use such technologies effectively to create better journalism. The usual earnest intonations from assorted speakers about how “teaching the fundamentals is still important” were heard, of course – but they seemed less out of place than I have sometimes thought in the past.

In fact, at many conference sessions I’ve attended, statements about the importance of fundamentals seemed to be almost lip service when juxtaposed with implications that unless students are learning every new technology that comes along and using every gadget that comes out then they can’t be effective journalists in the 21st century. This conference reflected a better balance of the ideas: new tools allow stories to be told in new ways, yes, but the storytelling matters even more than the platform or device with which it is told. And unless the information is accurate, verified, contextual and of interest to the reader, all the technological whiz-bang in the world is meaningless. Good writing still underlies effective media presentation.

That said, it was impossible to escape the message that students must be far more savvy about two things: the inner workings of the technology that is transforming journalism, and an understanding of business. The conference had many in-depth discussions of both topics.

With regard to technological skills, several industry professionals said they have had internships and even full-time jobs available for which they could find no qualified candidates because the jobs required an understanding of scripting languages, website development tools, and the like. Knowing about analytics for audience metrics, and how to use tools such as metadata to make information stand out to audiences, is a critical skill, for example.

The journalists themselves don’t have to be highly skilled programmers, these professionals said. But if they are going to work in the growing field of multimedia presentation they need to know more than just how to use applications for word processing, image editing and social media. They need to do some of the coding for the interactive web and mobile presentations themselves and also need to be able to speak capably with those high-level programmers who make the presentations come to life. “We live in a digital world and programming is the language of that world,” Associated Press director of interactive media Shazna Nessa said in one session.

As for business skills, the idea of entrepreneurship was raised repeatedly – from students developing their own businesses to being “intrapreneurs” who help the organizations they join become more innovative and adaptable to the changing world around them. More generally, students entering the commercial world need more business acumen and an understanding of topic such as accounting and finance that comprise the vernacular of business, several presenters said.

Conference presenters from an assortment of backgrounds – working professionals, consultant and academics themselves – all said there was a need for more interdisciplinary work. Journalism and communication programs should be collaborating, especially, with business schools and computer science departments on their campuses.

A couple of other random thoughts:

  • Data visualization, or visual representation of large amounts of numerical and textual data, is going to be a much more significant aspect of information presentation (journalistically and otherwise) in the near future. A simple example of this are “word clouds” created by the popular Wordle site; more sophisticated examples can be found at the Associated Press’s experimental Overview project.

  • Developing content with mobile devices in mind also is becoming more important at an increasingly rapid pace. Predictions are that smartphones and tablet computers likely will be the main way most people access online content in just a few years.

  • Conference organizers deserve major props for a really thought-provoking event that featured many terrific presenters with highly valuable insights – most of whom were also entertaining and engaging. A real standout in this regard was the Innovative Storytelling panel featuring Shazna Nessa of AP, Mark Luckie of the Washington Post and Richard "Koci" Hernandez of University of California - Berkeley. Panels and presenters this good aren't all that common at conferences such as this, and overall it made for a fantastic experience.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Random thoughts from social media conference

Spent a long but fruitful, and enjoyable, day at the second Social Media and Communication symposium at Rochester Institute of Technology, one full of catching up with old friends/colleagues and gathering some interesting take-aways on the state of communication and journalism.

The featured speaker was NYU professor Clay Shirky, author of the books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus. His central message was how the interactive, collaborative tools afforded by the Internet today are fostering social change by enabling relevant communities to self-organize and apply collective intelligence to social problems. Such collaborations make use of what he called cognitive surplus -- time people have to work together productively in virtual arrangements -- in the book of the same name.

Two of his examples were related to collaborative problem-solving of a couple of very high-end, "out there" mathematical questions via the route of mathematicians sharing ideas about potential solutions via blog posts and comments. In one case, the series of posts and comments was reconfigured into a paper sent to an academic journal and accepted on the basis of its ideas. But the journal editors ran into a stumbling block with it because whomever submitted it didn't identify an author. Well, there was no one author (or even two or three), which presented a problem from the academic editor's frame of reference.

Shirky extended the example to say that it illustrates how print publishing, which for most of its history has facilitated and sped up the sharing of ideas, is now in many cases an impediment to it ... because of the cultural mindset embedded in print and its publishers.

One of the most interesting things he said (in my view at least) was that tools don't get socially interesting until they are technically boring, by which he seemed to mean when they became commonplace and mundane. This is the point he says we are at now with Internet collaborative tools but one we reached only recently. But only because we have reached that point can we use the tools for socially interesting results such as the math problem examples he gave. The most valuable outcomes of using the tools are the ones no one can anticipate or expect, he said a couple of different times.

Another interesting panel featured several journalists talking about what they are looking for in terms of relevant skills for working in modern newsrooms. Included were senior editors from Messenger-Post Newspapers, City Newspaper, The Minority Report (which serves the Rochester area African-American community), the Democrat and Chronicle and WXXI television. A special guest panelist was Tom Callinan, a former top editor of the D&C and other Gannett papers who recently retired from the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Callinan opened the panel by telling the audience, largely students, that a mindset oriented toward change was one of the most valuable assets they could bring to the job. But what was interesting was how quickly the conversation evolved into discussion of core journalistic values still being critical, including accuracy, inquisitiveness, solid ethics, strong writing skills, an understanding of news (as apart from opinion and infotainment), and passion for the work.

The importance of good writing -- meaning writing that is free of clutter, bias and errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation -- repeatedly came up. Yes, it's important to be able to work across platforms and tell stories in different ways that take advantage of the characteristics of modern multimedia tools, including social media. But what gives the work meaning and impact is adhering to all of the traditional characteristics of good solid journalism.

Other featured panelists at the event -- who offered opening and closing keynotes, respectively -- were Pam Moore of Zoom Factor and Maggie Fox of Social Media Group. Both of them focused on the impacts of social media on marketing, business and advertising.

But truly the best part of the day was the reunions with a number of old friends, mostly former work colleagues from the Democrat and Chronicle, some of whom are still working there and others (like Tom C.) who have moved along to other positions. Some of us managed to gather for a reunion photo. Networking is usually the best part of nearly any conference I attend, and this was no different.

Photo caption (L to R): Cynthia Benjamin, Jack Rosenberry, Patrick Flanigan, Bob Finnerty, Tom Callinan, Sebby Wilson Jacobson.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake news traveled virally

So, we had an earthquake today. I didn't feel it. I think I was out driving around; it happened at 1:51 p.m. EDT and I was driving home around then. I'm assuming with the mildness of the quake's impact in Upstate New York, being in a moving car would obliterate any chance of feeling it.

My first inkling that an earthquake had occurred was when my wife said something about a friend texting her (and a bunch of other people in a texting group) asking whether any of them had felt it happen. That was about an hour after the quake hit.

My next instinct was not to turn on the TV, as I might have in the past, but to jump on the computer to see what people were saying about it on Facebook and Twitter. The first such entry I saw was from a former student who works in Washington, DC -- not far from the epicenter -- who had FB and Twitter entries with references to the HuffPo website's coverage of the event (which he didn't much like). Another friend who lives in eastern Pennsylvania, still relatively close to the quake's location, had a Facebook post about it. Several Rochester area friends mentioned feeling things shake as well.

Another friend from eastern Pennsylvania, who now teaches at a college there but is originally from California, had at least a couple of dozen Twitter observations about the differences between West Coast quakes he had experienced and this one. He also provided my absolute favorite social media news tidbit with the observation "I was able to pinpoint the epicenter pretty quickly based on descriptions and known locations of tweeters. Took me about a minute."

Now, that's some social media based reporting.

It wasn't until about 4 hours later that I turned to legacy media for news about the quake, and even then I didn't turn on the TV or navigate to a news website. Rather, I looked at the AP news app on my iPad, which had a nice summary story as typical of a wire service. I looked at USA Today's coverage through its iPad news app also. Thus I augmented the first-person reports I had read with the professional coverage that had the "official word" on magnitude of the quake, along with details from a wide range of areas affected by it (from South Carolina to New England to Ohio).

I suppose I'll read about it in tomorrow's print edition of the local paper, too, but that will most likely be a version of the AP story I already have read, augmented by comments from local people whom I don't know. Hearing from people whom I do know is more worthwhile to me, and social media have allowed me to do that already.

Put another way, Twitter and Facebook told me most of what I needed to know, from trusted sources who experienced the event. (To paraphrase Jay Rosen's framing of journalistic authority: they were there, I wasn't, I let them tell me about it.) The AP story was a nice follow-up and I appreciated having the immediate access to it that the mobile app gave me.

Most significantly, both the viral distribution of individual experiences and the professional summary have a role to play in coverage of events such as this. Today's experience was a nice microcosm of that.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Observations from the AEJMC conference

A few random thoughts from the recently concluded AEJMC conference in St. Louis.

* The best line I heard all week in any session was Lisa Williams of Placeblogger during her talk at the J-Lab luncheon. In discussing the emergence of small news operations, Williams compared current large institutions (think: big metro daily newspapers) to the Titanic, and said that when you're coming upon the iceberg you're better off in a kayak (think: small, entrepreneurial organization).

In another terrific analogy, she compared the current media landscape to the high-tech industry of the late 1980s, which was dominated by large, centralized institutions who clung to outdated technologies and ways of working, and eventually went out of business. (One of those was Digital Equipment Corp., which she called "the Knight-Ridder of its time," drawing a laugh from the audience.) As companies such as DEC disappeared, smaller startups such as Google came on the scene using technology in innovative ways to better serve customer needs. "The future is small," she said, meaning many smaller organizations will collectively make bigger impacts than the large central ones that are now fading away. That applies to technology, and needs to apply to journalism as well, she said.

* The same session featured David Boraks of, an online community news site in North Carolina. Boraks talked about how he started off with a journalistic mindset, but quickly learned that success required a business mindset. The operation now employs three people, including one who is editor of a companion site in a neighboring town.

In a post-session discussion among me and several friends, someone asked about whether Boraks should be considered a journalist? Citizen journalist? Citizen who IS a journalist? My reply: he's a publisher, plain and simple. His operation is virtually identical in the scope and style of its coverage to any small-town weekly printed newspaper, led by an editor/publisher with a variety of responsibilities to the operation and the readership; Boraks just does it without printing his work on paper and stuffing it in the mail to readers.

When Boraks described his work, it seemed he is doing exactly what my good friend Howard did in operating the weekly newspaper in Seneca Falls when I lived and worked there 30 years ago. The main difference is that Boraks is able to publish on a more ongoing basis rather than writing and editing his stories for several days to meet a once-a-week deadline. And he doesn't have the expense of printing and mailing the product. But the journalism is the same, it seems to me. And so is the business side, with support from local business as advertisers and readers as "subscribers"/supporters. (Boraks doesn't have formal subscriptions but does ask for and does receive voluntary contributions, and said he might some day investigate a pay wall.)

* There seemed to be less talk at this year's convention about j-schools as community news providers. Last year, there were multiple sessions on that topic and I attended as many as I could. It's something I'd love to see my program get into, if at all possible. But no real mention of it this time around. It seemed to be replaced, to some degree, by talk about journalistic entrepreneurialism, as illustrated by what Williams and Boraks had to say.

* AEJMC did its usual fine job of organizing everything, but they sure have a knack for finding convention hotels that are confusing places to traverse. This one's quirks included:
  • Meeting rooms in two different places separated by a city block walk along the street, or underground passage between the two buildings.
  • One small suite of presentation rooms on the 21st floor of one of the buildings, reachable only by a particular bank of elevators that were well hidden.
  • A mezzanine level in one of the buildings up what should have been one short flight of stairs from the lobby, but with no stairs or escalator to it. Getting there required riding the elevator.
And next year we go back to Chicago. If it's in the same hotel that was used for the 2008 convention in that city, there is a a floor that cannot be reached directly by the escalators from anywhere: you need to go to the floor above it and take a set of stairs down. At least the St. Louis location didn't have that.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Two neat takes on news webpage design

(Disclosure: This started life as a GooglePlus post, then I decided to repeat it here in the blog with some additional information)

I've long maintained that news organizations shoot themselves in the feet regularly with cluttered, hard to navigate or difficult-to-access websites. I think this is related to the whole "people won't pay for news on the Web" issue. It seems to me many people think "I'd have to pay for THIS mess? It's a pain to access for free. No way I'd pay for it." Maybe people would pay for better, more functional access; maybe that's why they are willing to pay for apps.

Two neat presentations I came across today bring the point home. One, a serous take that I found from Nieman Lab's Week in Review for this week, walks through a designer's critique of the NYT website with some suggested revisions. Many of the same points are made, albeit in a somewhat snarkier way, in a funny post on Laughing Squid.

The same Week in Review column had this very informative link from Jonathan Stray about evolving news story forms as part of its Reading Roundup. Mark Coddington always does a remarkable job with this column and I'm pleased to be able to pass along some of his work but he deserves the credit for these interesting reads.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Growth of Patch, indie sites shows citizen journalism going mainstream

Note: This article also appears in the Summer 2011 edition of the CCJIG newsletter and on the AEJMC Civic & Citizen Journalism Interest Group blog

One of the most striking recent developments in the world of online news, and citizen journalism, has been the rapid expansion of the network of local news sites owned by AOL.

Patch was started in 2008 by a group that included Tim Armstrong, a former Google executive. Armstrong joined AOL in early 2009, and the company acquired Patch that June. Patch sites were located in 11 communities in New Jersey and Connecticut in late 2009 but grew to about 100 sites in nine states by August 2010 and approximately 800 sites across 20 states by early 2011.

These local news sites primarily cover affluent bedroom communities that surround large cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. Each site has an editor, who is provided with equipment – a computer, cell phone and digital camera – but no office; instead, editors work from home or from community locations such as coffee shops.

More recently, Patch has moved aggressively to augment the paid professional editors with a citizen journalism component of volunteer writers and local bloggers contributing to the sites. Each site lists all of its contributors, which can run to several dozen on some sites, and a section of the home page highlights local bloggers.

But independent online community journalists have been critical of Patch, notably the idea that an outside corporate entity can ever have the true community connection that they see as the heart of local journalism. In an interview with LA Weekly, Timothy Rutt, who runs the hyperlocal site, compared Patch to “Walmart moving in and driving out the mom-and-pop businesses.”

Now, Rutt and operators of some other independent sites are joining forces in a network seeking to counter the influence of Patch. The coalition, which calls itself Authentically Local, announced its formation in mid-May 2011 with 30 founding members. By the end of May it had grown to nearly 50. The list includes names that are familiar to many CCJIG members from having representatives of the sites on CCJIG convention panels – including BaristaNet, Oakland Local, West Seattle Blog, Twin Cities Daily Planet and iBrattleboro.

In a news release announcing the coalition’s formation, the members said they “have joined forces to launch an ‘Authentically Local’ branding campaign to emphasize the importance of supporting homegrown media, stores and places.”

“Local journalism doesn’t scale and it doesn’t need to scale. It needs to emerge from people deeply engaged in their local community, determined to make a difference and provide a vital service,” Lance Knobel, a co-founder of, said in the news release.

While the Authentically Local group’s concerns are understandable, it’s not entirely clear why an a priori conclusion that “local doesn’t scale” is warranted. Operators of the Authentically Local sites are in the same situation as – and essentially fighting the same fight as – local retailers and dining establishments against national big box stores and restaurant chains. They make that analogy themselves on the AL website.

But is it necessarily and automatically the case that out-of-town ownership degrades the quality of the journalism?

For decades before online hyperlocal news coverage emerged, out-of-town ownership of small local newspapers was not the exception but the rule. And while many of those chain papers were poor to mediocre, some were pretty good – while some of the small locally owned ones were true rags. In other words, ownership had no general correlation with quality. In a similar vein, there seems to be little fundamental difference between small local newspapers being owned by large corporations (e.g. Gannett, which owned dozens of such papers but was not the only corporation that did so) and a local news website being owned by a large corporation (i.e. Patch/AOL).

Patch encourages editors to share information about themselves on their sites, and a quick review of a few sites revealed that many editors had local roots, as either natives or at least longtime residents of the communities they cover. Many have worked for local weeklies or dailies in their coverage area before joining Patch. If these individual journalists are capable and sensitive to their communities they will find good, local stories to cover. And if the editors are conscientious about soliciting and curating the work of citizen journalists in their area, local flavor and connections will emerge.

Patch is still an experiment, and one trend that has developed with ventures into online local coverage by large legacy media organizations is that such experiments have a short leash and their owners are quick to cut them loose if the economics don’t work out as hoped. Loudon Extra, TBD, and sites launched by The New York Times that were later taken over by AL member stand as evidence of that.

But the interesting and important thing about the emergence of Patch and other legacy media forays into this arena is how they indicate that hyperlocal and citizen journalism are no longer some exotic oddity.

Instead, citizen journalism is becoming a routine part of the landscape of news coverage, a development documented by J-Lab in its New Media Makers (2009) and New Voices (2010) reports and encouraged by its Networked Journalism project.

The more routine and more expected such coverage becomes, the more it will contribute to the emerging news ecosystem, no matter who owns the site where it is published.

- - - - - - - - -

Background information in this story about Patch came from published reports in sources such as Columbia Journalism Review, Newsweek, LA Weekly and The New York Times. The author has completed a comparative content analysis of Patch sites and independent hyperlocal ones (though not specifically the Authentically Local ones); the results of that research will be presented at the Thursday Scholar-to-Scholar session at the St. Louis convention.

GoogleDocs helps in teaching journalistic writing

This month's Carnival of Journalism is about "life hacks," specifically addressing the "tips, tools, apps, websites, skills and techniques that allow you to work smarter and more effectively."

One of the best tools/sites I've found for work as a teacher of journalism is GoogleDocs. For collaborative work of teacher and student on journalism writing assignments, it's a great device.

On the extremely unlikely chance that anyone reading this isn't familiar with GoogleDocs, it's very simply a cloud word processing application that lets the creator of a document share it with anyone else so that both can edit. This makes it an outstanding writing tool for journalism classes.

In-line comments, "footnote" side comments and color-coding of text/highlighting are all aids in giving feedback, and said feedback can be more immediate because there is no need to wait until the next class period to return items done on paper. Files are time-stamped when shared, so it's painfully obvious when a deadline is missed. For in-class work that's not completed by the end of the class and needs to be finished later, students can just save into their Google accounts and access it later from anywhere else they have Internet access: no concerns about saving to servers that students can't access from home or dorm, corrupted files on flash drives, incompatible word processing files, and the like.

For a draft-and-revision process, one electronic document is created, and updated as many times as called for with editing/comments from the teacher and revisions by the author (plus revisions are tracked neatly). This is far superior to attachments flying back and forth with a new version for every exchange, and the accompanying lack of clarity about which is the most up-to-date version.

All of this adds up to a process that is the closest thing I've found in an academic setting to the system used in actual newsrooms, where a writer files a story electronically into a database where editors can access it, edit it, comment on it, return it for revision, and check the revisions all within a tightly time-specific environment. I'd recommend it to anyone teaching journalism at any level.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Traditional-form journalism a "luxury"?

I read an interesting online exchange between two social media thinkers whose opinions I really respect, and what was most interesting was how far apart their thinking was on the topic of Twitter, journalism and the place that traditional articles have in the mix of modern-day reporting.

Appropriately, I was alerted to the exchange from several tweets.

It started with a post by Jeff Jarvis on his blog Buzz Machine that led off with the comment "A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process."

That prompted a response from Matthew Ingram at GigaOm making the point that as important as stream-of-news coverage is, more fully fleshed-out articles that add meaning and context are just as valuable. (Both of their posts were later updated to include the other's reaction, and their own reaction to the reaction, which later evolved into a lengthy back-and-forth on Facebook.)

The crux of Jarvis's argument is that when journalists' time is so precious, he'd rather have them putting that time into reporting, and dispensing it to the audience as rapidly and efficiently as possible, primarily via Twitter. That's why he calls articles summarizing news events after the fact as "an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps."

The gist of Ingram's response is that considering articles a luxury goes too far off in one direction because "while real-time reporting is very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context. In fact, we arguably need that even more."

My own view lies closer to Ingram's. The contemporary environment is incredibly rich in information, much of which is original on-the-ground reporting from professionals and also from citizen journalists. While I see Jarvis's point about journalists making the best use of their time, arguably there is no shortage of reporting out there. Sense-making is what is in short supply.

The exchange reminded me of an article in Nieman Reports a fews years ago by Simon Waldman, who at the time was director of digital publishing for Guardian Newspapers. He wrote that “The disciplines of traditional media aren’t just awkward restrictions. Deadlines, limits on space and time, the need to have a headline and an intro and a cohesive story rather than random paragraphs, all of these factors force out meaning and help with understanding. Without the order they impose, it’s much, much harder to make sense of what’s happening in the world.”

In the 2005 article, Waldman said with regard to citizen-witness contributions to coverage of the December 2004 tsunami in southern Asia, the power came from the vividness and volume of the comments. “But out of this sheer volume, " he also wrote "the movement’s great weakness was exposed – the lack of shape, structure and overall meaning to all that was available. There is a fundamental difference between reading hundreds of people’s stories and understanding the ‘real’ story. … Making sense of it all needed the sort of distillation, reduction and, yes, the editing process that happens in traditional media.”

Even when the reporting is being done by professional journalists -- as in the several examples cited in Jarvis's post -- I think that holds true. The ongoing process of the reporting is important, but so is the follow through of articles that provide context and summary.

I also found it interesting that a number of comments attached to Jarvis's and Ingram's posts compared after-the-fact curation to the old journalistic practice of the rewrite desk, which I think offers a good analogy and a good perspective on the worth of traditional journalistic values and practices even with all of the modern tools and techniques at journalists' disposal.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Failing to try

This month's Carnival of Journalism entry is supposed to address "A failure in your life (personal or professional) that has lessons. It must be your failure and you must take responsibility."

Given that I sat out the past couple of month's worth of J-Carns (does that count as failure? It feels like it) because I was buried in grading (oops, that's the forbidden apologizing -- or maybe excuse-making, which is even worse), this seemed like a good time and a good topic for which I could return to the fold.

I have to say I've never failed spectacularly at anything; I don't expect to be in the running for the "fight at the end for the biggest failure of the lot," as David described it in the assignment. But a major reason for not failing at anything spectacular is not trying anything spectacular. Which is essentially the failure I'm choosing to discuss.

Early in my career, while working as a beat reporter for a small newspaper, what I wanted more than anything was to be an independent free-lance writer, supporting myself with my work outside of the context of an institutional employer. I'd spend free time combing through Writers' Market, looking for ideas of places to pitch for my work. I had some small successes at it, getting a few small contracts for trade journal pieces and such.

But where the failure came was passing up a golden moment to make the move at trying to carve out a career path along that line.

I had left that staff job to spend two years back in school, full time, earning a master's -- an MBA in fact, which gave me a certain level of knowledge and expertise about businesses that could have been leveraged into writing, perhaps, for finance magazines and the like. My wife was the primary breadwinner the whole time I was in school. I had those occasional free-lance pieces and a part-time job at the local daily, but we mostly lived on her paycheck.

Then even the part-time job ended when I finished school and the paper said they had no openings and no plans to hire me. So there I was: no steady job, lots of free time (with no classes to worry about), finances reasonably well covered. We weren't rich but we weren't starving either, and this was before the kids came along to complicate life and family expenses. Hence, the golden moment.

And I blinked.

Rather than take the opportunity that was presenting itself to really see if I had it in me to be a self-supporting independent free-lancer, I sought out (and fairly quickly found) another newspaper staff job. It was in copy editing, rather than reporting, and I found that the tasks of editing fit my skills and personality better than writing. I had a long and successful career as a copy editor that led to my current academic position, so I have no complaints or regrets really about how things did turn out. (Like I said, not a spectacular fail.)

But it's impossible not to wonder where things could have gone had I chosen the other path. The story I've told happened in the mid-1980s, when personal computer technology was just starting to explode on the scene. Dozens of technology and computer magazines appeared over the next few years; with that as a specialty I might have had more work than I could handle.

Or, one of the things I liked, and was pretty good at, as a copy editor was page design. Could I have been on the ground floor as a Web designer, and maybe founder/owner of a design shop, as the Internet took off a few years later? Who knows where I might have ended up -- if not for a failure of nerve.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

College-based community media workshops

This month's Carnival of Journalism topic asks those of us participating in it to address how the sources of news in a community could be expanded, playing off the recommendations of the Knight Foundation's exploration of information needs of communities in a democracy.

I think universities with communications programs are especially well positioned to help address one of the 15 needs cited by the Knight Commission report, specifically:

Recommendation 7: Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions (my emphasis) as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.
Our college is a community institution, right?

One of the ideas that's been in the back of my mind for a while that would articulate this recommendation is using the school's resources to help local citizens learn more about being news providers with some sort of workshop or seminar.

I could see it taking shape as a day or day-and-a-half event, consisting of a combination of lecture, exercises, small-group and large-group discussion of issues in the emerging news ecosystem, followed by break-out workshops on principles of basic journalism and skills development for writing and multimedia. We have faculty, staff and even student expertise in these areas plus a core of alumni who are working professionals who might be involved as guest presenters. We have the facilities, including classrooms, computer labs, large and small meeting spaces, and on-campus catering capability for meals or snacks.

Or, more formally, it could be done as a certificate program for non-matriculated students who could take some combination of our traditional (or non-traditional, e.g. online) courses on topics such as journalism basics, multimedia journalism, Web design, digital video production, and desktop publishing.

All the potential is there. Finding the human and financial resources to act on it is the next step.

UPDATE (Saturday Feb. 18) : Courtney Shove has created a roundup summary with links to all of the posts in this month's carnival. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Budget conundrum

I dislike paying taxes as much as anyone. But I have to wonder when Washington politicians are going to get serious and talk about tax increases to stem the tide of progressively deeper national debt.

President Obama's 2012 budget proposal, according to The New York Times, totals $3.7 trillion with a $1.1 trillion deficit. That means it budgets $2.6 trillion in revenue. Obama says it's fiscally responsible; Republicans say it doesn't cut deep enough. All kinds of arguments are taking place about little nips and tucks to the budget of a few billion here and a few billion there to try and bring it into better alignment.

But here's the thing. Four areas of the budget that no one is talking about cutting add up to a figure that already surpasses total revenue by a wide margin. Thus, it's mathematically impossible to make enough cuts to areas of the budget where everyone is looking to bring this budget into balance, or even to reduce the projected deficit by a meaningful amount.

Three of the four areas -- Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, and Social Security -- are supposedly untouchable for political reasons. The fourth is interest on the national debt, which we have to keep paying because defaulting on it would truly collapse the world economy.

Those four areas added together total about $3 trillion in spending (see table below). With projected revenue of $2.6 trillion, this means that if every remaining dollar in federal spending were eliminated, the country would still be in the hole by $400 billion. Read that carefully. Not just trimming some programs, but completely eliminating EVERY federal agency except for the Defense Department, Social Security Administration, and portions of Treasury and Human Services that deal with debt issuance and Medicare/Medicaid, respectively, wouldn't be enough to get the budget back to positive.

And the cuts that are being talked about are, by comparison, a pittance. $1 billion sounds like a lot of money, but here's an analogy to explain what that amount means in relation to the overall budget situation:

Picture an upper middle class family with a very comfortable -- what some people would consider truly lavish -- income of $260,000 a year. But for a variety of reasons they were overspending their income by around $110,000 a year, and need to cut back. How effective would they be in closing the gap with savings of $100 here and $100 here? Equivalently, that's what $1 billion is in a $3.7 trillion spending plan. So when you read about $5 billion here or $10 billion there, it's like that family trying to close its six-figure deficit with tweaks of $500 or $1,000. Realistically, it cannot be done.

This federal budget has reached a point at which it cannot be balanced with cuts. Sadly, none of our political leaders has the courage to say so.

$1100 billion (1.1 trillion) Medicare and Medicaid
$808 billion Social Security
$677 Defense
$474 Interest on debt

= $3059 billion ($3.059 trillion) total spending on "big four" areas


$2600 billion ($2.6 trillion) projected revenue

= $459 billion deficit

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Funny line from TV's Big Bang Theory

One of the things I like best in a TV show is smart writing, and one of the shows out there with that characteristic is the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the show, it centers on the interaction of four researchers at a university who meet every stereotype of the classic nerd. The nerdiest of them all is an astrophysicist named Sheldon Cooper, well played by a talented actor named Jim Parsons.

It's not the most high-brow show in the world; in fact, a disappointingly large proportion of episode plot lines and within-the-show jokes resort to the "nerds-never-get-laid" cliche. (Even the show's title plays off that theme, of course.) I'm no prude and the jokes don't offend or bother me. I'd just like to see the writers reach beyond them more often than they do. They're surely capable of it, as last Thursday's episode illustrated with some of the funniest lines I've heard on TV in a while.

The storyline begins with university president "inviting" the four compadres -- more of an ultimatum to attend than an invitation, really -- to a reception with major donors. Sheldon initially refuses to go, feeling it is beneath him.

He changes his mind when a friend persuades him that unless he's there to argue for donations to support the work of hard science, the money might go to the geology department -- whom Sheldon disparages as "the dirt people." He admits the prospect scares him.

Then prepare to be terrified, his friend continues, because the benefactors might even decide to support -- gasp! -- the liberal arts. Millions, she implies, could go to poets, literary critics and "students of gender studies." I was already laughing at that as she said it.

Sheldon's horrified reply: "Oh, the humanities!"

I laughed harder than I have in a long time at a TV show. Good job, Big Bang writers. More smart stuff like that and fewer cheap sex jokes and I'll like your work even more.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The power of viral media

Buffalo-area Congressman Chris Lee isn't the first politician to resign in the wake of publicity over a personal scandal, and unquestionably won't be the last. But his case may have set some kind of record for speed with which the downfall took place, and shows the power of viral dissemination of information outside of the mainstream news media.

Not so long ago, when news cycles were measured in hours or even days, it would take quite a while for a scandal to play out far enough to result in a powerful person's downfall. Weeks or months could go by as news came out and slowly made its way into public consciousness, those affected by it could work to get favorable counter-information into public view, etc. Even the situation with Eric Massa, another upstate New York congressman who resigned over some unsavory personal behavior, took a few days to unwind.

But with Lee, news of a flirtatious e-mail conversation he apparently had with a woman he contacted via Craigslist was posted on Gawker in mid-afternoon, and led to his resignation by dinnertime. In a story posted at 2:30 p.m., his spokesman was saying that the congressman believed his e-mail account had been hacked; at 5:30 Lee was calling it quits. That was before it could even be reported on a traditional TV newscast.

Traditional media were still trying to figure out how much credence to give a report on Gawker when Lee made it easy for them by giving the story both a more powerful angle (his departure) and instant credibility (why would he have resigned if it wasn't true).

News truly does move in hyper-speed these days.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The downside of constant connection

I check my e-mail pretty frequently, from first thing in the morning until maybe 9 or 10 in the evening. (More on what "first thing" means shortly.) I have Facebook and Twitter accounts that I check a few times over the course of a day, too. I don't post a lot, just a few times a week to each; mostly I check to monitor information other people are putting out there.

However, I don't have a smart phone. I don't want a smart phone. I don't use my "dumb" cellphone all that much; a few calls and texts a week mostly to my wife and kids. (Only a few people other than family members even have the number, and it's turned off more hours of the week than it's turned on.) Without a smart device, of course, e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates can't reach me constantly. Sometimes, a few hours pass before I get them.

Does that make me a Luddite? If you took what's said in a lot of the news ricocheting around the tech world at face value, it would seem so. Being technologically up to date is equated with being constantly connected, constantly on. When Mashable posts an entry titled "31 New Digital Media Resources You May Have Missed" there's a subtle implication that unless you have all of these latest and greatest tips, tools and tricks, you're just not with it. (That post was shared 105 times on Facebook and tweeted more than 1,700 times, BTW).

But being constantly connected can take a toll, as an article from today's New York Times points out:

All of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

The Times writer quotes Ana Dutra, 46, a top manager at a Chicago-based executive recruiting firm, as saying that technology has afforded her more freedom, “but there’s a little bit more slavery as well ...If you are available all the time, what does that mean?”

Balance of work and life is something professionals have always struggled with, but technology has torn down some barriers permanently, in the eyes of people who study it. The Times quotes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, as saying that "home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored ... The new gadgetry has really put this issue into much clearer focus.”

The theme of the Times article is nothing new; I've seen others almost exactly like it. Perhaps it is a recurring theme because of a growing recognition of how corrosive an always-on life can be.

Being connected is important to me, which is why I check my e-mail and social networks numerous times over the course about 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week. But balance, and downtime, are equally important. Without them, there's no time to synthesize or think about the information flowing in. That's why it doesn't bother me that it might take a while for me to get to an e-mail or see a tweet, even about something that's interesting and important to me. Very little of it is SO urgent that a few minutes or few hours will make a difference.

And, I've even redefined "first thing" in the morning. Until a few weeks ago, that meant about 6:30 a.m., right after breakfast, when I'd pour a second cup of coffee and fire up the computer to check e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and some online news sites. But I found that spending 20 minutes or so doing that was a real impediment to getting out of the house in a timely fashion to go to the gym and get some exercise before work. So these days, when the computer gets turned off for the evening it goes into my briefcase, and the next time I'm online is when I get to the office around 8:30 or 9 the next morning. I can honestly say I haven't had to address anything since the beginning of the semester for which those two hours in the morning have made a difference.

(Granted, not all people could say that. If I were still a working journalist, I doubt I'd make such a blanket statement because in that world, these days, urgency of information delivery and dissemination is the cardinal value.)

To me, having the time to assess and think about information flowing in is crucial for understanding it and what it means. Constant connection to an endless torrent of data undermines the ability to do that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More on j-schools as news providers

(Author's note: This post is being made as part of a "blog carnival" being organized by David Cohn of the University of Missouri. Many thanks to David for his efforts and for selecting such a great topic -- "The changing role of universities for the information needs of a community.")

The idea that journalism schools should be contributing to the ecosystem of local news is one that's intrigued me for the past year, since I read some of the ideas along those lines that Michael Schudson and Len Downie suggested in their report on "The Reconstruction of Journalism." And, as David Cohn pointed out in his message organizing the blog carnival, it's something the Knight Commission has suggested as well.

Not all of the ideas in the Reconstruction of Journalism report were well-received, but this one deserves to be. In their discussion of the topic, Downie and Schudson use what I think is a great analogy, which is that of teaching hospitals. Wherever a top-flight medical school is found (and we have one here in my town, associated with the University of Rochester), there is an affiliated hospital offering treatment to the community, much of it by the medical-professionals-in-training.

In like fashion, Downie and Schudson reason, why shouldn't journalists-in-training provide news coverage for their communities. This is already happening and it's fairly easy to find examples of this, actually.

The challenge for me, at a small institution where I am essentially the only teacher of both traditional and emergent journalism classes, has been figuring out how to do this on a shoestring. But this semester I'm taking a shot at it, using off-the-shelf tools and a "baby-steps" approach to getting student work about the community out there for public consumption.

My approach is going to be using a Feature Writing class that until this semester has followed the traditional model of stories produced basically for the professor's eyes only and making it into a truly public effort. Using basic blogging software, I'll set up a class "website," with headlines and story summaries, each of which link to the full story on a student's blog. By using the same blogging software and similar templates, the class site and all of the student sites will have a coherent look. The students will of course produce text stories on the the topics, but some multimedia extensions as well (likely slide shows and/or short videos).

As for the "baby steps" toward community coverage, that will come in the form of the story assignments themselves. One themed assignment will be the college's engagement with the community. Fisher has a wide range of programs in which service learning classes, student organizations and other campus groups go into the Rochester community for service activities. A set of class stories -- one from each student -- will focus on some of these activities. Another assignment will be to profile young alumni from our program who are active in the community.

Neither of these is exactly the same as using a class to cover an entire community the way, say, NYU is able to do in partnership with The New York Times on The Local: East Village. But they are a starting point to tell community-based stories through the classroom experience. It's a novelty for our school, and my teaching, so I'm looking forward to working on it and seeing how it comes out.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Value in reading the news

Getting students to pay attention to news coverage can be a challenge. As Harvard University researcher Tom Patterson noted in a study a few years ago, "in the case of the newspaper and the Internet, an absolute majority of teens and young adults are non-users. The newspaper particularly has little appeal to young Americans." I've noticed the same tendency in my classes: many students just aren't interested in reading the news.

Which is why I so enjoyed an article in today's New York Times about young professionals whose jobs involve attending to the news, and how important that attention is. As the article points out, "these 20-something staff members are learning [that] who knows what — and when they know it — can be the difference between professional advancement and barely scraping by."

A great quote attributed to David Perlmutter, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, stood out also. The author quoted Permutter as saying:

“You don’t want to be coming into the office at 8 a.m., and everyone is saying, ‘Oh, my God, can you believe what happened?’ And you’re going, ‘What happened?’ ”

I posted link to it in the course website. Let's see if they read the story!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Random thoughts for a Saturday

It was heartening to see a couple of really positive blog posts Friday about journalism careers. For one, Robert Hernandez at Online Journalism Review wrote about how more journalism jobs seem to be available now, a bit of a thaw from the retrenchment that's been going on in recent years. Also, Mark Luckie of 10,000 words posted this guide for doing well at an interview for such a job.

When I hold academic advising sessions with students, I always ask what they have in mind at the end of the road ... what type of career they hope to start with after graduation. A surprisingly large, and growing, proportion answer along the lines of "I have NO idea..." (often with that sort of emphasis on the "no," meaning none). I'm going to start suggesting they check out journalism again. With all of the bad press (pun intended) about the state of legacy journalism industries that's been a hard sell in recent years. Maybe we're entering an era where it again will be cool (and feasible) to aspire to a journalistic career.

* * *

On a totally unrelated note ... while I love the Daily Show and think Jon Stewart generally does a great job of most things, there is one thing about him that annoys me and, in my view, undermines what he tries to accomplish with the show. All too often, he can't get out of his own way when he asks a guest a question. The interview on Wednesday's show with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a perfect example.

Stewart had a particular premise he was pursuing, and wanted Pawlenty to comment upon, and it was this: why are conservatives, and GOP leaders in particular, so vociferous in crying "tyranny" over the actions of the Obama administration that expand federal authority and spending when they were so accepting of expansion of federal mandates and spending under the Bush administration?

It's a great question, and one I've wondered about. Getting someone like Pawlenty -- who likely will be throwing his hat into the GOP presidential ring -- to answer it would have been an interesting thing to see. Stewart even had the perfect foil to pursue this, in the No Child Left Behind Act, which hugely expanded federal authority in local education. He even tried the tack of: imagine what the reaction of the right in the current environment would be if Obama had proposed that law rather than Bush?

But rather than just asking that in a straightforward way, and waiting for Pawlenty to answer it, Stewart asked it and kept talking, and talking, and by the time he was through Pawlenty could just ignore the basic question. Stewart does this often -- asking six questions at once, sidetracking himself in the process of asking the questions to throw in some jokes and/or observations, and the like. In doing this he generally buries a good, and often important, question in so much dross that the interviewee is either unable to answer it or can avoid answering it if he doesn't want because he can just respond to something else in Stewart's info barrage.

Maybe I'm expecting too much. Stewart is, after all, a comedian not a journalist. But at the same time, he is really intelligent, often has good questions about public affairs he wants to pursue with guests who are involved in the issues, and has the willingness to ask some tough or nasty question even some journalists wouldn't. Maybe that's precisely because he's not a journalist; he doesn't have to worry about currying favor with the interviewees as sources for future stories.

But I still think he could do a better job of this much of the time. When I teach my intro journalism students about interviewing, one of the key skills I stress is learning when to shut up and let the source talk. I kind of wish Jon Stewart would do the same sometimes, especially with his political interviewees.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Social media as a news pointer -- but that's about it

A couple of news stories this weekend -- one trivial, one tragic -- helped to highlight for me the connection and interrelation of social and legacy media.

Starting with the trivial,* I didn't watch the Saints-Seahawks playoff game Saturday for a variety of reasons, the main one being that my daughter had a friend over and they were watching the TV. I wasn't all that interested in the game so I was happy to let them use it.

But in the early evening as the game was wrapping up I was online, and saw some Twitter chatter that seemed to indicate an upset was in the making and that ex-Bill Marshawn Lynch had a role in that via a long TD run. My daughter was no longer watching the TV, so I turned it on in time to watch the last few minutes of the game, confirming that indeed an upset was happening.

Twitter gave me a sense of things regarding the game, and if I worked hard enough I could have found a live blog about the game, or a hashtag with a more complete set of tweets where I could have found the score and other details lacking in the first few items I read. It was a whole lot easier and faster to turn to legacy media -- the NBC broadcast -- for the definitive story.

With regards to the tragic, I'm of course talking about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and several other people in Arizona. From Twitter and Facebook postings early this morning, I got a sense that something had happened involving the shooting of a political person in Arizona, and that she wasn't the only one shot because others (notably a 9-year-old girl) were killed. But again the picture was hazy. As a sort-of experiment (with this blog post in mind) I deliberately avoided jumping right to a news site and spent a few minutes trying to determine how complete a picture social media would give me. In short, not very complete.

So after a few minutes I linked to the NYT where of course I got a fairly quick and complete summary of the five W's and much more. Before I went there I also had followed a link from one tweet to a Keith Olbermann commentary that had some of the background mixed in with Olbermann's very pointed editorial about language and imagery of violence in political discourse.

There's no arguing that social media add richness, context and recommended referrals that enhance news presentations. A friend in Tucson posted photos from a memorial gathering for the dead bystanders in the Giffords shooting to Facebook, adding a layer of coverage the New York Times wouldn't have. I doubt I would have found the Olbermann piece without the Twitter referral, and with regard to the other news event mentioned here a Facebook link also led me to a video of Lynch's run.

But while recognizing that referral/curation value, I still I think some people go too far in dismissing the value of the legacy media in the emerging world of news. Lots of conversations in social media (on Twitter, especially) seem to regard legacy news operations in the news ecosystem with outright disdain. "Well, yeah, newspapers ... *big sigh* + *eye-roll*..."

In my view, legacy news still has a crucial place in the emerging news ecosystem, and online news sites associated with legacy media (NYT, MSNBC) were my main sources on the Giffords story. But as the legacy economic model becomes ever more tenuous it's hard to fathom what the news world will look like if/when most of them disappear.

*OK, if you are a Saints or Seahawks fan this isn't game wasn't trivial, and I probably wouldn't have used the adjective if the Bills were involved. It's used mostly as a comparative term to the other example in this post.