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Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

Temple: Living History

One of the best minds in journalism, right now, belongs to John Temple, currently the editor of community news/online start-up Peer News in Hawaii and formerly of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. After that daily newspaper closed last year, Temple seemed to fully embrace the future of journalism as non-printed product.

Last week, he gave a speech ostensibly about Peer News and its place in the unstable Hawaiian news market. But really, the speech focused on how Peer News fits into the future news landscape, which is online and mobile, not printed. I have watched Peer News (lustily, from afar) since Temple signed on a couple of months ago. I like a lot of what they are doing, especially the energy devoted to civic engagement. I especially like that he calls reporters “hosts,” which seems to be an easy way of saying that these journalists will facilitate conversation in the community by providing facts, balance and perspective, but they won’t be stuck behind a one-way mirror. They will engage the community.

Hyper-local sites seem to be the nexus of thought for reinventing news, which makes sense: return to the basics, and build from there. I’m slightly skeptical that a true hyper-local site depending on citizens will succeed in the long run because attention can waver quickly. But I do think they could be a very valuable core offering for online news sites — their new niche, so to say.

One thing, in particular, caught my eye in Temple’s outline of his talk:

We’re taking a more holistic approach to news…We’ll take issues that we know people care about or are important to the community and provide in-depth reporting that can serve as a resource for readers. That resource will be a living history, something that evolves as understanding of the issue develops..That’s different from the traditional approach of reporting isolated stories reflecting a single point in time….And it’s different from an archive, a collection of the stories a news organization has written, like the archives on important topics you might find on many news sites

That is inline, almost exactly, with one of my key ideas for any future journalism endeavor, what I call “three-dimensional news.” It’s not 3D news because of the fancy multimedia, it’s 3D because it provides breadth and depth for a reader. It also gives them as much or as little as they want, which I think is important to develop loyal readers. Think about it in a sports context: Any site can give scores and headlines, but certain sites set themselves apart by providing trusted analysis, unique rankings, or add-ons like gambling insights or fantasy rankings.

If you care about the future of journalism, read Temple. He is easily one of the top five journalism bloggers, at least in my opinion.

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Three-Dimensional News

Most reporters treat each story as if it’s the first time a reader will encounter the topic. That makes sense in a print newspaper, when there is a good chance that the reader really is encountering a topic for the first time. Because of that guideline, for long-term, complicated issues, experienced reporters develop explanatory paragraphs that can be plugged into the story. Those paragraphs serve three important purposes. One, they ensure that the facts are consistent from story to story. Two, they provide the necessary background for readers. Three, they save time.

On the web, hyperlinks make those explainers obsolete, yet they still work themselves into most news stories people read online because the stories are written for print. Also, some argue, readers don’t click many hyperlinks, so if the background is not provided in that story, they will be left in the dark.

Except, with online news, better ways to present complicated stories exist. The same tools, in fact, could be used for almost any story, whether breaking, one day and gone, or never-ending.

The best was unveiled by Google recently, Living Stories. For months, I have been telling anyone who would listen to me (a small group, admittedly) that if I ran an online news site, one of the core concepts would be “living news,” a name I came up with before I heard of Google’s project. Stories would be presented, more often than not, as bare boned news alerts — just as many journalists do when they tweet a quick news tip or post a short blog to alert readers to look for a longer story later. But then those stories would grow within their own defined space, ideally a stand-alone page that has a portal (with latest news updates) on a landing page.

That growth would not be in the form seen on most news sites right now, where that initial blog post results in a longer story on the website, but blog readers are never told where to find it. Instead, that initial blog or tweet would be the first of what would become an information-packed, online news experience.

The growth could include multi-media offerings, such as embedded video or audio. It could include charts (poll numbers, financial projections, donor lists, and so on). It could include locator maps (this proposed nuclear power plant will be located here…). And as the story developed, whether over hours, days or even years, that growth would continue.

Additionally, links would be provided for related content, both in-house and stories done by other organizations. Live feeds of Twitter updates (or whatever social media is being employed) from readers — especially if there is a hash tag for the topic — would be visible.

And so on.

The keys to this truly working would be collaboration between reporters, editors, programmers and graphic artists. Nobody would have sole ownership of a story, either. Instead, as the story grew, their expertise and creativity would be brought to the table whenever possible. For example, one reporter posts a breaking news story, but another reporter has a much deeper understanding of the long-standing issue, so they add context, background and links. Or maybe a graphic artist can pull together a chart showing previous election results and current poll numbers to show how beatable or unbeatable a politician is in the upcoming election.

The ideas are endless, for almost any story. Yet, the traditional media model hampers this because collaboration is minimal. A graphic artist develops a chart at the behest of the reporter or editor. Other reporters, even if they have background, will shy away from adding their expertise to the story because they fear treading on others work.

Even worse, everything developed is done with the caveat that it needs to work for print. So instead of an interactive Google map, the artist develops a locator map in their illustrator program. Reporters focus on their explainer paragraphs instead of building a library of hyperlinks for background. And in the end, the product is a two-dimensional experience that fails to engage an online audience.


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Tequila News

As a college student, I loved visiting Tijuana. Crazy women. Rocking nightclubs. Cheap tacos. Insane cab drivers. And free tequila.

Outside of almost every bar, restaurant and dance club, aggressive Mexicans pushed free tequila on willing Americans. I quickly learned that there was an easy way to play their game: Accept their offers, go into the clubs, take the shots, and leave. Repeat until one of the clubs actually had enough people to promise an entertaining night.

This business model equates the approach used by many media organizations, especially daily newspapers, on social networking sites. Visit any Twitter feed  or Facebook page for a daily newspaper and what you see are endless offers for free tequila, or in their case, headlines. Many feeds are actually automatically programmed to post the headline of every single article, blog, photo album, or news alert loaded to their home page.

In the world of the daily newspaper business model, this approach makes sense. After all, the goal is to get people to come to their website, which is where they have advertising and, of course, increased traffic means increased advertising revenue. But it’s a flawed approach.

Yet like the tequila barkers in Tijuana, it may be the best approach for their business goals. After all, if nobody visits the newspaper’s website or subscribes to the print edition — which is really the end goal, sadly — they don’t make money. Just like the bar doesn’t make money if nobody buys drinks.

There is a better way. Newspapers should work to remain the fulcrum of conversation, just as they have been for decades. To accomplish that, they need to engage people outside of their fiefdoms. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or the next evolution of social media, newspapers should not simply tempt people with headines, but provide them content. And then, when people resond with questions or comments, the conversation should be propelled by the media organization.
This is the approach that I believe will make a news organization, and the journalists it employs, relevant a decade from now. However, the challenge for most mainstream news oranizations is that they need money now to maintain their daunting overhead, so they look to short-term solutions like headline spam.

Even if a mainstream media organization actually does commit to a long-term strategy, the obvious question is how. The answer: nobody knows, yet. There are people who are very good at social media marketing, and a lot of people with good ideas. But nobody has unlocked the secret.

Over the past few years, I have immersed myself in social media, especially Twitter and Facebook. And I’ve done it for professional more than personal reasons. Along the way, I’ve struggled to find the balance between promoting my work and not simply spamming friends and followers, and also how to shine a light on my personality, flaws and all, without becoming one of those cautionary stories about people serving entirely too much of their personal lives up for public consumption.

Initially, I planned this post to be a simple guide to using social media. But that will have to come later, and likely will be in the form of an all-to-common list. And I guarantee that whatever I write will be wrong, at least for some people, because right now, there is no right way to use social media.

Which, in my mind, is actually a big part of the fun.

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Kill The Newspaper

A new Facebook group has launched, aimed at saving the printed newspaper. Almost everyone I know in the news business has joined this group in the last few days. I haven’t  joined, and I won’t. Here’s why.

The newspaper, as in the actual printed product, is quickly becoming irrelevant. Any news organization continuing to print a newspaper is practically guaranteeing their eventual failure, because they will never learn to become an online news organization. Their focus will remain on the printed product and the business model of that product, which runs counter to online success.

For me, this is a scary thing to say. I grew up on printed newspapers and have made my living working for them. I still do, in fact. Even suggesting that newspapers will not survive is considered sacrilege by many fellow journalists.

But let me be clear: I am not just saying that newspapers will eventually die. I am saying they need to be killed now if news organizations want to survive.

My entire career, I’ve listened to those who believe in newspapers preach the irreplaceable societal benefits of a newspaper, the civic importance of a local daily, and the resiliency of those newspapers (hell, I’ve even given the speech myself). After all, they survived radio, they survived television. They can survive the Internet.

Except, they can’t. Radio and TV had new, exciting features, but the same business model: Our readers/listeners/viewers will come to us instead of everyone else.

The Internet, especially in the last few years, has turned that model on its head. Online, people expect things to come to them. By things, I mean everything from friends to advertisers to news organizations. Specific to news, they are getting their news from news aggregators, bloggers, friends sharing links, and (for old-school new-media types) e-mail blasts. In all of those cases, the information is coming to them.

Yet newspapers continue to try to bring people to them, only now it’s with their websites. Those newspaper look and feel like a daily newspaper, which is not a compliment. Annoying ads interfere with reading, good stories with bad art are buried in a dead sea of headlines while weak stories with good art dominate the sliders. Technology that was new five years ago remains a foreign concept, especially tags, RSS feeds for specific writers or topics, and (amazingly) hyperlinks to other stories on their own sites.

When a newspaper actually does venture into social media, it’s sually nothing more than glorified spam, in the guise of headlines. The focus remains getting people to their websites, instead of trying to make themselves part of conversation. (Attempts by individua journalists are much more varied, and really a topic best left to another post).

As for those who still prech the intangibles of newspaper reading (the Sunday paper with coffee argument), I don’t dispute them. Only, my Sunday morning coffee is going to include something else that has been lost to the online revoluton: conversation. The headlines can wait.

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Back Road Gonzo

Driving the country highways and rural routes in the Rocky Mountain states, especially in Montana or Wyoming, means eventually stumbling across a roadside bar. These provide food, gas, and booze, and, generally, good company on a nearby bar stool.

At one of these bars, I met Mister. Over the course of two hours, Mister told me three stories: he recounted his years building the railroad; he told me about driving from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City for the birth of his first grandchild; and he told me about his wife’s slow, heartbreaking death.  While he talked, he sipped whiskey through a straw. After each sip—one every five minutes or so—he switched to another story. He kept them sequential, and he picked up the story where he left it, three sips previous.

These stories came organically, and without a hint of self-pity or congratulation. I prompted all of them because I told him I was from Utah, was driving to a friend’s wedding in Montana, and did not have a job because I wanted to spend my last summer before college graduation fishing, drinking, and writing.

Mister sold me on a journalism career. That summer, I really did live in a cabin, fishing, drinking, and writing (I also worked, part-time, at a convenience store, so I half-lied to Mister). I had left Logan, Utah, where I had a job as a full-time correspondent for The Salt Lake Tribune, to escape to the woods.

That was the second time I burned out on journalism and left the profession. Mister brought me back, because I realized that I wanted to tell his story, and the stories of many others like him. Hunter Thompson also brought me back, because that summer I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I finished college, and being a drunk writer with some journalistic talent (especially for my age), became a full staff writer at another daily newspaper. Since that time, more than a decade ago, I have burned out at least a dozen times. I’ve looked at becoming a farmer, a PR hack, a novelist, a politician, a teacher (I even went to a year of additional schooling a few years ago for a license), a nonprofit development director, a bookstore owner, a professional brewer, a chef. Some of those ideas never went beyond wistful dreams, others I aggressively pursued. Through it all, I remained a journalist, and despite my best attempts to derail it, I kept climbing the goddamn ladder.

Sadly, I’m a rare beast. Very few journalists in my age range have survived. Good for them. This is a rotten profession, and one I would almost never recommend to any sane or sober person. The hours are longer and getting longer, the pay shitty and getting worse, the professional respect tanked and sinking. People make jokes about lawyers because, even if they despise them, they envy their power and money. Nobody makes jokes about journalists, because they simply despise them or, at best, pity them.

Why stay with it, you ask?  I have no idea. There is the thrill of the chase, the triumph of a great story, the ability to make powerful people stop and talk to you (sometimes). But all of that is idealism, and idealism is a well that only runs so deep.

That’s a question asked of many, many journalists, especially anyone under 40. And all of them will have, basically, an identical response. The collective we, that batch of journalists who started in the late ’90s that Zombie Journalism calls “the lost generation,” are flailing for a purpose. As she points out, most of us were educated as old school journalists and now work as Web 2.0 multiplatform personalities. We are tech-savvy, but no matter how much we embrace Twitter, Facebook, blogging, et al it still feels … uncomfortable.

Sure, some are better at it than others. Personally, I understand social media and blogging. I don’t fear it, and at times, I really enjoy it. Kinda like techno music. I’m an acoustic musician in a digital world, a pen-and-paper scribe who cannot break the habit of editing something 5+ times before publication, who struggles to write a blog (which always feels like a column) under 950 words, who needs to source of all his facts to other people, who wants original quotes instead of hyperlinking to somebody else’s work. I started at a college newspaper that still used Xacto knives and wax to lay-out the paper, at a time when e-mail was so novel I actually wrote an entire (rough) novel draft based on this “unique” form of communication.

We have, for the most part, lost the hyper-idealism that drives 20-somethings into the profession (for their take on journalism’s current state, read this great post at Endemic—yes, he has limited journalism experience, but sounds like a grizzled veteran). Our dreams of riches as novelists have faded. We realize that Hunter Thompson would probably never get published these days, and that nobody really cares about the “Misters” of the world. Yet we still believe, deeply, that something in journalism will work again, and that we may even lead the revolution. At the same time, we fear said revolution, which (we fear) means the loss of basic news writing skill (anecdotal leads, anyone?), the degradation of ethical standards (reporter, meet our best advertiser), and entertainment value replacing civic duty (what’s a city council).

Maybe that’s what keeps the remaining few of us in this work: We are the bridge from journalism’s Golden Age to its rebirth. Or, alternatively, we are the roadblock. Hopefully, we are not its pall bearers.

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