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My “Quest” and the Future of Journalism Education

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I’m on a quest.

It’s a quest to bring responsible journalism to live-tweeting.

It’s a good quest, a quest to change the work ethos of journalists when it comes to tweeting during breaking news events. I’ve written and spoken about this topic at a number of different conferences and I’ve adopted a new tactic in my quest:  Calling out poorly reported information passed along by journalists during a breaking news event.

My quest has lead me to a few Twitter discussions with journalists during breaking  news events. Some have not received my questions well. In the rush to be first, journalists and their news organizations continue to publish false information. Joe Paterno, Gabby Giffords, Sandy Hook, Boston Marathon Bombings, Navy Yard shooting, LAX shooting, New Jersey mall shooting. The list of news events where “spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism” occurs just keeps growing.

It’s a vicious circle. Amateur journalists feed social media, social media feeds broadcast outlets, who feed Twitter….round and round we go.

But there’s hope.  Some of my former students who were working and covering the Boston Marathon bombings story were tweeting out questions about why speculation and rumor was being tweeted out by amateur and professional journalists. And, in the end, they were acting a lot more responsibly as they reported during a crisis situation.

Why were rookie reporters acting more responsibly than seasoned veterans?

Which brings me to the return of the Carnival of Journalism. David Cohn’s idea to have a group of writers blog/comment about a different topic every month is back after a bit of a hiatus and tackling a topic which is getting a lot of ink these days: Journalism Education. Specifically, the question reads:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?
Issues to consider:
  • Ideally experience at a college media organization would help a student learn relevant skills for the workforce and help students land a job.
  • If you work at a news organization, what kinds of skills do you and your organization look for in new hires?
  • What kind of “clips” should college students have by graduation?
  • You can approach this as your advice to college media organizations or as if you were a theoretical adviser or manager of a student news organization. Or as a theoretical employer imagining the ideal experience a just-graduated student should have gotten.

I try to follow most of my students after they graduate, seeing where they land in the profession and watching their progress over time. Some of them have had experience working at a student-run publication, some of them have had internships and some of them have taken my Investigative Journalism class. That class partners up with a news organization each semester — and is where they get their stories published. In the past we’ve partnered with The Boston Globe and MassLive and we’re currently partnering with The Huffington Post.

There’s a lot being written these days about the future of Journalism Education. Ideas range from teaching students code, data visualization, computer programming — they all jockey for the trending subjects of the day. Which is all fine. I support all of that.

But none of it means a damn if news organizations continue to get it wrong. At times I wonder whether spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism is the wave of the future. Some think so. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram wrote last year that:

“The way that inaccurate news reports about a mass shooting in Connecticut filtered out through social media has brought up many of the same criticisms as Hurricane Sandy — that social media isn’t an appropriate forum for journalism. But this is simply the way news works now.”

I refuse to buy that. I’m not going to throw up my hands and surrender to inaccuracies being the norm.

What I like about this current generation of students/alums, is that they really seem to get it. They understand technology. They’ve grown up with it. They understand the amplification effect provided by social media.

UMass Journalism graduate S.P. Sullivan was at the scene of the recent New Jersey mall shooting, live-tweeting for NJ.com. His first-hand reports were balanced and authoritative and a BBC producer told him that at one point they were reading his tweets on air. The importance of the moment was not lost on S.P.:

“There were hundreds of RT and mentions….kind of drives home the responsibility you have, as someone attached to a news organization and on the ground, to not tweet bullshit.”

I’m all for student news organizations training students but students really begin to realize how serious our profession is when they work together with professionals in another news organizations. That’s really where the focus needs to be. Those classes that provide partnerships also allows for training that really seems to drive home the point that speed means nothing if you get it wrong and “tweet bullshit.”

We need more of that.

Why are we spending so much time ‘Measuring the Impact of Journalism?’

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I love this question posed by Greg Linch in this month’s Carnival of Journalism.  Almost every newsroom these days is driven by the need/desire to generate pageviews.  The Washington Post’s newsroom receives hourly updates on what stories are trending in the “most popular” category. A recent New York Times article on the trials and tribulations of Marcus Brauchli noted that 35 reports a day track traffic to the site.

“Editors receive a midday performance alert, telling them whether the site is on track to meet its traffic goals for the day. If it appears that they might miss their goal, editors will order up fresher content,” notes the Jeremy W. Peters of The Times.

The Boston Globe’s newsroom has nice feature in it:  Three screens devoted to Twitter feeds — so reporters can see what is trending.  And, The Globe also has a major effort underway to find ways to get at audience through different methods thanks to their MediaLab operation

These efforts to generate pageviews; develop audience; get visitors to stay on the site longer — are not new.

Way way back in the early years of the Interwebs (pre-2000) I worked with one washingtonpost.com editor who was fond of photo galleries of animals.  Specifically, pandas.  Who doesn’t like a photo gallery with pandas?  Those of us at The Post at the time came up with the phrase:  “guaranteed pageview generator.”  There were a number of stories that we knew would generate pageviews — mostly celebrity news and anything with “Redskins” in the headline.

Did we become whores to the stories we knew would generate pageviews?  We tried not to.  The morning/afternoon/evening news meetings often became  battlegrounds where editors from each section fought hard for homepage space (back when homepage positioning mattered to pageview counts.)  But more often than not those arguments were fought on journalistic merit.

In 2002, I was the political editor at the site and spent months with my team building a package for the 2002 Election coverage.  It was a fairly involved effort with more than a dozen people involved. And, it was a fairly important election.  It was the first election since the 9/11 terror attacks and the first real test for George W. Bush after he won the contested 2000 election.

Most of the homepage the morning after Election Day was devoted to a major interactive feature we had developed which we dubbed Election Explorer. It was mapping before its time — giving state-by-state breakdowns.  We knew people would come to the site looking for results and analysis — we figured we would get a decent amount of pageviews.

Then, in the late morning, as the election coverage dominated the homepage, news broke that Winona Ryder had been convicted on two counts of shoplifting.  Despite my many pleas, the decision was made to blow up the beautifully designed page featuring election coverage to make way for the Winona news.  Several staffers, dismayed with the move to prioritize celebrity news over real news, were spurred to leave a few months later.

It’s only gotten worse….

Pick your story. Brangelina.  Justin Bieber.  American Idol.  The top “search” on The Post’s Web site right now is Mega Millions (the jackpot is $640 million but is this “news?”)

There has always been this push/pull relationship.  Do reporters and editors give readers/viewers/users what they want or what we as journalists feel they  need/should want?  (See: previous election coverage reference.)

Journalism used to be about finding that balance — trying to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Today, it seems more like we’ve become whores to the pageview count.

Perhaps we all need to remember that the true “impact of journalism” rests with the impact we have on people’s lives.  Have we given readers/viewers an amazing piece of writing or video that makes them appreciate parts of their life more?  Have we created an “Oh, wow” moment for readers/viewer?  Have we expanded someone’s universe?  Isn’t that why we got into this business?  Isn’t that what journalism has always done?

Perhaps the real question should be: “Why are we spending so much time measuring the “impact” of journalism?”  Because, it really isn’t quantifiable now, is it?

Carnival of Journalism: Journalists as Capitalists

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Haven’t we spent enough time asking what journalists can and can’t do?

Haven’t we spent enough time asking what the definition of journalism is?

Seriously, enough already.

When I saw this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt from Michael Rosenblum, I appreciated the passion with which he challenged the traditional definitions of journalism (haven’t we all been there?) I especially appreciated the challenges to the dinosaurs’ belief that journalists should not be out there thinking about making money:

“Making money is no crime. In fact, it is the ulimate good. With money you can do stuff.  Without it, you are the perpetual victim and the perpetual employee, which is what most journalists are.  And that is crazy.”

Indeed.  Enough already.

Rosenblum cites Jeff Jarvis as the leading educator out there in the Entrepreneurial Journalism movement.  Indeed, but Jeff is not the only one.  My colleague BJ Roche teachers an Entrepreneurial Journalism course here at UMass, and like Jarvis, we are looking to expand our offerings.

Some will succeed.  Some will try and fail.  As the David ‘The Rad One’ Cohn has said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “experimentation is good.”   I tell my students that anyone who tells them anything is not possible in journalism today is “full of crap and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Seriously, enough already.

Students and entrepreneurs are the wave of the future of journalism.  Let’s stop trying to put the profession in a box.

I’ve spent years trying to convince old-school professionals and educators about the positive direction of the profession.  But, at some point we all have to say enough already and move on.

Can journalists make good capitalists?  Sure.  Why not?

Enough already.

Carnival of Journalism: What is ‘Good’ Journalism & A Plea for ONA to Return to its Roots

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Lisa Williams prompted one of the wildest e-mail threads I’ve part of in a while last month when she asked the simple question of what criteria the Online Journalism Awards (issued at the annual conference of the Online News Association) should be focusing on.  The exchange lead to the question for this month’s Carnival of Journalism:

Right now, nominations are open for the Online Journalism Awards.  What qualities should awards like this endorse in an era of such tremendous change in the news industry?

It’s a great question.  During the e-mail thread, I responded to Lisa’s question with:

What has really struck me about ONA in recent years, at the conference panels anyway, is the over-focus on technology over journalism.  While I love panels on the next new whiz-bang-golly-gee-feature as much as the next person, what we do is journalism.   I’ve always viewed ONA as the intersection of technology and journalism and believe that focusing on that intersection is key.  How are journalists/editors innovating not only in the production of journalism but also in the actual collection/reporting going on?   A perfect case in point is the innovation we’ve seen on the part of Andy Carvin and Nick Kristoff (not to influence the judges but these two should get some sort of award for their coverage of the Arab Spring.)  What we’ve seen from both is a change in real-time reporting — through the use of existing social media tools.   Using tools to innovate while doing journalism should be rewarded.

My comment did not sit well with Geoffrey Samek, who responded with:  “Over focus on technology? It is an award focusing exclusively on ‘online’ and a big part of that is technology and how tech changes journalism. ONLINE! Collection and innovative processes that take place in the real world are by definition offline.”

It’s an interesting comment because it points to a separation — a division between what is online and what isn’t — that many of us who have been occupying the digital news space for the past 15 years have been seeking to shed.  Granted, ONA was founded in 1999 with the idea that professional journalists that were making their way in the online sector of their news operations would have a place to gather, share ideas and award the work of their peers.  But the “online” designation seems almost moot today.  Online work is everywhere, being produced by merged newsrooms and honored by all — even the revered Pulitzer committee.  So, of course ONA honors work online — that’s where journalism is being done — and important journalism should be acknowledged.

For those who founded ONA — and those of us who have been a part of it for a while — there was always this need for legitimacy.  The Web side of news operations forming the core of ONA in the early years was (and in some cases still is) the crazy old ranting uncle part of the family.  By creating a huge awards night, ONA and its members declared that the digital crazies with their CMS, servers and crazy code languages were here to stay.  The Awards Night has grown (and changed) over time and for many remains the highlight of  ONA weekend.

But, ironically, this stepchild attitude remains and has created ONA’s need to focus on the newest shiny object.  Awards Night is actually the one point in the weekend where the focus is journalism.  In many ways, ONA weekend has developed a schizophrenic feel to it.  This split focus is an issue that ONA has been wrestling with for years now and I’m not sure what the solution is.  ONA has many audiences — technologists, editors, reporters, educators, students, entrepreneurs, business folks — so where to focus?

While ONA has a nice mission statement, it’s beginning to feel like an organization that has lost its way.  Don’t get me wrong, the annual conference is always a good time — membership numbers are strong, the conference always sells out and large tech groups are lining up to buy sponsorships.  During a time where journalism trade organizations are struggling and bickering, ONA stands alone as a success.

But in recent years the conference has taken on the feel of South By Southwest — attendees come for the party.  And, ONA puts on a great party — it’s the one time of the year that I get to hang out with some of my favorite people in the world.  But I’ve felt for a while now that ONA is missing out on some opportunities to have some serious discussions about the state and direction of journalism — not “online” journalism — but the complete whole enchilada.

Some say that news organizations have the online journalism part of the equation solved.  I’m not sure that’s the case.  What about the growing number of plagiarism cases confronting news organizations?  Ethical issues abound in the arena of social media, comments boards, news gathering — yet rarely do we have these discussions at the annual conference. What role do journalism schools play in the future of the industry?  We’ve had these historical moments in journalism with the Arab Spring  — are we going to talk about it in September? (UPDATE: The answer would appear to be a resounding Yes!)

To answer Lisa’s original question, the awards do seem to focus on the meshing of technical innovation and journalism — my only real issue is with the three-hour long awards ceremony.  It makes the Oscars seem like a fast show :)

Some of the organizations awarded last year point to a real understanding by the judges of the changing nature of the business and that’s a positive development.  Still, I hope the judges find a way this year to acknowledge the groundbreaking efforts of Carvin and Kristoff.

….I thought long and hard about writing this blog post.

I have many friends, colleagues and former colleagues who have helped form this organization into the force it is today.  My words are not meant to critique the efforts of anyone — this is a volunteer organization that thrives on the goodwill of many.  And we’ve all been a part of trying to bring change to major organizations and understand the frustrations that can occur in trying to make things happen. After several years of persistent suggestions, ONA finally agreed to setting up student clubs at universities around the country several years ago.  That’s a positive development.

I guess my hope is that ONA’s Board of Directors recognize that change is good and will help return ONA to its revolutionary roots and understand the larger impact this organization can have.  I would love to see ONA’s Board of Directors beginning to take stances on major issues outside of the conference — ONA is a force in the field but there are many issues where ONA has remained silent.  Should it begin funding partnerships between journalism schools and news organizations?  Should it become a lobbying force for journalism?  Should it start weighing in regularly on discussions and scandals within the industry?  I think so.

I remember my first ONA conference in Chicago in 2003 and the rollicking nature of the organization back then.  (I asked my old washingtonpost.com boss Doug Feaver, one of ONA’s founders, if I could attend in 2002 but he didn’t think the group would be around long enough to warrant the company funding my attendance :)

The General Excellence award winners in 2003 were an eclectic group:  ESPN.com, BeliefNet, CQ.com and the Gotham Gazette.  I remember sitting in on one panel where Jeff Jarvis spoke about the glories of blogging and how he posted one blog entry to his blog after editors at a magazine attempted to edit it.  Gasps filled the room as Jarvis said he posted his blog entry without the edits of editors.

I remember sitting in on another panel about coverage of the Iraq War and listening to a PR representative from the Army critiquing self-censorship of images by those within major U.S. media organizations.  He told the group of us that we were failing to tell the whole story if we weren’t showing the graphic images illustrating the cost of war.

Both discussions had a major impact on me as a journalist and educator.  They were discussions of substance.  I want more of them.

I want more.

The Carnival Takes Off

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I always enjoyed carnivals growing up.  You never knew what to expect — new games, rides, foods just around the corner.   And, such an eclectic group of people that often looked and acted strangely :)

I think what David Cohn had in mind when he re-started the Carnival of Journalism was bringing together a diverse group of folks who would exchange ideas and maybe shake things up in the process. Cohn got just that Wednesday when a Google Groups discussion between Carnistas ranged over a variety of topics, spanning over two days and 70 e-mail exchanges.

The extended thread prompted this reply from the rad one:  “This thread brought tears to my eyes ;)  I never want to dictate where the Carnival goes – I just wanted to create a forum where once a month we can tackle the same topic.”

It all started with a relatively simple question from Lisa Williams, one of my favorite “new media” types out there:

I’m a judge for the Online Journalism Awards this year.

When I did it last year, one of the things that captivated me was that the discussions between the judges revealed that our basic ideas of what “good” is when it comes to journalism are changing because of the web and mobile technology.

I’d love to do a question about what we SHOULD be rewarding when we’re handing out prizes for the **Online** News Association — but I need a little help writing the question.

My sense is that the Online Journalism Awards have to be about more than solid reporting or social impact; the winners should reflect what we believe is excellent in the use of the web or mobile technology, too.

A relatively simple question, but the answers prompted a conversation that spanned criteria for contests to what makes for a successful business model to Thomas Jefferson.  It was a classic “online discussion” — starting on one topic and branching off into a variety of areas.

At one point, Chris Anderson commented on the idea that innovation and experimentation were more welcome in academia than in the news industry:  “I might say that academia currently (temporarily?) has more money to do more things than the journalism profession at the moment, and that the ability to ‘innovate’ in academia is primarily (paradoxically?) a consequence of that historical anomaly known as ‘tenure.’ Since we’re going all off topic here ;-)”

Lisa’s reply:  “Off topic forever, baby!”

Lisa’s original query promoted some interesting replies, including:

Mark Plenke:

“Number one for me is using the right storytelling tool for the job. A good site uses text and graphics to explain, video to illustrate and capture action and emotion, audio to bring interviews alive, interactive graphics to illustrate a process and involve viewers, social media and polls to involve visitors and get them to participate. I think understanding this is what makes a great online editor. Too many sites don’t get this.”

Anna Tarkov made a number of interesting points during the discussion, including this:

“I would add that engaging your readers substantively (not just: send
us a photo! like us! follow us!) is important as well as being open
and transparent about the news gathering and reporting processes. This
is still mostly not done, to the detriment of both news orgs and news
consumers.”

Tanja Aitamurto sought some clear criteria:

“Whether awarding exploration i.e. trying out new things, and bringing value to journalism that way or success (usually involves risk taking than the former option): solutions where technology is used in an efficient fashion and increases transparency in journalistic practices.”

Paul Bradshaw:

“I was one of the judges on the Press Association’s Regional Press Awards and as the title was ‘digital innovation’ that’s what we looked for – something that pushed the form forward. I also took into account whether they were having to produce to a deadline (the winner was a piece of live data journalism), how sustainable the innovation was, and how it played not just online but in print as well.”

J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer made some important points along the same lines:

It seems to me that an important component is whether a new idea actually “works.”   Cool tools are nice.  Advances in new processes for doing journalism are great.  New ways to tell stories are still being invented.   But who paid any attention?  Did it actually engage audiences? Prompt interactions? Have impact?  Or are we still at risk of talking to ourselves?

University of Nebraska Dean Gary Kebbel (an ONA judge with Lisa) also weighed in on the opportunities available in academia:

“And although we at the University of Nebraska are trying to get on the innovation path, I’m regularly reminded how, well, academic, our thoughts can be when we try to tell news organizations here’s what they should be trying. But an active combo of innovative J profs who get news and digital tools and who know how to make that into digital news tools – in combination with newsroom editors grinding it out every day with no budget – seems to me a great way to work on creating the new culture of innovation and culture of constant change that we need.”

Geoffrey Samek became passionate when some (me) wondered whether ONA was becoming too focused on gadgety gimmicks:

“Over focus on technology? It is an award focusing exclusively on “online” and a big part of that is technology and how tech changes journalism. ONLINE! Collection and innovative processes that take place in the real world are by definition offline….In a world where tech is flying forward at an exponential rate, journalism’s baby-step technological advances are killing me.

Journalism is about informing the community for positive change by collecting, reporting and inevitably organizing information in compelling ways. Technology has an enormous ability to aid in the organization of information. Tech allows for assembling and displaying information in unheard of ways. When humans use new tech to do that, then they are fully taking advantage of Online Journalism.”

Michael Rosenblum suggested profitability as a criterium, which took the discussion into another direction:

“I will never understand the inherent antipathy most journalists have toward making money.  It is in our DNA, strangely, and it is incredibly self-destructive.  The ‘Internet Revolution’ took place not only on our watch but on our turf.  Most of the primary online start-ups were largely journalism/information based.  Yet we stood by idly as others benefited from 100+ years of our labor to lay the groundwork.  What is Craigslist but an iteration of the newspaper classifieds.  What is Google, in fact, but ‘all the news fit to print’.  Movies are replete with our own image of ourselves: note Russell Crowe as a newspaper journalist in State of Play:  unshaven, generally drunk, drives a crap car, hard working, dedicated but poor.  What is our problem here?  If we OWN the product we can call the shots.  And we CAN own the product.  But we have to embrace the notion of making money and building businesses as a good not an evil.”

A few took issue with Michael’s point, including myself:

“@Michael — I take your point but not sure there is the antipathy you reference today, judging by the number of pieces being written daily in the ‘Paywalls are Stupid’ vs. ‘Paywalls Will Save The World’ debate.  Making money is very much on the minds of journalists these days.  But, to get back to Lisa’s original question, we’re talking about rewarding journalism, not the making of money.  Although, I wonder whether ONA should have a separate award for ‘Innovative Business Models’ — something beyond trying to reinvent the wheel with paywalls.”

And Dan Gillmor:

“I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the percentage of journalists who believe this (‘profit is evil’)  is higher than the percentage of the entire population that believes it.”

And Lisa Williams:

“As someone from the tech industry — where we have few of the internal conflicts about money I observe among journalists, I’m not sure that I would put profitability as a criteria for an award series about innovation.

Many people are under the misapprehension that Silicon Valley startups are primarily concerned with making money. This is not true: they’re about getting big (by growing their userbase). In fact, many “successful” startups lose huge quantities of money for years (*cough* twitter *cough*). The idea is to get big and then sell the entire company to a large publicly traded company at a profit.

That’s not always the same as making money either (witness News Corp’s buyout of MySpace, basically a billion dollars down the drain).

If Twitter was judged on the same basis as the Guardian’s local experiment, it would be history. Most mature companies and industries don’t have the stomach for five years of multimillion dollar investment at a loss that the tech industry does, particularly when there’s no exit market (who will the Guardian sell the Local to?).”

And Daniel Bachhuber:

“Responding to Michael’s point of profitability, I think a better
criterium is “viability”. News organizations should be awarded for
intelligent internal technology investments they’re committed to for
the long term. I’d love there be the proper incentives (e.g.
journalism awards) for news executives to support visions like Matt
Waite’s
.

And, much much more….

The good news?  This discussion will continue.  Lisa will be the wrangler for next month’s Carnival of Journalism.  The topic?   You guessed it….more of the same.

Carnival of Journalism: Talking to People IS a Life Hack!

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The question for this month’s Carnival:

“What are your life hacks, workflows, tips, tools, apps, websites, skills and techniques that allow you to work smarter and more effectively?


One of my favorite scenes in the Dead Poet’s Society is when Robin Williams tells his young students to stand on top of their desks.  It’s a lesson on seeing life from different perspectives, and not following the pack and doing what everyone else is doing.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan.  Usually in the middle of his concerts, Springsteen goes into a monologue, saying:  “I want you all to GET UP OUT OF YOUR SEATS…..”

So, how does this relate to work hacks?  Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

When I first saw this question from David Cohn, I thought of one word:  Twitter.   It’s become a place I turn to for information, updates, breaking news, etc.  But as I thought through the question,  I thought I would get radical on my buddy Dave.  I enjoyed Will Sullivan’s post as well, including this section:

  • Only use the “http://five.sentenc.es/” technique for (most) email responses (Or four or three or two sentences)
  • If it’s not time-critical, try to focus on emailing people around 8-9 a.m. in the morning so it’s at the top of their mailbox as soon as they get in, responses tend to be higher because they haven’t developed email fatigue yet.

But what struck me was, well, the lack of the personal touch.

Yes, I’m going to get radical here and suggest GETTING UP OUT OF  YOUR SEATS and actually talking to people!

There, I said it.

Radical, huh?

Now, I’m not sure how much discussion about face-to-face communication came up at the hip kids gathering organized by Mr. Cohn but it’s something I stress often in my Journalism classes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  And, frankly, such suggestions usually freak out 20-somethings.  Well, most people actually.

Yes, put aside your laptop, smart phones, tablets and mind-melds and go talk to folks!

And, you know what?  It works.

Recently, I was trying to deal with a complicated personal issue and my reflex was to send an e-mail.  You know what I did?  I called the person instead.  The discussion went smoothly and things worked out rather nicely.

Would I have achieved the same result via e-mail?  Probably not.

E-mail is actually a terrible form of communication, even moreso in a work environment.  You never know when one word might be received the wrong way, destroying a relationship.  Tone and body language are absent in e-mail — two critical forms of communication, especially in the workplace.

My old boss was fond of saying that if an e-mail goes back and forth three times, end it and go talk in person.  I try to follow that advice but even better advice would be this:  Why send an e-mail when you can actually talk to someone?

There, I said it.

Anyone who has shot photos or video has heard of the phrase:  “Focus with your feet.”   So, the next time you sit down to hammer out an e-mail at work, consider “focusing with your feet.” 

GET UP OUT OF YOUR SEATS AND GO TALK TO THAT PERSON!

Get Rad People!

Carnival of Journalism: Don’t Forget to Watch the Sun Rise

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When David Cohn posted the latest topic for the Carnival of Journalism, I messaged him and said “interesting topic.”

His reply:  “Think it cuts too deep?”

Indeed.

What this topic requires is a certain amount of honest self-examination, a trait traditional journalists aren’t really known for when it comes to analyzing their chosen profession.   Points of failure are rarely owned up to by those in journalism.  Yes, we have lots of hand-wringing after plagiarism scandals or controversies surrounding certain coverage but rarely does the profession at large own up to its failures.

What’s nice to see with this new revolution in journalism is this notion that failure is accepted and, even, required.   I remember Cohn once saying that hundreds of journalism projects will be tried, but only a handful will succeed.  And, that’s a good thing.  We’re collectively throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.  And, we learn from our mistakes.  Failure is required in order for the revolution to continue.

Since I began teaching full-time, I’ve tried to embrace this notion of failure.  I’m not sure if I’m succeeding :)  Trying to to create an environment where students are willing to experiment and fail — and still get good grades — is a difficult balancing act.  But, if ever there was a place to fail, it’s in journalism schools.

Outside of academia, I’ve been a part of some citizen journalism projects that have failed and was a part of the failure of washingtonpost.com to operate as a separate entity.  But with the news this week of Osama bin Laden’s reported death, I thought back to my obsession with covering the 9/11 terror attacks during my time as an editor at The Post’s Web site and my failure to see beyond the story.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I was the national/political editor for the web operation.  I was part of a team of editors supervising coverage of the attacks and the aftermath but I took on coverage of this story as a mission.  I went to that place that all journalists go when covering tragedy and tried to partition off my emotions about the attacks in order to better focus on the story.  For about two years I stayed focused on the story and its aftermath.

At the time of the attacks, my wife and I had two young children, 3 and 1, and we lived in Montgomery County, one of the suburbs on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.  It was a key time in the lives of my kids but I feel it went by in a blur.

As the news broke that day, I struggled between my role as a father and husband and that as a journalist/editor.  Students often ask how best to handle covering tragedy and how I handled 9/11 and the weeks and months afterwards.  Journalists always try and compartmentalize their emotions.  It wasn’t easy that day.  And, I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have grabbed my family, jumped into a car and driven into the mountains somewhere.  It’s a question that continues to haunt me.

It was a weird time to be living in a place that  had come under attack.  At the time, I failed to see the implications of staying in the area and the possible impact on my family.  My failure, in a way, was my inability to see outside the job.  My sole focus was the story, then the anthrax attacks, the 2002 mid-term election cycle, the start of the war in Afghanistan, the start of the war in Iraq…..it was kind of easy to get caught up in the latest, biggest story.

For many, Monday, May 2 was a day of mixed emotions — a combination of celebration and reflection in light of the Bin Laden news.   It was also my youngest daughter’s eighth birthday — a reminder of what is truly important in life.

In the months and years after 9/11, I failed  to see what was truly important — family.  Instead, I put the story first.  It’s the inherent paradox many journalists confront.  As you rise within this profession you become part of bigger and bigger stories.   Finding that work/life balance rarely occurs since the news cycle never cooperates.

And it’s clear that an all-consuming focus is needed today more than ever to succeed in today’s driving 24-hour news cycle.  And, devotion to the mission is strongly recommended in today’s journalism world — the quest to know it all and to do it all remain strong.  POLITICO is one example of many — making a name for driving its reporters at all hours.   Burnout — always an issue in this business — seems to be even more of a concern these days.

I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with NPR’s Andy Carvin and he said he was worried about burnout and had plans to spend more time with his family.  As anyone can tell from his Twitter feed, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

So, the lesson from my failure?  My hope is to pass on to my students that in the end the job is the job.   It shouldn’t be the be all and end all.  Yes, journalism should be a part of your life, but not the ONLY part of your life.

There are lots of great ideas and projects happening out there with this ongoing revolution.  I’m trying to do my part and get students involved in various projects.  There is no doubt that such projects end up eating much of my time.  But, it’s also important to keep things in perspective.

A friend of mine who is an editor at espn.com once told my class to “take a moment to watch the sun rise over the mountains.”

It’s good advice.

It’s Carnival Time: Let’s Get Past the Talking

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I must admit, the latest topic(s) by Carnival Ringmaster David Cohn had me a bit stumped.  And, I seriously considered taking a pass this time around.  But, knowing Dave as I do I wondered whether he wasn’t doing a bit of crowdsourcing here and actually, I think it’s pretty clear he is.

So, maybe the Reynolds folks are looking for some direction?  With that possibility in mind, here are some thoughts on the future of The Reynolds Fellowship.

I struggled with answering this because when I go to the RJI web site, I don’t get much of a feeling of what the Fellows are actually doing.   It looks like a good deal of writing and researching.  And, we all know the definition of  “Fellows” — spend a year talking and writing about issues.  Which, I guess, is fine.  But, man-oh-man, we have so many people writing and talking about the “Future of Journalism.”  Honestly, I grow weary of it.   My Twitter feed is filled with people talking about the Future of Journalism — everyone and their cousin has an opinion on the New York Times’ paywall.   But, seriously, how do paywalls get wrapped into discussion about the future of journalism?  Seriously?

One of my old bosses was fond of saying: “We’re breathing our own fumes here.”  It seems to me that with so many people talking and talking and talking about the future, we end up breathing our own fumes.  We’re intoxicated with the possibilities and what could happen but (with rare exceptions) our legs get stuck in the mud when it comes to execution.

Meanwhile, flying under the radar are educators across the country who are actually experimenting, exploring and trying to implement many of the ideas that are talked to death endlessly.  How can we get them involved as Fellows?

At UMass-Amherst, I teach an Investigative Journalism & The Web course where students provide content for a local news Web site, producing both daily blog content for the site, as well as longer, semester-long projects.  There are plenty of schools around the country, including ours, that are beginning to incorporate elements of Entrepreneurial Journalism into their curriculum.

Listen, I’m not attacking the Fellows.  I know quite a few of them and they’re really smart folks.  But man-oh-man, can we start doing some things?  I’m sure many of them would be excited by that idea.

We all go to the same conferences where we get energized about the Future of Journalism.  We promise to act on the many fantastic ideas we talk about over lattes.  But, all too often (and I’m as guilty as anyone) the ideas get lost when we return to our day-to-day lives.  So, how about making the Reynolds Fellowship into something more concrete?

Some thoughts:

What: Produce from one idea.  Have the Fellows work on one idea.  Give fellows one year to take an idea and make it into reality.  Each Fellow could bring their own strengths/talents to the project….think more along the lines of editors working together in a newsroom.

* How:  The idea could come from a number of sources but it would be worth putting out a nationwide call for ideas and have a panel of former Fellows choose the best idea?

Who:  Is it possible to crowdsource educators and or/students from across the nation on a Fellows project?   This is not an original idea — it’s been kicked around in various corners but might be worth revisiting here.  Can it happen?  Kind of exciting just to think about it, no?

In the words of DigiDave, such a course of action would be pretty “rad.”

It’s Carnival Time: Talking News Sources

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The latest question from David Cohn (aka DigiDave) for the Carnival of Journalism centers on one of my favorite topics:  news sources. The question:

    What can you, as an individual or employee, do to increase the number of news sources?

One of Dave’s suggestions is to focus on Knight Commission recommendations.  As an educator, the recommendation that jumps out at me most is:  “Integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements of education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state and local education officials.”

Teaching students about news literacy (I’m going to avoid the “media literacy” phrase) is the single-most important thing educators across all levels can do.  News consumers not only need to know how to recognize good sourcing and good information, but more importantly, that consumption means visiting several news sources, to make sure you are getting all viewpoints and that the information is accurate.  Reading and consuming for depth is important but doing so for accuracy and diversity is equally important

News literacy needs to start in middle school and continue at the university level.  The era of depending upon one news source for accurate information is gone.  No longer is news consumption a matter of sitting down and watching the 6 o’clock news for a half hour or more and that’s it.  News consumption has evolved.  It’s now a continuous process and this  new generation of news consumers needs to be able to discern between what is news and reality vs. speculation and rumor.

During the first week of the Egyptian revolution, I found myself watching CNN on my television, while on my laptop I was watching the live feed from Al-Jazeera English and running a Twitter feed with a number of different feeds, including #egypt and #jan25.  When I told my students I was doing this, I received a few strange looks.  But in deciding to look at two news sources as sharply contrasting as AJE and CNN, I noticed some pretty distinct differences — not only in images that were being shown (which was fairly significant at points) but also in tone.  AJE was much more critical of the behavior of the U.S. government and after a while, CNN was squeezing in Egypt coverage in between checking in with the latest Lindsay Lohan updates.

And, while the speed of the Twitter feeds was blinding at first, I was able to discover a bunch of sources from the scene that gave me first-hand accounts of what was happening in Tahrir Square.  I also discovered the Twitter curation efforts by NPR’s Andy Carvin as well as the first-hand accounts of Mahmoud Salem, also known as ‘sandmonkey.’

These were real-time sources that I was not necessarily getting from Web sites of The Washington Post or The New York Times or the broadcast coverage of CNN.

What the coverage of the Egyptian revolution also pointed out is how the whole concept of ‘sourcing’ has changed.  In the past, news sources were the New York Times, CNN and NPR.  Now, I’m not necessarily looking for the organization — I want the individual.  Increasingly, it’s the personal brand that matters.  I may not be happy with the overall perspective of the New York Times, but I am going to look for Anthony Shadid’s work in my RSS feed, and Nick Kristoff’s personal accounts on Twitter and Facebook.  I may not be happy about the images being shown by CNN, but I am going to stop and listen to what Ben Wedeman has to say on air and I’m going to follow his Twitter feed.

So, the whole notion of sourcing has been turned on its head.  In large part, thanks to Twitter.

Twitter has become a great teaching tool for educators.  It allows us to get across the idea not everything that is reported or tweeted is true (see NPR, CNN and Gabrielle Giffords shooting) as well as the idea that you can go to Twitter feeds and get a vast array of perspectives on a news event like the Egypt revolution.

What can educators do to increase the number of news sources used and consumed by students?  Teach them about the Twitter….

Joining the Carnival of Journalism: The Changing Role of Universities

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My good friend David Cohn (aka DigiDave) has revived the Carnival of Journalism, with the opening blog topic of: The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community.

To quote Dave, what a “rad” idea.  In his opening blog entry, Dave writes:

    One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

As one who has written about the intersection of academia and the profession often, I’ve kicked around how exactly to approach this initial blog post.   Increasingly, I believe universities have a major role in news literacy and returning journalism to the principles of the “past.”  The  behavior of news organizations in the initial coverage of the Tucson shootings got me thinking again to how off course many mainstream news organizations are in the quest to get the great “scoop.”

We’ve all read about the disastrous breaking news coverage, in which NPR, CNN and others mistakenly reported that Rep. Gabrille Giffords had died.  After the fact, Alicia Shepard, NPR’s omudsman, deconstructed how NPR’s shoddy reporting happened and its effect on the families involved.  But, in a Facebook posting prior to her report, Shepard said the erroneus report was “only” up for about 15 or 30 minutes.

And in one early tweet captured by several, NPR’s David Folkenflik attempts to explain the erroneus reporting through human assumptions:

    “That said, if bullet goes entirely through someone’s head, not hard to believe eyewitnesses might be convinced she was dead & say so (more).”

The message to journalism students should be simple:  Speed Kills.  In this case, speed killed the reputation of NPR, CNN and others.

It isn’t news that Twitter has dramatically changed the journalistic playing field.  The ability to transmit news instantly is tantalizing. We need to teach students that just because you can post NOW doesn’t necessarily mean you should.  Stop.  Think. Report. Write….then, maybe, you Tweet.

The need to be first, compounded by cable television’s 24-hour desire for images and anything close to news has created an environment where reputable news organizations are now reporting faulty information in the quest to be first.

It’s not Ok to be wrong.  Even if it’s “only” for 15 minutes.

It’s not Ok to assume a shot to the head means death.  Sometimes people survive.

My old boss at The Washington Post’s Web site was fond of saying “I would rather be second and right than first and wrong.”

Sure, universities need to be hubs for their communities but we educators to begin the quest to end “spaghetti against the wall journalism.”  Let’s stop throwing news against the wall and seeing what sticks.  Let’s preach about the need to make sure what we’re reporting is right.

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