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Hiatus Is Over….A Rough Week for Ombudsmen

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Hi and welcome back!  It’s been awhile.  Admittedly, the care and feeding of this blog fell off last semester (sometimes life takes over) but now I’m back to reviving my little plant.

So, of course, where to start?  As more than a few folks noted on Twitter the past several days, it’s been a rough week for newspaper ombudsmen.  Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor for The New York Times, drew much attention  with his column which posed this question:  “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

The lede is poster-child verbiage for those wondering whether there are still out-of-touch editors roaming around in the mainstream media:   “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Oy.

My head hurts.

The backlash on Twitter and on the comments board for the article was predictable. Christian Moerk of Brooklyn captured the feelings of many:  “As a former Times freelancer, and ’92 graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, I’ll keep it short and to the point: Mr. Brisbane, even posing the question as you did reveals an appalling ignorance of what journalists are supposed to do for a living. You wouldn’t have lasted in a J-school ethics class for five minutes, let alone a newsroom.”

This old-school print mentality of he said/he said journalism still dominates too many mainstream newsrooms.  It’s one of the many reasons why journalists get a bad reputation.  Too many readers views journalists as nothing more than glorified stenographers.  NYU’s Jay Rosen calls it the “View From Nowhere.”  The Times should really know better (remember the assertions about the “weapons of mass destruction?)

Brisbane’s question on how to tell the truth while being “objective and fair” came on the heels of a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, where he asked: “Is The Post innovating too fast?

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Headed to AEJMC as New Journalism Conference Zeroes in on Education

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If it’s August, it must be conference season.
I fly out (early) tomorrow to St. Louis for the AEJMC conference — also known as the annual geek gathering of journalism educators and researchers. It’s also the first of three conferences I’m attending between now and the end of September (as well as moderating a one-night panel at UMass on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.)
The busy start to the Fall semester pretty much made it impossible to attend the newest player on the journalism conference front:  Journalism Interactive: The Conference on Journalism Education & Digital Media at the University of Maryland on Oct. 28-29.  The conference is the brainchild of U-Md. Dean Kevin Close and John Jenkins, the president of CQ Press and looks promising.
“The reason for the conference is to encourage dialogue between journalists, scholars and educators about how journalism schools are incorporating emerging media into their curricula,” says Leslie Walker, one of the co-chairs of the conference.
“The rapidity of change in news is putting pressure on educators to anticipate a future that remains murky. So we think journalism educators need more opportunities to network with peers at other schools to identify promising emerging forms of storytelling, share new teaching approaches to digital media, discuss results of curriculum change and prioritize research questions.”
That’s a space occupied by many — including AEJMC, Poynter and ONA — so it will be interesting to see watch this effort.  While going to another conference with a Jeff Jarvis keynote may turn off some, the roster of speakers is impressive and includes the likes of:  Wisconsin’s Katy Culver and Stephen Ward; Duke’s Sarah Cohen; CUNY’s Jeremy Caplan; ASU’s Retha Hill; UBC’s Alfred Hermida; and Ju-Don Marshall Roberts of Revolution Health.
Walker (a former colleague at washingtonpost.com) says one of the goals of the conference is to create a place for educators to exchange ideas in an environment that seems to be changing constantly. That’s something I’ve wanted ONA to do for a few years now and I’ve been vocal recently about the over-focus on technology with ONA.
The cross-over is something Walker recognizes but she says there is enough room for all groups to co-exist:
“I’ve attended ONA and AEJMC conferences, and think their conferences and training programs are terrific. This is a smaller, more narrowly focused event than those are. We are more focused on education and classroom strategies than ONA, and more focused on digital media than the broader AEJMC conference can afford to be. We are hoping this can complement both AEJMC and ONA and would like to work with their memberships to make sure it’s not duplicative but complementary.”
I wish Leslie and all those involved the best of luck.
Meanwhile, I’m on two panels at AEJMC:  One on sports bloggers and one on how newsrooms and academia can collaborate.  I’ll post more after each panel.
AEJMC is always interesting because of the mix of new school and old school thinking.  But, I’ve been surprised at the number of panels and papers covering new media topics on the schedule.  That’s a good thing….and shows some distinct progress at AEJMC over the past several years.  But, we’ll see.  In recent years, there have been a good number of panels and panelists bemoaning the state of the industry, rather than seeing the creative possibilities.
My friend George Daniel at the University of Alabama provides a nice look at expectations with this blog post, and includes hopes of talk about the possibilities of social media as well as “Strategies for Combating the Mythology about the End of Journalism.”
I’ll give both a big HUZZAH!
More TK…..

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.

Q&A With Nancy Cohen

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This shelter is at Central High School in Springfield. About 200 people are there They're looking for donations of socks, t shirts, towels, baby wipes. (Courtesy of Nancy Cohen.)

Adjunct instructor Nancy Eve Cohen teaches Reporting and Writing for Radio and Podcasting at UMass.

Nancy is also the environmental reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio and the Managing Editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaboration of 20 public radio stations.

She’s been covering the aftermath of the Springfield tornado, producing several pieces including:

*  This report on tornado survivors for WBUR

*  “Clean Up Crews Get To Work in Springfield.”

An interview with Morning Edition host Ray Hardman

I recently caught up with her to get her thoughts on covering the tornado and its aftermath.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

I drove into Springfield the night of the tornado, a few hours later. There was a torrential rainstorm… every exit off the highway to Springfield was blocked so i wasn’t able to see much, but it prepared me for the next morning.  I knew it might be difficult to get where I needed to be when daylight came…

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

Shocked. I’ve been working in this business for a long time…even worked in a war zone… Sarajevo in 1992, but to see my own community ripped apart stunned me. The sheer force of the tornado was humbling

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

I managed to be in the right place at the right time on Thursday. Some of that was planning, some was assertiveness, some was dumb luck.

I got to one of the Red Cross shelters at 5:00 AM and snagged the last legal parking place. You couldn’t drive anywhere so it was key to stage oneself as close as possible.

When I walked into the shelter people were sleeping. I heard snoring, a few people were crying quietly. A baby was whimpering. A few people walked around wrapped in blankets, smoking.

One young woman said she had just paid her landlord before the tornado hit. Now she had no money and no place to live. A man in a wheelchair described waking up that morning in the shelter and realizing where he was and what had happened. His building was destroyed and he was worried his apartment would be looted. But he had no way to get there and little hope of finding another accessible apartment.

Many of the people had little to begin with and now they had even less.

After interviewing several of the survivors I went outside and walked south until I hit a police block. I talked to the police and they pointed out a man getting out of the car who turned out to be Senator Scott Brown. I had the chance to talk with him for a while. Then Governor Deval Patrick showed up along with Senator Kerry and the mayors of Springfield and Westfield.  I interviewed each of them and then, along with a gaggle of press, followed the politicians as they surveyed the damage on foot.

After the officials left a photographer friend and I talked our way past the police to some of the worst hit places.

I got some incredible interviews with two people who lived through the tornado…one took shelter in a closet inside, but the wind was blowing so hard the door almost blew away. Another saw a roof flying through the air “like the Wizard of Oz”  A building inspector examining the damage said it was a miracle not more people were killed “God Looked over the city and protected the people.”

Today, Friday I went to a new shelter that had been set up. I  spoke with a family who were from Somalia. They had come to Springfield a year ago after spending 12 years in a refugee camp. The 25 year old mother of four told me her new situation– homeless after the tornado— reminded her of being in the camp.  “It’s like when we fled from our country … We feeling like refugee all over again. We don’t have nothing now.”

One woman told me she had broke down crying the night before. ” I finally realized. like this is serious. I can’t go back to my home. Like this is it for us.”

I left the shelter and drove to a suburban neighborhood that was also hit. There was an army of utility trucks installing new telephone poles that had been snapped in half. There were damaged trees everywhere. Big ones. One house had several huge trees broken and splayed across the roof.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

None. This was old fashioned, on foot, on-the-ground from early morning until my deadline loomed.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

I haven’t had time to see a lot of other people’s work yet. I haven’t really stopped, but I’m about to.

Q&A With Dave Madsen

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Dave Madsen has worked in broadcasting since 1970, and now serves as managing editor and anchor for ABC’s affiliate WGGB TV, ABC40 in Springfield. He attended UMass Amherst, majoring in Communication. He has been teaching at UMass since Fall 2000, first for two years in Sport Management and then with Journalism starting in Fall 2002.

I checked in with Dave to get his thoughts about covering the tornado and the effects of the storm on Springfield and Western Massachusetts

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?
We were live on the air and watching our Skycam video as the tornado moved across the river and Memorial Bridge. People watching saw it as we did, live and heard our reaction to what we were seeing. It was stunning and hard to believe it was happening here.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?  Absolutely. The first pictures we saw came from the South End. It looked like a war zone.

3.    Can you describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

We went live, continuously from around 3:45 to 9. We kept updating information as it came into us from the field and from Facebook and Twitter, as well as our email address. We worked with police, hospitals and viewers , taking live phoners of people describing where they were and what they saw.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

Social media played a huge role. People were posting pictures and videos that we used on the air. We had more than 1,000 people friend our WGGB Springfield account Wednesday afternoon alone. People communicated with each other on our Facebook page, as well as with us. Yesterday’s tornado really reinforced my opinion on the growing strength and reach of social media. We streamed our coverage live all afternoon long. We got e-mails from people all over the country and world for that matter. We received a request from a blogger in Russia to use some of our video.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

The social media aspect. In times of crisis, it’s probably the most effective form of communication.

Jarvis on the Future of the Journalism Business

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I would add more to this post from Jeff Jarvis:  Hard economic lessons for news, but he does a pretty good job of summing up the state of the journalism business, so I won’t!

My favorite sections:

* Tradition is not a business model. The past is no longer a reliable guide to future success.

* Disruption is the law of the jungle and the internet. If someone can do what you do cheaper, better, faster, they will.

* The question about pay walls is whether they are the *best* way to make the *most* money. It’s not a religious matter. It’s a practical question of whether circulation revenue will net more than equivalent advertising, whether one can afford to give up audience and growth, what the costs are to support pay.

* We have not begun to explore new definitions of news.

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