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Roxanne’s 10 Rules of Writing

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From Teachapaloooza14 at The Poynter Institute:

  1. 95 percent of writing is thinking.
  2. Make the first 6-8 words count
  3. Eliminate marshmallow words; “there is”; very. Switch from honey boo boo writing to World Cup writing.
  4. Beware of the curse of knowledge; eliminate assumptions of what people may know about your story.
  5. If it sounds wrong and it looks wrong, it probably is – change it.
  6. Don’t be a creepy date;  if something isn’t working, let it go.
  7. Verbs are your BFFs; informs readers about your characters.
  8. “Things” belong in horror movies.
  9. Love your grandmother; you can’t love anything else.
  10. Punctuation is not about feelings; understand where they belong; you’re allowed one exclamation point in your life.

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.

UMass Panel to Look Back at 9/11 Attacks on 10-Year Anniversary

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(Updated: Aug. 29)

Mark Stencel, the managing editor for Digital News at NPR, will join a group of University of Massachusetts educators on Sept. 8 to take part in a panel discussion looking at how the U.S. and the world has changed in the decade since the 9/11 terror attacks.

“The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the beginnings of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came as newsrooms were still grappling with what exactly it meant to be Web publishers,” said Stencel, who was an editor at The Washington Post’s web site on 9/11.

“At the time, our interactive online channels were still relatively new. For many of us, these channels for the first time provided global reach around the clock — including a new workday news audience — as well as nearly unlimited potential to dabble in new formats. But there were consequences: Newsrooms had accelerated deadlines and new competitors.
And we faced difficult questions about accuracy and what NOT to report.”

The panel, entitled “After the Towers Fell: A September 11th Retrospective,” will be held at 4 p.m. on Sept. 8 in the Campus Center Reading Room on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“This panel discussion will be of great interest to anyone whose life was changed by 9/11–which means everyone,” said Karen List, director of the Journalism program.

The panelists for the event are: David Kotz from the Economics Department; MJ Peterson from Political Science; Linda Tropp from Psychology and Stencel. The panel will be moderated by Steve Fox of the Journalism Program, also a former editor for The Post’s web site.

Peterson will discuss the Bush administration’s response to the attacks; Kotz will look at the economic consequences of the attacks in the past decade; and Tropp will talk about general social psychological processes involved in group categorization.

A reception will follow the panel discussion. The panel is sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Journalism program, and the Departments of Political Science, Economics and Psychology.

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!

Q&A With S.P. Sullivan

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The devastation in Springfield after Wednesday's tornado was surpising to many covering the aftermath. (Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan)

S.P. Sullivan is a 2010 graduate of the UMass journalism program.  Upon graduation, he took a job as a producer for MassLive, the online operation of The Springfield Republican.  I was chatting with him online prior to Wednesday’s tornado and caught up with him to see what the past several days have been like.

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

When the first tornado hit I was in the office. I stuck around because I have a little car and I didn’t want it to blow away during the NWS’ tornado watch.

We saw the tornado pass a few blocks from our building, tearing debris off the tops of buildings, but honestly I wasn’t that impressed. Even when our general manager came back from a meeting with photos of a few uprooted trees downtown, I didn’t think it was anything more than the microbursts that sometimes happen around here, destroying a random barn and leaving everything else untouched.

So I left! I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that. I went grocery shopping. But there was no way to know the extent of the damage at that point, and I couldn’t get downtown because of gridlock traffic in that direction. It wasn’t until I got home that I heard about the level of damage. So, jaw ajar, I went back to work from my dining room table.

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

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.

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

Because I was 40 minutes away in Amherst when I started working on tornado coverage, I did a lot of back-channel stuff Wednesday night. I’m a producer, not a reporter, so the paper had reporters all over the scene. I tried to flesh out details of what happened from the streams of media reports, the chatter online and communicating with other staff. I made sure the latest stuff was on the homepage as it was coming in and added all the necessary media.

Then, I started recording statements from the governor and other officials remotely using a complicated set-up involving my smartphone, a Zoom H2 recorder and a stereo cable. Because of that I was able to listen in on the governor’s press briefings and file stories on the site about the state response within minutes of them ending. I edited and embedded audio from those briefings.

Most of Wednesday night I was glued to Twitter on the back end, trying to vet information as it was coming in and post stuff as soon as it was confirmed by us or our media partners.

Thursday, I came in early and started out with my normal morning routine, which is manning the homepage. I built what we call a ‘defcon’ promo, which is a module that we roll out for large, breaking news events like this one. Then I worked with a reporter at the paper on a live blog, bringing together dispatches and photos from reporters in the field, user-submitted photos and video and updates on traffic, office closures and whatnot from state agencies.

In the afternoon, I was sent out in the field to capture images and on-the-ground perspectives of the recovery process. I visited the badly damaged South End and talk to a security guard from one of the towers, who had helped his tenants to the shelter at the MassMutual center. I got yelled at by cops and National Guardsmen for crossing police lines, and told by others that I was OK as long as I had my press badge. It was a confusing time, and I was struck by the number of people wandering the South End, taking pictures of the damage with their cell phones.

Between disaster areas, I found some women flagging down cars for a car wash to raise money for victims. A few of them had been impacted themselves. I thought it was a touching story and, for our readers’ sake and mine, I shot some video so we’d have a positive piece to balance out the desperation.

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

I got on Twitter as soon as I knew it had happened because I have a decent base of followers in Western Mass. I knew they would be posting about the situation wherever they were at. It’s also useful as an aggregation tool, because it would take me 30 minutes to sift through all of the state’s news organizations that were covering this, but as everyone was sharing from their news site of choice, I was able to see headlines from all over in real-time.

Twitter was most useful in the hours right after the storm hit, and I keep checking it to this moment, but since Wednesday night I’ve mostly been using it to keep our 3,000+ followers up on what we’re doing, what other orgs are posting and what the various state agencies and aid groups are saying. I posted updates from the field, but that was somewhat difficult with spotty reception due to downed cell towers.

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

It’s a friggin’ tornado in New England. Everything about the past 48 hours has been surprising. If I have to pick, I’d say the courage of the folks like the women I met at the car wash, who managed to remain positive amid all of the rubble.

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.

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