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The Real Question for Jeff Bezos: Time to Invest in Journalism?

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It’s been fascinating to watch the cheerleading that’s gone on since the announcement that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

When the announcement was made, the reaction from technologists and Web journalists was pretty reflexive.  Many out there are describing Bezos as a savior, as the person who will finally help The Post get its digital act together. Lots of cheerleading about the possibilities with new packaging, and the “bold” business acumen of Bezos.

We’ve seen letters to Bezos from former Posties and declarations of hope from former Posties who worked for Bezos. We’ve seen a little finger-wagging from current Posties as well as a long parade of sentimentalism praising Don Graham, and reminiscing of a time gone by.

It seems we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum — cheerleading from technologists and other journalists who seem almost giddy that a rich tech guru will become a major media player — and those lamenting the end of an era.

Where’s the healthy skepticism?

It’s been hard to find. As another former employee of the Post Company (I worked at washingtonpost.com from 1996-2006) I’m also curious as to how this new transition will work out but I’ve hesitated to jump on the Bezos bandwagon.

There have been a few out there who have registered concernsJeff Jarvis tweeted: “One thing about Bezos and a newspaper: He is no proponent of openness. A more secretive tech company it’s hard to find.” And, Christopher Mims tweeted:  “Jeff Bezos now owns both Washington Post, $600 million server cloud for CIA. That won’t be a conflict of interest.”

And, Felix Salmon pointed out some basic management issues that may not sit well at The Post: “It (Amazon) also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives.”

Yet, it’s been difficult to hear any real analysis amongst the cacophony of cheerleaders saying Bezos will create a Post where the readers will finally get what they want (like with Amazon.) What exactly does that mean? More coverage of the Royals? More video of car chases? More shallow news of the weird?

There’s been plenty of commentary about what a technologist like Bezos can bring to a company like The Washington Post. And, yes, after stagnating for the past 15 years, The Post will finally have to change its business model and those not on board with a “digital-first” mindset will not last long.

But, what about the journalism? Yes, The Post was a great newspaper but just because the delivery mode is changing doesn’t mean the journalism should.

The real questions for Bezos have not been asked — or answered.

Will he invest in a timely, costly investigative pieces?

Will he devote time and resources to foreign reporting?

Will he re-open bureaus that have been closed in the past decade as cost-cutting measures?

Some have described Bezos as a bottom-line kind of guy, well the bottom-line is that good investigative journalism takes time and money. And, Bezos won’t see much return on his investment, unless you can start quantifying “afflicting the comfortable” and holding government accountable.

Since the onset of Web journalism, there has been a wrestling match over the role of journalists and editors. The gatekeeping role has disappeared — no longer do journalists and editors determine what the user/consumer should read.  The Great Decoupling, as JD Lasica put it.  That unwillingness to give up the gatekeeping role and create new roles hurt The Post and many other news organizations.

But, it’s beginning to feel like the pendulum needs to swing back a little. We live in a scary, secretive time where the idea of privacy is laughable and where the public, press, and judiciary all seem to support the right of the government to eavesdrop and collect information on the citizenry at will. Jay Rosen recently asked how we can get ourselves back to an informed citizenry.

Jeff Bezos can go a long way to doing that by investing in journalism. I think many are hoping he will. We’ll see.

NPR’s Mark Stencel to visit UMass as first Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence

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Mark Stencel, NPR’s managing editor for digital news, will be joining UMass journalism students and faculty during the week of April 16 as the program’s first Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence.

Stencel’s visit will be highlighted by a public discussion on Wednesday,  entitled “This Just In: News and Context in Digital Time,” where he will analyze the rapid changes occurring in the news business and how these changes affect the future of the business of journalism.  The talk will be in Room 227 in Herter Hall and will begin at 7 p.m.

“Journalism is looking forward to having Mark with us for a week,” said Program  Director Karen List.

“The depth and diversity of Mark’s experience will allow him to add significantly to our continuing conversation on Journalism and its place in society.  And that conversation is a perfect tribute to Howard and the legacy he’s left this program.  We’ll make sure it continues in the years ahead as we bring in a wide variety of journalists, including many of our own distinguished alums.”

Stencel’s bio is extensive and his career has spanned both the digital and print worlds.  His bio reads in part:  “Since Stencel joined NPR in 2009, the network has been recognized as one of industry’s leading digital news services, honored with the 2011 Eppy award for best journalism website from Editor & Publisher, a 2010 National Press Foundation award for excellence in online journalism, two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a Peabody award, and the 2011 Webby and People’s Voice awards for news from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.”

Stencel’s visit is being made possible by funds from the Journalism Program’s Howard Ziff Lecture Series, created upon Ziff’s retirement from UMass in the Fall of 1998. In the early 1970s, Ziff facilitated the move of journalism into a separate degree program called Journalistic Studies (later called the Journalism Department) in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

During his visit, the digital pioneer will visit a number of different beginning and upper-level journalism classes.  Most professors are opening up their classes for visitors but you should check beforehand if you want to sit in.  Mark’s schedule:

April 17

9:30-11 a.m.           Newswriting with George Forcier (DuBois 720)

12:30-2:30 p.m.    All Faculty Lunch to discuss Journalism’s Future (107 Bartlett)

3:35-6 p.m.             Business of Media with Marc Berman (Bartlett 312)

April 18:

9:05-10:30 a.m.           Introduction to Multimedia with BJ Roche (DuBois 767)

11:30-1 p.m.                Lunch at Faculty Club with students

1:25-3:20 p.m.           Magazine Writing with BJ Roche (767 Dubois)

3:35-5:30 p.m.           Newswriting with Mary Carey (767 Dubois)

7-9 p.m.                       Public Talk, “Instanews:  Depth and Context in Motion” (227 Herter)

April 19

9:30-10:45 a.m.             Introduction to Journalism withDavid Perkins and Journalism Ethics with Karen List (301 Bartlett)

11:15-12:30 p.m.            Multimedia Journalism with Steve Fox (107 Bartlett)

2:30-3:45 a.m.               Investigative Journalism & the Web with Steve Fox (107 Bartlett)

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.

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.

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