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After the Paterno Debacle: A New Twitter Ethos Is Needed

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My blog entry taking a look at Twitter and the sloppy reporting surrounding the death of Joe Paterno was posted at the Online Journalism Review today.

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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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 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.

Twitter, Bin Laden and the Future of Journalism

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I was in a car on 9/11, stuck in traffic just outside of Washington, D.C. when I heard the news of a “commuter plane” crashing into one of the towers at the World Trade Center on WTOP — the all-news radio station in Washington and the surrounding suburbs.

I was at home in bed with a laptop, about to go to sleep as I checked my Twitter account at around 10:15 Sunday night.  After a night of reading and grading, I was beat.  As I made one last round through Twitter, I sifted through journalist types talking about President Obama’s 10:45 press conference, before coming across this tweet from Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for  former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at around 10:25 p.m.

That was quickly followed by another aide from an intelligence committee tweeting the same, and, then, the information floodgates seemed to burst open.  Soon major news organizations were confirming on their own — FOX News and the New York Times were the first — as everyone sat around waiting for the formal announcement from President Obama.

Ten years after 9/11, I found out about Osama bin Laden’s death via Twitter — a social media tool that just wasn’t anywhere on the Web journalism radar in 2001.

I yo-yo’d between Twitter, Facebook, online news sites and cable outlets until around 1:30 Monday morning.   To watch history unfold before your eyes is just mind-boggling.  But, despite all the cheering and cheerleading,  I’ve had some mixed emotions about the news.  I spent last night and today trying to digest the events, the news coverage and the reactions from around the world.

I’m still digesting but thought I would share some thoughts:

Technology.  On 9/11, the homepage of The Washington Post’s web site was redesigned on the fly.  At the time, we thought it was a pretty major development.  As I watched the real-time reporting and analysis occur last night on Twitter and Facebook, I began to think how far journalism has come in 10 years.  There was even live-blogging going on in Pakistan during the firefight.

The barriers to entry are gone and the news comes at you early and often with social media.  I evangelize about the possibilities of social media at every turn.  There are still those who wish to ignore it but, honestly, it’s their loss and I grow weary of talking to people who question that serious journalism can happen with a word like “tweet.”  Twitter and social media are the future of news distribution.  Get used to it.

Politics.  It’s a bit disturbing how quickly some folks today were drooling about the political prospects for Obama’s re-election, in light of the Bin Laden news.  It’s evidence  yet again of how divided this country has become since 2000.

More TK…..

Wednesday’s Quote of the Day

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“Have grown real tired of professors who say that technology shouldn’t be taught in media schools because ‘it’s always changing’. Would professors at medical or business schools ever say something that willfully ignorant?”

Vin Crosbie, Syracuse University

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