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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.

‘Preemption’ Strategy: Where are the hard questions?

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During the runup to the Iraq War, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus was one of the few national security journalists challenging the weapons of mass destruction assumptions being made by the Bush administration.  Unfortunately, the administration’s bogus claims were usually given A1 treatment, while Pincus’s stories often made their way onto A21.

At the time, I was one of the editors working on the newsdesk of The Post’s website and we would often try and get the “other side” from Pincus featured prominently on the homepage.  Still, you have to wonder what would have happened if his reporting was featured more prominently in the newspaper.

Pincus is still around, now authoring a column entitled “Fine Print.” He recently wrote a column which asked: “Has Obama taken Bush’s ‘preemption’ strategy to another level?” Pincus quotes a revised “strategic guidance” document which is startling in its bluntness:

“For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary” — emphasis added (by Pincus.)

I expected this column to get a lot of traction — for reporters and editorial boards around the country to pick up and run with this story.  But, the follow-ups have been relatively few. Where are the questions?  Where are the editorials? Isn’t this an issue worth probing?

To answer Arthur Brisbane’s recent question, yes, now would be the time to be a “truth vigilante.”

 

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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Q&A With The Post’s Eric Athas

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The view from The Washington Post's newsroom on the night it was announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed. (Courtesy of Eric Athas.)

I contacted Eric Athas (Journalism ’08) after I saw him post a photo from outside the White House after his Sunday night/Monday morning shift occupied by the Bin Laden news.  My Q&A with him follows:

1.  How did you find out about Bin Laden’s death?

I was editing the washingtonpost.com homepage Sunday evening, and news had come to a screeching halt. Our lead story was hours old — about how embassies in Tripoli had been attacked. The Capitals had just lost their second straight game to the Lightning. The most interesting story we had was about a dangerous shortage of U.S. medical supplies. There was also one about oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Then a reporter sent an e-mail saying that Obama was going to address the nation on an undisclosed topic. The next piece of information we received was that it was national security-related. My first thought was that it had something to do with Libya given Saturday’s news that Gaddafi’s youngest son had been killed by a NATO air strike. Typically in these situations (knowing there’s news, but not sure what that news is) I head to Twitter. I had Tweetdeck open, but I had to focus on getting a banner headline on our homepage and begin planning for a major news story. I first heard it was bin Laden-related from MSNBC, which was on in the background. But the actual “Osama bin Laden is dead” news then popped up in my Twitter feed.

2.  What are your thoughts about how the story broke on social media?

Breaking news on Twitter is the standard. Look at the major news stories this year — and there have been a lot of them — and they all developed on Twitter and Facebook in a way that is incomparable to any newspaper, Web site or broadcast. The bin Laden news was no different, especially considering the raid was inadvertently tweeted by @ReallyVirtual as it was happening. What’s funny is that this story was moving so fast on Twitter that I had to quit out of TweetDeck to prevent myself from getting too engrossed. With reporters calling sources and other producers monitoring Twitter, it would have been more of a distraction for me.      

3.  Did you go immediately to work?

Lucky me, I was there.

4.  Tell me about how you handled the story Sunday night/Monday morning.

On washingtonpost.com, the story developed like this: When we got the report Obama was going to address the nation, I put up a breaking news banner and simultaneously sent a breaking news e-mail alert with a link to where the live video would be displayed. Meanwhile, as our reporters worked on figuring out what the story was, our social media team signed on and began tweeting. When we confirmed bin Laden was dead, it obviously became our lead story, but I kept a live video banner headline up so users could watch Obama on our site. At this point we began building a big package that would have a giant photo, big headline and all of the bells and whistles of a major story. We added components such as photo galleries, video, stories and a place where users could submit photos. After that, it was a matter of creating a package that would deliver the story — the biggest I’ve ever encountered at The Post — in the most effective way possible. With stories like this, one challenge is sifting through all of the content that’s pouring in and feeding it to our users steadily.

5.  Did you use social media in getting the story out on your site?

One of the advantages of working at The Washington Post is that we have many producers and editors handling all of the different moving parts of a mammoth story such as this one. We have a great engagement team that was able to focus on social media all night and day — which not only means tweeting and posting to Facebook, but also finding other ways to tell the story. Here’s one example.

On a personal social media level, once I finally had a chance to get out of my seat (4:30 a.m.), I took a stroll over to the White House and shot some video and photos of the cheering crowd. I uploaded the video to YouTube and posted the photos on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was a fun Washington moment.

6.  Any lessons learned from how fast this story moved?

I was reminded how important it is that a news organization’s Web presence doesn’t get caught up in the the freight train of information spilling out. People will go to Twitter for the news as it’s happening, and they’ll go to washingtonpost.com, nytimes.comwsj.com and elsewhere to learn more about it. I also think there’s a lot to learn from this story, along with the Tucson shooting, the turmoil in the Middle East, the tsunami in Japan and the storms in the South. Once the dust settles, all of those stories will help teach us about better ways we can help deliver news to he world.

Plagiarism, Parenting and the great David Broder

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Some  updates:

*  Poynter: Are there ways for academics and newsrooms to collaborate on newsroom standards?

*  Daily Hampshire Gazette: Parenting in a new media world.

And, in case you missed it, there were many great tributes after the death of former Washington Post columnist David Broder, including a couple from some friends:

Charles Babington

*  Dan Balz:  David Broder’s remarkable life and career

*  Mark Stencel:  Broder’s Shift Key:  An Unlikely Online Makeover

Also, Mark passed along one of the great quotes from Broder:

“I would like to see us say — over and over, until the point has been
made — that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial,
hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering
of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours –
distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the
very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it
from your doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the
product accurately, then we could immediately add: But it’s the best
we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with
a corrected and updated version.”

Indeed.

A Day in the Life: News Judgment, Initiative Pay Off for One Digital Journalist

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“There are a thousand stories on a college campus.”

It’s a phrase I often use in my classes.  Usually, the goal is to motivate students to be in a “constant state of journalism.”   What I mean by that is that I want my students to always be ready for a story, always looking for ideas and always ready to shoot photos, video, and interview folks if a story presents itself.  In my first year here, I had one student who shot a great Veteran’s Day photo and ended up freelancing it to one of the local newspapers — and got paid! Since then I’ve had a number of students who have made the ‘state of mind’ pay off.

It’s a concept that just becomes second nature after awhile. And having such a mindset makes you a better journalist once you are out there and getting paid.

So, I was pretty excited to come across this blog post by Eric Athas, a 2008 graduate of the UMass journalism program who now works as a producer for The Washington Post’s web site.   Eric recently found himself in the middle of one of the more horrific stories to hit the Washington suburbs in quite a while.

I’ve stayed in contact with Eric since he graduated and he’s always been a journalist who has an uncanny nose for news.  And, when we talk about the most important characteristic needed in today’s new world of journalism, that remains a key asset.

What’s impressive in what Eric did here is that he didn’t wait for instructions or a press release.  As the events unfolded before him on a sleepy Saturday morning, he took the initiative (and took out his IPhone to shoot video) got out of his car, investigated, and came back with a story.

And, trust me, that kind of initiative is noticed.

Going to Sri Lanka

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Yes, I’m going to Sri Lanka.  My flight is less than a month away so I figured it was time to start blogging about my preparations.

In mid-September, I was contacted by the State Department with a request to go teach multimedia and freedom of the press in Sri Lanka for a week in December.  I pretty much jumped at the opportunity.

The request came roughly a year after a request to go teach in Kazakhstan.  I had to turn down that opportunity because of scheduling issues but the timing worked out on this opportunity.  I’m flying out on Dec. 10 — the day after the semester ends (I’ll be grading many of my final projects on the plane:)

I’m going to spend a week lecturing and conducting seminars focused on Web journalism, freedom of the press and investigative journalism and then my wife and I (she’ll be joining me during the week) will spend a couple of days doing the tourist thing, but mostly lying around the beach.

When I was first contacted about the trip, one thought came to mind — the 2004 tsunami.  I was working at The Washington Post’s Web site at the time and was working a newsdesk shift the day the tsunami hit South Asia.  Many western-based news organizations (including The Post) were slow to respond during the early morning hours when reports first started to arrive.  Holiday weeks are usually times of low staffing and many news organizations were slow to understand the scale of the disaster.

Yet, The Post caught up quickly.  And, the disaster actually provided one of those transitional moments for a news organization that at the time was struggling to find ways to merge its online and print operations.

By pure happenstance, Michael Dobbs, one of The Post’s foreign correspondents at the time, was vacationing on a small island off the coast of Sri Lanka.  Unlike many of the national and local reporters at The Post, Dobbs did not view the web operation as a threat to his work.  After all, the daily version landed at his doorstep via electronic means ever day. While many of the local and national reporters saw The Post in terms of a “print-first” mentality, many of the international reporters correspondents did not.  Print deadlines were fairly artificial for foreign correspondents, something that those of us working for the Web operation saw fairly regularly with the coverage of the Iraq ground war.

So when Dobbs found himself literally in the middle of the tsunami, he first called the newdesk at the Web site (at the time, The Post’s Web operation was run out of a newsroom in Arlington, Va. while the newspaper operation existed in downtown Washington, D.C.) and filed a first-hand account over his cell phone.  Kenisha Malcolm, one of my colleagues at the time, captured his report and filed an audio report with his eyewitness account.

I remember listening to that audio report and just being wowed.  As Dobbs recounts, “something was very wrong with the sea.”  Sometimes the simplest descriptions are the best.

When my wife and I were looking at places to stay, we came across the Weligama that Dobbs wrote about.  I’m hoping to see as much as the area as possible in 12 days and will try to capture through words and images how Sri Lankans are coping, six years after the tragedy.

More to come….

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