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My “Quest” and the Future of Journalism Education

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I’m on a quest.

It’s a quest to bring responsible journalism to live-tweeting.

It’s a good quest, a quest to change the work ethos of journalists when it comes to tweeting during breaking news events. I’ve written and spoken about this topic at a number of different conferences and I’ve adopted a new tactic in my quest:  Calling out poorly reported information passed along by journalists during a breaking news event.

My quest has lead me to a few Twitter discussions with journalists during breaking  news events. Some have not received my questions well. In the rush to be first, journalists and their news organizations continue to publish false information. Joe Paterno, Gabby Giffords, Sandy Hook, Boston Marathon Bombings, Navy Yard shooting, LAX shooting, New Jersey mall shooting. The list of news events where “spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism” occurs just keeps growing.

It’s a vicious circle. Amateur journalists feed social media, social media feeds broadcast outlets, who feed Twitter….round and round we go.

But there’s hope.  Some of my former students who were working and covering the Boston Marathon bombings story were tweeting out questions about why speculation and rumor was being tweeted out by amateur and professional journalists. And, in the end, they were acting a lot more responsibly as they reported during a crisis situation.

Why were rookie reporters acting more responsibly than seasoned veterans?

Which brings me to the return of the Carnival of Journalism. David Cohn’s idea to have a group of writers blog/comment about a different topic every month is back after a bit of a hiatus and tackling a topic which is getting a lot of ink these days: Journalism Education. Specifically, the question reads:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?
Issues to consider:
  • Ideally experience at a college media organization would help a student learn relevant skills for the workforce and help students land a job.
  • If you work at a news organization, what kinds of skills do you and your organization look for in new hires?
  • What kind of “clips” should college students have by graduation?
  • You can approach this as your advice to college media organizations or as if you were a theoretical adviser or manager of a student news organization. Or as a theoretical employer imagining the ideal experience a just-graduated student should have gotten.

I try to follow most of my students after they graduate, seeing where they land in the profession and watching their progress over time. Some of them have had experience working at a student-run publication, some of them have had internships and some of them have taken my Investigative Journalism class. That class partners up with a news organization each semester — and is where they get their stories published. In the past we’ve partnered with The Boston Globe and MassLive and we’re currently partnering with The Huffington Post.

There’s a lot being written these days about the future of Journalism Education. Ideas range from teaching students code, data visualization, computer programming — they all jockey for the trending subjects of the day. Which is all fine. I support all of that.

But none of it means a damn if news organizations continue to get it wrong. At times I wonder whether spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism is the wave of the future. Some think so. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram wrote last year that:

“The way that inaccurate news reports about a mass shooting in Connecticut filtered out through social media has brought up many of the same criticisms as Hurricane Sandy — that social media isn’t an appropriate forum for journalism. But this is simply the way news works now.”

I refuse to buy that. I’m not going to throw up my hands and surrender to inaccuracies being the norm.

What I like about this current generation of students/alums, is that they really seem to get it. They understand technology. They’ve grown up with it. They understand the amplification effect provided by social media.

UMass Journalism graduate S.P. Sullivan was at the scene of the recent New Jersey mall shooting, live-tweeting for NJ.com. His first-hand reports were balanced and authoritative and a BBC producer told him that at one point they were reading his tweets on air. The importance of the moment was not lost on S.P.:

“There were hundreds of RT and mentions….kind of drives home the responsibility you have, as someone attached to a news organization and on the ground, to not tweet bullshit.”

I’m all for student news organizations training students but students really begin to realize how serious our profession is when they work together with professionals in another news organizations. That’s really where the focus needs to be. Those classes that provide partnerships also allows for training that really seems to drive home the point that speed means nothing if you get it wrong and “tweet bullshit.”

We need more of that.

UMass Journalism Graduate Finds Himself in the Eye of Storm Coverage

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An onlooker is shown here taking photos of the flooding of a parking lot at the edge of the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J. — Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan.

S.P. Sullivan, a 2010 graduate of the UMass Journalism program,  has been reporting on Hurricane Sandy for NJ.com since the storm hit.  He took time from his busy schedule to do a Q&A via e-mail:

Question:  Tell me about your weekend.  You were in Sunderland this past weekend and had to return to New Jersey.  At what point did you realize you had to head back?

Sullivan:  I was trying to have a relaxing weekend in Western Massachusetts, but I had been in on a conference call between government officials in the county I cover, their Office of Emergency Management staff and municipal officials, so even on the drive up Friday night I was already anxious about the storm. Sunday rolled around and I asked the weather guy at our sister paper, The Star-Ledger, when I should come back. He said things were going to get pretty bad pretty early Monday, and he was right.


Q: When did you start reporting?  What were conditions like?

Sullivan:  Friday, I guess. We knew something was coming, and I had written a story about a major investment a Boys & Girls Club that sits right on the Saddle River made in flood infrastructure for our Hurricane Irene anniversary package, so on Friday I followed up with them to see how they were prepping for the storm. Then I took part in that conference call with the county and wrote a story about country-wide preparations, recording it off my iPhone and embedding an MP3 for anyone interested in hearing how their elected officials were handling things.

I oversee two other reporters in the county, and they each work a weekend shift, so they covered Saturday and early Sunday. I even went on a hike Sunday afternoon.

By Sunday evening, my girlfriend Rosie and I were making a mad dash back to Jersey, and the county was holding another conference call, so I came up with an elaborate scheme where I piped my iPhone into my audio recorder using one stereo cable (the kind you use to listen to your iPod in the car), and then piping the recorder into the car’s audio system using another. That way, I was able to listen to the call through my car stereo as I drove, and then was able to again embed the call in the story I wrote Sunday night after we got back.


Q: Were you filing text/video and images?
Sullivan: We were filing text fast and furious. Each county had its own live blog starting early Monday morning, and I was in charge of the blog for Bergen County, though each of us in the county took shifts maintaining it. That page served as a clearing house for all storm-related coverage in the county, providing time-stamped links to our stories as we filed them, as well as mini-updates from various agencies and photos and stories we were getting from our users via e-mail and social media.

I did manage to get out on Monday afternoon to capture the swelling of the Hudson River (I live in the Palisade Cliffs, overlooking the Hudson), and did a quick story from there. Things were moving so fast that the focus was more on photo than video, so I actually didn’t shoot any video during the storm. It was lots of quick updates and lots of photos.


Q: What role did social media play in your reporting?

Sullivan: Major events like this storm or the tornado in Springfield in 2011 really bring out the value in social media as a tool for journalism. I was able to post quick updates and photos from the field on my Twitter account, which the other staff could then cull for use in our live blog, and on Tuesday, when everybody, myself included, lost power, one of my reporters went to one of the hardest-hit areas and was able to get photos up on Twitter. Internet service was almost non-existent, so he was phoning in dictation to me and I was pulling photos from his Twitter feed for use in his stories.

Then of course there was the instant feedback from people in our communities: We got information on school closures, photos and updates on power outages in parts of the county we weren’t able to get to , all from our Facebook and Twitter accounts, which we maintained throughout the storm. Our live blog became a mini social network of its own, too, with a lot of useful information from readers posted in the comments or emailed to the address we posted on the page.


Q: What’s the experience been like overall?

Sullivan: Taxing. The three of us cover the most densely-populated county in the state, with almost a million residents, so keeping up with the live blog and getting out into the field as much as possible is daunting. Monday night into Tuesday morning was tough, because the majority of our staff lost power, so we were running on battery life and mifi cards. We escaped the worst of it in North Jersey, and many of our reporters in South Jersey couldn’t get online Tuesday morning, so I was even helping out with coverage of the devastation in Atlantic City from my outpost up north.

It was also a lot more challenging to physically cover the storm than it was to cover the Springfield tornado, because the tornado came and was gone in a matter of minutes, whereas the storm was stretched over days. Springfield is also a lot more compact, so getting around Bergen, which has a lot of major highways which were closed or washed-out, was difficult. So it’s been frustrating not getting out into the thick of it as much, but staying glued to a computer trying to get people the most recent updates and important information is a service in of itself. Live storm and election coverage have kind of become specialties of mine, so it’s gonna be a busy week.

Why Is Everyone So Pissed Off?

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“Why Is Everyone So Pissed Off?”

We see it everywhere. From Facebook to Twitter and e-mail: People seem really pissed off — and aren’t shy about being rude and crude in public discussions. Overall, civil discourse seems to be the exception, not the rule. And, well, I’m kind of wondering why. I have my own theories but in the fine tradition of crowdsourcing, was wondering what people think. And, this is research. I’m mulling at least a blog post and possibly a larger piece.

So, have at it. Agree/Disagree? Any research out there you can point me to?

Feel free to weigh in on the comments board here or e-mail me directly.

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.

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…..

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 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.

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