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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.

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.

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….

Transparency and Gene Weingarten’s Visit

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During his recent visit to UMass, Pulitzer prize-winner Gene Weingarten told a few stories.  One of them involved an exchange with Bob Kaiser — one of my favorite editors from my time at The Washington Post.

The story was an amusing one and involved an effort by Weingarten and one of his reporters to construct a profile on a person who made a living off of writing term papers for college students.  After the interview turned out not to be the best, the reporter jokingly suggested they have the term-paper writer write the story, put it under the reporter’s byline and wait until the kicker at the end of the story to let the reader know they had been duped.

As with most of Weingarten’s story, there were chuckles from the crowd when Weingarten decided to go ahead with the idea.

But Weingarten continued and said that Kaiser, then the managing editor at The Post, said that while he liked the story, misleading the reader violated the contract of trust that journalists have with their audience.

“We don’t lie to our readers,” Kaiser told Weingarten.

The story was from the pre-Web days but even then Kaiser seemed ahead of his time with his notions of transparency.

Weingarten also gave some old-school stories about getting information and interviews through some questionable means early in his career — including hiding behind a curtain during a city council meeting.

Finally, Weingarten spoke about the stories surrounding both of his Pulitzer Prizes, including “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” In describing how he was able to get people to talk to him about this difficult topic, Weingarten said he related his own story to interview subjects, sharing how he almost killed his daughter, Molly, the same way.

To a near-quiet audience of a couple of hundred people, Weingarten related how one day in the early 1980s he was taking his daughter to daycare, made a wrong turn and ended up in parking lot of The Miami Herald.  He was about to get out of his car when his daughter saved a tragedy from occurring.

“As I was about to get out, Molly said something and that’s the only reason she’s a veterinarian today,” recalled Weingarten.

It was a moving story, especially since it was delivered to a room filled with budding journalists.  Yet, the admission is not found anywhere in the narrative of the Pulitzer prize-winning story.  In an online discussion after the story was published in The Post, Weingarten told his story. So, while there was transparency, it was transparency after the fact.  Since Weingarten’s visit, I’ve had several class discussions on Weingarten’s appearance and what it means to be transparent in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

And, after reading the online discussion, some students felt angry, almost emotionally manipulated by the story he wrote.  Would readers’ opinions on the topic have been different if Weingarten had been transparent within the story?

Possibly.

For me, I remember the huge discussion that happened after the story was originally published.  As a father of three, I have a built-in bias.  I was repulsed by the headline and the attempt to classify these deaths as “mistakes.”

Being transparent would have provided Weingarten with a different approach to the story and perhaps swayed those holding my opinion.  But, most importantly, Weingarten would have been honest with the reader.  Letting the reader know you have an emotional investment in the story is one of the main arguments for being transparent.

Going Viral

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“Going Viral.”

It’s a saying we in the journalism profession hear a lot and for the most part it goes to the fundamental changes going on in the concept of “publishing.”  That’s a term that for decades has carried lofty connotations.  But with web publishing your writing can have a tremendous reach, thanks to the benefits behind the concept of “link journalism.”  The key to link journalism, and to “publishing” is to use social media to let folks know what you’ve published.  Those who may not have the content or material that you have will link to you, helping to inform the audience.  Once word gets out, you can end up being linked off of many sites.

In the first month of classes, we’ve seen several strong examples of Web publishing and the viral nature of publication.

One example came with coverage on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.  I was in a coffee shop on Sept. 10 doing some work when I saw this #wherewereyou hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag had been generated by The Washington Post’s web site as editors sought to get readers’ stories on where they were when the attacks happened.

After reading some of the entries on the Twitter feed, I was prompted to write a post on my own experiences on 9/11.  I posted my entry on Facebook and Twitter.  Editors at The Post then saw my blog entry, and they posted it here.  After the posting, I saw some spikes in page views but what really intrigued me were the analytics which showed page views from 9/12 on 9/11.  I thought it was a glitch but then remembered the global reach of The Post and figured I had some reading in a time zone a day ahead.

The viral spread continued when Dave Beard, the Boston.com editor, saw the post, commented on it and then added a link to the post on Boston.com’s Facebook page with this comment:  “FYI, nice remembrance by UMass prof Steve Fox, ex national/political editor of washingtonpost.com, on his 9/11/01, right here: https://umassjournalismprofs.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/remembering-911/

Nieman caught up the story a few days later and blogged about the hashtag.

The second example came with the sad news on Sept. 17 that UMass band director George N. Parks had died on a trip to Michigan prior to the UMass-Michigan football game.   As student journalists within the Journalism program reported the story that Friday morning, I recalled that students who took part in the Multimedia Bootcamp prior to the start of the semester had done on a video piece on the new band building which included an interview with Parks just prior to the start of the Fall semester.

I quickly posted the video on Facebook and Twitter and let news organizations throughout the state know about the video.  Prior to that day, the video had a handful of views and overnight it had more than 1,000.  The video was linked to by the Web sites of the Springfield Republican and the Daily Hampshire Gazette, amongst others.  In a time of grief, web publishing allowed us to share the Parks interview with UMass alumni all over the world.

In Web publishing, nothing is ever truly “old” and this was a pretty strong example of that.

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