UMass Journalism Graduate Finds Himself in the Eye of Storm Coverage

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.

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Posted in Blogging, E-Mail Interviews, Hurricane Sandy, S.P. Sullivan, Social Media, Twitter, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Why Is Everyone So Pissed Off?

“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.

Posted in Blogging, E-Mail Interviews, education, Social Media, why are people pissed off? | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 9/11 Anniversary Isn’t News? Says Who?

So, on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, the editors at the almighty New York Times don’t think there is enough news value to warrant any 9/11 anniversary coverage on the front page of their newspaper.

In an online discussion with Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore, Margaret Sullivan, the new Public Editor for the Times says she spoke with two key editors “and they explained that their decisions were driven by news value and by the fact that this is the 11th anniversary, after an elaborate effort last year.”

Not news?

In New York City?

Seriously?

Talk about disconnect.

The good news is that at least The Times didn’t feel breast implants merited A1 coverage today.

I just don’t buy this defense.  Even the Times realized it WAS news today….because there was 9/11 coverage on the Web site for most of the day. And, given the millions of people who come to the Web site every day, whose to say that the A1 editors for The Times dictate what is news anyway?

And, as I wandered  through my Facebook and Twitter feeds today, it seemed that many people disagreed with the “it’s not news” designation.  My twitter feed has been churning away with the “#remember911” hashtag for much of the day.  But the esteemed editors at The Times probably think Twitter isn’t news either.  This notion that the almighty editors within closeted offices at hallowed newspapers are the ones determining the news proves again the quaint and antiquated nature of many news organizations in the year 2012.

The difference these days is that people don’t seek the guidance of The Times news editors — or any editors for that matter — to designate what is and isn’t news.  They go find the news themselves.

I don’t know why this bothers me so much. It really shouldn’t — the arrogance of this type of thinking from newspaper folks has driven many businesses aground.  But I worry that The Times editors — and many journalists out there — are missing a real opportunity.  “Anniversary stories” are rarely a plum assignment.  It’s easy to fall into a formulaic trap with the storytelling….but there is also a real chance here for journalists to continue educating, investigating and reporting out stories on 9/11.  Kudos to The Times for running such a story today — on the dangers of small ideologically-driven groups controlling the White House — even if it wasn’t on the front page.

Newspapers and news organizations are also a place for people to learn about history — in order that we not repeat it.  Yes, we need to avoid saturation coverage — but the coverage can’t just disappear. I asked my son — a freshman in high school — what he was going to be doing today in school regarding 9/11 discussion.  He said: “Nothing.  We did a lot last year but that was only because it was the tenth anniversary.”  Such a mentality is a dangerous, slippery slope.

Posted in 9/11 Anniversary, 9/11 coverage, New York Times, War Coverage | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

UMass Journalism’s Howard Ziff Leaves Behind Larger-Than-Life Legacy

Howard M. Ziff, professor emeritus of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts, died early Tuesday morning. He was 81.

On the “Friends of Howard Ziff” page on Facebook, Ziff’s son Max reported Tuesday that his wife, Jane, and children Ellen and Donald (“Max”) were with him during his short stay at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst.

“An informal kaddish and gathering will be held at the Ziff house in Amherst in a few days. A memorial get-together is being planned for this summer. Details will be announced soon. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to “The Howard Ziff Lecture Series” at the Journalism Department of the University of Massachusetts,” Max Ziff wrote.

“Howard was a force of nature.  Of the hundreds of students telling stories about him now, it’s amazing how many of them never had a class with him,” said Karen List, the director of the UMass journalism program.

“He changed their lives through his personal interactions with them—advising them, getting them internships and jobs, having their backs, as more than one of them have said.  For Howard, it was all about the students, and the Journalism program strives to continue that legacy.”

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

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

Tributes to Ziff have been flowing since Journalism alum Jon Hite set up the page last week.  The page has grown to nearly 300 members, with everyone sharing thoughts and remembrances of Ziff the person and Ziff the professor.

A sampling:

* “When I started at UMass, I was a sit-near-the-back kind of kid. I started moving toward the front in Ziff’s class, simply for those wonderful stories. He’d wind up, get going, I’d lean forward, straining to hear … and his words would sink right into that professorial beard. If I sat near the back, I’d keep missing the punch line. So I moved up. And found my voice and my place at UMass.” — Darienne Hosley Stewart

* “The very first class I took at UMass, September 1983, was intro to journalism with Howard. Wasn’t sure I really wanted to major in journalism, or even be a journalist. He walked into that lecture hall — someone (probably many people) said later that he looked like he was there to take out the trash — and started to talk, and I knew I’d made the right choice. Howard, thanks for the encouragement, the stories, the advice, the complete lack of bullshit. RIP.”  — Phil Serafino

*  “My thoughts today are with the family and friends of Howard Ziff, a man much loved and admired by students and the community for his abilities as a journalist, teacher and mentor, and for his larger-than-life personality. I still remember the movie review program he hosted years ago on public television and how my Saturday was never complete until I had watched the movie he had recommended. We’ll miss you, Howard.”  — Stan Rosenberg

*  “I had Howard as a professor at the end of his long teaching career at UMass (I can’t figure out if he taught another class after the one I was in). I had always thought editorial writing was easy, until I took Howard’s class.

“I never understood how difficult it is to write 400 words and cover every detail, never mind doing it twice a week on top of a course load, writing for the Collegian and the other responsibilities/fun that comes with that. Howard would read our crappy editorials that we wrote the night before at 2 a.m. or just before class out loud and critique us, there was usually more red pen on the page from him with notes than our own work. Some students didn’t like his direct approach. I loved it. I loved that he cared. I loved that he wanted us all to succeed. I loved that he loved newspapers, reporting, and all the leg work forgotten by so many reporters now. He wanted us to live and breathe our 400 words every other day. And I did, even if I was crap at it. I looked forward to that 9 a.m. (10 a.m.?) class, even if I was a little hung over or barely awake.” — Kevin Koczwara

* “So I never took a course with Howard. But somehow I knew him, and he knew me. I remember the day one of my more senior Collegian colleagues told me that Howie “knew who I was.” I was awestruck. He represented all that so many of us wanted to be.”  Anne McCrory

* “I think back to when Howard saved my Irish arse after I fell below the academic Mendoza Line. There was little reason for his coming to the rescue of this teenage screw-up other than that enormous heart we all know so well. Through his intercession I got reinstated in school, with the bonus of a signature Chicago-style Howard story that will forever make me smile. In the many years since, I’ve tried to pass along some of that kindness, and when I have there is a straight line back to Howard’s empathy. At this hour I sit with immense respect for him, and gratitude for the privilege of knowing him. And affection, most of all affection.” — Daniel Guidera

*  “I just dug out my notebook from the summer of 2008, when I spent a few afternoons with Howard for a Journalism 300 profile assignment. In no particular order, here are some quotes:”

“You’ve got to read and understand the cultural forces that journalism comes from, the great traditions that it partakes of, the political and social philosophy and, at the center, good writing.””You’ve got to have the street experience — I don’t want to be an old fart but these days, people want to be journalists but they don’t want to walk the streets.”“We’re not social scientists; we’re writers and historians.”And, my personal favorite: “I like to say I was shot at three times in Chicago but only twice in Korea.” — S.P. Sullivan
Posted in Howard Ziff, Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence, Journalism Major | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 17

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

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

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

April 18:

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

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

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

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

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

April 19

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

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

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

Posted in Blogging, Business of Journalism, Future of Journalism, Howard Ziff, Howard Ziff Journalist-in-Residence, Mark Stencel, Multimedia | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why are we spending so much time ‘Measuring the Impact of Journalism?’

I love this question posed by Greg Linch in this month’s Carnival of Journalism.  Almost every newsroom these days is driven by the need/desire to generate pageviews.  The Washington Post’s newsroom receives hourly updates on what stories are trending in the “most popular” category. A recent New York Times article on the trials and tribulations of Marcus Brauchli noted that 35 reports a day track traffic to the site.

“Editors receive a midday performance alert, telling them whether the site is on track to meet its traffic goals for the day. If it appears that they might miss their goal, editors will order up fresher content,” notes the Jeremy W. Peters of The Times.

The Boston Globe’s newsroom has nice feature in it:  Three screens devoted to Twitter feeds — so reporters can see what is trending.  And, The Globe also has a major effort underway to find ways to get at audience through different methods thanks to their MediaLab operation

These efforts to generate pageviews; develop audience; get visitors to stay on the site longer — are not new.

Way way back in the early years of the Interwebs (pre-2000) I worked with one washingtonpost.com editor who was fond of photo galleries of animals.  Specifically, pandas.  Who doesn’t like a photo gallery with pandas?  Those of us at The Post at the time came up with the phrase:  “guaranteed pageview generator.”  There were a number of stories that we knew would generate pageviews — mostly celebrity news and anything with “Redskins” in the headline.

Did we become whores to the stories we knew would generate pageviews?  We tried not to.  The morning/afternoon/evening news meetings often became  battlegrounds where editors from each section fought hard for homepage space (back when homepage positioning mattered to pageview counts.)  But more often than not those arguments were fought on journalistic merit.

In 2002, I was the political editor at the site and spent months with my team building a package for the 2002 Election coverage.  It was a fairly involved effort with more than a dozen people involved. And, it was a fairly important election.  It was the first election since the 9/11 terror attacks and the first real test for George W. Bush after he won the contested 2000 election.

Most of the homepage the morning after Election Day was devoted to a major interactive feature we had developed which we dubbed Election Explorer. It was mapping before its time — giving state-by-state breakdowns.  We knew people would come to the site looking for results and analysis — we figured we would get a decent amount of pageviews.

Then, in the late morning, as the election coverage dominated the homepage, news broke that Winona Ryder had been convicted on two counts of shoplifting.  Despite my many pleas, the decision was made to blow up the beautifully designed page featuring election coverage to make way for the Winona news.  Several staffers, dismayed with the move to prioritize celebrity news over real news, were spurred to leave a few months later.

It’s only gotten worse….

Pick your story. Brangelina.  Justin Bieber.  American Idol.  The top “search” on The Post’s Web site right now is Mega Millions (the jackpot is $640 million but is this “news?”)

There has always been this push/pull relationship.  Do reporters and editors give readers/viewers/users what they want or what we as journalists feel they  need/should want?  (See: previous election coverage reference.)

Journalism used to be about finding that balance — trying to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Today, it seems more like we’ve become whores to the pageview count.

Perhaps we all need to remember that the true “impact of journalism” rests with the impact we have on people’s lives.  Have we given readers/viewers an amazing piece of writing or video that makes them appreciate parts of their life more?  Have we created an “Oh, wow” moment for readers/viewer?  Have we expanded someone’s universe?  Isn’t that why we got into this business?  Isn’t that what journalism has always done?

Perhaps the real question should be: “Why are we spending so much time measuring the “impact” of journalism?”  Because, it really isn’t quantifiable now, is it?

Posted in Carnival of Journalism, Web journalism | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Carnival of Journalism: Journalists as Capitalists

Haven’t we spent enough time asking what journalists can and can’t do?

Haven’t we spent enough time asking what the definition of journalism is?

Seriously, enough already.

When I saw this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt from Michael Rosenblum, I appreciated the passion with which he challenged the traditional definitions of journalism (haven’t we all been there?) I especially appreciated the challenges to the dinosaurs’ belief that journalists should not be out there thinking about making money:

“Making money is no crime. In fact, it is the ulimate good. With money you can do stuff.  Without it, you are the perpetual victim and the perpetual employee, which is what most journalists are.  And that is crazy.”

Indeed.  Enough already.

Rosenblum cites Jeff Jarvis as the leading educator out there in the Entrepreneurial Journalism movement.  Indeed, but Jeff is not the only one.  My colleague BJ Roche teachers an Entrepreneurial Journalism course here at UMass, and like Jarvis, we are looking to expand our offerings.

Some will succeed.  Some will try and fail.  As the David ‘The Rad One’ Cohn has said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “experimentation is good.”   I tell my students that anyone who tells them anything is not possible in journalism today is “full of crap and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Seriously, enough already.

Students and entrepreneurs are the wave of the future of journalism.  Let’s stop trying to put the profession in a box.

I’ve spent years trying to convince old-school professionals and educators about the positive direction of the profession.  But, at some point we all have to say enough already and move on.

Can journalists make good capitalists?  Sure.  Why not?

Enough already.

Posted in Business of Journalism, Carnival of Journalism, Entrepreneurial Journalism, Future of Journalism, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments