Monthly Archives: July 2008

How to turn an inside brief into a front page centerpiece

Front page of The Patriot-News, 07/24/08It was the kind of press release every reporter hates getting: The dreaded check presentation. You’re almost tempted to cover it, but you know it’s only considered news if you’re lazy or desperately need to fill space. I was neither, and backed by an editor who similarly hates canned press conferences, I decided to ignore the check presentation to announce federal assistance for a new parking center in Hershey, Pa. Check presentations aren’t news.

That said, my editor and I agreed that the parking center was an important topic, even if it was hang-me-please boring. So I set out to update the project’s progress, likely to land inside the local section, maybe sneaking out to the section’s front if it got lucky.

This is the first spot where a reporter can choose to elevate a story higher than your editors might initially think it belongs.

Instead of a simple and hang-me-please boring update on where the project has gone, I wanted to focus on where this new parking center could fit in the area’s long-range plans, especially when it comes to public transportation.

I called the usual suspects: A township official who offered an insightful interview. The director of the bus company to discuss how it could fit into future schedules as a park-and-ride, and how much ridership statistics have increased. An out-of-town public transportation activist to pontificate on why the Hershey community has a lot of potential for bus and rail traffic.

Since we came into this story with low expectations, I likely could have stopped here, written the usual 12 inches and moved on to work on a story everyone liked better.

But I decided to act on a hunch and take a round trip on the bus around the time professionals would be going home from Harrisburg to Hershey. These are the people everyone had been speaking about attracting, and no one — myself, my editors, the bus company officials, the locals I asked on Twitter — really knew  whether or not they existed. It was a pure fishing expedition.

And it ended up better than I could have ever imagined. I spoke to a large group of regulars who passed out cookies and sang carols at Christmas time, went out for drinks together on Friday, spoke glowingly about how much money they were saving, and were even thinking of starting a bocce team together. It was a fantastic human story that most people would be surprised to read about. And they even offered support to the idea that their group is indeed growing.

So now the story has evolved:

Check presentation –> Project update –> Look ahead at regional public transportation –> The revelation of a money-saving subculture

And the final product got to incorporate all that project updating and looking ahead that we set out to do.

For young reporters or interns who are gunning for the front page and struggling to make it there, it requires an open mind and a willingness to occasionally go on that fishing expedition. Even the most mundane check presentation can become front page material with a bit of luck and elbow grease.

More good advice here from Hilary Lehman, an intern in San Antonio.

Ideas, not status, will win at Journalism.me

As much as I want to write more about journalism and less about journalism bloggers, Journalism.me deserves some attention.

It’s a simple blog aggregator that takes most of my favorite journalism bloggers and condenses them into a single RSS feed. And yes, it is a full feed, not a partial feed.

The true brilliance of the aggregator didn’t reveal itself until after I plopped it in my Google Reader. At first, I was annoyed to see that the author of each post wouldn’t show up.

Then I thought: Wow, I love that the author of each post doesn’t show up. I love that a journalism student will have the exact same amount of preset clout as someone who’s been writing about online journalism since he first dialed up on Prodigy.

I love that good ideas will rise to the top on their own, and no one will have to achieve any kind of status to have those ideas considered. That was my main contention with the original incarnation of Dave Lee’s bashing together of young journalism heads, when he wrote that a proposed ring of twenty-something bloggers would be invitation only. No me gusta. Barriers to entry will only turn up the volume on the echo chamber.

Journalism.me chops out the promotion and personal branding and leaves only the idea. What a wonderful way to be objectively exposed to as many ideas as possible.

UPDATE 10:30 a.m.: I should have more clearly mentioned that Dave Lee has since decided to nix the invite-only idea. See the comments on this entry for details.

Why everyone should be ashamed of the infamous comment thread

If you haven’t yet read the comment thread on a recent entry by Tampa Tribune intern Jessica DaSilva, go do it now. There’s no better example of the emotionally charged internal battle that the newspaper industry is facing.

Seeing as I already expressed admiration for DaSilva’s blogging way before she suddenly became a celebrity, I’d certainly jump to DaSilva’s defense. She not only had the right to say what she did, she ought to be commended for being passionate enough to say it. We need passionate reformers more than anything.

But the comment thread is disheartening in more ways than I can count. Most obviously, those who didn’t like the entry went way overboard with the villainization, and I can only hope Jessica has learned that idiotic statements don’t mean a thing when you’re standing on solid ground.

Yet I find myself equally disturbed by the reaction on what you could call “my side,” the reformers seeking the best future for journalism. It was a blanket, unthinking defense of one of our own, no one seeming to acknowledge the blatantly obvious fact that the post was very much insensitive to those who lost their jobs. I haven’t heard a direct argument yet as to why those people’s feelings aren’t worthy of attention, or why it couldn’t have been made clearer that she understood the gravity of those losses. That part was missing from an otherwise fantastic post, and I can understand why its absence led to the reaction it got.

As it turns out, “my side” is every bit as guilty of bunkering itself off as the other side. We use labels like “curmudgeons” and “reactionaries” while not doing much to respectfully engage their arguments. Any time those kind of labels come into play, it’s a pretty clear signal to me that not much discussion is going to happen with the people who need to participate the most.

Jessica’s post was outstanding yet imperfect, which is no great offense since most everything is imperfect. I hope she’s holding her head as high as she deserves, because the point she was trying to make about the need for a plan was a good one.

The far greater problem is the distance between the people who read her post, and how few people are working to peacefully bridge the gap. And that includes “my side” with all of its counterproductive name-calling.

John Zhu had a great comment on an entry by Hilary Lehman:

The comments on Jessica’s blog show a definite split along age lines, with veterans mostly taking issue with her fawning over an editor who just laid off people and younger journalists mostly dismissing those criticisms as coming from dinosaurs despite not knowing any of the people who offered those criticisms. What’s more disturbing is that despite having almost 100 comments as of now, there is almost no substantive discussion of the actual criticisms. Instead of the two sides reaching across the battle line to discuss their viewpoints, they are pretty much just deepening the line in the sand, bunkering down in their respective corners, and trading verbal barbs. From that perspective, it seems that the “dinosaurs” and the “naive kids” are more alike than either would admit.

Unfortunately, that’s preceded by more ageism as someone else makes wild generalizations about twenty-somethings. Let’s not make age another battleground that we really don’t need.

Beatblogging.org recaps the Hershey Home

Pat Thornton’s interview with me, and his resulting recap, is up at Beatblogging.org. His conclusion: Sometimes a Ning network just doesn’t work.

I believe the experience of the Hershey Home is a valuable laboratory for other journalists, especially those outside of the big cities. This is why I love the beatblogging.org project — it’s real reporters trying out new methods, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. Both will benefit journalists who care to listen.

And here’s streaming audio of the interview, or you can download the mp3.

Five months later, reflections on Ning

At the end of the final June meeting of the Derry Twp. school board, I told a parent that I’d see her at the next meeting.

But until then, I enthusiastically said to the Hershey Home member, she should participate a lot on the Ning network!

“Ehh…” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

I half-smiled in acknowledgment, because it was hard for me to argue she should have a different reaction. Truth is, the online network I set up for parents and residents as part of the beatblogging.org project in February just hasn’t caught on with them.

Some raw numbers:

  • Of the 36 members, only 15 have written something in the discussion forum.
  • Of the 15 members who have posted, two of them wrote 35 messages apiece. The other 13 combined for 36 messages.
  • Of those 15, eight of them responded to just one or two topics.
  • Only five members started their own discussion topic.
  • About half have taken the time to fill out minimal profiles.
  • Just six have uploaded photos of themselves for an avatar.

There are six of what I’d call the “highly committed” members. These are people who have really bought into the idea in one form or another, either uploading their own photography, inviting friends to participate, contacting each other through the site, contributing to the discussion, etc.

But even among those six, only one or two of them are really into social media. One has her own blog and Twitter account (and I recently recruited another Twitter user who hasn’t yet participated in the site).

I had very high hopes coming into the beatblogging project, and in some ways I still do. This kind of network has exciting potential as a small-town community organizer, and I don’t intend to give up on the idea.

But the failure to launch of the Hershey Home has necessitated a new strategy that involves shifting my time and effort toward a new blog — and details will be provided in an upcoming post. But for now, a brief retrospective from my beatblogging experience so far.

WHAT WORKED WELL:

  • Though the network didn’t bear much fruit in terms of immediate translation to the print product, it did help create offline relationships that were very important. Contacting these people, either by phone or by e-mail or by messaging new members, meant I was able to make personal contact with 36 potential sources I might not have otherwise. A lot of public and private messages on the forum led to productive phone calls.
  • As I detailed in an earlier post, the site’s mere presence was an advertisement for my willingness and desire to hear from residents. I called it an “Open for Business” sign.
  • Due to my insistence that members use their full, real names, the quality of conversation was usually higher than some of the noxious forums that are used otherwise. The members often expressed appreciation for that.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL:

  • It hasn’t been the “Set it and forget it” reporting solution I hoped it might be. One time a big story broke, and I only had about two hours to gather community reaction. I took 20 very precious minutes to pull into the Panera Bread parking lot to use the wifi and solicit reaction on the site. I e-mailed all the members to let them know of my desire to hear from them. When I came back two hours later to see the mountain of riches that had come in, there wasn’t a single message in response. I ended up just calling one of the members.
  • In a community with very little activity on social networking sites, it was difficult to find a full buy-in to the concept.
  • The site did nothing to overcome what residents have repeatedly called a “culture of fear” when it comes to criticizing local officials. So in some of the most contentious and important issues, the ability to be anonymous elsewhere redirected traffic to those other forums.

Since this is getting a little long, I’ll split this up. Coming soon: Where the beatblogging project goes from here, and lessons to be learned for small-town journalism and networking.