Monthly Archives: January 2009

7 journalism-related things you may not know about me

I intend to always keep this blog on-topic. I created a side blog in case I felt the need to write about non-journalism stuff, though I haven’t been good about writing in it.

But I’ve been tagged by Sara Bozich to participate in this trendy meme, and I planned to ignore it. Then I thought: Why not keep it on-topic, but still let you all learn a little more about your beloved author?

So here are seven journalism-related things you may not know about me:

1) My passion for journalism was ignited when a news article I wrote for my high school newspaper was censored. It was about condom distribution in schools, and our principal decided that it and another story about birth control options were inappropriate for the audience. Some brought the paper home, and it would be read by smaller children, he argued.

In the process of a lengthy and painful back-and-forth with the school administration, I did a lot of research and thinking about the value of journalism. I wrote a research paper about the chilling effect of the Hazelwood court case on high school journalists (that was the first Web site I ever made, so forgive the crappiness). I learned why journalism matters.

2) At the same time, my high school newspaper was really freaking good. During my senior year we were named the Most Outstanding Newspaper for 2002 by the American Scholastic Press Association. Our state association graded us at 985/1000 (and 5 of those points were deducted because of a printing problem that wasn’t our fault, and I remember disputing the other two deductions, too). One judge wrote that “There is nothing I can think of to improve this paper.”

3) At Penn State, I was widely known as “Dan the Fan.” I wrote a weekly column for Blue, a youth tabloid produced by the Centre Daily Times that was geared toward college students, from the passionate perspective of a blue-blooded football and basketball fan. It was occasionally good, occasionally juvenile. I’m really not too proud of it. The many, many times I had a blank Word document staring at me an hour before deadline made me realize I’m not cut out to be a columnist. I couldn’t keep up with my own demand to be proud of everything I put my name on every single week.

4) I’m very, very critical of my own writing. Whenever I read a story the next morning I usually find a few things that I wish I would have done differently, and this causes me to rarely read my story the next morning. This also makes it very difficult to choose my best clips, because I dwell on that which I could have done better rather than that which I had done well.

5) To counter that negativity: Since I started at The Patriot-News in May 2006, I’ve had the most A1 stories of any reporter on staff outside of the D.C. and Capitol bureaus. Seeing my byline on the front page, unless it’s a story I really like, hasn’t carried any feeling for me in a long time.

6) The most fun I’ve ever had on assignment came during my internship for The Wichita Eagle when I had the honor of chasing tornadoes with staff photographer Travis Heying. We dangerously sped through unmarked country roads and slammed on the brakes when we ended up on a road that was full of cows. The grave disappointment was that I didn’t actually get to see a tornado land — it was forecast to be one of the bigger storms in years, and ended up being very tame — but chasing the clouds that looked like they’d develop into tornadoes was an adrenaline junkie’s dream.

7) I have the second-messiest desk at The Patriot-News, behind only John Luciew, who is running away with the title. I usually have a large stack of newspapers, way too many notebooks, as many as a dozen bottled waters or other soda bottles, a little Dilbert guy, and several Philadelphia and Penn State bobbleheads, including a hilariously misspelled “Donavan McNabb.” The best thing on the wall is easily the New York Post cover featuring a crying little Mets fan from the peak of their wonderful 2007 collapse.

Visual evidence:

Cleaner than usual

Cleaner than usual

How I want to redefine my role, and the reader’s role, in the newspaper

Once the equipment arrives, I’ll be starting in a new position at The Patriot-News as a mobile journalist, or mojo.

What that means is, correctly, still to be determined. We do know it’ll involve video, still photography, print stories and a lot of updates for the Web. We know I’ll have a laptop and an aircard, will file most of my stories from my car and coffee shops, and will aim to be in the office as little as possible.

What we don’t know is exactly what stories I’ll be covering. I’ll be one of three mojos, and the other two will focus more on being first responders to fires, shootings and other cops-related happenings.

Which leaves an interesting question: What exactly is my role going to be? Why am I better off as a mojo instead of going back to the newsroom in a more traditional role?

To me, the opportunity to take this blank piece of paper and figure out the answer is tremendously exciting. It’s an opportunity to discover a more efficient reporting model that pumps great stories into the print edition, while simultaneously feeding my need to discover building blocks to future news models.

And I think I’ve got an idea that will do both.

If I can sell my editors on the concept, I would be the author and community manager of a new blog. My stated goal will be to have at least one originally reported story per day, usually some combination of text, photography and video. Sometimes it’ll be a three-minute video with 200-word text, sometimes it could be a great photo with 800-word text.

The stories I’m looking for are next-door slices of life that are usually the first to go because of shrinking staffs. A new museum exhibit, an innovative classroom project, a personality profile, a soup kitchen gearing up for a busy time, a little-known hiking trail, a new business opening, etc.

If you check this new blog every day, you will always learn about one new wrinkle in your community. That’s a wonderful promise for a news site to make.

That’s the content. But the fun part is who decides what that content will be.

Every day I’ll solicit story ideas from my readers via comments on the blog. At the end of the day, I’ll post their story ideas in poll form, and my readers will vote on which one they want me to cover tomorrow. And that’s the one I’ll do.

I’ll no longer have an assignment editor. The collective community will be my assignment editor. What a strange concept: Asking our readers what stories they want, then giving it to them! Yes, we’d maintain veto power for outlandish stories (write about why councilman Jones sux!!!) and needs of the newsroom (if no one’s around to cover a court case), but we’d try to limit that as much as possible.

By forcing myself to write one story per day, I’m creating a reliable pipeline of stories that can be repurposed for the print product (this is where you should pay attention, my skeptical editors). No matter how cool it may be on the Web, and whether or not it succeeds in being an important step in our future, at the very least it’s producing a lot of stories for print in an efficient way.

I could also produce some great long-term enterprise through this, while packaging it in a completely new way. I think of a story I did last year in which I occasionally followed a four-year-old around for six months while I documented her transition to a new school. What if I took a video each time, wrote a short story each time, teased to the long-form print story that would eventually come each time? It’d be great to watch the process, and would build a lot of anticipation for the final project.

As for the form of the blog: Very conversational, with a persistent focus on cultivating user participation. Lots of voice, personality, maybe even wit if I’m lucky. Every day I would also offer a bevy of links: The day’s best content from The Patriot-News, interesting posts from local bloggers, thought-provoking material from around the Web, maybe even some funny videos. It would rely on a totally new skill set for journalists, one in which I practiced somewhat at my now-defunct Ning site, the Hershey Home. It’s a skill set I’d love to have a part in figuring out and teaching to other journalists.

For the reader, it’s an unprecedented amount of access to the pages of The Patriot-News. If you called up now and told an editor about the science project your child is doing, you probably wouldn’t get very far. Make that same pitch to the readers of this blog, and make it a convincing argument, and that project will be in the paper. It could be a rewarding feeling to think that you’re actually playing a legitimate part in the news.

For journalism’s future, the goal of this blog will be to foster a self-sustaining, invested community around it. We’ll implement rules aimed on creating that culture (which could be several blog posts in itself), both through the level of conversation and making clear what kind of story pitches we’re looking for.

Community-building is a skill we must, must, must master in many forms, and we’re not spending enough time practicing it. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s the kind of trial balloon we need to be sending out, and it comes at little to no cost.

I have my own reservations about the idea, of course, but I’d really like to hear what you all think. if you’ve heard of similar ideas at other papers, if you have any recommendations for improvement, if you’ve found any trouble spots, etc., anything would be appreciated. I’d like to allow for a day or two of comments before I e-mail a link to this entry to my editors, so your feedback could be very valuable.

UPDATE 1: I forgot to make one important point: By virtue of me taking my time to do these slice-of-life stories, that allows all the other reporters to pass their slice-of-life stories off to me and opens up time for them to do the meaty enterprise that we really need to be producing.

UPDATE 2: Wondering if it would be a trademark infringement to use the tagline: “You Decide. We Report.”

UPDATE 3: Jeff McCloud makes an important point in the comments section about ceding editorial control. He writes:

I like the idea. I just wouldn’t want to be framed in to always writing what the majority of your blog readers want. I think you need to reserve your news judgment for yourself and your editors. Of course, the rub is in the balance of that and making readers happy to know they are participating. The rub is also in making sure that readers feel they don’t “own” you and your assignments.

And I respond:

Jeff, your point about reserving news judgment is an important one and probably the trickiest thing to balance here. I think that’s likely to be developed as the process goes along. My feeling, though, is that editorial judgment is best exercised not by yanking control from the readers after it’s promised to them, but by story placement in the physical newspaper. If my readers led me to a great story, editors will see that and put it on A1. Total waste of time, and it’s relegated to B10. I just fear nullifying the entire concept if we say “You have total control…unless we don’t like your idea.” That’s kind of what the current model says.

Now if it turns out all the story ideas are bad, bad, bad, we’ll re-evaluate. As of now, I’ve got faith in the readers.

UPDATE 4: Colin Lenton weighs in via Twitter:

@bydanielvictor nice that youre excited for new role, but why do the work of 3 by yourself? won’t you diminish quality by doing too much?

And I respond:

@colinmlenton Time is probably 2nd-biggest concern. I don’t think it has to be the work of 3, though. I’ll know if I’m stretching too thin.

Colin also expanded his thoughts in the comments section, wondering whether this is the best use of staff time.

UPDATE 5: Via the comments, Daniel Klotz wonders:

I’d like to know more about how you would plan to handle more “hard news,” political, and investigative stories. You’ll get people asking you to report on things they believe are under-reported, and often those stories have a (local) political bent. How will you proceed if that’s what you’re given, rather than a more human-interest topic?

So I say:

I think my moderation skills will have to make it clear that it’s not what we’re looking for. I anticipate cutting-and-pasting the same kind of disclaimer on each entry, clearly stating the purpose of what I’m doing and what stories we’re searching for. And if I’m going to put it in poll form, there’s a little bit of active selection involved on my end.

UPDATE 6: I’ve had to work on some of those pesky newspaper stories today, so I haven’t had a chance to go through most of today’s comments to respond or highlight them. But Meranda Watling offers this interesting idea via Gmail chat:

I can’t remember if I read it somewhere or someone told me but I remember hearing about an editor who would hold office hours kind of at a local cafe.

You could try something like that as a complement.
Posting well you’ll be in certain areas and encouraging readers to come visit, tip you off to ideas.

How to promote the local music scene and deliver killer content to your news site

(Alert: This idea went from light bulb to blog post in less than an hour. I reserve the right to re-examine this post tomorrow and realize that it was a terrible idea. And let’s be clear: This is just an idea, not an actual unveiling of a new Web site feature.)

The best newspaper stories are inspirational. Maybe a profile inspires hope, maybe an investigative piece inspires outrage, maybe a feature inspires goodwill.

What if a newspaper story inspired music?

What if the news site encouraged its stories to inspire music?

The plan: You’re a local musician. You read our newspaper or news site. You write a song inspired by or in response to a local story. You upload your song to YouTube or to us. We give you prominent space on our Web site to get your name and your sound in front of a much wider audience than your MySpace page.

Obviously, there would be rules. No profanity. Just like in comments below stories, no personal attacks or slanderous material. Keep it about local or state issues.

We don’t care what kind of song it is. Punk band, singer/songwriter, high school a cappella quartet, marching band, bongo player, whatever.

We don’t care how you make your song. Play your guitar in front of your Web cam, have your friend hold a digital camera, have it professionally produced, make a music video, whatever.

We don’t care if you send in audio or video.

We don’t care what opinion you’re offering.

For the artists, it’s a great opportunity for exposure. We could include links to band sites, if they have them.

For the news site, it’s incredibly unique, interesting content provided with almost no staff input. And it’s the kind of participatory activity and user-generated goodness that readers need to associate with our site, not to mention improving our role as a leader in our community.

What do you think? Totally crazy, or just a little bit crazy?

UPDATE: Two interesting responses worth highlighting.

On Twitter, Elaine Helm sends:

I like your idea for news-inspired music. Might be hard to sustain. Would be easier to organize around an event or isue. … Could be a creative way to get people interested in news, not unlike Daily Show or Uncle Jay.

Sustainability would definitely be a problem. We’d have to have some stats ready to give to the bands to show them how many people listened to them, to hopefully incentivize them to do it again and keep the momentum going.

The point about getting people interested in news is an important one. Crazy to think that reading the news could lead to something fun.

Via the comments, Shawn Farner adds:

I have mixed feelings. :) On one hand, I’d totally watch it. On the other hand, it’s taking a source for news, a source you hope readers respect, and turning it into a sort of variety show.

It’s an interesting point and one that would certainly have a lot of people concerned. This content would have to be very clearly introduced so readers know it isn’t the usual content The Patriot-News produces.

Otherwise, though, I don’t see a problem with the newspaper occasionally untucking its shirt. I’d argue we’d have a more compelling, more human product if it happened more often.