Telling high school students there really is hope in journalism

 

(Thanks to Bryan Calabro at The Wilkes Beacon for the video)

I was lucky to speak to high school journalists this morning as part of  the 2011 Tom Bigler High School Journalism Conference at Wilkes University. Its theme was the “future of journalism,” so I aimed to show that there really are a lot of reasons for optimism. I wanted to counter the doom-and-gloom voices they’ve probably been hearing loud and clear.

When I started the speech, I asked my Twitter followers to give them a 140-character reason to pursue journalism as a career. Here are the inspiring results of that, along with the text of my speech.

And here’s the full text of my speech, which is an overview of my reasons for optimism. This isn’t word-for-word…there were, of course, some ad-libs.

I’m really happy and honored to be here. I have a huge soft spot for the high school press, as the most fun I’ve ever had in journalism was working for my high school newspaper in State College, the Lions’ Digest. I got to be editor in chief my senior year, at a time when the state was trying to rip away some of our rights as student journalists, and I was happy to be part of the fight against it. I really, really believe that what you’re all doing is extremely valuable, and the world needs people who love reporting.

The funny thing is I actually didn’t like my freshman year journalism class. I wasn’t going to sign up my sophomore year, but I ended up sticking with it really for the same reason anyone does anything: And that is, of course, a girl. There was this really cute girl who really wanted me to stay on staff, so…you know. Gotta do what you gotta do. We actually dated for a week, and then she dumped me for my best friend…but I’m totally over it now. I ended up loving working for the newspaper my last three years in school, so it all worked out.

And it has really worked out for me. I can’t tell you enough how much I’ve loved being in journalism, from my first four years as a newspaper reporter to my more web-based role now. And the exhilarating thing about it is that the industry looks so different now than when I started professionally in 2006, and even more so than when I graduated from high school in 2002. To give you an idea, no high school newspapers in the state had a website when I graduated from high school. When I graduated from college in 2006, there were very few newspaper reporters that actually had a blog on their newspaper websites. I billed myself as a web guru to land my first job at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and really all I knew how to do was throw a few links into a blog post and write in a conversational tone. Now, you wouldn’t be able to bill yourself as a web guru unless you know lots of programming languages, can edit videos, know how to work with databases, and can build a Twitter following of several thousand people. If you’re a thrill-seeker, you have to love the idea that we have no idea what you all will be expected to do when you graduate from college, and that you’ll be part of the generation to determine that.

Now you’ll notice that I said that’s exhilarating and thrilling. Those are definitely not the words a lot of others are using, though. A lot of journalists are using words like frightening or depressing. It’s all very scary. They seem to think that everything new replaces something old. And to an extent, they’ve got a point. Yes, every classmate you have who gets his or her news on an iPad is unlikely to ever be a newspaper subscriber. Yes, when we dedicate another staff member to the web, that might be one less copy editor for the print publication.

But not everything new replaces something old. That, more than anything, is what I want you all to understand here today, that as journalists who take our craft every bit as seriously as the inspiring print, television and radio journalists of generations before us, we can accomplish things using the online medium that the generations before us never could. We can produce better journalism that makes our readers feel like they’re part of the news process. We can give voice to more people than ever before. We can hold ourselves, the journalists, to even higher standards of accuracy and accountability to our readers. Basically, we can create smarter readers, and we can better connect communities. All of the core reasons that any of us go into journalism, all of the lofty goals we have, the web can enhance them instead of detract from them. And in doing all of that, we will refuse to compromise on the ethical standards and professionalism that prior generations have always held themselves to. If anyone tells me that the web is taking something away from journalism, I’ll point to three things that it’s adding.

I’m going to show you a graphic here that really changed how I look at the journalistic process. (Editor’s note: At this point I show them the graphics in this entry.) What you’re looking at is when journalists and readers are active in a story. In that top left quadrant, you see the reporter working behind the scenes, gathering up some facts. The public doesn’t know what that reporter’s up to, until finally on publication day you open your newspaper or click over to the blog and see the story. It just appears before you. At that point, the reporter backs out, and then the readers start discussing it. It used to be discussed just around water coolers and dinner tables, and now online you add in comment threads and other websites. People discuss what it all means and what it can teach them…or, if it’s a comment thread, they discuss who among the other commenters is the biggest idiot, and who’s the most racist. This is how it’s been done since the invention of the printing press.

Here’s how I want you to re-imagine it. Imagine if those other two quadrants were filled in. Imagine if the public were fully involved in the newsgathering, helping the reporter find the best sources and offering their own experience to the story. Instead of just one lonely reporter seeking the right people to talk to, the entire community is lending their help to the story. Then, after publication, the reporter leads the discussion that follows. Instead of people simply shouting at each other, really talking past each other and not having a very productive conversation, the reporter keeps people on track, and uses his or her expertise to dispel any misinformation people are repeating. Everyone wins in this…the reporter is able to gather better and more complete information before publication, and the discussion that follows is of a higher quality. Let me give you an example to show you how it looks in real life.

In mid-January of this year, I decided to write a big story that would be published on Valentine’s Day about dating in D.C. (By the way, even though that’s the second time dating has come up, I promise I didn’t choose journalism for dating purposes. There are far better reasons to go into journalism. Although I do have to say it does mean you always have interesting stories to tell at parties so you become pretty popular. People say oooh, you’re a journalist. That is a nice perk. But do not choose journalism to impress women or men. There, I said it, I’m on the record. But anyways, back to the less fun stuff.) So a month away from Valentine’s Day, I decide to write this story. My initial thought looked like that first picture I showed you: I’m going to do a month’s worth of interviews, then have a really killer story on Valentine’s Day. It’s gonna be great.

Then I realized it was all wrong, and I started thinking like that second picture. Let’s rethink how this is going to look. The very first interview I did was with a prolific dating blogger, a young woman who had gone on over 50 dates in the past year and written about them in a pretty hilarious way. We met up at a bar, I interviewed her for about an hour about her experience and her insight on dating in D.C., and I went back to the office and wrote up a story based on just that interview. It basically became a stand-alone profile of her and her blog. So we published that story, in what would have originally been about this spot on the graph (pointing to the left side). But I wanted to fill in down here, too, so I asked the readers to submit their tips for first-date etiquette. Does the guy pay for the meal? What kind of place do you choose? What topics are off-limits? That kind of fun stuff. But at the same time, I ended it with a call to help out with the next element of the story, which was online dating. Here’s the graf I wrote for the top of the story:

(This is the first in a month-long series about dating in D.C. For ways you can contribute, please see the bottom of the story.)

Getting people to read to the bottom…tricky, huh? Then, at the end of it, I had this:

This is the beginning of a month-long project about dating in D.C. The next story will be about online dating, and we’re in search of success stories and horror stories from D.C.-area daters. Please get in touch with us if you know of some good or bad examples.

So along with publishing this story, it was a call to action for our readers. I was leading how they could discuss this entry, while also telling them how they can contribute to one that hasn’t been published yet. Once I did that, I got over a dozen e-mails from online daters. I used several of the stories they offered me for my next story, and in fact got so many great stories that I wrote a story that was just a compilation of their stories. If I hadn’t asked my readers for them, I never would have been able to share them with everyone else. Everyone wins.

So this continued the whole way to February 14. I wrote about speed dating, and asked for speed dating experiences. I wrote about a conference of pickup artists, which believe it or not is a real thing, and asked what people thought about their tactics. Each time I did an interview I wrote a story, was active in the conversation that followed, and asked for help in the next step. By the time Feburary 14 rolled around, my readers had already been taken through most everything I had to offer, so at that point I was able to simply summarize it all, and boil it down to one story that tied everything together and looked for common threads and greater insight. I was happy because my readers made my stories better, we had great discussions about all of them, and they got great traffic. My bosses were happy because they got great traffic.

Now let’s go back to that original graph I showed you. What would have happened if I had published this in the traditional way? First of all, I wrote probably 7,000 words when you combine it all together, so it would have been way too long. No one would have made It through the whole thing. Secondly, instead of having seven or eight different publication dates, and thus chances to get traffic and chances to place advertising to make us money, you would only have one. And if it didn’t get much viral attention that particular day, all of that effort would have been wasted. Spreading it out over all of those days made the journalistic product better, and it made more business sense. It also got the readers more involved, making it a richer, more rewarding experience for them.

This idea of a genuine give-and-take with readers, not just a meaningless “tell us what you think!” that is really just a space-filler and a half-hearted attempt at engaging readers, is the direction you will see all journalistic content going. And more importantly, this is the kind of shift our readers are going to expect. I’m talking about an expectation from our readers that they be able to contribute to stories. They’re increasingly going to demand it, and they’ll increasingly be disappointed when they consume media that doesn’t let them interact with it. Let me ask you: How often have you read a story online about something you’re passionate about, and you can plainly see that some writer mangled some facts that you know to be false? Doesn’t it just burn you up? I’m a Phillies fan, and I see that kind of thing all the time. I’ll read a story and say “Wait a minute, Jimmy Rollins hit .280 that year, not .260! This is all wrong.”  Well, now you can tell the author just by leaving a comment, and if he or she is any good there will be a correction within minutes. Either that, or all of the other readers of that story will see your comment, and they’ll have gotten the correct information directly from you. In that situation, you’re offering your knowledge to the benefit of everyone else in the community, and they’re all better off because you took the time to write it.

We can extend that idea to the very core of beat reporting. For two and a half years I covered the town of Hershey while I worked for The Patriot-News, and one of the toughest things for a new reporter to do on a new beat is getting up to speed on all of the background information and history of that beat. When you start a new beat, you might show up to a meeting about a new development that’s really the sixth time they’ve discussed that particular development, and your story won’t be complete unless you know what happened at the previous five meetings. That’s a really tough task for a new reporter to do.

So how have reporters traditionally gained that background knowledge? They shake a lot of trees. They talk to elected officials who have been there a long time, they talk to those few residents that always attend the meetings, they talk to any reliable people who are personally connected to your topic. A lot of times they develop sources who aren’t officially connected, like the parent who has closely watched the school board for years and knows about the backroom politics that the school board members wouldn’t themselves volunteer. This takes a long time, and it’s exhausting, but necessary.

But even if you had been on the beat for 20 years, even if you attended every meeting in that time, you will never accumulate as much knowledge as the collective knowledge of your readers. Put another way, no matter how well you know your high school, no matter who you know there, if you pool together everything that every student in your high school knows, it absolutely blows you out of the water. You only know a fraction of what the entire student body knows, no matter how well-connected and smart you are.

What most of us do now as reporters is nibble at that collective knowledge. We interview one person here or there who we think has a lot to say on the matter. We do the occasional “What do you think?”  feature with randomly selected participants. When we get everyday people’s opinions in the story, we tend to pick two or three people to give their take, even though there are hundreds of different takes that could be possible. We are scratching the surface of everything that is out there.

You should look at this and think: This is a huge opportunity. This is the future. This is how I’m going to separate myself. If you’re the one who can best utilize that massive knowledge pool, and draw out the best knowledge, you’re going to be the most valuable journalist around, and your reporting will be better than everyone else’s. You can actually take in more information than you’d ever need, but present only the very best information to your readers. Trust me when I say that having too much good information is a wonderful, wonderful problem to have. It ensures that you’ve found the best information possible, and you’re not leaving any good stuff uncovered.

Going back to when I covered Hershey for The Patriot-News, at the time I realized I needed more background information in my stories. Not only that, I needed guidance on who the best people were to talk to. So I tried to make my readers part of my newsgathering process from the beginning to the end. I set up a small social network, think of a mini-Facebook, just for Hershey residents. They had to sign up using their real names, and I would tell them what story I was working on for tomorrow’s newspaper, and I just asked them: Do you know anyone I should talk to for this story? Is there something that happened in the past that I should be aware of? Is there an angle to this story I maybe haven’t considered? They  didn’t always respond to every request, but the key here is that they could if they wanted to. I don’t notice something wrong in every Phillies story I read, but when I notice they have the wrong batting average for Jimmy Rollins, by gum I’m going to jump at it. It’s the same thing here: Maybe if I’m a Hershey resident I don’t know anything about this issue, but when it comes to traffic problems on my street, hoo boy I’ve got a lot to say. Most people aren’t going to call up some reporter they’ve never met and volunteer this information…they’ll just shake their head over their breakfast table and wonder why the newspaper is so out of touch. But if you use the Internet to make yourself available to these people, you might realize that they’re very willing to help you.

So it comes down to a willingness to work with other people. It means seeing your readers not just as the idiots who yell at you in comment threads or who for some reason just don’t understand your genius…you have to see your readers as an untapped resource for you. Now you probably don’t deal with competition much at your high school papers, but soon you’ll want to think about collaborating with your competitors, too. At TBD, the web site I worked for until recently, we regularly linked to our biggest competition, including the Washington Post. If they beat us on a story, we’d give the Post a big headline on our home page, and we’d send our readers directly there. To a lot of people, that sounds totally insane. Why would we admit to our readers that we missed a story, and tell them that they could get what they want at our competitor instead?

And the answer is: Think about it. You came to TBD.com, wondering why there were sirens in your neighborhood. You found that answer. We didn’t personally report it, but when you came to our website, you found that answer. Maybe the next time there are sirens on your block the NBC station will have it instead of the Post. And guess what? TBD will link to them, too. So once again, you went to TBD.com, and you found what you were looking for. We’re building the reputation: If there are sirens on your block, if you go to TBD.com you will get the answers you want. If you go to the Post or NBC, you only found out what happened one of those two times. TBD, by linking to other news outlets, got you your answer both times. If that’s the case, I’m going to start with TBD because I know I’m guaranteed to get the right information.

You can call it “link journalism,” and it’s the idea that you, as a journalist, are responsible for helping your readers find the best possible information, even if that takes a reader away from your site. And there are two main ways it can help. First of all, you have examples like I listed there from TBD: By linking to other news sites, we’re helping our readers get the information they want. Really, that’s exactly what all reporting is, right? Getting readers information they want? It’s really just a new way of thinking about what we’ve always done.

But there’s another important part of it, and that’s what you’ve learned in math class: Showing your work. Here’s an example: Just a few days ago, AP reported that GE was going to pay the government $3.2 billion because they had skipped out on their taxes and were taking a public relations hit for it. As it turns out, it was a giant hoax, not even a little bit true. AP fell for it because they had been sent a link to a website with a fake press release. Now others have since read the press release, and it’s very clearly fake. Well, if AP had simply linked to the press release that they were misled by, readers could have seen themselves that something was wrong, instead of waiting for AP to learn it themselves. They would have clicked the link, seen that it was fake, and known not to trust the story.

In another example: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently reported that juvenile prostitution has risen 55 percent in the past six months…which would be scary if it were true. But a competing publication has thoroughly debunked the statistic, proving that it had lousy methodology. If the Star-Tribune had linked to that study, people could have seen itself that it was junk science. Instead, it’s simply attributed to a survey that readers can’t look into without extensive searching on their part.

So linking to your source material not only gives readers more information, but it also keeps you honest as a reporter. If you’re writing about a press release or a study, and you know your readers can easily read the same thing themselves, you’re going to make dang sure you get every detail right. If your readers can’t do that, it would be much harder for them to call you out if something is wrong.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m really trying to drill you with something here: Our readers are smart. They’re not the idiots they might seem if you only read newspaper website comment threads. Our readers want to participate. Our readers want better information and they know that the one-way nature of print, television and radio won’t suffice. They’re tired of us standing from atop our mountains, or our printing presses, and dictating the news to them. They feel like they should be equals in that process…and they’re absolutely right. So in that way, the future of news is as much about readers changing their behavior as it is journalists changing ours. We just have to position ourselves to allow them to do so, and once we do that we will together create a much better product.

At the same time, in the face of all that optimism, there’s obviously an elephant in the room.  And he isn’t even trying to blend in…he’s inviting his elephant friends over, blasting the stereo loud, refusing to leave even though we’ve asked really nicely…I mean, he’s just being a jerk. I hate that elephant. God. I’m talking, you might have guessed, about the business model for all of this. How are we going to make money on the web when right now, most of the money for newspaper organizations comes from newspaper advertising, and television and radio websites still survive by the on-air commercials? As professional journalists, are we supposed to live in poverty just so we can do what we love to do? When you’re picking a college, can you really choose to major in journalism when you’re smart enough to be an economist and are likely to make a heck of a lot more money doing that?

The answer to those questions requires a lot of imagination, which unfortunately is something we’ve been lacking in the journalism industry. That’s why we need you. Now truth be told, there are some good ideas out there that people are working on. There is an enormous opportunity in mobile advertising…imagine getting your phone out in a strange city and saying “This is where I am, I’m at 16th and Market…where should I eat?” and getting specials sent to you from every restaurant within four blocks. Those restaurants would love to pay for that, knowing how good of a chance there is you’d walk right over to them. Some companies are getting really creative with how they serve ads on the website. A site called Spot.us has journalists pitch stories, then readers make small donations if they want that journalist to write it. And there are a lot of newspaper sites experimenting with paywalls right now, asking the consumer to pay for what they’re reading online. Some of these will work, some of them won’t. There will be other ways to make money that have yet to be tried. But I do believe 100 percent that the profession of journalism isn’t going anywhere, even if it looks a lot different by the time you graduate. The journalism skills you’re building aren’t just valuable, they’re essential.

People ask me all the time whether I’d advise students to go into journalism. They joke with me: Tell them all to go into law school. Tell them to run away. Tell them there are better-looking people in advertising. Well, I happen to completely disagree with them. Not about the better-looking people thing…that is 100 percent true. But I absolutely think you should go into journalism. That said, that carries a heavy, heavy caveat: You should go into journalism IF you cannot possibly envision yourself doing anything else. You should go into journalism if you feel like cosmically you have no choice…you were just destined to do this. If you don’t feel that way, if you’re at all uncertain, then those other people are right. You should run. You should go to fields that are more stable with better-looking people. Journalism is an uncertain place right now, and there are far safer bets. Even people who do love it to the core are finding it difficult to get jobs right now, and we don’t know if that’ll be better or worse in five years.

But man is the upside on this journalism thing high. To connect people in the community to one another, to give voice to someone who’s never been heard before, to be the digital pioneers who redefine the very nature of journalism for the better, to just have an unbelievable amount of fun while doing your job… it’s just goosebump-worthy! You should have chills go down your spine every time you publish. And to those people who are with me on that, remember this: Most people get ahead one of two ways. You either work harder than the person next to you, or you have a better strategy than the person next to you. I highly suggest you do both.

If you stick around for this future, you’re going to be part of something special. We’re all working on it right now, setting the table for you all. And you’re going to come in and flip everything upside down again, and personally I can’t wait to see it. We really need your energy. Thanks for listening to me ramble, and I’d be happy to take your questions now.

  • I love how you highlighted the importance of Social Networking sites, more importantly Twitter to convey a message or start a discussion with a broader audience. Most people don’t realize the potential of Twitter. Hopefully you shed some light on them.

    Great speech!

  • Pingback: Hope for journalism | news wrap()