Tag Archives: Journalism

Why journalists need to stop playing catch-up, start focusing on the next news model

News organizations won’t stay afloat and continue to provide an essential service to democracy because the public suddenly values what they’ve been selling.

They’ll stay afloat because forward-thinking leaders will make sure the news organizations are damn good at the next news model, and the next one after that. Someone is going to figure out every new model for news distribution, whether it’s tomorrow’s model or 2050’s model.

Who will figure it out? I’d much prefer it be the the journalists who have the ethical standards and story-telling skills that have long thrived. I’d much prefer it be the organizations that can maintain journalism as a decently-paid profession, attracting intelligent people to the career.

But that’s not a given, and that’s not such a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing for the public that Twitter is better for breaking news than a newspaper; it’s just a bad thing for journalists that they didn’t create Twitter first.

So journalists: Let’s stop complaining about the fact that we’re getting our asses whooped at today’s news model.

Let’s just get on top of the next one.

I’ve come to see that catch-up is a silly game to play. I’m tired of reading blogs that don’t engage the readers in conversation, of breaking news that isn’t really breaking, of static storytelling when two-way storytelling is desperately needed. These are all concepts that the Internet public has mastered without the help of news organizations.

This round is over. Journalists lost.

But lucky for journalists, there are plenty more rounds to come. Time to invest our money and expertise into focusing on the next ones.

You know, while we still have some money and expertise left.

This is far from an anti-blogger screed, or any indication of journalistic arrogance. The next news model will utilize what the bloggers have done well (immediacy, diversity, voice) and lend to it what the institution of journalism has historically done well (accuracy, authority, ethics). Then we’ll add some new virtues into the fold (aggregation, curation, community-building).

What that next news model will be is a question for people far smarter than I, but I personally believe the prize will go to whoever can master those new virtues. And there’s no reason why news organizations, with their deep pockets, highly skilled journalists and histories in their communities, can’t lead the way.

Here’s the good news: This doesn’t require massive firings that suck the life out of the print product, and it doesn’t even require you to sell your entire newsroom on these new models. Those who have been carelessly labeled as “curmudgeons” can keep their opinions of the Web as long as they keep doing what they do best: Supporting the print product that still pays everyone else’s salary.

This works as long as you have others at the newspaper who are focused on innovation. Those people ought to be identified (or hired), given the space and time they need, then set loose to experiment.

The focus on today’s news model — and quite often yesterday’s — can at best slow the decline of news organizations. It’s not even doing that particularly well. When every newspaper of every size places innovation at a higher priority, even if it slightly dents the print product, we’ll have a collection of minds that’d have to be considered the favorite to find the next model.

Defending the underlying principles of crowdsourcing

“One thing we don’t get with online sourcing : verification of the source. When you have a nickname and a maybe-fake email addy, how can you resist manipulation and ill will ? Are virtual witnesses as valuable as real ones ? How can we backup our stories with sources we can’t really identify ?”

— Someone named “JPF” on my first post about crowdsourcing

This is a point worth fleshing out. And it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who JPF is because he/she provides valuable content.

There have been some legitimate arguments against some forms of crowdsourcing. Many have been expressed in the comments on my last two entries (Part 1 made the argument that crowdsourcing can help ease the pain of shrinking staffs, Part 2 gave some specific examples in which it can be easily, immediately and responsibly deployed.)

Virtual, pseudonymous sources are not equal to verified ones. No one has ever disputed that.

But the skeptics of crowdsourcing tend to ignore what those sources do ably provide, overstate the likelihood and significance of vandalism, and understate the value of when it’s done well.

There also seems to be a fear, which JPF expressed, that it will totally replace standard reporting practices. Nope. I’m just talking about replacing specific, wasteful forms of reporting that no reporter will miss: Traffic, gas prices, Man on the Street stories. I’m not turning over council coverage to the crowd.

Generally, the crowdsourcing skeptics tend to go directly to the council scenario and other forms of hard news. So let’s refocus the argument on the more benign uses of the crowd and show why the newsroom and the community benefit.

Legitimate source verification won’t suffer: We must remember that every deployment of crowdsourcing requires varying levels of source verification, just like the journalism we do now.

Let’s take your average Man on the Street story. You’re a reporter, and you approached a man at Riverfront Park to ask him about his opinion on the economy. You ask him for his name and his hometown, and he gives it to you.

How often does the reporter ask to see his driver’s license? How often does the reporter check that against the phone book or LexisNexis once back in the office?

For most reporters: Not very often. That’s rightly because there’s a significant gap between a man on the street and someone e-mailing you leaks and claiming to be an insider at a company.

When it comes to sources that obviously need to be strictly verified: Do you really know any reporters dumb enough to use information from an anonymous person just because it was read on the Internet? Really? Think about the mindless cariacature of a reporter that would be.

No one is talking about compromising core journalistic values. To JPF’s point: No one is backing up significant stories with sources we can’t identify. That won’t happen and it’s not part of the discussion.

Crowdsourcing creates a better product: But remember: Only in specific areas where the crowd’s collective wisdom far trumps the newsroom’s ability to make phone calls and drive out to scenes.

Part 2 covers this in-depth. I understand there will be some hesitations on gas prices and MOTS stories, but I’m trying to anticipate the opposite arguments on crowdsourced traffic updates and I just can’t conjure any up. The information will be far more current than we typically get now, and it’ll be done with zero staff input.

Crowdsourcing saves the newsroom time: A good MOTS story can take up a reporter’s entire day. No longer would a reporter have to call each individual gas station for a weekly roundup.

We don’t have as much time as we used to before the attrition and buyouts and layoffs. It’s an absolute necessity to find areas of greater efficiency, or core community stories and significant enterprise will continue to evaporate at the expense of some easily outsourced stories.

Crowdsourcing gives the readers a small sense of satisfaction: Some will get a thrill out of knowing they helped people save time by avoiding I-83 because of that ill-timed construction.

Crowdsourcing is already happening, you just haven’t been calling it that: At my paper, The Fan Line is one of the most popular features. It allows people to anonymously call in and share their thoughts on the sports news of the day.

It’s awful. It’s wonderful. You can’t look away. It even caused a local reader to start up a blog criticizing and mocking the people who call in.

When I interned for The Wichita Eagle, they had a similar feature about news that ran daily on the Opinion page. I’m sure there are countless others around the country that have figured out that people love reading candid thoughts, and they’re not concerned about where they come from.

Crowdsourcing is fundamental to the Web: And haven’t you heard? The Web is kinda important these days.

It’s part of the participatory culture that people expect out of the Web. Our we-tell-you-and-you-listen model that’s served us well since the printing press is crumbling.

Adjusting to the Web isn’t just a matter of shoveling our fantastic material so our loyal readers can experience it on their monitors. It requires a shift in all of our processes, including the new gathering process.

Can Spot.Us help save news organizations from advertising dependence?

I consider Spot Us, which launched today, to be one of the more important news experiments out there right now.

For those just hearing of it now: The site, dreamed up and guided by the brilliant David Cohn, shares editorial power with the community. It can begin with a story pitch by a journalist, or a news tip from your average resident. Once a story is pitched, the community votes with its wallet on whether or not to write the story. If you believe the story is worthwhile, you offer a small contribution. Once enough money is raised to hire a reporter, the story is written and offered to whatever media would like to use it.

It allows the community to be the assignment editor. The community directly tells you how much value they place on a story based on their own pocketbook.

Do yourself a favor and read far more about it in far better ways at the Spot.Us site, at the Knight Digital Media Center, at the New York Times, and a billion other places.

What makes the concept so important is that it’s a much-needed juke away from the sacred advertising model, the altar to which newspapers have prayed for so long yet is crumbling before us. This isn’t the kind of cosmetic change we’re used to hearing from news organizations trying to reinvent themselves — More blogs! Users can now comment on stories! — this is a turn-everything-upside-down-and-tear-it-all-apart attempt at finding a new business model. Or at least part of one.

Yes, I must add that I have my skepticisms, the ones that probably have immediately stirred in your head. But here’s the fun part: David is aware of these skepticisms, and as far as I know he embraces them. He knows this is an experiment (funded by a Knight News Challenge grant).

It’s part of the evolutionary process that has mostly passed news organizations by. I’ll be watching closely to see what works and what doesn’t. One way or another, we’re going to know more about our future.

Sorry Mark Cuban: A blogger is not a blogger is not a blogger

Mark Cuban’s consistently thought-provoking Blog Maverick had a doozy yesterday.

He wrote about the situation that arose when he realized that one of the Dallas Morning News writers who was covering the team was — gasp! — a blogger. When he discovered this, he tried to revoke his credentials:

Not because I don’t want this blogger in the locker room doing interviews. What I didn’t like was that the Morning News was getting a competitive advantage simply because they were the Dallas Morning News. I am of the opinion that a blogger for one of the local newspapers is no better or worse than the blogger from the local high school, from the local huge Mavs fan, from an out of town blogger. I want to treat them all the same.

Later adding:

(I)t comes down to something very simple. A blogger is a blogger is a blogger and there are millions of us. . The name on your check, if you get a check, is irrelevant. BlogMaverick, Belo, xyz.blogger.com, we is what we is, and as long as there is limited space in our locker room, we is going to be outside in the Press Interview room getting comments.

It’s a fascinating topic, and worth reading the entire post.

At first I found myself agreeing with him. Then I started to disagree. Then I was thoroughly confused.

I still don’t know what I think Mark Cuban should do about the bloggers in the locker room. What I do know, though, is that Mark is wrong about blogging.

And he sounds like a lot of mistaken journalists in his opinion of them.

NBA teams let newspaper reporters into their locker rooms because they have the highest reach, not because they have an affinity for paper. It’s all about eyeballs, not the medium.

So let’s strip away the medium and put bloggers and newspaper reporters in the same bag. They’re all just collecting information. Now can you say that an “information gatherer” is an “information gatherer” is an “information gatherer?” Of course not. From a business perspective, the Mavs would be insane to give press credentials to Johnny Highschool Blogger, with a readership of a few dozen, over the Dallas Morning News, with a readership of several hundred thousand.

If you were to remove newspaper reporters from that discussion, why would you use the same logic with the remaining bloggers? Why should Johnny Highschool get the same access as a popular Mavs blogger who has built a steady readership over several years?

People treat information sources like a democracy, and page views are the votes. The mindset that all blogs are created equal is insulting — and it’s shared by a lot of people in journalism. It’s that attitude that prevents journalists from seeing the value in blogs, and why we need to understand them to see why we’re losing so many votes.

Why I’m beatblogging: It helps the print product, too

As one of the 13 reporters in Jay Rosen and David Cohn‘s beatblogging.org project, I’ve read a lot of response to the concept.

The Journalism Iconoclast is behind the concept, calling you an idiot if you’re a sports reporter who isn’t on the train.

In a comment on one of Cohn’s posts on Wired Journalists, Maurreen Skowran wrote: “The beats that aren’t local or regional have potential, but they are the minority.”

I strongly disagree. I set up a social network — the Hershey Home — based on a small, local beat. And frankly, I don’t see why any small-town reporter who possesses the necessary computer skills wouldn’t do that same, no matter how many stories you have to write per week.

Here’s the point most often missed: Successful beatblogging saves, not costs, reporters their time. In a fraction of the time and effort, it accomplishes all these goals that any reporter would share:

  • It can drastically increase your quantity of sources
  • It can drastically increase the diversity of your sources
  • It can positively develop your relationship with sources
  • It allows you to stay in constant contact with those sources without picking up the phone and calling them individually
  • It encourages those sources to share story ideas or current happenings
  • It can lead you into background or context to your stories you wouldn’t otherwise know about

Along with these additional benefits that the new-media types love:

  • It encourages a sense of community
  • It gets information to people in the form that they choose
  • It allows for a depth that the print product can’t achieve
  • It makes the news a conversation instead of a declaration

Now if that all were to come at the expense of the print product, we could have a cost/benefit discussion. But it simply doesn’t. A reporter can spend 15-20 minutes per day leading the discussion, then sit back and let the community do everything else for you. They’re happy to be participating, you’re happy to hear from them.

I had 30 residents sign up for my network within two weeks. It’s had its difficulties, which David Cohn is dutifully reporting on beatblogging.org, but it’s also early.

There are many different methods to beatblogging, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. But I strongly believe this project will make my print product better — to me, the new media benefits are actually secondary.

How bloggers are Moneyballing newspapers into competitive balance

moneyball.jpgIf you’ve never read Moneyball, do it. Even if you’re not a baseball fan — if you’re reading it correctly, it’s more of a business book than a baseball book.

The book in a rough summary: The Oakland A’s are a low-budget Major League Baseball team trying to compete with teams that have much, much higher payrolls. To make up the difference, the A’s general manager has to find the undervalued traits in players, enabling him to buy low-cost players who actually outproduce the high-cost players on the richer teams.

He relies on statistical analysis to find these overlooked players, with on-base percentage the biggest overlooked factor. By targeting players who fit his criteria, which often went directly against how baseball teams have been run for years, he’s able to stay competitive with his wealthy competitors despite an enormous economic disadvantage.

Sound familar to journalists? It should. We’re the Yankees.

So what’s the undervalued trait that bloggers — the A’s — have leveraged to sometimes put themselves at the level of professional journalists?

Passion.

Every blogger has it, and it shows. They enthusiastically spend much of their time reading about their subject. They spend their free time interacting with others who share their passion. They bathe in information that matters to them.

A large percentage of journalists, meanwhile, hate their jobs. Those who don’t probably only hate half of their jobs. Even the I-was-born-for-this reporters out there get plenty of assignments they’d love to push aside.

In this category, bloggers have elbowed their way into a tremendous advantage. I’ve learned far more about my Philadelphia Phillies by reading The Good Phight and Phuture Phillies than I ever could from reading the sports pages of any Pennsylvania newspaper. Frankly, it’s not even close. Phuture Phillies in particular goes into a depth no newspaper could accomplish, and there’s a large community of grateful Phans who follow it. I’m one of them — I have no need to ever read a story about the Phillies in my own newspaper when I have those blogs in my Google Reader. The whole premise that newspapers need to be saved falls apart when these blogs are whooping up on newspapers the way they are.

Journalists, meanwhile, are taught to suffocate our passion. It creates lifeless writing, and sometimes lazy reporting. The best journalists can’t be suffocated, or were lucky to be put in a position where their passion is just too strong.

Journalists shouldn’t be passionate about Hillary Clinton or the Philadelphia Phillies — but they should be passionate about politics or sports. I can think of a number of reporters who fit this description.

Now, here’s the interesting post script when it comes to Moneyball: Since the book came out, even the high-budget teams are mimicking its tactics. Most teams are using sophisticated statistical analysis, and most have accepted the gospel of on-base percentage.

So it’s time for journalists to behave like those other MLB teams and catch up to the bloggers on passion.  Institute a “20 percent time” philosophy in newsrooms to get more interesting stories in the paper. If necessary, restructure beats so reporters have an interest in what they’re writing about. Ask job applicants what they’d most like to write about, and make a serious effort to connect the two once they’re hired.

Are there other “Moneyball factors” I’m missing?

I’m not dead yet. I don’t want to go on the cart.

grimreaper.gifIn a significant portion of the journalism blogging community, I’ve witnessed the following themes emerge:

  • We’re all going to die. We’re all going to freaking die.
  • There are two types of reporters: Those who “get it,” and those who “just don’t get it.” If you don’t know what you’re getting, then you clearly don’t get it.
  • Those who “just don’t get it” need to hurry up and “get it,” or we’re all going to die.

And then there are all of those journalists who aren’t blogging, but are complaining just as loudly about how the Internet is messing everything up.

It’s more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, of course, but no matter where you fall there’s a lot of negativity. We’re awfully short on working together, though, and it’s getting pretty nasty out there.

So I’m hoping to join the many blogs I’ve read that are somewhere between the bunkers.

I’m totally down with new media skills — I use Facebook and MySpace as reporting tools on a consistent basis (example here), and I’ll write plenty about my Hershey Home site that I set up as part of Jay Rosen and David Cohn‘s beatblogging.org project. I fully understand how a loaded RSS reader is essential in keeping me on top of my community and the larger culture. I’m trying to improve my audio and video skills.

But I don’t look down upon reporters who didn’t understand a word in that last paragraph, yet could report and write me under the table. There’s a place for them, too.

I would never claim to have any grand visions about how we can cure newspapers’ economic woes, how to pull life-sustaining profits from our Web sites or otherwise save this struggling industry.

My focus is smaller: The simple ways that any reporter can make journalism better, including but not limited to Internet skills.