Tag Archives: newspapers

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.

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.

TimesPeople: An important first step

TimesPeople will be marked as the beginning of a key revolution in newspaper Web sites.

Not because of what it is — a pretty underwhelming social network based on recommending stories at nytimes.com — but because of the doors it’ll open to a more social experience in consuming news.

Shoving content onto existing social networks isn’t going to save the industry. Newspaper organizations need to focus on becoming the social network.

In addition to the obligatory forums and blogs, the newspaper site will be home to the mingling that’s happening on Facebook or MySpace, the dating that’s happening on Match.com, and the conversation that’s happening on Twitter. It will take the fun and utility of those other sites and infuse them with the one advantage every newspaper has: Local, local, local.

None of that is happening on TimesPeople, an effective recommendation system with few frills, but it does move us in that direction by the all-important step of introducing the reader profile. My profile just has my name, location, and a story I recommended for the sake of trying out the service.

But maybe that profile will expand and enable me to have the headlines I want, from only the categories I want, delivered to that profile page. Maybe all my activity on the site — forum postings, story comments and blog entries — will be displayed on that profile page. Maybe I’ll be able to RSVP to entertainment listings through my profile.

Maybe that profile will expand and enable me to include everything I have in my Facebook profile. Maybe that profile will enable me to declare that I’m single, and to search for other single Times readers.

Maybe that site will incorporate conversational tools, whether it’s wall postings, intra-site messages, instant messaging or microblogging.

The newspaper site will defragment the local Web space, centralizing it around the news product that we desperately need to sell. Meanwhile, it gives the readers the personalization, control and voice that they increasingly need.

When you think about what it could become in the future, TimesPeople seems pretty insignificant right now. But let’s use it as the starting point toward the radical rethinking that every newspaper site really needs.

The newspaper site as community connector

Newspapers have a tremendous opportunity to re-brand themselves as the center of the online community, connecting people to each other in every way possible.

But that window is so enormously small, I fear very few papers will take advantage. It’ll be a fatal blow, and we’ll be kicking ourselves that there weren’t more entrepreneurs inside the industry at this ripe time.

The newspaper site could be the home to all of the forums, the blogs, the social networking, the matchmaking, the businesses, the schools, and the community organization. Right now that’s all fragmented across the Web, and frankly a bit overwhelming for people who don’t constantly consume that kind of media.

Imagine if that were all concentrated in one hyper-local place? A place that has an already-strong brand name in place, a name that’s been a core part of the community since the 19th century?

Sounds pretty ideal to me. Giving people a voice has always been a fundamental mission of newspapers, and the letters page no longer cuts it.

But that role needs to be expanded to connecting people online, and right now a lot of other people are figuring that out much quicker. Someone in Harrisburg could:

  • Read local bloggers, discover local Twitter users or use the forums at blogHarrisburg
  • Find events at Spotobe
  • Find other college students at Facebook or MySpace
  • Try to determine which of the billion dating sites has lured the most potential dates

And Harrisburg area college students might soon have their own local network, if this entry at Ideablob gains any momentum.

All of this is happening outside of the newspaper site. Some of it is happening at newspaper sites, too, but the local entrepreneurs have figured out better ways to do it.

It all could have been centered at the newspaper site if the newspaper site thought of it first. Time to think of something first…and I’ll offer some of my ideas in a post soon.

How many reporters would readers miss?

missyou.jpgKeep your hand down, Steve Boriss. I know your answer is “zero.”

This question struck me when I read the fond adieu that the blogger at Left of Centre wrote to Adam Smeltz, a Centre Daily Times reporter and long-time friend of mine who recently accepted a job at the Cherry Hill Courier-Post. The anonymous blogger, who otherwise doesn’t hesitate to criticize other reporters and the paper as a whole, planted this one on Adam:

I wish Adam the best of luck. He has done a great job at the CDT cutting through the Old Main bullshit, despite an editorial policy at the paper which often seems to take its cue from (the university president). … His departure will be a setback to those of us who came to depend on his reporting to see behind the Blue Curtain.

Every day, plenty of reporters leave their newspapers or switch beats.

How often do the communities they cover notice? Or care?

And how often would the community care enough to write positive, farewell blog posts about it?

I can only hope my readers would say the same of me when I leave my beat someday, and it has nothing to do with ego. If I don’t get that farewell, it probably means I didn’t write enough stories that the community really valued.

It means I either fell short of, or unceremoniously met, their expectations for the newspaper. And knowing how low those expectations are right now, that’s nothing to be proud of.

So, to the reporters reading this: If you left tomorrow, would anyone miss you, or would they expect more of the same under a different name?

Newspapers need to better explain the ‘Why’ in investigative reporting

There was a great piece of investigative reporting the other day by Dena Pauling in the Centre Daily Times, my hometown newspaper and former employer. It revealed mold problems in a local high school, and how the school’s administration failed to notify the public about it. It also prints the outright denials by school officials — which strangely changed once the reporter presented evidence and made them talk about it on the record.

It’s a perfect example of why journalists are here: To hold public leaders accountable, to encourage public disclosure, to bring significant untold stories to light. It’s why the fourth estate exists, and why it’s so important for newspapers to survive.

So why is the public’s response in the Web site’s comments section so overwhelmingly negative?

It’s a problem I see in nearly every investigative report I see, whether in my own newspaper or in the New York Times (coughMcCaincough).

Newspapers rarely tell their readers WHY these stories are important. We typically hope readers will connect the dots in the way that we’ve connected the dots, but quite often that doesn’t happen.

We shouldn’t be explaining why investigative stories are important in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge way we usually do. I’m talking a breakout box that spells it out exactly.

It would say this: You need to know that a possible health problem was covered up by your administration, because it calls into question what else they’re keeping quiet about.

You rarely see anything that direct, but every significant story needs it. Don’t hope that the facts will lead readers to that conclusion, because they often don’t get there. When we don’t explain why the story is important, it’s too easy for readers to assume sensationalism and the always-popular “selling papers.”

It was disheartening to see that response from the readers, because this is the kind of story that they ought to be thanking her for. And a public that sees no value in this kind of reporting surely doesn’t see any value in keeping newspapers around.

(UPDATE: Same goes for the series in the Ann Arbor News about academics and athletics at the University of Michigan. Great series that has left a lot of fans focused on the writer, not the content.)

What happens when newspaper reporters with no training try to shoot video

This does.

So our photographer wouldn’t have to try to juggle his still and video cameras, I volunteered to shoot some video. I didn’t say I’d be good at it, I just said I’d try it. I clearly had no idea what I was doing.

My favorite moment came when a friendly videographer there said to me: “You know your tripod goes down another foot-and-a-half, right?” Uhhh, yeah…I knew that.

I’d love to hear any feedback — since I already know it stinks, there’s nothing that could be said that would offend me. I’m just hoping that with enough practice, and much more reading before the next time I shoot video, I’ll eventually learn to stink less. Might as well be trying, at least.

And before you say anything about the lack of audio, I would have offered a voice-over had I known it was going to be put online immediately. I’ll offer to add one on Monday.

(Also — if you want to play a game, go to the front page of Pennlive and try to find the video. Let me know if you make it, and if so, how long it took you.)

Is Mark Cuban reading his blogs in binary?

Really, I won’t dwell too much on Mark Cuban in the future. I only pick on him now because I normally enjoy his blog and he’s written two blog-themed entries lately, and he sounds eerily like a lot of misguided journalists in writing them.

So normally I’ll leave him alone, but his follow-up to his previous much-discussed post needs to be picked apart, too. And I’m in a snarky mood, so I’m going to channel Ken Tremendous and go Fire Joe Morgan style on this one.

Whaddayasay, Mark?

Much is being made of my decision to ban bloggers from the locker room. To me its pretty amusing. In particular I find it amusing that there is a presumption that if a blogger works for a big company, they must be better. The logic extends to the conclusion that if only I would evaluate the different blogs and make a qualitative selection, then big newspaper bloggers would be chosen as among the best. Let me just say, that should I go that direction, that I find quite a few individual bloggers to be far better than those earning a salary to blog . In fact, some of those blogs are written anonymously.

Let’s rename “newspaper bloggers” to “journalists hired by news organizations with long-established credibility.” Then you can realize that it’s none of your business to decide in which medium we’ll report.

Which leads to my firm belief that newspapers having “bloggers” is easily one of the many bad decisions that newspapers have made over the past 10 years.

This should be fun. Oh boy, he’s about to say something in bold. I bet this is the money shot:

Never, ever, ever consider something that any literate human being with Internet access can create in under 5 minutes to be a product or service that can in any way differentiate your business.

I just drew a picture of some mountains. Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re screwed.

Then I made myself a sandwich. All restaurants within 20 miles of me immediately closed down.

A blog is a blog is a blog is a blog.

No it isn’t.

If I worked for the NY Times, or any other media company with any level of brand equity, I would have done everything possible to define the section of our website that offers ongoing as anything other than a blog. I would make up a name. Call it say…..RealTime Reporting.

And the motto could be: “Journalists: We’re so much better than you. We’re going to do the same thing the rest of you lowlifes do, but we won’t lower ourselves to your level by calling it the same thing.”

RealTime Yankees: Catch in depth, up to the minute reports on the Yankees as only the NY Times world re known staff of Sports Writers can bring up

RealTime City Hall: The NY Times has more journalists covering the action at City Hall than anyone else. Catch in depth, up to the minute reports on NYC politics as as only the NY Times can.

Brand it RealTime. Brand it anything. Make sure you market it as having the characteristics unique to your staff that NO ONE ELSE on the net can bring.

I’ll almost sort of agree with that. There are plenty of newspaper blogs out there that have truly unique content, but they don’t do a good job of showing why it’s unique, or marketing itself as such. I’ve seen way too many newspaper Web sites where the staff blogs are jumbled together with the community blogs. Credibility is the most precious commodity a newspaper reporter has in any medium, and it ought to be fully leveraged.

So now we’re on the same page, Mark. It’d take something really stupid for me to start critcizing you again…what’s that you say?

If I were marketing for them, I would be doing everything I could to send the message that “The NY Times does not have blogs, we have Real Time Reports from the most qualified reporters in the world. Like blogs we post continuously , 24x7x365 to keep you up to speed, unlike blogs, we have the highest level of journalistic standards that we adhere to. A copy of which is available at…..” You get the picture.

“Journalists: It’s ridiculous how much better than you we are. We talk, you listen, and you’re gonna freaking like it. We wouldn’t even let you read us if we could figure out how to make money without you.”

I would also market it as an extension of the print version. All the news that cant fit in print. In the sports world, I think this is where main stream media really has dropped the ball. There is no shortage of speculation and opinions on the net. There is an incredible lack of depth when it comes to game and team coverage.

Having a blog with depth = good. Having a depository for all the crap that wouldn’t be interesting in the paper but for some reason would be interesting online = bad.

When I see content branded as a blog, I’m probably not going there unless its via a link from some other source. If I happen to find my way to a given blog multiple times, Im probably going to subscribe to the RSS feed. Even the, I don’t ever consider a blog an authoritative source. I don’t ever expect that all sources were confirmed and facts were check. Regardless of who hosts it. That’s not a good thing for newspapers.

And here we get to the core of Cuban’s fundamental misunderstanding of blogging.

Blogging is a medium. There is no inherent set of rules, or lack thereof, in blogging. Blog A is very different from Blog B and Blog C. You just can’t make any kind of assumption about blogs as a whole.

Cuban seems to be reading blogs as though they’re written in binary; apparently, they all look pretty much the same to him. He has apparently not taken the time to evaluate how one could be more credible than another — a skill all the more important when you’re reading blogs.

Ooooh, a final burst of boldface:

They still have a chance to assign some level of authority to what they produce for their websites and calling it a blog is a huge mistake.

Separating newspaper Web sites from where the rest of the conversation is happening on the Web would be a much bigger mistake. Not embracing the overwhelmingly dominant medium for conversation on the Web would be a huge mistake.

A better idea would be to lend what newspapers do well — credibility, accuracy, unceasingly high standards — to the medium that the people have chosen.