Entries from November 2008 ↓

Having the conversation…

i mean the one between the news folks and the readers, silly! Although that conversation may be just as difficult as the one between parents and their adolescents.

Believe me, i’ve heard some of the conversations between reporters/editors and their readers in newsrooms. Frankly, in many instances, they’d be more appropriately characterized as arguments. There’s often not a whole lot of listening going on by the news folks.

This is one of the big problems with the so-called mainstream media adapting to the landscape of today.

Amy Gahran said this on Twitter recently: “Yet another print-media person asks me which class or book will help them learn social media.Sigh… ” As Mediamum (disclosure: One of my teaching assistants) says, “Trad Js need to understand social media community as well as the tool.”

Understanding that community is a difficult step for folks in traditional newsrooms, because they often aren’t accustomed to interacting with readers in much the same way they interact with other journalists. In his E&P column today, Steve Outing suggests that newspapers create a vice president of social media.

Good idea, but first, journalists – all of us – need to get out there and look around. Try Twitter and Facebook. Make some friends, follow some people, lurk around the conversations, then start having your own conversations.

As Outing says, journalists are bound to make mistakes along the way; mistakes that can be learning tools for the next bold move.

At other times, we’ll find success and even a whole new audience. A great example is what Ron Sylvester, courts reporter for the Wichita Eagle, does with his blog and Twitter. Twittering court cases live is a great example of offering up-to-the-minute news reports, and with some of those cases Sylvester has found readers beyond the traditional newspaper audience.

That’s the sort of creativity the media needs to be employing.

Homing in on an issue…

It’s the economy, stupid!

That’s the No. 1 issue on people’s minds and will be for some time to come.

So if i were a Colorado newspaper editor, i’d devote more resources to covering this issue online, with most of the goodies on the Web, but spillover into the print product.

Imagine applying the FiveThiryEight model to the state budget, for instance. (OK, i write what i know and i’ve been known in the past to be obsessed with the state budget.) Yes, it seems obscure, but it has an impact on many real people. And if you listen, Coloradans probably have plenty of questions.

Sure, the Rocky Mountain News’ Ed Sealover has been writing some good stuff about the budget. And now is the time to get on it, because the Joint Budget Committee, which has the real control over the purse strings in Colorado, is meeting almost daily going over spending by various state agencies. (Disclosure: i work part-time on the News copy desk.)

But it’s pretty hard to find the centrally located page with those stories. And it’s darned near impossible to find any coverage at the Denver Post.

But what if you devoted an entry page, heavily promoted on the front of your Web site, that pointed to all things budget – and carried on a conversation with readers, government workers, lawmakers and anyone else who wanted to get into the act?

Some features to consider:

  • Data. Especially data that compares what various agencies are spending, what they’re spending it on, how many people they’re employing compared to the years of the last recession, 2002-03. (More disclosure: i was a JBC stalker, i mean, reporter who covered the JBC during the last recession. And there was plenty to do.)
  • Employee pay. This is always a hot issue – the Des Moines Register has been looking at this since i was a kid. The Post has had this info online since about June, but they’ve never actually written about it that i’ve seen. And their CU database doesn’t appear to be all that accurate (i have yet to hit the $50K mark, unless you include summer school and i’m not sure that’s what’s in there – others in my department aren’t even on the list). This is what some would call a data ghetto (tho unfortunately, the link to this great Matt Waite post no longer works).
  • Highlights of JBC documents. These things provide tons of info – info that would fuel news stories if folks took the time to look at them. At least hit the high points, so the public doesn’t have to download every 120-page PDF the committee staff tosses out.
  • Twitter feeds of meetings. If you’re going to go to a JBC meeting, you might as well twitter instead of taking notes. It’ll keep you awake, provide you with string for a print or Web story and attract an audience of people who actually are interested in what’s going on in these meetings (because they want the money).
  • Ask readers/viewers what they want to know. Solicit input from readers from the moms of disabled children on waiting lists for services to the harried dispatchers frustrated with turnover at the state patrol. Let them ask questions, then answer them!
  • Let readers decide what they’d cut from the budget. Give them one of those nifty interfaces to make the calculations, like a cool game and let them play!
  • Leave the capitol and get some real people in the picture. From lines at the DMV to the unemployment offices to students wondering if they can afford next semester, there are plenty of stories to be told.

OK, these are just a very few ideas. Interaction is the key here, tho. Ask readers for their questions and answer them, provide them with information that will spur further curiousity – and page views. One of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s elements is to “make the significant interesting and relevant.”

The state budget is an area where that’s a real challenge. But one would think that political polling is pretty dry and geeky too – and Nate Silver made it more than that.

The new, new, new (but maybe a bit old) journalism

When i interviewed for a job at the Daily Camera almost 16 years ago, the editor asked me to come for the second day prepared to talk about “radical change.” The heat was on from corporate execs at the late, great Knight-Ridder.

So i did what any good journalist should do. I looked up radical in the dictionary. Here’s the first entry:

Of or from the root or roots; going to the foundation or source of something; fundamental; basic.

These days, i look to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel and their book the Elements of Journalism to define those roots and fundamentals. Their principles:

  • Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  • Its first loyalty is to citizens.
  • Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  • Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  • It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  • It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  • It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  • It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
  • Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
  • Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

Certainly the explosion of information on the Internet has created a dilemma for those practicing journalism, especially those at newspapers. Craigslist and others continue to erode the advertising base that provided the revenue stream for the business model. And there are tons of other media outlets competing for the news audience.

So how does journalism get back to the basics while competing in constantly changing landscape and platform?

Here are some examples i really like:

Graham Watson. Last week this young woman came to talk to my Principles of Journalism class – she’s only a few years older than the students. She’s worked on sports desks at the Dallas Morning News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; at the latter she started blogging about her beat, the Missouri Tigers. But earlier this year, she took a job as one of 15 bloggers for ESPN. She writes about non-BCS football teams (that’s a ton o’ teams!) and has done more than 1,900 posts since August (she wrote one in the car on the way to our class – yes, someone else was driving). Since ESPN is truly multimedia, she’s also been on radio and even spent a Saturday in the TV studio last month. Yep, she’s working her tail off now, but when the bowl games are done she’ll have plenty of free time til spring practice, along with enough airline miles and hotel points for a sweet retreat!

Brian Crecente. Yep, he used to be a cops reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, then moved over to features to write about his real love, video gaming. Somewhere along the way, he started a Web site on video gaming. And when the News did some heavy cutbacks a year or so ago and wanted to move him back to metro, well, he had other ways to make a living at Kotaku. The site is owned by Gawker Media and is wildly popular. He still freelances gaming stories for the Rocky sometimes, tho.

Nate Silver. OK, this guy has never claimed to be a journalist – he’s a numbers cruncher, bean counter, statistician, baseball geek. But when he decided to start analyzing political polls and created FiveThirtyEight earlier this year, he provided a service that the public was clearly starving for. He ended up all over the media, and Silver & team are planning a life after the election, probably covering the new administration.

Could a newspaper Web site have created something like FiveThirtyEight? Sure – and there are plenty of journalists out there with an eye for numbers and data analysis. But i’m not sure newspapers are willing to go that basic – or micro. Silver’s site employs basically three people (one of them a photographer!). In today’s pared down newsrooms, it’s rare to see three people devoted to a single mission full-time (unless it’s in sports).

But i’d argue that newsrooms would gain audiences by homing in on micro-topics that are relevant and interesting to their readers – getting back to the basics of providing, interpreting and analyzing detailed information about government and the world as a public service to the viewers and readers. Using the Internet allows journalists to do an even better job of providing information to the public than words, graphics and pictures on a printed page can do.

Tomorrow, or later today, i’ll offer up an example of one subject i’d tackle if i were a Colorado newspaper editor and how i’d go about it.