Ivan Lajara has started collecting the first tweets of Digital First folks, it’s been a fun exercise.
Eds note: See the update at the end.
Sports journalism has some explaining to do.
Today, the sports and journalism worlds are collectively wringing their hands about he discovery that the made-for-TV story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his dead girlfriend was actually too good to be true. The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who has allegedly died of leukemia back in September, didn’t exist. Numerous sports reporters from the local South Bend Tribune to ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press, all helped spread the story of this lie. They are implicit in the hoax for their role in spreading a false story without the basics of verification.
Sports reporters work in the nexus of journalism, entertainment and big-time moneymaking – and when the latter two are the focus of network executives and publishers, the first sometimes takes a vacation. We need to re-examine the journalism in sports journalism.
Sports reporters are great at breaking down the games and scenarios. They generally do a fine job of pursuing the story when an athlete or team has committed some sort of wrongdoing or has some important story to tell. In the case of the dead girlfriend, however, sports reporters and their editors and all supporting staff who let these stories go to the web, print or air, let themselves get caught up in the irresistible pull of the heartwarming narrative.
Nobody out of all this coverage did any research on Kekua. Out of all of these reporters and organizations, they went only on the word of a young football player to repeatedly tell the story that would ultimately help propel Te’o into a national spotlight (and the Heisman considerations). In their minds at the time, I’m sure the thought process was something like, “Why bother? It’s just a feel-good footnote on the larger story of this amazing athlete. Why bother?”
There were several inconsistencies across the range of reporting on the love story – notably as to when Kekua died. How did nobody notice the difference when writing their own stories? As my colleague Steve Buttry notes, even looking for a link to an obituary for Kekua, which should have been standard procedure, would have started to unravel the story. Instead it took several months and a great investigation by Deadspin to reveal the not-all-that-well-thought-out hoax.
This case is just the latest example among many that indicate to me that the soul of the sports journalism profession is in jeopardy.
In 2011, a young crime reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn. wrote an explosive story about a grand jury investigation of retired Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of at least two young boys. The paper took hits from its readers and the story went largely ignored by the news organizations and reporters covering the team and the university. It took seven months and Sandusky’s eventual arrest in the sex abuse case that finally led the national and sports media world to follow up on the story. The reporter, Sara Ganim, won a Pulitzer. ESPN, Sports Illustrated and every sports reporter on the beat at Penn State should have had some explaining to do about that gap in time…but nothing came of it.
A Poynter Review of the situation at ESPN stated, “With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal.” It explained the missteps in how the story was handled in tone and breadth, but it did not address the delay of seven months.
Why didn’t they follow up on what is arguably the biggest story ever on the beat? Easy. They wanted to keep that access to the very popular team and to its then-coach, Joe Paterno, open. Editors, publishers and network suits wanted to keep that cash cow that is Penn State football news producing milk. So everyone got along to get along and hoped nobody would notice.
And we can’t forget how ESPN, arguably the biggest fish in sports media, has stepped out of the bounds of journalism ethics to shape its sports “news” for financial reasons. In 2010, the network produced and aired what was essentially an infomercial for LeBron James to trumpet his decision to move to the Miami Heat, sending a lot of “tsk, tsks” across the journalism spectrum. Throughout 2011 and 2012, ESPN took a more hands-on approach to shaping sports news by deciding, with ratings purposes in mind, to hitch its wagon to the popularity of Tim Tebow. They used their news reporters to create an inordinate amount of coverage on Tebow, even though he wasn’t even starting in the NFL for the 2012 season.
Of course, the obvious has to be stated. We can’t paint all sports reporters or sports news organizations with a broad brush, but there is a problem to be solved here. How can we ensure our sports coverage consistently retains its objectivity and avoids falling into fanboyism or fraternity with the sources on the other side of the beat?
I had a great conversation about this with my friends on Facebook last night and some of them had great suggestions as to how sports editors and reporters can keep their heads on straight.
How about we start when we are grooming sports reporters in journalism schools and on the beat within news organizations?
Margaret McGurk, a former coworker of mine from The Cincinnati Enquirer, suggested, “Sports editors need to stop hiring reporters who have never worked a police beat or covered a courthouse or dealt with the non-sports world as a journalist.”
My former boss at The Cincinnati Enquirer, Chris Graves. A former crime reporter, she noted that reporters operating within a niche like sports need to have a focus on the fundamentals.
“All reporters are reporters first — niche reporting (be it sports, business or entertainment) comes later,” she said.
Journalism schools and editors grooming young reporters for their dream jobs of covering sports need to put learning journalism first and sports second. Sure, the young reporter will balk at being told he needs to cover cops or courts or city council to make his way to press row at a basketball game, but he will be a better journalist for it.
And it doesn’t stop at the beginning. Veteran sports reporters should be encouraged to spend their off-seasons on sabbatical, of sorts, flexing their muscles in other realms of news. It’s not to say they need to pick up a whole other beat for months on end, but they can take the time to refresh their journalism skills – calling unfamiliar sources, crunching their own numbers, maybe learning a new tool or two. They shouldn’t be kept immune from the rigors of reporting.
“This was among my biggest pet peeves when I was a cops reporter,” Graves said. “The amount of checking and record pulling it was simply assumed I would do for sports or entertainment reporters…”
I’m sure sports reporters, including some of my friends, would roll their eyes at this suggestion. That’s fine, but the crux of all of this is that the Te’o case, among others in months past, is a good opportunity to have a real conversation about ethics in sports reporting. Let’s not let it sit.
I doubt I’m breaking news to anyone when I assert that the tablet has changed how we interact with the written word. The real question is what else is it changing along the way?
Tablet ownership doubled in the U.S. in 2012, and more than half of U.S. adults own a tablet or a smartphone. Thirty-seven percent of tablet owners read news on it every day. As the numbers grow, our industry’s notions about how readers consume text, video and photos on the web will need to be re-examined with an eye toward the user experience these readers have come to expect on mobile devices. This improved user experience, more than the shiny awesome newness of a sleek ereader, is what I think is really what’s changing people’s habits.Going back for a moment….I was a freshman at Kent State back in 1998 when I took a class called Mediamorphosis, taught by Roger Fidler. A pet subject Fidler revisited time and again was the idea that newspapers – in fact, all media — would someday be digitized and made portable in the form of a tablet. Videos would play with the touch of a screen, related info could be brought up in the context of an article — it seemed too good to be true. But Fidler saw what was coming (just check out this video of him on the subject in 1994, it’s amazing).
What I don’t think he understood at the time was just how much tablets would change the reader experience across all our devices and formats. 2012 marked my first full year as a tablet-based news consumer. Looking back, I’m struck by how much my habits have shifted in such a short time. I read more – and more of what I want – and I’ve found I’m not necessarily any more likely to pay for it (not yet anyway).
Like most journalists, I consume a fair amount of media. I routinely get the majority of my news links from contacts on social media, email newsletters and alerts from a few select sources and communities like Reddit. I manage to get a good overview of what’s happening across social media and curation services, and I save many stories across the web for more sustained reading via social media plugins with Diigo and Pocket.
The move to the tablet has changed that experience even further. I prefer to skim my favorite news sources on Pulse or Flipboard over their websites and typically their own apps (shoutout to USA Today, who tells me on page 2 of a story on Flipboard that I need to go to their app to read the rest. No, I’d rather not). I’ve found I’m far more likely to click a link on a Washington Post story on my tablet or phone over the web – as their mobile web design loads faster and reads easier inside my screen than their email newsletters and regular website. I consume more news than ever, alebeit in far more disjointed ways (and I’m not alone in this trend).
I’ve also found I read a lot more books and magazines. For one, I travel more now than ever, so that’s a factor — but the sheer ease of finding and reading books on the reader makes a huge difference. Going over my various reading apps – iBooks, Kindle, Bluefire – I’ve read 18 novels this year. I’ve paid for one – the others were library books. I don’t think I’ve read this much (for fun) since I was in middle school. It’s brought the joy of reading back to my life.
I also manage to keep up with my few remaining magazine subscriptions a bit better as well. The apps for Self, Entertainment Weekly and ESPN magazines are beautifully designed and appropriately interactive (I can watch a workout demo from Self, for instance, without loading a video). All of these apps create a far better experience than accessing any of these publications online – hence why I never visit their websites.
Note how the user experience has proven to be so important in this transition. When we set out to design (or redesign) our news sites, user experience seems to be one of the last priorities after making sure we fit every possible section front into the nav bar and make everyone happy by stacking random junk in the right rail. If we’re going to keep winning (and keeping) readers, user experience has to be a top priority, as it will translate into our other major priorities (i.e. making money).
As more news consumers move to mobile, their expectations for how all news sites should look and operate will change along with it. Quartz designed their site with this mobile user experience in mind, making it a great time-suck of a news experience on any device. If we want people to stick around, news sites need to test and retest web designs across screen sizes, browsers, devices and demographic groups to make them flow as well as the mobile experience. More importantly, we need to do this early in the process, not in course of launch or after the fact.
How has the tablet and/or mobile experience changed how you consume media? What’s your organization doing to cater to these users? Let me know in the comments.
One of the challenges of working in an experimental company in a changing industry is that you yourself have to constantly learn and evolve. For the past few months, I’ve been in a new role at Digital First that forces me outside my professional comfort zone every day – I’m managing talented people and projects that are sometimes beyond my (initial) comprehension.
Some days, this is the best part of the job, other days it is the worst – as it is both exciting and exhausting. A lot of other journalists and new managers out there know what I mean.
There are days when all I want to do is draft some tweets, push some stories through production, build a few slideshows and plan a news budget – tasks I feel very confident completing after years of doing them day in and day out. Instead, I wake up and see my to-do list includes less easy-to-check-off items like “5. Work on this giant strategy”, “11. Get these 10 editors to acknowledge this deadline” and “8. Draft 2013 budget”.
When you work at home, as I do, it’s tempting to crawl back into bed and wish those difficult tasks away to another day. It’s easy to get a little lost when you peer too long into the abyss. I think I’m finally getting a feel for why many editors of mine over the years always seemed so….crazy.
For me, blogging about journalism the past few months would be akin to a castaway on a lifeboat blogging about recreational yachting. I’m just trying to figure out how I’m staying afloat out here – so what good am I to you, dear reader?
This blog has been a lot of things over the past few years – a place for me to sound off about the issues I care about, a place to give instruction, a place to share interesting bits of news. Above all – it’s a way for me to keep writing, which is what I’d like to revisit in the coming months.
I have about a dozen half-finished blog posts in my dashboard. I’m getting back to those. I’ll never be as prolific as Buttry and I don’t have the authority of Rosen, Jarvis or Shirky. I likely won’t break news, but I have a voracious appetite for info, a decent sense of humor and some really cute cat photos.
In brief (tl;dr): I’m learning more than teaching these days. I hope you’ll still come along for the ride.
I was delighted at the news today that I was elected to the Online News Association Board. Thank you to all who voted for me – and those who supported me even if you aren’t yet ONA members. Now on to the hard part: Actually pulling off some of my big ideas. Luckily, the board is full of good journalists who I trust will work with me along the way.
One more post on my platform for the Online News Association Board. Voting begins today. (I’ll pop a link in when it’s ready)
I’ll preface the following with this: I love going to ONA conferences. I enjoy meeting (or reconnecting with) others in the industry, finding out what they’re working on, what technology they’re using and what challenges they’re facing. While some of this comes up in the sessions, most of this part of ONA comes about in the mixers, happy hours and meetups both official and non-official.
It isn’t until I go to the ONA conference every year that I remember how diverse our membership really is. We have a range of skills going from former print reporters getting into social media or online tools up to some of the industry’s innovation leaders in data, multimedia, social media and mobile.
The trouble is, I don’t feel like the conference session schedule really reflects that wide range of skills. It seems like every year for the past four years we’ve had some version of a metrics how-to session, a session on how newsrooms are using X social media tool, on building digital newsrooms or workflows. While these things sessions are interesting and helpful to some (they are voted into being, after all), to an equally large group, they are review.
As a former social media editor, I’d go to the social media sessions – that’s where most of the other social media types were and I was supposed to be learning from them. Admittedly, I’d often find myself tuning out of these sessions because, well, they weren’t for me. They were largely aimed at editors or reporters or new social media editors – not the specialists currently working in that field. The real talk always seemed to happen outside of the conference.
Many specialists I talk to in data, social or mobile journalism have (privately) told me they no longer see much point in attending ONA. They’d rather go to NICAR or SXSW or other, more specialized conferences where they’ll be more likely to have their minds blown. How can we lure these specialists back?
For one, we need to expand the session offerings to include more higher-level, specialized tracks. This has happened, to some extent, with the unconference and pre-conference sessions – but why not bring a few of these into the mainstream schedule?
Because it would take more space, more personnel and more specialization, perhaps this is something we could best accomplish by sharing our conference with other journalism organizations.
If we could team up with SPJ and RTNDA (who always seems to have their conference around the same time), we could have a bigger pool from which to draw attendees and panelists.
If we were to pull in NICAR to co-host a track or a few sessions, we’d be more likely to get some of those specialists onto panels, talking to other specialists. With a larger group, we could hold sessions aimed at social media editors, data editors, app developers, etc. in addition,to the sessions aimed at a a more general audience.
What do you think? Would this make you more or less interested in attending an ONA conference?
The quest to lay out my platform for the Online News Association Board continues today.
In my role as Interactives Editor at Digital First Media, I’ve been lucky enough to do some hiring. I’ve interviewed some brilliant people in the world of data journalism and news apps – the problem is, there isn’t nearly enough of them. There are a relative few programmers working in journalism, so little that when a new job comes open, there’s essentially a game of musical chairs out there to fill it.
Many reporters and editors I know either went back to school or taught themselves programming skills to get into this somewhat new field, but even with this continuing education, we don’t have enough programmers coming into the industry.
At the same time, we have an influx of new graduates coming into the industry – most of whom have never been exposed to programming or even true CAR reporting. As an occasional adjunct professor (and often Concerned J-School Alum), I’ve nosed my way into some curriculum discussions. I’ve found many journalism schools are struggling to keep up in teaching the latest in online journalism, let alone reconfiguring their curricula to include classes in computer science.
I won’t pretend to say that I know exactly how this would work, but if ONA could team up with NICAR and some of our membership leaders in the academic world, we could start to sketch out a white paper, of sorts, for how journalism schools could transition themselves for the future.
By studying some of the experimental and/or existing journalism hybrid programs out there, we can pass along strategies as to how more schools could create/strengthen hybrid degree programs with computer science,incorporate programming courses into their curriculum and/or reach out to non-journalist computer science students to get interested them in news apps.
About that latter point: How can we reach out to computer science students? Maybe our local chapters (along with our friends at Hacks/Hackers) could conduct some outreach in the form of news app hack a thons at universities in their areas? I know in DC and New York I’ve seen events like these inside news orgs opened up to professionals in the areas, but why not try the same approach with students?
Admittedly, I don’t have these skills and I don’t move in this world as much as I’d like, but I think that with the help of the hackers amongst our industry, we could affect some change at the university level to keep the talent faucet running.
Just because most of the journalists you meet at ONA events tend to be from the major cities on the coasts doesn’t mean there aren’t talented online journalists operating in the Midwest and the South. As a Midwesterner myself, I used to feel completely invisible to the journalism innovators, discussion leaders and hiring editors on the coasts. At worst, I felt like a joke.
Back in 2004, in a second interview for an internship at what was then my favorite magazine, I was told by the hiring editor that she’d never interviewed a Midwesterner before. Days later, she called to tell me I hadn’t gotten the position mostly because she felt I couldn’t afford or handle a summer in New York City. In later years, I applied for every social media and web producer job that opened in New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco and big cities in between. I rarely even got a call or email in response, even though I had all of the experience they were seeking. The jobs always seemed to go to those already in the area.
I got a shot at achieving my dreams when TBD decided to take a chance on a non-DC native – and anyone who wants to try something new should get support and encouragement, no matter where they live. Whether they want to lead changes in their local newsrooms or take on new challenges in larger markets, ONA should be helping these journalists along.
The first way to do this woud be to cast a spotlight on the industry’s less-lauded players and projects. Using a combination of crowdsourced nominations, freelance submissions and pitches, ONA should publish and promote a monthly newsletter highlighting work and people in news (and news-related) operations big and small – with at least one segment each month focusing on a new name. We do this to some extent with the “Featured Member of the Month”, but I imagine this being less in-depth and more widespread with the aid of a crowd’s help.
We do something like this on occasion inside Digital First called ‘The Three’, where particular projects of local journalists are lauded to the entire company. Imagine that on a much bigger scale, giving local journalists an even bigger stage. It might seem like a small, inconsequential thing, but a spotlight in a nationally-read blog or newsletter within the industry could be just what some journalists need to reach their next level – or just get a little ego boost.
On a similar note, I propose an organized virtual mentorship program. Think of it as a sort of Big Brothers, Big Sisters for online journalists – ON THE INTERNETS.
Those learning data or development skills can be paired with willing mentors already doing that work in the industry. The same goes for reporters, social media newbies, burgeoning photographers or those thinking of starting their own sites or products. It wouldn’t have to be intensive work on the part of the mentors, they would just make themselves available to offer feedback and guidance when needed. I would and have offered mentoring to journalists looking to get better at (or get employed in) social media and it has been tremendously rewarding. I’d think others would also jump at the opportunity.
Would either of these ideas appeal to you? Let me know.
Beginning this Friday, members of the Online Journalism Association will have the opportunity to shape our industry’s future by voting for the next ONA board. While there are a lot of great candidates, I hope my fellow journalists will give me a shot.
When we were asked to submit a platform, I described my wishes for the organization.
So I realize that platform isn’t too specific. So over the next couple of days, I will lay out here some of the ideas I have for ONA to carry out this vision. If I get elected to the board, great. I’ll do my best to figure out what’s possible and try to get some of these accomplished, If not, I hope those who serve on the next board will consider these ideas.
I’ve met a lot of innovative, hungry journalists in my travels with Digital First and as a freelance journalism trainer. These are the folks who stand out in their local newsrooms – teaching themselves a new tool or programming language, staying late to work on personal projects and always making themselves available to help their less digitally savvy colleagues.
These journalists are often the primary source of digital support in their newsrooms, but they need support, too. Many are somewhat isolated from support within the industry, perhaps because they are in sparse media markets or have a less than encouraging newsroom culture. That’s why I propose a two-fold outreach effort to reach these journalists:
1. Aggressive expansion of local ONA chapters in the Midwest, South and West.
Tapping into the resources we have in ONA at the corporate level of many large journalism companies (DFM, Gannett, Tribune, Cox, Scripps and several TV networks), we should kick off local meetups at the city, state or regional level (depending on the market). these key players can help identify local leaders who can lead the charge for local meetups. We can help by luring in attendees with appearances by national industry leaders and personalities (many of whom are members).
While we could use it, the push wouldn’t be to get these local groups paying membership dues right away. Our initial goal would be just getting them into holding regular (or semi-regular) meetups to discuss tools, tactics and journalism issues. To fully tap into the resources ONA can offer, they’d then need to move toward a more formal membership agreement.
2. Train the Trainers.
What ONA does with ONACamp and collecting online tutorials is great – and I propose we add a new element in the form of “Train the Trainer”-type events. As I said above, many of the people pushing change in their local newsrooms are lonely players and they may not have much in the way of preparation or confidence to be trainers.
While we may not be able to offer this training in person, ONA should launch an online series of tutorials from the great trainers in our midst to help local leaders become better trainers. I’m thinking of tutorials in preparing engaging presentations, developing skills assessments and setting up incentive-based training programs. I’d imagine we could also offer sample checklists, handouts, training programs, evaluations and the like.
Earlier this week, I lost a good friend and journalism lost one hell of an editor in Ron Liebau. I worked with Ron at The Cincinnati Enquirer and whether he knew it or not, he shaped a lot of how I thought journalism should work. He’s an inspiration to all trying to move our industry to the future instead of worrying on the past.
In this wonderfully-written obituary, Tom Callinan, the former editor-in-chief of the Enquirer, noted how Ron wholeheartedly embraced the web.
“So many people had such a difficult time adapting, and he just jumped right in and took the leadership. He took that whole new world and put it in words that people could understand.”
It might sound like a tired cliche nobody believes, but it is true. Ron ran to the future with arms open, and he pulled many others in the newsroom with him by both his reputation as an old school news man and sheer force of will.
As a former print reporter and editor, Ron was old school about a lot of things: Sourcing, fact-checking, winning the day, good copyediting, solid ledes and prompt budgets. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the local area, public figures and notable dates. Ron was the archive, the stylebook and the voice of reason to me in the years we worked closely together.
One thing he wasn’t old school about was news delivery. He didn’t just embrace the web, he throttled it. As the online news editor, Ron constantly pushed reporters and editors to confront the web for what it was: An opportunity. He saw the web not only to reach our readers in new ways, but a means to beat the competition now instead of risking a second place finish later. He established a workflow and a mantra that probably drove many a reporter crazy, “Write for the web, update for print.”
Ron lived that workflow to a T. He was up and online early, writing web updates from the early news, sending tweets, taking down quotes over the phone (and later, Twitter) from our reporters in the field to get a quick paragraph and headline on the website. He’d get frustrated if print lineups took priority over what was popping on the web in the morning news meetings. If a reporter said, “I’ll file that story for tomorrow”, Ron would reply with, “It’s news now.”
Ron would be the first to say he didn’t always get the latest lingo, but he knew what he wanted to get done and he’d learn what he had to in order to get there. This is exactly the sort of journalist we should want to be, the sort of editor newspapers today need to have on staff. So when I got word that Ron was laid off from the Enquirer last year, I was flabbergasted. The industry needs more like him, not less.
So I say to you, fellow journalists: Be more like Ron and take these lessons to heart:
1. There’s no such thing as a journalist who has nothing left to give and nothing left to learn.
You are never too old, too “analog” or too “set in your ways” to learn new skills. Whether it’s a new workflow, a new tool or a whole new way of thinking about your industry – you CAN learn it if you try. It might take a long time and you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll get there and get comfortable.
2. Lead by example.
When you are a journalist other staff members look up to, the future of your newsroom is in your hands. When the reporters of the Enquirer joined Twitter, I believe it was due to more to the example shown by this well-respected former print editor rather than the cajoling of the twentysomething social media editor.
3. Try not to assign work you wouldn’t or couldn’t do yourself.
This is a vastly underrated trait of the best newsroom leaders and it goes back a bit to #2. If you don’t know how to find a story in your CMS, make a simple edit on a page or send a tweet, it can be tough for frazzled staff members to believe you really understand what they do and why it is important. I’m not saying all editors should be able to do any job in their newsroom, but knowing the basics goes a long way in the internal PR department.
4. Develop good relationships across your newsroom and across generations.
It didn’t matter if you were a page designer, an overnight web producer or a newbie cops reporter – Ron had an amazing array of useful advice, anecdotes and war stories to impart. Coming from different backgrounds, skill sets and age groups gives us a lot to learn from one another – and can be the basis for some wonderful friendships.
5. Mentor others – or reach out to someone to mentor you.
Many young journalists and former young journalists have shared their stories in recent days of how Ron touched their lives in lasting ways. If you spot a coworker who could use some guidance, constructive feedback or just a sympathetic ear – reach out. If you’re the one in need, don’t be afraid to approach those you respect and admire and ask for their support.
6. It’s the journalism that matters, not the medium.
The medium doesn’t determine the quality of your journalism – you do. It doesn’t matter if it is in a tweet, blog post or 1-A story, if you’re telling a story that entertains, enlightens or explains something to readers – you’ve done your job well. I can only hope I’ll still have Ron’s voice in my head someday when the web is old and busted and there’s some new transition to be made. “It’s the story that matters”, he’d say. And he’ll still be right.