Platform Three: Shaping the Next Generation of Online Journalists
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.
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.
Platform One: Bring In New Blood, Support New Leaders
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.
We news folks tend to deal in fact – that is, what is reported and verified. Most of what you find on news sites (the good ones, anyway) is in this realm. Increasingly making an appearance in people’s news consumption habits are social media like Twitter and YouTube – that which may not be verified, but it is immediate and, for better or worse, largely unfiltered.
Combining selected local Twitter accounts, social searches, news feeds, blogs and videos, the Social Media Wire gives our readers a new way to find and interact with immediate local news from a variety of sources (yes, including competitors).
This concept was one that originally started back at TBD, where the community engagement team dreamed up a vision of a constantly-moving feed of local, social news called TBDNow. In the time since TBD’s original staff split up, many of us have tried to get TBDNow built. On my very first day at Digital First, I was told we were finally going to do it – and I just couldn’t wait to see it come to life.
CrowdyNews, a social news vendor out of the Netherlands, helped us to adapt the original TBDNow wish list into a tangible beta product. Is it perfect? No. We’ve got a lot of tweaking to do. But it’s a start.
We’ll learn, over time, exactly which keywords produce the best results in our neighborhood. We’ll find which blogs and news sites have crappy RSS feeds we should avoid – and which hidden gems might be most useful for our readers. We’ll see who has the most to offer on Twitter, and who could stand to be trimmed from our topic rolls.
There’s certainly work to be done on fine-tuning the user experience… and that’s where I hope you can come in. Please visit nhregister.com and click around our widgets on the home page and section fronts and spend a few minutes on the full-page Social Media Wire.
Let me know what you think could make the user experience better, which feeds should be added or removed, etc. in the comments, or contact me via Twitter, Facebook or email. As with any beta product, we need all the eyeballs and feedback we can get.
Julie Westfall will be joining Digital First as the curation team leader. Angela Carter and Karen Workman, two of DFM’s local superstars, will be moving to new roles as curators.
I was familiar with all three of these remarkable journalists before I ever began hiring for these positions. They were selected because they each had a vision for what could be done – and none of them are the type to be scared off by such a vague concept as “go be a curation team”.
Steve Buttry and I interviewed A LOT of really amazing applicants. We heard a lot of really innovative and interesting ideas on curation tools and strategy from journalists and non-journalists both inside and outside Digital First. You guys didn’t make our choices easy, but I’m confident we’ve got a killer team here.
I am excited to get back to working with Julie Westfall, who was, in my opinion, the engine that drove TBD’s daily news coverage. Sitting across from her for most of our short time there, I was constantly amazed at how she just never seemed to stop. Julie had a vision for how our news could be better and faster and she worked tirelessly to see that vision come to life. She was always tinkering with the tools we had or brainstorming the tools she wanted to see if there could be a better way to tell our stories.
But it wasn’t our work history that got Julie into this job, but rather it was her continuing ideas for how online news could be made better. Julie still has a vision for how we can develop new and better ways to tell stories online. We need someone with that vision to help our team craft dynamic, interesting and useful news resources for our local sites. It helps that Julie’s pretty familiar with forging her own path in this crazy digital journalism world – she held experimental roles at TBD and KPCC – because we need her to shape this team from an idea into a key part of Digital First’s news strategy.
Angi had been a city-side and business reporter for years before taking on the role of community engagement in her newsroom. When you meet her, it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been in that role for years. She’s a natural.
Not surprisingly, Angi also went the extra mile with her ideaLab project. Originally it was thought that ideaLab activities would take up a designated amount of hours each week but Angi made it the focus of her everyday work. She also contributed the equipment she receives as an ideaLab participant to the Register’s overall engagement efforts like conducting a Community Needs Assessment, holding public online news meetings and growing the Register’s community blog network.
When this curation team is in full swing, we’re going to need Angi’s organizational skills to guide us on breaking news and long-term projects. She has a habit of planning the details far out in advance of planned news events. Take New Haven’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s health care decision: When the decision came down, the site had a live chat with experts on the case all ready to go.
I don’t know Karen Workman well yet, but I know a great deal about her work. She started her career as an editorial assistant at the Oakland Press, where went on to become a reporter and, later, community engagement editor. When she took interest in this position, Karen wrote a report full of ideas for how the DFM curation team could best benefit our local newsrooms. She’d know, as she’s already sort of been doing it.
Working the early morning shift at the Press, Karen noticed that DFM’s Michigan newsrooms were all curating stories and videos from the same sites each day. She took the initiative to change the system to be more efficient. This past spring, she started a curation team for the Michigan newspapers to better utilize the time of the newsrooms’ small staffs.
As an early adopter of new tools in her newsroom, Karen’s also proven herself to be a natural teacher. What started as helping her colleagues learn SEO, social media and digital tools has turned into a much larger effort to educate journalists at other DFM papers. Karen’s patience and talent for explanation is really going to come in handy as a DFM curator, as we’ll be helping all of our local newsrooms with their own curation efforts.
Karen was also part of the first class of ideaLab participants. She’s using her project to build a sense of community amongst members of the Oakland Press’ blogger network. Aside from bringing a disparate group of bloggers together in person and online, Karen’s also setting up workshops they want and need to bolster their own skill sets.
I’m pretty sure Karen and I are going to get along just fine, as she’s a fellow animal lover (even if she prefers dogs). She writes The Dog Blog, a care and training blog for dog owners – and she’s also got a really cute Lab/pit bull mix with a great name (Sensibull).
This curation team will be getting to work the last week of this month….just in time to start experimenting with curation around the Olympic Games. These three women will have a lot of logistics to figure out, tools to break and workflows to hammer out - but I have full confidence they are more than up to the challenge. I can hardly wait to get started.
The real outrage and new info in the radio broadcast was that Journatic employees are producing local news essentially disguised as local reporters. Their stories have fake bylines, their writers given Americanized aliases. When they actually do call to contact a source for a quote, they cover up where they are calling from:
“We’ve been told time and time again to protect the Journatic identity.” When calling on a story, employees must say they’re calling on behalf of the newspaper Journatic works for and even acquire a temporary phone number with a local area code. “We are basically lying to our sources,” he said.
A Tremendous Opportunity
So should local newsrooms be worried about offshore journalism like this? Absolutely they should. But exposure of Journatic and their ilk also provides those of us who work in local news with a tremendous opportunity. It is up to us to show our readers where we’re coming from.
“Buying American” and “Shopping Local” have become a priority to some American consumers on goods from clothes to veggies – so why not newspapers? We should encourage our readers to “Read Local”.
For local journalists, there is no better time to show our readers that we are them. We live in the same neighborhoods. We shop at the same grocery stores. We attend the same local festivals and root for the same football teams. Our kids attend the same schools. We may have even gone to high school together.
It’s taken us a few years, but local journalists are starting to shake off that long-held belief that we as people aren’t an important element of our news. We’re becoming more comfortable showing personality in our tweets, opening up our Facebook pages, writing blogs alongside our traditional reporting. It’s not to say that our personal lives need to be an open book, or even that our readers care about the mundane details of our days, but we can find ways to show our connections to the community:
Don’t feel like you have to be all business on social media, if you have observations to make about your city or the people in it in your off-time, go for it. Be open about who you are, with a photo and your real name – unlike this Twitter account that may or may not represent Journatic.
Write or contribute to a local blog – and be yourself there. It might be on your beat, or it might not. Maybe the local cops reporter can explore his gardening hobby with a blog. Perhaps a sportswriter would want to pitch in on a parenting blog.
Hold live chats with your readers. You could do this using software like CoveritLive or ScribbleLive, on Twitter, Facebook or even just in the comments are of your website. Take their questions and ask your own. Be yourself.
Sure, it sounds awfully simplistic to say that these small actions can save local journalism — but it’s certainly a start. By showing up in person to cover that city council meeting or taking that reader’s question, you show that you are a part of the community. If you get good story ideas and source leads from these interactions, all the better.
Being there will give us more than any outsourced news factory could ever hope to replicate. This is our strength – and we need to take better advantage of it.
What do you think when you hear the term “curation”? Do you roll your eyes at the “future of news” talking head types likely posing the word to you (like right now)? Or does your mind reel with the possibilities?
Under the strictest definition of the term, curation is what journalists have been doing since before Gutenberg. We’ve always been responsible for collecting bits of information and reassembling it in a way that makes sense to our readers, but now we have so many more tools to use and streams to incorporate. It’s hardly a new idea, just a new way going about doing it.
Curation is a huge part of Digital First Media‘s plans. I/We see it as a way to give our readers a well-wounded view of a story or topic, while also freeing up our local staffs to do the original reporting they do best. It is with this in mind that I, along with my esteemed boss, Steve Buttry, will soon be hiring a national curation team comprised of a team leader and two curation editors.
While I do have something of a loose job description put together for these positions, the people who we’ll be hiring here will be trailblazers. Like a lot of us who are taking on experimental new roles, they’ll be determining (and always re-evaluating) what tools, practices and stories will work best for them and the company, rather than following directions from the top.
If you dare to wonder what a curation editor might do — we’d like to hear from you. Even if you aren’t necessarily interested in one of these jobs, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how curation and curators might best help you and/or your newsroom best serve readers.
Some ideas we’ll be exploring:
How should we provide curation around big national stories, where primary coverage will be handled either by our staffs or by our content partners?
How should be capitalize on local stories that might have national appeal?
How should we curate the social conversation around the day’s big “talker” stories in a way that would interest even those who aren’t on social media?
How should we help local newsrooms in their curation efforts without just taking it over?
What curation tools should we use? Which do YOU use?
What kind of content should we curate? Is there anything we should avoid?
How should we evaluate, verify and attribute content we curate?
The curation team will be part of Project Thunderdome, which will handle national content for the websites of 75 daily newspapers of Digital First Media (scattered across 18 states), as well as some niche content that may be used by the sites of our weekly papers.
I look forward to seeing where this conversation takes us.
I see it as a sign we’re getting better at this verification business.
* I feel this deserved a special shoutout to Anthony De Rosa, who is the unfortunate example of a journalist biting on a bad hoax in my regular verification training slides. Now he’s included here on the side of good.