Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Month: May 2010

What measures success in journalism these days?

As part of our effort to be open about the ongoing development of TBD.com, the Community Engagement staff has been writing a series of posts as to why and how we ended up here. It’s always the first question I get asked when I meet someone here in DC (can you tell by the accent?), so it’s a good assignment for getting to know us.

The story of how I ended up here is relatively well known (thanks to this and this), so I wrote about why I made the move.

In putting it together, I was thinking back to when I first announced (in mid-April) that I was leaving the Enquirer to come to TBD. A young journalist I know asked me, “Why in the world are you doing this? You have a good job. You’ve made it.”

I guess, in some ways, she was right. I had a voice at the table at a decent sized newspaper (and  had made it through several layoffs). That used to be a major milestone in my planned career goal – but a few months ago, I had an epiphany: My goals are outdated – and they really weren’t mine to begin with.

From Day 1 of journalism school, we were taught that to work at a Known Media Source is the biggest of big deals. Our ultimate goal would be to work at the New York Times’, Washington Posts and CNNs of the world – because that’s what many generations of eager journalists before us wanted. We were led to believe if we, like them, were to do good work at several smaller newspapers, we’d someday get brought up to the Majors of journalism to do the important kind of news that matters.

It’s kind of laughable in hindsight.

The big newspaper as the end-all-be-all is a throwback to a state of journalism that doesn’t really exist anymore. The culture of today’s big newsrooms are more “Stepford Wives” than “His Girl Friday”, employing journalists from a certain kind of background from a certain group of universities to tell a certain kind of story in the same way they’ve always told stories. Some are willing to stretch out of that box, but most haven’t. As an individual, you have to be quiet and fit in or you leave.

You don’t have to be in the Majors of newspapering to do important news that matters to people anymore. You don’t even have to be at a mainstream media source or have gone to journalism school. You don’t even have to call yourself a journalist at all. Getting recognition from big newspapers or major awards, while still nice, isn’t really the bar we have to measure ourselves by anymore. Exposure, originality and branding is the key – and you can do that on your own blog.

And that’s where TBD came in for me. I wanted the chance to do something new – and it was becoming obvious that I’d have to leave that Stepford Journalist career path to do it. Who knows? It might have been too large a risk – time will tell – but I bet I learn more from my time at TBD than I would have at a newspaper.

Am I saying I might not go back sometime or that I wouldn’t still want to work at one of those bastions of journalism someday? Of course not. I’m just saying I don’t think the old measures of success apply anymore. My success, for now, is TBD (har har).

The new kid in the downpour of fresh ideas

When you’ve spent your entire professional career in a newspaper’s newsroom, it’s pretty easily to get your mind blown at a startup. I can attest to that firsthand in my first few days on the job at TBD.

Instead of shoehorning some new media approach into a centuries-old tradition, we’re building something so new, it’s still somewhat intangible – and that’s the fun part. It’s also sort of terrifying.

Because we haven’t launched yet, there are no deadlines, per se (which is a tough adjustment from my last few years working in breaking news). Our deadline for now is launch – and then infinite thereafter as we continue to add new features and tweak tools.

Right now, there are no rules, but I wouldn’t call it lawless, either. All of us currently involved with TBD have extensive experience in news and/or the social sphere. We know the framework of what we’re working toward, the rest is totally up for grabs.

In the past few days, I’ve been in several meetings with the rest of the community engagement staff where we have been brainstorming TBD’s processes for reader participation, community newsgathering and the all-important continuous breaking news. There are only five of us in a room, but it’s a hurricane of what-ifs and how-about-wes.

Not once has anyone said, “We can’t do that” or “That isn’t possible”. That’s a great feeling.

I know those times are coming. Some ideas will make it and others won’t. For now, though, I’m just trying to get a word in edgewise in a newsroom full of energy and rapid-fire ideas.

In addition to these sessions, we’re crowdsourcing our TBD plans, so if you have ideas you’d like to share, please do.

The community hosts are already miles ahead of me, working hard to recruit good bloggers for our network. I, on the other hand, am desperately trying to catch up.

I’ve found being the social media producer for a website that doesn’t exist in a city that doesn’t know you is a pretty tall order. All that community I built around myself in Cincinnati is now far, far away – so now the new task is cracking the Twitter code of this area.

In preparation to launch the TBD Twitter account(s) in the near future, I’m currently working on building up my own DC base on Twitter, figuring out who to follow for breaking news, community tips, laughs and tips about cheap beer. I’m working on finding the “nodes” (as my former editor was fond of calling them), that is, the Kevin Bacons on the metro DC social media sphere who are followed by and follow everyone important.

That’ll take some time, I know. I’m just not very patient. Have ideas/suggestions? You know the drill.

Because we haven’t launched yet, there are no deadlines, per se (which is a tough adjustment from my last few years working in breaking news). Our deadline for now is launch – and then infinite thereafter as we continue to add new features and tweak tools.

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