Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Category: Rants Page 1 of 3

Remembering David Carr As The Misfit Amid the Elites

When first read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in high school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Thompson’s distinctive voice and writing style leapt off the page no matter what the subject matter – there was simply no mistaking you were reading one of his stories. His personal story — of a boy from Kentucky making it into some of the best publications in the world — spoke to me too. His success was based on ability and scrappiness alone.

When Thompson committed suicide in 2005, it was the first time I ever cried over the death of someone I’d never met. Yesterday was the second.

David Carr, in my opinion the greatest writer working in the business, died on Feb. 12 after collapsing in the newsroom of the New York Times.

David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton

David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton, shared on Twitter via @wendymac

Like Thompson, Carr had an incredibly distinctive style — in writing and speaking — that set his work above anyone’s on the media beat or elsewhere. There was no mistaking that Carr voice. I remember one time I was reading an in-flight magazine, some one-page Q&A with a celebrity, and three paragraphs in I said to myself, “Is David Carr writing this? Surely not…” It was. Of course it was.

In watching the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times”, I was enamored with Carr’s personality, which I had never seen on video before. That drove me to read his memoir, “The Night of the Gun“, which I think should be required reading for any aspiring journalist.

Carr wasn’t polished, he didn’t have a prestigious background and, like me, he was from “flyover country” (in his case, Minnesota). Throughout his early professional life, he had been his own worst enemy, struggling for years with drug addiction. He overcame himself, outran his past and ended up writing some amazing stories and generating a thousand quotable quotes.

That someone as imperfect as Carr could, based on the power of his talent alone, end up working — and thriving — in the newsroom of the New York Times is proof that success is possible for any of us.

It wasn’t easy for him – he didn’t get there by going to the right school or having the right unpaid internship or his impeccable branding via social media. He did it by being a talented writer and by continuing to pull himself out of his darkest places to let that talent shine. And once he got there, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He didn’t let the Times change him – but he let the times change him. He embraced social media, he threw himself into learning about the digital changes going on in the industry. He wasn’t shy about turning a critical eye or acerbic comment to the latest media endeavors coming along every day, but he wasn’t closed-minded, either.

If Thompson was the driver for me to get into this industry and the fire behind my early years, Carr was the inspiration for the journalist I wanted to grow into. He was crazy-smart and could be very cutting, but he was witty and funny and kind in all the right ways and all the right times. We’d all love to be remembered that way.

I didn’t know him. I always hoped someday I would. Lots of journalists have shared great stories about how he touched their lives in meaningful ways. I didn’t ever meet him in person, but he certainly touched mine, too, merely by being the best example of what is possible for misfits.

At the end of his book, Carr said:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

I’m grateful the New York Times took a chance on journalist who was flawed and amazing and oh-so-worth-it. I’m grateful to still be a part of an industry where survivors are all holding on for dear life. I’m grateful for the daily miracle of news.

I’m grateful for David Carr.

nathanborror/Flickr

Lessons learned from a (briefly) disconnected life

For three weeks in September, I lived without a cell phone of any kind. When I was away from home or work, I was an island.

nathanborror/Flickr

nathanborror/Flickr

This wasn’t some grand experiment staged so that I could write a blog post about it and wow you all with my insights into Disconnected Life – it just happened. My iPhone died a sudden death at Kolkata airport in the middle of a two-week trip in India. One minute it was there, the next, the screen faded to black, as if it had suffered a digital embolism. I was tethered to a constrictive U.S. cell contract and two weeks away from receiving the latest advancement in Apple technology. I decided to wait it out.

Going from a connected life – a very connected life, I’ll admit – to one of total, sudden disconnection, was in some ways like losing one of my senses.

I have had a cell phone of some sort since I was 19 years old. Before that, I’d had a pager issued by my parents – which probably gives you a pretty good clue about my age. Somehow, I made it through high school and one year of college without a cell phone. I was pretty active on social media in 2008, when I got my first smartphone. At the time, that act was something like giving a self-functioning meth lab to a cough syrup addict. I never would be alone again – with my thoughts, with someone else, without a clue as to what’s happening, for better and for worse.

Until now.

At first, it wasn’t so bad, as I was already on limited use, traveling on international data limits through my phone plan. I rarely use my phone for actual voice calls – I bet I take less than five total a week – so that wasn’t a huge loss at first, either.

But after a few hours of being alone in a foreign country – and really alone without access to the world beyond – the enormity set in. I was off the grid. If I got lost in India, nobody would even know. Not even me.

Without a phone, I felt so alone in the world, which was at once freeing and terrifying. On one hand, I didn’t have the burden of always being connected and, thus, always being one email or text away from a problem at work or home. On the other, I was adrift and unfindable. I had no way to tell anyone where I was. If I didn’t know where I was, I had no maps app to consult, I had to ask for directions like some sort of tourist (which, in New York City, is akin to telling someone you have leprosy).

It manifested itself in many small ways, too. If I couldn’t find a cab (which happens in Queens), I couldn’t just bring up my Uber app to have a car come save me. I didn’t know when trains were due to arrive, so I was often late. I couldn’t text my husband to tell him to pick up kitty litter. I couldn’t check my work email between meetings. I couldn’t take conference calls on the way to the office anymore. I couldn’t multitask. I couldn’t check sports scores or see what was happening in the world outside my immediate space. And the most odd experience: I was often the only person at a restaurant, on a subway car, in a meeting or airline terminal that was actually looking at other people, which made me feel like a creep.

It was a lot of “first world problems”, to be sure, but three weeks without a digital tie to the rest of my world forced me to become a bit more resourceful. I had to change some habits and, in doing so, had to confront some uncomfortable truths about the life I was living.

A few lessons learned from the Great Disconnection

1. It isn’t a good idea to be overly reliant on maps apps. Once upon a time, I was a Girl Scout. I could read maps and had a decent sense of direction. As an adult, I run out the door never even bothering to check addresses or to learn the basics of navigating the city where I live. At the very least, I know I should be aware of the address I’m going to and have enough working knowledge of the city grid to get close without getting lost.

2. Leave early to be on time. I am bad about timeliness all of the time, but it was especially bad without calendar reminders, directions and train schedules. I need to leave earlier – I know this. We all know this. We should be better.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for information. I realized I often use my phone in circumstances where it would have been easier to just talk to a human in real life for information. When did I become so anti-social?

4. Stop checking in, because it is dumb. I’ve been a habitual user of Foursquare since its inception. Between the introduction of Swarm and this phone drought, I’m finally over it. It turns out, it really isn’t much of a value add to my or anyone else’s life to know where I am.

5. Push alerts are not actually necessary, in most cases. Facebook messages about friends spamming me with events in faraway cities, headlines of news in other places, “your friends are talking about X on Twitter” alerts… I don’t actually need to know that stuff when I’m not on the phone. Unless that headline is “Giant fireball headed for New York”, chances are, it isn’t so bad to not know immediately.

6. Get over yourself. It turns out, in my weeks without updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so often, nobody seemed to miss me and my witty outlook on the world. Most of my friends will be surprised to learn I was ever gone.

7. Pay more attention to others when they are actually there, in person, with you. I know, I shouldn’t have had to learn this lesson, but when all of your friends (and your spouse) are always-connected journalists, it is easy to forget a time when we weren’t all keeping one eye on the phone. It is never more obvious when you have no phone in a room full of people – or even just the one you’re trying to spend time with – who aren’t looking up. Look up.

Technology is a solution, not a problem, for women in newsrooms

So maybe you’ve noticed – there’s a lot of talk about women in journalism these days in the wake of Jill Abramson’s unplanned exit from the New York Times. Aside from being a woman and a journalist, I haven’t generally felt that I have much expertise to add to this conversation as it has played out. Until today.

In a column on the Washington Post’s new PostEverything site today, Nikki Usher added a new facet to the discussion:

Technology has made it harder for women to survive, and thrive, in journalism. … Sophisticated infographics, interactive storytelling, and data-crunching have become essential to online journalism. It’s part of a critical mission to keep web news profitable. And unlike many other parts of traditional newsrooms, these teams are still hiring. But they’re hiring programmers and techies, most of whom are male. Women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs. According to Forbes, that number isn’t growing.

She’s right when she notes that the rising profile of digital skills in newsrooms hasn’t resulted in a growing number of women hired, but it isn’t fair to “blame the techies”, as the column’s deck suggests, for the diminished role for women in newsrooms. On the contrary, technology has largely been the answer to getting more women into newsrooms because it is getting more people with different skill sets than those valued in the past into newsrooms.

The rising importance of digital skills in newsrooms has made it possible for me to work my way up in this industry.  If those technology and social media skills weren’t valuable and someone at the top wasn’t pushing for their inclusion in new hires, I wouldn’t have been able to work at any of the great places I’ve been. If “techies” hadn’t been put in charge somewhere along the way, I’d never have gotten the opportunity to grow my skills, never gotten into a leadership role, never in turn been able to hire more women to those sort of roles.  Technology was my only leg up. But that’s just me.

Is it a problem that more women aren’t working in the highly prized journogrammer wings of elite newsrooms? Yes, absolutely. But it’s a far bigger problem that more women aren’t moving up the ranks across newsroom teams, a pre-existing culture problem which trickles down to those building these new tech teams.

There are lots of factors we can blame for women’s diminished role in newsroom leadership: Promotion culture focused on longevity over innovation, poor succession planning, closed social networks, legacy experience valued over digital experience, unfair expectations for female candidates, a lack of a farm system for qualified women, lack of flexible work options, fewer networking opportunities, etc.

Why do these things happen? How can we fix these issues? If I had all of the answers off the top of my head, I probably wouldn’t be unemployed.

Digital journalism and the people behind it aren’t what’s holding women back from newsroom leadership roles, but they are likely in the best position to solve that problem from within. These teams are already trying to change their cultures. They have increasing power and are generally recognized as the future of the industry – so what can we do to help them?

 

 

The Social Media Editor is Dead, Long Live the Social Media Editor!

Is the role of the newsroom social media editor dead? A lot of journalists seem to think so, according to this piece by Rob Fishman at Buzzfeed.

Fishman* talked with a lot of industry leaders who noted that “social was no longer peripheral, but core to their strategy. Concentrating authority in a single personage no longer made sense.”

They’re right, to some extent, but most of the people interviewed in Fishman’s piece are from larger news organizations with long-established roles in social media. Coming from a perspective of smaller local newsrooms, I beg to differ. Many news organizations out there still need someone on staff to be thinking about how to use social media effectively and strategically across the entire news organization.

It isn’t the social media editor that is dead, but rather the Newsroom Social Media Rockstar Ninja Guru (and thank goodness).

As Fishman notes, many of the early social media editors were able to build quite a name for themselves:

More followers, more about them, more about their “personal brand.” Instead of finding a niche within the newsroom, these hires carved one out for themselves, largely outside of existing structures. They became self-appointed spokespeople, faces and names.

The exoticism of social media created a whole class of (mostly young) journalists who suddenly were a big deal – but who were ultimately supposed to be working themselves out of a job. Many instead worked themselves into bigger and better ones (and good on them). ** These days, there are a lot of tasks heaped on the social lead that aren’t so glamorous.

Even outside the news industry, the pedestal on which social media ninjas have been placed is slowly sinking. According to this excellent piece by Amber Naslund, the spotlight for social specialists is dimming as they move into the larger machinery of the digital space – and the enthusiasm of the would-be Brand Builders is fading along with it.

There’s definitely still a lot of work that needs to be done in many newsrooms when it comes to social media. The evangelization to join social media is no longer a job to be done in most newsrooms. Using social media well isn’t enough anymore either. It’s become a more widely-held skill to be able to write a good tweet, get response from an engaging Facebook post or set up a new Tumblr to capture a fly-by meme – but it is much more difficult to determine where it fits in the overall picture and long-term goals of the organization.

As my friend Daniel Victor noted, social media editors are not created equal. That title has a lot of different meanings and job duties across the industry – it can range anywhere from the Twitter monkey manning the newsroom accounts 24/7 to a strategist working social in at the highest levels to the Thought Leader/Guru (or some combination therein).

So what do newsrooms really need from the modern social media leader? I say it involves the following:

  • Elevate the use of social media across the organization. Help staffers craft and evolve their own social media plans around their jobs – don’t just get them on a tool and throw them out on their own. Monitor their use over time, make suggestions and encourage them to grow in their comfort and skills.
  • Manage your news brand’s social presence – not necessarily with hands on the Tweetdeck all of the time, but driving the overall message.
  • Be the evangelist for community engagement in all newsroom endeavors. Make suggestions for how social media, curation, crowdsourcing and UGC fits with particular coverage plans, experiment (or help others experiment) with new tools and offer feedback based on metrics.
  • Be the voice of encouragement for using social media, but also the voice of when not to use it.
  • Act as the customer service agent – both inside and outside the newsroom. You aren’t the ombudsman, but you can certainly help connect someone with the solution to a problem. Be the sounding board and staff researcher for social media issues, be they ethical quandaries, UGC concerns or larger trends in the crossroads of social media and news.
  • Craft and/or carry out a social media strategy for the entire news organization – preferably as part of a larger team across the newsroom, sales, marketing, corporate structure and management. Work toward an overall vision for what the various aspects of the organization are trying to do with social media and how they all fit together.

What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments.

The truth is, most social media editors working in news today aren’t being paid to be thought leaders or personal brands — they’re being paid to make their newsrooms better. The rest is just gravy (mmm, gravy).

 

 

* Full disclosure, Fishman hired me on at Huffington Post two years ago, though we never had the chance to work together.

** I’m not saying the whole Social Rockstar thing isn’t great. In fact, it’s fantastic and intoxicating. Early on, when I first started in a social role in 2008 at the Cincinnati Enquirer, the social media role gave me a position of visibility in my newsroom and community I didn’t have as a web producer. Then, when I moved from Cincinnati to DC for TBD, it gave me that visibility on a much larger scale – it gave me a brand. I was suddenly invited to conferences and asked to speak to classes. People introduced themselves to me at conferences because they recognized my name from Twitter. My name was referenced alongside people who I considered to be famous journalists. That was pretty cool. It was also fleeting.

In light of Te’o story, how can we fix sports journalism?

 

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.


 

 

Photo/Flickr user True2Self
Photo/Flickr user True2Self

 

 

 

 

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.

So how can it be fixed?

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.

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That Post About the Lack of Posts

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.

Ron Liebau

Lessons Learned From An Old Dog Who Excelled at New Tricks

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.

Ron Liebau

Ron Liebau

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.

Women in Journalism: Be not afraid, for we are taking over

If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I am anything but a downer about the future of media – in fact, I’m bonafide psyched about it. It is because of this that I ended up giving something of a pep talk/call to arms to the Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association at the Pennsylvania Press Conference this past Saturday.

I haven’t really done any extemporaneous speaking since I was last required to as part of a college honors class, but I had a lot of fun doing it and I wanted to share it here with you. Obviously, these are the prepared remarks and I deviated a little bit in real-time (h/t to Steve Buttry for giving me the idea to post it here).

It’s great to look out at this crowd and see so many women working in this business – and who seem to know what fashion was like in the 1930s.

Admittedly I haven’t been in the business as long as some of you, but journalism in the past 10 years has felt like dog years to many of us – we’re all aging seven years with every one that passes. Everything keeps changing so fast. As soon as you learn one newsroom system or social media tool or pick up the latest lingo, another has come along to take its place.

When I first graduated from college, newsrooms were already cutting back instead of hiring. For me at least, this prompted an immediate career change. Instead of being a reporter as I’d always wanted, I decided to work on the web. There were tons of jobs out there for people who knew basic html, had journalism skills and were willing to adapt.

And thank God I did, I have no idea what I’d have been doing otherwise. (Between you and me, I really wasn’t a very good reporter anyway – mostly because I hate using phones)

I recently attended a reunion for those who worked at Kent State University’s student newspaper. Of those who attended school with me, I’d estimate less than 10% are still working as journalists. Some never even started. Many have been laid off in recent years, myself included.

It was at this reunion that one of my friends, one of those former journalists, took me aside. He’d heard I’ve been teaching journalism students at Georgetown University.

He says to me, “How can you give these kids hope? There’s nothing out here for them. There aren’t enough jobs for all of us that are already journalists.”

There is some truth in there. Enrollment in journalism schools continues to rise even as more traditional journalism jobs are disappearing.

But he is wrong. Journalism isn’t dying, it’s just changing. There’s a lot of reason to hope – not just for the kids still in school, but for the rest of us too. It IS a terrifying time to be a journalist, but it is also a very exciting time to be a journalist.

While the past few years have seen cuts in traditional newsrooms, there have been new ones starting up. We have new local and hyperlocal news sites and new investigative teams at the likes of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

We also have data geniuses and programming geniuses — all of these people we may not have recognized as journalists in years past — but they are out there working to reimagine journalism for the future. They’re making new tools to make our jobs easier – creating new ways to tell stories and, yes, make money.

Aside from all of that, this is an exciting time to be a woman in journalism.

Women are filling journalism schools faster than men. We have more women in our newsrooms than ever before – with hopefully more to rise in the ranks in the nest few years. Hell, we have a woman leading the New York Times, for crying out loud!

We also have many women among those striking out on their own to cover news the way they want.

Take Arianna Huffington. Whatever you may think of her, you have to admit she’s very smart.

In The Huffington Post, she created a booming media business that is changing the way we do journalism on the web. They found a formula that makes good journalism possible. It isn’t always elegant, but it works:

Cute cats + celebrities/ weird news = $ for reporters

And this investment in reporting paid off. The HuffPost won its first Pulitzer this year.

On a much smaller scale, there are other women making a successful go of it on their own.

Women like Tracy Record, who way back in 2005 — which is ancient history in internet years — started a personal blog about her neighborhood in West Seattle. In late 2007, Tracy quit her job as a TV news producer to work full-time for West Seattle Blog while her husband sold ads.

West Seattle Blog grew into a hyperlocal powerhouse that inspired other journalists to strike out on their own.

Tracy isn’t exactly cracking open Watergate, but she provides news that clearly matters to those who live there. With the aid of reader tips and paid freelancers, WSB covers local crime, traffic, business development – and even lost pets.

By mid-2008, the site made enough to support Tracy’s family, making it Seattle’s first self-sustaining online local news site.

All of this certainly wasn’t easy. Tracy and her family worked up to 20 hours a day for years to keep the site updated and filled with ads. She didn’t take a vacation until August 2009, when she could pay people to keep an eye on things back home.

But she did it by training her journalism skills on something she truly cared about – and it showed to her readers. Her engagement in the community – in person and online – drove readers to trust her to know what’s happening. It’s kind of old fashioned, if you think about it.

Back on this side of the country, we have Laura Amico, who runs the site Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C.

When Laura moved to DC with her husband, Chris, there wasn’t exactly a plethora of reporting jobs available. A crime reporter by trade, she was disappointed in the lack of local crime coverage. So she decided to change that.

In the fall of 2010, she launched Homicide Watch, a blog dedicated to covering every homicide in Washington D.C. — from crime to conviction. Laura sought to put a face and a story to many victims whose deaths went largely unrecorded by local media.

Using source documents, social networking and original reporting, Homicide Watch has become one of the nation’s most exhaustive resources on violent crime.

Probably more importantly, Laura’s work the family members and friends of crime victims a place to share their grief.

This spring, the site drew record page views of 20,000 page views a day.

If Laura were working within a larger news organization, she might not have gotten the resources or the time to run a project this big. By doing it on her own, with the aid of donations, grants and other sources, she was able to tackle this project her way.

And all this hard work has paid off, Laura will soon be heading to Harvard, where she was awarded a Neiman Fellowship for journalism.

These women are just two of the many out there doing news their own way – outside the traditional system. Now I’m not here to tell you that you all need to go out and start new websites or invent some new journalism tool (though it’d be cool if some of you did). What I’m saying is that so long as there are people with the will and the know-how, there will be journalism. And so long as we have women willing to step up and, if need be, go it alone – we’ll have female journalists running the newsrooms of the future.

So what can you do to help?

1. Push for more women to take on leadership roles in your newsroom. Support your female coworkers and competitors – because their successes are yours, too.

2. Speak up in news meetings, even if you aren’t an editor. Push to get your ideas heard both inside the newsroom and out in your community.

3. Don’t take no for an answer. On a panel aimed at female freelancers earlier this week in New York, a news website editor said he found male freelancers much more likely to follow up on a rejected story pitch with more pitches. Female freelancers, he said, he rarely heard from again. Don’t stand for that. You guys aren’t quitters.

4. Get out of your comfort zone and stay competitive. Do some freelancing outside of your beat area – maybe in something you wish you knew more about. Learn some basic programming. Start a blog, even if it is just to experiment.

5. Promote your expertise on social media. As women, we hesitate to sing our own praises – when we should be shouting from the rooftops to bring attention to the work we’re doing. We can’t afford to stay too quiet, lest all of those men on Twitter overpower us.

6. And finally, if you’re a veteran journalist, become a mentor to a young woman. Point her toward data journalism or beats in business and government — areas still dominated by men. Help her career develop – and you can probably learn quite a bit from one another.

If we support one another’s big thoughts and downplay our fears. If we occasionally dare to go out on a limb – maybe it won’t be such big news the next time a woman takes over a major media organization.

I’m more than a Twitter Monkey

So can I level with you guys? I’m relieved that I’m not going to be doing this same social media jam forever.

Not because I don’t like it – actually, I still really love it. I live to send out a tweet and see a flood of reaction come in as mentions and retweets. It warms my heart to see a Facebook entry with 100+ likes and a flood of often argumentative comments. And I’m not going to lie, I was bursting with pride at my part in making Huffington Post Politics the  most-trafficked politics site on the web last fall. It feels good to help drive 1.6 million social referrals in a month (December 2011).

No, I’m relieved because I’ve been worrying about my future and the future of the social media role at news organizations, for lots of reasons.

The Twitter Machine is a Cruel Mistress

At some news organizations, the social media editor role is one based largely in strategy, product development, evangelization and training. In other cases, the “social media editor” is manually running a newsroom’s branded social media accounts alone or as part of a small team, in a role I fondly refer to as “The Twitter Monkey”.

In theory, many social media jobs are intended to include both types of roles – but that doesn’t always work in practice (and I’m living proof). When you’re the/a voice behind a brand account that’s serious about breaking news – that is your life, end of story.

Watching and curating streams, responding to mentions, keeping an eye out for breaking news, promoting reporters’ work – it takes up so much time and mental energy that it’s difficult to do much else very effectively (and that includes being a spouse, friend, parent, pet owner, etc.).

The truth is, I’ve rarely had time in the past four years to actually step back and look at the big picture of what I’ve been doing. You have to be able to study, research and read to be able to create and evolve social strategy. You need to have time to experiment with new tools and practices and to work on new products to engage readers. You have to be available to help others with their own social media dilemmas. All of that is very difficult to do when you’re shoveling coal to power the Twitter Machine 24/7.

While that was fun, I wasn’t honing the sort of skills I feel would ultimately keep me employable in digital media, which brings me to Crippling Fear #2.

 

Joining the Twitter Monkey Seniors Tour

When I started running social media for The Cincinnati Enquirer in early 2008, there weren’t many social media editors out there. Most of us were former reporters, producers or editors who’d caught the Twitter bug and wanted to share it. We were part of the newsroom power structure from our former jobs, which helped move our practices into the rest of the operation.

These days, I’ve noted the social media specialist roles are increasingly filled by young, entry-level employees – and it isn’t surprising, social media has given many young journalists (myself included) a ticket straight into some of the largest media organizations.

Maybe this role has gotten younger because newsroom managers assume people in their 20s are naturally good at social media. Or maybe it’s because the role isn’t considered as much of a skill position as it was just a few years ago. Or maybe it’s because newsrooms don’t want to pay a social media specialist a salary befitting a few more years experience.

Whatever the reason, I feared (perhaps needlessly) that I’d soon be in a place where I wouldn’t be hirable as a social media editor anymore. I’d have to move on – and I was doubly worried I’d have nowhere to go.

It used to be you could start as a copyeditor, reporter or web producer and eventually (with good work) move up to be a mid-level editor, then an editor, then a director and so on. There was a system. The social media specialist, as a fairly new role, often isn’t in that system (from my anecdotal evidence-gathering). Their skills, while useful for their purposes, may not be likely to translate into larger digital roles in the minds of top level managers.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve expresses interest in jobs outside of social media – in content editing, digital management, news editor-type jobs, and been rebuffed with “but your experience seems to be in social media”. Lucky for me, I had a career before social media – and I’ve managed to do enough outside of my Twitter monkeying to keep those skills sharp.

Long story short, I was afraid I would be forever branded a “Social Media Person” – and then wouldn’t even be able to be hired for those existing social media positions, anyway.

 

Social Media =The Mafia

Maybe my fears are silly, I do come from a long line of worriers. I just can’t help but wonder what will become of my generation of social editors. Will those who want to move on be given the chance, as I have? Will the Twitter Monkeys be able to throw off their chains and join the editor meetings a bit more often?

I said in 2008 – and I still believe – that if we as the designated social media types were doing our jobs well, we wouldn’t be necessary because everyone in the newsroom would be proficient at social media.  That’s the best possible future I can imagine for the role of social media in our industry.

As for me, I know I may be leaving the ranks of the Twitter Monkeys, but I’m not out of social media by any means. I’ll still be wearing a hardhat, I just won’t be driving the forklift anymore.  Perhaps I can do all of that fun strategizing, teaching and big picture thinking I’ve heard so much about. I’ll get to spend more time on my own accounts, for once, and I’ll be helping others achieve their own goals. Man, I can’t wait.

Eds note: This is sort of stream of consciousness. Forgive my errors and future edits, I was on a roll. 

Sarah Palin’s emails and a call for collaborative journalism

If you were committing an act of news on Friday, June 10, chances are every national news organization missed it.

Why? We all had boxes and boxes of printed emails of an ex-political official to go through. From the New York Times to Mother Jones/MSNBC/ProPublica, the Washington Post and my own employer – many national news sources spent enormous amounts of human capital to scan, upload, display, read, analyze and crowdsource Sarah Palin’s emails.

While I won’t delve into the newsworthiness of this effort (that’s a whole other Pandora’s box), I wonder why it had to take a village to carry it out. In the hours and hours everyone invested into this effort — what was missed?

Credit: RambergMediaImages

Credit: RambergMediaImages

Consider this… This information, in and of itself, was not exclusive. The FOIAed information was being released to all media that wanted it at the same time – so why did the media compete over the actual obtainment and presentation of the information?

Why couldn’t the nation’s largest news sources put aside their shared need to own information and just combine their efforts to quickly get these documents online in searchable form? Hey, stop laughing. I’m serious.

Think about it. When the documents dropped, one effort could have been taken to scan and text-translate these emails. There would have been one upload to a site like DocumentCloud, thus preventing the major backlog on that site Friday as we all tried uploading to the same place.

Instead of driving readers to several similar-but-different document displays, the heavy-hitters could have built a single site (off all our brand servers). This hypothetical .org could have an embeddable search functionality and open API that could be displayed on all news sites, from the Austin American Statesman to the Zanesville Times Recorder – and on several platforms.

It wouldn’t eliminate competition – it would just drive news organizations to compete smarter in a way that uses less resources. We could compete over crowdsourcing efforts, i.e. who built the best app on top of the API for readers to submit findings; who built the best contributor network; who had the best resources on the back end taking in the tips, etc.  We would also be competing on how quickly and intelligently we analyzed these found facts – and how we displayed them on our sites.

Think of the time that could have been saved had we split up the labor. Think of how much faster we coud have gotten to the actual journalism – and then moved on to the next story.

In an age where we’re all doing more with less, why can’t we come together over the simplest of agreements to aid the effort of newsgathering as a whole?  Why couldn’t it work?

Note: I’d be happy to start the beer summit for the top editors of news orgs to hash this out for future efforts. Seriously.

New strategy: Berate bloggers, tell online readers to buzz off

I’m not sure where newspaper execs are getting their PR advice these days, but whoever/whatever it is needs to be fired. The print news sector has put out some head-shaking proclamations this week – all of which have a common theme of holier-than-thou insults directed at online news consumers.

First up is the absolutely appalling handling of a new business model by the Tallahassee Democrat. The paper is going to start charging for news online – which the publisher finally gets around to saying on the second page after a long-winded, self-congratulatory monologue.

The column says:

It no longer seems fair to have only half of our readers pay for content while the other half reads for free online. This is about changing how we do business, not simply putting up a paywall on digital content.

Unless the TD happens to charge quite a bit for their print edition, the print subscribers aren’t paying for that journalism any more than the digital readers. They’re merely paying to have it delivered to their homes on expensive paper. That payment isn’t covering the cost of the reporting and editing. More on that later.

Aside: The same column that says online readers aren’t paying for content is unnecessarily paginated into three pages in order to rack up page views and generate online ad revenue. Talk about adding insult to injury.

But at least the paper’s publisher and editor were only trying to pull a fast one over on digital readers. A columnist at the paper upped the ante, going so far as to equate online readers with shoplifters.

He also seems to espouse the belief that the paper’s journalists are apparently above criticism, especially from the criminals who consume their news online. I won’t bother excerpting, as the entire column is essentially about this point.

Both pieces not only reflect complete distaste for online readers, they also seem to be a bit behind the times. The production of journalism is paid for by advertising revenue, which has been largely generated by printed ads in the past (hence why these guys want to keep readers there).

I suppose the Democrat must have missed the news that online advertising will soon be surpassing print. Maybe they’d be better off finding new ways to market themselves to online readers to keep more eyeballs on their site.

That brings us to the other newspaper industry wishful thought of the week: The classic “we’re the only trusted source for news” mantra.

McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt told the Tri-City Herald a bedtime story about how “real” journalists are far more trustworthy than bloggers.

It is often impossible to know if anyone has verified the material that’s on the internet or whether anyone is held responsible for rumors, misinformation or outright libel.

That uncertainty is working in newspapers’ favor. People are turning to newspaper websites as a trusted source.

I’m not sure where Pruitt got his facts, which the paper reiterated without any backing up, because they’re quite flawed. I guess those online types aren’t the only ones who don’t back up what they hear from biased sources with real reporting. (Zing)

Thankfully, the Herald’s coverage area has blogger Matt McGee to set the record straight – with links to back up his claims. As my boss, Steve Buttry, asks in his post on this back-and-forth, “Which is the stronger example of journalism?”

This standoffish game has to stop if newspapers want to stick around. As these guys are out there turning away online readers and dismissing potential partners, news startups like TBD are out there ready to pick them up. And we aren’t alone.

Scoff if you want, but readers do, in fact, trust bloggers and news via social media more than you think. As the online medium continues to grow – and today’s young people continue to grow as news consumers – this New Frontier will become News as We Know It. Don’t newspapers want to be a part of that?

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).

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