Archives for category: Newsonomics

I hadn’t paid much attention to the New York Times‘ Times Insider features until I checked out NYTimes.com this morning over coffee. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll be a regular. But the Times may not be getting maximum value out of its Story Behind the Story posts just yet.

The latest is on how Managing Editor Dean Baquet decided to play the death of Gabriel García Márquez, the master of magical realism who died this week at the age of 87. Baquet had to decide whether to run a straight obituary, which he had in hand already, or go with the culture editor’s recommendation to run an appraisal of the great Colombian novelist’s impact that was still being written at the time. Making decisions with incomplete information is part of the daily news editor’s routine.

One neat thing about the Times Insider articles is that they can draw attention to pieces readers may have overlooked earlier in the week. That said, why doesn’t the Times include links the articles discussed? Perhaps it was an oversight. Linking to them can give old stories fresh legs, encourage readers to join the conversation in the comments section, and perhaps give day-old stories fresh legs by encouraging online users to post links to them on Facebook and Twitter (or, to get a little meta, comment about them on our own blogs).

I’m glad Times Insider is providing this window into news decision making. Journalism teachers can use installments as tools to develop their students’ soft skills.

But about the price: I have to say that to me, the $10.25-per-week subscription price is a bit steep considering  you could buy four copies of the print edition for that. I’m not sure that I would get the same out of Insider as I do from four daily papers. I sure can’t see paying $500 a year for the premium edition. To me, that’s two car payments. But maybe that pricing isn’t designed for people like me. Who is the Times’ target market for this?

Still, If you’re a regular digital subscriber like me, the occasional Story Behind the Story post is available to you for nothing extra. That’s plenty for me.

You don’t necessarily have to be a certified multimedia ninja to break in as a reporter at a mainstream news organization. But you do need a basic level of digital and social media savvy, Sonya Sorich told the Auburn University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists tonight. Sorich is audience engagement coordinator for the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ga., and writes the news site’s American Idol blog

Sorich has a pretty cool gig as a features reporter who specializes in driving traffic to the Ledger-Enquirer’s website and writing about entertainment and pop culture, including live-tweeting during TV shows. One recent example was last weekend’s Miss World competition. Her editors depend on her to write stories for online and print, to blog, to live tweet and offer up observations on daily occurrences on Twitter, to contribute to the paper’s Facebook presence.

Of course, the emphasis on digital-first, print-second journalism means that reporters are under consistent pressure to get good stories and information up on the website constantly. And the de-emphasis on copy editors’ role and numbers in the newsroom means that some tasks that the copy desk handled in the past now get done by reporters. At the Ledger-Enquirer, reporters all have the capability of posting stories at any time from any place without their going through an editor. To me, that emphasizes what I’ve long argued: In a world without copy editors dedicated to serving as the last line of defense, the role of copy editing training becomes more crucial than ever. Why? Because the industry demands that every reporter serve as his or her own editor.

I asked Sorich what digital and social media skills were expected of reporters breaking in at the Ledger-Enquirer. She offered this list:

  • Twitter: When her editors are hiring, they expect job candidates to have Twitter accounts and to be active on them. “When someone throws up 24 consecutive tweets because they just applied for a job, it’s pretty easy to look at their account and see they have a six-month gap since the last time they were active,” Sorich said. So you need to maintain a consistent Twitter presence and understand and do the basics, including posting a balance of personal observations and links to your own content and content that others have created.
  • Facebook: Yes, editors look to see if you’re on Facebook and understand how it functions because so many legacy media outfits that are going digital have established Facebook presences to reach out to the billion-and-counting users on that platform.
  • Smartphone and iPad skills: You need to know how to shoot video and photos with your phone and how to upload content to social sharing sites. What is meant by iPad skills? Well, for starters, you need to be able to use apps that a reporter would expect to use to find information and record it. That means knowing how to use audio recorder apps, be aware of the various public information apps such as police scanner apps (I like the Police Scanner Radio Scanner app, at least for major cities). Of course, having access to a mobile web browser is essential for getting background information on the fly. Sorich said a lot of papers are using Instagram, though McClatchy, the parent company of the Ledger-Enquirer, does not because of legal rights issues.
  • Search engine optimization: “You don’t have to take a whole class in it,” Sorich said, “but you should look to see how the best sites put together headlines to attract traffic.” To get a handle on what works and what does not, I recommend testing keywords using the Google AdWord Keyword Planner. The Ledger-Enquirer uses Omniture, but you can also use Facebook Insights and Google Trends to see what search terms are hot.
  • Basic html: No, you don’t have to be able to build a website from scratch using nothing but code. “That’s what a coder does. You don’t have to be a coder,” Sorich said. But you do need a basic understanding of what code does, how to boldface or italicize words and how to insert links. And you need to be able to look at your text, recognize when something looks a little off, and be able to troubleshoot it. That stuff is easily learned in about a day of tinkering with the visual and text views in WordPress.
  • Content Management Systems: I asked about this, and Sorich said not necessarily — at least you don’t necessarily need to know any single, specific one. But you do need to understand the logic of how CMSes work, how files are created and updated and categorized and tagged.

The new reality is one where every reporter must also think like a marketer and use digital tools that make your material easy for the kind of people who are interested in your stuff to find. That kind of thinking was anathema with a lot of old-school editors who were convinced that they knew exactly what everybody ought to hear, even if they didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to hear. The new media journalist must balance both.

As I read the reflection papers my Reporting students wrote about the introduction and first chapter of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, I note that several students dwelt on the continual change in the definition of news since the Revolutionary War era. Several also noted change in the ways news is delivered.

Knowing the history of this craft and professional* practice we love points at the inevitability of change, yet American journalism frequently finds itself paralyzed concerning how to adapt to the rise of new technologies and changes in public taste. If we looked to the past for antecedents, we would be better equipped to cope and adapt. Examining journalism history should be a regular mental hygiene that inoculates us against the disease of inertia.

The fact is, the news industry grew complacent about hefty profit margins in the 30 percent and up range. Phillip Meyer’s essay “Saving Journalism” (2004) and book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Digital Age (2009) describe an industry that saw what was coming for it but was thrown for a loop as it struggled to evolve. Why do we find it so difficult to change?

The push to teach our students to code and to shoot multimedia stories and use content management systems isn’t so far removed from what happened to me as an undergraduate. I learned to type on a manual typewriter in junior high, upgraded to an electric typewriter in high school, and used my first PC in a lab in the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas.

When the profession was new to me, so were all the technologies being introduced. While we used clunky, proprietary front-end systems to process copy and “H&J” (headline and justify) our display type in the newsroom of the University Daily Kansan, over in Les Polk’s editing and design class we students were beginning to figure out how to put Aldus Pagemaker and QuarkXPress to work to do this new thing called pagination.

Using those programs was a struggle, and we got a lot of stuff wrong in the beginning. But experimenting with Quark got us ready to be the generation that took daily newspapers first into area pagination, then full-page pagination to paste-up, then straight to film, then straight to plate. The rate of change, come to think of it, was astonishing. Given that background, it’s not so hard to make the leap into the online world. What html commands text to do is the same thing manual coding did in the era of area pagination.

These examples come from just the last 30 years. How did we get from Gutenberg to the Internet? Incrementally, of course, from Gutenberg press to Stanhope iron press to steampress, from hand-set type to stereotyping to electroplating to Linotype, and from mail carrier on horseback to delivery by steamship to the first “lightning” telegraph, to the Trans-Atlantic Cable, to radio to television to the Internet.

My generation of journalism professors joined the news industry during a time of rapid, incremental change in the computerized processing and display of news. I wrote my first news story in 1987, I joined the full-time journalism labor force in 1990, and worked in newspapers until I joined the professional-practice faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism and staff of faculty editors at the Columbia Missourian in 2002. The mid-twentieth century was an anomaly in that the technological routines of reporters were little changed. Change is the real normal state for journalism technology.

Those of us who worked on copy and design desks (myself included) in the 1990s and early 2000s got used to that change on a regular basis, while changes for reporters came more slowly and largely involved the technologies they could use to gather information (e.g., smaller and smaller tape recorders, suction cup mics for telephone receivers to record conversations, switching from typewriters to PCs to laptops, the ability to file by remote via telephone modem or satellite hookup).

But video remained so expensive it was out of the question for most newspaper newsrooms to adopt. Maybe that’s why the demand in the last decade to become backpack and mobile journalists capable of videography and video editing has come as such a shock. Videotaping and editing? Isn’t that what videographers and producers are for? We are all our own videographers and producers now in the converged world.

How to cure this future shock? The obvious answer for veteran reporters in future shock is training, a luxury news organizations might hesitate to provide even when veteran journalists step forward to request it. I have written elsewhere about the training I’ve sought to prepare myself to teach multimedia reporting and storytelling to my own students. While the opportunities are there, I know it remains challenging to carve out the time or come up with funds to pay for it. But do so we must to remain relevant.

The bigger answer for the news industry is to sound out hiring editors for what they need, revamp curricula, and do whatever it takes to train the next generation to be technologically savvy and adaptable while maintaining the enduring values of journalism. We’re doing that at Auburn University’s journalism program through a just-announced partnership with Raycom Media in which professionals, faculty, and students will collaborate in a convergent newsroom to produce local news stories for television, the Web, social media and digital devices.

While information technology lurches forward at a frantic pace, the traditional values of journalism remain largely the same. My students seem to embrace those values as sacred. This heartens me. They also raise questions about how to preserve those values amid technological and economic change. By assigning this reading to my students and encouraging discussion of it, I am sowing the idea that change in the news industry and evolving technologies are normal, but the core values of American journalism are worth preserving. Watch for my next post, in which I will discuss the ways journalists of the past have juggled journalistic values with economic pressures.

* Yes, there is debate about whether journalism is a “profession.” While we lack professional licensing, we do abide by codes of ethics and hold each other to standards that are characteristic of professions.

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