A while back I offered ASNE members some unsolicited advice about the focus of their recent convention. Among the priorities, I said, should be hiring people whose skills match the complex needs of today's news organizations, abilities that are not necessarily learned in journalism school. I wrote:
Hire Do-ers, Learners and Critical Thinkers First, Then the J-School Grads. Journalism isn't rocket science and a journalism degree doesn't mean its holder will do work that is interesting, compelling, exciting, innovative or even up to the basic standards of reporting and editing. Some do, but many more don't. What qualities does a newspaper-based news organization need in its employees in order to change and succeed today? Here's my list: Personal drive and accountability, collaborative communication skills, the ability to learn new things with minimal direction, literacy in several media, a sense of adventure and risk and competitive instincts. Let's get that those people and then teach them the journalism skills. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]
The journalism education community finally agrees.
Yesterday, five large journalism schools, the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $6 million program intended to re-configure journalism education. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation pays my freight on the Tomorrow's Workforce project.)
The thinking behind the initiative lies in a study done, pro bono, by the McKinsey consulting group, which, interviewed 40 news executives of all stripes and concluded that journalism schools should be:
"Teaching basic reporting and writing skills, as well as the paramount importance of getting the facts right.
"Developing news judgment and analytical skills, including the ability to separate fact from opinion and use statistics correctly. As one interviewee put it, 'An astonishing amount of journalism requires strategic thinking and planning.'
"Mastering specialized expertise and critical language skills (e.g. economics, medical research, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi).
Raising admission standards and helping the best and brightest land challenging jobs."
In other words, teach them how to do it, what to do and what not to do while doing it, topical knowledge, and cultural literacy and - this is important - direct those with the aptitude into the profession, meaning, that those would-be journalists without writing chops, curiosity or the ability to parse complexity should be "channeled" elsewhere.
These are all good things, especially the last one about raising standards. Although anyone can be a journalist, not everyone can be a good one. Part of the reason for the rise of mediocrity in newspapers is the dearth of talent in many newsrooms, mostly those that can't -- or won't -- pay for it. (Hold the rotten vegetables! There is plenty of talent in U.S. newspapers; it's just not distributed equitably or developed fully.)
(It's still astonishing how many reporters and editors simply cannot write well or cannot tell complex stories clearly. Yes, the newspaper industry should spend more on training, but what journalism school took the money from these well-meaning, but tin-eared stenographers and graduated them? Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, one of the five schools receiving the Carnegie-Knight funding, told me in interview for this American Journalism Review story, referring to the lecture approach to journalism education: "They come in being unable to write and they leave being unable to write. … You can't be lectured into good writing. You have to be worked with, like gymnastics.")
Back to the education initiative: The question, of course, is one that confronts all institutions trying to change: Can the priesthood reinvent itself or will good intentions - even those with a $6 million underwriting - be swallowed by tradition and intransigence?
One indication that the temple guards - to continue the metaphor - are still going to control the acolytes is the emphasis the new initiative places on investigative reporting. The New York Times story on the grant reported the program's goals as:
"Their goal is to revitalize journalism education by jointly undertaking national investigative reporting projects, integrating their journalism programs more deeply with other disciplines at their universities and providing a national platform to try to influence the discourse on media-related issues."
Investigative reporting is a critical differentiator for professional journalism from the media noise we live in, but should it be a core element - an emphasis - of journalism education over other components? I'm not so sure.
I would substitute and start with community journalism (which I know does not exclude investigative reporting). Most journalists coming out of school are confronted either with small town newspapers or suburban news bureau in their first jobs, where investigative reporting is about as popular -- or wanted -- as first-person essays. There is already a high frustration level among young reporters from better J-schools who end up at small newspapers where they bemoan, for example, their inability to practice the CAR techniques they learned in school and don't appreciate the opportunity they have to report on a local community.
Howard Finberg, creator of NewsU at Poynter, has a good backgrounder on the debate over journalism education and the role it should play in preparing journalists for an ever-changing future of news. He says:
"There has always been this push-pull between the intellectual side of a journalism education - media history, communications theory - and the occupational training - newswriting basics - needed to enter the workforce."
The "heart of the dispute, as currently framed, is whether to prepare students with the intellectual skills of journalists or to prepare them to be general communicators."
I vote for door No. 1 - and door No. 2. We need to equip journalists to think, be critical (not criticizers), act decisively and purposely - and then communicate, continuously.
Medsger, a friend, has done a lot of good thinking about journalism education. In 1998, at a presentation at Poynter she said (emphasis added):
"The first thing I'd like to do is to state what I think most of you will regard as a preposterous idea. … When it comes to how journalists look at what they do and what their institutions do, journalists do not believe in education, and that they instead believe in magic.
"... I'm going to give you three quick pieces of my evidence. I'm sure that a lot of you have heard journalists say something like this when criticized about a story. 'It's not our fault. We just cover what happens.' Implying no perception of the fact that there might be 100 different ways to cover any one event or issue, rather than the one that was used. Another example, 'We had to go with it because the Washington Post or Drudge went with it and forced our hand.' You notice a helpless quality here."
Those types of statements reflect an absence of personal responsibility, an obtuse lack of professional self-awareness rooted in our industry's pride in doing rather than thinking. We do journalism; we don't think about it. That's someone else's job. [Read: Eliminating the Bimbo Factor.]
(Here's more by Medsger, this for NYU: "Consider this possibility: Journalism education gets in the way - in the way of creating good journalism and in the way of getting a good education.")
All in all, the money and the commitment by these schools is a good beginning. I'm glad to see Berkeley and Schell involved. He's a bit of a maverick and when you invited a maverick to dinner the meal gets a lot more interesting.
In my interview with Schell two years ago he said:
"Journalism school have to make students love history, literature, poetry, philosophy. In some small measure, give them a little resonance. It's very warping for undergraduates to go to journalism school and then become men and women of the cloth. They miss a whole range of study. They should be out reading good novels as undergraduates."
Can the priesthood reinvent itself? It has to.
Other points of view:
Andrew Cline, Rhetorica: "... we who teach journalism should be preparing our students to practice it well at any news organization--especially the small, local operations. Who is the audience for journalism?"
Exegesis, a J-school graduate: "I wonder even if it is necessary for journalism programs to continue organizing themselves around a 'trade' school model that trains future professionals for the industry. It seems to me that in a new digital era, where information is abundant, everyone is a potential content producer, and everyone has access to a variety of sources for their news, information management is becoming the most important part of the craft of journalism."
Bob Stepno, who teaches journalism: "Maybe there will be some online forums and blogs for teachers to talk about their craft, as well as the craft of journalism... and the challenges of getting students interested in real news today."
Jeff Jarvis: Quotes Hodding Carter, head of the Knight Foundation: "The great dirty secret in journalism and journalism education is that we are inherently conservative in the way we do things."
Paul Conley: "I tend to doubt that much good will come from the announcement …"
Donica Mensing, PJNet: "Whether universities can break free of some of the institutional patterns that tend to trap them in passing along the approved canon instead of innovating and changing journalism, is an open question."
B&C Beat, graduated last week: "Earning a master's degree is like buying a PC. Just as soon as you get one, the manufacturer rolls out a newer, faster model."
I've been nailed to the bed (and elsewhere) for two days by a bad BLT. I'm still too groggy to think, but not too foggy to link. Here's some good reading:
"Aggregate, organize, and highlight the best of newsroom and citizen media: good reporting, good story ideas, new viewpoints, public pulse points."
Next, Jeff lays out tactics for old media to remain relevant in this time of new and newer media: Get rid of commodity news, provide news when and how people want it, get authentic voices and more. He also barbecues one of my favorite newsroom sacred cows, the perceived need by mid-size and up newspapers to replicate generic national news with their own writers, thereby taking precious resources away from the one type of news that differentiates them from other media: Local. Writes Jeff:
"Similarly, newspapers and their audiences would be best served concentrating on what they do best: local, local, local. If they gave us the local news that no one else could gather and report, they'd be worth more to us. But this, too, is a hard habit to break: not sending the 15,001st correspondent to the political conventions, not editing the already edited AP report, not printing the stock tables...." (Emphasis added.)
Dan Okrent, One Classy Guy: I didn't link earlier to this post on PressThink about the good Daniel Okrent has done for the New York Times and for journalism in general, but I should have. His final column for the Times -- 13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did -- is a example of the thoughtfulness, erudition and transparency he brought to the job - qualities newspapers should pursue with vigor. A snippet:
" … I would love to see journalists justify their work not by wrapping themselves in the cloak of the law, but by invoking more persuasive defenses: accuracy, for instance, and fairness."
Small Initiatives, Big Thoughts: Jay Small, a former newspaper guy turned web guy turned consultant, argues that "niche-oriented service development could save newspapers," and in doing so addresses some very pragmatic issues that arise when you consider the move from mass to class. Small also takes a swipe at the same issue as Jarvis: the generic quality of local news. He's written two parts so far. Read them here and here. Here's a taste:
"Newspaper managers have to stop blindly assuming they are producing the only -- or the best -- news product their readers see every day. That assumption is what puts Bush/Putin in the lead spot on A1, and allows all the local sportswriters to doze because no high school events happen to be played on Sundays." (Emphasis added.)
"The job isn't to find stuff out and package it; it's to solicit other people to provide information and encourage interactivity among your [online] users."
That sounds a lot liked Jarvis' definition of the city editor of the future:
"Share news anywhere, anytime, in any medium: You will package and enable news gatherers to share news as it happens in and through any appropriate medium -- text, photo, audio, video, conversation, shared resources."
Niche is the Signal Amid the Noise: Mike Orren of Pegasus News points to Chris Anderson'S argument that "the Long Tail is indeed full of crap. But it's also full of works of refined brilliance and depth--and an awful lot in between." Meaning what? That:
"This is why niches are different. Your noise is my signal. If a producer intends something to be absolutely right for one audience it will by definition be wrong for another. The compromises necessary to make something appeal to everyone mean that it will almost certainly not appeal perfectly to anyone--that's why they call it the lowest common denominator."(Emphasis added.)
In other words, the value proposition increasingly lies in the ability to produce news for the Citizen Me. [Read: Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] Says Anderson: "You can charge more for high-quality niche content because it is so well-suited to its audience."
had to disable comments because when I "upgraded" Movable Type to 3.16 my spam filter -- MT Blacklist -- stopped working and I've been under non-stop attack. I've tried to reinstall a new version of Blacklist, but I don't have any more time to waste on it. Hey, I want to have a writing tool, not be a one-man tech shop trying to configure a half-dozen CGI files re-enabled comments for now, but you must be registered with TypeKey to post. You can register here. If you don't want to register, you can email comments to me and I'll post them as time allows.
I'm looking for a better solution, but I have to change web hosting companies for that and that's going to take some doing.
These people are scum.
In the meantime: I'll be happy to add your comments to the ends of entries by hand. Email is in the upper right.
The powerful story in the New York Times today about the deadly abuse of Afgan detainees at the hands of U.S. military personnel illustrates vividly the difference between using a source to gain first-hand knowledge, as the Times did, and relying on a source's second-hand information, as Newsweek did with the now infamous Koran item.
It is the difference between reporting and repeating.
The key paragraph, from a sourcing standpoint, in the Times story is this:
"The story of Mr. Dilawar's brutal death at the Bagram Collection Point - and that of another detainee, Habibullah, who died there six days earlier in December 2002 - emerge from a nearly 2,000-page confidential file of the Army's criminal investigation into the case, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times." (Emphasis added.)
Compare it to the Newsweek sourcing:
"Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators … flushed a Qur'an down a toilet … These findings, expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami … (Emphasis added.)
The Times knew. It had the report. Newsweek never knew. It only repeated what someone told its reporters. Reporting vs. repeating.
Jay Rosen began his analysis of the affair with two statements by Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker:
"We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are." -- Whitaker, Sunday.
"Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay." -- Whitaker, Monday. (Emphasis added.)
Whitaker was never in a position to say he or his reporters had first-hand knowledge of the report. They had to rely on an anonymous source who eventually abandoned them.
I got dinged by some newspaper traditionalists (although I am one, too) the other day when I ranted about the "self-destructive obsession by the press with 'scoops.'" [Read: Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet.] I should have been more precise: "meaningless, incremental scoops that hand on one unattributed fact."
The Newsweek story is not a "scoop." It was factoid, one that, to borrow Whitaker's adjective, the magazine was ultimately unable to prove.
By comparison, the Times piece on the despicable behavior by some of the guards and interrogators Bagram - that's a scoop. And that's the type the press should be obsessed with.
As Jeff Jarvis said the other day on the Newshour, the prime directive of journalism is "to tell the truth that we know." Having a copy of the report, as the Times did, is knowing the truth. Relying on a "knowledgeable U.S. government source," as Newsweek did, is assuming the truth. And you know what happens when you assume.
Here's some after matter from the Newsweek mess. I'm behind, but some may be new to you.
The No-Show Symposium: I was among a group of folks - with Katrina Heron (Wired, "Safe") and Sandy Rowe (the Oregonian) invited to speak at the Knight Fellowships 2005 Symposium at Stanford the other night. The topic was credibility. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker was supposed to keynote the event, but he canceled. Here's the Stanford Daily's report on it. I spoke about the need for new values in journalism. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]
Best lines of the evening: Heron quoting Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future: "Obsolete power corrupts obsoletely." Also, Heron's definition of community: "Community is the people you're stuck with."
When You're Wrong, Bite Big: In the New York Times story about Newsweek's retraction, Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys, a consumer loyalty firm said the magazine's initial we-apologize-but-we-stand-by-the-story statement was too wishy-washy. "They tap-danced," he said. "They should have immediately bit the bullet and admitted they were wrong. There was no middle ground here."
A friend, who is CEO of a Bay Area startup, once said: "When you have to eat shit, don't nibble." Good advice for journalistic error-makers of the future.
Play with Fire, Get Burned: As I've said, I'm not against use of anonymous sources, but I believe stories should not be based on a single nor should anonymity be granted with the routine disregard that it is these days, especially in Washington. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post speaks in a similar vein in this Times' profile of Michael Issikof, the well-regarded reporter who wrote the Newsweek item.
"It's hardly surprising that Mike would write a controversial story based on an anonymous source," Mr. Kurtz added. "Sometimes that is the only way to get at sensitive or classified information. But when you live by unnamed sources, you can also get burned badly when the source is wrong." (Emphasis added.)
Mark Trahant of the Seattle P-I says my call for context in reporting isn't new, that it dates from the Hutchins Commission 58 years ago, but it is "essential now."
By the way the Hutchins Commission recommendations for journalistic standards remain particularly relevant today. They are:
A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning.
A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
The projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in society.
The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society.
Full access to the day's intelligence.
Skimble says the news media is more upset about a press brouhaha than the about the government detention policies that led to the reporting in the first place. CJR Daily echoes that sentiment, saying "the press has largely ceded control of the story to the White House."
Will Bunch, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, says in his blog the real problem is - me. He labels me "a poster boy for everything that is wrong with American journalism" because, to paraphrase, I argue that context is a better standard for journalists than scoops. Bunch points out, rightly, the need for investigative journalism, the powerful role of whistleblowers and the seriousness of the prisoner abuse done by the U.S. government to war on terrorism detainees. Regardless of Bunch's personal opinion of me ("risibly pompous"), we don't disagree about those issues. We part ways on the blanket defense of techniques like the routine use anonymous sources that contribute to further public confusion about and negativity toward journalism.
(Will: I have written for a couple of years that only the type of serious, deep and, yes, contextual reporting you mention above can help journalists distinguish themselves from the cacophonous mess that is modern media. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism.] I wrote it a couple of years ago and my thinking has changed somewhat, but the last graf still summarizes my core belief.)
I am sorry for the folks at Newsweek caught in this miss, but the magazine's misfortune can be turned to journalism's benefit by contributing to a re-examination of our values and causing us to ask questions like this one posed in a Wall Street Journal article by Time White House correspondent John Dickerson: "Is it better to have a piece with no anonymous sourcing that gets you five feet down the road? Or one using anonymous sourcing that gets you 10 feet down the road, that tells you more?"
The Prime Directive: To me the whole argument over anonymous sources is condensed in these comments made by Mark Whitaker and Jeff Jarvis on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer.
Whitaker answers the question, do you now know whether or not the event involving the Quran happened or not?:
"We have -- we are not in a position to know that."
Later, Jarvis replies to a question about the overuse of anonymous sources:
"What is our prime directive in journalism? It is to tell the truth that we know. And in this case the editor just said that he had only one source; there were no direct witnesses; there were other problems. And what was the imperative to tell the story even if we weren't sure of it as journalists?" (Emphasis added.)
Our job is "to tell the truth that we know," not what we think we know, not what we can't back up because we can't hold a source to it when the story gets hot (as investigative pieces do), not the truth according to someone who's selling us his version of it for partisan reasons. That's not so hard, is it? To just print what we know to be true.
Will Bunch ended his dressing down of me by stating: "We prefer to go down fighting." Me, too. But if we are going down, I prefer to go down fighting with the truth.
When is this self-destructive obsession by the press with "scoops" and "exclusives" going to end?
Newsweek is the latest self-inflicted victim of this misplaced priority, which values "sources" over facts and half-truths over transparency - and for what? A story that protects the innocent from the corrupt? The uncovering of wrongdoing by the powerful? A corporate scandal that threatens public health? Or at least some hanky-panky by one of our elected scoundrels? Nope. As you know, the magazine tossed its credibility into the commode for a 299-word brief that alleged U.S. interrogators had done the same with a copy of the Koran at Gitmo.
Here's part of the item:
" … Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash. …" (Emphasis added.)
Pardon the sarcasm, but, boy, that was worth a throwing away whatever good reputation Newsweek had plus catalyzing deadly riots and deaths in the Mideast.
Almost as bad as the original item was Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker's tepid "explanation" - not an apology or a retraction. It's defensiveness ("I think it's important for the public to know exactly what we reported, why, and how subsequent events unfolded.") is matched only by the curtain-raising glimpse it offers the public into the byzantine, back-channel sourcing that passes for much of the reporting in Washington, D.C.
(UPDATE: Newsweek has retracted the story.)
"(The) information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge." (Emphasis added.)
No names. No positions. No reasons for their anonymity. No nothing that would add to either the credibility of the original report or the response.
I don't need to tell you that overall press credibility - regardless of platform - continues to slide. A Pew Research Center study (PDF) released in April found that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing printed in newspapers. Newsweek fared almost as badly. Nearly 40 percent don't believe what they read in the magazine and in a section of the report devoted to political news, only 10 percent said they learned about politics from Newsweek, a 50 percent drop from year earlier.
There is plenty of material out there to read about the connection between credibility and anonymous sources - here, for example are ASNE, Daniel Okrent on the New York Times report on preserving the trust of readers, and Geneva Overholser on new sourcing polices of the major papers - but I'm going to avoid anonymous-or-not debate. My belief on that is clearly equivocal: Anonymity cannot be ruled out. Whistleblowers in industry and government are at times necessary. Anonymity should not, however, be routine, as it particularly is in Washington, and it should not be used as the sole basis for a story.
There is a deeper issue behind the reliance on unnamed sources: Values.
Reporters and news organizations wield anonymity as a tool to gain what many of them see as their most prized possession - a scoop, an exclusive, a "The-Daily-Blatt-has-learned" story.
The value editors and reporters place on scoops is a vestigial remnant of the day when such things mattered - when New York, for example, had a two fistfuls of daily papers that would rush out Extras with the latest "exclusive" lede topping a running story.
The obsession with being first was so strong that the wire services or networks routinely crowed (or at crow) if they beat the competition by minutes.
That day is gone. News today is a continuum. It flows ceaselessly from producer to consumer and, more and more, back again to the producer. It can be stopped and recorded for consumption later, it can be sampled at any hour of the day or night, or it can be ignored altogether, as it increasingly is.
This news environment needs a new set of values. I outline some pairs of old and new values last month. Here's the pair that applies to the Newsweek debacle:
Old Newsroom Value: Competition. The obsession with being first leads to a buffet line of bad journalistic behavior - deal-cutting, anonymous sources, lop-sided stories (with follow-ups often receiving lesser play than the original, errors, out-right chicanery and plagiarism.
New Value: Context. Thoroughness serves readers, not sources. Information, with more reporting, becomes education. Transparency trumps anonymity. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]
This evening, Mark Whitaker was scheduled to speak at the Knight Fellowships 2005 Symposium on journalism at Stanford University. His topic was to be the future of news. He canceled. And now the topic is "Credibility in an Age of 24-7 News." It's timely, but tiresome, given the amount of jawing devoted to the subject.
I'll be on the panel discussion with Katrina Heron (former editor of Wired), Sandra Mims Rowe (editor of the Portland Oregonian and former head of ASNE) and Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowships. I'll let you know how it goes.
UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis on the Newsweek Mess: "To sum up journalism as "tell the truth" sounds so damned simplistic. But that is what journalism is about, isn't it? Or shouldn't it be?"
Podcasts are small media that hold the power to remake a big medium - newspapers.
Brian Chin, a producer at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's online operation and writer of the Buzzworthy blog, posted a list of newspapers that are podcasting. Some are new at it, like Chin's own newspaper or the San Francisco Chronicle; others have been at it a while, like the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan., whose grabby, entertainment-rich web operation, Lawrence.com, is a template for what all newspapers should be doing online.
Here's a sampling of newspaper podcasts (thanks to Brian for the list):
Philadelphia Daily News: Produces PhillyFeed, a mix of news interviews and local music.
S.F. Chronicle: Uses Blogger to host podcasts of interviews (Larry Ellison, for example) and news reports from the Business staff. (Why Blogger and not the paper's own web site, SFGate.com? I emailed the Chron staff but didn't get an answer.)
Ventura County Star: Discusses everything from recipes to the homeless.
Denver Post: Produces a daily morning news show.
Journal-World: Targets its college town audience with music and entertainment.
Post-Intelligencer: Enters podcasting space with weekly food report.
News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.): Produces weekly entertainment show; topics range from pig-pickin' to Kung Fu movies.
There are several points worth making about the value podcasting can offer newspapers.
First, anyone can do it. The list represents a wide diversity of newspapers. You don't have to be the New York Times to do audio. (I don't think the Times is podcasting. Is it?)
Second, it's low tech and it's cheap. Phil Cauthon, the entertainment editor for Lawrence.com, told me a paper can be up and podcasting for less than $500 and that little geek factor is needed. "Pretty much anybody who has set up component home stereo will be able to handle this," Cauthon said in an email. "The mixer is a very intuitive and anyone with a little patience and trial and error skills will be able to figure out the limited set of knobs and sliders. It took me less than 5 min to train each podcaster and they all picked it up immediately."
Third, it touches a different audience segment. (Of course, like any tool podcasts need good material and good promotion. Touting it big like the Denver Post does here is the way to go. Burying the link several pages into a site, like the Chronicle does here - squint and you'll see it - with the Oracle interview, doesn't help much.)
Finally, and most important, podcasts require newspaper reporters and editors to jump platforms, to think in a different medium, to develop new skills. That's innovative. And, innovation breeds innovation.
Small changes can be catalytic. A few weeks ago, during a discussion about developing training for front-line editors in newsrooms, Butch Ward, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now a trainer at the Poynter Institute, told a story of how a couple of editors at one newspaper collaborated on their own with the copy desk to produce a more active style of writing at the newspaper. It was not a sea change, said Ward, but a pond change.
I like that. Change enough ponds and you've got a new sea.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "The Tipping Point," writes about what he calls the Power of Context, the ability of "the conditions and circumstances of the times" to affect behavior. Seemingly small changes in conditions, in the context of events, can have exponential affects, positive or negative.
Gladwell tells of the Broken Windows theory. Here's an explanation from the authors of the theory, criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling:
"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
"Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."
New York City used the theory to beat down a plague of subway crime by repairing the system's "broken windows" - graffiti and fair-jumpers. By mandating zero tolerance for small crimes, the subway changed the environment that encouraged bigger crimes like muggings.
Consider the Broken Newspaper theory: The industry is beset by competition, the business model is eroding and newsrooms are confused (at best) and depressed (at worst). These are big busted windows that cannot be repaired quickly, so let's start with small solutions.
Podcasts are small. They are immediately energizing and creative for the journalists doing them. They provide examples to others in the newsroom who wish they were doing something different, but want someone else to show them the way. Podcasts contribute to and foster a culture of innovation. At the News & Record in Greensboro, for example, Nicole Puccinelli-Ortega's 4-month-old weekly podcast on GoTriad.com is piquing the interests of the print people. "The newsroom is very interested," Puccinelli-Ortega said in an email. "Some already are doing a sort of podcast and we are working on other ideas for them."
Isn't that what we want in our newsroom staffs - people to step up, raise their hands and say, Hey, I want to do that, too? That type of energy is infectious, and not just within newsrooms, but to readers as well.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has a story today on newspapers and podcasting. Here's a snip:
"Pete Conti, a newspaper industry consultant with Borrell Associates Inc., said podcasting gives newspapers a chance to reach younger audiences, such as people in their thirties who regularly tote iPods but were raised with television as their main news source. It's too early to tell if papers, which face declining circulation, can make a financial success of podcasts, but 'I think it opens up a huge opportunity to offer a lot of their local' content, Mr. Conti said."
When a nearby high school began an NFL-worthy reconstruction of its football field last year, replacing the sod that became slush at every high tide with several layers of gravel and fill topped by a synthetic surface that is as green as a Brazilian flag, I ranted to anyone about the cost and wondered who had authorized such a frivolous waste of John and Jane Q's hard-earned tax dollars.
The answer, of course, is that we did, I and my neighbors in Marin County who voted for a $121 million bond measure in March 2001 to upgrade local schools, $13 million of which was being spent on the football fields at three high schools.
How did I find that information? Not from a newspaper.
I looked in the "regional" paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and I found this brief story, which told me some details about bond measure (one parent said the bathrooms looked "ghetto") but didn't mention the football field. Not much help. Neither was this post-election paragraph in a round-up story.
Then I did what I should have done first: I Googled the name of the high school, Mt. Tam, and found an entire page devoted to the project with several FAQs on the expense and regular updates on the construction.
I had found information, but not journalism. I had determined what was new, but had not read any "news" about it. My curiosity was satisfied; the journalist within me was not.
I am trying to ask a question here, but am unsure how to phrase it. I think it goes something like this: Can grassroots journalism bridge that gap between local information and local news? Is it even necessary to do so? Or is just having the public distribution of the information sufficient to fulfill the need of an informed citizenry?
This question is important because it addresses two phenomena in modern society that have created a journalistic disconnect.
First, our cities are not necessarily our communities. Second, newspapers, the home of traditional journalism, see it as their duty to report on the structure of cities - meaning the institutions of government - but increasingly have fewer resources to do so.
Most of us live one place, work in another, and choose yet other locations for our entertainment, our vacations or even our children's education. We live in communities of intellectual and cultural and familial interest. Our neighborhoods are platforms rather than destinations. This is particularly true in the generica of the emerging suburbs where many neighborhoods consist of little more than housing tracts and shopping centers.
Our communities are horizontal, not vertical, meaning they extend across location. News of these communities is equally unbound by geography. Enabled by technology, members of communities of interest, be they soccer parents, political partisans or professionals (like the people who read this blog), fill their needs for news and information with publications of special interest, both print and electronic.
Newspapers, though, view the world as fixed. They divide life into vertical silos of topic and geography and, because they report from a traditional institutional point of view, define news as the stories that fit into those silos. It is function following form.
Modern communities are water, spilling across space and time. Newspapers are rock, hardened and stuck in one spot. In the war of water and rock, liquid wins every time.
Even the traditional value newspapers brought a city, their ability to report on the workings of the civic institutions, is more and more difficult for them to deliver. There are fewer journalists, but more cities. Metropolitan areas in most parts of the country sprawl ever outward. Former farming towns grow into suburbs of a quarter-million people. New city halls and school boards and court systems demand coverage, but what's a newspaper to do? Small papers like the Modesto Bee, where local news is the franchise, dispatch reporters to outlying bureaus to file reports on meetings. Large papers like San Francisco Chronicle struggle with identity - Who do we cover? What are our priorities? - and produce regional roundups like the election story I mentioned above that fulfill some internal sense of responsibility but offer me, the citizen, no useful information.
It is a losing proposition and for newspapers to survive at a relevant level - the point, remember, is not just the continued existence of the newspaper business but preservation of an economic engine that supports quality journalism - they must change their definitions of news and the manner in which they present it. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.]
As you might expect, many traditional newspaper journalists bridle at that suggestion. But within their defensiveness is a very good question: If newspapers wean themselves from their addiction to stenographic meeting coverage in order to produce more substantive, enterprising journalism, who will fill the gap? Can newer grassroots journalism efforts fill the gap? It's even fair to ask: Should they?
"What institutions should we stop writing about? Congress? Schools? The courts? State legislatures perhaps? I've had a bellyful of this stuff. Do you suppose people are going to pick up the newspaper to read about the man down the street? We get complaints EVERY DAY from readers who say our newspaper no longer has enough NEWS. That we have too much feel-good journalism, too much emoting, too much stuff that isn't necessary to their understanding of the world, the state, their communities." (Emphasis added.)
Certainly, the first iterations of grassroots journalism don't seem up to the task. Steve Outing, for example, labeled as "boring" the submissions to Your Hub, a venture of the Rocky Mountain News, in Arvada, Colo. I agree. But, it is interesting to me that many of these "stories" are being submitted by the institutions journalists normally cover - cops, school districts, etc. - and are no less boring than the news briefs that would have been written by newspapers about the same items.
Mike Orren, one of the founders of Pegasus News, proves quite convincingly with this report from a local anti-crime committee meeting in Dallas that citizen's journalism can be about much more than press releases or local lakes (not that those are bad things). Orren's post from the meeting, while not a "story," is rich with first-hand and linked information, deeper overall than any newspaper report would have been, were one even written. (I couldn't find one in this search of the Dallas Morning News.)
As Dan Gillmor has said, "we're all waiting to see … what happens down the road" with grassroots journalism. Clearly, though, traditional news coverage of our cities, our neighborhood and our virtual communities leaves enough gaps for others to fill with varying degrees of hyper-locality and sophistication.
Gillmor and Craig Newmark, who is dancing with the idea of moving beyond Craigslist into some type of journalism, both believe traditional journalism is important and must be preserved. Newmark wrote in his blog under the heading "Newsrooms are important":
"With all the excitement about citizens' media, it's easy to forget how important current news operations are. We have a lot of journalists there, but also, fact checkers, editors, and so on, and they perform an indispensable function.
"I feel that citizens' media complements that, and that professional and citizen journalists will blur together in networks of collaboration." (Emphasis added.)
Spot on. I have said many times and continue to believe that the crisis that confronts newspapers presents them with a tremendous opportunity for reinvention, with a chance to refocus their journalism in more engaging ways. They also have the opportunity to enable and encourage more grassroots forms of journalism that operate in partnership with and complement the traditional elements of journalism.
Much work remains to be done. Blogs prove that virtual communities will gravitate toward media that serves them directly. Over time, I'm sure some grassroots journalism sites will overcome Outing's concerns and draw the local audiences who want geographic news and information but can't get in a newspaper. (I like Bluffton Today. I wish there was a Mill Valley Today. Steve, want to start one?)
The purpose of journalism will always be to inform the citizenry - not only about the workings of the state legislature, but also about the new football field down the street. The question awaiting an answer is: Who is going to write for Citizen Me?