Media ride-along report proposal

Flrunners.com is a website focused on providing coverage of prep-school running, both cross country and track (and field). Serving this niche, it provides free content like user forums and race results, but requires members to pay a fee for other content like athlete features. Check back for more about the way this site is practicing journalism in the digital age.

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I have a feeling we’re not in Alaska anymore

As illustrated in The Far Side cartoon with two newspaper boxes, one full of papers reading, “The news,” and one empty reading, “Stuff we just made up,” a good story, regardless of the facts, sells papers.

If not, tabloids would go out of business.

To run, or not to run often becomes the question and the answer depends on the audience.

Certainly, The New York Times won’t run a story reported by a gas station attendant about an eagle snatching a chihuahua without more substantiation of the facts like: Could an eagle actually do this? Who were the victims? Who else saw it?

The New York Post, on the other hand, might.

In the case of the Alaskan snatching, I guarantee more than a handful of readers after perusing the story remarked, “Well it finally happened.”

Could there have been more substantiation? Certainly.

But for non-hard-hitting news, some unsubstantiated facts in the name of humor is probably okay. Especially at smaller, local papers.

The only thing to consider is that as journalism becomes more global, local papers have more reach. In 1993, the wire services picked up the Alaskan story and recirculated it. In 2010, people would tweet and e-mail the story in addition to the wires recirculating it and it’d spread even quicker.

So the moral is: when questioning whether to run a piece like the eagle story, think about your audience not always in terms of the local few reading your paper, but the global audience with access to material you run.

‘Paper’ is the only part of ‘newspaper’ that’s obsolete

Journalism is facing a crisis.

Like video rental stores in the age of on-demand cable delivery, automated video dispensers like Redbox, and movie streaming Web sites, companies who convey the news through the medium of newspapers are finding themselves peddling a product with drastically reduced demand.

Already, Tribune Co. – a stalwart of the industry that owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times – has filed for bankruptcy.

However, unlike video rental stores that, without people to rent videos because of new-age delivery technologies, went out of business, newspaper companies still produce a valuable product: news.

All these companies need to do is figure out how reach the audience.

This is easier said than done, though, as other problems have arisen.

The other problems

As Todd Gitlin of openDemocracy puts it, journalism is facing many crises. The most notable additions are circulation, revenue, attention and authority.

The other, failure to penetrate the closed doors of power to make transactions more transparent, has been a problem for some time, he said.

Indeed in Matt Taibbi’s book “Spanking the Donkey,” he describes how the White House Press Corps agreed to prescreening of questions during the campaign season of 2004. Kowtowing to this kind of pressure creates a perception in readers’ minds that the Fourth Estate has lost its teeth, its relevance, its credibility. It’s hard to bring things out in the open when there’s no spontaneity.

Reduced circulation causes a loss of revenue, not because of the loss of paying subscribers – subscription rates cover the printing and delivery of the paper to them – but in advertising revenue. Fewer readers means less money ad space can command.

As for attention, people still stay informed, just not with newspapers. People receive bills and correspondence online, so why not get the news there.

Giving investigative reporting, fact finding and copy editing the ax is the first step to loosing authority. The quality of the product is directly correlated with the perception of authority.

Saving the ‘fish wrapper’

John Nichols and Robert McChesney at The Nation believe government intervention – in the form of public policy and subsidies – are the answer. This sounds a lot like the economic policies used to help stabilize the downward spiral of the auto and banking industries under the “too big to fail” doctrine that journalists so fervently write venomous editorials about.

Nichols and McChesney posit that the First Amendment not only provides for the possibility of a free and independent press, but also that the government must ensure that there is one.

But as they admit, the way the problem is being framed makes it difficult for a solution to be reached.

Government intervention may be required. However, it should be more in the form of fostering ventures into the cyberworld and regulating giant conglomerates’ ownership of outlets – not easing financial burdens of printing.

Part of the problem is that smaller papers – like The Gainesville Sun – are owned by a larger conglomerate – in this case The New York Times Co.

With the parent publication in somewhat of a dire financial straight, the smaller paper is forced to cut back and forward residual profit away from the community it’s supposed to be serving rather than reinvesting and improving the product.

Sounds like something the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission could delve into rather than simply handing out subsidies.

But, even that wouldn’t fix the problem.

How to do it

Embrace the new medium; view the Internet as an advantage, not an adversary.

The Internet provides many tools that make journalists jobs easier. Fact checking is easier online. Sending material from the field to the newsroom is easier online. Online content is cheaper to produce than print, and will ultimately be how the majority gets the news in the future.

That isn’t to say avoid the print stuff, but try and integrate.

Use Twitter to connect with people and discover tips. Facebook is good, too. Millions of college students can’t be wrong.

Employ RSS feeds to disiminate information quickly to readers. Recognize that many people will use an RSS hub – such as Google Reader – to collect and organize various news sites.

In days gone by, papers competed for readers’ (almost) exclusive attention, but this isn’t so anymore.

The Palm Beach Post, the Sun Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale and The Miami Herald once furiously competed for readers, now they share material. Albeit this is mostly a cost-cutting move in the print world, it’s commonplace in the digital one through linking.

Readers won’t be loyal to one news site at the exclusion of others. Acknowledge this and cultivate links when curating the news. Allow people to leave your site, knowing they’ll probably be back later. Make digging deeper more convenient by linking to sources rather than requiring the reader to search themselves.

To a point, that is. There are still some ethics involved in promoting off-site material and user-generated content and linking simply for linking’s sake isn’t a great idea.

But promote citizen journalism and the expression of ideas by fostering debate in an open marketplace.

Use the Internet in fact checking to strengthen the accuracy and supporting details in stories and allowing for quick corrections when an error occurs.

No reporter is infallible, but there are plenty of Daniel Lippmans out there who would help identify flaws if only there were an easier and quicker way.

Via the Internet, not only can readers get news, but they can identify mistakes easier, notify the news agency quicker, and the news agency can make corrections faster.

By being open to change, maybe journalism can switch from “grabbing its ankles,” as Taibbi said, and begin the not-so-far journey from ankle to bootstrap to begin pulling up.

And barf goes the Cheerios: analysis on how graphic we should be

The Cheerios Test has long been the standard for deciding which images to publish.

It posits that if an image would likely cause a reader to barf-up his or her breakfast, then the image fails the test and probably ought not be published.

As journalists, we see lots of things – not all of which are fit for publication.

It’s our job to inform, but sometimes this is curbed by issues of taste and sensibility. Publishing extremely graphic photos, like the ones shown here, could sway public opinion; although, not necessarily in the way we expect. Opinion could sway against the publication rather than the situation.

That’s why images with dead bodies – like these on the left – shouldn’t be published.

The argument for the publication of graphic photos is that the public needs to see the unabashed brutality of the situation.

However, using an alternative image – like the ones on the right – or employing descriptive writing to detail the situation for readers is a better choice to convey the news because the audience is still informed, but not incited with the same repugnant indignation at being intruded upon with graphic vulgarity.

Audience backlash is an undesired consequence. By running certain images, the risk of negative feedback increases greatly. Just ask the Associated Press after the dying Marine photo.

In communications’ jurisprudence, the Supreme Court often cites the “intrusiveness of the medium” in allowing restrictions on the free speech rights of broadcasters – claiming children could be easily inundated by inappropriate material.

While I’m not intending to go into a lecture on the various nuances of First Amendment protection between different media, I do propose this: Publishing a graphic picture is far more intrusive to readers than describing events though good writing.

As Fox News‘ slogan goes, “We inform, you decide.”

Let’s try to ensure that we are informing readers to help them decide, not ensuring readers will choose to forgo informing themselves with our information because of our choices of what to publish.

The best newsroom protocol: common sense

Protocols merely lend a hand to copy editors by prompting inquisitiveness, but are by no means substitutes for focus and mental acuity in deciding gray-area issues.

For example, protocols generally delegate copy editors the power to fix simple misspelled words.

Imagine you’re the copy editor at a college-town newspaper and a story comes across your desk with a quote attributed to a typically female name. The pronoun used on second reference is “she.” Then, additional material is attributed to that person’s girlfriend.

As an editor, do you assume the reporter made a mistake and invoke the power of the protocol – fixing the simple error and move on?

Or do you challenge that thinking? After all, it is 2010 and women do have girlfriends. The long-held tradition of deferring to the masculine pronoun when referring to an indeterminate person has fallen by the wayside, so why not traditional beliefs about relationships being primarily heterosexual. (I’m not making a social commentary on this.)

The best choice would be to recognize the issue and quickly consult the reporter before making a correction.

In soccer, the rules are called laws. Law 18 entrusts referees with the challenge of upholding the other 17, but to do so while using common sense and remembering the spirit of the game.

In journalism, the spirit of the game is producing the best publication possible and copy editors need to use common sense to make that happen.

Journalists need to be astronauts of cyberspace

The real problem for journalists is not that newspapers are becoming irrelevant. It’s that journalists are letting themselves become irrelevant.

With the advent of the Internet, citizen journalism is reaching new levels. Communication is no longer stifled by the monetary constraints of publishing and circulating a newspaper.

People can communicate their thoughts or events that happen around them from (almost) anywhere in the world for free.

The newspaper, a staple of American life throughout most of last century, has been replaced by blogs, microblogs like Twitter, and websites with RSS feeds accessible by mobile devices like laptops and cell phones.

This change represents significant improvement in the delivery medium of the news, but requires a paradigm shift for those who are stubbornly steadfast in the ways of old.

Sure, there are many competitors for readers’ attention, but that doesn’t mean one more can’t enter the fray and be successful.

Newspaper companies can survive; they just have to adapt different strategies for serving up audiences to advertisers.

First off, writing for the Internet requires the writer have patience, because the reader won’t. The writing needs to be even more accurate, brief and clear – which takes more time.

This certainly makes a case for keeping on the copy editor.

Although today, these people need to play a bigger role than combing through copy for errors of fact, grammar, style, etc… They should know basic HTML code, simple tricks for processing images, how to work with multimedia and more.

There’s a significant opportunity for employment here, but many resort to seeking alternative employment or lamenting on the American Copy Editors Society‘s forum about their disdain at having to do these tasks.

Secondly, these companies need to be innovative but useful.

Part of Twitter‘s intrigue is that while it’s revolutionary, it’s also simple enough to be used with ease across many different platforms operating on different systems.

That’s more than I can say for several news sites I’m unable to access on my phone – and I have a pretty advanced phone.

It’s really about giving the people what they want – not trying to revive a dying medium by forcing it on them.

Newspapers could have a leg-up in the digital world because they already possess credibility. Online, they could serve as a beacon to guide people through the abundance of unchallenged information.

Lastly, newspapers need to re-immerse themselves in the name of the game: profit.

It’s all fine and dandy to claim you’re out to save the world by raising awareness to current events, but if you don’t make any money, you won’t be around to do it very long.

One user on the ACES’ forum said that in five years the decline in print revenue is expected to stabilize. At that time, most analysts expect online content to only account for about 15 percent of the profit.

Switching focus to online content at the detriment to the print edition, which accounts for about 85 percent of the profit, doesn’t seem like a good idea, he said.

To that, I offer this: When 85 percent of your profit comes from the print edition, then you don’t have enough online content and it’s no wonder you’re going bankrupt.

Common Ignorance

Lawmakers have long been jumping on the zero-tolerance bandwagon.  The problem is: Zero-tolerance laws make zero sense.

Several recent cases come to mind.

Certainly, the Scout who was suspended for having a pocket knife in his survival kit in his car tops the list. (Click here to read more.)

Another regards a school district in Des Moines, Iowa that suspended a girl for bringing spent shotgun shells to school for show-and-tell.

The girl went with her family to a ranch for a show that included a firearms demonstration and gathered the shells as souvenirs to show her science teacher and classmates.  When she brought them to school, she got suspended. (Click here to read more.)

Zero-tolerance didn’t work during prohibition and it doesn’t work to make schools any safer now. It’s time lawmakers fell off the wagon (pun intended).