Cautious optimism on Henry’s Globe

John Henry’s recent speech to the Boston Chamber of Commerce has been eagerly dissected by media-watchers here in Boston who want to know what kind of changes Henry will make at the paper that sets the tone for the New England press corps. (Watch the entire speech here, or check this blog post out for some highlights/analysis.) Although he didn’t delve into too many specifics, Henry definitely seems invested, saying he wants the paper to be “aggressively relevant” and that he’ll push a culture of innovation. Reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

To me, one of the most interesting things that Henry’s done came a few days before this speech, when he brought on Former Hill Holiday CEO Mike Sheehan as an advisor.

What I like about the Sheehan hiring is that it doesn’t feel to me like Henry bringing in “his guy,” or just an out-of-town industry insider. I get the sense he looked around, said “I need to be innovative about the way I sell ads,” and simply found the smartest ad guy in town – not the smartest newspaper ad guy. I like it when business leaders do this, and I think it could bode well for the Globe. They already have some really smart newspaper people on Morrissey Boulevard. What might help them transform the paper for the digital age is to bring in some smart folks from other fields.

There was one thing, however, Henry said that gave me pause – he waxed nostalgic about the morning ritual of reading the print edition of the paper. Bezos actually said a similar thing when he bought the Washington Post, and I think it illustrates a quirk of the whole “can rich tech guys save newspapers?” phenomenon. As much as journalism watchers have hope that this trend will help save the industry, I think part of the attraction for these tech guys is the nostalgia of newspapers. While they’re innovative and willing to eschew conventions in the business that made them fortunes, their love of newspapers is rooted in the past. I’d have felt better if Bezos’ first words to the Post staff were: “You know what? I think newspapers are boring and I hate everything about them. We’re going to blow up every aspect of what you guys do and build a new product from the ground up.”

Look, there certainly may be many Globe readers who share Henry’s love of the tradition of a morning paper and a cup of coffee. However, those people won’t be around forever. That shouldn’t be the demographic Henry and his team are focused on. I remember, at one of my first times attending the New England Press Association annual conference, a presentation on a Japanese paper that did an extensive study on the habits of its readers. They found out who was engaging with what product, and when (print in the morning, mobile on the commute, desktop site during the day, and mobile again on the way home, TV/video in the evening, etc.) Then they designed content around it. These are the habits Henry should be focused on. For example, I’d love to see the Globe get away from publishing content and then adapting it for mobile, and start thinking about creating content exclusively aimed at mobile readers, people who may not even read the print edition. That’s the kind of outside-the-lines thinking it’s going to take to really reinvent the Globe. Otherwise, the best Henry can hope for is to slow the bleeding — and that’s not good for those of us who care about journalism in the Hub.

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The Kellers, cancer and the columnist

The Keller family is getting slammed across the Web today, and I think rightly so. Both columns come across as insensitive at best and they expose the authors’ complete failure to grasp social media. Like a curmudgeonly weekly newspaper editor in 2002, they lament the “TMI” nature of social networking while completely overlooking the good it can do, both its potential for personal catharsis and its ability to bring people with common experiences together across vast distances. I think to misread what Lisa Adams is doing as “voyeurism” is to phenomenally misunderstand the way people can relate, and often powerfully so, to someone they’ve never met. (And insert joke here about repealing the law that forced Emma Keller to read the tweets.)

But I don’t mean to pile on what’s already been said. What I found interesting about the pieces and the subsequent reaction is what they tell us about a bigger problem with the newspaper columnist in general.

Part of me has always thought that the newspaper columnist is vastly overvalued in the newsroom. (I also enjoy a good snarky takedown of a pretentious columnist.) I cringe at the idea that some columnist is making six figures to write 650 words twice a week while someone doing the real work of journalism, churning out multiple stories a day, covering breaking news, or doing investigative work, is paid peanuts. It seems to me a hold over from a different era of journalism, when news moved more slowly and newsprint carried with it an air of authority, an aura that’s mostly gone now.

Newspapers are an industry more in need of innovation and fresh perspective than any other profession on earth. Yet there’s a sense that young people can’t be powerful voices in the newsroom unless they “pay their dues,” and a newspaper column often seems like a reward handed out to veteran journalists that want to step down from the day-to-day but need an outlet. I can’t think of any regular print newspaper columnist at a major print daily under 30 (and if you know different, please let me know.) I don’t have any insight into the workings of the New York Times newsroom, but it seem like Bill Keller stepped down from his editorship and was handed a column simply because he’s Bill Keller and he wanted one. That doesn’t seem right to me.

I think the editorial and op/ed pages of most newspapers lack a diversity of perspective. I get the sense that a lot of columnists, or individual writers who are a brand unto themselves, come from similar backgrounds — often privately educated, from wealth. This is a trait that seems to cross political lines, so we get a false sense of “both sides of the story,” when what would really add value is a diversity of ages, geographical locations, family backgrounds, work experience, etc.

Also, there’s nothing worse than reading a bullet point, thrown-together filler column that’s clearly only been filed because it dang it, it’s Thursday and the column’s due — or a spectacularly lazy piece that clearly wasn’t researched seems like an extended Facebook troll.

However, having said all that, I think a good newspaper column can have tremendous value. A well-written column in a major paper can spark a national discussion. And there are columnists I like very much — Yvonne Abraham in the Boston Globe springs to mind, and I enjoy Paul McMorrow’s work in the Globe and Commonwealth Magazine. I was also struck by Evan William’s challenge, as he launched his new social network Medium, to “read less news, more ideas.” That seems like a noble goal in our age of a 24-hour, constant fire hose of information, the nonstop news stream. It certainly made this news junkie stop and think.

Where columns go bad, I think, is when they are too generalized, when the writer believes that simply being a columnist gives him or her an air of authority. There’s a sense of “drive by punditry,” a lack of deep familiarity with the subject matter, in the Kellers’ pieces that I’ve seen in other bad columns. When a column works is when it’s specific, like McMorrow’s pieces on urban planning, a subject in which he is well versed. It can also work when it’s local, and the writer has deep connections and an obvious bond with the community he or she is writing about, as Abraham does.

When a columnist is stretching for an idea, it shows. When a writer is out of touch, it shows. So why do mediocre columns get printed? Why does is seem so hard for newspaper columnists to lose their jobs?

Let’s give some columns to younger people. Let’s give some columns to school teachers, bus drivers, social workers and small business owners. Let’s fire the newspaper columnists and invite more local experts to write guests columns, sharing their unique perspectives and experiences. Let’s find a better way to spark important, needed conversations than sitting at the bottom of a hill and listening to Bill Keller tell us “TMI”.

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How to fix weather coverage

I, along with most of the civilized world this week, have been doing a lot of eye rolling as media outlets went full bore on the “arctic vortex” this week, either acting like it’s never been cold in January before or throwing boiling water into freezing air and acting shocked when — get this — it froze. (Well, either that or they burned the hell out of themselves.)

But I couldn’t help thinking: Whenever there’s a big storm, or dangerously cold temperatures roll in, we do want to know what’s going on. We want information. Yet it seems like the news coverage gets endlessly mocked. There’s an obvious disconnect here, but also a clear need. So what can media outlets do better?

First, I think papers have to abandon the way they think about weather coverage, in terms of taking wire copy or other basic information and adding color to it, in the form of local quotes and descriptive paragraphs. That approach might work for something like a car crash, or other kind of story that updates in drips and drabs, where a paper can post a more basic story the night before and print a more fleshed-out story in the morning’s paper. But weather is a funny thing, it’s all about in-the-moment information, and from a reader’s perspective there’s little to no value in a next day story, color be damned.

We print folks often mock TV people and the many tropes they employ during extreme weather coverage, including but not limited to: standing on the beach as waves crash over, picking up snow and describing it (as if we couldn’t see for ourselves), sticking a ruler in the snow, or … this. I think there’s things TV stations can do better, but at least that kind of coverage answers the basic question news consumers are asking — what is happening right now?

So how does a weekly or daily paper do that? A few thoughts:

  • It has to be live. When editors know a storm is approaching, they should set up some kind of live blog, or application like ScribbleLive, and make sure a reporter and/or editor is in charge or pulling in content throughout the storm. I think people tend to gravitate to TV and radio for weather coverage and there’s an opportunity here for newspapers to elbow their way into that space. But the information people are looking for has to be easily accessible, through a website or social media channels. It also has to be rolling, constantly updated information to draw in eyeballs.
  • Leverage partnerships. Any kind of media partnerships can come in handy for storm/weather coverage. Gatehouse Media, where I used to work, had an agreement with Channel 5 in Boston, the Globe has one with CBS/WBZ. If said partner has a meteorological staff, well, that’s one less thing you have to do. Pull those updates into your live coverage so your readers have the latest information on current temperatures and future forecasts.Papers should also leverage their connections with municipal, state and county authorities. Pulling in tweets/posts, press releases and other official alerts from such sources into rolling live coverage will give it depth and authority. This isn’t the time to cling to exclusivity. The goal is to be a comprehensive source for what’s going on, not to be the first outlet reporting every bit of information. If you’re doing it right, even if you link to other news outlets, readers will return to your site because they know it’s got the most comprehensive information they need.
  • Forget color, think news-you-can-use. When it’s snowing, roads are flooding, the wind is knocking down power lines or the temperature plunges to dangerous levels, readers don’t care about a few color quotes from that one guy who always plows out all his neighbors’ driveways. They need hard information, thinks like where there are road closures, power outages (and if so, when restoration is expected), when the storm is going to stop, etc. Numbers for emergency services, plowing companies, the location of municipal buildings serving as warming/cooling centers could be on a newspaper site as “sticky” content or worked into the live coverage, along with things like helpful tips from officials or local experts. Again, a lot of this can be done by linking/aggregating. The paper should be a hub for all this information, it doesn’t have to create all of it. A lot of this can be done by a single editor or reporter.
  • Crowdsource, but be smart about it. A staple of storm coverage is often the “Send us your pictures!” slideshow. I don’t have a lot of use for this kind of content, and I think savvy news consumers read it as lazy journalism rather than good engagement. However, that’s when said slideshows are put up after the storm has passed. Even a grainy cell phone pic can have news value if it illustrates to readers what’s happening right now. Incorporating reader pics and videos into said live coverage can really help to make your site’s reach seem more comprehensive. Readers may also be able to report things like power outages, road closures and downed power lines before officials sources (although, reporters and editors shouldn’t lose their normal skeptical eyes just because there’s a storm). I also think crowdsourcing can be used for some outside-the-box kind of content. For example, wouldn’t it be great if a newspaper printed, the day after a snow storm, a list of elderly or shut-in residents that need help shoveling out? Editors could ask readers for submissions or work with senior centers and other municipal officials. Or what about a list of items in demand at a local homeless shelter, or animal shelter, after a bad storm?
  • For next day coverage, think visual — and short. So what do you put in the next day’s paper? You can’t ignore the storm entirely, right? Well, yes and no. Weather news is a strange animal because it not only seems old in the next day’s paper, it loses it news value almost entirely. So I don’t think editors need to go crazy, even after a major, major storm. I think a lot of newspaper editors have their staff write long storm stories because they think they have to. Don’t be afraid to make storm coverage almost entirely visual. People will read a photo spread or a slide show recapping a storm if the photos are professionally shot and compelling — the day after is not the time for the collection of out-of-focus, low-rez shots from YOU OUR READERS. Photos can be supplemented by short stories that bring something new to the story, things like a local business and how it was impacted by the storm, a story on an accident or major damage caused by the weather, a profile of a long-time plow driver or a fisherman who was trapped at sea during a hurricane. What I don’t find interesting are the next day stories that are very generalized information with a few splashes of color at the beginning and end of the story. I just don’t think that cuts it anymore.

That’s just a couple of my thoughts, but I’d love to start a bigger discussion. How can print outlets be more relevant during extreme weather coverage, and how can media outlets in general be more helpful to readers/viewers?

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Return of the blogger

I’m back! I took sort of an unofficial hiatus from the blog over the past couple of months (well, let’s face it, most of the year) for two reasons: I got a new job and my wife and I had our second child, which doesn’t leave a heck of a lot of spare time for blogging.

The thing about the new job is that it isn’t in journalism. I work for a PR firm now called Weber Shandwick, doing corporate communications. At first, I thought I might have to either abandon the blog entirely or completely reinvent it, now that I’m not in the journalism field anymore. But I’ve thought a lot about it, and now I think that’s a silly attitude. First of all, I love media and media criticism. Haven’t stopped reading the major industry blogs or tweeting on major media stories just because I’m no longer official a reporter. If anything, I should be a little freer now to be more of a media critic (although with the obvious caveat that if a story comes up involving a client, I’ll either loudly disclaim it or, far more likely, won’t write about it. With the specific kind of work I do now, I’m not anticipating it to be a huge deal).

The subject matter covered here might expand slightly to cover my thoughts on PR, being a dad, or life in general, but that was always kind of where I wanted to go with the blog eventually anyway. Working on my first true post, which should be up shortly. As always, I appreciate any feedback, and thanks for reading.

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What newspapers need to be doing now, part 1

I was looking at my posts about the future of newspapers and realized I’m using a lot of “starting from scratch” and “in a perfect” world-type scenarios. I’m going to continue those posts because I think talking about reinventing newspapers from the ground up is interesting, but I also have some ideas on steps that organization could could take immediately, things that wouldn’t require a massive upheaval to implement. Here’s the first four of seven steps newspapers could take immediately to start changing the culture:

1) Get younger in management: The challenges facing newspapers are deep, complex and have no easy answers. But they’re certainly exacerbated by entrenchment among people at the top of the food chain, especially in bigger companies. I’m afraid there are too many people out there in high positions at media companies that are perfectly willing to use the word “digital” a hundred times in an interoffice memo but unwilling to take the smallest of steps to bring new technology into the newsroom, or to let go of elements of news-gathering that simply don’t work in 2012. The industry needs to take big risks, they need creative ideas and courage. Now, I’m not saying there can’t be people who have spent a long time in the industry bringing those things to a newsroom. But I also think there are hungry journalists in their late 20s and 30s who believe in great writing, strong accountability reporting and good sourcing practices – but who are also comfortable with social media, video and mobile technology. Those are the people who can bring newspapers kicking and screaming into the future and they should be in more leadership positions. Otherwise, those folks are all going to start Web-based journalism products and print media will be fall too far behind the curve to ever catch up.

2) Get a younger audience. One of my frustrations about the local journalism industry is that we seem to have zero interest in reaching out to younger readers. One of the biggest misconceptions in journalism is the idea that young people don’t follow the news. If anything, younger people are more insatiable, voracious consumers of news than the generations before them – they just don’t always get it through print newspapers. So we should just give up? What happens when our current, older audience, and there’s no nice way to say this, dies off? Do we just close the doors and go home? If we reach out to younger people and cover the issues they care about, and deliver the news to them in a way they’ll use (hint: MOBILE) we can capture this audience, which will not only ensure newspapers readers for the future, it will also make selling ads easier because we’ll have readers in a more desirable demographic.

3) Design around design. There’s one constant thread to most newspaper websites I read – the philosophy behind their design seems to be to punish readers for visiting. Seriously, readability seems to be the absolute last priority, and most of them are a jumbled mess of popups and interstitial ads, it’s never easy to find what you’re looking for, and multimedia is often clumsily thrown in rather than flowed into the story naturally. Designing clean, easy-to-navigate websites that read well on mobile devices can massively improve an organizations digital footprint. Think about the readers: find out what they’re looking for, and make those sections prominent. I also think creating easily-explorable sections, like a document archive or a Youtube channel that shows all the videos shot by staff can encourage people to spend more time on site. But the most important thing should be readability, first and foremost.

4) Engage readers. The great sin of anonymous Web comments, in my mind, isn’t the vitriol, it’s that it’s the laziest way possible to engage. I’ve always felt the problem with comments was never anonymity, it was moderation, letting the conversation go off-topic. Moderation has either been absent, heavy-handed or inconsistent. I know orgs have seen the idea of having to approve every comment as a nightmare, but I think there are other options. Limiting the stories where commenting is allowed, for one (I’ve always felt that allowing comments on all crime stories was inviting disaster) is a way to allow comments to be more closely monitored without wasting a ton of staff time. But really, the key is to lead discussion, rather than just opening stories up for drive-by-commenting. Have directed chats, involving staff writers, experts or story subjects. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Newspapers should run joint projects with schools. For example, I know a lot of local “kids vote” type efforts have disappeared. That’s a great way to connect with younger readers, give them a civics lesson and train them to become the voters – and newspaper readers – of the future. Host panel discussions, partner with radio and TV. Frankly, I shouldn’t have made this point three – I think directly connecting to readers, in a better way that we do now, is the key to the future of journalism.

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3 takeaways from Gawker’s “Manti’s T’eo’s girlfriend was fake” story

Tremendous journalism went into this piece: Deadspin once wrote on its Web site something to the effect of “we may accidentally commit acts of journalism.” Well, this was no accident. Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, along with the other reporters who contributed to this story, did tremendous work here. It’s clear a ton of legwork went into digging up the girl whose picture was used as T’eo’s girlfriend, and in talking to the family and friends of alleged hoaxer Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. The story is over 3,000 words long and well presented.

There are still a lot of people at more mainstream outlets that dismiss places like Deadspin as serious journalists (ESPN VP John Walsh once told a group of students that “Deadspin has never broken any news.”) There are still plenty of silly stories on Deadspin and articles based entirely on single Tweets, but the journalism world at large should be on alert that the Gawker family of Web sites and their ilk are capable of well-written, well-sourced longform journalism. And as Gawker staffer Emma Carmichael noted, one of these journalists, who just embarrassed basically everyone in the mainstream sports media, is about to start his final semester as an undergrad.

A tremendous lack of cynicism has been exposed: Sports journalists get knocked about for sometimes being fans first, too concerned about access to ask tough questions. This story does a lot to reinforce that notion. Some people have even taken to compiling lists of all the outlets that reported the story without even doing the most basic fact checking, including Sports Illustrated, ESPN and CBS (the video clips in the Deadspin piece are cringe-inducing considering what we know now.) It’s sometimes said that the one true bias of journalists is for the Story, and reporters will sometimes have a blind spot for facts that don’t fit the narrative or that might call a compelling angle into question.

Sports stories especially can be dry, and if there’s anyway to fit a narrative – like say, an athlete rising above personal heartache to win a football game – into a game story, writers will jump all over it. My guess is that’s what happened here. College sports journalism especially feels like it lacks a lot of the built-in cynicism a good journalist should always have, ignoring the negative aspects of the beat like rampant rule-breaking and egomaniacal coaches. Have to wonder how much that played into a reluctance to dig deeper into a college kid who maintained a long-distance relationship with a girl he claims to have never met in person.

I’m not one of those people who thinks Gawker-type journalism is the answer to all things, or that more mainstream outlets have become irrelevant. I actually think there’s room for both, there’s sports reporting that Deadspin will never do, sports reporting that is necessary and that people want. But they will catch stories like these that fall through the cracks, and news consumers are better for it.

The story shows the power social media: I’m only guessing here, but it seems like the Deadspin reporters didn’t travel for the story, doing most of the work through the phones, social media and Google/Lexis-Nexis searches. Part of the story here, the part that should have more established outlets doing some earnest soul searching, is that a simple Google search would have raised red flags. (There supposedly was no obituary, nor any news stories about the car crash.) It looks like Burke and Dickey tracked down a lot of their sources through Facebook and Twitter, and they used the related image function on Google to track down the woman whose picture was used to fake Lennay Kekua’s social media profiles. I got a memo from an executive at my company a few days ago talking about how we need to start paying attention to this Twitter thing, and that he personally was going to try to tweet twice a day. Time for people to stop looking at social media as a cute trend we should probably be getting on board with, and look at it as a powerful reporting tool.

(Sorry for the big gap between this and my last post, hoping to start posting more regularly.)

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Bias part 2: Slaves to the Story

Since I recently posted a rant about the idea of media bias, I thought it only fair to talk about this Gawker piece.

(Since I posted that blog, David Carr at the New York Times has a column much more eloquent than my thoughts on the subject. The Gawker story is, in large part, a response to that.)

I knew I was going to like this story from the first line:

First off—there is no such thing as “the media.”

THANK YOU. That’s a terrible catch-all term, and it’s used too often to evoke a vaguely-defined boogey-man (straw man is more accurate, I guess) against which one can rail. When someone complains about “the media,” that person’s audience nods sympathetically and imagines that the term encompasses the newspapers, TV talking heads and bloggers they dislike while excluding the ones they agree with.

But I digress.

In the story, John Cook argues that the media’s bias against Mitt Romney is not political, but narrative. Pretty much nails it in this graph:

Many of the reporters, producers, and editors managing coverage of the political campaign may be culturally or politically liberal, but their first allegiance isn’t to the Revolution. It’s to the Story. And the Story So Far of this campaign is that Romney is a hapless, robotic, buffoon who insists on repeatedly detonating his campaign in an escalating series of Inspector Clouseau disasters.

When I get into arguments with friends and family members about supposed media bias, I’m usually defending my fellow scribes. But if those on the other side of the argument are savvy enough to bring up the idea of “the narrative,” that’s when my defenses fall.

As a print reporter, I show up to a lot of events where there are also TV reporters. I’ve never been to a scene with one TV camera crew and reporter. If one shows up, they all do. And when they get there, they move in a herd. They crowd around the same people to get the same quotes. When they set up to do live shots, they line up next to each other, so the view on the TV screen seems the same no matter what channel you’re watching. It’s as if they’re terrified to have a story that differs in any way from their peers.

I pick on TV people, but to some extent all journalists are susceptible to this. We tend to hook on to narratives, when stories take on that “extra element” that feeds in to a bigger discussion.

When I was a new reporter, I worked on a story in East Bridgewater where a young boy was killed crossing the street to pick up his family’s mail. Initially, there were reports that he was wearing “Heelies,” sneakers that have a wheel in the heel that allows the wearer to glide around. That made the story go viral, getting picked up nationally. When it was just a tragic accident, people weren’t interested. When it could be plugged into a bigger story, “Are Heelies safe?” that’s when people got interested. (The Heelies thing turned out to be false, by the way, and the national coverage faded away almost instantly.)

To some extent, that’s what Cook is saying is happening with the Romney coverage. It’s not enough to simply report events. Political reporters are plugging individual incidents into the “Romney is gaffe prone” narrative, incidents that on their own might not be newsworthy.

I think Cook pulls of the contrarian thing well here, but I have mixed feelings. I don’t think he’s wrong that media members can form a herd mentality and fall into the trap of subconsciously seeking stories that fit into a bigger picture. I think journalists are much more likely to fall prey to this kind of “bias,” to the Story over the story, than they are to let personal politics seep into their work. (For the record, Cook says in the piece he’s not a Romney fan.) But I think there are times when it’s OK to frame a story in a larger context – it’s not always a bad thing to look for a narrative arc when you’re on a beat or chasing a larger story.

Cook compares what the press is doing to Romney to what they did to Kerry and Gore, noting that like in those instances, many of the anecdotes about Romney’s wooden-ness and inability to seem normal have an element of truth. But then he says this:

But too many of the producers and reporters who covered those campaigns ultimately made no serious attempt to slice through easily established narrative to focus on the issues at stake.

I find that statement really hard to disagree with.

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