Category Archives: journalism

Making the Moos-t of a Prime Time Slot

As CNN continues to try to figure out how to compete in prime time, the network recently announced that former New York Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer and Washington Post conservative columnist Kathleen Parker will soon launch their own show, a roundtable discussion of ideas set to air in the 8PM (read: O’Reilly and Olbermann) slot.

If CNN truly believes that the key to winning the ratings war is to be the news-centric antidote to the partisan opinion-mongering on Fox News and MSNBC, this is not really the way to do it. This new show is set up to run on ideological clashes. It looks like Crossfire Lite.

Dan Kennedy has one great idea — a version of the highly acclaimed CNN International that focuses on, shockingly enough, the news. (Read some more of his smart thoughts about CNN.) But I have an alternative suggestion.

Jeanne Moos.

For a long time, Jeanne Moos — known for her quirky, offbeat news packages — has been one of my favorite CNN correspondents. (And as someone who used to watch CNN for almost four hours a day at my old job, I know from CNN correspondents.) Her segments are a refreshing complement to the standard drudge of news readers and punditry. If you think about it, Moos may be CNN’s most unique asset.

Why would this work? Look at “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” One great thing about those shows it that they give people the news with a spoonful of sugar. The programs are so entertaining, you almost don’t realize that you’re getting caught up on the intricacies of Congressional debate or being exposed to the hypocrisies of political rhetoric.

In an era where those shows can win viewers – and influence – by virtue of blending irreverence with information, why can’t someone like Moos tap that market, while bringing the gravitas of a credible journalist (check out her international reporting chops) to the table and tamping down the hipster snark by a notch or three?

The fact of the matter is, CNN needs to do something bold. It is not going to capture the prime time audience by serving up some network TV newbies in an ideological face-off. It needs to distinguish itself. So (and the same argument could apply for “CNN International”) why not look within at what already makes it unique?

You can follow this Jeanne Moos Twitter bot — sadly not the actual person — to get updates on new segments. Here are some of her recent pieces:

Reaction to the USA’s winning World Cup goal against Algeria:

Analysis of BP CEO Tony Hayward’s Congressional testimony:

Is that President Obama in the video for “Whoomp! There It Is”?

I know this idea has an Olbermann’s chance at an NRA rally of becoming reality, but it reflects my belief that news organizations need to not only push the envelope, but invent a whole new kind of envelope in order to succeed — and make it worthwhile to us, the viewers.

Can’t See the Forest for the Tweets

Over the weekend, I was reading coverage of the slow-motion PR nightmare that is Tiger Woods’ car accident/domestic drama/etc. Of course, being me, I’m not really concerned about why his wife was wielding a nine-iron or why he was peeling out of his driveway in the middle of the night. I’m more concerned about this graf in the Associated Press’ story from Saturday:

Aside from occasional criticism of his temper inside the ropes, he has kept himself out of the news outside his sport. In an October posting on his Facebook account, Woods wrote, “I’m asked why people don’t often see me and Elin in gossip magazines or tabloids. I think we’ve avoided a lot of media attention because we’re kind of boring. …”

Curious, I looked up Tiger Woods’ Facebook “account” (read: fan page). It’s a fairly active and well maintained (not by him, obvs.) presence, with 1.2 million fans. Like many fan pages, it pulls in content from external sources. And in this case, the above quote actually came from one of those sources — the “Dear Tiger” fanmail section of Tiger Woods.com. Thus, the AP story misrepresents the source of that quote — which has been widely published and republished in print and on the web by AP subscribers.

This is not a grievous offense, but it does speak to the pervasive problem of social media illiteracy in the mainstream media.

One of the first things you learn — in high school, much less j-school — is the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. In this case, with the fanmail page including first-person responses from Woods, I believe that can be considered a primary source. In this article, the author, AP sportswriter Fred Goodall, failed to make that distinction by attributing the content as belonging to Facebook.

There is a semantic difference between “posting” and “sharing.” If you describe something as a “posting on his Facebook account,” you are — according to the lexicon of the medium — attributing primary source characteristics to the content on Facebook, when in fact all Facebook is serving as is a conduit for sharing the content. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be a wall in a common area where a printout has been tacked up. In a research paper or newspaper article, would you cite the wall?

Why is it hard for someone like Goodall to do this basic assessment of his sources? Is it because it’s “cooler” to cite Facebook postings in your story? If so, you’re not only misleading your readers, but your misrepresenting Tiger Woods as someone who posts personal updates to a Facebook account, much like you or I (or Chad Ochocinco) might. Woods’ Facebook presence is an online outpost of his athletic industry, not a personal mouthpiece, like Ochocinco’s Twitter account. And that’s fine. But in reporting, the distinction is increasingly important, especially if we’re going to start throwing attributions and citations around.

In a way, it’s hard to blame Goodall. He’s a sportswriter, not David Pogue. Should I expect him to know the different between a webpage and the posting of a link to that webpage on Facebook? Between a tweet piped in from Twitterfeed and someone’s own words?

The answer, actually, is yes. After all, I would expect him to know the difference between talking to the police spokesperson and talking to some guy who spoke to the police spokesperson. It’s a little different here — you can make the reasonable assumption that the same entity that maintains Tiger Woods’ website manages his Facebook profile. But I’m reaching that assumption with some level of savviness — the same savviness that led me to ascertain that Tiger Woods’ Facebook fan page was an official presence. Does Goodall have that savvy? Do his editors?

This is about understanding the context of information, and with new media, that context is changing. There are certainly instances when the sourcing is a little muddier, since imprints like Twitter’s verified accounts are not yet the standard (and there does not yet exist such confirmation for Facebook fan pages). We may not realize it, but in this space, we are relying a lot on savvy to help us assess the content we’re viewing. Savvy is great, but it doesn’t have its own AP stylebook.

In this new world of blended media, retweeting and link sharing, reporters should be able to do a basic parsing of content to determine its origin. There are many celebrities and organizations who do use Facebook and Twitter as direct mouthpieces to the public, breaking news and posting exclusive information via those channels. As those outlets continue to proliferate, and thus merit reporting by mainstream media, an understanding of the differences — between Facebook fan pages and profiles, managed presences and personal ones, and all of the many ways personalities and brands may use social media platforms — will be critical. Even for Fred Goodall.

Photo by monado/Flickr Creative Commons

The Globe Sells its Soul to Milhouse for Five Dollars

I have to admit, I was slightly stunned this morning when I went to Boston.com and saw that they had published an excerpt from a book about the so-called “Craigslist Killer.”

What stunned me is that the book was written by a Globe metro reporter.

So, this is what that tells me: the Globe, desperate for both visibility and cash during a devastating stretch for the journalism industry, decided to devote a member of its decimated metro staff to write a book — a supermarket aisle trade paperback, surely — capitalizing on the fanfare around this dopey yet homicidal med student, when there are important things happening like elections and crime and development and other urban affairs (both in Boston and its former City Weekly brethren) that require real, in-depth investigative reporting.

Seriously?

Come on, Globe. Pretend for just one second that you are still committed to the critical mission of serving as the gatekeeper, the guardian, the conscience of this city. Really. Let me believe for just a little while that you’re not selling out your urban soul for suburban drek.

Above all, please, please tell me: in what universe is a book about the Craigslist Killer worthwhile journalism? A simple question. I certainly can’t conceive of a viable answer, and I’d really like to know.

EDIT: Katy in the comments makes a good point: this book isn’t published by the Globe, it’s published by CBS’ 48 Hours. So I don’t want to misrepresent the facts and imply that the Globe is publishing this book — apparently, they are not.

But this does point to an important issue: reporters seeking new opportunities outside of newspaper journalism. I worry about the brain drain from where our society needs it the most.

I also still believe that the Globe overall is diverting attention away from urban issues and focusing on suburban regions (with deeper pockets). Not that what happened to those attacked by Philip Markoff was not serious, but there are chronic issues of urban crime that are less flashy but that require as much if not more attention and thought.

As The Globe Turns

So, with 80% of the membership voting, the Boston Newspaper Guild narrowly rejected the proposed $10 million in wage and benefit cuts offered by the New York Times Co. Almost immediately, an across-the-board 23% wage cut will go into effect for Guild members.

The door does not appear entirely closed — both the Guild and the newspaper seemed to leave open room for resuming negotiations or at least discussing the pending 23% cut, and that could be me offering an overly optimistic reading between the lines — but it looks pretty grim. The next steps could involve a surprise, late-breaking settlement, sure, but more likely a protracted court struggle or even closure.

The problem with this whole scenario is that there is a lot of shady stuff going on. You have one observer doing the math and coming to the conclusion that the Globe’s finances are nowhere near as dire as they have been painted (combine that with the NYT’s shoddy accounting of the sacrifices they asked of the Globe, and other questions about the veracity of their claim that the Globe expecting a loss of $85 million this year). You have the NYT Co. being bizarrely silent throughout the negotiations process, which just inflames the other side. You have the Guild’s leadership under scrutiny. And the list goes on. And the picture grows even murkier, the paper’s fate less certain.

But you know what? I’m having a lot of trouble mustering the will to care. Hell, I’m having trouble mustering the will to finish this post, even though I’ve certainly had things to say on the matter before. Maybe it’s battle fatigue. Maybe it’s a creeping feeling of hopelessness. Or indifference. I don’t know. But while the NYTimes has been shut up in stony silence and the Globe has been wrestling internally with its own fate, the readers have been left to watch the spectacle unfold, seeing pieces of the paper get sloughed off and the occasional WTF feature snag prime column inches. I understand that livelihoods are at stake, but let’s divest the personal concerns from this situation for a moment, if I may. Isn’t a newspaper supposed to service its readership? How, right now, are we being served?

To zoom back out to the big picture, let’s look at the news industry. It is in peril. This standoff between the Globe and the Times is representative of the worst possible consequence of a deeply troubled media climate. As I’ve said before, while the short-term solution may be to staunch the bleeding, that must be coupled with innovation. Any cost-saving measure, no matter how drastic, isn’t going to be worth enacting if there’s no plan for evolution. The Globe’s dire straits could prove to be a crucible for that innovation — when you’re up against a wall, you’ve got to get creative, right? Now’s the time for crazy thinking, for bold actions. But I haven’t seen any real indication of that.

Either way you look at it, from the reporter taking home a 1/4 less in their paycheck to the readers wondering what will become of their regional paper of record, it’s just sad. Any newspaper wants a good story on its front page. But you never want it to be your own.

EDIT: I stand corrected. Forget I ever used the I-word. Ryan Thornburg really hit what I was getting at, and far more eloquently than I ever could have. Innovation is out. Experimentation is in. Why? In his words, “Innovation only values success. Experimentation also values failure.” A must-read.

All the News That’s Fit to Tweet

Last week, The New York Times announced the promotion of Jen Preston (most recently of the now-defunct Times Regional sections) to social media editor for the newspaper. At first glance, this seems like a great move. Newspapers desperately need to catch up to the way communication and information sharing takes place nowadays, and having someone whose job it is to, I quote from the memo announcing Preston’s hire, “concentrate full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers” sounds like a giant step in the right direction.

The hiring was not without some awkwardness, such as Preston’s Twitter account only becoming non-protected in the hours after her hire (and purged of all previous tweets, if there were any). But Mashable raised the greater point of, what ultimate purpose will a centrally placed individual “in charge of” social media at the newspaper serve, especially when some reporters are already doing a great job at a more organic level in using social media? 

Consolidating social strategy and having one person direct operations could help, but only if he or she is socially savvy and open to feedback and new connections. 

The great thing about social media is that it is not a top-down channel, like newspapers have traditionally been. It’s not even just bottom-up. It’s everything from all directions, all the time. You can’t control that — once your carefully constructed video, blog post, article or tweet leaves the nest, it’s at the mercy of the social wilderness. You can study the phenomenon and react to it, but you can’t define or dictate it. It will be curious to see what Preston’s role evolves to become. Since the announcement, she has been doing lots of replying and retweeting, a bunch of listening and also attending presentations on Twitter given by her own colleagues. All good things.

Mike Volpe at HubSpot was a bit less allowing, calling the move a “misfire” and instead encouraging the company to empower its entire staff with skills in SEO and social media.

The whole point behind inbound marketing is that it is not some sort of bolt on to your existing company.  You get the best results when you re-think your business and business model, and involve the entire company. 

This sounds good, but like I said, the world of social media is all things from all directions, not top-down. You can’t shift from one to the other overnight, and if you do want to shift, it may make sense to have one person on hand to coordinate that transition. It may very well be that the ultimate NYT strategy is to equip every reporter with the new media toolkit (and many NYT staffers are already immersing themselves in social media — less clumsily than David Pogue, I hope) but in their current organizational structure, that is not going to happen organically across the board.

A Double-Edged Sword

But organizational commitment to social media can cut two ways. Both NYT and the Wall Street Journal are among publications that have provided social media guidelines to its reporters. Some of the WSJ guidelines are medium-specific, such as not to friend sources without editor approval, but a lot of them seem like common sense guidelines on not misrepresenting yourself and maintaining a professional demeanor. The NYT guidelines for Facebook dig a little deeper, getting almost philosophical about what exactly is a “friend” and talking about source-culling, but also present a lot of common sense rules like not editorializing if you work in News and not making the company look bad. A common element is not to discuss works-in-progress online. (Personally, I am iffy about such guidelines. My stance until further notice is to use your judgment and basic common sense — something the reporters who tweeted items from a newsroom meeting did not do.)

Some folks raise the question, though: do these policies inhibit the very functions that make social media communities so compelling and useful by, well, tightly restricting how social you can be? Jeff Jarvis brings up the point of collaborative reporting, and the great opportunity for newspapers (like Talking Points Memo has done) to tap the resources of the broader community to advance their reporting.

This mindset, of course, flies in the face of scoop mentality, of anti-citizen journalist sentiment and ivory-tower journalism. The editorial hierarchy is not built to allow reporters to be independent decision-making agents who can live-tweet, blog and friend at will. But maybe, at least in some respects, it should be.

What many print publications have failed to realize is that the age of the scoop is over. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who stays there best, and that outcome is not entirely in the hands of the publication. Like with Volpe’s complaint about Preston’s hiring, I understand Rome isn’t built (or un-built, in this case) in a day, but social media present intriguing opportunities to drop the wall a bit, even on a per-story basis, and bring the community into the process. I’d love to see that happen. 

(BTW I highly recommend this blog post by the Nieman Journalism Lab for good thoughts and links on all of the above.)

Your Saturday afternoon Globe critique

One of my favorite hobbies is picking on articles in which the Boston Globe strives to be culturally relevant by writing about Internet trends that the rest of us got over being excited about a while ago. C’mon, it’s fun!

Today’s article is about the culture of fail. The Globe trains its anthropological magnifying glass on the curious phenomena of FMyLife.com, the Twitter Fail Whale and Fail Blog, trotting in some college students who have adopted “FML” into the real-life lexicon and psychologists who offer dime-store analysis on our obsession with failure and embarrassment. 

Maybe I’m being unfair, but this is just dull, and it feels like it was outdated before it was written. Granted, I am already familiar with FMyLife and Fail Blog, so this article did not tell me anything new. But to that point, who is the audience for this article? If it’s younger folks, then like me, they are probably already familiar with Fail Blog, FML and their ilk. If it’s older people… they probably don’t care. 

Sadly, I feel like I see these articles over and over again. The Globe pinpoints something popular online, sees that as an opportunity to connect with a desired demographic, and pens a painful article that makes the newspaper seem hopelessly out of the loop of mainstream online culture. The psychologists are always what really get me, as if websites like Fail Blog are indicative of some great shift in the psyche of the American Internet user that must be studied and explained. Naturally, in this article, they have no great insights. A self-deprecating sense of humor can be a sign of good self-esteem! Seeing humor in the everyday mishaps of life can be healthy! Breaking news!

According to the story’s subhead, “Web culture has become obsessed with our mistakes.” Really, though, I don’t think the “obsession” with failure, or even with being broadly confessional, is new — and those psychologists certainly didn’t convince me that it was. As the article itself points out, a lot of the things you see posted on Fail Blog, you could have conceivably seen on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” back in the day. It’s just more social now, more viral.

Maybe that’s part of the challenge the Globe faces. It’s like when your out of the loop friend comes around to breathlessly fill you in on news that you heard about a week ago. “Yeah, I already heard,” you say. “Tell me something I don’t know.” That’s how I felt after reading this article.

Who watches the pressmen?

The Boston Globe published an interesting article about how newspaper pressmen are worrying about what the changes to the journalism industry mean for their jobs. It’s funny — I often think about the changes in journalism at the industry level, or about what it means for how reporters do their jobs. But, as with all great shifts, the cogs in the machines may suffer the most. Reporters can take classes and learn how to blog or shoot video and advertising folks can devise new strategies to sell ads online; it’s not that big of a deal, really. But for folks like the pressmen, there is no adaptation. There is no strategic planning or professional development. The future for their trade is narrow and dim.

I know slash-and-burn is the popular strategy as of late, but do newspaper companies have any responsibility to help the practitioners of these endangered trades? If they’ve empowered photographers to edit videos and reporters to get on Twitter or run a blog, why not provide some path for the pressmen? Or is this just the way things go, with natural selection playing out as it will in an evolving industry and that particular trade becoming more niche and more obscure? I don’t know. It’s a tough call.