Tag Archives: journalism

Question ALL THE THINGS

A few weeks ago I came across this piece in Harvard Business Review imploring companies to embrace questions like: “Why are we doing it this way? Is there a better approach?” For some reason – maybe just my usual end-of-semester frustration – this one really hit home with me. The essence, when you get right down to it, of being able to adapt to change, to constantly improve, to be the “best you can be, whee!” is to:

Question all the things

 

In journalism, even the most traditional of our institutions are all about “experimentation” these days as they seek to evolve and remain relevant and viable businesses:  the New York Times Innovation Report mentions this several times; Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told all of us at ISOJ in Austin that it’s a major goal of his newsroom. Most experiments begin, fundamentally, with a question, and an atmosphere that welcomes it.

A willingness let go of:  “This is the way we’ve been doing things for 20 years — who are you to second-guess us?”

One might think the spirit of inquiry is endemic to the academic mission, but one would be wrong. Even as our sector, much like the media, stands ripe for disruption, I’ve never worked in another field in which one is more likely to see resistance to even the slightest threat to the status quo. An article in the New York Times today on G.M.’s years-long failure to fix a deadly safety issue in its cars described the “G.M. nod” – aka “the nod as an empty gesture.” While thankfully most of the issues I deal with don’t have life or death consequences, I’m often amazed by how questions are met with just that kind of passive resistance.

I use theories of organizational culture in my research, and I’m well aware of how defensive mechanisms get triggered and how and why resistance to change occurs. But I wonder if something as simple as encouraging people to always question how they could do things better  and rewarding them for doing so would be a great first step toward building an experimental culture.

There’s always a better way to tell that story. There’s always a more efficient process. There’s always a new reporting technique. There’s always a better way to teach a course. There are always questions. Maybe it’s a wholesale overhaul, maybe it’s a tweak, but there’s always something that could be improved or better understood.

In many ways, I think being able to question is also what allows us to be satisfied and feel our work has meaning. Instead of simply pointing out what we are doing wrong, bosses that encourage questioning such as “How could we do this better?”  are not only more supportive but produce the kind of atmosphere in which everyone is working collectively to come up with creative solutions to problems rather than just slinging the blame around. I find questioning invigorating and intellectually satisfying, personally, whereas when somebody just tells me something I do isn’t good enough, I get defensive and angry.

Entrepreneurs know this – this is why many tech startups are constantly engaging in A/B testing and other ways of answering their questions. For example, in his book,  The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about using the “Five Whys” to evolve processes. When confronted with a problem, he writes, ask “why” five times, and you will often uncover the root of the problem.

The Harvard Business Review piece points out it’s also no good to say to people who have asked a good question and uncovered a problem: Now it’s your job to fix it – without any new resources and in addition to your regular job. That will shut everybody down and create frustration real quick. People need time and space to question effectively.

George Carlin knew about questioning, too:

 

 

 

 

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ISOJ 2014 Highlights: Building an Experimental Culture for News

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to return to Austin for this year’s International Symposium of Online Journalism, always my favorite conference. My biggest takeaway was perhaps a selfish one, given that my research buddy Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I are working on a book bringing together about eight years of our research on newsrooms to help news organizations develop experimental, learning cultures. At ISOJ it came across clearly that from our most venerable legacy brands to new media upstarts, experimentation is a priority for today’s journalists.

For example, I was thrilled to hear Washington Post editor Marty Baron discuss his overall  optimism for the news business and his description of his efforts to foster an experimental culture by encouraging people to try new things and rewarding them for it.  Specifically, Baron noted that the Post has made an effort to expand its video content, and that they have learned that explainer video and video attached to news events works better for them than live video.  He  his encouraged by what they have found out so far, but noted that they remain in “the mode of experimentation” in which some things just won’t work, “and we aren’t embarrassed by it. I think of a scientist in a laboratory.” Exactly. This is what giants like Google and Amazon do – and is a big piece of their digital success. Caroline Little, president and CEO at Newspaper Association of America, also noted in her talk: “If people aren’t experimenting, we are never going to get there.”

Matt Waite FLYING A DRONE at ISOJ

Daniel Eilemberg, senior vice president, chief digital officer at Fusion, a new cable and digital content platform and joint venture between Disney and Univison, also talked about building a data-driven learning culture. He said: Our goal is to produce more content, test it….and then continue to invest in things that really resonate. Bring to the screen content that already has an audience from digital.

And even when new ventures do fail, or perhaps more accurately, are killed before they are given a chance to succeed: Jim Brady, one of my favorite journalists to hear from, and, sadly, soon-to-be-formerly of Digital First Media, noted that the demise of Thunderdome is NOT a bellweather that means we can’t do innovation in newsrooms. Much was learned, and the battle goes on.

Jim Bankoff , chairman and CEO at Vox Media, also verified the importance of culture, although he said it was one reason why he left legacy media to help start something new. In his view, you need the kind of experimental culture and financial commitment that many in traditional media may say they want, but when push comes to shove: Don’t. Other interesting highlights:

  • Bankoff of Vox also noted that that his company continues to hire passionate experts on a given topic and said that their revenues are growing at a rapid rate, roughly doubling year over year; they are operating at about even right now, and they expect to be profitable later this year. Huzzah!  
  • Loved hearing John Keefe, senior editor for Data News & Journalism Technology at WNYC talk about Arudinos and all of the creative projects he has led using these small, programmable computers. For example, many have probably heard about the cool cicada project they did in which 800 people made a simple device to measure soil temperature, predicting when cicadas would emerge. Keefe also was wearing a hoodie that pulsed with a heart monitor, and talked about a device he built for his wife – it was her idea, he swears! – to track her monthly cycle. Keefe learned how to do all of this cool stuff basically just by Googling it. Pushing the frontiers of journalism FTW!
  • Fun fact about Google Glass from Tim Pool, producer at Vice Media – while it’s good for taking and publishing quick photos during a breaking news situation, it overheats quickly when used for live broadcasting. Yikes. Pool also talked about Tagg.ly, launching soon: With one touch it will allow you to add location and your logo to your photos.
  • Matt Waite, professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Journalism Drone Lab, FLEW A DRONE for us. Need I say more? Drones clearly have many exciting possibilities for journalism, but Waite pointed out that the legal environment is currently very unsettled – “this is a $500 constitutional challenge in a box,” he said. Will be interesting to see how that plays out. Waite noted that drones DO pose safety issues – those blades are sharp – but not to aircraft, given how low drones fly.
  • Discussions of journalism ethics can get pedantic. Refreshing take from  John Cook, editor-in-chief at First Look Media’s digital magazine Intercept: While we are all as human beings bound by basic ethical precepts such as honesty,  the ethics as applied on a professional level to journalists have been used to keep people out of the priesthood. This was echoed by New York University professor Jay Rosen, who noted that people can use ethics to “escape their anxieties” about new things and City University London professor Jane Singer, who noted that when new technologies come along, journalists stretch to find a reason not to get out of their comfort zones. Great exemplary quote from a US magazine journalist she interviewed in her research: “Blogging is little more than hype dished out largely by the unemployable to the aimless.”
  • Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a new book coming out called “Saving Newspapers” that sounds good.  Her key takeaways when it comes to pursuing new revenue: Advertisers are confused and look to news companies for answers. Come up with a rate card that encourages advertisement across mediums. Have a compensation system that rewards people who prospect and a good digital sales training system.
  • Jay Rosen was big-time preaching to at least this crowd of one when he said: Journalism schools allowed the teaching of practice and the making of academic knowledge by PhDs to evolve away from one another. Bad decision. YES,  INDEED. Philosophically, I am also a pragmatist, which, as Rosen said, means we believe knowledge advances when we try to improve things.  I agree that we need to put everybody we can to work on the problems of practice, and that we shouldn’t just be training grounds for future journalists but also as an R&D wing for newsrooms.
  • If you aren’t aware of startups like Homicide Watch and Policy Mic – you should be. Their passionate founders will restore any lost hope you had for journalism. For example, Jake Horowitz, editor-in-chief and co-founder at PolicyMic, argued that contrary to popular belief, young people DO care about news. They just need sites like his that know how to make the news relevant, and that a news site is only as good as its distribution channels.
  • Also from Baron:  The Washington Post is hiring three dozen people this year alone. Doesn’t count people  in business and technology. WOW. Thank you, Bezos, sir.

 

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Two Steps To Success: Ride the Google Wave, Then Focus On Longer-Form Quality

This post is a response to the February  Journalism Carnival, which asked us: “What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”

I already did a little prognosticating just a couple of months ago over at Nieman Lab, but here’s a somewhat half-formed  idea I’ve been playing around with in my head and talking about with my research buddy, Jonathan Groves of Drury University.  I don’t have any hard data on this yet. But here’s one possible “digital trend” we could see developing…

Recently, there have been a number of encouraging pieces like this and this suggesting that long-form, serious journalism on the web, or on the tablet as the case may be, is thriving. Exciting, almost too-good-to-be-true for democracy-depends-on-journalism nerds like me.

What I’m wondering, though, is if news organizations have to go through a series of  stages in order to find success with serious, hard-hitting, longer reads on the web.  Sure, some sites like the Atavist may be able to bypass a step, but maybe most news organziations have to do some hardcore SEO, shorter pieces, aggregation, and other aggressive page-view garnering tactics first, before you can move into the second stage where your longer pieces get traction online.

Bear in mind again I’m just speculating here.

Groves and I did a study at the Christian Science Monitor, which eliminated its daily print edition a couple of years ago, going not only Web-first but Web-only, although they do still have a magazine-like print weekly. The Monitor aggressively used SEO techniques, shortened their stories, increased their updating frequency, and monitored Google Trends in order to assign stories on popular newsy search topics, and  was able to quickly reach a goal of increasing their page views from just three million to 25 million by 2010. Just the other day a non-journalist friend of mine who has never heard of the Monitor sent me a story from it she had found via searching Google for stories about the then-hot Komen vs. Planned Parenthood story; it was one of the top results. I’m pretty sure she never would have come across one of their stories before the transition. Not only are they boosting page views, they are increasing their brand awareness as a place to go to for important news. If the Monitor would have kept doing exactly what they were doing, just repurposing print content for the web, I’m not sure they would still even be a player in the space, regardless of how much great journalism they are doing, even though these tactics caused understandable anxiety for many staffers and journalism lovers alike.

But once your brand has been established as a web player, can you then start to focus on doing the kind of stuff journalists do best,  more in-depth reporting? Do sites like Slate and the Atlantic have success with long-form because they’ve already established themselves as web-savvy?

Sometimes I think we want a one-size-fits-all, linear solution to the tumult in the news business when the the real “answer,” such that it is, is that you have to walk before you can run, and that your transition for success SHOULD, and indeed must, have a lot of pivots in it, as most good entrepreneurial thinkers know.  It reminds me of teaching beginning news reporting. I don’t want my students to only know how to write boring, inverted pyramid, formulaic, inside-baseball news stories. But I’ve learned from experience it is hard to teach them how to break the rules until they’ve learned the rules in the first place. Somehow, learning to write the most basic, simple story launches you into a space in which you can then start doing some more interesting things as a reporter and a writer. Some times you have to learn a certain skill – how to be smart on the web – before you can start creatively melding that skill with some of your higher values of investigative journalism. You have to experiment and learn some of the rules and norms of a new medium and get out of your comfort zone while doing it, and then you can move forward from there.

Every time I write a blog post, I think, well, that was not as profound as it seemed when I first had the thought. But anyway, I wonder if that is one “digital trend” we will see in the future – a kind of two-step process to great web journalism.

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Open Access Academic Journals in Journalism and Mass Communication

A few weeks ago, danah boyd posted an excellent rant urging professors to fight the knowledge cartels otherwise known as the high-profit-margin industry of academic publishing by taking our work to open-access journals, thus breaking “the corporate stranglehold over scholarly knowledge in order to make your knowledge broadly accessible.”

I already commented on her post with my agreement and thoughts, but it occurred to me that I didn’t really know much about open-access journals in my field. Quite possibly I’m an idiot for not already knowing this, but part of the problem is that I’m not a publishing machine like some in my cohort. But I polled some smarter folks than I and I’m posting a list here. If you know more, holler in the comments.

Open Access Journals in Journalism and Mass Communication

International Journal of Communication

Journal of Computer Mediated Communication

First Monday

M/C Journal

Teaching Journalism and Mass Communication

JOMEC (Journalism, Media, Cultural Studies)

Web Journal of Mass Communication Research

Thanks to Amy Schmitz-Weiss, Josh Braun, Sue Robinson, Matt Carlson, Nikki Usher, Hans Meyer and Chris Anderson for their input on this list.

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“Voice” Leads to More Credibility and Political Efficacy

Newsosaur blogger Alan Mutter writes what I think is a thought-provoking and interesting post in which he argues that given the current economic crisis facing most news outlets today, they might consider “whether a more outspoken, less diffident, more opinionated and less dreary press might be welcomed by journalists and readers alike.”

I don’t have time for a more complete post now in the midst of grading season, but I just wanted to note that the research indicates that he is exactly right.

As early as 1989, scholars Newhagan and Nass were finding that television news anchors were more trusted than their newspaper counterparts, in large part because people just felt like they really knew them.  This was before the cable shout-fests began, but simply being able to show a hint of personality and to be a “real person” on air led to higher credibility.

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. (Jeremy has his own blog, and I’m sure he can talk better about his work than I can, so check it out :))

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as “political efficacy,” or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking,  actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

There’s more research on voice, which I will write about later; one of my students did her final paper for my class on the subject.

I’m lucky enough to have many journalism friends on Facebook, and sometimes I feel like their hilarious, irreverent voices don’t make it into their more dry, institutional copy. I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Voice doesn’t HAVE TO mean less facts or more ill-informed ranting a la Fox News or MSNBC. It’s what our best columnists have always done – there’s still hard-hitting reporting, but the person behind the story isn’t completely hidden. If anything, the biases they are trying (often to little avail) to hide are instead transparently represented to the audience and become part and parcel of their expertise rather than a liability.

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New Media Skills: Not Just For Monkeys

I gotta share something here that is bothering me here in the journalism Ivory Tower, and that is the tendency among some academics to view “new” media skills – anything from Web programming to social media to data crunching to Flash – as something that is wholly separate from the intellectual endeavor. While viewed as increasingly necessary, these are things seen as lacking an academic heft, especially at the graduate level.

For example, I’ve heard impassioned arguments for why it is critical for every graduate student to take courses in law and history (as well as theory, research methods, and administrative methods here in Memphis), because the knowledge and perspective gained is absolutely critical to becoming intellectually well-rounded and a thoughtful practitioner . Skills courses are pooh-poohed as something students could take as electives or maybe even just on their own in a workshop in the summer; the idea that social media could be considered part of course content is laughed at (literally – “if you come to graduate school to learn how to Twitter, well that is just sad.”)

Now, I have nothing against courses like law and history. Nothing at all. Yes, they are certainly valuable. But very few of our students are here because they are considering a PhD. They are here, basically, because they want to get a job, or a better job. I question why any editor on earth would care if a student got a Master’s degree if that didn’t include some sophisticated new journalism skills.

Sure, anybody can write a line of code, and there’s a purely technical aspect to a lot of Web-related skills. But a journalist has to bring to bear news values, ethics, and an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the audience to bear when coding for a news related Web site. Even less technical things like blogging and Twitter have taught me about as much as any course I ever took by forcing me to take what I have learned and make it clear, understandable, and attractive to an audience.

I think every skills course should be taught in a way that encourages critical thinking, analysis, and applied theory. For example, students creating any kind of multimedia project should have to consider explicitly how they are bringing our core values to life and/or how they’ve used the media choice model or uses & gratifications theory (etc.) to create an appealing Web site.

If you create a kind of skills ghetto and teach the “high-minded” stuff in a separate class, you are encouraging students to see theory and practice as being somehow totally separate things – and the whole point is that they shouldn’t be.

If anything, it’s the undergraduates that I think deserve to get some kind of broad intellectual base, and since in their case we are just desperately trying to get them to be able to write one clear sentence, the focus for them can be a little bit more on the very basic journalism skills. But a graduate student to me MUST come out with some strong new media skills in order to succeed in the job market.

When I look at friends with Master’s degrees who managed to get the job they wanted in the current media environment – well, it’s almost ALWAYS the ones who went the “more technical” route and learned a lot about data, Web programming, coding, or multimedia.

I don’t know, maybe I’m off base here with this little rant. Let me know in the comments.

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Getting It Right AND Getting It Fast

As our news cycle accelerates to warp speed with the rise of Twitter and other always-on social networking devices, there is considerable hand-wringing among the responsible journalist and academic communities.

Is our rush-to-publish mentality spreading rumor and falsehood and eroding our core values?

I’d say maybe not, or the more classic academic “it depends.”  I’m in agreement with Jake Sherlock, assistant professor at the University of Missouri and Columbia Missourian editor, in a thoughtful post he wrote about immediacy and accuracy, here.

Jake writes about a sports reporter who found out what bowl game Mizzou would be playing in via the Twitter account of one of the top players three hours before it was officially announced by the university. There was spirited debate in the newsroom as to whether that information should be published or even retweeted until it was confirmed elsewhere.

I agree with Jake that there’s nothing wrong with retweeting this information and telling readers what you know, how you know it, and that you are currently seeking confirmation. When you have confirmation or lack thereof, change the story immediately.

As I tell my students nearly every day, getting it right is the MOST important thing we do. In fact, that’s a reoccurring quiz question  throughout the semester – I want that phrase emblazoned on their brains.  In my view, getting it right should always trump getting it first, but I’m not so sure in the digital age those two things are mutually exclusive.

Really, it comes down to transparency, and letting readers judge for themselves the evidence of truth and falsehood. It strikes me as just a hair patronizing or dismissive of our readers’ intelligence to assume that they can’t handle being part of the sometimes messy news process.  For example, there was some consternation when it turned out that most major news organizations were wrong and the Fort Hood shooter was still alive. I’m not sure I was harmed by the fact that these news organizations cited a presumably reliable source in reporting that he was dead, and then later widely corrected themselves. It’s not ideal, but now we aren’t doing all of our work behind closed doors, hiding in the shadows anymore. Verification is a public project, and often it’s all the better for it because it gives others more and faster ways to correct us.

Now, obviously, there are some stories, particularly those that might damage someone’s reputation, in which it makes sense to not publish until every last detail has been nailed down. However, even in those cases, if every other media outlet is running with the rumors, it actually might make more ethical and journalistic sense to let the readers know that the claims they may have heard elsewhere are unverified but that you are working on the story. That tells them a lot about your process and your concern for the truth and also makes it clear what is rumor and what is not in a world where that’s getting harder to differentiate. This isn’t a new idea or unique to me; it’s one of the things Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel discuss in the book Elements of Journalism.

Finally, being part of the news and verification process is exciting. It gives you a feeling of ownership in what is produced,and maybe it could help us to build engagement with our communities. Maybe it’s just because I’m a former journalist, but I find myself glued to Twitter when there is breaking news because it reminds me a little bit of that buzz you get working in the newsroom when something big goes down – people are asking questions, trying to determine what is known, sharing tidbits, etc. Nobody pretends to have all the answers but everybody is trying to nail them down.


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