Considering the audience

How have the Internet and other digital media changed the audience for news? And how has journalism changed its view of the audience, if at all? Those were two of the key questions on day two of the Phil Meyer symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Shawn McIntosh, director of culture and change at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said her biggest challenge is to make the newsroom become audience focused. She believes journalism educators need to take on that challenge, as well. “We have long been arrogant and journalism schools have fed into that,” she said. Instead of teaching journalists how to convince the public to “take their medicine,” McIntosh said, journalists need to pay attention to what the public wants. Change the teaching, McIntosh urged, and “change the mindset of journalists as they go forward.”

newsgarden.jpgSo what do we need to think about? Here are a couple of ideas. Think about how the audience interacts with and shares information from the news media. Mark Briggs of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., is involved in a new online project that places local news stories on a map and invites community members to add other items. The “news garden” has been planted at The Bellingham Herald.

Think about how TV and newspapers have long rank-ordered news for the audience, by deciding what to lead with or what to put on the front page. Does that matter as much online? Not really, Briggs said. Less than 30 percent of the paper’s online users come through the home page, so what journalists decide to put front and center on the online “front page” may not be that important. What matters more, Briggs suggested, is how people get to those inside pages, via links sent to them by email, text messaging or social network sites like Facebook.

Journalists need to recognize the power of the audience as distributors of the information news organizations provide. As a 25-year-old told the New York Times this week, “I’d rather read an email from a friend with an attached story than search through a newspaper to find a story.” Does that mean news organizations should spend less time pushing the use of their primary product–like promos to “Tune in at 6”–and more time making it easy for users to pass along the stories journalists generate?

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Something strange and possibly dangerous

Technology has changed journalism in ways that journalists themselves don’t understand. Phil Meyer, known to many as the father of investigative reporting and a longtime leader in journalism research, says we’d better figure it out if we want to survive. Here’s the text of a speech Meyer delivered last night at a symposium in his honor in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Perhaps the most quoted line in Precision Journalism, is this: “They are raising the ante on what it takes to become a journalist.”

I used it to open the third edition, published in 1991. And now I have a confession to make. At the time I wrote it, I could not be certain that it was true.

It was time to raise the ante, sure enough. But the mainstream media were being painfully slow to keep up with the need for better and more skillful journalism. I guess I thought that if I announced that standards were rising, perhaps that might nudge the process along a bit.

An “ante,” of course is what you pay to buy into each hand of a poker game. It ensures that you have a stake, some commitment, before you see your cards. Putting time and money on the table for journalism education is the way that most people in newspapers and broadcasting make their commitment. And now, 17 years after I made that rash claim, the ante really is being raised. This time, I am certain. And technology is the cause. While we were worrying about other things, learning to do journalism got harder.

And it’s going to get harder still.

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Raising the ante

How has the Internet changed journalism? Can journalism survive in a world where there are no longer any “gatekeepers” and if so, what will it look like? I’m at a symposium in honor of Phil Meyer, author of Precision Journalism, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where these big questions and many others are being discussed.

Scott Maier of the University of Oregon believes journalism will survive because editors will become “navigators,” finding news in different places and helping people discover it. They need the same judgment skills journalists have always needed, Maier said, but they also have to understand that the definition of credibility has changed, because accuracy is in the eye of the beholder and many people seek news that favors their point of view.

Mark Briggs of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., said today’s audience decides what kind of journalism they want, not the old gatekeepers, so a navigator’s most important role is to facilitate a discussion about the news. What the audience wants is interactive, immediate and transparent, Briggs said, a lesson re-learned in the past week when his paper’s comments section went down. The newsroom was flooded with angry calls and emails from people who wanted to participate in the news as a conversation, but couldn’t.

Briggs also talked about how reporting and delivering the news have changed. Some reporters are now “beat blogging,” forming social networks around their beats to develop stories and engage people who are not involved in news otherwise. [Here’s an example I discovered a few weeks ago from a New Jersey newspaper reporter.] A well-connected reporter is obviously going to break more stories, but Briggs says that today’s well-connected reporter should take source development public. As for news delivery, Briggs says the linear narrative has given way to short bursts, like SMS text messages. How will news organizations communicate to these consumers? What is journalism today now that the construct of the narrative has broken down? Is journalism writing code, like everyblock.com?

Whatever it is, it’s not going to be easy work. “Some wag once said that journalism is the place where the best of the second class minds go,” said Gil Thelen, former publisher of the Tampa Tribune. A navigator has to be a talented reporter, analyst, convener and multimedia “super-journo.” And students are asking who’s going to pay them to do all that. “I tell them they have to be entrepreneurial and there is a grain of truth in that,” Thelen said. “All journalists are going to be working in non-bureaucratic organizations. We’ve got to do some serious work to answer the question, ‘How am I going to make a living in a new media world?'”

Faked out (again)

The Los Angeles Times has apologized for a recent story that it says was partly based on fake documents. The story quoted records obtained from the FBI as saying that associates of rap producer Sean “Diddy” Combs set up the murder of Tupac Shakur. But the paper’s editor, Russ Stanton, now says the documents appear to have been fabricated.

We published this story with the sincere belief that the documents were genuine, but our good intentions are beside the point. The bottom line is that the documents we relied on should not have been used. We apologize both to our readers and to those referenced in the documents and, as a result, in the story. We are continuing to investigate this matter and will fulfill our journalistic responsibility for critical self-examination.

The fraud was unmasked by the Smoking Gun Web site, which said the documents seemed to be phony, in part, because they looked like they were written on a typewriter, not a computer, something that wouldn’t have happened in 2002. Does this sound familiar? It should. In 2004, CBS News relied on apparently fake documents for a 60 Minutes story about President Bush that eventually led to the departure of anchor Dan Rather.

These incidents make clear that journalists need to do to more to authenticate documents before broadcasting or airing stories based on them. And the LA Times report raises another concern. As of this morning, the original story was still online with no indication that it’s wrong or that the paper has apologized. It’s since been taken down. In today’s media world, a corrections policy that doesn’t cover the Web immediately is inadequate, to say the least. [NOTE: An earlier version of this entry appeared to suggest the murder was in 2002, when in fact it happened in 1996. The bogus records were obtained in connection with a 2002 lawsuit. We regret any confusion and have changed the entry to clarify.]

UPDATE: The Times retracted the story over the weekend [April 7, 2008]. The newspaper says it has concluded that the “FBI reports” it relied on were fabricated and other sources used did not support the story.

Good news on the job front

The economy is reeling, news organizations are contracting, and journalists are losing their jobs.  At first glance, you’d think this would be a terrible time to look for a job in news.  But there’s a silver lining if you’re a new journalism grad, according to Ernie Sotomayor of Columbia’s J. School:

Part of it is we have so many companies laying off and getting rid of reporters at bigger costs and they are hiring reporters at lower salaries, at the beginning of their careers.

Editor and Publisher reports that the school’s annual job fair, scheduled for next weekend, has drawn more recruiters than ever.  But only 18 of the 110 employers participating are newspapers.  Most are online, TV and magazine companies.  The job fair is open only to Columbia students, but you can see the list of companies that are hiring here.

More go online regularly for news

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2008 helps confirm what many have suspected — that the Web is becoming an increasingly important source for news and information.

In late 2007, more than 7 in 10 Americans (71%) said they went online for news, the same number reported in 2002, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But the number who reported going online more regularly has grown considerably. In the October to December survey, 37% went online yesterday for news, up from the 30% who did so at the same time in 2005 and the 26% who did so in 2002. This is the highest number recorded by the Pew Internet project.

Not only are people logging on to news more frequently, the report also suggests they are watching more news video online:

According to an Online Publishers Association study, 14% of video users said they watched online video news on a daily basis, up from 5 percent a year ago. [Another] study, from advertising.com, found that news was the leading category (62%), followed by movie trailers (38%) and music videos (36%).

The report indicates that one of the most important changes for 2007 is the way in which the audience finds news and information online. According to Advertising Age:

By 2007, only 43% arrived at Web sites via their front pages, the magazine reported. Instead, nearly 57% report first making contact with a Web site by clicking to a page buried deep inside.

Many news organizations have now realized that much of their traffic comes through search engines and blogs, not through the home page. On the flip side, more news sites are getting more comfortable with the idea of linking to outside content — creating a kind of symbiotic relationship in which sites drive traffic to each other.

The biggest challenge for online continues to be the difficulty of making money despite the growing audience.

Local TV finally “getting” online

The State of the News Media 2008 is out and it contains plenty of good news for those who care about local broadcast journalism. Financially, the report indicates that TV stations are doing well and that means newsrooms budgets are going up, too. However, it also indicates that the only staff growth can be attributed to TV stations adding online employees and that broadcasters are getting more focused on the Web. The report goes on to highlight a couple of online innovations:

Hearst-Argyle, one of the top 10 largest broadcast companies in terms of revenue, was one of the few to take the lead in Web development. With 26 stations across the nation, all of which offer online-only local content, the company reported a 29% growth in Web traffic in 2006. In June 2007, Hearst-Argyle entered into a revenue-sharing agreement with YouTube, the online video-sharing phenomenon owned by Google.

Hearst stations now each have a dedicated channel on YouTube where they stream local news, sports and weather information. The report indicates this is the first time a TV station has been paid by YouTube for content, but no one is saying how much.

The other big change involves mobile delivery:

In April 2007, local stations joined forces to take advantage of two growing trends — the rise in cell phone use and the impending shift to digital television. The Open Mobile Video Coalition was formed with a mandate to bring over-the-air broadcast programming to mobile phones and other hand-held devices by February 2009, the month that stations switch over to digital transmission.

The report says the coalition includes about 800 local stations with a goal of using the digital TV spectrum to “transmit live video and data, without being limited to cellular networks.” The hope is this will create a new source of revenue for local TV stations.

The report is rich in detail; in future posts we’ll explore the idea that news is now more of a service than a product and that news organizations should be thinking of themselves more as “gateways” to information rather than “final destinations.”