Context counts

The scandal involving New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer brought out a raft of commentators and “expert” analysts, which is to be expected.  But viewers should also expect to be told a little bit about who these experts are and why they’re worth listening to.  Context makes a difference but often it’s not provided.

Last night, for example, NBC Nightly News included a sound bite from New Jersey Gov. John Corzine reacting to the Spitzer mess. “I think all of us in public life have to recognize that our own personal behavior ends up undermining the trust that people need to have in their political leaders,” Corzine said.  But reporter Mike Taibbi didn’t mention that Corzine was speaking from personal experience.   Corzine was badly injured in a traffic accident last year because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and later admitted, “I set a very bad example.”  Wouldn’t that have been useful for viewers to know?

CNN put Kendall Coffey on the air to talk about Spitzer, identifying him as a “former U.S. attorney.”  According to Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald, Coffey had personal experience to draw on, too, but the network didn’t share that with viewers.  Garvin reports that Coffey was forced to resign in 1996 “after biting a dancer during the process of running up a $900 bill at a strip club.”   Presuming that someone at CNN knew about this (which may be giving too much credit where it isn’t due),  shouldn’t the viewers also have been let in on it?

Cleaning up comments

Any news organization that really believes in serving the public has to listen to its audience. In the old days, that meant taking phone calls and letters. More recently, it has meant providing email addresses and actually reading the stuff people send in. Now, it means allowing for comments online. But the process of doing that can be messy.

Late last year, the Web site of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Philly.com turned off comments because “our comments system sucked,” according to acting VP Mark Potts.

Anytime a newspaper has problems with comments, it doesn’t take long to figure out why: It happens because the site managers allowed anonymity, or they didn’t think to employ a profanity filter, or they didn’t put “report abuse” buttons on the comments to let readers self-police the feature. Fail to do any one of these and you get chaos. Online community managers have known this for years. Newspapers are still learning.

The Philly site now employs a number of best practices for dealing with comments that Potts spells out in detail on his blog.

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Live in 3-D

A rugby match in Scotland made news this weekend, and not just because the Scots stomped the English 15-9. According to published reports, it was the first international sports event ever to be screened live in hi-def 3-D.

The London Times reports that the BBC beamed pictures to a studio in London, where an invited audience wearing 3-D glasses got an experience “almost as good as being at the game.” The BBC hopes to use the technology soon to beam events like the World Cup and Olympic Games live in 3-D to movie theaters. And that’s not all:

The technology will soon be accessible in viewers’ homes through a new generation of 3-D television screens that do not require special glasses. Philips has developed a prototype 132in 3-D TV that offers an “out of screen” experience. The first sets will be available for £10,000 this year.

If I’ve done the math right, that’s a paltry $20,000. Better place your order now.

Stay tuned for “State of the Media”

A must read for every journalist or anyone who cares about the profession is the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual State of the News Media Report. This will be the fifth year of the report, which is scheduled for release on March 17.

According to an email from PEJ’s director Tom Rosenstiel, this time around the report will include some new content:

  • A Year in the News, a comprehensive content analysis of 70,000 stories from 48 news outlets in five different media
  • A survey of a cross-section of journalists that reveals how they feel about the future of the profession
  • The view of the advertising industry from Madison Avenue
  • A content analysis study of 64 citizen media sites
  • Links to key industry statistics

Past reports have provided not only a snapshot of where the industry is now, but also informed predictions about what might happen in the year ahead. Whether you’re a newsroom veteran or a student journalist, you’ll want to mark your calendar and log on to journalism.org for the 2008 State of the News Media report on March 17.

Digital news outlets expand

With news being displayed on screens in New York taxis and at gas pumps across the country, the latest entry in 24/7 news should come as no surprise. The Los Angeles Times is using digital billboards to reach drivers stuck in LA traffic. Times executive John O’Loughlin tells MediaWeek:

You’ll see messaging in the morning focused on what’s news in the morning’s paper. As the day progresses, we’ll be updating with things on the Web site. This is cool technology that reminds people we’re a 24/7 news and content organization.

The LA experiment marks the first time billboard owner Clear Channel has given an outside client direct access to its displays. The company made a 10-week deal with the Times that it hopes will be extended.

There’s some evidence that the billboard news briefs can push traffic (no pun intended) to the Web. According to Editor and Publisher, when the Times launched the billboards with entertainment news leading up to the Oscars, traffic at the paper’s “awards insider” Web site TheEnvelope.com was up 34 percent from a year ago.

Perfect pitch

Too many good stories never make it on TV because they fail the “pitch test.” With resources tight and air time limited, news managers aren’t going to green light every story idea. If you want the opportunity to tell a story, you have to know how to sell it.

Last weekend, I moderated a session on story pitching for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, along with KPIX-TV news director Dan Rosenheim and Peggy Girshman of Congressional Quarterly (formerly of NPR). Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Make sure you actually have a story in mind, and not just a vague idea.
  • If a newspaper article prompted your story idea, make sure you can suggest how to advance the story.
  • It’s okay to pitch a story you read in “a” newspaper, but not “the” (local) newspaper; in other words, don’t suggest a story everyone in your area might already have read.
  • If your pitch was inspired by an academic study or government report, make sure you’ve seen the original source.

Both Peggy and Dan say a good pitch needs to be focused, just like a good story. “Don’t focus on the medium, focus on the tale,” Peggy advised the group. Check these additional tips for story selling, and let us know if you have others to add.

A multimedia bag of tricks

USA Today has been in the multimedia game for a long time. At a recent conference, senior designer Juan Thomassie shared his top tips for producing interactive stories online. Among his key points:

The content often suggests the best ways to tell a story online–if you know all of the options in your interactive bag of tricks.

Requires extraordinary team work, planning, sound editorial judgment, design experience, technical savvy.

Take a tour of Thomassie’s “bag of tricks” and make sure to look at some of the examples he links to–especially the maps, data-driven graphics and interactives.