Goodbye Rocky

When a local newspaper dies, the community loses. The Rocky Mountain News had served Denver for 150 years, even since the city’s founding.  Today, the Scripps-owned paper printed its final edition, ceding the field to its younger competitor, the Denver Post.

The paper was on the block to be sold but no one wanted to buy. Editor John Temple says the end was inevitable. “The economics have to work if a city is to have two newspapers. They don’t anymore. So Colorado will lose a part of its lore, a part of its identity.”

The Rocky was a very good paper with excellent visual journalists. Three of the four Pulitzer prizes the paper won over the past ten years were for outstanding photography, including its coverage of the Columbine massacre. But the paper also had a long history of groundbreaking investigations. As a network reporter covering environmental issues in the 1990s, I often chased the Rocky on stories about nuclear waste. I’m sad to see it go.

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Videojournalism on a budget

How cheaply can you build a multimedia tool kit? Does $10,000 sound about right? That’s what NBC’s Maria Schiavocampo says she carries around in her gear bag. How about $6,000? That’s what Andy Glynne says it costs to build a basic documentary kit.

Still too much? Consider the Adam Westbrook approach. Decide what you really need, then take your time looking for the lowest possible prices from EBay and other online sites. Here’s his list:

  • Camera: Panasonic NVDX100
  • Microphone: Audio Technica ATR25
  • Tripod: Camlink TP-2100
  • Edit hardware:  Dell Optiplex 745
  • Edit monitor: Acer 24” flatscreen
  • Edit software: Adobe Premiere Elements 7

Westbrook did his shopping in Europe where he works for Bauer Media. His bottom line in pounds translates to $825. Total. Amazing.

Westbrook promises to to share examples soon of what his bargain basement gear can do. If it’s decent, he’ll have proved that almost anyone can now afford to produce good quality video.

Apostrophe love

Its really a shame the apostrophe doesn’t get it’s fair share of love. See the glaring errors? John Richards would. He’s a retired British journalist and founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, an organization devoted to just one cause: saving the much-abused little punctuation mark.

Richards told the Washington Post’s John Kelley that he sees errors everywhere and finds them “very annoying.”

I think that grammar is a valued part of our civilization. I don’t like any attempt to diminish it…The point is getting it right. If there’s two ways of doing something and one is wrong and one is right, why do the wrong thing?

The rules for apostrophes are simple, Richards says, so why not follow them? The Society’s Web site lists everything you need to know about how to use an apostrophe:

  • To denote a missing letter.  (It’s instead of it is.)
  • To denote possession (The dog’s bone.)
  • Never, but never, to denote a plural.

Alert contributors have sent the Society scads of photographic evidence of apostrophes being inserted where they don’t belong…

…and left out where they do…

Shocking!

Okay, maybe not. Even Richards admits that English is an evolving language, and some changes may be an improvement.  But he believes a lot of change is due to “laziness and ignorance.” And when journalists misuse apostrophes in news stories or TV graphics, they’re not just setting a bad grammatical example. They’re unintentionally sending a message that they don’t care all that much about getting things right. Not good.

I’m on Richards’ side on this. It’s not that hard to get it right. Let’s stamp out apostrophe abuse so we can pay attention to other egregious errors. Subject-verb agreement, anyone?

And the Oscar goes to…

A friend of mine who’s teaching a journalism course for non-journalism majors asked me recently to recommend some movies he could show in class as conversation starters.  I offfered up a few from my list of favorites: All The President’s Men and Good Night and Good Luck, for starters. Then I started digging for more.

Academy Award time always brings out “best of” lists so I figured someone would have decided to share their top journalism movies this week. Sure enough, I found a “top 12” list that puts my two choices at #1 and #2.  But that’s not the only reason I like the suggestions from Dean Wright, the head of ethics and news standards for Reuters, on his Full Disclosure blog. His list reminded me of a few journalism movies I’d forgotten about or never seen. Among them:

  • Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, a reminder that journalists are people too.
  • Reds with Warren Beatty, a cautionary tale about crossing the line from reporter to activist.
  • Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas, about a journalist who will do anything for a story.

Paul Schindler’s list of journalism movies also has a few lesser known titles that he advises avoiding: total stinkers like I Love Trouble, S1MONE and Switching Channels, a lame remake of The Front Page.

The lists reminded me of how often Hollywood’s portrayal of journalists is unrealistic or unflattering.  But Matt Ehrlich, author of the book Journalism at the Movies, argues that most movies about journalism put the profession in a good light:

[They underscore the notion that] journalism is important, journalism has a central place in American life and in democracy, that journalism can and should be performed well. And if journalism somehow has lost its way – because of money pressures, sensationalism, television, sleaze – then one way or another it can find its way again, and journalists can do the right thing and make a difference.

Guess we can’t blame Hollywood for the public’s generally lukewarm opinion of journalists’ honesty and ethics.

The vanishing ombudsman

Add one more category to the list of endangered journalism jobs.  In his introductory column, the Washington Post’s new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, says many of his fellow reader representatives have been casualties of budget cuts. That’s a shame, because it seems to me that the role of ombudsman is critically important to the survival of mainstream media.

What’s an ombudsman, you ask? The world “ombudsman” is of Scandinavian origin and applies to anyone who handles complaints and tries to find mutually satisfactory solutions.The first one was appointed in 1809 in Sweden to handle citizens’ complaints about the government, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, known by the best acronym ever: ONO.

Here’s how Alexander describes the job and why it matters:

As The Post’s new ombudsman, I am its internal critic. My job is to represent the interests of readers, hold The Post to high standards and explain its inner workings to an often-suspicious public. If I do my job well, readers will be empowered, and The Post will be more accountable, trusted and essential.

Ombudsmen aren’t the only way to hold newspapers and TV stations accountable, of course. The public does that too, and does it faster and more effectively than ever thanks to the Internet and social media.

But ombudsmen have a few advantages readers and viewers don’t. They have unlimited access and, theoretically at least, support from top editors for the mission of keeping the news organization honest. As a result, they’re not exactly beloved in the newsroom. Alexander says he expects to be welcomed like “the dreaded investigator from internal affairs.”

Like his predecessor at the Post, Alexander will write a weekly column. Here’s wishing him the best of luck in what’s always a difficult job, but especially now in these very difficult times.

Skills training is not enough

One of our core principles here at Advancing the Story is that you have to think differently about journalism if you’re going to succeed in a multimedia world.  Nikki Usher of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism obviously agrees. Writing in the Online Journalism Review, Usher argues that skills training is not enough for digital journalists. In fact, she suggests that many news organizations that are providing training are going about it all wrong.

Teaching journalists how to use digital tools without addressing their mindset is not productive, she says, citing the case of a newsroom executive who learned that the hard way.

This executive, after putting staff through training pilots, realized that multimedia literacy and a basic understanding of what it meant to work in a Web environment was what people needed – before they could go about learning the hardware.

So what training in multimedia thinking does she recommend? In brief, she says journalists need to:

  • Learn how the Web and multimedia goals will work within their own organizations.
  • Believe that they can contribute to the multimedia vision of their organization.
  • Make new connections across the organization to people who can help them think about how to make their work relevant to multiplatform content.
  • Understand that they no longer control the distribution of the content they produce.
  • Reposition themselves as leaders of a new conversation about the content they produce.

Newsrooms need to learn an important lesson too, Usher says.  “Silos, departmental rivalries, and departments that don’t communicate with each other cannot exist if multimedia initiatives are to succeed.”

None of this is to suggest that skills “boot camps” have no value. On the contrary, Usher says, “they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do.” But expecting skills training to transform your newsroom is an exercise in futility, if you don’t change the thinking first.

Multimedia know-how

What multimedia skills do journalists need? What are managers looking for (if they’re looking at all)? Joe Grimm, who writes the “Ask the Recruiter” column for Poynter, says there’s no one “must” skill every journalist needs to learn, but every journalist should bring something digital to the table.

Increasingly, recruiters are looking for that X factor, X being for extra. What can you do in addition to your base skills? Can you make a slideshow, gather audio, shoot video? Can you help us grow?

I particularly liked one suggestion raised during a live Web chat Grimm hosted last week: Learn to organize and socialize. No, that doesn’t mean knowing how to throw a party and make sure the guests have a good time, although those are useful skills in their own right.  In the digital journalism context, it means knowing how to organize information from a variety of sources and how to push information out via social media, from Digg to Twitter and beyond.

One of the ways many online news managers try to “socialize” their stories is to get them listed on Fark.  It takes a a keen sense of timing to beat other would-be listers to the punch and a clever way with words. For example, here’s how the Raleigh News & Observer promoted one story that make the Fark list: ” Having solved all other problems, North Carolina legislature seeks to outlaw another plant.”  Actual N&O headline: “Lawmaker finds a cause in a hallucinogenic mint.”  A Fark headline from KENS-TV in San Antonio reads: “Thank you for calling 911. Will this be cash or charge?” The KENS Web site version: “Castle Hills to charge for 911 calls.”

See how that works? Okay, then. Good luck!

How to “win” a journalism job right now

Whether you’re one of the people already looking for a job or someone who’s thinking about that next move, the director of digital content for Scripps television stations, Chip Mahaney, has something to tell you.

The key thing I advise job applicants is to realize that in any job search, there’s only one winner for that job. Every other candidate, even second place, is a loser – sad but true. So I always ask, what are you going to do to win the job? Assuming you meet the qualifications, you then have to demonstrate that you’re the best.  

What does he mean by that?  Mahaney says you absolutely have to be a master of the basics – gathering information, writing and presenting well – but don’t stop there.

Having that extra skill (shooting video, creating Flash objects, Photoshop, running your own blog) really helps set you apart.  Several people I hired in the past 2 years had something extra in their skillsets that made me put their resume into my “A” list, and they got a call back.

Mahaney also has encouraging words for job seekers, based on personal experience.

When I graduated college in 1986, that job market was tough too.  That year saw hundreds of people being laid off by the networks, but the good thing was that local news was really coming into its own.  Video equipment had replaced film, and new satellite trucks gave local stations the ability to cover stories far away from home base.  The business changed, but most people adapted.  There’s certainly a good lesson in that for me for today – times were tough, but we got through it.  It will happen again in 2009 and 2010.

And despite the tough times, Mahaney says there are new options for journalism entrepenuers who want to create their own for-profit businesses.

The bad news is, few people have figured out a sustainable business model for online journalism.  But that’s also the good news.  There’s ample opportunity to try.  The Internet has knocked over almost all the barriers to creating a journalism business.  You no longer need a printing press or a broadcast tower.   What kind of news coverage do people want, and how can you convince people that this coverage is worthy of their support?

We’re probably all interested in the answers.

A rundown on steroids

TV news producers take pride in crafting their rundowns, putting stories in just the right order so the newscast flows seamlessly.  At ESPN, the rundown sometimes shows up on the air. Both SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption use an on-screen rundown to show what stories are coming up next. A few local TV stations use a similar graphic look in their newscasts, but now comes “the rundown on steroids.”

WUSA-rundownThat’s what news director Lane Michaelsen calls the new format of the 5-7 a.m. newscast at his station, WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., that debuted last week. Program video is now boxed on the left side of the screen, with infographics on the right and below.

The actual rundown that lists upcoming stories is on the upper right, only four items long. Under that is a weather box with rotating forecasts (today, three day, etc.), and below that, a traffic info box with rotating maps and alerts.  The lower third of the screen is a row of four boxes for DC, Virginia, Maryland and national/international headlines.

It’s busy but not too painful to look at.  The rundown items are only two or three words so they’re short enough to read at a glance. The headlines change every 10 seconds, but they’re “flipper” style, not scrolling.  And the video box is less cluttered than it was in full screen, with a single anchor and no OTS (over-the-shoulder) graphics.

Michaelsen says the goal is to give viewers an immediate look at what’s most important to them in the morning: traffic, weather and news. The brief text descriptions are not intended as teasers. Quite the contrary: they often tell the entire story (Caps win, Wizards lose).”It’s a visible strategy that puts information out for people whenever they want it, not when we want to give it to them,” Michaelsen says.

The headlines repeat every 90 seconds or so, which made me think of that old Group W all-news radio slogan: “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”  But if you can get the world in less than two minutes, will you bother to stay tuned much longer? Says Michaelsen, “I hope it grabs their attention and they stick around and watch the show.”

In another move aimed at building audience, WUSA announced a new feature this morning called “Your Stories.”  The concept isn’t new but WUSA is giving it a new twist.  In addition to asking viewers to suggest stories for the station to cover, the DC version will add a social media component, letting viewers keep track of how stories are developing via Twitter, Facebook and live video on Mogulus. Guess we’ll have to check in again to see how that goes.

Reboot local news

Many local TV Web sites leave a lot to be desired. They’re better than they used to be, thank goodness, but they still have a long way to go.  Too many sites remain hard to navigate, crammed with news, ads, promos, videos and all kinds of random content that leaves the user feeling overwhelmed and underinformed.

Rick Garner, program manager at AOL’s Weblogs Inc., spent more than 10 years in local TV. In his latest blog entry, he offers ten tips for stations searching for relevance online.  Among them:

#6 Don’t try to be all things to all people. Focus on something that’s not being done and do it better than anyone else. If someone else comes along and does something better than you adapt or do something new. Adapting on the web is easy and costs virtually nothing.

Garner says stations should seriously consider taking national news off their sites. “Posting AP copy on your site isn’t covering national news, it’s being a portal for them.”  As for local news, he says, it needs to be rebooted.  Stations must stop thinking of the Web as just another platform for the same material they’ve already put on the air.

Local TV websites need to take full advantage of posting the hours of video they capture and stream them on a site with a reliable video platform or video embeds. Often, the formats and platforms chosen to host these tools have been poor performers and resource hogs to users’ computers.

TV reporters also need to learn to write differently for the Web, Garner says.  We agree, of course–and you can learn how from the book.