Notes from an ombudsman

NPR’s Alicia Shepard calls it “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” As NPR’s ombudsman, Shepard serves as a bridge between public radio listeners and staffers, explaining each side to the other. A large part of her job involves responding to complaints and challenging the newsroom to do better journalism.

Much of this is done publicly, via her online column. “It’s not enough to have internal standards,” Shepard says, “you also need transparency.” So when she discovered NPR had aired a story that might have been based on bogus information, she discussed it with everyone involved and also wrote about it.

Shepard gets more than 300 emails a week and dozens of listener phone calls. And what she hears most often is that NPR is biased, especially in its reporting on the Middle East. In response, NPR has stopped reporting live from the region and added a layer of fact-checking. The foreign editor must approve all Middle East stories in newscasts as well as correspondent reports. NPR also set up a special Web page where it posts all Middle East stories. “[NPR] want[s] people to judge [it] on the totality of the coverage,” Shepard says, “and [they] make it easy for you to evaluate it.”

In a recent blog entry, she tried to explain how NPR decides what language to use in stories about torture. Her column touched off a torrent of comments, many of them harshly critical. “Language is explosive,” Shepard says, and the use of some terms may suggest that a journalist is taking sides. Her basic advice to NPR journalists? “Be specific. Describe, don’t characterize.”

In general, Shepard favors what she calls “people first” language. For example, instead of referring to someone as an “abortion doctor,” she suggests a longer phrase: “a doctor who performs abortions.”

Shepard’s two-year, no-cut contract with NPR runs through October of this year. The duration is standard for ombudsmen, a few of whom have told me that the job is so taxing they couldn’t possibly do it longer. But Shepard thinks it’s too short, saying it took her six months just to learn how NPR works. “It’s like learning a beat,” she says. And, tough as it is, she’d like to stay on “because the job offers a chance to help keep journalism at a high level.”

Ombudsmen don’t have a long history in US newsrooms. The first one was appointed in 1967 to serve readers of two Louisville, Ky., newspapers. NPR says it was the first broadcast organization to name an ombudsman, in 2000. There have never been that many of them, but now their ranks are shrinking. In a recent column, The Washington Post’s Andy Alexander said at least 14 have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008.

In the Internet age, anyone can fact-check a news report and shout to the world if errors go uncorrected. That would seem sufficient evidence that ombudsman duties have been usurped by an army of online “citizen editors.”

The blogosphere has provided valuable additional oversight that is holding traditional media more accountable. And it has spawned self-described “press critics,” many of whom delight in ridiculing mainstream media and attacking any ombudsman’s column that isn’t brutal enough to leave a blood stain.

But despite this expanded oversight, ombudsmen view themselves as more essential than ever. Many…reported being deluged with queries and complaints from increasing numbers of readers, viewers and listeners.

It’s no doubt hard to justify spending money on an ombudsman when the newsroom budget is being slashed.  And it’s easy to dismiss an ombudsman’s defense of his value as simply self-interest. But there’s a difference between having citizens point out errors and flaws, and having an independent observer inside a news organization with “a hall pass and a platform,” as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller describes an ombudsman.

Ombudsmen like Alexander and Shepard may never be beloved, but they do play an important role. Their presence is a clear signal that the news organization cares about the public’s concerns and will take steps to respond. And they can also serve as a deterrent. The knowledge that someone is watching, someone with the authority to draw public attention to errors and ethical missteps, may help keep them from happening in the first place.


Award-winning stories on diversity

In all the discussion of journalism’s economic troubles and the need to embrace technological change, it can be easy to forget some of the basic tenets of good journalism.  Reflecting the community in your coverage is still critical, and the 2009 National RTNDA/UNITY Awards honor a group of broadcasters who have done that extremely well.

wilson2MSNBC’s winning entry profiles a young man named David Wilson who traces his roots back to the days of slavery and then finds the descendants of the family who owned his family.  KMOV-TV in St. Louis committed to an ongoing exploration of race relations in that city and NPR explored the phenomenon of Native American boarding schools.  The local radio award winner was WERN-FM in Madison, Wisc., which delved into the area’s Hmong-American experience.

These entries make for compelling viewing and listening on one hand and may also act as a source of inspiration for other journalists looking to tell stories about the many different faces that make up America.

Who was Fred Friendly?

“The greatest innovator and producer in the history of television journalism.” That’s how Ralph Engelman of Long Island University sums up the late CBS News great Fred Friendly, even as he wonders whether students today have ever heard of him.

Engelman’s new book “Friendlyvision” describes the man who was Edward R. Murrow’s producer on “See it Now” and later president of CBS News as both a pioneer and a wizard. The book makes a convincing case that much of what is good about broadcast news today can be traced directly back to Friendly.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of new technology. During World War II, he embraced the newly-developed wire recorder that could capture sound in the field. Later, he pioneered the use of satellite transmission.

Friendly introduced the concept of cross-cutting in TV news, juxtaposing different points of view in a story by butting interview segments together. And he understood, instinctively, the power of television.

What television does superbly is hold a mirror up to the individual. There is a great difference between what a man says and what he is. Exploring that difference–that’s what television is all about.

You can see Friendly’s influence in programs like 60 Minutes, with its emphasis on interviews. Engelman quotes Bill Moyers as saying that Friendly believed there was “no greater production value than the power of the human face.” And he notes that Murrow and Friendly worked tirelessly to integrate image and text through multiple re-edits.

‘Tighten it up’ became Friendly’s refrain as he aimed to eliminate the extraneous and to heighten the pace and ultimate effect.

Engelman portrays Friendly as a showman whose emphasis on production sometimes concerned his colleagues, who worried about his journalistic ethics. He pioneered the use of hidden cameras in TV news, for example–not an unalloyed innovation.

But Friendly’s enthusiasm and attitude infected all around him. In his later years, he taught at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and groomed a new generation of influential TV journalists from Tom Bettag to ABC Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that Friendly will be forgotten. As Moyers puts it, “there are no legacies in television.” But Friendly deserves to be remembered for the impact he had on TV news through the people he touched and the production values he espoused. Engelman’s book paints a portrait of Friendly, warts and all, that should help keep his memory alive.

Inside a hyper-local blog

What motivates a person to devote almost as much time to a neighborhood blog as they do to a full time job? For Jacqueline Dupree, it’s a desire to document history. Dupree works for the Washington Post, maintaining the company’s Intranet. But she’s also the force behind JDLand, a blog that covers a 100-block area just south of Capitol Hill where the new Washington Nationals ballpark opened last year.

Dupree’s degree is in history, not technology or journalism. “It was the historian in me who wanted to document what it looked like before [the ballpark was built].”

Dupree spends about 30 hours a week on her blog, which she produces entirely alone. “I’m a control freak,” she admits.

JDLand aggregates stories from news organizations, links to original documents and databases, and provides an interactive map and extensive photo archive. Dupree also does a lot of independent reporting, covering government meetings almost no one else attends. “Traditional media can’t cover a neighborhood down to the level of detail I would like to see.”

Whenever possible, Dupree links to original documents on government Web sites, something many mainstream news organizations won’t do. “Reporters think, ‘I found it, it’s mine and I’ll tell you about it.'” But Dupree says linking has helped her earn the trust and respect of readers.

“I think people should know everything,” Dupree says, so she tells her users everything she knows. “People have never said this is too much information; [they] ask for more.”

Dupree doesn’t call herself a journalist and compares her blog to a Charles Dickens serial. “At heart, I’m telling a story about a neighborhood a chapter at a time.”  But she says JDLand is journalism. “It’s ‘news over the fence,’ what people are talking about. The paper can’t cover all of that. Just because they can’t doesn’t mean it’s not news.”

Telling visual stories with “no visuals”

There are few television journalists who have missed out on the pleasure of getting assigned a story where a mug shot is the “best” visual element.  With creativity, though, some are able to create compelling stories. 

mugSo, how do they do it?  Bob Kaplitz of the AR&D media consulting company recently posted an entry on the company’s site called “Just a Mug Shot.”  In his vlog entry, Kaplitz shows a story from Eugene, OR and then embeds his teaching points in the video.

His primary takeaway?  Show and tell is most effective when you can take advantage of multiple locations, but as in every story, it’s important not to waste the viewers’ time.

What isn’t clear, though, is whether the re-enactment portion of the story was clearly labeled as such when the story aired.  Assuming it is, this piece is a solid example of how to tell stories with nothing but solid information and a creative reporter-photographer team.

How to use Twitter with your blog

Poynter recently hosted an online chat with NYU professor Jay Rosen and PressThink blogger on the subject of teaching people to blog.

Advice: Break news, say something that hasn’t been said, collate what no one has collated, and then link to the biggies when you publish.

So, why link to the “biggies,” as in popular blogs?  Rosen says it’s not only the number of hits on your blog that help you measure success; he says it may be more important for your blog to be “getting links to sites that are ‘in’ the main conversation.”  These are the blogs that are recognized as thought leaders on a particular topic.

What’s the best way to get people to link to you? Talk about them at your blog! Or link to some post they did, and then click a bunch of times on the link to their blog that you put in your post.

For a lot of journalists, this is an uncomfortable place to be – building off of other people’s work and taking on the task of self-promotion, but that’s what it seems we’re talking about here – alerting people to the work you’re doing in order to get them to view it.  It’s just that in the past, for many mainstream journalists, there were folks in the promotion department doing the job for them.

Another way to get blog exposure?  Use Twitter – something that can be particularly useful for a blog that updates less than daily.

Daily posting leads to people subscribing and checking back, but that’s not going to work unless you have new stuff to tell them; if your pace is more 2-3 times a week for longer posts that’s a different rhythm and will lead to a different user base with diferent expectations. My blog is on a “slow” rhythm and I use Twitter to activate it when I need it. But I long ago lost any users looking for a daily read.

Others in the conversation suggested putting alerts about new posts on Facebook or any other site that might draw additional viewers to your blog.

Rosen also admits that getting a blog off the ground is more difficult now that there’s so much competition, but if you’re reading this post, you may have one advantage.

Remember: most amateur bloggers are lazy. If you want to stand out, add more richness, do more work. Put in the time and save the user time.

Broadband growth important to journalists

Forget my MTV, I want my high-speed Internet access.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project just released its latest survey on broadband penetration in the U.S., and even in these tough economic times, broadband adoption is growing.  According to the survey, 63% of American adults now have high-speed access.  That’s up about 15% from just a year ago and up 57% from just nine years ago.

Other interesting data from the study include statements on how people are using these high-speed connections.  For example, 68% of people say broadband is either very or somewhat important to them in finding out what is going on in their communities.  And 58% say high-speed access is very/somewhat important to them in sharing views with others about key issues.  Newsrooms should be well positioned to serve those needs, but how many local news sites are truly centers for community conversation?

The study also indicates that the increase in broadband penetration has given journalists an opportunity to reach more diverse audiences online than ever before.

The majority group of home high-speed users who say broadband is very important for at least one topic listed are younger than other broadband users (the median age is 39 for the “very important” majority versus 43 for the rest) and more ethnically diverse. Some 25% of those who see broadband as “’very important” in at least one way are English-speaking Hispanics (15%) or African Americans (10%)….

For years news organizations have been researching local audiences to find out what they wanted; now it’s just as important to know what drives local Web audiences.  These types of national surveys may offer a place to start in understanding how to improve the online news product.

Experimenting with digital storytelling

Improv actors, a soundtrack and very little text. Is this the future of online journalism?

Consider what staid old Fortune magazine has been doing lately, in collaboration with the online magazine Flyp Media. Flyp has turned some of Fortune’s editorial content into imaginative multimedia features, like this piece on the Bernie Madoff investment scam. Fortune executive editor Steve Koepp told the AP, “It’s just an exciting new way to present the information to the reader. It’s a little taste of the future.”

Using Flash animation, video and other multimedia tools, Flyp has been telling stories online for about a year. The company is financed by Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo Garza, a member of Forbes’ board of directors, who also funds the Spanish-language Web magazine Reporte Indigo.

Senior editor Matthew Schaeffer describes Flyp’s stories as “experiences.”

The idea isn’t just to write a story and then add a video or an audio piece. It’s to really figure out the best way to conceptualize these stories as multimedia pieces.

Flyp may have an advantage over traditional media companies because its material is published only online. No one there has to worry about how the story will look in the newspaper or on TV. But the magazine’s approach underlines the importance of thinking differently from the start when you’re planning to produce multimedia journalism.

Keeping I-Teams alive on TV

Investigative reporting on local television has always been endangered. It’s expensive and time-consuming to dig up stories that hold the powerful accountable. Now, the economic pressure on newsrooms has put I-Teams in even greater jeopardy. So how can investigative journalists convince their bosses to let them keep doing what they do best?

“The way to stay employed is by becoming invaluable in your newsroom,” says veteran WLS-TV reporter Chuck Goudie (left). “You want to be the go to person in your newsroom, the first name that comes to mind when they need information. You shouldn’t have to be called. You should be on the phone getting information or telling your assignment desk what you know.”

WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller agrees. “If you want to stay relevant, the number one goal is to break news,” she told the  Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in Baltimore last weekend.  To do that,  you need sources you can reach at any time. “Measure your value by how many contacts you have in your phone,” Miller says. “What makes you unique are the human sources you have.”

Goudie has made himself relevant by becoming a franchise at his station. Every Wednesday night, he’s on the air at 10 with a segment that is heavily promoted. But he also files Web exclusive stories just about every day–stories that won’t make it onto any newscast, like developments in a criminal trial. “In many cases, a good news story isn’t necessarily a good TV news story but you want to have your name on it,” Goudie says. “Eyeballs will come to it. Trust me.”

Investigative journalists also use the Web to provide more information than they could possibly fit into a TV story. Chris Halsne of KIRO-TV in  Seattle says his Web team appreciates the I-Team’s ability to bring fresh content to the site. And whenever a story is posted online, Halsne says, he gets emails and tips for future stories.

The bottom line is that TV investigative reporting today is much more than just long-term projects that air during sweeps. As Miller puts it,” investigative reporting is the answer to the why,” and it doesn’t always take months to figure out.

News anchor roles changing

It’s an unfortunate reality that a good portion of students go into broadcast journalism because they want to be on TV.  They dream of being someone like Oprah or of anchoring a newcast because they think it looks fun and easy.  They may be right about the fun part, but it’s probably never been easy, and now anchoring is becoming much more demanding.

In an interview with TVNewsday, Susana Schuler, the VP of News for Raycom, said that every anchor at her stations should be reporting. 

It keeps them connected to their communities.  It gets them engaged in what their audience is interested in.  So the anchor role is evolving.  Their connection to a community, to the audience remains critical, but their role in the future has to go way beyond their performance in a newscast.

And it’s not just Raycom that’s demanding more from the people on the news set.  Recently, a news director at one of the Cox stations was calling for references on a potential anchor and asked only questions about the candidate’s reporting, leadership and mentoring abilities, not about his ability to deliver the news.

So what’s the takeaway from all this?  It’s more important than ever for today’s job seekers to be journalists first and to showcase their reporting and storytelling, but it’s also important for those who want to be anchors to look for oportunities to manage newsroom projects or to make time to mentor those with less experience or who lack a certain skill set.  Getting that experience and then selling yourself as an anchor who can deliver the goods both on air and off is the key.