Gain invaluable skills

Times are tough in newsrooms all across the country.  Dragged down by a sagging economy, TV newsrooms and newspapers are laying off staff and cutting their coverage.  If you’re a young journalist, it may be hard to keep your fears about the future at bay.  Was it a mistake to get into this business?  Not at all, says reporter Meranda Watling, who covers education for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Indiana.

Although it’s far more traditional a journalism job than I ever envisioned myself taking, I get to do most of the things I want to do. When I took this job I was upfront with everyone including myself that I wanted it to give me a solid base for whatever job I take next. I don’t expect or want to be a “newspaper reporter” forever. But I do believe no matter where I go, the skills I’m learning here are going to be invaluable.

Among the skills she’s learning: how to work fast in multiple media.   Case in point–a story she broke online after getting an email tip at 4:30 p.m.

Because the editors were in the daily budget meeting, I had another reporter read over it, and then I had a copy editor post it asap so I could begin chasing the sources who were leaving their offices at or before 5 p.m. After I reached those sources, I wrote into the online version and updated. When my editor got back he swapped it out and posted it in the No. 1 spot online.

I went to my board meetings armed with notebook and pen — AND a laptop, Internet card and my Blackberry. I continued to report and write during the meetings. On my drive between the two meetings? I made calls on the A1 story.

When I got back to the newsroom around 8:45 p.m., I made a few more calls and banged out the A1 story and then two more about the meetings I’d covered. All before the 10:30 print deadline. I made cop calls, and half-way down the 10-county list we heard a shooting over the scanner. I went there and called in a Web update from the scene.

That is a sampling of what “newspaper” reporters are expected to do today, at least at my newspaper.

I don’t see any mention of shooting photos or video–something many newspaper reporters are also expected to do.  But I do get the impression that Meranda is making the most of her first full-time job.  Just hope she uses that cell phone with a headset and isn’t trying to take notes while driving!

Is blogging journalism?

You might think that question has been resolved, but it keeps coming up. I ran across it again this week in a study of the BBC’s use of blogs by network veteran Alfred Hermida, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia. His research paper (available as a .pdf file) quotes a longtime BBC correspondent as saying just last year that blogs are “egotistical nonsense,” and “journalists shouldn’t have any time to blog – there are too many stories waiting to be told.”

Despite the internal disagreements, the BBC has made a conscious effort in the past two years to use blogs as a way of being more transparent and accountable to its audience, Hermida says. But there are still some interesting gaps in the network’s policies:

The BBC has blogging guidelines for the personal blogs of staff but these do not refer to BBC editors and correspondents who contribute to official journalism blogs. Instead there appears to be an implicit assumption that journalists will apply existing BBC editorial values across all output, including blogs.

That said, the BBC still allows only a handful of staff to blog on its site and despite the less formal tone, impartiality remains the watchword, according to technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones who writes for the BBC blog dot.life:

Which means bloggers have to tread a careful line – they can be engaging and judgmental, but must not take sides. So I can say Vista appears to be a bit of a turkey, or Leopard does not deliver, but can’t say that it means you should switch from Microsoft to Mac or vice versa.

One of the biggest gaps in the BBC’s use of blogs is the lack of engagement with the audience, Hermida says. BBC blogs get tons of comments, but the writers don’t often respond. That’s an opportunity missed, not just by the BBC but by many mainstream media blogs.

When blogs and journalism collide

More and more new entries in the expanding blogosphere are coming from journalists whose employers now require them to blog. But Erick Schonfeld, who writes for Technorati’s #1 ranked blog, TechCrunch, says when he blogged as a journalist for Time Inc. it had an “extracurricular tinge.” Not any more.

Working at TechCrunch is a completely different experience. For one thing, I no longer write long-form, narrative journalism. There is not much time for story-telling…It is mostly breaking news, reporting facts and providing analysis.

So is TechCrunch a blog or a professional media site? Schonfeld says that distinction has become almost meaningless:

The truth is that we are both. We compete with traditional news organizations, but with a small fraction of their staff. That is our competitive advantage. We certainly cover the news and do original reporting, but we also discuss news reported by others and are not shy about voicing our personal opinions. We are as much a filter as a source.

Schonfeld says that blogs compete with traditional media based on immediacy, give and take, and point of view. But the way I see it, the opinion part is what really distinguishes blogs from traditional journalism outlets, which are already using the Web to provide news immediately and to make it a conversation. And users seem to want both styles, at least when it comes to technology news.  Schonfeld points out that of the top 15 sources on Techmeme, which aggregates tech news, seven are traditional media outlets and the eight blogs “are all of the professional variety, complete with writing staffs.”

Multimedia journalists unite!

One of the things that I’ve noticed about the “online space” is that so many people are so willing to share their expertise.  And that’s the idea behind a relatively new site called Wired Journalists.  Here’s the mission statement:

WiredJournalists.com was created with self-motivated, eager-to-learn reporters, editors, executives, students and faculty in mind. Our goal is to help journalists who have few resources on hand other than their own desire to make a difference and help journalism grow into its new 21st Century role.

As of this afternoon, there were 1,287 members of the site.  Blog posts include such topics as “Using Google docs for reader feedback” and “Audacity track markers” (a post about how to use a Label Track to mark audio files for editing).   Other posts feature queries from journalists trying solve some new media puzzles with the comments providing answers and suggestions.

 I think I’ll join!

Passive voice redeemed

Here’s something I love about the Internet: the way it forces you to reconsider what you think you already know. Take the passive voice, for example. For years, I’ve urged journalists to avoid it in almost every circumstance. Writing in the passive means putting the object before the verb and sometimes leaving the subject out altogether. That can leave the audience wondering who did what, and it’s often a signal that the writer needed to do more reporting.

Now comes the Internet, which requires a different way of thinking about writing.  While most text should be written in the active voice,  Jakob Nielsen says that rule doesn’t always apply.

Recent findings from our eyetracking research emphasized the overwhelming importance of getting the first 2 words right, since that’s often all users see when they scan Web pages. Given this, we have to bend the writing guidelines a bit, especially for elements that users fixate on when they scan — that is, headlines, subheads, summaries, captions, hypertext links, and bulleted lists.

So to get the right key words at the start, you may need to resort to passive voice.  Example: “Deer hunter finds body of missing girl” is active, but puts the key words at the end.  “Missing girl’s body found” is in passive voice but the key words come first.

This isn’t the only exception to the no passives “rule” for journalists.  When writing to video, you may decide to put the object first because that’s what you have pictures of.  Just be sure that when you use a passive in any medium, you do it for a good reason.

Unlearn what you know

Three misconceptions about the audience are leading journalists to produce vapid journalism for the Web, says Robert Niles in the Online Journalism Review. Do you think today’s audience suffers from too-short attention spans, can’t handle details and hates numbers? Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Niles.

Attention spans are not the issue. Competition for time is. People will drop everything to read 800 pages, if it offers a thrilling narrative like Harry Potter. But they won’t waste a moment on garbage…If your content is not grabbing an audience, don’t blame attention spans. Blame your inability to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

As for detail, Niles points out that people crave minutiae on subjects that interest them. A site that “dumbs down” reporting for the uninitiated risks losing loyal readers, he says, so Niles suggests using hyperlinks to provide explanations for people who need them. And numbers? “If you put math (or anything else) in a context that readers can understand, well, they’ll understand it.”

I don’t think that means you should use lots of numbers or acronyms when you write for a general audience–quite the contrary. But don’t be afraid to tackle difficult stories and explain their significance. Make it compelling, and the audience will come.

Video driving clicks

A new “clickmap” tool is making some ask whether video may be a bigger driver of clicks than previously thought. According to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, a researcher at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) has developed a new tool for tracking where Web users actually click on site pages in close to real time.

In a test of the tool, the DR found “…users click the picture 2-3 times more often than the headline. It seems presenting a video still with a YouTube-style play arrow changes viewer habits instantly.”

The post by the DR’s Ernst Poulsen goes on to offer the following:

Of course, this tool can’t indicate whether users read headlines before they decide to click, or if they decide based on the picture alone. However, it’s fairly clear that even if users are relying at least partly on text headlines to decide whether to click, the headline need not be the only entry path to the article.

It may also be that a site like YouTube has changed users habits: training people to click video stills when they want to watch video and headlines when they want to read text.