Monthly Archives: September 2009

What is journalism, and how to pay for it

Journalism is like a fully loaded hot dog at Fenway Park.

Or at least that’s how one friend and “citizen journalist” described it for a paper I wrote in late 2007. I  interviewed some new “citizen journalists,” surveyed the history of the business of journalism and looked at some new experiments in paying for journalism.

Now, two years later, we’re still asking the same questions: What is a journalist? What is journalism? How do we pay for it?

Instead of referring folks to a PDF, herewith is the analysis section of that paper. It’s still relevant, and it’s interesting to see where progress has been made, and where we’re still struggling.


“Something is happening out there, and if we don’t understand it, it’s not just the newspaper business that is in peril.”
Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, in the Hugo Young lecture in London in late November 2007.

What is the best way for societies to pay for their journalism?
And what is journalism anyway?
Here are a few juicy words from John McBride, who produces the “Under the Water Tower” blog for a small Charlotte neighborhood.
He’s also a co-worker at The Charlotte Observer focused on technology development for newspapers. He’s also a father and husband of a teacher:

“I would make a distinction between journalism and community or other information. Journalism is information with extra value. Kind of like a hot dog with sauerkraut and spicy mustard at Fenway Park on a warm summer night instead of just a hot dog. The first one isn’t by definition better, but it allows for a more fulfilling experience.
“Anybody can recite information about what the city council did last night. A journalist will add value to that information, enriching it with context and perspective. But there’s another requirement to journalism.
“Plenty of people online enrich information with context and perspective. Too many of them don’t go to the council meetings and don’t talk to council members and don’t talk to city policy stakeholders. You have to be a player to do journalism. Not that distant observers can’t add context and perspective. But if all you have is distant observers your diet will be just a hot dog.
“In a perfect world the practice of journalism would be protected from corrupting influences by being placed in a trust of some kind. I don’t know the details or how to get there, but something like the arrangement the St. Petersburg Times publishes under.
“Capitalism is a wonderfully efficient economic system. But like teaching children, the practice of journalism isn’t necessarily improved by the capitalist model. I’d like to see journalism (and public education) protected from bottom-line mentality somehow.”

These days, consumers don’t rely solely on traditional media monopolies for information, and that’s a good development. But some of the new alternative voices bubbling up from “citizen journalists” lack traditional journalism training and also face the same funding questions that traditional media face.
Many sources are experimenting with new methods of crunching data and funding their reporting. The data is ubiquitous; adding analysis and meaning to that data is the hard part. Actual old-fashioned feet-on-the-street work and interviews with hard questions for sources seem to be rare, while easy opinion flourishes from numerous sources online.
Owning a printing press is no longer an obstacle. Finding the time and having the guts and experience and intellect to ask hard questions is.

From (David) Boraks, the local news blogger at Davidson News:

“One final thought: The operational expenses side of the equation here is very simple. It costs practically nothing to run this site, apart from human capital. My costs for domain names, web hosting, site tracking, possibly eventually an email service will never be more than a hundred dollars a month.  It’s my time and the time of my associates that is the big expense.
How long we do this is entirely depending on how energized or weary we become about it.”

Here are some recommendations, for organizations and individuals:
1.  Look for partners and multiple sources of information. New media organizations can learn from the traditional news organizations, finding out more about reporting and hard questions, in exchange perhaps for the technical tools that the new groups are so good at developing. Perhaps traditional media can exchange information or tools with newcomers, instead of spending too much time trying to catch up on the technical side. And traditional journalists should find more ways to pass on the long-term values of truth, fairness and balance to organizations using new methods of sharing information. Consumers should remember to get information from multiple sources. If one only relied on email bulletins from Outside.In from certain neighborhoods, the crime coverage would overwhelm other news and skew one’s perspective on reality. One prolific source feeding an aggregator can skew the headlines. Be aware of that and holistically examine information from providers.
2.  Carefully examine the background and funding of partners and sources of news. Journalism has always had to worry about losing credibility through guilt by association, whether it comes from a newspaper owner or a blogging individual or a nonprofit foundation. Beware conflicts of interest, even if it’s just making news judgments about a story from which you can later benefit
3.  Avoid partnering or gleaning all your information from sources that seem to have a political stance. Or balance them with other partners or sources that lean the other way.
4.  Find multiple methods of funding. Other businesses from freelancers to large companies know the axiom that one main income source weakens one’s independence and sustainability. It’s past time that traditional journalism
organizations learn that lesson and actively, consistently broaden their income
base beyond advertising.
5.  Consider broader sources for information and encouragement of the people that produce it. The federal New Deal model during and after the Depression is inspiring for the history it recorded and the creativity it harnessed. Find a way to encourage that kind of explosion of creativity now, everywhere, without making it too dependent on one particular political party, government entity or new-media business. Perhaps fund young people studying abroad more deeply and pay them for their writing and photography.
6.  Keep a close eye on the new experiments, to find out what works, what doesn’t work and where individuals’ money – and taxes – should go.
7. Remember that quality counts, and reward it. From Picard: “Protestations of journalistic purity and piety will produce few results unless they are accompanied by true commitment to producing quality material that serves more important interests than titillation, voyeurism and sales.”


Flooding in Atlanta: One search to bind them all

About 6 a.m. Monday, Steve Burns, a freelance journalist near Atlanta, sent out a note on Twitter:

“WSB: Boil water advisory in Douglas County. #atlfloods”

An hour later, Atlanta blogger Grayson Hurst Daughters tweeted from her @spaceyg account:

“Atlanta commuters: use the hashtag #atlflood for Atlanta flood condition notices.”

She followed up quickly with a note to a local TV outlet:

“@11AliveNews, please consider using the hashtag #atlflood in your Tweets! That way all the notices can be indexed/RSS’d. Tx!”

The tag set the tone for an organized, findable stream of aggregated content that helped Atlantans and their friends stay informed as the rain kept falling, killing at least 6 people, swamping interstates and causing major delays at the airport. The Georgia governor declared a state of emergency in 17 counties.

We’ve all read posts about how Twitter provides immediate coverage of earthquakes or bloody election fallout. But this moment showed how a social media tool enabled aggregation of all local news coverage through one search, quickly, in a large city, for breaking news.

Individuals shared links to stories from the established local news outlets quickly throughout the day. And a picture on Twitpic of flooding on Atlanta’s downtown connector received more than 60,000 views in about 10 hours.

Considering it a victory for untrained “citizen journalism” might be a bit misleading. Burns has newspaper experience from California, Georgia and Florida, and Daughters is a writer and corporate communication professional who worked for ABC News for six years. Also heavily involved was Tessa Horehled, a strategic marketer who advises companies about social media plans. Tweeting at @driveafastercar, she braved the rain with a video camera numerous times throughout the day from her neighborhood, and posted pictures late into the evening as a creek approached her front door.

She also created the tag #atlgas, used extensively during a gas shortage in the fall of 2008 in the Atlanta area. That tag was featured in a TED presentation by Twitter founder Evan Williams.

Certainly many other people were posting on Twitter, and local media outlets covered the story well. linked to a Twitter search of the tag. But because individuals used the tag while pointing to established media stories as well as posting their own observations, the tag itself served as a way of aggregating all media into one search.

But yes, there’s a drawback, in counting on the crowd to control the content of a tag for aggregation: As soon as the hashtag hit the Top 10 trending terms on Twitter, opportunistic usurpers crowded the stream and made it much less valuable. That gaming of the system shows that a tag is most useful when it’s NOT in the top 10 trending list.

About 8 p.m., one person on Twitter from Cambridge expressed frustration to Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media,” that no national media outlets were covering the story, and he repeated the tweet. About 9 p.m., the L.A. Times sent out a tweet pointing to its story, with a dateline “Reporting from Atlanta.”

But throughout the day, the best place for aggregated coverage from both established local media and from individuals came from searching Twitter for the #atlflood tag.

Until it hit the “trending” list.

News that oozes: Finding the local implications in a national environmental project

When the water gets really low in my neighborhood creek, a lovely ooze from the creek bed becomes apparent.

I’m not sure what the ooze is or from whence it comes. Part of me doesn’t want to know.

Two sewer lines run along the creek, one at least 50 years old and one about 30 years old. The older line is slowly being replaced, and the work will arrive soon in the neighborhood greenway, ripping out walkways, trees and underbrush as the backhoes do their thing.

So when The New York Times published a massive, nationwide, data-rich
recently, called “Toxic Waters,” I was fascinated. And when pundits on Twitter called for local news organizations or independent journalists to delve into the state-by-state data, I was further intrigued.

Dan Gillmor, who wrote “We The Media,” tried to shame local news organizations with this note on Twitter:

“Local journos in **every** state could/should folo NYT water investigation; few will because of idiotic not-invented-here syndrome in media.”

It’s not as simple as that.

Don’t discount this post as an apologia for news organizations or citizen reporters; take it instead as an acknowledgement and reminder of the huge hurdles faced when taking a huge data dump local, and the need for real, feet-on-the-street reporting. Data dumps are great things, and combined with reporting, truth will out, especially on stories that ooze, instead of break.

But we all should know by now that data can mislead without reporting.

“Numbers are an interesting thing and they can tell many different stories depending on how you look at them,” said the representative of the N.C. Division of Water Quality who responded to the New York Times package.

Herewith, some hurdles for local people, in trying to build upon the excellent work by the Times:

  • “Fishing expeditions” in newsrooms rarely get time and money these days. Sometimes reporting needs to happen to determine whether there is a story, and what the story is. And even for alternative news organizations like Spot.Us, time and funding for those fishing expeditions are difficult, because pitches for funding must be specific in promising certain results.
  • Often, the real story is in the null spaces, the blank places on the map, the industries that are not regulated, self-regulated or unnoticed by the state agencies who shared data with The New York Times. In a quick overview of the beautiful N.C. map by the Times of regulated entities and violations, I saw no indication of violations at the Eastern North Carolina hog farms. (They might be there, but I couldn’t find them easily.) I saw no indications of violations near the coal-ash fields right next to Mountain Island Lake, the drinking supply for the City of Charlotte. Does that mean there are no problems in those spots? Only deeper, expensive, local reporting will determine that. And it’s a fishing expedition.
  • Finding context and reading with a critical eye are rare skills that take time. The massive amount of work by The New York Times on this project cannot be quickly interpreted and localized because merely reading all the source material and comments takes time. It’s rare for local reporters and editors to have that time during their paid work hours, and it’s rare for “citizen journalists” to have the time either. Plus the mass of information can be intimidating. File it under “fishing expedition,” to read some day.
  • Public finding and aggregation of related stories and documents is not easy for the “citizen journalists” and others who have time to dig deep. Readers of the Times’ piece on Sept. 12 contributed 478 comments so far, some with relevant links to other sources of information. While some comments are labeled “Editors’ Selections,” or “Readers’ Recommendations,” (great features), there’s no public, easy way to aggregate all those links and other related stories, such as work done by USA Today in 2008, “Overflows cost sewer system $35 million in fines.” Further, locally, N.C. documents related to enforcement are often available only in PDF, and documents and stories that give context are not readily available to citizen journalists without deep web searching, available through university databases or expensive Lexis/Nexis. This is a key point: People who work or study at universities can easily forget that the regular “citizen journalist” does not have free access to the deep databases available through universities and libraries.
  • The problems and solutions for each dot on The New York Times map are complex. One example from memory and a wee bit of Google research: The tiny mountain town of Saluda was sued by the American Canoe Association in the early 2000s for repeatedly violating Clean Water Act standards. The town’s sewer treatment plant was failing, and it needed money to fix the plant. Paying big fines or court costs and settlements would not further the goal of fixing the plant. Eventually, the town received a Clean Water Bond grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center to fix the problem. So questions for today: Do the bonds still exist? How many other small towns face similar issues? How much would be the total cost of fixing the state’s sewer-plant issues, where will that money come from and how will it be awarded?

A few suggestions for overcoming those hurdles:

  • Citizen journos/bloggers can go on fishing expeditions, becoming the first filters through the data or on the street or by the streams. This concept is championed by the good people at The Sunlight Foundation, and they provide and fund many tools for individuals to do this work. Sadly, it appears that many passionate media consumers would rather make comments on existing stories instead of delving into the data to find trends and story leads. Over time, perhaps this trend will change.
  • Public libraries could play a role in aggregation and perhaps training and access to the databases available in the deep web. While excellent tools like Publish2 have been developed, this kind of work needs to be the work of public institutions, not just private companies. How can that work be funded? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • We can all acknowledge that this work takes time and a different sort of critical thinking, and our collective attention span has grown exceedingly short. Slow, deep, critical analysis of data and documents is out of style, as we all succumb to a fast-rushing stream of information through new sources of news. Gillmor’s call on Twitter for local reporting came on or shortly after the day of publication, and came amid calls by Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen. Their attention (and ours?) appears to have moved on.

Hope springs eternal. Many individuals have become increasingly interested in the quality of what they put in their bodies, and the long, searchable tail of the internet has given us new tools to share ideas and information. I wrote a quick post in early 2008 after hearing that Dasani had been getting its bottled water from Charlotte’s drinking water supply. That old quick post still gets readers and serves as a reminder that we don’t have alternatives for clean municipal water supplies, because the stuff in plastic bottles is actually from those supplies.

So here’s hoping that individuals go forth and investigate. And here’s hoping we all acknowledge and adjust to the new reality: Many established news organizations do not have the resources to do the work for us. Perhaps we all can find ways to help.

Freelance reference, writing and visuals

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
On Writing, by Stephen King
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Annie Lamott
Writer’s Market (annual edition), by Writer’s Digest
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, by Linda Formichelli
ProBlogger: Secrets to Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income by Darren Rowse
Designing with Web Standards, by Jeffrey Zeldman
graphic design cookbook, by Leonard Koren and R. Wippo Meckler
designing for interaction, by Dan Saffer
Information Trapping: Real-Time Research on the Web, by Tara Calishain

Writer’s Digest
The Writer
The Columbia Journalism Review
American Journalism Review

Web sites
Quick reference for just about everything, from Alex Johnson
Charlotte Writer’s Club
Bloggers and Journalists on Social Media Charlotte
Writer’s Market (Paid site; Includes “How Much Do I Charge?” guidelines)
Media Bistro
Freelancer’s Union
Media Bloggers
The Incomplete Manifesto (for philosophy)
Twitter, filtered with hash tags for #Editorchat, #Journchat, #Prchat, #Designchat

Business stuff
Writing a Killer Contract, with a link to a sample.
Spreadsheet to project five year financial plan, from Suzanne Yada.

Online News Association
RJI Collaboratory (Entrepreneurial journalists in action)
AIGA Charlotte
KnowledgeWebb ($89 a year)
Society of News Design
Media Bistro

(List from Rhi Bowman of The Word Trade and Andria Krewson.)

10 more for #followwomenjournas (student edition)

Here are 10 more people for #followwomenjournas on Twitter.

These are current or very recent students. I make no apologies for the list being heavily weighted toward UNC.

I’m sure there are others out there. Find them through listening or participating in #collegejourn, a chat run by one of these students, or by looking through the following lists of these people.

I’m willing to bet I left off someone at the @dailytarheel. If so, apologies. You all deserve to be followed, to get some sleep and avoid #H1N1.

@americaarias, (America Arias): News assistant @ KABC-TV. Los Angeles. Recent journalism and political science grad from Cal State Fullerton (CSUF). News junkie, loves politics.
@ewstephe, (Emily Stephenson): UNC senior, @dailytarheel community manager, Star Heels dancer, Jane Austen fan.
@jmestepa, (Jessica Estepa): Storyteller. Student. News junkie. Multimedia editor at @UNR_Insight. Does various other journalistic things. Loves mountains, reading and you. Nevada.
@kelseyproud, (Kelsey Proud): University of Missouri convergence journalism senior (graduating in May!), behind the curtain for @Journgasm, looking for her first job.
@ljwilkinson, (Leslie Wilkinson): MBA student at UNC, recovering newspaper designer, boomeranged back to the east coast after a year and a half in Los Angeles.
@mkellen, (Kellen Moore): UNC senior and managing editor at the @dailytarheel.
@poorstudentnomo, (Jess Shorland): UNC-Chapel Hill college student from Virginia. She’s posting updates on her progress paying off $40k in student loans in 12 months. I’m not sure she’s a journalism student, but her blogging efforts qualify, for me, in this case.
@saragregory, (Sara Gregory): student at UNC-Chapel Hill. @dailytarheel’s managing editor for online. She’s quarantined from the student paper at the moment because she might have #H1N1.
@sarahsodyssey, (Sarah Jackson): Freelance writer, journalism student, info junkie, meticulous observer, curious soul. She’s pursuing a career in feature and financial journalism. Now in Surrey, British Columbia.
@suzanneyada, (Suzanne Yada). Runs #collegejourn chat on Twitter, created a semester global project for student journalists focusing on health. San Jose State University.