Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
September 2015 M T W T F S S « Aug 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
TagsAdvertising Audience Growth blogging blogs Books Business comments Community disruption ethics film Gadgets GateHouse Media history Home Towns Innovation Journalism local news Media Movies MP3 of the Day Music news news business newspapers Paid Content participation Patch Personal Appearances photography point-and-shoot publish2 Reinventing Journalism reporting Site Design Society Sports Strategy Tech topix Video Web-First Publishing web2.0 web navigation Writing
These are the photos I took during the Innovating Local News Ecosystem at Montclair conference.
I first told you about Vance Albitz in the fall of 2011. As if to prove my point that he’s a scrappy player who will do what it takes to win, he’s worked his way up to Memphis in the Cardinals system. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted and only got a contract in a major league system because a low minor league team ran out of players late in the season.
He’s not putting up big numbers at the plate, but judging from this video (link sent to me by his father), he deserves a shot at the show on defensive play alone.
He’s also started in nice charity called Gloves for Troops.
In Chicago for the first-ever LION Publishers Conference at Columbia University and I realized that this was my seventh visit to Chicago (if I’m counting right) and I’ve never been to a blues club. What brought this to my attention is that Buddy Guy’s Legends club is near my hotel. Last night, a group of us LIONs went out to dinner and and then to Legends.
Dinner was at Quartino Ristorante. Good food, but perhaps the highlight of the night was the bathroom attendant. When I walked in the men’s room, the smartly dressed attended was dancing to the some blues music. I told him that we were going to Buddy Guy’s place later. He told me he grew up with Buddy Guy’s kids. He told me he knew Greg Guy really well and said that if I told Greg I knew Theop, I wouldn’t have to pay the cover charge.
Naturally, I took that with a grain of salt.
But when I mentioned my little encounter with Theop to the security guy who was standing next to the mixing booth, he said, “this is Greg right here.” So I met Greg Guy. He is in fact long-time friends with Theop. Greg was really nice — we spoke a little bit more through the course of the evening. Near the end of the night, Greg jammed with the Kinsey Report. (I didn’t ask to waive the cover charge — I was very happy that they let me bring my camera in with me. The only restriction was, no long lens. But by the end of the night, they were letting me use my 70-200mm lens).
The Kinsey Report was an outstanding band. Super tight. Great chops all the way around. The band is from Gary, Ind., and is comprised of Donald Kinsey, Ralph Kinsey, Kenneth Kinsey and Nic Byrd.
Once again, scanner reporting is controversial.
The Batavian does a lot of scanner reporting. It works for us.
It’s not hard to find people in our coverage area who say they love The Batavian, that they’re addicted to it, that they check it multiple times a day or at least first thing every morning or last thing at night. The number one reason people give is that we’re right on top of things. We have more news faster. People like knowing why the fire trucks just went down Main Street or why all of the police cars are gathered at the end of their block.
The Web makes it possible to report real-time news that simply didn’t exist in paper or broadcast eras and readers simply expect real-time news these days and will reward it with their attention the sites that give it to them.
We have the largest audience in Genesee County and our audience is four to five times larger than a newspaper Web site in any other similar-sized market (that’s the subject of a future report).
As I said, scanner reporting works for us. It isn’t all we do, and we do go to scenes and do other kinds of reporting, but the foundation of The Batavian‘s success comes from how we’ve been able to use the scanner to keep the community informed.
Here are our rules for scanner reporting:
Do not report a possible crime in a way that might identify an individual unless a description is necessary to help identify a fleeing suspect.
Discussion: To report a group of people fighting in Austin Park will not reveal any identifying information about people involved. If a person is injured in the fight and a fleeing suspect description is given, publicizing the description might help police locate or identify that individual. In some cases, the name might be transmitted. We never use names transmitted over the scanner.
Do not report information that will jeopardize officer safety or thwart their ability to apprehend a suspect.
Discussion: If a tan sedan is fleeing down Warboys Road, you want people in the area to be on the lookout for a tan sedan, but you don’t want to give away the position or pursuit tactics of law enforcement (on the off chance a suspect is carrying a smartphone and knows to check The Batavian for updates).
When we had an incident a couple of years ago where a warrant suspect high tailed it in the city and officers from multiple agencies were called along with a K-9 unit and a helicopter, people wanted to know what’s going on. We reported the location of the suspect, but we didn’t report the location of responding units or the nature of the response.
When a neighbor spotted two men going to into a house on Shepard Road and State Police thought the two men might still be inside when they arrived on scene, we waited hours to report anything (with the massive police action, if it had been in a more densely populated area, we wouldn’t have waited). We didn’t provide details on the police response. By the time we reported anything, we figured if they were still inside they had to be well aware of the dozens of police vehicles outside the house (full follow up report here).
Maintain a level of skepticism about information provided by dispatchers to first responders.
Discussion: In the initial minutes of any call, the only information a dispatcher has is what is provided by a caller about an event. Witnesses may misunderstand or be emotionally involved in a way that causes them to relay incorrect information. Further, the nature of communication is such that dispatchers may misunderstand or not correctly repeat information given to them. Sometimes the dispatcher informing first responders is not the dispatcher who spoke with the initial caller. This isn’t to say never report what the dispatcher says, but the more specific and sensational the information coming from the dispatcher, the healthier a reporter’s skepticism should be.
Basic dispatch information is generally safe.
Discussion: “Possible structure fire; callers report heavy smoke from a basement window of a residence on Ross Street,” is likely to be correct information. We nearly always wait to post a possible fire when there’s only one caller and there’s no report of flames showing. In that situation, we wait for a fire chief to get on scene and relay back “we have a working structure fire,” then report it.
It’s generally safe to trust the statements of first responders.
Discussion: The transmissions from a scene are by people who are there and reporting what they’re seeing and hearing. They are rarely wrong.
Never give details of medical condition of victims.
Discussion: Nobody needs to know the pulse rate of an accident victim. We had an accident victim recently where a medic reported the victim was not breathing on his own and bleeding from his mouth and ears. Those are unnecessary details that will upset family members. We confine a report in such a situation to “victim is unconscious.” We can convey a lot of the seriousness of the situation by reporting that Mercy Flight is responding.
Never use names off the scanner.
Discussion: I mentioned this earlier, but it’s true whether it’s a medical situation or a criminal situation, never use names. In medical situations, we want to give officials as much opportunity as possible to make proper family notifications. For that reason, we also never use vehicle descriptions. In criminal situations, you don’t want to risk misidentifying a suspect. We don’t want to use the name of a suspect until it’s released in person, on scene, by a police supervisor or through an official release. (Above, I link to a search in the city and in that story, you’ll see we name the suspect; that name was confirmed in person with a on-scene supervisor.)
Never report a fatality off the scanner.
Discussion: Verify it in person, on scene. This can be difficult, because situations where Mercy Flight is cancelled and the Crash Management Team dispatched (a sign the victim is dead or first responders believe the victim could likely die) are indications of a fatality and significant events in the course of the incident.
Never make assumptions.
Discussion: This is one of the hardest rules to learn because your mind wants to connect dots, and sometimes, in reality, there’s no connection. I wish off the top of my head, I could remember some of our mistakes we made in the early days of The Batavian by making assumptions, but we learned quickly any time we make an assumption, we’re usually wrong. It’s important to discipline yourself to stick just to the data transmitted and not go beyond it with information not specifically contained in a transmission.
There was an incident not long ago where I broke the rule on not being more skeptical about what dispatchers were transmitting and I made an assumption. A woman fell on a baby at a local business and the baby was unconscious and not breathing. CPR was being performed. It was a location where twice in the previous week police had been called to investigate either harassment allegations or an alleged violation of an order of protection. The dispatchers reported the woman had been assaulted. I reported all of this. It turned out, there was no crime. The woman fainted from a medical condition. That isn’t one of my proudest moments.
It’s good to be fast; it’s also good to wait.
Discussion: There are times when it’s obvious a call coming over the scanner is something that’s real and worth reporting. Multiple calls on a head-on collision reporting possible serious injury is a good indication the information is accurate.
There are also times when it’s best to wait for a first responder to get on scene. We never report “automatic alarm of fire.” There’s never been an actual fire. Someday, there will be, but so far an “automatic alarm of fire” has never turned out to be anything other than a false alarm. More than once we’ve heard fire departments being sent out based on one caller reporting smoke in the area and it’s turned out to be a legal controlled burn (we report illegal controlled burns in April and May).
Being fast helps grow and retain readership, but when the information seems sketchy, it’s better to wait and see if the information in the initial dispatch is true (and the more you listen to the scanner, the better you are at recognizing sketchy calls).
We do not report non-accident, non-crime medical calls.
There are two issues with medical calls. First is privacy. If somebody on Morton Avenue is having stomach pains, who’s business is it? Not mine. While accidents and crimes are public issues that have broader implications, that can’t be said for medical calls. The second reason is also a practical matter. On a routine day, there are a couple of dozen medical calls on the scanner. Who can keep up?
There is a triage sort of process on deciding what to report. Broadly defined, there are four types of calls on the scanner: Crime, fire, accident, medical (including overdoses and mental health). While not every crime, fire or accident in our coverage area will result in follow up coverage, any initial call of a crime, fire or accident could blossom into a bigger story. We believe in starting with the initial report, as a general rule, and it doesn’t become something that warrants a follow up, at least people know what the initial call was about. We’ve had calls that started out sounding like not much turn into big deals and we were glad we captured those initial details.
Triage for crime: If weapons are involved, we’re more likely to report it. If a suspect is on the loose and being pursued, we’re more likely to report it. If there is a large law enforcement response, we’re more likely to report it. If it involves a high-speed chase, we’re more likely to report it. If it involves a large group of people in a populated area, we’re more likely to report it.
Triage for fires: There needs to be a clear indication that it is a working structure fire to really get our attention. An automatic alarm of fire or smell of smoke in the residence might encourage us to listen for what the first responding chief finds, but will not be reported until there is confirmation of a working structure fire. Field fires only get reported during the n0-burn season in April and May, unless a first responder reports its out of control or threatening a structure.
Triage on accidents: Obviously, any accident that initial reports indicate could be a fatal will get an initial scanner report (without mentioning the fatality until we’re on scene) and then I’ll go to the accident. If Mercy Flight is responding or it is otherwise reported as serious injury, we report it. If it’s minor injury, but blocking well traveled road, we report it. If it’s in the city and blocking, whether injury or not, we report it. If it’s in the city, not blocking and non-injury (property damage only), we ignore it.
Public suicides and public mental health issues are always tricky. They can necessitate a substantial law enforcement and fire response, which makes them a public issue. There are few clear-cut guidelines on these calls because each one can be so different.
The trivial can be entertaining
Discussion: Unlike a newspaper or a broadcast outlet, we have an unlimited news hole. We report items off the scanner sometimes just purely for their interesting or entertainment value. Once in a while, a post on our Facebook feed will result in a poster asking, “why is this news?” My standard response is, “we never ask, is this news?” The word “newsworthy” is not part of our vocabulary. We ask, is it interesting? If it’s interesting and we have time to post it, we post it.
- Wanna buy a stroller? It’s a real good deal…
- Pantless man making snow angels on South Main Street
- Boyfriend allegedly takes pregnant girlfriend’s pack of smokes
- Two women in a verbal fight over clothes at laundromat
- Two women arguing over stray cats at School House Manor, Oakfield
As I said earlier, we’ve built a large local audience because of our reputation of being on top of the local news. We couldn’t do it without a scanner.
We’ve made some mistakes and we’ve upset some people, but we’ve also been praised by people with connections to tragic incidents.
A landlord who was out of town learned that one of his apartments was on fire because of The Batavian and knew to hurry back to town.
A woman whose husband died in a car accident thanked us the following spring for our timely and complete reports because it saved her from answering a lot of questions.
One of the unexpected surprises about our approach to scanner reports is the praise it gets from first responders. Police officers check the home page of The Batavian at the start of every shift because it helps them know what’s happened since their previous shift. Volunteer firefighters love it because it helps inform the community about their calls.
Our scanner reporting has also led to us breaking news that other news organizations missed. When a 26-year-old woman hit a Walmart cashier on Christmas Eve 2011, it was only because we were listening to the scanner that the event ever became news, and it became national news. When a father threw his son to the floor of Walmart, a state trooper called on The Batavian, and nobody else, to help get the news out quickly, knowing our real-time news reputation had built up our audience. The concern was that the boy was injured and needed medical attention, so time was of the essence (turned out, he wasn’t hurt).
The scanner is just another news reporting tool, and like any tool, it can be misused and abused, but for Web journalism in the era of real-time news, it’s an invaluable tool when used well.
I think we’ve gotten better at scanner reporting the longer we’ve done it. Rather than fight how technology changes journalism, reporters and editors need to learn how to harness it and use it to benefit the communities they serve.
We’ve lived in Western New York about seven years now. Out time here hasn’t been without travel, but neither have we had as much time to explore as we might like, especially since The Batavian became our full time job.
People were always surprised when I told them, I’d never been to the City of Buffalo, nor to Niagara Falls, nor to Letchworth State Park. Now, in the space of just a couple of weeks, I’ve been to all three.
First, was Buffalo. A few Sunday mornings ago, I was asked to appear on a Sunday morning talking show on WGRZ. After the show, I took a little time to drive downtown. I was in a big city, but it was a Sunday. The streets were nearly deserted. I found myself before long driving around the McKinley Monument and impressed by the Gotham-city heft of Buffalo’s City Hall.
A week later Billie and I glided into our 20th Wedding Anniversary. We stayed at a Downtown Buffalo hotel (in the slide show, two more pictures of Buffalo City Hall and of an old car on the street below taken from our balcony) and the next day, visited the Martin House (a Frank Lloyd Wright design) and Niagara Falls.
Rounding out our WNY bucket list was a drive through Letchworth last week. This came about because I was hired to photograph a dairy farmer in Great Valley, which is about two hours south of here with Letchworth more or less on the same route. Time was short on the return trip, but we did manage to see the great falls and stop at a couple of lookout over “the Grand Canyon of the East.”
I’m reading Phil Jackson’s “Eleven Rings” on iBook and am very much enjoying it. Last night, I came across this passage and it rang true. I think I’ve always sought work that was meaningful. I think more than at any time in my life I’ve arrived at a spot where what I do springs from who I am and from my “unfolding journey.”
“To make your work meaningful, you need to align it with your true nature. “Work is holy, sacred, and uplifting when it springs from who we are, when it bears a relationship to our unfolding journey,” writes activist, teacher, and lay monk Wayne Teasdale in A Monk in the World. “For work to be sacred, it must be connected to our spiritual realization. Our work has to represent our passion, our desire to contribute to our culture, especially to the development of others. By passion I mean the talents we have to share with others, the talents that shape our destiny and allow us to be of real service to others in our community.”
This is Michael Penvose. In April he was arrested for allegedly stealing a thermometer. He claimed he needed the thermometer for his sick baby. A police officer bought the thermometer. When I heard about it, I thought it would make for a good story. The photo became the first photo of mine to win any kind of award. In this case, an NPPA monthly clip contest third place in general news.
The award — even just third in a monthly clip contest — is important to me because I take my photography seriously. My still photography.
I want to say up front, I make no claim to be a great photographer. I’ve worked with great photographers, especially at the Ventura County Star, and I wouldn’t put myself in their class. But I think my experience with photography and the news business gives me a little perspective.
For those who don’t know or don’t remember, I was once the guy pushing the idea that every reporter should be carrying an inexpensive camera and shooting a little video.
My position pissed off a lot of NPPA members. The debate raged for a couple of years. Chuck Fadely and I debated the issue at an NPPA short course in Rochester in 2008.
As Stewart Pittman would frequently point out, I was all talk.
When I started The Batavian, it gave me a chance to put into practice a little more of what I had been preaching.
As time when on, I found readers responded more to the still photos I posted then videos. I started shooting more photos and producing fewer videos.
It should be noted, in all my pontificating I don’t believe I ever called for dumping photojournalists from the payroll. I don’t recall it ever crossing my mind that there wouldn’t be a place for highly skilled and trained and well equipped professional photojournalists.
In the early days of my ownership of The Batavian, it dawned me — duh! — I don’t have a photography staff. There’s nobody here with a DSLR.
So, I sold a domain I owned and bought a Nikon D-90.
With a better camera, my still photos garnered even more kudos from readers. It was at this point, I pretty much totally abandoned video. For the same or less time than it took to shoot and produce a video, I could write a story and post a photo gallery and get more page views and more feedback from readers (either in comments or on the street).
The positive feedback from readers gave me a feeling that maybe I had a little talent I should try to improve on. I became — and still am — obsessed with photography.
As I upgraded my lenses, I was able to do more. As I upgraded my lenses and did more, I got more positive feedback from readers.
When I upgraded my camera to a D-7000, with it’s better dynamic range, readers noticed. They didn’t know I bought a new camera. They just knew the photography improved.
When I bought a used 70-200mm 2.8 lens, again, readers noticed the pictures got better. People would stop me on the street to compliment my photos.
When I upgraded that lens to something newer, readers noticed again.
This progression of events has underscored what many already know: readers care about quality still photos. They do notice a difference in quality and do enjoy stills.
No reader has ever asked me, “why don’t you shoot video?” or “you used to do video — what happened to your video?” There seems to be no demand from my audience for video.
We’re more than five years removed from the great video debates. Technology has improved. Computers are faster. Bandwidth has increased. And — users are not flocking to video, except purely as entertainment. I still hear from people at newspapers and views on the vast majority of newspaper-produced video remain too low to really justify the effort. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.
Point-and-shoot, video, iPhone photography all has its place in the river of news, but so does the professionally produced stills and videos of those trained, skilled and properly equipped, and put in the right places, to shoot and edit.
Which brings us to the Chicago Sun-Times.
There’s an old saying in business, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”
There’s no indication that newspaper executives ever learned this fundamental rule of business.
The news business is all about content. Advertising is important (and it’s content, too), but without compelling, interesting stories and pictures, there is no news business.
There was a time I was hailed in the news industry as some sort of champion of citizen journalism. I never saw myself that way. I never saw Cit-J as anything other than a supplement to what professionals do.
Only professionals consistently and continually sit through boring meetings, develop sources, hone their skills and their knowledge, stick with the same story month-after-month, year-after-year, have the experience and knowledge that goes with proper news gathering techniques, and can repeatedly craft a torrent of information into coherent stories. And I mean on a consistent, ongoing basis.
It’s hard to fathom a news executive thinking he or she can can replace professional staff with Cit-J and/or poorly equipped writers with inexpensive cameras and still remain viable as a news business. But that seems to be what is happening.
Without audience, you will lose advertising, and readers and viewers want news that they find compelling and engaging. If they don’t get it from you, they will go elsewhere, and if there’s no satisfactory alternative, they’ll just watch laughing babies and tumbling cats on YouTube. Purposefully diminishing the quality of the news product is no way to retain your audience.
My experience on the business side of the business and on the content side of the business tells me this was a really dumb business decision.
Today a client sent me to a town in Niagara County near Lake Ontario. The irony was, the night before the assignment came in, Billie said to me, “I’ve been thinking, we haven’t been up to Lake Ontario in a long time.” For a while I’ve been thinking, I would like to drive up to Lake Ontario to try and find some photo subjects.
So, after the assignment was done, Billie and I took a drive as much as possible long the lake toward the west and then swung down to Medina in search of a meal before heading home.
Here’s the photographic results of the day.