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.
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Tag Archives: history
The clip above came to mind while scrolling through comments on Dean Starkman’s CJR piece, Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus. As Starkman points out, there’s two camps in the game of predicting where the news game … Continue reading
Early in my career somebody I obviously respected — can’t remember who now — told me the correct newspaper spelling of the opening of a newspaper story is “lede.” There’s lot of romanticism and nostalgia in the newspaper industry for … Continue reading
Many people referred to my MBO post as a “challenge.” That wasn’t a challenge. It was just a task list with a reward. Here’s a challenge:
Make your focus your audience. Try to figure out what readers want, not just what you think they want.
For the individual reporter: Make a three year commitment not to submit any story you report or write to any journalism contest. Insist that no editor submit any story you write to any contest. At the same time, collect every reader praise you get and track them. Make it your goal to get at least 4 reader praises per month. The praise can come through a phone call, in person, e-mail or story comment. In months that you make goal, give yourself a treat — it might be a night out at the movies, a nice dinner, a concert or whatever makes you happy but you don’t already do regularly for yourself (or your significant other). When you don’t make goal, deny yourself that treat. If you make goal three consecutive months, increase the goal by a reasonable amount.
For editors: Ban your staff from submitting articles to award contests. Start collecting reader praise. Every week, post the number of reader praises on a prominent bulletin board in the newsroom. Encourage editors and reporters to forward praise to you so you can count it (if the praise didn’t come in written form, require specifics on the nature and source of the praise). Track that number every week and graph it. When praise comes in written form, post the best of the praise. Do not give gold stars or bonus checks for praise. Don’t make it an individual contest. But do thank every staff member who forwards praise to you. Though, you should encourage reporters to do the individual measurement on their own.
BTW: Praise can be for stories, blog posts or video — any kind of journalism, no matter where it first appears or what format.
It can’t be from sources or subjects.
Don’t count complaints. Complainers about stories often have agendas, or are just zealots with an anti-media bias.
Or develop your own reader satisfaction index. The goal is to focus on the reader, the audience.
I can already hear the objections — you’re dumbing down journalism by aiming for the lowest common denominator, you’re ambulance chasing and taking journalism from the context of serving the public good.
It’s a false dichotomy to say there are only two kinds of journalism — the “holy temple of serving the civic good” journalism and the ambulance-chasing journalism. There are all kinds of journalism. Your job is to figure out what kind audiences really want.
- Review: Discovering the News, by Michael Schudson
- Journalism has evolved to fit society’s needs and demands
When ever I write about the need for journalists to learn new tools — such as blogging or DIY video — there’s a few hearty souls who pop up and say, “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the journalism.”
Those people are absolutely right. It’s not about the technology. Where they might be wrong is, it is not necessarily about the journalism.
What they should really say is, “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the audience.”
The audience decides what journalism they want. They always have. For background on this, see my review of Discovering the News.
Successful publishers of the past figured out what audiences wanted and gave it to them.
Even as journalists at the start of the 2oth Century began to take a greater role in defining their profession, they still had to write and report what people would buy.
What journalists mean by “journalism” today isn’t what journalists meant when they spoke of “journalism” in 1830, 1880 or 1910. It was only during the radical changes in society following World War I that the word objectivity entered the lexicon and modern journalism began to take shape.
It may merely be a coincidence, but interestingly, as journalism became more of a profession and less of trade in the 1930s, newspaper household penetration began to decline.
Real circulation losses didn’t start until the 1970s, at the apex of the rise of investigative journalism and the birth of the Woodstein era.
Is it possible that professional journalism, for all its pretense to serving society, has really been out of touch with its readership?
Is it possible that for the past four decades, journalists have produced stories to impress other journalists (aka, win awards), not please readers?
The funny thing is, Mr. Reporter, when is the last time the guy in the other cubicle picked up a paper and read one of your stories, or you one of his?
It doesn’t often happen, does it?
Now, for the first time, our audience can fight back. They can post comments, publish blogs, produce videos, and report the news themselves. Society is changing, but many journalist hide behind the notion that “technology does not change journalism.”
If society changes journalism, however, what happens to the journalist, or the newspaper, that doesn’t change to meet the new needs and demands?
If a brand of journalism doesn’t fit with the society it purports to serve, is it really serving that society?
Shouldn’t we be listening to our audience so we can figure out what they want from us? Continue reading
Journalism — what constitutes a story, the guiding principals and mores of editors and reporters — hasn’t changed much in my lifetime. It’s easy to think that the attitudes, aptitudes and priorities of journalists have been much the same all the way back to Gutenberg.
Of course, people who have studied journalism history know that’s not true.
We don’t spend a lot of time talking about our profession’s history, even though history might teach us a good deal about today.
Schudson’s book is thirty years old, but it covers the major changes in journalism through the Watergate era.
The primary theme of the book is that journalism has evolved in response to changes in society.
Schudson’s story begins in the 1820s, when the dominate newspapers where either organs of political partisans or served the interests of the business class. They sold for six cents per edition, but required annual subscriptions. This meant only the wealthiest Americans could afford a newspaper. Few papers sold more than 2,000 copies per day.
In the 1830s, the penny press arrived. Some might think it was technology (steam-driven cylinder presses) that drove the advent of the penny press, but it was really the rising tide of a middle class in America, and a greater sense of democratic rule over gentry rule (voting was now open to more than just land owners). The penny press met the demand for news (something the six-penny papers didn’t have) by reporting actual events, such as murder trials, rather than just political editorials.
The publishers, such as James Gorden Bennett and Horace Greeley, cranked out a lot of news, and a lot of advertising, to a middle class, trained by the six-penny papers, to see newspaper subscriptions as a status symbol. They sold a lot more newspapers.
The papers were not necessarily non-partisan, and while the reporting was informational, it wasn’t necessarily without an agenda, and they were certainly sensational.
By the 1880s, the New York papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took sensationalism to new levels. While the journalist of the day would believe their reporting was truthful, they were not beyond withholding information to shape a story. Consider the career of Richard Harding Davis and his role in reporting the Spanish boarding the Olivette. Davis didn’t quit Hearst not because Davis didn’t support the publisher’s position, but because the particular fictionalization wasn’t his fictionalization. Davis merely withheld facts. Hearst invented new ones.
It would be a mistake, however, to attribute the success of Pulitzer and Hearst to Yellow Journalism. At a time when New York first became a commuter city, and a city of immigrants in need of illustrated papers and simple language, Pulitzer and Hearst met the need.
It wasn’t until Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times in 1896 that a more non-partisan, less sensational style of journalism began to take hold. Ochs’ style of journalism came along at a time when observational science was beginning to shape cultural attitudes and realism was the leading trend in art and literature. Again, Ochs was meeting the needs of a changing society, not driving innovation in news coverage.
Prior to World War I, the word “objectivity” was not part of a journalist’s lexicon. Reporting was expected to be factual, but objective was not a common news value.
With the unraveling of the world after the Great War, up through the Great Depression, people began to question democratic institution and market forces, and the very idea that facts could be considered neutral came into question. Objectivity became a counter weight to the questionable judgment of individuals, not just in journalism, but in law, social sciences and art, as well.
Walter Lippman and others began to call for and define a greater professionalism in journalism. Schools were founded and awards created. It was in this environment that interpretive reporting — putting the news in context — first gained currency.
During World War II, the U.S. government entered, for the first time, into organized attempts to control the news flow. Press agents were hired and press conferences became widespread. Reporters lost access to government officials. The relationship between press and White House changed radically in the post War years.
The rise of McCarthysm, the Bay of Pigs and the start of the war in Vietnam were all events that helped create within society a greater sense that the U.S. government, now no longer easily accessible, was not always worthy of trust. For the first time, the press began to take on a watch dog role and investigative reporting was born.
This trend reached its apex with Watergate.
The way I read the book, prior to the 20th Century, publishers (not reporters and editors) reacted to changes in society where they saw business opportunities. As the 20th Century has progressed, and journalism has become more of a profession rather than a trade, journalists have had a great say in what constitutes professionalism, but there is still a good deal of reaction to society, rather than journalists simply changing the terms of their jobs.
And now, society is apparently going through its largest upheaval, especially in terms of how it interacts with media, since at least the 1960s, if not the earliest parts of the 2oth Century.
If that’s the case, should today’s journalist react with “we should keep doing what we’ve always been doing” attitude, or figure out how journalism needs to change to meet new demands and new needs? Continue reading