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: reporting
I’ve written quite a bit recently about the need to reinvent journalism. Not everybody believes its necessary. I still say, we should listen to our readers more and less to other journalists and our sources.
Here’s more fuel to the fire:
Two thirds of Americans – 67% – believe traditional journalism is out of touch with what Americans want from their news, a new We Media/Zogby Interactive poll shows.
The survey also found that while most Americans (70%) think journalism is important to the quality of life in their communities, two thirds (64%) are dissatisfied with the quality of journalism in their communities.
The Zogby survey also said newspaper readership (by that, I think they mean the print edition) is down significantly. While there may be some truth in that, it’s important to remember the poll is skewed because it was strictly an online survey. That doesn’t change, of coure, that a large percentage of Americans are dissatisfied with the way journalists today practice journalism.
- McCain coverage: Is Jayson Blair still working for the NYT?
- Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism
- Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem
- Six roles, or job duties, of modern journalism
- Reporters and editors should develop a reader satisfaction index
- Journalism has evolved to fit society’s needs and demands
- Review: Discovering the News, by Michael Schudson
I wonder how many journalists will get it that it’s their own reporting conventions that are being mocked.
Yes, any mundane event can be turned into news if sufficiently hyped. The only thing required is good writing.
I love how mundane quotes are given more dramatic context:
Ronald Jarrett, a professor of economics at George Washington University who left his office after darkness blanketed the D.C. metro area, summed up the fears of an entire nation, saying, “Look, it’s dark outside. I want to go home,” and ended the phone interview abruptly.
Previously: Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism, and also see the CEO story at the end of Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem. Continue reading
In the era of Packaged Goods Media, the journalist played a command-and-control role. He or she determined the news of the day (news judgment), organized it around his or her own sense of importance (news value) and published it to a compliant audience.
The role was linear and uncomplicated.
In the era of distributed media, the relationship between journalist and audience is asymmetrical.
As “audience” transmutes to “community,” and the level of communication and information increases exponentially, as news becomes less ecclesiastical and more egalitarian, the role of the professional journalist is changing.
Fortunately, there is still a role.
Here are six roles the modern journalist should serve:
- The Ethical Role. Yes, journalists get bashed about because of real and imagined lapses in ethics, but the challenge now is to raise the bar on professional ethics, and then provide ethical guidence to today’s participatory audience. We should deal more swiftly and transparently with ethical errors within the profession, but we should also provide teaching tools on information ethics, what ethics means and why it’s important, and how to spot compromised ethics.
- The Guide/Filter Role. Editors and reporters should assume some responsibility for providing their audiences with pointers to the best stuff on the web, be it the best-reported of the important news or the most interesting and entertaining articles and videos. In a command-and-control environment, we cared only about directing people to what we ourselves did. Now our role is to help audiences sift through the glut of information assaulting them daily by providing pointers. This is the value-add role, and if done right it can help overcome the digital-age tendency for people to focus too narrowly on their own interests. If done well, it will bring more people to your site or publication.
- The Understanding and Context Role. Why should the best bloggers get to have all the fun? The best journalists should become the best bloggers. I know many really, really smart reporters and editors. These people should have blogs, and they should serve readers better by taking the news of the day and putting it in context, combing articles for the tidbits that need to be weaved together to make a bigger whole, and explaining what it all means.
- The Conversation Leader Role. Already, our news reports start a lot of conversations with our without our consent. The conversation-starter role should become explicit in our job descriptions. Once started, we should guide it. We should thank and encourage the good contributors, and depreciate the bad contributors We should highlight the smartest things people say. We should provide our own insights and supplemental knowledge to any conversation we find. We should be full participants, not just the lurking overlords of top-down media.
- The Aggregator Role. We should aggressively gather data related to the communities we serve. We should make sure that anything that is knowable about a community we serve is findable through resources we provide. While in the Guide/Filter Role we might provide pointers, in the Aggregator Role, we make data available and let people find it for themselves. This is a role that serves the long tail of information, because we never know what other individuals might find useful, important or necessary.
- The Straight News Role. We cannot, even if we wanted to, and should not, cede our professional responsibilities to uncover news. We must know about everything important going on in the communities that we serve, and we should strive to be the first to tell our communities about the important news of the moment (note: no longer of the day, but of the moment). We must still be out in our communities gathering facts and organizing them in a way that is relevant and useful and then reporting the most important facts to our communities.
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