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Monday, December 22, 2008

Inside Baseball

When people write about their own professions or subjects of particular interest to themselves, we call it “inside baseball.” There’s a danger that only others who share those interests will appreciate and enjoy the discussion. Others may find it esoteric or, gasp!, boring.

Wrigley Field
This is not exactly what we mean by "inside baseball." Ours is more theoretical
So I’m taking a chance with a bit of inside baseball about the journalism profession. But I think some recent developments have implications for us all.

There are three threads to this story, and perhaps coincidentally, all three involve the Gannett Co. That’s the U.S. multimedia giant that publishes 85 daily newspapers and owns 23 television stations. Gannett’s properties are renowned for their aggressiveness, profitability, tight control of a dollar, and emphasis on local over national and international coverage. Some doubtlessly disenchanted former Gannett editors and writers have peppered the Web with stories of alleged “sweatshop” demands on the staff at many of the properties.

Gannett is also legendary for its technical innovation and its willingness to try new approaches in a profession that is hidebound by romantic traditions. Founded in 1982, Gannett’s nationally distributed USA Today was the first, or one of the first, papers to emphasize compact stories, color graphics, and lots of photographs to grab readers’ attention at a time when they were increasingly turning to television, especially, when they wanted news.

Gannett also runs Web sites that, according to the Nielsen/NetRatings service, reach about 16 percent of the total Internet audience.

In all, Gannett is a media powerhouse to which people pay attention. So . . . pay attention! Perhaps you’ll discern a connection of the dots among these developments. Perhaps not.

Bad News for Paperboys

• If you read my last post about the psychological distress of autoworkers and others in economically battered Michigan, you caught the comments of two editors at the Detroit Free Press, a Gannett daily. I did not know at the time – and perhaps neither did they – that the paper itself would soon be making headlines. The Free Press announced that come spring, it and the News – another Detroit daily separately owned with which the Free Press partners in news-gathering and production – would deliver printed newspapers to people’s homes only three days a week. Limited print runs for in-store sales and public news boxes will continue seven days a week.

Newsboy
People aren't buying newspapers as much as they used to. If they read them at all, many people scan them online
The Free Press reported that Dave Hunke, its publisher, said the move would, among other things, enable the two Detroit papers to spend some of the money saved on paper, ink, and fuel on their Web sites, to “develop new ways to deliver information digitally, [and] enhance multimedia offerings.”

“There is a day of reckoning coming for newspapers, which in my mind don’t change and change rapidly,” Hunke added. He noted without apparent rancor that customers were rapidly moving away from the printed product – “most people don’t read us that way” – as “lifestyles and technology have changed.”

And as customers turn to their computers and various hand-held devices to keep up with the world, Hunke said, “We can’t be afraid about moving at light speed toward that.”

• The second development does not directly relate to the Web, but it says something about the quick-quick, hurry-up-and-tell-me-something nature of the “new media.”

Paper rolls
You're looking at newsprint rolls that could some day, perhaps sooner than later, become historical artifacts
Bowing to what The Washington Post called “the march of technology,” WUSA, Gannett’s television property in Washington, D.C., announced that it will replace its traditional news crews with “multimedia journalists” who will single-handedly report, shoot, and edit their stories.

News crews in large markets typically include a reporter, camera operator, and often a field producer, plus an editor or editors back at the station.

Now a single “one-man band” – not necessarily a classically trained journalist but often a production person – carrying a camera and microphone as well as a notepad – will cover breaking stories in particular. “They’re passing out cameras to the janitors,” one unhappy WUSA staffer told me. Surely the person was exaggerating!

“The concept of a multimedia journalist, having his own beat, with an area of expertise, and a limitless virtual news desk is something we can get very excited about,” the station’s general manager told The Washington Post. To say nothing of the cost savings. The paper reported that WUSA “plans an across-the-board cut in reporters’ salaries as it increases their responsibilities.”

And Make Coffee, Too?

Newsroom
A lot of traditional newsrooms have empty cubicles - though maybe not THIS empty - as media companies downsize and consolidate job responsibilities in the hands of "mobile journalists"
“Mo-jos,” or mobile journalists, will be expected to report, shoot, and capture audio for stories and quickly upload reports and raw material to the station’s Web site, as well as appearing on air as needed.

As I noted, many WUSA staffers are less than thrilled. Veteran reporter Gary Reals – disclosure: he’s a friend and poker buddy of mine – accepted a buyout offer and is leaving. “It takes a lot of time to shoot and edit and write and prepare a story, and if you have one person doing all that, something has to give,” he told The Washington Post.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-TV News Directors Association, indicated that this one-man-band approach “could work fine for feature stories” but could be dangerous for the “mo-jos” in breaking-news situations, especially involving developing crime scenes and civil unrest.

Zuli
Zuli Palacio is one of the VOA journalists who's a "one-person band," reporting and shooting stories, such as one for a feature assignment here, near Taos, New Mexico

(Some years ago here at the Voice of America, a New York consultant taught dozens of people from several divisions how to become “video journalists,” or “V-Js,” shooting as well as reporting and writing their own stories. Only a handful of V-Js remain, as later groups of senior managers concluded that, indeed, something does “have to give” when a journalist tries to combine research, reporting, shooting video, setting up lighting, capturing quality audio, then writing the story and editing its production elements for television.)

Winds of Change

• The third development relates to both Gannett and VOA. A couple of weeks ago, several VOA managers attended an American Press Institute seminar led by Mackenzie Warren, the director of digital content for Gannett Digital, which supports the publisher’s various online products and develops new ones. Just 31 years old and very much in tune with the Web culture, Warren came to his job at Gannett headquarters in northern Virginia from a position as managing editor in charge of editing, packaging, and distributing the chain’s Fort Myers, Florida, News-Press in print and online.

VOA managers came back thunderstruck from his presentation. (If “thunderstruck” is too strong a word, “amazed” fits for sure.) They were shocked by the warp speed at which online journalism appears to be moving, and wondering what it portends.

Mackenzie Warren
Mackenzie Warren makes no bones about it: He's a "new media" crusader

In particular, they were struck by Warren’s belief in the “one-man-band” approach. So struck by it that I wanted to hear details from Mackenzie Warren himself. Here is some of what he told me in a telephone conversation:

“Everyone is a publisher now,” he began. Not just newspapers or news organizations that host Web sites, but also bloggers and other “citizen journalists,” including those who quickly put up raw video of news events. No longer can traditional publishers smugly rest on their laurels as “trusted news brands” that news consumers are sure to count on for information, nor can they dismiss assorted providers of content as unqualified, untrustworthy, irrelevant rogues. Like it or not, more and more news consumers are turning to the Web – including these unaffiliated information providers – especially in crisis situations.

“Journalism is evolving not on our time frame but on the world’s,” Warren told me. People who turn to the Web want to know what’s happening this instant. To borrow Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase from 1964, “The medium is the message,” meaning that the delivery system – in this case, the Web – greatly influences how information is presented and received. When it comes to breaking news in its presto-change-o culture, there is no time for the time-honored journalism drill: carefully gather the story, meticulously write it, confirm the details with multiple sources, and submit it for vetting by one or more editors before it is worthy of putting in print or on the air.

“If you can’t give it to them right now, they’ll go elsewhere” and quite possibly never return, Warren told me. So journalists feeding the Web have to be swifter about “putting things up” as they encounter them, often without the luxury of review by other “sets of eyes” belonging to line and copy editors. There just isn’t time.

“I’m not suggesting that we should ever be reckless, leave out crucial aspects of a story, or not worry about inaccuracies,” he told me. But in the online world, “there’s a higher degree of forgiveness” about errors of grammar, syntax, chronology, and even facts, especially early on in a story. News consumers on the Web “don’t expect perfection,” Warren says. “They expect us to give them the story as best we know it” and fix mistakes later as they are discovered.

The Three “T’s” of Today’s Online World

Web users want information “on their terms, on their turf, and on their timetable,” Warren believes. And providers had better give it to them that way or step aside for those who will. News managers who are consumed with getting it right rather than getting it first soon won’t have enough readers to notice.

It’s a “risk-reward deal,” Warren says. You risk some mistakes for the reward of getting things up so quickly that you become Web users’ “go-to source” for information.

That’s a chilling thought for owners of traditional “news brands” and the old axiom that “it’s more important to get it right than to get it first.”

Vendors
The delivery of news took a long time to evolve until recently. Now it seems as if there's a new approach every day
Mackenzie Warren, who is not at all uncomfortable being labeled a “new media evangelist and agitator,” insists that the “get it on fast” approach does not do violence to journalistic tradition.

“We’ve long had eyewitness reporting that goes straight from the reporter’s notebook to the consumers,” he says. “That’s what live television is. I think that readers value the immediate nature of this style of reporting and, while they’d not permit it in a printed newspaper – which is permanent and had the benefit of many hours of editing and production – I think they are demanding it in the Web version of newspapers.”

He adds that, in his view, getting it right and getting it first are not mutually exclusive. “I trust our professional reporters to get most of what they report right,” he says. “For 99 percent of the things we report first, we also report them right.”

Today’s news customers get involved in the product “much earlier upstream,” Warren points out. “We’re letting readers see what we’re gathering as we’re gathering it,” not packaging the information and putting a pretty bow on it before readers get to see it. “They see the whole lifespan of a story.”

Warren says that reporters must still be well-trained, vigilant, and ethical, and that their commitment to credibility, balance, and objectivity remains paramount. “I carry a copy of the [U.S.] Constitution with me,” he says. “That’s how much I value the safeguards of a free press.”

iPhone
This is one of the delivery systems of today's "newspaper." What
would Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press back around 1439, think about such a thing? It's amazing enough to those who live today

That copy of the Constitution, naturally, is not a pamphlet or book or parchment. It’s an interactive application on Warren’s iPhone.

What about editors? Are they obsolete? “Not at all,” replies Mackenzie Warren. “There’s a small minority of stories – those with special sensitivities or controversy – that demand continual oversight from an editor.” Otherwise, “editors can be a bottleneck [lavishing precious time on getting the nuances right]. We have to trust the good judgment of trained reporters on the scene.” Besides, editors so often find themselves trying to juggle two, three, or 10 stories, that none of them gets out quickly.

Quickly!

Mackenzie Warren believes that news executives can no longer sit smugly above the fray, deciding which stories to tell and when and how to tell them. The typical news pro “has never had to worry as much about ‘customer service,’ as those in other businesses have,” Warren says.

“They’d better start.”

And reporters had better get used to being “mo-jos” – mobile journalists, generalists – thinking on their feet, handling different kinds of equipment, telling stories verbally, visually, and in writing.

A Far Cry from J-School

One would think that more “old hands” besides WUSA’s Gary Reals would berate these developments or walk away from them. “My experience is just the opposite,” Mackenzie Warren told me. “They were afraid we were making their work obsolete, and they’d be left out. Once they get the right training and get into a cadence, they’re thrilled to be in the forefront of all that we do. They’re not cast aside. They’re on the cutting edge.”

And, he adds, not every old hand will be asked to grab the nearest hand-held camera and race off to fires and traffic accidents. “We’ll still need specialists” writing commentary and analysis, Warren says.

Could it be that all this talk of immediacy is really camouflage, an excuse for deeper cost-cutting by a company famous for being profit-wise and controlling the bottom line? “Never, ever, ever has cost come into it,” Mackenzie Warren assured me. “It’s all about better coverage. If it takes many mobile journalists to cover a story, that’s what the story will get. We want journalism to thrive.”

Warren acknowledges, however, that media outlets that meet users’ demand for quick, comprehensive information will build an audience large and strong enough to attract advertisers to pay the company’s bills and stockholder dividends.

As for newspapers like his company’s Detroit Free Press, Mackenzie Warren says they were always “a mile wide [covering a million things] and an inch deep. They’ll evolve into niche products, appealing not to anyone and everyone but to specialized audiences.” For all practical purposes, he believes, they’re already out of the breaking-news business.

So, what’s to be made of all this? Journalism is obviously mutating, and fast, into a sort of “ready response strike force,” not so much assembling information and making sense of it, but grabbing the latest information here, there, and everywhere and sharing it immediately, sometimes without much of a filter.

Journalism’s ‘New World Order’

For this “old hand,” and perhaps anyone else who’s over 30, this represents an unsettling concession to the demands of a busy, “instant gratification” world for fast, bite-sized information unencumbered by pesky nuances. I keep thinking, and worrying, about Mackenzie Warren’s three “T’s”: providing information to Web users “on their terms, on their turf, and on their timetable.”

***

Thanks Back Atcha

Got a couple of very nice mentions from other bloggers recently, which gave me the chance to enjoy what they are doing.

Nik Peachey's blog
Here's a screenshot of Nik Peachey's very nice plug of our blog

Nik Peachey, a teacher, writer, and technology consultant in Morocco, writes two blogs. One, called “Daily English Activities” and aimed at those for whom English is a second or foreign language. It has a lot of exercises for teachers and those interested in stretching their minds, and not just in English. One had a memorization test involving photos. Another, linked above, talked about stretching one’s vocabulary using “spidergrams” and “vocabulary webs.” These were challenging (but fun) in any language at any level. They reinforce the seriousness with which people around the world study English, not just to expand their minds but also in hopes of creating more opportunities for themselves.

This reminds me, briefly, of a memorable visit that I made to Indonesia, where I was pleasantly surprised to find college students not only watching undubbed American movies and listening to American songs in English, but also broadcasting in English on a campus radio station. It reinforced the reality that English – American English – is becoming, if not already is, the language of science, the Web, international travel, and youth. That does not make the language or our people superior in any way. But it does say something about the spread of American culture, not all of which is uplifting.

Nik’s other blog, called “QuickShout,” talks about developments in language and technology. I don’t know how he does it!: create two blogs and still have a life. Nor do I know how Nik manages to write such short and compact editions. Writing short is so much harder than writing long. I’ve been at it for more than 45 years and still don’t have the hang of it.

Thanks, too, to recent commentators, including Patrick and Cui Litang, who passed along generous thoughts about my writing. My own time as an editor has helped me spot a lot of gaffes in time to correct them. And I have grown more and more comfortable with a cadence developed by reading my words aloud, not just on the radio, but also as I write this blog. I find that hearing the words often helps me pick the right word and tone. As my reader “Anonymous” called them, my “fantastic picture of words” derives from hearing as well as writing them.

I still struggle - as my editor and several of you readers have noted - to write succinctly. In the face of the discussion about immediacy and brevity above, I worry if there’ll be a place for long-form writing down the road. Perhaps one day readers will grow unsatisfied with Writing McNuggets and will demand something more filling.

TODAY'S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Hidebound. Inflexible, stubbornly narrow-minded. The term may have morphed from the animal world, where the abnormally dry skin of a hidebound animal clings rigidly to the underlying flesh.

Rancor. Not just dislike or irritation but deep-seated ill-will and hostility. The term is related, in its derivation from Middle English, to the word “rancid,” so rancor is not a pleasant thing.

Rest on One’s Laurels. To be so satisfied with your abilities and accomplishments that you stop trying to improve. In Roman times, victors in battle wore a head-ring of leaves (laurels). Those who rested upon those victories often lost the next battle.

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2 comments:

Julie T. said...

Hi Ted - I just read your blog on the decline of old-fashioned journalism and enjoyed it very much! Much food for thought there...I also had a suggestion; to perhaps add the phrase "above the fray" to your list of wild words. I like how you also provide a description of the origins of a word/phrase. Very cool!
Thanks for your Christmas card. Happy New Year to you, Carol and family. Julie Taboh.

SebastianJaen said...

Ted, I like so much your work. I´m from Colombia, and in your news, reports and writings I´ve acquired one more huge perspective about your country and its lifestyle. For me it is an America completely unknown for many persons abroad. And it is the America that many people love and would like to know more. Best regards and happy new year.