Category Archives: It’s Just Journalism

Remembering and wondering why . . .

In reading the Poynter Institute’s online news digest the other day I came across a note in which Bob Stepno recalled the early days of one of the earliest and best attempts by newspapers – to wit, South North Carolina’s Raleigh News and Observer – to use the Internet as a news gathering and delivery vehicle. Nando emerged just as the graphical user interface, Mosaic, made it possible to navigate the World Wide Web using the point-and-click mouse as opposed to the arcane word-driven commands of the pre-visual Internet.

That was the beginning of the current era in media. And newspapers were there. During this same 1994 time period during which Nando emerged, I worked at the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle where then Examiner publisher Will Hearst instigated creation of, which remains the web presence of the Chronicle (see Wikipedia if you wonder what happened to the Examiner). I was more than merely aware of the Gate. I was an early moderator of discussion groups at, which then styled itself like the pioneering online community, The Well.

Okay, so if newspapers were there at the beginning of the Web, why are they in such trouble now? Nando is gone as a brand name and newspaper sites in general are not taking the Web by storm. For instance media zine Paid Content, relying on newspaper industry figures, reports that traffic flows at newspaper web sites grew 6 percent in 2007. And that was compared to a 9 percent growth rate in the prior year.

So the traffic growth rate to newspapaper web sites has, in aggregate, slowed to an anemic single digit. Yet the entire industry is betting its hopes on the print-to-web transition. This concerns me. The newspaper industry pioneers who at least discerned the importance of the web in ’94 failed to capitalize on their early entries in cyberspace. And now in 2008 when the industry has its back to the wall, once again there is an emphasis on moving operations to the Web. What went wrong 14 years ago? And how will today’s weakened and frightened news organizations of today do better at the Web transition than their predecessors who operated from relative positions of strength?

I have some thoughts but really these are questions for the people who get the big bucks. I’m just a blogger.

By the way, if you would like to wander down’s memory lane, Stepno has a lovely personal website, built up over the last 14 years, in which he links to his own Nando-nostalgia.

If you would like to join the Poynter Online News mail list, visit here.

How many reporters to cover a train wreck?

Reader Charlotte Yee passed on this bit of humor at the expense of paid newsies like yours truly. Seven Orlando Sentinel reporters contributed to a three-paragraph story about a train wreck.

A blogger named Ranger Bob whose interests include bridges and trains, took issue with the following line: “The conductor saw an object on the tracks and blew his horn several times, but it did not move . . .”

Ranger Bob notes that none of the 7 knew that it is the engineer and not the conductor who drives the train. “Must be a union shop,” he wrote in a posting titled, “Why newspapers lose money.”

Online journalism job skills at a glance


Eric Ulken, who works for LA Times online, wanted to create a visual reference for the types of skills that were most frequently demanded in help-wanted listings. The image above is from his blog entry which I noticed on Amy Gahran’s roundup for the Poynter Institute.

This representation reminds me of a similar survey that I blogged about last year. Here is a taste of that entry:

“. . . being the online news business, aspiring digital journalists need software skills –  such as in HTML and PhotoShop – their print counterparts don’t routinely display, according, The Role of Journalists in Online Newsroms, a survey published in November (2006) by C. Max Magee, a master’s candidate at the Medill School of Journalism. (Find Magee’s original 10-page PDF here).”

Anecdotal ‘poll’ guesses at blog influence on reporters

The bullet points in the telephone survey by the marketing firm Brodeur were impressive but the fine print undermined their authority. A press release about the survey said:

  • Journalists are increasingly active participants in the blogosphere: One in four reporters (27.7%) have their own blogs and nearly one in five (16.3%) have their own social networking page.

  • About half of reporters (47.5%) say they are “lurkers” – reading blogs but rarely commenting.

 Then I read to the last paragraph, in which readers are usually told how the information was gleaned:

“the online survey was conducted among a random sample of North American reporters and editors between December 18, 2007 and January 3, 2008. Some 4,000 reporters were invited via email to participate; a total of 178 completed responses.” (italics added)

If by random Brodeur meant “we don’t know who responded, why and how they differed from the vast majority of non-responders,” I would understand. But random in this case does not mean the sample has a scientific or statistical validity and so whatever its findings they should be taken as strong anecdotalism — there are 178 responses — but I would suspect they self-selected themself for inclusion in ways that greatly make this survey not easy to extrapolate. I am a reporter like the 3,822 (add that to 178 to get to the 4000) people who were invited but declined to participate* and what peaked my interest in this headline was astonishment that anybody had actually taken an accurate reading of this group.

 As it turns out, no one has, which makes the survey more useful as a suggestion than as a statistic.

* * *

* (I don’t answer PR polls because they are generally intended to ascertain my views toward news-makers; reporters are not supposed to have views or they are expected to stifle any feelings they might have; I have occasionally been offered small sums, from $25 to $100, to answer questions but have always declined. I’m not suggesting the size of the bribe be higher; that would only make it more annoying to feel obliged to refuse.)

Useability testing for small websites and newspapers

Online Journalism Review continues its occasional but helpful series on how to test web sites during redesign with an article describing about how the The Decatur (Ala.) Daily (weekday print circ 20,500) found cheap and cheerful ways to get feedback. The paper got a graduate student at the University of Alabama journalism school to ramrod the project.  Under the guidance of faculty advisor Wilson Lowery, that student, Steve Stewart, used cheap online tools like SurveyMonkey to solicit email feedback and took lessons from useability testing books (notably: “Don’t make me think,” by Steve Krug).

One immediate success of this Jschool-newspaper collaboration was that, Stewart, the newly-minted J-school grad, got a job as Internet supervisor of the site he helped redesign.

Stewart authored the OJR piece and in it he passes on many useful tips that any weekly, small daily or Web zine could use to make its site more navigable, including this notion from useability consultant Jared Spool:

“The [metric] that’s probably the most useful is what people are typing into your search box,” (he) said. When people search for something, it’s because they can’t find it on the current page. “If you know what page they were on when they typed it, they’re telling you what page it should have been on.”

Here is another link to Stewart’s OJR piece which is well worth reading for anyone embarked on a Web site redesign.

I see a couple of other lessons here, for:

— journalism students; look who got the job.

— for journalism schools; can you partner with local media?

— for older working journalists (like me!); do not rest on your newsgathering or editing laurels; get new media capable. That doesn’t mean becoming a useability expert but there are skills like basic picture grabs, possibly sound and video grabs, and posting text and photos to blogs that hiring editors will simply demand of any reporter or editor. Copy editors, in particular, need to brush up because they are increasingly laying out pages for print and online. (I wrote about the new hiring requirements here.)

Reporters: here is another set of suggested skills posed as a challenge by media blogger and newspaper guy Howard Owens. I’ll say more about his challenge later but wanted to park it here for those who haven’t seen it earlier.

To stop my mind from wandering

In strolling through the Web this morning I found a posting by freelance science writer David Cohn talking about science journalism and followed it back to his blog where he talked about another one of my faves, media literacy.

It might not be apparent from reading my published output but I am a science writer by training and approach: how does it work, what are its pivot points, what metaphors communicate the gist of the science. Those questions can guide any curious and attentive observer to heart of issues in politics, business and culture as well as science. Alas, professional newswriting has been hijacked and repeatedly raped by the sports-writer’s mentality which makes everything a horse race, every story a he-said, she-said, feeds into the cynicism that drives all too many journalists into drinking, drugging or public relations.

 But I digress. Cohn’s posting, Science Journalism and the Web 2.0, mentioned that Scientific American magazine had established a community site — evidence of the evolution of media from the pontification toward participation. Great idea. Especially for technical communities whose associations arise from their shared interest. A bit tougher, I think, to graft onto the geographic communities served by incumbent media. Local communities have identifies and participatory habits that, however poor or infrequently used; they lack the single cohesive interest of the specialty community. Eventually I expect newsgatherers will figure out how to more tightly involve the single moms and the soccer moms, white collar and blue collar dads, in community discourse.

Cohn’s science musings made me follow the digital breadcrumbs to his blog, Dididave, where today’s hot-off-the-presses posting was titled: My Work at NewsTrust.Net – Media Literacy 2.0. In it he explores the concept of voting on stories to rank them for interest or accuracy or any other criteria. Cohn focuses on his work with an experimental non-profit along the lines of Digg and Reddit. (I am truly not clear on what are the differences other than that the latter were garage-launched and on a commerical trajectory while the former is grant-launched and would presumably being developing open source tools and lesson plans for wannabe community builders.)

Cohn strikes what I consider to be the sober middle ground behind the technogical optimists who get starry eyed about the vox populatteness of content ranking and the pessimists who fear the hoi polloization of the body politic when he writes:

“Allowing people to vote on content is fantastic, as long as we remember that journalism is not just a consumer product. The media, although changing, still plays an integral role in our democracy and it should not be treated like ‘Digg bait.’ “

Hear, hear. Noble sentiments and I do not doubt Cohn believes them, but in real world people would rather read about Hot Tubs than Hot Zones. So in this pay-per-click, eyeball-grabbing world, the inexorable momentum of current Web media, like the mass media they seek to supplant, will be driven by lowest common denominator news judgment. If anything Web media will be even more demogogic simply by virtue of youth. It took decades for newspaper and broadcast barons to get guilt-tripped into committing investigative or public service journalism. Now their economic support is crumbling and with it their commitment to costly, trouble-making journalism. And if Web media have put their profits into original works of  journalism or public policy, I’ve missed it.

Which brings me back to the specialty community of Scientific American, which I imagine as the prototype for how 21st century journalism will be done: media outlets of varying specialties will gather around themselves flocks of interested and literate contributors; these constellations of speciality zines and communities will feed into the mass media — and here I include the mega-portals as well as the dead-tree and broadcast types — whose editors will select from these specialty offerings a buffet of our world today.

At least that’s my hope.

J-schools make too many pros, too few citizens

I’m on a committee with a few journalists and public relations folks rethinking how to teach the various disciplines within communications. We are not alone. A lengthy article from describes a panel discussion on how the elite journalism schools are rethinking their missions – up to a point, as the article notes:

“One question that panelists didn’t consider in any depth was whether journalism schools were needed in the first place. It’s a “non-dialectical issue,” said Carnegie’s president, Vartan Gregorian. “The fact is, we have to live with reality,” he added: They’re here, so the question should be how to reform them.”

Step one, cut output. I graduated the J-school at Columbia University in 1991. It was a great experience and I found a job. But even then I felt j-schools overproduced. Guest speakers came through often and one graduate of the 1950s era said he and his peers took summers off before taking job. We had no such expectation in 1991. We competed for internships. His class size was under 100. Mine was a bit over 200.

The irony is that 301,621,157 Americans could befit from some journalism education. That’s the entire population. Nowadays anyone can be a journalist through a blog or a social network. Most of that will be at the level of the high school paper or church bulletin. But utimately this will be tremendously good because as more people create media, they will be less gullible and more aware of how situations can be spun. 

If I seem calm about this possible transformation it’s because I’ve been through it before. In the 1980s I was a professional typographer. Desktop publishing decimated that profession and hurt my business. At the time I thought design heathens, drunk with the ability to mix and match fonts, would ravage the printed page. But now that my livelihood is not at issue I rather like how design has evolved.

Today professional journalism faces amateur competition. But it needn’t be adversarial. I think the pros should mentor citizens journalists. Form them into a news militia. The most interested segment of the public wants to get more involved. They are the opinion leaders who will can us more deeply into their communities — if we allow them to get a little bit closer to our hallowed editorial operations.

 How can the elite j-schools help in this evolution of a hybrid journalism? Because to paraphrase Vartan Gregorian, I think it will happen and journalists will have to deal with it.