Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mary Nesbitt over at Northwestern's Readership Institute has a great column on the subject of making important news interesting. She mentions my book, which is nice, but she also talks at length about the research showing that news audiences want important civic news -- they just want it delivered in ways they see as relevant.

Mary points out that news decisionmakers need to start thinking more about the content they're delivering, and not just about the bottom line, if they want to keep their papers intact. These folks follow research like hound dogs, which unfortunately has led to a number of content problems as oversimplified research results have indicated that people don't flock to traditional institutionalized news. What the Readership Institute offers is research showing that while people don't want the same old stuff, they do want to know what's going on in the world and how they can be involved.

If we can get top newspaper people to recognize that their franchise is helping keep citizens informed and active, maybe we can redirect some resources toward meaningful news. And if it's done in the right way, that might turn out to be what audiences have wanted all along.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Newspaper editor Tom Honig was inspired by the book to ask readers to let him know what news that's important to them is missing from his paper in Santa Cruz, Calif. He gets that people are hungry for significant news, as long as they can see how it relates to them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And here's another example of editors' insulting news judgment toward Americans. The Nation points out that in its three internationally circulating covers (Europe, Asia and Latin America), Newsweek International promotes a story on the decaying conditions in Afghanistan. The U.S. edition's cover is a happy profile of celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz.

The headline on The Nation's commentary, "All the News Our Tiny Minds Can Manage," says it all.
My book is starting to become part of the conversation over what we should do with our journalism.

The Poynter Institutue's Roy Peter Clark, whom I quote extensively on matters of injecting creativity into news reporting, was kind enough to support the book in his blog discussing his own newest work, "Writing Tools."

To return the favor asymmetrically, I'll note that Clark's writing tools are among the most succinct, diverse and effective summaries of both original and time-honored writing principles in print today. I enjoyed reading them as they were rolled out over the course of a year at www.poynter.org, and their collection into a book was both welcome and inevitable.

I've also discovered the first academic discussion of my book on a blog hosted by Andrew Gruen, a student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, my alma mater. The post focuses on my chapter on online innovations, and the analysis is insightful and I learned something from it. I'm really looking forward to seeing and hearing others' reactions to, and interpretations of, my work -- especially things I'm not expecting or never considred when putting the book together.

Monday, September 25, 2006

OK, I'm back with this because the topic comes up again and again, and it's important to respond.

We've got a story about a potentially useful new lab at Arizona State University devoted to researching how people use media. Gannett is the first company to tap the lab's resources, which are going to go find out what college-aged people are up to.

Research is good. Knowing things is helpful. The Readership Institute in particular seems pretty good at coming up with actionable information about how audiences interact with the news media.

But news organizations are too quick to chase any old research down any old rabbit hole that takes them away from reporting the news, without studying what the research means or thinking about the consequences of their decisions.

The money quote in this story about the New Media Innovation Lab comes from Mike Coleman, The Arizona Republic's vice president for digital media.

"There is a lot of research saying that many people are not interested in getting local news, like you see in the (newspaper's) 'A' and 'B' sections, online. ... And the younger you are, the less interested you are.

"It seems we need to constantly look at redefining the definition of what news and information is."

Well, if "news and information" turn out to be primarily about garage bands and video games, as this story hints, then can we stop calling ourselves newspapers and just call ourselves fun and games?

It might be that companies need to pursue superficially evident audience interests to the ends of the earth to make more money than they do now, but it's silly to suggest that, after redefining news to exclude news, we're still in the journalism business. Redefine yourself if you want, but don't pretend you're fulfilling your First Amendment role as a news provider.

By the way, just because some research shows that people are boobs with no civic interest doesn't necessarily mean that they are. As I describe in my book, the Project for Excellence in Journalism did a study a few years ago testing the questions asked of TV news audiences. When asked a general question like, "How interested are you in news reports on issues and activities in local government and politics?", 34 percent said they were "very interested." That's not too encouraging, right? But look how little it takes to virtually double that number:

Instead of the generic question, ask: "How interested are you in reports on what government can do to improve the performance of local schools?" The "very interested" number jumped to 59 percent. For stories on government reducing health care costs, it was 64 percent; for the government preventing terrorism, 67 percent.

People do want to know about how government affects their lives and what they can do about it. The fact that they don't see government news as relevant NOW doesn't mean we stop should covering it. It means we need to start covering it RIGHT.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I'm not the only one who sees Afghanistan as a perfect example of how journalism can't just be about following surveys of what people say they "want" from their news reports.

In an interview for the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, Newsday Foreign Editor Roy Gutman talks about the news media's neglect of conflicts that appear unconnected to American lives, and how that neglect can rise up to bite us all in the behinds. He cites Afghanistan as a case in point. As that country festered in the '90s, most journalists, most politicians and almost all citizens paid scant attention. A few years later, we invaded after being blindsided by the terrorists harbored there.

The question for today's reporters and editors is: What's the next Afghanistan, and how do we get it on people's radar before it blows up in our faces?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A key purpose of my book, and the idea behind the title, is to shatter the false but oft-invoked dichotomy in news judgment between what's "important" and what's "interesting."

The latest example of this false dichotomy is displayed in a provocative and generally useful essay by design consultant Alan Jacobson called "How to sell more newspapers."

Jacobson's first premise is that, inherent in any newsperson's plan to redesign or innovate, is the intention to boost circulation, and that recognizing this will allow for more creative and realistic decisions. (The development of this premise leads to how readers much prefer crosswords and comics to news content, so stop being so smug, Joe Editor.) This is all useful rhetoric to the extent that it encourages holistic thinking toward the newspaper and reminds news folks to be humble as they pursue their goals, which include selling newspapers but -- and this is where Jacobson jumps the tracks -- are not SOLELY to sell newspapers.

If the single overriding goal of a newspaper were to sell itself, and public service journalism weren't an effective sales tool, the solution would be to run the jumble and Soduko all over the front page, with extended horoscopes and comics through the rest of the A-section. To do that, though, would be to kill the newspaper. The idea that any content and marketing decision is acceptable if it sells papers neglects the simple fact that a newspaper without news has ceased to be. Call the result whatever you want -- a shopper, a direct advertising tool -- but stop calling it a newspaper.

To preserve newspapers, then, we have to direct our innovations -- and Jacobson is correct that they must be bold, noticeable and sustained -- in the service of providing news and information the community finds valuable enough to pay for.

Here's where the false dichotomy comes in. In his section titled "Update the news paradigm," Jacobson says, "If anything, we're losing readers because we're too focused on what's important to the exclusion of news that matters to them."

This is an oft-repeated and readily accepted argument, but it leads me to wonder how its proponents are defining the word "important." Because, without participating in the literary ritual of reaching for a dictionary, I'd define "important" as "something that matters."

Jacobson goes on to contrast "importance" with "compelling, relevant and interesting" stories, which again implies some mutual exclusivity.

Here's the part that's easy to concede to Jacobson: The overwhelming majority of important newspaper stories are not compelling, relevant and interesting. But here's where I challenge the dichotomy: The overwhelming majority of important newspaper stories CAN and SHOULD be compelling, relevant and interesting.

Part of the problem in this debate is that detractors of "important" news use it as a synonym for traditional government process news emanating from institutions. This is the stuff that's loaded with proper names and large jargony terms and never seems to meet readers on their level. The news is IMPORTANT because what the president, and Congress, and the state legislature and City Hall do -- which includes taking the country to war, monitoring the safety of food and drugs, deciding how old you have to be to drink alcohol, telling you how much of your paycheck you can keep, dictating whether your kids go to nice bright schools or drafty old shacks, determining where you can skateboard, fixing bridges that are about to collapse and a few hundred thousand other things -- MATTERS to people. These decisions are of unquestionable day-to-day relevance, whether you're a policy wonk or a total civic recluse.

Journalists' job is not to pick "interesting" stories over "important" ones -- it's to use journalism to demonstrate why the important news IS interesting and relevant and compelling. As Jacobson points out, this often comes down to news judgment. The traditional process story might not be the most important story on the budget. And figuring out new ways to communicate important but incremental news -- through the update format or formatted graphics or whatever -- while devoting more time and energy to ferreting out the people and impact behind significant news stories, gives newspapers the flexibility to produce compelling content that fulfills their public service role.

So for a shot in the arm on what newspapers need to build audiences and sell newspapers, read Jacobson's piece. But don't buy the argument that selling papers means being less important. Be more important, more interestingly. Be so important that people feel like they can't miss a day.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which Editor & Publisher reports has 3,500 members who teach and study journalism and related subjects, made an important statement at its convention in San Francisco last week.

The association passed a resolution calling on the Bush administration to cut out its "anti-press policies and practices." Jay Rosen provides the text of the resolution here. Among other points, the resolution decries the administration's stonewalling in the face of information requests, its "massive reclassification of documents" that had been available to the public, and its use of the courts "to pressure journalists to give up their sources and to punish them for obtaining leaked information."

This public declaration, which resolution author David T.Z. Mindich of St. Michael's College says in E&P is "the first statement against general anti-press policies in an administration in at least 30 years," is a risky venture. The press is currently on the losing end of a public relations battle aiming, for political purposes, to discredit its members as liberal partisans who are out to sink this administration at any cost. (See the comments to Rosen's post for a couple of examples.) Journalism educators have a responsibility to produce journalists who are truth-seekers, not partisans or standard-bearers for narrow political ideologies, and therefore they hold a certain responsibility to remain, as a group, neutral in matters of partisan politics.

For discerning readers, this resolution succeeds in maintaining that political neutrality while affirming the values that journalists are obligated to uphold and defend. The preamble acknowledges that "The relationship between the presidency and the press has always been uneasy" and that "When each side conducts its duties with honesty and integrity, both hold the power of the other in check." And the language in the specific condemnations of press-related policy is neutral on questions of broader foreign and domestic decisionmaking, as in this observation: "While we do not take sides on the issue of whether 'enemy combatants' should be detained without charges by the United States government, we are troubled by the administration's failure to provide names and other vital information. When a democratically elected government holds people indefinitely without charges, it is the press's role to shine light on the practice so that citizens and their elected representatives can debate that policy and decide its merits."

In my book, in a section on writing with authority, I argue that news reporters and editors should not take political positions. They should favor no party, no tax policy, no position for or against subsidies or foreign conflicts or oil drilling or the minimum wage. While journalists may hold personal biases on these issues, they must subsume those biases in favor of reporting a full and fair story that gives differing opinions a fair shot.

But I also argue that there are natural, nonpartisan biases which journalists must hold and even promote for the good of our country. They are, most prominently, a bias toward honesty in public conduct, a bias toward openness in government affairs, and a bias toward the public's participation in democratic processes. In these realms, I believe, the journalist is not only entitled but is obligated to be an advocate.

That means exposing falsehoods promoted by Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. It means clamoring for access to government activities and documents. It means promoting robust debate among adherents of competing ideas and ensuring that the best possible truths are on the table for citizens to decide what's right.

By calling attention to, and condeming, administration policies that mislead the public, obscure the truth and erect barriers between citizens and their government, the AEJMC's resolution serves these ends.

It's not up to news journalists or journalism educators to lay out which paths our communities should follow or who should lead us on these paths. But it is up to us to help citizens understand the paths we ARE following and explore alternative paths we COULD follow, and it is our right and duty to challenge anyone who interferes with this responsibility.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Have we all lost our minds?

A guy who was named the best sports broadcaster in North Carolina a few years ago lost his job after a technical snafu resulted in the airing of an outtake during which he uttered the dreaded s-word. Eleven years as the station's sports director, and that's it for him, getting caught saying a word probably 99 percent of people over age 10 have used at least once in their lives.

This comes amid news that PBS stations have taken to pixellating the mouths of certain documentary subjects who use words that might offend the ears of FCC regulators who are threatening fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single slip -- fines that could bankrupt small PBS stations.

With all the obscene things going on in the world right now -- and do I really have to go into detail about Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Guantanamo, domestic and global poverty, etc., to make the point? -- and with the widespread availablility of any kind of offensive words and images you might crave, this witch-hunt against every instance of a banal scatalogical reference hitting the airwaves strikes me as insane. It's endemic of our utter failure as a people to prioritize our moral outrages.

Meanwhile, bloody images of murder, rape, incest -- all the worst things you can imagine -- pour out over the major networks during prime time police shows each night, without so much as an apparent second look from the government, as long as nobody says the word "shit." This imagery is rampant and apparently widely accepted as less harmful than a glimpse of a woman's breast, as long as it's fictional and not, say, bloody images from the actual killings and maimings that are taking place in our real, live wars.

Somebody needs to push the reset button on our national sense of right and wrong, so we can get a grip on reality and focus our energies on the most significant, most dangerous challenges we face instead of destroying careers over a single slip of a syllable.

Friday, July 28, 2006

American Journalism Review has an important story about how the U.S. news media aren't paying nearly enough attention to the escalating war in Afghanistan, the country that launched our war on terror because it's where Osama bin Laden lived.

An international coalition led by the United States invaded Afghanistan with great fanfare, deposed the ruthless Taliban regime and helped establish a new elected government along with international pledges to fortify the state and build up its infrastructure. For years the U.S. government touted Afghanistan as a poster child for purging terrorists and building democracies.

But neglect and diverted attention have helped lead to a Taliban resurgence, escalating violence, minimal central government control of provinces and an economy largely dependent on the illegal drug trade. In other words, Afghanistan is at risk of returning to the state it was in before the world intervened -- the last time nobody was paying attention to it.

Afghanistan is the best modern example of how dangerous it is to overlook what appears to be an isolated catastrophe -- in my book I quote from an editor's column discussing how "Afghanistanism" used to describe editors' predilection for arcane news nobody cared about. But maybe if the news media had turned America's attention to Afghanistan sooner, Sept. 11 could have been prevented, or at least come as less of a shock.

The idea that journalists have largely turned away from this story again is a sad commentary on our short attention span. It's on us to do better.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

So Jay Rosen's got an idea for helping frustrated citizens set the news agenda. He proposes a nonprofit news site that accepts story "assignments" from users who want questions answered that they can't get from traditional news organizations. In a blend of the bubbling citizen journalist concept and old-school newsgathering, Rosen wants these ideas developed by professional editors, who would then seek both the right correspondent to complete the story and the donors to support its completion.

The proposal aims to solve the challenge of getting important stories covered by independent journalists as traditional newsrooms succumb to corporate pressures and rampant cost cutting. Under this model, if enough people want a story reported and are willing to back their curiousity with cash, it'll get done.

This supports the notion that the people will ultimately determine the fate of our country, either by taking control of it or handing it off. By our action or inaction, we get not only the government we deserve, but the journalism we deserve.

Monday, July 24, 2006

If you've found this blog, maybe you're a little like me -- a journalist or avid news consumer who pays close attention to important events because you believe that, as citizens, we have an obligation to stay informed so we can work to make things better. You wonder how, in a world of instantly available access to nearly all realms of human knowledge, so few people can know or care about what's going on. And you're involved, or would like to get involved, in efforts to rouse the public's interest in public affairs.

Since 2002, I've been a journalism instructor and student newspaper adviser at Michigan State University. For the eight years before that, I was a reporter and editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. In all my journalism work dating back to high school, I've wrestled with this idea of how to get people focused on news that matters. Early on (before the Internet and in the early days of cable news), I thought that straight, dispassionate reporting would make its way through the clutter and into people's consciousness. But over nearly two decades, it's become clear that journalists must work harder to make important news engaging, relevant, accessible -- and ideally, irresistable -- if it's to compete with the manifold distractions of daily life.

In a few weeks, Marion Street Press will publish my book, "Making Important News Interesting: Reporting Public Affairs in the 21st Century." The book aims to help journalism students and professionals accomplish this weighty task through powerful storytelling and application of a few key principles -- the most important of which are to show citizens that they control their destiny through our democratic institutions, to help establish a set of agreed-upon facts as a baseline for public problem-solving, and to make it easier for people to act on what they learn in the news. The fundamental point of the book is that while journalists must remain fair, honest, accurate and clear, they should employ every innovation and any tools necessary to get across important news. This blog is an effort to continue the conversation I begin in my book about how to pull this off.

Today's inaugural post was inspired by a Poynter Online piece by Doug McGill, whose insights into international reporting helped inform my chapter on covering world news. In this piece, McGill argues that all news organizations, even small local outlets, have an obligation to explain international events to their audiences, and he shows how the best way to do it is by getting as personal as possible. His example today is of how a blogger in Lebanon engaged him in the current Middle East crisis in a way no news reporting was able to do. The woman told her story, and McGill got interested.