Thursday, December 06, 2007

The problem with 'hyperlocal'

I wrote a column for the Committee of Concerned Journalists last week, discussing how being TOO local of a news organization means missing a great deal of national, world and state news with a direct impact on your audience.

Local is the franchise of small and mid-sized newspapers, but it's a bad idea to assume your readers are getting the bigger news they need elsewhere. The best local journalism explains how all the world's events affect and change local communities, and how those communities can have an impact on the wider world.

Local is vital, but context is king.

See the column here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The dangers of mythbusting

I need to address some new research reported recently in The Washington Post that warns truth-tellers to be careful in the way they attack myths and false conventional wisdom.

In my book I make a big point of the importance of repeatedly correcting public misperceptions, because merely reporting the truth once and moving on is not a powerful enough weapon against misinformation. But a recent study seems to show that busting myths in the wrong way can do as much to perpetuate them as to dispel them.

The basic finding is that once an idea has entered people's heads, repeated exposure to the idea tends to reinforce its original message, regardless of whether new information contradicts that message. So even though people are repeatedly reminded that Saddam Hussein wasn't involved in planning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a pretty steady 40 percent continue to believe it.

The research, which wasn't specifically about terrorism, "highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea is implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge," the Post story says. "Denials inherently require repeating bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it."

Citing another study, the story concludes that, rather than denying falsehoods, "it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth."

The Post does some great regular reporting on how the brain's inherent tendencies affect our response to politics, news and information. Lots of stuff we intuitively think is constructive or obvious can turn out otherwise, because of the way we're wired. This latest story is a warning that, in pursuit of making sure people know the truth, we have to be very careful not to reinforce fallacies.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Holding people accountable

A couple of things from this past week demonstrate an increasing commitment by journalists to making sure audiences get the truth from news reports -- not just unchallenged speculation and spin.

On Friday, Matthew Felling blogged for CBS News' PublicEye about "Pop Up Politics," in which he proposed covering debates with VH-1-style "pop-up" boxes that emerge onscreen as candidates ramble through their talking points. The pop-ups would provide background and biographical information on the candidates, explain their positions on issues and, ideally, point up contradictions between their present and past statements in real time.

Felling seemed to be half joking in his post, but this is a terrific idea. Not only would it help bring televised debates into the 21st century, it would be engaging, informative and help keep the candidates honest. Major style points to the first network (does it have to be Comedy Central?) that tries it.

Then yesterday Romenesko posted a lengthy internal memo from AP writer Ron Fournier about writing with authority. The memo is posted under Miscellaneous Items -- I'm not sure if this is a permanent link or if a search would be required.

This memo is a great litany of tools reporters can use to make sure they are acting as journalists and not just stenographers of official statements, including:

-- Following up on process stories by checking in six months or a year later to see how proposals and promises fared in reality

-- Actively and unapologetically exposing intentional lies and misstatements by officials

-- Working sources to get more insight into what's really happening behind the scenes

-- Writing what reporters know to be true based on verifiable observations rather than relying solely on the official word. Fournier uses coverage of Hurricane Katrina as an example.

If AP adopts these ideas as standard practice, the ubiquitous news organization could help revolutionize the way officials are covered, to the disadvantage of the disingenuous and in great service to the public.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Do newspapers deserve to live? (Part II)

Yes, if they maintain the gumption and independence the San Antonio Express-News demonstrates in its coverage of a recent Al Gore speech to an architects group.

The speech, to an audience of thousands, was supposed to be closed to the media -- but the newspaper sent a reporter in under his own name without declaring himself as a journalist. We can discuss the ethics of this practice, but I'm persuaded by the argument of Express News public editor Bob Richter, who explains the paper's decision in his column.

The point is, here we have a newspaper that recognizes its role in the community and its duty to the public -- which is to share information that citizens have an interest in, even if that means annoying powerful people. The last paragraph of the news story sums it up: " On the request of Gore's media handlers, Saturday's event was closed to the media. Because of the importance of the issue and Gore's status, the San Antonio Express-News chose to cover it anyway."

This paper knows who it's working for.

Thanks, as is often the case, to Romenesko, for spotlighting these stories.

Do newspapers deserve to live?

Not at the rate they're going. Here's nationally syndicated columnist James Lileks, a sharp and witty writer with an audience that seeks him out, explaining that his bosses at the newly commoditized Minneapolis Star Tribune are killing his column and moving him to a local straight news beat. In other words, rather than trumpeting its unique voices, the paper is stamping them out. It's being bland on purpose.

This is so ridiculous that it feels like it might be one of those hoaxes perpretrated to get people like me all riled up, only to end up with egg on our faces because we didn't bother to check it out before we started commenting about it. If that's the case, congratulations to the joker who pulled it off. Unfortunately, the news business has reached the point where, as blatantly stupid, short-sighted and mean-spirited as this move is, it's entirely believable.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Here's how to do it

Right off the subject of the last post is a Readership Institute column describing research into people's openness toward serious news, if it's reported and presented in the right way. The column cites the reporting of Doug McGill, who's linked on the rail of this blog and has pioneered the concept of doing global reporting from local communities. And it makes this excellent point about how to approach world news in a meaningful way:

There is no research I know of that says that people want to read about genocide. What research I see - especially as it relates to young people college and much younger - suggests they want to know about the lives of their neighbors. They ask such questions as, Why did they leave their country? How did they get here? What is it like for them to start over? In a way this explains their current world to them.

In the United States today, there are more than 10 million young people between the ages of 5 and 17 who were born in another country. That is 1 out of every 5 children K through 12 was not born in the United States. They are the friends and neighbors of our children. North American children are living in the most global society. It is natural for them to be interested in other places.

This is the essence of my chapter on reporting world news. People need to know what's going on in other countries; but they need to see it in a context that makes sense to them. The answer is not to cover the world less, but to cover it well.

But where's the news?

One major phenomenon in traditional media's desperate struggle to maintain audiences is the free or cheap tabloid aimed at the 18-34 age group, often published by a daily newspaper that seems unable to reach those people on its own merits.

The latest of these efforts is apparently underway at the San Antonio Express-News, and its characteristics are similar to other publications targeting this age group: Most notably, it intends to cover everything but news. A memo published in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies describes a content "focus on music, the Web, film, gaming, pop culture and trends in general, the arts, local nightlife and outdoor recreation."

Leaving aside whether the Express-News ought to be covering those topics satisfactorily in its daily paper (it should), we should wonder why so many publications for people under 40 reflexively recoil from the idea that this audience could handle serious subjects. Yes, there are studies showing that this generation of young people is less interested in news than any preceding generation, but news bean counters always seem to place the blame for this with the people, instead of the news.

What if, instead of assuming that young people avoid the news because they're dumb and apathetic, we assume they're uninterested in news coverage because it seems to ignore them, talk above them, dwell on political style over issue-oriented substance, and foster a sense of helplessness by refusing to demonstrate the vital role regular citizens play in the democratic process? What if, instead of targeting young people with pandering escapism, we tried harder to engage them in important matters that affect their lives every day?

Those what-ifs are hard to answer, because nobody's trying it. My guess is that if we showed younger people their stake in the news through compelling, meaningful coverage that addressed them as citizens instead of commodities, we could start building some credibility and maybe an audience. It's not just a guess, either: The Readership Institute has done research showing that young people appreciate news coverage that makes them feel smarter and looks out for their civic interests.

What news decisionmakers have to get their heads around is that, just because research shows people don't like the news they get, it doesn't mean they don't like the news they COULD get. Let's, for a minute, stop assuming that apathy is about them and consider that it might be about us.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Highlighting good journalism

Here's something I should have known about before but didn't: It's a blog by a Northwestern journalism professor who trolls daily for really good journalism -- stories that are groundbreaking, innovative, watchdog oriented or particularly well told. It's called Jon Marshall's News Gems, and it's worth a regular look.

Marshall provides reliable evidence that good, important journalism persists to this day, in spite of every hurdle news organizations face and the remarkable hostility journalists face from nearly all segments of society.

And, while we're talking about good news, Reuters reports today on some empirical evidence that spending money on your newsroom is a way to make money in the news business. This ought to be a no-brainer, but of course media bean counters have been betting on the opposite premise for well over a decade -- cost cutting themselves right out of business.

The new evidence comes from a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia, a top-flight J-School. I suppose you could argue that the study's authors have a vested interest in these results, since bigger newsrooms means more jobs means better placement for journalism school graduates. But the spokesperson for this study, Esther Thorson, associate dean for graduate studies at Missouri's J-school, is an advertising professor, touting results indicating that newsroom spending is more lucrative than spending on any other department in the news business.

If we're lucky, the bigwigs with the fancy suits will pay heed to this study and stop gutting newsrooms so we can get more of the good work highlighted by Jon Marshall. Unfortunately, the momentum to bleed news organizations to death might be too powerful to overcome at this point. Time will tell.

UPDATE: Here's an interview with Thorson from the public radio business program "Marketplace," which gets a big shout-out in my book for its smart and creative journalism.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Poynter's Romenesko pointed to an intriguing story in Talking Biz News yesterday about a couple of Gannett papers merging their business and metro desks into one big reporting squad.

It's easy enough to interpret these moves as cynical cost-cutting efforts packaged as improved public service, but the irony of this particular development is that it could make the papers better.

The comments with the story do a good job capturing the range of good and bad that could result, with the bad leaning toward a dissolution of the business staff and the diversion of economic expertise into a schedule of night cops shifts. And, with the way things are going, this is an unfortunate likelihood.

But my first reaction to this move was more like commenter Tim, who posits that uniting the news and business staffs under one editorial roof could result in more holistic reporting. As people like Tom Friedman have asserted at length, the manifold forces affecting our lives no longer can be viewed in isolation from one another. Globalization, the Internet, increasing public-private partnerships and a much larger chunk of the population invested in the stock market through 401(k)s and similar investments means that segregating "news" and "business news" paints a false picture of the way the world works.

Governments, corporations and citizens are mixed up in so many ways that it's foolish trying to extricate one from the other. The State of Michigan's now-chronic budget crisis is largely attributable to declining tax revenues resulting from the shrinking American auto industry, and the impact extends to higher unemployment, rising college costs and fewer resources for public school children. Michigan State University is now partnering with the state to develop a number of economic development incubators aiming to solve these public and private problems in tandem. The Wal-Mart a few miles from my office is suing a local township that has voted against its expansion plans. Coporations are lobbying the government to address our national health-care and environmental crises, because boards of directors are beginning to feel the sting of short-sighted political policies.

The less that newspeople view these stories through separate lenses, and the more they pay attention to the relationships among public, private and personal, the more creative and meaningful reporting they can provide. Having news and business reporters working under one editor might well create more problems than it solves, but here's a case where the idea of synergy, if approached properly, can bear some sweet fruit.
A Michigan State University journalism student, and one of my advisees at the student paper here, Josh Jarman, has started a blog as part of a digital reporting class. He calls it "Michigan Student Journalist," and it provides information and ideas for student journalists to chew on as they prepare for their careers.

I was invited to speak to the digital reporting class earlier this month, and Josh went through the trouble of audiotaping the talk and editing it into several intelligible podcasts. So here's some commentary on the state of journalism today, and its potential future.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A major shortcoming of this blog is a dearth of regular examples of the kind of illuminating and meaningful journalism I preach in my book. Paul McLeary at found such an example in the New York Times this week.

The story is from reporters embedded with an American unit in Iraq trying to patrol a Baghdad neighborhood in partnership with the Iraqi Army. And as McLeary points out, the story is written with the authority that could only come from someone who was there on the ground. The story makes observations and judgments that border on opinion, but these observations aren't policy opinions -- they're reactions to what the reporters witnessed and experienced on the scene. And they shed a bright light on the obstacles American troops face in trying to bring order to Iraq, especially in conjunction with the Iraqi troops we're supposed to turn the country over to some day.

The comments under McLeary's post are instructive, because they reveal the vitriol reserved for honest reporting, and the way even a story that is clearly sympathetic to American forces gets twisted by critics into an ultra-liberal screed because it reveals facts that conflict with official statements.

Where this fits with my book is the idea that, for most reasonable people, blunt and vivid storytelling from reporters with the resources and courage to be where the news is can truly engage and enlighten audiences -- helping them understand the complexities of a world that is typically packaged in simple terms and swallowed with little reflection. You can't read this Times piece and not think deeply about what it means for U.S. policy -- whatever your policy preferences happen to be. Good journalism introduces new information that makes people question what they know, or think they know.

More authoritative journalism, more often -- from City Hall as well as from Baghdad -- would make us all more thoughtful people.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

For a continuing conversation between me and new media advocate/guru Howard Owens, a commenter on the last post, check out his blog.

Monday, January 15, 2007

News today that another young project touted in my book is on the ropes. This one is, a series of "hyperlocal" Web sites that's attempting to build a business model off citizen contributors in smaller communities.

The lack of sufficient audience to sustain revenue here, and the management shakeup, are all part of the sorting out process of creating new models for journalism on the Web. But the problems many of these startups are having should be a reality check for those offering utopian models of a world of journalism without journalists, or those who are a bit too eager to write off all forms of traditional journalism in favor of the brave new world.

That new world is coming, and it certainly won't resemble the ink-smudged hegemony newspapers enjoyed for much of the 20th century. But people are also making predictions and assumptions about what modern news audiences need and desire that have yet to come true. Universal access and the ability for every person to write their own stories might be cool and useful, but demand for people to help package and organize the world -- that is, editors -- hasn't abated. A consultant quoted in the above-linked story about Backfence is paraphrased saying, "Community news sites have to invest in the quality of the content before advertisers will take notice."

In other words, it's not just the medium; It's still the message. Excitement about the Internet and multimedia delivery methods isn't enough; we have to produce content that's worth consuming.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I canceled my subscription to my local newspaper today.

It was a wrenching, if largely symbolic, decision. I've earned my livelihood from newspapers for more than a decade, and I've worked for one newspaper or another almost constantly for 20 years dating back to high school. I believe, at least in theory, that newspapers hold the key to enlightening our society and shoring up our democratic system. I have, through my 5-year-old daughter, the opportunity to pass on the daily habit of going out for the paper each morning and reading the news over breakfast -- a habit I've faithfully exhibited since well before her birth. If anyone has both a moral and civic obligation to support the newspaper industry, it's me.

But, as I've explained in earlier posts, newspapers can make a series of decisions through which they cease to become NEWSpapers and morph into something else, something less. When this happens, maintaining a subscription doesn't support the newspaper industry any longer -- it enables the abdication of standards and responsibilities that current news executives seem to think they can get away with forever.

My newspaper crossed the line -- my line -- with the introduction of supermaket ads tucked into the corner of the nameplate. The nameplate! It's the top of the front page: the newspaper's name, and then today's produce deals. This follows years of unobtrusive but still troublesome strip ads at the bottom of Page One, and irrepressibly annoying "stickie note" ads that get plastered right over top of the news of the day. I've engaged in more than one debate over the impact these ads have on readers, and after years of arguing about it, I'm voting with my feet.

But the ads are just part of it. Over five years I've watched this newspaper deteriorate from a solid local paper that devoted ample resources to local news coverage and, importantly, enterprise reporting, to one that might catch a city council meeting every three weeks or so and visit the school board once a month. Basic news coverage is spotty, and enterprise is virtually nonexistent. The newshole has shrunk to almost nothing. One of my journalism professors introduced me to the edict that the morning paper has to "tell me something I don't already know," and those instances are increasingly rare in this newspaper. As another final straw, the paper went four or five straight days between Christmas and New Year's Day without a single locally generated editorial -- even on the Sunday that marked the last day of 2006. This is a fundamental dereliction of duty.

I don't blame the current rank and file staff, who seem pretty good and committed. They used to have the time and space, and colleagues, to produce innovative and thoughtful journalism now and then. I cite the paper several times in my book for creative work, which has never been the norm but at least showed up occasionally. This paper now is so gutted and stripped, and its priorities are so out of whack, that good journalism can only occur as an afterthought. And I feel sorry for the good journalists who'd like to do more, and better, but can't.

I've held on to my subscription long past the point of losing respect for the paper, because of the obligation I feel to the newspaper industry. I certainly don't want to hasten its demise; I've devoted the last several years to preserving it. But the death spiral of newspapers' terrible decisionmaking in response to readership trends is now pushing even the most loyal readers, like me, off the cliff. Continuing to subscribe would send the message that these decisions and priorities are OK, and they're not.

I oppose killing newspapers, but I'm not going to linger while they commit suicide.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year.

Let's start it off right with a link to a great essay by Doug McGill, recently appointed executive director of the World Press Institute, on the power of language and journalists' relationship with their audiences.

It's a little heady, but provacative and important.