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.