May Carnival of Journalism

I’m jumping the gun on putting up this post to serve as the center ring for the May Carnival of Journalism.

Earlier today, I asked the list of carnivalers to consider answering this question at the core of driving innovation at mainstream news organizations:

What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?

People ask me a version of this question nearly every day, overwhelmed by the barrage of demands made on them by people like me who roll through their newsrooms and ask them to put in more time on online news.

Think you have the answer? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

I’ll add links below to what the CofJ performers have to say, but here’s a starter link to get the ball rolling:

Matt King, a reporter and beatblogger at what I’d call a small-to-medium sized newspaper in New York, says the low hanging fruit of the police beat is actually a bit of an albatross, and that meeting stories should be the next item up against the wall when the revolution comes.

What do you think? What are we covering that we could turn over to the community? What are we wasting our time on?

Rob Curley moderated a panel at the conference I was at last week, and he said that he tries to only work on projects that “move the needle.” So what are you spending your time on today that isn’t moving the needle?

Modernize your newsroom today

Many employees at news organizations have a very easy time blaming out-of-date computers, front-end print publishing systems, and Web content management systems on such faceless, amorphous entities as “Corporate,” or perhaps “The Budget.”

Nevertheless, there are plenty of free or not-completely-expensive ways you can modernize your newsroom today.

Here are 5.

  1. Use Google Documents (or any one of many similar tools) to share notes and spreadsheets in your newsroom. This makes it far easier for you to move data between desks and access it from anywhere.
  2. Get every reporter and editor in your newsroom an IM account and ask them to stay on it throughout the day. If they’re in the office, this is how they should be sharing links to sources, documents, and references with each other. If they’re working from a laptop in the field, this is a dead simple way to stay in touch and keep each other updated on what they’re working on.
  3. Build an OPML file of local bloggers, news sources, and searches for your newspaper’s name. If your reporters and editors aren’t already using Google Reader, Bloglines, or another RSS reader, just import this file into a central Bloglines account and go around to all their computers bookmarking the “public” view of those feeds.
  4. Set up a Flickr account for your newsroom and make sure everyone knows how to upload to it. This is for more than just pictures that run in your paper or on your site, this is to post stuff from parties and conferences and events. Humanize your newsroom; make your readers feel like they can pick up the phone and call you.
  5. Get every reporter a cell phone or other mobile device with a built-in camera. OK, this one costs money, but if you’re serious about staying in business, you need to be able to publish the news as it happens, not hours or days later. A reporter with a cell phone camera can e-mail photos straight to the newsroom from the field, or when appropriate, straight to the Web. This can be an incremental investment. Buy two or three phones for reporters on cops, city, and general assignment beats at the start, then add more as necessary.

[This post is part of the January Carnival of Journalism, hosted graciously this month by Adrian Monck. Hit that link to see lots of great posts from the last two days.]

Your real competition

You *think* your competition is the guy at the TV station who always rip-and-reads your stories, or the reporter on your beat at the major metro from the big city 12 miles away, or that alt-weekly with the nasty cartoonist, don’t you?

Sorry, but that’s simply not the case.

Oh, sure, your ad reps and their ad reps might be calling the same local businesses and trying to squeeze a few more upsells out of them, and in that sense, yes, you’re competing with other local news organizations for advertising dollars.

But what are you doing to compete for the attention of your audience?

Your competition is the Web.

It’s Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and blogs and iTunes and IM and Ning and Digg and Delicious and e-mail and Flickr and Yelp and Amazon and now is not the time to wave them off as something someone other than your readers spends their time doing.

If you’ve said the words ‘Oh, well we’ve always done it that way’ in the last FIVE YEARS, you have a problem with addressing the question of who is competing with your organization.

If you’ve said the words ‘Oh, but that won’t work here’ in the last THREE YEARS, you definitely have a problem with addressing the pace of change in the news business.

Paul Conley says the time for training dinosaurs is over. I say it’s worth the effort, but the first step is helping them understand they have a problem.

Dave Cohn says the time for evangelizing for change is over. I say he’s right that it’s time to put up or shut up; my job is to do shepherd along journalists who are quick to pay lip service to the Web, pushing them through the next steps of actually changing the way they work, every day.

The smartest thing I’ve read in a long time

From Deborah Potter at Advancing the Story comes a short and sweet post about

“Print reporters and photographers were all told that they no longer worked for the paper, says Phil Lewis, editor and vice president of Daily News. They were all transferred to–which the company now sees as a kind of local wire service–and they file their stories first online. The newspaper staff is now 75 percent smaller, made up primarily of copy editors, designers and layout people.”

I’ll have some more of that, please.

Note that the blog is a companion piece to a J-School textbook. I’d like seconds of that, as well.

via Will Sullivan’s linkstream.

Remember when I asked you what I should learn next?

A refresher for those of you who weren’t taking notes: An informal poll on what I should learn next (March 10, 2007).

Apparently, that was six months ago. Yikes.

So after everyone weighed in, multimedia storytellers voting for Flash, programmers voting for programming, and executives voting for business-sense, more or less, I said I would learn Flash.

Right. I gave it another shot, I made the ball move across the screen, I checked out lots of great journalism presented in Flash packages, and I moved on.

It’s fun and all, don’t get me wrong, but it just doesn’t have the same return on time invested for me as other projects does. I enjoy making things move across the screen, but much more than that, I like knowing when to put a reporter, photographer, and a designer together to make things move across the screen.

Which brings me to what I’ve really been learning, every day on the job in a newsroom: Management.

No, not the suit-and-tie motivational poster sort of management, but the same sort of thing I’ve always done in groups of friends and colleagues: Put the right ideas and the right people together and the motivation will take care of itself.

And so, I’ve been learning by dealing with reporters, photographers, editors, managers, developers and designers every single day to get things done. A graduate-level class or an MBA or something of that sort would be nice, but really, there’s simply no time for that.

On the more practical, you-could-learn-this-too, side of things, I’ve continued to hack the heck out of WordPress code for a couple projects — one for work and one for school. With any luck, both will make it out into the open Web soon.

But working in WordPress is an awesome way to learn some bits of PHP and database logic without staring too long into the abyss of things like regular expressions. Plus, there’s the added sport of finding the hunks of code you’re looking for, monitoring what’s bubbling up in the active distributed community of developers and designers building on WordPress, and constantly tweaking functionality and design based on what you find.

And there’s nothing on this short list of things I’ve been learning that isn’t going to come in remarkably handy, quite soon.

I don’t care what journalists are reading; I care what they’re writing

Scott Karp and friends (and those are some pretty smart friends) are up to something interesting, but I sure as heck can’t tell what it is based on a rambling post at the new

It sounds like something that’s supposed to clean up all the doubling and overlapping of social networks the media blogger scene is enmeshed in at the current moment.

Whatever it is that Scott’s up to, while I was trying to figure it out, an idea popped into my head. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, because I feel like I heard this idea passed through the filter of something like New Assignment at some point:

I want to know what journalists are writing.

Right, right, I know, I can scan Google News and read the papers and all that, but what I mean is I want to see trends develop on a large scale across the country (and yes, world) by tracking what stories journalists are working on.

And then I want the people formerly known as the audience to have a space to vote for what they wish journalists were working on.

Picture it as a mashup of Twitter and Digg, where reporters are constantly answering the question “What are you working on?” in a broad way so as not to tip off their competition — or editors. 😉

For example, I might post something like “Organic certification” without much detail about who I was pulling FOIAs on and what hunches I had about what I would find.

The algorithm (which someone else would program, eh?) would find common terms in other journalists’ posts and move topics up the list on the homepage a la Digg based on the number of reporters working on a topic:

::::::23 journalists are working on stories about organic certification.::::::

With space for comments, folks to add links, reporters to talk to each other about past stories, non-reporters to add information, etc. Suddenly there’s a thread of conversation built up for everyone working on a given topic to play with.

On the other half of the homepage, everyone answers a question like “What’s missing from your news?” to basically request coverage on a certain topic or issue.

And yes, users vote topics up and down the page, add comments and links and conversation a la Digg.

Fact is, there are a million little aggregators out there for the news that already exists, to filter information and bring the good/important/weird/salient stuff to the surface.

I don’t need another filter — I need a sounding board and a request line.

If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll pursue this a little further down the line, or maybe you’ll just point me to the place where this already exists. Either way, I think it’s an idea worth chasing down — even if it were just internally at a newspaper company.

How would that be – a network of news organizations full of journalists that actually talk to each other! Ha!

Why shoot newspaper video?

Have I been over this ground before? Not sure. I think I’ve thrown around some adoption steps for newspaper video, and I’ve spouted all the necessary YMMV caveats for news organizations of varying resources.

But here’s the deal:

Not so far in the future, you’ll be sitting in a conference room trying to show a group of reporters how to use a point-and-shoot camera to shoot simple video. With any luck, you’ll even be training them to edit the video themselves. Best of luck.

What happens next, is that being good reporters, they have questions that cut a little deeper than “What does this button do?”

And the question they will ask, if they have any curiosity left in them, is the following one:


Why are we shooting video?

The short answer:

Because we can.

No, Virginia, it doesn’t matter that video isn’t terribly interactive, and I realize that to those used to opining on the state of the international media, what a paper like Bakersfield Californian does with video must seem like country bumpkin stuff.

Frankly, I don’t think the people who say video is the wrong track work in newsrooms. I don’t think they understand what the average paper with the average corporate parent has at its disposal as far as video resources go. (Read as: funding, gear, training.)

Here’s a missive from the camp I’ll call BiggerBetter, from Patrick Thornton, in a post about how not only is video not “new media,” but how we shouldn’t even be bothering with it if we’re not going to treat it with as much care and reverence as we treat the print edition:

“Doing video for new media, means taking the same standards you had for print and applying it to video. The video should look good, be edited well and be compelling. It should do something that a print story couldn’t.”

So there’s them, the BiggerBetters, who — best case scenario — would have everyone shooting HD and printing frame grabs, making big dramatic video packages with slick graphic logos dancing across them. For a small number of papers, this is an award-winning strategy that works, at places like the Washington Post and New York Times with the money and staff and travel budget to make documentary films halfway across the world. And it’s great journalism.

And in the other corner — the one I believe makes sense for pretty much any paper with a circulation under 100,000 or so, to pick a rough number out of the air — we have the FasterMores.

The FasterMores get that the ship is sinking, which makes it all the more difficult to turn around. It’s hard enough to get people to agree on a plan to adopt a new technology to reach readers in good times, much less when the layoffs come.

The FasterMores understand disruptive technology, and know that to succeed in Internet time, a news organization simply has to move faster than a printing press.

That means short video stories, in volume, shot by existing staff who are already at the scene of local news events.  Sometimes they’re called “reporters.”

Howard Owens casually posted some notes on a disruptive newspaper video strategy.

If you read that and still don’t understand why low-end online video serves most newspapers best, just think of how YouTube has disrupted network television business models.  Is it by emulating well-lit police dramas with great actors and impressive camera work?  Or is it by offering a multitude of choices for a fragmented audience?

So yeah, I’m with the FasterMores on this one.

The answer to “Why shoot newspaper video?” is clearly “Because we can.”

I’ll elaborate on that in comments and future posts, I’m sure.

So, are you a BiggerBetter or a FasterMore?  Choose one – “It’s a false dichotomy” is not an acceptable answer, unless you really want to spend more time in meetings debating it.

Find yourself a nice comfortable niche and sell it like blueberry pancakes

Did ya catch that headline? Don’t sell it like hotcakes, sell it like blueberry pancakes. Be specific.

Let’s put that another way:

Don’t be an international news service that decides it wants to appeal to the demographic of roughly 18-30.

Sell to a niche, not a demographic. Local moms are a niche; Women are a demographic.

Kansas Jayhawks fans are a niche; teenagers in Chicago are a demographic.

Many many bonus points if you can find the niche in your town full of people with no outlet, no forum, no place that gets them together to share their experiences:

Somewhere, I like to think, there is or will be a network comprising only those who can find it. And when I finally stumble in there, they’ll say, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

That’s Sheila Lennon, found by way of Steve Outing today.

Find the unserved niche in your town.

Here’s a hint: If your newspaper isn’t covering it, it’s unserved.

Find a way, any way, to cover breaking news

Howard Owens spent his Saturday migrating a small weekly newspaper site from one content management system to another.

On a Saturday? Why?

Because the town the paper covers was the one in Kansas that was almost completely destroyed by tornadoes.

It’s called Greensburg and the paper is the Kiowa County Signal.

Along with most of the town went the newspaper’s offices and all the login information for the existing web site, so reporters couldn’t have posted stories even if they had a CMS that allowed them to drop the newest bits on top, blog-style, without much effort.

So again, I’ve gotta ask, in an emergency like this, what’s your plan?

More important than the plan, of course, is the mindset that got Howard and his team to spend their Saturday making sure that the 1,500 residents of this town could get their local news from local sources.

So what’s your mindset in an emergency? Is it bureaucratic or is it agile? Thinking about a print cycle, or thinking about breaking news online?

Inspiration overload

It’s great that everyone in the online journalism/multimedia/interactivity/data layered network of posses (myself included) shares all the cool stuff they find via blogs and delicious and twitter and podcasts and vlogs and screencasts and tutorials and e-mail and phone calls and all, but wow do I need a break or what.

It is inspiration overload out there, folks, and for those of us still early on that adoption curve, it can be pretty overwhelming, as Daniel said, to look at the great work getting produced at places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Mercury News, PBS and out there in the wider Web, and think to ourselves, “When do I get to build something like that?”

For a lot of us, the answer is “Soon.” But a quick look at the credits of these projects finds big teams, whole departments devoted to graphics and squadrons of photographers shooting with HD cameras. As I’ve said before, different resources yield different results, and we all need to find the magic formula that works for the team we’re on.

The first step, as a co-worker put it yesterday, is to take one log and saw it all the way through. Then move on to the next log.

I’m working on one log in particular this week. I’ll let you know how it goes.