Archive for September, 2007

Come to terms with the trouble we’re in

MarketWatch’s John Dvorak’s Sept. 22 column is a must-read. It’s harsh, but his assessment of the newspaper industry is dead on. These are snippets I particularly appreciate:

“As more newspapers make the mistake of eliminating reporting jobs, they fall into the pit of redundancy with nothing special to offer.”

“The only papers or news organizations that can expect to survive will be those with lots of original content available only at their individual sites. The operations that rely more on universally available news feeds will be at the mercy of a fickle public …”

“Once the Internet arrived, this model (of using more wire than original content) was dead, as the Net revealed that many newspapers weren’t actually contributing anything new or unique.”

“Now all papers are global, and they must complete globally whether they like it or not. This sort of competition can only result in shakeouts and consolidation. This process needs to go a lot faster before the bleeding worsens.

“More importantly, the publishing companies need to understand their dilemma. I don’t think they do. I’m not sure they can.”

Then there’s this recent comment from Seymour Hersh in the Jewish Journal:

“We are eventually — and I hate to tell this to the New York Times or the Washington Post — we are going to have online newspapers, and they are going to be spectacular. … We have a vibrant, new way of communicating in America. We haven’t come to terms with it.”

Well, many of us have come to terms with this massive and necessary transition from print to digital media — but we’re just not the folks who call the shots and control the money. Many journalists are working hard to innovate, but they’re working in newsrooms that are woefully hobbled by bad, broken or nonexistent technology and by bad business decisions.

Compounding this mess are journalists who simply can’t — or who are afraid — to think and act differently. They cling to their titles, which no longer even accurately reflect what the newsroom needs them to do. They cling to their very tired newsroom-management structures, which are no longer the wisest deployment of limited resources. They cling to what they know and lash out at innovation and change, which are, of course, often messy and uncertain. They refuse to believe their precious enclaves — and even their specific jobs — need to be restructured, reorganized and rebuilt.

But, hey, don’t take only my word for all of this. Drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to connect you to literally hundreds of journalists who have expressed these sentiments to me in the past year.

Michael Wolff, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, gets all of this and much, much more. Check out his wonderful October column, which is a potent look at how more news organizations — and newsrooms specifically — would benefit from adding software engineers to their staffs. Wolff’s brilliant is an outstanding example of what is possible when editorial and math types collaborate. I contacted him recently — and he graciously agreed to meet with me so that I can provide a more upclose look at Newser and his work there for the benefit of SPJ members. Be on the lookout for that profile, which we’ll post on

Free speech, Responsible journalism NOT synonymous

I have watched with great interest two controversies spinning in the last week out of college campuses. One is practically in my backyard — Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. — and the other is at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn.

Obviously, different publications, different students and different journalism are involved — but both conflicts illustrate why I firmly believe that free speech and responsible journalism are not synonymous. I’ll be explaining this very concept – and touching on the campus brouhahas – when I speak to students at the University of Wisconsin this week.

Please allow me to be clear. The First Amendment is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the rights it guarantees every American absolutely must be protected at all costs. Freedom of assembly. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of religion — and the practice thereof. Freedom to petition the government for the redress of grievances. I thank God that I live in a country where everyone has these rights.

The First Amendment creates what I often describe to journalism students as “one big, glorious mess that makes this nation great.” It flings open the doors to expression we cherish — and expression we abhor, find utterly revolting, consider completely nuts and/or often wish we could ship to other solar systems. We know – or at least we should – that the best way to combat repugnant or bad speech is with more speech, not less. We’re a very noisy bunch here in the United States — and we’re all better for it.

Then there’s responsible journalism — the fundamental tenets of which are outlined in SPJ’s ethics code. “Minimize harm,” the code states. “Show good taste.” “Show compassion …” “Be accountable.” Those are honorable and noble limitations that good journalists – responsible journalists – impose on their work every day.

In other words, just because you can say or write it doesn’t mean you should.

I wish someone had convinced student journalists in Connecticut and Colorado to rethink (as in not publish) the content that has created such a stir. The Connecticut student paper decided to roll with a comic strip that jokingly referred to a “14-year-old Latino girl locked up in a closet” who has been urinated on and, apparently, starved by her captor. The Colorado paper’s editorial board published a four-word editorial: “Taser this … F— BUSH.” (I’m not even willing to spell out the f-bomb in an SPJ blog – but know that the students did, along with a tagline stating that the column “represents the views of the Collegian’s editorial board.”)

Yup, we’ve got free speech on our hands here – the result of a constitutional right I fight long and hard to protect — but these are not examples of responsible journalism.

For what it’s worth, my stance on these matters is identical to the one I took when helping to draft SPJ’s statement about cartoons that mocked the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. Some SPJ members were aghast that the statement didn’t state something more along the lines of, “The journalists have the right to do what they did. Leave ‘em alone.”

I just pointed the critics to SPJ’s ethics code. Why bother to have the code, I asked, if SPJ truly stands only for free-speech and free-press rights – and not also the responsibilities that go with them?

What to do about the campus papers’ missteps? That’s always interesting – and I hope university administrators will act in ways that respect the First Amendment and foster great student journalism. I am very concerned about the newspapers’ oversight – particularly in Connecticut, where the student government is the publisher of that newspaper and has the power to dictate the process by which student editors are selected or elected (such managerial structures are just nuts – and smack more of North Korea than the United States). The Colorado State paper is editorially independent – although the university retains some control of the publication through a Board of Student Communications composed of students and faculty. That group has the power to fire the paper’s editor-in-chief. I have written extensively about problems associated with student-publication governance, management and administration.

While I’m thinking about it, this would be a great time for administrators at both universities to review and support SPJ’s Campus Media Statement Program.

Still laughing at FOX lawsuit …

The next time you need a video MP3 player to help wile away all those hours you anticipate being stuck in the car, on the train or in the airport, you must download “The First Amendment Project.”

This 2004 production from the Sundance documentary collection (and co-produced by Court TV) is priceless if for no other reason than the 20-minutes-or-so segment titled, “Fox vs. Franken.”

Some quick background: Fox network filed suit against Al Franken after network commentator Bill O’Reilly’s angry-looking mug appeared on the cover of Franken’s 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The network clearly didn’t have a lot on which to hang its legal hat: its lawyers actually argued that Franken’s use of the phrase “fair and balanced” infringed on the network’s copyright and was a delibrate attempt to mislead people into believing that Fox was responsible for the book.

Take a look at the book’s cover — and you be the judge.

Then watch a profound reminder of the beauty and importance of the First Amendment through one funny lens.

It is ethical to question the news business

Amen, Amy Gahran!

I, too, am sickened by layoffs of highly qualified journalists when it’s clear — crystal clear — that many news organizations actually could afford to boost their editorial ranks (and, in turn, deliver more great journalism) if only they had a better handle on technology.

Gahran is absolutely correct that many news companies are losing out on big bucks because they haven’t built — or bought — the systems that would allow them to make the most of online ad sales.

C’mon. How sluggish have these people been already? They watched — for years — as classified ad sales in their newspapers virtually disappeared (Craig’s List, anyone?), and they still haven’t mustered a decent comeback.

(Side note: I also have ranted this year about how newsroom leaders just about everywhere should wake up and understand how awful their news organization’s content-management tools are. One reason so many news orgs have less-than-inspiring Web sites is because they have cruddy, cruddy, cruddy tools with which to build and maintain them. It’s really not much of an exaggeration to write that you could build a more sophisticated news Web site using the tech you have in your house. Let’s just say that the sophomoric approach to Web site-building isn’t going to help even the nation’s oldest and most respected news organizations survive.)

And I just loved Gahran’s kicker: “Many, if not most, journalists are disinterested in or disdainful of the ad side of the business and so might wonder why I’ll be covering it. I figure a paycheck can help anyone be a better journalist. How’s that for relevance?”

You tell ’em, sister.

While I believe sponsorships and targeted ad sales can go too far, I also believe journalists need to study the business of our business and tech trends before they bash new approaches to ad placement. For some reason, people freak out about ads from a dry cleaner showing up online next to stories about clothing. Where were these same journalists when their newspaper released a special section — or even a regularly themed section (such as, oh, say, technology) — filled with ads that jived with the content? That has been going on for years …

If journalists truly want to fight for good journalism, the answer isn’t always going to be to write a better story or air a more compelling newscast. Sometimes, we’re going to have to speak up about the bad business decisions that are affecting our ability to perform an incredibly important public service. We take other companies to task for their missteps. We pick them apart for their failures. Perhaps it’s time for more of us to band together and start asking much tougher questions of the “business folks” who run the companies we work for.

Help push SPJ into exciting, new territory!

Video-conferencing technology isn’t new — but it’s new to SPJ. And wow, does it have the power to help this organization do amazing things.

On Sunday afternoon, I visited with SPJ members in Knoxville, Tenn. While sitting in my home. In Denver. I even got a chance to show off my 2-year-old daughter, Tatum Elizabeth, who insisted on saying, “Hi, Tennessee!”

A small camera built into my MacBook Pro laptop was trained on my face (very carefully trained because I didn’t want everyone to see my messy desk). I’ll spare you the technical talk and simply leave it at this: the folks in Knoxville and I could see and hear each other. They were watching me on a large screen in a computer lab, and I could see them on my trusty laptop.

For about a half hour, we discussed pretty much whatever was on everyone’s minds. A student asked about graduate school. A chapter leader asked about dues payments. An educator asked about the technology I think journalists should know more about.

It wasn’t earth-shattering conversation — but it was a thrilling moment in the history of this organization.

“You have helped open our eyes to some other opportunities involving this technology,” John Huotari, president of SPJ’s East Tennessee chapter wrote me in an e-mail today. “After the chat, a few of us talked about how we might use a similar setup to have a long-distance chat with another speaker or chapter.”

Aww, shucks. Music to my ears. Here’s a portion of what I wrote back:

“If you’d like to have an exchange with the top gun at The Denver Post, I could arrange that in a snap. If you want our graphics editor to deliver hands-on instruction concerning Flash or some other software, it shall be done …

“You see where I’m going with this.

“And just FYI: the new Mac operating system will be released in October. It’s called Leopard. One of the coolest features about it is the ability to make long-distance presentations. Sooooo, instead of seeing just my big head on that screen, I could, instead, beam you a PowerPoint-like presentation (in Mac, the presentation software is called Keynote). I could illustrate it with all of the bells and whistles — including video and audio — and “present” it to you on that big screen. You’d see the presentation AND me beamed to you from Denver. How cool is that?

“Obviously, I get excited about this stuff — and I’m delighted that you are, too. Please drop me a line anytime. I’ll hand over my SPJ tiara and sceptor in early October — but that’ll just free me up to work with you more directly if you’d like.”

That offer stands for every SPJ member who’d like to push a chapter, a committee, a group of leaders, a workshop — you name it — into exciting new directions. I’m happy to help you.


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