Should I Use Twitter Before My Story Is Posted?

Rebecca Putterman, reporter at The Clayton News Star, asked me yesterday whether tweeting bits of reporting as you go along might take away from a story’s potential readership or whet appetites?

The flat answer is that while I’ve heard anecdotes I do not know, but I’m looking for an excuse to conduct some rigorous research into that question. In the meanwhile, here’s how I would think about whether to tweet or not. As in all things, professional judgment is required:

  1. Is the information of immediate use to the audience, especially their safety? (Being useful is not the same as being immediately interesting, although that can also be something to consider.)
  2. Is the tweet a discrete and complete piece of information? Tweets don’t have to tell both sides of the story, but they must be able to stand on their own without further context or explanation. They must have the relevant “who, what, when, where,” but probably not all of those. They almost never have “how” or “why”. (Although that’s just a guess. Another topic that is worthy of research.) Completed actions are probably the most likely pieces of information to be discrete and complete. And assertions by prominent people — “Newt Gingrich just said…” , for example — can certainly be tweeted in some cases, but they require more careful consideration:
    • Avoid tweeting anonymous assertions.
    • Is the assertion from the source about himself or herself? Or is about another person, or something the source purports to have seen?
    • Is the assertion opinion or is it asserted as fact? Assertions of fact require special care.
    • If a fact, how quickly are you likely to be able to confirm to the information with another independent source? Or, if an assertion, how quickly do you expect the other side to respond?
    • How well do you know and trust the source? Have they been truthful in the past? Are they in a position to know?
    • If the assertion turns out to be false, how much damage will be done to the audience? (Your reputation is always damaged if you report incorrect information.)
  3. What is the competitive environment? If you don’t tweet it, is your audience likely to hear the news from a friend or another professional reporter or from the source directly? If you do tweet it, will it tip off competitors or sources and give them the chance to tell the story in an way that may be incomplete or inaccurate before you can get around to writing your own comprehensive article?

When journalists do tweet discrete facts before a full story is fleshed out, they can sometimes do it in ways that add context and whet appetites:

  • Add context — and raise readers’ awareness of missing context — by describing why the fact caught your eye, and what else you plan to report.
  • Invite questions about “tidbits.” Twitter is better if it is a conversation and not a lecture. Questions from readers via Twitter before an article is complete can help make your story more relevant.
  • If a topic has a particularly high level of reader engagement, post that you’ll be offline to write, edit and fact-check your complete story.
  • Tell your followers when and where they can get the complete story: “Film at 11.” (And, of course, deliver on every promise you make.)

Bracken’s right: Print IS the new vinyl

It might have been an offhand comment, but the idea that “print is the new vinyl” is a rich analogy. It was made last week by the Knight Foundation’s John Bracken speaking at the Asian American Journalists Association conference.

After getting pulled down for a bit in the undertow of Twitter, Bracken expanded on his comment.The last few graphs are the key point:

“Bands … have recognized that vinyl encourages exclusivity, maximizes design potential and creates a depth of involvement that 0s and 1s cannot.  Vinyl’s renaissance is not due to nostalgia — it’s due to the fact that musicians, labels and fans have built a creative and consumer experience based on what the format does well.

“I don’t want to beat this metaphor to death. Here’s the core of the comparison: as more and more of the content we consume is based on bits, the ability to engage with atom-based media will, for some, gain value.”

That’s an idea I’ve been thinking about since March when Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs of killing music. And it’s not uncommon to hear from music fans this same love for the tangible.

Based on a lot of time talking with people who prefer print to digital, the tangibility of it must be the top reason people prefer print.

The analogy is good because it not only deals with consumption habits, but also production.

Albums — in vinyl or CD —  are a product, a good, a widget. They are a complete package. Digital music is disaggregated. It’s becoming increasingly a social experience. I suspect that one day soon we’ll be paying more for the service of digital music storage and delivery than we do for the content itself. This is going to be the same for news. Maybe its always been the same for both news and music businesses.

In any case I do think that print is going to be primarily for “hipsters.” The presence of high quality print is going to become a social signal — “I’m considerate. I invest time and money into my collection of knowledge. I enjoy learning about the world around me, not because it helps me make or save money but because I enjoy being aware of the world. I’m not a news junkie; I’m a news connoisseur.”

Vinyl signals the same things. Both the person with 100 records and the person with 10,000 digital songs can legitimately say “I’m REALLY into music.” But they mean different things.


‘Fake’ MLK quote small hint at pernicious popularity of lies

Making its rounds on Twitter recently has been a “fake” quote attributed to Martin Luther King: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

Some people — most prominently Megan McArdle at The Atlantic — thought it just didn’t sound right.

The problem is that you can’t prove he didn’t say it. A couple of people have tried, and have come up with a good partial explanation. But disproving something you can’t see is nearly impossible. This is a great example of a problem often faced by reporters — a problem that’s becoming even more vexing with the development of social media.

Making its rounds on Twitter recently has been a “fake” quote attributed to Martin Luther King: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

Some people — most prominently Megan McArdle at The Atlantic — thought it just didn’t sound right.

The problem is that you can’t prove he didn’t say it. A couple of people have tried, and have come up with a good partial explanation. But disproving something you can’t see is nearly impossible. This is a great example of a problem often faced by reporters — a problem that’s becoming even more vexing with the development of social media. As it turns out, people say a lot of stuff that just isn’t true.

A quick Google search of the quote turns up more than 10,000 results — almost all from Twitter, Tumblr, Blogspot or WordPress posts written since the death of Osama bin Laden. But as I try to teach my journalism students, popularity does not equal accuracy. Ten bad sources aren’t as useful as one good source. Google says that some date as far back as Feb. 1, 2001, but that may be a default date on the Tumblr micro-blogging platform. In any case, date-based search on Google is useless for this effort. (Similar searches on Bing and Technorati were also not effective.)

My favorite explanation, by tech writer Frederic Lardinois, points most of the quote to King’s 1963 book Strength to Love. He found that the one-sentence quote used on Twitter could also be found as part of a longer quote on other social media sites. Most of that quote — but not the first sentence — is directly from Strength to Love. But that first sentence remains a black swan. I can’t prove that King didn’t say it. But I can’t prove that he did. And I can’t figure out where or when in the contemporary digital folklore that the quote originated.  As a recently popular book points out, just because you’ve never seen a black swan doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Europeans had only seen white swans. Until a black one showed up in Australia in 1697.

Taken as an isolated incident he harm from this misquote is pretty abstract. At worst it becomes George Washington’s cherry tree — a story that everyone hears, that has its accuracy questioned, but that cannot be disproved. It muddies our understanding of history and it contributes to a changing narrative that we tell about ourselves, our history and our heroes.

The problem in the era of social media is that these misquotes are rampant and pernicious. Fabricating the words of political nemeses has become an acceptable and common tactic. Check out the archive of fact-checking that has done on fake quotes attributed to a variety of political lightening rods from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton. There is a library of fake quotes and fake legislation that gets distributed via e-mail and social networks. They’re complete fiction. It’s bad enough that political leaders — from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton — make up stuff all the time and assert it as truth. But it’s as if we’ve suddenly corrupted the value of the First Amendment by acting as if the answer to bad speech is not less speech but more bad speech. Lies are no longer combated by the often difficult-to-ascertain truth, but by more easy-to-fabricate lies.

It’s possible that the person — and it was one person — who decided to “upgrade” the actual King quote with an additional line was unconsciously mashing up King with another speaker. There’s plenty of historical precedent for that practice. Or perhaps she just incorrectly remembered the real quote and didn’t look it up in the book before she posted it to her blog. That happens all the time. I swear my wife told me to get chicken at the store yesterday. She swears she wanted me to get fish.

This happens all the time, and double-checking things that we “know” is probably the hardest habit for my reporting students to acquire. Good reporters — like good scientists — don’t care so much about what you know as they do about how you know what you know. We want to see it. I teach my students that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” and I play for them a bit of Marvin Gaye — “believe half of what you see, some or none of what you hear.”

The real problem for our nation is the intentional lies that are spread — and spread in a very smart way that adds to the malice of the act. My favorite is the YouTube video that shows Obama talking about “my Muslim faith.” Here’s the clip…. and here’s the whole clip. The 12-second clip — both totally accurate and totally incomplete — has been viewed nearly a million times. The full clip has been seen nearly two million times. But how many looked for the second after watching the first?

With the advent of democratic media distribution anyone can report what they see and hear. But who will look at the world around them and wonder what is unseen? And who will take the time not just to doubt, but to check it out?

Knight News Challenge Proposal: Crowdsourcing Data to Bring OpenBlock to Rural America

At the top of my To Do List this week is the completion of one of the proposals I’ve submitted to the Knight News Challenge this year. I’m posting it here in the hope that you’ll have some feedback on whether/how a service like this would be technically feasible. editorially useful and financially viable. I’m especially interested in hearing from editors of small papers, public records experts, civic/community organizers and anyone who’s worked on the OpenBlock code.

Under what conditions would you volunteer to help a project like this in your community? News organization — how much would you pay for a service like this? What characteristics would it need to have to make it worth your money? What else do you see here that needs further clarification?

(And a big hat-tip here to Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Digital Media Economics here at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She got this project kicked off with a grant from the McCormick Foundation and who is my co-pilot on this application.)

Here’s our draft pitch:

Crowdsourcing Data to Bring OpenBlock to Rural America

This project would create a co-op to develop and deploy public records databases at news organizations, especially those serving communities of fewer than 75,000 people, preparing those records for presentation and integration in an OpenBlock format.

These rural news organizations are struggling to move to the digital age in part because their staffs are so small they don’t have the capacity to identify, digitize, re-aggregate and map all the various public records available at the state and local level into databases that can be accessed intelligently by both reporters and the reading public.

The project would tackle the lack of capacity at rural papers from two directions. It would create a centralized repository of state, county and city schemas and datafeeds that could be easily used in OpenBlock. This a job well-suited for a small group of experts. In addition, the project will create a statewide corps of amateur data-checkers and records requesters. Data quality assurance and data gathering are jobs well-suited for a crowd of many people, each working on a small piece of the puzzle.

These volunteer citizen-journalists would actually be member-owners of a co-op business. Each task they perform would earn them additional shares in the company’s annual profits. We would generate revenue by charging rural newspapers a fee. The more records and the better their accuracy, the more news organizations would sign on for the service.

In some cases, volunteers would pick up CDs of data from county offices. In others volunteers would scan and upload PDFs of hand-written police incident reports. In still other cases, people would key into a database the information on those PDFs. This job is so big that no single small news organization could do it. But with a corps of member-owners working together, we could create a model for gathering valuable public records from rural America. To individual communities, these records are necessary to foster an informed civic dialog and healthy economy. But in aggregate, these records may also be able to shed light on trends in rural America that would otherwise go unreported.

Improving Delivery of News and Information to Geographic Communities

In small towns and rural America, the local newspaper is more than just a source of information and an engine of commerce.  More importantly, it fosters and builds geographic community and sets the agenda for public policy debate.  This project will foster civic and community engagement — first, by forming a network of knowledgeable volunteer citizen-journalists, and also, by making public records readily available and organized to support decision-making and accountability at all levels of government.

Unmet Needs

In many cases, data that is readily available in GeoRSS or at least CSV format from big cities (such as this example from San Francisco) is simply not available even in print from rural governments. For example, journalism students at the University of North Carolina working last semester to gather and organize public records in two rural counties for an OpenBlock application met with a number of obstacles (which they describe in their blogs) – ranging from significant photocopying fees to inappropriate redactions and denial of access to public information.

Even when acquisition of public datasets is relatively simple – for example, public health restaurant inspections — someone must request that data from a specific county be exported in fielded data format. It is inefficient for each rural news organization to make separate requests for this data in each of North Carolina’s 100  counties. In these cases, our public records coop would outline an initial request for the data for each county.

What’s New?

Currently there is no tool or service that can efficiently gather, format and publish public records on rural news organizations’ sites. In part, this is a technology problem that may soon be overcome with the alpha rollout of OpenBlock later in 2011. But a much bigger piece of the problem is the data itself – neither OpenBlock nor any other technology has the ability to obtain public records as fielded digital data and create a newsworthy user interface for all the various types of records a news organization might need.

Without a project like this there is no indication that OpenBlock will be a viable option for papers in rural communities.

What Will Change?

By the end of the project, we will have

•          at least one member-owner in each county in North Carolina

•          at least 12 news organizations subscribing to the service

•          at least one type of schema for which we’ve collected data from each county

Most importantly, we will have raised public awareness of open government and we will start seeing rural counties and towns publish public data in standardized, machine-readable formats on the Web.

What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them?

How will you measure progress?

Do you see any risk in the development of your project?

How will people learn about what you are doing?

Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?

Journalism at Universities: Research Should Lead, a Journ.D. Would Raise the Ante

(This blog post is a belated act — an encore shall we say — in the Carnival of Journalism, organized by David Cohn. It’s a rushed draft. Please send me corrections in grammar, fact or logic.)

Leadership Will Come From Research

Fewer Journalists, Better Journalists, Higher Pay

Journalism Schools and We the Media

Why Have Journalism at Universities Anyway?

At least once a week I get an e-mail with an amazing offer for students – “write for my fledgling entertainment/product-review/sports/music/opinion Web site and be rewarded with fame, a clip and a variety of other compensation that don’t pay the rent.”

If you’ve sent me one of those emails recently, there’s a pretty good chance you’re still waiting for me to take advantage of the opportunity.

Maybe I’m missing out on the chance to make UNC the “hub of journalistic” activity in a changing news environment. After all, this recommendation from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of the Community is really an economic one – its goal is to reduce the cost of providing news and information. And one of the ways that news organizations have always reduced the cost of production is to rely on an apprenticeship system of unpaid college students. The benefit for the student has always been that “clip” – currency that can be later traded for a paying gig.

But with those paying gigs becoming fewer and farther between, this relationship between the classroom and newsroom is going to change. The only students left taking unpaid writing opportunities are those who do it for their own psychic gratification or who don’t get the changing economics of journalism.

If universities are going to be “a hub for journalistic activity” in a world where Demand Media and Associated Content have turned low-quality “news” writing into hourly shift work, we’re going to have to be part of this economic shift in a way that benefits our students, our faculty and the communities that those of us at public universities are paid to serve.

Leadership Will Come From Research

Universities can lead change not my managing it, but by informing it – by providing the road map of answers to complex questions.

Innovation is the buzzword that we all toss around when we talk about the risks that many media companies are unwilling to take. The theory goes something like this: universities can innovate because they don’t have to show a return on their investment. They don’t have to spend resources on product maintenance.

But innovation without a problem and a hypothesis is aimless. Universities don’t need to create new stories or better stories for a market in which there’s insufficient demand. They need to formulate precise questions with answers that will impact the free exchange of ideas and support communities’ information needs.

It’s not that universities aren’t conducting research in the fields of psychology, economics, management, political science, sociology, biology that are relevant to the information needs of communities. But it seems as if there’s a failure to connect that research to environments where it can be applied.

The failures come both from the newsroom and the classroom side. Newsroom leaders, as a broad generalization, are too myopic in the questions they think are significant to the futures. Driven by incredibly demanding and increasingly frequent editorial and financial deadlines, the requests they make of universities are narrow in scope and short in term. On the other hand, academic research tends to further theory rather than change newsroom behavior. The standards of academic research FAR exceed the standards of industry research. The statistical rigor, the theoretical grounding, the editorial process of academic journals and conferences favor slow, careful dialog. We need to find a way to get “half-baked” research into the hands of industry where it’s more important to take an educated guess today than to make air-tight reviews of missed opportunities.

If I had the time, I’d love to go through the last five years of published academic research on all fields of mediated communication and create a “So What?” guide that would identify places where the direction of research can lead newsroom decisions about story choice, story presentation, audience development and information efficacy. Maybe someone’s already done this, but I’m going to bet that fewer than 5 percent of all working journalists in the U.S. today could name a single academic journal related to their field. If I’m even close to being right, then this is a foundational disconnect for which both the newsroom and classroom bear responsibility and for which the price is a an industry and a public discourse that is less healthy than it could be.

And maybe industry – and government —  is already paying for academics’ time. But my guess is that the information industry invests far less in research and new product development than they spend on research in the health sciences. If universities are going to be the hub of journalistic activity then they are going to need to make research a spending priority and they are going to have to find businesses, governments and foundations willing to provide long-term financial commitments to it.

Universities aren’t going to lead the journalism industry by providing undergrads with new skills. They will only lead if they are providing a new roadmap founded in research. This is primarily the job of faculty in journalism, but also faculty in a broad range of fields with which academic journalists need to continue to seek collaboration. We can and should expose our undergrads – and certainly our grad students – to research. If we do that, then we’ll be churning out leaders who can get into newsrooms with an appreciation of research and understand how to manage its application.

Fewer Journalists, Better Journalists, Higher Pay

My UNC colleague Phil Meyer was right when he said back in 1991 we are “raising the ante on what it takes to be a journalist.”

Part of my emphasis during my four years on the faculty at UNC has been to find a way to “infuse online journalism” into courses that already exist in the curriculum. Lord knows I’ve tried and continue to do so. <plug>The most tangible evidence of my efforts is my new textbook Producing Online News.</plug>. But my problem has been this: the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication requires that at least 80 hours (out of a typical 120-hour four-year undergraduate career) be taken “outside of the unit.” Infusing new skills and concepts into journalism education is a zero-sum game. I can’t add new lessons without removing something. Or I have to find a VERY creative way of teaching the old and the new both at once.

I actually strongly support the goal of the ACEJMC requirement. Journalism students MUST have a broad understanding of the world. A broad liberal arts education ensures that a journalism degree doesn’t just mean that students have learned the trade of laying out pages in CSS or operating a camera or applying AP style. I tell my intro news writing students that a good definition of news is when the world doesn’t behave as you’d expect. And that means you have to be familiar with the natural, social and economic rules that determine how the world usually behaves. You don’t learn those rules in the J-school.

So rather than narrow the breadth of a journalism degree or reduce the importance of spelling and grammar, I’d like to see the ACEJMC introduce a new professional journalism degree that is neither an undergraduate nor a graduate degree program. The model for this would be the Pharm.D program that the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy created in 1990 for pharmacy students.

(For those of you heard me mention this idea at the ONA conference in October, I hope this further explanation helps with your well-founded suspicions that I might have finally gone off the deep end.)

Here’s how a “doctor of journalism”, or Journ.D., program would work. Students would take the standard 80 hours of “General College” requirements, half of which would need to be in communication-intensive courses (selections in departments such as communications, psychology, politics, literature, sociology, computer science, and – yes – even journalism). Introductory course from the journalism school – such as news writing, media law & ethics, design, photography, media history, and media criticism — might even be required

This requirement would be similar to requirements at the Pharm.D. program at UNC — 40 hours of general education and 45 hours of math and science course at the undergraduate level.

After completion of the general education requirements, students would take a test and be selectively admitted to the Journ.D. program. This program, again modeled on the Pharm.D. program, would require another 80-100 hours of classroom instruction in communication skills and subject-specific reporting techniques. It would also require nine to 12 months of supervised field work. From freshman year to graduation, the degree would take six years to complete.

The supervised field work supports the Knight Commission goal of creating a hub of journalistic activity and it has a model in the Pharm.D. program. Pharmacy students at UNC are sent to work with one of 500 “preceptors” – or professional mentors – at one of 275 sites around the state. Some students also choose – at greater expense to themselves – of working at national or international sites. While many of the students want, understandably, to work near Chapel Hill, the field work is done all over the state including urban and rural environments that desperately need health care professionals beyond those that the private market alone can support. Can these communities need any less the civic capital and personal decision making tools that high-quality journalism supplies? Are a community’s information needs any less important to just public policy and rural economic development? I know from working with small and medium sized newspapers, non-profits, public radio stations, and hyperlocal bloggers that there ain’t a one of them that couldn’t use more journalistic firepower. They do, after all, come seeking free undergraduate labor…

Precpts, for their part, may or may not get some salary from universities. But they certainly all get free labor and access to the university’s faculty expertise and research. In exchange, they develop a curriculum with learning goals and give the students a pass/fail grade. And that to me seems like a fair trade.

In some cases, universities provide pharmacy students with subsidized housing at their fieldwork sites. But in other cases, the students foot the bill.

And discussions about footing the bill is perhaps where the Pharm.D. model begins to show some flaws. From my cursory research as well as from anecdotes provided by friends in both fields, starting pharmacists in any market and at any level of experience make about twice what journalists make. Pharm.D. students are willing to invest in six years of tuition payments because their return is much better.

I think Phil Meyer was right – being a great journalist today takes a lot more than being a great journalist 15 years ago. The need for advanced training is clear. But the justification for students to invest in it is pretty weak. Until the demand for high quality journalism increases and/or the supply of high quality journalists decreases, we have a pretty weak argument for requiring students to spend more time and money breaking into the field.

Universities, through research, should play a role in increasing demand. If advertising, social pressure and public policy changes can get people to exercise, quit smoking, seek counseling, stop bullying, recycle, and eat local then those same tools can certainly be used to increase demand for public policy news and information – maybe not among everyone equally, but some.

Universities can also help throttle back the supply of journalists who are anything less than excellent. The market is doing a pretty good job on its own of reducing the ranks of experienced, expensive journalists. But we owe it to our young students that they are not just cheap production inputs that the industry needs today. Every journalist student must be equipped for long-term success and inoculated as best as we can against the next generation of young, cheap, inexperienced labor.

Many of our journalism students are incredibly idealistic and would work for not much more than food. But how are we rewarding and supporting their engagement in public life by chucking as many of them as possible as quickly as possible into a market that doesn’t value them?

Looking at the success of trade publications, Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg lead me to believe that high quality reporting that has a direct impact on its audience will always have a market.

We need to raise the ante on what it takes to be a journalism student.

Journalism Schools and We the Media

For at least 100 years, one of the biggest criticisms of journalism programs at universities is that they are anti-democratic. Who are you, pointed-headed professor, to tell us who is and who is not qualified to participate in public debate, to watchdog the government and to tell our own stories of the world the way we experience it?

And with the decreased barriers to publishing journalism, this criticism only gains traction. The distance between a non-partisan professional journalist, a professional advocacy journalist and an amateur journalist – once the audience – is smaller than ever.

More and more people are banging down the door of the MSM and the institutions that develop it. While raising the ante on what it takes to become a professional journalist, J-schools can also throw open their doors and take advantage of amateur interest to develop more and better journalistic activity and capacity in the communities we serve.

Journalism schools – perhaps staffed by some of those new Journ.D. students in their fifth or sixth years – should be running programs that teach technical – and that includes writing – skills as well as programs that advance the journalistic values of verification, precision, brevity, relevancy.

Amateur journalists, engaged in narrow and personally satisfying swaths of public life, are an important tool in filling the information needs of a community. These amateurs will report small datapoints that aren’t economically rational for a professional journalist to ferret out. Those datapoints, in the hands of professionals, can help illustrate trends and structures that might otherwise remain obscured or misunderstood.

Amateur journalists who appreciate journalistic values will also have a greater appreciation for professional journalism.

Journalism schools should be places that train and – hang with me on this one – accredit amateur journalists. I would never – NEVER – support any legal privilege that would make the First Amendment work better for one person than another. Accreditation of amateur – or professional — journalists is merely a way that can help the marketplace of ideas function more efficiently. The more accrediting bodies the better (up to, I suppose, a point of diminishing return). The market of individual choices can determine what the different accreditations actually mean. But at least give that blogger who completed nine continuing education credits in reporting, community management and communication law put a little JPG on her site. Degrees have value, and they differ from accreditation badges only in scope and scale.

Why Have Journalism at Universities Anyway?

I don’t know whether the Knight Commission intended this, but it seems to emphasize the role of community colleges as hubs of journalistic activity. Maybe I have my own insecurities about this, but I wonder if that’s not part of a broader trend in academia that historically, and I suspect increasingly, doesn’t value journalism schools, classes, departments as much as it values history, biology and mathematics. I think that many professors at research universities might see journalism as a trade more apropos for a community college.

Perhaps that’s because we in J-schools talk – a lot – about job placement of our undergrads. The students and faculty measure our own success in these terms probably as much as any other. But journalism belongs at universities not because we teach students how to be journalists, but because we teach students how to think journalistically.

Journalistic thinking approaches the world in a certain way. As I mentioned earlier, it values verification, curiosity, precision and brevity. And those values – perhaps sparing brevity – are the values of the academy. But journalistic thinking also values immediacy and proximity. A shorter way of saying it might be that it values impact. Curiosity leads to verification. That leads to answer that help people make personal and public decisions here and now.

Journalists, as the Knight Commission said, connect the university to the world. Journalists democratize intellectualism. Universities and higher education aren’t just a tool for economic development. Curiosity and verification and precise communication are tools for civic engagement – for social change as well as social stability.

For all our emphasis on changing communication technologies and changing economics of media, universities are a hub of journalistic activity when they yield curiosity, rigorous verification of fact and wisdom that has immediate impact.

Journalism is essentially applied or clinical social science. Universities should just be hubs of journalistic activity. Journalism programs should be hubs of universities.

Correction, 2/15/11: An earlier version of this article misnamed the professional mentors in a pharmacy program. They are called preceptors.

Breaking News Emails: An Under-Appreciated Art

I have a tumultuous relationship with breaking news e-mails. One day we have a strong relationship that I value. And the next thing I know they get all high-maintenance on me. Sheesh.

So today I unsubscribed from breaking news e-mail alerts from CNN and NPR. I kept the alert from the New York Times for two reasons:

  • because it does a better job than CNN of bothering me when I want to be bothered and leaving me alone when I want to be left alone. The Times’ news judgment is closer to my own than CNN’s news judgment.
  • because it is meatier than either the CNN or NPR alerts. All three tell me what happened. But only the NYTimes also tells me “So What?” without a click to its site. That’s especially great when I’m reading on my iPod touch and away from WiFi.
  • I perceived no difference in speed among the three providers. OK, so maybe one will beat the others sometimes by a few minutes. And unless it’s about an asteroid falling on my head, I just don’t care.
  • After thinning the herd on the national news, I planned to dump my alerts from either the News & Observer or WRAL. But when I went to do it, I just couldn’t choose. Looking over the past six months of alerts, their news judgment seems to be radically different. It’s almost as if one news organization will not send an alert if the other organization already has. So in order to get a complete range of local news alerts, I need both. But the downside to that arrangement is that probably 50 percent of the local alerts from either provider do I consider important enough to merit an interruption in my inbox.

    So now what strikes me is how little time I spend talking with students about “good” news judgment and writing style for e-mail alerts. And how difficult it is to teach a technique that seems to have no consistent application among professionals. This is the perfect example where we in the classroom need to document the editorial processes around writing and distributing breaking news alerts in various newsrooms. In each newsroom, what do the journalists say are the goals of the alerts? Is there internal or external agreement on those goals? And then we in the classroom need to develop quantitative research that can help the professionals know which news judgment and writing styles best meet those goals. And then we in the classroom need to develop experimental editorial products that do a better job meeting the goals — maybe change the way news judgment and style could be tailored to the needs of individual users based on their demographics, location or behavior.

    In the end, the common email alert seems to be a great example of a place where academics and industry could work together to build a better product and foster a more information society.

    Copyediting and Computer Code

    Every now and again I’ll find myself in a conversation with copyeditors about the future of their craft. One point I often bring up is that a big part of the job in online newsrooms needs to be overall QA of the site. And one of the most challenging workflows to support that is the copyediting of computer code. The example I always use to illustrate the point is the AP style on state abbreviations. If the Web developers define the abbreviation for California as “CA” instead of “Calif.” … well that’s something that should stick in the craw of every copyeditor until the code gets changed.

    And now I have an actual piece of code to illustrate the example. (This comes from the code that runs OpenBlock — the much awaited open-source version of Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock. This isn’t meant to pick on that community. They’re doing difficult and needed work. And this could happen anywhere… which makes it a good anecdote.)

    What’s the workflow in your newsroom for making sure that this gets changed to “Reporting Officers’ Names” before launch? Should the designers give editors a mock-up of all the static text elements (including words-as-graphics) on the page? Should the developers give editors printouts of all the tables that contain datafields that might get on the live site? Or do you just publish and come up with some sort of sampling scenario?

    How does it work in your newsroom? How should it?

    Ryan Thornburg is the author of the new online journalism textbook and newsroom manual, Producing Online News, available from

    Lessons From ONA ’10: What It Takes, Part 2

    Aggregation continued to be one of the online news community’s big buzzwords at the 2010 Online News Association conference last week. The idea behind aggregation is that individual news organizations can achieve comparative advantages and that the entire information economy can function more efficiently if the news organization links to reliable information from bloggers, sources and other news organizations rather than replicating the information with its own take.

    But aggregation isn’t free. You can either automate it, which might cost a newsroom $25,000 to $100,000 in up-front costs, plus constant tweaking of the algorithms and processes that gather, organize and automatically publish news stories from external sources. Or, you can put humans and their infinitely superior cognitive flexibility on the task.

    But what does that cost? Based on some estimates I’ve put together based on conversations at ONA:

    * It takes an average of 8 minutes for a news producer to read a blog post or news story, write a summary and categorize it by location and subject.
    * Based on a VERY limited sample that desperately needs further research, you can estimate pulling in one blog post per week for every 4,500 people in your market. (Please send me any data you have that would help me solidify this number.)

    In my home market of Raleigh-Durham, which has about 1.5 million people, aggregating local content might take about one full-time position and cost a news organization maybe $35,000 a year plus benefits.

    How does that match your experience with aggregation? What am I missing?

    Twitter Fundraising: Lessons I Learned

    One of the reasons I remain bullish on social media and the read/write web is my continued hope is that it will lead to an increasing diversity of voices as well as a renewed sense of personal ownership of the First Amendment. So when UNC’s celebration of First Amendment Day rolled around last week, it was a good opportunity for me to play around with Twitter’s capacity to raise money for fun and/or profit.

    Continue reading “Twitter Fundraising: Lessons I Learned”

    Convergence in the Classroom, Metamorphosis in the Newsroom

    Newsrooms still have people who specialize – some in news skills and some in old. But they also have folks who have a wider variety of skills and duties. Journalism schools have to give students the opportunity to prepare for both kinds of roles.

    “Convergence” has always been my least favorite word to use to talk about newsrooms. Yesterday’s AEJMC conference presentation by John Russial and Arthur Santana reminded me why.

    Oh, their presentation was very good. Russial’s research about newsroom technology and roles is always enlightening. But a blog post from Alfred Hermida (who, by the way, is the conference’s best tweeter @Hermida) picked up on the presentation’s use of the word “convergence” and made me realize how broad of a definition that word can have. Hermida’s headline was “AEJMC: Newsrooms slow to move toward convergence” and he goes on to report that “Russial concluded that job specialisation remained the dominant organizing principle, with editors prizing depth rather than breadth.”

    On Twitter, the unfortunate headline has been in circulation. I say it’s unfortunate because I think it misrepresents Russial’s presentation in a way that the rest of the blog post does not. My impression was that Russial’s research found that convergence IS happening in newsrooms, but that it is happening at the organizational level rather than at the individual level. He didn’t address whether convergence was happening at the story level.

    And if you had to read that last paragraph a few times, you know why I don’t like to use the word convergence.

    That said, I think Russial is right about the level at which convergence is happening. His findings are supported by the paper that Ying Du and I presented at the same session and they are supported, too, by an earlier unpublished study I did of online journalists in North Carolina.

    The North Carolina study found that, on average, online journalists say they have had nine different duties at least once in the last three months. More often than anything else, a respondent said he or she had five different duties. But it also found that not everyone is doing everything. There is specialization of “new media” skills.

    And in the paper we presented yesterday, online journalists said that the concept most important to their job was “multitasking”. (Journalism instructors however, ranked multitasking as seventh out of 10 concept. Leading to the challenging question: How do you teach multitasking?)

    I didn’t research this, but I suspect that photographers are also shooting video. Reporters are blogging. Designers are animating. Copyeditors are producing story packages in a CMS. It’s not convergence as much as it is metamorphosis. And we aren’t seeing caterpillars becoming ducks. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing caterpillars becoming butterflies.

    There are some roles in the newsroom that AREN’T converging. In the North Carolina survey, journalists who write original stories for the Web, edit text for content, and work with databases tend to perform very few other tasks.

    I don’t have enough data to support this, but I also suspect that role convergence is much more likely to take place at small news organizations while specialization (and diversity) of roles is more common at the largest news organizations. And because students tend to start at small organizations and later join large organizations, this distinction is important (if indeed true). Understanding it can help journalism educators better frame the choices they have when dealing with curriculum change.

    So, what does that mean for journalism education and curriculum change? I think a few things:

    • Every journalism student should have a basic introduction to a broad variety of skills – writing/editing, reporting, photography/design, computer programming/algorithmic thinking and law/ethics.
    • Journalism students should become proficient in a particular set of concepts and skills that we some define as being similar.
    • “New media” skills should be incorporated into core classes. That means squeezing audio-video information gathering into reporting and design classes. It means that every class should talk about using social media for gathering and distributing news. If there is a specific class in “social media” or “animated graphics” or even “magazine design” or “sports writing” they should be advanced courses that students take after getting a basic introduction to them in earlier classes.
    • The purpose of incorporating new skills and concepts into core classes comes at a cost of spending less time on the traditional skills that are still so valuable. That’s why further specialization is so important.
    • Journalism students should also have a broad education that introduces them to economics, art, history, science, politics and all the rest. And students should also specialize in a subject area. (Again, I suspect that as newspaper staffs shrink that the place where we’ll find the most convergence in beat assignments. At the same time, the brand disloyalty of the online news audience is promoting beat specialization and the development of new niche topical expertise.)
    • The purpose of the broad-based core curriculum – and the reason for including “new media” skills and concepts into those course is to give journalism students the vocabulary and news judgment they need to collaborate with specialists.
    • Finally, as Russial pointed out in his presentation, the adoption of newsroom technology has tended to follow a pattern. First, technology leads to automation. Journalists whose careers are built around their expertise in quickly and accurately performing a rote task and not around thinking creatively and critically will lose their jobs. But then, technology leads to specialization. As new tools become available not everyone can be equally skilled at each one.

    Dealing with the unresolved debate over convergence or specialization was one of the biggest challenges of writing my textbook. I dealt with it in a way that supports the solution I’ve begun to outline here: we need both. How’s that for convergence?