Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is international reporting dead?

"People don't need international news to survive."

It was a comment made in passing during a discussion in our journalism issues class this afternoon. Our guest speaker, Tracy Schmidt, was explaining why international news was not a topic for any of the blogs in her new hyper-local blog website, which is sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. She was taking a pragmatic business approach, making the point that, from a business standpoint, it didn't make sense to include content that people wouldn't end up reading.

But our class, which includes students from Costa Rica, Iraq, China and Jamaica, had a very negative response to the statement. Roy, the student from Costa Rica, got up and attempted to walk out of the class after making a passionate speech about our journalistic responsibility to create an informed society. I think the main issue here is that many of us realize that blogs are replacing traditional news for many in our nation's younger generation. But blogs allow their readers to be selfish and withdrawn, in the way that readers can search out specific blogs about only the issues that they care about and never pay any credence to other subjects.

The concept of hyper local media is to build community, yet most blog conglomerates fail to integrate essential information like local, national, and international news. Ironically, I think that the continued migration of our society to the internet is serving to diminish community. I'm interested in Asian politics, baseball, music and movies. Maybe my neighbor is interested in Nascar, hunting and football. Fortunately, we don't ever have to speak. I can get all of my information and social interaction from my computer, and so can he. There is no need for a face-to-face exchanging of ideas with anyone who doesn't see things the way I see them. Wait, is this a good thing?

We know from my previous posts that I am a supporter of blogs. I believe in them. But ff blogs are indeed replacing journalism, editors of these new projects need to make it a goal of theirs to provide quality, informative content. Despite critic's complaints about the top-down method of information dissemination in traditional media, there ARE still things that are important to everyone, and there ARE still people who have the tools to provide that information. Tracy Schmidt's project hasn't even launched, but she indicated that the local blogs would hopefully get people interested in real news through their references to it. I think that the "hopefully" needs to be taken out of the equation. Localized blogs need to actively seek to engage their citizens in important topics that are relevant to us all. International news is certainly one of those topics. Blogs actually present a unique opportunity to reestablish common ground among our fragmented society. But only if editors realize that there are ways for sports blogs, music blogs and entertainment blogs to each get people interested in things like global news. Maybe we need to trick people into learning formal news through these informal sources...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April fools' conflicker pistachio space shuttle Michael J. Fox

Going by what the hot searches are over at, the above title should get this blog post 500,000 hits. In editing class today we discussed the art of writing headlines for the web. The primary purpose of web headlines, we learned, is to get results on search engines by loading your headlines with keywords. This is certainly a very useful exercise for up and coming bloggers or web site hosts, but I worry about the implications that it may have for reputable news sources.

We broke down into news teams this morning and selected hot stories off of the AP wire service to apply effective web headlines to. It was a fairly entertaining exercise, but it is also where I began to have some concerns. News outlets are already oft-criticized for being sensationalistic, and it seems to me that writing headlines with online keywords in mind may lead to a compounding of that problem.

For example, one of the stories that my news group elected to cover was about North Korea's statement regarding U.S. spy planes. As we brainstormed to find a good web headline, we decided that the it should contain one of these words: threaten, violence or military strike. We ultimately settled on this headline: "North Korea threatens U.S., Japan over rocket." The headline isn't exactly false, but it also isn't completely accurate. North Korea was taking exception with spy planes in particular. It was also taking a defensive, not offensive tone (though it was aggressive).

But we figured that searchers would either include the phrase in their search or would pick our story over the rest of their search results because it connected with their preconceptions. Is that a good practice for editors? Does anticipating people's stereotypes and attitudes towards something rather than capturing the essence of the story seem ethical?

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lessons from New York, Vol. 1

Last week I went on what turned out to be an eye-opening journey to New York City. The trip, which was organized through our University's journalism program, centered around giving students an idea of what the magazine business is like in New York City RIGHT NOW.

Apparently, the capitol of magazine writing has reversed course on its stance regarding blogs. Here in the Midwest, many of my professors still cling to the idea that blogs are an evil force which corrodes at the core integrity of journalism. In the words of one of my professors just this afternoon, "Blogs are shit." It's difficult to blame them. Many of these professors made their living in print journalism. As we discovered in many of our conversations in New York, blogs are in many ways contrary to the classic values that print journalists hold sacred. Accuracy, objectivity, diversity of sources, all of these things are often compromised in the world of blogging. Yet sooner or later all journalists are going to have to find peace with blogs because, as John Carney, managing editor of Clusterstock points out, blogs are growing all of the time.

Carney's operation at Clusterstock could be considered an aberration by many of my professors. Yet Carney was defiant and somewhat defensive about the traditional journalism argument.

"A lot of those rules have only been around for a very short time," Carney said, "they weren't handed down by God to Moses."

An online business blog, Clusterstock utilizes a very loose editorial structure which allows its writers more freedom. At the same time, this also means that the website assumes greater risks to its credibility from the possibility of inaccuracies.

"Our willingness to put things out there and then readily make changes (corrections) makes us look human," says Carney, "[but] we have to put a lot of trust in people who write for us."

Carney also has no problem getting close to sources, often getting his stories from nights out at dinner with wall street underlings.

"Your best sources are your friends," said Carney.

It will be interesting to see whether this type of loosely-edited journalism continues to take hold. If it does, we will have to observe the implications that it has for information within our society. One thing is for sure: blogs aren't going away any time soon. At every place that we visited, which included Time, Esquire, Popular Mechanic, and New York Magazine, everyone was talking about blogging. I guess that the real question isn't if we should blog, but how we should blog going forward...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

New York City Trip!

This is just a heads up that my post will be delayed this week because I will be in New York City. A small group of journalism students from the university are taking the trip out to the East coast to meet with editors at various major magazines and online sources. The list includes names such as Time, GQ Magazine and It should be an amazing trip. Hopefully Saturday I will be able to throw some thoughts about the whole experience up here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Editing: Photo Selection

We have been talking this week about how we sometimes have to make difficult decisions when selecting pictures for publication. In class, we looked at a series of pictures at this website and discussed what ethical and personal elements come into play when deciding if photos like these are fit to print. The first series from the website if from a press conference held by former Pennsylvania treasurer R. Budd Dwyer. This press conference is infamous because the treasurer used it to commit a public suicide ahead of charges for accepting $300,000 dollars in illegal kickbacks.

The series of photos, which ranges from him pulling out a gun to him actually shooting himself in the head, caused a lot of tough decisions to be made by editors accross the country. I have discussed these photos in other classes and am aware that some news broadcasts opted to go with the more graphic photos (the treasurer with the gun in his mouth) while others played the story more conservatively(photos simply of him holding the gun). I definitely think that television is where a choice such as this one would be most difficult. Television focuses on sensationalism in order to maintain viewer interest, so I feel that in this platform the pressures to go with the more graphic photos would be the greatest. That said, I personally can't really justify using the last two photos on any platform. This is mostly out of my belief in the journalism standard of minimizing harm. There are members of any audience who likely would be harmed by seeing such photos. This might include family members of the treasurer, impressionable children, or other people who have had some one close to them commit suicide. I think that the first two photos, accompanied by the actual story, more than do their part to convey the mood, setting, and nature of the news story.

Below that photo series were a number of other controversial or gruesome pictures. I think that I would hesitate to use most of them, especially the one with the woman being stripped and groped by a gang of people at Mardi Gras. Again, this photo is likely to evoke painful emotions of any rape of molestation victim, and I expect that it is uncomfortable for most women in general. There some photos that could be run with a little editing of in the right situation. For instance, I think that the one featuring a dead boy on the ground with the family greiving overhead could be a very powerful shot if you simply cropped the boy's body out. In the end, its all about minimizing harm while still maximizing impact, and I will be the first to admit that that is a difficult and complicated challenge.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rodriguez has uneventful first workout with Yanks

That is a headline that I saw this afternoon in the main newsfeed section of Yahoo! Sports' web page. Seriously. Doesn't the very use of the term "uneventful" provide an indication to us that this topic might not be newsworthy? It might be easy to dismiss this story because of its topic, but although this is a sports story it is also from the Associated Press. The story can be found here, and I have to tell you that if you found the title to be unexciting, just wait until you read the actual story. I can sum it up for you here: Alex Rodriguez practiced the game of baseball today. It was not unlike any other general baseball practice. Also, Rodriguez's teammate, Darek Jeter, is disappointed that Alex once took steroids, although this is not a new development from previous reports.

This must be a product of the 24 hour news cycle, and this is a problem with news reporting and story selection among editors that I have had since the very dawn of CNN. As editors,can't we find something better than this? This may have been a sports story, but it is certainly not the first time that the 24 hour news cycle has provided something as ironically uneventful as this under the guise of it being genuine news. I mean it was in the home page's main news section! Not tucked away on a baseball-only section and certainly not on Rodriguez' specific player page where it MAY have belonged. If I were an editor and I made the unfortunate choice of going with a story like this, I at least would have tucked it away somewhere that only the most dedicated of A-Rod followers could stumble accross it. The presence of this story on a major sports news web site's main page is just embarrassing...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Another case of editor abuse...

Well this afternoon I was surfing the blogger website for funny editing stories and I actually came across something scary. It was this article titled "Funny newspaper stories." Note that this is being reposted by the blogger, so they are not the offender. That honor apparently belongs to an individual named Giles Coren, who is clearly somebody that I never want to meet in person. Also note that this has some pretty graphic content, but we are all adults...I hope.

I never realized that editing could be such a high-stakes business, but this is the second instance that I have been exposed to this semester of an individual going absolutely ballistic over what seems like a trivial editing issue. Those of you currently enrolled in news editing with me at the university will remember our first out of class assignment for lecture, but for those who read this outside of our little editing community (so basically Ryan and my girlfriend), here is a link to that tirade. After these examples all I have to say is that editors have it a lot tougher than I would have given them credit for.

Also, and this was my favorite part of that letter, look at the writer's second reason for why the editor who changed his final sentence was a complete failure (to put it mildly). Now this letter is being posted by a third party on their blog, so I'm not sure if the error is the original ranter's or that of the blogger. But the letter's entire argument centers around accuracy and how even the slightest change can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Well, this paragraph had the word "bear" where I am pretty sure it is supposed to be "beard". And if you go and read the letter, I'm also pretty sure that you'll agree that change makes quite a big difference as well!