View from another Canwest paper

Fading to Black, a blog that tracks news about the journalism industry, has a post from one of its readers about morale and events inside the Edmonton Journal, one of The StarPhoenix’s sister Canwest papers. It talks about the cost-saving measures and one of Canwest’s latest initiatives, the optimism page (called The Bright Side in The SP). An interesting read.

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The art of storytelling

When death-of-newspaper doomsayers start in on the wailing, the main thing they decry is the loss of investigative reports, and of the threat to democracy this poses. I’m not too worried about this, though. If anything, the openness of the Internet and the many ways (and cheaper ways) to disseminate information now will lead to more things being uncovered.

But one thing I am worried about, and which doesn’t seem to get much attention, is the dying art of storytelling. (Another thing I’m worried about is the lack of appreciation for the culling job actual printed newspapers are forced to perform with the news, so readers don’t have to wade through absolutely everything out there.)

As the emphasis shifts to the immediate, with being the first to get a breaking story up on the website, and this is done within a workplace that’s already suffered job cuts, the emphasis shifts away from the crafting of the story. Not just that, but it shifts away from the crafting of the product.

After a colleague of mine visited my blog, he wrote this to me:

What I liked about newspapers when I started this gig was that it seemed like a craft on many levels. There was the crafting of stories; there were not a huge amount but enough reporters to cover all bases, to get the meat and potatoes stuff done plus the analytical, critical stuff that is, or was, the lifeblood of newspapers. It also is a craft in the sense that you are taking a blank page and creating something for people that hopefully matters to some of them. In that sense, I used to feel like it was the Gutenberg press all over again, creating something from nothing. I also used to be fascinated by the skill/craft of putting the thing together, the pasteup with wax on a sheet of paper, the huge camera taking the PMTs, the hammering of plates on a press. In another world I see myself as a platemaker hammering stuff on a press, turning some knobs and whatnots, pushing the button and watching the press roll.

This nostalgic view of the paper business has its place. The printed newspaper that showed up on people’s doorsteps had a certain weight to it — both literally and figuratively — that the digital news doesn’t have. With that weight came responsibility, to get it right, to service the readers with fantastic writing.

The news isn’t just regurgitating (or linking to) news releases. It’s not attending a city council meeting and blogging about the proceedings — not without the added direct questioning of those council members and the addition of backstory and outside comments. The news is a story, and after readers get their fix on the latest breaking news, they need to be talked to in an engaging way, or they won’t come back, because they can get breaking news wherever they like, really (Twitter, anyone?).

In a more optimistic vein, maybe this means that after the chaos of the transition, after the deaths of some newspapers and losses of many, many jobs, what will emerge online will be a leaner, meaner writing environment. I already have noticed which sites I spend the most time on — sites with only quick summaries get a quick glance; sites with some original thinking and writing get my attention. If I’m not a big anomoly, hopefully it’ll be those sites that survive.

Curation

Can ‘Curation’ Save Media? — an article written by Steve Rosenbaum in The Business Insider asks.

The arguments he makes are a better-formulated version of what I was trying to say in a previous post where I said newspapers have to be gateways, instead of gatekeepers, for the news.

Rosenbaum writes:

The old model was “one to many”  (NBC -> viewers). The new model is “one to a few” (YOU -> your friends and followers). That means there is an overwhelming explosion of content being created (Twitter feeds, blog posts, Flickr photos, Facebook updates) and most of it is interesting to a very small number of people. But, mixed in with this cacophony of consumer content, there is contextually relevant material that needs to be discovered, sorted, and made “brand safe” for advertisers.

Curation is the new role of media professionals.

Separating the wheat from the chaff, assigning editorial weight, and — most importantly – giving folks who don’t want to spend their lives looking for an editorial needle in a haystack a high-quality collection of content that is contextual and coherent. It’s what we always expected from our media, and now they’ve got the tools to do it better.

Yes, that’s right, the future of media is better, not worse. It’s more detailed, multi-faceted and nuanced. And, just more.

But can curation save media? I don’t know. It’s definitely a job made for editors. But we can’t only be linking to what others are producing. We still have to produce quality information ourselves.

Breaking Tweets, Blades style

Breaking Tweets is a website I’ve seen a couple of references to in the past day, and started following myself.

Its group of 28 editors compile news events and Tweets about those events into a story with a traditional type of introduction and then a selection of Tweets about the event. They often come from people on the ground (such as at the G20 protests) and provide a unique kind of view about the news. From the Breaking Tweets website:

The site has two main goals: 1. to help people enhance their worldview or perspective of global events; 2. to increase dialogue about international news and make the world smaller through conversation and interaction, both on this site and on Twitter.

So I thought, what would this look like in Saskatoon? In general, since joining Twitter last months (yes, still a newbie!), I’ve found that Saskatonians aren’t all that keen on Twitter yet, in comparison to some larger U.S. cities. This isn’t surprising. But there are enough of them Twittering that my first experiment in Breaking Tweets — Saskatoon style was a moderate success.

Saskatoon Blades lose Game 7

The Saskatoon Blades lost Game 7 of their first-round playoff series to the Lethbridge Hurricanes last night (April 1). It’s a sad ending to a promising season. A few Saskatoon and Lethbridge fans tweeted along to the game.

Here are some of the Tweets. I chose the ones that had a bit more colour to them, rather than a play-by-play feel. (You can read the play-by-play twitter feed at twitter.com/canescast.)

thebatlab (Saskatoon): heading to the Blades game, long line on Idylwyld, should be a packed house!

iluvsmooches (Saskatoon): Saskatoon Blades…down by one…1st period 5:50..dang it

RossRaymond (Lethbridge): Blades pull the goalie at 55 seconds… Canes Ice it and a face off in there zone

Lola1970: The Blades lost the game. My 4 year old accidently through popcorn down the back of the pants of the guy in front of us though. Entertaining

JaniceOwen (Good ole’ Saskabush): is embarassed to be a hockey fan in Saskatoon..not because of the Blades…but because how APATHETIC the fans are here! QUIET arena!

DanaeJ (Saskatoon): blades are done

Value of Breaking Tweets?

I think this is a cute way to add colour to a story. But does that contradict the argument I made earlier about how quoting only from Internet sources (event pages, Facebook, blogs, etc.) is lazy journalism?

To be honest, maybe. But in the example I used of the Earth Hour story (which quoted from nine sources, seven of which were online and two of which were from interviews), that story used online sources in place of interviews. And that’s why I thought it was lazy.

The Breaking Tweets format doesn’t pretend to replace traditional journalism. It’s meant to add value. As the Breaking Tweets website says: “Generally, each story will link to a media outlet of authority for brief background information on the news topic and for those seeking more information.”

I also think that, for mass media, this could be a great way to involve readers and make good use of a social networking site.

Consolidation

Across the pond, British MPs have put forward a motion calling on the government to support local journalism. It’s garnered the support of 100 MPs, the Guardian’s Roy Gleenslade reports, mostly Labour representatives but also a handful of Tories.

The motion is partly in response to the formation of an alliance of regional publishers who want the government to relax merger restrictions to help them get through these difficult times. The motion points out that local journalism has suffered cutbacks and asks that any government action “ensure that state support, either in the form of deregulatory measures or financial help, is given only where firm guarantees on investment in local journalism are secured.”

To further bolster their argument, I would ask those MPs to also take a look at Canada, where two of our largest media organizations, Canwest (which owns my paper, plus 12 other dailies and the Global TV network and a bunch of specialty stations, etc. etc.) and CTVglobemedia (which owns CTV as well as the Globe & Mail and other stations etc. etc.) are floundering in this economy despite their flurry of mergers and cross-media acquisitions.

Both companies have either put smaller (locally focused) TV stations on the block or are in the process of shuttering them (the E! channels for Global and the A channels for CTV). Both companies have slashed jobs and spending. All those mergers didn’t help them and actually made the situation worse because of the debt involved in the initial acquisitions.

In other news…

Gannett Co. is consolidating copy editing and page production for four New Jersey papers. This is also something my parent company has tried (in terms of page production), with direct effects on my department.

It’s yet another example of the dilution of local papers. If you have a copy editor editing copy about a city council meeting who isn’t familiar with the council members, let alone the geography and history of the city, you lose that extra layer of fact-checking. In terms of page design, how much control will be lost at the local level about what gets featured prominently in the pages and what’s shoved to the back? What happens when there’s breaking news and there’s no one around with the authority to make the call about what to move around?

I wish them luck in their transition.

Decentralization

In a TechDirt post last week, Timothy Lee references a Reason magazine article called After the Newspaper. Both pieces discuss how news is moving from a vertically integrated structure (one company controlling the news-dissemination process from story gathering to paper delivery) to a dispersed network structure (what we’ve got going on online).

It’s true that mass media organizations have become too monolithic, and are paying the price in this economy for their multimillion-dollar buying sprees. In cities where there used to be multiple dailies competing and publishing, there is often only one (and in the whole of Western Canada, for example, all the major dailies are owned by the same company and publish much of the same content). The lack of multiple voices in that sphere is something I wouldn’t be sorry to see change.

But this idea from the TechCrunch article is, I think, a little romantic:

Decentralized news-gathering processes can incorporate small contributions from a huge number of people who aren’t primarily in the news business. You don’t need to be a professional reporter to write a blog post every couple of weeks about your local city council meeting. Nor do you need to be a professional editor to mark your favorite items in Google Reader. Yet if millions of people each contribute small amounts of time to this kind of decentralized information-gathering, they can collectively do much of the work that used to be done by professional reporters and editors.

We already have that kind of “decentralized information-gathering” going on. And I don’t think it’s suited to the average citizen’s needs.

For example, I’ve become interested, in the last few months, in one specific topic: the transformation of in how we communicate, with a focus on the transformation in journalism. That’s why I started this blog, because I wanted to get a better feel for what was happening by trying some of it out myself, rather than just reading about it. Currently I subscribe to 18 blogs related specifically to this topic, which means I’m reading more than 40 entries every day. (I also consume a lot of other media, in the general news realm, but that’s beside the point.) Frankly, it’s a little overwhelming — even though I also do this sort of thing for a living!

One of the most time-consuming parts of my job (the one I get paid to do, at the newspaper), is wading through all the content and selecting what goes into the paper (when I’m doing one of the wire-based sections such as arts or national news). And there, I’m only wading through stories that have been written by trained reporters working under experienced editors. I do it so all our readers don’t have to, and they trust that what’s in the paper is what’s most relevant to them (generally speaking).

Those readers, as they shift to online, still need a place to go to get their news in a time-efficient manner. While I can see how decentralized news gathering is useful, I still believe centralized news editing is necessary. Most people don’t have time to edit their own news. I barely have time to digest my own news.

Content Part III

At work last night, I came across a story that got me thinking: a national story about Earth Hour. We’d covered Earth Hour like crazy in the week leading up to it and it was a given it would have to go in the paper.

In Canada goes dark for Earth Hour, the reporter quoted from the official Earth Hour Facebook site, a blogger in Ottawa, a blogger in Halifax, a person who attended an Earth Hour event in Toronto, an Ontario electricity spokesperson, the Earth Hour website, a Canadian Tire store’s website, an online activity list for a school in Alberta and a woman named Evelyn.

So of nine sources quoted in the story (an impressive number on the surface), two were from apparent interviews and seven were from online research.

My opinion on this is just my own opinion — other editors and reporters obviously feel differently — but to me, this is bad reporting, for two reasons.

  1. It’s lazy. Instead of doing the legwork and setting up interviews, the reporter surfs the Internet. Quoting from blogs and websites and Facebook pages sometimes has its place, but to build an article mainly around that is lazy. Interviews are two-way streets, with follow-up questions and interaction, and are a much better way to collect information.
  2. It’s dangerous. If we as journalists are just quoting from websites and blogs, what in the world do we have to offer that websites and blogs don’t offer? Why don’t we just make a bunch of links for our readers and abandon ship?

(A note: the version that ran in our paper, with a photo from Ottawa, was shortened, partly for space reasons.)

Now, the Internet is no doubt an amazing tool for journalists (I find it so hard to imagine/remember what it was like when I didn’t have a Google query at my fingertips for any question). It provides so many more tools for finding sources and researching issues. But should it become a substitution for interview-based reporting?

My answer to that is no. A vehement no. And it goes back to the argument I made in the Content Content Content post: The most valuable thing news organizations have to offer is the original reporting, the information you can’t get anywhere else.

Maybe you could make the argument that news organizations could provide a role in writing stories based on Internet research because the reporter is still doing the valuable job of spending the time browsing the sites and condensing the information down to a 500-word story. But it is still just a regurgitation of information that is already out there and in my opinion, our time should be better spent bringing new information to the table.


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