Adam Hochberg


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News for the Minecraft generation: Gannett experiments with virtual reality

Screenshot from a video about Gannett's experiment with virtual reality journalism in the Des Moines Register's story Harvest of Change.

Screenshot from a video about Gannett’s experiment with virtual reality journalism in the Des Moines Register’s story Harvest of Change.

One of America’s largest media companies is hoping that young readers want to get their news the same way that video gamers play World of Warcraft and Doom.

Gannett Company this week previewed its first project that allows readers to experience a news story in virtual reality. The project – produced by Gannett’s digital division and the Des Moines Register — requires users to wear a futuristic headset called the Oculus Rift, a small goggles-style video device that responds to the wearer’s head movements.

While the Rift is primarily marketed for gaming – allowing users to flee blood-thirsty aliens or control a 250-story fighting robot, Gannett’s project is significantly less harrowing. Part of a Register special report on Iowa agriculture, the company’s first virtual reality presentation is a 3-D immersive walking tour of a southwest Iowa family farm. Headset-clad users can watch a tractor being repaired, tag along as a child walks a baby calf, and see a variety of other farm activities depicted in computer animation, videos, and photographs.

“This is the way we, as journalists, are going to need to communicate to the Minecraft generation,” said Gannett Digital Vice President/Product Mitch Gelman, explaining that the project is targeted at 12- to 29-year-olds “who essentially are not picking up a newspaper from their front porch or sitting down in front of Brian Williams.”

Gelman says Gannett spent less than $50,000 on the project, which included recording 360-degree video at the farm, preparing editorial content, and rendering the presentation in a software engine called Unity. The finished product borrows heavily from the aesthetic of games, with spinning icons that users can click to reveal new items to explore.

“The Minecraft generation likes to find things, build things, discover things, and have fun,” Gelman said by phone from Gannett’s Northern Virginia headquarters. “Instead of building fictional representations in this type of game play, we should be able to build factual non-fiction.”

New opportunities and new ethical issues

The Register is promoting the project as a “cutting edge journalistic experience,” but few readers will be able to experience it fully. The Rift headset is still in its developmental stage, and manufacturer Oculus VR doesn’t expect to market it to the public before 2015. For now, the audience will be confined mainly to the 125,000 or so developers and hard-core gamers who own Rift prototypes. (A simpler 2-D version of the farm tour is available on the Register’s web site.)

Still, supporters of virtual reality see it as a technology that’s on the verge of bursting into the mainstream. Facebook acquired Oculus VR earlier this year for about $2 billion, and Sony, Samsung, and Google are among the other companies readying virtual reality headsets.

“All the pieces are there for virtual reality to go over the tipping point from a niche gaming application to mainstream entertainment,” said Geoffrey Long, the Technical Director and a Research Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Long and his colleagues are exploring ways that virtual reality could enhance various types of content, including horror movies, TV shows, and documentary films. A former Annenberg Fellow, filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, employs the technology to create “immersive journalism” that allows users to experience such things as a rocket attack in Syria and a long wait for a meal at a Los Angeles food bank.

“Virtual reality offers people the opportunity to put on a headset and look beyond the classic news journalism framing of a shot,” Long said, noting that the technology creates both new narrative possibilities — and new ethical issues — for non-fiction storytellers.

Because virtual reality uses animation to depict real-life scenes, creators can choose what parts of a complicated story to represent and whose field of vision the viewer sees and empathizes with. For example, Long says an immersive re-creation of the Ferguson, Missouri unrest could portray the violence from the point of view of a protester, or create a virtual reality where “you’re a riot cop, and you’re surrounded by people who are screaming at you.”

It also could portray a distorted version of reality that intentionally or unintentionally misleads viewers.

“Imagine if the government were trying to convince the world that Ferguson was just fine,” Long said in a phone interview. “There’s potential for abuse of ‘virtual propaganda.’”

 

Transformative technology or curiosity?

Not surprisingly, Long predicts that initially, a lot of virtual reality journalism is likely to center around the kind of news topics that also make good video game fodder – such as immersions into war zones.

But Syracuse University Professor Dan Pacheco, who worked as a consultant on the Gannett farm presentation, eventually sees a variety of other uses. He says virtual reality can transform travel reporting, allow journalists to recreate historic events, help science reporters illustrate potential sea level rise, and enable sports fans to “virtually attend” the World Cup or other marquee events.

“This is an area of growth for anybody who’s into storytelling,” Pacheco said in a phone interview. “This is an opportunity to move from storytelling to story experiences.”

Pacheco also sees revenue opportunities in the technology through product placements and other kinds of new virtual ads. That’s not a small consideration for a company like Gannett, which has seen a steady drop in print advertising revenue, recently completed another round of newsroom layoffs, and plans to split its digital and broadcasting divisions from its financially troubled newspaper business next year.

Not all industry observers, though, share Pacheco’s optimism about virtual reality journalism.

“I applaud the forward thinking,” said University of Minnesota Journalism Professor Nora Paul, “but I think this is the kind of thing that’s going to be a curiosity.”

Paul, a former Poynter faculty member, has studied the use of computer games in journalism and says it’s hard to predict whether virtual reality will become an effective way to tell stories. She says previous attempts to marry gaming technology and news storytelling had mixed results.

“Most people felt like putting a game skin on serious news content was a distraction,” Paul said, “and gamers weren’t interested in doing it because it invariably wasn’t a very sophisticated game.”

For now, Gannett says the Des Moines project is a one-time experiment, and the company hasn’t decided whether to do further virtual reality work.

To help gauge reader reaction, Gelman said the Register may hold town hall meetings or other events where Des Moinesers will be able to pass around headsets and experience the farm tour. He said he’s especially interested in hearing feedback on the presentation from the target demographic.

“I learned a lot watching my 10-year-old go through it,” Gelman said.

 

Note: If you are going to ONA, they will have a session on virtual reality storytelling. Read more

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Case Study: Gannett’s monumental task — A content management system for all

(This case study, the fifth in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo-Foundation.) Note: CCI Europe is a subsidiary of Stibo, whose foundation made a grant for this series. The funder had no editorial input on the study.

In 2011, Gannett Co. owned more than a hundred newspapers and television stations – each with its own website. To publish its online material, the company was supporting about a half dozen content management systems.

Journalists in most of the company’s broadcast newsrooms wrote and published their digital stories through a homegrown CMS called Newsmaker, while almost all of Gannett’s newspaper websites were powered with Saxotech. But the Arizona Republic had its own system known as Enigma, and the Des Moines Register posted some of its content through WordPress.

Meanwhile, Gannett’s flagship publication, USA Today, maintained its site with a proprietary system it simply called “CMS.”

The assortment of software left Gannett no easy way to share web content among its properties, and some systems lacked basic functions such as the ability to embed hyperlinks or multimedia into articles.

“None of these digital systems was far enough along or modern enough,” said Mitch Gelman, Gannett Digital Vice President/Product.“ Gannett was so far behind the CNN’s and the MSNBC’s of the world.”

So Gannett embarked upon a massive digital overhaul. It set out to design and build a content management system that would replace the existing systems and serve every Gannett newsroom – from USA Today to KHOU-TV in Houston to the Fort Collins Coloradoan – allowing them to post and share material more easily.

At the same time it was revamping its back-end content system, Gannett chose to update  the user interface for its more than 120 local and national news websites, bringing them all onto one company-wide design that would more prominently feature photos and multimedia and allow editors to customize the user experience for computers, tablets, and phones.

“What we’re doing here at Gannett is relatively unprecedented,” Gelman said in a May 2014 interview at Gannett’s northern Virginia headquarters. “The objective was to publish an interface that had never been done before.”

Plunging into one of the largest CMS transitions ever attempted by a media organization, Gannett hoped to succeed where other media companies have stumbled. Time Inc. and the BBC are among the media organizations that suffered through CMS transitions that didn’t meet their goals, ran over budget, or failed entirely.

“Everyone’s CMS gives them pain,” said digital media consultant Elizabeth Osder, who’s worked with AOL, The Daily Beast, and other media clients.

In the web’s early days, some media companies struggled with simplistic content management systems that forced them to retype or cut-and-paste every newspaper story or broadcast script.

New systems typically eliminate those annoyances. But they can introduce fresh problems as news organizations expect them to meet modern challenges, such as streaming video and audio, serving up fancier ads, and displaying specialized content on phones and tablets.

“There is no shortage of horror stories,” Osder said in a phone interview.

In the three years since Gannett began its transition, it has had its share of delays and hiccups. But it has avoided the catastrophic problems that doomed some of its competitors’ transitions. As it nears the end of the process of converting its properties to its new content management system, the company is generally pleased with the results.

“We didn’t get all the things we wanted,” said USA Today Executive Editor of Content Susan Weiss. “But what we did get was a much easier, faster, simpler publishing system.”

BACKGROUND

Gannett is a publicly-traded $6.5 billion company that claims its media properties reach more than 110 million people every month. Perhaps best known as the publisher of USA Today, the nation’s second largest newspaper by circulation, the company also has grown into a major force in local television. After several acquisitions, it now owns or operates 42 TV stations. Gannett owns more NBC and CBS affiliates than any company other than the networks themselves and ranks fourth among ABC owners.

It reduced its newspaper holdings over the past decade, but continues to operate 81 daily papers and 443 non-dailies in 30 states, including the Arizona Republic, Detroit Free Press, and Indianapolis Star.

Gannett says its digital division reaches more than 65 million unique visitors every month through USAToday.com, the websites of its local newspapers and TV stations, and a variety of other products, such as CareerBuilder.com, Shoplocal.com, and the coupon site Dealchicken.com. Gannett content also feeds a handful of unconventional news platforms, such as large touch screens in hotel lobbies and a digital portal called “The Point,” which is available to travelers who access the in-house wifi networks at Hilton hotels.

Gannett’s acquisitions left it with a conglomeration of media properties that employed various digital strategies and relied on different tools. Some of Gannett’s properties were saddled with older content management systems that required a good bit of manual coding or other workarounds to post content.

In addition, Gannett executives feared that many of their properties had by 2011 fallen off the cutting edge of technology and design. USA Today – whose flashy colors and bold graphics transformed the look of print newspapers a generation ago – maintained a website that was adequate but hardly groundbreaking. The design of USAToday.com hadn’t changed since 2008, and a 2011 Poynter analysis of comScore data concluded it was the tenth most visited news website in the U.S., well behind such sites as CNN, the New York Times, and Huffington Post.

By 2011, Gannett had experienced several years of disappointing financial results. 2011 was its fifth consecutive year of revenue losses, as newspaper advertising fell drastically. In addition, digital revenue, which analysts consider a key driver of media companies’ growth, increased slower than hoped – only about five percent in 2011. By the end of the year, Gannett’s stock was down 85 percent from its 2004 high.

CHALLENGE

As it embarked on redesigning both the user experience and the back-end of its newspaper and TV station websites, Gannett set ambitious goals that Gelman said were intended to “leapfrog” the competition:

  • On the user side, Gannett envisioned an interface that was more touch-friendly and “swipe able,” even for readers who were accessing the site on desktop computers. Unlike most desktop sites, which required users to click around menu bars and do a lot of scrolling, Gannett wanted a more horizontal design that emphasized photos, graphics, and headlines. “The objective was to publish an interface that had never been done before,” Gelman said. “What we wanted to achieve out of this was a more tablet-like experience.”
  • Gannett sought to customize the experience for users who actually did view its sites on tablets and phones. It wanted an easy way for editors to serve up device-specific content. For instance, a user of a TV station’s iPhone app might see different information from somebody browsing the station’s website on a desktop computer.
  • On the back-end, the company desired a content management system that would allow its publications and broadcast stations to better share stories. For years, Gannett had attempted to leverage the combined resources of its local and national newsrooms, but found that the lack of a unified platform hampered those efforts. “There were many different attempts to bring Gannett content together, and they did not meet expectations,” Gelman said. “That connective tissue that would bring everything together had to be established.”
  • The system would have to work for a variety of news organizations, from the large newsroom at USA Today to small, lightly-staffed newspapers and stations in places such as Staunton, Virginia and St. George, Utah. Furthermore, Gelman wanted it to be remotely accessible to field reporters – an attribute that was lacking in some of the company’s earlier content management systems. “You had to be able to open up a computer on a hood of a police car outside a hostage situation and be able to file and update your coverage in real time,” he said.
  • To drive revenue, Gannett wanted its redesigned websites to accommodate “high impact advertising”– larger, more colorful ads that would be integrated into the site design and harder for users to ignore. In addition, the company wanted its new back-end to support better “semantic tagging,” so that it would more accurately match advertising with the content on each page.
  • Finally, the company set an ambitious timetable to develop and roll out the new systems. The target date for the first conversion at USA Today was September 15, 2012, which was the publication’s thirtieth anniversary and also the date the newspaper planned to unveil a new design for its print editions. That gave Gannett about a year to develop, test, and implement both the back-end content management system and the new USA Today website.

OPTIONS AND DECISIONS

During a two-day meeting in August 2011, Gannett began the process of remaking its digital personality. Early on, it made several key decisions.

First, it decided to start fresh by developing a totally new system for its back-end content management. It determined that none of its current content management systems – nor any existing off-the-shelf product – would do the job.

“Almost invariably, you’ll find in the industry when these projects get going, you’re forced to start with something that was in existence before,” said Steve Kurtz, Gannett’s Vice President for Product Development.

“We were afforded the opportunity to start from scratch,” Kurtz said in an interview. “And that really allowed us the opportunity to do it right.”

Second, to narrow the scope of the project, the company limited the technological revamp to only the digital side of its operations – the functions that directly involve feeding content to its websites and digital apps. There was no change in the software Gannett uses to publish the print editions of its newspapers, a program from CCI called Newsgate. Likewise, Gannett television stations would continue to produce their newscasts and feed their Teleprompters using AP’s ENPS software.

That decision had its pros and cons. On the negative side, it meant that every Gannett newsroom would simultaneously be using two software products to manage content – Newsgate or ENPS to produce their newspapers or TV newscasts, and the new CMS for online publishing. That would create an extra burden on editors and producers to assure that stories were properly loaded and updated in each system. But the decision also helped Gannett avoid a challenge that’s vexed other news organizations – trying to build an all-in-one content system that’s expected to do too much.

After the August 2011 meeting, a team of developers, journalists, and executives went to work building the new Gannett CMS, which they named “Presto.” Meanwhile, Gannett worked with the digital design firm Fi to overhaul the interface readers would see when they visited a Gannett newspaper or TV station web site. While the CMS transition and the website redesign were separate projects, they were inextricably linked because Presto would be the only CMS with the necessary functions to provide content to the new websites.

“It was an intense effort for about six months,” Kurtz said.

To help build newsroom support for the new system and assure it would meet journalists’ needs, a handful of editorial personnel were temporarily reassigned to work with the Presto team and provide feedback on the system as it was being developed. Reporters, editors, photographers, and others were embedded with the development team for stints ranging from two weeks to several months.

“I just really started banging on the tool and talking out the process with them,” said USA Today Mobile Editor Emily Brown. “Everybody’s workflow is just a little bit different, and when we were able to bang on the tool in our own special way, we were able to find things that needed to be tweaked.”

For instance, Brown was concerned that early builds of Presto wouldn’t handle breaking news well. The system’s design was oriented toward posting complete stories in which all the text and photos were ready to publish. Brown said the embedded journalists helped the designers better equip Presto for fast-moving news situations, when stories often are written and published one sentence or one photo at a time.

Gelman wouldn’t put a cost figure on the transition, but wrote in an email that Presto represented “a healthy investment” in Gannett’s digital future. He said the price was “less than most companies end up spending” on their content management systems, and he said part of the cost was offset because Gannett no longer will pay to use and upgrade its existing systems.

IMPLEMENTATION AND RESULTS

As planned, USA Today began publishing content with Presto September 15, 2012. At the same time, the public was invited to beta the redesigned USA Today website. For two weeks, the newspaper operated both its old and new CMS and both its old and new website. The old systems were turned off September 29, 2012, and USA Today transitioned entirely to Presto and the new site design.

“It was really hectic,” Brown said in an interview. “Work flow was changing. The tool was changing. The website was changing,”

USA Today switched to the new systems without any catastrophic problems, though the transition wasn’t painless. Brown describes a “war room” environment, as journalists struggled to report the news – less than eight weeks before the 2012 election – while also becoming familiar with Presto and its quirks. Read more

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Conan O'Brien discusses his life and the art of comedy during a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Thursday, May 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Conan’s comedy bit hints at serious issues for local TV news

Just before the holidays, late-night comedian Conan O’Brien poked a little fun at local TV newscasts. In doing so, he illustrated some serious issues about the compromises journalists make in understaffed newsrooms.

O’Brien strung together clips of two dozen local news anchors reading an identical story – a consumer report about the supposed trend of holiday “self gifting.” The newscasts were broadcast in different cities – from Boise to Ft. Wayne to Dothan, Ala., but each of the anchors introduced the story with the exact same words: “It’s okay; you can admit it if you bought an item or two or ten for yourself.”

O’Brien has aired similar montages in the past, capturing repetition in local stories about such topics as Cyber Monday shopping, restaurants that serve political-themed food, and the news that actor Mike Myers and his wife were expecting a baby. The compilations are popular fodder for Internet discussions, where viewers attributed the homogeneity to “consumerist propaganda,” “controlled brainwashing,” and “corporations spitting out prefabricated copies of fake news.”

The truth is less conspiratorial. Each story O’Brien featured was supplied by a syndication service that distributes scripts, video clips, and fully-produced news packages to local stations. The self gifting story came from CNN Newsource, which claims 800 affiliates. (CNN is part of Time Warner, which also owns the TBS cable channel that airs “Conan.”)

You’re almost certainly watching syndicated content when your local newscast shows video of national or international stories. Stations also rely on Newsource for sports highlights, business and consumer reports, entertainment news, and stories CNN categorizes as “Caught on Camera,” “Animals,” “Kickers,” and “Easy to Tease.”

“Those services give us the ability to run different content in each show,” said Matthew Weesner, the news director at KHGI in Kearney, Neb., one of the stations O’Brien included in the self gifting montage. “We’re doing six and a half hours of live programming a day, and we’ve got a lot of space to fill with a pretty small newsroom.”

Weesner notes the arrangement with Newsource is not unlike the deals news organizations have maintained for decades with wire services such as the Associated Press. Still, Weesner says he wasn’t happy when he saw the O’Brien routine, which revealed that KHGI’s staff was “ripping and reading” syndicated content, a practice he discourages in his newsroom.

“People are supposed to be at least rewriting the lead sentence, and hopefully the entire lead-in to the package,” Weesner said in a phone interview. “As soon as we saw that happen, we said it was time to reevaluate how we do things so that something like that doesn’t happen again.”

“You hope they’ve done their due diligence”

Used appropriately, video syndicators can greatly enhance newscasts, bringing viewers important stories that are obviously beyond the reach of a local station’s reporters. It was through CNN Newsource, for instance, that WMFD in Mansfield, Ohio, broadcast news of this week’s Russian bombings and the website of KRDO in Colorado Springs had access to a report on the South Sudanese violence.

But the self gifting story — which can be seen in its entirety here and here — exhibits some of the pitfalls of syndicated content. Even if viewers don’t detect the canned intro, they might notice that the rest of the story has a generic feel, featuring non-descript video of an unnamed mall and, in some versions, interviews with unnamed shoppers.

Some stations also edited key facts out of the story or presented it in ways that overhyped its premise. The original CNN report was largely based on a survey from the National Retail Federation, which annually asks people “if they plan to take advantage of sales or price discounts during the holiday season to make additional non-gift purchases.” The survey concluded that self gifting has increased over the past decade, but consumers planned to slightly cut back on the practice this year.

KTNV in Las Vegas missed that subtlety when it called self gifting “a trend that’s exploded.” Meanwhile, KGUN in Tucson aired the story without attributing the data to the National Retail Federation or mentioning any source for the statistics at all. That’s not a small omission, as retailers have a vested interest in promoting self gifting to help drive holiday sales.

It’s likely that a local journalist, given time to report the story in his or her own community, could have produced a more informed, more original, and certainly more local examination of consumers’ holiday spending. But many newsrooms don’t have enough reporters to assign one to that story.

Perhaps more troublesome, they also may lack the resources to scrutinize or fact-check syndicated stories before they broadcast them verbatim.

“That’s a concern,” said News Content Manager Kevin Wuzzardo at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C., a station that’s appeared in several O’Brien montages. “That’s why you rely on established, credible sources like the Associated Press and the networks and CNN.”

“You hope that they’ve done their due diligence,” Wuzzardo said in a phone interview.

‘Rip and read’ is common, but do viewers care?

A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment directly on O’Brien’s parody, but noted in an emailed statement that ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox provide similar news content for their local affiliates.

Indeed, the use of national feeds has increased as stations expand the number of hours they devote to local news while paradoxically cutting news staff and budgets.

“This is a sad state of affairs, but the TV equivalent of ‘rip-and-read’ content is prevalent in all markets,” said University of Hawaii Communications Professor Ann Auman, who used to work as a newspaper and television journalist. “Many of these stations are now owned by national corporate owners who have little interest in investing in news reporting in the local market.”

In an email, Auman noted that overreliance on syndicated stories results in local newscasts that are homogenized and lack local content and diverse voices. That not only makes the newscasts fodder for O’Brien’s recurring comedy routines, but also helps fuel viewer cynicism. And it encourages the Internet memes that cast TV news as a cog in a coordinated propaganda campaign.

“It doesn’t make us look very good,” said Weesner, the news director in Kearney, Neb. “To the average viewer who doesn’t fully understand how a newsroom works, that can be a problem.”

Related: Why local newscasters said ‘Yeah, baby’ about Mike Myers news Read more

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The gloves come off as journalists increasingly fact-check other journalists. (Depositphotos)

‘Gloves come off’ as journalists debunk each other’s Obamacare horror stories

When Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik saw Deborah Cavallaro tell her story on television, something about it didn’t add up.

Cavallaro is a real-estate agent and investor in Westchester, Calif. She’s also become a minor media celebrity in the past few weeks, repeatedly sharing her story of how the Affordable Care Act will raise her medical costs. Since October 23, Cavallaro has been interviewed on the NBC Nightly News, CNBC, the public radio show “Marketplace,” two local Los Angeles TV newscasts, and in Hiltzik’s own newspaper.

As all the news reports have noted, Cavallaro’s insurer informed her that it’s canceling her policy and instead offering a new plan with a higher premium. “Her only option is to be forced into a policy she doesn’t want and can’t afford,” reported KCBS-TV. “For the first time in my whole life, I will be without insurance,” she lamented on KNBC-TV.

“There were just a lot of gaps in her story,” Hiltzik told me in a phone conversation this week. “It just seemed to me that all the people who were going on the air and telling her story were leaving critical things out.”

So Hiltzik – a Pulitzer Prize winner who regularly writes about health care — did something relatively uncommon for mainstream newspaper writers. He called Cavallaro, conducted his own interview, and used his blog to poke holes in the other news organizations’ stories.

Browsing on Covered California, the state’s new online insurance exchange, Hiltzik found little basis for Cavallaro’s fear – unchallenged in most of the news stories — that she’ll be forced to pay sharply higher premiums or be left without insurance at all. In fact, Hiltzik found that Cavallaro can choose among several health plans, including at least one with similar benefits and lower premiums than her current policy.

“[T]he reporters who interviewed her without getting all the facts produced inexcusably shoddy work,” Hiltzik wrote in an Oct. 30 blog post.

Media fact-checking the media

Hiltzik is one of several journalists and bloggers who’ve taken it upon themselves to debunk “horror stories” about Obamacare, including Erik Wemple in The Washington Post, Eric Stern in Salon, and Paul Waldman in The American Prospect (where Hiltzik first learned about Cavallaro). They and other writers identified gaps in media reports about disgruntled consumers who appeared on “CBS This Morning,” Fox News’s “Hannity,” and other outlets.

“The whole concept of the media checking the media is a new phenomenon,” said Duke University professor Bill Adair, a Poynter adjunct faculty member who created the Politifact website.

“People in the media are realizing that they need to hold everybody accountable, including their colleagues,” Adair said in a phone interview.

In the not-so-distant past, mainstream news organizations generally avoided direct criticism of their competitors’ journalism. While it wasn’t unusual for newspapers and broadcasters to follow up on other organizations’ reporting – and sometimes find errors in those earlier stories — such matters traditionally were handled relatively politely.

“Sometimes we would say, ‘Contrary to reports published elsewhere,’ ” recalled Hiltzik, a 40-year newspaper veteran.

But Hiltzik no longer sees the need for such restraint when calling out competing news organizations. As he sees it, the media now promote their stories more loudly, and some organizations tinge them with partisan politics.

“That’s an invitation for the gloves to come off,” he said. “If CNBC is crowing about discovering something and we know they haven’t discovered anything, we should say so.”

Mainstream news organizations’ newfound aggression in fact-checking their fellow journalists may also be a reaction to the rise of websites that offer critiques of the media’s political coverage. Sites such as the liberal Media Matters for America and the conservative Newsbusters helped carve out a new type of media analysis that’s constantly rebutting and fact-checking individual news stories, talk-show interviews, and other political-related content.

Traditional news organizations that delve into media commentary often find it’s popular with readers. Hiltzik said his blog posts about Deborah Cavallaro generated some 32,000 “likes,” far more than anything else he’s written lately, while Wemple’s two-year-old media-criticism blog at The Washington Post attracts a consistent audience.

“People care about what’s on TV,” Wemple said in a phone interview. “When you write about cable and when you write about broadcast news, you tend to get a lot of traffic and comment.” For example, Wemple’s recent debunking of reports about a Florida woman’s Obamacare woes was referenced by dozens of other sites.

Criticizing the critics, debunking the debunkers

Not surprisingly, columns and blog posts that criticize specific news stories sometimes themselves become fodder for a second round of critiques. After Hiltzik’s pointed attack of the Cavallaro coverage, Conn Carroll at the conservative website Townhall responded with his own analysis, headlined “Debunking the Debunkers.”

One of the news organizations that broadcast Cavallaro’s story also defended its work in an interview with Poynter.

“I think people like Michael Hiltzik are kind of overlooking the context,” said “Marketplace” editor George Judson, who noted that Cavallaro was one of several voices in a broader radio report about consumers who are receiving insurance-cancellation notices.

“We were simply telling people that this was going on, and here was somebody who was angry,” Judson said in a phone interview. “What we published was accurate.”

Cavallaro herself also responded to Hiltzik during her most recent interview, an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s national radio show. She praised Hiltzik for “doing a good reporting job” and confirmed that she hadn’t shopped on the Covered California exchange to see what insurance plans are available to her.

But she also brought up two issues that were omitted or glossed over in most of the media stories. She said she’s reluctant to enroll in the less expensive plans because they may not include her current doctors, and she’s avoiding the California exchange website, apparently because she’s heard news reports about privacy concerns with the federal exchange.

In that interview Cavallaro wasn’t confined to a short sound bite or two and came across as more enlightening and likely more representative of people on the individual insurance market who are struggling to navigate Obamacare’s rollout — which is indeed plagued with problems, notwithstanding the sometimes misguided media coverage.

No, Cavallaro’s not being forced to go uninsured, as some journalists trumpeted without question. But the new law may require her to make compromises as she chooses a new health plan. And she — like several of the other Americans portrayed in the media horror stories – is getting little information about her options from her insurance company or the government.

“It appeared as if [the media] decided the story was people getting kicked off their plans and being bummed out, so that’s the story they told,” said Wemple, who argues that more-nuanced reporting would be both more informative and more compelling. “The straight-up simplistic story that they told wasn’t nearly as interesting.”

Adam Hochberg is a contributor to “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.” The new book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. Find more information about the book here. Read more

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The challenges, benefits of consolidated editing & design centers

(This case study, the second in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.)

In a sprawling, windowless office in Hickory, N.C., more than a dozen small-town and metro newspapers come together each night.

Seated in front of rows of computers, about 45 journalists edit copy and lay out pages for World Media Enterprises, a conglomerate that owns newspapers throughout the southeast. At one desk, a recent college graduate edits the crime blotter for the next day’s Dothan (Al.) Eagle. Nearby, his colleagues lay out the comics page for the Hickory Daily Record, proofread the “bridge” column for the Jackson County Floridan, and arrange front page photographs for the McDowell (N.C.) News.

These editing and design tasks used to be done locally in each paper’s newsroom. But World Media Enterprises is among several newspaper chains that now consolidate the work at centralized centers. Gannett, Tribune, and McClatchy are among the other companies that have embraced the trend. GateHouse Media with 78 dailies announced in August it will create a news and design center in Austin. World Media’s Consolidated Editing Center (CEC) produces more than 1,000 pages a week for 10 daily papers and 15 that publish one to three days a week.

While consolidated editing and design centers allow media companies to reduce staff and save money, skeptics worry that they weaken newspapers’ bond to their communities. And the transition can be difficult for publishers, local editors and the consolidated centers’ own staff.

“We’re in a new era,” said Mark Stein, a veteran newspaperman who tended the copy desk at World Media’s Concord (N.C.) Independent Tribune until his job was moved 60 miles to Hickory in 2010. Since he joined the CEC, Stein has edited copy and designed pages for the Independent Tribune, as well as World Media publications in Winston-Salem, Statesville, Morganton, and other North Carolina cities.

“It’s exciting up here, because you get to do different products,” Stein told me in person. “But it’s also scary because you’re not really familiar with the area and the products you’re working on. .. I’ve never set foot in Morganton, and I’ve only been through Statesville on the Interstate.”

The Hickory CEC originally was opened by Media General, a Richmond, Va., company that owned more than 60 papers. When Media General exited the newspaper business in 2012 and sold those properties to World Media Enterprises, the new owner maintained the Hickory operation.

“The industry is really moving toward these consolidated editing centers to save money,” said Mike Fuhrman, who helped start the Hickory CEC and served as its managing editor until 2012. “You can’t discount the cost savings.”

The background

The company: World Media Enterprises is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., which has significant investments in the newspaper industry. It has owned the Buffalo (N.Y.) News since 1977 and holds about a 20 percent stake in The Washington Post. In 2011, Berkshire Hathaway purchased the Omaha World-Herald and six other papers in Nebraska and Iowa.

The 2012 acquisition of 63 Media General papers greatly expanded Berkshire Hathaway’s media holdings. The acquired papers include two metropolitan dailies — the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch and the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal — and a variety of smaller publications in Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama and Florida. (Media General’s largest paper, the Tampa Tribune, was sold separately to a private equity firm.) With the acquisition, Berkshire Hathaway formed World Media Enterprises as a new division to manage its newspaper properties in the southeast.

History of the CEC: Media General first began exploring the idea of combining its editing and design functions in 2008. Management felt the consolidation was an economic necessity for a company experiencing severe financial pressure. At the time, Media General was saddled with more than $700 million in debt and had seen a 20 percent drop in newspaper advertising revenue. It was in the process of making deep cuts in its workforce. Between 2008 and 2010, it laid off more than 300 employees at its various newspapers.

Copy editing and page layout posed a significant burden to the local newspapers’ shrinking staffs, especially the smaller publications that dominated the Media General chain. While most still employed a few people who primarily worked as copy editors, page design work often was divided among other newsroom personnel, such as the city editor, the sports editor and some of the writers.

“At small papers, the layout consumes an inordinate amount of time,” Hickory Daily Record publisher Eric Millsaps said by phone. “Our sports guys made decisions about what to cover and what to write depending upon which nights they had to do layout.”

Media General initially planned just one consolidated editing and design center in Lynchburg, Va., but Millsaps persuaded his bosses to open two — in Lynchburg and Hickory. While the city of 40,000 people in the North Carolina foothills was neither the largest nor the most centrally located in the Media General chain, Hickory offered some advantages. The cost of living is relatively low, making it easier to attract employees at modest salaries. The Daily Record had space in its building to house the CEC, and Hickory already hosted consolidated creative services and human resources departments for several of Media General’s North Carolina properties.

Media General’s three metro dailies — in Tampa, Richmond, and Winston-Salem — weren’t included in the Hickory and Lynchburg consolidations, but they began sharing editing and design functions among their three newsrooms in 2010. For instance, some of the Richmond pages were designed in Tampa, while Winston-Salem’s copy editing was divided between Richmond and Tampa.

When the consolidation was complete in early 2011, the Hickory center employed 35 people. Fuhrman estimated they were doing the work that 45 to 50 used to do locally. Virtually every paper in the Media General chain lost local positions as part of the transition. Employees whose jobs were eliminated were given the choice of transferring to Hickory or leaving the company and receiving severance packages.

After the 2012 World Media acquisition, the Hickory center was given responsibility for the Winston-Salem Journal. The Richmond Times-Dispatch returned to doing its editing and design in-house, while the Lynchburg center, which had been responsible for the rest of the company’s Virginia publications, was broken up into three regional centers in Lynchburg, Bristol, and Charlottesville.

The Hickory center added 10 people to its staff to handle the Journal’s workload. About twice as many people had performed those jobs at the Journal previously.

“We lost several positions when we started doing the Winston-Salem Journal here,” said Jon LaFontaine, who helped manage the Journal’s transition to Hickory, then took over from Fuhrman as the Hickory CEC’s Managing Editor in 2012. “On average, the folks working on the Winston Salem Journal do anywhere from six to 12 pages depending upon the night and the size of the section.”

The operation: In the name of efficiency, the Hickory center uses a heavily standardized process. All of the World Media papers in the region adopted a universal design that employs similar typefaces, headline styles and page layouts. The publications also use standardized software that allows them to send stories more easily to Hickory to be proofread and assembled into broadsheet pages.

Employees at the center, who are assigned in teams to specific newspapers or groups of papers, typically follow a similar routine each afternoon when they arrive for work. Each is expected to edit copy, and almost all are responsible for designing pages.

“We try to guard against the idea that this is an assembly line,” Fuhrman said in an in-person interview. “But the reality is that you come to work and instead of making eight widgets a day, you make eight news and features pages.”

Every evening, the design teams in Hickory speak by phone with local editors to discuss ideas for page layouts. Each paper’s local editors typically dictate where stories are to appear in the next day’s paper and specify a detailed design for the front page. They also provide headlines, photo captions, and other elements that the Hickory staff assembles into finished pages.

Meanwhile, the Hickory employees read all of the day’s copy for each newspaper – including locally generated stories, syndicated content, and wire reports. They make any necessary corrections and send PDF images of the page proofs back to the local newsroom for approval.

“We’re reading for spelling, grammar and style, but we’re not doing heavy editing,” Fuhrman said. The local papers are responsible for doing more thorough line edits of stories — fact-checking them and making sure they’re structurally solid — before sending them to Hickory.

The local newsrooms also are fully responsible for their own websites. The CEC concerns itself only with print material, not digital content.

LaFontaine said the average salary in the Hickory center is less than $30,000 per year. Many of the employees are working their first or second jobs in journalism, though some — like Mark Stein — are company veterans who served as local copy editors before following their jobs to Hickory.

Fuhrman said the center’s workforce has a moderate turnover rate; several of the people who’ve left jobs at the CEC moved on to positions as writers or editors at the company’s local papers.

Still, he’s upfront in saying that the job doesn’t appeal to everybody.

“It’s not investigative reporting, it’s not covering the World Series,” he said.“There are definitely days when it’s a grind.”

Results and changes

Fuhrman said the CEC achieved its primary goal of cutting costs, and the success of the model was underscored when World Media chose to maintain most of Media General’s consolidated infrastructure after purchasing the company. While World Media won’t release specific financial figures about the editing and design centers, Media General in 2010 estimated the savings at more than $1,000,000 a year.

It’s more difficult, however, to determine how the consolidation affects the quality of the newspapers. Fuhrman’s impression is that few readers noticed the change, and some executives at the company’s smaller publications credit the consolidation for reducing their workload.

For example, while the Statesville (N.C.) Record & Landmark lost four positions as part of the transition to centralized editing, publisher Tim Dearman said the remaining editors and writers no longer are expected to help with copy and design tasks.

“In small newspapers, not having to worry about the day to day production of the paper allows you to focus more on local content,” he said, citing the example of his sports staff, which consisted of three people before the consolidation.

“If you had one person on vacation or one person sick, then the only thing your sports staff did that day was lay out the pages,” Dearman said.

Now, the Record & Landmark has only two people in the sports department, but Dearman said they can focus entirely on content, because the page design work is handled at the CEC.

“For us it’s worked pretty well,” he said. “I think it would be difficult for us to go back.”

On the other hand, Fuhrman concedes that many newsrooms didn’t embrace the change, and many felt “they were giving something up.”

Among them was Ken Otterbourg, the former managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, the second largest of the Media General papers acquired by World Media. Otterbourg resigned in 2010 in part because of his concerns about the consolidation.

“This was something that I didn’t want to be a part of because I didn’t think it was good for our paper,” Otterbourg, a 21-year Journal employee, said by phone. “There’s nothing more to it than saving money.”

Otterbourg said moving the Journal’s copy editing and design positions — initially to Richmond and Tampa, then later to Hickory — deprived the paper of “local knowledge” and delegated important tasks to people with little understanding of the community.

“The people laying out the Winston-Salem Journal in Hickory don’t read the Winston-Salem Journal.” Otterbourg said. “They just read their pages.”

Otterbourg said the consolidation also diluted the authority of local editors, who no longer supervise the copy editors and designers and have no direct way to train them, mentor them, or hold them accountable for work that doesn’t meet the publication’s standards.

Indeed, the management structure of the CEC — in which center employees report to a supervisor in Hickory rather than to a local publisher or managing editor — results in occasional tension. Joseph Huntley, the CEC senior team leader, said some local editors hesitate to delegate responsibility to the Hickory staff.

For instance, he said one of his newspapers is “very fond of their own headlines” and isn’t happy when he lengthens or shortens headlines to fit the page design.

Meanwhile, he said other local editors, especially at smaller papers, want him to do more extensive editorial work than he has time for.

“They just crank out their copy as fast as they can, and they send it to us and expect us to edit it,” Huntley told me. “We sometimes run into problems with publishers and editors trying to figure out what our job is, as opposed to what their job is.”

Still, LaFontaine resists the suggestion that his Hickory employees can’t do a credible job of editing a publication based elsewhere. “We have a team dedicated to just working on the Winston-Salem Journal,” he said. “They probably know more about the Winston-Salem area than they do about Hickory, even though they live in Hickory.”

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Fuhrman, who supervised the Hickory center for three years and hired most of its staff, said managing relationships with local papers was among the most challenging parts of his job. Read more

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Disputes over crime maps highlight challenge of outsourcing public data

Colin Drane is an unlikely warrior in the fight for open government.

An inventor and TV infomercial producer, Drane spent much of his career marketing products like the Trunkanizer  for organizing car trunks, a toy called Bendaroos, and Invisi-lift self-adhesive breast enhancement pads.

Six years ago, Drane started a different kind of business – a company called ReportSee, which operates the website SpotCrime.com. The site obtains publicly available crime records from police agencies and graphically displays them on colorful maps.

Drane says the site attracts a million views a month from people curious about the burglaries, shootings, and other bedlam in their towns. The site makes money through advertising and from partnerships with television stations and other media organizations.

“Its primary appeal is folks involved in neighborhood watches and people who want to know what’s going on their communities,” Drane said in a phone interview. He said the information on SpotCrime, which typically is culled from police department logs and incident reports, can make communities safer.

“If an unusual van is in the neighborhood, and everybody knows there’s been a rash of burglaries, maybe somebody takes time to call the police, where maybe in the past it would have been brushed off,” he said.

More than 300 law-enforcement agencies around the country cooperate with Drane and provide him electronic access to their crime reports. But he’s had conflicts with dozens of other agencies, which either deny him access entirely or provide information that’s dated or incomplete.

Often, he finds that agencies already have struck deals with one of his larger competitors. The owners of sites such as CrimeReports.com, CrimeMapping.com, and RAIDS online compile and publish similar maps.

“Police departments contract with a vendor and give them preferential access to very important public data,” Drane said. “If you’ve got agencies controlling the information through a vendor, that’s not full transparency, and it limits accountability.”

Public data: profitable and contentious

Drane’s situation isn’t unique. As private companies have discovered there’s profit to be made from some kinds of government records, public agencies increasingly are outsourcing parts of their recordkeeping. That’s led to disputes over whether private firms can receive exclusive or preferential access to public data, copyright it, or withhold it from business competitors and other parties who request it.

“Conflicts are becoming more common,” said Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit California group that advocates for open government. “The demand for data and the perceived value in data has been rising exponentially, and that’s raising thorny legal-access questions.”

California, Connecticut and Wisconsin are among the states that have seen lawsuits over GIS data — the mapping technology local governments use to track property records. Scheer’s group successfully sued to access Santa Clara County’s GIS database, which the county claimed was a copyrighted “trade secret.” In the Wisconsin case, courts ruled that municipalities’ land records are in the public domain and forced a private contractor to release records to its competitors.

Drane has been sued, too. In 2010, the owner of CrimeReports.com – a company called Public Engines — discovered SpotCrime was robotically “scraping” CrimeReports.com for police data. Though Drane claimed he was entitled to scrape his competitors’ sites because the original police reports are public records, he agreed to stop the practice as part of a legal settlement. (Nieman Lab summarized the issues raised by the lawsuit in this 2011 analysis.)

Indeed, Drane is at the center of much of the tension in the crime-mapping industry, not surprising for an unconventional and sometimes brash entrepreneur who describes himself as a “disrupter.” SpotCrime is a relatively low-budget operation that Drane said he started because “moving data seemed a lot easier than moving Trunkanizers.”

In many ways, his business couldn’t be more different than that of his competitors, such as Public Engines, the Omega Group — owner of CrimeMapping.com, and Bair Analytics — owner of the RAIDS online site. Those companies are larger firms that develop and market technology for law-enforcement agencies. They sell software that not only powers public crime mapping websites but also provides an array of tools the agencies use internally to compile and analyze data.  (Think of an electronic equivalent to those big maps with pushpins that used to hang in police stations.)

“People look at our website and see that obviously as a public-facing manifestation of the law-enforcement data,” Public Engines CEO William Kilmer said in a phone interview. “But our primary mission is really to help law-enforcement agencies unlock the power of their own data for their own analysis.”

Those computerized crime mapping systems have become important tools for law-enforcement agencies over the past two decades. For a relatively small investment, the software allows police to identify crime patterns and “hot spots” in their communities and make decisions about staffing and resources.

Kilmer said his company is aware it’s dealing with records that belong to the public. While Public Engines doesn’t allow competitors to scrape its website, he said there’s nothing in its contracts that prohibits police agencies from releasing crime data to anybody else who requests it.

That point was echoed by the Omega Group, which provides software and mapping tools for more than 600 law-enforcement agencies.

“The agency has the right to give whatever data they want to give,” said Omega spokeswoman Gabriela Coverdale.

Police agencies try to control information

Still, some police departments appear to treat their contracts with Public Engines or Omega as exclusive or at least preferential.

When Drane’s company requested access to Las Vegas police records under the Nevada public-records law, he said the police department’s public information office wrote him in an email that “we have no need to join with more of these kinds of services such as yours than we already have in place.” Las Vegas contracts with Omega and its crime reports are posted online via CrimeMapping.com.

Likewise, the Omaha, Neb., police department contracts with Omega and won’t release electronic records to Drane.

“The reason we signed a contract with CrimeMapping.com is so we have control over the information released,” Lt. Darci Tierney told me in an email. “There is no legal obligation for our department to provide additional information beyond access to records that we provide to the general public upon request in hard copy format for a nominal fee.“

But that policy — which allows CrimeMapping.com to access police records electronically, but restricts other requestors to “hard copy format” — likely violates Nebraska’s open-records law, according to several legal scholars.

“Since some company is getting these records in electronic form, you can also get them in electronic form,” said Nebraska Press Association attorney Shawn Renner. It doesn’t matter that one company has a contractual relationship with the city, that SpotCrime is small and not well-known, or that Drane’s motive in requesting the records is to profit from them.

“The records are open to all for any purpose,” said Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “We define journalism quite broadly, so an online outfit that’s in the business of taking data and presenting it in an informative way is engaging in a journalistic activity.”

Caramanica worries that if police agencies are allowed to withhold crime data from for-profit websites that compete with their preferred vendor, they may start denying information to mainstream media organizations (most of which, of course, also are in business to make money), bloggers, advocacy groups, or individuals.

It’s not a big jump. Part of the reason police departments contract with the crime mapping services in the first place is to ease the workload on their often overburdened staffs. Public Engines boasts on its website that CrimeReports.com helps “free up time for employees who used to try and answer [citizen] questions by phone.”

“Some of it is just administrative ease,” said University of Missouri Journalism Prof. Charles Davis, co-author of two books on public records. “They can kind of wash their hands of the whole issue, and say ‘if you want that stuff, it’s on the website.’ ”

Likewise, some agencies may see their relationship with a crime mapping vendor as a way to bypass the traditional media.

Public Engines’ website highlights the experience of the Boca Raton, Fla., police department, which stopped sending press releases to local media. The site says that when police agencies partner with CrimeReports.com,“[t]he power to interpret crime data has now moved out of the hands of the traditional media gatekeepers and into the hands of citizens themselves.”

Computerized data, ‘manila envelope’ laws

In and of itself, direct public access to information isn’t a bad thing. Police reporting in the mainstream media can be simplistic or sensationalistic and lack context about the actual risk of crime in various communities. An accurate online crime map can offer information that’s more complete, more local, and easier to access than a newspaper police blotter or the murder-and-mayhem stories that are nightly staples of many TV newscasts.

But in order for online crime mapping to live up to its promise, police agencies need to see it as a way to broaden access to information, not narrow it. The raw data generated from modern crime analysis tools — such as those marketed by Public Engines or the Omega Group — should be considered public information and made available to the public, the media, and even those companies’ competitors. That will allow such data to be disseminated more widely and analyzed in more ways.

And because police generally include in crime mapping databases only a portion of what they know about each particular incident — for instance, names of victims or suspects are usually deleted — the standard long-form police reports and daily crime logs must remain easily available, too.

Davis expects more disputes and litigation as governments increasingly entrust public data to private companies, especially in states where public-records laws fail to clarify contractors’ obligation to share information. He said only a handful of state laws even contemplate the possibility that public recordkeeping may be outsourced.

“These are laws written in the age of manila envelopes and the typewriter,” Davis said. “This is one of a dozen different issues where technology has raced in front of the law.” Read more

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‘Journalist’ or ‘illustrator’? How self-identification affects designers’ job satisfaction

When veteran newspaper artist and designer Charles Apple worked at the (Raleigh) News & Observer in the 1990’s, he and his colleagues had an ongoing discussion about how they viewed their own jobs.

As they drew up the artwork, maps and infographics that adorned each day’s paper, they’d talk about whether their work constituted “journalism” and whether they thought of themselves as “journalists.”

For Apple, who never hesitated to grab a sketch pad and head out to a crime scene or natural disaster, the answer was obvious. He considered himself every bit a journalist — just as the paper’s reporters and photographers did. But some of his fellow designers saw themselves differently.

“Their point was that they’re not really journalists; they’re just illustrators,” Apple told me from southern California, where he’s now at the Orange County Register. “To them, it was just like working at an ad agency or anyplace else.”

That contrast among newspaper designers isn’t unusual, but a recent study suggests designers’ self-characterization of their jobs may be more than just fodder for newsroom debates. It also could play a role in their job satisfaction, especially as media companies move designers out of individual newsrooms and into consolidated hubs that serve several publications.

The small study by South Florida Sun Sentinel designer Rachel Schallom found that newspaper designers who consider themselves journalists are happier working in newsrooms, while those who think of themselves as artists or illustrators prefer working in the centralized design centers.

“People who identified as journalists got satisfaction from collaboration with editors and reporters,“ said Schallom, who conducted the study for her master’s thesis at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “They liked content creation.”

On the other hand, those who don’t consider themselves journalists (three of the ten people Schallom interviewed) had different feelings about their work and the articles it accompanies.

“[They] said they don’t read the story and don’t care what it’s about,” Schallom said in a phone interview. “They just like the craft of graphic design.”

Are non-journalists a better fit?

It may be tempting for people with journalistic backgrounds to look down upon colleagues who admit to not reading the news. (Apple said he rarely hires people for design jobs unless they show interest in newspapers.) But Schallom’s findings suggest that those non-journalists may be a good fit for many of today’s design and layout jobs.

Companies such as Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy have centralized hundreds of those positions into hubs or design studios, where each employee typically works on several different newspapers. The centers vary in their responsibilities. Some employ designers who at least occasionally are called upon to construct complex graphics and major artwork for local newspapers. Others centers more closely resemble “assembly line” operations, where designers are limited to doing basic layout work.

In almost all of the consolidated centers, though, designers have less contact with reporters, and opportunities to actually visit breaking news scenes are virtually nonexistent.

“A lot of the people who were looking for more of a journalism role found they were very unsatisfied,” Schallom said.

Yet the designers who didn’t consider themselves journalists — people who typically attended art school or graphic design programs rather than journalism school — told Schallom they liked the hub work.

“They really didn’t want to work with the editors and the reporters,” Schallom said.

Schallom’s study, while small, might provide some guidance to managers tasked with staffing consolidated centers and addressing the high turnover rates that have plagued some of the operations.

It also spotlights the potential challenge faced by journalistically-trained designers, who may be dissatisfied working in centralized studios but are unable to land one of the increasingly rare design jobs in newsrooms.

Schallom’s newspaper — the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — still has a small local design desk, but much of each day’s paper consists of templated “mods” prepared at the central editing and design hub of its parent, Tribune Company. Dozens of other papers around the country now employ no designers or graphic artists at all. Apple’s former department at the News & Observer has been disbanded and the design and copy editing functions have been consolidated to a McClatchy Company center in Charlotte.

Unsurprisingly, many designers who self-identify as journalists have chosen to leave the profession, rather than pursue jobs at consolidated editing and design hubs.

“I don’t know if consolidated centers would be my kind of place,” said former designer and copy editor Abby Langston, who was laid off from the Winston-Salem Journal when Media General moved the design and copy desks to a center. “It’s kind of ‘plug and chug’ and get it done as fast as you can.”

Langston now works at a custom publishing house that produces Wal-Mart’s monthly employee magazine.

Different from journalism school

Schallom is quick to note that her thesis doesn’t judge whether it’s better for newspapers to employ centralized or local designers. She said both models have some merit. For instance, not only do the centralized centers save money, but she said they’ve helped smaller papers improve their design from the days when overburdened newsroom employees had to lay out pages in addition to writing and editing stories.

Even Apple, who said he’s “disturbed” by the consolidations, conceded that some of the centralized hubs are doing good work. He singled out Gannett’s center in Des Moines, which he said is providing some “really nice cover designs” to the chain’s newspapers in the upper Midwest, many of which never had the resources to do advanced design work on their own.

Still, Schallom says her colleagues in the graphics and design field need to understand that the environment in the centralized hubs differs from that of newsrooms and may not mesh with their expectations. She recalls that after Gannett began opening its consolidated centers in 2010, it offered positions to several of her fellow students at Missouri.

“People were taking them because they were job offers,” Schallom said, “and they were very unsatisfied because it was so much different from anything you learned in journalism school.”

Which term do you identify with, and why? Read more

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Gaffes defined and defied campaign narratives, but did they affect who won?

As Mitt Romney visited Poland this summer, Washington Post reporter Phil Rucker shouted a question to the candidate that revealed a lot about the media’s coverage of the campaign.

“What about your gaffes?” Rucker called out, as Gov. Romney walked to his car in Warsaw.

The governor didn’t answer, but the question highlighted the focus of much of the media’s day-to-day narrative. Journalists, bloggers, pundits — and sometimes the campaigns themselves — gleefully piled on after either candidate committed a perceived misstep or uttered an inelegant statement.

From President Obama’s declaration that “the private sector is doing fine” (labeled as an “economic gaffe” by ABC News) to Gov. Romney’s admission that “I’m not concerned about the very poor” (a possible “monster gaffe,” declared The Week), the campaign narrative often centered more on the candidates’ offhand ad libs than their platforms or policy records.

Many of the verbal miscues provided media fodder only for a couple of news cycles before being quickly forgotten. (Neither Obama’s August “spelling gaffe” nor Romney’s “CookieGate” comments got much attention outside of partisan media.)

But a handful of the unscripted statements had major roles in setting — or changing — the media narrative of the campaign. While it’s not clear whether any of the remarks had a lasting impact on voters, several received extensive attention in the mainstream media, on blogs, and in social media.

“The gaffes are easy to cover,” said Southern Methodist University Journalism Professor Tony Pederson. “They don’t require a lot of digging; they’re just a quick and dirty story.”

Among the candidate utterances that became campaign memes:

“Corporations are people, my friend”

Romney’s response to protesters at the Iowa State Fair came early in the campaign, long before he secured the Republican nomination. But almost immediately, pundits accurately predicted it would provide fodder for Democratic attack ads. While Romney seemed to be trying to say that corporate profits benefit shareholders, the retort helped form his public persona as a rich businessman who identified more with Wall Street than Main Street – an image he continued to foster through later comments including his out-of-context remark that, “I like being able to fire people,” his proposed $10,000 bet with Texas governor Rick Perry, and his secretly recorded dismissal of “47 percent of the people.

“One of Romney’s problems is that a number of these gaffes helped develop a storyline,” said Steve Frantzich, a U.S. Naval Academy political scientist and author of “OOPS: Observing Our Politicians Stumble.”

“There are 47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims”

About that secret video, originally obtained by Mother Jones: It led the evening newscasts on the broadcast networks, was reported on the front page of The New York Times, reverberated through social media, and even had the pro-Republican Wall Street Journal editorial page suggesting that Romney deserved to lose if he couldn’t express a more inclusive political vision.

The video had several elements that helped it break through the noise of a continuously-covered campaign. Not only did it tend to reinforce concerns from some voters about Romney’s ability to relate to them, it also had an element of “reality television” to it. Covertly recorded inside a high-dollar fund-raiser, it allowed Americans to see the candidate speaking frankly at a time he believed he was out of broad public view.

Romney briefly slipped in the polls after the release of the video, and his campaign was forced to spend time and resources on damage control. Still, “the 47%” remained a major theme of political coverage – and Obama’s campaign – until Election Day.

AP Caption: “Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012.” (Charles Dharapak/AP)

“You didn’t build that”

Obama’s campaign experienced its own diversion following a July speech in which he spoke about the role of schools, roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” the President said.

While the Obama campaign claimed his comment was taken out of context, the quote became a sensation. While Obama made TV commercials attempting to explain his remarks, Romney adopted a campaign theme of, “We Built It.”

There’s no evidence that Obama’s remarks affected his poll numbers. But a LexisNexis search found more than 800 news stories, interviews, and talk shows that referenced the controversial comments. Radio and television hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck were among the first to mention them, and after Romney personally called out Obama for the speech, it exploded into the mainstream media.

“They brought us whole binders full of women”

Perhaps as much for its unusual imagery as its policy content, Romney’s anecdote at the second presidential debate sparked a sudden social media frenzy. Within hours after Romney used the phrase to describe his effort to recruit female cabinet secretaries in Massachusetts, the hashtag #bindersfullofwomen began trending on Twitter, while the phrase sparked a popular Tumblr account and became a top search term on Google.

It also led to more than 1,400 news stories and helped rekindle a wider discussion of women’s issues in the campaign, where Democrats had for months been accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women.” Romney already had repudiated Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” Romney termed “offensive.” He would later try to distance himself from Indiana GOP Senate hopeful Richard Mourdock, who said that if a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape, “that is something God intended to happen.” Both Akin and Mourdock lost.

Though it’s again not clear whether the specific comments changed people’s votes, exit polls suggested that Romney struggled to connect with female voters. Obama attracted the support of 55 percent of women, while Romney won 44 percent.

“You said in the rose garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror?” Compared with most of the other narrative-changers, the candidates’ exchange over the Benghazi embassy attack in the same debate was neither as brief nor as easily edited into sound bites and political ads. But it was a leading topic of post-debate analysis, and it likely helped the President regain support after a weak performance in the previous debate.

Romney got tripped up while criticizing Obama’s immediate reaction to the attack, and moderator Candy Crowley – in a controversial interjection – largely supported the President’s version of events. The exchange was highlighted in much of the post-debate coverage, with the Denver Post calling it a “major gaffe” and CNN saying, “Romney left voters with the impression that he wasn’t familiar with all the facts.”

The Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism found that the media narrative of the race shifted following the debate. Coverage of Romney was largely balanced prior to the event, with 23 percent of news stories judged as “positive,” 23 percent “negative,” and the rest “mixed.” After the second debate, the positive number fell to 14 percent, with 45 percent negative. Obama’s positive/negative percentages improved slightly from 12/37 before the debate to 17/34 afterward.

Romney largely avoided the issue of the embassy attack in the final debate, sidestepping a topic that many pundits felt was among Obama’s greatest liabilities.

Throughout the campaign, media observers – and even Romney himself — expressed dismay about the degree to which so-called gaffes propelled the political coverage. At the same time, though, the campaigns, the mainstream media, and the social media community all had reasons to promote a gaffe-fueled narrative.

Candidates hoped that exploiting their opponent’s inarticulate ad-libs would motivate base voters, put the other side on the defensive, and allow the campaign to talk about something other than controversial policy issues.

TV networks and other traditional media organizations with 24-hour news cycles hoped to parlay each provocative utterance into hours of news stories and talking-head fodder.

And in an online environment where political punditry is dispensed 140 characters at a time, gaffes and tweets seemed made for each other.

“They’re just such appealing kinds of stories and so easy to jump on,” Frantzich said, predicting that this year’s election may provide a new model for campaigns and political coverage – one that’s driven less by big ideas and policy debates, and more by opportunistic scrutiny of each candidate’s misstatements.

“We can blame the media slightly, but the audience is really attracted to these kinds of stories,” Frantzich said. Read more

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George Zimmerman’s lawyers hope to win trial by social media in Trayvon Martin case

In the Trayvon Martin case, the court of public opinion has moved online.

Late last month, attorneys for George Zimmerman – the Sanford, Florida man facing second-degree murder charges in Martin’s killing – launched a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account devoted to the case. So far, they’ve used the social media platforms to comment on developments in the case, solicit money for Zimmerman’s defense, and interact with the public.

“[S]ocial media in this day and age cannot be ignored,” wrote Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara in an introductory blog post. “It is now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East, and it is going to be an unavoidable part of high-profile legal cases, just as traditional media has been and continues to be.”

O’Mara called his social media presence “new and relatively unprecedented,” and legal experts I spoke with could recall no previous case where a defense team has employed such tactics in a high-profile prosecution.

But some say the strategy makes sense as Zimmerman seeks to protect and bolster his image in preparation for a jury trial.

“Zimmerman was getting trashed in the press for weeks, so I think he has to come out swinging a little bit,” said California attorney and legal ethicist John Steele, who perceives that cable television coverage of the case is slanted against Zimmerman. “If you’re Mark O’Mara, why rely on Anderson Cooper, Al Sharpton, or Soledad O’Brien to get your story out?”

Still, Steele and other observers agree that O’Mara’s embrace of social media carries risk.

“They just broke through a major wall by saying the way to defend is to start a website and put out news,” said Scott Greenfield, a New York attorney and blogger. “You have to understand the dynamic of the Internet and understand that you’re playing with a monster that will devour you if you screw up.”

“Anything you put on the Internet is there forever, and no matter what you say, it can be used against you,” Greenfield said in a phone interview.

Attracting comments and dollars

O’Mara’s office has been updating the Zimmerman website and Facebook page every couple of days and tweeting multiple times a day. They’ve attracted more than 1,400 Twitter followers, topped 2,200 Facebook likes, and each post on the Facebook page has drawn dozens of public comments.

Some comments delve into the legal details of the case (“This has been a travesty both for gun owner’s rights and the right of EVERY AMERICAN to use deadly force in defense of their life.”), while others express views on the defendant (“If Zimmerman had cancer I would not give him a dime.”), the media (“HLN and CNN desire riots and racially motivated voters for the upcoming presidential election.”), and the racial issues surrounding the case (“The most prevalent form of racism in the US is blacks against everybody else. The president is the perfect example.”).

The webpage and social media sites also contain links to a PayPal account that’s accepting contributions for Zimmerman’s legal defense fund. O’Mara’s office didn’t respond to my questions about the sites or the amount of money they’re raising, but a previous website Zimmerman set up before his arrest raised more than $200,000.

While the judge in the case has raised questions about those earlier online donations, he has not imposed a gag order nor restricted the use of social media.

“There’s a legitimate role of a lawyer in protecting their client’s reputation in the public eye,” said St. Louis attorney Michael Downey, who’s written extensively on ethics issues. “If there are already a lot of reports in the media suggesting the person did something wrong, then there’s the concern it will be tough for the person to get a fair trial because people will have already convicted him in the media.”

Downey sees similarities between the Zimmerman case and the 2006 prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players on sexual assault charges. Defense attorneys jumped into the media frenzy surrounding the North Carolina case, participated in press conferences and interviews, and allowed their clients to appear on “60 Minutes” to expose holes in the prosecution’s arguments. Officials eventually dropped the charges and disbarred the District Attorney for trumping up meritless allegations.

O’Mara’s high-profile effort on behalf of Zimmerman borrows some of the strategy of the North Carolina defense team, but adds the new tool of social media, which scarcely existed in 2006 and allows lawyers to take their cases directly to the public without going through the filter of the mainstream media.

“They can influence public opinion without waiting for the New York Times to call for an interview,” said Stephen Ward, the Director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics. “And they can use this new social presence to put pressure on journalists to pick up (the lawyers’ point of view) and pass it on.”

For readers and journalists, a need for context

Ward said the technique takes a page from the social media strategy of other newsmakers — such as politicians, athletes, and actors — who prefer to communicate directly to their social media followers rather than subjecting themselves to journalistic interviews.

But in a murder case, the stakes are higher, and Ward said that puts more burden on journalists and the public to scrutinize the online posts.

“You should treat this as just another press release that you get, only it’s in a fancy new media form,” Ward said. He urged journalists to resist the urge to publish or re-tweet the attorneys’ posts without additional context, and suggested the public read the sites with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“This is a game of public relations and persuasion, and it should be treated as such,” Ward said.

At the Orlando Sentinel, state courts reporter Jeff Weiner said he’s bookmarked the Zimmerman website and checks it several times a day. But Weiner — who’s written or contributed to more than 30 stories about the case – said the site hasn’t played a big role in the Sentinel’s coverage.

“At first it was a little bit strange, because we hadn’t seen this done before,” Weiner said. “But once the newness of it faded, it hasn’t changed much about our approach.”

The Sentinel published two pieces recently about Zimmerman’s social media presence – Weiner’s news analysis and a skeptical opinion column by Beth Kassab. But Weiner said the newspaper continues to reach out to O’Mara for interviews about case developments, and he said the Sentinel has adopted a guarded approach to writing about the attorney’s online posts.

“We still have the same conversations that we would have if Mark O’Mara held a press conference,” Weiner said in a phone interview. “We examine each thing that goes on the website.”

Weiner noted in his story that the Florida Bar’s social networking guidelines — intended mainly to regulate online advertising — don’t prohibit sites like O’Mara’s. It’s less clear whether the sites would be covered by rules prohibiting statements that “materially prejudice” court proceedings. But Weiner — as well as several other legal experts I spoke with – predict social media strategies will become more common in high profile cases.

“Social media is such a raw resource,” said Downey, the St. Louis lawyer. “That’s obviously where so much of the conversation happens today.” Read more

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CNN’s unedited epithets raise questions about when to use unfiltered hate speech

When Tulsa police arrested two men Sunday in connection with a shooting spree that targeted African-Americans, much of the media drew attention to a racist Facebook post apparently written by one of the suspects. But CNN’s unusually explicit on-air description of the post raised eyebrows and renewed a debate about how journalists report on hateful speech.

The post was written by murder suspect Jake England, who along with his roommate confessed to an apparently random series of shootings that left three people dead and two wounded. On Facebook, England lamented the violent death of his own father two years ago and referred to his father’s killer with a vulgar adjective and a racial slur.

“There was a Facebook posting made just the other day,” CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti said Sunday, as she reported live from Tulsa. “Please excuse the language; it’s very sensitive: Shot by a f****** n*****.” (Candiotti spoke the full words; unedited video is available here.)

Candiotti’s report marked the second time in three weeks that a CNN reporter quoted the racial epithet during news coverage. The previous occasion came March 21, when correspondent Drew Griffin repeated comments allegedly made by the defendant in a Mississippi hate crime case. Candiotti’s story also aired just a day after CNN broadcast a discussion about the appropriateness of journalists repeating the word. Host Don Lemon supported its on-air use and complained that euphemisms like “the N-word” sanitize its vulgarity.

CNN’s usage of the word isn’t an especially new trend. Griffin quoted it in at least two previous reports on the Mississippi case, and it also was heard in a story about the controversy over Gov. Rick Perry’s hunting camp and a historical retrospective about Martin Luther King.

Still, the network’s most recent use attracted widespread notice.

“CNN has been shocking viewers by saying the full ‘N-word’ on recent reports,” said co-host Whoopi Goldberg on ABC’s “The View” this week, kicking off a conversation among the show’s panelists about the practice.

“CNN … has seemingly embarked on a new plan to gain viewers’ attention by its consistent use of the N-word on the air,” wrote Don Irvine on Accuracy in Media – one of several conservative websites that suggested CNN’s use of the word is part of what they consider to be the network’s liberal agenda.

F’s and N’s: Most media organizations euphemized

Neither Candiotti nor CNN’s public relations department responded to my questions about the network’s policy on racist language. But at least in the case of Candiotti’s report, CNN’s on-air reaction suggested her use of the slur likely was ad-libbed and not the result of a coordinated newsroom plan.

Immediately after the report, anchor Fredricka Whitfield apologized “for such profanities being used on our air.” Candiotti followed with her own apology later. Though the network didn’t specify whether it was expressing regret for the noun, the adjective, or both, a full-screen graphic that accompanied Candiotti’s original report obscured both words. In Candiotti’s later reports, she said only that the Facebook post contained “an expletive and the N-word.”

“In the case of Ms. Candiotti, I think she was just reading (the Facebook post), instead of actually pausing to think,” speculated Gregory Lee, Jr. — a senior editor at the Boston Globe who serves as President of the National Association of Black Journalists. “There’s an adrenalin rush when you’re doing a live shot, and you might not be thinking about what the standards are.”

Lee is among those who feel journalists should refrain from printing or broadcasting the full racial epithet. Most of the mainstream media exercised such restraint in reporting England’s Facebook post. The New York Times, NBC News, and the Associated Press referred to a “racial slur.” ABC News said England had written “the N word,” while the Tulsa World printed the phrase as “f—— n—–.”

“I don’t think you needed the extra dramatization of adding the N-word in your broadcast,” Lee said in a phone interview. “Just the alleged crime that he’s been accused of is enough for somebody to understand the hate in that person.”

Even some observers who support journalists’ use of the word in some situations questioned the need to quote England’s vulgar phrase. NPR Vice President for Diversity Keith Woods — a former Poynter Dean of Faculty — said he could make a case that “hearing those two words together is a different truth than bleeping it out.” But Woods isn’t sure it was necessary when reporting the Tulsa arrests. (NPR referred to the phrase either as “a racial slur” or “F-ing N.”)

“It’s good for us to think in terms of restraint early in stories like this,” Woods said. “They’re two men who have confessed to the crime who are in jail. Telling people (the exact language of Facebook post) won’t help them understand the story any better.”

Meanwhile, conservative media commentators and bloggers pounced upon CNN’s use of the slur, in some cases spinning out theories that portrayed Candiotti’s report as part of a broader political agenda. One poster on the website FreeRepublic.com opined that Candiotti was “on orders” to use the offensive language “for the purpose of offending blacks” and motivating them to vote for President Obama in November.

Writer Noel Sheppard of the conservative website Newsbusters stopped short of accusing CNN of “something concocted,” but expressed concern that the network may be “ginning up a race war.”

“Why are we discussing this in an election year while racial tensions are about to explode as a result of the Trayvon Martin shooting?” Sheppard said in a phone interview. “It seems like a weird time to be talking about it.”

Standards should be carefully considered, equally applied

While it’s far-fetched to believe CNN is intentionally trying to rile up racial tension, the network opened itself up to criticism with its seemingly offhand use of an offensive slur and its subsequent vague apologies. It also unintentionally demonstrated the need for all news organizations to establish clear guidelines for reporting stories that involve hateful speech:

•  Most important, any such story merits a thoughtful conversation among newsroom personnel BEFORE the words are printed or broadcast. Even in a breaking news situation – and even if the words already are publicly available on Facebook or elsewhere – this is one of those cases where it’s more important to be deliberate than fast.

Among the difficult questions journalists should consider are whether quoting the exact words enhances the audience’s understanding of the story, whether the language has potential to harm those involved in the story or the audience at large, and whether using euphemistic forms of the words would overly “sanitize” the story or make it less truthful.

“That has to happen off deadline, off air, away from the computer,” Woods said. “And I frankly don’t think there’s nearly enough of that.”

Though it seems obvious, news organizations also must assure that once a decision is made, everybody who’s involved in reporting and producing the story knows about it.

“We’re so busy as editors that we forget we need to remind our reporters in the field of our standards,” Lee said.

•  The audience – especially on television and radio – should be adequately warned of offensive language before it’s broadcast. Candiotti told viewers she was about to relay “sensitive language,” but then said the vulgar phrase less than five seconds later. That’s not enough time for viewers to mute the volume or change the channel if they didn’t want to hear it. Instead, a more distinct advisory should precede offensive language by 15 to 30 seconds, perhaps accompanied by an on-screen warning.

•  Finally, a news organization’s policies on vulgar or hateful speech should be consistent, transparent, and justifiable. Lee – the NABJ President – notes that some news organizations treat racial slurs about African-Americans differently from hateful terms about other groups. And it’s not unusual for an organization’s treatment of a particular word to change from story to story or even from day to day.

The lack of a clear policy – and a reluctance to discuss the policy publicly – can create confusion inside and outside the newsroom and make it easier for critics to ascribe a political agenda to the news organization’s practices.

“It’s when we use that kind of language recklessly and without the ability to justify it that we open ourselves up to criticisms of ulterior motives,“ Woods said. “Our job is not to parrot what people say or to try to beat other people to saying it. Our job to figure out when it’s absolutely imperative to the truth.” Read more

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