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Katharine Weymouth

Katharine Weymouth’s resignation completes the close of the Graham era at the Washington Post

Katharine Weymouth (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Katharine Weymouth (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In a word, unsurprising. Katharine Weymouth’s announced resignation today as Washington Post publisher simply completes the ownership change initiated a year and a month ago when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the paper.

Neither Bezos nor Weymouth were commenting (even to the Post) about the circumstances and timing of the change, though the New York Times reported it was initiated by Bezos. My guess would have been that she had agreed to stay on for a transitional year as part of the sale, but perhaps she was trying out for a longer tenure with the new owner.

It is hard to call Weymouth’s six-plus years as publisher a success, but I wouldn’t say she failed in the job either.  She took control at the worst possible time in 2008 as the deep recession accelerated the precipitous decline of print advertising, especially at metro papers. She oversaw rapid-fire experiments with new revenue sources and a series of strategies for digital growth.  None of her initiatives turned the enterprise around — but then, who in a similar situation did?

This has been the era of “Riptide” (as a Harvard study project by three former media executives was titled).  A strong legacy brand may have been as much a liability as an asset in competition with digital disruptors. Staying afloat was an accomplishment.

Weymouth’s legacy will be twofold.  In December 2012, she took a clear-eyed look at her tenure and at the Post’s prospects and persuaded her uncle, CEO Donald Graham, that it was time for a new owner, a new vision and new capital to support a transition that will take years more.

Around that same time, she hired Martin Baron away from the Boston Globe as editor.  Knowing Baron well, I am not unbiased, but he is certainly one of the best editors of his generation, if not the best.

I heard of Weymouth (without knowing much of anything about her) more than a decade ago.  Someone told me that none of Graham’s four children was interested in succeeding him in the family business, but a niece was and was moving through business jobs at the paper in preparation.

Graham had done a similar apprenticeship (as have various Sulzbergers at the New York Times).  But a tour of departments with increasing responsibilities doesn’t exactly get an heir apparent ready the way it once did.

My own limited impressions of Weymouth were formed in several visits to Poynter in St. Petersburg (where her father is an accomplished architect) and several appearances at the annual conference of the Newspaper Association of  America, where she seemed to enjoy asking the questions as a moderator more than answering them.

A sharp intelligence was evident, but she was not much on the vision thing in public forums and revealed little about what she saw as the Post’s biggest business challenges or how she planned to deal with them.  Easy for me to say, but I am not sure, in retrospect, what the benefits of greater candor would have been.

Most accounts of Weymouth’s time (including the Post’s own this morning) will rate as her greatest blunder a plan to put advertisers together with Post editors and reporters in “salons.” at her home. I think that’s a bad rap.

A mashup of an events strategy with her grandmother’s legacy as a dinner party hostess, the effort launched with bad optics and was withdrawn.  But the Post quickly got back in the events business (where sponsorships are an easy sell compared to conventional advertising). Weymouth’s version doesn’t strike me as all that different from Atlantic Media owner David Bradley’s widely praised development of a-list events as an important revenue stream.

Amanda Bennett, a seasoned top editor as well as Don Graham’s wife, was ready with an effusive tribute to Weymouth, posted as a comment minutes after Poynter Online’s news story about the change.  Bennett’s focus is on Weymouth’s “courage” in fighting the good fight, then knowing when to take the painful step of ending family control.

The morning line on Weymouth’s successor, Frederick Ryan, seems to include musings about whether his early career as a Reagan aide augurs a Post move to the right editorially.  I doubt it. Bezos is no ideologue and, especially on foreign affairs, Fred Hiatt’s editorial page is fairly conservative already.

To my mind, the more relevant factoid is that Ryan comes from Albritton Communications,  a longtime Post competitor.  Way back in the day Washington Star provided decades of second-paper competition to the Post before it was sold by Albritton and subsequently shuttered in 1981.

Fred Ryan, Jr., (Photo by John Shinkle/POLITICO

Fred Ryan, Jr., (Photo by John Shinkle/POLITICO

More recently, without a legacy newspaper culture to work through, Albritton successfully launched Politico (of which Ryan was the founding president and chief executive) in 2007 — the very model of a smooth pivot to digital at a time when the Post was still stopping and starting, trying to find its way as a print + digital business.

Katharine Weymouth at Poynter in 2010: ‘You just keep plugging away’ Read more


Monday, Sep. 01, 2014

Bethune Cookman FIU Football

Journalists are losing access, but the public still expects the story

Update: FIU provides credential for Miami Herald’s beat reporter

After denying access to Miami Herald beat writer David J. Neal for the football team’s opening game last Saturday, Florida International University has decided to credential him for the remainder of the season, according to Paul Dodson, the school’s assistant athletic director for media relations.

This weekend, Florida International University opened its 2014 football season at home in Miami against Bethune-Cookman University. The game was close, ending when FIU fumbled a field goal attempt that would have won the game as time ran out.

Pretty good game, I’m guessing. But I’m only going on the six paragraphs that ran on the Miami Herald’s website under a byline: “From Miami Herald Wire Services.”

The Herald decided not to cover the game. Why?

Because FIU refused to give a press pass to the Herald’s FIU beat reporter, David J. Neal.

In a statement issued Saturday and placed atop the Herald’s original story on the flap, FIU said:

“We did not issue a media credential to the Herald’s beat reporter because of concerns we have brought up to the Herald’s reporter and editors over the past few years about the reporter’s interactions with our student athletes, coaches, and staff and the nature of the resulting coverage.”

“As far as we can tell,” Managing Editor Rick Hirsch said in the Herald’ story, “David has done a diligent, thorough job of reporting on the Golden Panthers. Not all of the coverage is positive. Teams win and teams lose. Programs have successes and stumbles. But in our review of his work, we believe it stands up to scrutiny as fair and professional.”

FIU did issue passes to a Herald photographer and columnist. But the Herald decided not to staff the game at all because, Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said, “The team does not get to choose who covers the program.”

Disagreements with management of sports teams about media coverage are nothing new. A colleague from the Inquirer reminded me of the time the owner and general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers visited the newsroom to demand that the paper’s pro hockey writer be replaced. He was not.

Both Marques Gonzalez and the FIU statement expressed hope that the situation will be resolved. I’m guessing it will. But here’s the reality:

This is just one fight in the escalating offensive against allowing journalists to cover news.

And forgive me if I don’t sense we’re winning.

FIU fans didn't get  in depth coverage of the  season opener from the Miami Herald  this weekend.  (AP File Photo from 2013)

FIU fans didn’t get in depth coverage of the season opener from the Miami Herald this weekend. (AP File Photo from 2013)

The Obama administration has limited access by photojournalists and other reporters to White House events and to the President. Local governments and police refuse to speak with reporters whose work they dislike. Candidates restrict reporters to “press areas,” ensuring that conversations with the public are not overheard. Professional and collegiate sports teams have steadily made it more difficult to cover live events.

Many of those who control access have decided that thanks to technology, they need news organizations less and less to deliver their messages. So as they steadily build their capacity and expertise for communicating directly to the public, they grow bolder about telling journalists to take a walk.

All of this points me to two conclusions:

  • Journalists must keep up—no, escalate—the fight for access to information the public needs and has a right to get.
  • At the same time, we must get much better at covering the news without the access that others control.

Many journalism organizations are lobbying for greater access to information and events that should be available to the public; so have individual news organizations, which also file thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests each year.

Join their efforts. It’s crucial to the ability of journalism to serve the public.

But while we’re fighting for our rights, we also have a job to do. And that job calls for us to fulfill the compact we have with the public:

Get the story. Even when others make it difficult.

Let’s be honest—the best journalism has often involved the reporter’s ability to obtain information someone did not want the public to have. Yet journalists got it anyway.

What I’m suggesting is that we need to apply that same mindset to areas of coverage that seem far more routine than our most ambitious enterprise work.

But we need to do it—because the public expects us to. And that’s who we work for. Not the government, large or small. Not the police. Not the local advocate for the disadvantaged. And certainly not any sports team.

We work for the public. And that’s why, when one of those entities tries to manage our coverage by denying us access, we need to ask:

What does the public want us to do?

In my experience, the public is a harsh employer. Aware of an increasing number of options for getting information, the public is likely to say:

Just get the story.

As I was browsing the web for some information on access, I stumbled upon a page on the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) web site. Headlined Shooting Sports: Tips from the Pros, the page featured six tips from Jim Colton, former Photography Editor for Sports Illustrated. Colton preceded his advice by addressing what he called a “Myth:”

“Great sports photos are only made from credentialed positions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“It’s nice to be in the first or third base dugouts at a baseball game but some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands, or elevated positions. This is true for almost all sports, but especially outside the professional spectrum. More and more leagues are trying to control access and content so you will have better luck getting clearance on a collegiate, high school or even parochial level….and…you’ll probably make better pictures. There are many local sporting events that do not require a credential. Start there.”

Colton’s advice anticipates that the access which photographers have traditionally enjoyed will continue to grow more restricted. But he doesn’t suggest we respond by taking our cameras home. He urges photographers to seek alternatives—and note that he says “some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands.”

What if Colton’s advice had been applied to the Herald’s standoff with FIU? The Herald knew it had a responsibility to the public and addressed it by running a short wire services report. What would have happened if the Herald’s reporter, who bought a ticket to Saturday’s game, had written a full, bylined critique of the game from the stands? The message to FIU would be clear—you cannot tell us who will cover your game because we don’t work for you—and the public would get the benefit of Neal’s expertise.

Interviewed on Sunday, Hirsch said Herald editors had discussed having Neal write from the stands, but decided against it because of their concern for accuracy. He said they were reluctant to depend on the stadium’s PA announcements for accurate play-by-play information.

If Colton were giving advice on how to cover local government when officials stop talking with you, I imagine he might say forget the officials and turn your focus—both written and visual—to the people who are affected by the government’s work. Tell their stories. Draw connections between their situations and the government decisions that contributed to them. (And be sure to tell your audience that officials no longer talk with your reporter—and why.)

I know that what I’m suggesting sometimes will require additional work. And I know that at a time when newsrooms are strapped for resources, the thought of additional work seems unreasonable. But therein lies the part of this situation that makes me uneasy in the first place.

Access, sometimes, lets us take the easy way out.

Yes, sometimes we use our access to government officials or athletes or politicians to learn something important to the public’s understanding of an issue. No question.

But sometimes we use that access to get “official” quotes that ostensibly give our stories credibility. We quote the police, the school board member, the left fielder, even when their quotes mean little and paste over the fact we didn’t get to the truth.

Here’s my suggestion:

Let’s fight, harder than ever, for access to information the public has a right to get.

But let’s also stop leaning on access to get stories that fall short of what the public needs.

Let’s take a hard look at the stories we’re pursuing and the information we’re filling them with, and ask whether access—in some cases—is letting us take the easy way out. Maybe we should turn the focus of our government coverage toward the people who are affected before officials stop talking with us.

Because maybe that would be a better story.







  Read more


Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

Businesswoman stressed out

Overworked and overwhelmed? Consider these 7 questions

If you’re feeling swamped at work these days, you’re not alone. I’m not talking “I don’t get to go out for lunch very often” busy. I mean “I’m buried in work, never fully off the clock and still feel I’m letting people down” busy. I hear it regularly from the managers I teach and coach.

It’s a function of the downsized staffing but increased demands and responsibilities in changing organizations.

The story is familiar: to hit budget numbers, the company cuts head count but leaves fully intact the expectation of quality, service and measurable results. (I’ll give CNN president Jeff Zucker credit. Referencing the depressing specter of buyouts and layoffs, he didn’t try to spin it as some great opportunity for the survivors to work smarter, not harder. He said “We are going to do less and have to do it with less.”)

Businesswoman stressed out

But what about those who are doing so much, perhaps too much, these days?  Their leaders often suggest that they do a better job of delegation. They may be right. Even when staffing is strong, managers often hesitate to delegate. For perspective, I looked for my first Poynter.org column on delegation: “Why We Don’t Delegate, but Could.” I wrote it in 2002!

But delegation alone isn’t enough today. Front line managers need to work with their leaders to take a comprehensive look at workloads, workflow, strategies, systems and shifting priorities in changing times. They need to constantly communicate about effectiveness, efficiency and yes, exhaustion.

As I work with organizations that are trying to do just that, I developed 7 questions for leaders and managers to ask themselves. I hope you find them helpful:

1. Whose job is it, anyway? This is a call for clarification of the manager’s role. What are the most important responsibilities he/she should have? What tasks have gravitated to that person because of tradition, or a particular talent, or simply by default? What assumptions underlie the manager’s list of duties, and is it time to challenge some of them?

2. When I feel guilty about delegating, what’s the reason?  Some managers fear that delegating is simply dumping on others, a confession of incompetence and or a sign of slacking off.  Empathy, expertise and work ethic are all commendable qualities of managers, but shouldn’t stand in the way of a rational review of one’s workload.

3. Do I secretly love certain tasks and don’t want to let go? This one is self-evident. If you simply love keeping a hand in certain things, even if they are not essential to your management role, what’s the cost/benefit ratio? Only you and your leaders can assess whether the joy is worth the ripple effect it has on other work and people. It may be. Just be transparent about your decision to keep doing that task – and open to revisiting the impact.

4. What do I have to learn to teach before I can delegate this? Managers often keep doing a task because they’re ill-prepared to train others how to do it. They don’t want to take the time to build an instruction guide or plan, or don’t feel comfortable training others — so they keep doing the work themselves. Admit it: this is a problem you can solve.

5. How can I maintain quality over things I delegate? Concern about quality control often causes managers to avoid delegating. But you CAN keep close enough touch to ensure things will go well. When I wrote about delegation in my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I highlighted a quote taken from some terrific feedback that a boss in one of my seminars received:

He never rests on his laurels and is always seeking ways to improve our performance, even as resources contract and the pressure on staff increases. He is not afraid to delegate; he stands back and lets you get on with it, but he is always close at hand, seeking updates on how the job is going, asking if assistance is needed.

6. What ambitions of ours are most helpful? When do we get too distracted by shiny objects? Management teams need work together to determine when they are committing to projects without sufficient analysis of the potential impact. It looks like this: We go to a meeting to talk about a new idea, initiative or tool. We’re high achievers, so we attack that idea with 100% energy and attention. We don’t think in terms of tradeoffs of time and effort. We plunge in. And later, we may celebrate it or regret it. Innovation is critical to business success, so I’m not arguing against it at all. But be strategic rather than impulsive on the front end as you choose to pursue opportunities.

7. What can we kill without fear of capital punishment? There’s a reason I saved this one for last. If you, as a manager, want to persuade your leadership that it’s time to STOP doing something, you need to demonstrate that you’ve looked at every other alternative, especially your own performance. The powers-that-be can see that you aren’t whining or not up to the task of management. Rather, you’re a self-managing, high-performing partner. Together, you’ll assess whether a task or project produces sufficient return on the investment of your time and talent.

* * *

There’s one more critical piece of advice I give to managers who want to delegate effectively and help those to whom they delegate succeed. I share it in this companion podcast.

Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

Tear gas shot at protestors

5 lessons the St. Louis Post-Dispatch learned from covering Ferguson

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road near West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Robert Cohen

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road near West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Robert Cohen

The teamwork and quick thinking required to tell the biggest story in St. Louis transformed the newsroom at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

During a conversation with Poynter senior faculty Kenny Irby, Post-Dispatch director of photography Lynden Steele and video director Gary Hairlson discussed how covering Michael Brown’s shooting and the protests that followed forced the paper to reconsider its safety precautions, its policies for licensing photos and the way its reporters prioritized their coverage.

Poynter pulled out some of the lessons from the interview and listed them below:

1. Raw video rules
Raw video was a huge traffic driver during the Ferguson protests, helping the paper accumulate about 1.5 million pageviews during one week, Hairlson said.

When reporters and photographers were too busy to edit footage on the spot, they would often send quick snippets of video to Hairlson, who would piece them together and make sure they were published.

2. Train your reporters to take video before big news breaks
The Post-Dispatch began training its reporters how to shoot video about six years ago, an investment that paid off when they began shooting during the protests without being asked.

“It’s one of those things where we really didn’t have to tell people to shoot, they just automatically started doing it,” Hairlson said.

One of the most popular Post-Dispatch videos from Ferguson, Missouri wasn’t shot by a member of the video staff, Hairlson said. It was a footage of a man talking about the motivation for looting, captured by a reporter.

3. Figure out a plan for photo licensing in advance
Requests from media outlets seeking to license the Post-Dispatch’s photos and video was a major distraction, Hairlson said. The calls were so frequent that they interrupted the normal workflow.

“They were through the roof,” Hairlson said. “And it was the point to where we were getting 10 to 12 a day.”

Hairlson recommends finding someone outside the newsroom who can handle requests to purchase and license content during busy breaking news situations.

4. Communication is key to safety
After Post-Dispatch photographer David Carson was assaulted while trying to photograph a burning gas station, he made sure to send a text to his editor that said, “I’m OK.”

This text was in keeping with a strategy employed by the paper to keep track of the staff’s whereabouts during the sometimes dangerous protests in Ferguson. Steele periodically texted his photographers to make sure they were OK and kept them in pairs so they could keep in touch and support one another in hazardous situations.

5. Give exhausted staffers a break
As the week wore on, the long hours began sapping the energy from the photography staff, Steele said. He recalls talking to Carson one night and realizing from the conversation that he was exhausted. Carson took the next day off.

Working from home conducting interviews or editing is one way to decompress, Steele said.

Covering a huge story that draws national and international media is physically and emotionally draining, Hairlson said. It’s important to take some time off to renew focus.

“You just have to take a step back and get your head cleared, emotionally and physically and jump back in,” he said. Read more


Live hangout: lessons from Ferguson

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road near West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Robert Cohen

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road near West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Robert Cohen

How did the St. Louis Post-Dispatch keep its journalists safe while reporting on the protests and riots in Ferguson? How did the staffers build and maintain relationships with the community while covering the tumultuous event? Join two journalists from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Poynter senior faculty Kenny Irby for a discussion on some of the lessons Post-Dispatch journalists took away from one of St. Louis’ biggest story in years.

Lynden Steele, director of photography for the Post-Dispatch
Gary Hairlson, video director for the Post-Dispatch
Kenny Irby, director of community relations and diversity programs for the Poynter Institute

Read more


Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

Spitting in the eye of a deadline is risky business for any writer. Beyond the dangers of self-medication, the writer can 1) have an anxiety attack, 2) be punished for getting the work in late, 3) leave no time for revision, and 4) leave no time for editors and other collaborators to do their best work. Not one of these comes into play when the writer sets an artificial deadline.

Author Jaipi Sixbear describes how writers working online can be both productive and punctual:

Remember to write your assignments two days ahead of their due date whenever possible. You can even trick yourself into meeting deadlines easily. Put an earlier due date on your outline. Chances are, you won’t have time to look up the actual date due. Your editor will be impressed with your promptness.

This process can work by the year, the week, or the day. If it is noon and your story is due at 6 p.m., impose a 4 p.m. deadline on yourself and use the extra two hours to improve the story.

For a big project, I like to use holidays as time targets. For “Help! For Writers,” I had a deadline around Christmastime, so I imposed a fake deadline on myself for Labor Day.

When the draft started to flow, I told myself, “You know, Roy, you could finish this by your wedding anniversary, Aug. 7.” I shipped out a completed draft just after the Fourth of July weekend, almost six months ahead of contract deadline. It may have set a Little, Brown record. Take that, Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger! You slackers. Read more


Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

Jay Nixon

Was Ferguson a ‘news desert’ until two weeks ago?

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference  in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of  Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Coming late to the Ferguson story, I have a modest thought to add to the ongoing discussion of why the police shooting and the bumbling local response to protests happened there.

My hunch is that like many aging and changing suburban communities, Ferguson had received only the most episodic of news coverage until all hell broke loose.  Political theory and high profile reports from the Knight Foundation and FCC suggest that when a town is a news desert, low civic engagement is almost certain to follow.

So if that’s the theory, isn’t Ferguson the practice?  A community, as the phrase goes, that doesn’t know how to talk to itself.

Many reports have noted that with a nearly 70 percent African-American population (flipping the racial composition of 20 years ago), the town’s 53-person police force has only three black officers.  Others have observed that the mayor, the school board and other elements of the governing power structure in Ferguson remain virtually all white.

We will soon find out whether patronage and racism have kept the police force as it is.  But as for white dominance in elections, that seems as if it could only be explained by the black majority being uninvolved and unorganized politically.  Rev. Al Sharpton observed as much Sunday, calling for a registration drive and improvement of a dismal 12 percent turnout rate in the last election.

What kind of news coverage had Ferguson been receiving?

Margie Freivogel, editor of St. Louis Public Radio (formerly the St. Louis Beacon) pointed me to a pair of weeklies based in larger towns nearby.   But their Ferguson stories appear fragmentary and not aggressive at all.  (The August 14 edition of the Florissant Valley Independent led with “leaders’ reactions” to the shooting and protests with no additional reporting).

Freivogel, who was a long time Post-Dispatch staffer from 1971 to the mid-2000s, added “the P-D never intensely covered Ferguson or north county. But it was certainly covered more heavily than now.”

Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor of the Post-Dispatch, confirmed that in an e-mail:

The Post-Dispatch used to have a North County bureau, which I believe we closed in 2007.  Ferguson was one of many north St. Louis County communities covered by two reporters in that office. We used to zone a North County page twice a week. Our sister Suburban Journals publications ended their weekly North County edition in 2011.

But, Goodman said, the Post-Dispatch has still made it out to Ferguson to cover important stories like the dismissal of a popular black school superintendent or continuing foreclosure issues.

My own reporting and Steve Waldman’s FCC study both found that metros, which have been forced to make the deepest cute news staff in the last decade, typically denuded their suburban coverage and pulled back to the city limits.

I visited this phenomenon five years ago in a story “Alhambra, Calif.: The  Little Town News Forgot.”  Four times the population of Ferguson, Alhambra is a suburban community of small bungalows, just north of prosperous South Pasadena.  It once had its own daily newspaper and subsequently was covered by a small Los Angeles Times bureau and the Pasadena Star-News until the early 2000s.  Then coverage dropped from several stories a week in the Times to five or six a year.

Meantime Alhambra demographics, like Ferguson’s, changed radically.  From a mostly white community, it  became a center for Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups with some white and a very small African-American population remaining.  Indicators of civic vitality were remarkably low, in part because many in the major ethnic groups could not speak each others’ language.

This prompted USC-Annenberg journalism professor Michael Parks (formerly the editor of the  L.A. Times) to assemble grants and help from colleagues to build a new digital site with the Alhambra community from the ground up. The resulting  Alhambra Source, with a professional editor coordinating a corps of citizen contributors, has had typical growing pains and financial sustainability challenges but is still publishing.

I can see something of the sort in Ferguson’s future once the current crisis settles.  Huffington Post announced yesterday that it will try to crowd-source a locally based reporter and give her continuing support from its own professionals.

My Poynter colleagues Kristen Hare and Jill Geisler have ably chronicled the strong local media response of the last two weeks (Ferguson is just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis). Freivogel’s public radio news department will no doubt continue its Ferguson blog, and the Post-Dispatch and TV stations now have the issues of Ferguson and similar towns in fragmented St. Louis county in their sites.  National media wonks too have discovered oddities that bear continuing analysis.

To be clear, the erosion of newspaper coverage in Ferguson and a vast swath of  suburban/exurban communities where so many Americans choose to live undercuts democracy.  But the remedy, if one is forthcoming, is not going to be a revival of  newspaper coverage — but rather something else, something new, something digital.

Trayvon Martin story reveals new tools of media power, justice Read more


Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014


Veteran photojournalist talks about going into hotspots

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

“The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group, ISIL,” President Barack Obama said on Wednesday. “He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away.”

Around the time of the speech, I was discussing the impact of honest photographic reporting on an Associated Press Photo Managers’ online panel. One the many takeaways from the panel: The role of the photojournalist is often misunderstood. These women and men see themselves as the eyes and ears of the community. One just needs to ponder the disconcerting experience of seeing this focused group of individuals who rush to the epicenter of drama and trauma while others flee for safety.

Take Ron Haviv, co-owner of VII Photo, whom I spoke with this week. He has been taken hostage three times.

He said contrary to popular opinions, all photographers covering conflict zones are not adrenaline junkies solely out to make a name for themselves.

“I say this out of experience,” Haviv said. “To some degree, going back to the war in Yugoslavia, more magazines and agencies are hesitant to put you on full assignment because the responsibility for your safety is become so great.”

“In the case of Syria it is all across the board. Some places are refusing to take work from freelancers in order to discourage them from taking such risks, some places will not look at your work until you are safely out of that region and then there are places like the GlobalPost, they will take your work and do what they can to support you, like they did for James,” referring to Foley.

No doubt the risk appears to be greater than the reward for the photojournalist, which is why Haviv and others now strongly encourage journalists be required to complete some sort of hostile environment training course or preparation.

“Seeing amazing things, and witnessing historical times and seeing the impact on different human situations is why I did what I did” for the first five years of covering conflict areas, said Haviv, who said he has documented three genocides.

Now, he said, it is about “raising awareness, moving people to action” and creating a “body of evidence” to hold people accountable.

“Through the work of credible journalists, the world is witnessing this live,” he said, “not allowing the excuse, ‘we did not know.’” Read more

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Lauren Bacall and the value of reading your old stories

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself."   (AP Photo/Press Association)

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself." (AP Photo/Press Association)

A couple of days after Lauren Bacall died, I ran into an old friend who remembered that I had once interviewed her for the St. Petersburg Times. To my shock, he even quoted a line from the story: “You wrote that she could scratch your back with her voice.” There was a lesson here about the power of the written word, that a reader could remember a story that the writer had mostly forgotten, and that the language of that story could stick with the reader for 35 years.

With the help of the good folks at what is now the Tampa Bay Times, I unearthed my profile of Miss Bacall. The exact date of publication was March 16, 1979. I had been writing and coaching writers at the newspaper for two years, and was in the middle of a stint as a substitute film and theater critic.

During my watch, Robert Altman came to town to make a movie called HealtH, a star-studded dud of a flick, meant to be a parody of national politics, that, in spite of the efforts of Miss Bacall, James Garner, Carol Burnett, and Glenda Jackson, never saw the light of day.

For me, though, covering the film was a professional bonanza. Over three months, I wrote more than two-dozen news stories, profiles, and features. I learned a lot, and I am about to learn something more.

I’ve come to believe in the value of re-reading your old stories. At the age of 66, I am asking myself today, “What can you see in yourself as a 30-year-old writer that was invisible back then but may be useful to you now?”

Before I can answer that question for you, I’ve got to read the my story again, and I hope you will read it too.

The Look of Lauren Bacall
By Roy Peter Clark
March 16, 1979

Lauren Bacall plays the ancient grand dame of HEALTH, a national health food organization. Her name is Esther Brill, an octogenarian who does not look her age because she has spent her life eating health foods and avoiding sex.

She espouses the belief that “sex is a killer” and campaigns under the slogan “The Pure President.”

“I play an 83-year-old virgin, which I am,” said Miss Bacall at a press conference Thursday in the Don CeSar Beach Resort Hotel. She was dressed in a striped blouse and a long, purple skirt.

“How do you validate your age and your virginity in the film?” I asked shyly.

She laughed. “Well, honey, if you can suggest a way that I can validate my virginity, I’d be most happy to do that.”

Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.

I heard in that voice the echoes of To Have and Have Not, her first film with Bogie where she made the promise that all men dream of: “If you want me just whistle.”

Or maybe it was the look in her eyes, eyes that were still youthful, bright, intelligent, full of good humor, yet profoundly alluring.

It was Lauren Bacall, all right. The Look.

The Look that launched a thousand magazine covers, that offered a generation of moviegoers some sweet unspoken promise of love.

Lauren Bacall may be the most seductive actress in the history of American films. There are few scenes in this age of cinematic explicitness that rival the torrid intimacy of her famous love scenes with her husband Humphrey Bogart. They stroke the imagination years after we’ve seen them.

“I think for everyone to see everything is boring,” she said. “I think to use your imagination is more exciting. When you see a love scene and you imagine what might go on is more stimulating than to actually see it. That’s the thing about films: you see these enormous people – you know the size of us on the big screen is ridiculous – and you can be kind of encompassed by these characters. You can lose yourself for that period of two hours.”

Lauren Bacall understands the movies. They have been her life, a life that she describes with humor and passion in Lauren Bacall By Myself, the best-selling nonfiction book in the country.

Her affinity for films may have begun in the womb: “As the nine months came to a close,” she relates in her book, “Mother went to a movie one hot September evening, started to feel the anxious creature within her make her first moves to push her way out, left the movie house, and at about two o’clock in the morning…I was born.”

She wrote the book herself, in an easy intelligent style.

“Writing the book was almost like childbirth, in a way. I almost had post partem depression when I turned the manuscript over. It was a tremendously cathartic experience. It’s much easier to write about something than it is to talk about it. What I wrote, I wrote. And that is self-explanatory. So I certainly don’t feel obliged to talk about any of it in detail. And I also have kept one or two things to myself.”

Miss Bacall punctuated her answers with hearty, unaffected laughs and projected a warmth that could melt the most stone-hearted of interviewers.

Her director, Robert Altman, has said that he cast Miss Bacall in HEALTH “because I like her and it’s the only way I could get close to her.”

She returns the affection: “We all feel very much together on this film. It’s a very happy combination of people and personalities. None of us have ever worked together before. But there is much more of a sense of unity than is normally on a film. Bob Altman is very open to actors’ ideas and suggestions. An actor could not work in a more open or easier atmosphere.”

Born in New York City, her real name was Betty Joan Weinstein Perske and everyone on the set still calls her Betty. It’s a plainer name than Lauren, but it fits. Because beyond everything else, it takes only a few minutes with Lauren Bacall to understand that she is a wonderful, down-to-earth woman, who has not let fame cloud her sense of herself.

She explains in her book that she learned her values from Bogart: “To be good was more important than to be rich. To be kind was more important than owning a house or a car. To respect one’s work and to do it well, to risk something in life, was more important than being a star. To never sell your soul – to have self-esteem – to be true – was most important of all.”

I know there are writers who never read their old stories. The reluctance, I believe, stems from the impostor syndrome, that all of their insufficiencies and fallibilities will surface in the re-reading. They will look at their old stories the way I look at videos of my golf swing and opine, “Man, I really do suck.”

When I go back to look at an old story, my response is usually different. I may cringe at this phrase or wish I had revised that, but my overwhelming impression goes something like this: “Hmm. This stuff is pretty good. The kid can write.”

I’ll ignore, for the most part, the elements in my profile that I’d wish to change. There is a star-struck quality to the prose that I would have toned-down a bit. And who can know for sure if Bacall was really a “wonderful” person or merely a good actor? In the age of Snark, my profile might look like a puff piece.

But let me dwell on the good stuff:

  • I can see and hear myself in the prose. Without the byline, I could still tell it was me. This is a quality we call “voice,” that illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader. I can trace a governing intelligence in the prose, a quality that poet Peter Meinke calls “wit.”
  • I was clearly prepared for the press conference – a format that can be deadly to writers – by having read her autobiography, a best-seller at the time. Not only could I derive ideas and questions from the book, but more of her own language as well, including the anecdote about her birth and her powerful mission statement about life and work that I save for the end.
  • I remember going into the event with a theme in mind: that at a time when more and more explicit sexuality was being revealed on the big screen, Bacall and Bogart had set a different – and better – standard. After she fielded some boring questions from a local TV guy, I asked her, “Miss Bacall, can we please talk about sex.” To which she replied, “Oh, let’s do.” The fact that I was writing about sexuality will come as no surprise to my friends and colleagues. It has been a trademark of my work and life and I have, on occasion, toed the danger line. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
  • Finally, I admire in my own work a not yet fully developed playfulness with language. “The look that launched a thousand magazine covers” feels slightly derivative but works in context. And I can also admire the passage that would be remembered by an old friend three decades later:

“Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.”

This story turns out to have a highly personal kicker. At the time of the interview, my wife Karen was pregnant with our third child. If it turned out to be a girl, we would call her Rene. Months later we got tired of that name, and I came forward with a suggestion, “What if we called her Lauren, after Lauren Bacall.”

[Try this exercise: Go back and find a story you wrote three months or three years ago. The older the piece, the “colder” it will feel to you, enabling you to read it more objectively. Ask yourself these questions: What pleases me? What would I now change? How would I describe the voice of this writer? What important lessons about writing have I learned since?] Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

4 tips for creating efficient newsrooms from Vox’s Yuri Victor

Yuri Victor, a senior user experience designer at Vox.com, began his talk at TedxPoynterInstitute Tuesday by explaining how a newsroom shouldn’t operate.

Dysfunctional newsrooms are characterized by a lack of communication that makes creating new things difficult, Victor said. When somebody gets a good idea, they have to wade through endless bureaucratic roadblocks to make it a reality. And when the final project is released, it often doesn’t resemble the original idea.

These journalists, who are stuck in organizations where they can’t get anything done, end up miserable because they feel ineffectual, Victor said. They get into journalism to make a difference, but never get the chance.

RELATED: Using design thinking to build new news products

During his talk, Victor outlined a few points for transforming newsrooms from places of frustration and unrealized ideas into hubs of communication and collaboration. I’ve listed a few below:

  1. Break down silosLack of communication between departments creates islands of influence in the newsroom, where managers can reign over their staff without consulting others.

    “Siloed newsrooms create egos,” Victor said. “Newsrooms inflict them on themselves.”


    Victor addresses the audience at TedxPoynterInstitute Tuesday. Photo credit: Benjamin Mullin

    News organizations can combat this trend by creating teams with representatives from several different departments, Victor said. This opens up new channels of communication and ensures that people from multiple areas of the newsroom have a voice.

  2. Communicate efficientlyEmployees often complain about poor communication even when they face a daily deluge of emails and long, boring meetings, Victor said.

    To snap this trend, newsrooms should consider taking ponderous email conversations into instant messaging, where members of a team can give input in real-time. Chats also make communication between teams easier, allowing anybody to contribute an idea and instantly answer follow-up questions.

    Vox employees try to limit their daily meetings to five minutes to avoid unnecessary digressions, Victor said. They discuss their daily goals and what might prevent them from being accomplished.

    Vox.com also uses Slack, a service that consolidates and organizes communication between members of a team. Now, Victor says he only gets emails whenever someone is hired or the office is celebrating a birthday.

  3. Create a support networkThe day Victor arrived at Vox.com, several people in the newsroom began sending him messages, asking if he had a few minutes to talk. When he responded, they all asked him the same question: How’s your first day going?

    When employees make a simple effort to check in with one another, they create a supportive atmosphere that spreads quickly from one person to the next. Before long, every team in a newsroom is supporting every other team, creating a network that’s near-impossible to break down.

    “When you value support, you get better support,” Victor said.

    Now, every time someone new arrives at Vox, Victor sends them a message inquiring about their first day.

  4. Constantly question your newsroom’s policyIt may be that none of Vox.com’s organization strategies work in a given newsroom, Victor said. This is because every newsroom is different and constantly changing. Newsrooms have to be able to adapt their culture to accommodate advances in technology.

    That’s why it’s important to constantly re-evaluate newsroom policy, he said. Try different organizational strategies and encourage people to question them.

    “As content evolves, as platform evolves, we may have to organize our people and our culture to accommodate whatever’s new.”

Read more