How a small experiment at The Washington Post revolutionized its content management platform

About three years ago, The Washington Post embarked on a complete overhaul of the way it creates and publishes content online.

The project was ambitious. The Post — which then relied primarily on a legacy content management system called Méthode — wanted a platform that could handle articles, video, mobile apps and analytics, something that gave designers and producers the ability to quickly create and edit page templates.

So, the paper brought together a group of engineers, some handpicked from within the paper and others hired externally, and embedded them within the newsroom to see what reporters and producers needed, said Gregory Franczyk, chief architect at The Washington Post. They started with a temporary fix, gradually transitioning sections of the site to WordPress beginning with Wonkblog, which was then run by Ezra Klein.

Then, early last year, Post engineers were faced with a seemingly trivial task: make author pages for staff members without using the paper’s cumbersome CMS. To solve the problem, they developed a new platform — tentatively called Pagebuilder — that allows easy creation of page templates.

Because of its ease of use and aesthetic appeal, developers and editors at The Post began clamoring for content built with Pagebuilder, Franczyk said. A makeover of The Post’s recipes section came next, followed by Post TV, the paper’s video initiative. The platform was then used to build custom articles for the paper’s Olympic coverage and spin off a couple of standalone pages.

Now, what began as a simple experiment to improve the site’s author pages has evolved into the beginnings of a completely new content management platform for The Post. By this time next year, the paper plans to build the platform out into a suite of Web applications that encompass a variety of functions, including writing stories, planning editorial content and displaying it with a variety of page templates.

Taken together, those Web apps — pieces of software run through a browser — will constitute the paper’s content platform, which will be the equivalent of a nimble, flexible content managing system, Franczyk said in an email to Poynter.

“We need software that’s on the bleeding edge of technology in media, we haven’t found it, so we’re building it,” he said.

A screenshot of Pagebuilder, part of The Washington Post's forthcoming content platform (Credit: Gregory Franczyk)

A screenshot of Pagebuilder, part of The Washington Post’s forthcoming content platform (Credit: Gregory Franczyk)

Currently in development at The Post is an application tentatively titled “Storybuilder,” that will be the paper’s next-generation text editor, Franczyk said. Planned features include in-line comments for editors and change tracking, real-time collaboration and story previews for both mobile and the Web. The engineering team is also mulling other additions to Storybuilder, including a feature that would allow The Post to create an index of facts associated with each story. Using this index, Storybuilder could automatically update every story on a certain topic when a related article is updated, or notify editors when a particular story is out-of-date.

Also in the works is a “full photo-management solution” that will use a content ID system to automatically classify each photo uploaded by Post journalists and put them into a searchable index. The Post also plans to debut a separate content management system for its video that will take over many of the tasks currently handled by third-party software.

Although The Post developed the new platform primarily for internal use, the paper is considering making it available to other news organizations through a combination of open sourcing and subscription. The Post doesn’t yet have fixed pricing models in place, but it’s likely that news organizations could be charged for access to the apps and for hosting on The Post’s platform.

It’s possible, however, that “major components” of the platform will be open-source, Franczyk said.

The Post’s suite of Web apps presents a more specialized alternative to traditional do-it-all content management systems like Drupal and WordPress, Franczyk said. Because the apps are built with professional news organizations in mind, they will be able to use them out of the box, with little customization needed.

This week, The Post put that claim to the test, announcing Monday a selective testing program with two college news organizations, the (Columbia University) Daily Spectator and the (University of Maryland) Diamondback, which have each used parts of Pagebuilder to create in-depth online features.

By partnering with college news organizations, The Post gets to field-test its offerings in a low-stakes environment, said Shailesh Prakash, the paper’s chief information officer and vice president of technology. Traffic is generally lower and fewer pieces of content are posted daily compared to a professional news organization. Plus, The Post gets to connect its brand with the next generation of journalists.

The (University of Maryland) Diamondback used Washington Post's Pagebuilder to transform its series on Jayson Blair's tenure as a student editor.

The (University of Maryland) Diamondback used Washington Post’s Pagebuilder to transform its series on Jayson Blair’s tenure as a student editor.

So far, The Post is only sharing Pagebuilder’s rendering and presentation templates with its college partners, but the news organizations have already begun using them to spin off full-page feature stories. Staffers at The Diamondback have used it to repackage its three-part series on Jayson Blair, who was formerly editor of the paper. The Columbia Daily Spectator has already used the template to produce two feature packages, including an in-depth takeout of a disappointing fundraising initiative and a longread about diversity in Columbia’s theater scene.

The (Columbia University) Daily Spectator also used Pagebuilder to transform one of its stories, a long-form piece chronicling the woes of the Columbia Science Initiative.

The (Columbia University) Daily Spectator also used Pagebuilder to transform one of its stories, a long-form piece chronicling the woes of the Columbia Science Initiative.

So far, Diamondback staffers have run into little trouble using the platform, but they did struggle to fit ads onto the ornate feature pages, said Laura Blasey, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Steven Lau, the managing editor at The Columbia Daily Spectator, says Pagebuilder has allowed the paper to make high-quality content without skilled developers, which are generally rare at college newspapers.

“At a college paper, you’re there for four years or less, and I think this partnership with The Post is allowing us to focus on the stories we tell and not have to worry about the technology to do that,” Lau said.

The two student news organizations were chosen for their proximity to The Post’s offices — one in New York and one in Washington, D.C. — as well as their respective reputations, Prakash said. The paper is in talks to expand the tryout to other college publications that have expressed interest in the platform.

The iteration and disruptive thinking that helped produce Pagebuilder — and the suite of applications that will follow — is necessary for news organizations that want to stay relevant in the coming years, Prakash said in an email to Poynter.

“Content is king, but the design of the presentation, the speed of the product, the quality of the feature set and the seamlessness with which it is presented across platforms is equally important,” Prakash said. Read more

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Journalism Center on Children and Families will shut down

JCCF

The University of Maryland is closing the Journalism Center on Children and Families at the end of the year due to lack of financial support from its primary funder, the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Julie Drizin, the center’s director, announced the closure in an email (full email below) Wednesday, citing lack of reinvestment from the foundation as the biggest contributing factor for the closure. The University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which houses the center, “has concluded that this Center is not sustainable in the current economic climate,” according to the email.

But the center will busy between now and its closure, Drizin told Poynter.

“We are still busy between now and then,” she said. “I can’t even tell you. This has been a very vibrant year for us.”

At the end of October, the center will launch a website containing a series of stories about social work titled “Lifelines: Stories from the Human Safety Net,” Drizin said. The site will also contain resources for journalists looking to report on social work. The center is also working with the Aspen Institute to organize a forum on race and journalism in society, slated for December.

The center is perhaps known for awarding the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, which recognize “the past year’s best reporting on children, youth and families in the U.S,” according to its website. In earlier years, the center also held weeklong fellowship programs that allowed journalists to meet and discuss journalism focused on child and family issues.

Dear Friend of JCCF:

With great sadness, I announce that the Journalism Center on Children & Families will close at the end of 2014.

Formerly the Casey Journalism Center, JCCF was founded 20 years ago by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which recognized the crucial role of the news media in shining a spotlight on the lives of children and families in the U.S. The foundation launched the center at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, a school renown for public affairs journalism. For the past two decades, JCCF has helped inspire, support, spread and reward excellent reporting on kids. We’ve trained and assisted hundreds of journalists in every kind of media in every part of the the U.S.

JCCF’s funding will run out at the end of this year. The College has concluded that this Center is not sustainable in the current economic climate. Indeed, these are very challenging times in the worlds of journalism and education.

JCCF thanks the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the College, the University System of Maryland Foundation and other foundations that have contributed to our successful run as the nation’s only journalism center devoted to deepening coverage of children and families. We also wish to thank all of the people who have served on our staff, advisory board and as judges in our annual Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism contests.

I came to JCCF nearly three years ago. During my tenure, I expanded the Casey Medals program, developed and taught a new undergraduate journalism course on covering children, youth and families, launched a new website, shared best practices and other resources on covering child deaths, New American Children, and sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. This year, JCCF administered the Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship and Scholarship competition for the Marguerite Casey Foundation. And we received a grant from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Foundation to create LIFELines: Stories from the Human Safety Net, an original reporting project set to launch in a few weeks. Finally, JCCF is working with the Aspen Institute and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to produce an Aspen Forum on Journalism, Race and Society to be held this December.

This has been a very productive year. It’s been especially rewarding teaching my students that compassion and empathy are as important in journalism as in life. I am particularly proud of having influenced the AP Stylebook to recommend that news outlets no longer use the offensive phrase “illegitimate children.”

It has truly been an honor to serve as the director of JCCF. Keep fighting for the air time, the word count, the column inches and the resources to deliver stellar reporting about children, youth and families. Keep building bridges with youth media in your communities. Keep telling stories that change lives.

With Gratitude,

Julie Drizin

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Top 5 falsehoods about Ebola

This story originally appeared on the PunditFact website. Poynter is republishing with permission.

The spread of Ebola in West Africa, and now into Dallas, has stoked plenty of misinformation about the Ebola virus, its origins and the government’s response.

PolitiFact and PunditFact have been fact-checking claims about the Ebola outbreak since July. Here are our top five falsehoods.

No, illegal immigrants haven’t carried Ebola across the border

In July, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claiming that people are crossing the southern U.S. border carrying Ebola, citing "reports."

But none of the reports were credible, and the experts we talked to said Gingrey was wrong. (And since he said this in July, it’s safe to say we’d know by now if he was right.)

Gingrey’s claim rates Pants on Fire.

No, the Ebola outbreak isn’t a Bill Gates/George Soros conspiracy

Several conspiracy websites raised questions about a "bioweapons lab" in Sierra Leone being the source of the virus. Questions like, "What's behind the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone? Could it possibly be a U.S. bioweapons project gone amuck?"

Some of the websites tie the "bioweapons lab" to billionaires George Soros and Bill and Melinda Gates.

But, like Gingrey’s claim, there is no proof of Soros and Gates funding a bioweapons lab in Kenema, one of the largest cities in Sierra Leone with a population of about 150,000. And there’s really no case that a bioweapons lab in Kenema is behind the outbreak.

There are, however, a group of Tulane University researchers who have worked in the area for about a decade to better understand Lassa fever.

"We were there working 10 years and then Ebola came here," said Dr. Robert Garry, a Tulane University professor who is leading the research. "We’re not here to turn Lassa and Ebola into a kind of superweapon. It can do that on its own.

"The conspiracy theories really just kind of, wow," Garry said. "Our teammates are dying, and you’re talking this trash about us."

This claim is Pants on Fire.

No, Obama didn’t sign an order mandating detention of Americans

Bloggers are also behind a bogus claim that "President (Barack) Obama signed an executive order mandating the detention of Americans who show signs of ‘respiratory illness’."

The executive order in question is much more targeted than the article lets on, it isn’t aimed at Ebola, and while it allows health officials to quarantine someone with a highly contagious disease, it does not mandate it.

The executive order deals with respiratory diseases, but Ebola is not a respiratory disease.

Also, because public health matters are controlled by the states, the Department of Health and Human Services could only isolate people as they enter the country or attempt to travel from one state to another.

So this claim, too, is Pants on Fire.

No, we weren’t promised an Ebola-free America

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., claimed recently that the isolated cases of Ebola in the United States directly contradict the assurances of President Barack Obama and his administration.

"We were told there would never be a case of Ebola in the United States," McCain said.

Best we can tell, we were never told that.

We searched the public comments both of Obama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found no such matter-of-fact assurances. What officials and Obama have repeatedly said is that while there’s a chance an Ebola case could appear in the United States, the possibility of an outbreak is extremely low.

McCain’s claim rates False.

No, the United States hasn’t been secretly anticipating a widespread outbreak

On the flipside of McCain is former Dallas star Morgan Brittany, who wrote a blog suggesting that  that Ebola is part of a larger White House plan to control the nation.

Brittany’s column describes a Los Angeles dinner party where the conversation turned grim.

"One of the men brought up the fact that Washington has known for months if not years that we were at risk for some sort of global pandemic," Brittany wrote. "According to a government supplier of emergency products, the Disaster Assistance Response Team was told to be prepared to be activated in the month of October for an outbreak of Ebola."

Brittany’s story was based on tweets from a private California medical and safety services company, which now says the tweets were based on nothing.

"A couple of EMS guys were talking about conspiracy theories," said Ed Castillo, president of Golden State FIRE EMS, the organization behind the chatter. "There are no facts to support it. It can be written off as a couple of guys shooting the breeze."

Brittany’s claim rates Pants on Fire. Read more

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Chicago, by Kristen Hare

How ASNE has become similar to ONA (and vice-versa)

A quick scan of the program from September’s American Society of News Editors convention might lead you to believe you’d stumbled into the wrong Chicago hotel.

Sessions like “What Can We Learn from Startups?” and “How to Succeed at Mobile Before It’s Too Late,” seem as if they’d be more at home at the Online News Association conference, an annual gathering of digital journalists, which was held in the same town about a week later.

The ASNE/APME convention at the Hyatt Regency along the Chicago River was a collection of 362 leading newspaper editors and academics, plus 100 students. The ONA conference, held at a hotel just a short walk east, was a gathering of 1,882 journalists, developers, gamers, entrepreneurs, and heads of startups.

Those contrasts symbolize the organizations’ varying legacies and missions. ASNE, for example, is nearly a century old and was conceptualized by ink-stained editors hiking through Glacier National Park. ONA is 15 years old, and was born at a less pastoral location — O’Hare International Airport. ASNE mentions the word “newspaper” nine times in its mission statement. That word doesn’t appear once in ONA’s mission statement. ASNE’s very existence seemed in doubt just a few years ago. ONA’s conference has seen a 117 percent increase in conference attendance over the last five years.

Despite their very different pulp and pixels histories, however, the organizations’ nearly back-to-back national conventions had more in common than just being in nearby riverfront hotels. Their members were searching for new ways to reach larger audiences, contemplating the stampeding growth of news consumption on mobile devices and trying to figure how they could monetize those readers. And there was at least one big, similar question hanging over both conventions: What does a sustainable business model for journalism look like?

ASNE vice president Pam Fine, who co-chaired this year’s convention, said the organization has tried to step up its Web-focused sessions as digital transformation becomes increasingly urgent for newspaper editors throughout the country.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve recognized through our programming the importance of audience metrics, of digital storytelling, of mobile,” said Fine, who is also the Knight chair in news, leadership and community at the University of Kansas. “Our critical mission is to help news leaders develop effective content across multiple platforms, and digital is key to that.”

ASNE has taken several steps to put Web literacy near the top of its agenda in recent years. It dropped “paper” from its name in 2009 to be more inclusive of digital editors. It has also added a series of prominent digital editors to its board, including Stomping Ground Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jim Brady (2011) ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg (2012) and Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw (2014).

The emphasis on digital has been attractive to foundation funders. In September, The McCormick Foundation committed $250,000 to an ASNE program designed around increasing news literacy in the Internet age. That same month, ASNE announced an $85,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to hold a series of conferences designed to help editors adopt digital tools in their newsrooms. As part of the grant, ASNE will host digital-focused sessions at its annual conventions for the next three years. Disclaimer: Some of this money will go toward hosting Webinars at Poynter, where I work.

ASNE’s current strategy was born from a period of financial turmoil that mirrored the downturn in newspapers. In 2011, facing declining membership dues, foundation grants and convention revenue, the organization was in trouble. It had canceled its annual convention in 2009 — for the first time since World War II — because of a predicted drop in attendance. Leaders held a special meeting at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where they asked each other a critical question: was there any point in the organization existing anymore?

“After the full brunt of the recession in 2008, essentially what was happening to ASNE and many other trade groups was the class structure of the organization was really out of touch with what was going on with other news organizations,” said Chris Peck, president of ASNE.

The answer came back quickly, Peck said. Yes, ASNE was still relevant. But it had to rethink many things, including its budget, membership structure and fundraising strategy. It moved headquarters from Virginia to the University of Missouri to save costs and brought aboard a new executive director, Arnie Robbins, who had been the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Since then, things have improved, Peck said. The organization now has 476 members, up 90 from 2012. This year’s convention, which was held jointly for the first time with the Associated Press Media Editors, saw 60 more attendees than last year’s convention. And the financial outlook has been brighter, too. From 2012 to 2014, ASNE used $300,000 from its foundation to pay the bills; this year, ASNE projects a balanced budget without relying on its foundation.

For its part, ONA has recently taken practical action in areas of importance to ASNE, including freedom of expression, diversity and newsroom leadership. At its convention last month, ONA announced an award honoring digital-first conflict reporters in memory of GlobalPost journalist James Foley, who was killed by the Islamic State group after being captured in Syria. ONA conference organizers also made sure that an equal number of men and woman were selected to present sessions and tried to increase representation of journalists of color. And ONA this year announced a series of “digital leadership breakfasts,” which will allow top editors to gather and discuss the future of digital innovation.

The challenge of finding a way forward for news in the digital age has united journalists whether they belong to newer organizations like ONA or more storied groups like ASNE, Brady said to Poynter in an email.

“I think we’re beyond the point where we’re debating where our future lies: it’s clearly in digital,” Brady said. “Once that became obvious, I think journalism organizations became more united than they’d been, because we all had a common goal: finding viable business models for what we do in journalism. And I think that’s led to more cooperation between organizations that used to not collaborate much. In a way, we’re following the same ‘huddling for warmth’ course as journalism itself.” Read more

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BBC website blocked throughout China

BBC

The BBC’s website has been subjected to “deliberate censorship” across China in the wake of its coverage of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, the network reports.

Weeks ago, the BBC reported that Instagram appeared to be blocked in China, and phrases like “Occupy Central” and “Hong Kong students” were hidden on Twitter searches.

The BBC notes that it has been the subject of “intermittent blackouts” in China while reporting on the country.

Also on Wednesday, Reuters reported that a Chinese official in Hong Kong told foreign journalists to report on the ongoing Umbrella Revolutions demonstrations “objectively”.

Related: Kristen Hare’s Twitter list of journalists covering the Umbrella Revolution

The BBC’s website was most recently blocked in April 2012, during the network’s coverage of activist Chen Guangcheng’s escape, according to the BBC.

China has given other news organizations the same treatment in the past. Late last year, the government blocked websites for both The Wall Street Journal and Reuters; they were unblocked in early 2014. Read more

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NYT names Amy O’Leary deputy international editor

The New York Times has named one of the authors of its innovation report to the post of deputy international editor.

O’Leary confirmed the appointment to Poynter from Romania, where she’s speaking at a conference, adding that she’s among the first of the paper’s new “digital deputies.”

In July, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet put out a call for digital deputy editors in an interoffice memo, which was obtained by Capital. The Times plans to add “a deputy-level editor to each of the major news desks whose responsibility will be to ensure our coverage shines everywhere we publish,” according to the memo.

O’Leary, who helped produce the much-discussed innovation report that outlined The Times’ digital weaknesses and strengths, recently thought she might not even have a job at The Times, as she told a packed house at the 2014 Online News Association conference.

When she learned BuzzFeed reporter Myles Tanzer had obtained a leaked copy of the report, her first thought was, “Shit, I’m going to get fired.”

She was previously deputy editor of digital operations at The Times.

Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the O’Leary had been named assistant international editor. In fact, she was named deputy international editor. Read more

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Connor Schell, Bill Simmons

ESPN ‘frees’ Bill Simmons, but will he seek more freedom elsewhere?

mediawiremorningIt’s Wednesday. That means you get 10 media stories.

  1. Freed Simmons: ESPN’s Bill Simmons returns to the network today after his three-week suspension “for calling N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell a ‘liar’ during a podcast, and then effectively daring ESPN to punish him.” His contract expires next fall, Jonathan Mahler and Richard Sandomir report. Will he leave? (New York Times) | Deadspin would take him. (Deadspin) | Previously: At the time of the suspension, Kelly McBride wrote, “when your biggest star declares himself above his newsroom’s standards, the boss has to respond.” (Poynter)
  2. Oops — ABC News didn’t beat NBC after all: Two weeks ago, Nielsen reported that ABC’s “World News Tonight” topped “NBC Nightly News” for the first time in 260 weeks. But it turns out NBC actually kept its streak alive thanks to revised ratings after Nielsen discovered inaccuracies, Bill Carter reports. (New York Times)
  3. How Time is getting all that traffic: “Time, together with sister site Money, published at least five different pieces” on the day the cable channel FXX began its marathon of “The Simpsons.” Joseph Lichterman takes a deep look at how Time is engaging its audience — and how it has more than doubled its unique visitors in a year. (Nieman Lab) | Previously: Time.com’s bounce rate down 15 percentage points since adopting continuous scroll (Poynter)
  4. AP’s Gannon speaks: “Honestly, I’ve thought it through so many times — I know neither Anja or I would have done anything differently,” says AP correspondent Kathy Gannon in her first interview since she and photographer Anja Niedringhaus were attacked in Afghanistan in April. Niedringhaus was killed, and Gannon “was hit with six bullets that ripped through her left arm, right hand and left shoulder, shattering her shoulder blade.” (Poynter)
  5. Layoffs at CNN, Conde Nast: CNN has closed its entertainment news division, and shows including Christiane Amanpour’s have lost their production staffs, Alex Weprin reports. (Capital New York) Meanwhile, “Condé Nast is expected to lay off 70 to 80 employees within the next week or two, primarily from the group that oversees ad sales,” writes Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. (Wall Street Journal)
  6. Baltimore Sun redesign: A Los Angeles-times style redesign comes to another Tribune newspaper. Among the advantages, writes executive editor Trif Alatzas: “Endless-scroll technology connects you to other news categories and related articles and images without page breaks at the end of an article or Web page.” (Baltimore Sun) | Previously: New L.A. Times site: precooked tweets and a new flavor of infinite scroll (Poynter) | How news sites are adding continuous scrolls to article pages (Poynter)
  7. Vox’s email newsletter debuts today: One differentiator: It’ll be sent in the evening, not the morning. And it’ll consist of, uh, “sentences.” (Nieman Lab)
  8. ICYMI: The South Florida Sun Sentinel is reducing its emphasis on print, and that means changing things beyond workflow: “It’s our language, how we talk,” associate editor Anne Vasquez told Kristen Hare. For instance, “‘That was a great paper today’ or ‘Write that story for 1A.’” (Poynter)
  9. Front page of the day, curated by Kristen Hare: The final edition of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “one of the most venerable, staunchly independent, and defiantly weird of America’s great alternative weekly newspapers,” as Slate’s Will Oremus describes it.
     
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  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin: Justin Bank is deputy editor of audience development at The New York Times. Previously, he ran The Washington Post’s audience and digital news team. (The New York Times) | Dao Nguyen is now BuzzFeed’s publisher. Previously, she was vice president of growth and data there. (Poynter) | Michael Dimock has been named president of the Pew Research Center. Previously, he was executive vice president there. (Politico) | Tessa Gould is senior director of native advertising at The Huffington Post. Previously, she was director of HuffPost’s partner studio. (Huffington Post) | Kevin Gentzel has been named head of advertising sales for Yahoo. Previously, he was chief revenue officer for The Washington Post. (Poynter) | Peter Cooper will be the writer and editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He’s a music columnist for The Tennessean. (The Tennessean) | Sean Kelley will be managing editor of Cooking Light. Previously, he was director of content and video for Sharecare. Katie Barreira will be director of Cooking Light Kitchen. Previously, she was food editor of Every Day with Rachael Ray. (Fishbowl NY) | Job of the day: GoLocalPDX is looking for an investigative reporter. Get your résumés in! (Journalism Jobs) | Send Ben your job moves: bmullin@poynter.org

Suggestions? Criticisms? Would you like this roundup sent to you each morning? Please email abeaujon@poynter.org. Read more

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P-Murrow Speech

Today in Media History: Edward R. Murrow challenged the broadcast industry in his 1958 RTNDA speech

On October 15, 1958, in a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention in Chicago, CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow challenged the broadcast industry to live up to its potential and responsibilities. The speech is often remembered for these words:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box….”

Parts of the speech were recreated in the movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

In a story titled, “50 Years Later, Murrow Speech Sparks Debate Over Journalists as Reformers,” Poynter’s Al Tompkins writes:

“Murrow took on subjects that were tough to report. In his 1958 speech, he mentioned a documentary on Egypt and Israel, the dangers of smoking, radioactive fallout from nuclear tests; he knew he was going to cause a lot of discomfort. He scolded network executives for losing their nerve. He suggested that big sponsors give up their highly viewed entertainment shows once in a while in favor of an occasional program that would serve the public.

And he spoke directly to the news directors, urging them to stiffen their spines and have confidence that if they covered stories of significance, the public would listen and watch.”

Screenshot from Murrow’s “See It Now” television program

Screenshot from Murrow’s “See It Now” television program

Following are some excerpts from the speech. The transcript comes from the RTDNA (formally RTNDA) website.

“This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television. I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard that produces words and pictures. You will forgive me for not telling you that instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.

….Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.

….It may be that the present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive….We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

….I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure — exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box….”

Here is a link, courtesy of RTDNA and KYW-AM, to audio of the original Edward R. Murrow speech. Read more

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Here’s a peek behind the curtain of a televised debate

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers.

Jill: When I agreed to serve as moderator, I proposed the addition of a “moderator’s option” of an additional 30 seconds each in the event a topic called for it.   Both candidates’ camps agreed. (The negotiations around debate formats are fascinating, by the way. Right down to coin flips for order of questions and who gets to stand where.)  When the campaigns agreed to that proposed “moderator’s option,” we used it to press for specifics.

For example, the topic of Wisconsin’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A panelist asked the candidates what they felt the state’s minimum wage should be. When only one of the two gave a number (Burke proposed raising it to $10.10 over a multi-step process), and Gov. Walker talked about aspiring to create jobs that pay much more than the minimum wage, I exercised the moderator’s option to follow up with Gov. Walker on a request for a specific number.

I asked Geisler how the journalists on the debate panel decided what to ask:

Jill: In our case, the journalists were aware of the subject areas their colleagues on the panel intended to cover. This was done to avoid duplication of effort and provide the greatest possible array of subjects. Because we live in a world today in which candidates throw around “facts” that are often in dispute, the panel and I agreed on the goal of asking well-researched, fact based questions that, whenever possible, cited non-partisan, verifiable sources.

Al: How did you go about selecting questions that people really want answered?

Jill: We discussed our goals – serving the greatest possible number of voters with specific answers. Then we discussed issues where there were clear differences between the candidates. We also discussed issues in which candidates had, until then, refrained from providing specifics on their platforms. We also wanted to respect the fact that there are issues of statewide importance and some that are hotter in the area of the state from which we were broadcasting. That’s how the topic of sand mining found its way into the questions.

Do televised debates matter?

It may very well be that televised political debates do little to change voter behavior. But lots of academic research shows they do have value. The main value of political debates, researchers say, is that voters learn new information about the candidates, especially important for newcomers to the political scene. The FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver says in presidential debates, the challenger nearly always has the most to gain, and sometimes does gain from the exposure. Mostly the gains, Silver says, come from undecided voters, not from the other side. Why? Debate watchers tend to see what they want to see, and debates tend to affirm what they already believed about candidates.

John Sides, writing for Washington Monthly, pointed out that even the most famous TV debates may be misunderstood. The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 is often cited as a game-changer after Richard Nixon sweated profusely and Kennedy calmly answered questions. Sides points out:

In Theodore White’s famous recounting of the election, Kennedy appeared ”calm and nerveless”while Nixon was ”haggardlooking to the point of sickness.” Two Gallup polls suggest that after the debate Kennedy moved from 1 point behind Nixon to 3 points ahead, although it is difficult to know whether that shift is statistically meaningful. Both Stimson and Erikson and Wlezien find that Kennedy’s margin after all of the debates was only slightly higher than his margin on the eve of the first debate. Moreover, any trend in Kennedy’s favor began before the debates were held. Clearly 1960 was a close election, and many factors, including the debates, may have contributed something to Kennedy’s narrow victory. But it is difficult to say that the debates were crucial.

Absent any big gaffes or headline producing news from the candidates themselves, which are rare in televised debates, the moderator can become news.  Viewers critique whether the journalists are too soft or too tough on candidates.  Geisler said she didn’t want to become a focus of any post-debate chatter so she even had to consider what to wear.

Jill: I met with the panelists several times for some terrific brainstorming in which we talked about potential topics and how to frame questions fairly. Then there were the usual production details that TV folks sweat over — writing my opening remarks to set a tone and share the rules so things were transparent to the folks at home, working on camera angles and lines of sight for countdown clocks, determining how the panelists and I would use the “moderator’s option” to press for more details, and even how I’d make sure that I had a decent “back of my hair day” because the moderator is seen from behind in so many of the wide shots, and I didn’t want anything regarding my clothing or hair to be a distraction. And one more thing: although my wardrobe has quite a few red and blue jackets, I chose pink, so no one would presume a political message.

A 2013 Washington Post story pointed out that a wide range of factors including post-debate spin can heavily influence debate watchers. The Post’s story points to a number of studies that showed how different network commentators affected who people thought won a debate. And there were other more subtle factors that come into play, including how good-looking the candidate is on TV.

John Wihbey at the Kennedy School has compiled a list of studies on debate effects, and many study factors that one wouldn’t think would have any impact at all, like what television setting a voter is using. But these things do matter, at least a little bit.

Several studies suggest that a candidate’s appearance during the debates could have a big impact. MIT’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson have found that attractive candidates disproportionately benefit from debates, with new support coming especially from less informed voters. The College of Wooster’s Angela Bos, Bas van Doorn and Abbey Smanik found that HDTV hurt John McCain in 2008, with viewers reacting negatively to his appearance on higher-resolution screens.

 

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.25.09 PMEvery election season, it seems, there is one final question that journalists turn to to reveal something personal about the candidates. Over the years panelists have asked candidates if they know the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I have seen journalists ask candidates what their favorite “drink” is. In one especially memorable debate the first candidate said gin and tonic, the rest of the candidates said milk or orange juice and left the first poor sucker hanging. In the Wisconsin debate, the journalists asked the candidates to say something, anything nice about the other. I asked Jill what the journalists were fishing for:

Jill: I think it might be seen as the antithesis of the very negative advertising in today’s races. It’s a check to see if the candidate can rise above the rancor, however briefly.

But in our case, the question also served a very practical purpose. Debates involve tricky timing. The moderator has to end the questions in time for closing statements from both candidates. But what do you do if there’s only one or two minutes left before the time you have stop in order to get to those closing statements? You need a question that, in fairness, does not require a complicated answer. So during our debate prep, when one of our journalists told me he’d thought of asking such a question, I asked him to keep it ready in case we needed it. It turned out, we did. I told the candidates we had only a short time left before their final statements and could only fit in one with a brief reply. So “can you find something positive” was asked. Now you know the inside scoop.

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AP’s Kathy Gannon: ‘I know neither Anja or I would have done anything differently’

In this Oct. 9, 2014 photo, Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon answers questions during an interview in New York. This was Gannon's first interview since she and AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus were attacked on April 4, by a gunman in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan as they prepared to cover the presidential election the next day. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack and Gannon is recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

In this Oct. 9, 2014 photo, Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon answers questions during an interview in New York. This was Gannon’s first interview since she and AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus were attacked on April 4, by a gunman in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan as they prepared to cover the presidential election the next day. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack and Gannon is recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Associated Press

In her first interview since being wounded in Afghanistan in April, Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon spoke with David Crary about the shooting, the death of photographer Anja Niedringhaus and the choices they made before that. “Honestly, I’ve thought it through so many times — I know neither Anja or I would have done anything differently,” she said.

The two were shot at by an Afghan police officer.

Niedringhaus, 48, died instantly of her wounds. Gannon, 61, was hit with six bullets that ripped through her left arm, right hand and left shoulder, shattering her shoulder blade.

“I looked down and my left hand was separated from my wrist,” Gannon said. “I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, this time we’re finished.’ … One minute we were sitting in the car laughing, and the next, our shoulders were pressed hard against each other as if one was trying to hold the other up. The shooting ended. I looked toward Anja. I didn’t know.”

Gannon, who has had reconstruction surgery for her left arm, told Crary that when she recovers, she’ll go back to Afghanistan and continue reporting.

“Neither Anja or I would ever accept to be forced out by some crazy gunman,” Gannon said.

In this photo taken in October 2012, Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon, second from left, and photographer Anja Niedringhaus pose for a photo with Afghan police recruits at the main police training academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gannon spoke Oct. 9, 2014, during her first interview since she and Niedringhaus were attacked on April 4, 2014, by a gunman in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan as they prepared to cover the presidential election the next day. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack and Gannon is recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. (AP Photo)

In this photo taken in October 2012, Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon, second from left, and photographer Anja Niedringhaus pose for a photo with Afghan police recruits at the main police training academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gannon spoke Oct. 9, 2014, during her first interview since she and Niedringhaus were attacked on April 4, 2014, by a gunman in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan as they prepared to cover the presidential election the next day. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack and Gannon is recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. (AP Photo)

Previously: Anja Niedringhaus: Covering war ‘is the essence of journalism’

New award named for AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus

AP’s Kathy Gannon and the late Anja Niedringhaus given National Press Club awards

AP photographer’s killer gets death sentence Read more

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