‘Serial’s’ twist on traditional crime reporting

serial-adnanNot many journalists would dare compare a convict’s big brown eyes to those of a dairy cow: “Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.”

Yet that’s exactly what Sarah Koenig, the reporter for the public radio podcast “Serial,” did while talking about one of her series’ main subjects. Her style mixes traditional reporting with think-out-loud observations and thoughts, which is why it’s both compelling and uncomfortable for journalists to listen to.

“We try to minimize the reporter’s voice,” said Justin George, a crime reporter from the Baltimore Sun. “She’s literally telling readers how she feels. Not what she’s seeing but how she feels, and that’s probably why she is grabbing readers.”

“Serial” is about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore County, Maryland, and the arrest and conviction of her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was sentenced to life in prison. Koenig diligently re-investigates the case and tells you what she is thinking as she is doing it – much like a fictional television detective. But, of course, she’s talking about real people.

Her style breaks the traditional journalism practice of keeping the reporter out of the story: Unless you are a columnist or an editorial writer, your opinions and thoughts are generally considered irrelevant. The reporter is there to find experts, witnesses, visuals and data to tell the story. “Serial” makes one wonder if neutrality is a convention that should be re-evaluated, or if it’s pushing an important boundary in journalism that ought to be left alone.

“Serial” will likely inspire stories done in a similar format given the show’s popularity: It is the top podcast on iTunes. Each episode is downloaded an average of 1.2 million times. There’s a “subreddit” group of more than 12,000 members who pore over the details of every episode trying to solve the case. There’s a Slate podcast just to discuss what happened in the “Serial” podcast. “Serial,” a WBEZ Chicago production, is from the creators of This American Life.

George looked into the Syed case for the Sun and did some work on “Serial.” He was featured in Episode 3 of the program. He said it was very strange to do the radio show.

“I felt really self-conscious,” he said.  “I didn’t want to say what I thought all the time because I didn’t want it to endanger my objectivity.”

George said he has opinions on how the case might end, but “I did not want to come out on the radio and say that. I was scared. We don’t pull back the curtains like that.”

Koenig, who is a former crime reporter, has no problem speculating on Syed’s innocence or guilt on the show. Newspaper reporters have conversations with their editors that are similar to Koenig’s dialogue with herself, but they never end up in the story, George said.

“We try to be as efficient and clear as possible and [what "Serial" is doing] essentially goes against what we do…Does the reader really want to hear what we are thinking?” he said.

There is a place for journalists to express their judgments – when they’re based on thoughtful analysis, said Ted Glasser, a journalism professor at Stanford University. But readers benefit more from such analysis than they do from simply knowing whether a journalist likes something or not.

Applied to “Serial,” Koenig’s analysis of the evidence is probably more helpful than her opinions of Syed’s innocence or guilt.

Either way, Koenig is put in an odd position, according to John Watson, associate professor of journalism at American University. The show “posits the journalist as the investigator of the crime even though in reality journalists function properly only as the investigator of the (police) investigator handling the case,” he wrote in an email.

Still, Koenig’s commentary allows listeners to get to know her, and that probably draws them back to the show every week as much as the suspense, George said.

“Serial” also provides a public service by shedding light on the justice system – how appeals work and evidence is weighed, how mistakes are made, how juries can be influenced – in a way that’s engaging to listeners, he said. Koenig’s openness about her feelings creates an air of transparency, making listeners trust that those feelings don’t affect how she is obtaining or examining the information.

Listeners can also tell that she’s working hard to get at the truth, said George. “There are places I would have stopped reporting and she keeps going,” he added.

That brings up another interesting dimension: Whether “Serial” has devoted more time and resources to the Hae Min Lee story than the Sun could ever hope to.

Koenig has spent every working day for the past year on this story, according to the podcast. (Staffers at “Serial” said they did not have time to answer questions for Poynter.) But in episode one she says, “if you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is this is the one that came to me. It wasn’t halfway across the world or even next door. It came right to my lap. And if I could help get to the bottom of it, shouldn’t I try?”

Baltimore has more than 200 murders a year, George said, and he and his colleagues have to make hard decisions about why one case gets more coverage than another.

The only story George wrote about the Syed case for The Baltimore Sun focused on the family’s suffering, and touched on difficulties endured by families of those behind bars. That’s a broad theme that many families in the Baltimore region – and beyond – can relate to.

This story was updated with comments from an American University professor. Read more

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Today at the South Florida Sun Sentinel, a switch to digital thinking

Starting today, staff at the South Florida Sun Sentinel will have to think differently about how they report, write and present the news — and differently means digitally.

As of Tuesday, everyone but a designated team will focus solely on reporting and producing news online. A separate print production desk will then choose from what has been produced each day to create the next day’s printed newspaper.

“Realistically, it’s a change for a lot of journalists who are traditional newspaper journalists, who’ve made tremendous strides at being more multimedia journalists than they ever were, but still love the daily newspaper and love the cycle,” said David Schutz, design director, in a phone interview.

That cycle is changing now, he said, and “I think it’s a big mental change for a lot of people, especially more senior journalists, including me.”

It’s also a natural progression from a change made three years ago, when the Sentinel gave the print section editors responsibility of their sections online and merged the digital team with the newsroom.

“This is not a paradigm shift,” said Doug Phillips, assistant metro editor, in a phone interview. “I think this is a logical step in the evolution that we’ve undergone in the last few years.”


The old digital

Three years ago, the Sun Sentinel was set up “pretty much in the way that I think most newsrooms today are still set up,” said associate editor Anne Vasquez in a phone interview.

Digital production was a separate operation. Reporters wrote stories, editors edited, got them ready for the newspaper and sent them to the online folks.

“The problem with that is digital is what our future is,” Vasquez said, and digital needs to be intimately tied to the creation of content, “not just the receptacle. It needs to be there at the beginning.”

With the change, there was no longer a digital side, and editors had to learn the digital skills to use the content management system, update the homepage, send text alerts, and update social media, along with a lot of other skills. It just made sense, Vasquez said.

“We wanted them to own it. We wanted everyone to own digital,” she said.

Now, the majority of people in the newsroom understand how to work in a digital space, she said, but in the last three years, that digitally savvy team became even more focused on print.

It sounds contrary, Vasquez said, but the editors that were then also in charge of digital were still in charge of print, too. And the two platforms require a different conversation.

“What I think we need to do is separate that conversation from the content creation because if you have good content, quality content, then the print production desk has a menu of many stories to pick and choose from and publish in the printed paper.”

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The new digital

Like many newspapers today, the Sun Sentinel already uses a digital approach with breaking news, getting in early and writing as the story develops. With “The New Digital,” as the shift is called, that’s now true for the rest of the newsroom.

“I really envision us operating more like a wire service,” said Dana Banker, metro editor, in a phone interview, with “much more aggressive updating stories throughout the day.”

Even with digital skills, they’ve orbited around print, Vasquez said. Until now.

“One of those key pieces is changing how we think, changing how we talk, changing how we come up with stories, and for reporters, changing how they write.”

The “new digital” means “write as you go and write what you know,” for nearly every story Vasquez said.

They’re not looking to sacrifice quality or ethics, she said, but to update as the story develops in a transparent way. Banker hopes, too, that not worrying about print will free people up to ask about the best way to present a story — maybe it’s a photo gallery, a video or text.

There’s still a newspaper and it’s crucial, Vasquez said. There are no plans to cut the daily paper, or cut back on it.

“Quality has to stay as good, if not better,” she said. “If it doesn’t, then this digital initiative is a failure. You can’t do one at the expense of the other, and I don’t think you have to.”

And the biggest change may not even be what’s online or in print, but how the people making those things think about it.

“It’s our language, how we talk,” Vasquez said. For instance, “‘That was a great paper today’ or ‘Write that story for 1A.’”

The biggest challenge, everyone agreed, will be people’s ability to forget the thing they’ve spent so long focusing on.

“I think for some people that have been married to that for a long time, I think it’s going to be a change,” Phillips said.

It’s about how to plan around a space that doesn’t get printed early each morning, but exists all the time.

“Workflow isn’t sexy,” Vasquez said, “but this is going to be a pretty big shift for our newsroom.” Read more

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Storify adds a way to collaborate on breaking news

Storify now has a way for journalists to collaborate on breaking news, Livefyre announced Tuesday. Storify Enterprise, which was previously Storify VIP, lets several people “simultaneously add text or content in real-time, see who else is working on the story at any moment and access the editing history to clearly identify what changes were made by whom,” according to a post on Livefyre by Samantha Hauser.

“Covering stories has always been a collaborative process, and that’s even more true when you’re sifting through huge volumes of social media for a breaking story or brand campaign. While part of the team seeks out great photos and quotes, others craft the story and give context,” explained Burt Herman, co-founder of Storify and vice president of editorial at Livefyre. “Storify Enterprise delivers on what our users have long wanted: true collaboration that enables everyone to easily tell stories together.”

Storify Enterprise is for larger customers and the cost varies per customer, Lynne Cox, vice president with Livefyre Communications, said in an email. According to Hauser’s piece, news sites partnering with Storify Enterprise for the launch “include The Wall Street Journal, Mashable and The Globe and Mail.” The free version of Storify also has a few new updates, including autosave and anchored links.

In 2013, my colleague Andrew Beaujon wrote about Livefyre’s purchase of Storify. Last November, my colleague Sam Kirkland wrote about Twitter’s custom timelines and liveblogging platforms, including ScribbleLive.

Here’s a recent Storify from the Boston Globe, live-blogging a trial:

CC USA Medien

Omidyar’s First Look Media looking to find its focus, target an audience

Pierre Omidyar has issues. Several problems, actually.

The billionaire technologist, philanthropist, and publisher is stitching together a strategy for his weeks-old First Look Media group, and he’s grappling with some essential questions:

  • What’s the focus?
  • Will First Look be one big brand, or a confederacy of brands?
  • Will it serve a mass audience, or a niche audience?
  • Will it be “problem-pointers,” or problem solvers?
  • Can its journalism innovation match its technology innovation?

First Look Media launched in February with The Intercept, featuring Glenn Greenwald, who, while working for The Guardian last year, was the first to report on the National Security Agency’s far-reaching surveillance program. Greenwald practices what he calls “adversary journalism.”

The hiring of Greenwald has framed the public’s view of First Look. Many people, include journalists, thought that First Look was Glenn Greenwald.

In fact, The Intercept, which focuses specifically on national security and privacy issues at this point is just one of several digital magazines that Omidyar envisions. Another, run by Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone reporter and National Magazine Award winner, will use in-depth reporting to untangle America’s largely impenetrable financial system.

Omidyar and his team will unveil others later. Right now, they also plan to publish more traditional verticals around subjects such as politics, entertainment and other topics yet undetermined.

You might think this would be easy work for the founder of eBay, who created Honolulu Civil Beat, an online publication in Hawaii where he lives, and who supports a host of journalism-related projects through his Omidyar Network and Democracy Fund. (The Democracy Fund has provided grants to The Poynter Institute.)

It’s not.

And so Omidyar gathered, at his expense, several of First Look’s top executives and about a dozen high-profile editors, journalism educators, industry analysts, and former reporters last Saturday in Laguna Beach, Calif., to listen to his vision, dissect his emerging strategy and offer advice on both.

The only catch: The day was governed by what is known as the Chatham House Rule, under which participants agreed not to quote from the proceedings directly.

We sat in a U-shaped formation in a ballroom at Omidyar’s elegant Montage Hotel. The group spent eight hours asking questions, challenging First Look’s brass (and each other), and generally seeking to understand the burdens and opportunities that come when a billionaire decides to push $250 million toward a journalism venture for which he has extraordinary expectations.

Throughout the day, Omidyar, serious and polite in an open-necked sky-blue dress shirt, dark slacks, and rimless glasses, scribbled observations in a black notebook and asked lots of his own questions.

What became clear is that the brilliant, unassuming Omidyar is wrestling with the same questions that presumably dog many technology companies that practice journalism these days. What follows is a sampling of some of those issues:

What’s the focus?
When resources aren’t a problem, it’s easy to try to be everything. Omidyar gets that. Still, he and his team haven’t yet figured out their focus. Do they want to follow the model they’ve already begun with and add other magazines focused on critically important but complex issues? Climate change, for example? And how are they going to pick which verticals to build? Focus on areas that are currently undercovered? Or pick areas with lots of coverage already, and just try to cover those subjects better? Say, sports?

Omidyar recognizes this as a crucial issue in part because First Look’s focus will impact a host of decisions – from hiring to branding. And, of course, just as crucially, its focus will determine not just what it does, but what it doesn’t do.

Will First Look be one big brand or a confederacy of brands?
Clearly, with the hiring of Greenwald and Taibbi, First Look plans to attract big names. The question is whether those brands will fit neatly under the First Look brand, or whether they’ll be a loosely connected group of journalists who all happen to earn their paycheck from the same billionaire.

It’s an important issue.

If First Look is the big brand, then it will hire people based on a clearly articulated vision and set of values. It will find fledgling stars and make them First Look stars. It will bring people in who will do things the First Look Way, whatever that turns out to be.

On the other hand, in an industry that’s increasingly obsessed with personalities, does First Look have a choice but to become a confederacy of brands? The benefits are clear: credibility, (particularly with the fans of those personalities), attention and influence that might take years to build without those stars.

And the risks?

What happens if the star’s persona is a controversial one, even if his journalism is stellar (see Greenwald)? At some point, does that persona become a distraction? What happens if the star’s fans, for whatever reason, abandon him as swiftly as they embraced him? And can any organization build a coherent, compelling brand if it’s just a collection of loosely associated stars?

Will First Look serve a mass audience or a niche audience?
Throughout the day, Omidyar and his First Look executives said they intend to serve a mass audience. They also said they plan to produce high-quality content that impacts users and engages them as both audience members and citizens.

What’s unclear is what they mean by a mass audience. And is there a mass market for high-quality, high-impact journalism?

Several participants expressed skepticism, at least quietly.

One answer may be that First Look does both – cultivates a highly educated, civically engaged audience even as it serves more popular, mid-brow content to a broader audience.

First Look may decide that its digital magazines should provide content for the former and that its more traditional verticals cater to the latter.

If that’s the case, will First Look dilute its ability to impact its audiences? And will that make it harder for First Look to craft a clear identity?

Will First Look be about “problem pointing” or problem solving?
Let’s start with the answer: Omidyar and his editors want First Look’s journalists to do both.

The question really is, how?

Glenn Greenwald is known for his passion and blade-sharp intellect, and for lacerating his opponents. He’s not famous for laying out solutions. He’s famous for breaking news – and for breaking china.

And no one has necessarily called upon him to do otherwise.

But Omidyar and his team aren’t interested in just breaking stories, or just “problem pointing,” as one participant called it. Nor are they interested in just fomenting controversy. They want to provoke intelligent discourse that gives their audiences options for actually solving the problems that Greenwald, Taibbi and other First Look stars surface with their reporting.

Which only leads to more questions for First Look’s leaders: How does this desire to solve problems influence how they hire their stars?

First Look is being constructed around personalities who combine deep expertise and a distinctive voice to drive engagement. Can First Look also depend on those same personalities to guide an audience toward solutions for some of America’s (and the world’s) most complex problems?

And what are the risks First Look faces if that it wants to do that? And what opportunities will go wasted if it decides not to?

Can First Look’s journalism innovation match its technology innovation?
First Look is a technology company that does journalism.

Its founder created eBay, a first-of-its-kind business.

When Omidyar discusses technological innovation, he does so with an ease and authority that bespeaks the depth of his knowledge and experience.

Omidyar is far less at ease with journalistic innovation.

He heard several participants on Saturday tell him and his team that journalists want to innovate, but they’re afraid of failure. Omidyar was unsettled by this. He has a technologist’s mindset, which is to say, he understands that innovation and failure go hand in hand.

Participants sought to calm his fears. They told him that journalists are eager for leadership that’ll support innovation not just with words but with action and resources (which presumably won’t be an issue at First Look). He heard the group tell him to provide financial incentives to his journalists who innovate, and to hold everyone in the organization responsible for innovation. They told him he’ll need to stress that innovation isn’t just about technology; it’s about solving problems – all kinds of problems — in new ways.

Omidyar, ever serious, nodded and scratched more notes. At the end of the day, he appeared stimulated, if weary, after eight hours during which he inched toward a few answers, but no doubt walked away with even more questions than he had when the day began. Read more

Creative management (Depositphotos)

Building a creative news environment can be a matter of routine

Newsroom managers have always needed to be good jugglers. When someone asked how I was doing, I often answered:

“I’ve got a lot of balls in the air — and I’m trying not to let too many of them land on my head.”

But listen to managers talk today about their daily challenges, and the juggling metaphor no longer feels sufficient.

Not when they say things like, “I’m just trying to survive.”

With more work, over-stretched resources and frequently changing expectations for themselves and their staffs, managers say their top priority is to get the website updated, get the paper out, get the show on the air.

Just get the work done.

Notice what’s missing from that statement: “Get the work done … well.”

It’s implied, you say? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Too often, managers respond with a polite “you must be dreaming” to the idea of improving the work with more coaching, brainstorming or long-term planning. We know those things would help, many say, but we don’t get time anymore for lunch. When will I get time for coaching?

Instead, they describe turning to whatever strategies or tools or decisions helped them make it through yesterday’s ordeal — and then using those approaches again today… and then tomorrow … and the next day…

They are on a quest for routines.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily — if you choose the right routines.

And therein lies the trap. Because repeating the same approaches to your job day after day can be the death of creativity. Too many stories with anecdotal leads become ordinary, boring. Too many interviews with the same sources become predictable and distort reality. Too much negotiating story length and deadline instead of brainstorming better story ideas leads to a preoccupation with production concerns — at the expense of the stories.

At the expense of doing the work well.

On the other hand, the right routines, applied appropriately, can help you survive and pursue excellence. The challenge is to choose routines that enable the pursuit of excellence, not frustrate it.

Said another way, the right routines provide a framework for creativity. They not only protect against every day becoming an unstructured, “reinvent the wheel” experience, they also enable an environment for pursuing new ideas and more ambitious work.

Here’s my challenge to you today: Identify three routines that you could adopt to enhance your staff’s creativity.

Here are three examples:

1. Meetings. Start on time and end on time. Every day. (If you’re not running the meeting, show up on time anyway. And then ask if others could, too.) Meetings that start late and go on forever encourage attendees to view them as burdens instead of opportunities. And stick to the agenda — it will help you end on time. If the meeting is about tomorrow’s morning show, it’s not the time for discussing the company’s new health insurance plan.

Those two practices — honoring start and end times, and sticking to the agenda — are useful routines. They give your meetings structure. Once you have that structure, you can defy routine in the cause of creativity:

  • Deal with mundane issues quickly. They are mundane.
  • Rotate responsibility for running the meeting.
  • Encourage discussions you want more of — the ones that take coverage deeper, beyond the obvious.
  • Assign attendees to share with the group examples of best practices.
  • Be clear about next steps, timelines, and who’s responsible for them.

2. Coaching ideas. Every story starts with an idea. Maybe it’s a tip from a source, maybe it’s a suggestion from a neighbor, maybe it’s a thought that woke you up in the middle of the night. Whatever the idea, pursuing it usually involves a routine.

In too many newsrooms, that routine is heavily weighted toward production concerns. How long will it take to get the story? When can you file to the website? What visual support do you need? How long will it be? Does it need graphics?

These concerns are important. But they seldom guarantee that the story will leave viewers or readers talking afterward. Why not adopt a routine of asking, for starters, three questions about the idea:

  • If this story is totally successful, what might our audience know that they didn’t know before?
  • What questions do you need to get answered?
  • Who do you need to talk with?

Yes, you caught me: the answers to those questions might lead to more questions — and they should. Because done well, this routine can lead to reporting that both you and your reporter are invested in from the start. The rest of the day — including deadline — may well go more smoothly.

3. Access to you. The busier you get, the more difficult your staff finds it to talk with you.  Yes, you have lots of conversations with them about story budget lines, deadlines, web postings, etc. But your busyness discourages the kinds of conversations that staff are referencing when they call their manager a really good listener. Here are two routines that can help you increase the number of those conversations you hold.

  • Stop, at least once, on your way from the newsroom entrance to your desk. This routine gives you options. You can stop at the desk of someone you’ve been meaning to check in on, and spend five minutes there. But once you establish this routine, your staff will feel comfortable stopping you on your way across the room. Maybe the 10 minutes you spend at someone’s desk or at the coffee machine just lets you catch up on how someone’s kids are doing — but they might be spent hatching a great story idea.
  • Schedule one conversation a week on how someone’s job is going. Daily feedback is really important, and the more useful feedback you can give your staff, the better. But routinely checking in with staff to talk about how their job is progressing over time can allow you to realign expectations, shift course, brainstorm new ideas. It also lets you communicate your commitment to the staffer’s success. And if you’re looking for motivational tools, that’s a big one.
  • Linger after meetings. Yes, it’s really important to end meetings on time. It also can be helpful to hang around afterward with someone, or walk back to your desk with a staffer. Maybe you’ll talk about something related to the meeting you just attended. Or maybe it’s something you or the staffer has been hoping to talk about. The important thing is your accessibility — and the fact everyone in the newsroom can see your accessibility.

So go find three routines. And then find three more.

If you pick the right ones, they’ll help you get your work done — and do it well. Read more


What makes journalism ‘innovative’? Lessons from this year’s Scripps Howard Awards

What is innovation in journalism today? I heavily debated that question with Dan Gillmor and Retha Hill earlier this month while judging the Scripps Howard Awards at Poynter.

The 44 entries in the “Digital Innovation” category we were judging were some help. But not as much we had hoped.

The top of the list, thankfully, exemplified the award criteria of finding “fresh, engaging” ways to do great journalism. What does that look like? Think Snow Fall from The New York Times, which ended up winning the award. Big data projects from ProPublica, narrated graphics from the Los Angeles Times, the killer iPad app by Reuters, Bloomberg’s infographics, and News 21’s interactive video trailer presentation also had the judges uttering words like “stunning,” “mind-blowing,” “amazing” and “powerful.”

What set them apart from the rest of the entries was the way that each one found a creative — and effective — way to use a digital technique or tool to tell a story or convey information. Here’s a quick look at this judge’s favorites:

  • Snow Fall, of course, integrated infographics, flyovers, audio and video in a nearly seamless way that was the most immersive experience we saw.
  • ProPublica’s big data projects made it easy for the reader/user to view specific information most relevant to him or her while seeing the big picture from different angles.
  • Bloomberg’s interactive connection graphic on China’s Eight Immortals project gave the reader/user control in exploring the information.
  • The Reuters iPad app has a slick and intuitive interface on top of new and interesting information, like the “after” photo from a famous news event or the story behind the shot from the photographer’s point of view.
  • The Los Angeles Times used voiceovers to narrate infographics as part of an impressive package on the problems associated with the growing world population.
  • News21’s 100 Gallons project takes a fresh approach on story presentation with a video timeline as the backbone. The video work and cohesiveness of the stories combine to make a powerful package.

The bottom of the list left us scratching our collective heads, however. It seems some in the news industry still think it counts as innovation when they do something outside of their legacy medium, or apart from their traditional schedule. I’m sorry, but if you happen to work for a once-a-week TV news program, the practice of publishing content to your website on the other days of the week is not innovative. In case you hadn’t noticed, people routinely publish content to websites every day.

In fairness, it was the first year for this category, so a track record did not exist. Mike Phillips of Scripps gave us the Potter Stewart guidance at the beginning; we would know it (innovation, not porn) when we see it.

Once we looked through all the entries, the definition of innovation in journalism became clearer, at least to us: Trying new ways to create a better journalism experience for the reader through digital technology. Even better when it’s journalism that matters. And it works across all platforms. The challenges of journalism haven’t changed. Tackling stories and projects that have the most impact (isn’t Watergate still at the top of this list?) makes journalism matter.

Journalists and news organizations are now armed with an array of digital technologies available to present that information, that story, in an immersive and interactive manner. It used to be innovative to do a clickable graphic or a video as a sidebar or related link to an online story. Now the bar is higher; the more seamless the experience, the more integrated the different pieces are packaged together, the better it is for the reader/user.

Unfortunately, too many news organizations and journalists still see innovation through the lens of their legacy medium and the way they have always done things. A newspaper doing a video or a TV station doing a magazine? This is not innovative to the reader/user.

True innovation in news means connecting that reader/user to important information in a new and meaningful way. Will non-journalists share your project on social media and email it to their friends? Then you might be onto something truly innovative. The day of doing journalism for journalists — or awards — is over. Focus on the customer. Serve the customer. Read more

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Critics ask if Times-Picayune, other Advance papers are ready for their new digital focus

Forbes | Reinventing the Newsroom | Newsonomics | The New York Times
There’s been much consternation about the stop-printing-daily part of the news from The Times-Picayune and Advance Publications’ three Alabama papers. But what of the “exciting changes” — the new emphasis on digital? There are skeptics.

The goal isn’t bad, writes John McQuaid, who used to work at the Picayune, but Advance has so far fumbled efforts to integrate its legacy and online operations.

The company, McQuaid writes, “has pursued a web strategy that is only lightly tethered to newsgathering.” Its websites often combine information from several newspapers and “are not very attractive and are notoriously difficult to navigate.” (Wade Kwon Storified reader reaction to the Alabama papers’ bloggy design after it debuted recently.)

At the TP, the intrinsic clunkiness has improved somewhat of late; but in spite of all the bold talk, jargon and corporate branding going on around online news, Advance has yet to provide a clear sense it’s committed to making a systematic move to the online news ecosystem, or that it “gets” digital news at all beyond the crude basics: more blogging, tweeting, video, mobile.

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Eric Newton: Journalism education suffers from ‘symphony of slowness’

Knight Foundation | Common Sense Journalism
Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight, didn’t hold back in his criticism of the state of journalism education in a speech last week. Although he praised a handful of schools that have revamped their programs to help chart the future of news, he spent a lot of time criticizing “the middle of the bell curve.”

With all due respect, journalism and communication education plays at least second chair, and sometimes first chair, in the symphony of slowness. What I mean is the reaction time to new things. Consider this: On one side of campus, engineers are inventing the Internet, browsers and search engines. But the news industry is slow to respond. Then public radio slower still. Foundations even slower. Government slower yet again. Then comes the journalism and communication schools, on the other side of campus from the engineers. And finally, public television.

Who suffers from the symphony of slowness? Students and society.

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Monday reality check: Journalism is being replaced by lots of non-journalistic things
Software developer Stijn Debrouwere is getting attention with a provocative post about how journalism is being replaced by other sources of information that provide a roughly equivalent service to users. Add up all his examples (he provides plenty) and you see how people are gravitating away from traditional news stories to answer questions about music, real estate, health care, neighborhood news and many other issues.

There are organizations and websites everywhere that are taking over newspapers’ role as tastemaker and watchdog and forum. These disruptors don’t replace investigative reporting, but they replace the other 95% of what made professional news organizations important.

This is not sharing cat pictures, this is stuff that matters. People can read the health section in their newspaper and get drip-fed badly researched advice about how to live a healthy life, or they can visit the NIH or the Mayo Clinic online, or create an account on one of the many bulletin boards about anything from fitness to dealing with cancer.

He argues that this is a generational shift: Read more


TechRaking conference seeds journalism community with ideas from tech

Thursday’s “TechRaking” conference, sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google, was not an experiment in transporting journalists into the world of ideas before reality smacked them back to the realm of the possible. No, it aimed to bring journalists and tech types together and see if they couldn’t find some way forward for investigative journalism, which many people claim to love and fewer and fewer news organizations can afford to fund.

Matt Stiles, a data reporter who works on NPR’s StateImpact project, told me over the phone that the conference gave him some ideas for news apps that can “help reporters and the public understand politics better.” For instance, he floated the idea of a Google Analytics-type site with customizable widgets that would let news consumers arrange data about campaigns — ad buys, coverage, social media. Perhaps reporters could use a more sophisticated version to find stories in all that data.

Stiles explained that “there’s this tension in the data journalism community: Does the data come first or does story come first?” In other words, do you pitch a story and look for supporting data, “or do you look at the data first and find the story in the data? It seemed to me I’ve always leaned toward the first,” Stiles said. “It is a nice tension.” Read more


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