May 9, 2010

Chuck Myron thinks newspapers might have lost their mojo. The last time he saw it was in 2006 somewhere around Fort Myers, Fla.

That was the year Gannett began field-testing their mobile journalism project at a handful of papers around the country. Myron and a dozen of his colleagues at the Fort Myers News-Press were given laptops, cameras and wireless Internet cards and told to go forth and report from on-the-road around the paper’s 811-square mile coverage area.

Myron’s summation of the project and of the industry since then is brief and to the point: “I think there has been too great an emphasis on technology and not enough on journalism.”

That is also the thesis of his book-in-progress that argues the pursuit of technology is overshadowing the practice of journalism at many newspapers. The working title is appropriately enough “How Newspapers Lost Their Mojo” and focuses on his time at the News-Press from 2005 to 2007.

Myron, now the director of media relations for a nonprofit group, has nothing against technology or hyperlocal news. But he does question how the two can or should be applied in practice. “The Gannett style of mobile journalism got a lot of attention,” he told me by phone recently. But the approach was to cover, “bake sales just as the bun came out of the oven. There was a pressure to go out and cover anything literally anything we could find.”

As far as the tech, Myron wrote in in January 2007 that the experimental aspects of the project were an attraction. “If I weren’t a mobile journalist, I wouldn’t be a journalist at all” he said at the time. “I’m a guinea pig for new equipment, and I report back to editors what high-tech tools help me do my job and what’s taking up space on my passenger seat.”

But in retrospect Myron feels the technology was applied incorrectly. Fort Myers mojos traveled with a variety of mobile tools, including an IBM ThinkPad, digital camera, digital voice recorder, 2G cellular Aircards as well as a regular laptop and car power inverter. He argues that since the gear allowed journalists to cover any news from anywhere, that’s what they did. No matter how big, or in his estimation how small, a mojo could cover it.

Myron now questions that strategy, saying citizens (via Facebook and Twitter, Flickr and Youtube) are handling much of this effort by themselves already. “Hyperlocal news is best left to citizen journalists,” he said. “To apply a professional journalist is a misuse” of their training and skills.

Myron himself was the subject of media coverage in December 2006. Frank Ahrens of The Washington Post featured him in a story about Gannett’s mojo project, making him a bit of an industry poster boy for the effort.

At the time Ahrens wrote about the challenge of finding a return-on-investment for truly hyperlocal professional journalism. The Post reporter traveled with Myron to a Chamber of Commerce fundraiser featuring a “Hunks of North Fort Myers” calendar.

“It had been looking dim — just three hunks and half a dozen seemingly uninterested middle-aged ladies working out nearby — when Myron arrived at the gym with his ThinkPad under one arm and a digital camera peeking out of a pocket of his khakis,” Ahrens wrote.

Ahrens reports it was 20 minutes before a potential interview subject arrived.

“Thirty minutes later, sitting in his car with a sense of relief, [Myron] has written a short story, cropped one digital picture, written a caption, uploaded it all to the Web and linked to a previous story he’d written on the calendar fundraiser.” That story would be the third he filed to the website about the charitable calendar effort.

Since his 15 minutes of mojo fame, Myron has moved on from newspapers. He served as the communication coordinator for an independent run for a U.S. House seat, and now works for a non-profit in Fort Myers. In both jobs, especially the House campaign, he has continued to focus on the Web and mobile technologies.

If he has any words of wisdom for mobile journalists out in the field now, it is that you need to know your community and then find the tools that will help you cover it most effectively. “Certain things will work in certain markets and won’t work in others,” he says. But if you try to apply the same mobile coverage strategy to every community, you are in for a challenge.

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Myron is specifically concerned when technology drives coverage instead of being merely a reporting tool. If your workflow requires 3G or WiFi connectivity to file content, it is going to be difficult to report from communities that don’t offer those amenities. “You are going to have places that have no news because the tools you have to gather that news don’t fit,” he worries.

Myron and other mobile journalism innovators will be featured in a News University Webinar on June 17, “Tools for Mobile Journalists.” The session will focus on mobile gear, software and best practices for mobile journalism.

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