Twitter chat discusses #journalism #innovation and #Journo100

Ebyline Challenge

Ebyline ChallengeYesterday, we hosted a Twitter chat with Ebyline’s CEO Bill Momary discussing journalism innovation and the Ebyline Challenge. For those who might have missed it, the chat transcript is posted on the contest website. The October 12 deadline for submissions is fast approaching, so we look forward to receiving your submission. Thanks to Michelle Rafter for introducing us to Hashtracking and all those who participated in yesterday’s chat by chiming in with questions and comments!

Is being accessible to readers a good thing?

journalist accessibility

journalist accessibilitySocial media, online commenting systems and e-mail have made reporters more accessible to readers. Or have they? I won’t name names, but I know plenty of journalists and freelanec writers who carefully avoid the comments section of their online articles and rarely respond to @ mentions on Twitter.

In theory, being accessible to readers builds trust and transparency, while creating a pipeline of community-focused stories and credible sources. But does this actually work in practice?

One example of accessibility taken to new levels is The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café, where locals can buy coffee or pastries, use public computers or free Wi-Fi and sit it on editorial meetings.

If you’re picturing a mob of outspoken readers or eccentrics with questionable agendas storming the newsroom, Matt DeRienzo, Connecticut group editor for the Journal Register Company, says that hasn’t been an issue. “We were surprised right from the beginning at how undisruptive the public was and how much they respected that it’s a working newsroom.” He does point to one incident where someone came to story meetings three or four days in a row and repeated the same thing about the same issue. An editor finally put the kibosh on the topic by saying, “I think we’ve covered that issue.”

The café opened in December 2010, and Digital First Media, which manages Journal Register Company (which itself recently filed for bankruptcy) is implementing open newsroom projects in other markets, including a pop-up newsroom with mobile newsroom vans launching in New Haven, Conn.

Of course, individual journalists have an even simpler strategy for making themselves accessible: the trusty Twitter profile.

Few users (including journalists) put their contact information front and center on Twitter, perhaps for fear of spam, off-topic press releases or angry readers. But in his classes for journalism students and professionals, Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s first chief digital officer and a longtime social media guru at Columbia Journalism School, urges people to consider including an e-mail address in their profile.

“It makes it easier for sources to reach you and helps add an air of authenticity to your bio,” says Sreenivasan (@sree). “If you are a journalist or writer, you should be reachable, and an e-mail address is what many people are likely to want to reach you through, rather than a Twitter message.” (As someone who’s had many back and forths with sources in tweets or direct messages trying to move the conversation to a less character-restricted medium, I see his point.)

Sreenivasan practices what he preaches by posting his e-mail on Twitter and says he hasn’t gotten any crazy off-topic press releases or spam as a result. Fast Company contributor E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) agrees, pointing out that her e-mail displays as ebboyd [at] fastcompany [dot] com so it’s harder for spam bots to read.

“You’ll get more stuff that’s not interesting to you by putting it out there,” admits Boyd. “But by not putting it out there, you won’t get the occasional assignment you want. When people want someone in tech to comment on a story, they can easily find me.”

According to Boyd, “the challenge for journalists is not trying to control whether their e-mail is on the web but developing effective ways to manage it.” After all, many journalists are now tasked not only with pitching, reporting, and writing stories, but are not expected respond to comments and e-mails, tweet, shoot video and perform other multimedia tasks.

Boyd’s strategy is maintaining two e-mail accounts: a Fast Company email that’s displayed publicly and a Yahoo e-mail that she checks more frequently and reserves for people she works with or knows. “If it’s a relationship that’s useful to continue, I’ll move them to Yahoo,” she adds.

New York Times reporter Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) takes accessibility a step further by including two phone numbers in addition to his email. Also in the “Twitter profile with e-mail” club is Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour). Stelter responded to an e-mail (saying he’s on deadline for a book) but Amanpour may have an overfull inbox: we haven’t heard back for days.

To those who scoff, or cringe, at the idea of putting themselves out there, Sreenivasan points out a fact that’s frightening or reassuring, depending on your viewpoint: your privacy doesn’t mean much anymore. “Many more journos’ e-mail addresses are public than they realize,” says Sreenivasan. “Most news orgs follow certain naming conventions and a lot of print newspapers list e-mails near bylines or at the end of stories.”

The (de-)evolution of newsroom training

Newsroom training

Newsroom trainingAs media outlets struggle for survival, many have reduced or eliminated staff training budgets. And with the increased demands of a 24/7 news cycle and expectations of multimedia reporting, journalists aren’t happy about it. In fact, a Knight Foundation survey released last month revealed that almost a quarter of the 660 active Knight alumni surveyed were very or mostly dissatisfied with the training opportunities available to them. Even with stagnant pay, discontent with continuing education topped salary and job security as newsroom complaints.

Ebyline talked to several industry veterans about the evolution of newsroom training and discovered a few bright points even amidst the doom and gloom.

The good news

According to Sherry Chisenhall, editor and senior vice president at The Wichita Eagle, which has a staff of 59 people, training dollars have dwindled but lower-cost online training options have helped fill that void. “Back in the 80’s and 90’s, it wasn’t that uncommon for larger and mid-sized newsrooms to send six or a dozen people to conferences,” she says. “Everyone’s doing a lot less of that now.”

Three years ago, The Eagle started paying for an unlimited subscription to online training site Lynda.com and now challenges staffers to invest 30 hours in training per year, a goal that 80 percent of the newsroom met in 2010. “We don’t punish people for [falling short] but in this industry there probably are long-term consequences,” says Chisenhall. “Nobody can afford to be standing still.”

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, says the company’s newsrooms are doing “way more” training thanks to CEO John Paton’s commitment to digital. “Our company, like most, didn’t do nearly enough training in the past,” he admits.

In Digital First Media’s Connecticut newsrooms, for example, journalists attend Digital Ninja School, a five-level online program focusing on digital publishing, social media, video, blogging and data journalism.

And with Digital First Media’s increased focus on video, editorial products manager Mark Lewis created a video training program in Yardley, Pa. Buttry says the program was designed to train journalists so they could go back to “their newsrooms or their cluster of newsrooms and train colleagues so we’d advance beyond that first level of video to ‘here’s how you’re going to tell a story with video.’”

Many of the training programs offered by the Journal Register (owned by Digital First Media) are streamed online so colleagues in other newsrooms (including competitors) can view them. “When we equipped our people with Flipcams, we gave them double layers of training [meaning basic video and video storytelling],” says Buttry.

The not-so-good news

Other newsroom vets weren’t as optimistic about shrinking training budgets, especially those whose jobs have changed as a result.

Until last summer, Randy Hagihara was The Los Angeles Times’ senior editor for recruitment and director of Metpro, a Tribune training program for minority reporters.

“Staff development definitely takes a back seat when you’re trying to do a lot more with a lot less,” says Hagihara. “I doubt there are very many people worrying about identifying and training the newsroom leaders of tomorrow. That was an iffy proposition even in prosperous times.”

For Hagihara those prosperous times ended in 2008 when the LA Times yanked its hiring and development budget, although paid internships and workships on video production and social media continued.

Joe Grimm, who oversaw recruiting at the Detroit Free Press, agrees. “Although it saves money in the short term, it costs money in the long term to not train your people,” he says. “The only asset we have is the talent of our journalists.”

While some technical skills may lend themselves to online training, Grimm says an hour spent in online training is generally not as effective as an hour of face-to-face training, especially in areas like leadership. Training tends to be reactive when the newsroom undergoes a technology change (like converting to PCs) or the publisher fears a lawsuit. “If they think the climate is ripe for libel suits or harassment suits, they will do some training as a way of protecting themselves,” he says.

Often the managers are the ones most in need of training, adds Grimm. “I’m hearing too often, editors are just kind of working with a list, saying ‘we need a digital element,’” he says. “They need to be smarter about what digital elements are possible, as in ‘this story needs a map or a slide show or this story needs a timeline.’”

DIY

With fewer newsrooms funding journalists to attend conferences and other training sessions, the onus increasingly falls on journalists and freelance writers to seek out the training they need.

Chisenhall says some of her staffers take the initiative to attend regional training sessions or get their conference attendance subsidized by serving as a board member and asking for a few days off to attend. “[Giving them time off] is a way to support people’s training,” she adds.

According to Grimm, newsroom training is often a few years behind the curve in terms of technology. “A lot of ideas being brought into newsrooms are being brought by people spending time at night to learn those skills,” he says. “The times are too scary for people to just complain and wait around for management to train them.”

Is “backpack journalism” really worth it?

Backpack Journalism

Backpack JournalismBackpack journalism, which refers to reporters shooting photos and video and editing them with all the tools in their “backpack,” began more than a decade ago. In December, Gannett – which is known for its 24/7 Information Centers – deployed thousands of iPhones and other new technology to its U.S. Community Publishing division, which includes 82 local newspapers, websites and niche publications.

According to Laura Dalton, a spokesperson for the McLean, Va.-headquartered company, the new equipment was provided to “help our journalists meet the demands of the new news cycle, one that requires agility in real-time reporting, social media, and greater emphasis on video storytelling.”

What goes on the utility belts of the Gannett reporters of the future?

Tools include lightweight laptops known as netbooks, iPhones with external microphones, iPads, and MiFi wireless Internet hotspots, which allow journalists to write, edit, and send copy wirelessly, as well as record and edit audio and video while on the road. Reporters can also send content to social media sites. In addition, each newspaper has a digital workstation in its newsroom to track analytics of how users are consuming news on tablets and smartphones.

Gannett would not discuss specifics on equipment costs; however, Rick Green, editor-in-chief of The Des Moines Register gave us a rundown of his newspaper’s equipment (we’ve estimated equipment costs based on current retail prices found online; obviously, the overall pricetag might vary depending on corporate discounts or the specific models used):

  • A comprehensive talk, text and data plan
  • 29 OWLE Bubo units ($161 each, $4,669 total)
  • 5 wireless lavalier microphone packs ($170 each, $850 total)
  • 3 iPads ($399 each, $1,197 total)
  • 13 external microphone kits to use with iPhone 4S ($28 each, $364 total)
  • 57 iPhone 4S ($199 each, $11,343 total)
  • 2 Android phones ($400 each, $800 total)
    Estimated price tag: $19,223 plus the cost of talk, text and data plan

“We have a new CEO whose mantra is ‘content is king,’” says Green, referring to Gracia Martore, who started her position in October 2011. “That’s great. Those words are really important to us. It’s also really important to back up that mission with new technology.”

With the deployment came the charge from Gannett corporate that its papers must do a better job of covering communities by providing extra layers of storytelling, adds Green. A variety of newsroom employees, including reporters, photographers and videographers use iPhones to create audio, photo galleries and video.

How are newsrooms actually using these tools?

In February, the Iowa newspaper had two prep sports reporters use iPhones and social media to cover the state’s high school wrestling tournament. Andy Hamilton, lead wrestling reporter, created a separate wrestling Facebook page where fans can find links to wrestling-specific stories and comment on their teams. At the tournament, Hamilton and Tom Birch led a team of reporters and photographers who produced 45 videos during the four-day sports event using iPhones.

As a result, video plays on the Register’s site increased by 147 percent from January to February, and the Register created 186 blog posts during the competition, which helped boost mobile page views 53 percent from January to February. It also led to more than 1.4 million page views in total for state wrestling coverage.

“We have seen this new level of storytelling with everything, not just sports,” says Green, who explains that his team is also working on a multimedia story about two missing girls. “My team has covered it, not only telling the story in print … we are using video, which brings that extra depth to a story.”

So, what’s the ROI?

Jane Stevens has taught backpack journalism at the University of California Berkeley’s Knight Digital Media Center and between 2006 and 2008 helped the Ventura County Star train all newsroom employees in multimedia reporting. The newspaper purchased Mac computers with iMovie editing software and Flash video as well as mini digital video cameras and tripods. Multimedia coverage of wildfires, which included an interactive map that staff updated with text and graphics as the fire shifted location, was one notable success that couldn’t have happened without the backpack journalism push, says Stevens.

“[Ventura] began the long road of trying to figure out how to integrate this new way of reporting into the daily work flow,” says Stevens. “They began posting all stories to the web first – a novel idea at the time. Every reporter was trained; most never wanted to do just text again.”

Does this mean Gannett will see the same kind of success? On the one hand, Ventura’s  newsroom is significantly smaller today, Scripps split off its television assets from its newspapers and moved to a centralized content management platform. On the other hand, E.W. Scripps holds Ventura up as a financial success in a time of distress for many publications and the paper’s former publisher has been tasked with re-implementing many of the Star’s tactics at the parent company’s largest property, the Memphis Commercial Appeal. (Disclosure: Scripps is an investor in Ebyline.)

What Does the Ryan Holiday Media Prank Teach Us?

fact checking

Ryan Holiday, the 25-year-old author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, lied to multiple journalists in order to prove that he could influence the media. In response, the Society of Professional Journalists tweeted:

Journalists: 1) Crowdsourcing is fine. 2) Fact checking is still a thing. 3) Heard of Google?

Several of the outlets involved in the Ryan Holiday case have rigorous fact-checking standards, which speaks to the quality of the outlets represented. It also speaks to the quality of the editors that represent those outlets. Not long after news broke, Dave Thier reported that all of the outlets involved in the Ryan Holiday case offered an editor’s note or removed Holiday’s quotes altogether.

Ebyline asked the New York Times if the paper has created a more vigorous fact-checking process in response to the incident. In an email statement, Eileen M. Murphy, vice president of corporate communications for the New York Times, responded:

Our fact checking process is already quite vigorous.  While we have no written guideline that would say specifically to verify a source like these online “experts,” it is one of those givens that fall under the broad guidelines of the 1999 Newsroom Integrity Statement and the ethics handbook.  The freelancer who made this error has been reminded of these policies.

So, is there a way for journalists to avoid being hoodwinked by sources?

Mary Ellen Lowney, Chair of the Communications Department at American International College, says that relying on web-based sources raises the level of risk when a reporter quotes someone in an article. “You believe what they put on the Internet is right,” said Lowney.

“Be more thorough, one on a web-based source, or two, you don’t know well,” said Lowney.

Lowney added that the risk of being deceived remains, but it happens to almost all journalists.

With more news outlets turning to same day deadlines, and editors requiring multiple articles at once, journalists should consider themselves the first layer of fact-checking for an article. Going back to the basics of fact-checking that most reporters learned in J-school could help avoid these issues in the future.

“Check and double check; that’s the time to fact-check,” said Lowney. If you come across a questionable item, Lowney suggests calling another source to verify it and checking public records if you don’t have a reliable source available.

According to Alec MacGillis at The New Republic in “The Hard Truth About Fact-Checking”

Every reporter still working at the smaller papers should be, at bottom, a fact-checker.

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