Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Archive for the ‘Managing’ Category

Digital readiness

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Michelle McLellan over at the Knight Digital Media Center recently blogged about, “Three signs your newsroom isn’t ready to cross the digital divide.” Unfortunately, the danger signs and solutions she describes reflect a dated misunderstanding of what is already happening in newsrooms around the country.

Her three danger signs and “the fix” for each:

1: The staff still reports to an assignment desk that is focused on print and/or is organized in departments that correspond to the sections of a newspaper. The fix: Newsgathering staff reports to the online assignment desk. Print becomes a production team that draws heavily on the online report for content at the end of the day.

2: News meetings focus on top news for the next day’s paper and meeting times reflect print. The fix: Meetings run by online editors at times that reflect digital publication timetables (like when to serve peak traffic) and focus primarily on online content, traffic and engagement metrics.

3: The top newsroom executives – say the Editor and Managing Editor(s) – are all print veterans who look at online from the outside. The fix: Either the top newsroom executive or the Number 2 has been steeped heavily in online – both the practical and the strategic – for at least five years, if not 10.

The first two are framed via the same print-centric mentality (e.g. desks, formal news meetings) the danger signs are meant to criticize. The third is just bad stereotyping.

The idea of “assignment desks” based on platforms (print versus digital) may have been attempted years ago, if ever, but is not part of the scene now. The assignment function rests in the hands of editors who manage reporters and visual journalists and think about both digital and print publication. In fact, they do not separate the two, but rather think in terms of “continuous coverage” where a story starts online, may evolve through the day, and continue into print as its own unique piece. What is really evolving at many papers is a digital approach that is heavy on breaking news, following by the print component that provides more context and analysis the next day. And this is managed by one “assignment” editor working in both worlds, as well as mobile and maybe even TV.

Similarly, the idea of formal news meetings based on platform is also off the mark. The afternoon news meeting for the next day’s paper survives, but largely as a hand-off between shifts and as a production discussion with the night copy desks. Meetings around content that happen earlier in the day, to manage the flow of news to combined platforms, often happen in short stand-up meetings as needed, versus formal, scheduled gatherings. These are small, quick meetings involving the people who need to act, rather than a gathering of the editorial hierarchy for approval.  The notion that online meetings should serve “…digital publication timetables…” is just goofy, as online (combined with mobile) does not usually plan around timetables, but rather the flow of news. Metrics may detect clear highs and lows. But the idea is to expand the highs, not limit content to those times.

And, lastly, characterizing top editors based on how much they are “…steeped in online…” is shallow and insulting.  As well, the idea that top editors still operate as the all knowing, total control captains of the newsroom is long gone. High-performing teams combine and leverage collective talents. Editors and managing editors need to know how to form and manage high-performing teams.

These danger signs are over a decade behind the curve in digital content delivery and newsroom management, not a good sign for a “digital media center” devoted to”…helping good journalism and good journalists thrive in the Digital Now.”


Written by mroberts8

12/29/2010 at 9:03 pm

Beats crumble, and few take flight

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Nieman Reports’ new Winter 2010 issue opens with a tough look at the loss of strong beat coverage and the appalling consequences for journalism. Much of this will not be news for editors and reporters who have been struggling with diminished resources and rising demands for coverage. They know the result is a sham, thin stories and large pieces of the community that go without coverage.

In one article, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnson, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting and now teaches at Syracuse University, puts it bluntly:

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution. What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

Stories built on quotes. No context. “Conflict” stories rather than explanatory or investigative stories. Reporters dependent on sources to tell them what is happening, rather than sources being held accountable for the facts assembled by the beat reporter. In many newsrooms, even the parameters of a given beat are vague and the coverage goals unspoken. Beat mapping discussions are a crucial beginning.

The issue also takes a look at new twists in beat coverage in Sports, the science beat, and in a fun group article four members of the Community Engagement Team at TBD share thoughts on their own emerging beat, one that is about engaging the community.

Beat mapping: How to focus and drive a beat.

Written by mroberts8

12/14/2010 at 9:35 pm

New formulas for local news

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Two of the more highly anticipated local news site start-ups of the year are getting closer to actually launching.

In Honolulu, Pierre Omidyar‘s Peer News has hired John Temple as editor and a start-up staff. At the same time, Allbritton Communications’ new site in Washington D.C., as yet unnamed, under the direction of former managing editor Jim Brady, has also been hiring and sharing some of its plans. Both sites are working toward second quarter launches.

At Peer News, according to blog posts by Temple, the idea is to provide ample background, some news coverage, and host a vigorous reader exchange. Reporters are “reporter-hosts,” readers are “members,” and the focus will be on a core set of topics deemed important to the community. Structurally, as Temple described it, the site will feature

…specific “topic pages,” the building block of our news service. The first pages they started building are what we’re calling structural topic pages, things you’d need to know before you can frame any related issues. So, for example, how government is structured and how it works. Where the money comes from and where it goes. Or who owns the land in Hawaii and who regulates it. That might sound a bit like the stuff of civics class, and it is, but we want to do the work for our members so they don’t have to go digging through piles of data to find what they’re looking for. What we’re doing isn’t just data collection, although there’s some of that. It’s connecting the dots for people so they can focus on an issue at hand but quickly grasp context if they need it.

Brady says his site will be a mix of the high-end regional news stories and neighborhood-level news, data, and connections, foregoing the broad middle band of traditional news coverage.  The site will for now also sidestep original education and business coverage and attempt to aggregate that content. Geocoding will be a primary feature for searching and sorting information. Speaking to PoynterOnline, Brady said:

“If you look at the past, there are some sites that just tried to do the community angle, there are sites that just tried to do the data angle, there are sites that just tried to do the original reporting. The truth is, I think that for a local site to be effective, it’s got to be a mix of all those things.”

Early glimpses of the two sites’ content plans are telling, both for what they want to offer and what they will not. Peer News wants to be the place people in their community come together, interact, and perhaps seed greater civic engagement.  Brady’s sees his site as providing real time information that people can go out and use in their daily lives.

At first blush, neither site seems to place much value on storytelling. (Brady said: “…a lot of what is in the metro section still falls in the category of ‘human interest story’ — things that are really strong pieces or good reads, but less and less of it is what really matters like how you live your lives on a daily basis in the city.”)

It may fall to the members of Peer News and the many community bloggers Brady expects to engage on his site to tell revealing stories. Both sites might then find how great storytelling is at the heart of civic engagement, as stories remain the basic unit of communication between people about the things that matter most.

Writing in the latest New Yorker magazine, Peter Hessler describes his return to the United States after years living in China, and the striking difference in how stories work in the two cultures. In China, he observed, people were very curious about facts related to America. In the U.S., people did not care to learn that much about China.

At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me. I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren’t the same. But it was also true that many Chinese had impressed me as virtually uninterested in themselves or their communities. That was one of the main contrasts with Americans, who constantly created stories about themselves and the places where they lived.

Hopefully new models for the public commons will also have space for stories.

Written by mroberts8

04/16/2010 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Managing, Newstraining

Evolution of news consumption

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The Pew Research Center has a new study out on how Americans consume news across multiple platforms. The study was developed by Pew’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism.


  • 92% of Americans use multiple platforms to get their daily news
  • 46% get their news from four to six media platforms on a typical day; 7% get their news from a single media platform on a typical day
  • 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones
  • 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them

And we like to share. Among those who get news online, 75% get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52% share links to news with others via those means.

Understanding the Participatory News Consumer contends that, “In this new multi-platform media environment, people’s relationship to news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory. …To a great extent, people’s experience of news, especially on the internet, is becoming a shared social experience as people swap links in emails, post news stories on their social networking site feeds, highlight news stories in their Tweets, and haggle over the meaning of events in discussion threads.”

Written by mroberts8

03/08/2010 at 11:04 pm

Plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism

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The chilling, maddening, twisted account of NYT Business reporter Zachery Kouwe and his resignation over plagiarizing Wall Street Journal and Reuters material is also, sadly, a rich training opportunity. Kouwe was initially called on material he took from a WSJ story on Bernie Madoff and posted on the NYT DealBook blog. Times editors apparently found more examples from the WSJ, Reuters, and other sources.

Consider Kouwe’s explanation, quoted here from the New York Observer, of how it happened:

“I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” said Mr. Kouwe, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?’”

Mr. Kouwe says he has never fabricated a story, nor has he knowingly plagiarized. “Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the blog,” he said, referring to DealBook. “In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.”

“I’ll go back and rewrite everything,” he continued. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.”

Apparently Kouwe has no idea of what he did in terms of process, and maybe even what constitutes plagiarism in the rip-and-clip-and-link-a-thon of digital publishing.

After reading Kouwe’s bizarre explanation, what are your staffers or students doing when it comes to “…the essence of speed,” or throwing things into a publishing template, or going back to re-report a story broken by another publication. And what are the workflows associated with blogs and other quick-to-print portions of your web site — if any?

Perhaps it is time to revisit what constitutes plagiarism, in all its forms, especially in the digital context. And perhaps it’s time to evaluate emerging workflows, accuracy measures, editorial oversight (even after the fact) for digital content. And then clearly convey the standards and best practices needed to ensure credibility in a training setting where examples, discussion, and simulated exercises are tossed out for writers, editors, copy editors, and online producers.

Proactive training can protect the essence of your good name.

Written by mroberts8

02/17/2010 at 11:32 pm

Outside speakers & training

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When travel and tuition money for outside training opportunities disappears, newsroom managers may turn to guest speakers as a local alternative.

Making the best use of a guest speaker takes some effort. Not making that effort can result in poor training that wastes time, accomplishes nothing, and gives training and the topic a bad name.

Here are ways to make the most of training provided by a guest speaker. And most also hold true when tapping staff members to provide training, be it for writing, editing, video and multimedia, software skills, management, beat background, or any other topic.

  1. Learning objectives: No one has time for long-winded presentations on broad topics and generalities. Consider what you want people to learn and be able to do when the session is over. Instead of bringing a local college professor in to talk about “good writing,” identify a couple specific skills related to good writing and build the session around those skills. Many guest speakers are not good at this kind of concrete skill focus. Some talented performers even have trouble breaking down what they do into a clear process. So it falls to the newsroom manager arranging the session to drive that discussion. This is a crucial first step.
  2. Time: Most newsroom training tends to fall into the 60-90 minute category. So when having the discussion in #1, keep the time fame in mind. If you have the luxury of several hours or even a day, still break that time down into 60-90 minute modules and build a strong sequence. Attention to time will help in framing clear learning objectives.
  3. Civilians & Journalists: Journalists like to ask questions. Training or education in most other settings is far more passive and lecture-oriented. Prepared a guest speaker who is not from the newsroom culture. Let them know there will be questions and that people will freely challenge assumptions or statements. That way, when it happens, the speaker will not take it personally or panic.
  4. Exercises: Having a chance to do what is being taught is an essential part of effective adult learning. An exercise provides a structured opportunity to practice new skills and receive immediate feedback from the speaker or other participants. Often this is where the real learning takes place. When working with an outside speaker, help that person develop an exercise that reflects real-work situations in the newsroom.
  5. Participate: Top managers should not only attend the sessions they’ve helped plan, but also participate. Join in the exercise. Offer feedback. Open and close the sessions by mentioning how this new skill will help people and the organization. This sends an invaluable signal of importance about the topic and job expectations after the training.

More: How to Build a Training Module

Written by mroberts8

02/10/2010 at 5:34 pm

Realistic multimedia training

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Ellen Weiss, VP for News at National Public Radio, recently described lessons learned the past two years as NPR ramped up a more ambitious radio + online model.

High on her list:

Be realistic about how much multimedia you can handle and train for. Writing is multimedia when you are a broadcast organization.  NPR brought its training back to reality — away from video and to things people could take back to their jobs: how to take a good picture, what’s the mix of writing, blog writing, writing for the web vs. writing for print.

A key concept in developing effective workplace training is “…things people can take back to their jobs.” This should be a consideration in formulating a training plan (Weiss’ point here), in training design, and in the critical reinforcement that must follow training. Why?

Training plan: Start with a sense of where you want to end up. What kind of things do you want people to do, as opposed to know. Break it down by department or job description. A good plan should encompass what skills need to be taught and who needs to learn them for immediate use back on the job.

Training design: A common mistake is to cram too much into a single training session. With a focus on the job, craft each session by completing this sentence: By the end of this session, participants will be able to _____ (do what?) Keep in mind each session should not only demonstrate the skill, but give participants a change to practice and receive feedback. So even something as apparently simple as “…how to take a good picture..,” from Weiss’s comment above, may take several one-hour sessions to convey the step-by-step skills required back on the job.

Back on the job: In many industries, training effectiveness is measured in how much new skills transfer back to the job. A great training session is not enough. Managers need to plan on coaching and reinforcement to bring new skills into regular use. This can include shadowing, formal feedback, metrics on output, consistent praise for success. Training plants the seed for new skills, but on-the-job reinforcement nourishes and cements their use.

More on this topic: Training on the edge of change. How to build a training module.

Written by mroberts8

01/22/2010 at 6:29 pm