Tag Archives: journalism

august 2005: milestone in demise of journalism, rise of personal narrative?

[Last week I was on a committee reviewing high school applicants for a scholarship sponsored by our local press club. Applicants were bright and articulate, but of all the samples they provided, only one constituted what I consider traditional objective journalism; all else were first-person narratives or editorials. As this media historian wondered whether we should be concerned about the demise of what we’ve considered journalism in favor of the personal narrative — and what that means for all of us — I recalled my August 2005 blog entry that, in retrospect, could be read as eerily prophetic.]

A manchild talks about his enthusiasm for collecting sports sneakers. A woman talks about her business of building customized homes. Deepak Chopra talks about his work as a self-help guru. Cliffjumpers, skateboarders and models parade across the screen to tell their stories before disappearing within a few minutes.

Welcome to the world of Current TV, the much-ballyhooed brainchild of Al Gore. How long you stay depends on how much you like to hear people talk about themselves.

Current TV positions itself as the voice of everyman, a power-to-the-people engine that tells stories about interesting folks. And maybe it does that. But the impression that I get is that it’s about people who like saying look at me! angling for their 15 (or less) minutes of fame, as well as studio hosts who aim for a bit of MTV attitude, albeit with a little more intelligence. Sometimes. (A report on cliff jumping was followed by a young telegenic host exclaiming That video was siiick! Wha?)

Since some whose opinions I respect like the network, I worried that I was alone in this observation … but Kay McFadden, the Seattle Times TV critic, admits similar feelings. If Current’s creators got one thing right in targeting the 18-to-34 crowd, it’s the relentless “I-I-I” approach to reporting, she writes. Like the Web log mania presently in vogue on the Internet, no story is worthwhile unless it can be sifted through the presenter’s personal history. An hour of Current TV contains more talking-to-the-camera asides than an entire night of Fox sitcoms.

The network started behind the 8-ball to me (Argh! More first-person prattling!) since Gore and Co. bought the broadcast license of NewsWorld International, a CBC-produced network that brought home reports from their journalists and other top news agencies around the world. Longform reports on everything from the tsunami aftermath to the Iraqi elections to the London attacks had great depth and storytelling, offering an excellent alternative to the America-centric reporting of U.S. networks. But the big, global pictures of NWI have been replaced by the little, first-person narratives of Current TV. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather know more about international political currents than why some guy wants to collect sneakers.

OK, some of the pieces are quite well-done, and I’ll take the surprising cinema verite of Current over the calculated disinformation of old Gore foe Fox News any day. But ultimately, Current seems a jumble of less-than-seven-minute personal narratives, with all the sound and fury signifying nothing but another attempt to snare the 18-to-34 demographic which, in McFadden’s words, ends up feeling even more packaged than a late-night infomercial.

If, as some pundits suggest, Current TV is the future of television, maybe I should just get rid of my cable now and spend that money on books instead. Maybe it’s just me.

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blogging: a new path to journalism?

I’m currently securing student bloggers for next year, and found it telling that two of them expressed an interest in blogging because they plan to go into journalism and think learning to blog would help in this field.

I took a step back and realized they were on target. While blogging doesn’t replace existing skills such as news judgment, finding/evaluating sources and basic newswriting ability, what we once called papers have migrated online and journalists increasingly double as bloggers. What a change from a few years ago when many news organizations discouraged their writers from keeping a blog!

Now journalists have learned how to incorporate blogs into their storytelling. One of my favorite writers, Sean Kirst, complements his excellent Syracuse Post-Standard columns with short blog entries. On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find folks like Seattle Times baseball writer Geoff Baker, who live-blogs games (using excepts for his game stories) and also pens (types?) longer statistical-based pieces that would bore the average reader if they appeared in print but excite his stathead-heavy online fan base. Blogging is still a fairly new tool in the journalistic toolbox, so reporters use it in countless ways.

But the skills of a good blogger mirror what it takes to become a good journalist. You need to write well and concisely, and blogging can help you practice. You need to find good stories and tell them in a compelling fashion. You need to gain a sense of your audience. Unlike traditional journalism, blogging creates a nearly instantaneous feedback loop, where others can offer views on your story that sometimes can help you explore or consider additional aspects. When I worked in journalism, the only time I learned what readers thought about our product came when they called and complained (too often) or when they dropped a note of praise (too rarely). And while commenters (especially the trolls under the bridge at newspaper sites) don’t always offer an accurate view of what readers think, feedback can help underscore the importance of an issue to a community and the different points of view worth considering.

So should journalism students consider blogging? Absolutely! Not only will it make them more marketable in a world where more reporters are expected to blog as part of their overall arsenal, but I believe the practice can make them better writers. Whatever the state of the newspaper industry, anything that creates a better crop of young journalists benefits us all.

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of truths and trends.

Working in media relations means often hearing from reporters working on trend pieces. It’s nice when it’s a positive piece following established data, like on Friday when I put a local TV news outlet in touch with a blogger/women’s hockey player for a great story on transfers from private to public colleges.

While that story was a good example of a reporter putting a face on a verifiable economy-related trend (we’ve seen a nearly 27 percent increase in transfer apps, many from privates), sometimes reporters are not looking for examples as much as they are validation of a dubious theory.

I had a front-row view of a predetermined piece a few years back. A reporter from the Times-Herald-Record, a downstate paper, called in the wake of 9/11, trying to confirm the conventional wisdom that students were staying closer to home that year. Except … they weren’t. She asked for measure after measure, and in all of them the number of applicants from New York City, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley were up. Finally she found one measure involving one geographic group that was down 0.1 percent. The resulting story said that applications to our college were down from downstate, and cherry-picked one quote of mine several miles out of context. Sadly I’ve dealt with such lazy reporting more times than I can count, so who knows how many other false stories banked on conventional wisdom have warped views of reality?

We are all cheated when, instead of approaching a story with an open mind — wondering if conventional wisdom is right or wrong — reporters, perhaps feeling pressed for time, only confirm dubious thinking. Maybe they’re handed an angle they feel compelled to reinforce — instead of question, which is the true job of a journalist.

We can wring our hands over the state of journalism from an economic or technological model, but we can’t forget qualitative issues. We need to remember that integrity and open-mindedness are two tenets that define the field … and better serve society. If we don’t care about the quality of journalism, then maybe it’s not worth saving.

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less news than we bargained for.

Earlier today came the official announcement of the end of an era, on Syracuse’s WTVH-5 ceasing news operations and laying off 40 loyal employees. This hits home for me, because 5 is the TV news I’ve watched since I was a young boy, an outlet that helped interest me in journalism and where I had my most influential internship.

The announcement tries to position it as 5’s newsroom merging with that of neighbor and former rival WSTM-3, but it essentially ends an institution with a proud tradition. TV5 was SUNY Oswego grad Al Roker’s first professional weatherman gig. When I interned there, one of the nicest guys was Mike Tirico, now well known as a lead announcer for ABC Sports and ESPN. Other TV5 alumni are working jobs all over the country, thankful for the small-market start.

This news came on the heels of the Rocky Mountain News’ abrupt shuttering by parent company Scripps Howard. If you happen to have 20 minutes to spare, the video on the ghost paper’s home page is an engaging yet devastating documentation of the end of a proud and important paper. And the sad thing is that more TV5s and Rockys will join the club of former journalism outlets.

One part where I disagree with the RMN video, and other pundits on this subject, is in the anger and blame directed at bloggers for the demise of journalism. This is misplaced, albeit trendy: While there are some rogue bloggers trying to supplant journalists, most bloggers (and Twitters and Facebookers) trafficking in current events post links to newspaper articles. It’s just a different distribution method, as I don’t know a single blogger who wants to see newsrooms close, or is working toward putting journalists out of work.

If you’re looking for blame, try corporate boardrooms that have bought up all these journalism outlets and see them as lines on a balance sheet … not as the community resources they are. When Scripps Howard gives up after a mere month of trying to find a buyer for the Rocky Mountain News, when Granite Broadcasting decides to phase out 5’s news function, they are merely redlining an expense to keep shareholders happy. That a community with fewer journalism checks on power is a disservice to everyone, that cities shedding jobs now losing news sources they’ve come to trust like friends is one more kick in the gut … these human costs do not fit into the equation. No film at 11, no special edition, just a fade to black.

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social media changing newsgathering.

In the past week I noticed a few friends in journalism attempting a new type of newsgathering in the wake of the tragic plane crash near Buffalo. These unfailingly old-school journalists embraced new media, posting status messages on Facebook asking, very sensitively, if anyone knew people who may have connections with Continental Flight 3407 and who may be willing to tell their story.

I’ve spent many years on both sides of the journalism-media relations street. I’ve been an editor trying to find people connected to a tragedy, and I’ve done media relations as reporters sought people related to a sad story. The most memorable instance of the latter was on 9/11, as our campus was flooded with calls from reporters looking for someone, anyone with personal ties that could place greater context on that unthinkable event.

One of the worst journalism cliches is the sight or thought of a reporter sticking a microphone in the face of a grieving loved one to ask how they feel about a tragedy. Maybe this use of Facebook to find leads represents a kindler, gentler way to do business. My friends were working their connections but only looking for those ready and willing to speak. Those impacted by a bad situation are treated less like prey and more like partners.

It further shows how social media is changing the communication landscape. In Web 2.0, we are all a certain number of connections away from other people with whom we can establish various kinds of relationships. Moreover, it reinforces that social media continues to change the way we find, tell and share stories.

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