Sunday, February 27, 2011

Still the best!

I'm still very confident that the reporting done for newspapers is the best source of information available to me.

That may seem like a surprising statement to many of you, but I believe it wholeheartedly. Where else can I get news today that tells me about:
— the impact of the drilling of natural gas on our drinking water (The New York Times)
— the "ugly truth" of U.S. medical experiments conducted 50 years ago or more (Associated Press)
— background on state's that do now have collective bargaining for public employee unions (The Washington Post)
— a story about the military being accused of using intelligence tactics on Senators (The Washington Post)
— an in-depth story about the Supreme Court facing conflict between constitutional rights and protecting children (The Washington Post)

And, to be honest, that's just a small glimpse into the amazing work reporters do every day at newspapers all across the world - and the country. It's not a particularly exceptional day — just another day.

I would welcome anyone to show me a medium that provides this level of in-depth information and reporting on a regular basis. The Internet may be the avenue for it - but it is newspaper reporters who do the work. Television is nowhere close, radio doesn't even really try and magazines just can't keep up. However, I will give magazines credit for doing some of the best in-depth reporting.

Good journalism - good reporting of important information - is alive and well.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stooping to serfdom?

Journalists have never been known to be well paid. The purveyors of print journalism have never been compensated in any way commensurate with our significant role in our countries democracy - as defined in the First Amendment and as praised by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Benjamin Franklin.

Jokes of eating ramen noodles in college didn't end there for would-be newspaper reporters. In fact, I likely ate better as a struggling university student than I did as a fledgling reporter for the Huron Daily Tribune in Bad Axe, Mich. Where, upon arrival, I discovered I qualified for low-income housing thanks to my full-time salary that amounted to less than $15,000 a year. Try balancing a few bar nights (a necessity in the Thumb), eating, and paying back student loans with that income?

Well, we may be headed to a new low as an industry. A recent New York Times article (I read it on Ongo), had this headline: At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs. Ouch!

The best example of this is the Huffington Post, which has employed a legion of unpaid bloggers - that's free content for the edgy, independent online newspaper that recently "sold out" for $315 million to AOL. Now, those unpaid bloggers are essentially working for the $2 billion media giant. Hmmmmm..... is working for free so sexy now?

It never was and it never will be. The biggest change to me is this: I was willing to work for much less than I should have made in an industry that I took pride in being a part of. Can we still sell that line of thinking to young journalists?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Which group is more responsible: Journalists or Politicians?

In a debate about which side acts more responsibly in their roles serving the public, my vote sides strongly with journalists here.

Of course, I'm biased. But I'm also certain that I am correct.

My belief is only strengthened today by a report in the USA Today about an Iraqi WMD information who apparently lied. OK, we can probably agree that's not a shock. We're talking about a country that was strife with corruption back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Lies were bound to happen.

Apparently, this person code-named "Curveball" is behind some of the stories that convinced the Bush Administration that there were definitely WMDs in Iraq - enough so to start a war over. One person.

Here are a few areas where I would expect journalists - especially those at the highest level on par with the level of our federal government that botched this - would have likely made different decisions:
1. It takes more than one source to report something so serious.
2. The source was clearly anti-Saddam Hussein, which would bring his credibility immediately into doubt.
3. German officials actually received this information - so it came to the U.S. (Colin Powell used the information directly in a 2003 speech according to the article) second hand. Reporters would demand more credible sources.
4. The source, "Curveball," was also reportedly given promises by the Germans that his cooperation would make it easier for his wife and child to join him in Germany - so he clearly had something to gain. This is one of the biggest red flags of all for journalists.

So, while I believe a half-competent journalist would have handled this very differently our country went to war based largely on the fact there were WMDs in Iraq - something we now know to be untrue.

If a newspaper botched this up as badly as the Bush Administration apparently did, it would take decades to recover the trust of readers - if ever. That's what happens in the industry - it's the strongest form of media accountability.

What do we do now to hold the Bush Administration accountable?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Monitoring comments

The common practice on many online news sites has been to allow anonymous comments at the end of articles. This encourages involvement, promotes lively discussion and, to be honest, without the anonymous option we all know the number participants in these comment forums would drop steeply.

I'm still concerned about the random commenter who opts for the personal attacks. Anonymous comments opens the door for inflammatory language that few would use if held accountable. I don't like some of the things I've seen, for sure.

Here's a recent comment I was made aware of on a college newspaper site: “What a shame. This story breaks my heart. (NAME OMITTED) is a meth cook and dealer. I think (NAME OMITTED) stumbled on (NAME OMITTED) meth lab at the school, and he had her killed. Her boyfriend the surveyor was in my class last summer, he was in on it, but he tried to pick a fight with me to get me kicked out of school. For everyone out there who wants to go to (SCHOOL OMITTED), don't. Most of the teachers there are not real teachers, they are meth dealers. (NAME OMITTED) is nothing but a low life meth cook who has put peoples sons and daughters at lives at risk, and I believe he is responable for (NAME OMITTED) death.”

That's some serious stuff there. It was actually posted. Does it have any truth to it? I really don't know.

The paper was asked to remove this comment. After some checking around about common practices and legalities, I'm told they did remove it.

Here is one example of a portion of a student newspaper policy:

We will delete comments, without notice, that:

* Are fraudulent, unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, offensive, pornographic, profane, sexually explicit or indecent
* Threaten, invite, or encourage violence
* Are derogatory of others on the basis of political affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual preference or disability
* Constitute or encourage conduct that would violate any local, state, national or international laws
* Violate, plagiarize or infringe the rights of third parties including, copyright, trademark, trade secret, confidentiality, contract, patent, or rights of privacy
* Contain advertising
* Are by commenters who misidentify or misrepresent themselves
* Contain personal information (addresses, phone numbers, etc) about the comment's author or others

The best policies I have been made aware of do allow comments - from anyone. They also have staff members who regularly check the comments - they do not preview them - for problems. If a problem is detected, they may be removed.

Reasons for allowing live, anonymous commenting are actually numerous: Promoting lively discussion is the obvious one.

Another reason is that newspapers are actually less liable legally if they do not get into the business of previewing, or editing, the comment contents. Section 230 of the Communications Decency ACt of 1996 protects providers of interactive Internet forums from liability. That protection could be lost if you preview the posts before publishing them.

So, while the temptation may be difficult to resist, allowing open commenting is better for all in the long run. Let the comments fly!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Paying for news

Often, I read things and am captured by a paragraph, sentence or phrase. The theme of an article is clearly important, but I tend to look for those gems.

In his Ask the Recruiter column today on the Poynter web site, Joe Grimm writes about a new website called Ongo that he describes as a "personal news experience."

I am interested in places online where I can go to find more of the news that is important to me. It is the ongoing search we all undergo for: What I want, when I want it. Ongo sounds like an interesting venture of many solid news producers.

However, it was a paragraph late in Grimm's column about Ongo that caught my attention: "Kazim said that the Internet has disaggregated news to the point where it is overwhelming for readers who want to manage multiple news sources. Ongo is trying to be a one-stop shop for managing the news."

The internet, and many pseudo-news sites, have been negatively described as "aggregators" of news rather than producers. The problem there for journalism is that the producers of the news are losing out on revenue for their work when a "aggregator" takes it and publishes it and attracts an audience.

It is an interesting way to look at things that not only are sites aggregating news, but they are disaggregating it by making it spread over so many locations and thus making it difficult to navigate to good information.

In this case, Ongo is charging $6.99 a month and is working closely with those producers - sharing revenue from subscribers. And if it does this week, giving me what I want and what I should read, it sounds like an interesting concept.

Anything that is looking to serve readers and solve some of the financial puzzle to keep good journalism relevant and profitable is a worthy venture to me.

In fact, I don't think I would count Ongo in a simple fail/succeed scenario. Just for attempting it is a success in my eyes. If it works, great. If it is not financially successfully, my hope is it will create a foundation for another venture to improve upon the concept to one day be successful.

We must be willing to pay for our news.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I'm excited about news journalism

Some TV production students at Ferris asked me to participate in an ongoing project called "Bulldog Story." I got to talk about my journalism career and my role as a professor of journalism as well as adviser to the Ferris State student newspaper. I was excited to see how it turned out and felt compelled to get this going again....

Check it out the short clip of my "Bulldog Story."

I'm also hoping to make better use of this blog moving forward - I have plenty to say, plenty I want to hear from others about and plenty to continue to ponder about the newspaper industry.