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Block by Block 2011: Veteran journalists are succeeding with independent, online community news sites

A wonderful thing about the Block by Block Summit 2011 was seeing that many of the nation’s most successful independent, online, community publishers are veteran journalists in their 40s, 50s and 60s—my cohort, broadly. Go, team! More important, these are the journalists whose jobs have been most vulnerable in the legacy-media crisis of the past 10 years.

These journalists watched their newspapers close, or took buyouts during staffing cutbacks, or got laid off, and found themselves adrift. They had honed their reporting and writing skills over decades, built broad, deep source lists, developed mature judgment and possessed a still-burning desire to tell stories and reveal truths. But the institutions that had employed them since the 1970s and ’80s were shrinking. The business models that had supported those institutions no longer worked, and because of the disruption wrought by the Internet, they seemed unlikely to return to robustness.

These veterans wanted and needed to keep working. And they were deeply perturbed that changes in legacy media—news organizations that existed before the birth of the Internet—left many communities without the kind of news coverage that informed citizens need in a democracy.

And so the hyperlocal movement was born.

Now, a few years into their online ventures, after endless months of 24/7 dedication to building their sites journalistically and financially, they are making enough money to cover their personal expenses (mortgage or rent, health insurance, food, car, etc.) and even to pay themselves a small salary. They have embraced the fact that they are running businesses; that’s why they went to Block by Block, to figure out the next steps toward greater profitability. And they’re eager to share their knowledge, as Howard Owens of The Batavian, which covers the countryside between Rochester, N.Y., and Buffalo, wrote in a post on his personal blog titled “How to launch your own local news site in 10 (not so easy) steps.”

Ben Ilfeld of Sacramento Press

Ben Ilfeld of Sacramento Press introduces himself at the opening of the Block by Block 2011 Summit in Chicago. (Photo by Howard Owens)


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Newspapers should jettison (most of) their web video efforts

Newspapers should take a hard look at* their largely feeble attempts to draw readers with web video. It’s a misuse of their shrunken resources. It’s not working. Though visits to newspaper websites keep growing, a small minority of visitors watches videos there.

*(Update, Oct. 14, 2011: My original post read: Newspapers should give up their largely feeble attempts to draw readers with web video. As the responses to this post flowed in, I realized I’d overstated my views in the lede. The title of the post [should jettison most of their web video efforts] better reflects my intent, and later posts on this topic [Oct. 8 and Oct. 14] further clarify my thinking as it evolved through the dialogue my original post engendered. Thanks to all who contributed to the discussion.) Continue reading


Part II of All On Paper. Very funny, and the students’ comments are priceless.

I had forgotten all about the number 1 key.

HOW TO BUILD A NEWSROOM TIME MACHINE Want to freak out a newsroom full of college journalists? Sit them down at manual typewriters and ask them to plunk "2011" onto a piece of paper. They'll only make it halfway. "Mine's broken!" one reporter at Florida Atlantic University yelled a couple of Saturdays ago, when we launched the inaugural ALL ON PAPER project. "There's no number 1 key." "This one is busted, too!" yelled another. "They're not broken," I replied. "Manual typewriters did … Read More

via journoterrorist

HOW TO HAVE A PAPER BALL (via journoterrorist)

Greatest teaching idea ever.

HOW TO HAVE A PAPER BALL What happens when you force college journalists to publish a newspaper with no computers? Well, first they freak out. Then they get their hands dirty. They write stories on manual typewriters and copyedit them in pencil. They shoot with film cameras and process the prints in a makeshift darkroom. They lay it all out with pica poles and proportion wheels. They paste it all up with X-Acto knives and rubber cement. And they love it. At least, that's … Read More

via journoterrorist

Newsday coverage of Nassau County referendum was unbalanced

Nassau County residents’ resounding defeat of the proposed $400 million bond issue to build a new Nassau Coliseum was a clear indication of popular sentiment. Eighteen of 19 voting districts turned down the idea. Countywide, the vote was 57 percent against, 43 percent in favor.

And this despite Newsday’s best efforts to promote the deal. In the 10 days before the vote, Newsday published five staff-written stories that were solidly in favor of taxpayer support for the new arena and a nearby minor-league ballpark. Opposition views were mentioned in passing—or not at all.

  • July 21: “Labor unions step up push for Coliseum.” The story focused on the 3,000 jobs the development was supposed to create but didn’t mention opponents’ arguments that the number was inflated.
  • July 23: “Wang says new Coliseum key to LI growth.” This two-page spread reported on an interview at Newsday with Charles Wang, the billionaire owner of the Islanders hockey team. The Islanders’ lease of the existing Coliseum expires in 2015, and Wang had threatened to move the team if the referendum was defeated. The story focuses on Wang’s arguments for the deal. Opposing arguments are mentioned once – in the 27th paragraph.
  • July 26: “Wang: Privately funding Coliseum unlikely.” The story begins flatly, “New York Islanders owner Charles Wang said last night that there was no alternative to borrowing funds to build a new Nassau Coliseum.” The next 12 paragraphs described Wang’s address to “a friendly crowd of business owners and advocates.” At the end: three paragraphs quoting from an interview on WFAN with the county’s Democratic Committee chairman, who opposed public financing for an arena.
  • July 27: “Islanders ask fans to support referendum.” The paper’s coverage of a rally attended by “more than a thousand Islanders fans”—no source was given for that estimate—made no mention of opposition. Continue reading

The News Corp. scandal reflects the human condition

Watching the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal unfold makes me both happy and sad.

My first response was satisfaction. Rupert Murdoch’s relentless drive to dominate the news industry on three continents, his well-documented ethical compromises in pursuit of his corporate goals, his creation of the disingenuous and destructive Fox News Channel: Watching the leader of this ethically corrupt enterprise being called to account, at last, gives me grim pleasure.

But after that satisfaction came sadness. Murdoch’s modus operandi epitomizes the greed, selfishness and sense of entitlement that underlies 21st-century global culture. It’s the same me-first focus that led to the 2008 financial crisis and has since blocked any real reforms, the same want-it-all worldview that has widened the chasm between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of society over the past 30 years, the same screw-your-neighbor ethos that ends in suburban sprawl.

The refusal of both Rupert and his son James to take responsibility for the company’s wrongdoing is achingly reminiscent of George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s refusals to stand behind their aides and take responsibility for the errors and falsehoods that led the invasion of Iraq.

What really makes me gloomy is knowing that selfishness, greed and self-preservation are fundamental elements of the human condition, elements that more often than not triumph over grace and generosity. Greed ain’t one of the seven deadly sins for nothin’. Continue reading

Work/family conflicts can arise early in a journalism career

One of this year’s graduates wrote to me recently with a pressing question:

“I know I JUST started working at [a major television network], but I have a question for you. … How did you know when to put your family first, before your job?

“…The reason I am asking is because when I was hired, my boss said I would be working Monday through Friday. But now, judging by the schedule, it seems she may not be giving me the weekends off, and, instead, will be giving me weekdays off.

“I am nervous because I am newly married, and with a schedule like that, I will never see my husband. Do I say something? I really would like at least one weekend day off so I can spend time with him, at least one day.

“But I feel like, since I am new, it is wrong to ask for that. Keep in mind, I am a freelancer still. I am not salaried yet. I get paid per day. Then I get worried that if I say something and ask for a weekend day as one of my off days, I am jeopardizing the potential for me to become a salaried employee.

“What is more important, my job, or personal time with my husband? Do you have any words of wisdom?” Continue reading

Are the local watchdogs barking loudly enough?

Henry Powderly, a regional editor for on Long Island and an adjunct with Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, asked me recently to blog for Three Village Patch, the site that includes the university in its service area. I accepted, becoming one of the 8,000 local bloggers  (unpaid, in case you were wondering) whom Patch, which is owned by Aol, plans to host.

For my first post, I wrote about the lack of enterprise reporting and public accountability journalism* in coverage of the Three Village area. Nice, right? They invite me in and the first thing I do is criticize. I criticized not just Patch but also the well-established weekly newspaper in the area, The Times Beacon Record, and Newsday. Call me an ingrate if you like; I call it friendly, constructive criticism. You can read my full Patch post here. Continue reading

Journalism Students: We Like Paper! We Love Free.

What astounds me year after year with each new crop of journalism majors is how much they prefer ink on paper to electronic media. What kinds of jobs do they want? Newspaper reporter or magazine writer, many say. And most, all else being equal, say they would choose to read a book over a Kindle and a newspaper over a website. But all else isn’t equal, of course. They like paper, but they love free.

This spring in Journalism 24/7, the course I teach each semester that explores the changing news industry, The New York Times’ long-ballyhooed, carefully considered tiered paywall was a frequent topic of discussion. Overwhelmingly, the students dismissed the move as immaterial. There are a million ways to get around paywalls online, they said, proceeding to enlighten me with the methods they had used themselves.

As a final assignment, I asked the class to consider one of three questions: Two to three years from now, where will we get our news? Where will the money come from to support quality journalism? And how will the job of the journalist evolve?

Their answers showed clearly whether they had grasped the conundrum at the root of their own cognitive dissonance. Stephen Grotticelli, a quietly attentive student with a concise and expressive writing style, said that digital natives

will realize that an “app” should actually be an application, not just [a] bit of nomenclature. They will take full advantage of modern technology to offer rich, compelling multimedia, interactive and social experiences their print rivals will not be able to recreate offline. The content will be advertisement supported or, at most, available for a very modest fee from an app store.

But another student, whose name I won’t mention, argued that newspapers will survive because “people want to have the actual newspaper to keep when there’s a big news event, like Osama bin Laden getting killed.” Others, equally oblivious, said quality journalism will endure because people need to know what’s going on. Thanks, kids. That and $2.25 will get you on the subway.

Live-Tweeting the Class Lecture: A #selvin247 Exercise

I tried Staci Baird’s live-tweeting exercise in yesterday’s Journalism 24/7 class, using the Twitter hashtag #selvin247. I gave a lecture on net neutrality and students tweeted their notes, using their phones or laptops to enter their 140-character comments on Twitter; the “hashtag” allows Twitter users to search by topic. I projected their tweets on the board, updating every 10 minutes or so. Some of the #selvin247 timeline is still up on Twitter as I write, though it’s fading fast.

Results: Students took stabs at conveying the facts of the lecture; many missed the mark. Too much effort expended on wit. A former student posting prank tweets. Students tweeting to their friends on personal topics during class.

As an exercise in comparing tweets with traditional, handwritten note-taking, I’d call the live-tweets a failure. Baird’s instructions, however, included an admonition to give students “some examples of what good live-tweeting looks like.” I didn’t do that. I’ll save a few examples and try once more next semester.

A few wrinkles emerged, besides those prank tweets from a student who took the class last year (“Can I go to the bathroom?  #selvin247 #educationalvalue #justkiddingidonthavetogo #gogojournostudents”). Tweeters circled the points I made, occasionally landing on the bullseye, but anyone trying to follow the lecture from afar would have been confused. Jokes distracted tweeters and their followers: “If the ISP is the gatekeeper, who is the keymaster?  #selvin247 #ghostbusters  #thereisnodanathereisonlyzuhl.” A follow-up check on students’ timelines found some unpleasant surprises, like this one from earlier in the class: “Ugh this class is killing me! Idk how [a classmate] and i are going to surviveeee.” Or this, far uglier, from last summer: “The only thing more despicable than the muslims building a mosque near ground zero is @sarahpalinusa trying to gain from it politically.” This one was pointed out to me by someone who was deeply offended by it.

Twitter being a public medium, I could rightfully identify those posters, but as both are students, I will refrain from embarrassing them – or, in the case of the tweet about “the muslims,” maybe costing the student an interview or a job. The point is that everything on a public Twitter feed – everything on the  Internet — is available to everyone, now and forever. Students: Keep your online identity professional! Think before you tweet: Do I want some future potential employer, or some future source, or a professor, reading these words?

The idea for the class-tweeting exercise came at the end of a Knight Digital Media Center blog post on teaching mobile journalism, which some enthusiasts call the most important journalistic tool to emerge in recent years. More sober observers point out the limitations of live-blogging (of which live tweeting is a subset), the most critical being the lack of context or analysis. In my view, live blogging is one more tool in the journalist’s expanding toolbox, useful during breaking news events but far less so during speeches or talks. Few lectures are of such white-hot importance that every thought needs to fly through the twittersphere the moment after it is uttered. Some people seem to thrive on that hothouse sense of immediacy, but I find its breathlessness forced. I’d rather wait an hour or two, or a day, and read a considered report on a lecture, context included.

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