Tag: journalism

A new look at learning

I’m about two weeks in on a new fellowship that aims to look at how education is (or, more likely, is not) preparing today’s kids for tomorrow’s world.  We’re running with the idea that STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is the answer.

I approach this topic with some apprehension.  Education seems to be one of the most widely parsed topics in mainstream news today.  When Newsweek and NBC News are doing special features, it seems that the ship has sailed on innovative coverage.  We also struggle with the fact that, rather than publishing as we go, we will report for 10 weeks and publish at the very end.  We’ve already had two reporters pitch stories that were covered by major news organizations a few days later.

We are hoping to use the delayed release as a benefit, however, by delving deep into topics and placing a premium on visual and interactive elements that need some lead-up time to build.

I’ll be posting additional updates as we work throughout the summer, but please feel free to let me know what your ideas are about the topic in the comments section below.

SEO: Changing the way we write?

Are the SEO experts of the world killing the witty headline?

The Poynter Institute certainly seems to think so. In a review of an article from The Atlantic, Jim Romanesko talks about how copy editors are fighting back.

You might file this one under “things only journalists (and newspaper junkies) care about,” but there is something to be said for a clever headline in some situations. Features and second-day stories might even benefit from interesting headlines.

But for routine news, SEO headlines may be not only good for the Google Bot, but also for readers. While it’s true that “(name) dead at (age)” is not the most attractive headline, it does give the user a good idea of what the article is going to tell them, something not all newspaper headlines can claim.

As a news consumer, there is nothing more frustrating than clicking on an interesting headline only to read a totally uninteresting story, or clicking on a headline that promises one thing only to get a story that delivers something entirely different.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten eulogized the end of the clever head, claiming that the Post’s SEO policy was taking away the only creativity that copy editors had left. (This might not be such a problem anymore, given that the Post and other papers have eliminated a lot of copy editing positions in the past few years).

Love it or hate it, SEO is here to stay. Outspoken Media would like journalists to just stop whining already and embrace the power of Google’s algorithm over our lives. And the Neiman Lab reported that journalists are increasingly being asked to include search engine optimized terms in their lede paragraph, so it’s not only the headline that’s suffering.

For print journalists, it may be hard to let go of the puns and innuendo that populated headlines past, but in a world where the most coveted position in the newsroom is at the top of the Google search results, it seems it’s a necessary sacrifice.

At least until the Google Bot gets a sense of humor.

Why didn’t I think of that?

From the students at the Columbia School of Journalism comes this insightful and interesting project on the future of journalism. Fast Forward News is the culmination of an idea dreamed up by 18 graduate students in a video journalism class and features interviews with industry leaders of the past and future.

I’m loving this project for three reasons. One, I, too am a graduate journalism student, although one at that other J-school. Two, I’m looking pretty carefully at the future of news since I’m soon-to-be over-educated and unemployed and because I subscribe to the notion that journalism is not slowly dying, but instead is in a period of great transition.

Which leads us to the third reason: This is something we should be doing at Medill. Yes, it’s self-serving and self-promoting. No one likes videos about journalists more than… other journalists. But it’s also an important look at how the industry is changing. And it’s an important message about how the great divisions between newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online journalism are falling away.

In my classes this quarter, we’re talking a lot about how the audience is changing both how much news they consume and how they consume it. We’re even talking about how previous ideas on audience are themselves changing. But what we’re lacking is a full discussion of what we can be doing to change with our audience, and that is where this Columbia project comes in. An innovative and easily accessible look at the changing world of media is just what I need to round it out. And it wouldn’t hurt to get picked up by Romanesko.

50 years of “A Vast Wasteland”

I had the honor (and the pleasure) of attending an event last Friday hosted by the Medill School of Journalism honoring Newton Minow, the FCC Chairman under Kennedy who coined the term “a vast wasteland” with regard to television programming.  The event was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the speech Minow gave to the National Association of Broadcasters, during which he chided broadcasters for equating “the public interest” with whatever the public was interesting.

As part of the event, PBS NewHour’s Judy Woodruff, Virginia Heffernan, the New York Time television critic, and Torey Malatia, the president and CEO of Chicago Public Media talked about where the television industry has gone in the 50 years following Minow’s speech.  The news, I’m afraid, was mostly negative.  With the explosion of cable channels and the internet, the proportion of television and entertainment that does not need to hew to the public interest has grown, while broadcasters have mostly continued their policies of a few hours of children’s programming and a couple of news shows per week.  Radio has done no better.

Heffernan argued that there is television programming that exists that meets and exceeds the standards laid out by Minnow in his 1961 speech.  She went on to say that she hoped that people would watch more television, not less, and that the type and number of programs in existence today say a lot about our culture.

But perhaps the most entertaining and heartening portion of the evening came after dinner, when Minow’s three daughters stood up to speak about their remembrances of their father.  The three women, themselves highly successful lawyers and writers, remembered how their father always managed to get home in time for father-daughter time.

Martha, the dean of the Harvard Law School, remembered seeing questions about her father’s famous speech on her bar exam.  She and her father conferred after she discovered that she got two of the questions wrong, and sent a letter off to the test’s publisher questioning the “correct answers.”  They received in return a letter stating “We’ve been asking these questions for years and you are the first to complain.”

It was touching to see how close and connected this family remains, even with all of their various commitments around the country and the world.

In preparation for the event, I read the entire speech, as well as Minow’s update published in April’s issue of The Atlantic.

The idea that the airwaves belong to the public and that those broadcasters who “rent” space should program to the public interest seems almost quaint, given the explosion in the type and number of media.  But it is something that remains important, especially in the realm of public media, PBS and NPR.  For their commercial brothers, it seems that they are still hoping that they can do a little local news and a few children’s cartoons and call it a day.

The big question for me is does this still matter to people today?  Is it possible to have a public interest if the public isn’t interested?  If people can go straight to the internet or to niche cable channels to get news and information that speaks directly to their biases and interests, can local broadcast television even get through?

The days of “lady journalists”

Oh, to live in the time when women wore white gloves and hats and men drank scotch in dark, cigar-smoke-filled rooms.  Back when reporters were seen as romantic muckrakers who would do anything to get a story.

What’s that you say?  Those days never really existed?  Well they do in my mind and in the mind of many others thanks to Hollywood.

Through the wonder of Netflix, I have been watching a lot of movies that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about, including several that fall under the category “classic.”  For some reason, in this one-woman sample, I’m finding a lot of movies about reporters and newspapers back in the heyday of local news.

In the last week, I have watched “The Philadelphia Story,” “His Girl Friday,” and a modern take on the reporter story, “Morning Glory.”

One thing all of these movies have in common is a strong female journalist character.  I was surprised to find these women in movies from the ’40s and ’50s.

In “His Girl Friday,” the hard hitting reporter Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, is the only woman in a room full of classic male City Hall reporters.  She’s leaving the profession to get married until she gets sucked in to one last story.

For those of you who haven’t seen the classic 1940 story “His Girl Friday,” you can actually watch the whole thing here on Hulu.

In “The Philadelphia Story,” also from 1940, Liz Imbrie, a staff photographer for Spy Magazine is forced to pretend to be married to a reporter, played by Jimmy Stewart, in order to get the story.  In the end, her independence and feisty spirit almost cost her her happiness (seen here as getting the guy).

It’s interesting (and possibly a reflection of the fact that every movie needs conflict and romance) that in each of these movies the women are forced to choose between work as a journalist and happy home lives.  This is something you expect to see in movies made in the 1940s, but is it something we still need to see in 2010?

In “Morning Glory,” Rachel McAdams plays a morning television show producer who is chained to her desk (or blackberry), at the expense of her social life.  Ultimately, the movie is about finding balance and a sense of humor in your work and life, but it is interesting to me that she finds her strength at work while leaving her love life largely up to the man.

These three portrayals of journalism show the romanticism that many people still hold for the profession today, even though polls show journalists to be only slightly more popular than lawyers and politicians. Journalism has always been a fast-paced, conflict-ridden profession. And that makes for good entertainment, then and now.

The future(?) of Journalism

I just finished reading The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols and that, plus the fact that I’m getting a master’s degree in journalism has me thinking about the future of the journalism industry on a grander scale.

McChesney and Nichols propose a government-funded industry based on existing non-profit business structures or on a new business structure to be created by legislation. Even when the book was written, they understood the bile that a specific subset of conservatives hold for public broadcasting, but with the current budget negotiations, along with the release of tapes that showed the now former NPR fundraiser slamming conservatives, which led to the resignation of NPR’s CEO, it seems that the United States Congress may have even less taste for government funding of journalism than ever.

Aside from the small subsection of conservatives, governments from coast-to-coast are looking to cut budgets, not add to their long-term costs. It seems unlikely that a government-funded system would be a popular choice for Democrats or Republicans, at least at this point. And news organizations are slowly, but surely, losing staff and money.

So, just a year on from the publication of McChesney and Nichols’ book, what can be done about the state of the media.

I don’t buy the idea that online-only publications, as they stand today, are the answer. Their newsrooms are too small, they don’t have the international bureau structure of the major news organizations, and they also don’t have budgets that allow for the kind of investigative journalism that democracy calls for.

I also think the idea of online-only publications is indicative of a decidedly old-school way of looking at the media. The media brand is far more important to today’s news consumers than the platform.

I do think a non-profit news organization structure is going to be one of the answers for the future of news, but I agree with McChesney and Nichols that there may need to be a legislative restructuring of the not-for-profit business rules to allow newspapers to continue to publish editorials and endorsements of local candidates, an essential function of many papers.

In a 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to look only as far as the next big story. It is important to look for short-term and long-term solutions to what is a growing problem in the news industry. If the current system isn’t working (and it’s not), what next?