Thursday, August 31, 2006

Paul Salopek

Trib reporter Paul Salopek is sitting in a jail cell in Sudan charged with being a spy. Probably not news to any of us.

In today's Seattle Times, his former co-worker at the Trib Ken Armstrong has added his voice to the many in the journo world trying to explain to world at large why they really, really should care about this. He's done the best job I've seen so far.

Paul came to the Tribune in 1996 from National Geographic. I covered legal affairs and worked on investigative projects. We attended a meeting once, to discuss story ideas. Paul said he wanted to track a single shipment of illegal drugs — from point of production through sale after sale after sale — to learn what lives were touched or destroyed along the way.
How could anyone possibly pull off such a story? He's not just a writer, I thought. He's a dreamer, too.

Two weeks ago, The Seattle Times ran a four-part series excerpted from the Chicago Tribune, called "A tank of gas, a world of trouble." Paul wrote the story. He took the same idea — the same bold, brilliant idea that I had dismissed all too readily years before — but replaced drugs with oil.

He tracked crude shipments from across the world to a single gas station in South Elgin, Ill., and showed how the gasoline that gets pumped into some 10-miles-a-gallon Chevy Suburban has touched and sometimes devastated lives in Louisiana, where the wetlands have turned to mud; in Nigeria, where the oil industry's byproducts have included pollution, corruption and political thuggery; in Iraq and Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, where the demand for oil and all of its resulting riches and intrigue have contributed to global turmoil.

Some of us should only hope to get half as good as Salopek and that we one day have those we've worked wtih willing to say stuff like this about us.

On a side note, GW apparently sent a note to Sudan's president about the situation. It actually takes someone getting chucked in jail and charged with spying in a foreign country suspected of genocide to get this administration to decide press freedoms are a good thing? Gee, Mr. President....

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Where Do We Go From Here?

There's a very good article in The Economist this week about the newspaper industry and how the paid print part of it is slowly decaying. In its typically well-considered, even-handed way, The Economist cuts through the hysteria that seems to so often accompany this topic and looks at dozens of examples from around the globe to see what newspapers are doing to try to evolve. Interestingly it goes well beyond just having a Web site. Different papers have taken different approaches to providing content online, while others have embraced free dailies (as we've seen here in the US), and others have started or bought online properties that are only peripherally related to journalism.

Any thoughts on which opportunities seem most promising for the newspaper business? It's a pretty exciting time to be in the business even though many journalists prefer the doom and gloom scenario.

Also, not sure how long this article we be available online, so read it now or print it out.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Welcome to the Machine

Forget losing our jobs to outsourcing. Forget losing our jobs to citizen journalists. They ain't gonna need them either soon the way things are going because computers can now produce journalism (and do an ok job of it).

No, I did not read this in the Onion and get confused between real and fake news, before any of you ask. This lovely development was chronicled by The Financial Times -- and I'll thank Ms. Shiers on The News Hole's behalf for sending it along in an effort to keep our blog from dying here.

Anyway, for those to lazy to click the link, here's the top:

First it was the typewriter, then the teleprinter. Now a US news service has found a way to replace human beings in the newsroom and is instead using computers to write some of its stories.

Thomson Financial, the business information group, has been using computers to generate some stories since March and is so pleased with the results that it plans to expand the practice.

The computers work so fast that an earnings story can be released within 0.3 seconds of the company making results public.

By using previous results in Thomson’s database, the computer stories say whether a company has done better or worse than expected.

“This is not about cost but about delivering information to our customers at a speed at which they can make an almost immediate trading decision,” said Matthew Burkley, senior vice-president of strategy at Thomson Financial.

“This means we can free up reporters so they have more time to think.”

I'm not even gonna throw in my two cents.

(Insert dejected sigh and shake of head here)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

CNN's approach to citizen journalism

Courtesy an email from the Medill listserv and speaking of "citizen journalism", check out CNN's new site: CNN Exchange.

From what I can tell, they are soliciting readers for pictures and stories. They lay it out to make it easy for people to contribute and even include a toolkit to guide you.

They also include a list of stories the editors are interested in, from airport security ("Did you have to rearrange your luggage?") to the Middle East ("Do you have photos of buildings destroyed by rockets?") to the hurricane season ("How safe do you feel?")

First let me say that I think it's interesting, and an affective way to connect to readers and viewers. If citizen journalism is really taking off, then it makes sense for the news organizations to go out and solicit it from people and reap the benefits with a good looking online package.

And it seems like they are getting a really strong response with dozens of first-hand stories, photos and videos, allowing us to see parts of the world or particular incidents that might not otherwise be captured.

But something about it rubs me the wrong way. I haven't entirely put my finger on what it is - perhaps that it feels like they are taking the reporters out of the mix and the analysis is decidedly lacking. Perhaps it's that many of the contributions read like guided letters to the editor or people just mouthing off on a particular topic. Not sure, jury's still out. But it is an interesting approach, I'll give them that.

Thoughts?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Taking Your Life In Your Hands

When I was reading the first installment of the Jill Carroll story today, I just couldn't get a rid of scary little persistent voice at the back of my head. She could be one of us - albeit it with a hell of a lot more nerve:

"Not that my life in Baghdad was easy. Freelance journalism is a tough business everywhere. But I didn't want to sit in a cubicle in the US and write, as I had, about the Department of Agriculture food pyramid. Here I was living my dream of being a foreign correspondent - even if that meant sometimes living in a hotel so seedy it was best to buy your own sheets."

A lot of us that left the country to report at some point did it for the sense of adventure and did it secure in the knowledge that somebody (and somebody with power) was there to lend a helping hand if and when something truly atrocious happened. Once the safety net was gone, we chose the cubicles for the time being, telling ourselves we'll make it there eventually. With the exception of our friend in Cairo and the other one headed back to Nairobi, we headed home rather than strike out on our own, without the support of a major organization behind us.

Lord knows plenty of aspiring foreign correspondents have always been willing to pay their dues. Michael Kelly did it on the proverbial shoestring in Iraq in the early 90s and kicked off a brilliant career that way. Although, tragically, even the resources he had behind him in Iraq weren't enough to keep him from paying the ultimate price this time around.

If any of my fellow globalites can remember all way back to September, we had a veteran foreign correspondent come speak to us in Paris. This woman had been to pretty much every major conflict over the past 20 years -- from Baghdad to Mogadishu and beyond. The thing she makes sure to take because it is the most useful in keeping her safe and getting things done?She said at least $10-20K in $100 bills (I think). That certainly presents a challenge for the likes of us, who had trouble paying for the shots and pills that are supposed to keep you from catching diseases that will make you hallucinate while there -- never mind even minimal security precautions. We'd probably have to leave with the change from the pack of gum we bought at the airport in our pockets and whatever meager cash advance we could strip from nearly full credit cards.

So, the Christian Science Monitor stepped up and did the right thing. They poured resources into finding the girl. Whether or not that made the difference in her making it home to take the staff position they gave her while she was missing (And, what the hell? If this is what it takes to get "staff" under your name now...), we'll probably never know. Will the next Jill Carroll be so lucky? How invested are those who sign the checks (and even those who assign the stories) really going to be in people they have never met? As more bureaus close and young freelancers trying to make a name for themselves go into danger zones for smaller and smaller outlets that pay less and less, the issue isn't going to disappear.

As the Monitor editor who penned the story with Carroll wrote:

"Jill herself, isolated by Islamist insurgents, did not envision such rallies to her cause. In the weeks to come she sometimes would avoid thinking about her family, because it made her sad; when she did, she imagined them apprehensive, waiting for some sort of word from the U.S. government. As for the Monitor, well, she was just a freelancer, and it wasn't a rich paper. She figured that following her kidnapping and the murder of her interpreter, its rotating Baghdad staff would have fled Iraq.
She was wrong."


How long before she's right?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Citizen journalism vs. Traditional media

There's an interesting story in this week's New Yorker about "citizen journalism."

Nicholas Lemann basically defends traditional media from what he boils down to puffed-up rhetoric about the threat of bloggers and online "journalism without journalists."

(He defines citizen journalism as Web sites that publish contributions by people who don't have jobs in news organizations but are performing similar jobs. He also sites a Pew study that showed that there are 12 million bloggers in the U.S., 34 percent of whom consider blogging to be a form of journalism. That would mean, Lemann points out, that there are now 4 million new journalists so the profession must have increased thousand-fold in no time.)

In looking at the affect of citizen journalism and bloggers (which I think are distinct, but he seems to lump them together here), he took a historical approach, siting how traditional media have been challenged in the past. In the end, the result has always been a more balanced approach to news-gathering.

Such is his argument about what many are seeing as a threat to journalism as we know it. He noted that it serves a purpose - compiling several news sources into a single spot, providing details and anecdotes from the scene (i.e. all the Internet accounts from New Orleans during Katrina), and of course a forum for opinion and debate. But it's still the more traditional journalists that are publishing the day to day accurate accounts of world events.

He contends that journalists still have a place here (phew!).

"The Internet is not unfriendly to reporting; potentially it is the best reporting medium ever invented. ... To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material - which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not "citizens" with day jobs.

For the most part, I agree with Lemann, but caution that he is shaking off the affect of bloggers and citizen journalism on traditional media. OK, so there is a place for reporters, but we can't so quickly dismiss how much blogs and people taking the role of reporters has forced media to reexamine itself. And that reexamination is necessary, and should continue. The new media should push the status quo, so that tradition media doesn't, for example, kowtow to the government or get lazy or just gray and fizzle out.

Anyway, my book report aside, I thought it was story worth reading.

In a somewhat related idea, I cover a local county for the my newspaper, and it turns out there are four blogs dedicated to this county. From the upcoming elections, to zoning issues to wildlife-spotting, this group of bloggers is interested in all things County. I thought it to be kind of strange that someone would care enough to write about what they are reading in the news, their opinions, and generally what they are seeing in their day to day live in suburban Maryland. But I do go to the blogs often to see what people are talking about and what I might be missing.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cable's crystal ball?

I'm amazed at how increasingly common it's become for on-air "reporters" to fancy themselves knowledgeable pundits. I was watching cable news the other day -- maybe shouldn't say which channel, but heck, who cares...

So I'm sitting there watching CNN and anchor so-and-so is blah-blahing about the unrest in Lebanon. I was only half paying attention, but I caught enough to hear that, all of a sudden, she says something that sounds like this: "If they had only sent troo0ps, this never would have happened." Umm...WHA? Really? Never would have happened? I'm sorry, so-and-so, are you a psychic, as well as a poor reporter?

How does something like this happen? How do reporters -- print, broadcast, what-have-you -- get to predict or state things like this so confidently, so soundly, as though they know that as fact? Did someone tell so-and-so that they thought it might never have happened? Well, then...attribute that, puh-lease? Attribution. Attribution. Attribution. S0-and-so, I'd like you to write that on the chalkboard again and again, oh, and no cookies after class.

And today, cable news continued its pattern of making me nervous; not because of the threat of U.K.-based planes targeting NYC, Washington and other U.S. destinations. But because cable news outlets constantly ran tickers screaming "Bomb plot thwarted"; "Attack was to be of 9/11 proportions"; "Baby formula allowed on planes."

And my favorite, subtle tagline: "Terrorism in the sky."

Comforting.

All of these quick-hit tidbits poured from law enforcement officials and found their way as fast as possible to bellowing headlines on TV and online. All without all of the accurate information to back it up, most of which we likely won't get for days, or maybe weeks. But in order not to cause widespread freak-outdom, news anchors assured viewers that the bad guys were behind bars and that, for now, they rest knowing our governments were "on it." Pack that baby formula and be on your way.

Good thing I wasn't just half paying attention then. Otherwise I might have just panicked.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

For those who say...

For old people who say journalism and blogs don't mix, it's cretainly going to be harder now that Sharesleuth is up and running. My bet is this guy kicks the ass of a lot of the major publications that don't put the legwork in anymore. He's actually reporting here on the big fuss surrounding the alternative industry and ethanol (which was the subject of dramatic about face in Washington this year. Can we say powerful industrial agriculture lobby anyone?) that makes it possible for the little guy that wants to invest to look out for himself. Gee, a journalist slogging through public records and using what they find (in this case a compnay staffed by shady stockbrokers, complete with an international man of mystery, who have run afoul of the SEC) to tell people something might not be kosher here. These days, it's such a lost art that it read almost like a novel concept -- and that's too bad.

I just hope this thing works out. Lord knows any outlet that's gonna put quality investigative work before the people is SORELY needed.

Problem is, he's also helping one of the big guys to really look out for himself. Investor Mark Cuban who owns the Dallas Mavericks, HDTV and string of corporate yet pretending to indy movie theaters is footing his bill. Cuban is trading on the information turned up by the verteran business reporter doing the work. On the basis of his first piece, he sold short the stock in the company they investigated. They disclose it, but something about that digs a little.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The wrong Cuba

First, let me lay out firmly a warning: I'm tired. I'm watching my favorite television show -- a rerun no less -- and I'm having a glass of wine. Not exactly prime for an insightful -- or thoughtful, for that matter -- post on the sad state of affairs of U.S. Politics. But, as always, I digress.

Also, I'll put the disclaimer at the top: Why does this have anything to do with a journalism blog? Simply because I think it's a much more important issue than the general media is treating it. It's complex, layered, and not Iraq or Israel. Instead, we're running front-page reactionary pieces on Cuban-Americans marching in Miami. Great. Times like these call for some analysis.

Don't worry, this will be short. To the point.

It was a bad time for Fidel Castro to go down. It seems counterintuitive to even think such a thing. The guiltless, heavy-handed dictator deluxe, Castro is the King Oppressor of the Western World, a title he's held for more than a half-century. He's gutted the jewel of the Caribbean (if that's what we're calling it) of its wealth, its identity and its freedom. He's single-handedly ruined a once burgeoning center of commerce and wealth, a vacationland for wealthy and intellectual-type U.S. tourons. He led a bloody revolution, that started perhaps with noble intentions, but ended (and continues) in the worst form of socialism and censorship. He's spawned sociopaths like Chavez, and his fast-conforming counterpart in Bolivia... Yeah, you get it. He's a bad dude. A dangerous, bad dude. So what the Hell am I talking about? Why would it ever be a bad time for him to lose power?

A myriad of reasons.

1) The U.S. is firmly entrenched putting out fires in other parts of the world. While battles/instabilities in Iraq, Lebanon/Israel/Syria/Iran, North Korea, and oh yeah -- another continuing operation the U.S. media is for some reason all but ignoring -- Afghanistan command U.S. troops, the Bush administration has its hands full. (I haven't mentioned Africa, but does it even pay to mention it if it doesn't exist in the realm of U.S. foreign policy? Anyway, back on point.) If there's one time ever that the U.S. would prefer to let the sleeping giant lie, it's now. But now, we could be months away from another bloody, messy situation just 90 miles from Miami. Yikes. With the proximity and cultural/historical/strategic implications with our southern neighbor, the U.S. will certainly get involved if unrest builds around a Castro departure. Can you say "Puerto Rico?" Best case scenario, I say. As long as it's not another Bay of Pigs...

2) Election year. Sure this isn't really ever avoidable, since Congress behaves as if it's always an election year (at least the House), but it's significant. To deal with a potential situation in Cuba, where do we get the troops, the military leadership? Divert some from Iraq? Take the loss, cut and run? (We know the answer's a resounding 'no,' but if it is even murmured in Washington, it becomes an election issue, wrought with the typical posturing, pandering and partisan bickering.) Don't forget about Gitmo, either. Bush has taken a whipping for that disaster, and so have his GOP partymen. Not only from the Dems, either. The UN (the half-witted pseudo-enforcement body), has even derailed it and asked for its closure. If Gitmo is closed down for reasons other than a plan crafted carefully by Bush, it's going to be ugly.

3) Raul Castro. Raul Castro? Yeah, even though the U.S. should know everything about this guy, they don't -- and admittedly so. No one seems to have a firm handle on exactly what this guy is capable of. Some say he'll loosen the strings on communistic economic policy, much like China has. Some say he's even more blunt-headed than his brother. Why don't we know more about this guy?

I'm no historian, and that's evident. I'm no politico, and that's pretty evident. But I think this whole Cuba situation is a bit underplayed. And a bit more important than we're giving it attention.

I hope we all see the day of a free Cuba. As Castro said 55 years ago: Cuba Libre!

Frankly, I really just want to visit.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Employing backpack journalists

Greetings readers of keen, insightful post-grad journalism analysis blog. It's an honor and a pleasure to have all two of you aboard. I guess the one thing I should say off the bat is I don't ascribe to that whole "overeducated" tagline above. I mean ... I showed up for classes ... I do remember that much ... but not exactly a flurry of skills and facts swirling around in my head, if you catch my drift.

Anyhow, to piggyback off Max's post (an interesting visual), 'just thought I'd add the editors at Anonymous Desert Paper have recently hired two mobile journalists, dubbed - wait for it - "MoJo's."

(sigh)

To start, they've been floating across our eastern coverage section, complete with digital cams - which they also use for video - and laptops with fancy connections for instant updates to our Web site. Lots of community-oriented digests, but cool opportunities to experiment. The editors also have the rest of us ... sedimentary journalists doing regular Web updates throughout the day. Which is fun. But my point is we are indeed moving in that direction, folks ... so Max's friend might appreciate the investment in the long run.

One of our biz reporters even left her desk to take the new MoJo position. In the middle of summer.

In a desert.

Where we've seen one day with a high below 100 in the past 50-something days, and two weeks ago it hit 122. Which is absurd.

Honestly, I don't know what that says for business reporting ... AG?

Training backpack journalists

A good friend of mine is starting the Masters program at Medill this fall, and I've been advising him through the process. The other day he wrote me an email about some items that the school is asking them to pick up before they start classes. Here's what he wrote:
I received a ridiculous letter with my acceptance package that says I need to buy an IBM laptop (or a new Mac with a bigger screen), a ton of software, a video camera and a video iPod.
He was somewhat incredulous about the list -- he's on the print track, mind you -- mostly because of the cost, which is daunting. I looked around the Medill Web site and didn't see anything about this, but I suspect it has something to do with the complete overhaul of the program that seams to have taken place since we left.

On the one hand, with that kind of gear, it sounds like they'll get to do some pretty cool hands-on stuff that we never got to do. If they're breaking down the barriers between print, magazine, new media, and broadcast, I'd say that makes a lot of sense too, since it seems like we'll be a lot less pigeonholed by those classifications than the previous generation of journalists was. It also reminds me of the slide from Rich Gordon's new media presentation about the "backpack journalist" who can operate as a print/broadcast/new media journalist using the equipment he carries with him. I suppose that as long as these skills are marketable, it's a good thing.

Another thing. Hearing about all these changes makes me realize that we had the bad luck (or maybe the good fortune) to go to grad school at the last possible point when a "classic" old-school journalism education was available, but maybe we got the best of both worlds in straddling the old and the new.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Brittany, babies and baseball

Say what we want about the future of journalism, newspapers, et. al. If anything is doing well these days it is the bevy of celebrity and gossip outlets out there. I frequently pass my downtime a work with Gawker and Gofugyourself. So, I have to thank Gawker for this gem. [No self-righteousness. You all do it too even if it's just to read about the extremetly bizarre Mel Gibson meltdown. Admit it.].

What goes better with minor league baseball in Newark, New Jersey -- the former car theft capital of the country and home of the airport that I believe to actually be Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell? A Brittany Spears Baby Safety promotion.

"Britney Spears arguably the Madonna of this generation has brought the issue of baby safety to the forefront of the American conscious. The Newark Bears know that the Pop Diva's public mishaps are far from intentional. It is her celebrity that has brought attention to the fact that not all new mothers in New Jersey are "not that innocent" when it comes to caring for their bouncing bundle of joy. The Bears invite you to The Den to receive information on different aspects of baby safety."

What this also says about lengths this team needs to go to get some people in the bleachers is pathetic. Lord knows nobody who hasn't sold a kidney can afford Yankee tickets or would actually want to spend time in the shitbox that is Shea stadium to see the Mets, so there must people out there able to shell out a more modest amount to take their kid to a minor league game. Coupled with the lesson on responsible parenting courtesy of Mrs. Federline? Free fireworks and lottery tickets...

This has to be today's sign of the impending apocalypse.