Posts Tagged newspapers

The infinitely deep gap between writing about something and nothing

In college, I had a writing teacher who said that, if you have a column or blog, you can write about having nothing to write about. But you can only do it once. For this blog, I’m saving that free pass for rainy day. However, I thought it would be interesting to discuss where ideas come from and how original they need to be.

I’ve always thought that the best way to come up with ideas for news and feature stories is to draw on experience. Talking to sources, finding out what’s actually happening, or learning about an important trend are the essence of journalism. That’s why it’s called reporting, after all.

What happens when you can’t be near the source, though? Or if you don’t have a monopoly on it? The Internet has dramatically changed how news is reported, especially when it’s related to industry, politics, or other subjects that don’t have a geographic base.

Here’s an example: If Ford wants to show off a new car, it will probably unveil it at a major auto show in front of the world’s press, but it will simultaneously post all of the vital information on the car on its website.

That means every media outlet, even ones that didn’t send reporters to show, has access to the same information (assuming the bigwigs don’t take questions). Since everyone is online, people don’t need to rely on their local newspaper or magazine to learn about it.

That’s why angles are so important. A writer can explain how a story applies to their specific audience, or add analysis that others might not have thought to include. Other outlets distinguish themselves with style, taking on a more informal or humorous tone to differentiate themselves from “traditional” coverage.

This means readers are essentially getting several different takes on the same event, which can be informative, or confusing if they don’t agree.

It also shows that many stories are worth covering, even if someone else is doing it. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to piggyback off someone else’s work without contributing anything.

This clip from Portlandia illustrates the problem pretty well:

Anyone who thinks print media is dead should take a careful look at the sources of some of the digital articles they’re reading. Someone has to actually do the reporting, but that doesn’t mean the discussion stops there.

The “all access” scenario described above applies to original news too. Sometimes a story is important enough that it deserves coverage of its own, but that makes it every easy to just repeat the findings without adding anything.

Avoiding this requires a similar approach to the omnipresent car unveiling. Work the angles. Tailor the story to a specific audience. Add relevant analysis and insight. Also, don’t plagiarize.

Obviously this could be easier said than done, but hopefully this shows that you can come up with some meaningful stuff without direct access to sources. That doesn’t mean these types of articles can replace original reporting, so keep trying to get out there too.

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Anyone want to buy a newspaper?

Today the New York Times Company announced that it is putting its New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette, and other related properties, up for sale.

Since the Internet became a thing, it seems like everything something bad or unusual happens to a newspaper prophecies of doom fill the air. While this definitely puts the fate of the Globe and Telegram & Gazette up in the air, it’s not like a newspaper has never been sold before.

The sale is definitely news but, it’s easy to forget that speculation is not news. These papers’ fates are obviously less stable than they were yesterday, but that doesn’t mean they, or print journalism in general, are finished.

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Getting meta over media criticism

In this age of irony and constant self-investigation, it’s easy to lose track of the reasons why people do things. That’s especially true when it comes to the media (I still don’t understand why we have 24-hour news networks). Still, we all know why reporters publish stories on things they observe, right?

As a member of the media (sort of) I guess I sometimes fall into the trap of assuming what readers will think of an article. That’s why I was surprised by some of the reactions to a recent piece on dating in the New York Times magazine.

“The End of Courtship?” was controversial to begin with. It focuses on 20-somethings’ use of texting, social media, and online dating sites, saying that technology has ruined romance. The author claims that social media have taken the risk out of asking a person out, and prevent one-on-one dates from happening by making it too easy to bring friends along.

Having your entire generation described as gutless and emotionally stunted obviously stirs up some strong opinions. In a rebuttal on RoleReboot, Niki Fritz criticized the story’s assumption that women only want old fashioned dates where the man picks the wine and pays the bill. She said there is nothing wrong with having casual dates, group outings, or hookups as options.

I completely agree, but I didn’t expect Fritz to attack the article’s negative tone along with the specific points it made. I’m getting a little meta here, so bear with me.

“All these articles do is scare young women into thinking we are in some hopeless, relationship-less era devoid of love and romance,” Fritz said.

This sounded similar to a comment I saw on a friend’s Facebook page: “I’m just sick to my stomach of article like this complaining with no resolution in sight,” the disgruntled reader said.

They say no news is good news, and maybe that’s becoming too much for people to handle. I could be wrong, but I’ve always assumed that articles like the Times piece are written to identify negative trends so they can be corrected.

People should read articles like this, realize how lame their dating lives are and try to change. But I guess, in the real world, even the people that agree that text-based dating is a problem respond with a simple “I don’t want to hear this.”

There are a lot of unpleasant things in the world, and this isn’t even really one of them. Everyone deserves to be happy, but these 20-somethings are much closer to happy than most people in the world.

Arguing an article’s specific points is one thing, but criticizing it just because it is negative is completely different. Journalists need to report what they see, good and bad, and while they shouldn’t exaggerate or misinterpret the facts, they definitely have a license to be negative.

Much criticism of the media is warranted, but have we really been reduced to this? I hope the New York Times doesn’t pick up this story; too much criticism of criticism might break the universe.

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Newsweek: Grid Edition

Newsweek first coverNewsweek will cease print publication at the end of this year in favor of an all-digital format called Newsweek Global. Progress marches on.

Newsweek’s handlers made this decision for very sound reasons. The magazine was hemorrhaging money, and a digital version will allow it to reach the same readers without the confinement of a weekly publication cycle. It will also be subscription-only, so the shareholders will actually make more money than before.

No one should be surprised that Newsweek will not be available hot off the press for very long; digital is here to stay. A few years ago, the rise of digital news was seen as the death knell of newspapers and magazines. As a college journalist full of spunk, moxie, and a bit of anachronism, I was not ready to accept what some people called “progress.”

That apocalyptic scenario is no longer valid. The New York Times proved that people will pay for online content, and thus showed that print media could upload itself to the interwebs intact. Other papers are following the Times’ example, and news sites like the Huffington Post and Daily Beast (which ate Newsweek) are also popular.

The world really has changed, but I’m still not comfortable with it. I write for a news site(and this blog), and like it just fine, but can’t there be room for both print and digital media?

Scanning the comments on different versions of the Newsweek story, I found one bit of false astuteness about how communication evolved from cave paintings to the Gutenberg press, and that digital media is the next logical step. That really underestimates the impact paper has had on human civilization.

Putting something down on paper means people can take it with them, and keep it to themselves. The printing press may have made mass production of paper reading material possible, but it was not a paradigm shift on the same level as taking information off cave walls and out of people’s heads to put it on dead trees.

Compared to that, digital isn’t that impressive. It really just makes things more convenient and increases profits for the people that produce media. That’s very important, but let’s not romanticize it.

On second thought, it might not be a good idea to romanticize Newsweek either. It may have been publishing since 1933, but this is the magazine that called Obama the first gay president, after all. The takeaway is that a major title has gone all digital.

So Newsweek is a magazine that has lost its way, and the Internet may save it. The only opposition seems to be grounded in sentimentality: the feel of a page in one’s hands, or the permanence of having important events recorded in ink.

That kind of stuff never plays well in boardrooms or the homes of people who can afford iPads. In the span of a few years, digital media has gone from being a fantasy, to a threat, to a sensible business decision. That might be the most unsettling thing of all.

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Watching the watchers, or, Do we want a moderate moderator?

Watching last night’s post-debate coverage, I noticed that moderator Candy Crowley came in for criticism along with the two candidates. Despite her job title, Crowley’s performance was a part of the media circus trying to glean some meaning from what went down in that Hofstra University auditorium. I like that, and I think people should take it a little further.

I’m not saying that the moderator should be a factor in determining which candidate wins a debate, I think that should be based solely on the facts. We have enough subjectivity in our debate coverage already, and that’s why I think consumers of media should scrutinize the people that produce it.

The starkly different roles played by Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz in their respective debates started this fire, and legitimately so. Lehrer failed to ask specific questions, and couldn’t even get Mitt Romney to answer the non-specific questions that Republicans love. Raddatz, on the other hand, kept both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in line, and forced them to give specifics instead of talking points. Which do you think was more informative?

Now it’s time to take things a step further. We should not only rate a moderator’s performance, but the news organizations that cover politics.

It has to be consumers of media that do this; having news organizations rate each other would be akin to releasing Cthulhu and having him define objectivity. Rather, this should be done informally, preferably on an individual basis.

This more about thinking about what we need to know than judging or punishing people’s stupidity. We simply need to ask ourselves: What do I need to know to make an informed decision in this election? Be specific (you’re talking to yourself, after all) and don’t couch it in terms of pre-existing narratives. Just be honest.

The follow-up is obvious: Is the source of my information, be it a news network, paper, or website, answering my questions.

A candidate’s job is to get elected, the media’s job is to inform the electorate. Said electorate should not have to suffer through ignorance if a candidate misses an opportunity to draw blood in the debate arena. The media needs to tell people what candidates aren’t telling them, and put everything in context.

If you watched CNN, MSNBC, or Fox, or read the New York Times or Huffington Post, on debate night and still don’t know what’s going on remember: you have a choice.

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Information, data, and the future of journalism

As an aspiring journalist, I’m used to feeling like an anachronism. Many people assume that the revolution in digital technology will eventually kill newspapers, and leave a cacophony of independent bloggers and Twits in its wake. But at least that means people will still be doing the writing. If a new company called Narrative Science has its way, that could change too.

According to a recent story in Wired, Narrative Science has developed an algorithm that can write news as well as a human. The company is currently selling its services to businesses and the parents of Little League players; its computers primarily churn out quarterly reports and coverage of Little League games. However, company cofounder Kristian Hammond thinks that, in 15 years, 90 percent of news will be written by computers.

I’m not so sure about this, and not just because I want to keep my job. In order to write stories, Narrative Science’s computers need to be fed raw data. They can sift through that data much more efficiently than a human, but someone needs to compile it for them. In the case of the Little League games, Narrative Science relies on an app called GameChanger, which parents use to file all the statistics of their kids’ games.

Even with humans doing the leg work, Wired’s Steven Levy believes Narrative Science will capitalize on the importance of data in our lives. In theory, a system that can see every minute detail of an event, from a pitcher’s stance to the precise shade of orange of John Boehner’s skin at a Congressional hearing, can write a more accurate story than a person.

If we focus on data, then the machines win. Computers are unerring and un-judgmental, and they can sift through massive caches of numbers more efficiently than humans. However, there is hope for human journalists: information.

Data and information may seem like the same thing, but they are not. A datum is the building block that a piece of information is made from. That’s why people use the term “raw data:” it needs to be formatted into something that people can understand. That is where humans come in.

A machine can record a player’s batting average with extreme accuracy, but it will never be able to express the feeling of watching that player come out of a slump by hitting a home run. There are also situations that are too subjective for data. Can statistical analysis of past speeches predict what Newt Gingrich will say next? Can anything?

Another advantage information has over data is timeliness. Taking a poll of eyewitnesses at an event will not always be possible, so how will mechanized reporters get the data they need to compile a story? Having a human reporter on site to decide what readers need to know is still the only way.

You can learn a lot by crunching numbers, but it’s hard to tell what it all means. Reporters are more than just meat puppets who string sentences together; they are professionals who figure out what people need to know, and how best to tell them. There is no love lost between the public and the media, but that does not mean that computers can do this job better than humans.

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Super journalists

The QuestionOne of my favorite things about comic books is the way they glorify my chosen profession. Many superheroes pick up a camera or notebook after they put away their capes, taking to the fictional streets of America as journalists. Superheroes and journalism really go hand-in-hand, and it’s no accident. In fact, it’s all about realism.

A news reporter or photographer is the perfect secret identity for someone is always making news. If Clark Kent showed up every time Superman made an appearance, and din’t carry a press pass, people would get suspicious. As a reporter for the Daily Planet, Kent is expected to follow Superman around, so no one would ever suspect that he and the Man of Steel are the same person. The same goes for Peter Parker of the Daily Bugle. Of course he’s always around when Spider-Man swings into action! How else would he get those amazing photos?

Journalism also provides heroes with the resources they need to fight crime. Working for newspapers gives Clark Kent and Peter Parker access to information; they learn about crises first, so they can respond quickly. The Internet has made that less true (the “Miracle on the Hudson” was first reported via Twitter), but working for a major news organization is still important. Would Spider-Man be as effective if he had to read thousands of tweets by himself before getting some actionable intelligence?

One superhero, the Question, goes so far as to make journalism part of his modus operandi. As T.V. news reporter Vic Sage, he investigates criminal acts, exposing the corruption of Hub City in nightly broadcasts. Then, he takes to the streets as the faceless, trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing Question to dispense justice.

Superhero journalists aren’t just reporters, either. The Green Hornet owns a newspaper, the Daily Sentinel and, like the question, uses journalism as a tool in his war on crime. Britt Reid publishes stories depicting his masked alter ego as a powerful mobster, spooking his enemies while concealing his true identity and intentions.

Journalism’s role as the “fourth estate” is wholeheartedly embraced by the creators of superheroes. The heroes are, after all, supposed to be real people with extraordinary abilities. They need day jobs that won’t conflict with their crime-fighting missions and, maybe, on a good day, Clark Kent’s reporting can do as much good as Superman’s crime-fighting.

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