A final word

With my last post, I thought I’d touch on a minor concern among journalism professionals: The future.

Specifically I want to consider the future of newspapers, especially local ones like the Tuscaloosa News.

I pulled these nationwide newspaper stats from an article on the Business Insider, “The year newspapers died.” These are solely from the first half of 2009 (a rough year of closures):

—105 newspapers have been shuttered.
—10,000 newspaper jobs have been lost.
—Print ad sales fell 30% in Q1 ’09.
—23 of the top 25 newspapers reported circulation declines between 7% and 20%

The numbers are scary. How can we not expect all newspapers to be gone in five to ten years? Readers are getting their content elsewhere and for free, and incidentally the advertisers are going with them. And as publications struggle to meet the necessary financial needs, it seems like the small, local newspapers are the most vulnerable.

Yet as destructive as evolving technologies have been to print journalism, I believe they also hold the answer to the future. How well can a newspaper adapt? That, my friend, is the million-dollar question and the key to survival.

The services of a local organization, such as the Tuscaloosa News, will always be needed. No other national publication can serve the public like a local newspaper, which listens to what the community cares about, raises important local issues, and covers neighborhood events. A national publication may report on breaking news, but a local newspaper tells how that news impacts the lives of its residents.

Therefore, as long as local publications can adapt to a new business model, there’s hope. This includes addressing dilemmas such as figuring out how to provide the same accuracy and immediacy with fewer reporters, finding new ways to advertise and charge for content, and being flexible and creative in the ways they provide their content.

After talking with Lydia and a couple other reporters, I think the Tuscaloosa News is right on track. As evidence of Lydia’s evolving duties, they’re adapting to budding technologies without sacrificing the quality of their service to the community.

As a student, I think it’s important to look at all the changes within the profession and determine how I can better prepare myself for a journalism career. The ability to work with new technologies (video editing, graphic design, etc.) is no longer merely helpful, but necessary. It’s never been more important to stay informed about economics and government. Good writing, as always, never comes without experience and hard work. And the ability to be innovative—applying the basic principles and responsibilities of journalism to an ever-changing world—seems as if it will be the determinant my success.

Look out, world, here I come! (That is, after I gain about 45 more credit hours…)


First-hand accounts of evolution

With all the buzz about a changing world of journalism, I decided to do my own little case study. Ok, so maybe my research wasn’t that extensive, but I did get in contact with a reporter from the local newspaper to ask her a few questions.

Lydia Seabol Avant graduated from the journalism program at the University of Alabama in 2003, and she now works at the Tuscaloosa News. In an attempt to understand an evolving industry, I can’t think of a better method than to pick the brain of someone who was in my shoes just a couple of years ago.

So I asked Lydia to reflect back on the changes that she’s experienced within her career. But first she went back even further:

She took me back to a time before computers were the beating pulse of a newspaper. The constant clack of typewriters resounded menacingly throughout a newsroom. With each ding, journalists prayed, that a typo wouldn’t haunt their precious work. Surviving stories were delivered to type-setting machines, in which an editor would manually cut and paste them onto a page. These were dark times.

Painting pictures in my head, she told of an anguished era she’d only heard about. Well maybe she wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it would sure make for a good horror film.

All drama aside, Lydia admits that the newsroom has still undergone significant changes throughout the course of her career:

“When I graduated… the focus of the journalism program was primarily writing and editing, with some copy design. But, I never thought about having to operate a video camera, edit video clips or anything like that.”

Lydia said that each reporter was given a video camera, and they were required to provide video content in addition to writing articles. Yet even those responsibilities have been amended with the recent expansion of web journalism.

“When I started, we had one guy that was in charge of the newspaper’s website,” she said, “And the website was updated maybe once a day. Now, there is an online staff of probably around 6 or 7 people, almost as many people as there are reporters. Their jobs are specifically to take videos and content for the website.”

Now this is an era I’m slightly more familiar with. I’ve witnessed the explosive popularity of web content over the past couple years. Yet all this change in such a short period of time is a little unsettling. I asked Lydia how she predicts a journalist’s duties will continue to evolve:

“I see the roles of the reporter blurring,” she said. “We are required to be a kind of jack of all trades… able to write, take photos, take video, edit everything and post it online.”

Gee, Lydia, sounds exhausting! That must be why they pay journalists the big bucks.

Advice for a newborn blogger

Upon my visit to Savethemedia.com, veteran journalist Amber Smith kindly offered some tips for journalists who are beginning to blog. (Gee, is she talking to me?) Amber explained that many traditional news values still apply in the blogosphere, yet she also cited a few exceptions. I paraphrased her advice into a few handy tips.

Tip #1: Don’t skimp on accuracy or quality of sources
In an age when “rumors and tweets get passed around like facts,” it’s important to use the same amount of care that any reporter would use. Proofreading content and validating information with reliable sources is how you gain credibility with your readers.

Tip #2: Expand on breaking news (don’t repeat it)
Bloggers often feel like they should be talking about hot media topics, and they sometimes wind up just repeating the facts. Since blogs aren’t usually where people go to get breaking news, a blogger should look at the big picture and offer a new perspective on an event or incident. Her example: If the news outlets are reporting on a fatal car accident, focus on how the driver was texting or how the neighborhood has been petitioning for a traffic light.

Tip #3: Keep your blog relevant
Define the purpose of your blog from the start. Avoid blogging about certain topics just to generate hits. “Decide what you want your blog to be, what makes sense for your topic area, what will be most useful to your readers, [and what will be] most gratifying for you.”

Tip #4: Be fresh and interesting
With so many forms of media available, people have the option of choosing what they want to read. Amber suggests blogging often to give readers a daily reason to return. (I’m sure I have some loyal readers. Does my mom count?) It’s more important than ever to be original and entertaining when it comes to your content. Have fun with it!

Thanks Amber. Duly noted.

LINK: savethemedia.com

Social media integration

Wow! Check out this breaking story and the new room’s brilliant use of social media!

Okay… so maybe some parts of that newscast were slightly unbelievable. I doubt she really got a coupon for a free Starbucks macchiato.

Yet it’s no lie that breaking news is pervading social media. How else do you think I found out about Michael Jackson’s death or the Haitian hurricane? This Fox newscast may be over-the-top, yet it parodies the rise of social media in our daily lives.

[Thanks to Doug Fisher, and his blog Common Sense Journalism, for the link]

LINK: Common Sense Journalism Blog

Not always easy… to put it in a nutshell

For me, writing headlines is one of the most challenging editorial duties.

I’m a woman of many words, and I find it difficult to sum up an entire story in a very specific number of characters. Yet mere brevity is hardly sufficient. A headline should be actively stated as well as intriguing, because often it’s the only chance to draw a reader into the story.

Amy Robinson, of the Tuscaloosa News, and Janet Sudnik, of Tuscaloosa Magazine, spoke to our editing class about headlines and how crafting them has changed throughout their careers. Both are editors, writing multiple headlines each day, and could therefore be deemed gurus of their trade.

On a projector, they showed many examples of poor headlines and explained how each could be tweaked (or in some cases, completely transformed) to make them more effective.

One trend, they’ve noticed, is that headlines today contain more abbreviations than they did even five or ten years ago. It’s now appropriate to abbreviate certain words which were never before acceptable. The word “government” is one example they gave. If abbreviations can communicate the main idea in a way that’s quicker and more concise, then by all means—abbreviate.

For online journalism, web headlines can be slightly more verbose, as they lack the spacial restrictions of newspapers. Yet both women stressed that the basic principles of headline writing still apply online. The headline’s purpose is always to clearly summarize the story and entice readers to click for more.

The difficulty of writing headlines is evident by the innocent mistakes published in newspapers everyday. We all make blunders, but unfortunately a journalist’s front page faux pas is often read by thousands. Small grammatical errors and hasty proof-reading give way to some hilarious double meanings and even sexual innuendos. A website called The Funny Pages has some of my favorite botched headlines:

—House passes gas tax onto senate
—Grandmother of eight makes hole in one
—Farmer bill dies in house
—NJ judge to rule on nude beach

I mean, no pressure or anything. We’ll all just laugh at your expense…

No Comment

Anonymity is one of the most controversial issues facing contemporary journalism, especially on the Internet.

Traditionally, news organizations have always welcomed the public’s opinions as a means of involving their readers. Whether it be a commending phone call or a fuming letter to the editor, news organizations have always published reader feedback, striving to represent the different views within a community. After all, isn’t that our professional purpose?

The Internet, however, has recently added another dimension of detachment from a person’s identity and what they have to say. Many websites of news organizations have begun to host online forums that follow recent articles or controversial topics. Commenting in these forums is comparable to writing a letter to the editor, yet it fosters an immediate dialogue that traditional print journalism has never been capable of. Online responses are nearly impossible to filter, and the liberty to speak freely and anonymously is sometimes abused.

The intent is to involve their readers and provide a means for public discussion. But what happens if that shared information turns accusatory, or even defamatory? The anonymous information is neither being confirmed nor fact-checked, yet a news organization is publishing it for others to view.

Is it ethical to filter comments solely based on what an editor fears could be possibly libelous or just offensive? Or is that a form of censorship? Should news organizations just denounce anonymous posting altogether?

I’ve always said they should.

I understand that these forums avidly promote reader involvement, but their inability to hold people accountable provides such an easy opportunity to mudsling. I find it especially unsettling that this medium of possible defamation is being provided by an institution dedicated to truth and accuracy.

And yet, as sure as I was about my stand on the issue, I came across an article the other day that challenged my whole thought process. A reporter’s argument in the American Journalism Review caused me to consider a journalist’s professional obligations from a different perspective, perhaps a more objective one.

AJR Journalist Bill Reader extensively researched the topic of anonymity and how it has been applied throughout the history of American news media. He was trying to determine what our forefathers had intended when it came to anonymous speech.

His article, “We the (anonymous) people” [Fall 2010], reminded me that journalists derive their duties and freedoms from the Constitution. Anonymity, Bill Reader argued, was exactly what the framers envisioned as a way to ensure equal representation within an American democracy:

“The more I researched… the more I realized that our profession’s desdain for anonymous commentary is built upon a myth. Anonymity isn’t anathema to democracy; in fact, anonymous speech is exactly what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind.

“On a philosophical level, anonymity allowed opinions to be considered on their own merit, without regard for who was stating them; on a practical level, it gave people a way to disagree with leaders without getting beaten or thrown in jail.”

And while his quote above was referring to our forefathers’ intentions in the 18th century, I’m beginning to convince myself that the same protection may still be necessary today. It’s natural, and arguably wise, that we receive other’s opinions with a grain of salt; but nowadays, there’s often a heightened realm of skepticism to the point of absurdity.

Whether a comment is spoken by a preacher, politician or opinionated community member, it’s our culture’s tendency to delve into their past and emerge with anything that may discount them as a valid speaker. Why should we take away a person’s right to let their ideas speak for themselves? I can think of many times I’ve refrained from voicing an opinion for fear that I would be viewed differently by my teachers, employers, or peers.

I believe that if you consider a group of ten people, one will always abuse the allowance of anonymity. Yet at the same time, curtailing anonymous speech altogether would take away the liberty of nine others to elevate their opinions without scrutiny.

It’s a double-edged sword. But in the name of democracy, I think I may be leaning toward the side more blunt.


Questions in a time of change

I won’t lie—the declining trend of newspapers was a little scary to me when I began college as a journalism major.

As an apprehensive freshman, I thought the fading demand of print journalism indicated a dwindling field. My dream to be the modern-day Lois Lane seemed in jeopardy.

With so many newsrooms closing around the country, I wondered if there’d be any left upon my graduation. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t sleep through Journalism 101.

Now three years later, as a wise and scholarly journalism student, I have found that what I wrongly perceived as a declining industry is actually quite a burgeoning one. And while the demand for one format of news is shrinking, others are… well, exploding.

More people are consuming news than ever before. Their modern methods of obtaining the news, however, have consequently transformed it. What used to be a simple, routinized institution has evolved into a web of vast integration. The emphasis is on convenience, interaction and immediacy.

With these changes, professionals are being forced to adapt by applying the principles of their practice to new technologies and formats. The speed of this transformation, however, has created a cloud of ambiguity over journalists’ roles and responsibilities: What’s appropriate? What’s professional? What’s legal? What’s ethical?

This blog will explore the duties and struggles of a contemporary journalist from the perspective of a student trying to find her feet in a whirlwind of changing media.

Lois Lane with a smart phone… I could do that.