On The State Of The News Media, And The Reporter Who Quit

This week, the fine folks at Pew released their annual State of the News Media report and the findings were grim (again) for those of us who still want to make a living doing journalism. One third of Americans surveyed said they abandoned a news outlet because it failed to provide “information they had grown accustomed to,” a majority of those people aren’t aware of the business-side meltdown of the news industry, and meltdown is not an exaggeration — budget cuts and layoffs “put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew reports. Local TV news is being kept alive by traffic and weather, but that’s not expected to last long. A full 85 percent of MSNBC programming is talk — commentary rather than produced pieces of reporting and interviewing.

In response, Slate’s Matt Yglesias made a compelling argument that while the producer-side/revenue problem still exists, the abundance of choices for news and information outside of the realm of “traditional media” makes this a better time than ever for consumers.

“Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…

The recent improvements in news distribution are astonishing. You don’t need to go to a specialty shop to find out-of-town newspapers or foreign magazines. Just open a browser. You can check on Israeli news sites when a new government is formed or during an American presidential visit and ignore them the rest of the year. The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life.”

Yes, Yglesias ignores the effects of a vastly downsized professional journalism workforce on state and local communities, where the disappearance of watchdog reporters is likely felt the most directly. That is the conceit on which we started NPR’s StateImpact network in 2011 and The Texas Tribune in 2009. (Good god, has it been THREE years!?) The local news problem continues to vex us and is worth its own post (or book), so I’m tabling that.

A few days after the report was released, the Twitterverse led me to the personal post of Allyson Bird, a former newspaper reporter, about why she left the news business on her own volition. She writes that the response was huge — 165,000 pageviews in the first day after posting — and sparked a raw conversation among other journalists, both still in the biz and out. As my friend Joey says, “No journalism gets more read and talked about by journalists than stories about journalists.” We are egotistical maniacs.

“I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied,” Bird writes. Later, she hits on the notion many of us working journalists know well — that your good work is only rewarded by more work: “Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.”

Bird’s been lauded and lashed by fellow journalists, all who seem to have strong opinions about her piece. I have just a few thoughts to throw out in response, mainly cause I like that we’re having this collective conversation and hey, Friend Matt created WordPress so we could all be publishers, so, why not.

As a journalist who did sign up for that $16,500 salary out of school to work nights and weekends and face constant condescension from a misogynist GM in Waco, Texas, I and many others like her empathize with the part about dissatisfaction. For me it was temporary, but what constitutes satisfaction differs from person to person. Being able to feed and house yourself comes before bylines, and in conversations about declining diversity numbers in newsrooms, one reason that comes up is salaries so low that entry level folks would need wealthy families or second jobs to support.

Bird partially blames the 24 hour news cycle for overworking reporters, but we’re beyond a survival of the fittest phase in the news biz — it’s mutation of the species. There’s no point in lamenting the multitasking required of reporters today, because most have proven they’ve mutated as necessary to keep up.

The wide readership of and thoughtful social response to Bird’s piece, one she published without the distribution platform of a mainstream news brand, is “Exhibit A” in favor of the digital revolution that is blamed for killing mainstream news. That Bird wrote a single post, published it herself, and it led to a national conversation is Yglesias’ point:

“A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival. Time would compete with NewsweekTime doesn’t compete with Newsweek anymore: Instead it competes with every single English-language website on the planet. It’s tough, but it merely underscores the extent of the enormous advances in productivity that are transforming the industry.”

Incidentally, for the writer herself, this kind of exposure could lead her right back into paid journalism. Already she’s booked on WYNC’s The Takeaway, which will only lead to more exposure.

I want to think journalism is a meritocracy and that I work not-demanding hours a fantastic national news organization because of my skills and hard work, but just as it is in life, who makes it and who doesn’t can be quite capricious. Those of us who have jobs we love and get paid for it should be grateful, strive to keep growing and pay it forward, as our predecessors did.

The exciting thing about journalism today is it calls for a kind of entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking that it didn’t back when finances were more stable. But it is an entrepreneurial spirit that led to amazing startup news organizations like the one I’m proud to have helped launch, creation of new storytelling methods or projects that streamline data journalism  and the invention and funding of simple tools to provide greater context, like DocumentCloud. 

Newsrooms will keep contracting. But the wheels of invention and progress keep moving forward. For their sake and ours, I hope the creators and problem solvers out there will still want to create and solve problems even if the prospect of profit remains unseen. Allyson did, and it’s proven anything but unsatisfying.

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Ai Wei Wei Poses A Question I’ve Been Pondering About Journalism

The Ai WeiWei exhibit continues here in Washington through next month, so if you are going to be in town in the coming weeks, I really encourage you to see it. My artist-turned-diplomat Mom and I went over the holidays and we both found it riveting. The two of us have been going to art museums together since I could walk, and we really zip through when exhibits are boring. But at the Hirshhorn, we found ourselves lingering over each piece, studying Ai’s work from various perspectives, coming back around again, getting inspired by his agency and taking photos to remember what we saw.

Curators chose a few Ai WeiWei quotes to display alongside the art. This one in particular seemed to get at the very question we were tossing around at #NewsFoo in December, in our case, regarding those crazy Taiwanese news animations:

From the Ai Wei Wei exhibit in Washington.

From the Ai Wei Wei exhibit in Washington.


Obviously a lot of the Taiwanese news animations are totally full of made-up and sometimes bombastic details. This traditionally makes for poor journalism. But just as photo illustrations go, you can communicate a truth even though the mashup is fake, right? Or is that outside the realm of journalism? I think it’s an interesting question as we continue trying to do “something new,” toy with non-traditional story forms, etc. Given what we saw of his art, it seems Ai WeiWei’s answer to his own question is yes.

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Some Notes and Photos from NewsFoo

The spawn, the spouse and I just got back from NewsFoo, an unconference put on by O’Reilly Media and the Knight Foundation. The 150-ish attendees are all involved in technology and/or journalism in an interesting way and I’m certain I was the dumbest person there.

If you’ve never unconferenced, the main idea is that at more traditional and scheduled conferences, all the best connections and interesting conversations end up happening at lunch or during coffee breaks. So unconferences aim to foster the coffee break vibe for an entire weekend by only setting session start and end times — the session topics are all pitched and plotted by the attendees after they arrive. No Powerpoints, no formal presentations, no nonsense. Below, some photos, and after the jump, notes from the Foo and links from my animations session.

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Reactions to Mitt Romney’s 47 Percent Remarks: A Roundup

In case you’ve been away from your news delivery device for the past six hours or so, the politisphere is all atwitter over the leaked video of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks at a fundraiser sometime this year, in which he says, among other things, this:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”

Since I was at a dinner for the past few hours, I had to catch up on reaction really quickly, but in doing so, came across several useful reads to give me a sense of the story, the 47% that Romney’s referring to, why it matters or doesn’t matter, and how the video wound up in the hands of David Corn of Mother Jones magazine. So if you’re just getting caught up, I rounded up some links:

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Social Media 201 at #UNITY12: Useful Links

A big thank you to the two Angies — Angela Kim of Yahoo! and Angie Goff of NBC Washington — for paneling it with me today at the UNITY Journalism convention. UNITY brings together the minority journalism organizations for one giant confab every four years, and I’m really happy to have moderated this (hopefully practical) talk about tools you can use to better engage with your audiences online.

Links and examples from the presentation:

Yahoo! Homes on Pinterest
An example of how Yahoo! developed an identity on Pinterest.

Marketplace: Your Neighborhood Through Your Eyes
A Public Insight Network project using photos to tell a story. Any news organization can get involved with the Public Insight Network by contacting American Public Media.

Yahoo! Sports on Instagram
An example of what you can do with your reporting team’s photos on Instagram.

Down But Not Out
How Yahoo! Finance aggregated user-generated content on a simple, free Tumblr.

Social Cam
Allows you to update a story in the field or set the scene before a liveshot for your Twitter/Facebook audience. You can also capture moments during commercial breaks.

Demonstrating Free Apps – “App of The Day”
To better integrate tech products with your television audience, most newsrooms have the capability to allow talent to introduce and demonstrate free apps.

Encourage the audience to interact with you ask questions. Also builds your own social media brand.

Google + and Google Hangout Tutorial
KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri rocks their Google+ presence. This quick video tutorial shows viewers how to get on Google+ and participate in a hangout.

Questions? Feedback? Leave a message in the comments or tweet me.

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Boston With Some Big Brains

Over the past couple of days, the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Knight Foundation gathered about 200 of the brightest minds in media and technology to talk about data, algorithms and how they’re changing storytelling. (It was also a chance to announce the winners of the Knight News Challenge, which I helped judge this spring. Congrats to the six inspiring winners!)

One of the takeaways from our two+ days together was that in discussing the future of news we are in many ways arguing for a return to the past — a more distributed one, before media producers were aggregated at gatekeeper institutions, and back to a time when storytelling was produced slower, with more context, as exemplified by the presentation of Paul Salopek‘s fascinating plan to spend the next seven years on a slow-reporting journey around the world. And with the big trend toward more data journalism, AP’s Johnathan Stray and others reminded us that data has fingerprints all over it — that data journalism requires many selective decisions by humans, which means “there’s no such thing as objective data.”

Chatting with Michael Maness and Joi Ito at MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

Monday, I sat down for an on-stage chat with Knight’s VP for Journalism and Media Innovation Michael Maness and Joi Ito, a Knight trustee, venture capitalist, early tech pioneer and the director of the MIT Civic Media Center. During the conversation about funding trends for information efforts, Michael announced Knight’s new Prototype Fund, part of a a new effort to fail fast in funding new ideas by giving out 50-60 smaller grants for innovative ideas each year. Both men both delivered some memorable gems, and I got to wear one of those motivational speaker type headset microphones, which was the highlight of my week. (You can’t even tell it’s there, it’s so skin-colored and invisible!)

Michael wrapped up some of the big themes that came out of the conference in his closing session on Tuesday. Check out the notes from the liveblog. And Stiles did some great data visualizations on the attendees and the Twitter volume during the confab. More resources/coverage of #civicmedia after the jump:

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Lessons From Launching The Texas Tribune and NPR StateImpact

PHILADELPHIA — I’m in Philly today and tomorrow to spend time with public radio news directors and the web staff at WHYY (which you may know as the station home of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air). We’re talking about digital strategy, how to improve their existing news site, Newsworks, and where public media is going.

Organizers were interested in how I spent the last three years of my life: launching a pair of digital news brands. Granted, this is not my trained area of expertise. My journalism experience is largely in broadcast television news, i.e. “Take a look at this downed tree in the driveway.” But because of great luck or horrible misfortune (depending on how you look at it), I was somehow involved with two launches of digital news brands between 2009 and 2011.

First, it was the startup news organization The Texas Tribune, and then in 2011, I was drafted by NPR to work as the digital editorial coordinator of its new state government reporting network, StateImpact. This called for hiring, training and editing 17 reporters as well as building out eight sites on a WordPress-powered multisite platform for stations around the country.

I boiled down some of the key things I learned for the presentation. The slides are below:


Links from the Presentation

News Erupts, and So Does a Web Debut The New York Times, David Carr

For The Texas Tribune, “Events Are Journalism” Nieman Journalism Lab, Andrew Phelps

Texas Tribune Databases Drive Majority of Site’s Traffic Poynter, Mallory Tenore

StateImpact Blog, NPR, Elise Hu, Matt Stiles, Danny DeBelius, Becky Lettenberger

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A Fete For Draper at Kathleen Parker’s Posh Pad

I had already taken a big swig of the pervasive Washington culture cocktail of press+politicos at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner over the weekend, but at least 100 of those Washingtonians were still game to party on Tuesday, when I co-hosted a soiree to fete our pal Robert’s new book at columnist Kathleen Parker’s Georgetown abode. There, I witnessed a Washington tradition for new books: People turning straight to the index to see if their names are mentioned. Coverage of the fete from The Hill’s Judy Kurtz:

Friends and colleagues celebrated the release of Robert Draper’s new book about the inner workings of the 112th Congress, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, on Tuesday … Draper, a freelance writer, spent a year following the veterans of the House and the newly elected Tea Party members, to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life inside the Capitol.

The place is gorgeous-gorgeous, with an expansive courtyard and a roofdeck, and dozens of Draper’s pals showed to toast his new book. More photos, by our NPR intern Julia Ro:

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Recommended Reading: My First Link Roundup Powered by the NPR Plugin

I like to pretend I don’t actually have any real responsibilities, but I actually did move to DC last year to take a job. It called for launching a new news brand — StateImpact — a local-national network headed up by NPR in DC and staffed by NPR member stations around the country. Last year, StateImpact hired two reporters in eight pilot states to launch a new site in each state. Now it’s off and running.

We continue to train, edit and support the sites and their journalism. In addition, the team here in DC regularly develops features for a customized WordPress platform that is used by every site in the network. The customized platform was first built two years prior, by our sister project, Project Argo.

Argo has now open-sourced its theme(s) and all the plugins they developed to make their reporters lives easier. (StateImpact has more fun tools, mostly geared toward data-driven reporting, which we have yet to open source.) One of the now-public plugins is for link roundups — curated aggregations of the best links on your beat. Team Argo identified these roundups as an important part of a blogger’s daily or twice-daily routine, but a pain in the ass to actually put together because it involves a lot of cutting and pasting and hyperlinking. The Argo Link Roundup tool, which all our StateImpacters use regularly, allows you to create a roundup without ever cutting or pasting a thing.

This is my test drive of the plug in here on HeyElise. But it actually is a collection of the best pieces I’ve read in the last 24 hours. (Especially the story about draft bust JaMarcus Russell.) Assuming this goes well, I’ll be doing more link roundups in the future.

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