Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tragedy and New Media

Tragedy has struck here at the University of South Carolina and it is interesting to see how both old and new media are contributing to coverage of the story.

Seven college students died Sunday morning in a ferocious fire at a North Carolina beach house. Six of them attended USC.

Authorities did not release the identities of the victims for more than 48 hours. Yet thanks to the social networking sites, especially Facebook, we not only got to know their names, but we also got to know them as people.

Traditional media organizations withheld the names Sunday, even though they were available online. But by Monday, as grief stricken friends were creating message boards online and relatives were stepping forward to give interviews, news organizations posted the names on their websites.

To date, the professional coverage has been thorough, but restrained, respectful of the lives that were lost. As I have monitored that coverage, talked to students and compared this story to others like it, here and elsewhere, I think a few conclusions are fairly obvious:

The best pictures, once again, came from an amateur, a neighbor with a video camera. As the BBC pointed out after the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, they could not aspire to be every place in the world where news happens. But real people with video cameras and camera phones are everywhere and are capturing truly newsworthy images.

The social networking sites like Faceback are playing an increasingly important role. One newly-created Facebook group, RIP Students Who Perished On Oct. 28 2007, already has more than 11,000 members. The online community has provided students a way to share their grief. It also has provided reporters a rich source of information to bring texture and depth to their stories.

The role of traditional media is just as important as ever. The best coverage of the fire has come from professional journalists, not amateurs. Plus in the always on, always connected world, we need editors more than ever. Some message boards inaccurately identified some as victims who are still alive. Fortunately, I am not aware of any of these mistakes being published.

I think this story reflects something we will see far more of in the future, with citizen journalists playing an increasingly important, but still supplementary role to professional coverage. We both have jobs to do and both are important.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't forget ethics

One of the benefits of academia is being able to teach and interact with bright students. While Newsplex is a professional training facility, located in a different building from the USC School of Journalism, each semester I typically teach one undergraduate course, Freedom, Responsibility and Ethics.

At this point in the semester, my students are trying to understand the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It all makes sense in theory, a website that simply posts user comments is a conduit, similar to the phone company, and not liable for those postings.

However in practice, as news organizations encourage reader comments, such unedited postings can take on an ugly, unprofessional tone. Things we would never allow in print routinely can be found on the websites of reputable news organizations. By surrendering our journalistic standards to the dark side of the web, aren't we inviting laws and regulations that will erode our journalistic freedoms?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lessons of Tampa

Gil Thelen now heads the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. However as executive editor and subsequently publisher of The Tampa Tribune, he has been on the frontlines of the convergence battle.

Thelen spoke Friday (19 October) in Newsplex to a seminar on change management. He outlined 12 steps that are necessary for a successful convergence strategy. They include:

1. Put together a team that buys into both the problem and the solution.
2. Implement your strategy relentlessly.
3. Work from data and an outside perspective.
4. Change the conversation in the newsroom, starting with editors and managers.
5. Tell the staff to get on the bus or get off. The challenges facing newspapers today are too crucial to delay or wait.
6. Change the culture. Attack with facts and big ideas.
7. Demand involvement.
8. Geography is destiny. The architecture of a newsroom will help or hinder what you are trying to accomplish.
9. Bet the farm. Don't be afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool.
10. Help the business and editorial sides of the organization understand each other. Their traditional isolation is not helping today.
11. Look each day for levers or points of leverage for change.
12. Demonstrate hope. As Thelen describes it, the optimist is the new maverick.

This is quite a list and it puts the arguments we hear so often into a broader framework. If you are willing to embrace the things Thelen describes, then this is quite an exciting time to be working in journalism.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why change?

There are lots of reasons for news organizations to change and some of the best ones can be heard this week in Newsplex. Fourteen journalists from across North and South America have gathered for a two-day seminar on change management. Dietmar Schantin, director of Ifra's Newsplex initiative, presented an insider's look at the change process at London's Daily Telegraph.

The Telegraph, a big newspaper with 460 journalists and 900,000 daily circulation, made significant changes in its newsroom organization and workflows when it moved into a striking new newsroom in October, 2006. The DT reorganization is viewed as the convergence story of the year worldwide. Dr. Schantin explained how the changes were implemented with strong leadership from the top of the organization.

The story stands in stark contrast to so many newspapers, where change is approached timidly and in small, incremental steps. This lesson of Newsplex is that change takes a lot of commitment from the top.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Death of journalism as we know it?

Janet Kolodzy says it's about time, suggesting that we listen to our audience and stop trying to do journalism the way we always have done it.

Kolodzy heads the journalism program at Emerson College and is the author of Convergence Journalism, an excellent textbook on writing and reporting across media. Hers was one of many provocative insights to emerge here at the University of South Carolina from the just concluded conference on Convergence and Society.

Speaking of convergence, Kolodzy suggests that:

Those who have never tried it are the biggest detractors.
What works for one organization may or not work for another.
There is no right way to do it.
The fundamentals of journalism do not change.

Anything you would add to the list?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is this marriage going to work?

By now you probably have heard. MSNBC purchased Newsvine, one of the better citizen journalism sites in the U.S.

It wasn’t that long ago when citizen journalism and user generated content were all the rage. After all, OhmyNews in Seoul helped elect the country’s president and had more than 40,000 citizen reporters.

But now, we hear that OhmyNews traffic is down. Here in the U.S., the Backfence citizen sites have stopped operating and many media organizations are learning that citizen generated pictures of babies and pets really don’t draw that big a crowd.

Which brings us back to Newsvine. The site seems to do a nice job aggregating stories from many sources. Taking a page from Digg, the stories are then ranked by site users, who can comment or even write their own columns. To date, the results have been promising with a reported 1.2 million unique users per month.

So far so good. But will the marriage to MSNBC work? Will MSNBC learn and benefit from its new acquisition or will they screw it up? What do you think?