Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Questions inspire reflection, perspective

I recently met a young journalist whom I first became aware of via my Twitter account.

I was covering a League of Women Voters forum – my first experience at live-blogging as part of a new part-time gig writing for the hyper-local Elgin website, BocaJump.com, when Jose came up to introduce himself.

His excitement at meeting a veteran journalist initially struck me as flattering – I have enjoyed my career and, like most everyone, I enjoy seeing someone express enthusiasm for what I do. But I also felt a little awkward. After being laid off in early December, part of me still felt somewhat like a child's cast-off toy a few days after Christmas: still fully functioning if perhaps a little rough for the wear.

Still, this budding journalist said he had “all kinds of questions I want to ask you,” so I gave him my e-mail address and waited until he had time in all his own busy-ness to write.

In the meantime, I'd been struggling with my own busy-ness – I love writing but largely stopped after becoming an editor 20 years ago. Now, as a born-again reporter, I'm relearning such hard lessons as how to make constructive use of your time while waiting for sources to return calls or e-mails, for example, and not letting your part-time gig get in the way of finding a full-time one.

And then it's been two weeks since I've updated this blog , which when I started I had fully intended to update twice weekly. But, as they say, I digress.

Jose's e-mail on Tuesday afternoon was a welcome respite from a daily routine that now includes calls from creditors who don't seem to comprehend that my income is not near what it was before I was laid off.

And Jose's questions, I think, are along the lines of what an established journalist should expect from the new guard – young recruits thoroughly trained and educated in the latest technology, even as the crippled newspaper industry tries to forge ahead into the digital age without much thought for training its own work force.

In many respects, it is more economical to lay off the old guard and hire eager young journalists at a third of the pay.

So, Jose ponders, pointing to other old-guard journalists like myself who have transitioned to the digital side, “... do you throw half of everything you've learned out the window?”

Simply said, no.

Over 27 years, I've learned to use about a dozen different editing platforms, have gone from hand-pasting type onto waxed page grids to laying out and eventually designing pages on several different pagination and page design systems, and have adapted from developing my own film and using half-tone paper and dot screens to print ready-for-publication black-and-white photos to digital darkrooms where the sky's the limit in terms of potential creativity.

And in the past three or four decades, newspapers have undergone massive changes in the way they've presented the news, first with the advent of color in print and then through the design of pages.

So the technology changes, the presentation shifts, and ultimately the medium evolves. Once upon a time that evolution was from hand-set type to Linotype to offset presses. Today, the shift is from a print-based paper product to a Web-based platform that stands to offer everything newspapers have been loved for – full, in-depth stories that provide context for the day's events – but now illustrated with video, punctuated with audio and enhanced with interactive abilities that were not even dreamed of 20 years ago.

But despite these massive shifts in the industry, I believe journalism's core values and ethics must be maintained: truth, fair and impartial reporting, loyalty to the public, accuracy (verify, verify, verify), among many others (see Project for Excellence in Journalism), and sometimes, as someone who drew inspiration for his career while growing into his political awareness during the Watergate years, shedding light in dark places.

If you remove just one of the mainstays, you risk losing credibility.

That said, I think it also is understood that the market often dictates the direction of the product.

It seems to me that journalism's core values are more important now than ever, particularly in a digital age where “Web-first” is the rule that, for now anyway, often trumps the quality of the content.

There is a price to pay for that. Any journalist worth his or her salt knows that a news story is written using the best information available at the time the story is posted. And after deadline, the story is at risk of becoming outdated at any moment, even before the paper lands on your doorstep.

Look back for a moment at Sept. 11, 2001. When I awoke that day, my first impression was of a tragedy – a jet had struck one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center. Then another airliner crashed into the second tower. What I at first perceived to be a monumental tragedy had suddenly become potentially sinister. The jet crashes at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa., seemed to validate the feeling that something evil was in play.

The available information did change over the course of that day, and the next and beyond. And our perceptions of what happened also shifted as new information came to light. Think in terms of the revelation, some time after the attacks, that the passengers aboard one of the doomed jets had fought back, essentially forcing their hijackers to crash into an empty Pennsylvania field.

So, no, I do not think a veteran journalist should throw half of what he's learned out the window. If it is true that knowledge is power, then that information should be retained and treasured.

But journalists need to remain flexible and ready to adapt to new technology, new ways of gathering and disseminating news. In that respect, pursue education on the tools of the trade, and monitor industry trends.

Have you come across a middle schooler that is mentioning things about the Internet that go over your head?

Actually, my fourth-grade and second-grade daughters frequently mention things that go over my head, but little of it has anything to do with technology.

The oldest and the youngest of my three sons, however, have been Facebook users for several years now. I have studiously avoided making any time commitment to Facebook, although I do tweet and have had a professional social networking account on LinkedIn for at least several years.

Daniel, the youngest son at 16, is quite adept at Facebook, and I marvel at his enjoyment of it.

But I think it far more interesting that he is largely self-taught as a guitarist, picking up his lessons from YouTube, of all things. Coming home late one night to find him strumming his guitar in front of the computer – THAT blew my mind.

How blindsided do you think the industry has been by the Internet?

My own opinion is that the industry was not merely blindsided, it was negligent to the point of nearly deserving extinction.

That sounds harsh, but let me explain. My target here is not my fellow journalists. I've nothing but admiration and respect for the newsmen and newswomen I've worked with over the years, with a few, very few exceptions.

But the industry is largely owned by a corporate America that is more interested in the next quarter's profits than in ensuring the industry's long-term viability.

I believe that when companies – media or otherwise – are family-owned, for example, there often is a forward-looking dynasty mentality that seeks to ensure the company will endure and so provide for the next generation.

But as corporations have taken over the media, that far-sightedness appears to have faded. So it happened, as I recall, that in the 1990s, newspapers all over the country were writing about this growing phenomenon called Craigslist and its free, Internet-based classified ads. Few people outside newspapers realize that classified ads once were the industry's bread and butter. Full-page ads certainly drew in tidy sums, but the price paid for each of those little lines of type on each classifieds page added up much more quickly and profitably.

And yet, even as their own papers reported about Craigslist, media leaders would be quoted in industry publications expressing their dismay at “inexplicable” drops in classified advertising. Actually, I heard a company executive say something very similar during a staff meeting at The Courier News, probably about 1997 or 1998. Perhaps Mike Bailey will mention that in his next post.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since you've started with BocaJump?

I worked as a Web editor for three years before I was laid off and started to work for BocaJump.com, so I am perhaps a little more Internet-savvy than others who share my years in the industry.

That said, however, there have been plenty of surprises, and the Cover It Live application actually has been my biggest surprise of late.

It's like Twitter on steroids in terms of usability and coherence – the time line starts at the top, with subsequent postings falling into place below in chronological order. That makes it more intuitive, like reading a book, for readers. But it has a high-tech bent as well – it allows the user to drop in photos, video, PowerPoint presentations, links and even interactive features such as polls.

Cover It Live allows me to report what's happening as it's happening, directly onto BocaJump.com (as long as I have Internet access, of course). That means it is a real-time application that has more immediacy than the print product will ever have.

Beyond that, seeing Mike Bailey excited about news again has been a wonderful surprise. He hired me at The Courier 16 years ago, before his enthusiasm started to fade under an oppressive mismanagement there. When he contacted me about working for BocaJump.com, there was a spark in his eye again. And, he's been urging me to have fun doing this ever since. And so I am.

Have you ever participated in journalism industry chats? Like #journchat, #wjchat, and #spjchat?

To my shame I must admit I have not. Largely, I blame my work ethic for that. Let me explain: I've been the kind of guy all my life who can't leave until the job is done (I take back the “all my life” part. Mom and Dad likely will read this and might be inclined to recall such things as half-raked yards or unswept garages). Consequently, I've tended heavily toward being a workaholic, particularly during my tenure as a Web editor. Consequently, when I was home, I studiously avoided all things news except for my work e-mail account, which I had to check daily before heading into the office (generally, Sun-Times Media allots a relatively small amount of memory to employee e-mail accounts. Considering the amount of e-mail generated for Web editors in particular, who often are e-mailed photos and videos and such that rapidly eat up memory, I found it necessary to check it at least once a day outside the office, and twice daily on my days off just to avoid losing messages due to dreaded "mailbox full" warnings).

However, now that I have a little more time on my hands, I may have to check into that. I am already following some blogs related to digital journalism (see my links to the right on this page).

Until next time, my friends ...