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Archive for January, 2008

Not just “another weather story”

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Raise your hand if you hate writing weather stories.

I don’t know what it’s like in other regions, but in the Midwest, at least the parts I’ve lived in, it’s hot in the summer, which is about July-September, and it’s cold, well, the rest of the year. I hate the cold as much as the next guy. (I do like wearing sweaters though.) I also hate the summer heat. (Dude, I live on the second floor of an old house lacking a/c.) Sometimes I think, can’t we have a mix of overcast and sunny, high near 72 all year, kthnx.

But, then, I do like variety, which we definitely get. We get spring showers (and floods) and winter blizzards (and freezing rain) and summer days topping 100 degrees on occasion. Because I was raised in this climate, however, it’s normal for me to wake up freezing and go to bed burning up or vice versa. I don’t find it that weird to see snow and t-shirts in the same week. It hasn’t even gotten cold enough for me yet to pull out my wool winter coat.

That makes writing about the weather seem all the worse. It’s like writing about traffic lights changing colors. Everyone knows it’s going to happen, and they can kind of figure out for themselves what comes next.

But it seems like every time you’re set to expect anything more than a dusting or a drizzle, it’s time for a weather story. And when a snow storm hits or the heat bests the average, it’s time to dust off those coping tips and talk to someone about snow shoveling pitfalls or hit up the local pool. Or the photogs favorite: Weather photo galleries and feature art.

Just today, when talking over my assignments for Sunday morning, the frigid weather was mentioned as something to watch. Cue an internal eye roll.

So here’s my next question, this one’s for the readers. How many of you hate reading weather stories?

I don’t think there’s a solution. I mean, weather is the old standby universal experience. When there’s nothing in common to discuss, you can always talk about the weather.

That said, I’ve decided I’m going to temper my eye roll over this necessary evil and instead resolve to take a cue from today’s IndyStar, where I just stumbled upon this entertaining topper to an otherwise routine weather story:

Call the Indiana battle between seasonably cool and downright cold the meteorological version of a legendary George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight.

The cool air is like Foreman, slugging away until exhausted. The cold air is like Ali, playing the rope-a-dope until it’s time to score the knockout.

This weekend should give the decisive weather boxing victory to the cold. The National Weather Service predicts Saturday night’s lows around 3 degrees below zero, the coldest in Indianapolis since minus-6 on Feb. 16, 2007.

There will be purists who will say it’s showing off and doesn’t help tell the story better or get to the point until the third graph. Yeah I noticed that, too.

Yet, I applaud the writer for taking the time not to roll his eyes and then write “another weather story.”

But I’m still not writing anything more than a “what to expect today” web update about the weekend weather unless it causes some type of havoc. I have some pride.

QOTD: Journalists need three things

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

“Journalists need three things.
The first is passion. Why are you doing this? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Figure that out, and devote as much attention as possible to those parts of your job. I still think journalism is the greatest racket in the world. You have a license to snoop, to ask questions of anyone.
The second thing is determination. Make yourself known and make your passions known. Push yourself and others to get space and time to explore your interests.
The third thing is persistence. It’s a virtue. What we do is not for wimps. Work hard and work smart. To take over a beat and really do something with it, you have to do your homework.”
— Ken Wells, page-one editor, The Wall Street Journal.

(Via Cleveland SPJ)

What do you say about suspected plagiarism?

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

As we continue to follow the recent floods up here in northwest Indiana, I’ve been called on to pick up random stories here and there. (Not so much random, but between beats kind of things.) Today it was the arrival of FEMA to assess the damage. Yesterday, it was about the American Red Cross naming the region a national level disaster.

A version of the charticle that ran in today’s paper was originally posted yesterday (Tuesday night) as a breaking news item. A version of my story was out on the state wire around 1 p.m. today (Wednesday).

Now, today, I was charged with kind of picking up all the pieces for a comprehensive “This is where we stand” update for Thursday’s paper. My editor handed me a story printed off the site of the paper in one of the small cities to our north, which was one of the worst affected spots. It included comments about the Red Cross efforts in that area, which he wanted me to check into.

I set it aside as I made some other calls and tried to rein in other sources and wrap up another story. About half an hour later, I picked the print out up and noticed something that piqued my interest. It sounded familiar. Really, really familiar.

At first I thought, well how many ways are there to write that an area’s been named a disaster site? Coincidence perhaps. But then, when I re-read it, I noticed something that made my heart race. Between the lead in my online update yesterday and the lead in the story that ran today I made a change to clarify something I realized after I’d already posted the update. My original lead was:

The American Red Cross has named Northwest Indiana a national level disaster because of the recent floods, which destroyed hundreds of homes and left thousands displaced.

As a result, more than 50 volunteers from across the country have already been mobilized to aid in the recovery effort in the 17-county region, with headquarters in Lafayette.

When I wasn’t just trying to get the story up, and I was smoothing it out for print, I realized I needed to specify it “left thousands of residents displaced.” Otherwise it sounds like it displaced homes. I also fixed the incorrect capitalization on northwest Indiana. Small technicalities.

But seeing the same technical mistakes in the other story made me suspicious. So I brought up my online update and compared the familiar-sounding lead.

My version, with a 6:55 p.m. time stamp:
My original update

Their version:
Plagiarized story

I don’t know if I can sum up in words how utterly shocked I was to discover the first two paragraphs of that story were identical to the first two graphs of my update. I mean, word for word they must have been copy and pasted. Go back and look again. I had to.

At first, my instinct was, maybe the wires picked it up and they just took that to top their story. But then I checked, and as I said before, it wasn’t on the wire until 1:12 p.m. I had the print out before then. Plus, the wire story further cleans up my lead. I also noticed the story doesn’t attribute anything to the Associated Press or even “Wire reports,” and it certainly doesn’t mention the J&C.

I mean, wow. I was pretty much speechless. This stuff doesn’t happen. Does it? Nobody’s that dumb. Are they?

This is plagiarism, right? I’m not confusing my journalism terms or just annoyed that guy took credit for my haphazard sentences and reporting. I mean, this is not OK. Right?

On one hand I have the inclination that I’m sure we caught them off guard because we got the news late in the day and posted it after the Red Cross had closed. Therefore, they likely couldn’t independently confirm what they read on our site. But they didn’t even attempt to rewrite around it. There was so much other, (presumably) original reporting in that story. Why would you top it off with someone else’s lead, especially if that someone else covers your region and will likely stumble across your story? I don’t get it. I mean. Who does that?!

The next question, I guess, once I reconcile my feelings is… What do you do with something like this? I pointed it out to my editor when I realized. I don’t know what he will do or has done. I asked him, jokingly, what he’d do if we just took two paragraphs from another paper, and his comment was simply, “I can’t fire a (the other paper) reporter.” I’d expect to be and hope I would be fired for doing that.

So I guess my question is, what would you do?

One of the other reporters suggested I e-mail the reporter directly to ask about it. But I don’t know. It’s probably one of those things best left to the editors.

Does this make me a horrible journalist?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Quick, can you identify all of the people Mindy McAdams names in her post, Do you know who this is?

  • Vannevar Bush
  • Ted Nelson
  • Alan Kay
  • Vint Cerf
  • Bob Metcalfe
  • Tim Berners-Lee
  • Ivan Sutherland

I can’t.

I’m going to take one for the team here — the young’uns that is — and admit I didn’t know most of those names even in passing.

And please don’t shoot me, but Mike Royko was only vaguely familiar. (That’s the subject of the original post over at Newsosaur, re: a journalism student who didn’t know Royko’s name.)

Does that make me a horrible journalist? Should I hand over my reporters notebook and pen now?!

I’m 22. I didn’t take a “journalism history” course in college. Those lessons were interspersed among my Intro to Mass Comm, Law, Ethics, Magazine Publishing, Beat Reporting, etc. courses. And the famous journalists I did and do know are probably more happenstance than concentrated effort.

So someone give me a list of the top 10-15 greatest journalists of all time, and I promise I’ll memorize those I don’t know at the risk of looking dumb and being chastised down the line by some high-brow editor. No, seriously.

But therein also lies the problem. I’ll memorize it. Like it’s for a test, which I guess it could be. But who knows if the names I’m given would be the right ones. It’s kind of subjective.

I understand the usefulness of having historical context to understand where you have been and how it leads to where you are and will figure into where you go from here.

But am I a worse journalist for not knowing those names? Well, am I?

Does it make your 30-year veteran a worse journalist that he’d look at me like I was from Mars if I asked him about Rob Curley or Adrian Holovaty? They’re paving the future as much as any journalists have paved the past. Is it better to look forward or behind?

Or is it more important that my classes in j-school taught me and emphasized tangible things. I remember and use every day the practical skills that allow me to do this job competently not necessarily the names of those journalists before me. I can understand knowing important rulings like Times v. Sullivan. I can understand needing to know when newspapers started to mass publish and the impact cable had on broadcast TV. I can even understand and appreciate reading great journalists of the past to make my own work stronger.

But in the end, if I had to choose, I choose real-world application over historical context. That’s just me.

Don’t dismiss good journalists who don’t ‘get’ online just yet

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

There’s been an awful lot of discussion of late, at least on the blogs I read, about whether you can — or should — teach journalists to be online journalists.

In one corner, we have those saying it can’t be done and shouldn’t. In the other, they contend it can and should be attempted at least. (And on and on. Read the comments on the posts, which are as enlightening as the posts themselves.)

Where do I stand? I’m torn. Though I find myself aligning with the cans and shoulds.

On one hand, I am the go-getter, I-want-to-know-more-faster type. On the other, I still see a role for the reluctant journalist. I’m also an optimist. I think you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, as long as they aren’t afraid to come out and play (even if it takes a shove to get them out there in the first place.)

Personally, just about everything I know about computers was learned by tinkering around. I taught myself HTML, CSS and everything that follows. I learned how layers work in Photoshop and how to edit audio with audacity without taking a formal class. I spent hours with my legs crossed and MacBook on my lap trying to figure out the movie editing functions the first time I used the software. The list goes on.

When I wanted to know, I sought out the answers or solutions. The very first tag of HTML I learned was the font tag because I wanted to make my comments stand out in the then HTML-based chat room (yeah that tells you how old-school I am). Then, I learned to put up images with my chats. Then I learned about links. Then, I learned about things like body and title and how to take all those other tags I learned and work them together into a .html site. Later on, I learned about tables and frames (yes, God help me, but I was the freaking QUEEN of frames). Eventually, I stumbled on CSS. The rest is well, history.

There are three things to note about my informal education in Web design/new media:

  1. I taught myself everything through a little bit of searching and a lot of guess and check/trial and error.

  2. Each thing I learned built upon things I had previously taught myself.
  3. I taught myself on a need to know basis.

That last item is the most important, though many would contend the first is. When I wanted to know how to make my chat stand out, I asked around and then looked up the font tags. When frames were all the rage (and they once were, trust me I was there), I actually used the AOL homepage creator to build a site with frames and then analyzed the code to figure out how it worked and changed so I could build my own from scratch. And later, when I wanted to know how to add layers so I could provide absolute positioning on my layouts and abandon frames? I spent weeks designing the perfect site and then figuring out how to get CSS to cooperate as it was supposed to (this was before most browsers were CSS friendly).

Everything I learned was because I reached a level where I wanted to try something new that I didn’t know how to do before, but that I knew was possible because I had seen or heard of other people doing it.

I think the same thing can be applied to journalism, especially online journalism. You look at other awesome packages or blogs or micro-sites or whatever it is you want to do and you see how they are doing it, what you like and what you don’t. This leads you down the road to your own possibilities. The thought process follows something like this:

They did it.
So that means it’s possible to do. Right?
I wonder if it would work here.
How did they do it?
Is that the best way or is anyone else doing it differently?
What is the best method to achieve what we want?
Well, that didn’t work.
OK, that’s better.
Still needs tweaked, but let’s go with it.
That wasn’t so hard.
Holy s— it worked.
What else can we do with this?

In short, I think what it comes down to is the same thing that makes a good journalist: You have to be curious and You have to be brave enough to follow that curiosity.

On one hand, you have to have that inner “I want to try that” instinct, which makes you want to spend time analyzing video clips to see what works and what doesn’t, what left you in awe and what made you yawn. You have to be willing to take time to interact with different flash packages to understand how they work (or why they don’t) as a user before you ever sit down to compile your own. It’s like the writer who proclaims he isn’t a reader. It’s a waste of time. How can you be good at something when your exposure to the best of it is limited? I think you need something to aspire to and something to rise above. If that makes sense.

On the other hand, you have to have the courage to try and fail. This is the part that I think holds back many of those “dinosaurs.” When you’ve been doing something the same way for so long, it’s scary to be a beginner. You also have more to lose. If I, one year out of college, take on a new job or task and realize “This blows” I have less to lose than if I’d wagered my whole career on taking that chance. If that also makes sense.

I have so much yet to learn about all of these things. I’m not waiting for training, but I wouldn’t pass any up that was offered. I’m just waiting for an opportunity to teach myself.

I am very much a part of the Web culture. Nobody taught it to me, I’m just innately interested. But I know some damn good journalists who aren’t. They’ll come around, or I think, likely self-select themselves out when they realize they aren’t swimming in the same direction. I really don’t think they need to be forced out by my generation. I think we need them now more than ever to rein us in and show us what good journalism is. And we can repay them by teaching them about blogs and twitter and del.ico.us and YouTube and RSS feeds and everything that will one day be obsolete.

Do I think everyone is going to be as motivated as I am? Absolutely not. But their motivation might be different. Maybe they’re really hungry to dig into crime statistics or to tear through the city budget looking for extravagance? Maybe they’re a photojournalist or reporter honestly looking to report on the human condition and just tell the story of this time and place. I think those things are just as important as being willing to sit for hours trying to figure out why your video isn’t encoding properly or how to narrow down an hour long talk into a two-minute podcast. Should we likewise say to all these aspiring online journalists who would rather die than cover City Council that we have no room for you in our news organization? No. There is a place and a need for both sets. They can complement and learn from each other. And to some extent, as with my covering the education beat, they can even be one in the same. Someday, they all may be. We’re not there yet. I think that’s OK.

There is and will always be a place in this business for those journalists who have a desire to find and tell good stories. As demands on journalists grow, in fact, they will be the only ones for whom there is room.

But just because some of them aren’t the ones chomping at the bits to delve into new media doesn’t mean you should dismiss them as a lost cause. At least offer them the chance to prove you wrong. I’m not an advocate of forcing anything down someone’s throat. But reluctance or fear are not good enough reasons for a good journalist to be turned away. Hell, I’ve been afraid of and reluctant to do more stories than I’d like to admit. And each time I got over my fear. Each time, I became a little more confident, a little more comfortable. Should I have been fired because I wasn’t comfortable writing about a child molester? Should my boss have reassigned me when I didn’t know what to look for at my first bank robbery? The amazing thing about journalism, the thing that probably more than anything attracted me to this field, is every day is a learning experience. Why is online journalism any different? Sometimes the only way to learn is to jump in, and sometimes it takes a shove to get you to try something you end up loving. You never know if you give up on even trying.

Lessons from year 1 (take 2): Things I don’t suck at

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I would like to take a moment to observe an important milestone. A year ago today, I started my job here in Lafayette and therefore my “career” in journalism. I cannot quantify how much I have learned this first year. But I can say it’s been a lot of fun.

It’s been amazing. It was chocked full of hard work, long days and longer weeks. It’s been stressful and hectic and full of a lot of flying by the seat of my pants and on pure instinct and sometimes luck and a prayer. There were a few tears and a few times where I was sick to my stomach because of things I saw, heard or had to do. But there were other times, many more, where I laughed so hard it hurt or where a kid’s comments made me smile for hours. There were even a few moments that restored my faith in humanity.

Beyond that, I’ve really gotten comfortable with my beat and role as a reporter. I’ve even come to love this community to my own great surprise. I made friends though I was sure I never would, and my co-workers, seriously, despite levels of stress that are supremely unnecessary at times, make the job bearable and enjoyable on those days when even luck and a prayer aren’t enough. Even if my editor’s favorite pastime is making jokes about me that start with, “Dear Blogger.” (Long story. But trust me, he’s a funny guy.)

I’d say it was a good year. Lots left to accomplish, but many firsts out of the way.

So I realized, even as I wrote it, that my previous “Lessons from year 1” post was a bit of a downer. I tried hard to focus on the fact that those are all things I hope to work at this coming year, but in the end, I suppose it came off as a list of things I’m not doing well enough.

So, I thought it was worth a second post to highlight some of the things I learned and did with my rookie year.

As I wrote in my self-evaluation, I’m a much more confident and competent reporter today than a year ago. In my first year, I took on some stories I’d rather have gone my whole career without experiencing, like writing about a 6-year-old girl killed on her way to school. I also worked on a few that I’m still kind of amazed we actually pulled off, like getting the name and some details on a very tight-lipped closed search for a new superintendent weeks before the board was ready to talk. Those are the two stories that most stick out in my mind for year one. (They were also the two my editor highlighted, so I suppose I wasn’t way off.)

I also tackled some things I thought I’d never write about, including writing about bank robberies, child molestation charges and a prostitution sting, to name a few. I realized I am very much not the reporter who thrives on cops/crime news. In fact, I very much dislike those stories, even if they are a necessary evil. Yet, because they were thrust upon me, I proved to myself that even at my most uncomfortable, even when I have absolutely no idea what the heck I am doing, somehow, I can think on my feet and get it done. That’s probably the most important thing I learned in year one: confidence that I can cover anything. I remember that prostitution story for one reason, and that’s because it was the first time I talked to the sheriff. Without even thinking, I started firing questions as they came to me. Because we had never spoken before, he stopped me and asked, “Are you new?” I replied honestly that I’d been here a month or so. He welcomed me and commented that I must be good because, “You ask all the right questions.” Score one for flying by the seat of my pants.

As far as reporting, I wrote more enterprise stories than weeks in the year, which, for those keeping score at home, is a lot. I learned more than anybody needs to know about teacher contracts as districts and unions clashed again and again this year. (Thankfully, most of them settled for two or three years.) I’m still working on my mastery of the state/school budget process, but spent enough time pestering officials for a primer that I at least understand how to calculate the impact of those numbers on the average tax payer. Along the way, I also wrestled with some ethical questions, which required me to not only consult my conscience, but to lean back on a professor or two. I also, perhaps most importantly, got to have some fun with stories, including ones about teens texting while driving and first-graders learning about geography from the Wii.

Considering I don’t want to be a beat reporter my whole career, I was also glad to be involved in several new ventures. My editor says it’s because I’m willing to speak up and stay engaged and offer constructive feedback and fresh ideas that I got these opportunities. I’m still figuring it was luck. We launched a new schools page, which I like to call my weekly pain in the — you get the idea. But the teachers and principals love it. I like it because it’s a place for things that otherwise would fall between the cracks to find a home. But it still needs work, and I need to find my rhythm. We also launched our first high school micro-site. It, too, still needs work. But the fact that we got anywhere with it still amazes me. And I still see so much potential there once we work it all out. Finally, my invite to the table for the New Product Development committee. There are some very exciting things on the horizon this year, and I love that I get to offer my thoughts, ideas and perspective to a group that is kind of steering the future of the company. I’m both exhilarated and humbled by the mere invitation to be part of that group.

All in all, I would say I look back on my first year as a positive start. When I consider how unhappy many of my peers are at their first jobs or the less than positive experiences I’ve heard about from too many people, I am thankful for a year like the one I had. Sure, there are things I need to improve. God help me when I don’t realize that or think otherwise. But overall, I think I had an pretty OK year. Now that the basics are down, it’s time to find my pace, my place and my purpose.

And, I promise, I won’t forget to have fun.

Report card, report card, what did we get?

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I meant to note this before, when we got the news a few weeks back, but I got caught up in other things and well now there’s a convenient column from the publisher summing up the highlights of the report card the J&C received.

Overall? It’s hella good news for any newspaper (and its subsidiaries, which is probably the wrong word) to be growing readership these days. Here’s what he says:

Publishers, editors, online directors and all of our employees receive another report card every few years.

That report card is the results of independent market research on readership of the print Journal & Courier, jconline and reader answers to questions about their satisfaction with our news coverage.

So, I figured losing a few percentage points in print market reach would be a major victory in a time when many newspapers are losing much more ground than that. Maybe, just maybe, we could come close to making up those print losses with our surging Internet site — jconline.

So we were stunned when we got our report card.

Readership of the newspaper each day was up slightly from our last research in 2005. Seven-day readership of our newspaper (the percent of the market reading our paper at least once each week) was up slightly to 75 percent.

On top of that, our reach of the local market though jconline each week had grown to an impressive 31 percent.

I expected growth in this area, but not to that extent. In fact, the market reach of jconline is No. 1 in the entire Gannett Company (owners of the Journal & Courier). Total combined print and online reach had increased to 82 percent each week.

The researchers told us that reader satisfaction with our coverage of local news and other topics is high, well above most newspapers our size.

They also told us that readers’ reaction to the new newspaper was overwhelmingly favorable.

There’s more. Even more than he wrote in the column. But even without anything else, that’s impressive and happy news. As one of my profs noted when I was home this weekend about the fact that they bought a new press: “It’s a good sign that they’re investing money in your paper.”

And as I told another friend when I forwarded her a job opening here. Those numbers don’t just mean we’re doing a good job reaching our audience, which is true apparently. They also mean something else vital: job security. (OK, I know no job is “secure,” but I’d rather be at a paper that’s growing and making progress than, well, anywhere else.)