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Archive for June, 2008

Day in the Life of Greater Lafayette, with a twist

Friday, June 20th, 2008

The whole “24 hours in Community X” project has almost become cliche. I still love these photo collections though. As long as you don’t overdue it, they can be awesome glimpses of the every day life the newspaper too often overlooks.

Today, the J&C is taking a spin with its own Day in the Life project. But with an awesome twist.

We’ve been putting call-outs in our paper all week to solicit our readers photos. And the reporters have all been in touch with their beat contacts and sources to ask THEM to participate as well. (I think the editors wanted us to find people who would definitely participate to “seed” the site and encourage others. It looks like it’s working because so far many of the photos submitted are from people who appear to be regular beat contacts.)

Not only are we soliciting our community’s pictures, we’re publishing them and our own photographers work side-by-side (sort of) in real time online: Check out the sweet timeline our online staff put together.

Day in the life project

If you look at the timeline above, you can see that the staff photographer’s photos appear across the top and the reader submitted ones along the bottom. Just a quick glimpse through the photos today and it appears our readers have already posted more than our own photogs. That’s awesome. Some of those photos include kids camps, the mayor and police chief getting ready, a video conference call with the founder of C-SPAN, blowing bubbles, creating crafts, etc. A few even highlight the obvious: Looking at the J&C’s Day in the Life project.

We’re also giving this huge play on the front of our site:

day in life project

In the carousel (don’t ask me — that’s what the three tabs with big photos that rotate are named in GO4) they’re swapping out the most recent updates about hourly. Those link back to the timeline above.

There’s also a link to the special project from our “In the Spotlight” promo section.

Finally, the photographers are keeping an ongoing “notebook” of their adventures. (We do similar reporter notebooks regularly to just collect the tid-bits of big events. So all that campaign coverage included stuff like what the candidate’s playlist was, who was spotted there, any unusual things — like banners hanging from buildings or elderly women ripping candidate signs — or whatever just doesn’t fit in the mainbar but is worth noting. My hunch has always been these are the most read parts of the story because they’re quick hits.)

Back to my point.

Not only is this a great example of involving your readers and using them to literally be your eyes and ears in the community, but it’s also a good example of Web first.

See, we WILL be publishing the best of what is gathered today in print (both from our photogs and our readers). And like these sections always do, it will take a week or two to pull together. It will get its own special section and all that traditional stuff.

But what makes this so cool is that this is happening real time. The day is being published live — today. I think we’ll probably gather more submissions as the day progresses and people see that other community members are participating.

Final thought: Have your papers done anything similar? What did you learn? Could you do this?

‘___ could not be reached for comment’

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I hate writing that phrase, “So & so could not be reached for comment,” in a story.

Usually I don’t. I find someone else qualified to talk about whatever it is. But sometimes, when I truly feel I have given a fair enough attempt and enough time a reasonable person should return a comment or there is no suitable alternative, I have to do it.

There are variations, “He did not return messages seeking comment,” or “She did not immediately return messages,” for example.

Any one of them carries with them the connotation that someone is deliberating avoiding the reporter. Sometimes that’s not the case, the person may have been genuinely busy, never have received the message, or may have just played phone or e-mail tag for days without ever connecting.

But sometimes it is.

Either way, it signals to the readers that I as a reporter have not failed to check that source or attempt to be fair and give him a chance to comment. It puts the burden for that angle or missing information on the source.

I explained this to a source today. Now, this source and I talk regularly, and he is in a key position on my beat. So, I don’t really want to make him look bad if he’s truly busy. I believe he’s busy and not avoiding me. But, as I explained to him when he asked me why I put he didn’t return my messages in my article last weekend, if I try to reach you for three days and you don’t return numerous calls or e-mails, I have to pull this card out. What else am I supposed to do?

Not only is my editor breathing down my back asking me where something is, I am frustrated (and your secretary is frustrated!) because I want to get the story out. When my editor says “now,” I have to go with it. If readers are going to wonder why you weren’t asked about it or there are holes in my reporting only you can answer, then I am going to call you out on it. I don’t want to, but I also don’t want to be criticized for not doing my job when I went above and beyond in my attempts.

Though he still pointed out when he reads that in a story he thinks the person is a jerk avoiding phone calls, after I explained my position to him, he understood.

And you know what, it only took one phone call to connect today.

A perfect example why superintendent searches should be open

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

As a reporter, it’s my nature to want to know more, faster. I do not like to wait for returned calls or e-mails, snail-mail packages or processes to happen.

That last part, that’s probably the most frustrating part of my job especially as it relates to board decisions. Especially when they are major decisions that I feel the public should be able to weigh in on at every step of the process.

Since starting my position as the education reporter in Lafayette, three of my four main public school districts have named new superintendents. All of them used a closed search process that drove me crazy. (The Catholic school system also named a new president, but I’ll give them a closed search since they’re a private entity.)

There was a post recently on Wired Journalists on tips to cover a superintendent search. I posted my advice, which if you care, you can hop over there to read.

What is absolutely most frustrating about these stories was waiting on people to give or leak or otherwise offer information. I had to practically coerce information just to update patrons on the fact that they had received X applications, that they were now to the interviews/finalists phase, that they would be naming someone and when. In one situation, I swear to God, I STILL don’t know how they kept it a secret. Because when I walked into that board room — after finally getting the board to release the name to me about two hours before the late night meeting so I could get it posted and start tracking down background — even the school principals in the back of the room did not yet know who their next leader was going to be. (I’d called many of them to see what if anything they could offer, and ones I know would have told me couldn’t offer any guidance.) I had by process of elimination come to a completely unscientific (but ultimately correct) decision on who it would be.

This invites speculation. In order to arrive at my “unscientific” determination above, I called a lot of wrong numbers. That is, I probably angered a few other superintendents when I called them or their board members to ask about it. Many denied even submitting an application. I’m fine with that. The way I arrived at my correct conclusion, incidentally, was settling on the one person who neither he nor his board members returned my calls.

That brings me to the point I make today. The reason every single board gave for a closed search was to protect the applicants from alienating themselves in their current community. You know what, fine. If you want to casually submit a “what if” application, fine I get that. But personally, I think anyone who agrees to come for an interview — especially if you’re footing the bill for that interview (often over a meal) with tax payer dollars — should be willing to acknowledge at that point they are under serious consideration. Don’t release the whole list. But there is absolutely no reason not to release your finalists.

Do you want to know why you should release your finalists? Here is a picture perfect example from the Indianapolis Star of why an open process serves the community:

Hamilton Southeastern Schools superintendent candidate Donn Kaupke withdrew his candidacy today about an hour before the district was going to publicly announce his candidacy on its Web site.

Kaupke, 71, told the district he didn’t want to be considered after a records search by The Indianapolis Star revealed reports that he had tried to seal public records — a violation of public access laws — and faced a sexual harassment suit during his stint as superintendent at a Florida district.

The district failed to uncover information the newspaper did. The newspaper saved the community the potential problems should this behavior be repeated and even if it weren’t, the embarrassment of this coming to light later.

When you are barely able to get a name hours before a meeting, you can’t do proper searches for those things. And when you do find something in those searches, by the time the question is flagged it’s nearly too late to turn back and save face. Obviously, as that story points out, you should have as many people checking these things as possible:

School Board President Jeff Sturgis said that both the district and the University Team, a group of education experts from the state’s four universities that helped the district find superintendent candidates, conducted a search on Kaupke but never found articles detailing the issues.

“We’re disappointed and surprised by the information that came to us late in the process,” Sturgis said. “We are glad that it did come to our attention before we took action on his contract.”

Finally, aside from the legal issues that might arise, the school board charged with choosing its next leader isn’t just picking the guy who will walk them through the agendas at meetings. They are choosing the visionary who will lead and guide the district and make the difficult decisions that, if not directly then indirectly, impact every child in the community. I understand school board are elected to serve the public will, but I also think this is such an important decision, every parent, tax payer and community member should be able to grill or at least meet the candidates long before someone is signing a contract on the dotted line.

Perhaps I am editorializing about something I shouldn’t. But I had this conversation with every board member during those searches, so my view is hardly a secret. Obviously, it fell on mostly deaf ears. But as this case brings to light, it’s still worth pressing for those names.

Lessons from the “Twitter Trial”

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Ron Sylvester recently covered a murder trial in 140 character bursts for Kansas.com. His experience provides lessons for other mainstream media outlets hoping to leverage this utility.

From his post when he just started what he dubbed the “Twitter trial”:

Yes, it’s the same as Intro to Journalism. Know your audience; get it right. But in this delivery system it’s live, and it’s fast. I keep reminding myself, I can’t cut corners. Good journalism should shoot for high standars, even in bits of 140 characters at a time.

And at a limit of 140-character, Twitter forces you to write tight.

The audience comments (and interview for the American Bar Association!) show how this was received: Well.

Sylvester has posted some great advice, which anyone considering twitter for live coverage should read.

Among his points:

  • The feedback from the “audience” was great. They were refreshing throughout the day, even those who couldn’t be there or follow the events in the paper.

  • It was a learning process and not without some screw ups. But he corrected them mid-stream and nobody complained about the typos.
  • Twitter isn’t fail-safe. Some of the most dramatic parts of the trial happened during twitter down times.
  • His twitter stream became his notebook. People will read 80 inches worth of 140-character paragraphs in this form, BUT the next day’s story had to be tightened. Writing the next-day story was easier when he already had it outlined.
  • Other technology was also in play — photos & audio were edited on the fly on the laptop to be posted.

I had a few chances to use twitter on a trial run myself this winter/spring for campaign events. Nothing officially sanctioned, as his was, but more a test for myself. I wrote about it and posted some of those updates in my post about live-blogging Bill Clinton’s visit. I used it more as an aside to my real reporting, because I wasn’t just microblogging, I was live-blogging for our Web site. But I know I was getting referrals from followers to other followers during it, and I gained a half dozen or more people with each twitter live event.

I wrote a column last month actually about my personal use of Twitter. (We have a rotating View From Here column for newsroom staffers.) Then, at the next school board meeting, the new school board member — whom I’d only previously spoken to on the phone — came up and introduced himself. Then he asked me if I was “going to twitter this meeting?”

For the record, I’ve yet to twitter a school board meeting — except during some excruciatingly long ones or particularly interesting tid-bits that pop-up. I’m not sure a school board has the same type of high-interest as the Bill Clinton visit or a capital murder trial.

I continue to think Twitter is a great platform for exactly what Sylvester was doing. I like the idea of embedding widgets into the main site rather than forcing users to understand Twitter and how to sign up, follow, etc.

For more interesting things MSM outlets are using Twitter for, check out my discussion at Wired Journalists: How is your news org using twitter?.

Webby five-word speeches; NYTimes: No longer a newspaper site

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Take a look at some of the funny and interesting five-word speeches by this year’s Webby Award winners.

Let’s start with these ones related to media:

Guides/Ratings/Reviews ConsumerReports.org – :
“It pays not to advertise.”

News BBC News – :
“Every click is really appreciated.”

News NYTimes.com – Webby:
“No longer a newspaper site.”

Newspaper NYTimes.com – :
“Elliot Spitzer, we thank you.”

Best Home/Welcome Page National Geographic – :
“The people get the picture.”

Services MOO – :
“Who said print was dead?”

Education FactCheckED.org – :
“Where truthiness goes to die.”

Branded Content Year Zero – :
“Tell stories on the web.”

Broadband ABC.com Full Episode Player – :
“TV? Online? Never happen, kid.”

Integrated Campaigns A Fuller Spectrum of News | msnbc.com – Webby:
“Uh, fuller isn’t actually a word.”

Best Writing Onion News Network – Webby/People’s Voice:
“together, we’ll make reading obsolete.”

Documentary: Individual Episode Coney Island: An uncertain Future – Webby/People’s Voice:
“the revolution will be webcast.”

Documentary: Series NFB Filmaker in Residence – Webby:
“the internet is a documentary.”

News & Politics: Series Hometown Baghdad – Webby:
“real news helps overcome ignorance.”

News Mobile NYTimes – Webby:
“Please help us monetize this.”

News CNN Mobile – :
“We1? Cnna3 “anywhere, anyplace, anytime”.”

Other interesting/fun ones (disclaimer, I’ve never even heard of many of these winners):

Celebrity/Fan Best Week Ever – :
“Who let the blogs out?”

Social/Networking Flock The Social Web Browser – Webby:
“No shit! We beat Facebook?”

Weird I Can Has Cheezburger? – :
“Mah inglish skillz, lolcats b0rkedem.”

Best Use of Photography PENTAX Photo Gallery – :
“Blog your photos — save trees.”

Best Use of Typography Veer – Type City – Webby:
“Thanks, in 72-point Helvetica.”

Youth Nick.com – :
“Sponge Bob is our sugar daddy.”

Retail Ikea Mattress – :
“We enjoy sleeping with you.”

Associations SkillsOne – Webby:
“Guys like girls with skills.”

Cultural Institutions Design for the Other 90% – Webby:
“Design is changing the world.”

Politics FactCheck.org – :
“No, Obama is not a Muslim.”

Banner Singles Lightbulb – :
“We’re hiring. Send us resumes.”

Webby Person of the Year Michel Gondry – Special Achievement:
“Keyboards are full of germs”

Comedy: Long Form or Series You Suck at Photoshop – People’s Voice:
“we’re auctioning word 5.”

Mobile Marketplace & Services Chase SMS Banking – Webby:
“**** corporate design, hire me.”

Hey, remember that post from yesterday? NYTimes says it’s not a newspaper site. ;) I think that’s my favorite. I also appreciated their tongue-in-cheek thanks to the former governor who no doubt drove a lot of traffic their way, as well as their not so subtle “Please help us monetize this.”

Summing something up in five words makes Twitter’s 140-character limit seem mighty generous. Think of it like a Web headline (our breaking news headlines are supposed to be five to six words, and actually Twitter has much improved my writing of these).

Semi-related: my previous post on summing up journalism in six words.

(Found via USAToday’s Technology Live blog)

There’s no such thing as an “online-only newspaper”

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

When is a newspaper not a newspaper? When it’s online.

I have to credit Patrick Beeson for noting this on Twitter earlier. It made me scratch my head. But there was an Editor & Publisher article talking about the first Australian “online-only newspaper.”

I re-posted the link with the comment that the phrase strikes me as an oxymoron. Not everyone sees the irony in the name.

kev097 @meranduh I would hope that, like “press”, “newspaper” still means something to people other than the printed broadsheet.
kev097 @meranduh @patrickbeeson What’s wrong with “online-only newspaper”? We have “online magazines.” It connotes more than just the medium.

Wikipedia thinks there’s such a thing as an online newspaper, and Google has 2.39 million hits for “online newspaper”.

I may be wrong — wouldn’t be unprecedented — but to me, it elicited a giggle. You can’t really have “paper” made of pixels. I’m sorry. I understand the use of magazine for something like Slate or even a broadcast news magazine. But to me, magazine doesn’t connote print. I think of it as a store of information. In terms of news, a regularly scheduled store with less frequency than newspapers. I don’t know the history of the word, but doesn’t it also means mean a stockpile of weapons/ammo.

The word newspaper does imply something, you know, on dead wood. That’s why things like e-papers are so ridiculous. It’s an entirely new medium, so stop trying to make it fit your old ideas of what it is. You might repackage the content, but it’s not a newspaper anymore. It’s a news site or news cache or a news portal or I don’t know. And I think that’s part of the problem. What do you call it?

I know that my newspaper — and for better or worse I still say I work for a newspaper, because I do, even if corporate calls them information centers — has started presenting itself not just as the newspaper but as a media group. There are several supplemental editions to our daily paper. And a city magazine and several Web sites. We print community guides and dining guides. When advertisers and marketers go out they don’t just sell a few columns in print and they don’t say they’re selling for the newspaper anymore.

I don’t have a better term for an online newspaper. Perhaps Kevin is right and newspaper will grow to mean more the medium of general frequently updated news reporting and not the physical product its name connotes currently. Press is a good example, I guess of a word being pushed beyond its literal meaning. Someday I very well may be explaining to my 5-year-old why the news we read on our computer screens is called a paper. Maybe by then, paper will be obsolete, and she’ll just be confused when I explain the concept and that in college I majored in something that no longer exists.

Eventually, one term will win out. That’s why we call blogs blogs not diaries or live journals. I think I’ve already thought this through too much. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it matters that those “papers” get online and get online, if you know what I mean. Let them call it what they want (though no where on that Australian company’s site did I see them refer to themselves as a newspaper). In the end, it’s all just semantics. What matters remains the same: getting the story out.

“Make me sound smart”

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

Every reporter has gotten to the point in a conversation with a source, usually as your interview is wrapping up, where the person makes the cringe-worthy comment: “Make me sound smart.”

How do you reply to that?

“Well, sir, I was going to make you sound like an idiot. But since you insist, I’ll rework it instead.”

Usually I simply reply, “You haven’t said anything stupid, so I wouldn’t be concerned.” If it’s been a lengthy interview or a particularly touchy subject, I offer to call back with any concerns or double-check quotes. [Side note: The few times I’ve actually been outright asked to see advanced copies of the stories and I’ve offered to double-check quotes, those sources after the story ran have actually commended me. One told me I “restored (his) faith in journalists.”]

Along similar lines, I’ve actually had people say this to me, “Well, you know what I mean, just re-work it so it makes sense.”

Um. You can re-state it. I might paraphrase if your wording is too convoluted, but I’m not going to reword your quote. Sorry?

But here’s a new one that actually caught me off guard. Yesterday, as I was finishing a conversation with someone I’d never spoken with before he made this disclaimer:

“What I always tell reporters when I talk to them is, I don’t care if you get it right or wrong, but make me sound smart.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I mean, “WHAT?”

So I simply and truthfully replied, “Well, I care if it’s wrong.”

What else do you say to that?