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Archive for January, 2009

News execs advise journalism students to be versatile

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Take a look through some of the advice that Midwestern newspaper editors have for journalism students today. Mostly, it seems their take is optimistic.

It says the survey was conducted with 86 news managers in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Makes sense since this is coming out at a job fair sponsored by the Hoosier State Press Association and Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors.

I can’t find the original documents on which that AP story is based, but I came across some other versions with more quotes from the editors.

Here’s my favorite of the advice I saw because it was exactly what I looked for — and mostly got — in my first job:

“Pick a newspaper that already is way past thinking of itself as a newspaper. Pick an organization that values journalism in all its aspects but recognizes that it needs people to be part of a seismic change at the same time. You can be part of that change.”
• Dennis R. Hetzel, Kentucky general manager, Enquirer Media, Fort Mitchell, Ky.

And here’s the one to take away no matter your medium:

“Be prepared across a range of skills because it’s so hard to tell what will be needed on your first job. Further, job skills are a moving target. What’s required today could be much different in a few years. If adaptability is a skill, students will need to acquire that.”
• Dan Corkery, managing editor, The News-Gazette, Champaign, Ill.

There are more details of the survey from the version posted on the Indy Star. It is the sidebar on that page (look in the right column).

Here’s a loaded question with unsurprising results (hello, they were asking newspaper editors!):

Could you suggest any reason(s) for college students to consider a career in newspapers in light of the downsizing in our industry today?
1. Skills of a journalist will always be in demand regardless of format: 29
2. Important work: 27 (Serve as watchdog for the public; expose corruption; ensure justice and freedom; make a difference; do some good.)
3. Still can be a rewarding and satisfying career: 7

But what we should read from that survey, if you ask me, is there are still plenty of people who believe that journalism is still important. But it’s harder than ever and maybe even more a roll of the dice than ever to break in. To better your odds, j-school students need to be willing to work hard, have strong basic skills but also be flexible, adaptable and diverse in building their skillset. Also, start by freelancing and don’t overlook small papers.

When tracking productivity reduces it

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

What if every evening, at the end of a long day, you had to email your boss and your boss’s peers/bosses an outline of everything you did that day. When you got in. When and who you called. Who you talked to. Who you left voicemails for. What you talked about. What records you looked up. What records request got denied. When you checked your e-mail. When you sat around waiting for an interview to start because they were running late. When your story fell through and why. When you got pulled in on another story. When you talked to your editor. When you updated this productivity report. When you realized this was a waste of time.

Well, I made the last one up. But the rest of it is what reporters at the South Bend Tribune now have to do, every day. I came across this in a memo posted on Romenesko. (Yeah, I know I said I quit reading. But it’s like a train wreck. You can’t help rubbernecking sometimes.)

This is targeted foremost to all reporters, who would send a daily e-mail the last thing before they leave for the day (or at the latest, the very first thing – 8 a.m. – the next day). These e-mails would go not only to your most immediate editor but to at least five editors, including me. This daily e-mail would lay out specifically what you accomplished that day, what you need to finish or follow up on the next day, and what you plan to do that next day. We mean everything, from the most mundane county council advance to the beginning interview in the most ambitious investigation that may or may not see the light of day (or publication). It also would allow you to bring up any other communication you need to share. From there, yes, your editor will be able to tell how busy you were, but more importantly, he or she will know your accomplishments and your struggles. From that, our morning planning meetings can be even more efficient.

I can understand that given fewer staff members, it’s critical that those left behind are maximizing their time. I get that. Honestly, I could understand the editors of the paper wanting this report kept for a week. It would give them a baseline of productivity. That way they could assess who is doing what, how efficiently, and then maybe reorganize or reassign or whatever to make the best use of time.

A week’s record, actually, could be helpful for the individual employee to see his or her own time dumps as well. I, for one, know I am most efficient at reporting probably from about 9:30-11:30 a.m. and about 1-5 p.m. This is partially because I typically start around 10 a.m., and because I usually file copy for tomorrow beginning around 4 p.m. And I’ve found reaching people at lunch is a crapshoot. So that’s when I try to do administrative things, return e-mails, write briefs, eat lunch, etc. I know that about myself. I plan my day around that. Time management isn’t necessarily my strong point, but I don’t think spending MORE time writing about how I spent every minute of my day will make it better.

It’s not that I have a problem with the editors wanting to communicate with their reporters. It’s that I feel like this is an exercise in wasting their time. It seems to me that having your reporters take a significant amount of time to log and write up everything they did each day and then having five editors read over every one of those reports will negate any efficiency you hoped to gain. In fact, adding more work that doesn’t contribute to a more robust online or print product seems to be a loss of productivity. The opposite of what I take is the intended effect.

My editor doesn’t need to spend an hour every morning reading over every minute of my and other reporters’ previous day. Seriously?! He has better things to worry about. You know how he knows what we’re doing or how we get answers to our questions: We talk. He walks over to our desk or we walk over to his, or we send an iChat or an e-mail. Can you check on this for tomorrow? Is that update ready for online? How much longer on that story? But mostly, he worries about his own job. He helps us but trusts us to do our job. He’s not a baby sitter, and he shouldn’t have to be.

The only upside I could see to the memo is it would keep the staff honest. Maybe I didn’t need to go across the street and get a soda? Maybe I shouldn’t have spent five minutes talking about how much furloughs suck with the copy desk? But if I’m producing enough stories and they are good, why shouldn’t I be able to take a five-minute break?

I’m not against tracking productivity, per se. The editors do track our byline count. They don’t tell us these numbers, or even what our target should be. It varies from reporter to reporter, beat to beat, month to month. When we’re low, we do get notes telling us that. But for the most part, it’s just something we’re semi-aware exists. Not something we’re obsessing about, every minute, of every day. I have my own issues with the counts, but at least it doesn’t waste my time to track it.

Reporters here do keep daily/weekly budgets. It outlines what I’m working on today, what I’m planning to file and when I have specific interviews/meetings/events. This helps my editor know where I’ll be and when to expect my stories. It tells him not only when I’m busy but also when something can bump to another day so I can be pulled in on something else. It seems to be a before the fact planning budget is a lot more helpful than an after the fact accounting of my every task. Some days are just slower than others, and some days look like the ridiculously detailed example report in the memo.

(UPDATE: We interrupt this post to point out a hilarious take on this required memo by William Hartnett: I will now share with you an example of my daily productivity summary so that you may better understand my accomplishments and struggles)

I know my paper is about half the size of South Bend’s, which itself isn’t that big. We have about 10 local reporters under my editor, plus a couple in features and in sports. But if you’re an editor, whether you have 1 or 100 reporters, do you really need to micromanage your staff’s every minute? Is it really the best use of editors’ time to have five of them reading dozens of these memos every morning? Seems to me — and I’m still practically a rookie, I know — they have better things to do, like update the Web site or put out the paper.

Overheard in the Newsroom provides a needed laugh

Monday, January 19th, 2009

OK, let’s break from bemoaning the state of journalism to enjoy one of its less serious and unreported aspects: The stupid things WE say in the newsroom.

I can’t believe this didn’t already exist, but I’m thankful someone has now blessed the Internet with Overheard in the Newsroom. A spot where those “only in a newsroom” ROFLMAO comments can be commemorated and shared with all.

Actually, this stuff does exist, in notebooks and files and quote boards (OK, so maybe that was just the Daily Kent Stater?). In fact, I think most newsrooms have someone who unofficially keeps these things on file, because sometimes you just need a laugh. My own Twitter account documents some of the funniest moments I overhear in my office. But the only people who see that are the 400 or so who follow me, and they have to put up with a lot of other tweets to get the good stuff.

Anyway, here are a few of the funnies from this new site:

Reporter 1: Chess release … I mean press release. There should be chess releases.
Reporter 2: Totally. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Knight to f4

Reporter starting her shift: “No one died on that plane. So why is it still on TV?”

And finally, I’m pretty sure I’ve said the same or very similar things working late cops shifts:

“If anyone’s gonna die tonight, I hope they do it before 10:30 p.m.”

In college, I used to keep the Overheard at KSU blog, which was similar to this one but about my campus. But then I graduated. And since I was no longer at Kent State to overhear anything or promote the site, it kind of died. But at least there are some funny comments preserved in time.

Here are a few overheard in the newsroom moments I quickly found skimming my own Twitter feed:

1.) Perils of listening to scanner: Reprtr1, “Did you hear explosion?” Ed, “I heard missing child.” Me, joking, “I thought they said landslide.”

2.) Scanner traffic among school bus drivers: “Watch out for the Yahoos, Deb.” Reply: “Don’t you want to just run over them sometimes?” lol

3.) Oh, PHI helicopter down in Romney. Engine failure. No injuries, just transport their patient to hospital. … I called police to get location, the first thing dispatcher says when I say my name: “It sounds worse than it is”

4.) Here’s something funny: Just got a call from sheriff’s dept asking if I still have/can send them a press release they sent yesterday. Lol.

5.) My editor just asked me if I “have a green card” because I’ve never seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. He said that’s un-American.

QOTD: My interest is in the future…

Monday, January 19th, 2009

“My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.”
Charles F. Kettering

Kent State’s case study in converged student media

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

One of my old professors Fred Endres, who teaches online journalism at Kent State, sent me a link to a package he produced about the student media operation today. More specifically, it’s about Kent State’s “marriage” of print and broadcast media into one newsroom and one Web site.

Sadly, as I’ve lamented before, I missed this convergence by a semester. I was part of the initial student media discussions, but graduated just as things were getting good. But I’ve been back to visit several times, and while it’s not nearly as homely and cozy to me as the former Daily Kent Stater digs were, it seemed pretty streamlined. And the technology was top-notch. I can’t even get Excel on my machine at work (OK, so actually after two years I’ve finally managed that … any day now), but these kids have everything from the Office suite to Final Cut Pro at their disposal.

I was never there to see the new combined news team react to breaking news, but I can imagine it was the same as it was for the Stater alone: A flurry of activity and a dash of figuring it out as you went along. These days, however, there’s an added discussion beyond who will write the story for online and then tomorrow’s paper. Who is going to shoot it, both still and video — perhaps at the same time — and ready the script for Black Squirrel Radio and TV2 to broadcast?

Anyway, check out the link Fred sent me to thekentnewsroom.com. It’s an interesting, and entertaining, look at how the marriage happened — and some of the stumbles along the way.

On developing the multi-media mindset:
Students from the newspaper staff talk more to students from the television station. And both talk to the small Web staff. On some days, those conversations lead to creative and productive cooperation and content. On other days, the students may say hello to each other. There is no consistency to the mindset yet. After three semesters in the newsroom, it’s pretty clear that the multimedia mindset is BE-set by some lingering turf issues, lack of trained bodies, too-busy schedules and indifference.

We sometimes wonder whether the move to real convergence can be led and maintained by busy students who spend a year or two in student media and then graduate or move on to other interests. It’s like having speed bumps in the newsroom. Energy spurt — screeching halt — progress — slow down. It’s frustrating for students, advisers and faculty. Consistency and continuity may be issues that confront every university attempting convergence where students truly run the newsroom, as they do at Kent State.

We do remain optimistic about developing the mindset, however. More importantly, so do the students.

An interesting case study for anyone considering a converged, collaborative or shared newsroom. (There’s even tips and lessons learned.) Or, since there’s so much debate on what journalism schools are or aren’t, should or shouldn’t, be teaching, anyone interested in seeing one school that is trying something new.

Help Jay Rosen explain Twitter

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Jay Rosen of PressThink fame is writing an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about why he uses Twitter. And as is only appropriate, he’s crowd sourcing his network to incorporate other users’ takes.

He’s asking Twitter users, especially students and academics, to explain in 140-characters or less what makes the platform useful to them.

Here’s my response:

Twitter expands my network, especially with locals and in journalism industry circles. Plus keeps friends, family up-to-date.

You can tweet your explanation to him @jayrosen_nyu or reply on the PressThink post.

Look through some of his replies so far to get an idea of what others are saying.

Good advice: Become invaluable. Network like mad.

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Suzanne Yada has suggested some pretty solid advice for student journalists, but it really applies to all journalists. She has two resolutions for the coming year that we can all benefit from: become invaluable and network like mad.

The first bit of advice is the harder, and the second the most logical.

Being invaluable

I work hard. I learned that from my mother, who is the hardest working person I’ve ever met. In fact, she works too hard. My resolution this year isn’t to work harder but smarter.

Another lesson mom told me once is that nobody is irreplaceable in their job. When you take a job reporting, chances are you’re replacing someone else who left, probably to replace someone else at their new job. And when you leave, someone new will come in and pick up where you left off. The paper will still get printed, the news broadcast, the Web site updated. That’s how it works. Maybe they care more about something you cared less about, or they form bonds with sources you hardly tapped. Everyone brings their own style to a job or beat, but there’s not a job out there that only one person is fit to do.

This is where Suzanne’s advice comes in. You may be replaceable, and, especially young journalists entering the business today, you may come in to replace someone who had superior skills or talent. But you can make yourself invaluable. YOU set the bar to compare those who held the job before you and will after. YOU define how the job should be and can be done. And you do it by, as my mother taught me long ago, busting your ass.

Suzanne has some really great, specific advice on how to do that: write and produce multimedia like crazy, meet deadlines, ask tough questions and dig for better stories, always be ethical, put yourself out there, talk to your professors (or bosses) about more than your homework (assignments)… and more. Read the full list and explanation on how to make it happen.

Network like mad

I used to think networking was stupid. If I worked hard (see above), that should be good enough to break in and keep me in. Well guess what? It’s not. I learned this, fortunately, early. Almost by definition journalism IS about who you know, whether it’s sources who can tip you off to stories or other journalists who can tell you about opportunities or share experiences.

To be honest, my network is probably one of the biggest things I got out of attending journalism school. Sure my clips and experience in student media were pretty valuable in landing an internship and job, and my editing and designing chops were largely honed on class assignments. But what I’ve found has helped me more than anything since I left college has been who I know. The kids I worked at the student paper with are now spread from coast to coast. Some are working in online, some in PR, some in magazines, some in newspapers like me, and some even in my own newsroom — jobs they landed because they knew someone to tip them off and get them noticed.

Beyond my real-life network, this blog and my online activities have helped me extend my professional network beyond even the coasts of the U.S. or its borders. Add in Twitter and Wired Journalists, among others, and I feel comfortable that someone in my network could answer or point me toward an answer for just about any dilemma or question I could come up with, journalistic or otherwise. And likewise, what makes a network work is that I jump in the conversation when I can help or offer advice myself.

In both cases, I know where they are and they me. We’ve swapped tips, debated concepts and talked about ways to tackle stories. I’m a better journalist for having this collective knowledge a phone call, e-mail, IM or tweet away.

As in her first post, Suzanne provides some specific examples of how you can build your network. Her first is probably the most important: Get your name in front of people and build your brand (this includes registering a domain). But she offers other solid ideas, ranging from follow up on everything to pass out business cards. Definitely read the full list and her suggestions.

Work ahead

I wish I could say I’ve nailed every item on either of those two lists. I haven’t. That’s why they’re called resolutions. Even if I’m not a New Year’s resolution kind of person, I concede that to grow you need objectives. If you don’t have some to work toward this year, borrow some of Suzanne’s.

As I wrote about last week, this year I’m going to focus on being a better writer and better storyteller, which will include dabbling in a different medium or two. And I’m going to work on my consistency and the usefulness of this blog as it and my career continue to evolve.