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Who will push for public records?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

A man called the newsroom today to ask how he could keep his recent home sale out of the newspaper.

I told him we don’t exempt things from the records page. There are lots of people who wouldn’t want to be in the blotter or have their divorce or foreclosures reported.

His argument was, “It’s no one’s business.”

To which I replied, “Obviously, the government feels differently. That’s why they made it a public record.”

I explained that anyone — me, his neighbor, his best friend — could go get a copy of the information anyway.

“I know,” he said, “but if they really want to know, they should have to do the leg work.”

I explained his logic to him in other terms: “So, if someone wants to know what’s happening in City Council, they should have to attend the meeting right?”

He thought about it, thanked me for my time and went about his life.

The man wasn’t crazy or obnoxious about it. Someone in the assessor’s office told him who compiles the home sales for the J&C. (I picked up that editor’s line because he was off today.) The man said he didn’t want to hurt neighbors feelings by the price it sold for. I don’t have strong feelings about the journalistic value of publishing home sales. Except that for some reason people are nosy and love that stuff, so we print it. News is what people want to know, right?

My responses to his pleading was what surprised me. Normally, I wouldn’t be that forthcoming. It probably was I waiting on the state superintendent to arrive, so I really just wanted to get off the phone. But maybe it’s that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a world without journalists would look like.

I didn’t go into detail with him, but when I said the line about the city council, I was thinking, sarcastically, “So obviously nobody in this city actually cares about what’s happening.” That obviously isn’t true. Therein lies the importance of what we do that so many people take for granted.

This man wanted us not to print the information for the exact reason we publish a newspaper. We aim to get out, in a way that’s easy to access and digest, the information most people don’t know is available, wouldn’t know where to begin finding or would never have or take the time to pursue. You can argue about reporter’s biases and agenda, but one of the important roles we serve is as an impartial observer and chronicler. Our first draft of history, in most cases, is the only version that ever gets written. I have absolutely no stake in whether the price of that caller’s home gets printed or not. I do not care. But I do care that the record we publish is complete. He wanted it to be hard to access because he knows nobody will bother taking the time. Nobody except the newspaper that has decided publishing these public records is important. If journalists are not there to push for not only that but more important records, who will?

Updated: Where’s the RNC coverage in St. Paul’s Pioneer Press?

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

My managing editor brought up a good point today. If you were the paper of record in a city where the nation’s eyes are focused for the week, wouldn’t you think the focus of that attention would merit a mention on your front page?

Now, because I’m not in St. Paul, Minn., I haven’t physically procured a copy of the Pioneer Press in print today. But I’m hoping, given their more than prominent online coverage, that this (below) is not the actual or I guess only front page they had today.

Pioneer Press sans RNC front page
(Via Newseum)

My guess, when Henry (my M.E.) brought it up was maybe they had a wrap or special section on the outside. Though, he pointed out, the barcode is still on this page, and from what I can tell, they’re labeling this the A-section. I thought about perhaps there being more coverage inside, except, if you were going to bury it inside you would at least refer to it out front, right?

So I’m left confused, and hoping I’m just missing something, as to why the dominant story is written by New York Times reporters out of New Orleans when national news is being made in your backyard. It’d seem to me most papers would lead with the arrests or the speeches or the chaos or the celebration or some local angle.

The other paper of record in the Twin Cities, the Star Tribune, as Poynter noted in its round-up of front pages today, went large with the convention.

Can anyone in St. Paul share some insight? Is the only mention on the front page of this paper of the Republic National Convention really a teeny refer to submit your video online at the bottom of the page?

(I took a look at their Front Page PDFs on the Pioneer Press Web site, and while it looks disorganized in general, there doesn’t appear to be any indication there was another front, and it does label this front page as the A1 section.)


Steve Mullis has answered my question and provided a photo of the actual front page/RNC section. I had originally put this question out on Twitter but no one could answer it, so I’m glad the blog worked. And I’m even more glad to see they didn’t ignore this story.

Pioneer Press actual RNC front page

TNTJ: For young journalists, it’s all about attitude

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

(This is a post from the new young journalist’s blog ring, Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists. The topic was, “The biggest challenge facing a young journalist in today’s media is…” Click that link, btw, to read what other young j-bloggers have to say about this. I linked to some of their ideas in the second graf as well.)


I am late to the game on this, but I was off the grid for a couple days at corporate database training.

Wait, what? I thought young journalists are all self-taught and nobody respects you enough to care about whether you improve. And isn’t corporate killing journalism? And databases on the web, the curmedgeons wouldn’t approve of such new-fangled, innovative ideas.

Yet, I swear the company paid to send me and another young reporter (and about two dozen others from this region) to learn about computer-assisted reporting and database reporting from IRE teachers. It was awesome. And I can’t wait to apply what I learned to my beat.

Before I left, I thought about what I would say here. Certainly, every one of those points alluded to and stated in the previous posts in this ring crossed my mind. They all have validity. But after reading or at least skimming the other TNTJs’ posts and thinking about this during the 5-hour drives and over dinner with my fellow trainees, here’s what it comes down to for me:

The biggest challenge facing young journalists today is attitude. Our attitudes. Our professors’ attitudes. Our bosses’ attitudes. Our readers’ and our sources’ and our parents’ and our friends’ attitudes. It’s all about attitude.

The problem is we’re all too damn pessimistic.

Our parents and our friends wonder, whether they verbalize it or not, why we would want a low-paid profession with crappy hours and low prestige. If you have computer skills multiply this thought by about 1,000, because that’s how many times you’ll have to defend the decision to forgo untold riches to instead hold governments accountable (long nights in boring meetings included) and get to experience the things most people only read about (six-alarm fires in sub-zero temperatures fall in this category, too).

Our professors and our bosses and our sage co-workers will either love us for our enthusiasm or try to douse that spark with a dose of reality. In either case, be prepared for history lessons about “the good old days” and bring a Snickers for those trips through Nostalgia Lane. You shouldn’t feel guilty that they didn’t have Google or digital cameras. Your job is not easier because you do. Those are tools that allow you to do more accurate, more detailed journalism quicker. (Not necessarily “better journalism,” but the same things quicker, definitely and with a sophistication they couldn’t have had.) You are probably writing/producing more than your peer of a few decades ago and for more media to boot, all with quicker turn-around. Or, as my editor once put it to us when we were grousing in the middle of the office, “I was way lazier than you guys when I was a reporter.” It made me laugh and feel better. But the difference is, he may have been able to afford a little slacking. We can’t afford complacency. Our future, both our jobs and our industry, is on the line.

But we, young journalists, are just as guilty of pessimism, even if we haven’t yet (and we hope never do) become as jaded or cynical as the co-workers we bitch about in our blogs.

I have pretty much given up reading Romenesko. I understand why it’s so enticing. But it’s too depressing.

When I was about to graduate, I just knew I would never find a job. I lost so much sleep obsessing about how I’d end up flipping burgers, just a waste of talent and intelligence. I shouldn’t have worried. I was editor of my 10K circulation daily student newspaper. And I had professional experience, decent clips and all the skills employers say they want, coupled with an eagerness to learn and a geographic blank slate limited only — and I said it exactly like this to the corporate recruiters whom I interviewed with — to “any place that pays me enough to live.” Still, I knew I was doomed because I had been diligently reading about dropping circulation, layoffs and buyouts, and scandals that further tarnished the already tenuous credibility of the media. I was so screwed.

Then, about a month before graduation, the first editor called and asked me to drive out for an interview. I can remember the exact moment I realized I had a real job interview. I didn’t quit smiling for weeks. Someone, somewhere (and this was actually a decent-sized somewhere) thought I was at least worth talking to and introducing around. That was a turning point for me. I was hireable. I had skills editors desired. There were actually jobs out there.

That was a year and a half ago. A lot has changed in the industry and for me personally. But I still stand by the fact that every day you wake up and you get to decide whether to perceive the sky as falling, and if it is, how you will react. Somedays are better than others, some more depressing.

It doesn’t feel good when an official who you know makes $124,000 claims that if you spread the number of hours he works out, you (reporter) probably make more than him. Clearly, newspaper reporters are overpaid and don’t work nearly as much as the rest of America. And you’ll roll your eyes through those contract negotiations where teachers with zero years experience, fresh out of college lament the $33,000 starting salary for a 184-day work year, with health insurance and a government pension, as being “underpaid.” You just have to hold your tongue. Yes it is disheartening. Woe is me.

But then there are the days where you know what you do matters. Policies and laws are changed because of what you have written. You do follow-up stories where someone tells you the story you wrote was the catalyst to stay with a program that turned their life around. And strangers stop you on the sidewalk or in the halls to thank you for your work or tip you off to something you’d never have found. Occasionally, in a public meeting, officials refer to the story you broke and compliment you on a story well done — even when this story portrays them negatively, they acknowledge it was “fair.” Often, their questions to administrators are prefaced with, “I read in the paper…” No this isn’t my imaginary utopia. Every example here is first-person, my own experience. They are the yang to the disheartening, depressing yin.

Being optimistic is not going to stop the ship from sinking. It’s not going to pay your salary. It’s not going to exempt you from downsizing or critical comments. But it doesn’t hurt, and it’s a lot more enjoyable. Yes, there are as many reasons (probably more) to be scared about the future as there are reasons to be excited about being part of the generation that gets to shape the future. Reality, to a large extent, is how we perceive it. This doesn’t mean we can selectively ignore the more depressing things (you can, but that won’t fix it). It means, approach those things with a frame of mind that they are a challenge to be overcome not a stumbling block on which to trip and fall. So choose your reality: We can believe journalism is dying and there’s nothing to be done about it. Let the violins play on. Or we can believe that we, journalists young and old, can make it work in some form, some way. We have everything to lose either way. But this is worth fighting for. I say forget the ship, jump in and let’s set about selling the pessimists on our ideas.

Post script:

I love inspirational quotes, as any of my blog readers can attest. So I leave today with the one I have written on a sticky note by my computer as a daily reminder of the importance of attitude: “If you want to be happy, be.” — Leo Tolstoy


Meranda Watling is a 23-year-old reporter covering education for the newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana. She used to read four newspapers a day in print, but today is lucky to find time for one that’s not coded in bits and bytes. She blogs, mostly about journalism, at MerandaWrites.com. Her friends also worry about the amount of time she spends twittering, even if they obsessively read her updates.

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.

Is a database of graduate names really necessary?

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Databases are great tools. They make complex information easy to understand. The proliferation of them on news Web sites is also a positive development. Reporters request, compile and uncover mountains of data doing their jobs. Put the data in the hands of the readers.

There are hundreds of useful databases on news Web sites today. But what’s increasingly sad — almost as sad as the tendency to create and dump unrelated databases without any context into data ghettos — is the increasing tendency to create databases of information that, really, a database isn’t useful in helping to understand. In the worst instances, it really just complicates the information for the sake of saying, “Look at all the databases we’re giving you!”

Let’s check some information a database is good for:

  • Crime statistics that allow me to sort by location, type of crime, etc.? Check.
  • Salary information for publicly paid employees, broken down by job title, salary, department, name, etc.? Check.
  • Property tax assessments that show me how much my — or my neighbors — home has gone up or down? Check.
  • Restaurant health inspection results, especially violations? Check.
  • Summer camps sorted by location, length, type and date? Check.

But does the world really need a database to search the name of high school graduates at a particular school? Apparently, Brevard & Lee Counties in Florida do. Des Moines, Iowa, thinks so, too.

Many papers, including my own, run graduation lists at the end of the year. I don’t personally get anything out of this (and thankfully, though I did penance as an intern in college typing these up for weeks, the data desk handles typing them here). But I see the utility to a community, especially a small one, in being able to see that “Jeff’s daughter graduated,” or “Betsy from church was valedictorian.” Plus, it might be nice as the student to have and clip your graduation list for your scrapbook.

I could even see the paper keeping these lists in an internal database. It could be useful down the road to have the names handy of the graduates of a class if someone goes on to do something famous, or if you want to find students who were under a certain teacher or administrator when that person reaches a milestone or dies. Or if something happens to someone and you want to go back and check they were indeed a graduate of City High School in 2005. I could see that.

I can also see, to some extent, the IndyStar’s database with profiles of valedictorians and salutatorians in the counties it covers. They used some of that information to compile a story that ran last weekend looking at the trends in colleges and majors, etc. of the best of class. It was actually a pretty interesting story, and at least it gives that database context.

What I don’t understand is why you would take something that is most digestible as a simple list and put it into columns and rows? What’s the reason — because you can? Chances are if I have an interest in it — enough that I would actually know the name of the graduate, as each of the databases asks for — I already know he or she graduated. The only purpose I see it serving then is double-checking, such as, “Wasn’t Molly supposed to graduate this year? Uh oh, maybe she didn’t pass Algebra after all.” About the only useful idea I’ve come up with of interest to even a narrow margin of the public is being able to do some type of data analysis to see how common your name is. For example, in Des Moines, there are three pages worth of people graduating with “Smith” as or in their last name.

It just seems there are better uses of your time and resources, other data that would be useful to compile and host. Not only that, but frivolous databases get dumped into those data ghettos, creating an overwhelming list that further waters down the useful ones.

What do you think? Does a graduation list need a database or does it just complicate it? Also, share the most unnecessary use of database you’ve come across. Sadly, I have a feeling this isn’t the silliest.

Journalism in six words

Monday, April 28th, 2008

How would you sum up journalism in six words? Poynter asked this question a few weeks back (maybe not even). I meant to comment on this earlier, but now’s as good a time as ever. You can go vote on which if the finalists you think is the best six-word summary of/motto for journalism.

Here are the top 10 finalists to choose from:

  • Doing more with less since 1690
  • We’ll always have Paris … or Britney
  • It’s how I change the world.
  • Get it right, write it tight
  • They’ll miss us when we’re gone
  • Feed the watchdog, euthanize the lapdog
  • Who, what, when, where, why, Web*
  • Facts, schmacts … how is my hair?
  • Dirty commie latte-sipping liberal scum
  • Please stop griping, now start typing

I bolded my personal favorites. The asterisk is the one for which I actually cast my vote.

Also, on the Poynter story there are several honorable mentions. Here are my favorites among those:

  • We’re sorry about all the trees

  • No news is not good news
  • How many inches is the truth?
  • Seek the truth, not the money
  • We don’t make this shit up
  • Dead wood floats. So can we
  • A journalist’s work is never done
  • History’s first version, updated every minute
  • It beats working for a living
  • Speak truth to power, or else
  • But this IS my day job!
  • Mainstream media: We’re your grandfather’s blog
  • Filling the space between the ads

So, what’s your favorite? (Vote at the Poynter story. Right now it looks like “Doing more with less since 1690” is leading, followed by “They’ll miss us when we’re gone.”)

I didn’t submit any to the contest, but here are a few humble attempts I just came up with:

  • Been there. Done that. Rinse. Repeat.

  • Every day something new to learn.
  • Speak up or hold your peace.
  • Who’s watching your government?
  • Nothing is worth more than today.
  • Tomorrow this will be forgotten.
  • I couldn’t make this stuff up.
  • As read about on Romenesko.
  • Blogs: Repurposing real journalism since 1997.

Have any contributions or ideas for your own six-word motto for journalism? It’s harder than it seems.

The “Why journalism?” question

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Recently, I’ve been asked by several people — job-shadowing teens, co-workers, friends, sources, strangers — “Why journalism?”

I always spout off a half-dozen reasons I love my job, love my beat, love this business.

In thinking about it, I’ve come up with a single line that I think kind of sums up what’s at the heart of my desire to do this. It incorporates everything, my love of meeting new and interesting people, being the first to know, seeking out answers to my questions, getting out information important to people’s lives and trying new experiences.

Here’s what I’m telling people keeps me doing this: “I get to experience things that most people, literally, only get to read about.”

So, guys, how do you answer the “Why journalism?” question?