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Newspapers report their woes because it is a story

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

I read a story in the New York Times this week that piqued my interest. The basic gist: Even though TV news also is losing audience at a rapid pace, you’re not likely to hear about it. But newspapers? There isn’t a person who pays attention to the news, whether from TV or print or online exclusively, who doesn’t know newspapers are in trouble.

The article is based on a University of Pennsylvania study that looked at the issue in some of the top papers and TV news shows. The study found: Looking at print, broadcast and cable news stories over a nine-year span, there were 900 stories on declining readership that appeared in newspapers, but only 22 stories on declining news viewing that appeared on television. You can read the whole study (I haven’t yet) in this PDF.

“While television ignored its own drop in viewership, it did report on loss of print readers. There were 38 national television news broadcast devoted to declines in newspaper readership, mostly on CNBC and FOX News. Newspapers, in comparison, ran 95 stories on the decline of television news viewing; over half of these coming from three sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.”

You could argue that all this reporting our own woes is contributing to the demise. Or that it’s narcissistic: Woe is me, the newspaperman whose newspaper may not exist next decade. Really, both of those are probably fair points to an extent. But that doesn’t make it any less of an important story. Plus, the real story is that as a whole fewer people are paying attention to the news. And what does that mean for our country and our communities?

What made me realize this is the number of people on my beat in the past month who have stopped to ask me how our paper is doing. Questions range from, “What’s the deal with newspapers?” to “How many stories a day do you write these days?” to “When is your furlough?” to “I bet you’ve been hit hard with layoffs.” to “How closely are you tied in to the fortunes of Gannett?” It’s not just idle curiosity, however, on the part of rubber necking community members. Many of these questions come from leaders who are concerned that what we do will not get done. That’s why they’re watching with interest and concern.

One person even told me his son wants to be a sports columnist. I didn’t know what advice to give him. Do I, for the sake of the kid’s financial security, tell him now might be a good time to reconsider? Or do I, for the sake of the need for someone to do this job in the future, whatever format it takes, tell him “Awesome! Talk to our sports editor about an internship.” (For what it’s worth, I’m still optimistic enough that I chose the latter.)

I was stopped Monday after a school board meeting by one of the district administrators. He and I work together a lot, and I had just explained to him I would be off next week for my furlough so if anything happened to please contact my editor. (I also wanted to check and make sure he wasn’t planning anything crazy like announcing his retirement. Not that he would but one of my good friends, an education reporter at another paper, had just that happen while he was on furlough last week!)

The administrator said he was really concerned about who will do what newspapers do if newspapers do not exist. “I worry about what it will mean for democracy to lose the thoughtful, analytical reporting,” he told me.

Me too.

Even though it’s painful to read about another newspaper closing, another round of layoffs, a second or more furlough, the public should know. It is a story. As much as the county commissioners doing something, or the Mayor deciding something, or the school board cutting something, newspapers have the potential to affect, in a very real way, our communities.

I think that is part of why we hear more about newspaper concerns than TV. Not to discount the work of TV journalists, because some do great work and service. But to be honest, in my experience and your market may be different, local TV doesn’t hold a candle to the local paper. (I would put both the national news shows and bigger newspapers, which the study above looked at, on a different plane altogether.) You can’t tell the same thing in a 30-second story that you can in 30 or even 10 inches. Although there are multiple broadcasts, they’re not reporting more news, and what gets reported is shallower. I can give you examples of important stories that affect hundreds or thousands of children and families that I have written within the past month that our TV station has yet to report.

Even beyond the local reporters writing the news, there are other things newspapers do that no one else, at least for now, is doing. A TV broadcast isn’t going to run a legal ad detailing the planned building next your home. Nor is it going to tell you who among your regular neighbors died or was born today. They might highlight the worst restaurant atrocities once a year during sweeps, but we run the inspections and violations every week. There are other everyday things, even beyond our No. 1 government watch dog role that takes us to meetings and stake outs and court houses, that communities will miss if not for a newspaper. Making sure the reporting needed to produce this journalism gets done, in whatever format it lands, is important. That’s why I’m not concerned about TV’s demise the way I am about newspapers. That’s why it is a bigger story, even if, truthfully, it’s a shared problem.

Why page jumps online are annoying, counterproductive

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I knew it was coming. And yet this weekend, when I pulled up one of my stories and saw it was split into two pages, I was still annoyed.

I read enough newspaper Web sites to have noticed over the past several months a trend was spreading among the other Gannett papers using the corporate template. Specifically, those GO4 sites now (or if they don’t already, will) sport a “Next Page” link at the bottom, just above the comments.

page jump example

I would be annoyed by this anyway because it requires more work on my (the reader’s) part. It also tends to have the same effect on me as on John Gruber: I must have some weird strain of dyslexia. Whenever I see a link named “Next Page”, I think it says “Stop Reading and Close This Tab”. As a writer, I’m bothered that beyond about 350 words now my stories will likely not be read. In print, we have limits on how many stories can jump from a section front because they say research shows people don’t follow the jumps. I’ve already been working on tighter writing, but sometimes it takes more than 350 words (~ 10-12 inches) to make a point. And usually the stories that flow longer are the most important stories we write — the enterprise we work hard to nail.

Why would they follow the jump online when the pages take quite awhile to load because they are bogged down with so many ads, scripts, images, etc. Who wants to reload all that junk three times for information they may (I hope do) or may not find useful? For example, I ran a story I wrote today about money saved through field trip cut backs through a page load test. It timed out! But take a look (here is a PDF of the test in case that link is broken) at how much it loaded before that time out. It was 30.1 seconds and 80 objects in before it gave up. That’s an individual single story without any comments on it. The home page has much more going on, and when you have multiple pages of comments on a story, that adds to the load time as well. I have a cable connection and it still takes awhile to load. I can’t imagine how some of our users still on dial up or who have DSL at best suffer through the load times. But I can guess: They don’t.

Here’s what makes this move even sillier than I’ve already pointed out: The entire story is loaded on each of the pages. So, they’re adding a few extra elements and seconds but not even trimming the extra crap that doesn’t appear on that page.

Now for the disclaimer. I do like to be paid. I understand there is a relationship between ads displayed and money made. So, I guess this is a gimmick to get more page views and inflate page counts. But there comes a point where that is counterproductive. And I think the sites, already teetering on that ledge, didn’t need this shove. (I have an ad blocker at home anyway. See my past discussion on what Web site “feature” pushed me over the edge on that.) I have also come to terms with that reasoning being the same as why my stories appear juxtaposed against “after hours” galleries of bar-hopping snapshots. Actually, I haven’t come to terms with that either, but it’s a discussion for another day.

To be truthful, I’d less annoyed if there was a “single page” option available, ala the NYTimes. That is beside hitting print to see it all displayed in one fluid block, which was my workaround. …

Was my workaround until I posted my annoyance about the page jumps on Twitter and found a new hero: Matt Busse. He pointed me to a script he created that puts the whole story on one page. So it turns out the fact that all the story is loaded in one page is a good thing. It meant this script was possible.

I was also told, but haven’t tested, that turning off javascript will have the same effect. Though that likely affects other elements too, but it would probably cut significantly the load time.

So that’s my solution for now. Unfortunately, it isn’t something that will get widespread use, and it’s not exactly something the sites will publicize. So my real solution will just be to try and keep every story I write within 350-400 words to try and avoid annoying readers with a page jump. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will be challenging for me and mean some important information or anecdotes don’t make the cut. And, it will be counterproductive to displaying ads. So we lose in the end anyway.

How many stories in the print edition?

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Jay Rosen is collecting story counts of local newspaper’s print editions. I grabbed the past week’s Journal & Courier’s (March 24-30) and am posting my findings here. I counted 143 total local stories, for an average number of 20.4 local stories per day over the past seven days.

Overall, I have to admit the number was lower than I expected. I’m not saying it’s bad low, just less than I would have guessed. I was surprised also by the proportion of local to wire content, but as I note at the very end, my standard for counting wire was lower than for counting local stories. Still, my perception I think is skewed because the only section I read cover-to-cover daily is local, which usually had one or two wire stories at most. Really, glancing through the comments on Jay’s post, I’d say our team is doing a pretty good job. Maybe it just seems since we’re always working so hard, it should be more. But that probably has more to do with what isn’t counted in the print edition — all our blog posts and web updates, photo galleries and videos, for example. Also, the qualitative measure doesn’t scratch the surface of quality of stories. But that’s another day’s discussion.

The Local news section, which has the most reporters and includes myself, produced about as many as I’d expect but the number definitely ranged greatly daily — depending on space in print. There were more sports stories than I expected, but that may have something to do with it being March madness; both Purdue men and women were competing. There were fewer local features stories than I expected. That’s probably because I rarely read our features pages, or maybe that’s why I rarely do? I do not know.

Another factor affecting the numbers may be some people were off a day here and there for furlough. I myself was out a day and a half with the flu. It would be interesting to compare this to a week without furloughs. But that would require going back to like December or fast-forwarding to at least July, so it’d be hard to really compare.

Hometown: Lafayette, Indiana
The name of your newspaper: Journal & Courier
The url for its website: http://jconline.com
Circulation: about 33,000 daily and 40,000 Sunday

Tuesday, March 24

Number of pages: 28
Number of local, biz, features: 13+2+2 = 17
Number of local sports: 5
Total number of wire stories: 31
Total stories in the paper: 53 (local 41.5%)

Wednesday, March 25

Number of pages: 24
Number of local, biz, features: 12+3+1 = 16
Number of local sports: 7
Total number of wire stories: 25
Total stories in the paper: 48 (local 47.9%)

Thursday, March 26

Number of pages: 28
Number of local, biz, features: 12+2+3=17
Number of local sports: 6
Total number of wire stories: 25
Total stories in the paper: 48 (local 47.9%)

Friday, March 27

Number of pages: 20*
Number of local, biz, features: 10+1+?=11*
Number of local sports: 3
Total number of wire stories: 21*
Total stories in the paper: 35 (local 40%)*
* not counted: TGIF tab

Saturday, March 28

Number of pages: 24
Number of local, biz, features: 11+2+2=15
Number of local sports: 8
Total number of wire stories: 26
Total stories in the paper: 49 (local 46.9%)

Sunday, March 29

Number of pages: 40
Number of local, biz, features: 15+1+4=20
Number of local sports: 5
Total number of wire stories: 35
Total stories in the paper: 60 (local 41.7%)

Monday, March 30

Number of pages: 14
Number of local, biz, features: 7+0+3=10
Number of local sports: 3
Total number of wire stories: 25
Total stories in the paper: 38 (local 34.2%)

I know this was a bit more than Jay actually wanted, but I was curious. I’d be curious to see how it stacks up to another paper of similar circulation.

To understand who was writing this copy, here is the number of reporters in the newsroom.

Local desk: 1 communities/religion, 1 business, 1 county government, 1 city government, 1 k-12 education, 1 higher education, 1 courts and 2 ga/cops.
Features: 1 features/health and 1 arts/entertainment.
Sports: 5 reporters, but some with desk duties.
Total: 16 reporters.

Final thoughts to consider in weighing the numbers and their relevance:

  • Our paper is a Berliner format. At most we run three-story fronts. Quite often, we run A1 with just two stories and other refers. This also means, our paper has less actual column space than many. We have four sections most days, including a local front, nation & world, opinions; local; sports/biz; and features that vary by day. On Mondays, we have two sections.

  • I did not count ANY opinions page copy, including local editorials, letters, guest columns or columns by editors.
  • I did count local freelance columns/stories in the other sections. There were few of these during the week.
  • I did not count briefs, even those based on meetings/events/games/trials/etc. actually attended by a reporter. Likewise, the sports agate; business, schools and communities notebooks; and things to do calendars were not counted. Some of each of those items are from releases and others from original reporting.
  • I counted all wire stories that were distinctly set apart, not packaged as briefs even though some were short enough to be briefs.
  • I did not count stand alone photos.
  • I counted stories packaged together as separate stories if they carried distinct bylines on each.
  • I counted bylines, taglines and “staff reports” all as one story, even though in our actual byline counts they aren’t counted equal. This means a short charticle counted the same as our Sunday A1 package. I also counted staff & wire reports as one.
  • Not counted are obituaries and our weekly “records” pages with police blotter, meetings list, marriage licenses/dissolution, restaurant inspections, property sales, home permits, etc. Those items don’t carry bylines but do require reporters to actually go out and collect the records and then input them.
  • I did not have a copy of our Friday entertainment tab at home. So I didn’t count the entertainment stories that day.
  • I also didn’t count inserts/classifieds/etc. in the page count. Those are strictly news pages.

The readers care about the journalism too

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

I don’t normally read the story chat segments of stories, except on my own articles. Even on those I always jump in with some trepidation about what blasphemy readers will say I’ve committed today. Even if I reported my heart out, seems someone will always find or make up some fault. Mostly, I can’t get past the obnoxious, holier-than-thou and sometimes down right ignorant comments too many people post. I’ve gotten past the point where, except in extreme cases of stupidity, it riles me.

Tonight, I happened to scan down into the comment sections on a few stories and it actually made me hopeful. There are people out there, our readers and our community members, who do believe in what we do. Who do understand why it matters that places like Denver (and to be fair nearly every other city, though not quite at the same level of drop-off as closing a Pultizer-winning newspaper) have fewer reporters covering the streets today than a decade ago.

Too often, I guess, I feel like the debate about this business feels as if its taking place in a silo. It’s probably the people I listen to and the publications I read, but I feel often like we’re debating something without asking the most important people — the readers — what they think. While we’re out there busting our butts, reporting our hearts out and teaching ourselves new media skills to stay relevant and reach more people, it feels like no one really appreciates what we do, except us. You hear people say, let the dinosaurs die. But, and I’m saying this as a 23-year-old journalist with my feet in both the print and moreso the digital world, to be honest, I haven’t yet seen a better model of covering a community than the feet-on-the-street beat reporters community papers have canvassing their region. Perfect? Absolutely not. But worth continuing? I think so. Whether the work gets printed on dead trees or coded in bits and bytes, the cadre of newspaper reporters do a better job than other models I’ve yet seen (real or hypothesized) to make sure what matters gets published. When there are fewer ears listening and eyes watching what happens, that affects people. I don’t think newspapers, not as we know them today, will be here forever. But I’ve got to hope the work we do will endure.

I’m going to re-post two comments on the Sunday column from the executive editor of my paper. This week Julie wrote about how newspapers still supply much of the original reporting that matters, instead of spouting undocumented claims or fixating on the latest missing child/homicide/natural disaster du jour as some media are prone to do. She writes:

I had early hopes that the Internet would provide new and expanded ways for accountability and watchdog journalism. But it’s been disappointing to see how little original reporting is actually done by Web-only enterprises. For the most part, it’s newspapers and their Web sites that are providing the databases and online reporting that have taken public-service reporting from print to cyberspace. That’s because solid reporting takes a lot more resources and commitment than most people realize.

Public-service journalism isn’t the kind of news that attracts a Geraldo, but as media continue to evolve in varying forms, the public will need to decide what kind of news they and the country wants and needs.

Two readers posted encouraging comments on her column today:

JoeKr wrote:
Newspaper journalists seem to be the only ones who have the training and experience to do in-depth investigative work. This is essential in any free society. Furthermore, only print journalism can provide side-by-side opposing views in depth. Talk shows can provide two, three, or four talking heads, but there is little discipline to what is said and exchanged–just as was noted in the previous post. (and often the talking heads talk over each other or passed each other–with only frustration for the listeners or viewers.)

luvlafayettein wrote:
It is too bad that so many newspapers are struggling and closing. I’ve always loved print media. The discipline of objective news gathering and reporting, a “free press,” is essential to maintaining a free America, and this must continue at the local level. (“All politics is local as they say.”) News organizations that can develop distribution methods that consumers want, in a manner that is economically sustainable, will survive. Print is becoming less sustainable–both economically and environmentally. It seems necessary to figure out how other electronic distribution methods can generate enough revenue to cover costs and generate a profit. An awesome task … and I wish you well as you evolve in this time of seismic change in media.

The Indianapolis Star had a nice piece today that is exactly the type of watch dog journalism newspapers are so good at, but that requires tremendous resources to pull off. They looked at the striking amount of nepotism in township governments in Indiana. They also tied it into an interesting database about township spending. This is important because the state legislature this session has been hammering on the excesses of township and county government.

So there were a few comments on the Star’s story I also wanted to highlight:

Dave72 wrote:
This is excellent journalism; nice job Star!! This is an example of why we need to support the Star with our subscription dollars.

My request now is that the Star point its floodlights at the CIB. The amount of money the Pacers are requesting is far greater. And we simply haven’t heard anything lately about what is going on with negotiations. Even if the Star’s editorial board supports giving more subsidies to the Pacers (if for no other reason than to sell its papers), its owes it to the citizens of this city to report on this story.

Digging even deeper, I hope someone, either at the Star or in acedemia takes on the City’s amateur sports strategy going back to the early 80s.

The strategy has clearly failed us in many ways, and now its architects — Swarbrick, Glass, etc. — are skipping town as the city burns. It paid off handsomely for these music-men. But they need to be publicly shamed in the same way these township trustees are being shamed.

I liked that comment, for one, because it recognized the amount of research that went into this and encouraged people to support the endeavor. Then, it tossed out a story pitch worth looking into. (These types of story ideas are one of the reasons I do bring myself to read story comments.)

Anyway, here’s the final story chat I’ll highlight. What I’ve found, in reading the obnoxious comments I loathe, is often the community polices itself. The others who comment are perceptive and realize when a comment is out of line or just stupid. And sometimes, like this one, they say the things we would say if we could jump in and say it ourselves:

evilwoman wrote:

Replying to IndianaJane:
The Indystar has the slowest website on the net. If I didn’t have high speed cable I would be able to read any of it – some pages don’t even load. Now, they’ve added advertisements to make it even slower.

“Now, they’ve added advertisements to make it even slower”

Are you friggin’ serious?!?!?

Wow – the world must be a strange and confusing place for you…

How the HELL do you think this, or any other website generates revenue??? Do you think there is some magical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that deposits money to the website’s owner when someone views it???

Everyday I am just amazed at the utter stupidity of people on this planet. How do they even get through the day????

Ok, so maybe that was unnecessarily sarcastic. But it made the point. (For the record, I’m pretty sure the J&C’s site loads slower than the Star’s. Both have been blessed with a different version of the Gannett overloaded Web site stick. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m just saying.)

I guess this silo isn’t such a silo anymore. Not when you have major TV news outlets reporting on their evening newscasts about dropping newspaper stock prices and the Rocky Mountain News shuttering. And when magazines like The New Republic and national newspapers like The New York Times are throwing this out there for everyone to digest. Even our own business page prints the corporate quarterly results and announces our cuts and cutbacks so everyone in the community, at least those who read the newspaper, will ask about it the next time they see you.

I went to a school board meeting last week in a town I cover only as often as there’s something of note. Before it started, I was talking to a few of the regular attendees, whom I’ve met before and even talked to over coffee at McDonald’s after filing on deadline. One of them asked about my job security because he’s read about the furloughs, layoffs, etc. I said, honestly, I felt OK. He crossed his fingers, as if to indicate, “good luck with that.” I laughed. I don’t want sympathy. I want people, like that man, to support what we do. I want people to know that it matters what we cover and would matter more if we stopped. I need a solution that will ensure this type of work, the public service we perform, does continue. But until then, I’m encouraged that people do care.

There will always be an audience for good stories, I hope…

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Nearly every news organization does an end-of-year wrap-up highlighting the biggest stories. Sometimes there are themes that ran throughout the year, such as on-going property tax delays here in Lafayette or the presidential elections. Sometimes these are single events, such as disaster-level floods or the J&C’s speller being crowned the national spelling champ.

Those are examples of stories I and other Journal & Courier reporters and photographers told in 2008. But they’re among the hundreds I had a part in and the thousands my peers helped collect and share with our community. They’re the Cliff Notes version of the daily newspaper and Web site that chronicled every day how our community changed last year.

But this week it wasn’t our end-of-year package that reminded me how important what we do is. It was the stories I got to tell and the people who let me into their lives to share a few moments, some of them tragic and some of them magical, with the rest of our community.

I’ve been struggling recently to find a direction professionally. Do I want to be a reporter forever? Do I want to do more online production? Is there a future in either? How can I write multiple stories a day to keep my byline count up but still learn more time-consuming multimedia skills? Which one should be my priority? What should I be doing that I’m not? How can I continue to grow? To have fun? All these and much more weighed on me as I worked too many 12-hour days and long nights in recent months and as I wrote my annual self-review last week.

For two years now (Jan. 15!), I’ve been covering education in Lafayette. I’ve told stories of which I’m really proud. But I’ve also sat through hundreds of school board meetings, most of them old news because I’d written the story ahead. The bonus is, I understand my beat and this community better than I thought possible when I arrived. That makes me able to find and tell deeper stories.

But to be honest, I’m a little sad to no longer be learning to be a reporter. I got an adrenaline rush from the fear of screwing up because that’s how you learn. For the most part, I have my “firsts” out of the way and enough confidence to attack even the stories where I feel uncomfortable. When I don’t know what I’m doing, I have a whole community here and on Twitter to fill me in with tips (and an even bigger army of critics to let me know when my immaturity shows). But I love learning new things, so I’ve been thinking about what I need to attack in 2009 to stay happy and relevant.

I’ve decided to focus on being a better story teller this year, in addition to other things. Part of that has been training myself to recognize the story in the news. This is obvious, of course, but it goes deeper for me.

I’ve always disliked covering fires, accidents, suspicious deaths and similar “breaking news” that is the bread and butter many reporters and photographers live for. It was never for me. Too gory, too unpredictable, too uncomfortable. But this week in particular, I’ve started to appreciate these things not as news so much as a story. Every house that burns holds memories, every accident has a cause and effect, and every death leaves a whole future of possibilities unfulfilled.

On Monday, I wrote about a small family diner gutted by fire. It had just opened in October. I also told the story of a small in-home day care being indirectly hurt by the recent factory layoffs in our community.

Tuesday night I drove to the home of the parents of a 26-year-old who was brutally murdered the day after Christmas. The suspect is one of his best, oldest friends — a man the parents told me was like a son to them. For two hours, in their dining room where photos of their son were plentiful and where his Christmas presents still sat stacked nearby, we talked about his life and legacy.

Wednesday I cut out early after two long days. But not before filing a story that included the voice of a woman who sought me out because she was so frustrated with a new law that will keep her relatives from voting on a tax increase that could cost them thousands of dollars.

Today, I covered a fire that gutted the childhood home of a man whose wife reportedly had just left him on Christmas.

This was a hard week for me, with hard stories to report and write. Maybe it’s the holidays that made all of these stories jump out to me in what would otherwise be briefs about fires and deaths and upcoming elections. Instead of a fire, I found hope dashed. Instead of an election to empower the populace, I found a portion being disenfranchised. Instead of a victim, I found a promising life cut short.

But I also got to share happy moments. Today, for instance, I got to meet the first two babies of 2009 in our county. Their whole lives and their parents lives are ahead of them. But already they’re quasi-famous in our community: Their first, and who knows last, 15 minutes of fame came in their first 15 hours of life.

This whole soliloquy isn’t about me. It’s about what we journalists do and why it’s important.

Every day, we take the raw material that is the news and we craft the story. Not only of the lives we meander into, the snapshots of our towns that we capture on film or in narrative, but also the story of a community. We keep the record of who lived and died, and more important who cared and why. We find the story in the board resolutions and the impact of the budget’s bottom line. There might not be an audience in local news for the lottery numbers or the latest out of Baghdad. But I have faith, and the stories I’ve told this week alone have reminded me, that there will always be readers and listeners and people who care about these lives, their triumphs and tragedies. There will always be an audience for good stories.

Maybe I am naive. Probably. I’m still a cub reporter who doesn’t know if newspapers will even survive to make a veteran out of me. But I believe what we do is important. So, while Rome may be burning around me, I’m going to do the one thing I have the power to do to help douse or hold off the flames. They may be in pictures or audio slide shows online or through graphics or written words printed on dead wood, but I’m going to find and tell good stories about and relevant to the people in my community. If we’re not doing that, what’s the point anyway?

The best stories are where the people are

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Last week, I wrote a story about a reading program making a big difference in the local Catholic schools. (In a year they increased kindergartners’ average reading by 27 percentage points on a national test.)

As part of my story, I contacted the national foundation behind it and talked to the director about the program. I even had them send me more material than I could ever use in my story about how it works. I spoke to her the day before I had a scheduled visit to a classroom using the program. When I mentioned that — as in, I’m sorry to have to ask you to explain this but I haven’t seen it in person yet — she said something that saddened but didn’t surprise me. She said, “I so respect journalists that still visit the classroom.”

What seems normal practice to me is, I know, not necessarily a reality for many time- and space-strapped reporters.

One of the best parts about having the education beat is all the kids I get to meet — and usually only when they’re being cute kids. It’s hard to not be cheered up after walking into a room of smiling faces who are singing, acting, telling you about their grand ideas or high opinions or whatever. I hate the days I spend stuck in the newsroom, which is why I probably do more short features than many people. I didn’t go to j-school to learn how to cover the science fair, but if that’s what’s happening in local classrooms, why not highlight the kids’ work?

Also, it’s a way to get me into the schools without an agenda. But when I’m there, I’m constantly observing, and I introduce myself to everyone. It helps me develop my beat and get local people in the paper doing cool things. I can turn a quick story in an hour and eight to ten inches, not much of an investment on our part but it means a lot to the schools and kids featured. It also begets more story ideas, both the light features and also harder news to investigate, from the people I meet and even casual readers. They trust me with their stories because they know me.

I also look at those stories as relationship builders. So when something not so positive happens — such as test scores coming back way below where they should be or an embezzlement or bomb threat or whatever — I can call up the teachers, parents or principals and they don’t associate me only with sensationalizing or with bad press. And when I am accused of only writing negative things, I can give dozens of recent examples that highlight positive things in the schools. The administrators, at least the ones I’ve been able to build relationships with, which sadly because the number of schools and districts and geographic size of my coverage area isn’t all of them, are honest with me. I don’t come with an agenda. I come with a story I’ve researched and usually reported already, and I want their input.

Yes, I do meeting stories. Any education reporter, especially one covering as many districts as me, spends a fair amount of time in meetings. But I rarely break news out of a meeting because I’ve done my job beforehand to find what was coming and why it ever was going to the board. Most often, the best stories — the stories behind the decisions — will be given big play the day of or before the meeting. This is also why I do something most of the other media outlets here don’t do, I attend work sessions whenever I can, even if I won’t report a word out of it. That’s where the story behind the story, or decision, comes out. (There are exceptions to this, but it’s been my experience.) That’s when you find out whose agenda it is and hear the reasoning and asides about it. That’s when board members are people not rubber stamps.

I began to think about this after reading Mindy McAdams’ post highlighting something Andy Dickinson posted last week. It’s about the essence of stories and how stories are often superficially gathered and reported online without the key element.

Mindy and Andy actually hit on something about journalism that keys in on why I’m a reporter and why I didn’t take the online producing route immediately out of college, even though I’m really interested in finding innovative ways to tell stories you can’t on paper. The truth is, I wanted a solid journalistic foundation for whatever job or jobs I someday hold. I wanted to be good at finding and telling stories before I moved on to evangelizing how it should be done.

But at the heart of journalism is the story. I want to tell people’s stories, not necessarily tell people stories. If that makes any sense. I feel a sense of pride in helping share a moment or achievement. Even if not many people read it, it’s cathartic for me and the subject. I’d rather tell you the principal cried when he received the test scores than his grand plans to better them. Both are important elements, but the first helps you understand this isn’t just a story about numbers, it’s a story about people.

I find that there are two kinds of articles I truly enjoy: The stories where I have to rush against a deadline or really, truly dig for the truth. And the opposite, stories where I get to spend extended periods of time conducting interviews and just observing people.

That’s why my favorite stories have been those where I’ve gotten to actually see someone else’s world view. Where I’ve gotten to know them, or at least the parts of them relevant to the story, where they’re not just a source or a subject, they’re a person. That’s why I think Andy’s on to something with his statement that “stories come from people.”

They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a story, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

He’s talking about how to move the classroom visit experience beyond the physical world and into the virtual world. Certainly, there are stories to be told that way. But life, for now, still exists in the physical world. Even in my own overly digitized life, the story isn’t in my blackberry, on my blog or in my twitter updates. The story is the laughs I share with co-workers and the tears I share with family. You can glimpse me through those digital windows, kind of the way I glimpse the classrooms I swoop in on. And you can tell some good stories that way or from the memories of those who went inside. But the best stories will still come from leaving the office — or if you must report online, leaving your comfort zone — and going, as Andy points out, where the people are.

I know that is time-consuming reporting. Trust me, I work for a 40K community daily newspaper; I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have before me, between online updates, byline expectations and just making sure I get my news covered. I was told once that the way to deal with too much work is to turn what doesn’t have to be great — those meeting reports and quick-hit features — as straight and quick as you can, so you have more time to devote to the things that really interest you, and the things that really matter. I don’t blow off the little things, but I don’t get caught up in them either. Instead, I use them as building blocks for bigger ones. It’s worth the time. If anything can, better reporting not more reporting will save journalism.

What’s in my reporting arsenal?

Monday, September 8th, 2008

I’ve been getting several hits this weekend/today from some student blogs. From what I can gather, their assignment was to pick one of the 15 journalists’ outstanding personal sites at 10,000 words (for which I somehow made the cut) and link it to a lesson on backpack journalists.

It’s kind of an interesting tie-in, because when I look at that list I see a broad spectrum of reporters, multimedia journalists and photojournalists but no one I’d necessarily classify as a backpack journalist in my understanding of the term. I definitely wouldn’t classify myself as one. Then, I started to think about the tools I carry every day, several of which are items you’d expect out of those who specialize in this stuff. But I’m more inclined to just think the modern reporter has more flexibility to choose her medium and methods of reporting, certainly that’s what drives what I carry or don’t.

From reading a few of the blogs, it seems they are supposed to guess what I (or whomever they choose) would carry in my backpack as a reporter. I responded on one of the blogs as to what’s in my tote bag — yeah, I carry a tote bag not a backpack, even in college backpacks weren’t really my thing. Many of the student bloggers caught on to the items in my header image, but some were off-mark…

In particular, one of the posts said “I got an “old school” vibe from Miranda [sic] in that she seems to not do so well with modern technology …” I had to stifle a chuckle, because I think in my entire life this is the first time anyone has accused me of being old school. And as for not doing well with technology, behold this blog. Or the other bits of technology I carry with me everywhere. I’m kind of interested in where the idea came from (the other comments on the post backed it up they too got that vibe), but I’m not going to argue. I’d venture to say I’m one of the more technology-forward journalists I know personally. So I know better, and my regular readers probably do too. (I asked my Twitter feed and they agreed with me.) But it’s interesting I give off that vibe.

(BTW, I’d link to these posts, but kind of feel I should give them a break since this is their first foray into blogging, and though they should probably realize anything posted online is an open medium not a “me to my classmates and no one else,” I’ll leave that lesson for another day.)

The more I saw these posts the more I realized I don’t think I ever have actually posted what I carry on an every day basis here. So for those curious what tools a random newspaper reporter in middle America carries on a daily basis, here goes: (This list is actually compiled by emptying my bag to see what I found in there.)

  • My reporter’s notebook, and another small notebook to keep ideas.
  • A pencil case filled with pens, sharpies and pencils because you never know what kind of weather you’ll end up in or when your pen will run out
  • My Blackberry Pearl, on which I have actually written and filed stories/updates by e-mail from events.
  • My digital camera, which does have video capabilities but I rarely use that because I do not do video for the paper.
  • My digital voice recorder. Not only is it a good check for my notes and back-up when writing out notes is not practical, but it can be used to add some quick multimedia to my stories. (BONUS: I have an Olympus WS-311M, which means the end pops off and I can use it to double as a USB thumb drive.)
  • Business cards to hand out when someone needs to call me back or I want them to think of me for a story next time.

reporting tools
(Not pictured: The digital camera, because I used it to take the picture.)

Other misc./semi-related items:

  • My iPod because when I leave this county, the radio music selection drops to near zero. (BONUS: I can use the headphones on the digital recorder).

  • Purell, because I shake a lot of hands and covering kids I’m exposed to a lot of germs.
  • A granola bar, because you never know when you may be stranded at an assignment for hours.
  • A bottle of Excedrin, because a splitting headache during a three hour meeting makes a painful process unbearable.
  • Benadryl tablets, because being sent out to a field can induce a fit of sneezes or itchy eyes.
  • An umbrella, because ink runs when it gets wet.
  • Sunblock, because my skin is fair and you can’t predict when something will break that requires you to stand out in the blaring sun.
  • A small first-aid kit, because I am accident prone and attract paper cuts or fall and gather scrapes.
  • A lint roller, because some of my pants attract lint, and I want to present a professional image.
  • Shout wipes, because I frequently spill my coffee.
  • Gum, of several varieties, to hold me over when food is unavailable or keep me awake.
  • An extra contact lense, because I’ve lost one and had to drive two hours home with one eye squinting. It sucked.

What I don’t carry every where and most students assumed I do: My MacBook and the daily newspaper.

I love the computer, but it’s not always a practical or necessary sidekick. I take one to meetings, to events I’m live-blogging, or perhaps out to breaking news to file from the scene via a wireless card (except now w/my Blackberry even this is unnecessary). But for an every day assignment or an interview for enterprise piece? A laptop is just a few extra pounds to lug around. I don’t think it would work so well if I sat down to interview kindergarteners with a laptop. I make a decision on each assignment before I go what my best recording tool is. Sometimes it’s the laptop (meetings), sometimes it’s a voice recorder (press conferences, sensitive or enterprise interviews for stories I won’t immediately write), but often it’s a good old fashioned notebook and pen (classrooms, events, man on the street, etc.)

As for the newspaper, I grab it every day and skim it. But by the time I see it in print, I’ve usually already read the stories, either the night before when my colleagues filed them or online that morning. The exception to this is Sunday newspapers, because I have more leisure time on Sundays and because I do not like to read big packages online. I’m not likely to carry it in my bag, however.

And that my friends is a pretty good run down of what I do and don’t carry. I can’t speak to any of my equipment being the best, but I will say I’m satisfied with everything I have. I don’t have an iPhone but my Blackberry serves me well, and my digital camera isn’t going to take HD video or give you an amazing A1 shot, but when you need a picture in a pinch, it serves the purpose. My digital voice recorder, even without a mic it records better than most I’ve seen/used. And it’s tiny. One thing all this equipment has in common: It’s all small. When I roll with as much as I do, the smaller the better. Maybe someday I’ll consolidate it all into one tool, but for now, I’m OK letting each bit do its job.

So, maybe I should start this as a meme. What’s in your bag?