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Four reasons to be hopeful for news (Guest post by Mike Fourcher)

Photo by Matt Stratton

Guest post by Mike Fourcher, co-founder and manager of some of Chicago’s great online news sites including Early and Often, Center Square Journal and Roscoe View Journal

I believe there are four reasons to be optimistic about the future of news media.

  • Post-modernist cynicism,
  • The Long Tail,
  • WordPress, and
  • Patch.com

Post-modernist cynicism creates a consumer attitude that there is no real truth in any one source. Truth – if it can be known – is individual and personal, rather than delivered. Today even the least media savvy know that you can’t trust what you see on TV and that smart people look for multiple sources.

This is very bad news for large dailies like the Tribune and Sun-Times, which have striven to serve the every man. They are like the old Marshall Field’s and Wieboldt’s department stores, once Goliaths that were slain by a thousand Lilliputian Circuit Cities, Gaps and Linens ‘n’ Things.

It is good news for startups looking to create a niche. If they can find you, readers will read you and consider you a credible source. You can get a foothold if you serve an unserved niche.

The Long Tail is Chris Anderson’s theory referring to the edges of a Bell curve. That our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of mainstream products at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.

Again, this is bad news for large dailies. They can no longer provide one-size-fits-all-news, like the kind you find on newsstands. To capture reader interest, they must find ways to cover as many different niches as possible.  This is what the Tribune is attempting with Chicago Now – but even then, the Long Tail stretches farther than Colonel Tribune can reach, providing the rest of us with a lot of room to run in.

WordPress is a magnificent free tool with which you can publish your reporting in a professional-looking manner from Day One. It is easy for beginners to start, and if you choose to learn more, there is a worldwide, welcoming community that will show you how to solve its programming problems. It is a complex, free, very flexible tool that is the underpinnings of many important news sites including the New York Times and Yahoo News.

And my news sites, CenterSquareJournal.com and EarlyAndOften.org too!

WordPress is as important a revolution in publishing as the pairing of Pagemaker with a laser printer was twenty years ago.

Finally, Patch.com is not a cause for optimism because they are hiring but because they are spending a lot of money on convincing people that hyperlocal news, with just one local editor, is a credible source. I am beginning to believe that Patch.com will be known as the Starbucks of local news. They will encourage an entirely new category of news consumers who are discerning about their local news.

As Intelligensia and Metropolis Coffee could not have existed without Starbucks first paving the way, I think Patch.com will do the same for hyperlocal news.

There’s a great deal of opportunity out there. But it isn’t like anything we’ve seen before.

Guest Essay: Why is the Internet so slow?

This is the last guest essay from our recent report “Realizing Potential” about the long-term needs of the online news sector. This essay, by Justin Massa of Metro Chicago Information Center, focuses on why net neutrality is so important for hyper-local online news providers and bloggers. You can find the first two guest essays on the NP Communicator blog as well.  Read the full report here.

“Realizing Potential” Guest Essay: Why Is the Internet So Slow?

By Justin Massa, Director of Project and Grant Development, Metro Chicago Information Center

Imagine if, when shopping for appliances, only GE microwaves could nuke your food on high power while other brands could only operate at 75 percent. Or, imagine if only calls from certain telemarketers rang through to your mobile phone while your friends had to pay an extra, per-call fee in order to reach you. Sounds crazy, right?

Unfortunately, there are a growing number of major corporations lobbying for just this approach to data on the internet.

Telephone and power lines are, in a word, dumb. They don’t pay attention to who is using them for what purpose or what devices they are connected to, only that the user has paid the bill. Until very recently, the internet operated in much the same manner; while your specific connection speed might vary based on your individual plan, the actual content that came to your device and the specific make/model of your computer, phone, radio or car didn’t matter. All websites loaded at (roughly) the same speed and you have been free to connect any device to the web. This is the core tenet of net neutrality: your connection to the internet should be ‘dumb’ and deliver whatever content you request to whatever device you use at the same speed, regardless of what the content is.

But this principle has recently been called into question by both the courts and major corporations. In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to regulate an internet provider’s network management practices and policies; in short, the FCC can’t enforce regulations to protect network neutrality.

Then, in August, Google and Verizon released “A Joint Policy Proposal for an Open Internet,” laying out a set of seven principles they believe should guide federal regulation. In their proposal, there is a clear distinction between the rules for “wireline” and “wireless” services. While wired broadband access (such as through a cable modem or an office’s network) would be governed by a weakened set of network neutrality principles, wireless broadband—which includes every connection to the web from a mobile phone—would only be required to disclose the exact nature of their services and would be allowed to control how fast various services were able to communicate data back and forth. Under their proposal, Verizon would be able to allow, for example, USA Today to display stories three times as fast as the Sun-Times in a mobile web browser, for the right price.

University of Illinois at Chicago Prof. Karen Mossberger’s research highlights the importance of network neutrality over wireless broadband for hyperlocal journalists in Chicago. In her “Digital Excellence in Chicago” report for the City of Chicago, she writes, “Over a third of Chicago residents have accessed the internet through some type of wireless device, and the concentration of such use among residents under 30 suggests that this trend is likely to increase in the future, especially with advances in technology.”

As the Workshop’s NEW News report suggests, the vast majority of Chicago’s neighborhood news sources are passion projects and few are generating much revenue. And, as we all know from our own internet use, speed is everything: waiting too long for a page to load simply means you will look elsewhere for the information. If wireless broadband providers are allowed to require that hyperlocal journalists pay for top-tier access—fees that many likely cannot afford—the inevitable result will be fewer sources for neighborhood news.

Guest essay: Thou shalt not plagiarize or invent quotes

CNM_RealizingPotential-1

As I mentioned last week,  I am publishing the guest essays from our recent report “Realizing Potential” about the long-term needs of the online news sector on the NP Communicator blog. This essay by Patch.com’s Jessica Rosenberg is the second of three. Read the first one by online news expert Michele McLellan hereRead the full report here.

“Realizing Potential” Guest Essay: Thou Shalt Not Plagiarize or Invent Quotes

By Jessica Rosenberg, Patch.com, Burr Ridge

I graduated from journalism school at a time when the prospect of a no-newspaper town seemed very real in Chicago.  We all know the story: The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times had filed for bankruptcy, neighborhood papers were folding, and layoffs in every sector of the economy happened daily.  The saving grace, for journalism at least, was the internet.  The ability to publish virtually for free and reach almost everyone almost everywhere made the internet an attractive home for journalism.

At the start of graduate school, teachers developed our basic reportorial skills and stressed the importance of telling the truth, always.  But toward the end of school, classes focused more on online publishing, blogs, video and social media than on the skills of the traditional newspaperman.  As the market and my class offerings changed, I realized in order to have a chance in this cruel market, I had to know a little bit of everything.  It was no longer enough to be a good writer and know how to conduct an effective interview—I had to do it all.

So I went the multimedia route.  By the time I earned my master’s degree, I could record and edit audio and video and write a knockout piece of journalism to upload to my personal blog.

Eventually, this set of skills brought me to Patch.  Patch is online hyperlocal news.  Select communities around the country have their own unique Patch websites.  A local editor who generates content specific to that community manages each site.

Throughout the day, a combination of news, opinion, video and photo is uploaded to the site.  I am the local editor for suburban Burr Ridge and, like other local editors, I am a team of one working from my home.  Patch is owned by AOL and each month they give me a freelance budget with which I am to hire reporters.

With all the out-of-work journalists, I thought finding reporters would be easy.   Boy, was I wrong.

Finding candidates with social media and blogging skills has been easy.  These days, they’re a dime a dozen.  Finding candidates with a few video and photo skills has been fairly easy, too. While these skills are valuable in themselves, they don’t necessarily make one a journalist.  The definition of what constitutes a journalist is in flux, but there are certain skills that are non-negotiable.  For example, it’s been difficult finding a candidate who can actually write well, interview and uphold some kind of journalistic integrity (like thou shalt not plagiarize or invent quotes) in addition to being a little web-savvy.

What’s even more surprising—and frightening—is that many of these applicants are young and some even have degrees in journalism.  When I learn a candidate’s reporting has been inaccurate or they prefer to do interviews via e-mail, I get scared for the future of journalism.

Has the demand for multimedia news taken away from the craft of writing and the importance of accuracy?  Do they not teach writing and ethics in j-school anymore?

I wish that in learning to be an all-purpose, multimedia journalist, aspiring reporters would also learn how to write beautifully (not text-speak, but write).  I wish the next generation of reporters would learn that an e-mail interview never takes the place of a phone call or a knock on a door.  I wish that teachers and mentors would incorporate the importance of being ethical into their lesson plan on editing digital video.

This recession has forced many people to return to basics.  I feel the same shift needs to happen in the journalism industry.  Online journalism is here to stay, and it is important to know the multimedia skills required to work in the industry.  However, it seems that the rush to adapt has undermined the essence of journalism.  I would love to see a revival in creative writing for journalists at the university and continuing education level, or an increase in workshops that focus on interviewing strategies and what it means to be ethical—because some people seem to have missed that lesson.  What’s more, I would love to fill the open positions I’m offering at Burr Ridge Patch with clever and trustworthy reporters.

What nonprofits can learn from LeBron James (guest post by Jennifer Lacey)

Photo by Keith Ellison on www.flickr.com

Last Friday, a Google search of  “LeBron James Media” produced 108,000,000 links and 1160 related articles. On Yahoo.com there were 10,857 stories posted.

If, during the past two weeks, you lived in the forest with no phone, internet, television or interaction with other human beings, you might have missed the story. Here’s what happened: James dominated the 24-hour news-cycle with his impending free agent decision. When it was all said and done (after a well-publicized hour-long special on ESPN), James’ career decision had been given the attention of a world-changing event rather than the simple business process it began as.

What are the lessons behind the LeBron James PR show?

Steve Buckley, at the Boston Herald, drew on lessons from Vince McMahon of WWE fame, to help explain James’ media mastery.

McMahon, an impresario who turned a regional dog-and-pony pro wrestling circuit into what today is known as World Wrestling Entertainment, has known for years that it’s easy to bypass the meddling media middle men and bring your product/message directly to the public. All you need to do is set up your own network, and then use it as a stage on which to play out all your story lines, plot twists, interviews and “breaking news.”

While nonprofits can’t set up their own media outlets, they can deliver their stories and issues to the public directly through available technology. By using social media applications, nonprofits cut out the “middle man,” taking the heart of an issue to a local (or worldwide) audience.  Rather than waiting for a press conference to be covered, nonprofits, like James, can take control and tell their own stories by tying them to a timely news peg.  Write your press releases with flair. Know your story, conflicts involved, and be transparent. Know who your sources are and be prepared to rise to the occasion when pitching reporters or when they come looking for you.

It’s true that James owns a PR company that’s focused on creating an iconic image of James, and it’s also true that most nonprofits will never have the star power of a famous pro basketball player to entice the media. But, nonprofits can tell their own stories and be clever and creative about using the range of tools now available to talk directly to their audiences.

Lesson: First, control the issue. Don’t allow the issue to control you.

James’ media strategy did have its critics. Phil Rosenthal at the Chicago Tribune wrote the outcome would have been better if James’ communications team had seized control from the start.

If James and company had been on top of this, his Web site would have tracked his whole courtship process. He could have kept an ad-supported video diary, including behind-the-scenes video of meetings with franchises.

Of more importance from a business standpoint, fans would have been invited to register to vote for their team and receive updates through e-mail and Twitter, creating a valuable marketing database.

Just one problem: James has owned the domain LeBronJames.com since 2002 but hasn’t done much with it until recently. Until Tuesday, James also had not used Twitter to address the public directly. So much for a New Media offensive.

Do any of these missteps sound familiar? Has your organization attempted to use social media tools in the past, only to fail to put the necessary time into the endeavor because of busy schedules? Perhaps constant Twitter, Facebook, and blog updates are just too much to juggle when you’re already swamped trying to provide services to a community or support to your colleagues.

But don’t underestimate the importance of tending these tools. Posting regular online updates about your organization’s journey, creating a digital archive of past articles on your website, or asking clients for input could give you a powerful platform to engage your audience and keep them coming back.  In other words, use your work to create brand recognition.

Lesson: When given an opportunity to connect, don’t hesitate.

LeBron’s decision to wait to give his answer until his ESPN event was also seen as a big public relations failure by some.  Michael Flood McNulty of OpposingView.com wrote:

LeBron James created a publicity circus unlike any other Thursday night — this was his choosing, not the media’s so don’t blame the messenger — and he humiliated his hometown fans in the most public way possible…

LeBron James alienated a lot of people tonight. Actually, alienated is the wrong word. He stunned and hurt a lot of people tonight.

What’s one of the first rules of communications? Who’s your audience and how can you reach them? Whether you’re trying to educate a specific group about an issue you’re working on or you’re trying to get people to take action, how you say it and when you say it and the channel you use to convey it are so important.

Lesson: Don’t forget your audience. Be thoughtful of what they need to hear your message.

Social Media for Beginners

Angela Siefer offered virtually out of the blue to do a social media workshop at CMW last week… it filled up in 2 hours! (If  you wanted to go and couldn’t get in, we apologize and will see about holding similar free sessions in the new year–contact me or comment here with suggestions or questions about this). She wrote this guest post after the event. 

Social media is a conversation that can easily expand.  Social networking is a piece of social media.  Social networking develops relationships.

Social media is another avenue for promoting a business or nonprofit.  An avenue that if integrated into an organization’s overall customer service/promotion/sales strategy can produce amazing results.  Folks who do not use social media or slightly use it often find the field overwhelming.
12-10-08 workshop
Last week I launched Shiny Door with my first social networking presentation (Net Tuesday Chicago) and my first two social networking workshops (Community Media Workshop and New America Foundation).  One of the attendees asked if she must have a Facebook profile before creating a Group to promote her organization.  I am so ingrained in social networking, the issue had not occurred to me.  That was when I realized I need to include a discussion at the beginning of the workshops about the structure of social networking and the importance of the individual.

In order to promote a business or nonprofit online, one needs to first establish an individual presence online. Companies and nonprofits are often uncomfortable putting themselves out front. They are accustomed to promoting the organization itself.   We all know that organizations benefit from individuals networking offline, (this is why networking events are popular and why some folks even attend events at all).  Online networking very much relies upon the individual.  Organizations have an online presence but since we cannot physically see with whom we are having a conversation, we want to know that who represents that organization is a real person.  Why else would automated help systems be given first names?  “Hi-my-na-me-is-Ju-lie.  I-will-be-as-sis-ting-you.  Pl-ea-se-pr-ess-1-to be an-noy-ed-by-me-per-son-al-ly…”

A social media strategy must be based in the understanding that organizations represented online are 12-10-08 workshop Angrepresented by real people.  Those real people have real personalities.  Each of them will not represent the organization in exactly the same way.  They can be given guidelines and tools to assist them but the reason others will want to communicate with these representatives is because they are real and interesting.  Its very difficult to comment on a blog post when the author is “admin” because you do not know who you are address your comment toward.

So, first step in creating a social media strategy is to use social media yourself.  As an individual.  Watch, listen, participate.  Second step is to mix your organization into social media.  But that is a second step.

Angela Siefer – Founder & Chancellor at Shiny Door, Fan of Community Media Workshop

Remembering Studs Terkel, Share Your Comments

Remembering StudsWe here at the Community Media Workshop are very saddened by the loss of who we consider our patron saint. We want to provide a space for you here on our blog to comment and share your stories about Studs.

Upbeat About News

A guest post from our intern and Columbia College Chicago (eat your heart out, Nick Lemann) Graduate School of Journalism, Jessica Rosenberg:

This summer, I landed a 10-week internship at the Chicago Tribune. For a Columbia College journalism grad student, an internship at the Tribune means clips, connections and job opportunities. But it also means seeing first hand the reality of a changing news industry. What I saw convinced me that the Tribune, Sun-Times and newspapers as a whole will never disappear.

I reported and wrote for the Books Section and Sunday Magazine. I never thought I would get the chance to be a part of the paper I paged through as a youngster. Every day, I got off the bus a few stops early and walked south on Michigan Avenue – never fully prepared to be in the same Tower some of my journalism heroes built. Read the rest of this entry »

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