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November 02 2010

20:30

Felix Salmon takes a blogging fellowship at CJR, has no problem annoying funder, Pete Peterson

Felix Salmon, who blogs on economics for Reuters, is heading to Columbia Journalism Review — sort of. Salmon has signed on to a part-time fellowship covering, as CJR puts it, “the media’s handling of the federal budget, unemployment, income disparities, the national debt, entitlement programs, taxes, and the other economic policy questions.” The fellowship is sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson is a former Nixon commerce secretary and fiscal conservative whose foundation takes a strong stance on the need to cut government spending. Peterson also funds The Fiscal Times, an online news outlet that covers much the same turf, and whose partnership with The Washington Post led to criticism from some corners, including our Jim Barnett.

We don’t wade into ethics-in-media-criticism debates much here at the Lab, but in this case we thought it might be worth a call to Salmon about the arrangement. As foundations — some of them with pet issues or agendas — emerge as major backers of the news we consume, what’s a healthy distance between the hand signing the check and the one taking it ensured? Salmon happily told me he isn’t worried about his work being unduly influenced: “Just as I have no fear of annoying other journalists, I have no fear of annoying Pete Peterson.”

I also spoke with Salmon about how the arrangement will work day-to-day. Salmon’s CJR posts will also appear on his blog at Reuters, so his regular readers will see all of the content and CJR readers who don’t follow his work will get a taste. The gig is only for a few months, as Salmon is finishing out the fellowship for Holly Yeager who recently jumped to the Washington Post (and is also a friend and former colleague of mine). The fellowship might renew in January. It’ll be interesting to watch Salmon work with CJR’s Dean Starkman, since Salmon has criticized him before on his blog. (Like here, last month: “Dean has a very old-fashioned view of what journalism is and should be…in fact Dean’s attitude is extremely elitist…But Dean doesn’t see it…”)

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Salmon:

LKM: Why did you take the gig at CJR? What do you hope to write about there?

FS: Well, I think it’s exactly what it says on the tin. Macro and fiscal policy, or rather the meta stuff — I’m going to be blogging about the press coverage of macro and fiscal policy.

LKM: How is that different from what you’re doing now on your Reuters blog?

FS: It will all appear on the Reuters blog. It’ll basically be cross-posted on the Reuters blog and CJR. The Reuters blog will get all the magic CJR fairy dust, insofar as there is any. So, there is no real difference. There is a bit of a narrower focus, and this will basically force me to do more of what I was doing when I first started out on my first full-time blogging gig in September 2006, sort of concentrating more on economics and less on — well, not less on, but it’ll help to force me to write more about economic and fiscal matters. It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but I just you know, let fall through the cracks.

LKM: How was negotiating this between Reuters, your corporate boss, and CJR, this nonprofit? Was there any tension between the two organizations?

FS: I was not party to any tension there. Basically, this is a win-win for both. This is good for the blog because it means I get to benefit from Dean Starkman’s expertise and other people at CJR who will sort of help improve my media criticism. And it means that my stuff gets a certain amount of ratification by them and it means I get read by a certain number of people who wouldn’t read me otherwise. So that’s all good for Reuters and it’s obviously good for CJR too. I think one of the things they find difficult is finding people who are willing to be rude about fellow journalists, when I’ve never had much of a problem on that front.

LKM: Is Deak Starkman going to edit your stuff? In terms of it being a “blog,” how is it going to work — will you file and he’ll give you edits?

FS: I think it’s going to be more sort of a high-level conceptual editor position. Not disimilar to what I have with Jim Ledbetter here at Reuters. This isn’t going to be, “he sort of line-edits every piece before it goes out.” The details are a little bit TBD right now — I don’t even have my Moveable Type login yet or whatever it is they have. I’m sure I’ll simply be able to post these things. But at the same time, I’m equally sure I’ll be in contact with Dean and he’ll be giving me ideas and we’ll be talking about what I’ve been writing and that kind of thing.

LKM: How much do you think we’ll see of you on CJR’s site?

FS: That’s a really good question. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. It largely depends on how much various people send me stuff and engage with this whole new emphasis on an old beat. If I get a lot of emails from people, “look at this, isn’t this wonderful, isn’t this terrible” — from Dean, from readers, from anyone, then I might tend to be doing this quite a lot. Yes, please. If there’s coverage that merits me writing about it, either pro or con, send it to me. Send me an at-reply [on Twitter] or email it to me.

LKM: One thing we’re curious here about at the Lab is the fact that it’s a Pete Peterson fellowship. Is there a certain take that you’re expected to have?

FS: Thank you for asking that. The answer is, of course, no. There isn’t. Pete Peterson is well-known for his views on fiscal policies in particular. One of the reasons he set up this fellowship is because he wants people to really pay attention to what people are writing about fiscal policy. But this does not mean in any way that I am an austerean. There was no ideological litmus test here. No one at CJR asked me about fiscal policy at an ideological level. And although I’m absolutely going to be including my own opinions in these blog posts, I think most of it is going to be more my opinion of how these things are going to be how these things are reported — rather than in terms of what should be done about revamping Social Security, say, or something like that. Just as I have no fear of annoying other journalists, I have no fear of annoying Pete Peterson.

LKM: I am sure a lot of places would be happy to syndicate your work. What you sold you on this?

FS: The syndication question is an interesting one. There’s obviously some kind of value to what I do and Reuters is interested in syndicating my work generally. I think one of the reasons its not a problem from a business perspective is that it’s a very narrow subset of what I do. This isn’t sort of a full-rights syndication deal. It’s not like someone who would want to like to syndicate my stuff and say, look, CJR get’s all the stuff for free — it’s not even free — but, anyway. The main upside is that this isn’t a one-way thing where CJR gets content from me and I get nothing in return. I’m getting drawn into that little group there. I’m hoping that a little bit of editorial feedback and ideas for stories are going to come and it’s going to improve my blogging. Now, if I get syndicated to some random site that just copies and pastes what I do, that doesn’t really improve what I do in that sense. This, with any luck, if all goes according to plan, really will.

September 20 2010

17:30

In a hamster-wheel world, is there room for journalistic creativity? Evidence from The New York Times

The essential question facing newsrooms today is this one: Does more speed and more content come at the cost of creativity? Does the “hamster wheel,” as described by Dean Starkman in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review cover story, reduce journalists’ capacity to move stories forward instead of playing catch-up online? And does the demand for speed and the hunger for clicks come at the cost of thoughtful editing and crafting of stories?

This question is at the core of my (almost written) dissertation — when news is made in an online newsroom, what happens to the invention process? But it is my contention, after having the privilege to spend five months, day-in and day-out at Business Day at The New York Times, is that even though many journalists there often feel like wire reporters, many also feel that writing a story five times actually makes their work better.

But that division in sentiment is not the heart of the argument. My sense so far is that there are five factors that encourage creativity in newsrooms even at a time when journalists are producing more with less.

— Newsrooms, recognizing that news is everywhere, need to differentiate their content.

What makes a story in The New York Times business section — even if it the third time it is written by a staffer — different from the same story in The Wall Street Journal? The hope and aspirations by editors, at least, and the goal expressed to me by the close to 50 journalists I interviewed on the business desk, was that the intention of every story was to provide “added value” — something that other newsrooms wouldn’t have.

Most journalists referred to the news that everyone else has as “commodity news” — the news that you can get anywhere. But if newsrooms are to survive, newsrooms as they produce multiple iterations of the same story throughout the day must provide something different than their competitors. This challenges the journalist further to provide a different take, and the most successful journalists will be able to distinguish their content. Those who win that battle will also win the click battle, eventually.

— Newsrooms that still have a print cycle have to pause and think about the day ahead.

If print newsrooms are to remain competitive, there is necessarily a point at which journalists must think about what’s going to be in the paper. If a developing news story has been up on the web all day for readers, newspapers won’t maximize their return by just plopping that story into the next day’s paper. At The Times, the story in the print paper was viewed much more as a “second-day story” — even if the event had taken place the same day the story was written. A few staffers said that The Times in print was become more like a daily news magazine than a daily paper, giving people a step back from the daily hubbub of the news to provide a deeper and richer story.

Take, for instance, a Goldman Sachs earnings report. In the morning, it might be a routine earnings story with the numbers. Over the course of the day, a reporter might differentiate that story with different questions asked to bigwigs at Goldman, different snippets of life from the trading floor, and perhaps proprietary reporting gleaned from sources, or even takes on the earnings from academics. At a certain point in the day, the rewriting of the story stops and it becomes time to look for the big picture — there has to be enough that people who haven’t been following the story all day have enough to understand the story, but there will be a larger tale, perhaps about the broader significance of the numbers, or what larger trends at the bank might mean, or other take-outs that make the story different from competitors.

And don’t forget: This final print story is the final story that ends up online.

— Speed only applies to certain kinds of stories.

Only certain stories lend themselves to the kind of developing coverage that would require multiple rewrites. Hearings on Capitol Hill might lend themselves to something like the attention of a live-blogger plus the attention of a reporter tasked with covering the take-out stories as they develop, from pre-written statements to the actual question and answer period. On the day Apple’s iPad was introduced, I saw multiple stories being written as the story developed — and the attention of everything from a live-blog to all-hands on deck with Twitter and The Times’ Bits blog. These stories require constant updates because something new is happening as the day develops. There is more to add to the story. And determining which updates are worth including is the careful task of editors and reporters who must again decide where added value comes in.

But it is my thinking that newsrooms, even those with increasingly limited resources, also understand the importance of pacing and managing staff. A newsroom that has everyone devoted to playing catch-up will not have the substantive stories that will distinguish their news from all the other products out there. Thus some reporters have to be taken off the breaking news bandwagon — this may be for particular days, or it may be that some reporters simply do not have to do regular breaking news. This is one way to keep coverage fresh and inventive. A newsroom that can figure out how to allocate resources will be a newsroom that continues to remain creative and one that ultimately will keep readers coming back.

— The audience does want more, now more than ever. And journalists can listen, too.

Presuming a developing story will go through multiple iterations, it is reasonable to suspect that audiences will be checking back. Or that since the audience is fragmented, there are different audiences checking in at different points of the day. Shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to follow the story over the course of the day? And shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to read just once, say at 3 p.m., instead of the moment that the news is breaking? My thinking is that the audience wants more from journalists because journalists can provide more; the voracious news consumer (and ultimately the news consumer who will be most valuable when news organizations switch to paywalls or meter models) will be checking the site frequently. And for those drop-in audiences, people who maybe check once in the morning and once in the evening, don’t they also deserve something new?

But there’s another element here: Developing stories also are also the ones, I’ve observed, to be most likely to be open to comments. Though not all journalists have gotten the hang of reading comments or monitoring Twitter, they are definitely reading reader email as it comes in. And this audience feedback provides journalists with new opportunities for direction for stories, and a sense of how their stories are being received in a way that they never could have had before. This sense of instant feedback on a story’s progression has the opportunity to shape reporting. This is still early in its development, and at this point most likely to affect reporters who can monitor Twitter and check comments as part of their regular routine. But I see great opportunity for audience feedback shaping developing news in the future.

— Speed also means more attention has to be devoted to more than just the text of the story.

If a story is going to be big enough to merit multiple rewrites — if it is a developing story all over the web — you better hope that the story isn’t just text. The room for creativity does depend on the capacity of newsrooms. At The Times, the newsroom is privileged to have an amazing staff of web producers, graphics folks, photo staff, and videographers who can create a multimedia package to go along with a developing story to make that story stand out. But the lesson is true for newsrooms that do not have the same depth of resources as The Times (which, it must be said, often can’t do everything it wants, either).

There are other ways for stories to become more than just stories. Without multimedia, reporters even as they go about collecting their moment-by-moment updates, can also be engaged with conversations on social media platforms. This is an adjustment for reporters, and it certainly adds another layer to the concern about speed and burnout, but it inspires, as I noted before, creativity — and it adds further interest to the story. I have seen reporters working on intense deadline pressure on competitive stories use social media to enhance their work — extending the story beyond text. For those looking for some inspiration, check out what Michael de la Merced, Brian Stelter, and Micki Maynard (who has since left the paper) have been able to do on big stories.

So am I setting up an unfair example?

Certainly you could argue that a place like The Times is an outlier and an unfair place to start talking about creativity under pressure. But I don’t think that The Times is doing anything that other newsrooms aren’t, except for perhaps the amazing multimedia opportunities. The Times is still in fierce competition to distinguish coverage, reporters are still writing multiple times during a day on developing stories, and the challenges on journalists to do ever more are common to all newsrooms. But I see incredible opportunities for the hamster wheel to produce even better journalism — it just might take some time to figure out.

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