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January 20 2011

16:53

Robert Caro, Stacy Schiff, Diane Ackerman and more: narrative conferences and workshops in 2011

Was one of your resolutions in 2011 to become a better storyteller? If so, here are a few conferences and workshops slated for the coming months that can probably teach you a thing or two. These sessions range from one-day conferences to week-long writing intensives, and none of them are free (they range from less than $100 to $1,100). But if you can pony up the pennies (or the big bills), you can hone your mad scribbling skillz with some of the best nonfiction writers working today.

Boston University Narrative Conference – April 29-30 at the Photonics Center in Boston. Speakers TBA. Last year’s group included New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, Gay Talese and Adam Hochschild, among other notables.

The Muse and the Marketplace – April 30-May 1 at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. Grub Street, Inc., offers up New York Times contributor Pauline Chen, nonfiction writer Alexandra Johnson and “Hiroshima in the Morning” author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, among many others. (Actor and short story writer James Franco will be there, too, so we’re half expecting him to announce the start of his new career as a narrative journalist.)

Biographers International Organization Conference – May 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For writers limning the lives of the famous and infamous, Robert Caro (“The Power Broker”) and Stacy Schiff  (“Cleopatra”) headline the speakers at BIO’s one-day affair.

Great Storytelling Every Day – July 17-22 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom French leads this Poynter Institute week-long workshop on conceiving and framing deadline narratives for print and online. Some scholarships available.

Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference – July 22-24 in Grapevine, Texas (outside Dallas). The Mayborn 2011 roster includes poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, two-time Pulitzer winner Gene Weingarten, “The Good Soldiers” author David Finkel, and NPR commentator Frank Deford, among many others.

We’ll post information on other upcoming conferences and workshops as we get details on them. If there’s an event you think Storyboard readers should know about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

October 17 2010

16:41

Students newspapers should take mobile-first approach

You’re at a major intersection near the entrance to your campus and you see that a car has collided with a motorcycle. An ambulance is on the scene. What do you do?

If you don’t have a conventional camera, whip out your cell phone and snap a picture. Send it back to the newsroom with a text message reporting the basic details of the accident. Within seconds you can have a brief news report up

October 08 2010

15:01

#WEFHamburg: Staff training in multimedia need motivation, direction, goals

There has been plenty of discussion about moving digital journalism forward at the World Editors Forum this week, and the first panel debate today looked at the state of new media training and how editors can improve the teaching of their staff to enable full exploitation of the new media environment.

Announcing the results of a survey mainly of North American journalists by the Poynter Institute’s News University, Howard Finberg told the conference that while reporters felt more proficient in multimedia than five years ago they need to be motivated to learn.

The number one motivator for success is “I need to learn”. You need to tell staff there is a reason why you’re getting the training, it’s because we need to move the organisation from here to here. Give them the reasons to learn, give them the background.

He added that “training cannot stop”.

We do not have the luxury of declaring victory and moving on, this is not mission accomplished. What your staff are telling us is that they need direction, they need goals.

Up next was Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists. In her speech she gave four recommendations to editors in summary below:

  1. Train your staff to engage your readers. In her example of Malaysiakini.com, the site found that whenever citizen journalists posted their videos on the site “the web traffic would just shoot up”. Now the site relies on its citizens to surface stories and editors are able to cover under-represented communities.
  2. Train your staff to use new tools – “let me tell you that the benefit of a free web is that there are free resources that you can take full advantage of to make your website more interactive. Don’t have to have a huge budget to gain access to the technology” e.g. Factual, Dataviz.org, Google fusion tables, Wordle.
  3. Train your staff to be experts in areas of intense interest to your readers – Expert reporters are able to find great stories in their field that others may not.
  4. Use the web to train, such as the ICFJ is doing with ICFJ Anywhere which enables the training of journalists in places where it would be difficult to send trainers.

She echoed Finberg in saying that media training is “a moving target”.

You can feel that you’ve learned the tools to get by today, but there are new tools coming out tomorrow. Journalism can be enhanced in this technological area and we can be better journalists if we embrace the new tools and new partnerships.

Finally the conference heard from Tarek Atia, media training manager for the Media Development Programme in Egypt which organises donor programs which have helped to train more than 4000 journalists in four years.

His lessons to trainers were:

  • It helps to be a journalist.
  • Certificates matter.
  • Be patient – “if we had thought after the first 10-20 workshops on the idea of local media, this isn’t working, then we wouldn’t be where we are today, which is that all of a sudden after two or three years of these courses, in late 2008, suddenly there was a breakthrough and several newspapers started producing local editions.”
  • Breakthroughs happen (see above).

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March 23 2010

16:00

Poynter’s hiring. What will their writer/curator be up to?

For the past few days, a job posting has been making its way around the web: the Poynter Institute, it announces, is looking to hire a writer/curator for its Sense-Making Project. Which is a job title that — out of context, anyway — doesn’t itself seem to make much sense (A what for the what?). But it’s also one that’s intriguing. Writing? Curating? Sense-making? Can’t argue with that.

I asked Kelly McBride, Poynter’s Ethics Group Leader and lead faculty for the program, about the project and its new position. The Sense-Making Project itself, she told me, is a pilot effort funded by Ford and focused on the intersection between journalism and citizen engagement — and closely related to news literacy, the movement that aims to educate citizens to be savvy consumers of news. “We started with the central question of how citizens will make sense of the universe,” McBride says. And the curator position is in part predicated on one clear answer to that question: “They’re going to need some help.”

One of the project’s aims, McBride says, is to cater to the expanding group Poynter refers to as “the fifth estate”: the broad network of people, journalists both professional and non-, who are now participating in the newsgathering process. The project wants to “create a place where people who are motivated to develop new skills about consuming information can go to do that, to be in conversation and to share their ideas,” she says. And the person who takes on the writer/curator job will guide and, yes, curate that conversation.

In some ways, the position is one that requires the skills of (pardon a slight oxymoron) the classic blogger: “gathering and writing and reassembling and helping us look through all of this information that’s out there, putting a magnifying glass on certain parts of the virtual world and saying, ‘Here’s something to look at.’” But the new role will combine curation with a slightly more academic approach: one that considers the contextual aspects of information. The writer/curator will be taking, if all goes according to plan, an archaeological — and in some senses anthropological — approach to news and the social capital it engenders: a kind of Putnam-meets-Wasik-meets-Foucault-style sensibility toward social knowledge. “The whole idea of the project is, ‘What if you had someone whose only job it was, every day, to be looking at information?” McBride says. “And this person gets the new world and the old world, and isn’t writing to an audience of professional journalists, and is writing to Joe Citizen, saying, ‘Hey, this is kind of interesting.’”

It’s meme-tracking, essentially — tracing the movement of ideas though our social spaces — except with information, rather than notions, as the core proposition. “If you think about what PolitiFact does for political facts,” McBride says, “we’re thinking similar to that, only for the rest of the universe.”

It’s an intriguing idea — and one that suggests a subtle shift in the atomic structure of journalism itself: from the article as the core unit of news, and even from the blog post as that unit, to something more discrete and, yet, tantalizingly ephemeral: the fact itself, the assertion itself, the piece of information itself. Propositions that are solid and fluid at the same time. “What we’ve found,” McBride says, “is that when you start taking a single piece of information, you can actually look at the history — where it came from, who linked to what, who transformed it, and how it got to you. And then you can look at how it went out from there.” The analysis might require “diagnosing language,” she says, or “asking about the motivation of the person who delivered the information.” It also might require “asking about the setting in which the information was delivered, because things on Facebook are different from things on Twitter.”

Either way, the analysis will focus on a goal that’s quickly gaining traction in journalism: the provision of context as a means of adding value to information. With the project and its expansion, “I hope to create a body of work that reveals trends and pressure points that have yet to be revealed,” McBride says. Because “it’s in those trends that you start to say: ‘Oh, okay, here’s a tool people need.’”

January 22 2010

15:06

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ paywall plans, and what’s behind MediaNews’ bankruptcy

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s news about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The Times’ paywall proposal: No question about media and journalism’s biggest story this week: The New York Times announced it plans to begin charging readers for access to its website in 2011. Here’s how it’ll work: you can view an as-yet-unidentified number of articles for free each month before the Times requires you to pay a flat, unlimited-access fee to see more; this is known as a metered system. (If you subscribe to the print edition, it’ll be free.) Two Times execs answered questions about the plan, including whether you can still email and link to articles (you can) and why it’s different from TimesSelect, the abandoned paid-content experiment it tried from 2005-07. Gabriel Sherman of New York’s Daily Intel, who broke the rumor on Sunday, has some details of the paywall debate within the Times.

There’s been a ton of reaction to the Times’ plan online, so I’ll tackle it in three parts: First, the essential reading, then some other worthwhile opinions, and finally the interesting ephemera.

Four must-reads: It makes sense to start with New York Times media critic David Carr’s take on the plan, because it’s the most the thorough, cogent defense of the Times’ paywall you’ll find. He argues that Times execs “have installed a dial on the huge, heaving content machine of The New York Times,” giving the site another flexible revenue stream outside of advertising. If you’re up for a little algebra, Reuters’ Felix Salmon has a sharp economic analysis of the paywall, arguing that the value of each article will become much greater for subscribers than nonsubscribers. For the more theoretical-minded, CUNY prof C.W. Anderson has some fascinating thoughts here at the Lab on how the paywall turns the Times into a niche product and what it means for our concept of the “public.” And as usual, Ken Doctor thoughtfully answers many of the practical questions you’re asking right now.

Other thoughtful opinions: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell poses a lot of great business questions and wonders how the Times will handle putting the burden on its most loyal online-only users. Steve Yelvington reminds us that we’re not going to learn much here that we can apply to other papers, because “the Times is fundamentally in a different business than regional dailies” and “a single experiment with a single price point by a single newspaper is just a stab in the dark.” Before the announcement, former Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, Forrester Research’s James McQuivey, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon gave the Times advice on constructing its paywall, almost none of which showed up in the Times’ plans. Two massive tech blogs, TechCrunch and Mashable, think the paywall won’t amount to much. Slate’s Jack Shafer says people will find ways to get around it, NYU’s Jay Rosen echoes C.W. Anderson’s thoughts on niche vs. public, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis doesn’t like the Times’ sense of entitlement.

The ephemera: The best stuff on Twitter about the announcement was collected at E&P In Exile and the new site MediaCritic. Steve Outing and Jason Fry don’t like the wait ’til 2011, and Cory Doctorow is skeptical that that’s even true. Former E&Pers Fitz & Jen interview a few newspaper execs and find that (surprise, surprise) the like the Times’ idea. So does Steven Brill of Journalism Online, who plans to roll out a few paywalls of his own soon. Dan Gillmor wants the Times to find out from readers what new features they’d pay for, and Jeff Sonderman makes two good points: “The major casualty of NYT paywall is sharing,” and “Knowing the ‘meter is running’ creates cautious viewing of the free articles.”

Apple’s tablet to go public: Apple announced that it will unveil its “latest creation” (read: its new tablet) next Wednesday. Since the announcement came a day after word of the Times’ paywall plans broke, it was only natural that the rumors would merge. The Daily Intel’s Gabriel Sherman, who broke the story of those Times plans, quoted Times officials putting the Times-tablet-deal rumors to rest. The Wall Street Journal detailed Apple’s plans for the tablet to do to newspapers, magazines and TV what the iPod did to music. Meanwhile, Columbia j-student Vadim Lavrusik and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr got tired of the tablet hype — Lavrusik for the print industry and Carr for tech geeks. (The Week also has a great timeline of the rumors.)

MediaNews goes bankrupt: Last Friday, MediaNews Group — a newspaper chain that publishes the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury-News, among others — announced it would file for bankruptcy protection. (A smaller chain, Morris Publishing Group, made the same announcement the day before.) For the facts and background of the filing, we’ve got a few sources: At the Lab, MediaNews veteran Martin Langeveld has a whole lot of history and insight on MediaNews chief Dean Singleton. News business analyst Alan Mutter tells us about the amazing fact that Singleton will come out of the filing unscathed but Hearst, which invested in MediaNews to save the San Francisco Chronicle, stands to lose $317 million in the deal. And MinnPost reports that the St. Paul Pioneer Press was the only MediaNews paper losing money.

Looking at the big picture, Ken Doctor says that bankruptcies like these are just a chance for newspapers to buy time while adjusting their strategy in “the fog of media war.” Steve Outing takes a glass-half-full approach, arguing that the downfall of old-media chains like MediaNews are a great opportunity for journalism startups to build a new news ecosystem.

How much do Google News users read?: An annual study by research firm Outsell and Ken Doctor on online and offline news preferences made waves by reporting that 44 percent of Google News users scan headlines without clicking through to the original articles. PaidContent noted that Outsell has a dog in this fight; it openly advocates that news organizations should get more money from Google. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan was not impressed, giving a thorough critique of the study and its perceived implications. Syracuse j-prof Vin Crosbie also wondered whether the same pattern might be true with print headlines.

In a similar vein, BNET’s David Weir used comScore numbers to argue that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft support big newspapers, and Jeff Jarvis made one of his favorite arguments — in defense of the link.

Heartbreak in Haiti: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the journalism and media connections to the largest news story in the world for the past two weeks — the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Several sites noted that Twitter led the way in breaking news of the quake and in raising money for relief. The money aspect is new, but as Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan noted last June, Twitter came of age a long time ago as a medium for breaking global news. That’s what it does. The coverage also provided an opportunity for discussion about the ethics of giving aid while reporting.

Reading roundup: In addition to being out in front of the whole New York Times paywall story, Gabriel Sherman authored a nice, long think piece for The New Republic on the difficulties of one of America’s other great newspapers, The Washington Post. For what it’s worth, Post patriarch Donald Graham thought it was “not even a molehill.”

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan uses the economic concept of stock and flow to describe the delicate balance between timeliness and permanence the world of online media. It’s a brilliant idea — a must-read.

Finally, a promising new site named MediaCritic, run by Salon veteran Scott Rosenberg, citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor, and Lucasfilm’s Bill Gannon, had its soft launch this week. It looks like it’s going to include some nifty features, like Rosenberg’s regular curation of Twitter commentary on big media subjects.

November 10 2009

15:36

New public relations: Beating back bad press with Google AdWords

The New York Times reported on its front page in September that hoki, an unattractive sea creature best known as the primary ingredient in the Filet-O-Fish, is at risk of depletion. Naturally, the New Zealand companies that farm hoki by the metric ton weren’t pleased by the article, which pointed to “ominous signs of overfishing.”

Time was, the subject of a critical news story could write a letter to the editor, issue a press release, maybe demand a correction. Not content with those options, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council took an approach I hadn’t seen before: buying Google ads for keywords like new zealand hoki and hoki new york times.

The ads sought to target people discussing or searching for more information about the story. Here’s one that appeared in Gmail atop a message about hoki and the Times:

Now, I don’t really care who’s right in this dispute, though I should note the Times only apologized for using the trade association’s photograph without permission. The ads linked to a page that purports to set the record straight about hoki fishing and includes emails exchanged with Times science editor Laura Chang.

That was itself a feat of public-relations genius: Because the council’s hoki page was originally a straightforward description of the fish and its uses, the Times had linked to it in the third paragraph of the article (at right), and 78,000 people clicked though, according to Sarah Crysell, a spokeswoman for the council. Taking advantage of that incoming traffic, the group transformed its hoki page into a rebuttal of the Times story.

The man behind the effort — and similar campaigns for other clients — was Jim McCarthy of CounterPoint Strategies, a boutique PR firm in New York and Washington. He’s an aggressive guy who will run your ear off about “holding the media accountable for their deliberate falsehoods” and “arrogant reporters who have a one-sided agenda.”

That animus turns out to be a key element of McCarthy’s strategy: In addition to buying Google AdWords for combinations of keywords like new york times, hoki, and new zealand, McCarthy also targeted searches for the story’s author, William Broad.

“When you include their name in the search, it draws attention to it and lets the reporter know that you mean business and you’re going to hold them responsible,” McCarthy told me over the phone. For another seafaring client, the National Fisheries Institute, he bought Google ads against the names three Vogue reporters — and Anna Wintour — who wrote about high levels of mercury in fish. “Someone inside of Condé Nast tried to outbid us for those search terms,” McCarthy said, though I can’t confirm the story. An example of one of the ads is at left.

Targeting reporters where they hang out online is McCarthy’s grating specialty. He went after ABC News, on behalf of the Formaldehyde Council, with ads (like the one at right) on Mediabistro’s TVNewser. “It was virtually a guarantee that they and all their competitors were going to see it,” McCarthy told me with more than a little relish. He has attempted to place similar ads on Romenesko, but the Poynter Institute declined to run them. (Crysell said the council hired McCarthy, in part, because “New Zealanders are far more modest in the way we express ourselves.”)

McCarthy calls his strategy “media accountability.” That’s spin. He’s representing his client’s interests like any other PR firm. But doing it with Google AdWords and links is a novel strategy that feels more effectual than a letter to the editor.

Hoki photo used with the permission of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council.

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