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July 02 2011

05:43

Twitter war - Ashton Kutcher: "you are advertising on a site that supports slavery"

Hollywood Reporter :: Social media master Ashton Kutcher has taken his Twitter feud with New York's Village Voice to a new level by contacting its advertisers to complain about the newspaper's "Back Page" personal ads. The That 70s Show actor tweeted messages to American Airlines, Columbia University, Disney and Domino's on Friday asking "are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?"

[Ashton Kutcher | aplusk, Tweet-ID: 86623916784754688] fact: news outlets who have financial interest in trafficking may have interest in applying bias to facts to secure their revenue

Continue to read Sofia M. Fernandez, www.hollywoodreporter.com

May 20 2011

17:26

Amy Ellis Nutt on writing a Pulitzer-winning story: tell “readers something they don’t know”

The Star-Ledger’s Amy Ellis Nutt won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing with The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” her five-chapter story on the sinking of a scallop boat off the coast of New Jersey. An adjunct instructor with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former Nieman fellow, Nutt has long been devoted to narrative journalism. We spoke by phone with her this week about the Lady Mary and her earlier project, “Jon Sarkin’s Story: The Accidental Artist,” which was a Pulitzer finalist in 2009. In these excerpts from our talk, Nutt describes combining technical information with storytelling, explains how she organizes her stories, and shares one phrase everyone should know.

How did you first come to the story of the Lady Mary?

The first piece was hearing about it as a news story. Because we’re based in Newark, which is just eight miles outside of New York, and Cape May is at the very opposite end of New Jersey, we don’t carry a lot of cape news.

I followed it over the weeks mainly as a news story and realized when men were still missing that there was confusion about what exactly had happened. I became intrigued with the idea that if six men had been killed in a car accident, there would be a lot of front page stories, a lot of public outcry to find out what happened. And the more I looked into what happens to fisherman at sea, the more I realized I wanted to do a story that looked not only at the dangers and the lives that these men lead, but tried to solve the mystery of what happened.

Have you done this kind of in-depth investigative reporting before, or is that a new hat for you?

I have to say it is. It was totally thrilling and absorbing. It took over my life, and in some ways, I’m still living it, because the Coast Guard has not yet released its report, more than two years later.

But I’ve done a mixture of things in the past few years. Most of my projects have been typically explanatory. My last one, though, “The Accidental Artist,” was definitely a combination of some explanatory and a lot of narrative.

So this was a very different beast for me, and frankly, if there’s a place for narrative investigative journalism, this was the perfect story. The drama of this story lent itself tremendously to a narrative approach. There was the background on these men and their lives and their last moments. There was also a wealth of documentation about phone calls and where the boat was, as well as the record of the Coast Guard – what calls were made and when – that I could use as a narrative framework.

Did you struggle with the structure of the story?

Not as much as I have in the past. I knew very early on where I wanted to begin the story, and that was with José in the water. And then I knew I would go back and tell the story chronologically. The difficulty of switching gears and going into the more investigative and explanatory stuff – I knew I couldn’t wait on that until the very end, that I had to weave it in earlier.

But ultimately it didn’t prove to be that difficult. The fact is that I have terrific editors: the editor of the paper, Kevin Whitmer, and most importantly the editor I work closely with, the managing editor, David Tucker, who is just a marvel at both narrative and investigative journalism. He was the perfect editor to lead me through this.

Did you know right away that you’d say that all the men aboard except José Arias had died? That information comes really early in the story.

I went back and forth with my editor on that: “How much do we tell the reader?” The fact that we tell them they died, does that reduce some of the power of the story? The more I looked into the story of what happened and some of the terrible coincidences and tiny mistakes that contributed to this tragedy, I realized that I could tell this story in a compelling way, that even though people knew six men had died, it was why they died and how they died that would keep people reading.

The Sarkin story [“The Accidental Artist”] is a look at a single human, almost from his point of view, while the Lady Mary story is a sweeping account of a shipwreck. Do you have common ways of thinking of stories, or did those projects feel completely different when you were working on them?

Obviously, you use the same tools. First of all, I’m a complete geek. One of the things about journalism that I love is doing research. With “The Accidental Artist,” I had written about neuroscience before, so the subject matter of mind and consciousness was very familiar and interesting to me. But I loved delving deeper into finding out about the brain along with Jon and his search.

It was the same way with the Lady Mary. Frankly, I’d been out on a sailboat once, and I’d never been out on a scallop boat until I did the research for this story. My port and starboard were mixed up because I was a rower in college, and you row backwards.

If anything, I started with a deficit, so I loved doing that part of the research, before I even started writing: interviewing fishermen, learning about scallops and the life of fishermen, government regulation and the history of safety regulations. And then there’s learning about the mechanics of a boat at sea and the tremendous complexity of that. We talked with experts in rudder design, in buoyancy and how ships sink. That was almost overwhelming, because of the sheer complexity of how difficult it is to reconstruct these things.

But my approach to both stories was very similar, in so far as I knew that I wanted to take a very personal, intimate look at, in one case, one man’s life with his family and how things changed, and in the other case, the men on the boat and who they were. It’s being able to interweave the personal with the technical – in one case, the neurological, and in another case, the maritime.

I always go back to something that Jim Willse, the former editor of The Star-Ledger, told me before I did my first series some years ago. It involved a lot of science writing, and he said, “The success of the story will rise or fall depending on your ability to make analogies.” If I have a talent, I think it’s being able to do that, being able to simplify things, not so much that you talk down to readers but enough to make it understandable.

In the Sarkin piece, I think I remember you describing a blood vessel as thin as a thread and as short as a stitch. Is that the kind of analogy you’re talking about, or are you talking about bigger metaphors?

Both, really. It’s always important to make something as real and as visual as possible to a reader. So you could say “a really tiny blood vessel,” or “800 mm wide,” or something like that, but if you can compare it to something that everyone can relate to, that gives readers a much more palpable sense of exactly what you’re talking about.

On the other hand I’m always looking for larger metaphors. In Jon Sarkin’s life, the sea itself plays a big role. It also conveys the sense that things are always changing even as they stay the same. In many ways that’s also true of “The Wreck of the Lady Mary.” I think that my background in poetry, which is a lot of what I studied in college, along with philosophy, helps. Poetry is still a strong thing in my life. David Tucker is actually a very accomplished published poet. That way of thinking in larger metaphors and images very much helps in narrative writing.

On a more mundane level, how do you work? Do you type on a computer with an outline, map out your stories on posterboard, use index cards?

It can vary a bit. I did a project a couple of years ago on a 12-way kidney transplant. I definitely used a dry eraser board for that. But in most of my stories, I know early on where I want to begin and where I want to end. And then after I’m pretty far into the research and the interviews, I get a sense of how it needs to be broken down into chapters. I’ll outline that and say, “This is how the first part needs to end and this how it needs to begin.” And I’ll do that for each part.

A lot of writers that we’ve interviewed say that once they’ve done the bulk of the reporting that they’ll often read through everything for a section and then set it aside and write without that material there, so that they can keep the narrative arc of the story going. Is that how you work?

That’s very much how I do it, so that when I’m writing I’m really writing. I’ll know sometimes, “Oh I’ve got to fill in more information here.” And when I’m through writing that section, I’ll go back and fill it in. By the time I’m ready to write, it’s really pretty much in my head, and I know where I’m going. But I will go back and flesh things out, especially details.

People talk about stories different ways. What do you want a story to do?

With “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” there were a couple things I really wanted. First, I wanted for people to connect with these men, who were, by and large, deeply flawed, simple human beings who did one thing really well. I wanted people to connect with them, because you live in a place like Boston or New Jersey, and you live on a coast, you hear stories all the time, “Oh, a boat went down,” and that’s all you ever hear. Sometimes you get a TV interview with the wife waiting at home, but that’s it.  I obviously wanted to fill out the lives of these men, what their lives are all about.

At the same time, I very much wanted there to be a sense of outrage that readers would have and hoped that it might spur the Coast Guard or someone else to take a deeper look.

And with the Sarkin story, what were you looking to do?

With that, it’s a story of one man and his family, and it’s an odd, close-to-unique, rare kind of story. However, there are a lot of things that I would hope a reader could take away from that. You hear it often, “the resilience of the human brain.” It is a remarkable thing that a brain can suffer so much damage, that a person can lose so much and yet not only survive but flourish, and that relationships can radically change, that losses can accrue, and yet people stay together and learn how to love one another differently.

So what would you say to the thousands of wannabe feature writers and current feature writers who hope to win a Pulitzer one day? Is there one lesson for writing a fabulous true story?

Honestly, no one ever sets out to win a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. I knew I had a great story here, but there was a mystery that I wanted to solve. You want to impart to readers something they don’t know, something they’re not familiar with, something that will open their eyes or their hearts or their mind in a new way. That’s what every writer would love to be able to do: to tell a story well enough that someone says, “Wow, I never knew that” or “That makes me think differently” or “I want to know more about that.”

I tell young journalists – in some ways, I still feel like I am a young journalist, because I started a little bit late in my life – there’s no greater profession. The personal satisfaction of being able to tell other people’s stories is a gift, and one that I never forget. And the fact that I can make a living doing that is still remarkable to me.

I also love the fact that I never know what I’m going to be working on day to day. That’s a pretty exciting way to come to work.

Whose work has inspired you? What are you reading now?

When I’m working on a big project, to get inspired and get into the mood, I’ll read a lot of literature. For instance, when I was working on a memory series, I read Proust for the first time and fell in love with it. When I was working on the Lady Mary story, I read Joseph Conrad and Melville.

But what have I read that’s inspired me? So often I read a book and then forget it. One thing I did read recently that I hadn’t read in about 30 years was “This Side of Paradise” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a big hero of mine. What I’m reminded of and inspired by is that it is a brilliant book but really deeply flawed. It’s his first work, and so he throws everything in there. And you can see his brilliance, but you can also see that it’s a little all over the place. Knowing where Fitzgerald ended up, at least writing-wise, it inspires me to know that even the greatest writers start out hot and glorious but still need a lot of work. That’s how I approach what I do.

Hot and glorious?

Gosh, no! [Laughs.] I learn something from every story I write, and I get better. I tell young writers, “Just keep writing. You’re not going to get worse. You can only get better.” Maybe there are some people that never do, but you’re not going to get worse.

If I didn’t have an editor to save my ass, I’m frightened to think of some of the things that would have gotten in the paper. I said to this book editor of mine, when I published my first book, “You know, I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good rewriter.” I take instructions really well. When there’s a good editor who tells you what you need, what you don’t have, and what you need to take away, I love that. There’s nothing better for me than someone to tell me, “All right you’ve got something here, but it needs work, and this is what you need to do to make it better.”

Anything else you want to share with our readers—maybe you have a secret obsession with Marilyn Monroe?

Klaatu barada nikto. You always need to know that.

May 13 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: New business models and traffic drivers in online news, and wrangling over app ads

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Leaving the old ad model behind: Much of the commentary about digital news this week was generated by two big reports, one on the business of digital journalism and the other on its consumption. We’ll start on the business side, with the Columbia j-school’s study on what we know so far about the viability of various digital journalism business models. As Poynter’s Bill Mitchell suggested, the best entry point into the 146-page report might be the nine recommendations that form its conclusion.

Mitchell summed the report up in three themes: The audience for journalism is growing, though translating that into revenue is a challenge; the old model of banner ads isn’t cutting it, and news orgs need to look for new forms of advertising; and news orgs need to play better with aggregators and sharpen their own aggregation skills. In his response to the study, Reuters’ Felix Salmon focused on the advertising angle, arguing that journalism and advertising have too long been linked by mere adjacency and that “when you move away from the ad-adjacency model, however, things get a lot more interesting and exciting.”

The New York Times’ story on the report centered on advertising, too, particularly the growing need for journalists to learn about the business side of their products. (That was media consultant Mark Potts’ main takeaway, too.) Emily Bell, a scholar at the center that released the study, said that while journalists need to understand the business of their industry, integrating news and sales staffs isn’t necessarily the way to go.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer recommended that news orgs respond to their business problems by learning from smaller startups and incorporating them more thoroughly into the journalism ecosystem. And paidContent’s Staci Kramer advised news orgs to focus on regular audiences rather than fly-by visitors: “Outwardly we like to complain about content farms; in reality, a lot of what news outlets are doing to the side of those front-page stories isn’t very different.”

Facebook’s growth as news driver: The other major report was released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and looked at how people access news on the web. This study, too, found that despite a small core of frequent users, news sites are dependent on casual users who visit sites infrequently and don’t stay long when they’re there. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds conveniently distilled the study into five big takeaways.

The study also found that while Google is still the top referrer to major news sites, Facebook is quickly emerging as a significant news driver, too. University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida said this lines up with recent research he’s done among Canadians, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it showed that while Google is a dominant source for online news now, Facebook is primed to succeed it.

Meanwhile, the study also found that surprisingly little traffic to news sites is driven by Twitter. Lauren Dugan of All Twitter said this finding casts some doubt on the idea that Twitter is “a huge link-sharing playground,” though the Wall Street Journal’s Zach Seward said the study misses that Twitter referrals are undercounted.

The Twitter undercounting was one of several problems that TBD’s Steve Buttry had about the study, including inconsistent language to characterize findings and a bias toward large news organizations. “This study probably has some helpful data. But it has too many huge holes and indications of bias to have much value,” Buttry wrote.

Pricing ads and subscriptions on tablets: Condé Nast became the third major magazine publisher to reach an agreement with Apple on app subscriptions, and one of the first to offer an in-app subscription, with The New Yorker available now. (Wired subscriptions are coming next month.) Time Inc., which reached a deal with Apple last week, clarified that it won’t include in-app subscriptions, which would be where Apple takes that now-infamous 30% cut. The Financial Times, meanwhile, is still negotiating with Apple.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici explained why publishers may be warming to Apple’s deal: Turns out, more people are willing to share their personal data with publishers feared. Still, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM used iFlowReader’s bad Apple experience as a warning to other companies about the dangers of getting into bed with Apple.

Now that Apple-publisher relations have thawed, the New York Times’ David Carr moved to the next issue: Negotiations between publishers and advertisers over how valuable in-app ads are, and how much those ads should cost. Time.com’s Chris Gayomali wondered why magazines are more than giving away app subscriptions with print subscriptions, and concluded that it’s about getting more eyeballs on the print product, not the app, in order to maintain the all-important ad rate base.

In other words, Carr said in another post, publishers are following the old magazine model, where the product is priced below cost and the money is made off advertising instead. He questioned the wisdom of applying that strategy to tablets: “the rich advertising opportunity that will produce may be a less durable and less stable business than grinding out highly profitable circulation over the long haul.”

A postmortem on Bin Laden coverage: It’s now been close to two weeks since the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on Twitter, but plenty of folks were still discussing how the story was broken and covered. Gilad Lotan and Devin Gaffney of SocialFlow put together some fascinating visualizations of how the news spread on Twitter, especially the central roles of Donald Rumsfeld staffer Keith Urbahn and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter. Mashable’s Chris Taylor concluded from the data that trustworthiness and having active followers (as opposed to just lots of followers) are more important than ever on Twitter.

Media consultant Frederic Filloux was mostly reassured by the way the traditional news outlets handled the story online: “For once, editorial seems to evolve at a faster pace than the business side.” There were still folks cautioning against going overboard on Twitter-as-news hype, while the Telegraph’s Emma Barnett wondered why pundits are still so surprised at the significant role Twitter and Facebook play in breaking news. (“It’s exactly what they were designed for.”)

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane gave the blow-by-blow of how his paper responded to the story, highlighting a few tweets by Times reporters and editors. Reuters’ Felix Salmon chastised Brisbane for not including Brian Stelter’s tweets, which were posted a good 15 minutes before the ones he included. The exclusion, Salmon surmised, might indicate that the Times doesn’t see what Stelter did on Twitter as reporting.

Google News founder Krishna Bharat compared the way Google handled 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, marveling at how much more breaking-news coverage is available on the web now. The Lab’s Megan Garber used the occasion to glean some insights from Bharat about trusting the authority of the algorithm to provide a rich palette of news, but at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan used the Bin Laden coverage to point out some flaws in Google News’ algorithm.

Reading roundup: Lots of interesting little rabbit trails to choose from this week. Here are a few:

— ComScore’s April traffic numbers are out, and there were a number of storylines flowing out of them: Cable news sources are beating print ones in web traffic, the New York Times’ numbers are down (as expected) after implementation of its paywall, and Gawker’s numbers are starting to come back after dropping last year with its redesign.

— Last week, ESPN columnist Rick Reilly told graduating students at the University of Colorado’s j-school to never write for free. That prompted Jason Fry of the National Sports Journalism Center and Craig Calcaterra of MSNBC.com’s Hardball Talk to expound on the virtues of writing for free, though Slate’s Tom Scocca took Reilly’s side.

— Late last week, Google lost an appeal to a 2007 Belgian ruling forcing it to pay newspapers for gaining revenue for linking to their stories on Google News.

— Finally, two thoughtful pieces on brands and journalism: Jason Fry at Poynter on assessing the value of organizational and personal brands, and Vadim Lavrusik at the Lab on journalists building their brands via Facebook.

May 03 2011

12:50

Eliza Griswold on religion, reporting and violence

We spoke last week with Eliza Griswold, winner of the 2011 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam.” In addition to winning the Lukas Prize, which is co-administered by Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation, Griswold has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and The New Republic. She was awarded a 2010 Rome Prize from The American Academy in Rome and has also published a book of poetry, “Wideawake Field.” In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about managing a stable of characters, what she hopes readers will get from the book, and what she would do differently if she were starting the book today.

For anyone in our audience who hasn’t read your book, how would you describe the origins of the title, “The Tenth Parallel”?

The 10th parallel is a line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. But as the title of the book, it really defines the space between the equator and that line of latitude that marks the encounter between Christianity and Islam in much of Africa and Asia. That’s a geographic encounter.

I started the book with the single statistic that 4 out of 5 of the world’s Muslims live outside of the Middle East. They’re not Arabs. So what we think of as Islam and what actually functions on the ground as Islam are two very different things, and the same is true of Christianity. And along the 10th parallel sit the borderlands of both Christianity and Islam. I wanted to travel to where those two borders overlapped, to see what happens in floods, in droughts, in political elections, in fights over everything, really, from water to chocolate – what happens when those two religions come into contact and conflict on the ground.

At what point did you know you wanted to tell this story?

I came to this story traveling in Sudan in 2003 with Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and head of a half-billion-dollar evangelical empire. And although he’s worked in the south, in southern Sudan, for more than 20 years now, Franklin was going for the first time in history to meet with President [Omar al] Bashir, who is still Sudan’s sitting president, even though he’s been indicted now for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Franklin was going to meet with this man whom he had called just as evil as Saddam Hussein, if not more so.

Franklin was very much in the news at the time because he had called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion” just after Sept. 11. So I wanted to go with him to see what happens when a conservative American evangelical leader with close ties to – at that time – the Bush administration, actually sat down with his sworn enemy face to face.

You have a tremendous cast of characters in the book. Reading it, I was thinking you must have spent a lot of time figuring out how to navigate that cast. How did you decide who belonged and who didn’t and what size each person’s role would be?

It was probably more intuitive than anything else. It took seven years to write it for a reason. It’s six countries and 9,000 miles and two continents. It just really was a much larger undertaking than I understood when I began. When I started the book, I thought I would essentially write a series of narrative travelogues and that this fault line was largely metaphoric. It wasn’t until I got on the ground and started traveling that I saw how real the demographics and geography of Christians and Muslims meeting on the ground really was.

I had to write the book in layers. I started with the narratives and then, with my editor’s help, came to understand that the travelogue was not going to be enough, that there were much larger forces at play: geography and history and weather and centuries of human migration; and that the book, to be what it needed to be, was going to have to take all those factors into account as well. So it was really a process of layering, of going through and writing and rewriting.

The narratives came first, and then came the issue of “what are the larger ideas here?” One of the things that I loved about doing the reporting this way was that I didn’t start with any conclusions. I didn’t start with trying to prove, or even disprove, the clash of civilizations. That was a great luxury. I could just travel along this line and see what was actually happening on the ground.

But at the end of the reporting, I needed to begin to draw some conclusions about what I had seen, so that was another layer of writing through it. And then I had to write it again to make sure it did follow through, to make sure it would make sense beginning to end. It is a lot of characters. I would not recommend to anyone else to have so many characters.

You also have a number of key points in time to address – stretching from antiquity though imperial colonization and missionaries into today’s world.

That was intuitive, too. I had to find my way through the story, geographically, historically and narratively. And essentially what I need to do, once I’d done that, was to trace how I did it, and then trace my thinking for the reader.

I’m super-compelled by some of the early stories that the book just touches on. For example, I didn’t know until I went to Ethiopia – or just before when I was researching – that before there was Islam, this collection of a dozen of Mohammed’s followers had gone to the court of a Christian in Ethiopia, which was then Abyssinia, and asked for safe haven. They told the king the story of the Virgin Mary from the Quran to prove that they were related to one another.

That kind of story become so important to my understanding of place, and what is important for us to understand how interlinked we are. But then that becomes an element that I had to bring to the reader. I didn’t set out saying,“Knowing what I know about Ethiopia, I’m going to report the story the following way.” It was a lot of bumping into things: ideas, people and events as they unfolded.

You grew up the child of an Episcopalian bishop?

Yes.

How useful or how much of an impediment was that background in doing this book?

I definitely wouldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t who I am, and I am who I am by virtue of how I grew up, largely. So the questions of faith and intellect and how those two coexist are questions I grew up asking myself and also seeing asked around me, and from my earliest memories sitting around the kitchen table with the crock pot stew, hearing discussions of the inter-linkages of how God and the mind do or don’t fit together. That definitely had a lot to do with it. My dad, beyond all, was a kind of a mystic, so I definitely I did not grow up with any kind of exclusive understanding of God, that anyone had the exclusive claim on truth or heaven or anything.

So I was writing about religion and human rights. I was writing about honor killings before Sept. 11 and how early Islamic law, when Muhammad set down the codes that he did that now look so oppressive to us and out-of-date, that actually those were the most progressive of their time in terms of giving women property rights and outlawing the right to kill your female baby.

I was intrigued with that stuff, but it’s definitely after we started to see Christianity and Islam as these opposed ideologies, these exclusive understandings, that I felt called to explore the question of whether exclusive faith leads to violence.

That’s how I came to it: what’s the relationship between religion and violence? That’s not what I grew up with, a faith that posits black and white, salvation and damnation, but I was interested to see how that grafted onto contemporary political and economic and resource struggles.

You said that you didn’t go into it with any conclusions, that a lot of it unfolded in front of you. There’s a sense coming out of the book as a reader that I know a lot more than I did going in. But at the end of the book, you don’t give any simple conclusions. Did you always know it would be that open at the end?

I wanted to see what was true and articulate, and so if I had thought there were clear conclusions, I would have drawn them. But there was no easy truth, so there were no final conclusions to draw. I would hope that readers take from the book the understanding that the most important religious fights are those taking place inside of religions not between them. It’s really those fights between Christian and Christian and Muslim and Muslim that shape each religion’s relationship with the other.

You do so many kinds of narrative: You’re a journalist and a poet. How do you think about storytelling? What are you looking for a story to do?

I’m looking for a story and a poem to do the same thing – to unfold on two levels at once. I want it to be successful on a very daily level of “here’s a satisfying beginning, middle and end.” But I’m looking for it to work on another level as well, to serve as an allegory of a larger truth. It’s better if I don’t have that truth defined, because if I’m driving that story to a certain calculated end, chances are I’m trying to control what I saw. But as a narrative writer, I can feel the heat around those stories, where they tell a larger truth, and that is what interests me.

As for the small stories, I realized pretty early on I wasn’t going to be able to explain anyone’s faith away. Although that had not been my intention, I had thought I’d be able to have a better sense of, “Oh, this one’s a true believer, and this one’s not.” Wrong. Pretty early on I realized that was going to be beyond my skill, because everything was so subjective. So the best I could do was to own my own subjectivity and bring these stories back whole cloth, and let the reader draw the conclusion of what they meant on those two levels.

A lot of great stories rise out of the open approach that you’re taking, but in reporting nowadays, there’s much more of a sense of editors wanting writers to go out and get a predefined particular story, which can make it tough. Do you have any advice for those who would like to do the kind of thing you’re doing?

It’s a fine line, right? And how did I pay for this?

I’m sure our readers would like to know.

I’m a freelance magazine writer who’s never been on staff anywhere – that’s partly due to the era in which I’ve come of age and the changing media model. My editors knew what I was doing. They knew I was working on this book while I was writing for them. I would go somewhere and do a story that might be related, but the best times they were unrelated stories. I would cover one issue and then be able to stay in that respective country and do what I needed to do for the book.

I deliberately assigned myself stories in the countries that I needed to go to for work, which always meant they were not A1 kind of stories. These are stories at the edges of places. So for journalists there’s a big trade-off: What matters most to you? Does it matter most to you to be with the pack, covering the story that’s moving in largest font in the day, in the boldest type? If that’s what matters most to you, which I totally understand and think is extraordinarily valuable to the world, then this is not something you would want to try.

If you’re curious about the edges of places, and you prefer to exist in marginal spaces a little bit off the grid, then that’s kind of the model that I came out of.

What were you hoping the book might accomplish?

I hope it helps people understand their own religion a little bit better. I know that, especially in this country, given the understanding that Islam is more explicitly linked with violence than Christianity is worldwide, I certainly hope it dispels some of that stereotyping.

What it has done that never occurred to me is that some of the Somali doctors in the book got to meet Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago. The book brought some attention to them and has made a difference in their ability to do their own work in Somalia. I never would have imagined that.

Has anything about the reception of “The Tenth Parallel” surprised you?

It never occurred to me that it would be so widely read. It never occurred to me that it would be a New York Times bestseller. I thought I was writing a well-written narrative travelogue that would go its own quiet way. The interest in it has surprised me a lot – the hunger for information, people’s questions when I go places. Those have really surprised me.

I think there are flaws in the book. My editor always says, “You learn how to write a book by writing a book,” and that’s certainly true. I think you also learn how to report a book by reporting a book. I know that there are narrative devices I used at the time that I would change.

Such as?

One thing I did – this is advice for fellow reporters. Because I like sitting down and talking to people, a lot of the reported scenes of the book is my sitting down and talking to people as opposed to watching them live their own lives. I think there’s a great capacity for just simply watching people live their own lives. That’s something that maybe I didn’t do enough of.

Any other tips about what you’d do differently if you were starting today?

I think I would push myself harder to reconstruct more narrative, as opposed to using the interviews as their own narrative forms. I don’t know how I would have done that in some cases…

Sometimes that’s a question of what material is actually available.

Exactly. And I was going for these very specific stories, most of which were cast in the past.

Another thing: sometimes I get readers who say, “You should be in there more.” I did not do that, because it makes my skin crawl, the “bearing witness” aspect of American journalists where they’re actually heroicizing themselves when they pretend to be telling a story. There are a lot of things that happened, a couple of super-dangerous things that I thought were so distracting from other people’s lives that I couldn’t write about them without fearing that it would come across like derring-do.

But I think there’s another way to be in the story as a first-person character, which is to come in more with observation, and even if those observations prove to be wrong in the long term, or inaccurate, then you have something to push back against. In that way, I think there is a huge capacity for being present in a book in an interesting way.

Bringing the reader in through your eyes as opposed to having them watch you do something.

Exactly. Also, I was very cautious with this material, because a lot of it is so sensational. It is religion and violence. I wanted to be super, super careful that in talking about this stuff that I wasn’t in fact reigniting problems. You can see what happens when someone threatens to burn the Quran and people die in another country. I was very aware that if this book were to reverberate in the wrong way, it could lead to trouble along those lines. Thank God it hasn’t, but if I could err on the side of telling a dramatic story in a little more complicated way, with more context, which was sometimes a little more boring, in order to get a more complicated truth out there, I definitely tried to do that.

We often talk about how, as long as we tell the truth, to tell the most exciting, dynamic story possible. But you wanted to pull back from that.

I never saw a conflict that didn’t have some kind of secular or worldly trigger. One thing about our colleagues, especially in the secular press: we tend to discount religious ideas or faith as something that can be explained away, as something that is a factor of poverty or disenfranchisement. “Of course, people in the developing world think about God in that way,” we say. “They don’t have anything.”

All over the middle belt in Nigeria, where Muslims and Christians are killing each other right now, there is a propensity on the part of reporters to say, “Well, this isn’t about religion, this is about ethnicity.” Maybe somebody in a wire report position has to say Christians and Muslims. And then somebody who has a little more time, coming from a human rights angle, is going to say, “This is all about ethnicity and has nothing to do with religion.” But what if the truth is somewhere between the two? What if those who are there, they say that it is about religion? They say they are killing each other because of rival faiths. Where does their voice go?

That’s true, too. Both are true at the same time. The situation I frequently faced was that “OK, this has to do with being an indigenous citizen, ethnicity, money, lack of access to clean water and good roads” – getting all of that down in an accurate way without discounting the role of religion. Because [discounting religion] is super easy to do, too. That’s as much of a position as anything else.

Wouldn’t it be easy to say, “This has nothing to do with religion”? That would be easy, and people would like to hear it. And it’s not true. So I’m constantly trying to keep one foot in both of those worlds.

Photo of Eliza Griswold by Antonin Kratochvil.

April 04 2011

15:10

Isabel Wilkerson on the Great Migration, structuring an epic narrative and the challenges of writing nonfiction

Continuing the spring flurry of awards, Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation announced last week that the 2011 Mark Lynton History Prize will be awarded to Isabel Wilkerson for her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Currently the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University’s College of Communication, Wilkerson previously reported for The New York Times, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994. We had a chance to talk with her near the end of March, and in these excerpts from that conversation, she discusses the thousand-plus interviews she did to research her story, the process of structuring a multi-strand narrative, and what she always knew would be the heart of the book.

You follow three main characters throughout your book – all of whom migrated away from the South. How did you come to select those three?

Those three were chosen after I spent about a year and a half traveling the country – North, Midwest, and West – interviewing, and in some ways auditioning, the protagonists who would ultimately provide the major strands of the narrative. I went to senior centers and AARP meetings, to quilting clubs and to the various state and city and town clubs that represented the southern cities and towns that the people had originally come from. There are Mississippi clubs in Chicago; there are Louisiana and Texas clubs in California; and there are Baptist churches in New York where everyone is from South Carolina.

So I went to all those different places and interviewed over 1,200 people in order to narrow it down to the three protagonists through whom I would tell the three main threads of the narrative. In the process of interviewing all these people, I heard many other stories that helped to clarify my understanding of the phenomenon I was writing about, expose me to a lot of different ways of looking at it, and gave me a general experience of the people who had gone through this.

There were people that had amazing singular experiences that caught my attention. There were people who had incredible stories of hardships during childhood or the journey itself – there was a woman who was actually born on the train to California. But I needed to have people whose stories would be strong, beginning, middle and end.

And of course, for narrative journalists, one of the major things that we’re looking for is someone who is open and candid, willing to cooperate with some level of almost investment in being able to share and take the time to tell the story – in other words, access.

Based on the structure of the narrative itself and the overarching story I was trying to tell, I needed to have three people, each of whom would represent one of the three major streams of this great migration – the one up the East Coast, the one to the Midwest and the one out to the West. I needed to have people who had left in different decades to show the breadth and scope of this migration. I needed people who had different reasons for leaving, different motivations and circumstances for going, and three different outcomes in the places they went.

Also from a narrative perspective, I needed people whose voices would be distinct enough so that as a person was reading the book, they would be able to discern from hearing or seeing a single comment from them, “Oh, yes this is Ida Mae,” or “This has got to be George,” or “I recognize Robert.” Each of them had to be distinguishable from the other, because theirs were going to be interlocking stories, stories where you follow them from the beginning of their journey in life and also in the migration until their arrival elsewhere and then their old age.

You wrote in your book that you set out in the mid-1990s to search for people, but it sounded like you had already read about and researched the migration by then.

That’s interesting, because it appears that way, but I had only had a general knowledge of the migration when I began. I could not have known all I would know at the end of the process. When you’re starting a story, you do some initial research, but I had not done a tremendous amount of research into all aspects of the migration when I began.

In fact, the kind of narrative writer I am moves from the ground up. I get the stories from the people I meet; I get my energy from the people that I’m interviewing. I don’t like to have any preconceived notions when I’m going in. I like to hear the story as it unfolds in front of me. Particularly with narrative, it’s got to be about the story that’s being told, it’s got to be about the character, the protagonist whose story you’re hearing. If you go in with a preconceived idea or too much information, you might miss something, because it doesn’t sound as fresh or as new to you, because you kind of know it already. I wanted to be able to have the discovery of learning about it ultimately in the same way the reader would. As I’m hearing it from their mouths in front of me, right there, in the middle of the discussion, I wanted to be able to respond to it with freshness in the same way I hoped a reader would.

When you do this kind of work, you have to make a choice. Are you going to spend the many, many, many months that it would take to do the archival research for something this big? I mean are we’re talking 6 million people over the course of a 55- or 60-year period of time, one that encompasses much of the 20th century.

There were many references to the migration among economists who were looking at it, sociologists who were looking at it, anthropologists who were looking at it while it was unfolding. You could look at census records and census analysis. Editorialists were among the main sources when it came to journalism. A lot of time could be spent doing that, but I chose to focus on the people first, because the people were getting up in years, and it was kind of this race against time to get to them before it was too late.

I had to make the logistical, methodological decision to go for the people first without truly having done all the research that I might have preferred to have done starting out. The people came first, and then the archives, because the people would not always be there, but the archives would. So for this particular narrative, it was the wiser choice, really in some ways, the only choice, to make.

You have a lot of demographics and legal battles and Jim Crow information and riot history folded into the narratives. Did you have a strategic way you approached bringing those things together – the story with the facts and data?

It became clear to me fairly early on that in some ways the book is multiple books in one – each one of the characters could have been a book unto him- or herself. Then there’s all the archival, historical, demographic data that also had to be folded in – that’s almost a book unto itself. Then there’s the weaving in of the other stories, the secondary people who would have been the runner-up candidates for the protagonists’ slots. They’re all folded into the book, too. It’s multiple narratives, multiple books, in one.

It’s so close in and intimate when you’re in the moment with these people, as they’re preparing to leave or learning the rules of the caste system as children or growing up in the South during that era. You needed to stay with those individuals in that moment, because it’s a rare thing to be able to get that close in on someone’s life, particularly of an era that is hard for us to imagine today. To bring in some demographic data at an intimate moment seemed out of key, you might say, with where you happened to be with that individual.

I was writing it separately anyway, because I wanted to stay with each individual story as I was telling it. I was really inspired by the structure of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which also was an inspiration on multiple levels. It’s about a migration; it’s about getting inside the hopes and fears of people who were leaving the Dust Bowl region of the United States at the exact same time that Ida Mae was leaving Mississippi. It struck me how those parallel migrations were going on, but they were recorded differently at the time.

The idea of how to fold in the intimate stories of individuals going through this journey while also reminding the reader of the larger canvas on which this was occurring – “The Grapes of Wrath” was an inspiration for doing that. Now, obviously that’s fiction, though he had been a journalist, which I think all of us should be inspired by. But that book has inter-chapters, and the inter-chapters are absolutely magnificent.

Did you start out with “The Grapes of Wrath” as a model, or did you light on it at some point?

I paid closer attention once I was in it. A lot of the research that I did was on works of the era. I spent time in the world of that moment. I read books that came out in the 1930s, John Dollard and Hortense Powdermaker. I read work from economists in the 1910s and up, looking at the language that was used by writers and by scholars of the day. I wanted to know how they looked at things. How was it perceived at the time that it was unfolding? What do you even call some of the things that we don’t have names for today? I spent a lot of time, and clearly Steinbeck was going to be crucial, because “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the best-known narratives about a journey ever written in the United States.

There is so much hope in the drive toward a different world, or a broader world, but there’s a lot of sorrow in the three lives you focus on, even after they make it out. Was that part of the reason that you picked the people you did, or did it just come out that for the people that you wanted, that’s where their lives went?

I think that they are reflective of the experiences that the majority of these people had. The experiences of people in these cities would have been very similar.

I don’t know how to answer the question on some level, because I think their lives began with heartbreak and sorrow. I also think that on leaving, their goals were quite modest. They had a lot of hope, but they knew that they were not going to become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies or build skyscrapers. They’re representative of the reality that they all faced on arrival.

Putting myself back in the moment of making a decision about which three people would be the protagonists, at that time, I didn’t know what the end result would be in their lives. So I had to look at the limited information based on the interviews that I had done with them. Then the work began to truly know fully what happened in their lives. You might look at it and think, “She knew this, this, and this, and that’s why she chose them.” But there’s a lot that I didn’t know. It took years in order to hear all the things that had happened to them. They didn’t just tell me everything in one sitting, nor did they tell me everything the first time something came up, or after the first question. It took many, many months and ultimately years with some of them for all these things you see in the book now, for these things to reveal themselves.

One thing that surprised me, though I’m not sure why, was how many pages you spent on the actual migration. Now that you’re talking about “The Grapes of Wrath,” I see the parallels. There’s so much attention to the departure and even the planning to get away, which illuminates a lot about their lives. When did it strike you that the actual travel narratives of their leaving would be so important?

Thank you for so much for saying that. You spend so much time on the work itself in a cave, and how people will perceive it upon completion, you just can’t know. But that was probably the driving question – no pun intended – for the narrative. I was absolutely drawn to the act of leaving. If there was any one thing that was motivating me, that I wanted to bring to life, it was what it took for them to leave. That decision and their departure had such an impact on the country as a whole; that becomes in some ways the central moment that was going to change the northern and western cities as we know them. That’s what I wanted to understand.

Getting to the central core of the story was the decision itself and how they carried out the decision. For that reason, I interviewed a lot of people who were the children of the migration. These people were retirees already. I enjoyed hearing their stories, and it was all part of the reporting process and part of my own education. It was a living archive, interviewing real people over the span of the time that I did was like combing a living archive.

But the children, of which there were many, from a narrative perspective were going to be disqualified from being protagonists in the book, because I was looking for the people who were driving the car, not the lap children or the children in the back seat. I interviewed a lot of the lap children and the children in the back seat, and that gave me a fuller understanding of the larger story, but that was not who I thought should be the protagonists for this story, because I wanted to understand the decisions that went behind the change that would ultimately occur in all these cities. It ended up being, in my view, the heart of the book. It was always my intention that it would be the heart of the book.

The conditions under which they make those trips – there’s a real feeling of going into the unknown with them: the way that Robert Foster is driving and driving and desperately trying to find a place to sleep. The larger context is something that we’ve heard and read about before, but the idea of him at this moment in his life, leaving the South to go West is very compelling.

It shows you the power of narrative [laughs] – and I’m not saying that because of our conference! I’m saying it because the goal of all that we do is to pull readers in so that they can picture themselves in the role of that person, to picture themselves as that person. Many people have told me that they’ve experienced a range of emotions, particularly during that central section of the book, where they felt worried for him, fearful for him – for all of them.

That was the goal. The goal of all that we do is to bring the reader in so that they can imagine themselves in that situation, so they can wonder “What would I have done if I had been this situation?” That’s the power of building a narrative that so draws readers or viewers in, so that they feel they are these people.

Of course with narrative nonfiction, it takes so much effort and time to draw close enough to individuals and have them trust you enough to share what you need to make it come alive for a distant reader who will be absorbing this from far away or totally different circumstances. It is really a magical thing when you think about it.

I once heard an editor explain that when he was working with a first-time book author who was an experienced journalist, he had to tell him to write with “the voice of God.” That comment came to mind, because there’s almost a Biblical tone to the stories as you tell them. Was that you reflecting their voices, or were you thinking in an epic fashion as you were trying to give a tone or voice to the book?

Hearing all those stories, I in some ways absorbed them into my very being. It just became a part of the way I thought about this entire experience. I think that all of those voices, absolutely all of those voices – the children in the backseat, the voices of the anthropologists who had been traveling in the same parts of Mississippi where Ida Mae grew up, the economists who were looking at it from Chicago – all of those voices get inside you, those perspectives and the language of all those writers, speakers, scholars and editorialists, of all those multiple eras. It all gets inside you, and you distill it, and out comes your own voice almost in a new language.

It takes the infusion of all those different voices to help you come up with your own. They all counterbalance each other, and once you have been exposed to all that, then and only then, can you write with the authority that you need to, because you have read enough to speak as an author. It’s interesting that the word author can be found within the word authority. You only have that authority when you’ve done the research.

What else should we know about the book now that it’s in the world?

From a narrative perspective, I am really happy that the structure seems to have worked. I spent a lot of time on the structure. It was a challenge to take three different people in three different decades from three different states who take three different routes to three other states and weave in the contextual archival detail and give it all meaning.

There was the tremendous challenge of trying to harness literally file cabinets full of material. I have railroad timetables from the Illinois Central Railroad that I got off eBay. I have photographs of actual advertisements and specs for the car Doctor Foster drove, his Buick Roadmaster, so that I would know exactly what it looked like inside and out. I didn’t even make that much use of everything I had, but I wanted to have it. I bought a green book, one of the books that African Americans who were driving would have used in that era, because they couldn’t be assured of being able to stop when they were making these long drives. They had these little guidebooks, like an AAA guidebook, with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of places that had agreed to permit them to stay. And they would use that on their journeys. I wanted a copy of that.

There was so much work to gather the material that would become the basis of the narrative, but I think the greatest challenge from a writing perspective was how to bring it all together in a way that the reader could follow it. The fact that I don’t get asked about it a lot may be the best commentary of all, because that was a lot of work.

I’ve been asked if I had an outline or a master pattern to spread out the story, but it ended up being an organic process, because I found that an outline seemed like an artificial imposition onto the narrative. I found that it was not working if I tried to superimpose some order onto the experiences of the people as they were unfolding. So I made a decision not to use an outline. Does that surprise you?

I felt a pattern in the narrative, but I didn’t know if it was one that was planned, or one that emerged. It seemed like a fairly simple structure – my sense was that you were taking us through a scene from each of the characters’ stories with inter-chapters. Very occasionally you would return to somebody’s story without rotating through all the protagonists first. It did read seamlessly, though, so I know our audience would like to hear any other thoughts you want to share on structure.

As nonfiction writers, we have to adhere to the facts that we have obtained. If you were writing fiction, you could decide “I want to do this or that.” But you’re dealing with actual facts and real people and whatever it is you have from them and from the archives, and you have to think about how to structure that and how to organize that, where to stop and where to begin. You may not have enough from this person in this particular year, but you have a lot from this other person. That’s just the reality when you’re dealing with nonfiction.

Sometimes you hear fiction writers say, “I was in a zone, and the character told me what to do.” As journalists, we don’t have the luxury of experiencing that, but having this volume of material may be the closest we can come to it. You do have a wealth of things to choose from, and you can learn how to make the best use of what you have. You may not have everything you want, and you may not have everything you need to make your initial idea work, but somehow you have to make it work.

If it seemed like it was natural, I can say, on some level, it was organic – but it was not natural. This is really hard work. It is really, really hard work.

Anything else you want to say about how to manage that work?

I’m still absorbing that I got through it, so there’s no one bit of advice that I could give. Unfortunately, each project is different, so maybe there are things that would be applicable to this one that wouldn’t work for another one.

This is one thing I would say: something this big can seem so daunting when you’re about to begin it that the only way to do it is to do it in small steps. Otherwise you would never do it – it would be too overwhelming. In some ways, it’s like preparing a meal: it all starts with the flour, the baking powder, the spices and the garlic. You start small. You don’t think about the big thing you’re undertaking. Thinking about the big thing can stop you in your tracks. That’s how I got through it, by looking at just what is in front of me to do today: “I will be writing about Ida Mae and her arrival in Chicago.”

It’s nonfiction, and we have to go with what we’ve got. So, first over-reporting is what I do, and it’s what a lot of people do. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor when you do this kind of work – as well it should be. Not everything you get needs to go in, and not everything you get is the reader going to be interested in. There’s way, way, way more things that didn’t get in than got in. That’s a good thing; that’s how it should be.

Have as much as you can, so that you have choices once you begin cooking. And then you start small. You start by chopping the onions, or you peel the garlic. Or you measure the corn meal. That’s how you begin it. I think focusing on the task in front of you is what gets you through it. It seems so big at the end, but it’s all one piece coming together with the next, with the next, with the next. And you have a narrative.

March 15 2011

22:16

Why Missouri's J-School Should Rethink Its Approach to Twitter

Do you check the official Twitter feed for the Missouri School of Journalism on a regular basis? Probably not, based on its dismal number of followers.

As of today, the official Twitter account of Mizzou's J-School had just 630 followers. That is a far cry from most other top journalism schools and a negative reflection on our own.

How does the Mizzou J-School Twitter feed compare to other journalism schools? Well, let's look at how many people follow the Twitter accounts of a randomly selected sample of top undergradate and graduate J-Schools across the country:

* Columbia University: 5,624
* Arizona State University: 4,893

* University of Southern California: 3,826

* University of North Carolina: 3,047

* Northwestern University: 2,312

* New York University: 1,988

* University of California - Berkeley: 1,107

* University of Kansas: 549

* University of Illinois - Urbana: 301

Why Twitter Matters for J-Schools

As students at the Missouri School of Journalism, we're familiar with the J-School's reputation as one of the top journalism schools in the country. For years, Mizzou has sat comfortably at the top, alongside universities such as Columbia and Northwestern. But because we are a school that prides itself on innovation in online media, why is it that our Twitter efforts are lacking?

At least we have more followers than arch-rival Kansas... but not by much. And that's important: The number of followers is the most objective way to measure the value of the content one posts on Twitter. Simply put, the Missouri School of Journalism does not have many followers because it is not posting enough valuable information.

A quick look at the Missouri Journalism School's feed reveals that its tweets are made up entirely of press releases. They're about J-School students and professors winning awards and other news that boosts the school's reputation. This information is important to include, as Twitter is a great public relations tool. At the same time, press releases can be boring, and unless one is mentioned or knows someone who's mentioned in the release, most people on Twitter won't bother to read them -- or, it turns out, follow @mojonews.

Plus, the feed has had a measly 15 tweets since the Spring 2011 semester began, so Mizzou students can hardly count on Twitter to keep up with the happenings in the J-School. Maybe that's why just a month and a half after we began publishing J-School Buzz, a blog about the Missouri School of Journalism, our Twitter account already has 931 followers, about 300 more than the journalism school's.

How Other J-Schools Are Using Twitter

Columbia Journalism School uses its Twitter feed to remind students of workshops and lectures as well as to publicize content that its students have published. It even engages in conversations with students, sometimes @ mentioning them and responding to their comments. Its Twitter presence is friendly, interesting and consistent, with about two tweets per day.

The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications has a similar approach. It also retweets students and other UNC accounts on a regular basis. One can read tweets about upcoming events, view students' work and even find links to internship and job opportunities.

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The University of Southern California's Annenberg School has one of the most conversational Twitter accounts I saw, with an average of 10 tweets per day. It uses the hashtag #ascj, for Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism. Students, alumni and professors have joined in, so it's easy to communicate. They even encourage prospective students to use the #ascj hashtag to chat with current J-School students.

New York University's J-School does such a good job of filling their Twitter feed with interesting content that it took me a full five minutes of scrolling through tweets to find an actual press release.

More than just Content

Of course, the relationship between Twitter followers and the quality of content or interaction is not a direct one, as the millions who've read @charliesheen can attest.

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In the case of J-School Twitter accounts, the size of a J-School program or its location may matter.

But look at Columbia University: Its graduate program has only 400 students. By comparison, Mizzou's J-School has a combined 2,300 journalism students in its undergrad and graduate programs. Yet Columbia's Twitter feed has about nine times as many followers.

Of course, Columbia benefits from being located in America's largest city, so it's likely that it has a following in the community beyond its Morningside Heights campus. That's certainly not the case for UNC's J-School in cozy Chapel Hill, which had a population of only 54,492 people in 2007. @UNCJSchool has thousands more followers on Twitter than the University of Missouri, despite Mizzou's location in Columbia (2010 population: 108,500), a city nearly twice the size of Chapel Hill.

A Twitter Model for J-Schools

Like many other typical college students, checking my Twitter account is one of the first things I do when I sit down at my computer. And because we spend so many of our waking hours (and some of our non-waking ones) in the J-School, it's only natural to expect more communication from it.

I want to visit @mojonews and find links to students' work, reminders about club meetings, and announcements of speakers and films being shown in the J-School. These are the kind of tweets we feel obliged to send out at J-School Buzz because @mojonews does not. I want to see links to relevant news stories and other content that students would find helpful and interesting. The Mizzou J-School should be using social media not just as a mouthpiece for its own achievements, but also as a learning tool for students.

Suzette Heiman, director of planning and communications for the Missouri School of Journalism, maintains the J-School's Twitter account. Heiman says the account is used primarily as a publicity tool. And while including more information on Twitter is a good idea, it's more complicated than it sounds.

"It's a matter of how it's going to be monitored, and having proper organization," said Heiman.

Currently, J-School students receive relevant news and information via email. Heiman says for the foreseeable future, that system will remain in place.

How do you think the University of Missouri School of Journalism can better use its social media? Let us (and the J-School) know in the comments below, or better yet, tell them yourselves on Twitter.

*****

Jennifer Paull is a senior at the University of Missouri, majoring in convergence journalism and minoring in psychology. She is also the social media editor for J-School Buzz. While journalism is her first love, after graduation she plans to pursue her masters degree in school counseling.

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A version of this story originally appeared in JSchoolBuzz.com, a site dedicated to reporting the latest news and analysis about the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Founded in October 2010, J-School Buzz is produced by current J-Schoolers. You can follow JSB on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

September 13 2010

19:16

NYC J-Schools Take Divergent Paths on Training, Hyper-Local

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

Universities around the country have had to shift the approach of their journalism programs to accommodate a quickly changing media landscape. New York City's journalism schools, in particular, are working to rethink their offerings and adapt to the new world.

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"The challenge inherent to journalism programs today is like taking a bowling ball and trying to hit a fast-moving target," said Adam Penenberg, NYU faculty member and longtime online journalist. Penenberg is teaching a new undergraduate course for NYU this fall about the essentials of entrepreneurial journalism, with topics like managing analytics and using a Twitter account. "It's very difficult for curriculum to change quickly," he said.

As Jay Rosen told MediaShift editor Mark Glaser in the latest 4 Minute Roundup podcast, journalism schools had traditionally been very platform-specific, with students majoring in "broadcast" or "print."

Schools are trying though. The hacker-journalist and journo-entrepreneur are finding homes in programs like Columbia's Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism or in CUNY's forthcoming entrepreneurial journalism graduate program. These cross-disciplinary degrees equip journalists with more than a background in a particular medium.

"Every student needs to grasp the entire puzzle of innovation," said Rosen. "Everything from business models and the nature of the web to involving the community and using multimedia."

Increasingly, universities are looking to project-based curriculum to teach students not only how journalism works now, but how it might survive in the future.

This year both the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute launched collaborations with the New York Times on two of its "The Local" hyper-local sites to explore the questions our news media must answer as it seeks to reboot itself and as journalism schools struggle to expose their students to the full puzzle of innovation. CUNY took over operation of The Local - Fort Greene in January and NYU's start-up The Local - East Village (LEV) goes live today.

NYU

"What I want students to do is look at the web as an opportunity to learn about journalism today by participating in it," said Rosen, who heads the Studio 20 program at NYU that has been planning the LEV for the last year. The model for the LEV site focuses on giving the community opportunities to contribute content to the site. Called the Virtual Assignment Desk, the site will have a feature that allows community members, such as NYU students and local residents, to pitch and contribute to story assignments.

"The idea is that anyone can cover the community," said Assignment Desk plug-in developer Daniel Bachhuber, a digital media manager at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

One of the challenges these types of partnerships in journalism face is ensuring that the student-produced media remains consistent with the standards of the participating news organization. That's where Rich Jones, editor of the LEV, comes in. "We'll obviously bring professional level standards to the treatment of those issues, being under the Times banner brings certain responsibilities," said Jones, a former New York Times writer. "We just want to give students the skills they were need to have a really successful career."

Another challenge NYU faces is making sure that the site remains consistent over the entire year, not just the school year. During the school year, NYU students in the Reporting New York graduate subject concentration will be responsible for the day-to-day content; during the summer the site will be run by a combination of undergraduate summer students and graduate interns in editorial leadership roles as part of the NYU Hyperlocal Newsroom Summer Academy.

"We wanted to make it available to students across the country," said Brooke Kroeger, director of the NYU Journalism Institute.

Undergraduates will be able to enroll in either of two six-week sessions; graduate students are eligible for paid editorial internships assisting with the professional staff of the LEV. "The summer program is integral to the ecosystem that supports the project," she said.

NYU also must deal with inherent conflicts in coverage of the East Village, given that the university is the neighborhood's largest land-owner. Community liaison Kim Davis will be coordinating outreach to the East Village blogosphere and will arrange any coverage pertaining to NYU itself.

"We're willing to work with anybody," said Jones. "We want to promote a real neighborhood-wide conversation, a forum for folks to write stories about themselves."

CUNY

The CUNY collaboration on The Local: Fort Greene is different from its NYU counterpart for a number of reasons. NYU is the largest land-owner in the area that the LEV is covering; CUNY is in a different borough than Fort Greene altogether. CUNY's graduate school of journalism is also relatively small, with approximately 100 students in its ranks. For these reasons, it makes sense that CUNY has taken a different tack with the overall direction for its Local.

"Our goal is to move beyond the idea that we create all the content for The Local," said Jarvis. "What we are concentrating heavily on is the encouragement of the ecosystem itself."

CUNY is taking its partnership with the NYT on The Local as an opportunity to let faculty leadership and student journalists experiment with not only different ways of telling stories, but different ways to pay for those stories, too. Through partnerships with companies like GrowthSpur Jarvis hopes that the site will encourage citizen salespeople to monetize their own start-ups.

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CUNY's Jarvis is also leading the creation of a four-semester entrepreneurial journalism graduate program that he hopes will see its students invent the future of journalism.

Through a focused entrepreneurial curriculum, research into alternative business models for news, and an incubator/investment fund for new business models for news, the program hopes to give students an option to start their own media company, according to Stephen Shepard, dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. "We feel we have to take some responsibility for the future of quality journalism," said Shepard.

"Students' most important job in journalism school is to learn journalism," said Jarvis, "but the benefit here is that they can test out their idea and get advice and help."

Columbia

Not everyone agrees with CUNY's approach, though. "There's a pretty clear finding on where universities can best contribute in a sector that is or should be going through an innovative period," said Nicolas Lemann, dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Research is where universities can really add value, said Lemann.

Last fall, the Graduate School of Journalism released a report titled the The Reconstruction of American Journalism. Watchdog publication The Columbia Journalism Review is also run by, though editorially separate from, the school.

"We're not best positioned to be a business incubator, and though we could do that, it's not where we we can make our best contribution," said Lemann.

Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism has partly responded to the changing media environment by launching its Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism, and it also offers courses like a social media seminar taught by an all-star class of professional new media journalists, such as Vadim Lavrusik of Mashable, Zach Seward of the Wall Street Journal, and Jennifer Preston of the New York Times.

Columbia also encourages journalism students to contribute to class websites. "These sites don't last very long though, and therefore don't build very significant audiences," said Lemann. "One of the things I'd like to do next is build a site that lasts year-round."

Leman's number one goal is to have a contextual curriculum that prepares students to go out and do a story. "There's endless stuff going on at the school," he said. "The aggregate is that this has been a time of real opportunity for journalism schools in general and ours in particular."

Davis Shaver is MediaShift's editorial intern. He is also the founder and publisher of Onward State, an online news organization at Penn State. He studies history and the intersection of science, technology, and society.

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September 09 2010

16:30

Columbia, Medill Training New Breed of Programmer-Journalists

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

Roughly two years ago, a group of prominent journalism educators, administrators and academics gathered in a room at Columbia University.

Attendees included Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism; Bill Grueskin, the school's dean of academic affairs; Clay Shirky, the noted author, academic and adjunct professor at New York University; Jonathan Landman, who was then a top New York Times editor overseeing the paper's online operations (he's now its deputy managing editor); and Duy Linh Tu, an assistant professor and the director of digital media at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Notably, the meeting also included representatives from Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

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"It was just a small room with eight or 10 of us talking about how we can work together and combine forces between the engineering school and our school," Tu said. "Part of the reason for it was that so much of journalism is online now ... there is a lot of potential that hasn't even been tapped."

That meeting, along with a lot of other discussions, planning and hard work, eventually led to Columbia's April announcement of a new Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism. The program will kick off in fall of 2011 with an expected first class of roughly 15 people.

As MediaShift contributor Megan Taylor outlined in a post last year, many of today's programmer-journalists got to where they are thanks to self-directed education and hacking together courses and other educational opportunities to build their skills. But the new Columbia program, along with other initiatives, suggests that the next wave of programmer-journalists could be trained in specialized education programs that combine a traditional engineering/computer science degree with a traditional journalism education. Universities are working to either alter existing journalism programs or create new joint degrees to formalize the training of these workers.

Along with the Columbia program, Medill has been graduating programmer-journalists since 2008, and Georgia Tech is also home to a class in "computational journalism" taught by computer science professor Irfan Essa. It bills itself as "a study of computational and technological advancements in journalism with emphasis on technologies for developing new tools and their potential impact on news and information."

Along the same lines, former Washington Post database editor Sarah Cohen is now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University where her focus is on computational journalism. She recently worked with engineers to create of a new kind of timeline tool built for investigative journalists. Cohen sees a need for programs that bring programming and journalism closer together in order to help change the way newsrooms operate.

"There's a problem with the way things are organized in newsrooms," Cohen said. "Editors are word people and until that changes it will be hard to get reporters to focus on anything but words."

As with any emerging area or discipline, many big questions remain with programmer-journalist degrees. Are there enough people with a background in engineering or computer science interested in pursuing a career that's at least somewhat related to journalism? How many jobs are there out there for graduates? And what role will they ultimately play in journalism?

Altering Journalism Classes at Columbia

One of the basic questions about the new Columbia program is exactly how it differs from multimedia journalism programs and instruction.

Duy.jpg"I've learned by having to do a bunch of interviews and explain the program that a lot of people confuse it with building websites or learning to use Flash," said Tu. "We have a great program that does that. The analogy I like to use is that our students in the digital media class in the regular program use Photoshop or Flash; people in this degree would invent Photoshop."

Here's what Julia Hirschberg, professor of computer science at Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science told Wired in the spring:

The IT Department [at a news organization] comes up with software programs that the journalists don't use; the journalists ask for software that is computationally unrealistic. We aim to produce a new generation of journalists who will understand both fields.

Applicants to the program are required to have a bachelor's degree in computer science or the equivalent. As for the journalism side of things, one of the most important qualifications is a passion for news and information.

"Someone asked what kind of programming languages the student will be learning and that's kind of missing the point: They already know the programming languages," Tu said. "They know C and Java -- they are nerds who want to turn their nerd knowledge into developing whatever technologies can help with the creation of journalism or the distribution of journalism."

To make that happen, the journalism school is altering some of its existing courses. The standard entry level reporting and writing class is being rejiggered for students in the dual master's program, but Tu said the students will absolutely learn how to report, even if that's unlikely to be their role in the workforce.

"The course is being revamped with an emphasis on the profession and teaching them how to be a journalist and [to get them] thinking of how they can apply what they just learned about the process of producing journalism to technology and how tech can make that better," he said. "They will learn to be journalists. There's no watching from the sidelines. They will go on their beat and find sources and have to understand that process."

He said graduates could end up in a range of workplace situations: at a news/information startup, as part of an in-house team at a news organization, or part of a team at an information-focused company such as Google.

Medill's Scholarships

Google also came up in a discussion with Rich Gordon, a professor and the director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He said it was the launch of Google News that got him thinking about the need to create what he calls "bilingual" people who are equally versed in journalism and programming/engineering.

Rich Gordon

That resulted in Medill applying for and receiving a grant from the Knight Foundation to create scholarships for programmers to study journalism at the school. To date, nine students have received the scholarships, of which four have already graduated. They study at Medill for 12 months and exit with a master of science in journalism. Since they already have the programming skills, the focus is on building out their knowledge and journalism skills.

(Full disclosure: Medill is a longtime sponsor of MediaShift, and the Knight Foundation provided funding for MediaShift Idea Lab, where Gordon blogs about the scholarship program.)

"It I can have a really great programmer and make them literate in journalism, or take a journalist and give them some literacy in programming, then that's great," Gordon said. "The more we work on both sides of this gap, the more impact it can have. The premise is that we think it will be interesting to have bilingual journalist-programmers and they will come up with ideas, answers, programs and innovations that someone not equally proficient in both would not."

One similarity between the Medill and Columbia programs is that both are looking for people who already have programming skills. In each case, they say it seems easier to add journalism skills to a programmer, rather than the other way around. Brian Boyer was the first journalist-programmer to graduate from the Medill program, and he's now the Chicago Tribune's news applications editor. He agrees with this approach.

"Not to knock journalism, but I think it's probably easier to teach journalism to programmers than vice versa," he said via email. "It takes years of practice to become great at either, but the tools we use to make journalism -- words, etc. -- are generally accessible to a programmer. Whereas programming concepts are not general knowledge. Of course, we also use phone calls and other human contact to make journalism -- so the programmers do have much to learn."

Gordon said the challenge for these programs is to find programmers with a passion for journalism. After all, they may have to accept a lower salary in the world of news than what's offered to engineers in other industries.

"The biggest challenge is to find programmers for whom this would be a good fit," Gordon said. "All have done quite well in our program. I was dreading picking up the phone and having one of my colleagues say, 'Oh this guy who you admitted just can't hack it.' And that has not happened at all. In fact, it's been the opposite: My colleagues said it's one of best things we've done at Medill. They bring a new perspective to classes."

Future Prospects

The Medill scholarship recipients have so far had no trouble pursuing a career in line with their degree. Boyer has even hired a fellow Medill grad to join him at the Tribune. In another example, two other grads have launched a start-up, Stats Monkey. It remains to be seen where Columbia's grads will end up, but Tu is confident that they will not go wanting for work.

For the educational world, however, the question is whether these kinds of programs should become an essential part of journalism schools, or if they will remain niche programs at a small number of institutions. How many advanced programmer-journalists will be needed in the present and future? Will the tens of thousands of dollars spent by the Columbia grads be worth it in terms of their career prospects?

"The question I have is, is there a market for it?" Gordon said about the intensive dual degree being pitched by Columbia. "I suspect that without significant financial support for students there isn't a market for it. But if there is a market for a two-and-a-half or three-year joint degree ... and if Columbia proves they can make that work, that would be fabulous."

As much as these are academic programs, they are built to graduate students that can have an impact in the workforce. On that point Boyer, the first programmer-journalist to graduate from Medill, seems fairly optimistic.

"In the last six moths, I've run across job descriptions from a number of news organizations -- at several old-school/printy shops, at AP and Reuters, and at the new-wave web-centric non-profit shops like California Watch and Texas Tribune," he said. "This last bunch ought to be especially interesting to the hacker journalist. From what I've heard, they're getting a lot of traction out of their news applications, relative to their written work."

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is founder and editor of Regret the Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and BusinessJournalism.org. He also serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a collaborative news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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September 03 2010

19:33

Business, Entrepreneurial Skills Come to Journalism School

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

For decades, journalists in mainstream news organizations were shielded from the revenue side of the operation. Many argued their lack of knowledge helped avoid even the appearance of commercial influence in the editorial well. But with increased stress in the news industry and new disruptive technologies giving even entry-level reporters an understanding of audience behaviors and income streams, things have started to shift.

Journalism educators have increasingly been helping students learn the workings of the business side of news. The trend mirrors similar changes in the newsroom. Plus, with many journalists being laid off, having the business skills to run their own media enterprise -- whether it's a blog, podcast or independent news site -- is vital to many more people.

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"It came to be recognized that journalists needed to play more of a role in the future of their enterprises," said Stephen Shepard, who talked to me recently in a phone interview. Shepard is the founding and current dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and former editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek magazine.

CUNY's J-school and a raft of other journalism schools and institutes have introduced business courses into their curricula, teaching students to read and create basic financial statements and the principles of media management. They are also launching new training programs for mid-career journalists and editors.

Janice Castro is the senior director of graduate education and teaching excellence at Medill. She told me that at Northwestern University, the Medill School of Journalism and Kellogg business school have cooperated "for a long time" in developing a media management and research center.

Full disclosure: Medill is a longtime sponsor of MediaShift.

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Four years ago, as Medill revamped its curriculum, seats in two courses in media management at Kellogg were reserved for Medill students. Medill graduate students are also required to take either a course in "Audience Insight" or "How 21st Century Media Work," and have the option to take Kellogg classes in finance.

"We think it's really important for students who are going out to operate as journalists to understand the business of media," Castro said. "It's going to help them make better choices in where they're going to work, because they'll be better able to size up the company and its direction and its vision. They'll know more than the brand or the name of a big media organization. They'll be able to assess it."

Students will also better be able to help guide the organization strategically, according to Castro and Shepard. "When you have a student who's graduated and immediately put on the management track at a major media company, that's not something that used to happen," Castro said.

Demand for Entrepreneurial Instruction

There's also increasing demand from students joining or launching startup ventures.

CUNY this month expects to announce the formation of a master's degree program in Entrepreneurial Journalism, further enriching and extending courses offered since the school's inception four years ago.

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At the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship" is devoted to the development of new media entrepreneurship and the creation of innovative digital media products," according to its site. (Read this previous MediaShift article about how the school teaches digital media entrepreneurs.)

Retha Hill is the director of the New Media Innovation Lab at Cronkite.
During a lab-focused semester, Cronkite school students "have to think about the business implications of their ideas or the information they are gathering," Hill told me via email.

Even at Columbia University, where school founder Joseph Pulitizer in 1904 wrote that he found the idea of teaching business "repugnant," students are required to learn business principles. All Masters of Science students, about 85 percent of matriculants, take a class on the "Business of Journalism" that was conceived and introduced last year by dean of academic affairs and former Wall Street Journal Online managing editor Bill Grueskin.

The course includes a Harvard Business School case study about a Norwegian media company called Schibsted that moved its business more strongly into digital media; instruction on managing profit and loss in a business; the differences in advertising and circulation revenues; principles of ad pricing; and other business issues.

Grueskin told me via email that the faculty at Columbia overwhelmingly supported the course. In a letter to them, Grueskin wrote that while Pulitzer "went out of his way to exclude business courses from the curriculum," today "journalists are increasingly being called upon to make business models work. We owe it to our students to give them a grounding in that field."

Training Institutes Step In

Training institutes, too, are helping journalists and editors learn business principles.

The Knight Digital Media Center, based at both the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley, in May held a week-long "News Entrepreneur Boot Camp."

Full disclosure: Knight Digital Media Center is a sponsor of MediaShift.

Attendees, many of them mid-career journalists, learned disciplines such as business models, building a feasibility plan, customer acquisition and web analytics.

The Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank and training center where I contribute articles and have lectured on business principles, in July named two Ford Fellows in Entrepreneurial Journalism who are mentoring startup initiatives and teaching business disciplines.

Heartening Trend

While some journalism purists may bemoan what they consider fuzzing the lines between "church (journalism) and state (business)," I find the move to integrate business into journalism education encouraging.

It's healthy, I think, that reporters and editors now believe they should understand what it is that brings in the money that goes into their paychecks.

This is not to say they should pander to commercial or financial interests -- and there is certainly a danger as even junior reporters learn how many page views (and by implication advertising impressions) a story they produce garners. One journalism educator told me that even in his "little blog" he considered whether to disrupt the center column with an ad and make more money.

It's always been a balancing act, though, even if the rank-and-file weren't completely aware. At BusinessWeek, "ad placement was always an issue," Shepard said.

That even new J-school graduates now understand some of the struggles is probably a good thing -- as long as they also are grounded in what Shepard called the "professionalism and judgment" to not "cave in all the time to advertising demands in a way that would hurt the reader or viewer."

In the long run, those guiding journalistic enterprises must understand both the editorial principles that over time bring in and maintain a community of readers and participants, as well as the business principles that sustain the operation.

If they can do so successfully, perhaps the new news businesses they are molding and creating can then survive the fate of so many of today's severely stressed news organizations.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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April 09 2010

23:05

4-Minute Roundup: Apple's iAds; Journo-Programming Degree

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at Apple's plan to enter mobile advertising with its new iAd platform. Apple has been known for hardware and software but has never handled ad sales before, and now finds itself squarely in competition with Google and AdMob in that arena. Plus, Columbia University announced a new dual journalism-programming degree. And I ask Just One Question to AdAge reporter Kunur Patel about her take on the new Apple iAd platform.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio4910.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Kunur Patel:

patel full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Apple Launches 'iAd,' Mobile Ad Platform for iPhone and iPad at ClickZ

Steve Jobs Promises Developers That Apple's iAds Won't 'Suck' and Will Make Them Money at MediaMemo

Apple's iAd Not Game-Changing, but Will Move Market at AdAge

Apple Unveils New Ad Software for iPhone at Wall Street Journal

Apple Announces Mobile Ad Plans Thursday, and Google Can't Wait to Tell the FTC at MediaMemo

Apple unveils iPhone OS 4.0 at CNET

Apple Unveils Ad Platform and Phone Software at NY Times Bits

Will Columbia-Trained, Code-Savvy Journalists Bridge the Media/Tech Divide? at Wired Epicenter

Columbia's J-School Gears Up A New Generation Of Digital Media Geeks at Business Insider

Columbia Rolls Out Joint Journalism - CompSci Grad Program at FishbowlNY

New dual-degree master's in journalism & computer science announced at Columbia University

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about ads on your mobile phone:




What do you think about ads on your mobile phone?surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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14:00

This Week in Review: The iPad has landed, WikiLeaks moves toward journalism, and net neutrality is hit

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

The iPad unleashed: If you’ve been anywhere near a computer or TV this week, it’s not hard to determine what this week’s top journalism/new media story is: Apple’s iPad hit stores Saturday, with 450,000 sold as of Thursday. I’ll spare you the scores of reviews, and we’ll jump straight to the bigger-picture and journalism-related stuff. There’s a ton to get to here, so if you’re interested in the bite-sized version, read Cory Doctorow and Howard Weaver on closed media consumption, Kevin Anderson on app pricing, and Alan Mutter and Joshua Benton on news app design.

If you’re looking for the former, The New York Times and the current issue of Wired have thoughts on the iPad and tablets’ technological and cultural impact from a total of 19 people, mostly tech types. We also saw the renewal of several of the discussions that were percolating the weeks before the iPad’s arrival: New media expert Jeff Jarvis and open-web activist Cory Doctorow took up similar arguments that the iPad is a retrograde device because it’s based around media consumption rather than creation, strangling development and making a single company our personal technology gatekeepers. In responses to Jarvis and Doctorow respectively, hyperlocal journalist Howard Owens and former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver defended those “consumers,” countering that not everybody consumes media like tech critics do — most people are primarily consumers, and that’s OK.

Meanwhile, two other writers made, judging from their pieces’ headlines, an almost identical point: The iPad is not going to save the news or publishing industries. Leaning heavily on Jeff Jarvis, The Huffington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas made the consumption argument, saying that consumers want to tweak, question and pass around their content, not just passively consume it. And Harvard Business Review editor Paul Michelman contended that publishers are trying to retrofit their media onto this new one.

News business expert Alan Mutter and Poynter blogger Damon Kiesow offered some tips for publishers who do want to succeed on the iPad: Mutter wrote a thorough and helpful breakdown of designing for print, the web and mobile media, concluding, “Publishers who want to take full advantage of the iPad will have to do better by creating content that is media-rich, interactive, viral, transactional and mobile.” Kiesow told news orgs to consider what the iPad will be down the road as they design.

There was also quite a bit written about news organizations’ iPad apps, most of it not exactly glowing. Damon Kiesow provided a helpful list of journalism-related apps, finding that not surprisingly, most of the top selling ones are free. The high prices of many news orgs’ apps drew an inspired rant from British journalist Kevin Anderson in which he called the pricing “a last act of insanity by delusional content companies.” Poynter’s Bill Mitchell took a look at early critical comments by users about high prices and concluded that by not explaining themselves, publishers are leaving it to the crowd to make up their own less-than-charitable explanations for their moves.

As for specific apps, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore was wowed by USA Today’s top-selling app, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum compared The New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s apps, and news industry analyst Ken Doctor looked at the Journal’s iPad strategy. Finally, the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton found three intriguing news-navigation design ideas while browsing news orgs’ iPad apps: Story-to-story navigation, pushing readers straight past headlines, and the “cyberclaustrophobia” of The New York Times’ Editors’ Choice app.

Is WikiLeaks a new form of journalism?: On Monday, the whistleblower website WikiLeaks posted video of civilians being killed by a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad in 2007. In a solid explanation of the situation, The New York Times’ Noam Cohen and Brian Stelter noted that with the video, WikiLeaks is making a major existential shift by “edging closer toward a form of investigative journalism and to advocacy.”

Others noticed the journalistic implications as well, with Jonathan Stray of Foreign Policy wondering whether WikiLeaks is pioneering a new, revolutionary avenue for sourcing outside the confines of traditional media outlets. On Twitter, Dan Gillmor posited that a key part of WikiLeaks’ ascendancy is the fact that unlike traditional news orgs, it doesn’t see itself as a gatekeeper, and C.W. Anderson declared the video and an analysis of it by a former helicopter pilot “networked journalism.” If you want to know more about WikiLeaks itself, Mother Jones has plenty of background in a detailed feature.

Net neutrality takes a hit: In the tech world, the week’s big non-iPad story came on Tuesday, when a federal judge allowed Internet service providers some ability to slow down or regulate traffic on their network. It was a huge blow to proponents of net neutrality, or the belief that all web use should be free of restrictions or institutional control. The FCC has tried for years to impose net neutrality standards on ISPs, so it’s obviously a big setback for them, too.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNET all have solid summaries of the case and its broader meaning, and The Washington Post takes a look at the FCC’s options in the wake of the ruling. I haven’t seen anyone directly tie this case to journalism, though it obviously has major implications for who controls the future of the web, which in turn will influence what news organizations do there. And as Dan Gillmor notes, this isn’t just a free-speech issue; it’s also about the future of widespread broadband, something that has been mentioned in the past (including by Gillmor himself) as a potentially key piece of the future-of-news puzzle.

Murdoch rattles more sabers: As his media holdings continue to prepare to put up paywalls around their online content (The Times of London was the recent announcement), Rupert Murdoch made another public appearance this week in which he bashed search engines, free online news sites and The New York Times. There is one thing he likes about technology, though: The iPad, which he said “may well be the saving of the newspaper industry.” Staci Kramer of paidContent astutely notes that Murdoch’s own statements about charging for content imply that it will only work if virtually every news org does it. Meanwhile, Australian writer Eric Beecher argues that Murdoch’s money-losing newspapers subsidize the power and influence that the rest of his media empire thrives on.

In other paid-content news, the Chicago Reader has an informative profile of the interesting startup Kachingle, which allow users to pay a flat fee to read a number of sites, then designate how much of their money goes where and trumpet to their friends where they’re reading. Also The New Republic put a partial paywall up, and newspaper chain Freedom Communications took its test paywall down.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a pretty large collection of items for you this week, starting with a couple of bits of news and finishing with several interesting pieces to read.

Columbia University announced a new dual-degree master’s program in journalism and computer science. Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired has a deeper look at the program’s plans to produce hacker-journalists who can be pioneers in data visualization and analysis and device-driven design, along with a couple of brutally honest quotes from Columbia faculty about the relative paucity of computing skills among even “tech-savvy journalists.” Just about everybody loved the idea of the program, though journalist/developer Chris Amico cautioned that more than just dual-degree journalists need to be hanging out with the computer scientists.  ”The problem isn’t just a lack of reporters who can code, but a shortage of people in the newsroom who know what’s possible,” he wrote.

Down the road, this may be seen as a turning point: Demand Media, which has been derided lately as a “content farm” will create and run a new travel section for USA Today. As Advertising Age points out, USA Today isn’t the first newspaper to get content from Demand Media — the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gets a travel article a week — but this is collaboration of an entirely new scale.

Now the think pieces: Here at the Lab, former newspaper exec Martin Langeveld updated his year-old post asserting that more than 95 percent of readership of newspaper content is in print rather than online, and while the numbers changed a bit, his general finding did not.

In an interview with Poynter, Newser’s Michael Wolff had some provocative words for news orgs, telling them readers want stories online with less context, not more (as several folks asserted a few weeks ago at SXSW) and saying he would’ve told newspapers way back when not to go on the web at all: “[Online readers'] experiences have changed and their needs have changed, and I just don’t think traditional news companies are in a position to really understand that kind of change or to speak to it or to deliver it.”

At The Atlantic, Lane Wallace wrote that journalists’ (especially veterans’) strongest bias is not political, but is instead an predetermined assumption of a story line that prevents them from seeing the entire picture.

And lastly, two great academically oriented musings on media and society: Memphis j-prof Carrie Brown-Smith wonders if social media furthers our cultural knowledge gap, and University of Southern Denmark professor Thomas Pettitt talks to the Lab’s Megan Garber about the Gutenberg Parenthesis and society’s return to orally based communication with digital media. Both are great food for thought.

April 08 2010

08:23

Wired.com: Columbia to offer joint computer science and journalism degree

US university Columbia has created a new masters’ degree combining computer science and journalism.

The Columbia programme, which will accept its first 15 students (tops) in the fall of 2011, seeks to attack the barrier between journalists and the increasingly important IT professionals whose web and digital savvy are crucial to any form of newsgathering, reporting and delivery. The problem: users really don’t know what to ask developers for (or how), and developers have no real idea what their software will need to do in the hands of the users.

The cross-disciplinary programme will equip journalists with vital data mining skills, technology to make their work more efficient and ideas for “new storytelling media using 3D photography and other methods”.

Full story at this link…

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January 14 2010

18:00

Intended Consequences named as first web winner of Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards

Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism today announced the 2010 winners of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards. MediaStorm is honored to be the first web recipient of a duPont Award, for Intended Consequences, by Jonathan Torgovnik.

From their site:

In painfully intimate interviews photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik explores an unfathomable question: can a mother can love a child born out of rape. The women profiled in this haunting multimedia presentation were caught in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when mass rapes resulted in the birth of an estimated 20,000 children. It spotlights an issue which had not been as widely covered as other war crimes in Rwanda, and is the first Web-based production to win a duPont Award. The women speak simply about their brutal experiences, their isolation and suffering, and the way forward. The producers made excellent creative choices that contributed to the impact of the reporting without resorting to sensationalism.

The duPont Awards, administered since 1968 by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, are considered to be the most prestigious broadcast journalism awards and the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes, which are also administered at the Journalism School. Selected by the duPont Jury for excellence in broadcast journalism, the award-winning news programs aired in the United States between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009. The honorees will be presented with silver duPont batons at a ceremony held at Columbia University on Thursday, January 21, 2010.

Congratulations to all of the winners, there’s some really amazing work in there. You can see the full list at the duPont site.

January 04 2010

14:50

ROGER FIDLER AND HIS EARLY VISION OF THE NEWSPAPER TABLET

fidler_iLiad-Newsbook_lg

Now that the Apple iTablet is coming, we must give the proper credit to the early vision of our friend Roger Fidler.

I meet Roger in the late 1980’s and since then we have shared the same hope: that one day, print newspaper will migrate to new digital platforms.

My “rubber newspaper” idea was inspired by his concepts and prototypes.

Roger was our host in New York’s Columbia University and at the Boulder’s Knight Ridder Information Design Laboratory, where one of my former students, Alvaro Moncada, had a fantastic summer internship.

Roger Fidler was a journalist and newspaper designer for 34 years and has been on the leading edge of online and digital publishing development since the late 1970s.

As program director for digital publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI), he coordinates digital publishing research projects and the Digital Publishing Alliance (DPA).

Here you can watch a 1994 video with his first Newspaper Tablet prototype.

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