Monthly Archives: March 2011

Journalism needs pollinators



What is that bee doing with his nose buried in that flower? If you remember your elementary school science class, you’ll know the bee is either pollinating this flower or gathering pollen from it to take to another flower. Though there are other ways for flowers to get pollinated (such as wind), bees and other insect or bird pollinators are crucial to the process.

Now, the bees, they don’t make the pollen. Everyone knows that. The flowers make it. But the bees, they take it and carry it around to all the areas it needs to go in order to keep the flowers blooming and thriving.

Do the flowers ever get upset with the bees for doing this? Do they ever get annoyed that the next flower the bee stops at to deposit the pollen won’t know where that pollen originated? Not to my knowledge. I believe even if flowers could talk and if they had feelings, they still wouldn’t be irritated with the bees. No, I think they would be somewhat grateful actually. The bees are helping their pollen spread further. They can still be secure in the knowledge that they make the pollen, to say nothing of the fact that they’re the pretty and colorful ones and get all the attention from passer-bys while the bees get swatted away. 

Simon Dumenco doesn’t go in for any of this type of thinking though. He seems to think that the bees are doing more harm than good:

But we’re all so busy playing a game of bloggy, social-media-enabled telephone that we’re forgetting the primary sources — the dwindling number of journalistic organizations left on the world stage that do actual, honest-to-God reporting — of “news.”

You’ve probably guessed by now that the bees are bloggers and the flowers are journalists, specifically those who produce original news content.

There was of course a time when bloggers didn’t exist and journalists got on just fine without them. But, and this should be obvious to everyone, times have changed. There are so many more places for news consumers to get their information. There are so many more platforms. There are so many more voices. In order to be heard above the din, one needs to have authority, reader loyalty, reach and much more. How does one acquire these things in an environment where it is increasingly difficult to do so?

Some of the methods are simple. If you are lucky enough to work for the New York Times, CNN or another major new outlet, you automatically have a larger microphone than, say, someone at a small, regional newspaper in Kentucky. Also, if you work for the New York Times, your newsroom is likely equipped with greater resources and better technology to make sure your work spreads as widely as possible. If you’ve held a prominent position in politics, business or another field, your words are more likely to be listened to closely, whether you write them online or say them on cable TV. There are other methods. But just like the flowers whose pollen will still spread without the help of bees, none of them are quite enough.

The final and vital piece in the current news ecosystem is precisely that social-media-enabled telephone that Dumenco derides. Producing powerful, original content is well and good, but is it capturing the attention of a wide audience? After all, if an act of journalism is committed and no one is around to read it, did it really happen? Bloggers and other who are heavily engaged in social media act as a crucial link to the wider public, just like the bees are a crucial link for the flowers’ pollen. 

Bloggers, through the act of linking to the content they choose, are shining a spotlight on that content and saying HEY, this is good stuff. Read it. Pay attention to it. The same happens when someone posts a story on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else. Incidentally, this is the evolution of a behavior that has always existed, even pre-Internet. Surely even before the founders of Twitter were a glimmer in their parents’ eyes, people told a friend or neighbor about something they read in the paper or saw on a TV news report. Surely someone cut out a magazine article and sent it to their sister or niece or friend in another state. Blogging, tweeting and all the rest of it is simply the modern version of a perfectly natural desire to share with and inform those around us. You would think journalists of all people would be sensitive to this instinct since they’ve made it into their life’s work. 

Further, I can’t imagine someone at the New York Times chiding a reader who e-mails an article to her friend for not putting it in context, for being reactionary or anything else of the sort. But Dumenco throws these barbs at bloggers with impunity: 

Dependable, in-depth, big-picture journalism — as opposed to the reactionary, piecemeal, out-of-context “aggregation” practiced by way too many bloggers — is an increasingly rare and precious commodity.

If the difference between that lone woman and a blogger is that the latter is attempting to gain notoriety or an income through their reactionary, context-free ramblings, they are also more worthy of both because they expend a great deal of effort on what they do whilst the sending of a few e-mails isn’t exactly a major committment.

All that said, remember how I said that journalists must have authority, audience loyalty and reach to be relevant? Guess what, bloggers need to do the same! Only it’s considerably more difficult, because they are often starting from less than zero while even a journalist at a small community newspaper starts the race with more in the authority bank. Despite whatever wild scenarios Mr. Dumenco or others may imagine, people still trust traditional media sources more than most bloggers. 

I haven’t even mentioned the ridiculous (and oft repeated mantra) that “real” journalists are those that risk their lives on a daily basis unlike the unwashed hordes of bloggers:

It’s actually the Times that deploys journalists around the world at mind-boggling expense — journalists who literally put their lives on the line every day — to report from the front lines. It’s actually the Times that had four of its journalists — Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell, Tyler Hicks and Anthony Shadid — abducted in Ajdabiya and held for six days.

Excuse me, but when was the last time any columnist risked her life in the commission of her duty? How about those folks writing personal finance or gardening columns? Even on the more contentious and high-stakes beats like environmental or political reporting, I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of risks of bodily harm. To my knowledge, no one has ever tried to abduct or shoot at a reporter attending a gas company’s press conference or one sitting in the viewing gallery at the local state capital or city hall. Please Mr. Dumenco (and everyone else belaboring this point): spare us. If your only justification for charging for content is that you’re risking your life to get it, you’ve got bigger problems than Cory Doctorow or any other blogger. By that logic, should we should only pay for or value the work that might get a journalist killed? 

Speaking of Mr. Doctorow, Mr. Dumenco seems quite put out that he was quoted so much with regard to the NYT impending paywall. Hmm, quoted a lot, read by many… does this sound familiar to anyone? Does this sound perhaps like someone who works for the New York Times? Perhaps a Maureen Dowd or a Paul Krugman or a David Brooks? Now, how did those folks all achieve such a high level of authority?

I think they did it by consistently providing content their readers liked, appreciated and shared with others. I think they did it by presenting their ideas in a compelling way. I think working at the New York Times doesn’t hurt either. Mr. Doctorow did all the same things and writing for Boing Boing doesn’t hurt in the very same way. I can assure Mr. Dumenco that when I write something, I’m not quoted all over the place; at least not so much that it would catch his attention. Cory Doctorow is. What separates us? Well, the same thing separates me from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. Cory Doctorow has earned his authority and as much as it may pain Mr. Dumenco to admit it, the bestowal of that authority is no more suspect or dubious than the bestowal of authority on a Ms. Dowd or a Mr. Brooks.

To bring this back to the bee analogy, most outside observers would likely look at the bee as a necessary part of the flower’s ecosystem. They can, and indeed must, coexist happily together. But Mr. Dumenco and, to be fair, quite a number of “serious journalists” are not inclined to view bees i.e. bloggers this way. They view them instead as parasites and as long as this is the prevailing mindset, we are stuck, mired and cannot move forward and create a more vibrant press for the benefit of all.

News organizations need community managers

a community manager should seem like a must-have position for a news organization. The comments, your Facebook page and your Twitter page are all public-facing, and they deal directly with your readers on a daily basis.

When developing a strategy for dealing with comments on your newspaper’s website, the conversation should happen with a community manager, because they are the people who will be implementing the new strategy. Additionally, they bring to the table an outlook and individual experiences that reporters and editors often do not have. Having a good community manager on staff becomes more valuable each day, because the news organization has someone “on the front lines”, so to speak.

The duties that a community manager would have, cannot and should not be delegated to others in the newsroom who otherwise lack the background and professional experience that a professional community manager would have. It’s very tempting, especially in the current economic climate. But doing so would ultimately do more harm than good.

If your newspaper or news organization hasn’t hired a community manager to develop and maintain your organization’s communities online, you should do sooner rather than later.


Whose journalism is it?

In the digital space, the organizations that produce the news increasingly rely on independent networks to sell their ads. They depend on aggregators (such as Google) and social networks (such as Facebook) to bring them a substantial portion of their audience. And now, as news consumption becomes more mobile, news companies must follow the rules of device makers (such as Apple) and software developers (Google again) to deliver their content. Each new platform often requires a new software program. And the new players take a share of the revenue and in many cases also control the audience data.

That data may be the most important commodity of all. In a media world where consumers decide what news they want to get and how they want to get it, the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user. That knowledge — and the expertise in gathering it — increasingly resides with technology companies outside journalism.

In the 20th century, the news media thrived by being the intermediary others needed to reach customers. In the 21st, increasingly there is a new intermediary: Software programmers, content aggregators and device makers control access to the public. The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself more a follower than leader shaping its business.


To me, this is troubling to say the least. If you think I’m wrong to feel uneasy about this, I’d love to be reassured in the comments.

Bloggers vs. Journalists: the meme that will not die

From Jay Rosen’s talk about this topic at SXSW:

If you ask journalists why they chose their profession, they give a range of answers: to see the world, something new every day, I like to write. The most common answer is some variation on: to make the world a better place, to right wrongs and stick up for the little guy. Social justice, in other words. No one ever says, “I went into journalism because I have a passion for being… objective.” Or: “Detachment, that’s my thing. I’m kind of a detached guy, so I figured this would be a good field for me.”

And yet… When they get there, people who always wanted to be journalists and make the world a better place find that the professional codes in place often prevent this [bolding is mine]. It’s hard to fight for justice when you have to master “he said, she said” stories. Voice is something you learn to take out of your work if you want to succeed in the modern newsroom. You are supposed to sacrifice and learn to report the story without attitude or bias creeping in. And then, if you succeed in disciplining yourself, you might one day get a column and earn the right to crusade for justice, to move and convince.

This is a moral hierarchy, which bloggers disrupt. They jump right to voice, which appears to mock all the years of voicelessness that mainstream journalists had suffered through.

And here’s an excerpt from a departed blogger named Steve Gilliard who inspired the work of current Chicago blogger, Driftglass:

Bloggers are not some new creation, but the newest set of the barbarians at the gates. They are the people who don’t trust the system and it’s artifacts. It is to writing, what rap is to music, the coming of democracy to a trade. What [Hunter S.] Thompson and his peers did in the 60’s and 70’s, we do today. But free of the constraints of editors and publishers and the need to hustle up work.



Can we all become proper journalists again? Please?

there are now journalistic websites such as that are dedicated just to resolving factual disputes in politics.

“It is interesting that there are now institutions within journalism dedicated to resolving disputes. A few decades ago, that was seen as the role of all journalists. Journalists didn’t see themselves as stenographers, but as judges, keeping the lawyers honest in the court of public opinion. We don’t see that

And please, as per usual, click on the link and read the entire piece that this snippet comes from.

Sure, meeting voters at El stops is just FINE

From the Facebook feed of WGN Radio News Director Charlie Meyerson:

“Ran into Rahm Emanuel at the L station around 5:30 p.m. He happily shook my hand. Things got chilly when I told him I’m a reporter and started posing questions. Asked to name his biggest concern of the campaign, he said it was that WGN reporters would interfere with his meeting and greeting voters. I reminded him we’re part of the process, too. And then my train arrived. I can hardly wait for our next meeting.”

I somehow missed this the first time around on the Beachwood which I normally read every day. Hat tip to Karl Klockars for pointing me to this.

First, I love Charlie Meyerson and here’s another example of why. By the way, it runs in the family. His son Ben is pretty darn cool too. He’s doing this these days

But back to the matter at hand… Rahm is still out there shaking hands at El stops, even having won the election. Mr. Populist. He also did it all throughout the campaign of course, all the while framing it as a legitimate way to put himself in front of voters. But is it really? I’m glad there’s at least one journalist in this town who was compelled to somewhat challenge that notion.

Did @MayorEmanuel influence the election?

First off, this is the last you’ll hear from me on this topic. It has become completely overblown, overhyped nonsense. A Colbert Show appearance and money donated to a great charity notwithstanding, even Dan thinks this has gotten out of hand.

But before we close the book on this, I want to address something in DeRo’s post that had been nagging at me. This part:

“I would have voted for [Emanuel] just because of that fake Twitter account,” one of Sinker’s journalism students told the Tribune.


Reading that made me wonder: could the parody Twitter account really have swung votes Emanuel’s way? Being a journalist, I decided to ask some campaign staffer types as well as some academics who specialize in electoral politics.

Here are their responses.

“I do not believe that the Twiter account had any significant effect on the mayoral campaign.” Dick Simpson, UIC

“Rahm Emauel’s victory did not come about because of the use of twitter. I suspect that the use of twitter and similar technologies will have growing importance but not in 2011 in Chicago.” Alan R. Gitelson, Loyola University Chicago

“I think it helped to humanize Emanuel more. Also, I think Chicago voters want their Mayor to be a bit of ass-kicker, which Emanuel is known to be. Our voters are smart enough to understand that campaigning is different to governing and that Emanuel passed the important temperament test and proved his discipline and control throughout the campaign. The Mayor Emanuel twitter was an innovative, welcome and enjoyable distraction.” –Matthew Bailey, Director of Communications for 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno

“I do not believe that social network [Twitter] had any appreciable effect upon the mayoral race. I do not see any evidence suggesting otherwise.                —Randy Kantner, Illinois GOP campaign worker

“I do not think this had any effect on the election.  It might have hurt Emanuel had he responded badly to it, making it a bigger story than it was.  However, his response was low-key and non-confrontational, so it had little impact.  I suspect that most of the people who voted had heard little, if anything, about it before the election.” John Frendreis, Loyola University Chicago

Regardless of whether he meant to or not, Dan Sinker co-opted the most genuinely scary aspects of Emanuel’s personality and made it funny. Any discussion about whether or not Emanuel could manage his well-known anger fits became secondary to the idea that, hey, it’s really funny that he drops the f-bomb all the time. It is well known among city workers that our out-going mayor likes to kill the messenger. Magically, @MayorEmanuel has not only transformed that characteristic into a virtue for the real Rahm Emanuel, but made it a joke worthy of the Colbert Report.” –Anonymous

I think the @mayoremanuel account helped motivate some undecideds to vote for rahm, rather than negatively affect his campaign. I think most followers were likely to vote regardless. The only basis for those followers to disengage from the electoral process was apathy. Rahm took the city regardless.” –Martin Ritter, Director of the 2nd Ward Democratic Organization

So there you have it. If you have an opinion on the matter, please leave it in the comments. In the end though, perhaps we shouldn’t find it problematic that Rahm might have logged a few extra votes because of the @MayorEmanuel’s shenanigans. Perhaps what we should find problematic is that of 1.4 million registered voters in Chicago, only 580,000 cast a ballot. And that’s something no Twitter account can ever fix.

Is it time for print and digital to go their separate ways?


I recently wrote about the tension between the two mediums (note: I’m no longer at that position) and now there’s apparently quite a bit of talk of deconvergance, or the need to separate print from digial entirely. It’s a fascinating proposition. If you’d like to dive into the topic, I recommend starting with the excellent Storify Steve Buttry put together:


Civic participation isn’t a hobby

“Established political leadership doesn’t want increased participation,” he said. “We have a tendency to get people engaged when there’s an election and then forget about it for four years.

“We need to make it part of their lifestyle rather than something they do once in a while. We have to make not being involved socially unacceptable.”

The above snippet comes from a story about minority political leadership in Chicago and how there is a need for new blood in the ranks and an overall re-adjustment in the approach to community organizing, elections, etc.

But though it talks primarily about the black community in our city, there are lessons here for every Chicagoan, and indeed every politically involved citizen, no matter their skin color or national origin.

The lesson is that civic participation isn’t a hobby. Think of it like dental hygiene. You may go to the dentist once or twice a year for a cleaning or maybe even every couple of years. But you still brush your teeth every day. Political involvement should work the same way. You might vote every 2-4 years or maybe less frequently, but you should be maintaining your status as an involved citizen daily.

What can you do daily?

You can read a variety of news sources to try to educate yourself on the pressing issues of our time. Here I want to urge you, as much as possible, to focus on local matters. Because while national politics seems much more sexy and exciting, local politics is what most affects your life and it is also the strata of government that you have the largest degree of control over.

Can’t make heads or tails of the issues in your town? Read a few books. Learn the history of how things came to be as they are. It will help you understand what needs to be done going forward.

Once you’ve got an idea of the issues and of how you feel about them, join a community group in your area that advocates for an issue position you feel strongly about. If there’s an issue you feel is important but isn’t currently being addressed by citizens or elected officials, start a new group to address it.

Talk to your friends, co-workers and neighbors about civic issues in your town, state, etc. The old axiom to never talk about politics or religion is a terrible idea and is designed to keep citizens disconnected from one another. Hannah Arendt said that “opinions are formed in a process of open discussion and public debate,” and so it is. Frank and honest discussion of political matters is the lifeblood of our democracy. You may, of course, want to tread lightly if you don’t know much about the views of the person you’re conversing with. Start out by asking their opinion on a local matter that’s being debated or a major issue area in your town. If they have no opinion, it’s probably because they’re not familiar with the issue. Take this opportunity to sketch out the basics for them and explain why it’s important.

I’m going to mention one more time the importance of reading widely. When it comes to politics, whether you feel you identify more with a conservative or liberal world view, seek out opinions different than your own as much as you can. Challenge yourself to consider different viewpoints.

And of course when election time comes around, learn about the candidates and determine which one will best advocate for the issue positions you want to see advanced. Don’t like any of the candidates? Write someone in or better yet, work with local groups in advance of the next election to field a candidate who you believe will be a good and ethical leader.

Above all, learn all you can about the world and constantly scrutinize even your most closely help assumptions and beliefs. Determine periodically if you still believe them, if any new information has been presented to refute them, etc.

Got it? Now go forth and participate on your democracy. Don’t just observe it. Act. Do. Get involved.

Why stories are not enough

Today, as in 2005, as in 1905, most news is organized and communicated as “stories.” To be a story, a collection of information must have a who, a when, a what, a where, and in most cases, a why and a how.

But that traditional approach to news leaves out the sixth W: “Who cares?” A story must be potentially interesting to a valuable audience, or it isn’t worth producing.

This is the fatal flaw with a theory of the press that is based on stories. It assumes that the only information that has value is the information that seems immediately interesting.

But what if baseball coverage worked that way? If our only records of Major League Baseball games were stories about dramatic, game-defining events, we’d never read about a bloop single in the scoreless third, because who cares about facts irrelevant to the story? The “story” is the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the ninth.

220px-Henry_Chadwick_BaseballWe enjoy baseball’s intricacies today because of an 1860s sports journalist named Henry Chadwick. Chadwick earned a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame for inventing a structured code for recording the outcome of every play in a baseball game. It’s because of Chadwick’s “box score” that we value inconsequential third-inning singles, because that hit – like the ground-out before it and the strike-out that followed – is part of a comprehensive data set. If we recorded for posterity only those plays that individual sportswriters deemed immediately interesting, we would have no baseball statistics. No objective way of comparing players across eras. No Sabremetrics.

Today’s journalists tend to view new alternatives to narrative as barbaric assaults on their art form, but the simple truth is that we love good baseball stories in large part because box scores give writers the freedom to reject stenography in favor of the most interesting narrative, as well as the ability to make wonderfully definitive statements. We need not cautiously declaim that “many close observers agree that Josh Hamilton is one of the best batters in game.” We can instead write that “Hamilton, who hit .359 this season, has added a new milestone to his improbable comeback from drug addiction: 2010 American League batting champion.”

My mind = blown.

It suddenly starts to make sense why I’ve always dreamed of reams of data for political coverage. For instance, wouldn’t it be nice if, in Chicago, we had a record of every alderman’s vote on everything that ever came up for a vote going back at least 20 years? And that’s just for starters.