Larry ignored me, and look what happened

Poor Larry. If only he had taken me up on my offer.

Larry Conners, courtesy of  the Post-DispatchThe Larry in question is Larry Conners, the once-ubiquitous, now erstwhile KMOV-TV news anchor. My offer was an invitation that he join the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

I can’t help but think that if he had accepted the invitation, maybe, just maybe, Conners wouldn’t be in such a fix today.

Instead, he’s learning a lesson about the vagaries of celebrity and social media, and those lessons can to be harsh.

Al Roker knows this. So does Anthony Weiner, Ashton Kutcher, Kenneth Cole, and the former Chad Ochocinco: Posting or tweeting with indifference, ignorance or insensitivity can tarnish reputations, perhaps beyond polish.

The Web bristles with examples of questionable social networking behavior, to the extent that a top tip for job hunters is sweeping out offensive material from their networking sites before sending out résumés.

Yet the harsh lessons persist, with no learning evident or behaviors changed. Conners, 66, a 37-year veteran of St. Louis television, sets the latest example.

Conners took a face plant on Facebook last week when he hinted at personal intimidation from the Internal Revenue Service resulting from his televised interview of President Barack Obama in April 2012. During the interview, he issued criticism allegedly passed along from KMOV viewers about the president racking up frequent flyer vacation miles at taxpayer expense.

Conners spoke out only now because he says he was inspired by a recent IRS admission that the agency allowed tougher-than-usual scrutiny of records coming from conservative interest groups seeking tax-exempt status.

On Facebook, Conners, while not revealing his politics, suggested the interview with Obama alone might have brought down scrutiny on himself. He didn’t mention though that his own tax issues predate the Obama interview.

On air a day later, Conners backtracked a bit from his insinuations, but that clarification apparently wasn’t enough. His employer first suspended him, then cut him loose, saying the Facebook post undercut his journalistic credibility and that of the station.

Since then, Conners has defended his intentions on a rival station. His next defense may come in court; Conners has hired an attorney.

I shake my head in dismay.

Three years ago, I was the newly minted president of SPJ’s St. Louis chapter, and as a courtesy to all major media members in the area sent out invitations to either join or rejoin the 114-year-old national society, which among other ideals espouses a Code of Ethics considered to be the standard for behavior among journalists.

The society not only posts this Code online, it has printed copies that the St. Louis chapter offers at most of its monthly meetings. High up in the Code’s wording, it exhorts journalists to “exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” and to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

Given Conners’ lengthy tenure in television news, one might think he wouldn’t need a reminder. But that’s why SPJ posts the Code and prints the cards; we all need reminding.

Today, journalists toe a thin line between objectivity and subjectivity. The former underpins their credibility; the latter seeps through because media companies urge their talent to blog, post and tweet for the sake of higher readership and ratings.

Undeniably, social media has become a tool for news gathering, but it’s also a window into a person’s thinking.

And there’s another problem. Social media lets users believe they’re staring at a screen instead of a potential audience numbering in the millions. The impersonal nature of digital networking masks a deeper truth: We’re actually staring at each other, face to face.

That’s why Conners might be forgiven for his statements against the IRS, and his transgression dismissed, on a claim of social media ignorance. But he went a step further by concluding his Facebook accusation with the line, “Can I prove it? At this time, no.”

Those perhaps were the worst words he could have written. Proof forms the foundation of journalistic credibility and integrity. Absent proof, Conners’ words amounted to a rant. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is clear on this.

So, I wish Larry had taken me up on my offer to join SPJ awhile back. Then he might have had the Code on a card somewhere within view while he was Facebooking.

I’ll probably send him one anyway. He can still learn something from it.

4 tips on freelancing for newspapers

Freelance Writing TipsThanks to the economy, the market for freelance writers and editors has ballooned.

That’s because America’s slow crawl back toward fiscal stability gives daily and weekly print publications hope for revitalization via digital alter egos that prefer original content to aggregation — the hand-me-down stories culled from outside sources. These publications are limited, however, because when media corporations’ stock prices fell, staffs were cut.

The result: too many news operations with too few people to gather news. One estimate puts newspaper journalism’s total staff losses in the United States since 2007 above 40,000.

Enter the freelancer, perhaps now more valuable than ever to news organizations.

Freelancers operate on a per-story or per-project basis; they possess distinct talents and knowledge a news operation may lack; and, best of all — in the news operation’s mind but not necessarily the freelancer’s — their contracts need not include health benefits and retirement plans, the two biggest costs attached to full-time staff apart from salary.

So, while looking around for new clients, freelancers might consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, freelancers should be aware of a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors gauge a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, so being amenable helps land more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small — Typical compensation ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces only after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Of course, the assignments may not be frequent enough to yield a steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that abhor lateness. If an editor says a story has to be completed and in hand by a certain time, freelancers should submit it well before that time, if possible. Otherwise, freelancers should be upfront with editors, ready to explain difficulties and ask for guidance; editors understand that plans can change and circumstances can be nettlesome. But missing a deadline — just one, even — without advance warning or rational cause undermines a freelancer’s credibility.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local angle, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Freelancers first must read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; knowing these allows for intelligent conversations with assigning editors.

(Writer’s note: The post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2010 for The Independent Journalist, the freelancing blog of the Society of Professional Journalists, and for my former blog on Posterous.)

A partir del Cinco de Mayo

On the fifth comes my first.

Starting today, the day famously known as Cinco de Mayo, all the logic and lunacy symbolic of my first blog resumes here ─ where it should have been all along.

Posterous logoFour years ago, I staked my claim to this domain and anchored it to this publishing platform, unsure what to do with either one. The prevailing logic demanded my domain be an extension of my personality and house bits and pieces of it.

Instead, I resisted, because prevailing logic affords no permanence, only convenience. In time, that kind of logic changes, and logic, by definition, defies convention.

Then, three years ago, I began blogging. Well past the portmanteau’s freshness date, I know, but began in earnest no less. The first few posts were sporadic; later entries were better and bolder. I was on track toward regular blogging when three things occurred:

1) I became regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists, a job possessing demands that, to my surprise, wilted my routine.

2) My mother suffered a heart attack, then a stroke. Since then, she has slipped out of cogence and into hospice care. My trips to see her changed from random to routine.

3) My chosen blogging platform, Posterous, shut down.

The third factor proved more distracting than I imagined. Posterous had character and wide appeal. It was free to use and mindful of mobile users, becoming one of the first blogging platforms to make mobile posting seamless. High-profile bloggers made it their chosen platform, too. I felt, as one always does early in a relationship, that Posterous had staying power.

Then Twitter bought it. Then Twitter plundered it for talent. Then Twitter, on April 30, shut it down.

When the platform folded, my nascent network of regular readers fractured. True though, they followed me over from social networking, which takes more time out of my day than acceptable. Still, if my thinking ever deepened, those followers now lacked a venue to witness the plunge.

So, today, I dust off this domain to make it into what it should have been from the start. That it happens on May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, is coincidence, if maybe a happy one.

Of course, I could retrench at another free blogging site (and I have, to a degree). But I’m paying for this one, it sat dormant way too long, and even if this publishing platform changes, the ideas expressed here ought to remain here.

I hope.