Journalist’s job change reminds me of old T-shirt

 

balance

During my time in high school and college, cheap cotton shirts sporting witty or funny phrases defined my fashion. They were must-haves more than the jeans or running shoes paired with them. I loved seeing people pass and smile, or laugh, or look at me quizzically if they missed the joke. They also were great icebreakers for someone often too shy to just say hi.

A few shirts ensured an opening. The one with “I’m the one your mother warned you about” made girls giggle, which eased me past “Hi” within that group. Another that said, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten” so tickled a Motor City native at a buffet in Florida that food shot out his nose.

But my favorite shirt, because my understanding friends liked it so much, said in white Courier lettering, “I’m in journalism for the money.”

The shirt is long gone, but a recent question-and-answer article in the trade publication Columbia Journalism Review recalled it. In the article, business news reporter John Carney discussed his rationale for moving from The Wall Street Journal, a publication that steers from a defined political agenda, to Breitbart.com, which drives headlong into one.

Breitbart’s tilt is so pronounced if it were the Leaning Tower of Pisa it would have toppled by now. Founder Andrew Breitbart built the site around his libertarian views then pushed a more populist message in the years before his death. Today, Breitbart.com is better known as an alt-right megaphone that spent the 2016 presidential campaign delivering a high-volume screech for Donald Trump.

Carney said he embraced Breitbart.com because it lacked a business news division and he was asked to help create one, and because the site appears well-positioned poised to cultivate Trump’s economic message.

“Very few people really got the rise of Trump as right as (Breitbart) did and I think they deserve a lot of credit for being ahead of the curve on that,” Carney told CJR. “We’re going to use that as our model. Perhaps a lot of the reason some of us in mainstream media have been behind the curve is because we bought into too many of the orthodoxies.”

Which is what reminded me of the old journalism shirt. By orthodoxies, Carney means balance: the attempt by news media to hold government and institutions accountable and present facts without political tarnish – a historically hard job given that journalists must also exert personal accountability to do it well.

The problem is that accountability is not naturally sexy, even back when I was wearing that shirt. My friends and colleagues in journalism school and later through a 30-year newspaper career were called to accountability, not doomed to it. They enjoyed the endorphin rush from pursuing truth for the sake of public service and civic justice. They laughed at my shirt because low pay seemed to be a canon in the journalist’s professional code. Those who balked at small salaries lacked commitment, college debts be damned.

For example: In my senior year, the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid sent recruitment letters to prospective graduates working at the campus newspaper. The two-paragraph statement hinted at a starting salary of $50,000, more than twice what was typical at the time. Given the Enquirer’s reputation, my friends laughed at that harder than at my shirt. But two in our crew who quietly inquired and were rejected distanced themselves from us without our prejudice. They appreciated the code but preferred not to buy into it. Soon after they distanced themselves from journalism as well.

Today, the media marketplace spans the width and breadth of the Internet and has no admission requirement or ethical constraints. Journalism degrees no longer announce a commitment to the craft but the ability to write complete sentences. Average salaries are lower now because many news and alt-news outlets believe compensation is measured in clicks and likes and retweets and shares – much more valuable to anyone who prefers brand-building to public service. Breitbart.com saw its readership soar after hitching to Trump’s bandwagon and now draws more unique readers than even Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Fox News.

Another boon to the media marketplace for people like Carney: the rise of relative truth. Once upon a time, truth was buttressed by supporting facts and diametric to falsity. Now, we are encouraged to believe that truth comes in multiple flavors like ice cream, and we are allowed to choose the one that suits our tastes.

Breitbart.com has “a very single-minded dedication to not being respectable, but as I look at it, to just tell the truth as they see it. And that’s what I want to do,” Carney said. “I find that spirit of willingness to be the dissenting truth-tellers very attractive.”

The truth as they see it. We already have a word for that in the dictionary: opinion.

Truth is never easy to obtain because it is like gold; you have to mine for it. Those who fit the unexpurgated definition of a journalist still feel the same call to service I did when I was in the profession and possess an innate duty to hold others accountable for the sake of our republic. Indeed, theirs is a vastly different playing field dotted with obstacles unimagined when I was in the game, but they suit up daily with eagerness and vigor.

When I tell them about the shirt, they laugh, they get the joke. They wish they had one. If I made a new one substituting the word “clicks” for “money,” they would laugh at that, too.

Carney? Probably all I would get from him is a quizzical look – if not his middle finger.

Mizzou researchers figure out how to rescue the newspaper industry

Murali-Mantrala

Professor Murali Mantrala showed how one newspaper could raise profits through data analysis. (Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri News Bureau)

If you’re wondering whether the newspaper industry can avoid colliding with irrelevance, there may be a way to change course, according to two University of Missouri researchers.

Murali Mantrala, the Sam M. Walton Distinguished Professor of Marketing and chair of the Department of Marketing at MU, and Vamsi Kanuri, a former doctoral student at MU’s Trulaske College of Business, surveyed more than 1,000 readers of a West Coast daily paper to determine not what news they read, but how they got the paper in the first place. The researchers presented the survey participants with a range of purchase options much wider than what the newspaper already offered.

These options ranged from print-only subscriptions to combinations of print, online and mobile subscriptions. The options also varied in price based on the mix of channels, the frequency of distribution, and whether or not they were advertisement-free.

Mantrala and Kanuri combined that information with data on advertiser spending across the variety of channels to create an algorithm that determines what precise menu of subscription options a newspaper should offer to maximize total revenues from subscriptions and advertising.

Given the customizable options for readers and advertisers, the potential benefit of a subscription menu to the West Coast newspaper equaled a 17 percent increase in the publication’s profits.

“Newspapers are in a quandary; they need to find ways to increase revenues without raising prices or creating barriers that will cause them to lose readers,” Kanuri said in an MU news release. “In developing this algorithm, it was important to determine readers’ preferences for how they wanted to receive their news, as well as to determine readers’ willingness to pay for different types of subscription plans. Once we gathered that data, we were able to streamline a process for making decisions about which subscription and advertising plans to offer in order to maximize profits without losing readers.”

And readers will buy news as long as they know the content they receive is unique, convenient, and relevant to their needs. For proof, look at the way members of the Millennial Generation – ages 18 to 34 – consume content. As a group, almost 90 percent of them purchase music, movies, television, and video games. Other research has determined that people willing to pay for entertainment are also willing to pay for news.

Mantrala and Kanuri said their model works for any newspaper or subscription service, including Hulu, Pandora, or Spotify. Publishers and broadcasters must first conduct audience and advertiser surveys, then organize the collected data by audience segment to determine the optimal subscription menu algorithm.

“Any subscription-based service can use this model if they do the requisite research to determine subscriber interest and willingness to pay for various tiers of service,” Mantrala said. “Using this model, as opposed to years of costly trial and error, can help newspapers and other online businesses greatly improve their profits.”

The study by Mantrala and Kanuri is titled, “Optimizing a Menu of Multi-format Subscription Plans for Ad-Supported Media Platforms,” and is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Marketing.

Kanuri is now an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Esther Thorson, a former professor at the MU School of Journalism now at Michigan State University, also coauthored the study.

4 indicators worth watching in quarterly earnings reports

Earnings Reports Icon

Four times a year, a downpour of quarterly earnings reports drops from the executive boards and financial offices of public companies around the country.

So, grab an umbrella, because the latest storm has started.

Earnings reports announce the revenue, income, and profit or losses of publicly held companies. The companies are obligated to issue them quarterly to current and potential investors and as a 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal securities laws. Second-quarter summaries for the three-month period ending June 30 are going out from tens of thousands of companies right now.

Most of those will contain good news as the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P have reported consistent gains over the past month, fears of a big Brexit backlash are subsiding, and prospects for the next business quarter are guardedly optimistic – November’s general election outcome notwithstanding.

But finding the important information in a quarterly report amid line after line of corporate vernacular can be dizzying. Having tackled these reports from two sides – first as a newspaper journalist, then at the corporate level – I can tell you that some of the mystery can be difficult for even experienced eyes to unravel. In some instances, only the reports’ authors have the clearest sense of what’s written. That’s because these people must put polish on what could be a dull or dreary three months, while still meeting an obligation to set the record straight.

You can strain your patience and eyesight pouring through these documents. So, skip past the disorienting argot to focus on these key performance indicators:

Cash flow – As in “free cash flow,” or the cash generated from operations minus capital expenditures and dividend payments. This is distinct from EBITDA – earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization – which often appears in the bottom third of the report. From a company’s standpoint, EBITDA is fascinating reading, but the real news lies in the cash flow. If it’s positive, that’s a good sign the company can cover its debts and operating expenses.

Earnings per share, net income, and revenue – Combined, these reflect the overall financial health of a company. The EPS reflects how much of a company’s profit is allocated to each outstanding share of stock, net income reflects total earnings, and revenue refers to total earnings from normal business activities. Of course, positive numbers are preferred, but it’s telling whether these numbers fluctuate widely between quarters. The gap between these numbers attests to variations in the …

Margins – These show how much out of every dollar a company keeps. In formula form, two of the most important ones look like this:

  • Gross profit margin = (Sales – Cost of goods sold) / Sales
  • Operating profit margin = Earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) / Sales

Size matters for both. If the gross margin is high, a company has extra cash to spend on product development and building the business. Rapid decreases from one quarter to the next, caused by such things as higher labor or material costs, may indicate trouble, which the company can mitigate by raising its prices. As for operating profits, a decrease here suggests the company is struggling to control costs.

Earnings per share vs. expectations – Earnings reports reveal not just how a company performed the previous business quarter. Corporate leadership also devotes space to prospects for the next quarter and punctuates them with a quote or comment usually from the chief executive officer or top financial officer. These prospects shape market and media expectations. If the expectations fall short, the company needs to explain why. A deal closing late or a missed order delivery rarely warrant concern. But revenues that buckle under the weight of changing trends, technology, lawsuits, market turmoil, or new technology can prompt investors to scamper away.

What’s wrong with CNN? Ask these women

cnn-logoThe two women sat at the end of a long hallway complaining about sitting at the end of a long hallway.

“I can’t hear them when they call us,” the one in a cable-knit sweater said to the other. “I don’t know why the waiting room has to be so long, anyway.”

“And, good lord, do they ever keep the AC turned up way too high!” said the woman with a slate-colored shawl draped over her bare shoulders. “You want to sit there in the draft under the vents, fine by me. I’m staying here.”

“No,” the first woman muttered. “This is better, I agree.”

To their left stretched rows of sling chairs, arm to arm like soldiers awaiting inspection. Down the white, sun-drenched hall, five other people waited with their faces tilted toward their smartphones. Six or seven chairs between each silent visitor assured privacy. The guests stirred only when a nurse in periwinkle medical scrubs and carrying a clipboard emerged from the far end of the hall to announce a name three times. Two people looked up. She left before anyone responded.

The second woman kept adjusting her shawl. While doing this, she discovered a second complaint.

“But whoever heard of a waiting room without a TV?” she said toward a point on the wall where she presumed one should be. “This one could have two or three.”

“Mmm,” her friend replied. “CNN or something.”

“Uh, gawd, no.” The woman in the shawl crimped her nose as if she had tasted sour milk. “I’ve tried, but I can’t watch CNN anymore.”

“Why? What is it?”

“Oh, you know, I’ll watch for like five, ten minutes, but it’s just so darn depressing.”

“… Mmm, yes, I know what you mean.”

The sweater woman picked at her sweater. The shawl woman removed and replaced her shawl.

“Price Is Right!” the sweater woman announced.

“Or Today. Or Kelly. Or whatever, yes. Just something not so, oh you know, not so depressing …”

“… But with Bob Barker instead, you know, ‘cause he was much better, much better. ‘Price’ was better then, I think.”

“Yes, it was. Or Ellen. I really like Ellen.”

“Yes, yes …”

“… But if CNN’s on somewhere, you know, I’ll watch that. I’ll watch the crawl, anyway. For a little while …”

“… If it’s on, it’s on.”

“Yes.”

The clipboard woman re-emerged and announced another name, half of which disappeared beneath a whoosh of air as the cooling system restarted. She left without looking up from the board.

“Did you hear that?” the sweater woman asked.

“Nope. Wasn’t us. They’ll come down here and get us if they really want us.”

More picking at the sweater. More sliding and adjusting of the shawl.

“Now, if I’m at the airport, I’ll watch the CNN they have on the TVs there.”

“Yes, me too. But that’s all they have on there.”

“That or The Weather Channel …”

“… Uh huh …”

“… But it’s all travel stories on CNN, places you should go or see. I saw one on France and the places you should go for good wine. Now, that was a good story.”

“Yes. I like those.”

“The rest is all so depressing. Bad news after bad news.”

“It’s all bad news.”

“I’m telling you.”

A second nurse in identical scrubs came around a corner by the women. She whispered to them, they acknowledged the same way in the affirmative, then they resumed staring at the spot where they believed a TV should be on the wall.

“But, you know, news is news. It’s all bad anyway. They wouldn’t say anything if it wasn’t.”

“News is news. Maybe. I’m not sure if it’s all news …”

“… Mmm …”

“… I mean, how can all those things be going on at the same time, all those awful things? I just get sick and tired of it.”

“Well, it’s CNN. They’ve been around forever. It’s what they do, they find the news. You remember the way CNN was? Everybody watched it. You just kind of had it on at home.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Remember John Lennon? That’s where I heard about John Lennon. And Princess Di?”

“Yeah, Princess Di. I do remember that. So sad, so sad. But now you hear stuff like that everywhere all the time – Marnie telling me things she sees on Facebook before you ever see them on TV, on CNN …”

“… Yes, yes. Everywhere. Everywhere …”

“… And I can’t keep up, you know. It’s just too much.”

“Uh huh. Un huh.”

“But, you know, if it’s on I’ll watch. If there’s, like, nothing else.”

“Yes, mmm. Yes. Me, too.”

The second nurse returned to bend and whisper to the women who rose and reached to collect their handbags. The shawl slipped off the second woman’s shoulders and into the open mouth of her bag, then the women followed the nurse around the corner.

As the sweater woman went out of view, I heard her ask:

“Excuse me, but is there a reason you don’t have a TV in this place?”

The three R’s of Twitter literacy

 

twitter-iconLook around. It’s easy to see. From home to school, from work to play, we’re witnessing a disturbing change in America, 140 characters at a time.

That change, heralded by microblogs and trumpeted by our president, demands immediate satisfaction with digital communications, such that we’re compelled to tell networks of virtual “friends” what we’re doing minute by minute and expect the same in return.

Evidence of this abounds as people meander down busy sidewalks with heads bent and eyes focused on their smartphones. Even in groups, we prefer meeting each other through our digital devices instead of face to face.

Twitter alone has attracted an audience of well over 300 million people tapping out an estimated 6,000 tweets per second. Americans are tops at tweeting, constituting 30 percent of all Twitter users.

We could write off this behavior as endemic to a social species requiring engagement to survive and thrive. Instead, such time-consuming, attention-diverting devotion to information that is at once pertinent and pedantic softens society, inserts more space between ourselves and the world, and achieves the opposite of what we had hoped to accomplish through our amazing digital devices.

What would it take to disrupt this spreading inattentiveness before we’re reduced to letting technology do all the talking for us? Analysts say a refined Twitter temperament that fosters mature social networking is essential to sounding literate online, and the core curricula of that literacy can be boiled down to three R’s:

Restraint — We perceive our portals to the internet to be one-way mirrors when in fact there are hundreds of thousands of eyes peering back at us. Couple that with social media enticing users to give up details about themselves in the name of “brand awareness,” and little about us will remain private. This is why so many Twitter users tweet every thought they have every minute they have them. They wax lengthy on food and fashion choices, spill secrets and tell lies, and they do these things either unaware of or indifferent to their network’s varied interests.

The result: Instead of growing their networks, they lose followers, and their networks shrink.

The best tweeters are not so random or careless. Sree Sreenivasan, New York’s chief digital officer, says he will wait a full six minutes between tweets to ponder what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, and the possible reception from his followers. The alternative is a message that misses the mark and bruises his brand.

“I delete much more than I tweet,” he told the Society of Professional Journalists.

Research — Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”

If only the Twitterverse were as insightful.

Instead, Twitter’s mix of immediacy and intimacy often blunts good sense. The tweets can circulate widely outside through hashtags and retweets, which entices users to announce rather than report on the notion that an authoritative-sounding tweet can grow their networks.

Proven knowledge — the kind based on unimpeachable evidence — gives each tweet more chirp because it demonstrates the sender’s diligence in pursuit of authenticity. Like quotes and facts in a newspaper article, embedded links pointing to legitimate, apolitical sources shore up the authority of tweets and improve the credibility of whoever sends them.

“It’s not just about knowing how,” says noted social critic and modern media analyst Howard Rheingold. “It’s about knowing how and knowing who knows who knows what. … Know-how is where the difference lies.”

Reciprocity — Social media’s best quality appears in its name. We’re drawn to tools such as Twitter because they’re both personal and public; some part of us and our followers threads its way through every exchange, intended or not. Moreover, Twitter’s easy accessibility encourages users to reach beyond their circles of close friends to network with anyone harboring vast reserves of knowledge and experience.

But to get real value from Twitter, that value must be exchanged.

“I think successful use of Twitter means knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people you follow,” Rheingold says. “… If you don’t put out, you don’t get back.”

Of course, one of the greatest benefits of being part of a social network is staying up to date on current events and updates and providing social followers with information that is relevant and popular. Better still is sharing unique information – original, authentic content no one else has generated. Twitter users who do that are certain to attract a flock of loyal followers.

(Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared on the Gateway Media Literacy Partners website.)

In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

The Five W'sIn a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, our words demand special consideration before displaying them in public.

For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and preserve credibility.

So, consider putting patience high on your list of obligations each time you write online. Armed with it, writers and editors are more likely to catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding that patience. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help to install social media speed bumps — a set of objectives that forces introspection. If you’re not sure where to start with that, employ journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Although social media networks permit users to put followers into groups, most users don’t do that. The result: their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances where one post intended for a particular group of followers insults or offends all the others. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly. Make certain whether you’re eschewing or embracing conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume that the faster we post, the more likely other people will think we’re reporting “news.” Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” were just as important as the information itself. In reality, no newspaper stopped printing and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we believe Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have the same audiences, the same reach. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

(A version of this blog post originally appeared in The Freelance Journalist, a blog managed by the Society of Professional Journalists.)

7 reasons why your company should hire a journalist

You should hire a journalistTwenty years ago, the market for journalism soared. Print circulation reached all-time highs, and newspaper owners were flush with cash. Ten years ago, cracks appeared in the media industry’s wings and profits began to plummet.

Today, major media firms, battling to stay aloft, are jettisoning newspaper holdings like old socks. Many of the seasoned journalists who gave these firms credibility were jettisoned long before that.

What a waste — and what an opportunity for American business.

Because more than ever, information is currency. Employees who can find information, analyze it, disseminate it, and do all of these things objectively, have far more value than those who merely copy and paste it. And journalists do much more than just gather information; they’re trained to explain why that information matters to you.

Experienced journalists provide a return on investment, and companies that recognize the value of people who can process information instead of just repeat it hold clear advantages in the marketplace.

So, when you’re searching for someone who can turn information into gold, consider these seven reasons why a journalist may be the best person for that job.

They’re good at research — There’s a joke that says the best place to hide a corpse is on the second page of a Google search. In their quest for accurate, timely information, journalists dig much deeper than the algorithms of a search engine or a social media platform can. They understand that data lie as well as inform. Only hard research and investigation reveal the distinction.

They value accuracy — The Delete key is not anyone’s friend or savior. It only removes what’s on the screen; it does not remove false or inaccurate information from either archival or human memory. Journalists understand that accuracy begets credibility, and correct information up front forms the foundation of sound business judgment.

They have institutional memory — Today’s college graduates have lived their lives enmeshed in the Web, but not all answers to life’s questions reside there. Journalists with 15 to 20 years’ experience remember digging for data by hand — sifting through dusty file cabinets and interviewing people in person. A lot of that information still isn’t online, yet these journalists recall it because, according to researchers, we tend to remember information that was difficult instead of easy to obtain.

They appreciate deadlines — When print media was dominant, journalists had only a few times each day to convey information. This forced them to focus, to plan, to be efficient. In today’s never-ending news cycle, every moment holds deadline potential, but having so many opportunities increases the likelihood of hesitation, delay, and a lack of appreciation for deadlines. Put another way, when every moment is special, then no moment is special. Journalists appreciate the value of a moment.

They are persistent — To borrow from tennis champion Billie Jean King, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” Good, responsible journalism requires the same approach. Truth resides somewhere beneath the surface of an issue, and so to get at truth requires dodging or occasionally plowing through obstructions. A journalist who is able to carve out that path does so with razor-sharp intellect.

They are ethical — There are better paying jobs than journalism, but no journalist I know entered the profession for the money. They value the power of words and are imbued with an innate sense of justice, they cherish the watchdog role that comes with being a journalist, and they respect the profession and their employers by being accountable for their actions.

They have compassion — Besides showing accountability, good journalists respect their audiences. The information that journalists gather and disseminate is for the benefit of those audiences, not their own egos or their own brand, and serving those audiences demands powerful responsibility. With good information culled from reports and research, the public can make educated decisions. So, too, can employers.

Imagine how successful a business could be with proven, committed employees such as journalists on its payroll.