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.

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.

John Oliver: Journalist of the year

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

John Oliver (Photo courtesy HBO)

The best journalist in America in 2014 isn’t American and isn’t a journalist.

He intends to change only one of those things.

“I would like to get into a situation where I’m not suffering taxation without representation, which I’m suffering right now,” British comedian John Oliver told ABC’s “This Week.”

As for the journalist part, Oliver insisted on PBS’s “News Hour” that the title is misapplied.

“I have no moral authority. I’m a comedian.”

Given his latest performances on television though, one is left to wonder otherwise.

The British expatriate and Cambridge University graduate settled in this country upon joining the staff of Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2006. Between assignments, Oliver continued to do stand-up routines and podcasts on both sides of the Atlantic, each refining a style of wit reminiscent of Monty Python. He obtained a Green Card in 2009 and considers himself a permanent U.S. resident.

Then in the summer of 2013, Oliver sat in the “Daily Show” host’s chair for eight weeks while Stewart was off directing the movie “Rosewater” and in that time Oliver displayed a formidable enough stage command to establish himself as Stewart’s likely successor. But before the notion could percolate longer, HBO plucked him out of Stewart’s stable to host the premium channel’s brand new Daily Show-esque enterprise.

What followed was a masterful mix of humor and social commentary that major news media should watch carefully — and learn from.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” does indeed borrow from the “Daily Show” style of squeezing satire out of social and political events and blowing them up to absurd, sometimes mocku-mental proportions. But where the 30-minute “Last Week Tonight” truly distinguishes itself is in the show’s feature pieces, which can last half the program. Among the notable long-form bits in the show’s first 25-episode season were an analysis of Miss America scholarship claims, a look at chronic corruption by World Cup organizer FIFA, and a breakdown of the hypocrisy endemic in the American lottery system.

Oliver does not just parse words. His staff includes former magazine researchers as well as comedy writers who sift for truth as much for laughs. Oliver and his crew understand that a little bit of bizarre behavior floats on the surface of authority and that by shining a light on it we can peer down into, and be less intimidated by, the darkness beneath.

“Last Week Tonight” even displays key information over Oliver’s right shoulder on the screen, noting also the source and publication date. Not even network newscasts do that.

“It is reporting in no sense. But there is a lot of research,” Oliver says. “If a joke is built on sand, it just doesn’t work. … It’s very, very important to us that we are solid.”

This commitment has enabled Oliver to navigate stridently dense, solemn topics such as America’s wealth gap, civil forfeiture, and student debt — topics journalists have reported on many times but with a predilection for the somber seriousness of suffering by which most events are judged newsworthy.

“There is something about playing with toys that are that difficult which become more satisfying to break by the end of our week’s process,” Oliver says.

Not just break — shatter, really. “Last Week Tonight” garnered 1.1 million viewers on Sunday nights. Across all platforms including DVR and on-demand showings, overall weekly viewership topped 4 million. But on YouTube, where “Last Week Tonight” continues to show its vigor months after signing off until February, a feature broadcast in July on the wealth gap has been viewed since then nearly 6 million times. The piece on civil forfeiture has more than 4 million views. The piece on student debt has 3.6 million.

A feature on the typically arcane subject of national elections in India has garnered 2.5 million YouTube views. (HBO releases each segment separately onto YouTube after their initial broadcast).

“It didn’t make any sense to me that the largest exercise in democracy in the history of humanity was not interesting enough for (the major news media) to cover,” Oliver says of the India feature. India has 1.2 billion people; the United States, 320 million.

Even Oliver’s exposition on events in Ferguson, Mo., in a piece mixed with equal parts humor and outrage just one week after Michael Brown’s shooting now has more than 5.5 million views. That number has grown by about 10,000 weekly. Meanwhile, Oliver’s most talked-about feature, the one about net neutrality that was blamed for crashing the Federal Communications Commission’s website, is cruising toward 9 million viewers.

All these numbers constitute a larger audience share per feature than the major news networks can muster per night.

What Oliver and “Last Week Tonight” have managed to do is find a way to engage viewers and keep them engaged on complex, contemporary issues long after the initial broadcast while managing to be informative, a puzzle that network news and newspapers still struggle to accomplish two decades into the digital era.

Journalism in its most basic form is the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information related to a particular audience. By that simplistic definition, Oliver qualifies as a journalist.

“I think that becomes more of a sad commentary on news than it does on us” as comedians, Oliver says. “The only responsibility as a comedian is that I have to make people laugh. If I don’t do that — and I am sure that I often don’t — I have failed.”

But in making people laugh, Oliver goes to journalistically admirable lengths to do it. In the feature on Miss America scholarship funding, which the nonprofit Miss America Foundation claimed was $45 million annually, the “Last Week Tonight” staff spent days sifting through 990 tax forms on nonprofit spending from 33 states right up until broadcast to try verifying that number. The amount turned out to be unjustifiable, but “Last Week Tonight” nevertheless discovered that the Miss America Foundation is indeed the largest provider of scholarships that are just for women — which news media then reported.

“I just want it to be funny,” Oliver says, describing the course he and “Last Week Tonight” have charted. “That is the key responsibility that you have to hold yourself to as a comedian. If you’re not making people laugh, what exactly are you doing?”

This is not to say America’s daily news needs a thick layer of humor to help it glide along, or that professional journalists are less capable of engaging audiences than Oliver & Co. But if an expat Brit can reach more people on tough topics than the major news media and incorporate impressive feats of news gathering and accountability while doing it, then the “journalist” label will stick to Oliver no matter how hard he tries to shake it off, and major news media will be compelled to watch him try.

So, Oliver’s success and that of “Last Week Tonight” raises the question: If the major news media have a responsibility of informing and enlightening the public and still struggle at it, what exactly are they doing?

Is the Daily Egyptian’s demise a Dunn deal?

Daily Egyptian logoI haven’t seen the man in almost 30 years, yet Bill Harmon still intimidates me.

His sharp-toned advice echoes in my head whenever I try to write or edit a news story. I cringe every time.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Harmon was the faculty adviser of the student-run Daily Egyptian newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while I lived and breathed journalism there. He served in that role for nearly two decades. He was famous for, among other things, having two tools at the ready. In one hand he clutched a red felt pen that cut through a young reporter’s copy — and ego — like a butcher’s knife. In the other hand was an ever-present cigarette.

The walls of his office and the edges of his moustache were yellowed testaments to his nicotine habit, no doubt aggravated by the likes of cocky young know-it-alls such as myself.

He was gruff, direct, uncompromising, and when he was upset with a journalist for not asking a key question or missing the point of a story even the air in the room escaped to find safety. But when he issued praise, no honor was higher or possessed more value. It was the Pulitzer of my youth.

The staff of the DE strived daily to hear him utter that praise, however mild.

I mention him now because Mr. Harmon’s legacy, and perhaps that of the DE itself, may vanish this summer. Last week, SIU’s Board of Trustees, the principal governing body for the entire Southern Illinois University system, tabled further discussion of a proposed $9 student media fee that, in part, would deliver the DE from rough financial straits by covering an estimated $200,000 operating deficit.

The 98-year-old newspaper relies on advertising to pay the bills yet still struggles, as does every other university newspaper in the United States, to remain solvent. Most of those other student newspapers, however, already receive fee support, including the twice-weekly student paper published at SIU’s campus in Edwardsville.

SIU-Carbondale students endorsed the $9 fee when it was first proposed last summer. Then-SIU Present Glenn Poshard buttressed that endorsement by digging $55,000 out of his own budget to lend short-term assistance.

SIU President Randy Dunn

SIU President Randy Dunn

But on May 1, a new president, Randy Dunn, took over and brought with him a different perspective. He said last week at the trustees’ meeting that he preferred to reexamine the fee proposal and the DE’s finances, and suggested he might take a year to do it. As if the DE had not considered pinching pennies before now.

Despite its name, the DE publishes only four days a week, down from five a year ago. Staff salaries and student work hours have been slashed over and over. The salaries are paid out of advertising revenue, not out of the university’s pocket.

Current DE Managing Editor Eric Fiedler told the Chicago Tribune that he doubts the newspaper can last even a few months, let alone a year, without the university’s commitment. SIU-Carbondale School of Journalism Director William Freivogel said he intends to have the trustees revisit the fee when they meet again in July.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the DE editorial advisory board, and Bill Frievogel was a colleague of mine for several years in the editorial office of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

The easy thing to do now is voice frustration with President Dunn and the trustees for displaying what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward a teaching tool that just won 17 Illinois College Press Association awards and was key to the School of Journalism receiving reaccreditation this year.

But I can understand the president’s reticence, to a degree, and it may have less to do with money than with, well, discomfort.

When I was a student reporter for the DE, one of my assignments was to cover the university administration — the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellors, the provost, the deans, etc. The role required attending meetings, analyzing budgets, sifting through sundry official documents, and upholding Mr. Harmon’s insistence that “Titles don’t matter, damn it! Only the facts matter.”

Southern Illinois University logoOften, these administrators begged off from answering my questions, resented them, even ran away from them. Once, I learned through a couple of dependable sources that a handful of SIU officials planned to fly together to Chicago for a conference and discuss university business along the way. I met them on the tarmac at Carbondale’s tiny airport and insisted on going along, arguing that the context of their discussion was required to be public, not private.

At that, all but a couple of the passengers stepped away from the plane, fetched their luggage and left the airport. On his way out, one particularly vexed administrator stormed up to me, pushed his nose to within an inch of mine, and grumbled, “You just ruined my vacation.”

When I returned to the DE newsroom, Mr. Harmon asked, “Were they pissed?”

I replied that they were.

He smiled broadly, snorted and said, “Ha! Good.”

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian are, first and foremost, public servants both mindful of and responsible to their university communities. Their staffs should be as tough and as diligent as the staffs at small-town weeklies or big-city dailies, because how else do student journalists grow to become professional ones?

Great student newspapers such as the Daily Egyptian should insist on honesty and integrity, and demonstrate the same, no matter the issue or the authority. The least we can do is lend them our support.

They are not obligated to make anyone feel comfortable. Bill Harmon was keenly aware of that.

Perhaps President Dunn is not.

Region 7 represents at Mark of Excellence Awards

SPJ's Mark of Excellence AwardsMissouri had three honorees and the states of Iowa and Nebraska had one each to represent Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri) in the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2013 national Mark of Excellence Awards, announced Tuesday.

Allison Pohle of the University of Missouri-Columbia, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a finalist in the feature-writing category among large schools for her work, “Kirkwood Father Tries to Find Meaning in Daughter’s Death;” the staff of VoxMagazine.com at the Missouri School of Journalism was a finalist in the online feature reporting category for “Matters of Faith;” and Vox Magazine’s iPad app was chosen best digital-only student publication.

Suhaib Tawil of the Iowa State Daily at Iowa State University was a finalist in the general news photography category among large schools for “ROTC Training During Spring 2013.”

Jenna Jaynes of the Time-Warner Educational Access Channel and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was a finalist in television feature reporting for “Nebraska’s First Male Color Guard Member Lives His Dream.”

The national awards recognize exceptional collegiate journalism in all 12 of SPJ’s regions over the previous calendar year and are chosen from the first-place winners at the regional level. This time, instead of first-, second-, and third-place awards, SPJ named a winner and two finalists for each category.

Not all categories were mentioned, however. If the judges determined that no entries were excellent by SPJ’s standards, the category was left blank. All judges have at least three years’ worth of professional experience in their respective fields. They are not permitted to review entries from their own regions.

(Complete disclosure: I have been an MOE judge the past three years, first as president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro Chapter and now as Region 7 director.)

School divisions were based on cumulative undergraduate and graduate enrollment, with large schools having a minimum of 10,000 registered students. For some categories, school size was not a factor.

Winners in each category will be recognized during the Student Union event at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, Sept. 4-6. A full list of MOE Award recipients is available on SPJ’s website.

Knight Center offers free training in investigative journalism

ReporterWhat about the word “free” don’t you understand?

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas will offer a five-week open online training course covering the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism, without charge. The course, “Investigative Journalism for the Digital Age,” begins May 12, and concludes June 14.

Instruction will cover, among other things, general concepts about conducting investigations, finding and cultivating sources, analyzing digital data and databases, sifting through social media for useful information, and presenting stories with attention to fairness and ethics. Four instructors will present multiple videos edited in a college-style classroom format.

The instructors are Brant Houston, who teaches investigative journalism and advanced reporting at the University of Illinois; Michael Berens, an investigative reporter for the Seattle Times and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting; Steve Doig, data journalism specialist at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism; and Lise Olson, senior investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle.

Each week’s work can be completed at the student’s own pace. Quizzes will be given at the conclusion of each instruction module. Students can request a certificate of completion at the course’s conclusion for a small fee.

Anyone who is interested should register now at the Knight Center’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) site. The center is supported by the Knight Foundation.