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.

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.)

6 tips for using Twitter like a professional

Twitter logoTwitter has been with us for almost a decade, yet we remain amazed at the things people tweet about. Personal beliefs. Private conversations. Elicit behavior. Groundless criticism. Uneducated perspective. Even public relations people, journalists and other professional communicators are guilty of excess and irresponsibility in their tweets.

Of course, plenty of twitterers in these fields set excellent examples. People such as Kenna Griffin, Callie Schweitzer and Sree Sreenivasan employ the platform in ways the rest of us should observe closely.

But what remains out of billions of tweets often resembles boorishness and self-aggrandizement, impugning and assuming, snobbery and effrontery.

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, any attempt to garner attention through public channels was frowned upon and seen as ethically dubious, if not forbidden by company policy. Today, persistent and effusive social media use is considered essential to one’s employment, if for no other reason than to continually trumpet a media “brand.”

This deep knee bend to branding is ominous, thanks largely to such popular social media measuring sticks as Klout assigning overstated significance to digital socialization — a significance weighted in favor of quantity instead of quality. If we agree to hold up these sticks as accurate, then news reporting and corporate communications via social media will suffer the same dearth of quality.

Media consumers derive a certain assurance from a professional communicator’s detachment. That assurance peters out when, say, news providers shout above the loud partisan polemic drowning out rational thought — a polemic they help create.

The solution, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to exert greater care in separating personal from professional Twitter content. Despite claims that a personal touch demystifies media and makes information more consumable, personalization also blurs the line separating judgment from fact. When journalists and corporate communicators get too personal, they damage their own credibility and the credibility of their employers and put their professions at risk of being marginalized.

So, preserve your credibility and avoid marginalization in the workplace by following these six tips for better Twitter usage:

Separate personal from professional tweets — If this means creating separate Twitter accounts, then do it. At the same time, refrain from using the company logo or any derivative as a personal avatar.

Exercise care with criticism — Do you love Danielle Steel’s latest novel? Do you hate the plot twist in “Game of Thrones”? Fine, but avoid posting those opinions unless they are relevant to the job. Opinions water down the objectivity that professional communicators need for peak performance.

Avoid discussing company matters — If discord exists between management and staff in the workplace, or personnel matters prove irksome, then venting discontent via veiled insults on social media will undermine others’ faith in you and could prove actionable in a court of law. Similarly, honesty and accountability regarding one’s own errors denote respectability.

Rein in the urge to be defensive — By their nature, news media and corporate communicators invite criticism. Some of that criticism can be mean-spirited and vindictive. Avoid driving a conversation further down the same dark road. As humorist Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Resist posting vacation and food photos — It’s always good to get away from it all, but avoid dragging readers and viewers too far along with you. That beach picture showing Diamond Head in the background, while pretty, smacks of braggadocio, and may even suggest a laxity about work — especially if the picture puts you in one place while the calendar says you should be somewhere else. Food photos, on the other hand, pose a problem rooted in esthetics: Food never looks as good in social media as it does sitting on the plate in front of us.

Avoid making sales pitches — Ensure personal and business brand integrity by not distributing or re-tweeting sales pitches or links to special deals. Leave that up to the sales people at work who are supposed to market those products.

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.

The party is over for Twitter

Twitter logoIf someone asks you to explain Twitter, say this: Twitter is a cocktail party.

Or it was until Friday.

At these parties, people mingle and move from one conversation to another, from one group to another. Discussions are mixed with fact, fallacy, innuendo and rumor, but they engage us, entice us. We soon perceive the party to be a community bound by the threads of its distinct blend of interactions.

Now, imagine someone bursts into the party and into your conversation while blurting comments unrelated to the discussion.

That sort of rude, boorish behavior is considered an apt description of Twitter’s new policy to inject tweets into users’ feeds while simultaneously abandoning chronological display of tweets, arguably one of the platform’s best and most logical qualities. Twitter made the change formal in a recent blog announcement but has been toying with the platform’s dynamics all summer.

Call it the triumph of algorithms over logic.

“Choosing who to follow is a great first step — in many cases, the best tweets come from people you already know, or know of,” Twitter product team member Trevor O’Brien wrote in the blog. “But there are times you might miss out on tweets we think you’d enjoy.” (Emphasis added.)

Twitter measures interactions much as Facebook does and depends on users’ broad interactions to maintain viability. The more followers a user has, the greater the user’s audience engagement.

But Twitterers need time and constant tweeting to develop a large following. Twitter has figured that by altering the dynamic it can save users time and effort, which likely increases overall audience engagement. This in turn would make the platform look more appealing to investors.

Twitter obviously sees a trend that must be followed to maintain the platform’s viability. That or maybe Twitter had tired of seeing us talk to the same people over and over.

By pushing people uninvited into conversations, Twitter risks alienating its constituency, reminding users of the times they engaged in conversations and somebody who was inebriated or arrogant or uninformed, or singularly cursed with all three qualities, butted in.

Pleas abound urging Twitter to not be that kind of platform.

Social media is, above all else, a conversation. The tools can be fancy and fun, but subtract those and what remains is mere dialog — the communication of thoughts, hopes and experiences to create a bond, however briefly, between individuals.

In creating that bond, we enter into an informal social contract, roughly defined as an agreement between participants to keep the conversation relevant and pertinent to one another’s interests. When other people interrupt, the tolerant among us weigh for an instant whether the intrusion adds value. The intolerant among us give more weight to the intrusion than its rationale.

Occasionally, interruptions are acceptable. But when the interruptions are constant they become annoying and we resist them, ignoring any potential value added to the conversation.

Twitter’s greatest strength was its ability to maintain order and logic to digital discussions. Lacking that strength, Twitter becomes a party nobody wants to attend.