— wordbanks

January, 2012 Monthly archive

Every journalism veteran who has spoken to our students at Algonquin College have shared a philosophy that seems to me has been lost as newspaper companies demand more tech-saavy skills.

That is, tear yourself away from the screen, leave the building and meet and talk to real people.

But by all means, take the smartphone with you.

That may be self-evident to those of us who know that the best stories come from conversations, either by phone or in person. But it’s worth repeating as technology threatens to be an all-consuming method of operation for the modern reporter.

Ironically, technology should be freeing journalists from the tyranny of the static newsroom. Smartphones are now so sophisticated that it’s no longer necessary for reporters to be chained to a desk. A smartphone can now do everything a desktop or laptop computer can do, and often, more efficiently.

But avatars don’t count as real people. Social media is important, vital, in fact. But it is not and should never be all-consuming. People will say things face-to-face that they would never say or write in text form, especially people who may have information that’s sensitive. But beyond that, the best story comes from a good conversation, a connection that has been directly made face-to-face.

Body language, gesturing, posture, voice intonation — these are really visable cues and signposts in the course of a conversation. The journalist has an option whether to include those cues in their story; they can’t by using any other tactic of reporting. The (regular) phone has made it easier and more efficient for reporters to get the information they need, but it’s really the second most desireable way to conduct an ideal interview.

The worst is what I’ve heard some people refer to as an “email interview”, where the reporter posts questions and the source sends back answers. This is an information exchange, not an interview, and the reporter may as well quote a website.

That great post-modern commodity called “time” is usually cited as the reason reporters say they can’t get away from their desks. But a self-audit of how much of it is wasted in the course of a regular work day would surprise the average scribe working at any level and at any salary.

By all means, use the technological tools at our disposal, and use them to full exploitation. But there continues to be no substitute for the face-to-face interview. Er, conversation.

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been waiting for the community newspaper wars in Ottawa to bring us better local news and feature coverage of Osgoode Ward within the City of Ottawa, where some 14,000 residents live. That’s the size of a fair-sized town in Ontario.

During that time of hope, Metroland Ottawa had started up a string of Ottawa This Week papers, re-plated and zone-distributed to the four quadrants of the city, as well as vast points in the Seaway Valley. It did this by re-alligning the traditional weeklies formerly owned by Fred Runge who I worked for in the 1980s. Those were heady years in the small town newspaper business in the Ottawa Valley and Runge took its responsibility as the owners of such papers as the Carleton Place Canadian and the Almonte Gazette very seriously. But those adventures are for another day.

In the meantime, the EMC (Expanded Market Coverage) was head-to-head in the same markets, while the independent, The Messenger out of Manotick, circulated here too. Of course, there are the paid dailies, the Citizen and the Sun, all of whom were chasing the lucrative flyer business that has been so coveted and the true reason behind the acquisitions by Metroland.

Despite this during these wars, I have been disappointed in most of the coverage, or lack thereof, by all of them. Both Metroland and EMC relied far too much on the city councillors’ reports, recipes and duplicates of daily city hall reports, which are lengthy self-interested information compilations which did not, and have not, provided objective news of our community.

Now, Metroland has bought the EMC papers, and has closed its This Week brand, giving itself a virtual monopoly in the community newspaper media segment in this part of the city. If coverage was spotty before, it’s about to get practically invisable. EMC has laid off seven reporters and when you do that, it’s pretty obvious you’re not planning on hiring any more to fill the gap. The Manotick Messenger has closed its freely-distributed Packet, which had done a good job of being a regional feature newspaper. Now the Messenger itself is distributed free, and barely hanging on based on the few ads we see in its issues.

With the dailies simply trying to keep up with what’s going on inside the Green Belt, on reduced staffs themselves, there is no coverage from them except for the odd coyote or car accident story. So these days, I am feeling stranded out here in Osgoode ward, which was a hive activity before amalgamation.

Osgoode Ward used to be Osgoode Township, with its own municipal government and politics which stimulated interest among the community, in their own backyard. Now, all of the local issues which used to be reported by our local papers, from zoning changes to road paving to planning, are all being dealt with by anonymous committees far away at city hall, with only our councillor Doug Thompson to fill us in on what’s going on. That’s hardly an acceptable way for the community to get an objective view of the decisions that directly affect them.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the papers serving us were focusing on profiling people. Just last week, the Manotick Curling Centre’s junior team won the Ontario Junior Women Curling Championships, and they’re off to the Nationals in Napanee Feb. 4. None of the local papers covered that.

That’s a singular example, I realize, and I’m not going to blame the few reporters and editors who survived the Metroland downsizing. I know from experience they’re doing what they can, with what they have.

But by eviscerating its reporting staff and relying on free hand-ins by overworked community volunteers for the balance of its editorial content, the new EMC is not only shortchanging its readers, it is begging for new competition. With the rise of alternative ways of distributing news (online), that’s easier done than it was just a few years ago.

To stave that off, to maintain its distribution strength, EMC management would be well advised to reverse the editorial downsizing and spend a buck on making a mediocre product, a much better one.

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Every year immediately after the holidays, I and scores of my colleagues and industry professionals are asked to judge journalistic excellence drawn from Ontario’s community newspaper industry, in the annual newspaper awards competitions. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years and I always look forward to seeing what the province’s best community journalists have produced over the past year.

There’s a few reasons for that. One, as a former publisher and editor in the industry, I know the people who produced the work entered, completed it in less-than-ideal conditions, often under-paid and over-worked. They overcame internal and external pressures to publish work their boss has deemed worthy to represent the newspaper in competitions. Second, it gives me examples of great local stories I can bring into the classroom to show my students at the college that print journalism is alive and well and even thriving. And that reaffirms my strong belief in the future of our province and country’s community press.

I’m judging the ‘Best News Story Over 10,000 circulation’ which is my favourite category next to ‘Best Investigative Story’ (another judge claimed that first). I will be judging more than 60 entries from towns and cities such as Smiths Falls and Port Perry, to Milton to Sudbury. Examples of the kinds of stories run from fires to deaths to plant closures, often tragic, but stories that require steadfast reporting to answer the community’s questions.

But the story that will win this category from my perspective will be the one that goes beyond the obvious five Ws reporting and the standard police press release. Scale of a news event is important — that is, its overall impact on a community — but I’ll be looking for the extra dedication spent in telling the total story at every level, to ensure that there are no, if any, unanswered questions a reader may have.

I want to see examples of “smart” reporting, in which sources that may not have been obvious at first, breaks information that unlocks key information that competitors overlooked.

Once I’m done and the winners are announced (first week in February), I will be highlighting the winning entries in this blog and provide my rationale behind my decisions. Stay tuned!

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Tweeting live from the Ontario junior curling championships might sound like a waste of time. I was skeptical too. But over these two days of tweeting from the tournament in Russell, Ontario, and training myself on the ins and outs of live blogging, I’ve come to see how this reporting method is beneficial for the reporter, his audience and a news organization carrying those tweets via their website.

Tweeting updates from any scene is live reporting, very close to real time. People love that, especially if it’s done professionally by a journalist who knows the lingo of what’s being covered. And tweeting provides an archive of notes that a reporter can refer to when building a story from a multitude of sources. Ottawa Citizen sports reporter Martin Cleary used some of my tweets to help build a story in today’s paper, and Meghan Hurley, the paper’s crime reporter, does the same thing when reporting from the field. Those tweets are permanent records, although the tweeter can delete any at any time. I just did that when I found a mis-tweet that said I was at the “Idling Championships!” That’s what happens when you give your iPhone to someone for even a brief second!

For the audience, the benefits are clear. They’re receiving information in real time, which they in turn, can retweet to others. It’s like a running conversation, except the original message doesn’t get lost or changed in translation as it goes from person to person. When I began tweeting, I did it as a volunteer for the Manotick Curling Center and to help myself learn about Twitter and iPhone apps. As I continued, I received new followers, some of whom wrote to say they really appreciated the updates. In fact, there were people at the club who were following my tweets as I was posting them!

And since my tweets were being fed to the Ottawa Citizen website immediately, which the paper has promoted, there has been a benefit to the sponsoring media company. That, in turn, has continued to grow traffic to the Ottawa Citizen’s website, which wanted to carry my tweets as a live blog. You can see an example at http://www.ottawacitizen.com/sports/Live+Blog+Ontario+junior+women+curling+championships/5940264/story.html

The Citizen, in turn, has sold advertising space adjacent to the blog. With more live blogs, the hope would be that advertisers would respond to this new kind of real-time reporting. It occurred to me that a sports equipment supplier might have liked to have been sold exclusive space around the feed.

This is an example of how media can use mobile technology to continue to underwrite good journalism.

There are some downsides to tweeting. For starters, because I’m fairly new to thumb-typing, I find it awkward and I feel clumsy hunting-and-pecking like a grade 4 kid in keyboard class. I’ve been typing for 35 years and can run about 70 words a minute without a mistake. On the iPhone, it takes me 10 seconds to type ‘Manotick’ where on a keyboard I can do it in under two. I could overcome that by linking a laptop or a tablet to the iPhone, a process called “tethering.” Essentially that involves using a smartphone as a transmitter. The venue I was at in Russell had no WiFi, so my tablet and my laptop were useless. My iPhone, however, has a data plan, and so I was able to access limited network service which allowed me to get tweets out. This is a great advantage to having a self-contained device like a smartphone, versus having to rely on the generosity of others to get the WiFi pick-up.

Live blogging is work. It isn’t an idle little extra that you can knock off sitting around drinking latte. Over the 150 minutes of a game, I rarely had a break between watching the action, then thumbing what I see and compacting it into 140 characters.

But the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. I can also take still photos and video and tweet those too and post them to YouTube or any other site. Have a look at some of my work at http://www.flickr.com/photos/wordbanks/. I have some other apps such as Gingle and FlickIt that even provide live streaming on the web.

Tweeting events may not be suitable or desireable in every case. You don’t want to be seen to be on your handheld during a solemn occasion, for example. But for sports, presentation ceremonies, breaking news, and other events that is of interest to a wide audience, it’s a powerful and increasingly popular way to report.

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