Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The world for a blogging business model

Ken Sands, the noted blogger and now online publisher for The Spokesman-Review, was scheduled to talk to my journalism class this Thursday about the evolving blogosphere. Due to very unfortunate events, plans have changed, but I will still post an entry about it, because I think I'm supposed to...

Sands helps editors around the country update their newspaper's web sites. He gives good advice to those starting out, such as to keep blogs to a specific subject and not to write blogs in groups. And Sands knows what he's talking about: The Spokesman-Review was just named 'best in the Northwest' by the Society of Professional Journalists and its online section was given the Online Journalism Award, the highest honor for an online publication.

In a recent post, Sands says he believes that we are at a crossroads in the evolution of journalism and stresses the need for a good business model. In his newspaper's online version he has tried to take advantage of the medium's unique attributes "including: immediacy, interactivity, utility, multimedia, entertainment, archiving, aggregation and community publishing." But when The Spokesman-Review began charging for its print content (not original online text), traffic growth went from 42 percent to zero.

Perhaps people just need time to adjust to paying for online content, but I think that the reason people were there in the first place was because it didn't cost them anything to do it. I think online publishers, like Sands, tend to forget that free content brings you a lot of eyeballs. The key then might lie with online advertising, but even The Spokesman-Review's acclaimmed web site doesn't appear to have any advertisements at all, aside from an inconspicuous column of classifieds.

For all the wonders of information that the Internet can provide, we still need to find a way to get people to pay for it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

This I believe

To listen to a recording of this post:
this is an audio post - click to play


I am American. This carries a lot of connotations, I know, but that's what I am. Even in saying it, I'm sure you've made a judgment about me, either good or bad. In fact, I'll bet there's only a small percentage of people in the world who don't have an opinion on what it means to be American.

But I believe that how you identify yourself is incredibly important. It's important politically and socially. It makes you part of one group and not part of another. But most people never really think about it.

I have met many people from many different places and I always thought it was interesting to see how they identified themselves. When I asked a man I met in a hostel in Rome he simply said, "African." "Africa," I replied, "is a very big place." He just shrugged.

Why, I wondered, did he say he was from a continent? It would be like saying, 'I'm from Asia,' or, 'I'm from the Western Hemisphere.' Was it because he felt solidarity with his fellow Africans? Doubtful. Most likely he said it because he knew that I, like most Westerners, would know little about his home country and he was tired of explaining himself to those who thought it was amazing that he ever escaped the "Dark Continent" at all. So, to ease social interactions, he just said "Africa."

How you identify yourself can also be a political choice. I met a 19-year-old in France who told me he was Tunisian. I knew the political situation in France well enough to ask him if he had actually been born in Tunisia. He said no, but he had visited family there a couple of times. I couldn't help but think that if this man were born in my country, he would say he was American pure and simple. He was born on French soil, which means he's a French citizen, but the French will never accept him as one of them. Denied a place in his home society, he now identifies more closely with the Tunisian people, who likely don't recognize him as one of them either.

A friend of mine has witnessed firsthand what happens when people in one nation identify themselves differently. She grew up during the war in Bosnia between the Croatians, the Serbs and the ethnic Muslims, which she called Bosniacs. She now calls herself Bosnian and refuses, for the unity of her country, to identify herself as part of one of the three warring factions.

Europeans, in a project that started as a similar attempt to prevent more wars, are also trying to reinvent themselves. Just this month, 10 new countries were added to the European Union, with 80 million people instantly becoming European citizens. But polls show that very few people (around 4 percent before the expansion) actually consider themselves European more than their national identity and that isn't likely to change soon.

How you identify yourself is just too incredibly important to change very quickly.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The high cost of free information

Information wants to be free, acknowledged the editor of the Chicago Tribune in a recent lecture, but it still costs time, money, effort – and sometimes lives – to gather. These underlying facts form the basis for the looming conflict between digital and print journalism.

Ann Marie Lipinski, editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Without an income, who would root out the domestic eavesdropping program, report on Katrina or uncover the genocide in Darfur? Who are these saintly people who would devote their lives to uncovering the truth on a beggar's salary? Bloggers and internet journalists provide free debate and opinion, but without paid and educated reporters they would have little to talk about.

Ann Marie Lipinski, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, talked about all these things and more at her lecture tonight at the University of Oregon, the 30th in the annual Ruhl series of journalism ethics lectures. The lecture was presented in conjunction with the awarding of the Payne Award for Ethics to The Spokesman Review and New York Times's Kurt Eichenwald.

Lipinski recalled her days as the editor of her college newspaper and noted how the daily struggles she deals with now have their foundation in what she learned then. Despite the sophomoric tales she recounted from those days, she added: "But nothing about those years seem like playing at journalism."

As I prepare to graduate, I look out at the labor landscape in front of me. The years I've spent in college don't feel like playing to me either. As I noted to a classmate recently when we were finishing a project at 5 a.m., surely "real life" can't be as hard or harder than college has been. That's why we work this hard. For some intangible sense that if we work hard now, it will pay off in the future.
Though Lipinski and our own Dean Tim Gleason finished college in non-traditional ways (each taking several years off before graduating), I still think it will pay off. I have tried hard to diversify my skills while in college, with the hopes that that will cushion me through the transition from a newspaper-dominated media to the more fluid, online version.

Lipinski has a photo hanging in her office of a Tribune reporter in a sheep barn in Afghanistan to remind her of what real reporting looks like, and what it will look like for as far as anyone can imagine. "I see no lack of courage in our nation's newspapers," she said.

So perhaps the "real world" of news reporting is just as hard and harder than college after all. Intrepid reporters, like that one in Afghanistan, are my heros, and I don't think I could ever do what they do. But, in the safety of university life, I have pushed myself to experience many things so that if I ever want to go further, I will be able to at once fight for the freedom of information and be good enough to get paid for it. That careful balance must be struck in all of us in the journalism community, as well as in the industry as a whole.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

With privilege comes responsibility

In these days of blogs, where anyone can become a published citizen journalist, there is real concern that the shield laws, which protect journalists from revealing their confidential sources, could extend to anyone and everyone. If everyone had this privilege, the argument goes, the courts wouldn't be able to conduct business because no one could be compelled to testify.

In his LA Times column, David Shaw called bloggers "at best pseudo-journalists." Though it may be hard for some professional bloggers to admit, blogging is a much less serious affair than publishing and broadcasting. Though this may mean, as Shaw says, that bloggers are therefore not entitled to a reporters privilege, this distinction also has its benefits. Are bloggers prepared to accept the other consequences of being a full reporter? Libel claims, resulting in the loss of thousands and millions of dollars, could be fought and won against bloggers for the inaccurate and unedited content they create everyday.

Jack Shafer of slate.com argued in his column that a blogger is fully aware of the risks ("his house, his bank account, his car, and his Fiestaware collection") and is therefore even more likely to be careful than Shaw who is shielded by his corporate lawyers. But it is obviously unlikely that every "Tom, Dick and Matt" is aware of the legal ramifications of divulging trade secrets and reporting libelous material.

Ultimately, I believe the question of whether or not the reporter's privilege will extend to the professional or casual blogger will depend on the evolution of the blogosphere. Just as the modern press was shaped by the courts, so will blogs. After a few lawsuits, the wheat will be separated from the shaft. Professional journalists, who happen to be writing online instead of in print, will emerge to legitimize the medium. Legistlators, as Shafer so self-righteously points out, have already managed to distinguish between certain types of journalists, and another definition for bloggers is emminent.

The privilege could be delimited, for example, to those whose primary motivation for acquiring the information is to disseminate it to the public. This would include professional journalists and bloggers but would avoid the situation where everyone who happens to have a blog could exclude themselves from testifying. Considering the fragile nature of the First Amendment, it is incumbent upon the courts to create such a definition.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Media Blogs: Pertinent or Pointless?

Blogs are a chance for ordinary people to put their voice out into the world. It's a chance to say, 'this is what's going on with me, this is what I think and I feel.' Blogs are meant for personal expression, not expert opinion, so when experts and journalists enter the fray, the results can be a little confused.

An example of a good blog is Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin's blog about the White House. Because Froomkin has an interesting life and interesting connections, reading his blog is informative and reveals interesting tidbits about White House correspondence that don't have any acceptable place in a newspaper. Kevin Maney's tech site is another example of a blog that just serves as a repository for things that don't really belong in a newspaper. This, I think is the proper role for professional journalists' blogs.

Unless, that is, you are someone really interesting like Kevin Sites, the photographer who captured the Falluja mosque shooting. He has a fascinating blog that serves as a boon to his employer NBC, because it creates an attachment to Sites as a person and a sounding point for him to rebut his critics. His blog, though not perfect, is interesting just because of the type of person he is and the situations he gets himself into.

But most bloggers (e.g. Leslie Kelly and Janell Hazelwood) are, as the French would say, looking at the world through their own bellybutton. That is, they only talk about themselves and don't have much more of value to add beyond their articles.

Part of this is certainly due to the fact that these journalist-bloggers have demands on their time from those who pay them, and blogging "don't pay rent." Wired magazine's "Heartaches of Journalist Bloggers" laments this fact, but that's just how it works in a capitalist society: intelligent, thoughtful analysis by informed individuals is something you pay for. Man-on-the-street interviews, even in their present incarnation on the Internet, are useful in gauging public opinion, but shouldn’t be relied on for reasoned and informed analysis.

Which is not to say that personal blogs are useless. Global Voices has a list of blogs from around the world that are useful for discovering what people in places of interest around the world are thinking about. In this regard, these blogs are much more useful than professional journalists who may have just “parachuted” in to cover a story and who have no idea what is actually going on in the streets.

But overall, I think it will take time for this new medium to decide its true usefulness to humanity. Blogs can be used for many things, but the popular ones will be those that offer uncommon information, a unique viewpoint or an interesting narrative. Not everyone (including we journalists!) can offer that.

In search of El Dorado

Combatting immigration is the talk of the world at the moment. I tried not to blog about it, but it's such a ubiquitous topic that I almost feel it's my civic duty to weigh in.

In addition to the American debate raging on the issue, Le Monde, the national French newspaper, reported today that Spain has launched a diplomatic offensive against a new wave of thousands of African immigrants. Legislators in Madrid do not have the option of building a three-part fence across the ocean to stop what Le Monde calls the "quest for the European El Dorado," a term that I think cleverly reminds Westerners the similar motivations that brought their own ancestors to leave their homeland.

One could go into the complicated reasons behind the economic sluggishness of Africa and the other underdeveloped countries of the South. One could point fingers at the IMF, or the corrupt leaders, or even the climate. These are all very important issues to think of when trying to solve root problem, but I unfortunately don't have the expertise to address those issues. What I want to know is why are we afraid of this influx of foreigners?

That most immigrants are poor is true, but the reason they are drawn to Western countries is to take advantage of the capitalist, materialistic societies that they admire and respect. For better or worse, their presence will only serve to entrench that system. They are not here to start a revolution. They are here because they didn't want to start one in their own countries. They may take advantage of social services but, in case anyone hasn't noticed, Americans don't really have a lot of social services to take advantage of. Is the richest country in the world really not able to afford to provide the basic necessities of human life to people who only want a chance to succeed? But then perhaps we are afraid that immigrants will take away backbreaking labor from our fellow Americans, the products of our gutted educational system. If that's the case, as classical economists have argued since Keynes, we need only educate our populace for the whole boat to rise.

Behind all of these more or less empirical arguments there is a palpable fear of immigrants as people different than us. A friend of mine recently sent me a collection of quotes from immigrant leaders vowing to "take over" from the over-privileged whites. My question is, what exactly would immigrants change if they were in power? They love the American dream, that's why they're here.

An African friend of mine, who just finished a Masters in econometrics in France, wants desperately to come to the US for a job. He came to France for the chance at a good education, paid for by his government, but he can't stand the anti-immigrant attitude he finds all across France, a country that imported millions of people during the reconstruction and now refuses to accept them as French.

My friend wants to come to the land of liberty to work hard and earn a decent living where race and nationality don't matter. He is willing to go through the miles of paperwork and months and years of bureaucracy, just for the chance to visit our great country. When he gets here, well, if he gets here, I hope he doesn't find that we, too, have turned our back on a generation of dreamers.

Photo credit: Petra Horn-Keller/Oregon Daily Emerald.

P.S. Paul Greenberg's May 24th column "Coming to America" makes my argument much better than I do.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A cure to the meth epidemic through spreadsheets

I live in Oregon, the state with the highest per capita methamphetamine use in the nation, as determined through treatment statistics. Meth addiction is a particularly notable problem in my home region of Lane County where Rep. Peter DeFazio recently announced that Lane County ranks second in Oregon for meth seizures. I have seen meth addicts in my own neighborhood, and I wouldn't at all be surprised if those who stole my car last December had meth in their systems at the time.

The Oregonian, a large Portland-based paper, had been reporting on the rise of meth use and related crimes since the drug surfaced in the early 1990s. In late 2001, the newspaper set Steve Suo the task of reporting on what had become a major social issue for Oregon.

Suo visited my Power Journalism class today and explained the path he followed to get to a major Pulitzer-Prize-winning, five-part story on the spread of meth use from its origins in California and the very simple and effective steps the government can take to choke off supplies of the key ingredients ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

The four-year research effort that Suo has put into the topic has sparked local, national and international actions to cut off the super-labs in Mexico, which manufacture 80 percent of the meth used in the United States. These amazing results – and hopefully more concrete actions soon – have helped to stop the growing epidemic that is devastating some communities.

But how was he able to figure out the clear links between governmental actions to reduce ephedrine and pseudoephedrine on the black market and meth use when policy analysis and government officials hadn't?

Suo, who had learned a lot about statistics analysis from his graduates studies in Public Affairs, started with a federal study that seemed to indicate that the Oregon Health Plan, which gave free drug treatment to low-income citizens, was responsible for the growing number of treated meth users and didn't necessarily correlate to an increase in meth use. This turned out to be wrong. By analyzing treatment data and meth-related crime statistics from Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado, a clear pattern emerged.
To find the reason for these drops in the indicators of meth use Suo had to dig deeper. He created a timeline of drug busts and congressional actions to restrict ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Finally, the patterns made sense. One could clearly see that the acts in Congress to restrict the ingredients to make meth, as well as the discovery and subsequent closure of certain pipelines from Europe and Asia led to a massive drop in meth addiction.

It's clear that Suo's efforts and the new ability of print journalists to analyze digital data like professional researchers will dramatically effect the way journalism is done. It used to be that journalists had to wait for government researchers to ask the right questions, conduct their own studies, and release the findings. Today's journalists can add to the wealth of public knowledge by finding correlations that researchers may not see. And the best of them will be able to have the massive impact that Suo did to find a cure for this "Unnecessary Epidemic."

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A young sex reporter comes to town

When I arrived in Gerlinger Hall to listen to a lecture, I didn't quite know what to expect. The visiting journalist was unknown to me, but I soon learned that he and I shared a similar goal: pursue the issues that affect America's youth and other under-reported sections of American life.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is an award-winning magazine writer and the youngest person ever contracted by The New York Times Magazine. He is best known for reporting on the edge of American culture, particularly on topics of sex and sexuality. He challenged gay stereotypes by interviewing San Francisco’s Regular Guys, a group of steak-eating, sporting-event-watching gay men and Boston’s Lipstick Lesbians, a group of feminine lesbians who defy the butch-dyke stereotype. One of his most original pieces was Double Lives on the Down Low, which details the lives of macho black men who go to specialized clubs to hook up with men, but do not admit that they are gay.
Denizet-Lewis graduated less than 10 years ago from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University but is already a major figure in journalism.
He says he writes about sex "because so many people write about it so badly.”
Though he lives the high life now, his stories took a lot of determination, perseverance and unpaid work. At times he would spend months working on an assignment, spending time in Internet chat rooms or at the bowling alley to establish a rapport with his subjects. The results are shown in his powerful stories about worlds and sexual trends unknown to many outsiders.
I noted in particular that he had done a story on New Hampshire high school students who engage in casual sex by hooking up on the Internet. “I’m not gay and I’m not straight. Those labels are silly,” the high school students told Denizet-Lewis.
I recently did a story on a growing trend among people my own age who seem to be afraid of defining their sexual relationships, so I was happy to see that my story ideas weren’t totally off the mark.
It was also very encouraging to me that the main advice that Denizet-Lewis gave to aspiring journalists was to look around in their own lives for story ideas. I strongly believe that my generation’s point of view is over-shadowed by that of the baby boomers and I hope to change that while I’m still young.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

What journalists and bloggers can learn from each other.

With millions of bloggers throwing their thoughts, observations and commentary out into the ether, the term “journalist” has begun to return to its root word of “journal.” Anyone with internet access can voice their opinion, which means that the wall between trained professional journalists and bloggers, which some call “citizen journalists,” has been broken down. But the informal atmosphere of a blog has also encouraged poor writing and bloggers tend to ignore the conventions that has made other published material into authoritative and influential sources.

Steve Outing, the former senior editor at the Poynter Institute, posted a set of articles in late December on the ways that journalists and bloggers can learn from each other. He argued that journalists and bloggers have nothing to fear from each other and that both can benefit from learning the methods of the other.

Bloggers, he said, tend to be more transparent and make corrections more quickly and place them more prominently than newspaper journalists are willing or able to do. Bloggers are also more willing to admit their personal biases. While the mainstream media pursue the unattainable goal of objectivity, bloggers proudly announce their bias and feel freer to focus on what they believe to be the most important part of a new story instead of spending time on a minority opinion or one that they disagree with.

However, bloggers also need to realize that journalistic values like editing, reporting, ethics, and accuracy make for a better blog. The ones who take their work seriously and professionally are rewarded with a larger audience who respects their opinions. The vast majority who don’t take their work seriously are in turn not taken seriously and will never advance to the point of notoriety.

In all, we must understand that blogging is a new medium. Just as cassette recorders can be used to film idiotic backyard fighting or sophomoric home music videos, they can also be used to create sophisticated, low-budget works of art. Those who take the medium seriously will rise to the top and those who dabble will only amuse themselves. No real harm to established journalistic practice is likely to come from blogging, with the very real advantage that journalism just may become more interactive and dynamic as reporters learn that readers want more personality in their news.

Why blog?

In a worried voice, Beth Duff-Brown, the AP bureau chief for Toronto, recently asked me what my classmates and I thought about entering the newspaper business during its downward spiral. She said that when she first started, newspaper reporting was at its prime and was an exciting profession to get into. Why, she asked, would you enter the profession now?
I told her that the value of thoughtful analysis and reasoned, accurate reporting was not going away. In fact, the digital revolution, though perhaps spelling the decline of the print medium, proved more than ever that humans have a voracious appetite for information. People with my skill set – the ability to write well and think critically – will always be in demand in a free society.
A good blog, the newest news medium, comprises those skills and that's why I write.

...Now the problem is to find out how to earn a living off it.

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