Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

I was doing research recently for an article that brought me to a local news website (in a major newspaper chain’s network). My computer slowed down to the point where I wanted to throw it out the window. When I closed the tab with the article, all the problems stopped.

I wish I could say this was an unusual experience, but it’s not. I’ve run into the problem for years, especially while working at Storyful, and have complained on Twitter as a result for just as long.

Local news was always one of my main sources to help verify social media content (it should be your rule too). But it often took a long time for these sites’ homepages to even load. The stories were slow loading as they were loaded down with video (always set to autoplay too), advertisements, and other elements that just stood in the way of me getting to the information I needed.

It seems the ad network elements on the sites were the slowest ones to load, but that wasn’t always the case. The page had to pull more than one ad from at least one server, sometimes more if multiple ad networks are represented on the page.

The videos took forever to load, but then they’d hang up the page as you’d attempt to stop them. I’d have videos start playing again after a few moments even if I hit stop. Sometimes I couldn’t stop them at all. I’d opt to just mute the page, but the video boxes on many of these pages now follow as you scroll, getting in my way.

And I have to wonder if I am this frustrated by using the website, what about the local audience the company wants to use its site more? I have local sites I avoid because they’re too tedious to use.

I know a lot of these items are in an effort to increase revenue for local newsrooms, which are struggling to make ends meet. I want these companies to pay their bills and staff and keep covering the news, so I support them trying to find new revenue streams. But are they standing in their own way in their efforts to increase revenue with a website that isn’t friendly to the user?

Not to mention many of these websites are part of a corporate network, which means the local newsrooms have little to no control over many aspects of the sites that cause the most problems. It’s likely frustrating the staff as much as it’s frustrating the user, an experience I’ve had myself.

At a previous job, we all had problems with our own website and fielded complaints from users. We’d send tickets to the corporate developers complaining about the issues, which included pages completely crashing. Our tickets would be prioritized based on urgency of need, so we sometimes over-embellished the issue to get a quicker answer. And often, we would be told there was no problem, which would make us want to bang our heads into the desk.

Obviously the answer comes down to revenue and how newsrooms can make money off their websites. If I had a good answer to how local newsrooms can generate more money, I’d be a rich lady. It’s a tough nut to crack, and a lot of people don’t want to go the pay wall route, especially if their competitors don’t have one.

But I also think examining the functionality of the website and how easy it is to use will make a big difference, even in generating ad revenue. If people spend more time on the site, that’s more revenue for a lot of newsrooms.

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I was scrolling through Twitter recently when I spotted a Pew Research Center tweet about people’s opinions of local news, and I was thrown back eight years in time.

Eight years ago I was an editor at Patch. I was one of the first editors at the network of local news websites, which launched 10 years ago (a fact that blows my mind).

AOL had bought the network (that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong had founded before he was at AOL) a few months after launch in 2019 (fun story how I was on a train headed to a short vacation when my editor in chief called and said I needed to sign paperwork). By late 2010, there were over 300 sites across the country, which prompted the question if Patch was evil.

We had only been a small handful of sites where the entire editorial team could fit around a long dinner table in 2009 to being big enough to fill three conferences across the country for all editorial staff in 2010. And with that much growth, changes came, and they were changes that unsettled me (and some eventually pushed me out the door months later).

One big thing was how we couldn’t give people the local news they had come to desire and rely on. We were required to produce certain types of content (to cater to certain demographics), and we all would share some of this content because our freelance budgets had shrunk so much. Or stories from other towns started appearing on the site because, sometimes, we were desperate for the content. A shrinking freelance budget meant high school sports coverage dropped significantly (a cornerstone of local news coverage).

The feedback, and it wasn’t good, was swift as people noticed the changes. There were comments, but there were far more emails. People cornered me in Starbucks or wherever they saw me (at least it wasn’t the grocery store like when I was my hometown weekly paper’s editor). To say I was upset is an understatement (as anyone who worked with me back then can attest to). Frustration often turned into tears behind closed doors.

There is far more to say about my end times at Patch (something I often hold back on talking about), but the lesson here is simple: Don’t screw with people’s local news. They rely on it. It brings them comfort. It gives them connection. And if you mess with it, people are going to react poorly.

Think about the times you watch the local news and you want to hear what’s happening in your area, but instead you’re hearing about what’s happening in Washington. You just want the weather and an update on the girl who went missing. I have sat here disappointed as local TV broadcasts have buried the local news with national news leading.

The national news seems so out there, but you drove by that bad car crash on the highway. You suffer from subway delays. You want to know how to help the people the next town over who lost everything in a big fire. You want to know more about the things happening around you and affect your daily life.

What’s sad about the Pew study (me burying the lede) is people don’t comprehend how expensive it is to produce local news. It’s a lot of work with long hours suffering through terrible press conferences and zoning meetings. If local news was doing as well as people in the survey thought, local newsrooms wouldn’t be suffering layoffs or even disappearing, creating news deserts.

My refrain remains the same: Support your local news best you can. The Pew study states only 14 percent of Americans are paying for local news, and my friends frequently share how frustrating it is when people complain about pay walls. The bills (and their salaries) need to be paid somehow. It’s not free to produce the news, and getting it for free online is a newish phenomenon, dating back about 20 years. For more than a century, people paid to read the local newspaper. The Pew study says 13 percent of people still get their news from the newspaper, something they pay for.

The issue of wanting to subscribe to multiple news publications online is a real one and I scratch my head about to figure it out, but the answer isn’t complaining about paywalls.

If you value your local news — as my readers made very clear to me in 2011 — do as much as you can to support it before it completely disappears.

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Just Write

I haven’t written on this blog in more than four years. The last post is about joining Storyful, and I haven’t worked there in months.

I was laid off last summer, one of the casualties of what has been a hard few months for the news industry as a whole. It’s been a hard topic to talk about on social media as you fight to find your next adventure, though the in between has been its own adventure too. How do you talk about this thing that has been making you feel horrible because everyone feels horrible when they’re laid off? How do you promote yourself when you’re not feeling good about yourself?

And that brings me to writing on this blog, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile but wasn’t quite sure how to do it, especially with the thing weighing heavy on me. What do I write about? How do I address life in the in between?

In the last few months I’ve rediscovered myself as a writer in a lot of ways. I’ve been writing a novel, something I hadn’t had the energy to do, and working on shorter fiction pieces and personal essays. I joined a new writers group, which has been a blessing and inspiration. When I approach my writing now, I tell myself to just write. Nothing will ever get accomplished if you wait for the muse to inspire you to write. Every good writer knows you need to just make time and space and let the words flow, whatever they may be.

So thinking about this blog recently (because a friend was talking about how she neglected her own blog) I wondered why I wasn’t applying the same standard here. Just write. It didn’t matter that this thing is still there. I’m working on plenty of projects, rediscovering my artistic side and have plenty of things to say.

So here I am writing again on my blog. I don’t know what I’ll be saying next, but I’ll have things to write, I’m sure of it. I’m recapturing my own voice.

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A few years ago I started following a company called Storyful on Twitter. I don’t even remember the reason I followed them. Perhaps people were talking about them and I was investigating.

In the time since then, the company established it as a force to find, verify and (when needed) acquire user-generated content on the social web for news agencies. They are a social media news agency. It’s also grown to the point when NewsCorp acquired the company while retaining its independence.

And on Monday, I’ll be joining the Storyful Open Newsroom staff in New York for my new adventures. I couldn’t be more excited because I know this is the right place for me.

To say the last few months since learning I was being laid off from NJ.com were difficult is an understatement. I have kept my chin up with hope for the future that I’d land on my feet even at the worst of times. Being laid off stinks, but in 15+ years of journalism I’ve never been laid off while working in newsrooms that have suffered cuts. I consider myself considerably lucky for that. And I kept spinning negatives into positives. Unemployment would mean I’d get a break from the stress of working in news.

During those months I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve talked to my contacts about jobs. I talked to perspective employers (about me, about them, about the future). I talked to my friends and family for support. Everyone had a lot of different things to say to me, including how I should face my job hunt.

I always promised myself that I wanted to find the right job not just any job (something some people couldn’t quite understand). I took myself out of the running for one job for this very reason. I could have landed the job, but it wasn’t the right place for me.

Then I started talking to the folks at Storyful in what felt like a whirlwind. Every conversation felt like that — a conversation. It wasn’t an interrogation and I didn’t feel like I needed to do the “please hire me” dance. We talked about the current state of social journalism but also the future and where we all feel it’s headed.

I’ve always admired the work they do at Storyful, especially as someone who has had more than one conversation interrogating colleagues about verification and permissions for user-generated content (just because it’s social media doesn’t mean you stop being a journalist). Talking to everyone just made me feel more excited about the work they’re already doing. There’s so much passion and vision for the future.

The intersection of social media and journalism interests me, and the open newsroom sits there. Newsrooms across the world are trying to figure this out, but Storyful has already figured it out and continues to be a leader. I can’t wait to be a part of that and to face the challenges moving into the future.

Thank you to everyone who has been there in the last few months, providing leads and support. The power of the journalism community is robust, and I’m thankful I know so many good people.

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Last spring I attended a conference on social media, and one of the speakers on a panel declared local news to be dead. One of the panelists responded by saying it was a local newspaper (The Record) that uncovered Gov. Chris Christie’s administration being tied to the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge a year ago (commonly referred to as Bridgegate).

The original speaker poo-pooed the story because it was New Jersey, an extension of New York. It doesn’t count.

It seems to have become common practice to dump all over local news. Case in point was an article from earlier this summer that was critical of “hyperlocal” because of its failures though it still has supporters. Part of the story was Jim Brady’s new project in Philadelphia, where he has gone since the closure of Project Thunderdome from Digital First Media. Among the things it picks on are TBD in Washington, which isn’t a fair point since TBD was never hyperlocal nor was it given a chance to succeed.

The article also picks on Patch, which is a fair criticism, but also mentions Backfence. Not familiar with Backfence? It’s because it shutdown in 2007 and it was a project focused on citizen journalism, the buzzword for hyperlocal before hyperlocal. I know about Backfence because it was included in my graduate school thesis in 2006 on citizen journalism. It was an early project, which means there were things to learn here. Just like there are lessons to learn from Patch.

But that fails to highlight how there are many local news websites that are doing just fine. I worked at one in Connecticut, and one of the oldest is in my backyard here in New Jersey. There also are franchises of local news websites in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Look beyond the tri-state area and you’re going to find a lot of local news websites across the country thriving.

Local news is struggling in some ways, no doubt. A recent PEW study outlined the shifting in how many people are covering the statehouse. We still hear about layoffs across the country, including at local news outlets. Some local outlets have trouble shifting from traditional distribution methods (ie printed product), but it isn’t always because they are resistant to change. Often they do not have the resources.

But we should be concerned about local news rather than declaring it dead. It’s an important instrument for you to learn what’s happening in your neighborhood. But it’s also these local news outlets that will stay with a story when the national media is gone.

I’ve seen someone say “what happens when the national media leaves Ferguson?” several times on one of my social media streams. It’s not just friends but also others who work in journalism. What happens is the local media will continue to cover the story, just like the local media always does when the national media leaves.

Hurricane Sandy was a national story and still gets some national press two years later, but it’s the local press that writes the stories about the storms effects constantly. My colleagues are sharing the stories of people who are still struggling two years after the storm. Remember the story about the Sandy Hook gunman that grabbed national headlines? It originated in the Hartford Courant, aka the local press. Bridgegate grabbed national attention, but it’s the New Jersey and New York outlets that are on top of every movement. In 2009, a group of Millburn High School students came under fire for a hazing incident that grabbed national headlines. When the national press was gone, it was the local news outlets (including myself) that followed the story, including what happened the following first day of school.

Plus those stories that evoke dramatic emotion from you? Most often they are covered by a local news outlet first before a national news outlet (or even your local news) picks it up.

The thing about today’s world of media is that you can check in on news anywhere in this country (or the world too) at any time. With a click of your mouse, you can check to see what is happening in the St. Louis area (where Ferguson is located) or what’s happening where you grew up (I don’t do this because my mother tells me more news from home than I could consume online).

But without local news, you wouldn’t be able to check in on those stories or what’s happening in your hometown. We wouldn’t have stories like the Courant’s profile of the Sandy Hook gunman. Those stories take time, local sources and local knowledge. It’s your local press that’s going to deliver on that for you.

I’m not going to tell you to go buy your local newspaper because I don’t buy the local newspaper either. But I do check my local news online. If you want to know what’s happening, check out your local news site.

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I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. The story is full of jargon and words people wouldn’t use in every day language. It could be a complicated environmental story or something about an upgrade in technology and my eyes start to glaze over because often there are phrases I won’t understand unless I’m an expert in the field.

Maybe the reporter didn’t ask enough questions to know what they were writing about. I fell into that trap more than once as a young reporter, especially when I had to write about Connecticut’s old affordable housing law. I had someone tell me to stop faking it and ask enough questions so I understood what I was writing about.

There’s another trap, though, and that’s writing too much about a certain topic. If you spend all your time covering cops and fires, you know their lingo. If you cover politics, there’s jargon only lawmakers and politicians use. You spend enough time around any of them and don’t check yourself, the lingo can end up in your stories.

Of course there also are the people who want to make themselves look smart by using all the jargon.

But as a reader it’s frustrating because this isn’t how they talk. I get frustrated because I want to take a red pen and change the words to something my mother would use.

And that’s the key here in breaking the habit of writing inside baseball (we have our own jargon in journalism too) and start writing how most people speak: How would you tell Mom this story?

I had a college professor who often talked about telling Mom the story. We want to write the stories we’d sit down and tell our moms about at the kitchen table. But we also want to write the stories in the same way of how we’d tell our mothers those stories.

Simplifying and breaking through the jargon doesn’t mean we can’t do something special with our stories. We can still write clever ledes. Just don’t write over your readers’ heads and write things in plain terms they will understand.

Also remember this: If you can’t explain the story to your mom, you don’t know the story.

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One of my most embarrassing (in a good way) moments in journalism was because I asked a simple question in late November 2001. “Are there any plans to honor the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?”

“Oh, my, I forgot. I’ll let you know,” my VFW contact told me. It wasn’t a surprise since we were still in a new world following the Sept. 11 attacks. People’s minds were elsewhere.

A day or two later he called me back that they were planning a ceremony on one of Westport’s beaches, and it was at that ceremony that I felt a little embarrassed.

My contact was talking to the crowd that was gathered there and specifically thanked me for making the whole thing possible. If I hadn’t called him and asked, they wouldn’t have done anything to honor the anniversary.

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day (I covered the 60th anniversary memorial in Westport too), and it made me think of all of the veterans I’ve met throughout my career, especially those that fought in World War II. They never glamorized war, but they felt it was important to tell their stories. They were stories that would inspire you — the things they sacrificed to go fight to defend our rights and the lives they led once the war was over.

And I felt it was important to tell their stories too. These are men and women who are my generation’s grandparents, which means we’re coming to a time when they won’t be here to tell their stories any more. All that will remain are our memories of them, not their voices to tell us their memories.

That’s how journalism is a living history. We’re here to amplify these stories, remind people of what happened and teach the younger generations our history. This is where we came from and how today’s world was formed. And today’s technology allows us to be able to create things — like video recollections of veterans — that will live forever.

We really should do more of these kind of projects to help us all to remember and to learn. It’s often said journalism is the first rough draft of history, but it’s really more than a first rough draft. It is our history, our living history, as we tell these people’s stories.

Update: The Wire did a review of how we’re remembering D-Day through veteran stories and how the media in 1944 covered the events.

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“The name of the site is WestportNow, not WestportLater.”

That’s something my boss at that time would say to me several times. It was 2005 and I had made the switch from newspaper reporter to web-only reporter, and Gordon Joseloff often would tell me the strength of working on the web was we could be immediate. It was what we all call “real-time news” today.

Gordon was tough. He was old-school and wanted everything a specific way, whether it was having a story up quickly about something that happened in town or making sure my copy was clean (and we often had grammar debates). But he also was respectful, and that made me want to do my best. It’s why I showed up to cover meetings after my night classes for grad school or made sure a story was filed almost immediately after a vote.

A lot has been made about “tough” editors in the days since Jill Abramson was dismissed from the New York Times. People are recalling the editors who made them do ridiculous things, saying those editors made them better at their job. But there’s also a theme to most of those editors: They were bullies and jerks to the reporters.

Then Dean Baquet, who replaced Abramson as the Times editor, basically said we should stop worshiping the nasty editors. It’s something others and I have been thinking.

I’ve had editors who people would describe as “tough.” One of my first editors would edit my copy by hand and pass it back to me and tell me to put in the corrections. A friend, who had been a copy editor, reviewed these things many times and said this boss was being ridiculous with 75 percent of her editing. Plus that editor never did anything to build you back up after she tore you down.

Another editor, who some would say is tough, would make me do ridiculous things. In my first weeks on the job she was unhappy with how the police department allegedly held back a story (they had not). But who was the one who had to make the call to the chief? I felt like the loud conversation (I don’t want to call it a fight) resulted in setting back my relationship with the police for a few weeks. She also tried to deny me the right to eat a meal after I had been on the run for 3/4 of the day. Her boss stepped in and told her she couldn’t deny people lunch. Her treatment almost made me leave journalism.

I look back at those editors, who seemed to do things just to toy with people, not as the ones who shaped me to become the journalist I am. It would be people like Gordon, who was a mentor before I even worked for him. I also had editors I’d ask questions about a story because they always treated me fairly, even if they were tough. And that always made me want to work harder. It got to the point where one such editor would let me leave before he edited my copy. “Your stuff is always good. You can leave.”

And those editors are the example I follow when I’ve been in the editor role. I don’t want to alienate people; I want to make them better. People will call me tough, but I also hope they will say I’m not a jerk about it. I think most would because they’d write me recommendations and some are still friends. It’s proof you can strive for a high standard and not be a jerk on the way to the top.

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I should consider myself lucky. I’ve spent 15 years in professional journalism (realizing this fact frightens me) and only now was I a casualty of a layoff.

A little over two weeks ago 300 people were laid off across my company, and I was one of the people told I wouldn’t have a job come September. The fact I have until September is a blessing since I have some time, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. Plus our layoffs happened during a rough week in journalism with Digital First Media also shutting down Thunderdome.

Since then I keep getting asked what I’ll be doing next. That’s still a hard question to answer since I still don’t know. I’ve done so many different things in journalism that I love that I don’t know what I want to go next. And it adds to the stress of the situation.

But the point of me writing this is to echo what Steve Buttry wrote on his blog about journalists helping each other in hard times. The emails, the tweets, the text messages, the phone calls — They keep coming from people wanting to express their support to me. Most often they come at times when I’m feeling really down with my uncertain future. There are words of encouragement, there are job leads and there are just moments of saying hi.

One of my friends calls the people who are helping me “job angels,” but they’re more than that. As someone who suffers from depression (and who doesn’t hide it), I can’t say how important all of this has been to me. It’s made a rough, stressful time so much better. I cannot say thank you enough.

People ask me why I stick with journalism after all these hard years for the industry. The outpouring of support has been one of the many reasons why I stick around. And, honestly, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

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More than one of my friends has said “I didn’t go into journalism to do math.” They look at me cross-eyed when I tried to explain how to calculate a percent difference, which always seemed like basic math to me.

The thing is math is important to journalism, especially if you’re going to be diving into budgets, financial reports, polling figures and more. Heck, you need to know basic math in sports journalism to calculate your own statistics (I learned in high school never to rely on the stats given to me by the team).

I was reminded of this fact when I read a story earlier this week about average home prices. The Millburn township administrator popped into my head and all the times he ranted about how “average” is not a proper indicator of a town’s statistics, including taxes and home prices. Instead, you should be looking for the median, he’d argue.

His argument is that if there is a significantly higher than most or lower than most home price, it would screw up your average. The median price would be a better indicator of what most people are paying to buy a home (or sell it) in the town. The same with taxes.

But in order to understand this concept you need to have basic knowledge of statistics, which not everyone has.

There’s been a lot of talk about what journalism students need to learn in college and the disconnect between their education and the real world. The conversation will revolve around things like reporting, confirming information, writing better and multimedia skills. But no one ever mentions math and statistics, which is something nearly every journalist will encounter in their career.

When I was in college a billion years ago (OK, maybe not that long ago), math and statistics were not a requirement of my major. I did have to fulfill a math requirement that was not associated with my major, and my major did require you to take an economics class. In my education, though, I was never taught of the kind of math I’d need in the real world of journalism.

The same thing happened in my graduate education, which was far more recent than my undergraduate education.

I still regret not taking a statistics class, though I consider myself strong and math and understanding statistics. That doesn’t mean I know everything.

As we discuss the things journalists need to know, we need to include math and statistics. Colleges should be requiring it of their journalism students and should develop courses that focus on the type of math, statistics and budget knowledge they’d need. Afraid no one will teach it? I’m sure there are plenty of us (myself included) who would be happy to teach that kind of class.

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