A New Look at Journalism: Takeaways From Last Weekend’s Society of Professional Journalists Conference

figures and newspaper.jpg(www.inkthinkerblog.com) — The Society of Professional Journalists Region 2 Conference on Saturday, March 28, offered some fascinating insight into the changing face of journalism in an economy that’s killing newspapers left and right amid reader demands for electronic content.

I tweeted diligently until my iPhone battery died (note to self: purchase a battery extender), but there was a lot of excellent content and advice that didn’t quite make it to Twitterland. Here are my notes from the conference, A New Look at Journalism, organized by session. Important: These are notes and impressions, not necessarily direct quotes, and boy did they ever take a long time to type up! Settle in for a good, long read.

Plenary: What Now Journalism
(I think they wanted a comma after “now,” or maybe a hyphen between “what” and “now,” but who knows?)

Speakers: Hagit Limor (investigative reporter, WCPO-TV ABC 9, Cincinnati), Laura McGann (Managing Editor, The Washington Independent, Center for Independent Media), Jon Morgan (Senior Editor, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center), and moderator Steve Geimann (Bloomberg)

Despite the decline we’re hearing so much about in the industry, there are pockets of growth in journalism that, although not necessarily in the areas where we started our careers, can be profitable niches. The industry is changing, and you have to keep up with it.

Write stories that matter. If you think it’s a story, do it even if no one else does.

We have an opportunity to create new media and be on the cutting edge of something. There’s not a certain way of doing things right now; it’s something we get to define. You have to have the drive, but you’d better have that skill set or you’re not going to get that job. You need to know how to do everything: shoot photos, do interviews, write stories, shoot video. A good journalist is someone who’s interested in things, flexible, tenacious, curious.

Finding work in this economy, in these conditions, is all about being in job-seeking mode. Think in terms of not only the job you want, but also the life you want. It’s good for you to know not only when it’s time to go somewhere, but also when it’s time to walk away. The one thing all journalists have in common is comfort with novel situations. Entrepreneurial spirit is also key.

The idea that you have an obligation to stay somewhere without a contract is ridiculous. Your employer will have no trouble cutting you, so you shouldn’t be beholden to them. Always keep your eye open. There’s a different between being responsible for something and being responsible to it. Do a good job at whatever your job is, but that shouldn’t prevent you from watching out for yourself. And there’s a lack of upward mobility in journalism; to move up, you often have to move to a new place.

You need to stay ahead of the curve for skill set. Just jump on everything, just try it — because that is what will keep you employed. All of these things (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, etc.) are about building a brand around yourself. That makes a difference on the Web, especially. We all need a marketing skill set.

People have always paid for news and they will pay for news again despite the proliferation of free news sources. You have to be like those clown punching bags that pop right back up when they get knocked down. The current turmoil will likely lead to stability down the line. It’s possible that we needed this crisis to force up to move away from that old way and come up with new business models.

Journalism is vibrant. Journalism is in demand. Just not necessarily in the traditional newspaper format. People want to know things and journalists do things people want. In 3-5 years, we will emerge. This is a blip. We will find a way, and in the scheme of life, we will look back on this as the rebirth of journalism.

The Business Side of Freelancing: Taxes, Insurance, Recordkeeping, and Marketing

Speakers: Stephenie Overman (freelance writer, workplace and health issues), Hazel Becker (publications consultant and freelance writer-editor), Kristen King (me; freelance writer-editor, consultant, and blogger), and moderator Bonnie Newman (freelancer and associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University)

Note: Because I was one of the speakers, I don’t have many notes from this session. Sorry!

You must think of yourself as a business, in terms of banking, recordkeeping, and operations. A simple spreadsheet that tracks your income and expenses will be an immense help when tax time rolls around. Be sure to set aside savings for state and federal taxes (self-employment tax is hefty).

Professional organizations such as SPJ, Editorial Freelancers Association, and National Writers Union offer affordable health insurance options for freelancers. Media liability insurance is also something for writers to look into. The Media Bloggers Association offers members a discount on insurance through Media/Professional Insurance.

The Practical, Legal, and Ethical Sides of Anonymous Comments on News Websites

Speakers: Maria Stainer (assistant managing editor, The Washington TImes), Hal Straus (assistant managing editor for interactivity and communities at washingtonpost.com), Bob Becker (media attorney), and moderator Andy Schotz (national SPJ ethics chair and reporter, The Herald Mail, Hagerstown, MD)

Filters can be written around and can flag the wrong things (like in the example of a shittake mushroom recipe). Flagging offensive content doesn’t work because people flag stuff that they disagree with, but not necessarily stuff that’s offensive. And while comment registration discourages “drive-bys,” users can also lie on the registration form quite easily.

It’s useful to monitor comments on controversial topics and to disable comments on all posts after they’re 3 days old because after that, it’s mostly spam anyway. And turn the comments off when it’s not about the story anymore.

Comments are a form of reader engagement, and the Internet is an interactive medium. Consider comment challenges in terms of ways to increase user engagement. News outlets generally fail to adequately engage readers. Print readers are trained to read and digest news and information, but not to respond, challenge, or interact.

It’s not practical to hold Web commenters to the same standards and requirements as someone who authors a letter to the editor, despite the fact that removing the standards often removes the internal tempering mechanism that prevents people from being morons. Comments are immediate, visceral responses to comment. To replicate print standards online is to quash the interaction.

Comment policies should state that comments are the opinion and responsibility of the commenters, and that commenters’ personal data may be disclosed under compulsion of law.

Although there aren’t many laws or cases on the books yet with definitive guidance on how to handle libel in comments, case law in the 1990s likened AOL and CompuServ to a phone line or bulletin board. You can sue someone who makes libelous statements, but you can’t sue the phone company they used to make the call.

When you make editorial decisions about comments, you can open the door to libel because that implies publication versus participation in a forum.

Every form (of response to news) has its pluses and minuses. Online comments have a much lower signal-to-noise ratio compared with letters to the editor, but they’re more receptive to criticism of the news organization. Additionally, there are exceptional comments every day, which speaks to the value of crowdsourcing and citizen journalism. It’s key to recognize and incentivize good comments. One possibility is a commenter rating system like on eBay, for feedback.

Prescreening comments and commenters is not a good solution because it introduces liability to the news organization through the act of approval, and can also be construed as engaging the commenters as unpaid but willing freelancers. It also slows the back-and-forth discussion, and can be prohibitive volume-wise.

Social Networking in Reporting: From Finding Sources to Getting the News Out, How We Can Best Use Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Networks

Speakers: Frank LoMonte (executive director of the Student Press Law Center), Tiffany Shackelford (online content and marketing specialist at Phase2 and Online News Association member), and moderator Andy Schotz (national SPJ ethics chair and reporter, The Herald Mail, Hagerstown, MD)

It’s less a matter of the specific tools we use than the fact that we know how to use the tools in general. Recommended areas of focus include semantic search (Yahoo! Search Monkey), search aggregators (DogPile), social search (Digg, Delicious, etc), and alternate search engines (altsearchengines.com).

Twitter is great for creating a network. Use TweetDeck to continuously monitor keywords in the Twitter stream. Use it to find sources, identify trends, and do research. Search Twitter using keywords from breaking news and find the people tweeting about it — use it as a tip service. Tools: Twitter Search, Hashtags, Twitter Trends. You can also use Twitter and Facebook to gauge story interest.

When posting, avoid politics and vehement points of view. Be interesting, useful, and benevolent.

The big question: What can and can’t you use that you found online? We have under 20 of years of Internet law and only some of it is from the US Supreme Court, so there are lots of analogies. The best rule of thumb is to take the situation out of the virtual world and put it in the real world. How would it play out?

Social networking sites are like any other public place. What’s in plain view is not off limits. For instance, if you’re a reporter going to someone’s house to interview them, you can write about the pot plants you can see in their window from the sidewalk. If you go to the door and identify yourself as being there for newsgathering purposes and are invited in, you can write about what you see without it being an invasion of privacy because you were invited in. It’s an invasion of privacy only when you gain access to the content under false pretenses, like pretending you want to date someone to get access to their Facebook page or pretending to be a DirecTV salesman to get into their living room.

When people put something online, they largely have waived privacy. However, anything you did not create is someone else’s copyrighted property. Consent is the chicken soup of the law; get express permission to use stuff (images, in particular, came up a lot).

The distinction between fair use and infringement: If someone is necessary to tell the story and you use only that which is necessary to tell the story and you don’t deprive the copyright holder of the economic value of the work, then it’s fair use. For example, if you use an image of the cover of a CD in a review of that CD, it’s not infringement. There’s no economic market for low-resolution thumbnail images of CD covers.” On the other hand, if you were doing a review of The Sixth Sense and showed the last 10 minutes of it, that would destroy the economic value of the movie because then there’d be no reason for someone to go see it.

If what you’re doing with the work is what the author did with the work, then it’s not fair use. Repackaging and reselling likely exceeds fair use. You need to do something creative, like a review or an analysis. A screencast of a website is okay if the site itself is newsworthy.

Newspapers can and should tweet breaking news items. Newspaper need to embrace the fact that they’re no longer the go-to source and need to market their content. They should build networks and shoot content out to them.

Contents Copyright © 2006-2014 Kristen King

4 comments… add one
  • Nannette Apr 12, 2009

    Good stuff. I’ve posted a lot about the demise of newspapers on my blog––mostly as a reader, though I have published some op-eds. I especially liked the information on comments. I sometimes wish comments could be limited to one per article to discourage those back -and-forths between commenters. Then again, when someone calls the last commenter a dirtwad, I guess they have a right to fight back.

    One thing that hasn’t come up much re:online journalism is the simple mechanics of what happens after a natural disaster? If we have no electricity or access to our computers will we be cut off from all news?

    Nannette´s last blog post..American Experience: We Shall Remain

  • srdha Apr 20, 2009

    just want so say some thing “great job”

    here is a site that more use full than http://www.dogpile.com

    Look at the best search engines from one place!


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