Meet Nellie Bly

Nellie BlyLong before the 1970s, the golden era of investigative journalism, when all those cool male undercover reporters made long-form reporting fashionable — there was Nellie Bly. She was the pioneer in investigative reporting. She was a woman. And the year was 1880.

Nellie was born in Pittsburgh on May 5, 1864, as Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Known as the “most rebellious child” in the family — maybe because of her curious mind and her wit — she dared to dream of becoming a writer at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, whose star columnist Erasmus Wilson (and most probably all of the readers agreed with the man) believed that a working woman was “a monstrosity.”

Continue reading Meet Nellie Bly

Toby Young on Journalism

“[The media have] gradually become more respectable, which is a bad thing. Luckily, the Internet is making it less respectable again. To paraphrase Ben Hecht, journalists should occupy a rung on the status ladder somewhere between whores and bartenders.” […]

“I’m sure journalist/activists will become more common. It’s something that goes hand in hand with blogging. It’s a combination of roles that seems to be more and more popular with young journalists just entering the profession.” Read more (via The Browser).

Long Live Long Form

In a Mediabeat Interview (click image to view) with Michael Wolff, founder of Newser (“Read Less, Know More”), a news aggregator, Wolff explains: “We take lots of content and make it short, without ripping of someone’s headline or lead. We take a full story and very carefully reduce it to 65-200 words, using editorial skills. People have a need for shorter, faster information. We have to absorb more. The New York Times is a bore; they write for an older world.”

I agree that there is a need for places to get news fast and as a quick, easily digestible read. But reading long-form journalism is not “a bore” or meant for an “older world” (whatever that means) and far from obsolete. And I am sure, Mr. Wolff, that many of the articles that you reduce are written by these “old-world” journalists.

Want proof that long-form journalism is on the rise? Take as an example the news site ProPublica. Its readers like to read long stories, according to the results of ProPublica’s 2011 Reader Survey. Steve Meyers concludes in Poynter that “ProPublica’s not alone here. Long-form journalism is benefiting from new technologies (the iPad) and Web services (Instapaper, Read It Later), curating services (Longreads, Longform) and products (Kindle Singles, Byliner, The Atavist).”

So, Newser, your days might be numbered. Just skimming the surface is becoming the new bore.

We increasingly chose to read content, not just snippets, online. And tablets are exhilarating that pace. Not only do they entice online readers to read longer articles, but they also have an ever-growing impact on users’ willingness to pay for that content.

On that bright note, Happy New Year!

WikiLeaks to Old Media’s Rescue!

The implications for journalism could be immense. After WikiLeaks unveiled yet another batch of secret and not so secret documents — this time revealing the State Department’s pretty tame musings about foreign dignitaries — the public led out a collective cyber-gasp (at left, the cover of the German news-magazine Der Spiegel with its headline “Revealed: How America Sees the World”).

Was this just a tempest in the usually rather tepid teapot or a poisonous arrow in the quiver of new media enthusiasts aimed at top-down journalism? It may have been both.

The fact that we can upload everything, anytime and anywhere onto the web has stark repercussions for all media, old and new: Now, more than ever, we need old-time editors and investigative journalists, who can weed through the vast amount of data and hunt for the relevant among the irrelevant, filter the important scraps from the noise and the fluff. The ability to find any type of data, classified or not, on the internet and to dump every piece of information into cyberspace still doesn’t make it factual. That’s why the New York Times, the only U.S. newspaper, and four other foreign print publications, among them the British Guardian, were given first-access to the more than 250,000 documents, maybe in an attempt to give the data credibility. Not the blogs, or the ever-present Huffington Post, but old-fashioned print media were the first to have a go at the information. How ironic.

The New York Times explained why it decided to publish the secret diplomatic documents (under the headline State’s Secrets), saying that they represent “a mammoth cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the last three years [that] provides an unprecedented look at bargaining by embassies, candid views of foreign leaders and assessments of threats”. The Times also devoted a page on its website to answering readers’ questions about the publication. And it went on:

“The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.”

Investigative journalism is back with a vengeance, and sites like WikiLeaks are a new, cheap and increasingly important tool in its tool box. Seems the watchdogs that were asleep at the wheel are barking again. The Genie is out of its classified bottle, and as long as no lives are endangered or people are put at risk, I believe that is a good thing. But what does that mean for the free flow of information?

The limitless dumping of information and data will make old-school journalists and old-time journalism ethics relevant again. We still need someone who is trained to dissect the truth from the lies, the substantiated from the irrelevant. Nothing can stay secret, yes, but at what price? Is info-dumping good for a democracy and a society or could it backfire? Will soon all news stem from hearsay and gossip, from pieces of documents that someone secretly scanned, faxed or uploaded? Someone who may have a hidden agenda? How will that affect the exchange of information in the future and people’s willingness to be named a source or to give an eye-witness account? How do you assess what is true and what is manipulation in this free-for-all? How do you verify sources? And should we care, as long as it is entertaining?

I am all for revealing the truth. But I want to cut through the hype and the sensation and be sure that what I read is authentic. I don’t like to be manipulated. As a journalist, I like to do the editing and fact-checking myself. But others may not be able or willing to do so. Should they be protected from the information overload? By whom? And when does censorship really begin? With a government’s calculated release of data to the press corps — or with an editor’s decision to run a story or not? Too many readers or bloggers still don’t see the difference. Many are indifferent, but established journalists and many bloggers and pundits are not. Let’s use their knowledge and skills and get to the point.

That said, I think the following viewpoint given by Huffington Post contributor Derrick Ashong has merit:

“The saddest thing to me about this latest WikiLeaks disclosure is that it diminishes the value of “whistle-blowing” itself. As I tweeted yesterday “you blow the whistle to spread the truth, not to hear the sound.” By publishing these emails not only has WikiLeaks compromised the privacy of state department officials and the trust within important diplomatic networks, it has also undermined its own credibility as a resource for people who have genuinely important information to share with the global community. There is a distinction between truth tellers and high-tech gossip-peddlers. Unfortunately, it looks like this time WikiLeaks has crossed that line too.”

Good point. I agree. WikiLeaks will have to learn that crying “wolf” each time someone somewhere spills something is getting us nowhere.

In July 2010, when WikiLeaks published classified military data on the Afghanistan war, Mashable.com gathered the opinions of journalists under the headline The WikiLeaks Debate: Journalists Weigh In:

“We need people to leak and people to dig and people to consume and explain, and people who care enough to find the documents and bring them to light,” Mike Sager, a respected writer for Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post was quoted. “WikiLeaks, like most other Internet “news” organizations, doesn’t provide the perspective and understanding the public actually needs,” according to author and University of Chicago and Northwestern University writer-in-residence Alex Kotlowitz. “We need to be careful that we don’t confuse platform with content,” Kotlowitz said.

A bit condescending, but basically I agree.

Mashable also published another article that same month with a similar topic: Why WikiLeaks and the Mainstream Media Still Need Each Other. The gist:

“These leaks signal a seminal change for investigative journalism. The new collaboration model between prominent publications and WikiLeaks is a tactical marriage. WikiLeaks needs the press so that its leaks can rise to the top of public conversation. The press can use WikiLeaks for its unparalleled scoops. Furthermore, because WikiLeaks isn’t entirely understood or trusted by the public, a partnership with established news sources like The New York Times gives its leaks legitimacy. This “asymmetrical journalism,” as David Carr calls it, is a natural evolution for WikiLeaks. […] [A]ssuming there is news to be broken — it’s best if WikiLeaks and the press are on good terms.”

The German writer Rudolf Arnheim wrote in the 1930s: “Human beings will come to confuse the world perceived by their senses and the world interpreted by thought. They will believe that seeing is understanding.”

It seems like his predictions were right. WikiLeaks as media’s wake-up call? You bet.

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The Guardian has a very informative infographic, showing where the diplomatic cables were sent from (click picture to enlarge).

Good Old Days?

Here is a video find “How to Be an Old School Journalist.” A real gem from the late 1930s/early 1940s that teaches kids what it’s like to be a journalist. Especially watch minute 5:06 and on. What journalism is like for women. Society pages and balls.

If only they could see us now.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9E4xDq8IR4]

But don’t gloat. We still have a long way to go in print media, especially book publishing: According to She Writes, under the headline “Not A Balanced Breakfast: Gender Stats in Publishing for…2009?” you’ll read this:

“There are more women writing today than ever before, but what kind of recognition are they receiving? Well, not as much as you might think: in terms of prominent book awards and “best of” lists, gender equality hasn’t changed at all.”

Gay Talese: Get Out and See The World!

Gay Talese about New Media:

“Get rid of your laptops. Go out and see the world. […] Technology makes journalism quick but not enriching. It
turns journalism into a clerical profession, not an art form.”

And he has more tips for young journalists:

“Be well dressed; indulge your curiosity; unplug.”

Seems so obvious, right? But apparently, it still needs to be said.

 

Summer Laziness and Mob Mentality

For this one lone August post, I can blame summer laziness, not media fatigue, even though I have many times come close to just giving up on the state of the media and where we’re headed.

My tagline reads “Old Media and New Media Meet”, and that is sometimes hard to come by. Old and new are still behaving like third graders who compare the size of their ice cream cones. It’s not either-or; neither will get far without the other. So, here is a small list of the positive things that each side will bring to the table. Merging these will lead to better communications, no matter the platform.

Old media bring depth, when needed, tight control over the quality of the writing (editors, copy editors, proof readers), sincere fact checking and an army (or what was once an army) of investigative reporters and writers who know their beat, have the right connections and get out there to cover the news. Oh, yes, and they get paid and have the resources to follow their noses. Old media still adhere mostly to the rule that one needs more than one source to get the story right and that you draw a distinctive line between reporting, commentary and advertising. Old media raise issues that readers are not always aware of, or don’t think they need to know but should.

New media bring immediacy, the collaboration of many to a story, the interaction with the readers, the ability to constantly update and supplement a story with new facts, links, info graphics, audio and video. It is a many-to-many approach, and as such rather democratic: no matter where you are and who you are, your voice is part of the whole. You can decide what you want to read and customize your daily media intake. You become the editor.

I, for one, need both, the old and the new.

Many of us in media, however, see only doom and gloom lurking around us. We’ve lost our jobs, our self-esteem and careers, and our work is being taken for granted by young web editors, who crash with their parents but then tell us our hour’s work of writing should be worth less than what they get babysitting their neighbor’s kid to supplement their own meager income. Now, they say, everyone is a journalist, a photographer, an editor and writer, or so it seems. Content should be free, they beam, and they advise us old timers to be happy to get a byline and a thumbs up on Digg.

I want to share with you a moving blog post from the blog Headlines and Deadlines. The writer muses about her “blogging breakdown” amid the state of old media:

“Lately I haven’t had many thoughts about journalism or newspapers, at least not any that would stand sharing. Because recently, Blog, I have found it increasingly hard to negotiate the choppy waters of ‘changing times’; I have, if you like, lost my compass. I have striven to be optimistic about newspapers and the future but sometimes the words rang very hollow indeed.”

I hear you. But no, it’s not all downhill from here. One way or another, people will come to realize that words and content still matter. They will miss getting lost in a story, once they’re left with only snippets of bullet-pointed search-engine-friendly written content; “voices drowning one another out”, as Jaron Lanier wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “World Wide Mush.” And he continues: “When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation […] creativity and excellence.”

Admit it, new and social media by themselves are not enough to get the whole picture. Surely you’ve come to the same conclusion, when you got lost in a Google search the other day and ended up spending hours on Facebook before you picked up a magazine or a paper.

I believe, we still have a choice: to become a numb collective with a short attention span, that regurgitates what advertisers, public relations people or celebrities want us to talk about. Or we could merge old media’s values with new media’s possibilities and not get lost in the crowd.

Media Behaving Badly

You remember the pillars of old media, you know the ones that many now proclaim being obsolete, old-fashioned and slow: objectivity, using more than one source, digging deeper and not falling for people who proclaim they know the truth without questioning their motives? Oh, how all circuit breakers have failed this week.

After a conservative blogger posted an edited version of a speech given by a federal official, Shirley Sherrod, that was meant to prove that she practiced reverse racism against a white client, all media outlets, old and new and mainstream and what not, were up in arms about her alleged misconduct. The White House even fired the woman. But they were wrong, they apologized, the full video was shown and she was offered her job back. Apologies accepted?

Not so fast. The frenzy to stay on top of the news, to be the first to raise issues, forced the media to throw away again a few good old values of old media of days past: present the entire story, dig deeper, provide background, question every claim, use more than one source, and, above all, stay credible.

Was it really so hard for bloggers, reporters, editors and armchair commentators to watch the 45 minute video in its entirety and only then to report on it? Did they really have to rely on a short, edited clip, taken out of context to form an opinion? Was that too time consuming? Even a 24/7 news cycle needs to abide by and honor fairness, credibility and objectivity (at least in news gathering). Otherwise, it’ll turn into mere content mush without much substance. And nobody would want to pay for that. Oh, wait. We don’t pay for online news. Maybe we got what we bargained for.

Poynter explained how the story spread and engulfed the media sphere:

“Welcome to the modern news cycle, Shirley Sherrod. Even in today’s fast-paced media cycle, your trip has been more jarring than most. In a few weeks, most people won’t remember your name. They may, however, remember something about you. What, exactly? Well, that depends on when and where they heard about you. […] What’s left after all these waves? Not much news. Just another day at the beach, watching the media surf the breakers.”

And here is how PBS Newshour’s executive producer summarized what had happened:

“In our judgment, this story was about how a combination of supposedly responsible organizations and institutions handled a misleading piece of information that first surfaced on a website with an avowed political agenda. The press, the administration and the interest groups involved all have blame to share for prejudging Ms. Sherrod’s words before understanding their original intent and full context.”

So, for all those who haven’t seen the entire speech (and dear editors: a simple YouTube search would have helped you get the facts), here you go. Judge for yourself and point fingers at the right direction: The media, old and new, conservative or not. Now, go, cover the other issues at hand.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk&hl=en_US&fs=1?rel=0&color1=0x2b405b&color2=0x6b8ab6]

Top illustration: John Cuneo, Wired Magazine.