“Newsworthy”: to be or not to be

I’ve been suffering through an identity crisis of sorts for a while about journalism. I’ll be honest.

I will not go into detail about the reasons except for one. That reason is the constant battle I have with determining whether or not something is “newsworthy.” 

I think about things in very strange ways and I come up with grandiose, big ideas. I want to write about huge concepts, like humanity and love and life and depression and sorrow. On the other hand, it’s hard for me to come up with the ground-level immediate stories that I am so frequently encouraged to find. 

I realize that this is an issue. I realize that my conceptual brain and my constant mental refabrication of every idea Terrence Malick has probably already thought of. But I can’t stop thinking that way. I’ve tried to think more concisely and in more solid terms — but even when I think up more basic and tangible ideas, they don’t give me any satisfaction.

I’ve talked to people about interviewing and one of the common responses that I’ve seen interviewees have when they’re approached is, “Why would you talk to me? I’m so boring.” 

But do we really expect any other response? The media perpetuates the concept that only blood, drama and “uniqueness” (whatever that means now) can make a headline. Of course people think they’re boring. I hate having to describe to strangers why I’m talking to them not only because I see that people really do think they’re boring but also because I hate how “average” stories are considered to be less valuable than “relevant” or “immediate” or “current” or “timely” stories. Perhaps dubbing one story “timely” and another story “untimely” (or, in other words, not important enough) is an overestimation of the journalist’s responsibility anyway. Do we really think we are so all-knowing that we can determine that one person (or one event) is more important than another?

I don’t think so.

I even heard the other day people talking about people and their stories. One person said the same thing that I say: how everyone they’ve met is interesting and how they tell their sources that. But then the second person said, “Well, everyone has an interesting story. Some are just more interesting than others.”

That’s something fundamental about journalism that I just can’t get behind. And maybe that’s the source of one of the frustrations I’ve been having.

I will continue to explain to people that I have never met an uninteresting person (it’s true). Sometimes I go into interviews for some specific purpose but I’ll end up talking to them for three hours just because I’m interested in what they say and how they act and how they’re interacting with me and my questions. I test people with personal questions; I pull back to respect their boundaries. I laugh with them and tell them I understand how weird an interview is because it’s weird and at certain points I can’t be anything but transparent. Yes, I will drink beer with them. Yes, if they ask me to withhold something (for a verifiable and understandable reason), I’ll probably do it. 

I’m a person and the people I interview are people too. 

And if journalists are the ultimate purveyor of humanity, I think we need to escape the veil of newsworthiness and tell those stories that may not be “relevant.” Every interview I’ve had has showed me that everyone has some little interesting thing about them, and I want to be the person to talk about that interesting thing. 

People think journalists “use” them and they’re right to think so. Journalists do “use” people to their advantage. They have a “newsworthy” story and they call the right people and get quotes and write the “newsworthy” story afterward and turn it in and never look back. Nobody’s entirely happy in that situation.

I’ve brought up ideas for stories but they’ve been shot down because they’re not timely enough or newsworthy. But they’re newsworthy to me. And they should be newsworthy to everyone else, including people in a newsroom. 

What comes first to my mind when I try to defend myself and defend my broad and vague “mist

There’s a quote that is often used to describe the “man bites dog” concept in journalism: the concept that news will cover a man biting a dog because it’s unique but will never cover a dog biting a man because it’s average and run-of-the-mill. It’s a great concept because it’s true. I feel like journalism sometimes falls into its out self-dug pit when it either sensationalizes some oddball story, exaggerates another and ignores another.

Anyway, the quote is, “You never read about a plane that did not crash.”

I guess I want to write about that plane. I want to write about people who are “boring” and who aren’t “newsworthy” and who really are just…people.

Is that wrong?

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Back in the saddle

The first step is to admit that you have a problem.

Okay. I have a problem. I have been neglecting this blog. I feel awful.

Good.

Moving on.

I’m back at the Missourian for the enterprise beat for the Spring 2013 semester. It’s going to be a change from education, and I’m going to have to take a lot of initiative and keep my often spacey and conceptual ideas reined in. I’m going to need to make these ideas tangible and tactile and identifiable. I had a very successful first couple talks with my editor, and I’ve been doing some preliminary research for some topics I’d like to cover.

I came to enterprise because it was my other top choice when I was applying for beats for the first time last year, but also because I wanted a chance to branch out in my experience with the newspaper.

It’s a new year, and I’m already slacking on some resolutions. But the newspaper is different. I had a variety of experiences late last year that hit me pretty hard, and I think my work showed it. But I’m not one to wallow, and I’ve come back from last year with little more than a few mental bruises. But now is not the time for mental bruises. And now I just looked up ways to make bruises better, and the solutions vary from an ice pack to acetaminophen to parsley to pineapple to leeches (yes, leeches).

Alas, 2013 feels like it’s going to make itself into a nice amalgamation of parsley and leeches to turn my bruises into little tea lights. (I’m not making any sense. The tea lights come from a class exercise where I said the lights represented positivity and finding the motivational light within ourselves.)

I’m really good at metaphors, right?

Anyway. I truly am excited to be back. I wasn’t sure where I was at the end of spring semester, and honestly, I wasn’t sure where I was in December. But it feels good to be back working within the strangely comforting seafoam-teal-green walls of the Missourian. I was nervous coming back. But it subsided very quickly, and everyone, as always, has been supportive and accepting. I got that feeling from the very first time I walked into the paper. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but it’s certainly there. Maybe it’s comfort, maybe it’s nerves, maybe it’s just a feeling that is telling me that I am back in the right place. I’m back in the place that was always the right place for me to me. Now it’s my time, again, to take up the reins and get back onto the road and see what’s ahead for me for the next few months.

(I post this as I just realize how many horse references I’ve made in this post. Whoops…there’s that bad metaphor thing again.)

Onward!

Update: On the student paper resignations

(Note: I did work at The Maneater. But this is an unbiased — as actively and consciously unbiased as possible — post about the recent events there and across the country. I write this as a student journalist, because I think it’s too important not to write about and is a good way to open up discourse and transparency within our journalism here.)

I’m taking a break from my writing to post something about the recent developments for college newspapers.

There’s been a surge in student newspaper resignations across the country stemming from reasons including inaccurate information, misleading information and more recently, inappropriate humor. There was the resignation at The Daily Free Press because of the paper’s disregard over the impact of their April Fool’s edition that trivialized rape especially after several related events had occurred earlier in the year. There was the resignation of an editor at The Daily Iowan. A while ago, there was the resignation of the managing editor at Onward State for a faulty tweet. Now, the razing of the Maneater’s April Fool’s edition that had an inappropriate LGBTQ slur as the masthead as well as other offensive remarks throughout the issue has wreaked havoc within the newsroom.

What does this all mean?

There’s a lot behind it. Perhaps a lack of oversight at the papers, perhaps ignorance, perhaps a tendency to post information as soon as possible — without verification.

The thing with the Maneater debacle is that this apology letter shouldn’t have been written in the first place. What should have happened was a re-assessment of the impact of an April Fool’s Day issue of the newspaper. There should have been a better thought process by the few people involved in the error. I’ve spoken to many of my friends about this. There are plenty of ways to be humorous — even searing — without resorting to lowly derogatory comments. Just because they’re young and hip, doesn’t mean they had to go full-blown Adult Swim on the front cover of the newspaper.  We don’t have to degrade ourselves to meet some unwritten standard of humor. A newspaper is a newspaper. Although our definition of journalism is changing, our adherence to its values should not.

Call me a grandma, but I just simply can’t get behind the idea of an April Fool’s issue. What’s the point? I understand, it’s funny. But do something else. Make a comedy section. Heck, make an entirely separate comedic news source. But once you blur the lines between what is news and what is satire, especially when the newspaper itself is wrapped literally in this farce, how can you expect readers to differentiate between it themselves?

And let’s just focus on one word — “newspaper.” This was an ‘egregious’ error not only because was it just poorly thought out (or not thought out), but because it breaks the basic rules of what we as young journalists are learning and striving for, those rules that are instilled into us every week in Gannett and Lee Hills: fact-checking, context, proportionality, truth, awareness of our readers, devotion to our readers, fairness. If we digress from our own rules, then it will only become easier for the public to become skeptical about our role.

I’m not writing this post to attack The Maneater or its editorial board. I just think this is too important of an issue to not discuss. I also don’t want to wish ill upon the former Maneater editors. But I do believe that their actions are the best to take in a situation like this. Although, I don’t think that a complete withdrawal from journalism should be the immediate response.

Sidebar: I also disagree with the disciplinary action the university is reactively taking. It’s extreme, unnecessary and tiptoeing around very volatile territory for a student publication’s rights. These editors have been through hell and back, and it’s not over yet. But deliberately ruining them is not, in my opinion, the mature reaction at all.

We live and we learn, and this just happens to be one of these learning moments that happens to be relentlessly burning in the spotlight of criticism. But I do believe it will help the newspaper grow stronger and help everyone involved learn important lessons that really, truly may not have been learned had this not happened.

Some people have used these unfortunate events to say that journalism today is so easily compromised and held to a lower standard. Others have defended the papers and the editors, saying that they should be forgiven. I think that both of these claims have some truths to them. I also have to admit that, as my ethos and pathos tells me to, I have to sympathize for these editors. They’re going through a strife that a lot of us won’t understand. They do need forgiveness. Because, after all, they did make mistakes. But we all have done the same (although maybe not to the same scale).

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”
― Elbert Hubbard

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable. They should. As a community, we need to hold them accountable for their actions. We also need to, as a community of journalists, hold ourselves accountable. Because what one man (or woman) does in our crowded profession will undeniably affect others. So while we must take responsibilities for our individual actions, we should also keep an eye out and an ear open as a cohesive unit so that we can continue to function. People see us as an entity, so we should do that as well.

I also do think it is concerning that this dire situation is the only thing that really motivated the paper to take direct action against itself. I can’t fail to mention that there have been other apologies this semester for debatably poorly executed and thought-out editorial sections. It’s just such a shame that this had to happen to initiate the change.

Student papers often lament about not being taken seriously by readers. But if they want to be taken seriously and be treated as professionals, they need to act like them. This must happen in the newspaper itself, but also within the newsroom.

But overall, I think this is a learning experience for everyone. It’s a chance for the newspaper to change. It’s a chance for the former editors to think about what happened, and what will happen now. It’s also a chance for us, as outsiders, to learn what happened, to become part of the conversation and — gasp — to forgive, at least eventually. The consequences will be bad. But we should not be so quick to bring out the pitchforks.

This is also a good chance to reflect on our society, and more specifically my generation and my generation of journalists, as a whole. We’ve become a very attack-prone, negative, “insta-everything” (a phrase I like so much I took it from the NYTimes; forgive me!) generation and it’s perpetuated by the internet and our often stubborn perceptions of people. We make fun of each other. We make fun of strangers. It’s become insensitive and unsympathetic, our humor. And often, it’s hard to separate this humor and our critiques from how we present ourselves. But as our Twitter and Facebook profiles become intertwined with our professional life and we combat with “being ourselves” and still being respectable professionals, we’ve gotten into the habit of feeling entitled and being selfish about what we’re really doing and what consequences — and public opinion — could result from our actions.

Yes, you can technically tweet about whatever you want. Sure, you can post that crude article from Cracked.com. But you can also refrain from doing that, too. I think the plague of “instant gratification” my generation finds itself coming back to over and over again can really just stem back to both an ignorance about consequence and a selfishness, which is both innate and learned. And let’s not forget that way too many people still say “gay” to mean “dumb.” It’s just…lazy.

Yes, April Fool’s editions are funny. So is that tweet that you want to send about a boring event you’re covering. So is that mean comment you really, really want to say (and don’t lie…you know we all think these things.) about your ex and his/her bad hair day.

But it’s this lack of restraint that is maybe a big reason why these events happen and also why people still are so quick to hound on journalism.

Sometimes we need to refrain from the betrayal that comes from our quick-moving minds and quick-typing fingers. We’ve become too greedy over becoming the most shocking and we’ve become too accepting of extremity and we’re losing regard for ourselves as a community and as a profession that’s always under scrutiny. We too, therefore, are at fault.

I’m not saying that we should resort to inaction. Rather, I’m saying that through our action, we should consider the difficult option of restraint. Sometimes it takes more action to restrain ourselves than from instinctively reacting. And that’s an action that the editors, and also my generation — as journalists and people in general — need to hone. Because otherwise, we’ll just keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Because otherwise, we risk losing the respect of our superiors and also the ability to respect one another.

Update: A defense for long-form, pt. 2

Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own. – Carol Burnett

And my rant goes on.

I want to write about this before I forget about it: my friend today made a very interesting point about journalists/journalism students learning multimedia for the “future of journalism.” He made the point to say that, yes, there is a future for multimedia in journalism but the sad thing is that the jobs where these skills may put us a head above others are dwindling at best. Learning multimedia is good for us, but the jobs we’re looking to court with these advanced new skills may not even be there by the time we get to the job pool. That’s a sad thought…but it’s true.

I think the argument that “Journalism is dying” is fatalistic and kind of annoying, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Yes, the newspapers are struggling. And multimedia will help them stay ahead of the curve. But, as my friend said, this new technology doesn’t necessarily mean new jobs. I think that young journalists like myself need to find a way to

Another issue with the future of journalism is the journalism-as-a-business model. Tell any journalist (or budding journalist) that journalism’s a business and expect a gasp in response. Newspapers have been grappling with profit and how to get it and still run good copy really since newspapers started making money. Now it’s become even more of an issue as profit seems to go by the wayside as “citizen journalists,” bloggers and the Huffington Post have dutifully declared themselves as the “future of journalism”, effectively sending harrumphing journalists into despair and good writing into the black hole of  forgotten crafts like quilting.

But I don’t think that this change in perspective about what journalism is in the new age means that all journalism has to change. We don’t have to be little sheep following the SEO and aggregation shepherds of the internet.

But this also doesn’t mean that we should be stubborn about ourselves, either. I think that we can be extreme about our approach to our role as journalists — we either go all out or none. Maintain print or go strictly online. But this approach is very short-sighted. I think that there are ways to not only embrace both the print and the online structures, but also enhance the role of the reader and the opinion of the reader.

Like I said before, I think that readers today are really underestimated. It’s wrong to assume that they prefer a short tidbit of information over an in-depth long-form piece of journalism. It’s also wrong to use readers as pawns in the constant tug-of-war between newspapers and their advertisers. Now, I think short, scanner style stories are really important for helping readers wade through the unimaginable amount of information there is to process every given day.

But as we become bogged down with so much content (and advertisement), I feel as if citizens have become confused about the real meaning of journalism. Is its goal to pump out as much content as it can, with a lack of regard for what’s really important? Is the finish line more important than the actual race?

I think there’s a lot of potential for journalism online that can help us get back on track. Matter is one of the best ideas today. Basically, it’s this project that a great group of journalists have come up with that really is encouraging long-form, well researched, heavily investigated journalism. It’s not about one topic, and will only release one long piece of journalism a week for .99c per article, iTunes-style.

This leads to another issue: finance. We don’t want to have subscription-only sites, yet we don’t want to give out free content. So how about 10 free articles per month? 5? Take away the print edition entirely?

Barraged with ads and clogged with news stories from every section in a labyrinthine setup, news websites are constantly trying to figure out what people want to see online and why people so quick to criticize.

I think there’s a lot more to consider when it comes to finance of journalism, like this Reuters piece describes.

Matter’s Kickstarter video

1. I like the idea of the iTunes-style model. I really do truly believe that people would buy a piece of journalism for $1 (I mean…it is only one dollar). We buy books that are popular, we buy albums, we buy clothes. All online. If this Matter site proves itself as much as it’s saying, there’s no reason why the bandwagon effect wouldn’t translate to long-form journalism.

2. The ambition of one story a week is perfect. It’s not too much content to handle, and it embraces the idea of anticipation. It works. (Or it should…I guess we’ll see.)

3. Embracing the online and the print, focusing on statistics and the readers. What if news organizations DID give free content online, but also kept their print edition for a subscription fee or a per-purchase fee? This print edition could even be made reader-specific by looking at the stats of what people read, what type of people read what, where they’re from, etc. This technology is possible and is used in newsrooms…so why not apply it to the product itself and to the way the news source makes money?

Say your steady readers who keep coming back really like to read about the Arab Spring. So, in your print edition, include stories about these revolutions. You’re catering to your steady devotees, but you’re also gaining profit while maintaining interest. And you also include other things that you think are important. We shouldn’t undermine our own role in the newsmaking process.

4. Paying past the first page. There’s also another way to make money that’s described in the aforementioned article. What if we re-configure how readers read the inverted pyramid style and translate to profit? Most of the information could be on the first page of an article, and subsequent information on further pages could cost 5, 10c at some point.

5. Suggested cost. Or, you could do it Radiohead style and ask readers to donate money for longer-form stories at the last page (or the first, whichever, who knows?). People bought Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” online when the band website let them enter however much they wanted to pay. (I do know people who paid little to nothing…but the important thing to think about is the people who DID pay.)

This is where the rest of journalism can play in — the bulky middle that is between 10 and 20 inches and isn’t quite long-form, isn’t quite scanner-style. It’s as if we feel guilty about making people read our stories. It’s a strange reverse psychology. We lament in how we’re unappreciated, but we can’t stick up for ourselves when the big-bad Internet reprimands us for writing too much.

Simply, we can’t treat our readers like they’re uncompromising royalty exulted by the journalism who can reach them the fastest or keeps them on the page the longest. We also can’t underestimate them and their genuine interest in reading. There’s been a growing gap between journalism and the readers, even though we’ve, at face value, created more connections like guest bloggers and sister citizen-run sites. We should think about what we’re really doing, though.

The internet has shackled journalists and readers up in chains as it dominates how people use it. We’ve become reactive to the internet instead of proactive, and with some re-assessment, I think that role can change. But for now, until we figure out how to maintain journalism’s integrity online and serve our readers to the greatest extent, we’ll join the perpetrators in the active (and often unintentional) crippling of the craft of newsmaking in the new era of journalism

Long-form is a way to connect people. Everyone loves a good story. If only we found a way to bring back that mentality, we’d be able to improve our legitimacy as journalists and the trust and interest of those we write for.

First shift

had my first GA shift today and I’ve already learned lessons!

1. Buy the right type of equipment. (Subhead: Bring it with you. All the time.)

2. Verify sources, for your sake, your credibility’s sake, and for the sake of those around you.

I got to the newsroom already a little flustered because honestly, it was just one of those mornings. I had a pitch all set up from the night before and although I thought about it, I made the poor choice of NOT bringing my audio recorder. So, when I got to the newsroom, I honestly shouldn’t have thought twice about the fact that my GA editor told me to go get it. So I went. I got the recorder (and also had to buy some batteries), and then I realized along with my editor that there was no .mp3 compatible place on my recorder, which is essential for our multimedia piece. So, I was stressin’ at this point. We were going to get some staff equipment last minute for me to use until, lo and behold, the people at the event I was going to cover said we couldn’t come. I learned quickly how much you’ve gotta shuffle on a moment’s notice. The only thing was that this was all unavoidable, had I been completely prepared! Needless to say, lesson learned.

Then, I picked up a story about some “report card” that was released by an education group. Now, I’ve covered this before, but I didn’t initially realize that this group was actually one of the ones that heats my blood. I won’t go into it now, but basically and essentially, this source was VERY sketchy and not verifiable. It wasn’t worth the effort of publishing a piece about it, because the source was shady and I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach about it. That bad feeling wasn’t too bad at first, but around the late afternoon (and once I’d done some heavy reading, researching and nit-picking as a journalist should), I just couldn’t ignore it. I talked to my editors and we immediately pulled the piece. I wasn’t comfortable putting my byline on work that used comprised data, and I didn’t want to compromise the Missourian, either. I should have spoken up earlier, but in all honesty, I didn’t realize the extent of the shady-ness of the source of this document. It was frustrating because a majority of my day (and GA shift, to be specific) was devoted to picking through this 100+ paged document for anything useful or at least enlightening as to what the real intentions of this group were. There was definitely an ethical decision in my horizon at the point in the day when I realized I couldn’t justify using the numbers from this document, but I also couldn’t go into why the source was so indefensible, for the sake of time. But journalism isn’t all about getting a clip at the end of the day. Honestly, I’ve learned just as much today than I would have with some huge feature or a moving life story. LESSON: VERIFY SOURCES. Had I not done that today, who knows. Probably no one—these sources are sneaky—but I didn’t see any other choice. Because there was no other choice. Gotta stick to the truth.

Shout out to the graphics editor who made the graphic. I know it took a long time and honestly, it was a great graphic. I’m sorry it had be done in vain! I don’t know how I could make it up to her. I am indebted.

Also, I’ve gotta thank my editors supporting me today. It really meant a lot to have that type of backing when things just don’t seem to go your way. But I do believe something good will come out of this experience. *Cue in suspense.

My friends outside of journalism ask why I’m willing to put so much of myself into this. It’s because even when I make a mistake and my heart sinks, or when I wake up and I’m unimaginably exhausted, or when I seem to stray from my other friends, that I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s been hard to accept defeat and mistakes, but I’ve gradually realized that that’s part of any learning process. I listened to a TED talk the other day about learning to accept failure and be open to regret. We’re told to not regret and blindly move through life. That’s not to say that I don’t have a positive attitude towards my life; I do. My positivity is one of the things that really keeps me going. But I’ve learned, and as the TED talk described, that the low points (even if they’re as minuscule as writing ‘they’re’ instead of ‘their’ and then quickly deleting it, horrified) really are necessary to grow. That’s also not to say that you should strive for failure—it’s just a matter of having high aims and rolling with the punches along the way. I think that’s the best way to grow, and I still have to work on it. But this day really has helped. To quote one of my favorite books, “The most beautiful thing about the desert is that somewhere it hides a well.” Or to be more banal, “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars.”

I think I use too many cliches. Oh well. Onward and upward!

Postscript: I did get some content in today. Events!