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06 Jun

Crowdsourced tips to landing your first, paid journalism job

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Okay, chances are this didn’t really happen.

I’m not sure how I heard this, but the story –false or not – stuck in my head when I was beginning my journalism career.

The story allegedly goes that a young Herb Caen, who later became the legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, walked into a newsroom and asked for a job.

The clerk asked Caen if he knew how to type.

Caen said no… but was hired anyway.

Whether this actually happened or not, getting a journalism job these days is a bit more challenging. When I started, aspiring journalists needed to have one, big internship to get closer to landing your first job. Now, you need three or more… or, you start your own publication.

As a flood of new journalists graduate from J-School, I asked people to share their experiences in landing their first, paying journalism job and what advice they have to offer newbies getting into this great calling.

The crowdsourcing led to dozens and dozens of responses, the majority anonymous due to an early decision I made on the Google form. You can see the unedited results here and read a collection of first jobs and earlier tips here. I did my best to try to break down the diverse responses into digestible takeaways.

What are the top three skills you think journalists need to get a job now?

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Top three skills you think journalists need to get a job

Traditional skills dominated the list. A strong foundation on the basics like writing, reporting, ethics, news judgement… and a few mentioned AP Style.

“Don’t think your social media expertise or wildly-popular Hipstamatic photos will get you anywhere; AP style, strong English as both a writer and editor, research and fact-checking skills, and news judgment will make you stand out (you’d be surprised how many people doze through reporting 101 and 202 in favor of their multimedia courses, or what-have-you),” said one participant.

But of course, a close second is having basic technical knowledge. Know the tech, but more importantly know how to use it to tell a good story.

Attitude and work ethic is a quality that stands out.

“Everyone is doing more with less these days, you’ll be expected to work hard and fast and to do so with little hand-holding. You need to show a positive, enterprising, tenacious and competitive attitude.”

Another participant said: “Proving you’re willing to take on what nobody else wants to, and doing it well. (You don’t have to like it, but don’t complain.)”

These suggestions also stood out:

“Don’t just be a reporter or just a copy editor. Take some photos. Blog. Tweet. Blah, blah, blah. But, also, read the news. (It’s shocking how many young journalists I know can talk endlessly about the latest tools but aren’t caught up on what’s happening in the world.)”

“Bullshitting abilities (resume, website, etc — fake it ’til you make it)”

“You have no idea how much patience you’ll need for this job, it really is a skill that not a lot of people have.”

“Managing management”

What is the key to getting a journalism job?

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Key to getting a journalism job

Without a doubt, responders overwhelmingly said it’s all about who you know when you are trying to land your first – and future – jobs.

“Know the right people – networking is huge. Go to job fairs and journalism conferences, make appointments to see editors or reporters anytime you go on vacation, ask friends to introduce you, and keep in touch when you meet someone,” said a participant. “I once met an LA Times editor sitting next to me at the theater, I got an internship after keeping in touch even after I was rejected once, I got another internship by sitting in the lobby from 9 am to 2 pm asking to see the editor.”

Here are some networking tips from one participant:

You have to pursue opportunities to talk to people who do the work you want to do.
-Reach out to them on Twitter, look at who follows them and whom they follow and educate yourself about the subjects they discuss with colleagues in their tweets.
-Attend their public lectures and presentations, comment on their blogs and attend conferences they attend.
-Participate in chats they participate in
-Read blogs that address topics in your desired niche.

I can’t echo this enough. From visiting newsrooms to cyberstalking people, do what you can – within reason – to meet people in real life and stand out from the pile of resumes. Use your network.

That said, this journalist had a different take on networking.

“Knowing people. ‘Networking’ is for shills. But seek out people whom you admire and they will think you are so smart for recognizing their brilliance that they’ll want to hire you or help you out. People in our industry are vain.”

Another theme was to apply widely and have a thick skin.

“To get a job, apply to lots of news outlets, not just your dream workplace. Start small and work your way up from there,” said a participant.

And, perhaps most importantly, once you get your foot in the door, you have to have the skills you keep that job.

Other great tips:

“Know the territory. Don’t go into a job interview without doing research on the town/state/station/newspaper. The more you know the better off you will be. Don’t be cocky, be genuine.”

“Recommendations from people who have been blown away by your portfolio — and can testify that you did it yourself.”

“A willingness to question and push traditional journalism practices while still being willing to work your way up and learn from veteran journalist.”

“Know also that being a journalist means you NEVER stop learning. You need to always know a little something about everything to be at the top of your game. Even the best journalists still take some kind of classes or seminars to build their skills constantly.”

“Editors and other journos can tell a sharp blade from a dull one, and keeping your edge keen is what will get you your start and keep you employed.”

Give a one-word tip to aspiring journos trying to land a gig.

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One-word tip to aspiring journos

“Not giving up after 97 rejections,” advised one participant who was clearly persistent.

“The key is to get in the door. I don’t care if it’s a tiny weekly in Nowheresville. Just get that first job. The rest will follow,” said another.

We all made it – and are making it – in good times and bad. Journalism is a calling. And if you want to make it, you can never give up. Good luck and remember to pay it forward.

05 May

In ‘The Stream’ with Al Jazeera English’s social media news show

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For most of us, there is no doubt that social media has lead to significant shifts in our culture, including journalism. For this week’s post, I spoke with Senior Producer Andrew Fitzgerald and Co-Host/Digital Producer Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, two of the journalists behind a new social media-driven show on Al Jazeera English.

NOTE: Based in D.C., they both met me on a collaborative document, each on their own computer. You can playback the unedited conversation here.

Senior Producer Andrew Fitzgerald, left, Co-Host/Digital Producer Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.Ahmed and Andrew, thank you both for taking the time to chat with me about your newest project. In fact, first let me congratulate you on the launch of The Stream, which officially aired Monday (5/2/11). For folks that have not yet heard of the show, please take a moment to describe the project.

Fitzgerald: Thanks so much for inviting us to chat about it! So The Stream is a television show and online community on Al Jazeera English. We’re telling stories from around the world that are driven by and often about social media. The site compiles information from around the globe by working with our audience and then the television show is the place where we talk about those stories, bring in people (via Skype) who are involved in them, and also allow our audience a chance to be part of the discussion.

Shihab-Eldin: Thanks, we are joking here because I always feel a need to add something – and in this case just wanted to emphasize that this was conceptualized well before the Tunisian Uprising and as it has evolved, we have realized we were right to rely to a large extent on our community/audience, both online, and on TV, and across the world to inform our editorial approach.

That was one of my next questions… can you talk about how the show came about? Was this before or after the recent uprisings… obviously before. How did this interesting TV show happen? And how did you get involved?

Shihab-Eldin: The show is a product of the reality the media industry is facing, and governments for that matter, which is that conversations are happening online, across borders, across social classes, and across communities. And as we saw in the Arab world, they are powerful and have the potential to mobilize, unite and challenge – not only governments – but the collective Arab psyche and how they see their identity.

I got involved in the project because I used to work in Doha at Al Jazeera English and have a background in New Media. When I graduated from Columbia University, the mainstream media had yet to witness or recognize the true power of these tools. Since then, I’ve worked in Doha with Al Jazeera as an online journalist, but then also at the Doha Film Institute and helped launch the online and social media efforts of the organization. There I worked with a man named Stephen Phelps who was brought in to essentially take the concept of The Stream and implement it. I’ve always championed the potential power of social networking for media innovation, for the development and progress in the Arab world, and so, perhaps it was a natural fit!

Fitzgerald: My background is in participatory journalism; my last big project was working at Current TV in San Francisco where, among other things, I managed the citizen journalism program. I had my “Al Jazeera” moment like everyone else in the US on January 25, when I tuned into CNN to see what was happening on the streets of Egypt and saw a segment on Charlie Sheen. Twitter set me straight: “Go live stream Al Jazeera!”

I’d heard Al Jazeera was developing a new social media-driven show and, especially after the Egypt coverage, was very eager to see if there might be a way for me to help out. Lucky for me (also in a conversation with Stephen Phelps) it was a good time for me to come in and lend my expertise. My hope, really, is that this show is and continues to be a real leader in how to produce truly interactive television journalism, and I’m trying to bring all the best lessons I’ve learned to bear in that aim.

What is the goal/vision for the show? Both in journalism, in the Arab community and for Al Jazeera network?

Shihab-Eldin: The general idea is to give voice to the voiceless – specifically those who live in countries where civic engagement is not tolerated, but suppressed – and give them a voice. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. While we want to build a community (both online and through TV and eventually merge the two), in order to do that, we must tap into communities that already exist where conversations are already taking place. We also are hoping to pass on the airwaves to a new generation. Fifty percent of the world is under 30. Almost 70 percent of the Arab world is under 30. We deserve our moment – and the converged platform of The Stream is just one part of it.

We do not want to appear to be telling audiences or the community what is worth discussing, we want to invite and engage people who already have a nuanced understanding of their particular corner of the world (or community) and allow them to drive the narrative. Often times they are far more knowledgable on the “real issues” so to speak, than the mainstream media or than they get credit for.

Having this show launching on AJE, rather than CNN, means something, no? How does the network effect the show… or empower it? Or is the network not a factor? Could this show work on another network? What would the differences be?

Fitzgerald: The network is absolutely a factor – in the sense that Ahmed mentioned above: this idea of “the voice of the voiceless.” What makes this a show on Al Jazeera English and not a show on another network is our aim to find the voices that aren’t being heard. It’s a truly global show for a truly global network. We work hard to find stories that really reflect that. Keep in mind – Al Jazeera English has a much, much bigger audience in, say, sub-Saharan Africa than the US. That’s one big difference between this show on this network versus, say, CNN.

Another difference is that the show has the space to be serious. We’re covering important topics and taking the time to air them out. If this was a show (like many similar shows that have attempted in the recent past or will be in the near future) on a US-based network, it would struggle to not treat social media as ‘funny cat videos’.

Shihab-Eldin: Hillary Clinton answered your question when she pointed out that “You might not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads….which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.” Al Jazeera gives you global news in real time.

What Al Jazeera also seems to be doing is experimenting and embracing technology, including social media. Why is it that your network “gets it” while other news outlets struggle to genuinely embrace Web and tech culture? What’s the secret?! Or am I, and others, projecting?

Fitzgerald: Haha, no secret I’ve seen since I’ve come on board. I think it might partially be a little projection (which I too am guilty of) because Al Jazeera is doing what feels like serious, high-quality journalism. In terms of techniques, I don’t know that the network has any big secrets that no one else has up their sleeve.

I will say, about The Stream in particular, what makes this show different is that it feels like the experience of being on the web. There is no giant touch-wall, we don’t have crazy animations. We are individuals who use the web like anyone else and the show is a reflection of that experience. It’s more true-to-life, I think that’s something that has been lacking in television news treatments of social media.

Shihab-Eldin: I would say it is difficult to “get” something that is constantly evolving, so to even claim that we “get” social media in its entirety may be a stretch. But I think The Stream is simply applying the same editorial judgements that Al Jazeera uses which is not to focus on being “flashy” or “objective” – which I think the US mainstream media is so focused on. I don’t know what “objectivity” is really. It seems contrived to me. We focus on the story and how we understand it given our perspective and facts and the context we can provide. Al Jazeera’s New Media team has always been looking for ways in which to use technology and social media to achieve a function rather than a form. It isn’t about the polish but about the product and why you are using this medium and what the real power of these tools are with regards to producing, sharing, or highlighting important information, quickly.

I’ve crowdsourced a couple questions, which I’ll sprinkle throughout… @NSlayton asks about your editorial selection: What editorial outlook goes into picking stories? It there newsworthiness vs. popularity of a story?

Fitzgerald: Great question. It is, like most editorial decisions, an ever-changing mix of all that and much more. We’re not covering day-of news as much (the network has an excellent News department that covers day-of incredibly well) so newsworthiness is a looser definition as we use it. It’s a mix of if this story resonates (or will resonate) within social media, if it’s a story that hasn’t been particularly well-covered and if it hews to the network’s greater editorial strategy mentioned above.

Shihab-Eldin: Andrew is right. We rely on what people are talking about, but more importantly what they are saying. Popularity, to me, is pretty insignificant, because chances are if something is popular it is popular because it is relevant or “newsworthy” – otherwise we wouldn’t cover it. This fits within Al Jazeera’s aim of offering a different perspective and balancing the news climate with stories from the global south.

Okay, you’re going to have to excuse me… but haters gonna hate… and there are plenty of haters for social media, participatory journalism, citizen journalism. How do you respond to those “traditional” journalists that think this is undermining journalism… or Journalism? Or has the recent uprising changed the conversation, proving the value?

Shihab-Eldin: Yes, there are lots of haters. A black man being elected president is a big change – and a lot of people hated that. But it was natural progress in the context of America’s history and maturity and although it can be uncomfortable, to hate what is organically changing is not particularly constructive.

On the issue of “traditional” journalists thinking this undermine’s journalism, they will come around. I’m 26. I’ve been lucky to grow up using these tools and so inherently understood their power. I graduated from Columbia University in 2007 when the New Media/Digital program was essentially the joke of the school and the smallest program. I then got hired at PBS and The New York Times largely due to my new media savvy, when some colleagues in Print or Broadcast were struggling to find jobs. I met some “haters” there but usually people hate when they don’t understand something. For those who are still not convinced, I would ask them what is journalism? I doubt we have the same definition. Mine tends to be broad and inclusive, if that makes sense.

Fitzgerald: I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the last few years. I mean I started working on citizen journalism when people (business people, largely) really thought it would be a replacement for traditional journalism. I think the lesson we’ve learned in the last few years, and are continuing to learn as we go, is that citizen journalism/social media/participatory journalism – all of these are tools for journalists to add to their toolkits.

How did you two get into social media… were you early adopters? What was your “ah ha” moment that made you realize this was not a gimmick, but a powerful shift in how we could practice journalism?

Shihab-Eldin: I’ve always been into social media. I was using ICQ before I hit puberty to connect with friends around the world while living in Egypt. There is so much that the social media community can learn from the journalism community and vice versa, although now, thankfully the lines are blurred, and it is all part of one larger community, which in essence is part of what The Stream is trying to accomplish.

Fitzgerald: Haha I have a very simple answer to this question: I live in San Francisco. It’s unavoidable!

Ha! I went to university in The City and know what you mean. But I was, admittedly, also a tech nerd/geek.

Fitzgerald: As to the second part of the question – I had a long series of a ha! moments at Current TV because we did so many experiments in the intersection of social media and journalism. I decided to work in citizen journalism after we pulled in a video from a Louisiana resident who, immediately after Katrina, shot a video of himself going into New Orleans in a flat-bottomed boat. And of course, Current Hacks the Debate – which was (I’m pretty sure) the first-ever live TV Twitter integration (the brainchild of Chloe Sladden (among a few others), who is now at Twitter).

Shihab-Eldin: I was born in Berkeley, so maybe it has always been in my blood ;)

Nice… so here is another crowdsourced question. This one is from @Bradleybowman who asked two questions: Whats the biz model given no commercials? Who embraced or thought up concept?

Fitzgerald: I don’t know that either of us are particularly well-suited to discuss the greater business model question for the network at large – but yes, no commercials and no web ads.

Shihab-Eldin: Andrew is right, however what I can say is that we are funded by the State of Qatar and the government values what Al Jazeera is accomplishing so much that it is one of the nation’s primary objectives to fund the network as part of a larger mission of developing Qatar and the Arab world. The Emir speaks on this often.

As we talk/type, you have just completed episode 2 — not counting the test shows leading up to Monday’s launch — and, granted, it’s still early… but what has the reaction been so far? Any surprises along the way in launching?

Fitzgerald: We’ve been really pleased with the reaction so far! A couple of great reviews out there in the blogosphere on our pilot weeks. People seem to be responding to the authenticity of the way the show deals with the Web. That’s been nice to see – affirming our suspicions on that front. (We’re trying to think of any funny anecdotes for you).

Shihab-Eldin: I will admit something (fully acknowledging that there are haters out there). What was surprising to me was in fact the general reactions I’ve received so far, not just in the media, but by friends and colleagues who are extremely critical and skeptical of the ability to truly converge the web and social media with television. There has been a resounding sense that we are on to something truly innovative and I think in a few months, the show will look quite different than it does right now – that is both the most exciting part and the most frightening. Even my mom loves it. That may have been the biggest surprise as she usually dismisses these “technological tools” as “a waste of time”.

Ha! Final question, one that I like to ask journalists I get the privilege to interview… With these “tough” and “challenging” times, what keeps you going? Why are you a journalist?

Fitzgerald: It’s an important time to be telling stories. That’s what I believe. Our world is changing at a pace that’s arguably unprecedented. For me, for us, our field is also changing at an unprecedented pace. The way we tell stories continues to shift and grow. I find that really exciting. What we’re doing today could be entirely different from what we’re doing in five years. In two years, even. (Two months…hah!) As tough and challenging as these times may be, I think it’s a really exciting time to be a journalist.

Shihab-Eldin: I must be a journalist because when my family and I found ourselves in refuge in Berkeley, California during the first gulf war – unable to return to Kuwait – a local TV station came to our house to do a story about us and asked me all about my family back in Kuwait (I was 7 at the time) and asked after my grandmother in particular. I remember being fascinated and intrigued by her interest. Why did she care? Did she care? I think that is what it all comes down to – connecting with either the plight or the accomplishments or the challenges of other humans around the world – that may sound cheesy – but it is what makes me tick.

Well gentlemen, thank you again for taking the time to chat with me… and much success to the new project.

Categories: Journalism, OJR, Social Media Tags:
30 Apr

Q&A with Evan Ratliff, aka The Atavist

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201104/1968/

There are those that blame the digital age and the Internet as the cause of our short attention spans and disinterest in longform storytelling. Then there are those that embrace the technology and develop tools or a platform that harnesses the tech to not only coexist with longform narrative, but also advance it.

For this week’s post, I spoke with Evan Ratliff, freelancer for publications like Wired, The New Yorker, and others, turned digital entrepreneur and – if you believe some of the press – possible savior of the longform narrative with his new project, The Atavist.

NOTE: We met on a collaborative document and you can playback our unedited conversation here.

Evan RatliffEvan, thank you for taking the time to “meet” for a quick chat about the project you are working on.

My pleasure!

So, let’s start there… can you describe what The Atavist is?

Sure, so The Atavist is a kind of hybrid publication: We sit right in between magazines and books. From the magazine angle, what we do is called “longform nonfiction” or “longform journalism:” We produce stories that are 6-7,000 words and up, all the way to maybe 30-35,000. All nonfiction, all written by people who have spent weeks or months reporting them. They are published digitally, through our app for iPad/iPhone, through Kindle (Kindle Singles, which we can talk about), and Nook. From the book perspective, they are almost like short ebooks.

We also license our software, but that’s our more non-journalism side of things so maybe less of interest here.

How did this idea come about? You have a background in longform storytelling… but how did the idea of an app and this “concept” of a custom storytelling platform come about?

It started with a pretty basic, and unformed, idea: Was there some way to do longform writing/journalism online. It was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while, but not doing much if anything about — I applied for a Knight foundation grant but didn’t get it, in maybe 2008 (2007? Can’t remember). Anyway, originally Nick Thompson, my editor at Wired, and I were just saying that there must be some way to do longform that was more designed for the digital world. Instead of just translated straight from a magazine. The real conceptual ideas of how it might work didn’t come about until we sat down with our other partner, Jefferson Rabb, who has both the design sensibility and coding chops to actually conceive what something like that might look like. It was in talking to him that we stopped talking about the Web and started talking about an app.

Technically speaking, you could do these custom, interactive stories on the Web… what made it appealing on the iPad, Kindle, etc.?

I think that first, we just wanted to kind of get away from the idea of people reading it at their desktop, where they are skipping from one bit of information to the next all day. The emergence of phones—and actually we first were looking just at smart phones, noticing how much we and other people were reading on them—and then tablets, ereaders, etc, pointed a way to a different kind of digital reading experience. Marketing types now call it the “lean back” experience, which I don’t cotton to that much but the point is the same one we were going for: this is a different kind of reading than you do on the Web.

Full disclosure, I think the concept and platform is a fantastic idea… and it’s an ideal mashup of interactive/digital and traditional storytelling. I’ll embed the video from the site, but can you briefly list the features/media/interactivity/etc. a user would find in a “typical” Altavist story?

So, I should probably first offer the caveat that of course you get different versions of Atavist stories in different environments. On Kindle—for the moment—you’ll get just the full text of the story, and photos, maybe some footnotes. In our app, the standard features are a bit different, just because we are able to control the whole environment and use multimedia however seems to suit. The standard features on every story in the app are: the text and full page photos (of course), an audiobook version of the story (you can flip back and forth between reading and listening), usually some elements of other media (music, video, woven into the narrative), and then what we call inline extras: Parts of the story that serve as a kind of substrate. These are links to characters, photo galleries, maps, timelines, audio clips that you can turn on and off. If they are on, you tap a word or phrase and the feature pops up.

I purchased and read your piece, Lifted, and thought it was a natural experience… I did find myself torn between reading or listening to the audio version of the story (I am a podcast junkie, though). Granted, you’ve just launched, and this is a brand new form of storytelling… custom-crafted, interactive pieces for each story. What new things do you have to factor in that you never had to think about in the past… like when you wrote a Wired piece?

It’s true, all these new questions arise pretty quickly, and we’re still trying to figure out how to answer them. Take the video, for instance. That piece Lifted had a critical piece of video, the surveillance tapes from the heist that was portrayed in the story. I wanted that to form the lede of the piece. Which instantly created two problems; no, three: 1. How do you write a kind of secondary lede, to follow a piece of video? Do you assume that, with a written lede, someone will have read everything up to that point? Or might they have skipped part of the video? 2. What to do on other platforms, where the story would not have the video? The text itself had to work as an intact narrative, without the video. And 3. What to do about sound? The video had no sound, so it can’t really be “included” in the audiobook version.

Those are all questions that obviously wouldn’t come up when writing a magazine place, not to mention: where to put it, how much to use, how to edit it, whether and how to score it, etc. etc.

What’s also exciting, is that those questions were tied to that one story… they may not be asked again or exactly the same in another Atavist story, right? Or the answers would be different, depending on the story. With what you’ve produced so far, can you say what makes for a good Atavist story?

Right, some of them may be moot in other stories. We had another piece with a lot of music in it, and it had a whole set of other questions around the soundtrack that haven’t come up elsewhere.

I think we’re still feeling it out when it comes to what works well. There’s no question that the story—as in the real plot and characters portrayed—is always going to make the biggest difference.

Well, let me ask a basic yet complex question… how is this whole thing going?! Are you a zillionaire? Is this a new revolution you are a part of? Have you ever thought you’d an entrepreneur? How’s the experience of launching The Atavist been?

Let’s just say this: If things keep going like they are, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be able to get a new chain for my bicycle. Which I think we both know that only a hundredaire could do.

HA! I love that journalism pays the same in all platforms. But it’s a passion project with endless possibilities, no?

Indeed. But there is a financial element that is not as bleak (I hope) as I tend to joke. So, there’s a few levels I could talk about how it’s going.

Without a doubt, you have a business model that makes sense… in fact you have two. Individual stories and licensing.

Yes, so let’s take the stories first. We knew going in, and nothing has yet proven us wrong, that it’s very difficult to build up a readership from scratch. If you recall the heyday of big magazine launches, they would do things like buy up subscriber lists and just send them the magazine, and lose millions of dollars trying to gain a substantial readership. Our marketing budget so far topped out at right around $0. So we’re pretty pleased with the number of readers we’ve had (everybody asks; we always say “tens of thousands total, for all the stories,” but not much more than that). We’ve used the first few stories to get enough revenue to fund some more, which was our first milestone we were aiming at. Next up is proving that this sort of small-scale, small-team version of longform journalism can consistently make the money to be sustaining. That means getting more readers, and getting them to come back.

On the licensing side we haven’t announced anything yet, but we’ve found a huge, frankly kind of shocking to us in size—we can’t deal with the influx of interest at the moment—interest in utilizing the app platform and CMS for different types of publishing. Some of them you’d only loosely think of as “publishing:” in the financial field, the medical field. So we are really hoping that that side can help support the journalism side while we are starting out, to give us time to grow the readership.

And maybe even pay ourselves something some day!

It will be a new, gold chain on that bike! Seriously, it’s no easy task what you’ve done. Congratulations, by the way. Do you have any lessons you’ve learned that you can share with those thinking about experimenting, developing an idea?

Solid gold. Thanks! It’s been a bit harrowing at times.

Well, a couple things I learned quickly: In the digital world, if that’s where your experiment is going to exist (and most do these days, I suppose), you have to find a designer/developer who understands what you are trying to do. In our case, we got incredibly lucky with Jefferson Rabb, who not only understood, he actually was able to create it in ways we hadn’t thought of. Now, if you are one of those new-style journalists that can do it all: write and report and code and design, well, that’s amazing. But if not, befriend great coders! Find ones who like to read!

The second big thing is—and I think I probably used to scoff a little at “entreprenurial journalism” courses, or that sort of thing (I didn’t go to j-school, so it’s all a little foreign to me)—knowing how to do really mundane things to make a business work is actually incredibly useful. I’ve lost hours, nay, weeks, months, and lots of sleep, and probably hair, trying to puzzle out issues that were easily solved by someone who knows the first thing about running a business. So if you can get that somewhere, through experience or coursework or whatever, it’s going to save a lot of time that you could be spending on the thing you love, which is the writing and editing and publishing.

Great advice… you mentioned find developers who “like to read” … you spoke at SXSWi about longform storytelling and a lot of articles about The Atavist focus on the “death of longform” and how this may “save it” (no pressure, by the way). What do you think of the tltr (too long to read) culture. Is there a real threat here? Is this hype? Or is it all true and you found the silver bullet to save the world (no pressure).

Yeah, I love those stories…

To be really honest, I have no idea. I’m always asked, in panels like that, what I think of it, and I hate being the guy who just makes shit up because they happen to be connected to a field. My answer is: I don’t think anybody knows, and mostly the folks who pontificate about attention spans and reading and news are substituting what they do and want for what “readers” do and want. At some basic level, obviously we are ingesting a lot of information in shorter chunks, more constantly, and all of that, which is written about ad nauseum. At another basic level, people still buy a lot of books. People still buy a lot of nonfiction books. People are buying more and more ebooks, in huge numbers. So for us, I don’t really care if at some broad level, some people are saying “nobody reads long stuff anymore.” It’s just not true. The only question for us is: Can we get the people who do read long stuff to read our long stuff. And I think there are plenty of those people out there, and (as Byliner, newly launched, is also proving), maybe even untapped folks who are ready for / looking for great stories of this style and length.

I completely agree with you. People are consuming more media in more ways. But, a good story is still a good story. Make sure you are using all the new — and old — storytelling techniques to engage your reader/listener/viewer/user.

Right, and it’s the same with multimedia. People say: “Readers don’t really want videos and audio in their story.” By which they mean, they don’t. But some people do. And if the story is better told with it, why not try to find that balance that makes for the most gripping possible narrative?

So, I just “tweeted” (I feel awkward typing that word rather than saying it) out that I was chatting with you and am crowdsourcing any questions. I got one from @mattvree, who asks, “Any plans to move beyond just longform written journalism, and expand to multimedia and documentary?”

Not at the moment. We’ve got our hands full with our current efforts. Of course we think about the possibility of expanding into different areas down the road. But we feel like we’re barely getting started with our current approach, and it would be madness to try and take on new types of efforts before we feel we have the old one nailed. One thing we may be doing is a piece or two that are more visual than they are textual. So the current balance of text-to-image is almost reversed, and the story is told primarily through visuals. But that’s still in the works.

Let me ask you some questions that I, some type of Web journo nerd, routinely like to ask other journos.

First, I’m always fascinated with names/branding, so where did the name The Atavist come from? I assume it wasn’t inspired by the metal band Otep, which put out an album with the same name (thank you Wikipedia).

It’s out today!! We’ve really been anticipating the release date, because our Twitter stream is filled with absolutely insane OTEP fans who have been counting down the days for almost two months.

HAHAHA! Okay, so, what’s the backstory to your use of The Atavist?

But no, not inspired by. I started using it as my personal domain years ago, it’s a tiny sideways allusion to Hunter S. Thompson‘s work; atavist and atavistic are words that, if you read a lot of HST (as I once did), he drops in quite often. And then when we wanted to start something, we went through literally hundreds of possible names. Actually Jefferson once made an app that just randomly generated names for us. But then we came back to it, and decided that the actual meaning, a biological feature that’s disappeared and then suddenly reappears, had some salience. Storytelling reappearing in the digital realm, or whatnot. And it’s fairly unique, which means people can find it in the app store — more important than you’d think. Some people seem to hate it, but overall it seems like people are ok with it.

Second, this has become one of my standard questions…. in these “tough times,” why are you a journalist? What drives you and keeps you going in this field?

For me, it’s probably not as noble as it is for some journalists. On the writing end, I just really like digging into things, getting obsessed with topics, meeting fascinating people, and getting to go interesting places. On the publishing side of things, now I want to give other writers the chance to do all of those things. Of course sometimes the more noble aspects are part of it: shedding light on an important topic, investigating some malfeasance. And sometimes the least noble parts: seeing ones name as a byline. But mostly it’s just fun to go out into the world, find a story, and then figure out how to tell it.

And as someone who has freelanced for 10 years, it’s always seemed like tough times. It’s always full of rejection, and failure, and dry periods, and occasionally empty bank accounts. So I don’t see much difference now from when I started (although of course I realize other folks do).

Well, Evan… thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I hope this format wasn’t too awkward. I really enjoyed out conversation and wish you luck on your current and new adventures.

Thanks, I enjoyed it!

21 Apr

Q&A with the mystery man behind #Quakebook

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201104/1964/

It’s been more than a month since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, triggering a massive tsunami, the combination of which have killed thousands. And while the country is slowing putting itself together, under the looming dangers of a potential nuclear disaster, there are many organizations — and individuals — coming together to help in any way they can.

For this week’s post, I chatted with Our Man in Abiko, an international man of mystery behind #Quakebook, a crowdsourced project to help those affected by the devastation.

NOTE: The Q&A was done through e-mail over a course of a couple of weeks.

First, for those who don’t know about it, can you describe what the #Quakebook is, how it came about and your role?

Quakebook is a twitter-sourced anthology of first-person accounts of the earthquake and immediate aftermath. It was conceived, written and ready to publish as a fully designed PDF book within a week. It has 89 contributions from “real” people as well as 4 from celebs solicited thru twitter – William Gibson, Yoko Ono, Barry Eisler and Jake Adelstein.

It is not a collection of tweets, but mostly one-page essays.

I thought of it in the shower Friday morning, March 18th thinking that wouldn’t it be great to do in words what mash-up videos can do on YouTube, especially @fatblueman’s Christmas in Japan video. Check it out, you’ll see what I mean. [The video: http://youtu.be/lmCrIZeob4w]

No-one has received a penny. We got Amazon to waive their fees so ALL revenue goes to the Red Cross. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

Oh, my role? I’m cheerleader in chief, marshaller of the troops and getter arounder of problems. Don’t like titles!

NOTE: Our Man recently did a video recently sharing the story of Quakebook: http://youtu.be/cQ_-3-wwLKs

Once you had this idea, how did you go about starting this? Can you talk about the crowdsourcing process?

I had no plan as such. Every time I hit a wall, I asked the good folk of twitter to give me a leg up :)

The original tweets and stuff are all on quakebook.org and www.ourmaninabiko.com

Talk about the “real” people that contributed to the collection. Have you ever met them? What journalism skills did you apply in collecting their stories?

The real people started with whoever sent me email from around the world, supplemented by my neighbours, my wife and mother-in-law and also I got my wife to chase down eyewitness accounts from devastated areas through blogs.

The celebs we picked up along the way. The highly unscientific approach has somehow created a snapshot of many disparate elements of the disaster.

I kept in anything that was sent and was not a rant or shopping list. (There were only two like this).

What is your ideal goal you hope to achieve with this book?

I want it to raise oodles and noodles of cash for the Red Cross, but beyond that, I want it to serve as s valuable historical record to answer the question: what happened at 2:46 on March 11, much like John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” answers What happened on Aug. 6, 1945.

What has been the best part of this project?

The therapy of writing and sharing what we have written; seeing the whole project becoming stronger than its constituent parts.

What has surprised you about the process? What’s been the highlight?

How the weekend stops dead any progress with the traditional publishing industry, while the reverse is true of us amateurs. The highlight? Seeing a tweet from someone that they had downloaded the book, and cried. I then did the same and got teary eyed too.

What do you think about those reluctant to use crowdsourcing in storytelling, particularly in journalism. Any advice to them?

Trust people to deliver, and they will. If you get sidetracked by someone with their own agenda, or who doesn’t get the point of the project, don’t waste your time, find someone who does. Behave morally and you will quickly attract the right kind to whatever your project is, if it has merit.

Can you tell me what you did prior to this project? What were you doing in Japan? Talk about Our Man In Abiko.

I’m a British self-employed English language teacher, 40. I’m a former local newspaper journalist. My wife is Japanese and we’ve been here since 2007. Got two kids. My favourite colour is red.

Our Man in Abiko began as a satirical blog on Japanese politics, became a persona to keep me sane.

Since the earthquake, I realised Our Man was needed to perform Churchillian tasks of rallying the dispirited to overcome our woes.

What is the backstory with Our Man in Abiko? What’s your name and what brought you to Japan?

Not saying. It’s not my story that’s interesting, it’s Japan’s.

Clearly the book is the focus, but “Our Man In Abiko” is a man of mystery. People are naturally going to ask, “who is this guy?” What can you tell them?

He likes Earl Grey tea, playing with his kids and world domination, you know, the usual.

[After more prodding]

OK, well, the Our Man persona began just as a joke on my blog, I took on the mantle of a redundant British agent sent to monitor the wilds of Tokyo commuterville… But then with the earthquake, suddenly the time for fun was long gone, but I realised I had a fictional character who could do great things. I could not muster the troops and build a resistance movement to the earthquake, but maybe Our Man in Abiko could.

Well, Our Man, congratulations on the success with this project. How and where can people find it?

All details are on http://www.quakebook.org and you can buy the book now here: http://amzn.to/quakebook for Kindle (you can download a free Kindle player for PC, Mac and Smart phones there too.)

Thanks for chatting with me. And good luck on this and other endeavors.

Thanks a lot.

24 Mar

Q&A with Overheard in the Newsroom’s Kevin Cobb

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201103/1956/

For folks that have left the newsroom, it’s become the source of our newsroom culture fix. For those in newsrooms, it’s the place that confirms you are not alone and, yes, the newsroom is crazy. Awesome and crazy.

For this week’s post I chatted with the creator of Overheard in the Newsroom, Kevin Cobb. We pull back the virtual curtain and learn about how the project began and how it has been an insightful barometer reflecting our industry’s ups and downs.

As in other Q&As I do, we meet on a collaborative document a few weeks back and just chat-typed away.

Kevin, thanks for agreeing to do this Q&A… let’s start with you talking about your journalism background. What do you do and how’d you start in the ‘business’?

Kevin CobbI’m currently a news designer with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. I first got my ‘journalism itch’ back in high school. I was always the kid who ended up staying after school and making sure the paper was finished. I went to Ball State University in ’04 (Go Cards!) and worked at The Times of Northwest Indiana after graduation.

You’re a man of many talents, including being an ordained minister… but you’re best known for the site and Twitter account @OHnewsroom, which “delivers the best overheard comments in any newsroom.” Can you talk about how that idea came about?

Overheard in the Newsroom launched in Jan. of ’09. My entire journalism background has been focused on the print side of journalism and I wanted to ‘figure out’ the Web side (building a site, maintaining a social network presence). I just needed an idea. I noticed a trend among the people I was following on Twitter of sharing what was being said in their newsroom… things like “heard in my newsroom” and “my editor just said…” I had the newsroom background to know people kept quote files of the more outrageous things their co-workers said. So I launched. But what has made the site viral has been the Twitter and Facebook presence.

So it started as a site? Talk about your experience when you move to Twitter. When did you know you had something big?

Yep, it first started as a site. Using Twitter and Facebook just seemed like a natural extension. I had my first ‘holy cow, what have I started’ moment when New York Times reporter Brian Stelter mentioned the site on Twitter a few weeks after launch.

How many followers did you have before the mention? How many did you have afterwards?

I’m not sure of the exact numbers. I did send him an email thanking him and said the account gained 150 followers in 30 minutes — which was a huge number at the time.

You’re now at more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, and more than 100,000 on Facebook. Did you ever imagine this to reach so many people? How has this affect your newsroom relationships? Do people think you’ll post something if they make a comment to you?

You can ask my mentor Erica Smith about the increase in number of followers. Every time I would hit a milestone I would text her. Every. Time. In terms of my newsroom relationships, I would say it has only made them stronger. My co-workers know this is a side project that I do on my own time. I’ve made it clear to them that I’ll never submit a quote I overheard.

Ha! My condolences to Erica. Talk about the ‘workflow’ for OHNewsoom. How do you get submissions? How many a day? What’s your process in ‘publishing’?

The majority of submissions are sent to the site — overheardinthenewsroom.com. I’ll pick up a few from Twitter that people know to add the hashtag #ohnewsroom. Some people add them to the wall on the Facebook page. A few months ago I added Tumblr to the mix and I’m starting to get a few through there. Depending on my day, I’ll go through the submissions and schedule them out a day or two in advance.

How many submissions do you get a day? What makes a good OHNewsroom submission/post?

On average I receive 50 to 75 quotes a day. When I’m going through the submissions, I look for things I would send my friends. In terms of which ones make the Twitter + Facebook feeds, I look for the ones that are relatable. Ones that will get a “that just happened to me” comment.

How many posts have you done so far? I’m assuming you’re going to have to guess the number.

Somewhere over 7,000.

I have to ask the typical question… do you have a favorite? What have been the most memorable ones?

Here are my 3 favorite:

Editor: “If you’re still at work and they’re vacuuming, you know you’ve made the wrong career choice.”

Reporter: “Life in the newsroom? It’s just a constant roller coaster of praise and bitch-slaps.”

Reporter: “I’m going to go as a journalist for Halloween. All I need for my costume is an empty bottle of vodka and my shattered dreams.”

To celebrate the passing of the 100,000 fan mark on Facebook, I’ll be soon be releasing a video of my journalist friends reading some of the best quotes from the site.

So, what are the typical reactions you’ve gotten from the posts? Do people recognize they’ve been quoted ever? What are the reactions from journalists when they meet you and realize you’re the guy behind OHnewsroom.

On Twitter, people will say “Hey, that’s my newsroom!” — they take pride in being recognized. My favorite ‘made it on OHnewsroom site quote’:

Producer: “We love making it on Overheard in the Newsroom.” Reporter: “It’s like, who cares about an Emmy. We made it on Overheard in the Newsroom!”

Are there ones you’ve had that you hadn’t published? Can you talk about those?

There have been a few quotes that have been submitted that were too over the top to be published.

Let’s take this to an ‘analytical’ level. What have you learned from these thousands and thousands of posts? What do these comments tell you about our newsrooms? About journalists?

There is still a definite need for copy editors.

It’s interesting to see the quotes change. I can always tell when it’s Intern Season when the intern-related quotes start floating in.

HAHAHA! Do these comments reflect the changes and challenges in our newsrooms?

I think so. When layoffs and furloughs were sweeping newsrooms, the site took an even more sarcastic / borderline depressed turn.

Based on the submissions you are getting now, let’s take an unscientific leap… what do your submissions say about the state of the industry now? Are we on the way up? Or still going down? Or … both? (I’m not a scientist)

From the submissions, I would say things have leveled out. The themes are now centered around deadlines, booze, technology and dealing with the public… which seems pretty universal in any newsroom, at any time.

Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with me … are there any parting words you’d like to add? Did you, in fact, ‘figure out’ the Web? What tech tips do you have for newsroom folks? Any pieces of wisdom to share from OHnewsroom?

If you have an idea for a project — go for it. It’s ridiculously easy to start a project on Tumblr.

Try new things. Go to your audience. Make it easy as possible for them to contribute and share your content. And if you don’t know where to start or who to follow on Twitter — participate in #wjchat. :)

Ha! Thank you sir. I have to say, for someone who has stepped away from the newsroom, I’ve continued to get my witty, smart-ass, anti-PC, newsroom culture fix from OHnewsroom. You captured something wonderful here and I, as I’m sure other journos, are grateful you’re sharing our brilliance and awkwardness.

The site would be nothing without the continued support from my fellow journalists across the world.

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12 Mar

Tips and tricks for a successful SXSWi 2010

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201103/1950/

Robert Hernandez: Well Pekka, we are just a few days away from the SXSW / SXSWi 2010 conference … aka Geek Spring Break. We’ve both been to the festival before and, for this post, are going to interview each other to share tips, experiences, goals, etc. as we do final preparations for the week. Let’s start with sharing our experiences. What number is this one for you? How many times have you attended?

Pekka Pekkala: This is my number three, did first one back in ’96! I was a starving student, so no Interactive tickets for me, just free music… You?

RH: For me, this is going to be my second. I was a n00b last year, a rookie. And, boy, did I learn a lot … and think I’m ready for the coming week.

How would you describe the conference to people? Mainly SXSWi.

PP: Best place to meet people like you who are not journalists. It’s really a good way to mingle with programmers and business-savvy people who understand content. And a total 5-day hurricane of seminars, meetups and parties.

RH: A ‘hurricane’ is a great way to describe it … tech, smarts, hipster glasses and more. I was really overwhelmed last year, attending so many different, random sessions and meeting great people. I have really started to prepare for this year.

For me, I think it’s an international meetup of innovative minds that mashup technology, business, art, culture, news and information. The Future of Journalism has been officially added as a track this year. I got inspired last year and hope that happens again.

PP: What did you pick from the Future of Journalism track? Is it all the same people that you’ve seen in journalism seminars before?

RH: Well, I have to be honest… half of the sessions did not resonate with me. Some of same ol’ same ol’ topics … and some things that aren’t really reflective of the topic. That said, there are some that I hope to attend. Naturally, I want to attend a breaking/late addition: Lessons Learned from the ‘Arab Spring Revolutions with Mashable‘s Vadim Lavrusik among other panelists. I’m a super NPR and Public Media fan and see a lot of sessions related to that, so I plan to attend those. I also am thinking of attending The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism, Conde Nast in Start Up Mode, and Hacking the News: Applying Computer Science to Journalism panels. Here’s a link to my SXSW schedule: http://schedule.sxsw.com/user_events/user_8645 Here is my event calendar: http://bit.ly/eaj5EK

Are you attending the journalism ones?

PP: There’s a lot of good stuff there, but I couldn’t help noticing the vast amount of consultants / inspirational speaker types. I’m trying to find the people who are actually making stuff and creating financially sustainable sites. So I’m probably hopping between the Journo and Business tracks a lot. My calendar here: http://schedule.sxsw.com/user_events/user_dc1b96a2231851a7ebe0e02fe4a0b1a5

RH: Yes, I noticed that too. Did you notice the number of advertising panels that suggested storytelling and journalism as the answer? Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising is the session that surprised me. Journalism to save advertising? I might have to check it out.

PP: Umm… yes. That sounds like a trap :D I’m more interested in Free Your Content! Who Really Owns UGC? session. :)

RH: Ha! Speaking of ‘trap’ the beauty of SXSWi is the randomness of some of these sessions. I have a few personal interest ones I hope to attend like, Star Wars Uncut: The Force of Crowdsourcing. Other personal picks are: A panel about an audio-only video game, a TRON session (yes, I’m a geek!), trends in Internet art and hearing from the ad agency behind the Old Spice guy ads. Do you have some random panels that peaked your interest?

PP: Yes. My advice would be to pick some big names you haven’t heard yet. I’m trying to see at least Bram Cohen (BitTorrent), Jason Calacanis (Mahalo), Clay Shirky (NYU) and Christopher Poole (4chan). Secondly, pick some really weird stuff like “Singularity,” “Synthetic Life” or “IBM: What is Watson?” sessions. Thirdly, do some boring stuff just for networking. Which is not really that boring in SXSW atmosphere.

RH: I attended a session last year led by Jonathan Stark, who taught how to do an easy iPhone app … the guy has written several books about designing/building apps and will be a panelist on the Building Native Apps Across Platforms session. Also, I have to promo the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights session with USC’s Prof. Jack Lerner and Lisa Borodkin, both have spoken to my classes numerous times about media law.

Can you talk about your goals and strategy for SXSW? What do you hope to learn and get from going to this conference? What is your strategy behind what sessions you try to attend?

PP: I always try to get away from the journalist mindset: I’m really scared of the journo hive mentality in every aspect. Mix it up! Trying to find some interesting cases to be interviewed for my Sustainable Business Models for Journalism study. Bootstrappers and small sites mainly. What about you?

RH: Yes, agreed. The session I pick tend to be more techie… I like to go to ones where I learn something new and, ideally, I can find ways to incorporate it into journalism… long before someone else even thinks about that angle. Right now I’m obsessing about Augmented Reality, and there are several sessions on that… mainly on biz/dev side. My goal is to learn more and more coding, building… and that tech constantly evolves. Last year I attended a great HTML5 vs. Flash panel … this year I hope to attend a few of those. Anything that experiments and pushes me to grow and think about the mashup of technology, design and information. Lots to choose from… and, sadly, some are at the same time!

PP: Sounds like a cool plan and something SXSW is really good for! Last year I went to Jaron Lanier speech and right after it (the cyncical journo in me) was saying “blah, another hippie from the Bay area saying you guys spoiled our Internet.” But the stuff he said really haunted me somehow and now I’m turning into a hippie myself. :D Ted Nelson FTW!

RH: He’s an extremely interesting guy. He recommended reading The Machine Stops … a must read for tech people.

Let’s get to some tips … what apps/tools do you use when at the conference? Now and while attending? What tips do you have while there?

PP: Just mark down everything that looks interesting via the SXSW schedule page, download the mobile app and off you go. Having a plan doesn’t mean you have to go according to it but it helps to visualize what is going on. It’s a shame sxsw.lanyrd.com doesn’t sync with SXSW schedule, would be great. Any cool apps you’ve found?

RH: Exactly right, I’ve signed up for a ton of things … who knows if I’ll attend them. But at least I know what’s, generally, out there. Last year’s app was, well, less than satisfying. That said, I’ve download this year’s version and it looks much better. I’ve used the official session selector. But I have to also pass along a great recommendation from SXSW veterans that recommended sched.org because it includes *all* events, even the many unofficial ones. I also used SitBy.Us last year and thought that was very cool. I’ll be tweeting and checking in on FourSquare, of course. Mashable has a SXSWi great guide, which has a good collection of apps/tools.

PP: Sched.org looks cool, have to try that one. Being from Finland, I have to plug @dittoapp! Any tips how to survive the physical aspect of SXSW, meaning the walking, not sleeping and forgetting your gear in the cab at 1am? (I’m still pissed I lost my FAIL book with Ben Huh‘s autograph last year!)

RH: Oh yeah… I learned you have to ditch the laptop! I have a shoulder that is about one inch lower than the other because I’ve carried a messenger bag with my laptop for years. Skip that! This year I’m rolling with just my iPad and iPhone. I also bought an external battery to charge them both :) I’m still traveling with my laptop, in case my plan backfires. Also, wear comfortable shoes, ’cause these will be looooong, fun days. I just downloaded Ditto (but it keeps crashing).

PP: iPad 2 I hope, it’s SXSWi! I find it hilarious when people take iPhone, iPad and MacBook out in a seminar: tech is supposed to make your life easier, not _literally_ harder :D I’m taking my Droid 2 Global (physical keyboard is still WINNING) + charger. Travel light.

RH: Let’s end with this question… how will you know you’ve had a successful SXSW 2010 experience?

PP: I fall asleep in the plane before it takes off from Austin. And when I’m home, I notice my brain is a mess of weird ideas and my pockets are full of business cards with hastily written notes on them. You?

RH: Ha! Well said. For me, if I feel like I’ve learned some new things and expanded my network of smart innovators, it’s been a success. I want to walk away energized and ready to go try some new tech experiments.

Well, sir, it was great chatting with you and I’ll see you in Austin!

PP: Same here, can’t wait! Let’s keep in touch via Twitter! @pekkapekkala

RH: Yes. I’m @webjournalist

09 Mar

Q&A with Al Jazeera Online Producer Bilal Randeree

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NOTE: Originally published on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201103/1949/

Without a doubt, the leading news organization covering the historic Middle East unrest is Al Jazeera. Available in limited markets here, their Web site has been the home for its impressive coverage.

“We had figures that indicated that we had 2,500 percent increase in traffic; 60 percent of that traffic was from the United States of America,” said Satnam Matharu, the director of communications, in a recent interview with NPR.

From my point of view, the lack of distribution for the English broadcast, the use of technology in the unrest and the quickness of the evolving news has been a prefect combination that has enabled Al Jazeera to be a leader in coverage and use of tech.

Bilal Randeree, Online producer for Al Jazeera EnglishFor this week’s post, I ‘interviewed’ Online producer for Al Jazeera English, Bilal Randeree. Because of the time difference and the constant news developments, Randeree and I ‘met’ on a collaborative document to have this conversation over several weeks.

First, Bilal, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I know you and the entire Al Jazeera crew have been extremely busy. Why don’t we start with you introducing yourself, your role at AJE, and how you started in journalism? Also, while it’s clearly been a newsy few weeks… how does it compared to your usual daily routine?

Hey Robert, sounds good. Really busy with Libya at the moment – I’m sure you’ve seen all my tweets (@bilalr) – our live blog is hugely popular once again!

I’m going to give a few very brief answers now cos I’m taking a quick break from the shocking news, so here goes:

I’m from South Africa – worked in banking for a few years, based out of Johannesburg – I then moved to London, but the timing was bad cos the financial crises hit as I was settling in!

As a freelance writer at the time, I was constantly asked to cover the crises from the ‘inside’ – what I learned then made me realize that working in corporate was not for me. I went back to school and did a post-grad in journalism. It was that degree together with my experience in corporate that landed me the job at Al Jazeera as a Business Journalist.

However, after moving to Doha I soon changed over to a general Online Journalist. I write for the Al Jazeera website, and update and maintain our various social media and online platforms. The past few weeks have been incredibly busy, with most of my colleagues and I working long shifts, day after day.

Can you describe the online operation at Al Jazeera? How incorporated is the Web staff? Do the different ‘sister stations’ with different languages have different Web staffs?

The English and Arabic channels are largely editorially independent – and so are the two websites. However, there is always the necessary collaboration and exchange of information, sources and resources.

The English website actually started before the English channel, but I’m not sure how things operated back then. These days, the website news desk is in the AJE newsroom, so we interact with broadcast quite a bit.

Typically, broadcast has reporters around the world covering the news for us – they are limited in terms of time on air, so the website is where our audience comes to for in-depth coverage and analysis of international news. Together with news from our reporters, we use the main news wires as sources, together with good old fashioned telephone journalism – the internet is a major source obviously, and we are constantly finding and using new online tools for news gathering and contacting sources on the ground.

Bilal Randeree, lower right hand corner, works a only few feet from the set.

Bilal Randeree, lower right hand corner, works a only few feet from the set.

So, when it comes to AJE, the Web site came first … that’s a quite different experience from most newsrooms. And it sounds like it has had some interesting effects. How would you describe the culture of the ‘converged’ newsroom?

Well, to be honest I’m not in the ideal position to answer this question, seeing that I’ve been here for a year now, and the English channel has been running for a good few years already. In terms of convergence, its a constantly changing relationship – broadcast and web are continually finding new and better ways to work together and support each other, over and above the obvious. The most recent development, starting with our Tunisia and then Egypt coverage, has been the ‘Web Desk’ that TV hosts – they prop a presenter in front of the camera, that discusses what is going on online, how readers are interacting with us on different platforms, and also what is being shared, discussed and debated on the internet.

Can you talk about, and perhaps list, all the different Web platforms and tools AJE employs (Twitter, Tumblr, iPhone Apps, etc.)

I have only recently started the Al Jazeera Tumblr account, but we’ve been active on Twitter and Facebook for a while now. The New Media team has traditionally been very strong and innovative, but the link between the tools they develop and experiment with, and how they are used on the News Desks was not at its best about a year ago. In that time however, Network wide training courses in Social Media were held, and the change is quite noticeable – besides the Web team, lots of other AJ people are active on different platforms.

Our live blog has been the latest hot development and we are seeing an incredible following, mainly for the hot news events that are constantly developing – first with Egypt, and now with Libya.

I tweeted that I was interviewing you and got this question from @Abdulla_AlAthba. He asks ‘Did twitter make it easier for [journos] @ AJA to track the news?’ Can you talk about how technology has changed the way Al Jazeera does its reporting.

Well, while Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic both form part of the Al Jazeera Network, the two stations operate relatively independent of each other. There is collaboration between journalists on both sides, but not all stories are covered by both, or in the same way.

In my personal experience, from the beginning, when things started in Tunisia and English broadcast was not covering the story in depth, due to a lack of sources on the ground, I was able to build up a good network of trusted sources through Twitter. While Twitter does alert us to events that are unfolding, its rare that Twitter itself will be a source – rather, a journalist can find sources and make contacts on Twitter, and then follow up with phone calls or emails, etc.

What stands out for me, when I look at Al Jazeera, is how technology is so embraced and employed in all different types of coverage. What do you think is the reason why it seems to be more open and willing to embrace technology, while other news orgs may be… a little… more reluctant. Or, is it my imagination, and Al Jazeera is facing with the same tech cultural issues other newsrooms are?

Well, I can’t speak for how other media organizations work – and for us at Al Jazeera, it’s not just the way we embrace technology, etc that makes us stand out from the rest, but rather almost every aspect of our coverage.

I would assume that compared to most other big media organizations, the fact that we are still not able to be broadcast extensively around the world, we know and value the importance of the internet more, and hence make more/better use of it.

Can you talk about the equipment/gear Al Jazeera reporters, those that cover breaking news and file for the Web, carry with them? I hear Flipcams and phones instead of laptops.

We have been using Flipcams for a while now, and have some cool campaigns running where we give citizens Flipcams and they produce content that feeds back to us.

For reporters and producers that cover live events, there are a few different tools they use – mobile phones for tweeting, sending through Audioboos and Twitpics, from places where there is no internet or the internet gets blocked, we issue Thuraya IP modems.

Our New Media team also has iPhones and BB‘s that they issue out to anyone going out into the field, that has all apps and software, customized and tested for ease of use.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I know you’ve been quite busy!

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail (r.hernandez@usc.edu) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

10 Feb

Two voices committed to our calling

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201102/1940/

Let’s face it. In our industry, we are surround by haters. From our newsrooms to the classroom to nearly any room, there are people that have been claiming journalism is either dead or dying.

In all that noise, I find it refreshing to hear the voices – strong voices – that are committed to our calling. For this week’s post, allow me to introduce you to two voices that are committed to what we do.

They are not spokespeople for the industry or an emerging trend or an oddity … they are just two different people that can’t deny their calling.

I first “met” Khadijah Britton, the founder of Better Bio, when I crowdsourced “Why I am a journalist” project. She called in and shared her story.

Liana Aghajanian I also “met” through Twitter. Even though we both live in Los Angeles, we have yet to meet. She if the force behind an independent Armenian publication.

Both of their stories inspired and reminded me why I am a journalist. Here is our Q&A conversation from a few weeks ago:

What is your current job/relationship with journalism?

LA: I am currently a full-time freelance journalist writing for a number of online and print publications, including Los Angeles Times Community News and Spot.us. I’ve also written for New America Media, Paste magazine and most recently, EurasiaNet. I also run my own news magazine (www.ianyanmag.com) which focuses on issues related to Armenians and the South Caucasus, and occasionally the Middle East.

KB: I am founder, CEO & Executive Director of BetterBio.org, biotech news in the public interest. My relationship with journalism is a bit more complicated, in that I am concurrently applying for fellowships and freelance reporting jobs so I can pursue my own investigative reporting, which at times goes outside of the realm of biotech into human rights journalism. It is also more complicated in that I am not only a “hack” but a “hacker” and am developing web and mobile tools to support a new and better journalism world. One of the tools I am working on is called “TipTapestry” – my team applied for the Knight News Challenge to fund it, and it can be seen at the Knight News Challenge site.

What were you doing before this stage of your journalistic career?

LA: I was an editor for a new media company where I worked with freelance writers and collaborated with publications like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a few Hearst newspapers and online publications.

KB: I was at law school, studying at Boston University. My focus was on biotechnology patents – the complexities involved with patenting life. I mostly went, however, to improve my writing! Law school teaches you to write tersely under a deadline like little other training. I’m still wordy, but much less so, now.

In one way or another, it seems like you “stepped away” from journalism. Can you tell me what first lead to you “stepping away?”

LA: Well, I don’t know if I necessarily ever stepped away in the real sense, but you could say that I was in a segment of the media industry that I did not want to be in, and that wasn’t because I changed, but because the industry did. I graduated out of journalism school right when the industry fell apart and began bleeding reporters. I had to adapt and so I was offered a position that while still was in the media industry, was also far removed from the long-term goals I had planned for myself, chiefly that of working in news.

KB: I stepped away from journalism before I ever began, in a way. I purposefully never went to J-school and never engaged with mainstream publications because I did not respect what the establishment media had become. I helped found four publications in my 20s, and co-founded two film companies, so I never stopped doing the work of journalism. But I definitely made a conscious choice not to do traditional journalism as far back as when I was twenty. I then re-committed to doing things differently after I took a job at what I thought was a health and life sciences publication that was really just an advertorial source for mid-cap medical device companies to promote their discoveries to larger companies. That experience left me sickened – I learned so much about this industry and could report none of what I learned. I felt like I was choking. So I moved into the field broadly known as “human rights” or “advocacy” reporting – acting as a media [liaison], researcher and report writer for nonprofits and advocacy organizations such as Healthcare for All and Human Rights Watch. My work in this field led me to law school, where I thought I could learn how to better investigate the corruption to which I bore witness. I was right, it did teach me that – but it also taught me how to think and act with greater discipline. Law school gave me the confidence that I could succeed if I forged my own path. That, and there was nothing else to do – there were no jobs! So I thank the fates for the recession’s impact on my career.

Can you tell me what “got you back” into journalism?

LA: Around two years ago, I decided that I wasn’t going to let my full-time job necessarily limit me from doing what I really wanted, which was reporting, so I began devoting all my energy after work and on weekends to pitching publications, establishing relationships with editors in an effort to get myself out of my (stable) comfort zone and on the ground running again. I also started to run my own online publication that has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few short years.

I did all of this because I have known since adolescence that my role in life was to be a journalist. It was all I wanted, all I dreamt about and all I imagined for my future, and I wasn’t interested in letting the economy, or a change in industry change who I wanted to be. My 40 hour work weeks turned into 80 hour work weeks. When I wasn’t reporting and writing well into the hours of the night, I was developing story ideas, blogging, taking photos and video as well as coordinating with freelance writers who were interested in contributing to my site.

KM: Last September, I got a call I did not expect – it was my supervising partner, and he sounded terrible. When I asked what was wrong, he said he couldn’t believe what he had to tell me – that he felt nauseous – but the firm where I had worked could not afford to offer me my position. I sulked for a few weeks – if I was to work at any law firm in the country, it would have been that one – but then I started to get excited. My future was unwritten and was now mine to write! I began brainstorming my future with a close friend, David Thompson, who was at a similar point in his life, while volunteering at various organizations that worked on improving access to medicines and helping indigenous people with intellectual property issues. Some of the nonprofit work I was doing was written up in Bloomberg – quite poorly – and it sparked a fire of rage in my belly: I wrote a letter to the poor author deriding his lack of journalistic rigor and integrity and lecturing him on best practices. He was surprisingly gracious in accepting my feedback. One hour later, my friend David Thompson shared another story on Bloomberg – the Pfizer feature by David Evans – and I had the dramatically opposite reaction: this time, my heart raced not out of anger but of excitement – this, THIS! was investigative reporting! I wrote him a fan letter – and, for the second time that day, received a shockingly gracious response. He somehow figured out I used to cover medical devices, got me chatting, and I was immediately hooked. It was the strangest thing – seeing the best and worst in journalism within an afternoon, and realizing how goddamn much I cared, was all it took to pull me back in. I was finally ready to do something about it. To make my mark.

You’re not the spokesperson for journalism, but what is your response to people who are doom-and-gloom about our industry?

LA: I understand it. It’s a natural reaction to have I suppose.

I think it’s entirely OK to have negative feelings. It’s normal. When you let those negative feelings hinder you, is when the problems begin.

In the end, doom and gloom has never accomplished anything for anyone. The only way to learn, grow, recover and progress is through determination, focus and intrepidity. Our industry has not gone away. It is not doomed. It is changing. As journalists, we have to learn how to adapt to these changes. It’s not the vessel that’s important, it’s what inside, and from my experience, people still care a great deal about journalism – it is still a noble, worthy cause that will survive only if those entrusted with its powers can manage to become innovative. Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that.

KM: Doom and gloom are the reaction of those who are at once ashamed of their own culpability and unwilling to change. I pity the fools. Storytelling is what we do. We all find each other fascinating. We find the world fascinating. It’s one of the things I love about being human. Writing these words and knowing that you will read them gives me a rush. It’s the rush of connection – the possibility of a spark – of some new idea or empathy or delight being ignited by my words. We do not write just to dictate down what is happening – if that was all reporting was, we’d just install surveillance cameras everywhere like the cops do and choose a location to watch. Heck, even better – we’d have action buttons at those locations that citizens could push to tell others that SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. But no, that’s not what we want. We want context, interpretation, analysis, discussion, opinion, [vitriol], hyperbole – as humans we want a million journalisms depending on the type of story, depending on our levels of education – and, most importantly, depending on how much we trust the source. I know that I will accept much more jocularity, absurdity and emotion from someone I trust than I will from an unknown source. When I do not know or trust the source, then it’s just the facts, ma’am and here’s my footnotes. We are entering an era where both of these – “soft” and “hard” reporting – can finally coexist and nourish one another without driving us all batty. CNN’s scrolling drives me nearly mad (I tune it out), but if I can instead opt into getting more background on the story by clicking to a “background” section, or discuss it with my peers on a related discussion board, I will engage with that story so much more.

Are there any words of advice you’d like to share with people who are debating what to do with their journalism career?

LA: I find it difficult to give advice, because in many ways, I am still learning myself, but the advice I have is this: If you really believe in journalism, if you believe whole heartedly that it is pumps in your veins, then stop at nothing (and I mean nothing) to pursue your career. This industry is crazy, you will love it more than it will probably ever love you, but if you don’t stand up for yourself and actually try to do what you love in it, you will regret it.

Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” That’s pretty accurate and sound advice.

The most important element is not giving up, if you keep pushing forward, you can achieve [anything] you want to.

KM: I am biased, obviously, but I recommend that everyone get involved with a nonprofit news startup at some level. This moment – this exact moment – will never happen again. The promise and potential, the uncertainty, of the new journalism world is so exciting! And as a journalist, you’ve gotta be an adrenaline junkie (at least starting out!) so why not put all of that beautiful adrenaline to its best use? Figure out what story you want to tell and go help someone who wants to help tell it. Otherwise, in my opinion, you’re probably wooing a corpse.

What do you hope to achieve in your journalistic career? What is success for you?

LA: In a broader sense, I hope to be able to write stories that I am proud of. Stories that can have an impact, stories that fall under a category I like to call “chill-inducing journalism.” I am interesting in human rights, poverty, immigration, environmental and international issues of importance as well as culture and ethnicity and I hope I can produce amazing work with regard to all, some or a few of those categories, work that can be appreciated by those that journalists really serve: the public.

Success for me would mean being able to not only write, but write well in the publications that have for me, epitomized good journalism, and that list would include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Guardian among others. It would also mean achieving success as a foreign correspondent in a few countries that are of particular interest to me. Success would mean having the career that the amazing Mr. Nicholas D. Kristof has had.

But I suppose, most of all, success would mean being a respected member of an industry that is and always will be at my core.

KM: Success to me would mean creating news about science and business that truly COMPELS low-income people without science or business educations (which is to say, most of us) to look under the hood of our life sciences industries. To spark their INSATIABLE curiosity. And to get their voices into the policy conversation at the highest levels – to use journalism as a tool to empower the people impacted by the news to actually not only read but create the news. I hope to do this through creating and nurturing exceptional content, training teens and life-long learners in science media literacy and citizen science reporting, and creating awesome fora for online and offline engagement. If we can get an inner-city teen and a rural mom and a hospitalized elder to all join the conversation, I’ll consider my life and work a success.

Categories: Journalism, OJR Tags:
02 Feb

Is Social Media Gutenberg or Guttenberg? It’s actually both

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201101/1936/

Social media means different things to different people.

For some, tools like Twitter are at the Gutenberg level, while others place it at… the Guttenberg level. (Sorry Mahoney)

But the “debates” on whether it is the next printing press that causes revolutions around the world or the next Police Academy 3: Back in Training, focusing on what we’re having for lunch, to me, are looking at it wrong.

When I teach how to use social media for real-time reporting, I tend to get some of the same questions and comments either praising or dis’ing these applications.

– Why do I want to know about what celebrities had for lunch?

– It’s what caused the mass protests in Egypt, right?

– Doesn’t it hurt your relationships in real life?

– Twitter is the news source. Traditional news orgs are screwed.

Not exactly.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media applications have greatly affected our lives and influenced our culture… but, remember, it’s just a platform. A tool. An appliance, if you will.

I tell folks to frame social media apps just like a telephone.

There are hundreds of incredibly insightful, powerful conversations happening over the phone right now. But, there are also several thousands of mundane and truly painful “conversations” as well.

It’s not the telephone’s fault. It’s how people use it.

Extend this clunky metaphor to radio, TV, and printed publications. There is quality and there is crap. But, without a doubt, these platforms have each enhanced the way we communicate, share information and interact.

I was lucky enough to be in Washington, D.C., when Egypt erupted. D.C. is one of the few cities that carries Al Jazeera English.

With the news network on the television set and Tweetdeck launched on my laptop, I watched the coverage unfold, noticing that the station’s live coverage was the fastest and most complete news source. And, as they reported, I and other viewers tweeted/retweeted.

A few days before, I had seen someone once again claim that Twitter is the news source. In my opinion, it really isn’t. It’s a great aggregator where news and information – accurate or not – flows fast. But the “news” on Twitter tends to be coming from traditional news media.

Twitter is an invaluable platform. But it’s not really the source.

For the most part, when it comes to news, the source/content comes from traditional news sources. And that information gets shared with a vast network of users.

There are powerful reports from the ground, but the impact of the situation, for me, is really felt through the news sites.

So, it’s not the source, but it is one incredibly powerful platform.

We’ve all seen these headlines calling an Iranian Twitter revolution, Tunisia cyber-net revolution and, certainly now, Egypt’s social media uprising.

It’s a narrative many in the media are in love with, even though it cheapens the fact that people are risking more than just their Internet access. They are doing more than updating their status and streams.

There is no doubt these tools were used in all these historic events, but I would encourage us to be a little more hesitant in crediting it as the cause.

I imagine that this narrative was used when the printing press, radio or television were first introduced… a revolution caused by the platform. And I imagine that this is just a phase where a shiny new platform is an easy narrative to jump on.

But here’s the thing. It’s not an either/or issue. It’s both. The platform has facilitated the organization of the masses and empowers them to distribute the information in a new way.

There are lots of people writing about this topic. Here’s a collection of different points-of-views:

http://gigaom.com/2011/01/29/twitter-facebook-egypt-tunisia/

http://gov20.govfresh.com/a-tunisian-on-the-role-of-social-media-in-the-revolution-in-tunisia/

http://motherjones.com/interview/2011/01/evgeny-morozov-twitter-tunisia

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-january-27-2011/the-rule-of-the-nile

My point overall is a simple one: Credit the people, acknowledge the platform, but put it all in perspective.

25 Jan

Carnival of Journalism: Two vital journalism institutions working together

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201101/1934/

NOTE: This is my entry – late entry – to the Carnival of Journalism, a collection of blogs writing on a single topic, organized by Spot.us creator David Cohn. This is a revival of the Carnival and in this first, returning edition, the topic is “The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community.” I decided to approach it from my recent experience in the academic world following my time in the newsroom. You can read the round up of other entries here: carnivalofjournalism.com

Newsrooms, meet classrooms. Classrooms, meet newsrooms.

I know you’ve known each other, tolerated each other and have even talked smack about each other for decades. But guess what, you both need each other.

And you both need to change, adapt and evolve fast.

That’s my conclusion as I start my fourth semester in academia, after ten years in newsrooms. (For the record, I don’t consider myself an “academic.” I prefer the term “hackademic.” Actually, I prefer Web journalist.)

I know in newsrooms we’re busy putting out the daily miracle (every 15 minutes online) and are always short on resources. We are on the leading edge of content evolution online, but we don’t have time, money and, sometimes, the skills we need to experiment and grow. We often don’t have support from the top either.

Let’s be honest, we often dismiss academics (those who can’t, teach) and have some issues collaborating with anyone, whether be it another newsroom or a university.

I know in classrooms we put in longer hours (even though people don’t see it) working with aspiring journalists. These students are called the future of journalism on a good day, but are dismissed as clueless dreamers on a bad day – often called both by people in the newsroom.

I know that the “students” that fill our classrooms are no longer students, but journalists. And, while they are surrounded by haters (from parents to working journalists to even professors), this force of young journalists can’t be stop. Thank god.

I also know that in academia there is some time to think. We have more time to reflect and share those thoughts. We actively are talking about journalism … even though some may have not practiced it in some time. Does that mean their analysis is invalid? No… but some people do dismiss it.

Often, but not always, academia has access to grants and more funding. My jaw has dropped when I’ve heard about the amount of money funding some projects that didn’t deliver. I know in newsrooms many of us would make miracles happen with a fraction of that money.

On the other hand, when funding is given for something innovative, well, some in academia have not innovated in a while. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are more professors that are “getting it” more than leaders in the newsroom. But being innovative and risk-taking isn’t something that is always engrained in every tenured professor.

Let’s be honest again, we in academia often dismiss those in the newsroom as being arrogant and unaware that they need help. I know many of us have spent years trying to partner with local newsrooms, only to get frustrated and give up.

Both sides are imperfect. Journalism is imperfect.

Both sides need to evolve in their own way. Journalism needs to evolve through them.

Both sides need each other. Journalism needs truly them.

So, how do we do it?

A classroom, in essence, is a newsroom full of hungry journalists that don’t want to talk about journalism… they want to do it.

Professors need to empower these people to produce work, not just for their class, but for the community. These pieces should not be solely read by the person standing in front of the classroom. They need to be read by the public. And as there are cutbacks in our newsrooms, journalism classrooms need to help fill that void.

Folks in newsrooms need to join forces with the classroom. If we really want to diversify our staff, let’s take an easy step and partner up with a class that can work on a project we literally can’t afford.

Academia needs to actively offer training to local newsrooms, especially the smaller ones. Ethnic media needs your help.

Hey, editors and publishers, get training for your staff. And by reaching out to your local universities and community colleges, you’ll get it… as well as building a mutually beneficial partnership.

Every semester, a classroom is swarming on a neighborhood, a beat and story theme. While we are publishing them on our student media, others should republish them when appropriate.

Research and develop together. Universities are filled with smart people wanting to work on a good project. Newsrooms are filled with smart people who identify needs, but don’t have time to work on these great potential projects.

Yes, we are seeing these types of partnerships popping up and growing. But, quite honestly, it’s just scratching the surface.

So, what are you doing Hernandez?

Well, I’ve tried to have my class produce community journalism. This semester I hope to partner with a local news org to get their pieces published.

In terms of innovation, I’m working with a group of amazing developers that believe in the potential of joining forces for the betterment of journalism. We hope to do R&D for the industry.

We need more. And all it usually takes is a conversation and a commitment.

Imagine how much better our journalism will be if these two vital institutions worked together.

Actually, stop imagining and start doing.

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