Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pushing the Rock Uphill

As news days go, it was a slow one, but it seems that on most days I have very little time to dwell on the news.

As a manager, a big part of my job involves attending to problems, of which there is never any shortage. It's a bit like doing the dishes. You can do them really well, and put them all away, but the next day they're just going to be there again, some old ones and many new ones. I am a modern day Sisyphus, the sinner of ancient Greek mythology who was doomed to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see if roll back down again.

Today I posted all new stories and videos to the Web site in the morning, but then had to work with engineers who were trying to figure out how to install a second PC that will capture and digitize video. We are trying to get everything hooked up for the presidential debates in Manchester this weekend. The new PC has to be connected to a router that pulls in video feeds from around the state and the nation.

It's been a slow process that started more than a week ago and which has involved trying to coordinate a local computer tech and local engineers with an audio-video expert in Minnesota.

The indisputable truth I have learned in this job is that engineers just don't talk to each other much, not willingly anyway, which is why my communications skills have come in so handy. Basically, I often just translate for them.

In this Internet world, where we are spread out all over the country, I have done quite a bit of translating -- between local engineers and weather engineers in Alabama, or between local engineers, Hearst engineers in Charlotte and our own engineers in Minnesota. For awhile, the provider of our news aggregator tool was in Atlanta, so I've had quite a few conversations with them as well. To my mind, the only people who will never come up short in this global workplace are the people who own stock in Verizon or some other phone company.

What if anything, one might ask, does any of this have to do with journalism? I will tell you: I do not know. Had you told me back in my college days that I would one day be conversant about things like file transfer protocols or XML code, I would have been extremely skeptical. The human brain, however, is an amazing thing. I've learned so much it seems second-nature to me now, even though when I started this job they said we would primarily be journalists, and other people would worry about the hardware. That, it turns out, has never been the case. We are married to our computers, whether we like it or not.

I do worry that we spend so much time figuring out how to get information where it's supposed to go that we don't really have time to gather the information itself. That is a daily frustration. It was there in the newspaper business and, before that, when I was working as a television reporter. If we couldn't get a signal in, we couldn't do the story. Period. For some reason, however, I have constantly found myself in a position where I have to figure out how to get the story ON. On the air, on the Internet, in the paper.

I spend so much time on the mechanics of getting the story out that it actually makes it a joy when I have nothing more to do than immerse myself in the production of the actual piece. It makes getting the information, organizing and writing it into a coherent piece of journalism seem like a walk in the park. I've been doing that part of it so long I could do it in my sleep. The perfect order for a story will unfold in my head so fast sometimes that it's a race to get it down on paper (or computer screen.)

In my very first television job I would go to work, make assignments, then go out with another reporter, the two of us shooting each other's stories. We'd go back to the station, write our stories, edit them, and then assemble the newscast and go into the control room and produce it. All in a day's work. I think I probably made about $2 a day. It feels a little like that again.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Where Is The Disconnect?

Something seems to have gone seriously haywire in the American marketing community.

For the third time in the last six months, just in the Boston-area alone, we are reporting a story on our Web site about a promotional scheme that went awry, prompting the evacuation of a bank branch and strip mall in Ashland, Mass., -- including the daycare center there -- and an all-out response from the local HAZMAT team.

It seems the bank received a fax that appeared to be some kind of bomb threat -- a sheet of paper with badly-drawn bomb on it -- but there was nothing to it. (See story link for photo.)

According to the bank, "the fax was meant for Bank of America employees and was intended for internal purposes for an upcoming small business promotion."

They said the fax was sent "by a marketing group for a promotion to kick off a special offer from the bank. "

Well, whatever the reason, it was a really bad idea.

About a month ago, another marketing company draped small black knapsacks along a fence outside a Newton, Mass., high school, which also triggered a call to the bomb squad early one morning. It was a promotion for a new Web site aimed at teenagers.

In early February, another marketing ploy for a cable cartoon show drew nationwide attention when it triggered a city-wide alert in Boston. A marketing firm in New York hired two men to place Lite-Bright-like contraptions around the city, which some people, unfortunately, thought might be explosive devices. Again, the HAZMAT crews showed up in force and highways were shut down. The entire ruckus ended up costing Turner Broadcasting millions and the general manager of the Cartoon Network resigned.

Yet here we are again today, however, with yet another dumb marketing promotion gone bad. Who the heck are these marketing people anyway? And where were they on Sept. 11, 2001?

Are they all just 20-somethings starting out at their first firm who've grown up on a steady diet of "Jackass?" If so, maybe they're too young for 9-11 to have made an impression. But presumably their managers and supervisors are a little older, with enough sense to reject a bad publicity stunt in this post-9-11 world. Do any of them have any shred of social responsibility? Sure doesn't seem like it.

We're told these stunts are a form of "guerilla marketing" which, according to one of its gurus, is "an unconventional way of performing promotional activities on a very low budget." There are dozens of Web sites devoted to it, but the bottom line is, it's all about selling a product or service. The aim of going "unconventional," I assume, is to cut through the vast thicket of other more traditional ads and promotions. But can't we employ a little more intelligence here?

It seems apparent in many ways that American society has become creatively bankrupt. The most successful movies and plays all seem to be based on comic book heroes someone else dreamed up 50 years ago, and there hasn't been a "great American novel" written since ... when? Music? Well, what's the last truly original American sound you've heard? Rap? Hip Hop? Even that has gotten old. Even our hit TV shows ("American Idol," "The Office") are coming from Europe. Maybe the U.S. marketing industry has also run out of ideas. I'm trying to recall the last memorable commercial I've seen ... and I just can't.

Now, if someone came up with the next great marketing campaign, something truly original, that would surely get some attention. Until that happens though (and I won't be holding my breath) someone in charge needs to decide it's time to dispense with the "guerilla" approach. There's enough scary stuff happening out in the world that people don't need any more terror in their lives.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What, Actually, Are They Getting?

As I left the office today the story that was breaking was about a man "with a rare and dangerous form of tuberculosis who may have spread the disease to passengers and crew on two trans-Atlantic flights."

This news, I thought, will certainly alarm and concern a great many of our readers. On the other hand, I often wonder how much of the information we report actually sinks in with the public.

Example: We have been posting stories about global warming for several years now. One might think it's almost a household word. From where I sit every day, I would almost assume that everyone knows what it is and what is probably causing it. Yet yesterday, I sat outside a Dunkin' Donuts with my son as a woman in a large SUV drove up. Two pre-teen girls hopped out of the SUV, went inside the shop, and proceeded to wait 10 minutes or more to place and get their order. THE WOMAN SAT INSIDE HER CAR WITH THE MOTOR RUNNING THE ENTIRE TIME.

The weather was not hot enough for her to want to keep the air conditioner running, nor cold enough to justify the heater. In fact, it was a sublime 75 degrees or so on a glorious late spring morning. God has rarely created such a perfect day.

I debated whether I should politely tap on her window and suggest that she turn the motor off, but I also realized such an move would probably be perceived as an act of aggression. What do to?

As I watched the woman mindlessly waiting in the running car, I couldn't help thinking about the Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon where all the dinosaurs are standing around smoking cigarettes and the caption beneath it says, "The real reason dinosaurs became extinct."

For decades I have worked in the communications business, sincere in my belief that if we just get all the information out there, people can make wise choices about the world they live in.

But they don't.

The woman in the SUV obviously was ignorant about global warming (and probably a great many other things as well) but that's not as surprising as her sheer wastefulness. The price of gas is now more than $3 a gallon. It would seem she might have a little concern, at least, about that.

Weekly, we also report stories about the rising price of gasoline, but it appears that until there just isn't any anymore, Americans are going to continue to expect that it will be plentiful and (relatively) inexpensive (in Europe and other countries gasoline is far more expensive than in the U.S.) Again, the dinosaurs come to mind.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Gathering Storm

Memorial Day is often a quiet news day and this one is not much different. The newest story of the day for us is New England Patriots football player Marquise Hill missing in Louisiana's Lake Ponchartrain. He disappeared while jet skiing. The Coast Guard has moved into recovery mode following a search.

We have included not only the story, but video from our sister-station WDSU in New Orleans on the Web site. While there is interest in the story, our metrics indicate that our viewers are more interested in a story about vandals who burned decorative American flags in Natick, Mass. last week and then stuffed them in a trash can.

Ahead this week we will prepare for special Web coverage of presidential debates to be held June 1 and June 3 at our sister station WMUR in Manchester, N.H. (I work for Internet Broadcasting, which runs the Web sites for more than 25 Hearst-Argyle television stations, and many other station groups as well.)

Covering the debates on the Web sites will be challenging. We are planning multiple livestreams from several different sites which will all be receiving the debate feeds. Getting the logistics planned is one thing. Executing another. At the end of it, we will likely have provided a great deal of information about both the Democratic and Republican candidates, but I often wonder if we're shouting down the rabbit hole with very few to hear us.

I know there is an appetite for politics on the Web, but I'm not sure, in the long term, how much of it people want or will actually read or watch. I am skeptical myself about what politics has become in our country. I'm not certain it has any real relevance anymore to the "price of eggs in Boston," as the old saying goes.

I sometimes suspect that politics in the U.S. is a way for people to think they have a say in how our government is run, but in the long run, I'm not sure our politicians truly have any real or significant impact on world events any longer.

It's almost as if we're rooting for athletic teams when we support a candidate or party, and I'm beginning to think they may have just about as much influence on energy policy or global warming as the Red Sox do -- not much. Certainly not as much, perhaps, as the International Monetary Fund does, or the Group of Eight (G8) , which we almost never cover, unless there are protests surrounding a G8 summit, and even then we (the media) don't seem to do a very good job of explaining what it's all about.

I once worked with an African-American photographer who told me on the way to a story one day, with all solemnity, that he believed a group of about 8 or 12 white men somewhere pretty much controlled the world by controlling all the money. I tried to disguise my incredulity when he said this, but the older I get, the more I wonder.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the time, money and energy we spend covering and publicizing political debates is worth the effort. I'd like to believe that who we vote for still makes a difference, but I see very, very little difference in political parties and politicians once they get in to office.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

At The Beginning

The term "Internet journalism" may be an oxymoron, especially for many journalists still primarily employed by "traditional" media organizations -- newspapers, radio, television, magazines -- and yet, it is what many of us are practicing even now, and will be practicing, for years to come.

We are here in significant numbers, some not entirely by design, working (as I sometimes like to think) at the beginning of all things. Or, rather, at the beginning of another great thing. We're on the cutting edge of a new news medium, more far-reaching than all that have come before. One that truly creates a global news village. It has already happened. Yet, by far, many of us are unknown, unrecognized, undocumented, providing news and information to millions around the world. We inform and influence thousands, but few know who we are or how we do what we do.

Who are we? What are we doing? What are we trying to do? Why are we doing it? What are we encountering along the way?

These are the questions framing this blog, which I hope will draw the comments, experiences and expertise of Internet journalists around the globe. I also see it as a way to provide a Web history of what we are going through as we build this new medium, this new journalism "discipline." In college, I learned about what Edward R. Murrow did as he shaped what came to be known as television journalism. A few years ago, I read a biography of William Randolph Hearst, who helped shape newspaper journalism. Now it's our turn to write the book on the beginnings of Internet journalism, using our medium, the Internet.

In a way, it doesn't feel unusual to be working in a new news medium. As one of my bosses at Internet Broadcasting said a few years ago, "If you're looking for a guidebook on how to do what we do, don't. We're writing it every day." It's not the first time I've been on the cutting edge of a journalism job.

More than 25 years ago, I got my start as a journalist working at a television station in Austin, Texas. We were still using manual typewriters then, (small type) and ripping wire off huge machines that spewed out reams of copy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We would tear copy and organize it by category -- sports, news, entertainment -- slapping it on to nails on the wall designated for each. The engineers were excited when we first tried transmitting "live" from a remote location. This being Texas, they sent me to do a live shot from the rodeo. They had a remote van that looked like an ice cream truck and it seemed like they were using twine and bubble gum to get the job done, but somehow it worked. They were elated when they were able to beam a picture back, and I felt a little like a human guinea pig.

A few years later, I was working for a television station in Tampa, Fla., WTVT, and it was one of the first local stations (if not the first) in the country to own and operate its own satellite truck. At that time, only the networks were operating satellite trucks. My assignment desk sent me down to Naples, Fla., to do a story on some beached whales, and my managers decided that, since we were out of microwave range, it was a good time to test our new satellite capabilities. The only problem was, we still didn't have a communications package entirely established. I didn't have IFB, the little ear piece that fits in a broadcast reporter's ear connecting them to the directors, producers and control room back at their stations.

No problem. They decided to go with the shot anyway, since they could see and hear me. They would have the photographer I was working with talk via walkie-talkie to another photog in a small motel down the road, who would in turn be communicating via telephone with the control room in Tampa. I stood there gamely until my photographer hissed "go" and simply began talking. Voila. On the air was our first satellite feed from Naples to Tampa in which I never heard a cue and didn't even have a monitor to look at to see what I was doing. Looking back, not having the benefit of "direction" from a producer was sometimes the greatest blessing the universe could bestow upon a reporter, but at the time it felt like flying blind. Again, I felt a little like a human guinea pig.

Years later I went "retro." I had a child and decided to leave journalism and paid work entirely. I wanted to focus a bit on raising another human being. I was never able to stay away from a keyboard for long, however, and eventually decided to try my hand at print journalism, which had always been my first love. I spent the next six years learning the newspaper business from the ground up. I even learned, quite literally, how to cut and paste. After assigning stories to reporters, spending hours editing their copy and then laying out each page of the paper, I would go out to the printing plant to oversee "paste up," sometimes going so far as to take the small Exacto-style knives in my own hand to cut tiny lines of newsprint from an article or headline to make it "fit" into its alloted space.

It was a "back to the future" experience, because it gave me the newspaper experience I lacked, having started my career in broadcasting. It also gave me some of the most fulfilling years of my professional life because of the great latitude we had in "enterprising" news stories. Noticing a trend toward the construction of larger "McMansions," we could write a story that we'd see a month later in the big daily newspapers and, later, in national magazines. There was tremendous satisfaction in rooting out stories and trends, not merely "reporting" events that had already occurred or were occurring, as I had done for so many years as a television reporter.

For my money, being able to enterprise a story is about as good as it gets for a journalist. It's what puts the "new" in the "news." Everything else is just "repurposing," which is what many journalists do on a daily basis, not really realizing it. They see a story someone else has done and they modify it for their medium and run with it. But to be the reporter who first spots a trend or informs about a topic, issue or event which has never been published before --that, to me, is the Holy Grail of journalism.

So here I am, again at the "cutting edge" of a new news medium, and much of what we are still doing on the Internet is "repurposing," just as in the early days of radio announcers would simply read stories that were printed in newspapers to fill air time (until the newspapers put a stop to it) and just as television reporters have been reporting stories out of the newspapers for decades.

We won't, however, be doing this for very long. Even now, when news breaks, Internet journalists are racing to get a few bits of information populated to their sites, long before a story is on the wire, printed in the paper or read over the air. We know the world sits poised at desktops everywhere, waiting for whatever details we can provide. My first experience of this was when I was still working at the newspaper as the Columbine High massacres were broadcast live on national television. We immediately turned to the Web sites of Denver newspapers for any shred of detail that could place the unfolding tragedy into some kind of context. Today it is passe' for news consumers everywhere to come to go to the Internet first.

We, however, are struggling as we work within a still-evolving new news infrastructure. It is so new, and there are still so few of us, that having an opportunity to enterprise a story is still an almost unheard of luxury. News managers are racing to create and implement guidelines that will be relevant to the developing news environment in which we operate. We adhere to traditional print style guidelines and conventions, and yet we know that the Internet requires, and offers, through multiple media options, a different approach to presentation . Additionally, the roles of journalists who work within the new medium are changing as well. Newspaper journalists are shooting pictures and videos to include in their Internet reports. Soon, broadcast reporters will be asked to produce print-worthy copy that can live on the Internet.

How will it all end? That's what we're finding out. We do know some "traditional" journalists are worried and threatened by the Internet as a news medium, but that train has left the station. What they should embrace is the potential if they want to continue doing what they love. We are all looked upon now not so much as "journalists" but as "content providers" for multiple information "platforms." Those platforms are always going to need content. People who know how to gather information and communicate it to the public, regardless of the medium, will still have a place to work -- their work may now just reach a wider audience on more "platforms."

How we go about the work of Internet journalism on day-to-day basis is what this blog will be all about. I see myself, again, as a bit of a pioneer or "guinea pig" working on the cutting edge of a new news medium. I think it's important that we have a record of what we're building, the obstacles we encounter, and a dialogue about what works and why. So, in this forum, I'll talk as often as I can about the day's work and the issues we confront. It often seems it's never easy, but sometimes it can be fun ... and it's always enlightening.