Thursday, November 30, 2006

Mojos at the No'Wo

Alex Hummel reports today on Gannett's efforts to turn members of the staff of the Northwestern into "mojos," a term the company uses to describe "mobile journalists who carry digital cameras, MP3 recorders and wireless laptops." Read more about Gannett's strategy here.

This can be a great thing (and by selling video sponsorships, newspapers can develop a healthy new revenue stream). But, to be frank, using all of this technology is time-consuming, and preparing multi-media reports can get in the way of reporters doing their reporting.

It seems to me that Gannett is making a bet that people don't really care that much about hard news and will be content to be amused by moving images and sounds coming to them through their PCs. I wish I had hard evidence to refute that view. But I don't. Gannett may be right.

A lot of newspapers have taken an "eat your broccoli" approach to covering policy issues: "You may not care about the terms of these contract settlements, but you should and so we are going to cover them in mind-numbing detail."

I don't think this approach is optimal, either. But the truth is the American people need to be better informed, not less so.

And newspapers shouldn't let the demands (and dazzling new possibilities) of 24/7 Web publishing distract them from the task of covering the small, but important, details of local government.

A case in point: the No'Wo gets around to reporting today the terms of the city's contract settlement with the police. The news of this settlement was "broken" online more than a week ago by City Manager Richard Wollangk in his weekly newsletter. Since then it's been discussed in various parts of the local blogosphere.

It seems to me that the newspaper should have reported this information in the time frame before it came to the Council for review and approval. That way more citizens would have had a chance to think about it and express their views.

Honestly, I don't know the real reason why the paper let this story go until now (although I have some guesses). Maybe it had nothing to do with the Internet.

All I'm saying is that newspapers are going in the wrong direction if they start spending more time with their techno-toys than they do on the basics of reporting: reading documents, chatting up sources and watching the world around them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

For sale: homepage

Some newspapers make you look at ads before you see some particular content, but Gannett's Wisconsin newspapers are going a step further and making you look at an ad before you even get to the homepage.

Some would question the ethics of this.

I would question the strategy behind it. It may make sense in the short-term to monetize Web traffic this way, but there's a big risk of turning eyeballs away by making them look at this first (or making them clip to skip it).

Oshkosh perspective on Iraq

Doug Zellmer provides a "grunt's eye view" of the situation in Iraq in today's Northwestern, based on e-mail exchanges and conversations with friends and family of local soldiers serving near Baghdad.

It's fascinating to think about what's going through the minds of those in and associated with the 1157 Transportation Co. while the president is travelling through the region and trying to buck up the Iraqi government leadership.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Our culture of lies

In The Nation, Eric Alterman examines the problems the media have in dealing with the Bush administration's contempt for the truth, most recently exemplified in the president's explanation for why he dissembled about his plans to replace Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon:
"I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign. And so the only way to answer that question, and to get you on to another question, was to give you that answer."
But it isn't only Bush. Deception is ingrained in the culture. When we're not busy fooling each other, we're busy fooling ourselves.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Extreme Makeover Continues @ ODN

We read today that the Oshkosh Northwestern wants to dump its national columnists for local ones.

Is this a good thing? A couple of years ago the editors there would have said it was a terrible idea, an abdication of professional standards, a surefire way of polluting political discourse.

But things change, not least the economics of newspapering. A couple of weeks ago Gannett, the parent company of the Northwestern, reported a 2 percent decline in newspaper advertising revenues for the month of October. Classified revenues (the traditional cash cow) at community papers were down even more.

So the Northwestern stands to save a few bucks by switching away from syndicated writers to local ones, who presumably will agree to be paid with a byline and a head shot in the paper.

But I think there is more to the paper's motivation than purely a monetary one, since this move really won't be much of a savings given what syndicated columnists are paid per publication.

I think the paper's editors have come to the conclusion that their future is in citizen journalism, and only partly because of the economic imperatives. According to Alex Hummel:

As the newspaper evolves and becomes a higher-tech Swiss army knife of information, one low-tech thing becomes clearer and clearer.

The Oshkosh Northwestern is ultimately your paper.

Folks running the show just make sure everyone gets a fair say, inside and online.

Is this a good thing?

Well, I think it's a step in the right direction. But where that step will lead is anyone's guess. (A question I have for Alex is what will the paper do if/when its community contributors start actively [OK, more actively] campaigning for office? Are the forums for "community conversation" or electioneering? Should the paper care?)

In the long run, I think local papers like the Northwestern are going to end up being like credit unions, owned by their customers, who have a say in determining costs, revenues and strategic direction.

But as much as I like credit unions, few of them provide as robust a range of products and services as a full-service bank. We need more.

The newspaper has a special role to play beyond encouraging discussion. It needs to be a watchdog and a critic (and sometimes a cheerleader). This distinctive public service role is what gives it its privileged standing in the community.

At the moment, there is a fair amount of local news that is getting broken in other media outlets (mostly the blogosphere but also shows like Eye on Oshkosh) . Someone who wants to be fully informed about what is going on in Oshkosh cannot rely solely on the local paper.

A lot of the changes at the Northwestern are for the better, but I think a price is being paid in terms of a reduction in bread-and-butter news coverage.

To make its transformation to citizen journalism work, the Northwestern needs to find the right balance between the citizen part and the journalism part.

Monday, November 20, 2006

VandeHei leaves the Post for Web site

Jim VandeHei, a product of Lourdes High School and UW-O, is leaving his high-profile perch as a top national political reporter at The Washington Post to join a new Web site.

But he isn't leaving print behind completely. He will be one of the top staffers at a new Capitol Hill newsletter.

His work will also be featured on CBS.

I guess this is the multimedia future of journalism.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Shirley Brabender Mattox is bowing out

That's what I read on Kent Monte's "city discussion board." Kent has been doing a good job of keeping up with the city's budget deliberations, and I thank him for that.

He and his wife, Michelle, are emerging as the top political reporters in the Oshkosh blogosphere. Read Michelle's take on Dan Becker's school board announcement here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Community news ownership

Writing in the Los Angeles Times about the ongoing turmoil in the news industry, Harry B. Chandler looks at the idea of community ownership:
Another sports ownership example worth contemplating is community ownership, like that of the Green Bay Packers football team. Article I of its bylaws states, "This association shall be a community project, intended to promote community welfare … its purposes shall be exclusively charitable." Sound appealing? If 20% of Times readers invest $1,000, it could work. I'll write the first check for the Los Angeles Times Community Owners LLC.
This is very similar to the vision of the Oshkosh Community News Network.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Calling all CJs

Here is a list of things that citizen journalists can do to cover tomorrow's elections.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

British site to pay citizen journalists

That's what it says here.

Gannett wants an Oshkosh Community News Network

Last week Gannett announced its vision for the future of news and newspapers.

It sounds an awful lot like what we have been trying to do here at Oshkosh News for the last two years, namely to harness digital tools and the "wisdom of crowds" to cover the news.

All I can say is that it sounds good on paper, but the execution is likely to be a challenge.

One problem for traditionally trained journalists is that this approachs means ceding a lot of control to the "great unwashed."

But always, always, always the real problem is economics. Unless you are Google, the Internet is not a place where news companies can expect to earn the kinds of returns that have been available in print (or on the airwaves).

Gannett can hope to rely on content from citizens, but that material is likely to arrive irregularly and be of uneven quality. (One Gannett paper had to shut down its version of the Oshconversation because the commenting got so far out of hand.)

My prediction is that eventually news organizations will have to find some way to provide financial incentives to contributors as a way of creating a manageable flow of information. Those incentives won't necessarily be in the way of direct payments, but there will have to be tangible rewards.

There is going to have to be a major change in thinking about how to do journalism, both among full-time working journalists and certainly among those of us who are supposed to be training the next generation of journalists.