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A small-town reporter can make a difference

April 13, 2011 Comments off

Catherine Litt’s blog pointed out the following inspiring story of a newspaper editor at a small-town weekly American paper with a three-person newsroom who recently broke open a cold-case murder file that dated back more than 40 years.

In this hollowed-out little town of 3,511 people, a newspaperman named Stanley Nelson can be found most days clattering away on a decade-old Mac computer. He moves with a slow and purposeful calm. But he too has been roiling the waters.

Not long past New Year’s Day — after four years of painstaking shoe leather, deep document dives and endless interviews — Nelson published a front page exposé like none the weekly Concordia Sentinel had ever seen.

more…

I don’t use the word “inspiring” lightly here. This is one of those fairly-rare examples of a good reporter practising the type of large-scale journalism that I get a sense many (but clearly not all) believe is impossible at small newspapers.

As editor of the Sentinel and head of a news staff of three, Nelson for decades tended to local government, public works, historical features and business in a challenged community, where the healthiest-looking storefronts belong to Jo Jo’s Drive-Thru Daiquiris and the parish work release office.

Nelson had never been particularly political, though he had a vague notion he wanted to do something bigger…

If you read on, though, you’ll notice that the story didn’t fall into Nelson’s lap, rather he went after it and conducted dozens of interviews, only picking up a trail after speaking to 20-odd people. I think there’s a good chance that such stories lay hidden in most small B.C. towns. Whether they can be uncovered, of course, is one thing. But while many papers do try and explore big local issues, there are also many that simply lack ambition, for whatever reason.

Nelson’s story, I think, puts the lie to self-defeated journalists who say they don’t have the time. Most of us have at least a little free time during the work week to invest in a bigger story down the road. And it’s those stories that make a person want to keep working.

So go forth and chase those red herrings. And maybe, one day, you’ll bump into Moby Dick out there.

Categories: Writing Tags: ,

The thievery must stop

April 8, 2011 3 comments

The “big city media” is hardly perfect. In fact, they can be pretty damn annoying sometimes but one thing can’t be said about them: they sure aren’t insecure. Community newspaper reporters could take a cue.

The problem is this: reporters who cite a “report” from another journalist in their stories, while not giving credit for those reports. I’m sorry, but if you do so, you’re just stealing another reporter’s work.

I’ll explain, but first, a couple of exceptions.

First, if more than one outlet is reporting the story, I think it’s fair to just say something like “reports that such and such is happening…” It’s still delicate territory but you’re not stealing someone’s scoop. And the fact that multiple outlets are reporting something, is important to note. Also, if every newspaper is reporting something except for you, you can’t very well be expected to list all those papers (although you might want to consider another profession).

The second reason to not name the outher outlet is if your only motive in referencing the other report is to shoot it down. This, in fact, is just doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless the misinformed report is especially egregious, there’s no reason beating the other over the head with it. They’re going to feel bad enough as is. (This goes back to Rule No. 47 of journalism: don’t be a jerkwad without reason). This rule can be abused, though. To exercise it, you or somebody you quote has to either debunk or give a stated opinion that the report isn’t true. You can’t cite the “report” then write that there’s no way to know if it’s true. You also can’t cite a “report,” then have somebody else say they don’t know if it’s true or not. In such a case, you’re both stealing and drawing attention to your lack of information. (You can always cite the report if you state the media outlet from which it came.)

That’s it, I think. If you can think of another excuse, post a comment.

Stop! Before you comment, read on.

Do not write: “I can’t very well credit the competition in my paper.” That might be true. There’s a solution for that: don’t use their reporting. It’s easy. Just don’t steal someone else’s work. If you can’t confirm their report don’t write that you can’t confirm “reports in other media” when that other media is only your direct competition. If they have something that you don’t, let them go and do a better job next time. Also, writing “other media” when you’re referring to just one other news outlet isn’t just dishonest, lazy and immoral, it’s also grammatically incorrect. “Media” is plural. If you want to steal another paper’s scoop, at least have the common sense to write “another medium is reporting.”

Why it’s wrong

We know plagiarism is wrong, but somehow we accept the theft of a major component of what we do. It’s not right. Not only that, but it’s bad journalism. We don’t report information from “sources,” unless a person asks to not be named, and has a good reason for doing so. The reason is not only because names make for better reading, it’s to prevent the gratuitous spreading of incorrect information by holding people accountable. If you cite a “report” that turns out to be false, and you’re not the one who shot it down, then you did even worse than the journalist who reported a falsity. A report from a named news source is worthy of the “report” designation. If you don’t name that news source, you can only call it a rumour, at which point you stop being a journalist and start being a paid rumourmonger.

I know this all sounds harsh, especially since many of us have been that person who cites “another media report.” But this practice is way too widespread. (It’s widespread enough so that if you’re reading this thinking that I’m reacting to something in particular that you wrote or published, you’re probably wrong.) Sure, it’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to not do. First we have to accept that, and know why, it’s wrong. Which it is. Period.

N.B. I’ve also spotted references to “a reporter from a national daily newspaper” or something like that. The vagueness only draws attention to itself and the reporter. Name the newspaper, nobody will think less of you.

Tears of the trade

February 24, 2011 Comments off

A journalism student argued in J-Source on Wednesday that students should be given risk and trauma training in journalism school.

Megan Radford writes:

As journalists it is sometimes our job to put ourselves in harm’s way, to get the grizzly details and weed out what the public should know…and what they perhaps should not. What some may not realize is that the toll of this kind of life begins early. For some it begins even before we have officially entered the field.

Now I don’t have much opinion, or knowledge, about whether or not current training on how to manage dangerous situations is sufficient; the most danger I face is standing on the side of a busy highway every now and then.

But as far as the whole trauma thing, I think that it’s pretty clear that there needs to be more discussion about the sometimes heartbreaking situations we come across every day. Whether or not you encounter potentially traumatic situations depends on your beats, your community and your work rate. But if you’re a reporter who covers breaking news anywhere in British Columbia, it’s only a matter of time until you come across a troubling situation, be it a dead or dying person, a bereaved family, or a carnage-strewn highway.

Much of our work, of course, is no worse than watching the evening news. (It positively pales in comparison to watching coverage of the shit that going on in Libya.) But there is still a price to be paid and not just by those shooters who cover carnage. Even feature writing can take a toll; talking to families that are falling apart when your marriage is on the rocks, interviewing parents who have lost their children when your baby just turned two, or writing about dementia when your father keeps forgetting your name can all take a lot out of a person.

There will be times you see things you don’t want to see and hear things you don’t want to hear. But community newspapers, unfortunately, are often pretty ill-equipped to deal with that.

Not only that, but newsrooms are so small that it’s often not practical to take a day or two to decompress.

The result should be a mental health check — where maybe the editor calls his or her reporters individually into his office and, briefly, just makes sure that everything’s OK — every now and then. Such a meeting doesn’t have to just focus on stress from seeing too many highway accidents. For a city hall reporter, the editor could just ask whether he’s fine with his workload or whether he’s nearing a burnout state. But just hearing the question should be enough to lower the blood pressure.

If there is some underlying trauma there, it needs to be dealt with. (That also requires reporters to be willing to speak up and bare their emotions. Oh, the horror!) That means that newspaper companies should not only have plans in place to help reporters who come down with the shakes, but they should let their reporters know that such plans exist beyond the standard worker’s compensation stuff.

As for journalism schools, they need to both teach reporters how to interact with families who have lost loved ones, and how to process the tragic tales they will inevitably hear.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr

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That was a pretty good post, eh? Two semi-colons! Keep them coming by helping me out. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

Categories: Columns Tags: , ,

Online amateurs

December 9, 2010 Comments off

Community newspaper bosses have become obsessed with the Internet in recent years.

“The Web!” they scream. “Post to the web! Video, slide shows, photo galleries. This is your new job.”

Behind it all, however, has been a determined reluctance to hire the number, or quality, of web-savvy producers required to achieve such a goal. You can count on one hand the beleaguered folks who post stories to the web for the two largest major B.C. paper chains. And unfortunately, they’re so swamped with plugging holes and shovelling news that they don’t have time to ensure the websites are actually as forward-thinking as the 50- and 60-year-old Luddite executives they work for think they are.

As today’s example of untapped technology, let’s consider the RSS feed of BC Local News, the hub of David Black’s digital empire. As I started this site, I hoped to add RSS feeds for all the Black Press papers so as to be able to monitor the stories being written and, hopefully, point to the good and the bad.

(RSS feeds for the uninitiated allow readers of blogs or news sites to have new content–or portions thereof–sent to a centralized hub as soon as they are published, where they can be read alongside the consumer’s other subscribed to sites.)

But when I first went to subscribe to the overarching BC Local News site, no matter what I did, I was signed up for the “Kootenay Rockies” subscription. Even after I figured out how to independently subscribe to each individual region (Hint, go to Bookmarks > Subscribe To This Page > Region of choice), the feeds were still useless. Every single article and cutline is posted, each with a title. But most (although, mysteriously, not all) don’t include so much as an introductory sentence or blurb that would give me a sense of what may be behind the sometimes mysterious headline or kicker.

Postmedia sites are better. Barely. To subscribe to the Postmedia websites there is a link, way at the bottom of the page, for “Sitemap/RSS.” At the sitemap you can subscribe to various RSS feeds. But it takes some serious navigation and I only found the feeds after significant searching.

Granted most people don’t know what an RSS feed is. But that is surely not helped when an industry that would benefit from the subscription model don’t even understand the potential of the technology. And there are readers out there if you can properly access them. The Kamloops Daily News feed only has 11 subscribers who use Google Reader to access the site. But the blog of that same paper’s sports editor, Greg Drinnan, has 109 subscribers through Google Reader. Given that Drinnan’s blog has no easy-to-find RSS button, those subscribers likely have above-average levels of computer literacy. But these are the young readers newspapers are trying, but failing, to target.

I know what you’re thinking: newspapers can’t make advertising dollars if people only read their content on, say, Google Reader. That’s true.  But RSS feeds don’t have to provide all of a site’s content. The best technique is the one in which a site provides a paragraph or two–the lede or a nut graph–that entices a reader click the “more” icon and follow through to the site. This, for example, is the Burnaby Now RSS feed. And this is the Lillooet-Bridge River News feed. Neither feed scoops the paper, and both would be useful to readers if they weren’t so hard to find and if they were educated on how to use them.

For an industry that was once based on the subscription model—and which hopes to prosper from the Internet revolution—this seems like a massive oversight from both chains. Glacier deserves kudos. There is a gigantic “follow” button, which includes RSS, at the top of most (but not all, unfortunately) pages. Each feed also relays the first paragraph, rather than the first sentence, of each story.

For me, the lack of reliable RSS feeds makes it a pain in the ass to monitor community newspapers in British Columbia. And the one thing a newspaper doesn’t want to be these days is a pay in the ass.

You can sign up for this blog’s RSS feed by moving your mouse over the RSS icon at the top of the sidebar. You can either click the icon, or choose a provider like Google to handle your feeds. I recommend using Google Reader to monitor multiple feeds, but you can always save the feed as a like your run of the mill bookmark.

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Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment (the button’s up top by the headline) and I’ll duly update the post.

Seen something else I should know about? Want to write a post? Have better photos than the Creative Commons Flickr pool ones I use? E-mail bclocalreporter(at)gmail.com.

Help complete a census of B.C. community newspapers by filling in the blanks for your newspaper in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Scoble via Flickr

Postmedia lowers the bar with shameful “Swarmjam” pieces

December 3, 2010 2 comments

If you thought Black Press’s sleazy story about its “BC Daily Deals” group-buying site was bad, Postmedia thinks you’re a prude. PM has its own group-buying site, a bee-themed outfit called SwarmJam, about which you may have noticed rapturous “stories” in the province’s two largest daily newspapers.

The bylined (!) story begins:

Today marks the launch of Swarm-Jam.com, a new group-buying site that is creating a buzz across the country. SwarmJam channels the power of online word-of-mouth and consumer purchasing power into special deals on select goods and services from local retailers. The more people sign up for the “DailyJams,” the lower the price goes.

“It’s a fabulous way for consumers and readers to save money, and also a fabulous way for local businesses to attract new customers,” said Alvin Brouwer, president of business ventures, Postmedia Network.

Unique DailyJams will be available in major cities across the country, as well as in cities and towns across mainland B.C. and Vancouver Island. The advertising reach of the Postmedia Network, publisher of The Vancouver Sun, provides promotional opportunities not available to competitors, Brouwer explained.

more of this horrendous drivel…

This is in the Vancouver freaking Sun, for crying out loud. And you’ve got to know if this is appearing in the Sun, you’ll soon be seeing it in the small Postmedia community papers.

At least Marco Morelli, the Black Press web staffer who wrote their story, nobly buried the Black Press angle at the bottom of his story. The Postmedia story is shameless. It appeared on the second page of the Sun’s business section and on page A8 of The Province.

Even more concerning, it appears that it marks the end of the principled editorial/advertising policy of ol’ CanWest Publications (from which Postmedia is a direct and recent descendent).

That policy has four guidelines:

1) Commercial placement will not be used as an integral part of editorial content. (Example:Logos dropped in an editorial environment.

2) Editorial must never appear to be endorsing an advertising message.

3) Editorial content must never appear within the body of an advertising message. (Example: Column of opinion within an advertisement).

4) Advertising must never be placed adjacent to editorial content in such a way as to imply endorsement of the advertising.

For point 1, note the big-ass bee on the web edition of the Sun story. Point 2 has obviously been violated so badly that editorial isn’t endorsing and advertising message, it is an advertising message, which in turn means point 3 has also been breached. And while I can’t scan the published version of every Postmedia paper, but I can pretty much guarantee someone somewhere will breach this point.

On Dec. 7, Postmedia headmaster Paul Godfrey will address workers in a companywide webcast. I implore journalists to join me in asking Godfrey whether the CanWest editorial/advertising policy has been turfed and, how the company rationalizes these horrible advertorials. I have sent the following e-mail to pvgmessages@postmedia.com.

Dear Mr. Godfrey

In recent days news articles have appeared in various Postmedia newspapers that prominently tout a new Postmedia product called SwarmJam. There appears to be little editorial value to these articles; they mention no other sites and no proof nor even anecdotal evidence that SwarmJam is, indeed, “creating a buzz across the country.” It is a transparent attempt to promote a product. In other words, it seems like a mix of advertising and editorial.

The old CanWest Editorial/Advertising Policy directly states “Editorial must never appear to be endorsing an advertising message” and “Editorial content must never appear within the body of an advertising message.”

The policy also states “It is in the interest of the entire CanWest community that we maintain the principles and practices which have been demonstrated to support and enhance public trust in all of our media assets.”

CanWest, obviously, no longer exists. I am wondering if Postmedia has abandoned that Editorial/Advertising Policy or, if the old policy is still in place, how you excuse the placement of those advertisements—and let’s be honest, you and I both know that’s what they are.

With great concern,

A very worried community newspaper journalist (Yes, I’d like to use my own name, but hopefully you know how it is when it comes to criticizing one of the only two possible employers in your industry when jobs are so hard to come by.)

Please leave comments of outrage in the thread below.

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Seen something else I should know about? Want to write a post? Have better photos than the Creative Commons Flickr pool ones I use? E-mail bclocalreporter(at)gmail.com.

Help complete a census of B.C. community newspapers by filling in the blanks of the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. 

Photo by Joshua Ganderson via Flickr.

What’s the point of this site?

November 24, 2010 Comments off

Last night I laid in bed for an hour or so trying to figure out what the point of this site is and whether it would be worth the risk of alienating potential employers were I to write something inflammatory and were they to discover my name.

That there is a risk, I think, illustrates the need for a site, as strange as that may sound <1>. I haven’t fully worked out the logic behind it, but I think that there needs to be a place for discussion among community journalists. We don’t have a bar around which we can gather, so the Internet will have to do.

<1> Admittedly, I’m not quite sure what risk there is. Most editors hire their reporters and I don’t plan on targeting the guys who lay out the pages. I also don’t plan on looking for a new job anytime in the next five years. As for publishers, I doubt they will ever realize this site exists, on the chance that it manages to build a following. Even in that case I don’t know if it would anger them and, if it did, whether they’d bother to look into the person behind it. But still, something nags at me, and that nagging feeling itself is a sign that something isn’t right.

A manifesto for a community journalism community…or something

November 23, 2010 Comments off

For too long, community journalists (and photojournalists) in Canada  have shouldered a heavy load but been ignored by national professional organizations.

There is no organization that exposes the small-city publisher who hacks a newspaper’s staff, rails against work conditions, or stands up for reporters pressured to write fluff. Training tends to focus on those stories that may be nearly impossible for small-town reporters to accomplish, whether it be because of a lack of resources, time or support.

We have only ourselves to blame. We have no support because we have neglected to form a community of local reporters,  and because reporters from large news organizations tend to dominate the CAJ and other forums. This is a function of experience, desire, culture and pay rates. The $75 fee to belong to CAJ seems awfully expensive to most of us who rarely interact with that organization and who never have the opportunity to take advantage of those services offered.

Hence this site. I hope it sparks a dialogue about community reporting, fosters better journalism, and pressures owners and publishers to allow us to do our job better. It will also hopefully mark a chance to socialize.

I would like eventually to shed my cloak of anonymity; I realize that if it’s not hypocritical, then it’s just plain weird to put my name on columns and stories but not this site. I like my job and don’t have too much to complain about, other than a chilly workplace and your typically heavy workload. I like my publisher, feel free to write what I like, and would not be ashamed to put my name on this site. I hope to follow those practices laid down by ombudsmen and women at larger papers. But community newspapers are notoriously skin-thinned. To name myself—at this point, at least—would be to imperil future job prospects. One day I’ll come out. Just not right now.

Over the next couple weeks I plan to post a couple community projects with which I hope to solicit readers’ help. I also plan to highlight examples of good community reporting that deserve to be read and applauded. It won’t be all smiles though; at some point I will also turn my eye towards those fluff pieces demanded by advertising-appeasing publishers. But that is a ways off. We’ll stay positive for the time being.

You can e-mail me at bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com, or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/bclocalreporter

Photo by Stephen Dann via Flickr
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