Don't just blame the player – blame the game, too

I would have hired former reporter Kendra Marr.

Why? Because her resume and my resume are so alike.

Same journalism undergrad and grad school. Same love of journalism. We both worked in the San Francisco Bay Area region. Both women of color. In other words, if I was a hiring editor interviewing her for a job, I would figure that we shared the same journalistic values.

Yet I also understand how the kind of plagiarism accusations lodged against her could lead a young reporter to resign from a good job.

Sure, the player has to shoulder the blame. But I blame the game, too.

These days chances are shrinking for an ambitious journalist to get a job that pays a middle-class salary with benefits. Young journalists no longer have the luxury of making mistakes out of the spotlight. If you want a job, you have to go directly into the big leagues. More likely than not, your job will be on the growing digital media side of the business. The side, to be polite, that is more like the Wild West than reasoned halls of journalism school.

What’s more, the Internet, and its research techniques, make it easy to find facts, stories, sources and so much more. A lot of the material is already written in coherent sentences and has attribution, which under the current rules of the game, can be an embedded link to the original news story.

Don’t get me started about cutting and pasting. Yes, I can understand how someone can cut and paste reference material on the wrong take (Google Docs, anyone?) and, in the rush to deadline, forget what is yours and what belongs to someone else. These days it’s just too easy to make a series of career-ending errors early in the game.

But the game deserves blame, too.

Let’s get real. In the world of Web journalism, lightly-sourced material (Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel call it “the journalism of assertion” rather than a journalism based on verification) is pretty much the norm. Whether it’s an advocate using crowdsourcing to flesh out a tip, a reader passing along a rumor, or a pro filing a single-source anecdote to make another blog entry, much of what the audiences reads online just isn’t sourced the same way as traditional newspaper or magazine articles.

Not only are single- or no-source articles common, it’s often difficult to tell who wrote a piece. With so many website competing for ad dollars, many publishers cut expenses by programming scripts to scrape or aggregate content from other sources, rather than paying reporters to write their own stories. Once, much of this would have been accepted widely as plagiarism. Today, it’s grudgingly accepted as a way “to increase traffic.”

In this atmosphere, there’s no denying that speed is an asset – but one that can kill careers, too. Being first, especially for websites such as Politico, is important. Maybe too important. Add to the “we’re first” syndrome with making sure your posts get seen before anyone else’s on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and whatever other flavor-of-the-day social media channel you use to hype your story, and you really might not have time to wait for that phone call or seek out an original source.

We even brag about how fast we get material up. Here’s what Adam Moss, editor of the New York Times Magazine said recently at Harvard: “The editing process online is zero, pretty much… I’m not that comfortable with that, but that’s practical reality. It’s a speed business.”

Let’s face it, we’re making up the rules while the game is underway. We hope that the traditional journalism ethics will work in the online world. We hope the foundations of accurate reporting, photography, design and editing will be transferred to a new generation. But newsroom veterans–the few that are left in newsrooms–are barely addressing these issues. I don’t know the reason. No time? Maybe. No backing from management? Maybe. No backbone? Maybe. An inner belief that these ethical lapses will all self correct when cooler heads are at the helm? Probably.

The easy way out is to take complaints of plagiarism seriously. Investigate. Allow the player the fall on his or her sword and either be suspended or resign. Then you post a detailed correction on the site, and add a paragraph or two about holding the newsroom to the highest of journalistic standards. Finally, you move on to the next news cycle.

We have to do more, too. The first step is to acknowledge that there are systemic problems in the current practice of Web journalism. These problems have created a breeding ground for ethical lapses. Yes, this is a harsh view, but until we all admit this, we can’t begin to fix the situation.

Le’s stop blaming the players. Let’s get real about changing the game.

From the classroom to the digital marketplace: How we got to launch

The team behind called my bluff. Well, maybe I wasn’t bluffing. Maybe I am ready to become a digital media entrepreneur. We’ll find out on Thursday (July 22, 2010).

Here’s the back story. I took a buyout from the San Jose Mercury News in March 2008. I was the AME for Features when I left. My intent was to start my own digital media company. During my 20-plus years in journalism, I had supervised the creation of news and feature sections, redesigns and special projects. That was on top of meeting daily deadlines. With my three years as the Merc’s newsroom-based Online Team Leader for, I had hands-on experience with news sites and felt the exhilarating rush that comes with Web publishing.

I started Golden Wheel Communications (GWC), a digital news and information company. I talked a good game. I went to workshops financing startups. I attended KDMC’s Media News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. I took a Stanford night class called “Running Internet Advertising Campaigns.” But I never launched a Web product.

Carolyn Jung, a Merc food editor and writer, also left the newspaper in 2008. She immediately started the “Food Gal” blog. It immediately took off. So much so that after a few months, she moved from the WordPress platform to a hosted-Web platform in order to accommodate ads.

Food Gal did everything right. Carolyn’s writing is conversational and authoritative. The text is anchored by great photos, which Carolyn takes. Carolyn used social media—Twitter and Facebook—to create a dynamic following. And she leveraged her newspaper readership into a thriving digital community.

With all of her success, Carolyn said the foodgal site didn’t make much money.

I made a pitch to Carolyn. We would create a weekly email newsletter with content from the foodgal site. GWC (that’s me!) would handle advertising, marketing and circulation. What’s more, I believed we could launch with ads.

I presented Carolyn a prototype of the newsletter. When she asked about other GWC clients, I mumbled something. In reality, GWC didn’t have any other paying clients.

A few days later Carolyn sent me an email. She and her team liked my proposal and wanted a second meeting.

I came prepared with a second prototype, a timeline that sketched a three-month effort to launch and well-rehearsed speeches on why I was the person to hire.

I didn’t present anything I prepared. Five minutes into the conversation, they said make it so.

So here we are, a few days before the debut of the weekly newsletter. As we sweat out the final hours before the launch, I look back and see that I laid a strong foundation for this first GWC venture.

Here’s what I learned. I hope these tips help other fledgling digital media entrepreneurs.

  1. Start with business basics. Get a business license. If you company is going to be a DBA (“Doing Business As” or a fictitious business name) register the firm’s name and place a fictitious business ad in a local newspaper. Get a post office box, set up a company checking account, and add a phone line with a separate number for the business. Invest in business cards. None of this is exciting, but trust me, this all comes in handy.
  2. Buy domain names. Get it before someone else does. Buy your own name as a domain name. Domain names are fairly cheap. Don’t stop there. Buy a package that includes, at the very least, web-hosting, and several e-mail addresses (Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo accounts are cool and free, but it is more professional to have an individual domain name attached to your business e-mail address.)
  3. Go back to school. Take a class on Web publishing. Learn how to take strong digital photos and then how to edit them with Photoshop. Take relevant business courses.
  4. Decide on a niche. Do you want to cover your community with a strong hyper-local news site? Do it. Do you see a void in local fashion coverage? Create a site and fill it. I decided not to go down the content creation road. Through GWC, I want to support the creation of quality journalism by finding ways for digital journalists to make money. To do this, GWC wants to partner with small sites such as to create and implement marketing, advertising and circulation plans. (I’m not the only one taking this route. I gotta give a shout out to GannettLocal and GrowthSpur.) GWC will also partner with legacy media companies to help develop and test new, ad-supported digital products.
  5. Create prototypes. Show prospective customers what your site is going to look like. It doesn’t matter what form—a printout, a pdf, a digital version—people respond to visuals.
  6. Cultivate professional relationships with web designers and developers. Designers make the site look pretty. Developers know HTML, PHP and all the other code languages. They make the site work. You will need help from people with these skills in order to be successful. (See Tip No. 5. Designers can do everything—from prototypes to creating logos.)
  7. Be prepared to be self reliant. There is no “I” in “entrepreneur,” but there should be. You are going to have to do it all. Report the story. Write the headline. Shoot and crop the photos and post it all by deadline. This is more than demanding work. That is why many small and medium news sites don’t have any advertising. Journalists are too busy feeding the news machine. For the foodgal newsletter, I have created marketing kits, made cold calls to potential advertisers, created a Google AdWords campaign and passed out flyers at local farmers markets about the foodgal newsletter. I have also cropped photos and written and built spec ads.

That’s how we got to launch. Please join GWC for this first of what I believe will be many successful—and profitable—digital media ventures.

(To learn more about Golden Wheel Communication, click here. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.)