Confessions of an online journalism tool

Journalist Noah Barron has been with OJR for two years now and, having completed his Masters’ degree, is ready to (re)join the real world. Guest writer W00tBloggyBlogg interviewed Noah about the secrets to success in online journalism that he learned at Annenberg and OJR as well as his plans for the future.

W00tBloggyBlogg: u graduated wtf are you gonna do now?

Noah Barron: Boy, I sure wish I knew. I’m looking for a job but it’s turning out to be really difficult, given the journalism market right now.

WBB: lol srs? u prolly suck at jourlsm amirite? or maybe they saw ur uggfase on fasebook hehehehe šŸ˜‰

Noah: I hope not. I think I bring a variety of skills to the table–writing, editing, Web design, video production, photography and graphics, but mostly I’m finding it’s well-nigh impossible to get any kind of response from employers I send applications to.

WBB: wtf is well-nigh? also dont end ur sentences w/ a preposition. so like u send apps in & the doods are like “rofl this fool sucks” or wut?

Noah: Honestly, I have no idea. I send out resumes to nearly every position on MediaBistro and other similar media job sites–dozens of applications total–and have never gotten a single return e-mail or call. Not one.

My only job leads are from internships I’ve done and personal contacts I’ve made. I guess I’m just surprised that in the age of digital journalism, a digital journalist’s digital job searches are so seemingly useless.

WBB: whatvr dood dont cry QQ y not start ur own blog and make bux on ads etc?

Noah: I mean, that’s definitely an option. I already have a site, but haven’t developed it properly. I just feel like I need health insurance and a steady income coming out of graduate school…is that too much to ask?

WBB: obvi!!!! u should post more lohan upskirts imo šŸ˜›

Noah: See, that’s what I’m trying to avoid. If I’m going to be a DIY-blogger/journalist, I want to create meaningful, interesting content that is relevant enough to belong in a newspaper, but is tailored to an online audience.

WBB: o so like blah blah darfur blah blah global warming zzzzz yeah thatll get lots of hits. gg dood.

Noah: Come on Bloggy, don’t you think we can find a way to package socially-conscious, important news for the casual Web reader while also turning a profit?

WBB: ….

Noah: Well, what do you suggest?

WBB: durr y not offer something useful to ur readers instd of whining on the interwebz? that’s y most blogs r real boringzzzzz urs included :/

Noah: You’re right, Blogg. It’s not too late to turn this column around and offer helpful content. How about a toolbox filled with essential survival equipment for freshly-minted online journalists, resources I’ve gathered over the last two years?

WBB: rofl!!!! whatever dood too bad google ads doesnt pay u in foodstamps AYO!!!

You: Online

Presenting your body of work, identity and bona fides online is the first step in the right direction. That means you need webspace, a UI and a URL. My first day on the job at OJR, Robert Niles told me to register my own name. Best advice I was given at grad school. If you can’t get your name, you likely can find a variation that’s not already taken.

[WBB: lol unless ur given name is perezhilton or freepr0n…]

1. Get a free blog at Blogger or WordPress, or. if you’re a bit tech-savvy…
2. Put the WordPress platform on your site, for which you will need…
3. Webspace and your own domain. There are a million places to register a URL and buy hosting space…I use GoDaddy, but there’s probably one tailored exactly to your needs.
4. Or, just use GoogleAps and Google Page Creator to easily create a clean, simple site with 100 MB of free storage.

[WBB: …o rly? i just use myspace for the journalism imo. and by journalism i mean spring break pix]

The right tool for the job

There are a multitude of free (or cheap), powerful tools available to the online journalist that approximate expensive software and make you look more professional than you are. Which is a good thing.

5. Slide and Picasa offer great free image hosting and cool slideshows for your multimedia journalism projects.
6. Picnik approximates Photoshop for refining and color-correcting those images.
7. OpenOffice is the free solution to not having the money to get the MS suite for your small business. It supports one-click PDF export from Word and text documents, too. Very handy.
8. VistaPrint is a great place to create business cards, stationery and other stuff for almost free (usually the cost of shipping) and smart perusal of RetailMeNot often yields coupons that make it even cheaper.
9. Submit your podcast audio (which is hosted on your server) to iTunes so everyone can find it.

Make money

More likely than not, a recent grad/DIY journalist with a just-launched blog can’t subsist purely on Google AdSense revenue and PayPal donations. Sooner or later you might have to find a part- or full-time gig. Here are some of the more obvious online J-job portals, such as they are.

[WBB: yeah worked real well for you lol ps i’d like extra ranch and no onions lolll]

10. JournalismJobs
11. MediaBistro
12. MediaPost
13. Ed (2010), for internships
14. New Assignment for open-source reporting jobs

There are thousands more tools, techniques, job sites and opportunities–so please contribute to this evolving list. After all, that collaborative process is what makes online journalism so exciting.

[WBB: thats what she said]

(Shoutout to Nick Sylvester, from whose explanation-of-why-he-was-fired-from-the-Village-Voice-blog I kinda lifted the gimmick for this article. Semi-NSFW?)

All Things Unsurprising

It’s formula we all know. The hook is usually a provocative snippet of nat sound, maybe the oily pop of an exotic dish sizzling in a wok or the din of group of homeowners hammering plywood over their windows in preparation for a hurricane. And then fade in the warm voices of the hosts, thoughtful, with a literate cadence, perhaps just a shade slower than their television counterparts. This is the NPR way.

We know that we will hear sounds, voices and stories that share a certain style, designed to enthrall listeners for the whole program and keep them glued to their car radios even after their commute home is over–the vaunted “driveway moment.”

In his new book, Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production, veteran radio producer Jonathan Kern makes it clear that the recipe for a compelling NPR broadcast is no alchemy, but rather a well-worn list of techniques for planning, interviewing, recording, editing and post.

Like the radio shows whose hosts he coaches, Kern’s book is thrilling at times when it reveals a juicy detail, but often suffers from a syrupy tone and pacing and a certain self-satisfaction. Granted, this is a book by an NPR veteran for NPR employees and tote-bag-toting loyalists, and as such, it contains more than enough unhelpful platitudes like “A good reporter looks and listens for the truth.” But there are good nuggets to be had for the online journalist who reads between the lines.

I offer a meta-reading of Sound Reporting; there are a number of great NPR tips that can be adapted for the do-it-yourself podcaster and these are worth repeating. If you host an online show, file audio reports or do any kind of internet radio news, much of NPR’s wisdom still applies. From Sound Reporting:

Remember that a radio audience consists of listeners, not viewers. When you write for radio, you can easily emphasize the aural nature of the medium: ‘Coming up we’ll hear from the woman who broke the story’…

There are no headlines. That means we don’t have a way to catch a potential listener’s ear the way a big headline at a newsstand catches the eye; to get our news, people have to make the effort to turn on the radio and tune to a specific station.”

(Kern’s frequent use of italics mimics the NPR trademark vocal delivery; one can almost hear Steve Inskeep musing along with the author. Kern does in fact include a section on marking up a script with underlining for spoken stresses and warns that overdoing it can sound “mannered”…)

Get people to use analogies to explain technical subjects. That may require you to let the interviewee know what you’re looking for. ‘You say the Earth wobbles on its axis. Help me visualize this.’

Identify and statements that may need fact checking, or a balancing statement or response. You don’t want to put any falsehoods on the air, so listen for assertions that may need to be checked. And if a guest makes allegations about an individual or organization, make sure you solicit a response from the person or group being criticized–ideally a second interview, but at least a statement that the host can read on the air.”

Check to that you still have a conversation [after you edit]. Sometimes a producer gets so wrapped up in technical and editorial details–in making sure that he preserves the essential elements of the interiview, makes perfect edits, leaves the breaths intact, and so on–that he forgets to listen to the finished product to make sure it still sounds like a normal discussion.”

The discussion of music is one of the most interesting in the book. I have often noticed how excellent the choice and mixing of interstitial tunes is on public radio (and personally gloated when my favorite Ratatat tracks were on high rotation.)

“Like the sounds in a news report, the music added to an interview should be there for a reason–and the way it’s introduced or faded should make a point. Sara Sarasohn describes the morphology of a music piece. ‘A hot hit means were starting on something. A sneak-up means the music here is tightly connected to the thing before it. When the music comes up full and ends, and then a someone starts talking, that’s a change of direction–the thing the person starts talking about is completely different from the music that just ended. A warm hit [starting the music at low volume] in a pause means we’re building momentum on this same subject we’re discussing. Sometimes you can have music come up and end, then you hot hit something else, and then that fades under some talking, and that’s a really big change of direction.'”

Perhaps least satisfying in Kern’s book for podcasters is his section “Beyond Radio” where he brusquely touches on online radio and podcasting itself. Kern leans heavily on the wisdom of Maria Thomas, NPR’s digital media chief, and she’s a virtuosa of the obvious.

“‘People who are looking at the Internet on the job often can’t listen to audio at their workplace,’ says Maria Thomas…They may fear that the sound will disturb the person working in the next cubicle or the corporate IT department may not allow them to download audio players.”

Kern advises that podcasters provide text versions of their radio scripts, not to skimp on recording quality and “don’t forget what radio has taught us about keeping listeners’ interest.”

What Kern does to keep our interest is spice in transcripts of short exchanges between reporters and interviewees from programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day To Day and Talk of the Nation. Inevitably, the actual journalism is infinitely more engaging then the discussion of it, and I found myself being disappointed each time Kern came back after I got absorbed in a discussion of aridopsis foliage with a botanical geneticist or a chat about Bo Diddly rhythms with Dr. John. This is obviously why Kern is a producer not a scriptwriter–he sure knows how to pick ’em–but his own material is pretty boring.

The book ends with fairly boilerplate bellyaching about the future of journalism with cit-j reporters covering the London Underground bombings (oh no!), concern that consumers of news will only get the news they want and not the news they need, (eep!) and that, according to NPR Web editor Todd Holzman, different media might “converge” (you think?) to allow for new and powerful ways to deliver the news. “It’s finding a way for the world of digital media to extend radio to a larger, younger audience,’ Holzman says. ‘There are many ways to tell a story.'”

In words Michele Norris would never dulcetly intone on air, “No duh.”

HOST: For O-J-R dot org, I’m Noah Barron.

Readers really will check everything

Medill senior David Spett, 22, has rocketed to the center of journalism ethics discussions at j-schools nationwide following his column on Medill Dean John Levine’s use of three anonymous student quotes complimenting an advertising course in last Spring’s Northwestern University alumni magazine. Spett, writing that “Nearly every guide to journalism ethics says anonymous quotes should be avoided,” went ahead and did some digging. He called all 29 students in the 2007 course and asked if the quotation Levine attributed to an unnamed classmember was theirs. Despite being promised total privacy by Spett, none claimed the words as their own.

Since Spett’s column, the story has enjoyed retellings by on the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune websites, as well as coverage in Editor&Publisher, Poynter’s Romanesko blog and more. Spett was later interviewed by Michele Norris on NPR. The story and its popularity among media professionals was derided on a post as “inane,” and Spett was called “a cockstrong young j-school student,” though most of the criticism was directed at the journalism community for not letting the issue die.

Since then, 18 Medill faculty have signed a letter asking for Dean Levine to be held accountable and produce his notes. Many did not. A week ago, the Dean issued a mea culpa to faculty and students apologizing for his lack of transparency.

On February 27th, Eric Zorn on the Chicago Tribune’s web edition reported that Spett’s investigative reporting professor David Protess phoned all 29 students and confirmed Spett’s reporting. It took more than two weeks for anyone to do the followup vetting. “It takes initiative,” said Spett on a phone call with OJR. “If you’re on my side and it turns out I made a mistake, you’re in a tough position. If you support the dean and my reporting checks out, what position are you in then?”

As the media response to his story unfolded, Spett has been posting clippings from newspaper websites and blogs on his Facebook page mini feed, to provide his Facebook friends “a place where they can find it all. I don’t mean to be self-aggrandizing. They don’t have to click on it.”

[Disclosure: I worked with David Spett in South Africa when we were both interns at the Cape Times. When the dust settled, I decided to contact Spett and ask him about his experiences as a young reporter experiencing his first media circus.]

“Most people talking about me are journalists talking about me as a journalist,” he said. “A lot of people do think that this is relevant beyond Medill. Medill is where we are training the future people who will be talking about issues of incredible importance.”

Spett is ambivalent about seeing his name in print–as a subject of a story rather than a byline. “It’s exciting, it’s scary, I’m glad people care about the issues. Part of me is shy wants to be an ordinary person that’s not in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.” He said the affair has boosted his interest in doing investigative journalism in the future.

“It feels really strange. I’m not really used to it. My feelings are very complicated. Proud, also shy. I’m a little awkward socially, so it’s kinda scary when people recognize my face and say “You’re the kid that wrote that story’. If I ever break a story this big again–Gawker said I wouldn’t–I have a taste of what the follow-up might be.”

He has not responded to the many blog posts about his story but said that some of the more personal attacks against him were hurtful. “One professor attacked me and said that I have a history of publishing my dislikes of professors. In fact, I criticized a class once as a Freshman. Part of me is a little bit hurt, I am angered by that. These are the things that happen when you break a story like this. Iā€™m not going to start attacking these people.”

Spett, who writes for the Daily Northwestern as an opinion columnist, has been careful to avoid appearing biased about the dean’s use of the unnamed sources and has stated several times in interviews that it is his goal to present the facts and let readers decide for themselves. “I’m a very opinionated guy,” he said. “This has been very good practice in keeping my opinions away from the facts. It’s my first real experience writing a story that has gotten this big.”

Despite getting the kind of attention most journalism students lust after, Spett is unsure whether it has helped his career. While some professors at Medill have urged him to pursue investigative reporting as a career, he stated simply, “I hope I get a job in journalism. I hope this helps.”