Q&A with Overheard in the Newsroom's Kevin Cobb

For folks that have left the newsroom, it’s become the source of our newsroom culture fix. For those in newsrooms, it’s the place that confirms you are not alone and, yes, the newsroom is crazy. Awesome and crazy.

For this week’s post I chatted with the creator of Overheard in the Newsroom, Kevin Cobb. We pull back the virtual curtain and learn about how the project began and how it has been an insightful barometer reflecting our industry’s ups and downs.

As in other Q&As I do, we meet on a collaborative document a few weeks back and just chat-typed away.

Kevin, thanks for agreeing to do this Q&A… let’s start with you talking about your journalism background. What do you do and how’d you start in the ‘business’?

Kevin CobbI’m currently a news designer with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. I first got my ‘journalism itch’ back in high school. I was always the kid who ended up staying after school and making sure the paper was finished. I went to Ball State University in ’04 (Go Cards!) and worked at The Times of Northwest Indiana after graduation.

You’re a man of many talents, including being an ordained minister… but you’re best known for the site and Twitter account @OHnewsroom, which “delivers the best overheard comments in any newsroom.” Can you talk about how that idea came about?

Overheard in the Newsroom launched in Jan. of ’09. My entire journalism background has been focused on the print side of journalism and I wanted to ‘figure out’ the Web side (building a site, maintaining a social network presence). I just needed an idea. I noticed a trend among the people I was following on Twitter of sharing what was being said in their newsroom… things like “heard in my newsroom” and “my editor just said…” I had the newsroom background to know people kept quote files of the more outrageous things their co-workers said. So I launched. But what has made the site viral has been the Twitter and Facebook presence.

So it started as a site? Talk about your experience when you move to Twitter. When did you know you had something big?

Yep, it first started as a site. Using Twitter and Facebook just seemed like a natural extension. I had my first ‘holy cow, what have I started’ moment when New York Times reporter Brian Stelter mentioned the site on Twitter a few weeks after launch.

How many followers did you have before the mention? How many did you have afterwards?

I’m not sure of the exact numbers. I did send him an email thanking him and said the account gained 150 followers in 30 minutes — which was a huge number at the time.

You’re now at more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, and more than 100,000 on Facebook. Did you ever imagine this to reach so many people? How has this affect your newsroom relationships? Do people think you’ll post something if they make a comment to you?

You can ask my mentor Erica Smith about the increase in number of followers. Every time I would hit a milestone I would text her. Every. Time. In terms of my newsroom relationships, I would say it has only made them stronger. My co-workers know this is a side project that I do on my own time. I’ve made it clear to them that I’ll never submit a quote I overheard.

Ha! My condolences to Erica. Talk about the ‘workflow’ for OHNewsoom. How do you get submissions? How many a day? What’s your process in ‘publishing’?

The majority of submissions are sent to the site — overheardinthenewsroom.com. I’ll pick up a few from Twitter that people know to add the hashtag #ohnewsroom. Some people add them to the wall on the Facebook page. A few months ago I added Tumblr to the mix and I’m starting to get a few through there. Depending on my day, I’ll go through the submissions and schedule them out a day or two in advance.

How many submissions do you get a day? What makes a good OHNewsroom submission/post?

On average I receive 50 to 75 quotes a day. When I’m going through the submissions, I look for things I would send my friends. In terms of which ones make the Twitter + Facebook feeds, I look for the ones that are relatable. Ones that will get a “that just happened to me” comment.

How many posts have you done so far? I’m assuming you’re going to have to guess the number.

Somewhere over 7,000.

I have to ask the typical question… do you have a favorite? What have been the most memorable ones?

Here are my 3 favorite:

Editor: “If you’re still at work and they’re vacuuming, you know you’ve made the wrong career choice.”

Reporter: “Life in the newsroom? It’s just a constant roller coaster of praise and bitch-slaps.”

Reporter: “I’m going to go as a journalist for Halloween. All I need for my costume is an empty bottle of vodka and my shattered dreams.”

To celebrate the passing of the 100,000 fan mark on Facebook, I’ll be soon be releasing a video of my journalist friends reading some of the best quotes from the site.

So, what are the typical reactions you’ve gotten from the posts? Do people recognize they’ve been quoted ever? What are the reactions from journalists when they meet you and realize you’re the guy behind OHnewsroom.

On Twitter, people will say “Hey, that’s my newsroom!” — they take pride in being recognized. My favorite ‘made it on OHnewsroom site quote’:

Producer: “We love making it on Overheard in the Newsroom.” Reporter: “It’s like, who cares about an Emmy. We made it on Overheard in the Newsroom!”

Are there ones you’ve had that you hadn’t published? Can you talk about those?

There have been a few quotes that have been submitted that were too over the top to be published.

Let’s take this to an ‘analytical’ level. What have you learned from these thousands and thousands of posts? What do these comments tell you about our newsrooms? About journalists?

There is still a definite need for copy editors.

It’s interesting to see the quotes change. I can always tell when it’s Intern Season when the intern-related quotes start floating in.

HAHAHA! Do these comments reflect the changes and challenges in our newsrooms?

I think so. When layoffs and furloughs were sweeping newsrooms, the site took an even more sarcastic / borderline depressed turn.

Based on the submissions you are getting now, let’s take an unscientific leap… what do your submissions say about the state of the industry now? Are we on the way up? Or still going down? Or … both? (I’m not a scientist)

From the submissions, I would say things have leveled out. The themes are now centered around deadlines, booze, technology and dealing with the public… which seems pretty universal in any newsroom, at any time.

Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with me … are there any parting words you’d like to add? Did you, in fact, ‘figure out’ the Web? What tech tips do you have for newsroom folks? Any pieces of wisdom to share from OHnewsroom?

If you have an idea for a project — go for it. It’s ridiculously easy to start a project on Tumblr.

Try new things. Go to your audience. Make it easy as possible for them to contribute and share your content. And if you don’t know where to start or who to follow on Twitter — participate in #wjchat. πŸ™‚

Ha! Thank you sir. I have to say, for someone who has stepped away from the newsroom, I’ve continued to get my witty, smart-ass, anti-PC, newsroom culture fix from OHnewsroom. You captured something wonderful here and I, as I’m sure other journos, are grateful you’re sharing our brilliance and awkwardness.

The site would be nothing without the continued support from my fellow journalists across the world.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

Los Angeles Times: One edition, lots of great photojournalism (and stories)

My wife and I recently decided to subscribe to the newspaper again. We’re ‘weekender’ subscribers to the Los Angeles Times. Like most papers, the size is a fraction of what it use to be, but the content is as diverse as the city it covers.

I, like most modern news consumers, have not had much time to actually sit down with the paper product, even through we only get it Thursday through Sunday.

But today, over the breakfast table, we get our fingers dirty with ink print (which I love) and dug in.

I could not ignore the great, diverse photos that filled the paper – the majority of the great shots from staff. So much so, I had to write this post.

In this one, random edition [Saturday, March 5, 2011], I found great photos throughout the sections of the paper. Check them out below… all of them but one are available online.

Back in Libya after decades in exile, a dissident takes on Kadafi
Since his return in late December, a longtime opposition group leader has become more vocal in his denunciation of Moammar Kadafi. But some experts say such groups have been gone too long to be of much help to the rebels in the streets.
Back in Libya after decades in exile, a dissident takes on Kadafi
Anwar Magariaf fought from abroad against Moammar Kadafi’s rule for more than 30 years. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times / March 4, 2011)

Founder of Crescendo charter schools fired
John Allen is accused of promoting cheating on standardized tests; L.A. Unified closed all six schools in the group.
Just after the charter group’s governing board decided unanimously to fire him as executive director, John Allen, founder of Crescendo schools, leans against a wall. Shortly thereafter, he left the meeting. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / March 4, 2011)
Just after the charter group’s governing board decided unanimously to fire him as executive director, John Allen, founder of Crescendo schools, leans against a wall. Shortly thereafter, he left the meeting. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / March 4, 2011)

As L.A. tourism rebounds, tour buses bring noise and gridlock
Residents of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills complain that an increase in tour buses β€” crowded with photo-snapping visitors β€” is clogging narrow residential streets.
Reflected in a bus mirror, visitors Sharon Butchart of Uxbridge, Canada, left, and Miriam Leiser of Ramsey, N.J., use headphones to listen to their tour guide. (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times / February 23, 2011)
Reflected in a bus mirror, visitors Sharon Butchart of Uxbridge, Canada, left, and Miriam Leiser of Ramsey, N.J., use headphones to listen to their tour guide. (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times / February 23, 2011)

Aaron Liberman hopes to lead Valley Torah to a first for Jewish schools
Aaron Liberman and his brother Nathaniel earn kudos for their work ethic as Valley Torah prepares for 6AA Southern Section basketball championship game against Bishop Diego on Saturday.
Brothers Aaron and Nathaniel Liberman after a recent Valley Torah practice in Burbank. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / March 2, 2011)
Brothers Aaron and Nathaniel Liberman after a recent Valley Torah practice in Burbank. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / March 2, 2011)

Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times
Only part of portrait photo, taken by Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times, of ornithologist Peter Harrison is seen in the archive and sadly not available online version: Scientists announce discovery of new species of seabird, the first in 89 years

To be fair, there were some great stories too, especially the ones paired with the photos. From the latest on Libya to California having the highest gas prices in the country to LAPD’s dilemma with Charlie Sheen, a good mix of stories that caught my (limited) attention. My favorite, though, was this piece my wife spotted inside business: Spiders in Mazda cars still a mystery (print headline)

I have to say, this experience reminds me of an incredibly powerful piece by Robert Niles in OJR a few months back: Letting go of the rope: Why I’m no longer a newspaper subscriber.

In it he used the strong imagery of letting go of the rope while someone, who asked for help but failed to do anything to improve their situation, was still holding on. The person on the rope was the newspaper/news industry.

Personally, I think Niles forgot something.

Yes, the news industry needs to do more to get itself out of the situation. But, the only person he saw on the rope, in my opinion, was the leadership.

What I think Niles missed are the hundreds of people trapped under that leadership … the ones that are passionate and believe in the value of their craft… the ones that — even after layoffs, furloughs and bad pay – come to work every day, working long hours to tell the stories of the community in text, photos, videos or whatever form the best they can.

Journalists that are as frustrated as Niles, but are trapped under that leadership. Journalists that choose not to let go of the rope. Journalists that are trying to do what they can with what they have … in most cases, “more with less.”

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of crap too (Check out Churnalism.com). There is a long way to go to make this better. I’m also as frustrated as Niles is with the leadership.

But I can’t lump the great, good or even mediocre work journalists do across the country every day and night with the bad leadership and poor business decisions that have undercut them and our industry.

I’m just a weekender, and for this one edition, I’m glad we re-subscribed.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

Tips and tricks for SXSWi 2011

Robert Hernandez: Well Pekka, we are just a few days away from the SXSW / SXSWi 2011 conference … aka Geek Spring Break. We’ve both been to the festival before and, for this post, are going to interview each other to share tips, experiences, goals, etc. as we do final preparations for the week. Let’s start with sharing our experiences. What number is this one for you? How many times have you attended?

Pekka Pekkala: This is my number three, did first one back in ’96! I was a starving student, so no Interactive tickets for me, just free music… You?

RH: For me, this is going to be my second. I was a n00b last year, a rookie. And, boy, did I learn a lot … and think I’m ready for the coming week.

How would you describe the conference to people? Mainly SXSWi.

PP: Best place to meet people like you who are not journalists. It’s really a good way to mingle with programmers and business-savvy people who understand content. And a total 5-day hurricane of seminars, meetups and parties.

RH: A ‘hurricane’ is a great way to describe it … tech, smarts, hipster glasses and more. I was really overwhelmed last year, attending so many different, random sessions and meeting great people. I have really started to prepare for this year.

For me, I think it’s an international meetup of innovative minds that mashup technology, business, art, culture, news and information. The Future of Journalism has been officially added as a track this year. I got inspired last year and hope that happens again.

PP: What did you pick from the Future of Journalism track? Is it all the same people that you’ve seen in journalism seminars before?

RH: Well, I have to be honest… half of the sessions did not resonate with me. Some of same ol’ same ol’ topics … and some things that aren’t really reflective of the topic. That said, there are some that I hope to attend. Naturally, I want to attend a breaking/late addition: Lessons Learned from the Arab Spring Revolutions with Mashable‘s Vadim Lavrusik among other panelists. I’m a super NPR and Public Media fan and see a lot of sessions related to that, so I plan to attend those. I also am thinking of attending The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism, Conde Nast in Start Up Mode, and Hacking the News: Applying Computer Science to Journalism panels. Here’s a link to my SXSW schedule: http://schedule.sxsw.com/user_events/user_8645 Here is my event calendar: http://bit.ly/eaj5EK

Are you attending the journalism ones?

PP: There’s a lot of good stuff there, but I couldn’t help noticing the vast amount of consultants / inspirational speaker types. I’m trying to find the people who are actually making stuff and creating financially sustainable sites. So I’m probably hopping between the Journo and Business tracks a lot. My calendar here: http://schedule.sxsw.com/user_events/user_dc1b96a2231851a7ebe0e02fe4a0b1a5

RH: Yes, I noticed that too. Did you notice the number of advertising panels that suggested storytelling and journalism as the answer? Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising is the session that surprised me. Journalism to save advertising? I might have to check it out.

PP: Umm… yes. That sounds like a trap πŸ˜€ I’m more interested in Free Your Content! Who Really Owns UGC? session. πŸ™‚

RH: Ha! Speaking of ‘trap’ the beauty of SXSWi is the randomness of some of these sessions. I have a few personal interest ones I hope to attend like, Star Wars Uncut: The Force of Crowdsourcing. Other personal picks are: A panel about an audio-only video game, a TRON session (yes, I’m a geek!), trends in Internet art and hearing from the ad agency behind the Old Spice guy ads. Do you have some random panels that peaked your interest?

PP: Yes. My advice would be to pick some big names you haven’t heard yet. I’m trying to see at least Bram Cohen (BitTorrent), Jason Calacanis (Mahalo), Clay Shirky (NYU) and Christopher Poole (4chan). Secondly, pick some really weird stuff like “Singularity,” “Synthetic Life” or “IBM: What is Watson?” sessions. Thirdly, do some boring stuff just for networking. Which is not really that boring in SXSW atmosphere.

RH: I attended a session last year led by Jonathan Stark, who taught how to do an easy iPhone app … the guy has written several books about designing/building apps and will be a panelist on the Building Native Apps Across Platforms session. Also, I have to promo the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights session with USC’s Prof. Jack Lerner and Lisa Borodkin, both have spoken to my classes numerous times about media law.

Can you talk about your goals and strategy for SXSW? What do you hope to learn and get from going to this conference? What is your strategy behind what sessions you try to attend?

PP: I always try to get away from the journalist mindset: I’m really scared of the journo hive mentality in every aspect. Mix it up! Trying to find some interesting cases to be interviewed for my Sustainable Business Models for Journalism study. Bootstrappers and small sites mainly. What about you?

RH: Yes, agreed. The session I pick tend to be more techie… I like to go to ones where I learn something new and, ideally, I can find ways to incorporate it into journalism… long before someone else even thinks about that angle. Right now I’m obsessing about Augmented Reality, and there are several sessions on that… mainly on biz/dev side. My goal is to learn more and more coding, building… and that tech constantly evolves. Last year I attended a great HTML5 vs. Flash panel … this year I hope to attend a few of those. Anything that experiments and pushes me to grow and think about the mashup of technology, design and information. Lots to choose from… and, sadly, some are at the same time!

PP: Sounds like a cool plan and something SXSW is really good for! Last year I went to Jaron Lanier speech and right after it (the cyncical journo in me) was saying “blah, another hippie from the Bay area saying you guys spoiled our Internet.” But the stuff he said really haunted me somehow and now I’m turning into a hippie myself. πŸ˜€ Ted Nelson FTW!

RH: He’s an extremely interesting guy. He recommended reading The Machine Stops … a must read for tech people.

Let’s get to some tips … what apps/tools do you use when at the conference? Now and while attending? What tips do you have while there?

PP: Just mark down everything that looks interesting via the SXSW schedule page, download the mobile app and off you go. Having a plan doesn’t mean you have to go according to it but it helps to visualize what is going on. It’s a shame sxsw.lanyrd.com doesn’t sync with SXSW schedule, would be great. Any cool apps you’ve found?

RH: Exactly right, I’ve signed up for a ton of things … who knows if I’ll attend them. But at least I know what’s, generally, out there. Last year’s app was, well, less than satisfying. That said, I’ve download this year’s version and it looks much better. I’ve used the official session selector. But I have to also pass along a great recommendation from SXSW veterans that recommended sched.org because it includes *all* events, even the many unofficial ones. I also used SitBy.Us last year and thought that was very cool. I’ll be tweeting and checking in on FourSquare, of course. Mashable has a SXSWi great guide from last year, which has a good collection of apps/tools.

PP: Sched.org looks cool, have to try that one. Being from Finland, I have to plug @dittoapp! Any tips how to survive the physical aspect of SXSW, meaning the walking, not sleeping and forgetting your gear in the cab at 1am? (I’m still pissed I lost my FAIL book with Ben Huh‘s autograph last year!)

RH: Oh yeah… I learned you have to ditch the laptop! I have a shoulder that is about one inch lower than the other because I’ve carried a messenger bag with my laptop for years. Skip that! This year I’m rolling with just my iPad and iPhone. I also bought an external battery to charge them both πŸ™‚ I’m still traveling with my laptop, in case my plan backfires. Also, wear comfortable shoes, ’cause these will be looooong, fun days. I just downloaded Ditto (but it keeps crashing).

PP: iPad 2 I hope, it’s SXSWi! I find it hilarious when people take iPhone, iPad and MacBook out in a seminar: tech is supposed to make your life easier, not _literally_ harder πŸ˜€ I’m taking my Droid 2 Global (physical keyboard is still WINNING) + charger. Travel light.

RH: Let’s end with this question… how will you know you’ve had a successful SXSW 2011 experience?

PP: I fall asleep in the plane before it takes off from Austin. And when I’m home, I notice my brain is a mess of weird ideas and my pockets are full of business cards with hastily written notes on them. You?

RH: Ha! Well said. For me, if I feel like I’ve learned some new things and expanded my network of smart innovators, it’s been a success. I want to walk away energized and ready to go try some new tech experiments.

Well, sir, it was great chatting with you and I’ll see you in Austin!

PP: Same here, can’t wait! Let’s keep in touch via Twitter! @pekkapekkala

RH: Yes. I’m @webjournalist

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.