10 Reasons Why Online Journalists Are Better Journalists (In Theory)

1. We’re fighting to still be here
All the on-the-fence journalists have left the field, leaving behind the few, the passionate and the dedicated — as well as those who are just plain bewildered. But they’ll figure it out soon enough. The new new (new?) journalist can’t be the grumpy introvert of yore, but an engaged member of the community, and an energetic entrepreneur. And while newspaper journalists would say they weren’t in it for the money… we could really make that our catchphrase. Online news is still figuring out how to pay for itself, and hiring journalists is a substantial investment in a world where information is largely free.

2. We have to be more useful
We’re providing more information and more background, but keeping it to the point. Because users won’t read a long story, we have to be better at determining the most important points, presenting them succinctly and knowing when to stop. We then offer you a choice to delve more deeply, if you want, by including links, PDFs, photo galleries, videos and a whole host of other assets for you to explore or ignore.

3. We’re paying attention to what people want
Online newsmakers can see — in real time — how many people are reading our stories, how important those stories are, and who thinks so. Being a successful journalist means paying attention to those numbers and responding to what people want and need, rather than what we think they want and need or — worse — what we think they should want and need.

4. We’re ditching the “he said, she said”
Inserting a quote in between every paragraph to support the former or upcoming statement is a dead practice. No one was reading what was in between the quotation marks anyway, but skipping over it instead, and now all the supporting quotes are provided after the story has been published — by you, dropping your thoughts into the comments box.

5. We’re getting out from behind our computers
The most important stories take what’s offline and put it online for the first time. The web is flooded with stories, and different versions of stories, that were found online in the first place. Anyone can re-post a YouTube video of a riot, but someone has to film the original. We want to be that person.

6. We’re better writers
SEO will not allow us to write vague headlines or use bad puns, and we only have the attention our audience for about three blinks, so we have to practice all of George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing at once.

7. We’re everywhere at once
Thanks to Wifi and 4G, we’re posting updates and pictures directly from the field, while still on scene talking to officials and community members. In fact, if you’re quick enough, you could send us an email or tweet a question and we can try to answers while we’re reporting. There you have it: news on demand.

8. We’re held accountable — immediately
Is there an error in the story we just published? We’ll know about it in… oh, let’s say 30 seconds after we tweet it.

9. We’ve got to be better than the competition
Anyone with an email address can publish information and most are doing it for free. We’ve got to be quicker, better, clearer and more reliable than everyone else on the Internet.

10. We’re providing a service that is more valuable than it has ever been
We’re Internet users too, and know that the only cure for information overload is intelligent curation and efficient navigation. We’re grateful to those who do it well, and strive to be of service likewise. At the same time, we’re also playing our part in trying to figure out how this whole industry is going to work and who’s going to pay for it — and to do that we have to adhere to everything listed above.

Agree? Disagree? I’ll see you in the comment stream below.

The Entryway Project: old prejudices, new media

A strange project is underway and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

The Entryway is the online journal of two white young women who have moved in with an immigrant family in MacArthur Park. The first eight entries posted on the website seem to be the journal of Devin Browne, a reporter who has produced stories about the MacArthur Park area for local outlets like the LA Weekly. Little is learned about the Mexican family the two girls are living with, other than in the form of short, somewhat poetic outbursts that seem sporadic and disconnected from a bigger picture.

Browne, the diarist, and Kara Mears, who acts as the photographer for the project, are voyeurs. On the front page of the website, although they clearly describe themselves as “reporters,” they also point out that the project itself is “not journalism.” It’s a “personal narrative.”

A couple of weeks ago, former LA Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez wrote a scathing review of the project’s concept, titling his post “Safari in Los Angeles, in a home in MacArthur Park.” Hernandez claimed that “the authors are wasting an incredible journalistic opportunity, in the service of their own vanity.”

The project is, at best, self-indulgent and full of “self-satisfied gloating”, according to Hernandez and some of his colleagues. Riled up commenters likened the project to a reality TV show, and even called it “straight up racist.”

I consumed the entire Entryway Project site twice before I could come to my own conclusion. The first time, I was immediately struck by the beauty and flow of the layout. The pictures are crisp and the structure changes frequently enough to evoke an urge to see more. I was dazzled, in all honesty, just as I had been the first time I visited Media Storm. I immediately posted it on my Facebook page and noted that it was “pretty amazing” and “an interesting concept.” I was referring, however, to the style — not the content. It seemed closer to creative non-fiction, which is something I have always been fascinated with, especially when it comes to translating that feeling online.

But teacher and South LA Report contributor Jose Lara inspired me to take a second look, this time screening for substance. “Actually, many folks take issue with these reporters and what they are promoting,” wrote Lara. I felt foolish. I had been blinded by the lights and had forgotten to ask the most important questions of all: What is the point of this experiment? And is the fact that it is an “experiment” at all a huge slap in the face of the immigrant community in Los Angeles? Treated like aliens from outer space, or like animals in a zoo, while two prissy white girls get paid to watch them and write about their experiences living out of their own comfort zone?

The Entryway authors say they want to a) learn Spanish (which makes me wonder… are their host families being paid to teach them?) so that they can “better report” on the city and b) find out how the immigrant families view them. “We are more interested in what they think of our country than what we might think of theirs,” writes Browne in Entry 1.

What are they promoting? It definitely warrants a second look. But the answer, it seems, is complicated. On the one hand, this kind of “us versus them” attitude is appalling and a big step backwards for a multicultural city like Los Angeles. On the other hand, I very much doubt that this project is aimed at anyone other than those with faces and backgrounds similar to the reporters themselves. And the unfortunate truth is that for a portion of the white, middle-to-affluent population, this is exactly the kind of project that provokes thought about a race and culture that is otherwise tuned out. No, it may not be perfect. Far from it. But perhaps a white audience would empathize with these two young women in the sense that they are out of their usual sphere of being and facing some very real social situations that force them to contemplate their own race. Perhaps this project is not about providing “insight” into the immigrant community, but providing insight into the awkwardness of race relations, from a white perspective.

Yes, it’s an important point that too much of history has already been composed “from a white perspective.” Long-silenced communities should be encouraged to speak up. But this project obviously is not aiming toward such a goal. This project, I concluded, is about what it means to be a white reporter in a city of color. Unfortunately, Browne and Mears either failed to recognize this, or failed to make it clear from the start, resulting in accusations of racism because the subject of the project was incorrectly labeled as the Mexican immigrant family. The subject is, and has always been, the women themselves. As famed psychologist Beverly Tatum explains in her classic book on racial identity, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” white people rarely think about being white, and what it means in terms of privileges and social engagement. Thinking about race and talking about race is the only way to initiate change. “Passive racism,” explains Tatum, can mean “avoiding difficult race-related issues.” And from childhood, white children are taught to avoid, avoid, avoid.

What’s really telling is that following Hernandez’s response, Browne felt it necessary to re-write her introduction to the project. If she had been clear with herself and her audience from the beginning, she wouldn’t have had to do so.

The fact that Browne went back and revised her statement of purpose clearly shows that she was uncomfortable with the accusations of racism, and for good reason. But the fact that she could simply erase her errors brings up another worrying point. The ease of modern technology and the intangibility of the Internet seems to be promoting a kind of “after-thought” journalism. In fact, one of my professors at journalism school responsible for our single class in “online journalism” summed up the attitude neatly when he expressly told us to “post first and fix it later.” There is no time to mull over the full impact of a project, or even a sentence. The world demands NOW.

Consequently, it’s almost as if Browne’s first attempt to explain the project has been erased from history in a manner that recalls George Orwell’s 1984. The pages and their thoughts simply disappear. Browne can cover her tracks and start afresh.

But where I disagree with Hernandez is that this project somehow represents a lapse in journalistic values due to “new media” reporters. Hernandez calls this new breed “new-school-trained” journalists who are “first and foremost “a voice” before a fact-gatherer.” They are lacking in all the skills, from ethics to grammar, forced upon the pre-Internet “legacy” journalists.

I think it’s clear, at least it’s clearer now, that the Entryway project is not a journalistic project. The confusion is that Spot.us has the story included in their story pitches and is seeking funding for it, which, personally, I think was a big mistake. Even if these “reporters” are intending to produce more journalistic pieces, their position as independent fact-gatherers is extremely compromised.

“Our project is long-term and posting helps the young journalists record an emotional experience while the main reporting continues and as they work to produce detailed stories about the people and the community they are living in,” commented Anh Do, the Spot.us Los Angeles editor, on Hernandez’s piece.

Perhaps a reporter’s “beat notes” should remain offline. While transparency is good, pre-emptive emotional blogging (or tweeting, or posting updates on Facebook for that matter) is just plain unprofessional.

I agree that projects like this one, and to some extent Media Storm, have a tendency to attract more attention than the “day-to-day reporters who live off nothing but their bylines,” as Hernandez says. But it is wrong to assume that modern reporters are somehow less hard working than “legacy” journalists. New media definitely does include experimenting with new mediums, but it is not a mindset. These so-called “reporters” who create art rather than journalism by dazzling audiences with online gadgetry are simply lazy. And in every era of journalism throughout history there have always been lazy journalists. The problem is that it is an affront to the hard workers when these Internet artists, diarists and photographers label themselves “reporters.”

If the Entryway is to be considered “journalism,” it is bad journalism. It has an agenda, an interest, and blatantly lacks journalistic ethics. Most reporters, new and old, would agree. But it’s unfair to lay the blame on “new media.” Pitting traditional reporters against reporters today who are dealing with new mediums is unfair and inaccurate. There are plenty of projects which could be included under the new media umbrella that do exactly what Hernandez is claiming should be the purpose of journalism. For example, encouraging people to tell their own stories rather than relying on reporters to act as a middleman. Need an example? Well, I’d like to think that you’re looking at one right now. The South Los Angeles Report publishes stories produced by the community, as well as running journalism workshops to aid citizen journalists in their own storytelling. To see these pieces, which include a variety of mediums, look for pages labeled with “community contributor.”

To find out more about Browne’s perspective on the Entryway project, take a look at Entry 9. This “FAQ” post was no doubt composed following the article by Hernandez and the ensuing reactions.

This piece originally appeared on USC Annenberg’s South Los Angeles Report.

Growing pains, part 2: Can grassroots journalism help underserved communities?

Part one – Life after death: newspapers and the re-invention of paper technology

While the newspaper industry struggles to find new definition in an Internet age, the population most at risk of being left behind is low-income communities. Local newspapers are suffering significant losses in the industry, and yet the medium is still heavily relied upon as a source of information for poorer areas where Internet access is minimal. Many of these communities are already under-served by the media, and as their newspapers disappear, the void is likely to widen. Eventually, these communities may benefit greatly from the communication tools the Internet and mobile news delivery will provide. But during this period of turbulence the digital divide could impede progress. In affected areas, the wealthy will be gaining a medium while the poor are losing one. Meanwhile, in areas with more universalized Internet access, impoverished communities will be given access to news on a scale never before extended by traditional media.

Community Journalism and Hyper-Local Markets

Communities in South Los Angeles have long been starved of media attention. Since the collapse of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1989, the newspaper industry in Los Angeles has been dominated by a single, powerful newspaper. The Los Angeles Times overshadows local newspapers such as the Los Angeles Wave and the Los Angeles Daily News, creating a monopoly on news coverage that favors broader stories over community-sensitive pieces. Stories from South Los Angeles are rare, and the Los Angeles Times has been criticized for limiting its coverage of the area to tragic or violent breaking news stories.

“The LA Times covers breaking news that they deem worth covering,” said Don Wanlass, news editor for the Los Angeles Wave, one of three newspapers based in South Los Angeles that makes an effort to cover news significant to residents in cities like Compton, Watts and Inglewood. “There’s a lot of sentiment out there that the Times only reports bad news, like political corruption scandals and shootings. They don’t go into the small communities and get some of the stories that are there to be had.”

In the mid-1990s, the Times established suburban sections, including the City Times section, as a response to the Los Angeles riots in 1992. It was partially due to the consistent lack of South L.A. coverage by the mainstream mass media that the riots were provoked, according to Henry Watson, a South L.A. resident and one of the “LA Four” responsible for beating a white truck driver almost to death on April 29, 1992. “April 29th allowed the world to come into South Central for the first time and take a look around and see,” said Watson.

The Los Angeles Times responded by attempting to bridge the information divide between L.A.’s diverse communities and extend conversation across cultural barriers. Since then, not only has the Times folded its suburban city sections, but it has also shut down its California section, folding its remaining local news into the “A” section of the paper. Watson says that lessened local coverage in the mainstream media inevitably breeds more tension in South Los Angeles. “The media only want to show the negative,” said Watson. “But they need to come here and see the positive.” It would not be inconceivable, he warned, for a repetition of the 1992 riots to emerge if South L.A. continues to be consistently ignored. Another resident, Tony Falley, says that the lack of balanced media attention has left the area to physically stagnate. “Our environment needs to be built up,” said Falley. “As far as Florence and Normandie, where the riots happened, we don’t have anything but the same stuff: a gas station and a liquor store.”

In some South L.A. cities, the Los Angeles Wave and other small community newspapers have attempted to fill the coverage gap, but declining circulation is threatening to destroy these smaller institutions faster than their national counterparts. “We try to cover the community the best way we can with the man power we have,” said Wanlass. “We have 21 cities and two reporters.”

Ironically, it is not for lack of reader interest that smaller newspapers are struggling. Although every traditional, offline news medium is suffering losses, a recent study of media consumption shows that local newspapers are more valuable to the public than national newspapers. Sixty-three percent of the public are still consuming local newspapers compared to 18 percent reading national dailies, according to the global public relations firm Ketchum. This makes local newspapers the second most valuable of the traditional journalistic mediums behind major network television, while national newspapers lag behind in 8th place. Local newspaper readership also reaches a wider age breadth, with 34 percent of people under the age of 24 reading community newspapers compared to 11 percent of the youth population reading national dailies. The disparity is dramatic in every age range, but perhaps the most extreme statistics are for the age range with the highest consumptive rate of national newspapers. A total of 26 percent of men and women between the age of 55 and 64 are dedicated to national newspapers, while 81 percent are reading local dailies.

In possession of a seemingly dependent readership, community newspapers have lost circulation at a slower pace than has, for example, the Los Angeles Times. The Daily Breeze, which serves South Bay Los Angeles, saw a 4 percent drop from September 2007 to September 2008, while the Los Angeles Times suffered a 5 percent cut in circulation. Another community newspaper, the Glendale News Press, saw a 3 percent decline, and the rural Antelope Valley Press, maintained its readership without loss.

But one of the major concerns for newspapers serving poorer communities, like the Los Angeles Wave, is the slow pace at which they are migrating into the virtual realm. Their online resources are minimal when compared to newspaper companies that serve more affluent parts of Los Angeles, and their readership still relies heavily on the print version of the newspaper. In South Los Angeles, in the urban, low-income areas that newspapers like the Los Angeles Wave serve, more than half of the residents do not have access to the Internet.

And yet, the Internet is the perfect medium for under-served communities craving attention. Already, local groups are finding ways to fill the historical media gap in their cities from the ground upward. “There are all kinds of blogs springing up in small cities,” said Wanless. “It’s becoming more and more a trend and way for people to keep up with what their city government is doing.” Blogs such as Lynwood Watch, which aggregates news from the city of Lynwood, have encouraged a new level of dialogue to emerge between residents. “It steers people to news they might not normally know is out there and encourages commentary,” Wanlass explained.

As a communication tool, the Internet has the potential to unite and integrate isolated communities with wider society and bypass some of the barriers traditional news organizations encounter, such as language. In Los Angeles, diverse cultures are alienated from the traditional media. “There’s a language barrier,” said Wanlass. “There are a lot of recent immigrants from Mexico and South America.” Not only are many of these immigrant communities cut off from media streams but, according to Wanlass, their isolation makes them more vulnerable to inaccurate or unreliable information. “They don’t speak English and they fear government intrusion,” said Wanlass. “They’re also willing to believe anything anybody tells them, and sometimes the rumors on the street aren’t always accurate.”

Being able to interact easily with one another in their own language could benefit these under-served communities greatly. In Lynwood, for example, the main form of communication is ground mail, and with so few reporters covering the area, lobbyists and politicians have seized the opportunity to exploit the lack of public awareness. In 2006, when the city government was contemplating a deal with a redevelopment agency to uproot thousands of families and build a football stadium, real estate agencies began mailing the community offering potential buy-out deals. According to one resident, some families sold their homes for fear of being evicted when the redevelopment agency took over. However, the deal with the agency was never completed. Instead, government officials were indicted for misappropriating public funds and the incomplete contract for development was overruled. Yet, a year after the indictment proceedings, Lynwood residents were still living in fear. The informational void had not only left the community “out of the loop,” but was seriously threatening their way of life. Families were contemplating selling their homes, and some already had, for lack of up-to-date news. Up to a year after the contract had been overthrown and the threat of a football stadium abolished, real estate agencies continued to play on public ignorance and scare them into quick sales.

The same thing happened during local government elections in 2007. Accurate information about the candidates was virtually non-existent, and instead, political action committees inundated the community with mudslinging campaign fliers. One candidate was accused of being a drug dealer. Another was accused of tax evasion and harboring illegal immigrants. Whether the accusations had basis in truth, it didn’t matter. Without a viable “watchdog” presence in the city, the uninhibited PACs could publish anything they wanted. Coupled with a lack of information from any other sources, these materials became the sole influencers in the campaign for much of the community. Unshakable rumors became ingrained in the public mindset, and still form much of the basis for opinion today.

Eventually, blogs may become a platform for under-served communities to create much-needed public dialogue, but until then, local newspapers remain the most important source of information for lower-income communities. Almost 50 percent of people with incomes lower than $25,000 rely on local newspapers as their main source of news, according to research by the Norman Lear Center at USC. Right now, Lynwood Watch is simply a news aggregation site, using newspapers like the Wave to provide content for users to comment on. Although it has been successful in encouraging more interaction between residents and local news topics, the site does not produce original content and much of the commentary is driven by rumors and bickering. The site is also controlled by a completely anonymous source. “The problem is that nobody knows who’s behind it,” said Wanlass. “You don’t know where they’re coming from or what their biases are.”

Grassroots Journalism

According to the blog search engine Technorati, a new blog is created every two seconds, bringing the running total in 2009 to more than 200 million individual blogs. One million blog posts are published across the world every day, and as the world of online publishing continues to flourish in accessibility and mass, a new species of journalist has emerged with it. The “citizen journalist,” belongs to no formal media outlet, has usually had little or no journalism training, but reports on the world he knows and self publishes his findings. Many mainstream media outlets have embraced this new journalistic democracy as a means of increasing the breadth of information. By syndicating reporting done by the general public, traditional media have access to a seemingly infinite store of content. Breaking news can be more fully reported immediately, thanks to photographs, video and information provided by “citizen journalists.”

“I think it’s marvellous,” said Geneva Overholser, director the journalism school at the University of Southern California. “The free press is a medium of democracy and involving people is terribly important. I like to believe in a collaborative, participatory process that will enrich the news report wherever you find it.”

Opinions vary as to the rights and qualifications of Citizen Journalists. Some, like Overholser, believe that the term “journalism” automatically assumes a certain set of ethics and practices. “What’s the point of calling someone a journalist unless they’re attempting to be reliable in their gathering of facts, attempting to present a picture as close to the truth as they can, and attempting to be transparent about their newsgathering, as well as making themselves accountable?” asked Overholser. But others say that any form of journalism, whether adhering to the formalized standards of most professional journalism or not, is better than nothing at all. “It’s just good that people are willing to participate in journalism and are interested in finding information,” said Marc Cooper, associate director of USC’s Institute for Justice and Journalism and former editor of The Huffington Post. “The more voices there are, the less oppression there will be.”

Catch-all websites, targeted at a more generalized audience in a way that emulates traditional mass media, will not replace disappearing newspapers. Instead, the future of community journalism lies with the citizens themselves. The “mass” in mass media is quickly vanishing and being replaced with niche markets and hyper-local news services. Newspapers hoping to migrate online will need to become hybrids of their former selves, involving the community they serve by opening up the news process with citizen journalists and becoming forums for public discourse. “Modern newsrooms have to engage in a never-ending conversation with their community, says Robert Legrand, contributor to the PBS and Knight Foundation-sponsored ideas lab, Media Shift. Community news coverage is fast becoming a two-way street, an intersection between those who tell the stories and those who live them.