Monthly Archives: February 2010

Question of the Week, February 25

Is our current conception of journalism based largely on an historical accident?

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Objectivity: Journalism’s False Idol

Ah, objectivity. The much-debated, often maligned, supposed holy grail of journalism. Are reporters objective?

My answer: No.

My other answer: Who cares?

What does objectivity mean, anyway? Merriam-Webster’s definition is rather long, but I’d guess this one is most relevant for journalists:

3 a : expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations

That sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. But, as Atlanta Progressive News notes, “most people’s basic understanding of objectivity is: balancing the sides.” The problem with that, as the author goes on to imply, is that there are frequently many, many sides to the same story. Often, not all of those sides are equally valid.

Put another way, there are not two sides to every story. There are more than two sides to most stories. Some stories only have one valid side. Some stories have many sides, and none that stand out as more valid than the others. It is the job of a reporter to judge between all of them – and not, might I add, to automatically give them all equal weight. Continue reading

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In the Future, Your News Will be Shallow

We should give AOL credit. On paper, a company that mainly trafficked in maddening dial-up symphonies and is included in business school textbooks as one half of the worst merger in the modern era should in 2010 be a footnote in the well-rounded journalist’s quickcard of notable fallen giants.

Yet the company is, relatively speaking, enjoying a successful transition into the content game, hiring and poaching web writers over the past year, subtly rebranding, and generally scrapping to stay relevant.

And, apparently, it won’t be just the writers doing the writing.

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Character Profile: Stephen Janis

Steve Janis is Senior Reporter and Content Director for the Baltimore-based website Investigative Voice. Investigative Voice is exactly what the name implies – a home for classic, gumshoe-style investigative reporting that leaves no stone unturned. Janis was previously a reporter for the Baltimore Examiner, but he made the website, which he was planning while working for the Examiner, his main job when the paper folded in 2009.

Janis uncovers stories that would probably not see the light of day were it not for his site. He spends every day on the streets of Baltimore, talking to people, meeting sources, and uses his eyes and ears – a ‘reporter’ in the truest sense. Investigative Voice has done slice-of-life dispatches from some of the city’s worst neighborhoods, investigated a forgery that resulted in the firing of a city employee, and reported extensively on the resignation of Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon. The site also occasionally ventures outside Charm City, reporting on an unusual spate of red-baiting in an Upstate New York Congressional election.

Janis’ story – urban, gritty, East Coast – provides a an excellent visual counterpoint to that of M.E. Sprengelmeyer. He is another pioneer who is refusing to take the industry’s transformation sitting down, taking what is meaningful about journalism and pushing it into a new era. His platform may have changed, but his voice has not.

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Question of the Week, February 17

This week, Max Lakin, Adam Chadwick and Vincent Valk discuss whether the recently announced New York Times pay wall is a good idea. To join the conversation leave a comment or contact Vincent Valk: vjvalk at gmail dot com.

The Paywall Cometh: An Argument for Monetizing Online Content Directly

Media’s woes — its disappeared ad pages, its eclipsing by zero- and close-to-zero-cost web properties, its general ennui and dampening self-worth — tend to add up to a terrible morass of dread from which there is little hope of climbing out. But as calmer heads have noted, publishing’s real problem is rather simple:

It’s revenue. And that there currently is none.

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Jay Rosen on the Current State of News

NYU professor Jay Rosen on the changing nature of journalism.

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Character Profile: M.E. Sprengelmeyer

M.E. Sprengelmeyer is the creative and practical force behind the Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. A former Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News, he lost his job when the paper closed in February 2009. From there, he turned his attention to a rather different, yet, vitally important pursuit: Ensuring that the 2,744 residents of Guadalupe County have a trusted, reliable local news source.

He will be a central character in “Fit to Print” for several reasons. The primary reason is that during this time of shrinking newsrooms, he has taken it upon himself to pursue civic-minded journalism. And that’s no abstraction. Sprengelmeyer writes, edits, photographs and even delivers his newspapers. He drives nearly 90 miles each week on the back roads of rural New Mexico at 3 AM picking up copies of the Communicator, which has a circulation of 2,000, from his printing press. He covers the whole town, from city council meetings to local business. He works with a minimal budget and is partial to scribbling page layouts on paper plates.

While his misfortune as a laid-off reporter is important to his story, our focus is on his relentless defense of thorough local news during the most challenging time for newspapers in history. His struggle is a microcosm of many of the issues facing newspapers: the income has slowed to a trickle, the staff is cut to the bone, and reporters are scrambling to do more with less.

Sprengelmeyer does it because journalism is what he knows and loves. Period. His story is a quixotic journey into one man’s pursuit to breathe life into a newspaper in an era when most publishers are fleeing the industry. Add to this the visually arresting backdrop he finds himself in: A sleepy southwest town on the the Llano Estacado or “staked plains” of eastern New Mexico and west Texas. Sprengelmeyer’s story is compelling personally, socially and visually.

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Question of the Week, February 10

Every week, we at Fit to Print will be asking one of the many important questions facing journalism today. These questions could range from general to specific, and from technological to legal or ethical. If you have a response to this week’s question, or an idea for a future question email Vincent Valk: vjvalk at gmail dot com.

As news organizations focus more on the internet, are generational gaps in computer and internet usage a problem for news access? Only 38% of those aged 65 and older regularly use the internet, compared to 70% of those from 50 to 64, and 74% of adults in general. Does this spell diminishing access?

No. If anything, it underscores the need for news organizations to effectively utilize the Internet. Even though over 60% of those aged 65 and up do not go online, that number is halved once you get to people aged 50 to 64. Someday, today’s over 65s will be replaced by today’s 55-to-64 year olds, a good majority of whom do go online. And as you move to younger and younger people, more and more of the media they consume is related to the internet in some way or another. You can’t base a business on the fact that some people in their 70s are afraid to turn on a computer.

Someone who is 60 today has used a computer, and the internet, at work. This is the reason why there’s such a huge gap in internet usage between, say, 60 and 70 year-olds. Most offices went online in the mid-to-late 90s. A 60-year-old today was still in the prime of his or her career back then, and very well could still be working. A 70-year-old was either retired or on the way out by the time internet access became commonplace in offices. Almost everyone in their 50s and 60s that I know who is computer literate – and most of them are, to some degree – learned how to use computers at work.

You could make a somewhat more reasonable case that the decline of print decreases access to information for the poor. But even that is changing because of netbooks, which are as little as $250. That’s less than an annual subscription to the New York Times. Of course, there are still people who cannot afford that. But those people were probably too poor to be reading the newspaper on a regular basis, anyway. Frankly, they probably don’t have the time to thoroughly read a newspaper. Is this fair? No. But it’s got very little to do with technology – and, still, a majority of those making under $30,000 a year do have internet access.

Andie Tucher of Columbia told us that there’s a ‘significant’ and ‘stable’ portion of the population that does not use the internet. Honestly, I don’t buy it. If you look at the latest figures from the Pew Center for Internet and American life, the largest jump in internet usage since 2000 was among over-65s, though they still lag very far behind other age groups. I think that says it all.

-Vincent Valk

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Interview with the Filmmakers

Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch talks with two of Fit to Print’s filmmakers:

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Jake Dobkin Can Afford to Bash the Times

I saw Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin at Gelf Magazine’s Media Circus several months ago. He was funny. He made a lot of good points about how “old media” missed the boat. But I can’t help but think he’s only able to do that because he’s in a uniquely fortunate position.

He made similar points to New York Times execs last week, saying that “specifically in local, I don’t think the Times has had an original idea for years.” There is some truth to that statement. But it sounds awfully strange coming from the publisher of a site whose entire existence is based on piecing together other people’s original content.

That’s not a knock on Gothamist. It’s just a simple fact. I like Gothamist, and I have no problem with content aggregation, which it does very well. One issue with the internet is that it overloads us with information, and, because of that, there is a vital role for sites that collect that information and make it digestible. Gothamist is very, very good at that. But let’s be frank here: while what Gothamist does is valuable, it hardly qualifies as “an original idea.” It’s just putting together other people’s stuff and writing about it. Gothamist has been so successful because it happened to pop up right when it was viable to build a business from that, and it was smart enough to get some good writers on board to do it.

Dobkin’s recommendation about the Times metro section is even more ridiculous: “either produce a much diminished product, or start acting more like us, doing less original reporting and more editorial curation.” So, diminish yourselves, or be more like us! This recommendation seems strange because earlier in the piece he criticizes the Times for The Local, which he says is a thinly veiled copy of Brownstoner, and City Room, which he calls “a fairly lazy and sleep-inducing rip-off of Gothamist.” So his solution is, presumably….for the Times to become a less lazy and sleep inducing version of Gothamist? The problem with that, of course, is that there’s already Gothamist.

Which brings me back to my point: Gothamist is successful because it got there first. Where it is, however, is a fairly obvious place to go. If there were no Gothamist, someone else would have thought to put together local stories in an entertaining way for twenty-and-thirty-somethings. It’s a perfectly nice and useful thing to do, but it’s hardly a groundbreaking concept. Gothamist was lucky enough to get in on the easy part. Editorial curation in itself is hardly the future of journalism.

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