Monday, February 2, 2009

Here's a thought: Newsroom (only) for sale

Everyone, it seems, has some ideas to help save the P-I, or journalism generally. The other day my mechanic was calling me about something else when he launched into his version of what we journalists need to do to stay a live. Summarized briefly (he likes us), he wants more of everything.

Hmmmm. I'm not sure there's a business model for that. In fact, recent events suggest there isn't. But his thinking actually isn't all that out of line with what a lot of us newsroom types have been thinking, promoting or just plain believing.

So it was interesting to note a post from Leonard Witt on Public Journalism Network, suggesting that we offer a newsroom for sale. His proposal involved The New York Times newsroom, not the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But the idea to sell it as a cooperative to investors could apply to just about any major newspaper. This seems like it might strike a note in Seattle, home of well-known cooperatives like REI and Puget Consumer's Coop. Anyway, Witt's plan would be to offer those who use newsrooms -- news junkies, I guess -- a chance to bail them out:
If everyone who subscribes to the New York Times paid $400 a year, just for it online, but also got shares into the cooperative, that would be $400 million a year. The Times newsroom costs about $200 million a year to operate. The extra $200 would go into an endowment, so in five years there would be a billion dollars, in ten years $2 billion. Enough that the subscription rate would go down for anyone who contributed for ten years. A ten year investment would be $4,000 or $2,000 less that what you pay for the newspaper now.

Of course, there's a problem with this logic. Anyone can already get The New York Times online free. Or the Seattle P-I, for that matter.

So the big question is, and Witt acknowledges as much, is would anyone pay to own a newsroom, even in a cooperative? Have we moved so far into this online world already that we've established "free" as the top price readers will pay for information?

Publish online or perish, a scenario more will face

The P-I's possible transition to an all-digital online-only version sparked a pretty good column by Editor & Publisher's Steve Outing last week.

Outing argues that the P-I isn't likely the only newspaper facing the 'online or perish' choice. He also suggests some one-newspaper towns could see the same kind of financial necessity dictating their brave new future -- or none at all. And he has some thoughts for who'll get jobs in that new world:

What will it take to get one of the remaining jobs in the all-digital newsroom? Certainly an understanding of, and probably enthusiasm for, new forms of media
and storytelling. The transformed newsroom will be filled with multi-functional
journalists who are comfortable carrying around a digital camera and tiny video
camera; who make it part of their routine to record audio for possible use in
podcasts or multimedia project sound clips; who are regular users of social
networks and understand how to leverage them to communicate with and attract new readers, and share some personal information about themselves as well as promote their work; and who are comfortable and willing to put in the time to engage and communicate with their readers or viewers, including participating in reader
comment threads accompanying their stories.

Check out his whole post. Click here. Kudos to P-I online producer Curt Milton for pointing this one out.

Friday, January 30, 2009

In blogging, clear over clever works best

Be clear, not clever.

That should be a rule for just about anything online. Maybe it should have been a rule in all those headlines we've written of the years for our print editions, too. But online, there's no substitute for saying exactly what you mean.

Why? Well the most obvious reason is that one of the ways people are going to find what you write on line is by searching for it. And search engines still don't work as well as the human mind for making connections. If you're writing about the Seattle Seahawks, don't call them the Hawks. People might not think to search for that term. And if that's the only thing you've called them in print, a search engine might not point anyone to your post. You think it's obvious that the Hawks and the Seahawks are the same team. But a machine won't.

So what words should you use? Use the words you'd use if you were searching for your own post. If you're writing about New Media in Seattle, use those words. (Smart for my blog title, eh? And you thought it was just boring.) If you're writing about traffic on I-5, make sure you use those words.

Simple clarity is important in headlines, the body of your post and even in the name you choose for your blog.

Poynter's Bill Mitchell writes about the choice of clear over clever today. Click here for his bits of wisdom.

And Rachael Money on adds interesting perspective about how the clarity that this sort of optimization for search brings to writing may actually help journalists write better. Click here for her post on CyberJournalist. Rachael, by the way, writes a lot about online journalism for WordTracker. Click here for more from her on the topic.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Grant money for local journalism: Deadline Feb. 12

There's a lot of talk about philanthropic funding for news in the brave new world of journalism that we're entering in this bleak economy.

Many of the proposals are for something grandiose. Some may be a simple as Seattle's Crosscut website's announcement that it would explore evolution into a nonprofit. But what if you -- all on your own -- want to find grant funding for a niche? Is there any money out there?

The answer may be yes. Check this out:
The institute for Interactive Journalism invites you to apply for funding to launch a participatory news venture in your community. J-Lab will select eight projects in 2009. Each project may receive up to $25,000.

Click here for more details. Proposals are due Feb. 12, 2009.

Editing and writing for a blog differs from print

More than a year ago, Lee Rozen, in his role heading the copy desk at the Seattle P-I, helped me come up with some guidelines for editing staff blogs. As a journalist, several of the points we outlined then would still be helpful guidelines if you blog as a journalist, even if you're not affiliated with a media organization.

So here are a few thoughts, adapted from those guidelines:

  • Blog content does not have to conform to the more rigid writing style of print. Be relaxed in your writing style, try different things and be conversational.
  • What you write should meet journalism’s ethical and legal standards in every respect. Don't use unnamed sources except in very rare circumstances.
  • If you're blogging as a reporter, be fair, balanced and avoid opinion. If you're a reviewer or your blogging niche is more like that of a columnist, your opinion is an integral part of what you do. But in any case, avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Link to other published articles to help lend credence to research you've done beyond interviewing. Full credit MUST be given, for links, however. Copyright law is not suspended on the Web. Lengthy quotes could violate copyright. Keep any excerpt short. Give credit along with the link.
  • Links must be tested before the post is published.
  • Be sure you know where photos you're using came from. Copyright law applies. You don't automatically have a right to use photos, even ones that were published with stories you've written for the P-I or elsewhere. And when you use a copyrighted photo from someplace that allows you to do so, be sure to note it is copyrighted and that you're using it by permission. Don't pick up photos from other blogs. Many bloggers aren't good at identifying where the content originated and, if they got permission at all, it might not have come from the copyright owner.
  • Correction: This post has been changed since it was first published to correct the spelling of Lee Rozen's last name.

Starting a new blog? ProBlogger has some tips

A new post today on ProBlogger offers a lot of links to posts that'll help you get started with a blog. (Click here for the links.)

Darren Rowse of ProBlogger showcases ProBlogger's posts including what to think about before you get started with a blog, tips to successful blogging, choosing a blog platform, figuring out your niche, ways to promote your blog and even how to make money with a blog.

Ryan Thornberg, in The Future of News today, also has great thoughts about blogging for journalists, including a debate over whether it's a good idea to force reporters to blog (not!).

Check it out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Finding photos in the public domain

One of the P-I’s staff bloggers, Robert McClure (Dateline Earth), gathered together a lot of sites that offer photos in the public domain – meaning photos that are often available for use without violating copyright. Some are a bit enviro-oriented, he says, because that’s the nature of his blog. But you may find them useful.

Please, please, please, follow his cautions however. Not everything on all these sites is available for use in the public domain, so be certain you check on anything you use.

Here’s his list:
Note: If you're going to use these, you have to make sure you carefully read and understand the usage terms. Only use the ones that are absolutely and unquestionably public domain.
Everything at this site is public domain.

Below are sites that are government collections and, unless otherwise noted, are usually available for use. But check carefully to make sure a photo is not copyrighted:
(and how to link to NASA images:

US Dept of Interior:
Natl Biological Information Infrastructure:
US Fish & Wildlife Service:
Va. Institute of Marine Science (Part of the College of William & Mary):
energy related:

yellowstone NP:

Is it ever alright to manipulate a photo?

News photos shouldn't be manipulated. In fact, use of software such as Adobe PhotoShop should be aimed at reproducing the image in as close approximation as possible to what a person with normal vision would have seen looking at the event.

John Dickson, photo editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer made that point last week during his presentation on photography to staffers at the P-I.

He made a number of other great suggestions about how to use a camera, that we'll try to get to in future posts.

But if you're interested in more discussion by journalists about manipulating photographs, mark your calendar for a Feb. 5 Poynter live chat with the institute's Sara Quinn and Kenny Irby with McClatchy's director of photo services, Harry Walker.

For more of my suggestions from the staff photo seminar and to get tips on how to use Picnik editing software, click here.

Finally, in case you missed it, Michelle Nicolosi also responded to questions about where you can find photos you can use on Flickr, and spells out how to tell if they're in the "public domain" or subject to copyright protections (click here for that).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tips on writing a blog that isn't 'blah'

University of North Carolina educator Ray Thornberg has several common-sense suggestions for doing a blog that isn't blah, as he puts it. He offers one bit of philosophy about how a blog differs from the kind of writing most journalists have been doing that I think is especially valuable:

A post is not an article. It is a single idea. If you think to yourself “This post needs a better transition” or “I really did a good job reflecting all sides of the issue” then your post is probably too long.

It reminds me of a bit of wisdom from old media: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). But catch all of Thornberg's thoughts on how to make what you write connect with readers. Click here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blogging is about conversation

Traditional journalists don't usually react positively to the idea of engaging their readers in a conversation.

I can remember getting a phone call a decade or more ago from someone who wanted to take issue with what we'd written in the paper. I tried to deal politely with the reader. But I was on deadline and I just couldn't get him off the phone. No matter what I said ... stuff like 'we were just reporting what we observed,' the caller wanted to take issue with me and with the story.

I finally, and probably with a hint of irritation in my voice, said: "This isn't talk radio. I'm sorry but I just can't debate this with you. You're entitled to your opinion, our story tried to play the facts right down the line."

Obviously the guy wasn't very satisfied. I finally had to tell him "I'm hanging up now, thanks for calling." Click.

Well, that was print journalism. It isn't blogging. The expectation of the audience for blogs is that you will engage them in conversation. You'll encourage their comments. And when necessary you'll respond to them.

For years, it's been policy that reporters at the P-I -- and everywhere else I've worked -- aren't allowed to respond directly to readers. Even when introduced "Soundoffs" at the end of each staff-written story, reporters were not permitted to respond directly to the reader.

That's because editors have believed that, when it comes to stories, the purpose of a Soundoff is to let readers have their say. We aren't the last word.

But the expectation in blogs is different. Journalists didn't make the rules for blogs, and by the time most of us came to the world of blogging, there were already established expectations. One of them, and an important one, is that blogs are the initiation of conversation.

So, while P-I reporters still have to submit any response the have to comments in a blog through an editor before it's posted, reporters can respond. In fact, the expectation is that the will.

Regardless of where you blog, whether your blog is personal or about news, you should expect to engage readers in conversation. Answer their questions. Let their comments inform your view. Correct their erroneous impressions and admit to your own mistakes.

That said, be sensible. Recognize the difference between a belief (which can be argued) and a fact (which can't).

But know that some people are just baiting you. These folks, in Web parlance, are called "trolls." They love to engage in an argument for the sake of the argument. They like to get a rise out of you.

The rule of thumb in dealing with trolls is to ignore them. Don't feed the trolls.

I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.
-- George Bernard Shaw and others

So don't respond to someone who's obviously just trying to get a rise out of you or your readers. But remember you're not writing from an ivory tower. You live in the same world as your readers. And you're having a conversation with them.

It's not a rule. It's just good blogging practice.