Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane....

Jackie Cooper's voice echoed in my head this morning.

Many may remember Cooper's role as The Daily Planet Editor Perry White in the Superman movies with Christove Reeve.

Following the dramatic opening and credits to Superman III, we cut to The Daily Planet newsroom.
Perry White: I don't understand you Olsen. A boring banquet and you bring me three thousand boring pictures. Yet Superman saves a man from drowning on 3rd Avenue this morning while you stand there watching the whole thing and you don't even bring me one picture.
Jimmy Olsen: Chief, I didn't have my camera with me.
Perry White: A photographer eats with his camera. A photographer sleeps with his camera.
Lois Lane: I'm glad I'm a writer.

In small town community journalism, there is no luxury of being just a writer.

I've blogged about the need for a journalist to carry a camera at all times, this is one of those blogs. It's also about the advantage of being the "little guy."

On my way to work this morning I saw a metro area TV news station's van. Naturally, I followed, dreading what story they would blow out of proportion leaving me to play clean up with a story in next week's paper.

As we headed north of town, I was becoming even more curious about what story they were chasing. Then I saw the helicopter hovering near the neighboring town that is in our school district. This couldn't be an average accident. It wasn't. There was a school bus in the ditch. The accident happened about an hour earlier.

While everyone else shot video, I whipped out my 5-megapixel cell phone camera. The distance from the accident and the sun rising in the background left me with nothing but sun bursts and hazy images.

This is the best one I took.

My digital SLR was in the office on my desk. Had I known I was going to a school bus accident, I would have stopped at the office (on the way) to grab the camera. By the time I got to the accident and figured out what was going on, called in to get a web update and evaluated the situation, they were towing the bus out of the ditch. I didn't have time to go to the office and get back with a camera before the bus was gone.

But being this was my backyard, so to speak, I still had some advantages. The police officer director traffic said he didn't know anything to tell the TV news reporter. They were just working traffic, the state highway patrol was in charge of the scene. She walked away discouraged.

Then I approached.

"How are you liking your new digs, Tom?" I asked, knowing the police just moved into a new building.

We chatted about them still getting settled in, yadda, yadda.

"So what time did you get called to this?" I asked.

"I got on at 7 and was immediately sent here, it had just happened," he replied.

We still had no idea about injuries and I knew he wouldn't know.

"How many ambulances were there when you got here?" I asked.

He talked about ambulances from at least three different areas, so I was able to surmise there were enough injuries to warrant at least half a dozen ambulances.

That's all I could get out of him, but it's more than the TV reporter got. I think I had the advantage in knowing the officer by name and being able to come up with chit-chat to lead into some questions that gave me more background on the incident.

Next, a man, looking very casual, in a jacket and ball cap comes walking from the accident to get in a pickup truck. The TV reporter has no idea this is the assistant superintendent in charge of transportation. I however, again have the advantage.

"Morning, Randy, what happened?" I lead off with.

He clearly didn't want to talk to the media. But between her badgering questions he'd rather ignore, I was able to remove the sensationalism out of the impromptu press conference from his pickup truck cab as he is saying he doesn't have time to talk.

"What can we put on our website that parents need to know?"

He then proceeds to tell me that parents have been contacted and what they were told.

The assistant superintendent drove off, but now we've got a handle on injury types (non serious), how many students, what grade level, etc.

The TV reporter at this point is confused about which schools the students may have been going to and the assistant superintendent has left. I, however, have no need to look up this information.

So I don't have any good photos. I was probably the third news organization to report via the web the fact there was a school bus accident. But in the end, I was able to gather enough information in a short amount of time to get something more substantial online before having to wait for the highway patrol to call me back.

So score one for the small town local guys.

Take that back. I just completed this blog and went to grab my cell-phone photo out of my e-mail to put in the blog when I saw an e-mail from the city manager to many people in the community alerting them of the accident. In that e-mail, he posted a link to a TV news station's website.

So much for hometown.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This one's on me

There are some days you've just got to love this job.

This morning I started out touring the mayor's new business - in another city. I agree that he couldn't find the building to fit the need for this wine club he started, but I'm sure he is going to receive some backlash from the community for not investing in the hometown.

That will be humorous.

That same mayor, 20 years ago, pushed for an ordinance that restricts signage for beer or liquor at gas stations. After learning about this obscure law and noticing several gas stations in town in violation, I admittedly stirred the pot by asking too many questions. City officials realized they had not enforced this ordinance so cracked down on it and I wrote a story on this 20-year-old, obscure law that had gone the wayside until the newspaper brought it up.

The newspaper came out yesterday and our website was updated this morning, including this story. Today, a local TV station contacted city officials about interviewing them for a story about this. The city official who drew the short straw to talk to the TV station called me and said, "You owe me one." Not because of doing the story or because anything was inaccurate. He just doesn't want to be on TV and blames me. Technically, it's the city's own fault for not keeping up with its own laws.

Why isn't the mayor speaking to the TV station about his alcohol advertising restriction law? He's too busy getting his new wine store ready in the metro.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Meatball journalism

Editor's note: I actually wrote this back in May. In the midst of writer's block this morning, I was looking through some of my google documents and found it. I'm not sure if its intended purpose was for THIS blog, but sort of fits this morning so here it is in all its glory:

I just remembered, this is not why I got into journalism.
Sitting in my cluttered office dumbfounded by writer's block with one goal for the morning: Churn out three feature stories about 300 words each that I gathered all the information for yesterday and write a 450-word summary from a meeting last night.
That's when I realized, I am I stuck here dreaming about all the things I could do with journalism, all the things I have done with journalism and barely making progress on Journalism 101 fluff pieces. I think I convinced myself community journalism "is where it's at," so to speak. It is. Community (hyper local) is the future of the journalism/newspaper industry. "Enterprise stories" and "niche publications" are yesterday's buzz phrases. Community journalism has a bit more sustainability than industry fads.

The definition of community journalism is deep and multi-faceted.
Among what I am doing is "intense" community journalism. On my slate to finish writing today: Board of Aldermen meeting coverage, story about a the kindness of strangers, students raising money for Haiti earthquake victims and preview an upcoming community event. On the back burner is a story I've been picking at a little each week. Not the greatest of stories - a look at the issue of dog nuisance, related ordinances and tips for owners and neighbors. Riveting stuff, isn't it? It's a weak reflection of what I prefer to be doing. I like to dig deep into a story. I would rather be working on one or two in-depth stories over the course of a week than being a paragraph factory of a dozen small stories to fill the pages. Wouldn't any journalist?
For a while I convinced myself this is what I want to be doing. It was like telling myself that I'm OK in a bad relationship, even though deep down I know I need to end it.

There are rewards to what I am doing. I'm filling a need in the community. I'm providing quasi-compelling content for local residents to read. There's no complaints there - on the reader's part and my part, for the most part. But this is not why I signed up.
In elementary school I was a big "Encyclopedia Brown" fan. For those unfamiliar with the book series, this child sleuth would solve neighborhood "crimes" or mysteries. Over time I realized he would use common knowledge, but for someone his age it was outstanding to figure these things out. As I grew older I never got into books like "The Hardy Boys" or "Nancy Drew." I cannot stand most cop shows like "Law and Order" or the "CSI" brand shows. I did always enjoy "Dragnet." Point being, I like to unravel a story by finding many facts.
Back on track, what I love doing is digging deep. I like taking a topic that has hazy details, finding as many sources as possible and finding the common denominator that must be the truth. I like to present a list of facts and statements in an entertaining form so the reader can determine what is right and wrong.

But what I am doing, for the most part, is what I equate to the term used on the "M*A*S*H" television series: "meatball surgery." They had to find the best way possible to take care of mass casualties with little resource. I've got to cover as many stories as possible, along with some photos and long-term planning with as little time, staff and equipment as possible. Community journalism, if you're not careful, can become "meatball journalism."

I didn't get into journalism to post opinion poll questions like, "How would you rate your prom experience this year?"

This is one of those days I'm about ready to give up. There are times you get this great adrenaline rush by getting the scoop on a big story or having people contact you about important things. Then there are times when you feel worthless. After nearly two years of cultivating sources, you find something in the nearby metro daily that you should have had in last week's edition. It's not breaking news. It's not big news. It's almost insignificant. It's a little slice of life for this community. That's exactly why I should have had it first. I'm just floored that my sources didn't let me know about it. Sometimes your sources let you know every time someone down the hall from them sneezes. And you try to show your gratitude and follow up on it because you want them to feel that openness when it's time to get what you want. But then they don't share the newsworthy stuff with you and you wonder why you're even here.

I used to dream of days when I would be a crusty, old news man or a retired journalist. Now I dream of days when I "was in the biz."

Updated: OK, I'm not sure what I meant by that last line when I apparently wrote it five months ago, but I decided to leave it in.

The sad thing is, nothing has really changed since I wrote that blog five months ago and for whatever reason never posted it. Today is not too different from that day. I have to make a few phone calls, see some people then hunker down to churn out four stories today..... gotta go now, incoming wounded. (That's the M*A*S*H reference tying the blog back to the lede.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Small victories & a T-Rex (roar)

So... long time, no post.

Sometimes it seems this newspaper gig is a losing battle - not just in terms of producing a successful newspaper but also in convincing people what you do is worthwhile.

Today I had an epiphany. I credit the neighbor who told me newspapers are dinosaurs. But what I am is not a newspaperman. I'm a journalist whose current employable position has a printed version as its primary medium.

It is up for debate whether newspapers are dying (aka are dinosaurs), but journalism is not dying. People will continue to want news reported (good and bad), watchdogs on government kept and general interest stories told.

Financial sustainability in the current media forms is the tricky part. For decades, print and broadcast journalism has adapted its story-telling methods through visual & audio aids in addition to writing styles and even delivery style. The current problem is so many newspapers are operating on an outdated business model. But I digress.

So I'm going to start defining/identifying myself as a journalist from now on and respond to the "newspapers are dead" comments with solutions like "We're still alive right now, dead is past tense and newspapers still exist" and "We're working on alternatives to the print product but for many it's still sustainable."

I also believe there is still, and will continue to be, a place for the front page in some way shape or form.

Case in point - driving to work each day I past a cafe with three newspaper racks on its porch: my weekly local newspaper, the regional metro daily newspaper and USA Today. Today I saw a man putting change into the regional metro daily, but while doing so he stared at my weekly local the entire time. There was something (no sticky note ads this week) that was drawing his attention to that page. He would not otherwise pick up that newspaper unless something sparked his interest.

My weekly recently received first place in general excellence of weeklies its size in the state and second place in best-front-to-back design in the same category. It was a proud moment, but what irked me was the comment from the judge: "Despite the rather unattractive display of story teases cornering the flag. Otherwise nice job!"

That "unattractive display of story teases" sells newspapers. Since we created 10 to 13 entry points above the fold each week, single-copy sales and subscriptions have increased.

The metro daily won first place front-to-back design and third place front-page design, receiving the comment "Color usage throughout the paper is strong. Good combination of elements." Most days it's difficult to find something relevant to anything local and there are typically less than five entry points above the fold (when ads aren't covering the front page). Meanwhile, it's my understanding that the metro daily is floundering.

I was disappointed that my newspaper did not place in best news content while the metro daily received first in its category with the comment: "Bright writing and a strong mix of local, world and national news. Wide content variety has something for everybody."I take issue with that because most things you see in that newspaper are yesterday's news from Timbuktu. When I drive be a newspaper rack, there is little incentive to pick up the newspaper. If it's world or national news I actually care about, I usually already know about it.

Sorry, got into a rant there.

Back to the positive - the small victories - that would be the first in general excellence and seeing the man stare down the local newspaper in the rack.

If newspapers are dinosaurs, then I'm living in Jurassic Park.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In a dog eat dog world, don't blame me

It’s rant time.

Stop blaming the media. We’re an easy scapegoat, but we are not the only “gatekeepers” in this world.

If someone doesn’t tell us something, how are we supposed to report it? We, “the media,” are NOT the only ones filtering the news.

Politicians put a “spin” on things, right? So do businessmen, volunteers, etc.

What has spurred this rant? Pit bulls.

I was among the recipients in an e-mail to city officials from a would-be resident who didn’t move to the city because of the ban on pit bulls.

The e-mail from this person to the city accuses the pit bull ban to be a “knee jerk” reaction to “media scare tactics” that are “ludicrous” when you consider there are a “tremendous number” of serious or fatal dog bits by labs and other large-breed dogs that are “never reported upon.” The e-mail states that is because it is not as “sensational.”

First of all, I have never, nor have I ever known any reporter, to “cover up” a Labrador bite or attack. There is no scandal there. Why would the “media” “cover up” something like that? I would venture to say a Golden Retriever or Labrador attack would be much more newsworthy than a pit bull attack because they are known as gentle breeds and you don’t hear about it as much.

In journalism 101 I learned “dog bites man” is not news, but “man bites dog” is news. A lab attack would fall into the latter category.

So IF these “lab attack” are common and IF “the media” is NOT reporting on it, who then is covering it up? Someone must be stopping this from getting out. Police? Animal control? The Humane Society?

Show me the reports of the lab attack.

I’ve written stories about a 10-year-old mauled to death by the family dog. Yes, it was a pit bull, but I would NOT have ignored the story had it been any other breed. I have never, however, seen in the police blotters or heard from animal control about a healthy dog of most other breeds commit a similar act.

So, if there is a cover up and you’ve got a conspiracy theory that other breeds are just as vicious as the pit bull – look to other places for the cover up other than “the media.”
Consider that for other conspiracy theories and forms of news filters.

The ultimate gatekeeper is an easy scapegoat, but we can’t control if it never reaches the gate.