OPINION

That Was The Week That Was in Online Journalism

At the risk of giving Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain one more reason to do 360s in his grave, I’m compelled to modify one of his best-known quotes: It seems reports of journalism’s demise at the hands of technology have been greatly exaggerated.

The evidence piled up this week. Awards were announced, new business models launched, constructive criticism heaved at established news brands, and that dastardly new media even tried to give an assist to journalists trying to make sense of a Twittering, blogging world. All of it involved recognition that the mother of all mashups is underway in the news industry thanks to digital technologies. And while that’s going on, it appeared that life is indeed progressing as usual, the democracy remains intact and dogs and cats are still living apart (thanks, Ghostbusters, for that last obligatory pop culture reference.)

Pulitzer Material

We begin with the recent Pulitzer Prizes and their seal of approval for Web-enabled journalism. Chief among them was the Seattle Times newspaper and its award for Breaking News Reporting of the shooting deaths of four Tacoma-area police officers and a two-day search for the suspect. I wrote a column about this in early December because the Times‘ coverage involved what I believed to be the most extensive use yet of Twitter and other digital products in its online reporting mix. The newspaper put real-time Tweets from reporters, editors, photographers and the public on its Web site’s front page, but not before vetting them. The Times‘ experiment with Google Wave was less successful, but it at least showed a wide-open mindset to the possibilities that social media tools can help gather, distribute and categorize elements of a developing story.

The Pulitzer jury thought so too. Although it didn’t give a lot of details in its citation other than: “Awarded to The Seattle Times Staff for its comprehensive coverage, in print and online, of the shooting deaths of four police officers in a coffee house and the 40-hour manhunt for the suspect,” the telling point is in its description of the Breaking News category — “For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news, with special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage, presented in print or online or both.” In this case, Twitter and Google Wave did not get in the way of speed or accuracy, as social media’s critics have crowed.

The Pulitzer jury also handed out its first-ever Prize to an online-only winner: Mark Fiore, editorial cartoonist who syndicates his unique animations nationally to news Web sites. His pointed, poison-pixel work for the San Francisco Chronicle‘s site, SFGate.com, brought him the honor. The jury said “his biting wit, extensive research and ability to distill complex issues set a high standard for an emerging form of commentary.”

Politico’s Mark Wuerker, who also uses animation in his cartooning, was a finalist in this category.

In Fiore’s case, the only obstacles to seeing his work aren’t coming from high-minded journalism traditionalists, but rather the hottest tech company of the day. Laura McCann of the Neiman Journalism Lab’s Web site interviewed Fiore and discovered that his iPhone app had been rejected because it violates an App Store stipulation that its content not ridicule public figures. A commenter on the Neiman site appropriately pointed out that Fiore’s app is banned, but podcasts from u201cThe Daily Show’su201d Jon Stewart, Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann are available for downloading on your iPhone or shiny, fabulous new iPad.

Note to news executives: If you’re going to rely on Apple to revive your business, you might want to get that whole First Amendment thing nailed down first.

New News Channels

While on the subject of business models, another news-type incubator launched a new platform this week that will pay out-of-work journalists to keep on storytellin’. NewsTilt, a product of NewsLabs, bears resemblance to True/Slant, another program that sets up a clean, well-lit place on the Web for journalists to ply their trades. NewsTilt will worry about the business and marketing side of things — propelled by online advertising — and all the reporters have to do is report. A quick check of the first week’s content shows a lot of opinionating and not so much reporting, but there are dispatches regarding Iran, South Africa and Turkey, and I’m sure the promise of more fact-gathering to come. The best part of the premise is that the people behind it, including NewsLabs founder Paul Biggar, seem to “get it” regarding the need for journalists to become more aggressive about marketing themselves in the online environment.

“The new model is that you are your own brand,” Biggar writes. “This bears repeating: From now on, you personally are the brand! This is a massive paradigm shift, and we are all about helping with that … You write directly for your community, and they tell you what to write. By your interactions with the community, you learn what they want to hear, so you no longer need assignments and pitches.”

I remember the process of pitching tech stories when I was working at CNN/CNN Headline News. Towards the end of my tenure there — around 2005 or so — those pitches began to be greeted with disinterest. The low point was getting a “we’ll pass” from an editor when I was offered a Michael Dell interview. In 2008, CNN got rid of its science/technology department. The dismissive nature of news managers who were more focused on heat rather than light — thanks to an unhealthy obsession with ratings — has led my former employer to the place it’s at right now: the whipping boy of cable news.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of unsolicited advice from media reporters around the country, prompted by news that CNN was lapped not only by Fox, but MSNBC and in some cases by its Fox-Lite cousin HLN in prime-time ratings. My favorite prescription came courtesy of Vanity Fair‘s Andrew Cohen, and the headline says it all: “To Save Itself, CNN Must Get Smarter.” The gist: Stop trying to make “personalities” out of your anchors, invest more in beat reporters and get back to making the news the star (remember the news?).

As a former employee, I would add that the network needs to exhibit more news judgment (not every crazy story or crazy, itching-for-a-fight spokesperson has to be given airtime), ditch its gimmicks like The Best Political Team on Television and focus more on becoming the Best News Site on the Web. CNN.com, CNN’s Facebook page and @cnnbrk on Twitter already have tons of fans and followers, and for good reason: While the CNN brand may be showing some wear and tear on TV, it remains vital on digital platforms, thanks to investments in iPhone apps, podcasting and content from other Time Warner properties and partners. But occasionally the silliness involving celebrity outrages and News of the Weird that runs rampant on parts of the broadcast schedule also comes through on the Web. The network is also still floundering with an online video strategy; it recently laid off its Web-only anchor staff and is trying for the umpteenth time to figure out how to navigate this particular territory. During an upfront presentation this week in New York, CNN’s chief news gurus Jim Walton and Jon Klein rightly played up the digital side of the CNN story. Considering that the future is now for journalism, the network should renew its focus on Web and mobile.

A Helpful Drubbing

Why am I including this in a cause-for-optimism category column? The fact that CNN is getting such attention and unsolicited advice for fixing itself is evidence of its place and legacy in the news universe.

Twitter is just starting to carve its own niche in that universe, but it knows that traditional journalists are still wary about how to use the short-message service wisely in their reporting. That’s why Twitter this week launched Twitter Media, a blog that promises “knowledge and tools that help you use Twitter to transform media, entertainment and journalism.” A tad self-serving, sure, but there are some useful guides for things like tweet verification (courtesy of the Huffington Post’s Craig Kanally).

Journalism isn’t through with its painful metamorphosis into some kind of digital/traditional hybrid, and no doubt more storm clouds are on the way because of paywalls and what I believe is a likely rejection of most of those plans by news consumers. But when it comes to new forms of content and distribution, and some business plans that might find a way to pay for free, quality journalism, the true spirit of Edward R. Murrow seems to be linking just fine to the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.

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