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Jim Brady, former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, came to ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on April 2nd to talk about online/digital/multimedia, and his experience at the online Post. Below are notes from a lunch meeting.

“One of the import figures of the last decade, who has done pretty spectacular work with the web and digital media in general.”- Introduction by Dan Gillmor.

“I’m in the middle of a cross-county trip, swinging through Phoenix- blogging, tweeting, taking video. It’s a “web-blitz” with two nearly untrainable dogs and, what my wife might say, one untrainable husband.”

Brady had a long history with  washingtonpost.com, starting as a sports writer in ’87 when he was a sophomore.

“I’ve always been an online geek. Loved the idea of getting info live, how the Mets are doing right now. I loved getting [information] how I wanted it when I wanted it.”

“It was hard to get the newspaper [version of Washington Post] to engage with the website at all- ’96 to ’98 and on. Could only get them focused on the web when things [in the journalism/newspaper business] started to go south more quickly, and when they had kids that used the web a lot.”

It wasn’t until ’04 when Brady saw the online newsroom starting to get the attention it should have been getting from the beginning. This blogger finds that shocking- and wonders proverbially if quicker acceptance would have lead to a drastically different situation for newsrooms than we find ourselves in now.

The Washington Post website and newspaper have always been totally separate, in both building and structure. While there’s difficulties in this type of division, a side benefit grew out of that structure: “it allowed us to grow our own culture, and could operate in our own sphere.”

Beginning in ‘o4, Brady tried to convince the editors and owners of the Washington Post that web is medium in its own right- and that in the realm of journalism, it can build relationships with readers that are completely new and different than what newspapers had been able to do before.

Specifically, he brought up four areas this can be accomplished:

1. Multimedia story telling- reporters don’t have to write something to make a story.

2. engaging readers

3. database journalism

4. distribution and mobilization

Brady also pushed a lot to use just video for some stories: “You don’t need to write ten inches if you have a great piece of video” [that assumably tells the story].

As for content models, he found that appointment viewing, a story in a series becoming available at a certain time every week (such as “On Being“), works.

“We also tried to come up with ways to jam it all, video and print, into one experience. The idea is to read, stop reading to watch the video, go back and read, stop, and watch. [Some say] it’s jarring, but why not [do it]? If done properly it’s not jarring.

While the Washington Post employs video journalist great Travis Fox, a full 160 journos there are also fully trained to shoot and edit video.

“Not all reporters are [Fox], but they figure out how to juggle it all. Videos add to the story, even if there not going to win award for it.”

The hardest battle for Brady at the Washington Post was the issue of whether or not to allow comments on articles. In ’05, no big U.S. news site had comments. He described the fight as such: “the online world was saying, I want to add comments on articles because it’s new and no one else has done that. The newspaper side was saying, ‘if its such a great idea, why haven’t other news sites added comments?’ We ended up being the first large news site in the U.S. to add comments to our articles. Now, we’re finding tips, comments, local interest and revelations on comments as well.”

An interesting point made by Brady was that 80% of what’s in the Washington Post, or the New York Times, or any other newspaper is commoditized.

“The big stories are everywhere: you don’t have to go to WashingtonPost.com to read about Obama’s speech. BUT, if you build a conversation around topics, blogs and comments, those are the people that will stay with washingtonpost.com. Frequent commenters have conversations with each other–  they can’t go anywhere else to have that conversation.”

Then came the conversation about eyeballs.

“We wanted to build return customers, where the business models were calling for unique visitors. You can waste a lot of time and energy chasing uniques that you aren’t going to get back next week or next year.”

Gillmor: “There’s interactive, and there’s getting down deeper with the community and the audience that practically no one is doing in newspapers.”

Brady: “The goal is to start using Wiki technology so the community can create more of the content. Revenue is still higher on print than for online. But it’s also where all the cost is- about 85%. Many local advertisers haven’t moved their advertising to the web, such as local auto dealers.

The best theory I’ve ever heard on this was by a media economist: that newspapers have always been a good business. For the most part, it was a crappy business to be in. I took that theory another step: the worst thing that ever happened was the editors/owners were able to sit back and make money w/o having to do anything. Web came along at end of era where they never had to do anything differently for 25 years and were making tons of money. Those that solicit advertising for the Washington Post’s local edition from those that advertising with the print edition. People don’t want to give away anything in print. But, it’s debatable if the Washington Post in print will be around in 15 years, let alone any other newspaper.”

This blogger asked what advice he had for graduate journalism students, looking upon a fast-approaching graduation and trying to learn as many multimedia and digital skills as possible.

“You need to understand how media habits change. If I were interviewing someone to hire and they couldn’t answer how media habits have changed in the last five years and where they’re going in the next five, then I didn’t necessarily want to hire them even if their resume was technology heavy with Flash, CSS, shooting and editing video, shooting and editing pictures.

Skills are not a substitute for understanding the revolution in media right now.”

Just goes to show, don’t lose sight of the forest through the trees.

What has been interesting for those of us who find new mediums interesting are the visual creations crafted to show the literal change in language, culture and faces in our Presidents from 1789-2009.

nyt

For example, the New York Times did a brilliantly simple and clean interactive graphic on all the Inaugural Addresses– rather than reading each speech word for word, the word clouds allow you to see the lexicon that was used during that time in history, and what issues the President felt were important enough to address. The President’s faces create a time line, and additional information is provided on each one. It’s really quite fun.

Another medium, this time through Youtube, shows the morphing faces of the 44 U.S. Presidents. While not as sleek as and obviously not professionally produced like the NYT piece, these graphics deserve more than a quick brush-off: they’re educational and engaging of the senses. They quickly show us the relevant information in a much more absorbable way than say, a dryly written textbook.

An interesting discussion in class today on, what one classmate called, the ‘relative truth’ of journalistic coverage of the Israeli attacks on Gaza was whittled away by other classmates to a process that is developed more fully in the 24-hour news cycle, and by another as a series of lenses: as time goes on, the story (and the truth) become more clear. 

So it was timely that I stumbled across this blog by Alicia C. Shepard, NPR Ombudsman. In it, Shepard describes the process by which NPR reporters and anchors attempt (rather well) unbiased, balanced reporting, with the case study being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

[Listener’s opinions on NPR’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] becomes personal. But covering the news isn’t personal. It’s about gathering the facts and reporting what is happening fairly and in context without bias.

 

Bernat Armangue, AP. From NPR.org.

Bernat Armangue, AP. From NPR.org.

 

There is virtually no other story that NPR covers that stimulates more complaints, more concern, more frustration or more emotion than the Israeli-Arab conflict. Not only are some listeners quick to claim that NPR is sympathetic to one side or the other but many demand that a complete history of the conflict be included in each story.

It gives an interesting angle onto some perhaps plainly obvious realities of a journalists’ profession:

a), not everyone who reads/listens/watches you is going to agree with you (indeed, they may reject your factual, well-researched story simply because of the subject matter);
b), the reader/listener/viewer may not have digested all the coverage from your particular outlet on this topic, and this may find the entire story not told in your 3 minute or 8 inch piece;
and c), they may simply want someone to agree with them, not give a balanced review that perhaps shows the flaws of their own position.

The last one is evident from the spectacular popularity of media pundits who subscribe to a particular ideology, with their shows or columns following suit. Some people  just really want journalists to agree with them.  

Especially when faced with this particular conflict- the millennia of  history, the impact of religion, the political landscape, the “facts on the ground,” it is important for journalists to take pause, a breath, and realize that each story we submit will not become the final compendia on the topic, but rather is a step towards each journalist’s goal: informing and educating the public.

US history and  political events are not known for their pomp and circumstance. We don’t have, say the crown jewels to be worn by the Queen when addressing elected officials; a full court regalia to signify the beginning of a new era. 

But the course of events throughout this Inauguration Day at times show that yes, we too can put on a good show: one of dignity, honor and a small amount of pomp. 

 

From bbc.co.uk

From bbc.co.uk

I came across this graphic  today in the WashingtonPost.com- detailing who the Obama Cabinet appointees are and the busy Senate time line for their nomination hearings.

It’s everything a graphic should be- colorful, easy to digest, and chock-full of info. On that aspect, bravo.

However if this were an interactive graphic, say clicking on an appointee’s picture would bring up quick details on who the appointee is, where they are from and where they generally fall on the political spectrum, this would be outstanding.

And an incredibly useful tool for those of us who follow these types of things.

The pundit and political reporter circles have been abuzz these past few days over the possible nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton as Obama’s Secretary of State. The talk has breezed over Clinton’s qualifications for the post and have instead concentrated on how such an appointment would keep the Clinton supporters happy, what to do with the undisclosed donors to her hubby’s foundation, and how teh title Madame Secretary this would give her the world-stage platform she’s been hoping for, vs staying in the Senate and walking on Ted Kennedy’s toes.

All of this has been maddening squabble. The Secretary position is a high-power posts: a political appointment a good Secretary does not make.

Rather, the post should be given to someone who has devoted a significant amount of their life’s work to studying and working with international political relations. It seems to make sense that this post, arguably one of the top positions in the world that deals with international political relations, should go to someone who deeply understands international political relations, from an academic and professional, experience-based standpoint.  

Clinton’s expertise is in law- she was twice named by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America- would seem to make her a better candidate for Attorney General than Secretary of State. Why all the hubbub over a position she is not qualified for?

So I was thrilled when Slate writer Jacob Weisberg put out “The Genius Cabinet: Why the president-elect should surround himself with brilliant—albeit prickly, semi-autistic, and egomaniacal—thinkers” today.

From the story:

Here’s a radical suggestion: Barack Obama should pick the smartest people he can find for his Cabinet… it makes sense for Obama to give greater weight to intellectual acumen and subject-specific knowledge than his recent predecessors have, both because of the depth of the problems he faces and because of his own style as a thinker and a decision-maker.  

Brilliant! A secretary of state that would have subject specific knowledge and experience. 

Imagine where our country could go if our finest, rather than politically-based appointments,  were at the helm.

Only in the US Supreme Court, apparently.

In hearing oral arguments Tuesday Nov 4th over whether or not the government can outlaw (read: fine heavily) fleeting or one-time use of expletives on television programming, some scenarios got rather ridiculous. The case surrounds Cher dropping an F-bomb, and Nicole Richie talking about cow poo in her Prada.

Both were one-time use expletives on live award show ceremonies that aired in the evening. The problem is the FCC is afraid young children will be exposed to these supposedly horrendous words, thus changing their lives forever. (Read the rest of the story here.)

Now, of course I agree with the general concept the FCC puts forth- keeping smut and obscenity away from children. Children grow up fast- we don’t need them to grow up any faster. And there is that tricky business of figuring out exactly what is smut, what is indecent, what is obscene- and what is not. I do not envy those that are tasked with definition-creating.

But let’s be realistic- these words were fleeting. Unlike watching Good Will Hunting (I once counted 75 f-bombs in the first half hour), any parent could reasonably expect the evening airwaves to be free of consistently-used profanity. That is a granted. But to fine television stations millions of dollars (a la the Janet Jackson fiasco) due to a random star’s own use of a four-letter word here or there is silly on the verge of draconian.

Chief Justice John Roberts, debating a lawyer for Fox Television (the unlucky station on which the profanities occurred), asked “Why do you think the F-word has shocking value or emphasis or force? Because it is associated with sexual or excretory activity.”

Shocking?

Hmm. Last time I checked, every living thing is involved in some sort of excretory business throughout it’s life cycle. And it’s a near absolute to say that just about everyone that hasn’t voluntarily declared celibacy has or will be at some point in their life be involved with sexual activity. Ditto for most mammals, insects and all non-asexual plants.

Something so ordinary, so daily, so basic to the existence of life is not of itself shocking. The perversion of it? Generally, yes. But that was not the case with these award shows.

I’d rather stay on the current path rather than the slippery slope towards total censorship.

And as always, parents can turn off the television. Good rule of thumb? If you’re afraid your child might be maimed (or bring up what to you might be an uncomfortable conversation) by a curse word, you’ve got more to fear if you’re letting them watch programs with non-role model stars like Nicole Richie in them.

On ASU’s scrolling banner was a story about all the journalistic activities going down in the Cronkite Building on Election night. It talked about all the faculty, students and expert commentators on hand.

But the best part? A prop out to the LIVElect blog!

From the article:

Leslie-Jean Thornton’s first-year new media graduate students fanned out to newsrooms around the building. Some ran LiveElect, a “live blog” featuring breaking news reports, photos and links, augmented by a Twitter feed with short breaking news messages sent to and from phones and computers.
What, you haven’t checked out LIVElect, our live-blogging, live-twittering, live-flickring encapsulation of Election night? No worries- check it here.

picture-1

Hard to believe, but Election Day is tomorrow. (rampantly cliche, I know, but seriously)

The Day of all Days for journalists.

I’ll be live blogging all day and into the night- be sure to check us out for live, up to the minute coverage, including on Twitter and Flickr.

Mucho caffeine, here we come!

I know, I know- hard to image with the meat, sugar and refined carbohydrate-heavy diets that most Americans live by that the ratio isnt closer to 1 in 2.

What’s sad is that while this report is a clear wake-up call to most Americans to seriously reconsider the foods they eat, this probably won’t have an effect. Too bad- plants are so yummy.