Trifecta for success in the new new journalism

There’s more to this brave new world of journalism than technology skills.

Business sense will play a large role in the rest of your career, whether you are a journalism student or a seasoned veteran.

If journalism students graduate without an understanding of how editorial, business, and technology work together, “you have not prepared them for the world they are entering,” Mitch Gelman, senior vice president of CNN.com, told a group of journalism educators in Los Angeles on Friday.

Students (and working pros) now need to grasp the relationship between content and software, Gelman said, indicating that all content is digital, and all stories are now multi-platform. He was speaking at USC Annenberg, where the new director of the School of Journalism, Geneva Overholser, had convened a day-long information session for her full faculty. Gelman was one of nine invited guests, who included a mix of news professionals and educators (one of them: me).

While I was in L.A. I met one of our former students, David Zentz, who recently moved there after more than two years as a staff photojournalist at the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star. As we drove endlessly on freeways en route to the best al pastor tacos in the city (at El Taurino), he detailed the options for getting paid as a freelance PJ. His experiences match those of a more recent photojournalism grad of ours, Alex Kolyer, who’s been in the freelance game for the past year in south Florida (I talked with him last weekend over breakfast at the Floridian in Fort Lauderdale). It ain’t pretty.

The Miami Herald will pay you $200 a day, no expenses, and load you up with as many as three assignments in that day for the one payout. The AP in Los Angeles will pay $150 per assignment, but that’s about half a day, and no double-dipping. And you get to keep your rights. Getty sends credentialed shooters to sports events on spec — if they don’t like anything you shot, you don’t get paid at all. The contracts for most newspapers are now total rights — they own it forever, so you only get paid once.

Listen up, kids: In the good old days, you’d write a double-truck travel feature and sell it to The Washington Post for about $300. Yeah, you had spent about $2,000 or more on the trip, out of your own pocket — expenses were NOT paid. But then you could sell that same story to 10 other newspapers, each time for about $300. The papers were not in competing markets, understand? The Internet has ended all of that — but the payout to the individual freelancer is still just as low.

This is about more than merely the freelance life and works for hire. Let’s get back to Mitch Gelman, speaking to the journalism professors at USC. He talked about the bigger picture in the news business today — he said there are four keys to how the business must dig itself out of the hole it’s in.

(1) Break the paralysis. The whole world hasn’t changed — “only the distribution vehicle has changed,” he said. (I would argue with that pretty strenuously, but let’s hear him out.) An identity crisis of sorts lies at the core of this paralysis, Gelman said, because editors and publishers think that if the newspaper ceases to exist, then they will too. They won’t be who they think they are. Well, who they think they are is what is causing them to feel paralyzed and helpless. Their business is not paper and ink and trucks and gasoline. Their business is information, community, and stories.

(2) Merging the newsrooms. Gelman urged us to think about WORKFLOW, not newsrooms. This convergence effort is not one of geography or walls or furniture — it needs to focus on creating a new workflow that addresses the challenges we face. He broke this into three parts:

  1. Overcome the fear. People in both (or three) newsrooms — online/print or online/TV — are afraid of losing their unique identity, or being absorbed into the other. This cuts BOTH WAYS.
  2. Overcome the differences in language. TV, print, and online journalists chase stories, have meetings about which stories are most important, assign tasks to journalists — but the TV and print worlds use completely different vocabulary for all of these (e.g. “budget” vs. “rundown”).
  3. Give recognition. Use praise to elevate the good, to encourage better work from everyone. Praise can make journalists feel competitive rather than threatened, and it can prod them to try new things.

(3) The relationship among editorial, business, and technology has never been like this before. “We need to understand and internalize this,” Gelman said. The goals and objectives of ALL THREE must be in alignment, he emphasized. The survival of a news organization depends, now, on getting these three elements integrated.

(4) Apply emerging technologies. Of course, this is the one you already knew. To demonstrate part of CNN.com’s approach to this, Gelman showed off the site’s new tabbed story template (see an example), which really failed to impress me (duh, tabs instead of links? Not much of an innovation). The point is simple: If you take the same old formats and content from your last incarnation (either print or TV) and upload it to a Web site, you are not applying anything new.

Gelman might not agree with this, but I say emerging technologies are about connecting audiences and journalists. Emerging technologies are about being in the middle of an event, or a community, and opening it up to all the people who aren’t there — in effect, bringing them there with you. Emerging technologies are about listening, and connecting what you’ve heard to whatever happens next. It’s not about buttons on a Web page — that’s so 1999.

I’d like to bring this back to the young journalists — PJs or not — and how they’re going to keep journalism alive. One of the other speakers at USC Annenberg on Friday was Dave Cohn (a k a DigiDave), a 26-year-old online-savvy journalist who personifies the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t have to report to you on his presentation; he posted it himself on his own Web site.

4 Comments on “Trifecta for success in the new new journalism

  1. Pingback: Links 30-09-08 « O Lago | The Lake

  2. This is all very interesting (as your posts generally are Mindy) but there is always a big gap in what current media honchos say and what they do, and the biggest gap is when they mention “business”. We can and do tell our students all about “business”, past, present and what we think will be the future. But what these guys never seem to do is give anyone an idea of what they think “business” might be and how “business” can make “money”.
    Unless this nettle is grasped firmly and discussed/researched/prognosticated/theorised there won’t be any workflows or differences in language.
    Are they keeping some secrets back, or do they just not know? My guess is the latter.

  3. @Tim – It’s my impression that most of the business staff and management have not understood online or the changes in the audience since Day One, and they’re not getting any better, even in this crisis.

    So you can’t look to them for answers. They don’t have answers.

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