The future of news

by Steve, November 14th, 2008

Here’s the lunch panel from the Society of Professional Journalists‘ “Building a Better Journalist” conference last month in Eugene (I wrote a little preview here). This panel, moderated by Rob Smith, editor of the Portland Business Journal, featured Steve Engelberger, managing editor of ProPublica, Steve Smith, former editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review and Frank Mungeam, online editor at KGW, Portland’s NBC affiliate.

These guys have some distinctly different ideas on the future of the newsroom, and, more importantly, how it will be funded.

The future of news from SPJ Oregon/SW Washington on Vimeo.

Blogging, journalism and the new media landscape

by Steve, October 23rd, 2008

Anybody who knows a professional print journalist — and I know a few — knows that there is a growing sense of panic in the industry. Readership is in a death spiral, along with ad revenue. Owners of big city dailies — mostly large conglomerates now — are reacting by slashing newsroom staff. Our own local daily, The Oregonian, announced buyouts this summer for at least 100 full-time employees (a story I broke here, later picked up by Willamette Week and Oregon Media Insiders, and much later reported in The O itself).

In the throes of this existential crisis, it’s easy for journalists to blame the Internet. That’s where all the classified ads went (Craig’s List), and it’s also where readers, especially young readers, go for 24×7, up-to-the-minute news coverage and analysis. Who wants a pile of dead-tree paper on their porch with yesterday’s news?

Big city dailies like The O have been slow to adapt to the new media landscape (you may notice that I’m not linking to any Oregonian stories here, for the simple reason that they don’t provide online access to their archive), but even those papers with great Web sites are struggling. That’s because there is a revolutionary change afoot, well beyond the shift of medium from print to electronic.

This shift is every bit as important as the introduction of movable type was, and in much the same way. The difference is in scale.

Now, almost anybody in an industrialized nation can own or borrow a digital printing press. The implications for democracy are stunning, as evidenced by the sudden and lasting impact of Web-based organizations like MoveOn.org and the online fund raising and network-building efforts of insurgent Democratic candidate Howard Dean in 2004.

In the realm of information dissemination, bloggers have created an echo chamber for issues of concern to them and their candidates, keeping stories alive that would otherwise die in a 24-hour news cycle. But until recently, they mostly acted like aggregators, not reporters, simply repeating and amplifying news gleaned from traditional sources.

But the trend now is toward doing actual journalism, albeit with a well-defined point of view.

People who have faith in objectivity in journalism take umbrage at this, but objectivity is an artificial construct. Every story you read in every newspaper has a point of view, whether or not it is obvious. (Eric Alterman covered this issue in more depth in the New Yorker last March.)

Mainstream news gathering organizations have built-in biases, largely a result of their advertisers and their proximity to the powerful; their pretension to the contrary just makes things worse. Prime examples from Oregon’s biggest daily include sitting on the Bob Packwood and Neil Goldschmidt stories, certainly two of the biggest stories of modern Oregon political history.

Especially regarding issues of social justice, pretending to give “balanced” coverage is absurd. There is no point in giving equal time to proponents of injustice.

Which is why I find the emergence of ProPublica refreshing.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

ProPublica is setting a standard higher than current mainstream dailies, something it can afford to do with its private, independent funding. With its emergence, the death of traditional dailies is easier to take. After all, classified ads, obituaries, comics and lifestyle sections don’t do much to advance democracy.

Investigative journalism in the public interest does advance democracy, and it’s something the dailies long ago cut way back on.

But most blogging doesn’t rise to the level of ProPublica. Instead, at its best, the blogosphere offers the opportunity for citizen journalists to report on narrowly defined vertical topics — like a local school district, for example. While most bloggers in this realm, myself included, don’t do it full time and thus can’t do the in-depth reporting, they can offer a constant attention to issues that keep professional journalists focused.

As a citizen journalist in Portland, I’ve had productive relationships with professional journalists at the Portland Tribune and Willamette Week on issues concerning Portland Public Schools. We frequently feed off of each others’ stories, and together produce a body of work that has a clear point of view on one hand, and also a firm basis in factual reporting.

My relationship with reporters at The Oregonian, though, has been much more arm’s length. Their extreme caution in covering public schools belies a clear bias against challenging the status quo. So in their attempt to show no bias (i.e. by refusing to do significant investigation into actual, ongoing, documented injustice), they show a significant bias.

They also assure the continued demise of their newspaper.

At the end of the day, the new media landscape means that “what is news” is no longer determined by middle-aged, middle class white guys behind closed doors in a downtown office building. They’re no longer the only ones buying ink by the barrel, and they can no longer suppress news that goes against the interest of their friends and advertisers.

Now that digital ink is virtually free, Democracy is better served. Women in particular, who for ages have been treated like second-class citizens by the dailies (look at the resources poured into sports coverage), have flourished in the blogosphere. There’s something out there for everybody, which only makes the anemic efforts of the dead tree newspaper to appeal to women less relevant.

The big city daily represents an outmoded mindset, delivered in an environmentally destructive form. As long as organizations like ProPublica are around, along with the traditional journals of opinion like The Nation, alternative papers like Willamette Week, and a healthy blogosphere, I’m cautiously optimistic that the death of the big city daily is not necessarily a bad thing.

The professional journalist will not only survive, but become stronger and more respected, happily co-existing in a symbiotic relationship with the citizen journalist.

Note: The Society of Professional Journalists of Oregon and Southwest Washington is hosting Building a Better Journalist 2008 this weekend at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, with an emphasis on the Internet. ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg is the featured speaker. I am also on the program (to the shock and surprise of some journalist friends), taking part in a panel discussion on blogging, along with Bike Portland‘s Jonathan Maus and Loaded Orygun‘s Mark Bunster, moderated by Willamette Week news editor Hank Stern.

Oregonian to close bureaus, cut newsroom staff

by Steve, July 10th, 2008

Sources have revealed that the Oregonian is preparing for a major round of cost-cutting, which will include closing all but two bureaus (south and west). Buyout offers are expected in the fall, with the goal of a cutting 50 positions company-wide, including 30 in the newsroom.

As the paper struggles with declining readership and ad revenue along with the rest of the daily print journalism industry, it is amazing that they still refuse to enter the digital media market in a serious way, as every other mainstream media outlet in Portland has. Blame it on their parent company, Newhouse, which has kept all of its papers at arms length from their family of sister companies (like OregonLive) that operate on the Web and publish selected content from the papers.

This kind of stodgy, tentative relationship to the changing media landscape is quickly making the O a living dinosaur.

The death of Portland Metblogs

by Steve, June 18th, 2008

This past winter, I had a little falling out with Metblogs. I’d been writing for them for a while, when BOOM! Metblogs central decided to relaunch the site with a plethora of technical issues. As a technologist, I found that annoying.

But what really got to me (and a bunch of other writers) was the new registration requirement for comments. A couple of us were summarily “fired” by Metblogs honcho Sean Bonner (I subsequently had my account re-enabled) for complaining about this, and a bunch of others quit in disgust.

Ugly words were exchanged between the rump of the Portland Metblogs crew and those publicly critical of the changes. Talk immediately began of starting up something to replace Portland Metblogs, with total local autonomy, to replace what was once a lively discussion forum.

As I suspected it would, Portland Metblogs has been dying a long, slow public death ever since. New posts are rare. Comments even rarer. Portland Metblogs has long since faded into irrelevance in the Portland blogosphere.

I made one attempt to spark things up, and proposed positioning the site as one of public journalism. Though respondents to my poll overwhelmingly supported the idea of public journalism, the idea went over like a lead balloon with a couple MB stalwarts. They clearly didn’t understand the idea of public journalism vs. social networking, and certainly didn’t appreciate me rocking their little boat.

It was pretty much at that point that I decided I wasn’t doing myself any favors by continuing to contribute to the site. And it’s only gone downhill since then.

Now, just over three months later, it looks like a group of former Portland Metblogs contributors (including “captains” Betsy Richter and dieselboi) have started their own site. With open comments.

There could still be hope for Metblogs. My suggestions of public journalism, open comments and revenue sharing to attract quality writers were met with hostility when I floated them before. Metblogs could be a voice in the Portland digital media milieu. But most likely it will quietly fade further into irrelevance.

Oregon Reddit Button WP Plugin

by Steve, May 22nd, 2008

tech
Update, September 2009: This plugin has been rendered obsolete by changes to Oregon Reddit. If I find the time, I’ll try to update it.

I was browsing links over on Oregon Reddit this evening, and I noticed that Mike Vogel‘s got an Oregon Reddit button on his post. Now, I’ve had a “Share This” plugin on this blog for a while, but I don’t even use any of those social bookmarking sites.

I do use Oregon Reddit, though, so I thought I’d figure out how he did it. As best I can tell (and being too lazy to just send Mike an e-mail), it’s a hacked version of the WordPress plugin Reddit Button. So I grabbed that plugin and hacked it to work with OregonLive myself.

In addition to making it go to our regional Reddit, I also made it a little smarter about filling in both the URL and the title on the submission form (the original only sent the URL).

Now, I’ve hacked WordPress plenty for my personal use, and this seems to work. But I’ve never redistributed a plugin before. This is GPL 2, free, open source software; use it as you wish, redistribute, whatever, but don’t be surprised if something doesn’t work like it oughta.

If you’re interested in the reddit documentation that this WP plugin is based on, I found it both at the Oregon Reddit site, and the more readable main Reddit site.

The original author did a nice job making this configurable to use any of the three Reddit buttons, and control where on your blog the button appears, etc.

Download Oregon Reddit Button, make it better, and send me your edits! Leave me a note if you like it or have any suggestions.

Update, May 23: I’ve tweaked the formatting a little bit to make it behave a little nicer, at least with my style sheet. The archive linked above now contains version 1.0.1 with these minor tweaks.

My favorite video of the political season (so far)

by Steve, May 13th, 2008

I had no idea Randy Leonard was a thespian. Then I saw this:


Randy Leonard’s Raw Interview from dalas verdugo on Vimeo.

Oregon Reddit: Now slightly less broken!

by Steve, May 6th, 2008

techFor a while now, I’ve been using Oregon Reddit, a local version of the social bookmarking site hosted by OregonLive, the sort-of Web front for that dying dinosaur of Portland media,The Oregonian.

For a while when it first started, before people really figured out what it was or even that it existed, a handful of bloggers discovered that they could get links to their blog posts on the front page of OregonLive. As originally configured, the current top link — as voted on by the then-small user community — would be posted on the front page of OregonLive.

This kind of linkage could really bump traffic. You’d be amazed the kind of traffic OregonLive gets. Traffic to this blog would typically triple when linked like this. But the visit depth would go flat, and there was no increase in comment traffic. The traffic referred by OregonLive was not the kind of traffic I’m used to, and when they did comment, they often didn’t seem to even realize they’d left the OregonLive site.

Witness the Metblogs post I wrote about how to buy a new car, where one commenter on that site says:

I just want to say Congratulations to the Oregonian!! What hypocrites!! You print an article basically outlining how car dealerships screw everyone over…Yet you’ve happliy taken millions of their dollars to run their ads. THE DEALERSHIPS SPEND MORE MONEY THAN ANYONE IN ADVERTISING TO YOUR NEWSPAPER! Not so smart biting the hand that feeds you….

It was all fun and games, and even led to some hilarious links on The Oregonian‘s putative “front page” on the Web (such that it is). I had some fun posting a link to my criticism of the paper’s weak coverage of the blog movement. Nice to see the headline “Oregonian: a Day Late and a Dollar Short” on the Oregonian’s Web site. It stayed there for a quite a while, too.

But, like all good things, this had to come to an end. There was the case of one user in particular using Oregon Reddit to pimp his client’s commercial Web site. Then came the political operatives trying to game the system to keep stories about their candidates on the front page of OregonLive.

To do this, it was a simple matter of submitting a link, having all your cronies vote it up, and voting everything else down.

A vigilant group of three to five people (or one person voting from multiple logins on multiple IP addresses) could keep a link on top for a day, easily, with the side effect that interesting links got buried quickly.

What has followed this is a general sense that pretty much everything gets voted down immediately upon submission. There have been a number of flurries of posts about how broken Oregon Reddit is, and whether some users somehow cheated the system to get higher “karma.”

Interestingly, a significant portion of the Oregon Reddit community is made up of OregonLive employees, yet most of them don’t seem to know much about how the Reddit algorithm works.

Finally, they did something that should settle things down and make the thing work a little more reasonably: they stopped putting the “top” submission on the front page of OregonLive. Now there is no motivation to vote other posts down, since having the top post doesn’t buy you the traffic from the front page anymore.

It’s still a brutal world. I submitted three links today, and lost a couple karma points. (I think I’ve pissed off most of the OregonLive staff, not to mention the guys who pimp commercial Web sites and all the politicos.)

They guy who runs Silicon Florist asked me what I think the true utility of Oregon Reddit is, which is why I started writing this post.

Reddit is social bookmarking software. It is a place where you can submit links that are of interest to you, and through collaborative filtering, find other interesting links. Everybody gets to vote on every link or comment submitted. You gain (or lose) karma based on votes on your submissions, and submitted links get more points based on up votes and rise up the “hot” list where they are presumably seen by more people.

You can configure it so that when you vote down a link, it no longer shows up in the list. This allows you to keep a list of only the links you liked or haven’t checked out yet. In the best case scenario, there would be hundreds of links submitted daily, and you could quickly filter based on your own past preferences (you can add “friends” and see all their posts in a list) or you can see what the community as a whole has liked.

The current user with top “karma” is “hawth,” who gained his seemingly insurmountable karma dominance by submitting a ton of interesting links. He stopped posting links after an OregonLive employee accused him of cheating the system (but later apologized). Since he stopped posting, things haven’t been nearly as interesting. OregonLive staff continue to post links to stories on OregonLive. Most links get voted down immediately, and links rarely get more than two or three points.

There have been some new users with a flurry of posts recently, so hopefully that combined with the removal of the front-page listing will contribute to a more friendly atmosphere at Oregon Reddit. The key to making the system work is to increase the sheer number of submitted links, and increase the number of people voting. The facts that posts rarely rise into double-digit points and that the top post often has only one or two points are clear signs of this problem.

But the recent move to take the top post off the front page is a definite step in the right direction. Things are clearly slightly less broken than before!

A Nice Shout Out to Rick Seifert

by Steve, January 28th, 2008

Rick Seifert’s excellent The Red Electric blog got a nice write-up by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Oregon editor for NW regional news site Crosscut.com.

Hartnett does a better job describing his angle(s) than I can, and also gives a humorous shout out to yours truly (“possibly the world’s only pacifist blog written by a middle-aged defenseman”).

I “met” Rick via e-mail after we both testified to the school board — he about ads in schools and me about the usual equity stuff — and instantly found him to be one of those people you just know are true to the core.

Besides the fact that I always seem to agree with his viewpoint, I find his steadfastness inspiring and refreshing.

The Letter That Didn’t Run

by Steve, January 25th, 2008

schoolsI was kind of surprised the Oregonian ran my letter the other day, because they declined to run one I had sent in a few days earlier pointing out a factual error in their coverage of the city council meeting at Jefferson last week.

In last Thursday’s paper (I’m not going to waste time trying to find it online), James Mayer’s coverage of students and parents speaking to the council ended with the sentence “Potter and the rest of the council listened politely, but with no actual role to play in running the school system, offered no solutions.”

This is untrue, of course, and I pointed it out in my letter to the editor:

The brief report on students and parents speaking to the City Council ended with a note that the council has “no actual role to play” with regard to the school district.

The City Council does have a role in Portland Public Schools policy. In her remarks to the council, Nancy Smith referred to the joint Multnomah County and City of Portland audit of the school district’s student transfer policy, which was a funded as part of the Multnomah County income tax passed in May of 2003. This audit requested that Portland Public Schools clarify the purpose of the open transfer system, given that it has contributed to racial and socio-economic segregation, and that it conflicts with other district goals, like strong neighborhood schools.

My remarks to the council on Wednesday also referred to this audit, and pointed out that distrcit policy conflicts with the work of Erik Sten and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. The City Council has an obligation to hold the school district accountable, and also to lobby them to bring their policies in line with the neighborhood and housing policy goals of the city.

The Willamette Week’s blog coverage also made the same error, but when I pointed it out in a comment, it was acknowledged graciously by reporter Beth Slovic. I realize this is a nuanced point, but it’s too bad the Oregonian can’t be bothered to get the story straight, given what’s at stake.

PPS: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

by Steve, January 23rd, 2008

schoolsFirst, let me ask you: Can you imagine running a big city newspaper in the twenty-first century, and not having a Web site?

Evidently the Oregonian ran a letter I sent them, but I missed it because I rarely pick up the dead tree version. And their vertically separated sister organization, OregonLive.com, does not publish the entire newspaper online. Which is why big papers like the Oregonian will soon be a thing of the past.

So for those of you (like me) who missed it, here’s what it said (the headline is the O’s, not mine):

Transfers hurt N. Portland

Missing from Paul Schuberg’s proposal for combining Roosevelt and Jefferson high schools into one “21st century facility” is any discussion of size and demographics (“I, too, have a dream — for Jefferson High,” 1/21/08).

Roosevelt and Jefferson had a combined neighborhood area PPS population of 3,169 in the 2006-07 school year. Any serious facility plan must take into account that North Portland school enrollment declines are more a factor of the district’s loose transfer policy than demographics.

Maybe schools of this size would work; maybe not. But let’s be honest when discussing school facilities, and focus on providing adequate facilities where students live, not where they’ve ended up after more than a decade of mutually-reinforcing program cuts and out-transfers in North Portland.

I’ll be doing some more PPS data analysis to try to help the district understand that if they’re seriously talking about closing two high schools, they damn well better site the remaining and new schools based on neighborhood populations, and not current enrollment. Stay tuned.