February 25, 2009

Question Marks

You can obviously boil something down too much. That may have been the case today in my Introduction to Journalism class. But, at the moment, I’m kind of liking thinking about this: A journalist’s job is to remove question marks from a story not add them.

How this came up: I’m having my students write a story based on notes I’ve given them. I’ve put some pitfalls into the notes, e.g. missspelllings, factual errors, missing information. But I’ve also put a few bits of information into the notes that lead them to believe that the story might be juicier than they first supposed, i.e. “Hmmmmm… what if this is really about ______?”

Today we were covering what they know (and how they know it), what they don’t know (and why they don’t know it), and what they have to do to finish this particular article (get the stuff they don’t know and tell it to their readers in such a way that they might then know it). And I popped off with that assertion about question marks.

Now, on a certain level, it is utter bull. There is no state of affairs in which a journalist reports and writes any given news event in all its complexity. Good journalism unfolds over time. No single story can (or should?) get it all. I would even argue that “all” has no real boundaries, i.e. not only can we not get “all,” we have no real clue what “all” is or can be.

But my quip identifies something that I think journalists can avoid doing (to a certain extent): Raising more questions than they answer. At least in general. At least as a way of thinking about the job they should be doing.

Here’s an interesting complicating factor coming from something I’m advocating now. Does / can / should this apply to meta-reporting? I’m thinking meta-reporting is partly about raising questions and being transparent about what journalists don’t know in order to eventually discover and report the unknown. Ah, OK, that answers my question. What I mean by not adding question marks, then, is not adding stuff that makes the news event harder to understand. Adding interactive question marks? — to solicit understanding from readers — that’s OK.

February 22, 2009

The Whole Twitter Thing

So I like to think I’m generally up on all the new-fangled things. Take Twitter for example. I’ve had an account for awhile now. I even had followers. But I’ve just started using it. I’ve yet to figure out what I’ll really use it for. I’m thinking of using it to send academic floaters into the internet ether. And I’ll alert followers to bicycle issues as they arise.

In other Rhetorica updates: I mentioned in the previous post that I’m working on an essay about the rhetorical tactics of pundits and talking heads who have been blaming sub-prime borrowers for the mortgage crisis. The Rick Santelli “rant” has really focused this for me.

I’m fascinated by two things:

1. A possible shift in what’s an acceptable use of the label “loser.”

2. What role does television and the internet play in making the Santelli text possible, i.e. bring it attention and persuasive power it might not otherwise have had? He is certainly not the only or first one to make such claims about “losers.” Yet today Santelli is (rhetorically constructed as) a “rockstar.” What role does kairos play in this?

My deadline is next week. I’ll post more details when I send it in.

I twittered about this. Of what value that is I have no idea. Random ideas as entertainment? We’ll see.

Now what Wife Rhetorica is doing with Twitter is much more interesting. She’s using it as way to scan for source information, and exchange information, for her freelance business writing about the business of health care.

February 20, 2009

Fooled All Them Smartypants Peoples

Who’s to blame for the mortgage crisis? I’m working on an essay now that examines some of the rhetorical tactics used by pundits and talking-head experts dating back before the crisis became a crisis. Here’s an interesting example:

Purely personal reaction: One wonders how it is all those people who couldn’t afford mortgage loans managed to persuade lenders to give them loans in the first place. I’m sure their vast understanding of finance allowed them to fool the financiers.

February 17, 2009

Nostalgia Is So 20th Century

I sympathize with Joe Mathews’ elegy for the local journalism that he says used to be practiced by the L.A. Times:

When I don’t take the Times, I feel guilty. I worked there for eight years. I still contribute pieces regularly. It’s my hometown paper. But then I get the paper, read it, and start the day angry. There’s nothing in the paper that enrages me. The articles are professionally done. No, my rage is from what I don’t see, all the stories that aren’t there any longer.

This is the daily tragedy of all the layoffs and buyouts and departures at U. S. newspapers and magazines. You can count up the journalists who have left the profession and are out of work, but much of the carnage of the ongoing media industry can’t be measured or seen: corruption undiscovered, events not witnessed, tips about problems that never reach anyone’s ears because those ears have left the newsroom. With fewer watchdogs, you get less barking. How can we know what we’ll never know?

Now, Joe, never write anything like this ever again. I hope it’s out of your system. Nostalgia is dead. It’s time to discover or create the next venue for journalism.

Among the most important causes of the decline of journalism in the United States has been the greed of corporate ownership. There are certainly other causes, and I have discussed them many times on Rhetorica. Right now let’s focus on Mathews’ entirely-correct assessment of the ravages of layoffs and cost-cutting.

Here’s the thing: Corporate, publically-traded journalism probably is never coming back, and that is a good thing. The whole system appears to be crashing and the sooner the better. I go to work with a spring in my step everyday hoping that today will be the day — the day that a major chain — Gannett for example — announces bankruptcy and utter collapse.

There will be pain. There will be problems. But something will follow this failed model. And we had better be figuring out now what that something will be if we want to see newspaper journalism fulfill its primary purpose.

No one really knows what the next business model will be or even if there will be a next business model. I think it’s time we start re-imagining how journalism is paid for, manufactured, and delivered. By “start” I really mean start in ernest. By “re-imagine” I mean almost everything goes on the table. Re-imagining requires that we bury the old model. Do say a few words over the grave, as Mathews has done. Toss a rose. Shed a tear. Then get on with the hard work of living in the new reality.

February 10, 2009

Right to Privacy

Here’s an interesting and humorous look at our right to privacy re: ambush journalism (of two kinds).

The thing is: As much as celebrities may hate it, they have fewer rights to privacy than other individuals because they put themselves into the the public spotlight by choice for the purpose of making money. But law and ethics often go separate ways. I think news organizations should question any practise that merely assumes that well-known people can be “ambushed” in order to get a story. In other words, the people’s right to know should not be a license for Machiavellianism.

February 6, 2009

Jobs For Journalism Students?

NPR takes a quick look at the job prospects for journalism majors and finds these students are nervous.

A current student of mine was recently interviewed on this topic locally, and her well-crafted sound bite was: “I’m screwed.”

Well, maybe not. She promtly landed a plumb summer internship. I think her propects are bright.

Another student of mine, one of the best I have ever had the privilege to teach, is now a grad student at the University of Missouri. She’s quoted in the NPR story:

Emily Younker is a master’s degree candidate from Joplin, Mo. She says her goal is to get a job in journalism when she graduates in May.

“I am starting to think about plans B and C in case that doesn’t really happen,” she says.

I know what she can do. And I’m certain plan A is still in her future.

Yes, newspapers are failing (as businesses). Yes, we haven’t a clue what the next business model will be (or even if there will be a next business model). Yes, the recession doesn’t help matters.

I think journalism students (all students really in any economy) need to be entrepreneurial. Don’t come to college thinking simply in terms of getting a job. Come thinking in terms of building something.

Both of these students are potential builders.

Further, journalism is not going away. Print is shrinking. Other parts of the MSM are shrinking. But journalism will soldier on. It has to. There’s no choice in the matter for a nation that hopes to self-govern.

But: In addition to change in the business model we will see changes in what journalism is. Certain basics will remain the same. The epistemology, however,  must change in a world in which the younger generation expects to be the media because, well, they already are the media.

Some journalism students should worry. I’m thinking of the ones who have chosen to study it for reasons I cannot understand, i.e. I have yet to figure out what a few of them are doing wasting space (time and money) in my classes. But I think others, many others, will leave our program ready to be agents of change.

One thing is for sure: They are entering a profession already very different from the one I entered 29 years ago. What will they build?

February 3, 2009

A Bloggy Day

This morning KSMU interviewed me for a local public affairs program called Missouri State Journal (I’ll post a link when it airs). The topic: new media effects in general. My main point: The internet has taught the public to expect to talk back to the mainstream media and to become content providers.

There’s nothing new about that assertion. But I do think this expectation represents an epistemological, and therefore revolutionary, change that must change how we do journalism. More people can now be knowers and sayers.

I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve reached some communicative utopia in which all voices are heard and understood equally. Great power still belongs to the mainstream media. But the public — especially the Millennial Generation — is taking some of that power for themselves. This is a good thing and will lead to better journalism.

A little later today I’ll be speaking to one of our media classes about blogging. As many of you are aware, I have now made blogging mandatory in all my classes. A few years ago that would have presented a number of problems — technological and social. Those days are about gone.

I think I know a little something about how to do this. Rhetorica will soon be seven years old. That is ancient in blog years. While readership has flucuated over those years, I enjoy healthy traffic and interested/interesting readers.

Further, I was able to kick start Carbon Trace using what I’ve learned writing Rhetorica. I’m very pleased with its results so far.