Doing great journalism has been and always will be the answer

Journalism is not dying. It’s thriving on a new ground floor. It’s a time of great transtion that today’s students will look back on in 20 years and know they played a part.

I always feel this way when I stop and look at all this is avaialable and possible in the digital age. There are more tools than any of us know how to use. But sometimes the traditional ways are so prevalent that I wonder if enough newsroom leaders are seeing the potential.

Newsrooms layoffs continue, but that’s not the work of journalists. That’s the work of the business side that sells advertising and makes all of the necessary dollars-and-cents decisions.
So how do newsrooms affect the business side without getting their hands dirty? It’s always been clear to me that producing great journalism is the key because it is the commodity we’re all trying to sell.
The question these days is how. Anytime I come across journalists with lots of newsroom cred talking about this I like to share it.

Watch the video below that I found on Steve Buttry’s blog The Buttry Diary. Dean Baquet, the  executive editor of the New York Times, spoke at LSU and discusses the difference between mission and tradition. He says mission is taking on big, ambitious projects and deciding whether to investigate them or explain them. And part of that mission is covering the mundane but working hard to make it more interesting than in the past.

Here are his three key lessons if you don’t have time to watch it now.

Lesson 1: Journalists have to lead the business to remake its future. Stay independendt of advertising, but create new forms of storytelling that advertisers will line up to sponsor.

Lesson 2: Print is great, but it is just another platform. Newsroom meetings should be now-focused.  What are the biggest stories now, not tonight when we finish the print edition?

Lesson 3: Don’t be shy about the need to understand your readers. Understand the best ways to get the best coverage to most of the people. Get more and more sophisticated to know when people want to read what. Personalize  digital reports just like we personalize print sections.

Baquet adds, “Do what’s important, do it well and you will be read.”

  • Be fresh and open to new ideas.
  • Don’t get stuck in tradition.
  • Most of what we do is actually not mission-driven, it’s just tradition.
  • Say yes more often than not.

Dean Baquet from LSU Manship School on Vimeo.

So how does this happen? We have to not care about the platform. We have to go with what best tells the story. And we must continue to develop a mindset that looks at stories like the list in the Tweet below. It’s a list by Tom Rosenstiel that empasizes doing great journalism. Simply applying these concepts will help a newsroom grow the business by building a more loyal audience.

Reporting on tragedies is difficult, but it’s part of the job

When I heard yesterday about the tragedy at Umpqua Community College, I couldn’t help but recall the awful day at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when 32 people were killed. I was in the newsroom that morning just up the road at The Roanoke Times. The reports quickly changed from shots fired to people killed. We were in shock, we were sad, we were angry, we wanted to help. But we also had a job to do.

Our editors led us well that day and the days that followed. We reported the story that day and every day for more than a year. It wasn’t easy for the reporters who had to interview witnesses and people who had lost loved ones and friends. The reporters and editors worked hard for weeks to tell the stories and display images as respectfully as possible. The event happened in our backyard, so we were sure to be more sensitive than the national media that swooped in for a week  then left for the next big story.

The people directly affected by this tragedy in Oregon need our prayers and support. No one is hurting more than them. The reporters there, especially the local ones, need our prayers as well. Their’s is a most difficult job right now. They want to tell the stories, hopefully in a respectful way, but they are wondering how to do it. Journalistic ethics demands that those reporters seek truth and report it. But those same ethics also demand that they minimize harm and treat sources as human beings deserving of respect.

No reporter hopes for these assignments, but sadly they come too often. The Roanoke Times won awards for its coverage of the Tech shootings. We were grateful that our work was recognized, but we were never happy about it.

Much is being written already about the news media’s role. Here is a sampling of what I’ve seen so far:

Finding the truth in investigative pieces

Investigative journalism depends largely on data from public documents and databases that have often been created from public documents. But, as we have been talking about in the Investigative Reporting class I teach at Cedarville University, that data only tells you so much.

A case in point is the story below about how reporters didn’t completely understand the information that other researchers had presented about the issue of gun control. Follow the link in the tweet below to learn more about this story.

Last week our class visited the Dayton Daily News and attended a meeting that involved some members of the newspaper’s investigative team. As we tossed around story ideas I made a comment about something that might skew the notion one of the editors had. Another editor immediately jumped in and reminded everyone that you must report on and around the data. He said it is often true that the original conlcusions that might be drawn from the data aren’t always 100 percent what the reporter thinks. And sometimes those notions aren’t even close.

It was a great reminder to the students that reporting is much more than looking things up. You have to ask a lot of questions of the right people. I always tell students to challenge their assumptions when they report, so that when the start to write they know what the story is truly about.